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Casting off, cruising and mooring

Have a read through these pointers to learn all about the process of piloting your canal boat.

A group of canal boats moored in a basin

Setting off

Start the engine, keep it in neutral and allow some time for it to warm up before you move off. Untie the front and back mooring ropes from the bank, but leave them tied to the boat, coiled and ready for use.

On rivers, untie the downstream rope first. Make sure your ropes can't trail in the water and get caught in the propeller. Don't forget to stow the mooring stakes and hammer.

Because the boat steers from the back, you can't drive away from the bank as in a car. Check the area is clear of boat traffic then push the boat away from the bank so you can make a clean getaway, with your propeller in deep water.

In shallow water, push the back of the boat out, then reverse away until there's room to straighten up. When the boat's straight, go into forward gear and accelerate gently to cruising speed.

Under way

On all waterways, the rule of the road is to drive on the right. On wide waterways this may be easy. But on most canals, unless there's another boat coming towards you, you'll steer down the middle as it's likely to be shallow near the edges.

When you do meet an approaching boat, keep to the right and pass ‘port-to-port' (the left side of your boat passes the left side of the approaching boat).

Don't cut the corner when going round bends. You run the risk of a collision or going aground.

Go slowly past boats, anglers and other waterway users.

Don't let your boat create a breaking wave or a lowering of the water along the bank just ahead of the boat. These are signs that you should throttle back to prevent damage to the bank and disturbance to moored boats. Excessive speed can also dislodge mooring pins.

Look out for swimmers, canoes, punts, rowing boats and sailing dinghies. Remember they cannot always see or hear you approaching. Slow down so that your boat isn't creating a wave. Give them plenty of room as you pass by. Warn other boaters coming in the opposite direction if you can.


Steering a boat with a wheel is like steering a car, but it's more difficult to judge where your wheel should be for going straight ahead. Get to know the feel of the wheel and the rudder position before you set off.

Using a tiller to steer is simple – as long as you remember that pushing to the right will make the boat head left and vice versa. Be patient and plan ahead – the boat will take a few seconds to respond. You have less steerage at very low power, the boat will respond more quickly to the tiller when the propellor is turning more quickly.

Most boats pivot from a point about halfway along their length. That means you need to watch out for the front and the back. If you line up the front only and then try to turn into a narrow gap – a bridge or lock, for example – you risk hitting the side with the back of your boat. Watch out for currents or cross-winds pushing you off-course too.

Going aground

Everyone goes aground at some point – it's not a disaster.

Don't try to force your way over the obstacle or you'll find yourself even more stuck. Instead, use reverse gear to back away into deeper water.

If you're firmly stuck, ask some or all of the crew to move to the side or back of the boat that's still floating – but not to the extent that you'd risk capsizing! Now use the pole to push off against a solid object or the bed of the waterway – if you put the pole straight down and try to use it as a lever, it'll either break or you'll fall in. And keep the top of the pole away from your face and body, in case it slips suddenly.

Slowing down and stopping

Because boats don't have brakes, you need to give yourself plenty of time to stop – especially when travelling downstream on flowing waters.

Ease off the throttle, move into neutral and then use reverse gear to slow down and come to a final halt. Opening the throttle to give more engine revs will increase the braking effect when in reverse. Remember that it's extremely difficult to steer when you're in reverse gear. You may need an occasional forward boost to get better control.


Prepare your crew in advance. Make sure they know what their jobs will be.

Slow down almost to a stop and carry out all your manoeuvres as slowly as possible.

Stop short of where you want to moor with your boat straight and in deep water. Move forward very slowly, pointing the front of the boat towards the bank, then use reverse to stop the boat just before the front hits the bank. Put the engine into neutral.

Your crew should step ashore – not jump. They can either carry the ropes with them – making sure there's plenty of slack and that one end is fixed to the boat – or you can pass them the ropes once they're on land.

On rivers you should moor with the front of your boat facing into the stream. This gives you more control as you slow to a halt. So, if you're heading downstream, you'll need to pass the mooring and turn your boat around. The same applies if you have a very strong wind behind you.

It is easier to go past the mooring and turn your boat around so that you moor into the wind. Allow for the fact that the water level may rise or fall by several feet. If it's a tidal river, you should always moor facing the tide – and avoid mooring to the bank overnight.

Tying up

To keep your boat secure, you need to tie it to the bank with a rope from both the front and the back. On rivers, you should fix your upstream rope first.

Many mooring sites have bollards or rings to tie up to – choose ones a short distance beyond the front and the back of your boat. Run your ropes at about 45º from your boat, loop them back onto the boat and tie securely, but not too taut.

To stop your boat moving backwards and forwards in flowing water, you can use extra ropes as ‘springs'. There are helpful illustrations of knots and springs on pages 14 and 15 of the Boaters Handbook.

If there aren't any bollards or rings, use your mooring stakes if the ground is suitable. Do not attempt to hammer into concrete or other hard surfaces. If the ground is soft, check the stability of the bank and watch out for signs of underground pipes or cables before you start hammering. Position the stakes as far from the bank as you can, but don't tie your ropes across the towpath.

Knock them in to about three-quarters their length and make sure they're firm. Mark them with a piece of light-coloured cloth or a white plastic bag or bottle so that other towpath users can see them clearly.

Leave some slack in your ropes – this is especially important on tidal waterways or rivers. If the ropes are too tight and the water level drops, your boat could be left hanging from the bank.

Remember that your anchor can be used if you need added security or extra help in a strong stream or tide – and you should still use mooring ropes.


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Last Edited: 28 March 2023

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