Steering a canal boat

In essence, things are very simple. For throttle, you’ve got a lever that gives you a choice of forwards, backwards and neutral, with the speed varying according to how far forward or backwards you push it. Generally there’s a slight indent when the lever is in neutral, so you have to lift it up briefly while shifting it into gear. You may also find you can rev the engine out of gear by pulling the lever outwards while in neutral, towards you, before pushing it forwards.

On some older or vintage narrowboats with a dedicated engine room, you may find the throttle is a little brass wheel that you have to turn, with the gearbox control being a coat-hanger-shaped piece of metal that you push forwards or pull backwards. Both these controls rely on mechanical linkages to the engine which run overhead before dropping down on chains or levers to operate the mechanism.

Let’s turn to steering. Since boats with a steering wheel are largely self-explanatory – turn the wheel and it goes in that direction – I focus here on tiller-steered boats which means 99.9% of narrowboats plus some widebeam canal boats.

The tiller is a long metal arm, connected to a rudder under the water, that you push to the right to turn left, and pull to the left to turn right. Yes, you read that correctly.

For some people, this anomaly of which way you push the tiller seems impossibly confusing and they simply can’t grasp it; for others it’s a matter of moments before they get used to it. It’s not uncommon to see novice hirers, especially of day-hire boats, veering wildly down the canal from left to right and, sadly, often crashing into moored boats, much to the annoyance of the people aboard.

The principle to remember is that narrowboats pivot in the middle. That’s why to steer left (in other words, to point the front of the boat to the left), you push the tiller (which is at the back of the boat) to the right. Since the boat turns along its midpoint, directing the back end to the right means the front will go to the left, and vice versa.

Think of it like this: what you’re actually steering is the back of the boat, which coincidentally happens to turn the front the other way.

What you need to bear in mind with steel canal boats is that they’re a bit like oil tankers, in that they move rather ponderously at slow speeds. Therefore you need to return the tiller to straight ahead as soon as the bow is pointing in the direction you want to go. A common rookie mistake is to keep the tiller hard over until the bow is now pointing at the opposite bank, at which point you start heading for that bank instead of along the canal which is your intention (usually!). Thereafter follows a pattern of zig-zagging down the canal!

Gentle, small movements are needed for continuous adjustment as you go along rather than getting into trouble and then wildly pushing the tiller hard over to try to rescue the situation.

If you are going to crash – particularly into someone’s boat – first, don’t panic. Second, don’t put the engine into neutral as this means you’re drifting and will have almost no steering so you’ll inevitably keep heading on the collision course. Say that again with me: if the engine’s in neutral, you have almost no steering.

Ideally, keep the engine in idle and turn the tiller so as to steer away from the impending crash. If, and only if, you’ve left it too late to turn, then your only option may be to use reverse to try to slow the boat down.

BUT – there’s a big issue here. Throwing the boat into hard reverse not only means you’ll lose virtually all steering again (as the boat won’t have any water from the propellor going over the rudder) but it also tends to slew the boat sideways which can make your situation worse.

Do it as a last resort (better that than crashing into someone) but ideally be constantly aware of where the boat’s pointing so that if you need to slow down, you can do so gently, with a light touch on the throttle, and in sufficient time to then restore forward speed and turn away from disaster.

Many (particularly older) narrowboats only have steering via the tiller but newer ones often have a ‘bow thruster’ which is regarded by some as cheating and by others as the most valuable invention since the teabag.

A bow thruster is, as the name implies, a small propeller mounted under the water up at the bow of the boat but unlike the engine propeller, a bow thruster points sideways. By pressing a button on the engine controls, the bow thruster can be made to spurt water either left or right, and in doing so, pushes the bow of the boat left or right.

It really does make manoeuvring much easier, especially when there’s a strong breeze trying to blow the boat off course (which nearly always happens when you’re trying to moor in a marina alongside other boats that you really don’t want to hit).

Electric bow thrusters, which are probably most common, are just for occasional use of a few seconds at a time, just to give the front of the boat a nudge; they tend to overheat if they’re run for more than ten seconds or so. Another type, which uses hydraulic pressure from the main engine, can run for longer but honestly if you need that much bow thrusting, you’ve gone seriously wrong in your steering…