Steering a narrowboat

steering your narrowboat through foxton locks

When steering a narrowboat from Market Harborough, you will be on a canal rather than a river. In fact, unless you venture in to Leicester or through Northampton (holidays of a week or more), the chances are that you will remain on the Grand Union Canal for the duration of your trip. This means that you have a maximum speed of 4mph, which is a brisk walking pace.

Keep to the right as you pass other boats ‘port-to-port’ (the left side of your boat passes the left side of the approaching boat.)

Pushing the tiller to the right will make the boat head left and vice versa. The back of the boat goes in the SAME direction as the tiller is pushed; the front of the boat goes in the OPPOSITE direction as the tiller is pushed. It can sometimes help to think of steering a narrowboat from the back, so always plan where you want the back end to go, and then push the tiller that way!

Don’t be alarmed if the boat takes a few seconds to respond. It’s a heavy beast and pivots from a point about halfway along its length. During your handover with our trainers, have a go at weaving back and forth across the canal, to see how it responds.

Unless there’s another boat coming towards you, steer down the middle where the canal is deepest. If possible, we advise not to cut the corner when going round bends as you run the risk going aground where the canal is shallow.

Slowing past moored boats

One of the biggest criticisms of narrowboat novices is that they sometimes forget to slow down past moored boats. Granted, there is a lot to take in during your handover but there is a good reason for this rule: when your boat passes another boat tied up at the bank, the movement will rock the moored boat. What can seem a slight pull on the tiller to you on your moving boat, can have a big impact on the stability of the moored one, and can be the cause of spilled wine and dislodged mooring pins. People get understandably cross.

So here is the golden rule for all of us on the Harborough Arm, and this applies to Day Boats as well as holiday narrowboats: Go very, very slowly past moored boats, anglers and other waterway users, down to about 1mph or tickover. Don’t let your boat create a breaking wave or a lowering of the water along the bank just ahead of the boat.

Look out for swimmers, canoes, punts, rowing boats and sailing dinghies; they can’t always see or hear you approaching. Slow down so that your boat isn’t creating a wave and give them plenty of room as you pass.

Watch a video about steering

The Boaters’ Handbook video is a good starting point on this subject; we’ve lined it up for you at 3’21”

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.