How to steer a narrowboat

You’ve been given the keys, the many many keys, to your narrowboat and you’re on your way. The only problem is that no one has told you how to steer your narrowboat, there is no driving test for boats, no proficiency exam or even a requirement for you to be told anything and so you’re on your own. It’s a scary and daunting prospect turning on your engine and realising you’re in control of a 30-70ft narrowboat, trust us, we’ve been there and we’ve survived to tell the tale so we know you can too. Here’s our idiots guide on how to steer a narrowboat so you can know the basics and set off cruising in no time.

Push left to go right and push right to go left

This is probably the first thing you’ve read, been told or heard through the grapevine, if you want to go right push the tiller left and if you want to go left push the tiller right. It sounds simple and is a great place to start when you’re trying to learn how to steer a narrowboat but it will take some getting used to for sure. When we were reading about how to steer a narrowboat before our first cruise we saw the advice, “point the tiller at what you want to avoid” which is a great way to think about it because, let’s be honest, in the heat of the moment you’re not going to be able to process the left means right and right means left before you’re already heading straight towards the bank.

Narrowboats pivot in the centre

Narrowboats are curious beasts when it comes to turning, specifically because they pivot differently to vehicles you’re used to driving such as cars or vans. A car will pivot on the front wheel when you make a turn, if you turn right in your car the pivot point will be the front right wheel. If we were to turn right in our narrowboat the pivot point would actually be the centre of the boat. Regardless of whether you are turning left or right the boat will pivot on this central point. This is no harder or easier than in a car but it is something you need to consider when you’re approaching corners or manoeuvring your narrowboat, it may mean that you have to turn later than you would think to make a corner or it could mean you need to turn a lot earlier if you are trying to move from a tight spot, you will soon get used to this fact but it is something that you will need to know when you set off.

Steering only works when the propeller is turning

Manoeuvrability comes from the power you have in the throttle, unlike in your car where your instinct is to slow down to be able to make a much sharper turn, in your narrowboat slowing down will make your turning circle much larger. If you do not have the narrowboat in gear and the propeller moving you have little to no control and therefore you have to engage the gear and get the propeller moving to regain control. If you are heading towards a collision you are much better served to put the throttle into reverse full power rather than trying to slow down with no power in the engine.

Anticipation is key

Small adjustments keep us on course

Making small subtle movements on the tiller to stay straight is key to being in full control of your boat. The key to this is anticipation. If you start to turn the tiller only when you are already in the wrong direction you are too late and you will find yourself zig zagging down the canal. A narrowboat is not very responsive when it comes to changes of direction and it may be a few seconds before it starts to adjust course by which time you may be facing in the wrong direction. By anticipating having to make adjustments and by only making small subtle movements rather than larger ones will ensure you are on the straight course rather than colliding bank to bank.

Give yourself plenty of room back there

It may be tempting to stand around the person in command of the tiller, narrowboating is after all, a social hobby but there’s no quicker way to run aground than by impeding the drivers ability to turn the tiller sharply if required and by distracting them. On a trad stern like we have it may seem fine to perch on the benches either side of the tiller however it becomes apparent very quickly just how frustrating for the driver it is when they cannot make the moves they need in order to move freely around the canal, consider standing or sitting somewhere out of the way and although this may be at the cost of flowing conversation it is for the added benefit of safe navigation.

How not to do it!

Learning how to steer a narrowboat needn’t be daunting or scary, it’s a really fun way to spend your time and is easy once you get the hang of it. Just remember those 5 things and take your time and you will be fine and remember, if you’re ever in need of advice or assistance then ask another boater because they will usually be happy to talk you through it, help you open locks or simply to hold a rope for you.