How fast and how far can a narrowboat go?

How far can narrow boaters cruise in a day? This frequently asked question can cause all sorts of consternation on a narrow boat – and it is often one of the hardest to answer!

A great deal depends upon the narrowboat crew. Many boat crews like to be up and about early, but as many other narrowboaters are relaxed about when they cruise – relying on the state of the weather conditions, rather than what time of day it is.

As a result, a number of things will determine how far boats can travel. There is, however, a relatively simple method of calculating how far you can get in a given period of time. If you remember that, on canals, your boat is not allowed to travel at more than four miles per hour, and if you allow a quarter of an hour for passing through each lock, then:

1 mile = 1/4 hour = l lock

So to determine the time taken for any journey, simply add the number of locks to the number of miles and divide by four.

Armco-Mooring The speed limit on canals is four miles an hour. This is a fast walking pace and is the absolute maximum – remember – it is a limit – not a target!

Most narrow boat cruising will be around three miles an hour, or less. Moored boats, shallow water or congested and narrow sections of canal all mean that narrowboat crews will have to slow down. If more boaters made a habit of glancing behind them to check on the wash their narrow boat makes, they would immediately see if they were going too fast. A general rule of thumb is – if you are making waves you are going too fast.

Heavy wash not only causes damage to banks, but can wash debris into the water. Apart from increasing the risk of debris becoming caught around your prop and stern gear, it can also cause considerable discomfort and even damage to moored boats.

If you are going too fast for the prevailing conditions, there is a real risk of tearing out the mooring pins of moored boats. I have seen apparently securely moored boats that have drifted right across the canals width, simply because a previous boat had not slowed sufficiently before passing. And that is an important point to remember. You need to lower your speed before you reach moored boats, not when you reach them as the momentum of water your boat is displacing will still create a towing effect if you have not slowed early enough.

Some boaters have the unfortunate attitude that if your pins came out when they pass in their boat, then you couldn’t have tied yours up securely. This is both selfish and arrogant. There will be odd occasions when a poorly moored boat may drift away from the bank due to the ground being exceptionally soft, but when this happens, the most courteous thing is to pull into the bank, pull the boat back to the side and just bang the pins in again.

Armco - a typical way of lining the canal

Armco – a typical way of lining the canal

On the subject of mooring, there are a number of different methods of securing your boat to a variety of materials. Broadly speaking, the towpath side of the canal is the accepted mooring side, provided there are no restrictions or limitations present. The towpath may be furnished with mooring bollards or mooring rings in designated mooring areas. Do NOT moor on the bollards approaching a lock – they are there for passing traffic ONLY. Alternatively, the canal bank may be lined with Armco – vertical, corrugated metal plates bound by a horizontal rail.

You can tie to these using Armco Pins or alternatively a mooring chain. Don’t be tempted to loop your mooring rope around the Armco, as the constant movement of your boat could cause the rope to fray or even get cut through.

Different Methods of mooring to Armco

Different Methods of mooring to Armco

Now, I wish I could say obviously, but under no circumstances should your mooring ropes cross the towpath. This is extremely dangerous to any passing traffic, be it on foot or bicycle – and ensure that your mooring pins are clearly visible to other canal users.

NEVER let your ropes cross a towpath

NEVER let your ropes cross a towpath

There are some snazzy, luminous pin covers on the market (I even made a pair from an old, reflective hi-visibility jacket) but at the very least, make the pin position stand out by tying a white cloth or carrier bag around it. You can also use old washing up bottles (usually already white or yellow) with a slot cut down its length and pushed over the pin.


Finally, anyone who has moored out on the cut for any length of time will appreciate the benefit of ‘springing’ their ropes to reduce fore and aft movements. Springing mooring ropes is a way to reduce the boat being dragged to and fro as other boats pass (or water is let out of locks rapidly).

Put simply, additional mooring ropes are taken from the fore and aft T studs on the boat and attached to a second set of mooring pins hammered into the bank (see the diagram below). These two additional ropes (marked in red on the diagram) should form a near right angle to the originals. By doing this, the vessel is now able to resist water flow in either direction.

Springing Many boaters also adopt this method of mooring where the towpath is particularly soft (perhaps caused by flooding or heavy rain) as the additional mooring points help to spread the boats load more evenly.

One last point – should you find yourself having to moor where water levels are likely to fluctuate (such as on tidal rivers for example), remember to check your mooring lines regularly. Rising water levels have been known to pull out mooring pins, and boats tied tightly to bollards run the risk of tilting to the point of capsizing.  If you can, run your mooring lines through a ring and attach the free end back to the boat. That way, you can loosen the lines without having to try and get ashore….

5 thoughts on “How fast and how far can a narrowboat go?

  1. tony bowyer

    Good advice and info – there are 2 other factors – related to canal depth. underused canals, like the Curly Wurly – or Wyrley and Essington Canal near Birmingham, are shallow with sediment and overgrown with rushes etc in places. However powerful your engine all that over-revving will do is pull more water past the boat and lower the level increasing the risk of grounding. I drive an old Northwich which can go up to 10 mph on places like rivers, but won’t do more than 3-4 mph on the Grand Union

  2. Roger Distill

    I love the website. It’s really informative. Just a point about this page…

    “Slow down past moored boats” is far too vague, I think. I’ve known far too many boaters who take this to mean put their engine into tickover, but if they do this too late, as many do, then they still pass far too fast. It’s a matter of timing, and they need to do it, what…? five, six boat lengths (70 footers, that is!) away.

    We passed a moored boat once with this notice in its window…

    “Kind souls slow down to pass moored boats. There are souls who don’t.” Read it out loud for best effect!

    • Colin Post author

      You make a valid point Roger – which is why the article does advise boaters to slow – BEFORE they reach moored boats. How long it takes their boat to slow sufficiently will depend on the craft – deep draughted working boats can still have a tremendous pull even at tickover. As for boat length – again, it is difficult to have a rule of thumb. Thanks for your comments 🙂

  3. pauline

    I live near Loughbough and feed the swans and ducks each day.Today four men in their boat with cans of beer in hands thought it was fun to go fast and run down a baby swan so I for one am very sick of the few – no one around to stop them.

    • Colin Post author

      That is sad Pauline – it is amazing how the actions of a few ignorant individuals can taint the canals for everyone…


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