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Getting to know your holiday canal boat

Thinking about booking your first canal boat holiday? With help from our friends at Drifters Waterway Holidays, we’ve put together a beginner’s guide to finding your way around your boat, inside and out.

Breakfast aboard a narrowboat

With so much uncertainty over travelling abroad this summer, canal boat holidays make a great staycation. There are many beautiful canals on your doorstep to choose from, and you're free to travel at your own pace, exploring the countryside or simply enjoying your time onboard together.

If you've never been on a narrowboat, it's hard to imagine how much space you'll have and what it might look like inside. You might also be wondering what you will use to drive the boat and how to recognise the different parts.

This picture guide will answer some of those basic questions. Your hire boat company will give you a more detailed explanation of your boat when you arrive, including important safety information. It's also a good idea to read through our Boater's Handbook before your holiday.

You'll hear people using names for different parts of the boat. The front is called the bow and the back is the stern or aft. The left-hand side is the port side and the right is starboard. The width of a boat is called the beam.

Outside your boat

Children get to grips with the tiller


The tiller is the large bar, shaped like a number seven, which you use to steer the boat. You move it left to go right, and right to go left. Don't worry, you'll get the hang of it.

Narrowboat throttle


The throttle allows you to accelerate, brake and reverse. Moving the throttle forwards makes the boat move forwards. Bringing the throttle back to the centre decreases the engine revs, slowing the boat down. Bringing the throttle back towards you puts the boat into reverse and slows you down more quickly.

Weed hatch

This watertight compartment is located in the stern of the boat and provides access for you to remove weeds or other items that have got caught around the boat's propeller. The hatch has a removable lid, but you must only look inside after you've safely switched the engine off.

Narrowboat weed hatch
Narrowboat bilge pump switch

Bilge pump

The job of the bilge pump is to remove water that has collected in the bilges, which is the area inside the bottom of the boat, beneath the living space.

There will be a switch to turn the pump on, which your hire boat company will show you.

London winter moorings


Fenders protect the outside of the boat from getting damaged when moored against a wall or another boat. Traditionally fenders are made from rope, but you'll see lots of plastic and rubber ones too (like the ones pictured hanging down on this boat).

Mooring ropes/pins

Your boat will have ropes attached to the bow and stern for you to tie to mooring rings or posts on the bank. If there aren't any permanent rings or posts where you want to moor, you can use your own pins. You'll need to hammer the pins into the ground first.

You should also have a centre rope, halfway along the boat, which is used to control the boat when you're using locks and preparing to moor up.

Use your ropes to tie up to a mooring post on the bank
Saloon of a Drifters narrowboat

Inside your boat


This is the living area of the boat, where there'll be lots of clever storage spaces to put your things. Our guide on what to pack for your trip will help you decide what you need. Please do take note of the section on electrical items, as canal boats often have limited electrical output.

Most boats will have hot water and central heating, through gas-fired radiators. Hot water is stored and produced automatically by either the central heating or the engine. When the central heating isn't on, you might need to run the engine for a short time each morning to top up the hot water supply.

Galley of a Drifters narrowboat


The galley is the kitchen. Your boat will be fitted with a fridge, an oven, a hob and a grill, plus you should have a stovetop kettle. You may also have a microwave. Mugs, crockery, cutlery, utensils, and pots and pans are usually provided.

Bedroom of a Drifters narrowboat


Depending on the size of your boat, there will be a selection of double and single beds.

Sometimes you can convert the dining area or sofa into an extra bed. Bedding is usually provided for you.

Bathroom of a Drifters narrowboat


Toilets on narrowboats are similar to those you have at home, but rather than the waste going into a sewer, it's stored in a sealed tank. The toilet will usually have a foot pedal or a button on the wall that you press to flush it.

Most hire boats have a fitted shower, with a pump to drain the water out of the shower tray. There will be a pump switch that you should turn on when you start your shower. Some luxury narrowboats also have baths.

Take a tour

Our friends at AngloWelsh have shared their holiday handover video with us. Take a tour around a narrowboat and find out what life aboard is really like.


We'd love to tell you more

Our newsletter is packed full of exciting updates and stories of how our charity keeps canals alive.

Last Edited: 13 July 2020

photo of a location on the canals
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