How to steer a narrowboat

Peggy writes blogsIf you’re thinking of going on a narrowboat holiday, hiring a day boat, or volunteering with your nearest community boating project it may be because you love the idea of being a steerer for a day. Many of our member organisations provide NCBA approved training courses.

Here are some of our top tips for narrowboat handling.

Casting off

Before the boat is underway make sure all passengers are aware of where it is safe to sit or stand and where it is not. Everyone except the steerer should keep well clear of the tiller. Passengers should be particularly aware of approaching bridges when sitting outside. Make sure that those operating locks have been trained in the safety aspects and make sure everyone knows it is not safe to run beside a lock: they can be very deep and have strong undercurrents.

Turning corners

The point of turning is the middle of the boat. A canal boat will be slow to respond so if you see that you need to make a turn up ahead slow right down. You will need to begin slowly turning as the bow reaches the turning point. Tight corners may require some reversing.  If you need to turn right around (to change the direction of travel) a longer boat will require a winding hole. As well as using the tiller to turn you may also find it helpful to have a crew member on the bank with a bow line, particularly if the turning space is tight.

Getting stuck

If you hit a shallow area or an underwater obstacle first try using reverse gear to remove yourself from the situation. Keep the tiller straight ahead. If you cannot free the boat you may need a crew member to use a barge pole to push the boat off the ground. The pole should be pushed against the canal bed, with great care. Keep the top of the pole away from your body to avoid slipping onto it. If you are near enough to throw a line to a crew member on the towpath they could also assist by pulling the boat from there.

How to stop

When you need to stop give yourself plenty of room and plenty of time. A narrowboat has a very long stopping distance. First, take the engine out of gear, and then use reverse gear to begin to slow the boat down. A reversing narrowboat is very difficult to steer. Remember that when moving backwards the tiller direction will have the opposite effect. So, to turn the boat slightly to the right you will move the tiller to the right. This is the opposite of what you would do if you were travelling forwards. If your steering goes awry try manoeuvring in forward gear again to get yourself back on course.

Where to train

The NCBA boat handling course minimises potential risks and provides extra skills to community boat operators, helping to ensure a safe, enjoyable boating experience for all. If you’d like to use your existing boating knowledge and skills to provide positive experiences for your local community check out the many different courses provided by the National Community Boating Association.



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  1. Very surprised to see so little said about the critical importance of keeping the back end of a narrowboat in the deepest part of the water, (and why), or anything about where the water is likely to be deeper; I was also taken aback by the suggestion that the ‘barge-pole’ be used to push against the bottom of the canal if/ when aground – the barge-pole (if we must call it that) is far more effective, and more manageable, if deployed to push against hard or firm objects (like the bank, other boats etc) above the water-line, and the only likely outcome if using it as suggested is getting the pole covered in slimy black silt and/or losing it, or one’s balance.
    John Sheridan, CCNA

    • Peggy 24th June 2013 at 09:35 - Reply

      Hi John,

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. Yes I’ve just begun to touch on the basics here, it’s a wide topic. You’re right, the barge pole is much more effective pushing against firmer objects, I really should have mentioned that. I was just thinking of the times I’ve been stuck in the middle with nothing better to push against! (I’ve lived aboard for 13 years.) I don’t know any liveaboards that don’t call it a ‘barge pole’ though. What is the correct name?

      If there are any London-based readers out there I do recommend clicking John’s link above to find out about proper training with Camden Canals & Narrowboat Association. The advice in this article are just a few basic tips and are no substitute for professional training. 🙂


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