Preventative maintenance for your Canal Boat

If you don’t understand the workings of your engine or fail to service and maintain your boat, then it’s likely, at some stage, you’ll end up stranded. Lack of engine knowledge and faulty fan-belts, alternators, starters and couplings appear to also be responsible for their fair-share of call-outs. In the majority of cases the ‘emergency’ could have been avoided with a little ‘know-how, by giving the boat a ‘once-over’ or simply carrying spares.

Know your engine – common issues

It’s easier when you know what to look for, so get to know your engine before a failure.

Most owners believe the only way to turn off a boat’s engine when the switch fails (invariably causing a panic) is to turn off the fuel. However, most vessels have a manual stop button or lever located on the right hand side of the engine, half-way down. Using this instead of the fuel shut off will allow you to restart and continue on your journey without having to bleed your fuel system.


With Beta and Vetus engines a common issue is that the engine will not turn off or that the engine is completely dead. To resolve this, locate the wiring loom running across the top of the engine and identify a ‘bulge’. Peel back the rubber covering and you will find a block connector– just pull the connection block apart and then put it back together. This should rectify the situation.

In contrast, if the engine is ‘dead’, it could be the isolation switches. If they’ve been left ‘idle’ for a while, it could be due to a corrosive build-up, simply switch one way and then the other, or spray with WD40 before you set off.

Bilges – if your bilges are full of oil and water, this will end up being thrown over the engine – and if it gets into the engine, the consequences could be disastrous, (it’s also not a nice place for engineers to work). Starters and alternators are electrical components and oil and water will bring about their early failure. This type of situation also tends to affect drive plates if the oil/water mixture gets into the bell housing.

Fan-belts – Always carry a spare, and before setting off develop a routine which includes checking the condition of these. Simply twist the belt and if there are cracks or the edges are starting to look ragged it’s time for a new belt. If you hear ‘squealing’ from an old belt it’s usually an indication a replacement is needed. If it’s from a new belt, an adjustment is required. This is simple to do and worthwhile knowing how too.

Alternators and starters – operate in a damp, hot environment, which is the worst it can be for an electrical product. Very often, they’re left for long periods during the year and then used continuously for short periods. During this ‘down period’, rust can develop and affect operation. There is no way to prevent this occurring other than to correctly winterise your vessel and also to regularly visit the boat and run the engine.

Couplings – if the bolts connecting the propeller shaft to the engine are loose, any movement will either sheer them off, resulting in loss of propulsion, or make the coupling bolt holes oblong, resulting in delayed drive. Eventually the coupling will need to be replaced. A simple check before each journey will stop this happening.

Tool Box Essentials
Tool Box EssentialsDon’t confine your tool box essentials to the garage – a canal boat is equally as likely to require the same level of care and attention you give your home and vehicle.

The following are useful to have on board;
✓ A multi-meter (battery tester)
✓ PTFE tape (for dealing with unexpected domestic leaks)
✓ Adjustable spanners
✓ A flat head and multi-faceted Philips screwdriver
✓ Pliers
✓ A hammer
✓ Spare lengths of electrical wire/ insulation tape
✓ A socket set

And don’t forget the spares, such as; morse cables for steering, throttle and gear selection , fan belt, impeller, spark plugs, fuel filter, bulbs, bolts and fuses, plus a supply of oil and ‘and stop leak’ or putty for those unexpected hull breaches.

Before a Journey

It’s vital you develop regular maintenance routines and complete these before you journey particularly, if the boat’s been sitting for a long period:

1. Check the oil (especially important if you’re a new owner as you need to identify oil usage), and keep the engine clean (it’ll be easier to identify any new problems developing).
2. Look for leaks, if fuel’s seeping out, air will be getting in which will cause problems like erratic running and high engine vibration.
3. Check the bilge pumps are working and that you have enough to do the job effectively (RCR recommend installing one in the bilges for the living area – it can prove essential if you get a hull leak or a pipe for your domestic system fails)). Also is there any water in the bilge? Find out why.
4. Check the battery and top-up with de-ionised water.
5. Check if the fan belt is loose, worn or even still there?
6. Look for any loose bolts/pipes (particularly the engine mounts and propeller shaft).
7. Scrutinise cables and control equipment for signs of wearing/fraying and tighten linkages etc replace or grease where necessary.

Owners who live-aboard their craft appear to have far fewer call-outs because of the routines they already have in place.

Ask the experts
Ask the ExpertsThanks to Towergate Insurance Marine’s inland waterways expert and narrowboat owner Michael Stimpson and to the team at Trinity Marinas for their help with the hints and tips. For risk management and insurance advice phone 0800 515629 or visit and click on Boat. For anything else to do with narrowboats call 01455 896820 or visit


All materials and images © Canal Junction Ltd. Dalton House, 35 Chester St, Wrexham LL13 8AH. No unauthorised reproduction.

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