A guide to canal boat etiquette

21st October 2022

Just like the rules of the road, there are rules of the waterway that you should be aware of. In this helpful guide, we’ll explain some of the do’s and don’ts of canal boat etiquette to help you have the most fun on your boating holiday while avoiding any etiquette pitfalls. If it’s your first time on board a narrow boat – don’t worry! For all our bookings here at ABC Boat Hire, we’ll provide you with full tuition at the start of every trip. You’ll also have access to the Boaters Handbook which explains everything you need to know to enjoy a relaxing and safe trip along the canal.

1. DO stick to the speed limit!

When you’re driving on the roads, you’ll see the speed limit clearly labelled. However, on the waterways there’s only one speed limit to keep to. The maximum speed you can travel in a narrowboat is 4 miles per hour. And, although this is the max speed it’s important to slow down when approaching various obstacles such as:

2. DO say hello to other boats

If you pass another boat, it’s always a good gesture to say hello and give a friendly wave. If you’re passing a boat along the canal and both moving, you should slow down and then move to the right hand of the canal, so that you can both pass. This means that you’ll pass port side, (left), to port side. Be aware that if a boat is in difficulty you might need to pass in a different direction.

3.DO check for oncoming traffic

Whether you’re cruising down the canal or entering a lock you’ll need to check for oncoming traffic so that you can act accordingly.


When operating a lock, it’s a good idea for one person to check ahead to see if anyone else is waiting at the other side of the lock. If there’s another boat at the other end of the lock to you, if the lock is in their favour, e.g the lock is full when they need to go up or the lock is empty when they need to go down, it’s good etiquette to let them go first. If the lock is in your favour, feel free to go ahead. Also, if there is another boat that wants to go through the lock in the same direction as you, you can go through it together to save water.

If you’re wanting to use a lock for the first time check out our guide, which explains how to use them in more detail.


On some routes, tunnels are too narrow for two boats safely cross at the same time. Similarly to a lock it’s a good idea, if you can, to send someone ahead to check if there is any approaching traffic, otherwise you can use your horn at the tunnel’s entrance. In some longer tunnels, you won’t need to worry about oncoming traffic as there are set times for traffic to pass through in each direction, or a booking system in place to go through the tunnels.

4.DO leave locks in good order

When working a lock, it’s important to make sure you remember to put the paddles down and close the gates when you’ve finished. If you forget to do this, you could end up draining the canal! The only exception to this rule is when someone is following you into the lock, then it’s okay to leave the gates open to let them in.

5.DON’T moor in an inappropriate place

Usually, you can moor up wherever you like along the canal, within reason. However, there are a few exceptions to this. It’s also important to be mindful of people using the tow path, so make sure not to tie your mooring ropes across it.

Some of the places you can’t moor include:

6.DON’T cruise or run engines at inappropriate times

Engines and generators create a lot of noise and can disturb people. Generally, it’s good etiquette to not run engines and generators, and not to cruise between 8pm and 8am.

7.DON’T leave any litter

This goes without saying, but don’t leave any litter behind on your canal trip. The waterways are rich with wildlife and littering can damage its delicate ecosystem. Also, if you’re bringing your dog with you on your canal trip, make sure to clean up after them too.

DON’T forget to enjoy yourself!

Although it might feel like there are a lot of rules to remember while travelling on a canal boat, here at ABC Boat hire we provide you with everything you need to get started. Once you’re afloat, there’s no agenda giving you the opportunity to relax and take in your surroundings. If it’s your first time on the water – you’re in safe hands with ABC! We have a fantastic range of routes suited for beginners.

If you’ve found your perfect route or would like more information, contact our experts today. Alternatively, you can view our full range of canal routes to find your next trip today!

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