Common Narrowboat Newbie Mistakes And How To Avoid Them

I wanted to send you an email weeks ago. My mind was willing, but my body weak. Life and the insidious ravages of time on my old bones thwarted my plans. I’ve been too busy, tired and obsessed with earning a crust to add any new posts to my website.

I’m sorry.

I consider myself lucky. I’ve watched this wretched pandemic destroy livelihoods and lives from the safety and comfort of my idyllic mooring in rural Warwickshire. I’m grateful that I’ve still been able to earn a crust at the marina. I’m blessed that the social distancing restrictions haven’t had much of an impact on my day-to-day life. Not much of an effect, but enough to stop me from writing to you.

My employers, the Preen family, here at Calcutt Boats have bent over backwards to support their staff during the lockdown. They kept me on, allowed me to earn a crust, keep the wolf from the door and my bank manager’s fetid breath from my neck. But mine is a lifestyle job, perfect for living a simple, stress-free and undemanding lifestyle. But not so good for creating enough of a disposable income for me to lavish on my floating home.

So, for the three months I couldn’t trade on a closed canal network I lived frugally, investing wisely in good food and not so sensibly on too much drink. Then, when the waterways opened for business again, I committed to five working days for the marina and two for my boating business at the weekend.

Although the surge in Discovery Day bookings recently has helped my bank balance, I haven’t had any time to invest in Orient’s maintenance regime. Fortunately, a very capable marina workmate has stepped into the breach. He’s spending a day a week on Orient, tackling the jobs which I can’t or don’t have time to do.

The first was, I thought, some simple rust treatment around my Squirrel flue collar. Jason wanted to remove the collar so that he could do a thorough job. I felt that removing the collar would be a waste of time. One of my few virtues is that I’m prepared to defer to people who are clearly more talented than me.

Removing the collar revealed a six-inch length of rotten steel flue pipe. And closer examination identified a small flue hole inside my cabin. Jason’s thoroughness saved me from possible carbon monoxide poisoning and a collapsed flue.

Orient's damaged flue surround

Orient’s damaged flue surround

A narrowboat stove without a flue isn't much use

A narrowboat stove without a flue isn’t much use

Jason also discovered that the ‘professionals’ who installed the flue collar had done an abysmal job. They positioned one of the collar bolts too close to a bearer and then screwed it finger tight. Consequently, the fitting has been loose on one side for the last eighteen months. It has allowed flue gases to condense into tar which as trickled along the starboard side of my roof and down the cabin side. With the collar now appropriately fitted I’ve been able to clean off the tar and return my paintwork to its former glory – which isn’t terribly glorious.

I need to repaint just about everything. I suspect that the current cabin paintwork is at least ten years old. The rails, bow and rear deck are showing a lot of wear and tear. Getting on top of the paintwork is going to take a few months at only one day a week. Especially if I carry on ruining all of Jason’s hard work.

Orient's freshly painted bow

Orient’s freshly painted bow

I was delighted with the bow repainting he did last week. Four days later – far too little time to allow the paint to harden – I took Orient out for two weekend Discovery Day cruises. Half hour moored on the cut and half a dozen inconsiderate boaters racing past was too much for the soft paint. The area will need painting again. This time I’ll keep the area rope free for a couple of weeks.

I’ve changed my fairleads too. The old ones were dull brass sitting on bubbling rust patches. The areas are now rust-free and home to new stainless steel fairleads – with stainless steel screws – to match my forest of stainless steel chimneys. Orient is my home, my pride and my joy, so she’s worth all the hard work. Especially when someone else is doing it.

My Discovery Day cruises have kept me out of trouble every weekend, and given me something to write about today. I live and work on one of the busiest sections of the inland waterways. The Hillmorton flight of three tandem locks is said to be one of the most used on the network. That’s no surprise given that there are 2,500 boats moored within a ten-mile radius, a couple of hundred hire boats plying the waterways in this area and an unrivalled choice of routes.

Narrowboat hire companies are doing very well at the moment. Most of them have most of their boats out most of the time. That means that I meet many novice crews on my cruises every day I’m out. And on EVERY cruise we witness mistakes, incidents and accidents. I pulled a boater out of Calcutt Bottom lock last week. He hadn’t quite reached the drowning stage, but he was close to panic and clutched a lock chain as though his life depended on it. His life did depend on holding the chain because he couldn’t swim.

Most of the incidents I witness result from insufficient knowledge. The holiday hirers are not at fault. They’re often given the keys to a twenty-tonne boat with very little or zero training. Imagine yourself in the same situation as fictitious holiday hirer Harold.

The time-starved instructor hands a set of keys to Harold, the happy hirer and races through his clipboard checklist. “Turn that key to start the engine, pull that knob to stop it, turn this dial to run your central heating and press that button if you want to run mains appliances. How do you steer the boat? That’s easy. If you want to steer one way, push the tiller – yes, the brass bar you’re holding – in the opposite direction. Oh, and don’t forget to drive like a foreigner and stay on the right.”

With the comprehensive handover out of the way, the smiling instructor gives Harold a reassuring virtual pat on the back and wishes him a happy holiday.

And so begins Harold’s baptism of fire, his first day at the helm of a flat bottomed boat as long and unwieldy as an articulated lorry. And if Harold’s hired from one of the dozen companies based within a handful of miles of my base near Napton junction, he’ll bump into many of the hundred-plus other hirers negotiating the blind bends and bridge holes holidaying on Warwickshire’s contour canals.

You can recognise many first time hirers by their startled looks, similar to that of rabbits caught in car headlights. The learning curve to inland waterways boating is steep. These holidaymakers, many of them future boat owners, don’t have a clue what to do. They learn from their mistakes and, as there are so many of them on short breaks, they’re still making mistakes on their last day.

Cruising on England’s inland waterways is an enjoyable and relaxing pastime once you’ve mastered the basics. Even the most professional narrowboat hire companies can’t tell you a fraction of what you need to know during their necessarily brief handovers. You have to learn from your own mistakes.

At least narrowboat hirers are given some tuition. Most first time buyers are entirely clueless when they attempt their maiden voyages. They learn through trial and error, often building on bad techniques and well-meaning but inappropriate advice. “Wrap your centre line around your waist,” is the most dangerous advice I’ve heard offered to novice boaters. Are they mad? Imagine a flat bottomed and high sided twenty-tonne boat being pushed away from the bank by a lively breeze. The most likely result is a rope wrapped boater plucked from the towpath for an unexpected dip.

You’ll be offered plenty of tips and tricks when you begin your waterways journey. Your job is to sort the wheat from the chaff. All I’ve written below is a distillation of my experiences over the last decade. I’ve cruised thousands of mile, handled hundreds of narrowboats and made enough cock-ups to keep my fellow boaters laughing for weeks. I hope that the following advice helps to keep you safe and mostly free from ridicule. If you plan to hire a boat for a short break, don’t let the inevitable newbie cock-ups put you off. Persevere and you’ll soon reach a point where handling a narrowboat is as intuitive as driving a car, but with much more enjoyment and fewer insurance claims.


Learn how to handle a narrowboat and discover all you need to know about life on England's inland waterways

Casting Off

Let’s start at the beginning. You CANNOT steer a narrowboat from its bankside mooring into the canal centre. A narrowboat pivots on its midpoint, usually where the centre line is attached. If the bow is to go to the right, the stern must come to the left. Clearly, the stern can’t do that if it’s already against a bank. The solution is simple. The helmsman or one of his crew must push the boat’s bow off the side. This simple technique allows the helmsman to steer in a straight line to the canal centre.

The alternative method, and it’s a strategy often chosen by newbie boaters, is to grind their craft along concrete banks until a curve launches the boats into open water. Unsurprisingly, this second technique removes many layers of protective hull paint quite quickly.

Mooring Lines Are Not For Cruising

Remember the bit about a narrowboat pivoting on its centre? This is often a novice boater’s first frustration.

Calcutt Boats’ wharf is between Calcutt Top and Middle locks. My mooring is close to Calcutt Bottom lock. I watch boats arriving at the flight often while I work and play. Kate Boats are a half-hour cruise from the bottom lock, Napton Narrowboats and Black Prince at Wigram’s Turn ten minutes from the top lock and the three businesses have 80 – 100 hire boats between them. The Calcutt flight is where many new hirers stop their craft for the first time. Or fail to control their boat for the first time.

On a smaller boat, often crewed by a couple, the stopping routines are often similar. The man – it’s nearly always the man at the helm – throws his lump of steel at the towpath, sometimes but not always stopping before he hits it, and jettisons his poor wife and her bow line. She tumbles onto the towpath pulling the bow line as though her life depends on it. Drawing in the bow pushes the stern away from the bank. So the husband rams the Morse control against its stop to bring the stern back to the bank. This manoeuvre pulls the bow and his wife away from the bank. The tug of war and the ensuing argument continues until the couple divorces, and the boat runs out of fuel. It’s not a happy start to their holiday.

Larger hire boats have up to ten people on board, ten people who don’t understand the need to work as a team. Their boats slam to a halt in a mess of exhaust smoke and boiling water. Three or four people leap from the front deck with the bow line. A similar number tumble onto the towpath from the stern. The helmsman largely ignores everything his crew is doing and tries to alter the boat’s position with the engine. This crew of ten finally subdues the lively narrowboat, but the process hasn’t been easy.

River techniques are slightly different but, on canals and in their locks, stern and bow lines are only used for mooring.

The correct technique is for the helmsman to glide serenely in tickover at a shallow angle towards the bank. And then, as he touches, he applies the gentlest of bursts in reverse before stepping calmly onto the towpath holding his centre line. Then he holds his boat gently against the side while his poor wife tries to unravel the mysterious workings of a canal lock.

How To Hold A Line Attached To Your Boat

Do not EVER wrap a bow, stern or centre line around any part of your body. In a battle between you, a lively breeze and a twenty-tonne boat, you’re going to lose—every time.

If a rope’s chaffing your hands, don’t wrap it around your arm or waist. Don’t wrap it around your fingers to get a better grip. You’re risking rope burns at best. And if your boat is blown by the wind away from the bank and you’re doing your impression of a human cotton reel you’ll be whisked off your feet into the canal’s murky depths. OK. The channel’s likely to be less than four feet deep, but that’s more than enough water to drown you.

If you want to rest your hands when you’re pulling your boat in, run the line behind your back, hold the rope with both hands and sit or lean on it. If the boat pulls away from you and there’s no one available to lend a hand, let it go. The narrowboat will live. You may not.

This a worst-case scenario, of course. You’re unlikely to begin your boating career alone or on a day so windy that you need to abandon ship. And there are techniques you can use to eliminate any serious problems.

You can read part two of this post here.

Discovery Day Update

A LOT of people are interested in living afloat now. The ability for many to work from home, wherever that home may be, has encouraged more aspiring boaters than ever to consider living on England’s inland waterways network. 

If you are considering following suit, I urge you to book a day with me. I’m not one to blow my own trumpet, but I’m constantly told how much knowledge I share during the course of a Discovery Day and how calm I am with total strangers at the helm of my floating home. You can find out more about my Discovery service here.

Ray Appleton and her partner Darren on a Discovery Day

Ray Appleton and her partner Darren on a Discovery Day

“We’re now ready to sell our home to start living aboard a narrowboat. We booked our discovery day with Paul to learn how to travel the canal, how to work locks and, most importantly, to confirm that it is the life we want. The day spent on Orient was fabulous! Paul was friendly, relaxed, and knew his subject.  He answered all our queries regarding living aboard. 

We would definitely recommend a discovery day for anyone who is contemplating living full-time on a narrowboat.  At the end of the day, having faced some tricky situations, we were steered in the right direction and feel confident that we can now go it alone.”

Ray Appleton

You can read further details and check available dates here.

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Paul Smith

After six and a half years living on a narrowboat on England's inland waterways, Paul and his wife Cynthia wandered Europe by motorhome during the winter, and on the Dutch and French waterways in the warmer months on their 35' Dutch motor cruiser. However, the pull of England's muddy ditches proved too much for them. Now they're back where they belong, constantly stuck in mud in a beautiful traditional narrowboat.