Setting off on your narrowboat

people operating a canal boat

Setting off on your narrowboat can be a frustration if you are a narrowboat novice, particularly if you find yourself in shallow water. This Beginners’ Guide will help you learn the safe and easy way to move off.

The steps to take when setting off...

Start the engine and keep it in neutral. If it is first thing in the morning, allow 3-5 minutes for it to warm up before you move off.

Ensuring the driver is ready at the controls, the crew member should step off the boat, keeping hold of the centre line in case the boat starts to drift.

The crew will then untie the front (bow) and back (stern) mooring ropes from the bank. If there is room on the back deck, you can leave them tied to the boat, coiled and ready for use. If space is tight, coil them and stow them on the roof out of the way. Make sure your ropes can’t trail in the water and get caught in the propeller.

Bring aboard the mooring stakes, chains and hammer.

Because the boat steers from the back, you can’t drive away from the bank as you would drive a car away from the kerb. Instead, the crew member should check the area is clear of boat traffic then push the front boat away from the bank – continuing to hold on to the centre line.

This will have the effect of pushing the back in tight to the bank, giving you plenty of time to walk down to the back and climb aboard.

If you give the back a little push as you climb in, you will ensure that your propeller is in deep water before setting off.

In shallow water, push the back of the boat out first, then reverse away until there’s room to straighten up.

When the boat’s straight, go into forward gear and accelerate gently to cruising speed.

The Canal and River Trust’s Boaters’ Handbook has a great section on this. We’ve lined it up for you at 2’10”: 

If you are new to narrowboating, you might also be interested to read some of our Local Navigation guides before you arrive at Union Wharf for your holiday.

It is also a good idea to familiarise yourself with the Canal and River Trust’s Boaters’ Handbook , a general guide to inland boating.


We offer all kinds of narrowboats, from Day Boats to Boutique Narrowboats and boats suitable for families. All our hires involve full training and we welcome complete beginners. As part of that training we will always explain how to use any waterways features that you’ll encounter by navigating from Market Harborough.