Coronavirus and boating FAQs

Below are answers to some of your most frequently asked questions regarding coronavirus and boating, which we are regularly updating.

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Updated 9 April 2020


Are canals, rivers and towpaths open?

Are the canals open for cruising?

Following the announcement from the Prime Minister (8.30pm, 23 March 2020) regarding the UK’s response to the coronavirus crisis, we are asking leisure boaters to stop all non-essential travel and not to visit their boats if they do not live aboard permanently. As a result, and to help those who live-aboard (along with those who would need to travel to their boat in order to move it) we are suspending the requirement to move every 14 days. With Government expected to extend the lockdown period later today (9 April 2020) we are extending our suspension of the normal movement requirement to 18 April and will review after the weekend. During this period, you do not need to contact us to tell us you will be staying in one location for more than 14 days.

We ask everyone to be considerate and make sure that vital boater facilities and services are accessible to those that need them, moving a minimal amount when necessary. If you are not currently occupying your boat the government guidance is that you must not visit it (this means no short trips or breaks on your boat at this time).

Please note that from Monday 30 March, unless there is an emergency or boaters require passage for essential services such as water, pump out or waste, all our employee-operated locks, bridges and tunnels will be closed.

Why aren’t you shutting canals and towpaths?

While our towpaths remain open, use of them should be limited, in support of the Government’s ‘stay at home’ campaign. To this end, thousands of signs have been put up around network, with more to come, and other channels such as our website and targeted social media advertising continue to remind the public that towpath use should be limited and only for those who are local to it.

Defra advises that the risk of the coronavirus being passed on to others from people using public rights of way and other paths and trails is considered to be very low as long as people follow the Government’s instructions to maintain social distancing.

If you have to make an essential local journey, our message is to keep your distance from other people and moored boats, strictly observe social distancing at all times, and follow the latest advice from the Government. Whilst towpaths in some places can be narrow, we are advising that people should not congregate, stand aside to allow others to pass when necessary, and make full use of the towpath width.

Under no circumstances should anyone place obstructions on towpaths.  If people do approach your boat, there should be no risk to you provided you stay on your boat while they pass; please do not put yourself or others at risk by confronting other people.

As the towpaths have to stay open for those living along the waterways to access services and facilities, and for our teams to access for their regular inspections and in case of emergency, and with many thousands of entry points across our 2,000 mile network, and our own staffing reduced by the crisis, it is not practical to try to close towpaths. Given their role in providing some local access to the outdoors in many places where there are few alternatives for daily exercise it is not desirable to close them.  If people continue to observe government guidance, follow our advice to limit their use, and strictly observe social distancing, we can combat this pandemic together, with everyone treating each other with consideration and respect.

I use my local towpath – how can I do it responsibly?

Wherever you are, everyone should strictly follow the government guidance to observe social distancing. There are particular issues with using towpaths and we’re advising people to limit use of them during the crisis. Avoid sections with multiple moored boats if at all possible and, when you pass someone else, use the full width of the towpath, keep moving, stand aside to allow others to pass and/or make sure you’re single file. If you need to pass a boat please keep as far away from it as possible. If you’re concerned about being able to follow Government instructions for social distancing on a towpath then you should consider a different local route. There are many websites, such as the Ramblers, Walking Routes or Walking Britain, which detail alternatives.

What can I do if there are places where the towpath narrows?

Where a towpath narrows, take particular care to look ahead to see if someone is approaching, as you would do when passing through any other narrow place elsewhere. Where there is a blind corner – passing under a canal bridge for example – you might even want to call ahead to alert someone coming the other way.

What do I do when people pass my boat when I’m moored on the towpath and I’m trying to keep a safe distance?

We are acutely aware of liveaboard boaters’ anxieties at the present time. If you remain in your boat when you see people approaching then you should be able to socially distance from anyone passing on the towpath. In some places, for example in the heart of towns and cities, where local people live in flats or have no gardens for outdoor exercise, even with current restrictions there will be more people around. If you find it intolerably busy where you are moored then it may be better for you to try mooring further along. Please under no circumstances confront others.

I can’t avoid stretches of towpaths where multiple boats are moored, what should I do?

We strongly suggest that they should be avoided: please do try to find an alternative route to divert around the busiest sections.  Where it really is unavoidable, such trips should be minimised. When having to pass any moored boats, please keep as far away from the boat as possible and pass as quickly as you can.

I have been subject to confrontation on the towpaths, what should I do?

This is an anxious time, but everyone using our towpaths should be treating one another considerately and calmly, keeping a safe distance and moving swiftly past.  Any physical encounter, verbal aggression or inappropriate language is not acceptable in any circumstances by anyone. If you find yourself subject to a confrontation on the towpath, this is a police matter and we ask you to contact your local police force about the incident. Wherever we can, we will assist the police in addressing inappropriate behaviour, by anyone – whether a boater or a towpath user. 

I have found obstructions placed along the towpath, how do I report this?

Under no circumstances should members of the public or boaters place obstructions on towpaths (sometimes our staff or contractors may have to temporarily erect barriers whilst undertaking necessary works). If your passage along the towpath is blocked then please report this to the Trust via our online contact form  or by calling 0303 040 4040 from 8am – 6pm Monday to Friday (Bank Holidays 9am – 5pm). Please remember that, while towpaths are not closed, we are asking people to limit their use, stay local, avoid stretches where multiple boats are moored where possible, and always respect social distancing measures.

You closed the towpaths for foot-and-mouth in 2001, why aren’t you doing so now?

Unlike during the foot-and-mouth crisis nearly 20 years ago, use of the towpath doesn’t directly contribute to the spread of disease, provided people follow the Government’s advice around social distancing.

We’ve set out why it is neither practical or desirable to close towpaths, particularly in urban areas where a huge growth in residential boating requires access for boaters as well as for our employees, in case of an emergency, and as routes for local people.

The foot-and-mouth crisis called for a different response.  The aim was to restrict movement through the countryside, and canals and towpaths were designated ‘closed’ (though not usually physically blocked off) where they ran through or bordered infected farms, with signs and bio security at rural access points. 

General advice for boaters

What is essential boat travel?

If you are a live-aboard boater or are currently occupying your boat, then essential movement could be:

  • to access water or waste facilities
  • to access essential food and supplies
  • to access urgent medical treatment
  • for emergency mechanical service for your boat
  • for emergency vet treatment for your pet

At this time you should not be making short trips or breaks on your boat for leisure purposes, these are classed as non-essential journeys.

How long can I stay on a short-stay visitor mooring?

Short-stay visitor moorings would normally return to their normal times on 1 April: we’re extending that so you are able to stay for 14 days until the end of April, when we will review. It’s really important that you don’t overstay on facilities or the moorings next to them as we want to make sure everyone can get access to them fairly.

Do you have any general advice for boaters?

We would ask boaters to follow good boating etiquette and think about others so everyone can get to the services they need. We ask everyone to be considerate and make sure at least a minimal amount of essential movement is maintained to keep vital boater facilities and services accessible to those that need them. Please be considerate and do not remove toilet roll or antibacterial gel from our facilities.

How do I reduce the risk of transmission through touching facilities or locks that have been used by others?

In line with the government advice to all, it is advisable to wash your hands or use hand gels frequently to reduce the risk of catching coronavirus. Please note that, following the Prime Minister’s announcement on 23 March 2020, boaters should stop all non-essential travel.

Can I cruise at night to avoid other boaters?

Please don’t cruise after dark.  It can cause a danger to others, as well as disturbing moored boats you might pass.  We’ve also had reports of night-time cruisers leaving lock gates open and paddles up, which results in the loss of water and potential problems for any boats moored in the area.

Are volunteer lock keepers still operating?

We have asked our volunteers to consider their own needs first when volunteering and where possible we will continue to support individual volunteers who want to continue their roles, if these relate to essential activities. As we are advising boaters to minimise boat movement, volunteer lock keeping has been suspended.

We continually monitor the Public Health England (PHE) site and our response and approach will change as official Government advice develops.

Support for boaters needing extra help

How can the Trust help those facing financial hardship due to the coronavirus and are worried about not being able to pay their licence or mooring fees?

We are acutely aware of the financial issues and concerns that many of our boaters and business partners are facing. We will do what we can to support people during these highly unsettling times and be as flexible as we can regarding payment where there is genuine hardship. Please get in touch via our online webform or contact your local boat licence support team. But we are facing significant financial challenges of our own, with a large and costly historic network to maintain and keep safe during this crisis, and we depend upon the income we earn to fund that work.  Ultimately, we all need the Government to act to provide support for people, and waterway businesses, who have suffered financial impact and we are doing what we can to raise this.

We have published some links to the Government support available here.

What should I do if I am self-isolating and need help but don’t have any support networks?

Please contact us using the details above. We will work with partners to support boaters self-isolating as best we can without adding to the risk of transmission.

What do I do if I’m a liveaboard boater in self-isolation and am running low on essential provisions?

We know that the boating community is a close-knit one and that in many areas people will be looking out for each other and helping with things like shopping for those who are having to self-isolate. If you are completely isolated and there is no-one who can help you, please get in touch and, working with our partners, we’ll try to do what we can to help.

Are you making any changes to support boaters in at-risk groups?

We are proactively contacting boaters who we know to be in a high-risk group, including those with equality adjustments, those who have told us they are pregnant, and those who have told us they are over 70. We are letting them know their options and that we’re here to assist if they have any questions or concerns.

How will you identify liveaboard boaters in the ‘at risk’ categories and ensure communication with them to ensure that they have support if needed?

As well as contacting those we know are in high-risk groups, we’re asking anyone who lives permanently on their boat and falls into one of the extremely vulnerable categories listed to get in touch with us and let us know so we can work with others to ensure their support.  We would encourage boaters to establish contact with friends and family where possible.

Please take the time to read the Government’s guidance on shielding and protecting extremely vulnerable people.

What if I’m a key worker and need to remain close to my place of work?

If you live permanently on your boat, are a key worker in one of the categories listed and you need help, please get in touch with us and let us know. Following the Government’s announcement on 23 March 2020, we are suspending the requirement to move every 14 days. With Government expected to extend the lockdown period later today (9 April 2020) we are extending our suspension of the normal movement requirement to 18 April and will review after the weekend. During this period you do not need to contact us to tell us you will be staying in one location for more than 14 days.

Are Waterways Chaplains still helping boaters in need?

The work and ministry of Waterways Chaplains at this time is especially important, especially for those who are isolated and financially challenged by the crisis. Most of that support may be via phone or email to minimise physical contact.  Please visit the Waterways Chaplaincy website for the latest information.

What can I do to help those who might be vulnerable or in need on the waterways?

We know that most of the boating community is very supportive of one another. In such times as these, we ask all boaters to look out for the more vulnerable members of the community. Whether you’re a live-aboard boater, a leisure boater or a hire boater we’re asking everyone to keep an eye out for one another and, while still following the Public Health England advice, help each other where you can.  While we are contacting those boaters we know are in high-risk groups, if you know a boater who may also be vulnerable please let us know.

Boat licences and boat safety scheme

My boat safety scheme (BSS) certificate is due. What does the Government advice mean for renewal?

Following the Prime Minister’s announcement on 23 March 2020 regarding the UK’s response to the coronavirus crisis, the joint owners of the Boat Safety Scheme (BSS) are allowing a temporary extension to safety certificates for those craft requiring an examination before 14 April 2020. This date is now extended until the end of the month, 30 April 2020.

Any future changes will be reviewed in respect of the Government’s most up-to-date advice and we will advise boat owners accordingly. In the meantime, Navigation Authorities and licensing bodies will maintain a record of BSS extensions. Boat owners are advised to check any implications for their boat’s insurance cover linked to the temporary waiver of BSS Certification with their broker or underwriter. For more information visit the Boat Safety Scheme website.

Can I still renew my licence by telephone via the Customer Service Team?

Yes, you can still contact our Customer Service Team to licence craft, from 8am – 6pm Monday to Friday (Bank Holidays 9am – 5pm). As many of our customers have lots of questions there may be a longer wait time for calls to be answered and we ask that callers are patient as we will get to your call as soon as possible. The best course of action is to register to self serve via our web licensing portal.

How can I register to use the online portal?

Register to self serve via our web licensing portal. Look for the ‘Do It All Online’ section where you will be prompted to register (if you haven’t already done so). You can apply for a new licence or renew your current licence and it will be emailed to you immediately.

I do not have an email address, will my licence still be posted to me?

Whilst our offices are still operational your licence documents will be posted to you, including licence discs and direct debit schedules.  There may be some delays due to skeleton staff in offices. Please accept our apologies. Please note that your licence is valid from the point you receive confirmation of successful submission of either your renewal or application.

Is the Trust still acting against non-compliant boats?

It’s important that we manage the waterways fairly for everyone, particularly in our areas of high demand, so we are still working to ensure boats are licensed. To help those who live aboard (along with those who would need to travel to their boat in order to move it) we are suspending the requirement to move every 14 days. With Government expected to extend the lockdown period later today (9 April 2020) we are extending our suspension of the normal movement requirement to 18 April and will review after the weekend. Our strong focus at this time is on ensuring our staff, any at-risk boaters, and people using and visiting the waterways are safe and supported.

Boater facilities and services

Can I still get hold of pump-out cards and facilities keys?

Pump-out cards are still available. Purchase these from our online shop – but please order well in advance as they may take longer than usual to be delivered. Our offices will be closed from 25 March 2020 until further notice to minimise social contact between both employees and members of the public. Please note that items can be delivered to any address you nominate if your normal postal repository is not accessible. If you have difficulty using the online shop or receiving post, please get in touch and we will see how we can help. Unfortunately facilities keys are only available from our offices and we are not able to provide them at the present time.

Are boater facilities still available and being maintained?

Yes, we have contingency plans to maintain essential boating facilities. Please follow Government advice and wash your hands after using the facilities.

Can I still use privately-operated boater facilities?

We are working to ensure that Canal & River Trust boater facilities are maintained during the current coronavirus crisis. We have asked boaters to inform us of privately provided facilities they are reliant on. We are contacting the operators of these and will keep a list of private facilities that are open as up to date as possible. Please contact individual providers for further information. If facilities that you are dependent on are not listed, please use our online webform to let us know.

Will I still be able to get access to fuel when I need it?

The Trust does not provide fuel for boaters directly, but fuel should still be available from the usual sources such as marinas, boatyards and fuel boats.

What happens if Canal & River staff have to self-isolate?

We have contingency plans in place to ensure we can continue to provide our day-to-day service.

What essential activities are Canal & River Trust carrying out?

We aim to maintain critical activities and essential service, limiting physical interactions with other team members, customers and volunteers wherever possible.  A list of the activities can be found here.

Other activities

Are Canal & River Trust museums and attractions open?

In line with the Government’s advice, we have taken the decision to close all of our Trust operated attractions, cafes and retail sites from 20 March until further notice.

Can people fish on the towpaths at the moment?

No, we have suspended fishing on our towpaths for the time being.

Can I still canoe or kayak?

No, we have suspended canoeing and other paddle sports on our waterways for the time being.

Contacting the Trust

How should I get in contact with the Trust?

Please use our online contact form in the first instance.  Due to reduced staff numbers our customer service phone number will be operating reduced opening hours of 8am – 6pm Monday to Friday (Bank Holidays 9am – 5pm). until further notice. If you have a general question and want to speak to someone, you can call our Customer Service Team on 03030 40 40 40.  Boaters can also contact their local boat licensing support team.

If you want to buy or renew a boat licence, please use our online web licensing portal where possible, while you can buy pump out cards and facilities keys from our online shop. Please only think about visiting one of our offices if you have no other options.

Where can I find out more?

Last date edited: 9 April 2020