Coping with flooding on canals & rivers

Winter boat sinkings on canals and rivers are often the result of flooding causing rapidly rising and falling water levels. Moorings may be washed away and boats left aground or across a weir, or boats get held down by over-tight mooring ropes until water overwhelms them. Frequently they can be lifted and then left perched on the edge of the bank when levels fall.

Capsized boat

At the end of October 2019 River Canal Rescue (RCR) was called to assist six stranded or precariously positioned boats at risk of capsize across the country. One was passed onto the emergency services to recover, due to the boat being inaccessible and the owner at risk if he remained onboard.

RCR engineers were able to get to the locations quickly and save a number of vessels before they were left high and dry. Although on site for less than a couple of hours, it averted the need to spend time and money on cranes, transport, and manpower to move them once stranded.

As the UK continues to experience flooding caused by severe and unprecedented downfalls, RCR is offering boaters some advice about how to cope with suddenly rising and falling water levels.

Check moorings regularly
In winter regularly check mooring ropes for chafing and ensure they’re well positioned and adjusted to the conditions. Make sure that any pontoon type moorings are free to rise and fall with water levels.

Rising water levels
When water levels are rising try to prevent your boat drifting onto land. Try to position a scaffold pole or poles, or a boarding plank, between the boat and the river/canalside/mooring edge and fix it into position. This acts as a mooring post, preventing flood waters from floating the boat onto land.

Alternatively use the engine to keep the vessel in position, so when the water rises, the power of the boat keeps it in deeper water. However be mindful that as the propeller is at its lowest point, it can easily be damaged if the boat does drift.

If you are not on a safe mooring, try to moor offline or in a lock to get some protection from flood waters. And of course don’t attempt to go cruising if there are Navigation Restrictions because of strong stream notices from the Canal & River Trust or the Environment Agency.

Falling water levels
grounded narrowboatIf the water levels have started to go down and the boat has drifted on to the bank you could try to push the boat back into the deep water before levels drop too far. But be cautious as this can be dangerous, particularly if you’re unable to see beneath the surface. RCR usually dispatch two engineers in dry suits to undertake this manoeuvre because although it may sound or look easy, knowing the best way to push or pull to re-launch a boat depends on the severity of the grounding, depth of the water, its flow and accessibility.

These options are not advisable other than in emergencies. If a vessel is caught in a situation, RCR urges boaters not to attempt a recovery without assistance.

Check your insurance
RCR also reminds boat owners to check their insurance policies. As insurance companies try to minimise their exposure, more third-party only policies seem to exclude salvage and wreck removal – one of the biggest risks to boaters.

Thanks to RCR for most of this information and for the images (taken after the Boxing Day floods in Yorkshire in 2015). To find out more about River Canal Rescue go to, check out their Facebook page, call 01785 785680 or email

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

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