Canals can be very dangerous. Observation and communication is very important. Always be observant when boating and using locks. Many of the dangers appear when one usually least expects it. Some safety aspects are explained here – and links to other sites with safety information is also given.

Basically safety is about enjoying a great time on the waterways without coming to mishap. Sadly even experienced boaters do encounter the unexpected. The weather, often seemingly unrelated to canal conditions, especially when the sun is shining, can suddenly throw up problems such as extreme wind, tide or river level conditions that cause boats to get into difficulty. Even the cosy interior of a narrowboat can be a place where dangers occur. As this was being written initially, two explosions occurred on boats around the waterways system. Leaking gas from cookers accidentally left turned on can seep into the bilges of a boat and build up thus creating a potential time bomb. Its a major cause of boat explosions. The best way obviously is to think of safety – take your time dont rush – sensible precautions will ensure that a canal holiday is so much more pleasurable.

Locks can often be the most dangerous part of canal or river cruising despite their seemingly simplistic workings. The volume of water can create a danger for boats if the boat is not properly positioned or paddles are opened too quick. In the old days working boats fitted locks quite snugly whether a single 70 footer in a narrow lock, a wide boat – or a narrowboat and butty breasted up – in a broad lock. Boats were made to fit the locks as far as possible. The many different sizes and widths of modern boats create extra problems and it is for this reason that locks should be operated with more care. Even stopping a boat right outside bottom gates can create mishaps, and on some river navigations it is quite impossible to avoid being so close to the bottom gates. Unless a lock is quite empty it is best to keep the boat as far away from the lock as possible. Failing that – opening the paddles incrementally and slowly often resovles a difficult situation, as a full lock of water exherts a enormous amount of force upon emptying into a waterway below the bottom gates.

Generally the operation of a lock involving a boat going up has far more dangers than one involving a boat going down. Often mention is made in passing of the crossing of lockgates and the use of windlasses. Many people walk across lock gates with a windlass in one hand and this leaves one had less to grab the rails. Not very nice if a slip means one falls into extremely turbulent waters and gets crushed between a boat and a lock wall. In the old days boatmen tucked their windlasses in to the back of their belts and so were more safety conscious. Windlasses can fly off paddle gear and have been known to knock people unconscious. and if one is not actually using a windlass the best place for it is away from or off the paddle gear – they should never lie on the ground where one would be pushing the gate beam to open or close a lockgate – and not in the grass where one might trip on it and fall over. The boatmen of old had the best policy – windlasses tucked in their belts – but of course modern dress often comes without belts! Hence the use of a windlass requires far more care than once was needed. Special windlass harnesses can be bought but like lifejackets and other important safety items, they seem a bit prone to being seen as non-fashionable wear!

Another area where windlasses need care in their use is when one winds up the paddles. I have seen people almost knock their eye out or their chin out of place simply because they happen to be leaning over where the paddle gear rack rises up, their head prime for a bashing from the top of the rack as it suddenly emerges upwards from its mounting. Throwing windlasses is another option that should be avoided! The correct size of windlass is also important – a badly fitting one might cause one to suddenly slip and fall headlong onto the gate beams or into the lock itself.

Narrow and broad locks have different habits of throwing the unexpected at a boat. Generally a narrow lock has rather less problems than a broad lock, but as the picture below (of Hall Lock on the Trent and Mersey) shows, even narrow locks can spring nasty surprises on the unsuspecting boater. Going uphill watch out for the bottom gates and avoid the boat suddenly charging into the cill or the top gates. Going downhill watch that cill and keep the stern of the boat away from it. It is always better to share a broad lock where ever possible because two boats side by side will help to steady the boats especially going uphill. Always remember that one canal’s locks may differ to another canal’s locks in terms of how a boat reacts because the canal builders designed their particular locks in different ways.

This item, found in Waterways World’s Dec 1976 issue, illustrates problems in operating locks safely. As the text relates, what was thought a safe position for the boat, avoiding the eddy from the top paddles, had become a disaster as the unexpected occured.

This item from Waterways World November 1977 illustrates another mishap that was not expected. As the lock was being emptied, one boat got caught on the gates and the other got jammed as it went down with the water. In all cases, if there are any problems, shut the lock paddles quickly and make sure that everyone and everything is ok before attempting to continue.

The above extracts are used with the permission of Waterways World

It might not be believed but tornadoes have been seen on the canals. I encountered a small one at Braunston around 1982! By the time it was observed it had fortunately whizzed across the canal and was making its way past the hamlet of Wolfhampcote towards the Catesby hills. Presumably it fizzled out by the time it reached them thar hills (it seems that mini tornadoes are on the increase due to Global Warming.) Whilst they wont normally be the bill of fayre in terms of weather conditions the lie of canal routes often leaves boats at the mercy of the wind. The most idyllic and calm waterway can suddenly become the most intolerable environment possible. Waterways such as the Shroppie have long exposed sections and wind is not something that much can be done about and perhaps the best thing to do is to moor up if possible when there is a very strong wind (of course in certain conditions the wind could prevent one’s attempt to moor a boat! The only thing is to perhaps try and find a more sheltered spot to moor.) An observant eye on weather conditions can be an asset especialy where strange black rolling clouds or some other not oft seen cloud phenomena are spotted on the horizon and seem to be approaching your way.

Torrential rain is probably not so much of an issue on a canal – but more so where the waterway happens to be a river navigation. Boaters are usually advised to moor up and stop in adverse conditions where rising river levels can cause problems and weirs can become roaring monsters ready to drag your boat over them. Even if the weather is nice, rivers can still rise suddenly because heavy rain elsewhere upstream can swell the river downstream rapidly. Some canals use part of a river for short distances, and in this instance places such as Alrewas on the Trent and Mersey and below Oakmeadowford Lock on the Caldon Canal should be treated with care.

On the Severn neap tides can reach upriver almost as far as Tewkesbury, and in these conditions the river can be much higher than normal – the banks hidden and extra dangers become present. The famous Severn bore can make its way a long way up river sometimes and the advice of lock-keepers at Upper Lode lock or Gloucester locks should be sought before venturing out in such conditions. For an image of Upper Lode lock in flood go here. The River trent also has extra high tides and a smaller but still signifcant bore and simlarly advice should be sought in such situations.

In Waterways World during the early 1990’s, Dusty Miller’s series of ‘Towpath Tips’ provided an excellently illustrated treasure box of safety tips for the canals. Whilst sometimes done tongue in cheek they nevertheless made the safety issues clear – and showed that sensible precautions often made the canal experience more fun. I believe they were later turned in to a book. To be in posession of the such book – or the back numbers of Waterways World from August 1990 onwards, means one therefore has a good collection of canal safety tips to be read and enjoyed.

More tips to follow.

LINKS TO OTHER TIPS ON BOAT SAFETY ISSUES (How to work Canal Locks and safety considerations) (Some commonsense tips re canals and disused canals – useful for walkers) (Safety information for leaders of schools, colleges and youth organisations) (Useful forum re boat safety and handling and people hanging around locks etc) (Jim Marshall asks – do we need training courses?)

LINKS TO BOAT HANDLING & SAFETY CERTIFICATE COURSES (Search for a boat safety scheme/course – run by the EA/BW) (Boat Handling Certificate Courses by Wildcat Enterprises in Oxford) (A description of the above course can be found on this thread) (Boat handling courses from the Midland Canal Centre) (Certificate in Community Boat Management, Complete Crew Course etc) (Boatmaster Courses based in London) (RYA Certificate courses by Anglo Welsh) (Bisham Abbey Courses, based on the Thames at Marlow) (RYA Inland waterways training Course by Alvechurch Boats, nr Redditch) (RYA Inland Waterways Helmsman’s Certificate by Clifton Cruisers, nr Rugby) (Evesham College Training Centre is the only one running the British Waterways Boat Examiners Course)

T.R.Boat Handling is based at Gnosall on the Shropshire Union Canal. Tel: 01785 824 012 Mobile: 07947 337 492