Canal Etiquette – The Ultimate Guide

All the canals and rivers that make up the inland waterways network are hugely popular places to be able to enjoy the outdoors, whether as a walker, cyclist, angler or boaters experiencing the joys of a canal boat holiday.

And because these areas welcome so many different types of people, our canal community has developed its own polite way of working, our own ‘boating etiquette’.

Most people on the waterways, whether boaters, other leisure users or Canal and River Trust staff are very friendly and always ready with a helping hand if you need it.

When you are hiring a Black Prince narrowboat, we’ll take you through our coaching handover session as part of your boat hire experience, where we’ll cover good canal etiquette as well as the ‘ins and outs’ of the boat itself.

Before your arrival, it will be good to familiarise yourself with canal etiquette for a fully relaxing and enjoyable narrowboat holiday.

Canal etiquette at a glance

  • Max speed is 4mph
  • Slow down to almost a tick over when cruising past moored boats
  • Move to the RIGHT-HAND SIDE (opposite to driving) of the canal if another boat is coming towards you.
  • Move off the service point when you’ve finished using it (e.g. water point)
  • Follow good lock etiquette.
  • Don’t cruise after 8pm or before 8am in the morning.
  • Do not run engines or generators between 8pm to 8am whilst moored.
  • Keep the towpath next to the boat free of litter and obstructions.
  • Clean up after your dogs.
  • Offer assistance to any boater when it seems appropriate and is safe to do so.
  • Say hello!
canal boat holidays

Speed. Don’t do it!

Remember a canal boat holiday is all about taking your time and relaxing. Your maximum speed on the canal is 4mph – that’s walking pace – and you will need to go slower than that when you are passing moored boats.

Other times to slow down is when you are approaching other boats, bridges, locks and other people using the canal such as canoeists etc. Be safe, keep it slow.

You shouldn’t create a breaking wash with your speed, i.e. causing waves upon the embankment. This will disturb natural wildlife and cause damage to the banks.

Dead Slow Past Moored Boats Please
Black Prince Holidays - Casting off

Casting off

Check for other boats passing when casting off – remember that these boats don’t have breaks and there’s quite a stopping distance when you try and slow a boat down. Give oncoming boats plenty of space and wait until the waterway is clear before setting off.

Once you’ve got going, don’t follow the boat in front too closely; give them plenty of space. This is just polite as well as allowing for stopping distance.

Passing Moored Boats

If you go too fast past moored boats, it may cause them to move around and bump into other boats or the bank, possibly causing damage to the boat or items inside the boat. Plus it can get pretty uncomfortable if you’re the one in the moored boat trying to pour yourself a cup of tea!
Be considerate and smart by keeping it slow and steady. Knock the speed down to essentially a tick over before you reach the moored boats and cruise past very slowly, keeping as much distance as possible.

Meeting other boats

One of the most enjoyable elements of a canal boat holiday is the social nature of the boaters. Most boaters will say hello when meeting on the waterways.

When passing another boat, slow down a little to reduce the bow wave and then pass port side, (left), to port side.

There may be times when the other boat is having difficulty. so be prepared to move in a different direction and pass on the other side if necessary.


Narrowboat holidays offer amazing freedom for being able to moor up pretty much anywhere on the canal network. If you see a lovely spot, then you can just pull over, jump off and hammer in your mooring pins.

However, you need to remember a few do’s and don’ts when choosing your mooring spot.


  • moor on the bollards near to locks or bridges, these are just for temporary stops.
  • moor near water points – always make sure you fill up and move on so other boaters can access the taps.
  • moor near winding holes (turning points), opposite marina entrances, too near bridges or bends in the canal. This can all make it difficult for other boaters to access.
  • moor in a marina. You may be charged extra for this.
  • tie your mooring ropes across a tow path.


  • use mooring rings if provided. You can share these with another boat if it’s busy.
  • use the mooring pins provided with the boat. If the ground is too hard to hammer them in – move on.
  • make the best use of the space available by mooring close to other boats if you are stopping in a popular spot. You can cross over their mooring ropes to reduce the required space.


The first point for lock etiquette is to consider the other people who may be waiting. It’s a good idea for a member of your canal boat party to walk ahead when you come to a lock and see if anyone else is either waiting at your end or waiting at the other side of the lock.

If the lock is set in their favour (i.e. empty if they are going up or full if they are going down), allow them to go first.

If there are people waiting at a lock then steer your boat to the bank and pull into a lock waiting point, using your middle rope to help pull the boat over. If the lock is wide enough for more than one boat, then also see if you can share the lock with another boat to save water. You can also share the work of opening and closing the lock.

The most important thing to remember when working a lock (apart from ensuring your boat doesn’t catch on the the cill!) is to make sure that all the paddles are down and the gates are closed when you leave a lock. This keeps the water in the lock. If you forget and leave them open you’ll end up draining the canal and there will be a lot of unhappy boaters! Find out more about operating a lock here. 

You may be asked to leave the lock gates open if another boat is wanting to head into the lock as you cruise out of it. This is OK and good canal etiquette when leaving the lock.

If there is a queue for the lock you may find that other boaters start helping you work the locks. This is generally done to be helpful as opposed to being impatient so just say thank you and go with it!


Like a lock, you’ll want to check for oncoming traffic before you enter a canal tunnel as many of these underground passageways are only wide enough for one boat. You can use your horn as you enter a tunnel to warn other boaters of your approach.

You’ll need to turn your headlight on and put on your life jackets when going through a tunnel. You should be able to see the light of an approaching boat if you are checking for on-coming traffic.

Be aware that some of the longer tunnels have set times that you can go through, for example on the hour for 30 minutes (which means that you can’t travel between the half hour and the hour) or for a very few of the longer tunnels you need to pre-book a designated passage time.

Winding holes

It’s a good idea to check for oncoming traffic when you are planning a turn in a winding hole. Allow other boaters to go past if it’s busy, you can speak to other boaters to let them know your intention to turn or a hand being rotated in the air above your head will usually get the message across!

If the boat ahead of you is the one doing the turning, then stay well clear. It may be a novice boater trying it for the first time


The inland waterways are popular with anglers and occasionally you will cruise through areas where there are fishing competitions taking place. You’ll then see lots of anglers dotted at various intervals along a canal and it is ok to carry on cruising through this.

Slow to a tick over speed when passing the anglers and stick to the middle of the channel if possible or moves over if the angler asks you to.

And finally…looking out for the novices

We’ve all been there at some point – handling a large boat for the first time can be stressful even with the best handovers and lots of prior preparation.  There are plenty of times that you can help other boaters and demonstrate good canal etiquette whilst on your holiday.

Many boaters will want to try and resolve any issues themselves so it’s good to always ask if someone needs help first rather than diving in and offer any advice gently.

We appreciate that as a boat hire company we do offer holidays to canal boat novices and there may be times when the boat isn’t being handled properly. If you witness a boat being misused or causing a nuisance on the waterways then make a note of the name of the boat if you can and let a member of our Black Prince team know via telephone or email. We will then contact the guests on board and remind them of good canal etiquette.

That’s our guide to canal etiquette! Enjoy your next visit to the waterways of Great Britain and we look forward to welcoming you with us on a canal boat holiday soon.