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One day canal boat hire – tips on how not to sink

Canal boat, one day canal boat hire

One day canal boat hire -
what do you need to know?

How do you not sink a canal boat? What do you need to take? Do you need to know how to drive/sail? Find out how we discovered the answers on our one day on a canal boat trip, with tips for future captains.

The one day canal boat hire party plan

Like everyone else this year, my birthday was celebrated in pandemic style. It was a big one and the room hired for the party had already been cancelled. We were in plan B territory. A Covid upside was that as schools were closed, the whole family could spend the day together.

With the whole world now stay-cationing, I was in a race against time to find a legal lockdown activity which had not already been snagged. Scouring the internet I stumbled upon a canal boat hire company who had their smallest boat still available for one day hire. It was going to cost £195 but I justified the extravagance on the basis that this would be a combination birthday present and a day out for 4 bonus. I booked it immediately before anyone else could steal my new plan. 

The boat could take up to 10, so if the pandemic suddenly disappeared between booking and the big day, it could turn into a mini-party boat. 

One day canal boat hire Top Tip 1 

You can hire a boat for a group for 10 for less than £20pp per day

Canal boat instructions

The night before the launch, whilst supping pre-birthday prosecco’s in a nearby hostelry, I saw in the small print that everyone on board was supposed to have read an online manual and watched a safety video. I wasn’t sure if this applied to children too but I wasn’t taking any chances so we all set about doing our joint homework.

Although one of us is a sailor, none of us had captained a canal boat so and there was a lot to take in. The video covers complicated mechanical procedures involving spanners and engines and was a little daunting in its remit. I had not bargained for being involved in changing toilets or any kind of electrical work.

There was quite an eye opening section showing how easy it is to get caught out by a silted river bank, resulting in a slow inevitable barge pivot across the river. I paid close attention to the pole technique for boat/mud extraction.

One day canal boat hire Top Tip 2 

Remember to watch the safety video (before your first glass of wine)

The route from Hillperton Marina

When you make the booking, the boat hire company email you a bare bones map, from which we deduced there should be time to navigate one lock and motor up to the Cross Guns, a 16th Century Inn for lunch. Sounded like a great plan B!

We should then have time to make it to the aqueduct before effecting some kind of turning (how?) and still get back in time to park the boat before the marina closed.

One day canal boat hire Top Tip 3

Make a route plan including lunch and enough time to get back before the office closes.

Canal boat check in

The day arrived and it wasn’t throwing it down with rain. Phew.

We Googled our way to Hillperton Marina and checked in. After watching another short, but quite worrying video about things that could go wrong, we were sized up for life jackets. Then it was time to meet our craft.

We were taken down to the dinky canal boat, “Cheers”, which felt very birthday-appropriate. Cheers was moored up in a sort of undercover parking lot amongst a brightly painted array of other barges. Ours was the baby of the bunch, at about half the length of its big brothers, and was ridiculously cute!

We were shown how to turn the engine on and instructed to elect a captain. Being neither a driver nor a sailor, there was no way I was stepping up, so, a bit like the scene in The Fully Monty when everyone else takes a step back, by default husband was duly elected. 

Getting out of the boat park

Getting Cheers out of the boat park was going to be our captain’s first challenge. 

Having untied it, I was required to step on to a moving boat that had left shore – the first out-of-comfort-zone moment of the day. 

As a total novice, I did not envy husband’s job of reversing past the other boats (without crashing into them), effecting a 90 degree turn and heading out into the shipping lane, something of a water-themed  baptism of fire.

One day canal boat hire Top Tip 4

Wear boat shoes, flat and  non-slippy for push offs.

Checking out the boat

It was a bit of a tense start but we’d got away with it and we were now on open water. We unbattened the hatches and tried to work out how to put the kettle on. A little underwhelmed at our lack of speed, the boys unpacked some games.

Hugging a teacup with a countryside motif, I reflected that I might have turned in to an old person when I wasn’t looking. I set up my new party speaker to pretend that I hadn’t. (See top campers gifts for details!)

One day canal boat hire Top Tip 5

Take a speaker to get the party started and a few games to entertain the kids (and a raincoat just in case)


About 15 minutes into the journey, as we were heading in a straight line, I agreed to have a go at the tiller. This lasted for about 30 seconds. The boat started to swing to one side, appearing to  go for the complete opposite of my intended rudder “correction”  by veering more severely toward the bank.

Apparently the boat pivots (Ross from Friends was doing a voice over of this word in my head) around a point in the centre of the boat and this was totally throwing my angle expectations, with the back of the boat shifting unexpectedly sideways towards the bank and trees.

I abandoned my post and called for reinforcements as we neared our first hazard, a bridge. (Something that I had never previously ascribed to the hazard category.)

One day canal boat hire Top Tip 6

Boats pivot from the centre. Work your angles accordingly.


Having no confidence whatsoever in my ability to steer a straight course, husband was going to be firmly in charge of bridge navigation.

His first instruction was for me to ascertain the bridge number as we could plot our distance and speed. If you check on the map which way the river is going to bend on the other side so you are ready for it. Clever.

The bridge number is tiny (bring binoculars next time?). Once it was spotted and deciphered, we did a bit of maths to find that the distance travelled and therefore our boat speed. This turned out to be significantly less that the map’s time estimates would have us believe. Something to keep an eye on.

We managed not to scrape the sides or wedge ourselves in with any other boats so chalked it up as a win. 

One day canal boat hire Top Tip 7

Bridges have numbers so you can check your river position and time estimates on the map. (Bring binoculars.)

Navigating Bradford lock

Parallel parking

Without a doubt, the biggest challenge of the day  was the lock.

Our first job was to find a space to “park” whilst waiting for our turn. The docks were buzzing with the many other captains for a day and there was no room at the inn, even for our miniscule vessel.

Eventually we spied a slot we could squeeze into if we perfected our parallel parking. In hindsight “perfecting” is  not the word I would use to describe the manoeuvre as effected. It was more of a 37 point turn with lots of “To me, to you” type instructions being bandied about. Approximately 15 minutes into our endeavour, we landed and tied something that looked a bit like a knot. I hopped off and went to check out what lay in store.

The lock recce

We peeped over the stony walls and into the lock abyss. It was pretty deep, with quite a powerful waterfall emptying into it as far as I could see. I was a little concerned as to what my role as sole shoreside adult would entail and wished I’d read the book a bit more carefully and in a less wine-addled state.

Much to my relief, we could see that the docksides were run by an army of volunteers assisting hapless holidaymakers through the lock system. Phew.

They informed us that when it was built, the Bradford lock was the deepest on the Kennett and Avon canal. So for a first attempt for 2 novices it was not ideal.

The lock entry

 One kindly volunteer informed is it was now our turn. I untethered the craft, stepping aboard pretty professionally now, and launched into the unknown.

Husband and I were both to stay aboard the craft and helpers would operate the gate opening mechanisms on shore.

There were possibly too many chiefs in the volunteer army. We were told a first plan of action by volunteer 1, that we were to motor as the second of 2 boats into the lock. She, to much grumbling, was then totally over-ridden by bossier volunteer 2, who had decided to squeeze 2 rows of 3 boats in, end to end at the same time.

It wasn’t until I was actually inside the lock, with the water level rapidly dropping, that I appreciated the significance of the “sill”. This is a stone ledge inside the lock gates which becomes exposed as the water drains out, and which, if you accidently park the end of your boat on it, will cause the boat to tip vertically forwards with inevitably disastrous results.

As the last in, we had to ensure we didn’t drift back on to the sill.

One day canal boat hire Top Tip 8

Beware the boat tipping potential of the sill.

The volunteers had also told us that the lock is quite “leaky”. Seeing the enormous waterfall erupting behind us, we could see why this was important. The influx was buffeting the back of our little boat around in the water as we sought to hold it steady.

Husband was to keep the engine running, motoring forwards away from the sill, but without crashing into the boat in front. The owner of the boat in front was, not unsurprisingly, watching us very carefully, with a furrowed brow.

The lock exit

There was more argy bargy on the boats and between the volunteers as to who was to leave the lock first, causing utter confusion and then everyone going at once.

The experience did involve a surprise and unexpected amount or adrenalin. We exited without having tipped the boat (another win) but not really looking forward to having to do it all again on the way back.

Timings are crucial

The lock navigation had taken quite a while, and with our dismally slow speed, our scheduled lunch stop was getting tight time wise.

Not only were we not going to make the aqueduct, our new ETA at the Cross Guns put us at exactly the half day time marker. Would they have time to cook our chips? We needed to make up for lost time and press on.

Overtaking - impolite?

The next stretch of river was less high octane. Even at full throttle, pensioners were passing us on foot on the tow path. But despite our sedate pace we found ourselves gaining on a 5 year old who appeared to be in charge of the tiller in the boat in front of us.

River etiquette holds that is is generally impolite to overtake. The handbook had told us that:

 “You will rarely need to overtake on canals and narrow rivers. In fact, there isn’t usually enough space to overtake safely. If you do have to overtake, make sure the other skipper knows what
you’re intending to do well before you start to manoeuvre. “

So there is not enough room, it is not really safe and you have to shout out to strangers that you’re going to do it anyway.

We tailgated passive aggressively for a while but were too chicken to shout. They would only have been  witness to a badly handled, potentially dangerous manoeuvre. As time was against us, we would probably end up turning around (assuming we were able) and passing them on the way back about 15 minutes later anyway.

One day canal boat hire Top Tip 9

Avoid overtaking – it’s a bit rude and a bit narrow

Turning round

We had reached 30 minutes off half time. It was time to abandon our canal boat and lunch schedule, and maybe grab a sandwich near the lock on the return leg instead.

The new challenge was effecting an about turn. We managed not to motor past the not-very-obvious turning point. Here, the tininess of the boat worked in our favour as, when pivoting, we could pretty much do a 360 degree turn in the middle of the canal in one go without crashing the ends into the riverbanks. Result.

One day canal boat hire Top Tip 10

When it comes to turning – size is everything, less is more. Use official turning points only.

A riverside lunch

We decided on a quick stop at a waterside cafe before the lock, to give us the strength to face it.

It was busy, with a 30 minute wait for food, but with no packed lunch, we really had no alternative but to order and wait (and risk a small birthday drink).

Waiting not very patiently for the food, we felt secretly relieved that we hadn’t attempted the aqueduct. If you aren’t great at holding your course, what are the chances of simply boating  right off the edge?

One day canal boat hire Top Tip 11

Bring a packed lunch. There is a real possibility that you will run out of time for food.

The last leg

We must have hit the return lock while everyone else was still having lunch as it was pleasantly boat and incident free. The sill fear does not loom quite so large when you are going uphill in an empty lock, but there were still torrents of potentially boat filling waterfalls to avoid as the water rises.

As we entered,  I was instructed to throw up a rope to the man on the edge about 15 feet above me so he could form a sort of human anchor. But woeful rope throwing prevailed and it landed limply on top of the middle of the boat roof. We were disconcertingly anchor-free.

A new plan was quickly shouted down to me, requiring me to hold on to rusty metal ladder to keep boat in place. I held on with all my strength, climbing each rung as we floated higher, and we remained reassuringly horizontal and away from the lock gate waterfalls.

Nearing the marina, we passed a couple of proper party boats having great fun breaking all the handbook rules about booze and sitting on roofs. I silently wished them lock-luck up stream.

One day canal boat hire Top Tip 12 

Allocate rope work to those with a proven track record in throwing.

Parking a canal boat

The only real parking space at the marina was looking pretty tight. The check in deadline would have disappeared over the horizon by the time we had effected another marathon parking session. In the end we went for an easier space, that wasn’t really a space at all, but about a foot away from the shore, tethered to a  large pillar. I stepped over the pretty substantial gap, and held the boat steady while a child effected their own leap of faith before heading to the office for help.  

It had been a day of life in the slow lane, punctuated by spikes of boat-sinking adrenaline and fear. Certainly a bit of an adventure.

With drunken pub lunches being generally against the rules,  I would have found a whole week  quite hard work and maybe a bit claustrophobic. But one day was the prefect amount of time for a canal boat foray. 

One day canal boat hire Top Tip 13

There is no shame in asking for a bit of help. Pride may well come before a fall/crash/swim.

Making the headlines

When we got home, proud not to have sunk the boat, friends shared with us that day’s newspaper headlines:

Canal boat blocks the Kennet and Avon Canal in Bath after sinking

Someone on a canal boat holiday had not been so lucky!

One day canal boat hire lessons learned

1 A sailing qualification is not a transferable skill in the world of motorised houseboats.

2. Watch out for the sill!

3. Be ready for life in the slow lane but with flashes of fast lane fear.

4. Boats can be cute but deadly. Don’t underestimate the ways in which things can go wrong.

I’d love to your boating experiences, sink or swim (or both, presumably), in the comments below.

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One day canal boat hire, Kennet and Avon Canal
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8 thoughts on “One day canal boat hire – tips on how not to sink”

  1. Thanks for the detailed guide! Reading this with curiosity! Once I took sailing lessons but for sure has not been my thing 😂 I would definitely give it a try but I believe I would crash to the bridge 😂 After all seems there were many challenges but you made it

  2. Oh what a lovely way to escape and enjoy your birthday with your family! I love a canal boat! My family our from Worcester and we use to always get a boat around the canals in the Midlands; such a unique holiday experience.


    This was a very entertaining read! I’m glad you enjoyed it, but I think I’d be fraught with stress haha. A day is enough! Glad you weren’t the ones to make the headlines…

  4. Sounds like a fun way to spend your birthday. Thanks for the tips. We are going to the Norfolk Broads at the end of the month, so will need a hasty course in boat etiquette and parking!

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