Boat­ing sin­gle-handed isn’t ev­ery­one’s idea of fun, but be­ing con­fi­dent enough to do it can oc­ca­sion­ally be very use­ful. Here are our hints and tips on boat­ing on your own...


Boat­ing on your own can be great fun but put safety first with our hints and tips

To some in­land boaters, cruis­ing sin­gle-handed is a way of life; to oth­ers it’s an anath­ema. But for many of us, it’s some­thing that it’s use­ful to be able to do – just in case a crew-mem­ber falls sick or there’s a need to beat the stop­pages or get to a boat­yard, and no-one’s around to help. Those are the boaters that this ar­ti­cle is aimed at, to give them a few hints and tips to give them more con­fi­dence to sin­gle-hand a nar­row­boat if the need arises.

But be­fore we get into the nitty-gritty of how to han­dle a lock or a swing­bridge when there’s no­body on the tiller, let’s be­gin with some ba­sic prin­ci­ples. And while some of this might seem like ‘teach­ing Granny to suck eggs’, it isn’t half an­noy­ing when you for­get…

Be pre­pared!

If you’re like me and do most of your boat­ing with a bunch of mates, all of whom are ex­pe­ri­enced canallers, you’ll only need to hint that you’re think­ing of stop­ping just ahead (es­pe­cially if there’s a pub!) and some­body will al­ready have the moor­ing pins and ham­mer ready and be ready to step off with a rope. Like­wise if it comes on to rain heav­ily while you’re cruis­ing, at least one of the crew might ask you if you want your wa­ter­proofs fetch­ing as they dive into the cabin for cover…

It isn’t like that when you’re on your own. With no­body to fetch things and of­ten no op­tion to leave the tiller for a minute, you need to have it all ready be­fore you set off.

Now you’re fi­nally un­der way – but take it easy. Re­mem­ber that if you go aground, it’s you on your own who’s go­ing to have to pole the boat off.

Have your moor­ing pins and lump ham­mer ready in case you need to tie up where there are no rings or bol­lards.

Keep a wind­lass and any keys you might need handy, rather than have to go look­ing for them while you’re oc­cu­py­ing a lock moor­ing.

Keep your wa­ter­proofs within reach If there are any tun­nels com­ing up, you might want to re­move chim­neys/close win­dows in ad­vance.

Have any drinks or snacks to hand. That may mean flasks for tea or cof­fee, but on a cold day noth­ing beats a back cabin stove with a ket­tle on it.

If poles or a gang­plank are some­thing you’re likely to need (I’m think­ing deep draught boats and shal­low canals here) have them ready.

If you like to have a canal guide to hand (and I re­alise that while some feel lost with­out their Ni­chol­son’s or Pearson’s, oth­ers ei­ther know ev­ery inch of the canal or like the sur­prise of find­ing what’s around the next bend), then get it out be­fore you set off.

Have your cen­tre line ready.

Your cen­tre line is your friend

A rope at­tached to the cen­tre of the boat is cru­cial – it’s how one per­son can con­trol the en­tire boat from the bank. If you haven’t al­ready got one, fit one: and bear in mind that while it’s re­ferred to as a cen­tre line, the best place for it isn’t nec­es­sar­ily dead cen­tre. To find the ideal point: put the boat close along­side a straight canal bank. Stand some­where near the mid­dle of the boat and try push­ing it gen­tly out from the bank. If the bows move out fur­ther than the stern, try again some­where slightly fur­ther back.

If the stern moves more, try slightly for­ward. When the boat stays par­al­lel to the bank as you push it out and pull it back in, you’re in the right place.

When I said cen­tre line, I ac­tu­ally meant ‘line or lines’ – many sin­gle-han­ders put a line on each side, so you don’t need to swap sides when the tow­path crosses over or the lock land­ings are on the op­po­site bank. Make sure the rope’s long enough to reach ei­ther end of the boat with some to spare, and lay it out along the roof so you can get at it eas­ily from near the tiller.

Set­ting off

So all pre­pared, it’s time to un­tie. Nor­mally it’s a case of un­ty­ing the bow and stern lines, leav­ing the cen­tre line un­til last, then (with cen­tre line in hand) giv­ing the bows a push, strolling to the back, step­ping on and set­ting off (rather more smartly if the wind’s blow­ing you away from the bank).

But what if it’s blow­ing to­wards the bank? The temp­ta­tion might be to run up and down the bank push­ing bows, then stern (then bows again…) but re­vers­ing out can avoid this.

Give your­self a push off and re­verse out with the tiller point­ing to­wards the bank; once it’s mov­ing put the tiller over and give a lit­tle for­ward to help swing the stern out fur­ther; then go astern again (but this time with­out mov­ing the tiller) and the bows should pull away from the bank; wait un­til the boat’s nicely clear be­fore go­ing ahead and straight­en­ing up.

If the wind’s too strong for this and there’s no as­sis­tance to hand, re­vers­ing to some­where with shel­ter (per­haps the near­est bridge­hole) may be nec­es­sary – or would stay­ing put be the wis­est course?

Go easy

Now you’re fi­nally un­der way – but take it easy. Re­mem­ber that if you go aground, it’s

you on your own that’s go­ing to have to pole the boat off. And like­wise there’s no op­tion to have a crew-mem­ber at the bows to get a bet­ter view of what’s up ahead. I’m not say­ing go along at a crawl; just knock the revs down in good time if you’re not sure what’s com­ing up…


What’s com­ing up might just be a lock. And this is where your cen­tre line re­ally comes into its own. First, use it to tie up at the lock land­ing while you pre­pare the lock. Then mo­tor in, stop near the far end, throw the line off and step off (if you’re de­scend­ing) or climb the lad­der (if as­cend­ing) and make sure you keep the line with you. A wind­lass belt can make it eas­ier to keep your hands free.

Then it’s just a case of work­ing a lock as usual, but just take it gen­tly, al­ways keep an eye on the boat, and use your line if nec­es­sary. In a nar­row lock, that means hav­ing the line ready to check the boat (you can wind it round a bal­ance beam or a bol­lard) if it starts drift­ing back to­wards the cill when de­scend­ing or is li­able to catch un­der the top gates while as­cend­ing. In a wide lock, you’ll want to tie the rope to a bol­lard and let the flow of the water hold the boat against the side as the lock fills or emp­ties – but make very sure you’ve left enough rope. Fi­nally, climb back aboard, mo­tor out, tie up, and close the gates.

Open­ing bridges

A few lift­bridges and swing­bridges open from the tow­path side, which makes things easy – tie up, open bridge, cruise through, tie up, close bridge. But most fol­low the tra­di­tional prac­tice of open­ing from the off side. This was ideal for keep­ing the path clear for horse­boat tow­lines, but with

And that brings us to the fi­nal point. You’ll see boaters do­ing things best de­scribed as ‘not best prac­tice’ – but it’s worth bear­ing in mind that the con­se­quences may be a whole lot more se­ri­ous on your own.

(of­ten) nowhere to tie up on the off­side, it’s less than ideal for sin­gle han­ders…

For swing­bridges, there’s a use­ful tech­nique. Come along­side the land­ing stage, but don’t tie up: take the end of the bow line with you as you walk across the bridge and open it. Haul the boat into the bridge by hand, step on (with rope) as it passes through, stop with your stern just past the bridge, find some­thing to tie the stern to (part of the bridge struc­ture if noth­ing else is avail­able), step off and close the bridge, then step back aboard.

That’s a whole lot trick­ier for lift­bridges, as the bridge gets in the way when you’re try­ing to haul the boat through – so in­stead, you’ll need to nose in and climb off the bows of the boat, find some­thing to tie the bows to on the off­side, open the bridge, climb back aboard, and cruise through. Al­ter­na­tively, it’s pos­si­ble to lift some bridges from the tow­path side, and prop them open with a boat pole. Speak­ing of which, al­ways make sure lift­bridges won’t come down on your boat as it passes through – even if that means knock­ing in a moor­ing pin to tie the bridge to.

Ty­ing up

So hav­ing ne­go­ti­ated these nav­i­ga­tion fea­tures, you come to moor up at the end of your jour­ney. Al­ways tie up the cen­tre line first, then the bow and stern ropes. And it’s a good idea to run them round the bol­lards or rings (or through the eyes of pins) and tie the loose ends back onto the boat. Not just for the usual rea­son that it’s gen­er­ally felt that any mis­cre­ants are less likely to un­tie you if they need to get aboard, but be­cause if a gust of wind catches the boat while you’re ty­ing it up, at least you’re on­board rather than on the bank try­ing to stop it drift­ing away.

When best prac­tice is best

And that brings us to the fi­nal point. You’ll see boaters do­ing things best de­scribed as ‘not best prac­tice’ – but it’s worth bear­ing in mind that the con­se­quences may be a whole lot more se­ri­ous on your own.

For ex­am­ple step­ping across the gap be­tween an open and a closed gate on a nar­row lock. You might feel safe enough, but what if you slipped and fell in with no­body else around? Sim­i­larly stand­ing along­side the tiller rather than in front of it to steer, risk­ing get­ting thrown over­board (it hap­pened to me once) if the rud­der hits a piece of drift­wood. Or un­ty­ing the ropes and then start­ing the en­gine with the boat al­ready drift­ing out – not much fun on your own if it de­cides not to start…

Se­condly there are those things where it’s just more awk­ward to cor­rect any omis­sions when you’re cruis­ing sin­gle­handed: such as car­ry­ing out your reg­u­lar checks – weed hatch, fuel, oil, sterng­land.

And fi­nally, there are safety pre­cau­tions which make even more sense to sin­gle­han­ders. In case the worst hap­pens, do you have a means (such as a rope dan­gling down or some kind of foothold) of climb­ing back out of the water onto the boat? And you might like to con­sider wear­ing a buoy­ancy aid es­pe­cially in deeper water when there might be no­body to help.

Sorry to end on what might sound an un­nec­es­sar­ily gloomy note. I hope that this ar­ti­cle has put across the mes­sage that sin­gle-hand­ing might be very use­ful, and needn’t be risky – if you think ahead, take it gen­tly, and be pre­pared.

Your cen­tre line is your friend

A cen­tre line each side is a good idea

Don’t for­get your daily checks

Keep the boat un­der con­trol in locks

One method of sin­gle-hand­ing swing­bridges

Solo boaters need to keep and eye on the revs

Don’t for­get to tie up af­ter bridge

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