It can be quite tough to find a good parking spot in a popular region of the English canal network in peak season. The Canal and River Trust (CRT) is certainly doing its bit to remedy that by taking a tougher line on those who flout the rules and hog the best spaces without regard for the dictates of the Continuous Cruising licence. But in the mean time, understanding how to bring a narrowboat alongside reliably and safely will help make your cruising experience all the more enjoyable...

Finding a space – how to park a narrowboat

With so many boats about, you need the skills to grab a space when it comes your way.


Where can you park?

By and large, you are free to park wherever you like on the towpath side of an English canal, but there are certain provisos. You should avoid tying up on the immediate approaches to a lock, a weir, a swing bridge or a lift bridge. You should also avoid winding holes (turning points), acute bends, blind spots, water points and junctions. But if you see a space on the towpath side that does not create a hazard or an obstruction (and there is no sign prohibiting moorers) then feel free to use it as a parking space. When you do so, leave as much room for other boats as you can – and if you’re on a river and you’re concerned about private land, then stay safe and stick to signposted visitor moorings.


Control your approach

Standard protocol dictates that you should stop early in the middle of the channel with your boat in deep water before directing your bow toward the bank. Operate astern propulsion before the nose hits and allow your man to step ashore with the bow line. Then you are free to drive the stern in and step ashore with the aft line. Simple.

Enter dead slow – how to park a narrowboat

It's the perfect space for a 60-footer but you need to enter it dead slow.


However, as long as you make a slow and controlled approach, stopping prior to the manoeuvre is not always necessary. On the contrary, a little water flow over the hull and rudder can actually assist in maintaining good shape, particularly on the static waters of a canal. Just remember, your desired end-state is to be safely and securely alongside, so use astern propulsion, keep it slow and avoid hitting the bank or other boats.

If you’re operating singlehanded, you’ve overshot a parking space or your bow is being bullied out of shape by windy conditions, it can be useful to approach the space stern first – and given that the stern is your point of propulsion, that’s not a hard thing to achieve. Once the back end reaches the bank, use a kick of forward propulsion to stop the boat and then put the throttle in neutral. If you have prepared the centre line along the roof within easy reach of the tiller, you can then step off and pull the bow in using that. However, while it’s handy for getting quick control in awkward circumstances, the middle line should not be used as a means of mooring. Instead, once ashore, tie off at bow and stern and return the middle line to the boat.

stern-first approach – how to park a narrowboat

If you overshoot, conditions are difficult or you're on your own, a stern approach can be very useful.


On a river, you should approach a space with your bow pointing into the stream in order to ‘stem’ the elements. This enables you to use the water flow as a natural brake, bringing the boat into the bank in a very steady and controlled fashion. But whichever means you choose to get your boat alongside, the most important thing is that nobody steps ashore until it is safe. If you get it wrong at the helm, simply stay on board and make your approach again. There should be no leaping the gap and no death-or-glory crusade to succeed at the first attempt.


Secure your boat

If there are no rings or bollards in your vicinity, you need to use stakes instead. These are basically metal poles, often with loops on top, which you knock into the ground with a lump hammer. Check the bank for stability and then bang them in until around 80% of their length is buried. If the ground allows, you should run your lines at about 45 degrees forward from the bow and 45 degrees aft from the stern. Then double them back to your boat and secure them on board, before marking the stakes with bright plastic bags or tape, so that passers by don’t trip.

Tying up ashore – How to park a narrowboat

Double your lines back on board and make your stakes easily visible.


On a river, you should tie your bow up first to prevent it being pulled away from the moooring site by the water flow. Once you’ve got the stern line on, you can also then rig some spring lines (one forward from an aft position and one aft from a forward position) to stop your boat being shifted by the water flow. If it’s a tidal stretch of river and you’re tying off on a static point (rather than a floating pontoon), remember to leave enough slack for the rise and drop - and finally, if you feel you need extra security in lively conditions, you can always supplement your lines by dropping an anchor.


Ten top tips

Information posts – how to park a narrowboat

It might be a great spot but you need to read (and obey) the signs.

(1) Pick a sensible place to park (on the towpath side away from water points, winding holes, bridges, obstructions and blind spots).

(2) Put a man on the bow to give you a shout when a good parking spot is approaching.

(3) Wash off your speed short of the parking space and then approach slowly with all three lines (stern, middle and bow) prepared for use.

(4) Use the engine to stop the boat and allow those carrying lines to step ashore under control. Jumping for it is not a great idea.

(5) If a popular town is not blessed with winding holes, park up short of the centre and walk on ahead to recce the parking spaces.

(6) Be aware that silt deposits will often prevent you getting tightly alongside, so a secure, grippy gangway may sometimes be necessary.

(7) Check the signage to see how long you can stay - and then obey it.

(8) Tie off securely at front and back, returning the loose ends to your boat so there are no trip hazards.

(9) If there are no bollards or rings, use stakes instead and mark them with colourful tape or bags, so passers by can see them.

(10) If you’re planning to party into the small hours, park in a place that reduces disturbance to boaters and local residents.

For more canal cruising guides, see: Canal locks: how to operate one and How to drive a narrowboat.

Written by: Alex Smith
Alex Smith is a journalist, copywriter and magazine editor with a long history in boating and a happy addiction to the water. He’s worked on boats, lived on boats, bought boats, sold boats and – when he’s not actually on board a boat – he can generally be found in his Folkestone office, tapping away at the computer and gazing out to sea.