Navigation Protocols for Canal Users


The Lowland Canals are a valuable amenity for the entire local community and the continuing expense of their maintenance can only be justified by the expansion of their use to as many people as possible. This means all those using the canals must learn to respect and accommodate the needs of others. There is an obvious conflict in trying to mix large, powered vessels with smaller, self-propelled craft.

A canal is not like a river or loch. It is more akin to an attenuated garden pond. It needs the passage of larger craft to prevent it deteriorating, in classic ecological succession, to a weed-filled ditch, unfit for any water activity. Without the other users it would be hard to justify the cost of maintenance.


The ‘rule of the road’ for canals is the same as all navigation. KEEP TO THE RIGHT. (While useful, the terms Port & Starboard are not generally used on canals). This also applies for overtaking: the overtaking vessel should pass to the left.

Steam gives way to Sail is no more applicable on a canal than it is in a major shipping lane. It is generally the rule that the smaller vessel should give way. This is the only practicable solution as larger vessels have little room for manoeuvre in the confines of a canal.

(NOTE: It is worth noting that for larger craft- Keep Right- may mean more like: Keep Right-of-Centre: due to the available depth of channel.)


There is a full code of horn signals for navigation which are, alas, little known and rarely used on the canals. There is one in particular that should be better known and more widely used.

ONE LONG BLAST: means: I AM HERE. This should be used when leaving a mooring or approaching any blind corner or bridge. If used to warn others of your approach it should be deployed as early as possible and does NOT mean: Get out of My Way!

The correct procedures for boaters are laid out below. (Note: It is recommended that users of small craft have a whistle for similar purpose)

INTERACTIONS: From the Boaters Perspective.



Meeting canoes/kayaks is rarely a problem for the boater. Make sure they have seen you; Keep to the Right and Slow Down for passing.

Being overtaken: It is the responsibility of the overtaking vessel to keep clear: You should Keep to the Right and Slow Down as they pass.

Overtaking: This is trickier. It is your responsibility to ensure safety. They do however, have a duty to give way. Make sure that they have seen you. Slow Down and ensure they acknowledge that they are aware of your intention. Proceed with caution. Overtake on the Left-Hand Side.


Boaters need to be aware that paddle-boarders are as vulnerable as open-water swimmers in encounters with powered craft. Additional care must be taken to ensure their safety.

In general, it is safest if paddle-boarders ‘tuck-in’ to the Right-hand bank and wait for others to pass or overtake. They must be given sufficient warning and time to achieve this. Slow Down – Stop if necessary: Make sure they are aware of your intentions and await their signal before proceeding. If possible, pass in neutral.

To keep things simple standard Traffic hand signals can be used by all parties to aid communication.

Rowing Boats

Bearing in mind that rowers are facing the wrong way, they may not be aware of your presence when they are coming towards you so you should give ample warning on your horn and be prepared to stop. On narrow sections of the canal, they will have to draw in their oars to let you pass, so be patient.


You should slow down and sound your horn to warn the fisherman of your approach so that they can retrieve their tackle to avoid getting it wrapped around your propshaft.

Summary: The larger boat may have the Right of Way but: Safety is Paramount. Do not proceed until you are sure it is safe to do so for all parties. Good communication is the key to safety and minimising inconvenience to all parties.


If you have read the advice to boaters this should be fairly self-explanatory. KEEP TO THE RIGHT.  COMMUNICATION IS KEY.

It is your duty to give way to larger craft but you must be allowed the opportunity to do so safely. This will, to some extent, depend on your own confidence and experience.

If you are approaching a blind bridge or corner: ONE long blast on a whistle will make any oncoming vessel aware of your presence and prepare for an encounter.

On meeting larger vessels: Use hand signals to indicate you have seen them and are responding. If possible, indicate by pointing, where you intend to wait to allow passage and whether you need time to achieve this. Indicate, by waving-on, when you are happy for them to proceed. The amount of time required and the relative security of your ‘refuge’ will depend on your own confidence and ability.

The same basic rules apply whether meeting or being overtaken. Try to Keep Right unless the only safe place to allow passage is on the left. In this case; indicate clearly your intention to cross over and your intended destination.

As before, the key to all this is good communication between canal-users: Carry a whistle; Use hand signals.



All canal-users should remember that pontoons, landing stages and slipways need to be kept accessible to all users. Where possible, make preparations away from launch point. There are Residential Boaters on the canals. Please respect their privacy and avoid unnecessary disturbance. It is also important to remember that residential boaters in particular do not appreciate people staring through their windows, it is very rude and disrespectful.


The ecology of a canal is fragile. Even minor contamination from external sources can have major impact. Please ensure thorough cleaning of all equipment also used elsewhere to avoid any environmental cross-contamination, such as by mud, weeds amphibians and insects.


To ensure the safety of all; some delay and inconvenience must be expected by all users. Remember: Canals are primarily associated with slowing down and taking life at a more leisurely pace: IF YOU ARE IN A HURRY: YOU ARE IN THE WRONG PLACE.

Written by Robin Fryer