It’ll never hap­pen to me...

Of course it won’t – but then again can you be sure? It can hap­pens to the best (or new­est) of us

Canal Boat - - Practical -

Last season we heard about a boater who sadly died when his boat sank in a lock and Canal Boat’s Kevin Blick re­ported on an in­ci­dent he and his wife had on the Leeds and Liver­pool. Kevin’s in­ci­dent only re­sulted in smashed glass and crock­ery but could so eas­ily have been more se­ri­ous. Sim­i­larly, my fam­ily and I wit­nessed a po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous in­ci­dent in a nar­row lock on the Mid­dlewich Branch last sum­mer.

What hap­pened there was that the crew hadn’t re­mem­bered, or didn’t know, the sig­nif­i­cance of lift­ing the fend­ers when us­ing nar­row locks and the boat had be­come jammed; un­usu­ally this was al­most at the top of the lock rather than the bot­tom. Ac­cord­ing to the per­son at the helm it had been caught lower down the lock but had floated free so he ig­nored it.

If he had taken no­tice of the ini­tial snag­ging, then he might have avoided the big­ger prob­lem near the top of the lock which al­most sunk the boat.

Ev­ery­thing was well in the end, but it might not have been and locks can catch out even the most ex­pe­ri­enced.

Who’s in charge?

The per­son at the helm is usu­ally in charge – but not al­ways. In com­mer­cial op­er­a­tions, the boat­mas­ter, (skip­per), is in charge but he/she might or might not ac­tu­ally be steer­ing the boat.

How­ever, the skip­per is ul­ti­mately re­spon­si­ble for the safety of the boat and the crew so he/she is in charge of ev­ery­thing that hap­pens. If you haven’t got a skip­per, nom­i­nate one.

He or she should be the one who says when it is time to op­er­ate pad­dles and by how much and the crew should be ready to act promptly. This usu­ally means they should be in visual and ver­bal con­tact with the skip­per at all times. Po­litely ask by­standers to stay clear, but if you want them to help then give clear in­struc­tions. If you are the by­stander, you can of­fer help but only do what the skip­per or crew say.

You don’t need to make it too mil­i­tary but be firm and in con­trol.

Watch boat po­si­tion at all times

The helms­man will nor­mally be the first to spot that the boat isn’t sit­ting cor­rectly, but all the crew should be on the alert for it mak­ing any odd an­gles and alert the skip­per straight away.

Con­cen­trate on the task and don’t be dis­tracted by oth­ers. It’s nice to have a chat with other boaters or passers-by at the lock, but a mo­ment’s distraction could prove to be fa­tal. If the helms­man needs to leave the helm to go in­side then only do it when the boat is safe and sta­ble and only then with the crew’s knowl­edge. Bet­ter still, don’t leave the helm in the lock.

The cill

Most boaters know to keep their stern clear of the cill when de­scend­ing. If you catch the stern or rud­der of your boat on the cill then it stays high while the front of the boat continues to de­scend. The re­sult is that the well deck, (front deck), floods then the cabin and po­ten­tially the boat can sink.

The best so­lu­tion is to stay clear of the cill in the first place but if the stern does get caught then swift ac­tion clos­ing the bot­tom pad­dles might save the day. Lower the pad­dles quickly but never ‘drop’ them be­cause this can dam­age the pad­dle gear and make the sit­u­a­tion ir­re­triev­able. Also, some pad­dles won’t lower when the wa­ter is flow­ing through them with­out turn­ing the gear.

Lock gates can also stop one end of the boat from ris­ing or fall­ing. Stay­ing clear of the gates is good ad­vice, but hav­ing a crew mem­ber watch the bow when ris­ing or de­scend­ing will give you an ex­tra pair of eyes where you most need them.

Moor­ing lines

The need to use moor­ing lines in nar­row locks is usu­ally re­stricted to sin­gle-handed boat­ing and only then with ex­treme cau­tion. If some­one is at the helm when oper­at­ing the locks there is no real need to use lines in nar­row locks. In broad locks lines can be help­ful, but again if you have some­one at the helm and are shar­ing a broad lock with an­other steel boat then lines are usu­ally not nec­es­sary. Big­ger locks, such as Thames river locks, will usu­ally re­quire lines to be used all the time.

The prob­lem with us­ing lines in any lock is that the boat moves up and down with the wa­ter level and you have to en­sure the line moves with it. Ty­ing off a line with a hitch and walk­ing away from it isn’t a good idea and even a line with a cou­ple of turns around a bol­lard can be­come snagged and pull tight. The line can also get caught be­tween brick­work or un­der lock lad­der base plates. The re­sult of any mis­take is that the boat can be held up or held down by the line de­pend­ing whether you are de­scend­ing or as­cend­ing.


Spend­ing nine hours at the helm or oper­at­ing in ex­cess of 20 locks in one day can take it out of even the fittest of us and con­cen­tra­tion will be lost. There is a temp­ta­tion, es­pe­cially for peo­ple new to boat­ing, to try to get as far as pos­si­ble on a hol­i­day. If the hire com­pany says a cruis­ing ring is nor­mally done in two weeks but can be done in one then don’t try to do it in a week’s hol­i­day un­less you have a fit crew, are ex­pe­ri­enced or can guar­an­tee that the weather won’t weaken you even more.

If it’s sunny, the heat will take it out of you. If it is rain­ing and you don’t have the best kit then wet cloth­ing will make you un­com­fort­able and cause a distraction. The same goes for cold weather too where

even mild hy­pother­mia can make you lose con­cen­tra­tion.

Re­mem­ber that many ac­ci­dents hap­pen at the end of a long day or on day 13 of a two-week hol­i­day.

Don’t be com­pla­cent

When you first start boat­ing it can all seem so easy un­til you have one or two bumps then you re­alise a lit­tle train­ing would help. Af­ter some train­ing and ex­pe­ri­ence you be­come more con­fi­dent but still ap­pre­ci­ate the dan­gers. At this stage you are at your safest.

Af­ter a few years though you can feel you are in­vul­ner­a­ble. This is per­haps the most dan­ger­ous stage be­cause boaters can be­come over-con­fi­dent and com­pla­cent and this can over­come any level of skill or ex­pe­ri­ence. Make sure your skills are up to the task in hand.

Plan ahead

If you know you have a flight of de­mand­ing locks ahead then walk the crew up to the first lock if pos­si­ble and talk through lock­ing pro­ce­dures with them, es­pe­cially if they are in­ex­pe­ri­enced. If that isn’t pos­si­ble then take your time at the first lock and give them a good brief­ing. Make sure ev­ery­one knows the po­ten­tial dan­gers such as leav­ing the wind­lass on the spin­dle and it spin­ning off if the ratchet fails. They should also know what to do in an emer­gency in­clud­ing go­ing as far as call­ing the emer­gency ser­vices. If they have to call 999/112 will they be able to tell the emer­gency ser­vices where they are?

Check your kit be­fore you de­part for the locks. For ex­am­ple, has the life ring been stolen overnight or are the fend­ers still dan­gling from the side of the boat?


If you have had a bit to drink the night be­fore then be even more care­ful. You wouldn’t drive a car with a hang­over in case you were still over the limit in the morn­ing so what makes you think you can steer a boat? Per­haps a lie-in is the best plan or re­strict the amount of al­co­hol con­sumed. Stick to soft drinks at the lunchtime stop. If your crew have al­co­hol mid-jour­ney, keep a spe­cial eye on them in the af­ter­noon. Best still, don’t drink and cruise.

Be alert

For­get ‘it will never hap­pen to me’. It hap­pens to the best of us. Every sit­u­a­tion is dif­fer­ent but be­ing alert at all times should help to min­imise the risks. Your head should be on a gim­bal look­ing in all di­rec­tions. Look at the boat, the lock, your crew and even in­no­cent by­standers.

Mo­torists face a penalty for ‘driv­ing with­out due care and at­ten­tion’ with a few points and a fine. Make sure you don’t fall foul of the same charge for boat­ing which might re­sult in a far more se­vere penalty...

Take the crew through the drill

Be care­ful of catch­ing bows on lock gates

The steerer is in charge

Get it wrong and peo­ple are at risk

Never tie off moor­ing lines in locks

It hap­pens too fre­quently

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