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Introducing Canal Boating

What's the attraction?

Travelling by a slow boat through the countryside, or even the city, gives an entirely new perspective to travelling. Often you have views that can be only seen from the water, landscape miles from the roads or townscape from behind the scenes. Add to this the many attractive and historic towns, villages and cities that can be visited by boat and you may start to see just one part of the reason why so many people, from all parts of the world, have been drawn to our waterways.

Where do we start?

There are several ways to try the delights of the waterways - walking the towpaths, boarding a trip boat or spending a few days (or weeks) on one of the many hotel boats. Unless you are lucky enough to have a friend or relation with a boat most people's introduction to canal boating is through hiring a boat. Generally a complete novice, after a short demonstration run, can handle even a large boat. There are many firms offering boat hire throughout the UK. For a list of firms on the web see Hire Boats, Hotel Boats or Trip Boats and Restaurant Boats.

What type of boat should we choose?

This will depend on which waterways you intend to travel. Nearly all the holiday hire boats on the Broads are wide beam cruisers, on the Thames you can hire the same type of boat but narrowboats are also available. On the canals the narrowboat is almost universal. In terms of facilities offered there is little to choose between the various types as both can offer fully equipped galleys with gas cooker and refrigerator, bathroom with shower, central heating, etc. The advantage of a wide beam boat is that there is more room for accommodation for any given length of boat. The advantage of the narrowboat is that it can access the many miles of narrow canal.

Navigation

Operating a boat is much easier than driving a car, there are fewer controls and everything happens at a much slower speed. This does not mean that boating is a skill free activity just that you can get started with none and build them up as you go. There are very few rules that you need to know, the main one being keep right when passing other boats. Other rules or warnings, where they exist, are normally indicated by notices.

Locks

Locks are a very simple concept for getting a boat from one level to another and usually cause little difficulty even to the novice, however they do need to be treated with respect and can cause some confusion to the first time user. Some locks are operated for the boater by lock keepers but most canal and river locks are boater operated.

Basic concepts

A lock consists of a chamber with water tight doors at each end. Once a boat is in the lock chamber and the doors closed the water in the lock can be adjusted to the appropriate level by means of paddles the let water in or out of the lock. Paddles may be ground paddles that let water in or out through a culvert or gate paddles that let water through an aperture in the lock gate. The arrangement of gate and ground paddles varies. Some locks may have only gate or ground paddles, others have both. Sometimes there are both gate and ground paddles at the same end of the lock. Usually paddles are operated by use of a windlass with which the paddle mechanism is wound up or down.

Descending through a Lock 

If you are going downhill the lock must be full before you can open the gates and enter.

    1. If the lock is empty first make sure that there are no boats coming the other way. If there are let them into the lock first. This is particularly important on canals, where there is a need to conserve water supplies. Close the bottom gates and make sure all the paddles are completely closed. Then raise the paddles at the top of the lock and wait for it to fill.
    2. If the lock seems full but the gates won't open make sure the bottom paddles are completely closed then raise the top paddles. If the water is not completely level each side of the gates they will not open. Even an inch difference in levels can make the gates impossible to open.
    3. When the lock is full open the gates and bring the boat into the lock. Close the top gates and the paddles. Do not tie the boat to mooring rings or bollards as ropes may jam as the boat descends, instead just loop ropes over the bollards and hold the end. Ensure the boat is far enough away from the top gates so that it will not be caught on the sill (or Cill) as the water goes down. The position of the sill is sometimes marked on the lockside by a notice or a white line. Open the bottom paddles to let out the water from the lock. As the boat descends make sure it is not caught on the gates. When the lock is empty open the gates, close all paddles and leave the lock.
    4. Closing the Gates on most canals the rule is always close the gates after leaving the lock. On most rivers it is not necessary to close the gates after leaving. Where this is not the rule there should be a notice informing users of how the lock should be left.

Going up through a lock

If you are going uphill the lock must be empty before you can open the gates and enter.

    1. If the lock is full first make sure that there are no boats coming the other way. If there are let them into the lock first. This is particularly important on canals, where there is a need to conserve water supplies. Close the top gates and make sure all the paddles are completely closed. Then raise the paddles at the bottom of the lock and wait for it to empty.
    2. If the lock seems empty but the gates won't open make sure the top paddles are completely closed then raise the bottom paddles. If the water is not completely level each side of the gates they will not open. Even an inch difference in levels can make the gates impossible to open.
    3. When the lock is empty open the gates and bring the boat into the lock. Close the bottom gates and the paddles. Loop ropes over the bollards and hold the end, taking up any slack as the boat rises. Ensure the boat is far enough back from the top gates so that it will not be flooded with water from the gate paddles or subject to the full force of water from the ground paddles. If the top end of the lock has both gate and ground paddles then open the ground paddles first and wait for the water to cover the gate paddle apetures before opening the gate paddles fully. This will reduce the turbulance. If it is a wide lock and has ground paddles at the top end, open the paddle on the same side of the lock as the boat first, this should keep the boat into that side of the lock. Open the top paddles and let the water into the lock with care. Much more turbulence is experienced when going up through a lock than when going down. When the lock is full open the gates, close all paddles and leave the lock.
    4. Closing the Gates on most canals the rule is always close the gates after leaving the lock. On most rivers it is not necessary to close the gates after leaving. Where this is not the rule there should be a notice informing users of how the lock should be left.

 

Animation of working through a lock

 

Lock Safety

  1. Do not leave your windlass on the spindle of the paddle gear when it is not being used. Paddle gear can slip, especially if the gate moves with the change in water pressure, and a heavy metal windlass spinning off of its spindle can do someone serious damage.
  2. Watch the boat as it rises or falls in the lock to ensure it has not become caught on the gates, sill or other part of the lock. Never leave a boat unattended while a lock fills or empties.

 

 Other Types of Lock

The above description of lock operation assumes a normal manually operated canal lock. You may encounter locks with guillotine gates, electrically operated locks or locks with strange paddle gear. There are often notice to tell you how to operate these locks, but remember the principles of lock operation are always the same. You may also want to read my article on Staircase Locks.

 Sound Signals

Sound Signals are used on the Thames and some other rivers but are not widely used on canals. The Environment Agencies booklet "A User's Guide to the River Thames" lists the signals are as follows:-
1 blast- going to starboard (right)
2 blasts - going to port (left)
3 blasts- my engines are going astern
4 blasts (pause) 1 Blast - turning right round to starboard
4 blasts (pause) 2 Blasts - turning right round to port
1 long blast and 2 short blasts- unable to manoeuvre

Introducing Canal History A short account of UK navigations from Roman Britain to the years of Canal Mania.

Introducing the Waterways System A description of UK canals and navigable rivers as they are today.

Introducing Route Planning Which waterway, Canal Rings, making a timetable

 

 

Jim Shead Waterways Photographer & Writer
Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
Home Introduction Waterways List Waterways Map Links Books DVD Articles Photo Gallery
Features Contact me Glossary Boats Events List History Local Waterways Help Photo List