Narrow Boat Navigation through Stratford Canal Bridges & Locks

Boats with rudders are steered from the stern of the boat, from the back end. Instead of a steering wheel like we had while sailing with friends 20 years ago in the Caribbean and in the Greek Ionian islands, our narrow boat on the Stratford Canal in England had a three-foot horizontal piece of wood, about waist high to me, pointing toward the bow of the boat. With the steering wheel, the boat went the way you turned the wheel. Not so with the narrow boat. I haven’t researched the rudder to understand the logistics of what’s happening underwater. I just tried to remember as best as I could this if-then statement for the canals: If, for instance, the boat is heading toward the right-hand side bank, then you push the rudder hard in that direction so as not to crash into the bank. I thought this would be the toughest lesson. It wasn’t. Thinking in reverse while steering kicked in pretty quickly.

When we took possession of the “Teddington,” the engineers gave us a walk-through of the boat – focusing largely on the interior. How to flush the toilet. How to make sure the motor runs 5 hours a day so the battery has enough power to keep lights on at night. And to operate the pump that helps flush the toilet. How to fill the water tank with water every day. So there is always enough water to flush the toilet.

As far as traveling, our top speed would be about 4 mph – only the pace of a fast walk. When we come to a lock, we were to slow down and give ourselves time to line the boat up with the opening. With a beautiful English accent, this grandfatherly gentleman smoothly explained how to best navigate into the locks: “Look up the gunnels on one side of the boat and keep that side about an inch-and-a-half way from the wall. If you do this, you don’t have to worry about having enough space on the other side to clear the wall. You’ll be fine.”

That was so straight forward I nearly laughed. Actually, I think we may have started to laugh but then realized he was dead serious. And this was his best advice to us: From the back of a 48-foot boat, using a rudder to steer, stay one-and-a-half inches from the side of the lock. Our boat measured 6’10” wide. Once in the locks, we had about three or four inches between us and either wall.

I was determined to man all aspects of this journey, including captaining the boat, steering down the canal, and operating the locks. I took the rudder the first day, within the first hour. I felt if I didn’t do it soon, I would lose courage altogether. Hence, this action shot in my new red rain coat.

I don’t recall the details of this particular event. Yes, I might have bumped a wall. Yes, it might have been a bit loud. Perhaps this is the one in which I yelled, "Bill, what do I do?" And he replied, "I don't know! You're the captain!"

My maneuvering techniques through bridges and into locks were sometimes noisy ones, but I maneuvered many of them as perfectly as Dad backing a tractor hitch to within an inch of the hole in a wagon tongue.

Back on solid ground, what I remember most is that the bridges and locks were forgiving. Once in the vicinity of the entrance, a little gas – and perhaps a little scraping – would result in perfection. Eventually.

Happy Hump Day.