A Canal Boat Holiday: 8 Lessons Learned

Topsy, our boat

As Jeff and I walked through the park in Bath, we came to a path that ran along the canal. There were several boats: some docked and others quietly gliding by. We had talked about doing a canal boat holiday for years. Many of the boats had signs on the sides advertising the companies that rented them, so we took pictures and started calling. Most boats were fully booked for the summer, but we finally found one that was available, so we reserved it. Next we called up our friends, Arvin and Genevieve, and invited them and their two children to go with us. And our adventure began…

Lesson 1: Don’t Take the Biggest Boat

Most of the boats we had seen on the canal were narrowboats. Narrowboats are about 6 ft. 10 in. wide and about 60 ft long. The boat we hired was a wide-beam and was 10 ft. 6 in. wide and 55 foot long.

When we looked at the boat, the interior seemed small, and we didn’t realize that it was actually quite a bit larger than most of the other boats. In some places, our boat was only a bit narrower than the canal itself. That wouldn’t have caused any problems if we were the only boat on the water. But alas, there were others…

Lesson 2: Pay Attention to the Instructions

When we first got on the boat an instructor from the boating company came with us to show us (the two men) how to drive. While Jeff and Arvin were at the back of the boat learning how to steer, Genevieve and I were on the front deck with our feet up enjoying the beauty of the canal. It was just as I had imagined: relaxing and calm.

The instructor was with us for about an hour, then we were on our own. But before leaving, he assured us that we would be fine. After all, the maximum speed was only four miles per hour, and if we did have any problems, the canal people were very friendly and helpful. So off we went with our very big boat in Jeff and Arvin’s capable hands. Or so we hoped…

Lesson 3: Canal Folk Aren’t Always Friendly

As we rounded the first bend, there was a line of docked boats. We ran into the first one, and the “friendly, helpful” canal people popped their heads out. The woman in the boat we bumped began yelling at us. The man in the next boat joined in. He mistook Jeff’s grimace for a smile and berated him for smiling. Jeff, being duly chastened, apologized and vowed to be more careful. What a lovely, warm welcome to the canal and an auspicious beginning to our holiday…

A friendlier canal resident

Lesson 4: Relax?

When we had talked of a canal trip, I had imagined us peacefully floating along, then coming up to a little pub. We would stop the boat, walk up the path, and eat and chat with the locals. Then go back for some more peaceful floating. In my imagination it had been so relaxing. But after our instructor left us, it seemed that the relaxing part of our trip was over.

Jeff was elected captain and Arvin first mate. As they maneuvered our monster boat along the canal trying not to play “bumper boats,” I’m pretty sure they were not relaxed. And I know that Genevieve and I were not relaxed. We were at the front and ducking inside the cabin when we came too close to other boats – we didn’t want them yelling at us if we bumped them.

Our courteous captain often moved to the side to avoid bumping other boats and then we would get stuck. This required Captain Jeff doing lots of revving the engine in reverse and forward as First Mate Arvin tried to push us away from the side with a long pole. It was nerve-wracking…

A not-so-relaxing moment

Lesson 5: Don’t Jump Off Until You’re Close to Shore

After a few torturous hours on our own, we were ready to stop for the evening. There were no signs saying, “for a lovely little pub stop here” or even any signs announcing which town we might be near. How did we know where to go? We just picked a spot where there was room to pull over, and Captain Jeff navigated toward the side. First Mate Arvin’s job was to jump off the boat with the rope to secure us to a stake in the ground. Rope in hand, he was prepared. As we neared the shore, he leapt off the boat… and went straight into the canal.

Genevieve and I were still at the front. I heard a splash, looked back, and saw Arvin in the water. Without thinking, I jumped to the shore. But the side was sloped and slippery and farther away than I thought. I fell to my knees and started sliding backwards toward the water. I began clawing at the grass to pull myself up and managed to escape with only one wet foot. Then I ran back to try and save Arvin. But he was laughing, and since the canal is only about four feet deep, he was fine. Surprised and wet, but ok. I was scolded by the captain, and I promised never to jump off a moving boat again…

A quiet time when nothing was coming

Lesson 6: Practice Makes Better

The next day was our first full day on our own, and things were calmer. We only bumped a canoe (who had parked in a very bad place). And we ran aground several times, but Captain Jeff and First Mate Arvin got pretty good at handling our monster boat. We went through two swing bridges which Arvin was in charge of. He opened them to let us through then closed them afterwards. He got very good at opening bridges, and he also got much better at jumping off the boat.

We passed through two aqueducts, and we knew the locks were coming up next. But we had had enough, locks were that one step too far. We had only hired the boat for two and a half days, so we were near our halfway point anyway. We docked near Bradford on Avon (which incidentally is only a 25-minute drive from where we started) and called for a skipper to come and drive us back. Now we could all relax. We went into town for a late lunch, walked around a bit, and bought some food for the next day. Then we headed back to our boat to sleep…

Heading into an aqueduct

Lesson 7: Hire a Pro

The next morning Arvin pulled out the portable grill he had brought and began cooking for us. We had a lovely lunch and just as we were finishing, Alex, our new skipper, arrived to rescue us.

Now that we had a pro at the wheel (or steering stick), we could all relax and enjoy the canal. We sat on the deck with our feet up soaking in the scenery. Now this was more like how I had imagined it.

But even with an experienced skipper, we bumped another boat… and we also ran aground once. So I guess Captain Jeff and First Mate Arvin weren’t doing such a bad job after all…

Captain Jeff and Chico finally get to relax

Lesson 8: Biggest Boat Has Priority

Another thing we found out from our driver – if you’re the biggest boat, it’s up to the others to get out of your way. Captain Jeff had been too nice and tried to pull to the side for everyone. That’s why we got stuck so much. But our new skipper just kept going in our big monster boat and everyone else got out of our way. If we had only known…

Do It Again?

After so many years of talking about hiring a canal boat, I’m glad we finally did it. We had a great time, laughed a lot, and made lots of memories. Would we do it again? I think so. Would we hire a skipper? Definitely.

We were on the Kennet & Avon Canal which is 87 miles long and runs from Reading to Bristol. There are 2,200 miles of canals across the UK, and since our journey took us only about nine miles, we have a fair bit more to see.

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Margo Lestz
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  1. Two and a half days may not have been long enough to really get the hang of canal boating but, by your account, you certainly gained knowledge of some basics. I hope the adventure remains a happy memory.

    1. Yes, it was short and very intimidating at first. But we did get better and ended up having a really nice time. Thanks. 🙂

  2. Sounds like an awesome trip. Never done it before but defo added to my list of future trips.
    Thanks for sharing.

    1. Hi Sam,
      It was a lot of fun. It would be a nice family trip for you – especially if your sons are old enough to help out with bridges, locks, etc.

  3. It looks like you had a lovely time with your friends, Margo. Lovely weather and you were smart to start with a short trip to ‘try it out’. I have never done it, but loved watching Rick Stein on the Canal du Midii. (I love watching Rick Stein’s programmes – wherever he is.) Perhaps you could also consider canal boating on that Canal next summer – it did look lovely.
    Best wishes from locked down Melbourne, Paula

    1. Hi Paula,
      We did have a lovely time. We didn’t choose a short trip because we were smart: Originally we were trying to get a boat for a week and only the weekend was available. Now I’m glad it worked out that way. 🙂
      So sorry to hear that you are under lockdown. Things are opened up (to an extent) here, but they are locking down certain areas if there are new outbreaks. What a world!
      Take care and stay safe. -Margo

  4. You are so brave! Thanks for sharing what you learned and what you would or wouldn’t do again. We’re not as brave as you — taking this boat with a captain might be a treat. But if we took it out ourselves — oh, my. Near disaster!

    1. Oh, I don’t think it was bravery as much as naivety. 🙂 But hiring a skipper is definitely a more relaxing way to go.

    1. Thanks, Bill. It was quite an experience, but mishaps often make the best memories… 🙂

  5. Hi Margo,
    Why is it that misadventure makes such a great story??
    Love the fun image of you sliding down the slippery embankment frantically grabbing at grass to stay dry! You go girl!
    Happy Summer!
    Big hug to you both,

    1. Hi Rose, It’s always good to be able to look back on things and laugh. 🙂 I remember lots of laughable moments we had together in Nice… 🙂
      Hope you are having a good summer too.
      Hugs to you,

  6. Well Margo you really made my Sunday afternoon. Reading your exploits on your canal trip, I felt I was right there with you all.
    Keep writing you make the words come alive.

    Great pictures – so glad Captin Jeff and First mate Arvin survived 👏 👍 😀 🙌 👌

    1. Thanks, Sharon. Glad you felt like you were there – and you didn’t even have to get wet! 🙂

  7. At last someone who mentions getting stuck! Having never seen a canal (except in Venice) or been on a narrowboat, I bought one and roped in 2 old friends to help me bring it down the Grand Union from Northampton two months ago. We got stuck on the edges a lot not to mention the lacerations from overhanging branches. We made it through in 12 days of hard work, laughter and cold. The last 3 days my driving worsened. An explanation was found on arrival at the marina – a life jacket picked up in the canal was wound tightly round my prop shaft!!!

    1. Oh my! You certainly are brave.
      We had thought about renting a canal boat for years and all the brochures made it sound so easy. But boy, it was a lot of work and quite intimidating.
      So good on you, making your first trip a 12 day one – and with a life jacket on the prop shaft. 🙂 Oh well, it makes for a good story.
      Wishing you many happy years with your new narrowboat.
      All the best,

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