Beginner’s Guide to Narrowboat Etiquette

Most etiquette for narrowboat users is good manners and common sense. It is mainly about being considerate to others using the waterways, staying safe and being aware of your responsibilities and liabilities.

Be aware that boaters will have different levels of experience but don’t make assumptions based on the appearance of the narrowboat. For instance, it may be easy to assume that people hiring narrowboats are less experienced as they are often only given a few hours of tuition. However, this may not be the case. Also, remember that everyone has to start somewhere and be willing to offer (or accept) help and advice when it’s needed. Boaters generally want to do the right thing and don’t set out to upset people, so be considerate of others’ situations.

Narrowboat speed

Many people take to the inland waterways and canals for a slower pace of life so are not in a rush to travel anywhere fast in their narrowboat. There are speed limits on most inland waterways that need to be adhered to. The speed limit on canals is 4mph, which is equivalent to a steady walking pace. Speed limits are there to protect anyone using the waterways as well as to protect the integrity of the water channel, reducing damage to the banks.

Boat speed should not be confused with prop speed or engine power. Additional power may be required to improve manoeuvrability or steering, or in windy conditions, and this is much more effective at a lower boat speed. It is much harder to control the rudder if you’re trying to slow down at the same time. By slowing down in advance of any hazards, you can increase the engine power if required to navigate safely around the hazard.

Etiquette when meeting other narrowboat users

Generally, when meeting another narrowboat user, smile and say hello. When passing a narrowboat coming in the opposite direction, the normal practice is to slow down a little to reduce the bow wave and pass port side (left) to port side.

When passing a moored boat, slow down in advance so the engine is at tick-over level. It is the responsibility of the moored boat to tie up securely, but you don’t want to cause any unnecessary disruption by passing too fast. Also, give the moored boat as much room as you can.

If a narrowboat behind you wants to overtake, then co-operation and clear communication are vital. This is the same if you want to overtake a slower boat in front. An overtaking manoeuvre should only be completed when both parties agree.

If you’re operating the boat being overtaken, then allow the other boat to pass as soon as it’s appropriate to do so. For instance, on a section of the waterway that is clear and wide enough. Signal to the overtaking boat using clear hand signals. Hold your arm out to the side so that the other helmsman can see your silhouette easily. There are horn signals for overtaking but not everyone knows what they are so the situation can get complicated or misinterpreted. Hand signals are usually easier to understand.

Narrowboat etiquette at locks

The etiquette around locks is all about being considerate to other narrowboats and canal users. Here are some key points.

  • Check to see if there is a lock-keeper in charge. If so, follow their instructions.
  • Check whether there is a queue for the lock – some boats may appear to be moored when they are, in fact, queueing for the lock. You may need to send a crew member up the tow path to a have a look. If there is a queue, slot in at the back and wait your turn. Suggest that your crew offers help to other boaters, but don’t insist or be offended if your help is turned down. Inexperienced boaters may welcome your help, but not everyone will want it.
  • If there’s no queue, then check whether there’s a boat coming in the opposite direction, who is closest and in whose favour the lock is set. If it’s set in their favour and the water level suits their passage through the lock, then let them pass through first. Jumping ahead is known as ‘stealing a lock’ and poor narrowboat etiquette.
  • Never moor on a lock mooring, except in an emergency.

Know your responsibilities and liabilities

As well as the requirements of boat licences and narrowboat insurance, be aware of your responsibilities on the waterways. For instance, never move someone’s boat without their permission and keep the tow path clear of ropes, hoses or other possessions.

Be aware of the dangers that the waterways pose and make sure that any crew members or visitors on your narrowboat behave responsibly.

Following narrowboat etiquette helps to make using the canals and waterways safer and more enjoyable for all. Essentially the main things to remember are:

  • Be patient
  • Be considerate
  • Communicate well

By following our beginners’ guide to narrowboat etiquette, we hope that you enjoy many hours of happy cruising along our beautiful waterways.

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