When you buy your first boat, the chances are you may have to relocate it to your new mooring, or to the area in which you wish to cruise. Not knowing the good mooring spots, good pubs or even how to work a lock can be exciting but daunting. So here are seven boater’s tips to make your first big canal journey go smoothly.

1) Route Planning

First you’ll want to know how long your journey will take you. Try using CanalPlanAC, an online tool for planning your route, taking into account distances and locks. It also shows pubs and shops along the way and has an extensive collection of waterway photographs. Calculations are based on seven hours travelling each day, and on all days being the same length (so no short days at either the start or the end of the trip). However, you can change the default number of hours per day to suit you. If you’re not in a hurry you could split your days into journeys of say, four hours per day so that you can keep an eye on your new systems, and will have extra time to sort out any technical problems.This also allows you to stop and relax if you encounter some serious rain!

2) Guide Book

In addition to using an online route planner The Nicholson’s Guide for your route is an invaluable resource for your travels. It will also help you to calculate lock miles and has write-ups of various canal-side pubs.It’s also useful to make notes in while you travel, that you can refer to later.

3) Know Your Engine

Make yourself familiar with the basics of engine maintenance. Grease your stern gland every day and keep an eye on the oil and coolant levels. The previous owner of the boat may give you some tips related to the particular quirks of your vessel!

4) Helmsman’s Course

Some people find that formal training such as an RYA inland helmsman certificate gives them extra confidence before embarking on their first long cruise. You’ll have many of your questions answered by someone with experience and you won’t have to unlearn bad habits at a later date! Try Jan at Canal Experience, based on the Southern Grand Union, just north of Watford for a narrowboat taster day or an RYA Helmsman’s Course.

5) Crew

Getting someone to lock wheel for you will make the journey faster – if you’re interested in travelling at speed! This means cycling ahead to get the lock ready, and then staying behind to close the gates and wind down the paddles, before overtaking the boat again on the bike. You can use your Nicholson’s guide to check when you are approaching some locks. On my first journey I was lucky enough to take an experienced boater with me, who showed me how to steer the boat, operate the locks and tie a mooring knot.

6) Take it Easy

If you’re aiming down the Grand Union towards London there’s no need to rush straight to the centre of the city. There are beautiful moorings in Watford, Croxley, Rickmansworth, Harefield, Uxbridge and Cowley from which you can commute easily into London if necessary. Take your time travelling and discover another side to West London.

7) Recommended Stops

Travelling the Grand Union is beautiful no matter what, but a few suggested stopping places are Foxton museum and pubs, Stoke Bruerne, Marsworth, Tring reservoirs and Bulbourne, the Rising Sun in Berkhamsted, Cassiobury Park in Watford, the Aquadrome in Rickmansworth and the Malt Shovel in Cowley. If you miss any of these, don’t worry. There are just too many good places to list! Here are some of my favourite places to visit on the Grand Union.

You will find as you travel that you will meet and share locks with experienced boaters. Learn from them what you can, but don’t assume that everyone you meet knows that they’re talking about!

You may also like How to Buy a Boat: The Ultimate Guide.


Image Credit: Thanks to Andrew Gray on Flickr for making this image available under a Creative Commons licence.

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