‘Don’t fall in!’ Readers’ tips for the perfect canal boat holiday


‘Don’t fall in!’ Readers’ tips for the perfect canal boat holiday

Moor the merrier... A narrowboat at Hatton Locks in Warwickshire.

Nothing beats experience when it comes to handling a narrowboat – or making the most of life when you’re moored and chilling out. Old hands explain what to wear, what to pack and how to get unstuck if you run aground

Fri 20 Aug 2021 08.40 EDT

‘Embrace the change of pace’

Newbies on the tiller have an obvious tell: they zig-zag down the canal. That’s because they don’t give time for the boat to respond to their steer – it does take a moment. Bear this in mind, be patient and avoid oversteering. Remember you moor, rather than park the boat, and the canalside is a towpath, not the “bank”. Put time into planning your route: working out where to finish every day (preferably by a pub), building in contingencies in case of rain or other hold-ups, as well as things to do on land and, for trips longer than a weekend, water points. Embrace the change of pace and give yourself over fully to the way of the canals, where 4mph is top speed! Let getting to the pub on time or finding a good mooring spot be your priorities and try to leave everything else at home. David Lawrence, civil servant, London

'Be patient and give yourself over fully to the way of the canals,' says David Lawrence.

‘Make sure everyone on board gets along well’

Everyone should have a role: eg, driver, lock opener, ropes, cook. Make sure everyone on the trip gets on well – a week in a confined space doesn’t lend itself to disagreements. Take breaks, especially after a long flight of locks and, if it’s your first time on the canals, get a full briefing on managing the boat, locks and mooring. Canal guides – available in shops or online – are invaluable for working out distances and mooring locations near amenities. Include water points every day in the journey and top up. Other boaters are always friendly and can give advice when you need it. Above all, have fun! Ginette Gower, marketing consultant, Maidenhead

‘Only wear clothes you wouldn’t miss if they ended up in the canal’

I run an annual canal trip for teenagers. It is a fantastic opportunity for children to experience the outdoors and learn about the history of the UK’s inland waterway network. With adult supervision, teenage children can undertake many boating tasks including working locks, tying boats, opening swing bridges and preparing food. Travel as lightly as possible – space on a boat is limited. Only wear clothes and shoes that you wouldn’t miss if they got damaged or ended up in the canal. You can always take a few nice items to wear if you go out for the day or at night. Mistakes newbies usually make include going too fast when passing other boats (you should put the boat into “tickover”) and not communicating with other canal users. The boating community is highly supportive and most users will help you out if you need it. I also recommend that newbies undertake the RYA Inland Waterways Helmsman Certificate – many hire companies also offer this two-day course that gives new boaters the confidence they need. Graeme, teacher, Newcastle upon Tyne

‘Three people will be comfortable on a six-berth boat, so go big’

I went on countless canal holidays in southern England and Wales as a child; it is a great alternative to a cottage in the country and a good way to see more than just one locale. My number one piece of advice is to go big. If it is, say, a six-berth boat, three people will be comfortable, but more will be a serious squeeze. Take clothing for all weathers, as well as all the food and supplies you need; don’t count on shopping while you are away. Most canals are quite rural, so bring your own wifi unless you are trying to really escape. Get everyone involved as crew, including children as long as they are not too young. Finally, be aware that power sources on boats are usually not that strong, which might be an issue for some. Brian Mackie, not-for-profit CFO, Canada

Narrowboat on the Grand Union Canal, entering the Blisworth tunnel, Northamptonshire.

‘Check there is a freezer before packing frozen food’

Get your online shopping delivered straight to the boat – this fabulous discovery has revolutionised our boat trips. You don’t arrive laden down with boxes and cool bags, and won’t wonder if the canal-side shop sells anything approaching a meal and whether it’s open on Mondays in October. Take a decent knife if you plan to cook; those on board are usually blunt. If you’re hiring late in the season, take a cafetiere because someone’s often already broken the boat’s by then. And, before packing frozen food, check there is a freezer. Anonymous, Liverpool

‘Pack a torch and shop canal-side where possible’

Pop a pushbike on the roof or deck for a bit of exploring and shop canal-side where you can, to support local businesses. Have a torch for late-night walks back along the towpath from the pub. Don’t speed and don’t fall in. Slow down when passing other boats. Further out, you may become stuck on silt; use the poles to push yourself back or wait for the next boat to give you a pull (they usually will). Share a lock with another boat when possible and give priority to boats coming down a lock. Likewise, position your boat midway in the lock, or risk getting stuck (as I did once). Enjoy the wildlife and scenery and have a good time. The Four Counties ring is a great experience for a group of four to eight people. Philip Robbins, Northampton

‘Find a suitable route if you’re a beginner’

My partner and I have been on two canal boat holidays. The first was a big success: we started our journey at the Whixall Marina in Shropshire and travelled on the Shropshire canal via Ellesmere to join the Llangollen canal to Llangollen. This is a fantastic scenic route, the highlights of which are the two famous aqueducts at Pontcysyllte – a World Heritage site – and Chirk. It is also an excellent route for beginners and couples as there are only two locks to navigate each way. We went in July and there were plenty of other boaters to help us learn the ropes. Our second canal boat holiday, however, was in May: we started from Aldermaston and travelled down the Kennet and Avon canal. The weather was atrocious and there seemed to be locks every 100 yards or so, which made for a lot of hard work in the rain. In the end, we moored and retired to the pub. We used the boat as a base and it was very cosy with the central heating on. Even though our most recent experience was not as good as the first, we will probably do it again. Amanda Davies, GP, Brentwood

'Learn the horn signals - the narrowboat equivalent of indicator lights on a car,' says Jamie Davies.

‘Learn horn signals to communicate’

In terms of distance, less is more. Don’t force yourself to spend all day at the tiller; a balance of half a day’s boating, with half a day’s exploring is much better. Despite what you may have seen on television, it is as unacceptable to hit boats or lock gates with your boat as it would be to hit other cars and road signs with your car – and some boats are fragile (not like your heavy steel hireboat). Also, please learn the horn signals – the boat equivalent of a car’s indicator lights – and use them (“dit” means “I am turning right”, “dit dit” is “I am turning left”, “dit dit dit” means “my engines are in reverse” etc). Lastly, enjoy it, and if you love what you find, consider joining the Inland Waterways Association. Jamie Davies, Scotland

‘Travel early – or in the late evening on hot days’

Hire companies will give you suggestions of circular routes you can do in your week or fortnight, but an out-and-back trip is just as good, as you can just turn around halfway through your holiday. This means much less pressure to “complete” the route – plus it always looks different on the way back! Travel early in the morning and late in the evening on hot days; enjoy the cooler, quieter times – as dusk falls, watch for bats and owls. Simon Atkinson, healthcare programme manager, Leicestershire

Moored on the Great Ouse at dusk.

‘Don’t be too ambitious about how far to travel’

Read the book of barging guidelines hire companies give you – it tells you the rules of the waterways. This is not only helpful for holidaying successfully, but will also keep you from falling out with the people who live on the water. Don’t be too ambitious about how far to travel; it can take longer than you think, particularly if the locks are busy. Take grippy shoes and clothes you don’t mind getting dirty. Boating can also sometimes involve a bit of pushing – on turnbridges, for example – so it’s good to have someone onboard who has the strength to do that, as well as pull the barge in using a rope. Take a raincoat if you are likely to go through long tunnels as they can be a bit cold and drippy. Take lots of wine and books, and relax. Helen, training consultant, Bedfordshire


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