Skip to main content

The charity making life better by water

Learning to drive your holiday canal boat

The idea of being in control of a canal boat can feel a bit scary, but in reality it’s much simpler than driving a car and you don't need a licence. To get you and your crew ready for your canal boat holiday, we’ve put together a beginner’s guide to steering, cruising and mooring.

Man and woman stand on the back of a narrowboat, driving out of a lock

Looking for a relaxing staycation this summer? With so many beautiful canals on your doorstep and the freedom to travel at your own pace, a boating holiday is an excellent choice. Our friends at Drifters Waterway Holidays and many other hire boat companies around the country are waiting to welcome you.

All of the information in this article comes from our Boater's Handbook and the accompanying videos. Reading through the handbook before you set off for your holiday will give you more confidence when you take control of the boat for the first time. It also contains more detailed guidance on boating safety, and how to navigate locks, bridges and tunnels.

Your hire boat company will give you a detailed explanation of your boat and how to drive it when you arrive, including important safety information. You can also have a look at our picture guide on getting to know your boat.

Crew members can help the skipper by keeping watch up front

It's useful to know the names of the different parts of a 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.

Once you've got everything and everyone onboard, you've checked you have plenty of fuel and you know your route, it's time to set off.

Setting off

Start the engine, keep it in neutral and allow some time for it to warm up before you move off. Once your crew are ready and you (the skipper) have given permission, they can untie the front and back mooring ropes from the bank. Leave them tied to the boat, coiled and ready for the next time they're used. Make sure your ropes can't trail in the water and get caught in the propeller.

Because the boat steers from the back, you can't drive away from the bank as you would in a car. Check the area is clear of boat traffic, then your crew can push the boat away from the bank, so that you can make a clean departure with your propeller in deeper water. If you're in shallow water, push the back of the boat out then reverse away until you have room to straighten up.

When the boat is straight, go into forward gear and accelerate gently. The maximum speed allowed on the canals is a fast walking pace, but you must slow down when passing other boats, including moored boats.


Steering a boat using a tiller 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 to your steer. The slower you are going, the longer it will take for the boat to respond.

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 only line up the front and then try to turn into a narrow gap, you risk hitting the bank with the back of your boat.

Watch out for currents or crosswinds pushing you off-course too. Put on a bit more power with the throttle to give you more control.

Under way

The rule of the waterway is to stay 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. Don't cut the corner when going round bends. You run the risk of a collision or going aground.

Look out for swimmers, canoes, paddle boards, punts, rowing boats, sailing dinghies and anglers. Remember that 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.

Slowing down and stopping

Because boats don't have brakes, you need to give yourself plenty of time to stop.

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.


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: 07 July 2020

photo of a location on the canals
newsletter logo

Stay connected

Sign up to our monthly newsletter and be the first to hear about campaigns, upcoming events and fundraising inspiration