What do I need to know to hire a canal boat?

You can go on a hire boat without any training or prior experience. The hire firm should tell you all you need to know. But its good to be prepared!

  • Driving a canal boat is different to driving a car, no brakes for instance!
  • The controls are fairly simple, but things take a while to happen.
  • You don’t need a licence or prior training, the hire firm will show you how.
  • But many people do take training courses to develop or improve their skills.
  • You also need to know how to work locks and manage the boat and cruise safely.

Are Canal Boats Difficult To Drive?

Narrowboats are fairly straightforward to drive but they take a little practice to master. Accidents are rare and even with minimal training, a combination of common sense, care and caution should carry you through your holiday without any problems. The speed limit on the canals is 4mph. This may sound slow, but if you’re driving a 70ft narrowboat with 8 people and all their baggage on board there’s a good deal of momentum involved, so care is required.


How Do You Control A Canal Boat?

Most canal boats are steered using a tiller at the rear of the boat. Steering from the back may sound unusual but it has the advantage that you can not only see ahead, you can also see what your boat is doing! If you want to steer to the left you push the tiller to the right. Things take a few seconds to happen, not instantaneously like driving a car, so you have to plan ahead. You need to concentrate and practice so you have the boat moving in a straight line, not lots of curves from one bank to the other. The engine is usually controlled by a single lever which is both throttle and gear change. If you want to stop or slow down quickly you put the engine into reverse.

Do We Need A License, Training Or Experience To Drive A Canal Boat?

No. Anyone over 21 can hire a canal boat with no licence or training whatsoever. Most people pick up steering and controlling the boat fairly quickly, canal hire firms will give basic training if you have no one experienced on board before letting you loose, and it is possible to take some lessons in advance. See our list of boat handling training providers.

What Training Will Be Provided By The Narrowboat Hire Firm?

Most hire companies provide basic training in how to handle a canal boat and will usually make additional resources available if you require them. Many companies are part of a Quality Handover Scheme which aims to ensure the hire company gives you ‘all the information you will need to be sure you will know how to handle the boat and facilities aboard safely so you enjoy your boating adventure to the full’.

Can We Take Courses In Boat Handling Before The Holiday?

Qualifications such as The RYA Helmsman’s Certificate and The Boatmasters Licence are available for first-time boaters or for those who wish to deepen their knowledge of boat handling. More information about qualifications and providers can be found here.

Where Can I Learn More About Boat Handling?


See more information in our Using LocksRules of the Road and Safe Boating FAQs.

So Is A Canal Holiday Hard Work?

If you hire a boat, with the exception of a few rivers and wide canals, you will normally have to work the locks yourself. This can be hard work, winding up paddles to fill and empty locks and pushing on heavy lock gates. But most people find it’s all part of the enjoyment, and many hands make light work, so sharing the lock duties will spread the work.
And remember – it’s up to you how far you travel and how many locks you tackle.


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

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