Going along (and turning around) on the canals

Once you’re motoring along, the world’s your oyster. You can chug for an hour, ’til lunchtime or all day if you choose, it’s entirely up to you. Such is the beauty of canal boating. Potter along and if you find a lovely spot to stop for lunch or for an overnight stop then just bring the boat in to the towpath, moor up and enjoy the location!

Granted, this is much easier on the canals than rivers because there’s no general right to stop where you like on rivers but even they have sufficient places for you to pause, if you’ve researched in advance.

You might want to stop because somewhere looks particularly peaceful or because it’s a lovely view or because there’s a nice pub or because it’s handy for the shops … whatever. As long as you bear in mind the rules about mooring then stop wherever takes your fancy.

One crucial point though: unlike the British roads, on the canals, we drive on the right. In practice, you’ll want to steer along the middle of the canal when there’s no-one around because that’s the deepest but as soon as another boat comes the other way or someone comes up behind you wanting to overtake, you shift to the right so the other boat passes on your left.

Be careful not to get so far to the right that you drag the bottom of the boat on the silt though as it’s all too easy to ground yourself while trying to be courteous to other boaters. This is less of an issue on rivers which tend to be much deeper than the canals.

When moored, other boaters may wander past and engage you in chat. This is part of the joy of the canals but do be warned: many boaters love to talk and you can find it hard to politely disengage!

Turn of events

For the most part, canals and rivers are simple to navigate; you can, after all, really only go forwards or backwards. In the event you need to turn around, it depends how long your boat is and how wide the waterway you’re on. For rivers and shorter boats, you can just spin around where you are.

However, most narrowboats will be too long turn ‘ad hoc’ on the canals so you need to find a “winding hole” (that’s “wind”, said like the breeze, rather than “wind” as you would a clockwork watch).

Winding holes are seemingly located at random along the canals (and they will be marked in the various guidebooks) but there’s one every few miles; they’re nothing more than slightly wider spots on the canal where you can push your bow into the far side, push the tiller hard over and use the engine to thrust the back of the boat around, doing a bit of forward and backward motion until you’re facing back the way you came from.

Take note: winding holes can be very silted up and thus very shallow in the pointy bit (they tend to be somewhat V-shaped) so always point your bow into that end rather than the stern, as the back of your boat (where the engine is) is always the bit that requires most depth of water.

Trying to push the stern around the shallow side of a winding hole is an exercise in futility. You can also guarantee several other narrowboats will turn up to heighten your stress, just as you get stuck.