So, you’re new to boating in London?

Boats at Hackney Wick

For a few years now I’ve been recommending to the Canal & River Trust that they implement an education program for new boaters in London. Perhaps reinstating sending the Boaters Handbook and a fresh BWB key to each new licence holder.

Given the rapid turnover of boaters on these very overcrowded waterways, even a simple one-sheet guide to boating would be helpful.

But no-one wanted to produce one.

So here’s my go at it. There were some considerations: the document mustn’t exceed two pages, it should be aimed at the absolute novice to boating in London, it shouldn’t be too preachy, it must be readable by someone whose first language may not be English.

Below this first draft is a link to the Google Doc version, where you can make suggestions for changes. Feel free to copy and reuse the text. I rescind any copyright, placing the text in the public domain.

So, you got your first boat…

Remember your boat’s not connected to the mains: unless you’re in a marina you’ll have no mains electricity, no mains water, and no mains sewerage. You are going to have to ration your use of these things, and make arrangements for them. Your toilet(s) will need emptying at service points, you’ll need to top up your water with a hose at water points, and your engine will need to run at cruising speed for several hours to recharge your batteries if they drop too low. But if you’re moored up, don’t run an engine or generator to charge your batteries between 8pm and 8am. Solar charging helps a lot, but you’ll still need to be very careful about how much electricity you use.

Moving your boat:

  • Before setting off, check the engine has coolant and oil, check the belts are tight and not getting worn out, and check the stern gland is greased (if it needs it.)
  • Keep the engine key in the ignition, turned to ‘1’ or ‘run’, while the engine is running, so your batteries charge.
  • Stay in the centre of the waterway, but move to the right to pass any boat coming the other way.
  • Slow right down and use a long blast on your horn before any blind bend or bridge.
  • Move as slowly as you can where there are boats moored (in marinas or past moorings) – it’s important that you don’t disturb other boats’ moorings, or damage boats or ropes when your boat moves by. If their ropes are getting tight when you pass, then you’re going too fast.
  • Move your boat slowly when approaching a lock or a mooring. Use bursts of reverse power to slow your boat all the way to a stop before mooring or turning.
  • It’s very difficult to steer in reverse so use very gentle forward power, and the rudder, to correct your direction instead.
  • Tie up using rings or bollards if you can, or to piling (the metal stuff that’s sometimes part of the canal edge) using hooks or chains. Use your mooring pins, well hammered into soil, if you can find nothing else to tie to. Never tie ropes to another boat, or to ladders, railings or chains.
  • Don’t double-moor or ‘breast-up’ without permission from the people on the other boat.

Make room for other boats. Shuffle your moored boat up next to another so you don’t leave gaps around you that are too small for other boats. Don’t overstay in one area without giving good reason to the navigation authority, and getting their permission.

You don’t need to know a lot of knots. Learn the “round-turn and two half-hitches”, and it will serve in 99% of situations where you need a knot. When mooring-up, take the rope from the boat to the bank (and around the bollard, or through a ring or hook, or around a pin) and then back to the boat and tie that end to the boat.

You’re not alone. There are a lot of other boaters you can ask for help and advice, and who you can help by talking about your own experiences. You can also journey together in groups, which can make it easier to get through locks and find moorings. Try to be sociable, and be a good neighbour; don’t do anything someone might think anti-social or inconsiderate.

Locks aren’t difficult. Almost all locks consist of a chamber with gates at each end for letting boats through, and paddles (or ‘sluices’ or ‘slackers’) for letting water into and out of the chamber.

  • There are many places to trip or slip around locks, so please move slowly and deliberately. Never run.
  • On canals you should find that (unless you meet another boat using the lock) the paddles and the gates at each end should be closed. On rivers some gates may be left open.
  • If there’s a boat to go up a lock, and a boat to go down a lock, and they arrive at about the same time, then priority should go to whichever boat the chamber’s water level is best suited to. It’s better to wait and see if a boat is approaching that needs the lock before changing the water level; it saves work and water.
  • Check that all the paddles (sluices or slackers) are closed before you start using the lock.
  • Use the paddles to adjust the water level to match the level at the end of the lock where your boat is waiting.
  • When the water level on both sides of the gate is the same, you should be able to open the gate, close the paddles, and move your boat into the chamber. If there’s room, and another boat is going the same way, please share the lock chamber with them.
  • Check the paddles are closed and close the gates.
  • Carefully adjust the level of water in the chamber using the paddles at the other end. There may be hazards like the cill (at the top end of the lock) or projections on the gates or lock walls that could catch and sink your boat, so take your time and keep your boats safely away from these hazards using ropes or the small bursts from the engine.
  • If something starts to go wrong, close the paddles immediately. Then, with great caution, try to fix the problem. Sometimes all you’ll need to do is move the boats slightly, or let a little water slowly in or out of the chamber before you can safely resume.
  • When the water in the chamber reaches the desired level, you should be able to open the gates, close the paddles, and move your boat(s) out of the chamber.
  • Check the paddles are closed, and, if there’s no boat approaching the lock to use it, close the gates too.
  • There may be special instructions at some locks, about opening paddles extra-cautiously, or about how to leave the lock after you have used it. Pay attention to these instructions and never ignore them.
  • If you leave a lock without closing paddles and gates or following any instructions then you may be responsible for a section of canal losing all its water, and for stranding the boats moored there. Don’t be lazy about this.

There’s a lot to learn, but don’t be put off. Learning is fun, and you can learn at least one new thing every day. This sheet just covers the very basics, you can find guides to boating for free online, and there are books and courses too (if you want to really get to know things fast.)

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