Going at it alone

PUBLISHED: 10:39 16 August 2013 | UPDATED: 16:14 15 October 2015


Some do it from choice; others from necessity. Either way, operating a narrowboat single-handed needn’t be too daunting if you take care – and follow some useful advice

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Boating single-handed might not be everyone’s idea of fun – although there are many who do enjoy it. But occasionally it might be a necessity, for example through injury or illness of a crew member, so it’s useful to have some idea of how to work a narrowboat on your own, just in case.

It might sound obvious but the first thing to think about when single handing is to ensure you carry out all the daily checks thoroughly before you set off. Of course you should do them anyway, but remember, once on the move you won’t have a handy crew member to nip inside to check something you might have missed doing. I find daily checks are best done first thing in the morning rather than last thing at night after all oil levels have settled and water coolant has cooled.

Before you go anywhere, check the engine and gearbox oil, cooling water filters and water coolant. Tighten down the sterngland greaser and make sure the engine stop button is fully closed. Always start the engine before untying any ropes: if for any reason it doesn’t fire up, you’ll still be safely moored rather than being halfway across the canal or river. Again, it’s a good idea whether or not you have crew to help, but when you’re on your own and there isn’t someone who can quickly grab a rope or a pole to help, it’s even more important.

If you have tied off using a bow, stern and centre rope, undo the bow rope first, then the stern and lastly the centre – it’s the one rope you can hold the whole boat with. Remember when you moor up to rings or bollards to always tie the ends of the ropes to the boat so that if the wind catches the boat and blows it away from the bank while you’re untying, you’ll be on the boat and not the bank.

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If the wind is blowing the boat towards the bank, setting off can be tricky. With a crew to help they can stand on the bow with the bow rope still tied while you power the stern out. They can then untie their rope and push out the bow. But on your own, this isn’t practical – by the time you’ve pushed the bow out and got back to the stern, the boat might well have been blown back to the bank. Pushing the boat out from the middle isn’t much better: you then have to walk along the gunwale to the stern, and trying to do that quickly before the boat gets blown back is asking for an accident – with nobody on hand to help you out of the canal.

So the best way to set off is by what I call ‘springing the stern out’ (although I know there are other interpretations of this phrase). For more information about how to do this see Canal Boat April 2009, but basically it consists of four stages. n Engage reverse with the tiller pointing towards the bank, to get the stern out. n Engage slow forward with the tiller pointing away from the bank, but not enough to stop the boat going backwards. This will get the stern further out. Engage reverse with the tiller pointing away from the bank. This will pull the bow out from the bank. Engage forward, use enough tiller to straighten the boat, and off you go.

Having left your mooring, ensure your centre rope is on the roof, with its loose end at the stern of the boat, and on the towpath side. Remember to change this rope over when the towpath changes sides – or have two centre ropes, one each side. And make sure your centre rope is long enough so that you can work a lock without having to put it down.

Steering single-handed is no different from when you have a crew, but you do need to be more vigilant and think ahead, because you can’t send anyone to the bow to tell you if anything’s ahead. Make sure you have your canal guide or river chart at the stern and follow them. You may be approaching a sharp bend with a bridge so you will need to take your bow to the outside of the bend and give one long blast of the horn as a warning – a boat coming in the opposite direction should return the same signal.

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When you reach a lock, moor your boat (and remember what I said about tying the ends of the ropes onto the boat) and then go to get the lock ready. Check if it has ladders on one or both sides, and see which one is the most convenient for you to use when getting on and off the boat. Have your centre rope ready, with its loose end to the stern, and on the same side as the ladder you are going to use.

Basic things to remember are:

  • Take your time and keep your centre rope with you when you’re off the boat. A windlass belt is very useful when locking as it means you have both hands free for climbing the ladder.
  • Lift and swing bridges cause many a headache for the single-handed boater. If you are lucky there will be other boaters around and usually they are quite happy to help.
  • If you are on your own, operation can take some time – but it is important to take your time and not rush.
  • If there are places to get off on the same side that the bridge is opened from, all well and good. Tie up, open bridge, pass through, tie up, close bridge, set off.
  • If there isn’t anywhere to get off on the side that the bridge is operated from (usually it’s the non-towpath side) you may need to climb off the bows onto the bridge, or leave the boat untied on the towpath side, take a long bow rope with you and use it to pull the boat through once you’ve opened the bridge.
  • Make sure a lift bridge is secured to stop it coming down on your boat. If necessary tie it to a mooring pin. If you are single-handed, prime objectives should be to keep yourself safe and be observant of other boaters. Always think ahead and take your time.
  • Do not let other boaters or bystanders at locks and bridges rush you. Operate the way that suits you; remember you are the steerer and in charge of your vessel. It is by far best to stand in front of the tiller to steer, looking straight ahead along the roof of the boat, not looking down either side. Not only will you find that it easier to get through bridges and into locks without knocking the sides, but also (and particularly important when reversing, as the water can ‘take control’ of the rudder) if you’re standing on the side of the stern, there’s a chance the tiller could knock you into the water – especially if the rudder hits something. And without anyone else on board to knock the gearbox into neutral there could be a nasty accident.
  • If the worst happens and you fall in when you’re on your own? While fenders should not be hanging down along the sides of the boat other than when moored or alongside another boat, a thin rope approximately the thickness of that attached to a buoyancy aid is very useful. Three or four of these lengths attached to either side of the boat or to the gunwales would allow you to grab hold of one to get yourself back on board or the boat near to land. Whether the course is tidal or non-tidal it is wisest to wear a life jacket if you are on your own. Accidents do happen and you would have no one to help you. This might sound overly dramatic and unnecessary – “I’ll be all right” is a common refrain (and probably an even more common thought) – but no one has an accident deliberately and yet they still happen – through negligence and an ‘it won’t happen to me’ attitude.

To conclude, here’s a very useful hint that I’ve learned from other single-handed boaters. The centre rope is the most useful piece of equipment on your boat, but it must be attached at the right place. To check the correct position, stand on the bank and push the boat away. If the bow stays nearer the bank, move forward a little and try again. If the stern stays nearer the bank, move towards the back and try again. When you find a point where you can push the boat out without the bow or stern coming back to the bank, you’ve found the effective centre point of the boat. Attach the centre rope about 2ft forward of that point. Not only will it help you to control the boat, but if you should need to haul the boat on the rope it is more likely to travel straight, without either the bows or the stern pulling in towards the bank, if you tow it from that point.

Enjoy your boating, but do remember ‘the only way to go fast is to go slowly’ – especially if you’re single-handed.

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Words by Terry Robertson, pictures by Marin Ludgate

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