We love and care for your canals and rivers, because everyone deserves a place to escape.

Avoiding accidents

Accidents and injuries on our waterways are rare, but every year a few people do get hurt – usually through inexperience or not paying attention. By looking at the accidents people have had on boats over the past few years, we’ve found that they fit into a relatively small number of categories. This part of the guide tells you about these so that you can avoid the same misfortune.


Wherever you are – home, work or on a waterway – the most common accidents are slips, trips and falls. But when you fall off a boat or from the waterside, those accidents can be more serious.

Apart from the risk of drowning, you could be dragged or fall into a moving propeller. You could hit your head, or be crushed between your boat and another object. There’s also a slight risk of infection from the water itself.

Boats and watersides are littered with bollards, rings, ropes and holes. Surfaces can be uneven or slippery, particularly in wet or icy weather or early morning dew. So you need to keep your eyes open – and slow down. Many falls happen during mooring – simply because people aren’t sure of the procedure.

There are unprotected drops at locksides. Watch out especially when operating lock gates.

Fire, explosion and fumes (read more about this on pages 36-39 of the Boaters Handbook.)

Although rare, boat fires and explosions can be fatal. There are some specific risks to be aware of.

The bottled gas used for cookers, fridges and heaters is heavier than air and, if there’s a leak, it’ll build up in the bottom of the boat. A small spark will ignite this gas.

Watch out for fumes from cookers, cabin heaters and water heaters or from engine exhaust building up in the boat. Carbon monoxide poisoning is extremely dangerous – early signs include headaches, tiredness, sickness and dizziness, and other flu-like symptoms. Anyone affected should get medical help. If the symptoms are severe or recurrent, contact emergency services and get to hospital straightaway.

Petrol vapour is also heavier than air and highly flammable. If there’s a strong smell of gas or petrol do the following: 

  • Close the shut-off valve and open windows, hatches or doors to ventilate the area as much as possible.
  • Turn the engine off, and put out naked flames, cookers, pilot lights and cigarettes. Evacuate the boat if possible.
  • Don’t switch anything electrical on or off, including lights and the bilge pump, until you’re sure the gas/petrol has dispersed. Find the problem and get it put right before you turn the gas or fuel on again.


Collisions – with other boats, banks, bridges or other structures – are another common cause of injury. The impact can lead to falls, both onto the deck and into the water. And for people working in the galley, there’s a risk of scalds or burns.

What causes collisions?

  • Lack of boat-handling skill or experience
  • Taking your eyes off the waterway
  • Cruising too fast

Safety essentials

  • Check headroom for bridges. Remember bridge shapes vary and water levels rise
  • Watch out for cross-wind. You can anticipate it by looking for ripples on the water and swaying trees. You may need to steer at an angle into the wind to avoid being blown off course
  • Be ready for strong flows at locks, weirs and places where water is taken in or out of the waterway
  • Give a long blast with the horn as you approach blind bridges, bends and junctions
  • Look out for canoes, sailing dinghies and other unpowered boats • Watch out for floating tree trunks and other debris
  • Learn the Rules of the Road. They are on page 52 of the Boaters Handbook.
  • Make sure you know the size of your boat and the dimensions of the waterway you’re cruising on


If your boat collides with something else, you don’t want to be in the way. Don’t put yourself between the boat and a bank, tunnel or bridge, or you could end up with crushed fingers or legs – or even more serious body injuries. Don’t get your body in the way of a moving bridge or lock balance beam.

What causes crushing injuries?

  • Using your hands or feet to stop a collision or fend off
  • Not appreciating the momentum or the size of your boat
  • Lack of attention operating bridges and locks

Safety essentials

  • Keep your body out of the way
  • Keep within the boat – that means not having your legs dangling over the side, your hands over the edge or your head out of the side hatch
  • Keep off the roof when underway
  • Don’t fend off with your arms, legs or a boat pole – let the fender take the impact
  • Make sure anyone in the front cockpit is on the look-out for possible collisions
  • Supervise children who are helping


All boats have a limit to the number of people that can safely be on board. Look for a plate showing the number or get it from the boat’s handbook or safety information folder.

Think carefully before going on the cabin roof as the boat could become top heavy and roll over. Obey any sign or instruction that limits people on the roof.

Don’t let everyone stand together on the same side if it risks tipping the boat over.

Man overboard

Before you do anything else, take a breath and think. Don’t panic, don’t jump in – and don’t let others jump in. The water is very cold even in summer. Keep sight of the person in the water at all times.

On narrow canals and slow, shallow rivers:

  • Put your engine out of gear. Don’t reverse the boat – the person in the water could be dragged into the propeller.
  • Throw a line or a lifebelt and tell them to try to stand up – if it’s a canal they might be able to walk out.
  • Steer the boat slowly to the bank and get one of your passengers off to help the person get out of the water.

On wider or deeper waterways:

  • Throw a lifebuoy to the person in the water.
  • Keep a constant watch to ensure your propeller is well away from them.
  • Stop the propeller immediately by selecting neutral gear if there’s a risk of them getting close to it. If you are on a river you may need to turn so as to approach them slowly going against the stream.
  • Pull them to the side of the boat and help them aboard with a ladder, rope or pole.

Be prepared:

Make sure everyone on the boat knows the drill – and knows where to find the lifeline or lifebelt. In case it’s the skipper who falls overboard, the crew should also know how to stop the propeller and steer the boat.

Practice the drill. It’s better to learn it before an accident happens.

Operating injuries

Boating can involve a lot of physical exercise. Some of the work is heavy and you’ll also be using unfamiliar techniques and tools. Together, the two things can add up to strained backs and muscles, cuts or worse.

What causes operating injuries?

  • Overstretching yourself
  • Using tools or equipment incorrectly
  • Not paying attention to the job in hand
  • Rushing
  • Not preparing properly

Safety essentials

  • Take things easy. Don’t strain. Share the work
  • Let the fittest operate locks and bridges
  • Make sure you know how to use equipment properly
  • Follow any operating instructions that are provided
  • Watch out for worn paddle gear
  • Use the right size hole in your windlass and use the safety catch on the paddle gear
  • Only use a boat-hook or pole when the boat’s still
  • Keep fingers clear of ropes – sudden tension in the rope can trap fingers
  • Don’t wrap ropes around any part of your body
  • Don’t use ropes to stop the boat – use the engine
  • Don’t push off from the side of another boat with your pole. It could slip on the smooth surface.  

Lock safety

Though boating accidents are few and far between, many of them happen in locks. Moving through a lock is perhaps the trickiest part of boating. There’s a lot to think about at once and a whole series of tasks to carry out.

Practically all the safety tips we’ve come across so far apply here. But you also need to be extra alert. If your boat gets caught up, it could come crashing down into the lock. Should there be a fire on your boat it is harder to escape, and it could spread quickly to other boats sharing the lock.  Read the detailed guidance on how to use locks on pages 16-29 of the Boaters Handbook.

What causes accidents in locks?

  • Lack of knowledge or preparation
  • Not paying attention
  • Rushing the procedures

Safety essentials

  • Make sure the boat’s level and free. It should be away from the cill, not caught on a gate or projection and the ropes should be able to run freely
  • Use the paddles (sluices) gradually
  • Make sure that each member of the crew sticks to their allotted task – accidents happen when crew wander off, especially with a big crew
  • Adult crew must be in charge of the lock
  • Watch out for ‘helpful’ bystanders – their mistakes could land you in trouble
  • Have a steerer at the helm all the time when the boat is in a lock..


Last date edited: 9 July 2015