boating basics – part one

boating basics

an introduction to renting and handling motorboats on inland waterways with particular reference to those of the UK and France

by CLive Edwards and Captain Chris Woods

first published in 2009, and reproduced with kind permission of the MNABC

This publication has been produced by the Merchant Navy Association Boat Club with the aim of providing basic information for anyone venturing onto the water for the first time. The idea is to help make the experience more enjoyable and safer, both for you the reader and for other users of the waterways.

As we anticipate that most of those likely to benefit will be planning to hire a boat on inland waterways, rather than taking to the sea, we have concentrated on how to handle a boat on rivers, canals, lakes, the Broads etc. but many of the practices we describe would apply equally when taking to the sea.

The Merchant Navy Association Boat Club is a group of present or former professional seafarers who are members of the Merchant Navy Association and interested in boating, contributing to maritime safety and sharing information. The Club is affiliated to the Royal Yachting Association (RYA) and the Norfolk & Suffolk Boating Association (NSBA) and has links with The Coastguard Association, the Sea Safety Group, the National Coastwatch, the Maritime Volunteer Service, the Nautical Institute and several other maritime organisations.

The objectives of the Club are to facilitate and promote the safe participation and enjoyment of boating activities on oceans, seas, lakes and inland waterways. We also seek to facilitate the training of prospective younger members and promote opportunities for careers in the leisure sector.

The authors are both former professional mariners with many years’ experience of operating a variety of craft, including fast rescue boats, as can be seen from these brief biographies:

Clive Edwards

A yachtmaster instructor and a member of HM Coastguard for many years, including several years as patrol boat skipper, Clive was chief rescue officer for the Yacht Clubs of Weymouth, a rescue officer and rescue boat operator for the RYA British Olympic Sailing Team, and more recently he was the NCI Lyme Bay National Coastwatch station manager. He is a member of the Honourable Company of Master Mariners and is the RNLI Community Safety Officer for the Weymouth Lifeboat area and is currently Commodore of the Merchant Navy Association Boat Club.

clive edwards lady sarah

Captain Chris Woods

Chris is a tanker man through and through with a full Masters Foreign Going Certificate.
In 1980, after 18 years deep sea with BP, he was invited to transfer to their offshore fleet supporting BP Exploration, mainly in the North Sea but also the Mediterranean and Canada. His first three years were with their mid - N.S. sector disaster ship, the converted tanker Forties Kiwi. During this time Chris had professional training with Fast Rescue craft and their remarkable ability to be handled in extreme conditions for rescuing rig/platform personnel from the water, plus co-ordination

with commercial SaR helicopters and Nimrod search aircraft. He then transferred to their more challenging but rewarding offshore support vessels where he remained as Master until retirement in 1999.

Since then Chris has sailed and cruised the Norfolk Broads, is a member of the Norfolk & Suffolk Boating Association and a Governor of the RNL. His role as the Merchant Navy Association Boat Club’s Vice Commodore includes liaison with the NSBA

boating basics - chapter one

before you leave home

Your hire - cruiser operator will normally have provided you with a list of all the equipment that you will find on - board when you collect your boat from the base, but this will obviously not include items such as personal clothing, footwear etc., so the following is a guide as to what you should take with you:


Hard suitcases are certainly not ideal on a boat, so you should try to pack your things in soft bags


Clothing should be practical, comfortable and easy to clean, even though you may want to take some “smart - casual” clothes for evenings out etc. Don’t forget that it can rain or turn chilly on occasions, even in the South of France or on the Canal du Midi, so packing a warm sweater and lightweight wet - weather gear is advisable.

  • Shoes: Non-slip “deck - shoes” (identifiable by their razor - cut soles) are ideal, but trainers will probably do - high heels and slippery - soled smart shoes are definitely unsuitable!
  • Gloves: especially the high - grip type available from builders merchants, are useful for handling anchor warps and mooring ropes.
  • Caps are also very useful as a protection against the glare of the sun and UV sunglasses are almost essential for the driver (helmsman)

A high - viz jacket or tabard is useful if sailing in the dark or semi - darkness.


Boats do not generally have electric razor sockets, or sockets for 240volt hair dryers!

Water reflects and intensifies sunlight, so don’t forget the sun - glasses (UV lenses are a must to avoid eye damage in strong sunlight over the water), the sun - tan lotion and the after - sun!

Maps & Guides:

Maps used on the water are usually called “charts” and you’ll definitely need to have an appropriate one together with a local waterways guide.

Together they will prove invaluable for identifying such things as:

  • The location, opening hours and distances between locks
  • Where you can find moorings and other crucial information
  • The nature and location of tourist attractions, restaurants etc.

Other publications worth considering are:

  • Pilot Guides to the principal inland waterways in the UK such as The River Thames
  • The Norfolk & Suffolk Boating Association’s (NSBA) “Green Book”, (for the Broads)
  • The Royal Yachting Association’s (RYA) Inland Waterways Handbook
  • A large scale Ordnance Survey map for exploring ashore.
  • For the French inland waterways, the multi - language “Guides Fluvial” series

If you’re a keen angler you’ll know what to take in terms of tackle, but don’t forget you’ll probably need a permit – in France these are available from fishing tackle shops and some “tabacs”

Children & Pets:

At sea and on most rivers we recommend that everybody wears a life jacket whilst on deck even though on most canals and smaller inland waterways they are not a legal requirement. We also strongly recommend the continual use of lifejackets or “buoyancy aids” for all young children and/or non - swimmers – do make sure to use ones that are “age appropriate” and fitted with a whistle. You can even get buoyancy aids for dogs these days too!

However, you might also think about using a harness for your dog which can be useful if you need to use a boat - hook to haul it out of the water – you don’t want to strangle him or her by trying to lift by the collar!

It is preferable not to let your pet go swimming in the first place, especially in rivers where Green Algae and weed are serious hazards and only too easy to get entangled in. They are responsible for more loss of human and canine life than any other cause on inland waterways.

Books and some games will help to stop kids becoming bored once the novelty of being afloat begins to wear off. If you’re taking dog(s) with you don’t forget the pet food, their beds, leads and food/water bowls.


Some hire - cruiser operators offer bicycle hire as well and these will certainly add to your enjoyment and be useful for shopping expeditions. If you are taking your own bikes don’t forget to make sure they are insured.


Handy when you are ashore but not normally allowed to be used on board unless securely fixed on the outside of handrails.

Bin - Bags:

These are useful for depositing rubbish into the bins provided at most locks and official mooring places.


In the UK no qualifications are required when hiring a boat on our inland waterways but anyone operating a boat on continental waterways requires a Certificate of Competence (i.e. a licence).

Many hire - cruiser operators actually advertise “no licence required” which in effect means that they will give you a temporary licence when you collect your boat from their base but be sure to check this when you book.

Cruiser operations on the inland waterways of Europe are governed by a set of quite complicated regulations, rather like the Highway Code. Your hire - cruiser operator will normally provide you with a summary of these regulations illustrating the more important points you will need to comply with.

If you are going boating in tidal waters you will need to buy a local tide table - these are sold by ship’s chandlers, newsagents, yacht - brokers and even petrol stations in areas where there is any significant boating activity.

If you are interested in knowing more about the above or other aspects of boat craft, see the list of recommended publications in Appendix A.

boating basics - chapter two

before you leave the base

Most hire-cruiser operators will take you carefully through the operation of your hire cruiser and all its equipment before you leave port. It is important to make sure you have understood everything and are familiar with the operation of things like the engine, fuel, drinking water, gas, shower, toilets, heating, lighting, the cooker and the ‘fridge before you set off.

Make sure that everyone on - board is conversant with the advice and instruction given - not just the skipper!

In addition, the following points are worth bearing in mind:

Try to stow all your personal belongings away tidily – there is nothing worse than trying to operate a boat with things, including children’s toys, strewn all over the place and it can be positively dangerous even to try!


Never try to fend off using your arms or legs so, whenever you intend to moor up to anything like a quay or a wall, make sure you have fenders ready on a line and in the correct position to cushion the impact.

It is a useful idea to have two or three fenders on a line that can be held over the side in the case of an impending collision!

Mooring Ropes:

You will be using these a lot, so a few words of advice before you leave the base are worthwhile.

Firstly, make sure you have mooring ropes securely attached to the boat at both the bow (the front end of the boat) and stern (the back end).

Make sure that they are neatly coiled up (practice first to see which way the rope coils naturally) and that they can’t fall off and trail in the water where they can foul the propeller.

It can literally take hours to free a rope that is wrapped round your propeller, it can cause damage to the engine, you will get very wet indeed untangling it and, if the stern has to be lifted by a crane to clear the rope from round your prop, that’s going to be very expensive as well as hugely embarrassing.

The simplest way of mooring, in gentle winds and with little tide or current, is to simply have one rope leading forward and another one leading aft.

If there is a reasonably strong current or tide, or a strong wind, then you will need more ropes and the most useful are ones called “springs”. These are fixed to prevent your boat surging backwards and forwards which it would tend to do if you only have a bow line (i.e. a line at the front) and a stern line (i.e. behind).

To add springs you should take a line from towards the stern of the boat and run this forward to a mooring post ashore some little way ahead of your boat, and another line from near your boat’s bow to a mooring post ashore a little way astern your boat. You should also make sure that your stern mooring line is secured to a post or ring not too far behind your boat so that the wash from passing traffic can’t drag your boat too far away from the side.

Remember to pass your mooring ropes UNDER any guard -rails around the boat to avoid damaging them and make sure you avoid having the ropes snagging any obstructions such as stanchions (these are the up right posts that support the guard-rails). In other words make sure your mooring ropes have an unimpeded run.

If you’re in tidal waters and you intend to leave your boat for more than a short time (e.g. half an hour or more) you will need to consult your tide table to ascertain the state of the tide and how much it is likely to rise or fall while you are away.

When you return to the boat you don’t want to find that you have used far too much rope and your boat has now drifted into the middle of the stream or, worse still, that you have used too little length of rope and your boat is now suspended well above the water or even tipped over!

The most common use for a rope on board will be making fast to a post and the surest way of doing this is to take a couple of turns round the mooring post and then feed the rope back on board and secure it to a cleat- this doubles the strength of the mooring and makes for easier letting - go.

It is quite possible you may at some stage need to throw a rope to someone ashore or to someone on another boat. Most people who are not used to using ropes make a mess of this and end up with the rope in the water! The correct way to throw a rope is firstly to attach one end to something secure and then to coil the rope neatly.

If it is a long rope divide the coil into two with one half in your throwing hand and the other half in the other hand . Swing your throwing arm smoothly and let go of the first coil then allow the remainder of the rope coiled in your other hand to follow.

It’s worth practising this and you’ll be surprised just how far you can actually throw a line!


Although not essential, it is useful to know how to tie the most common knots used in boating and the correct way to attach a rope to a cleat (a piece of equipment found on deck at either end of the boat specifically designed for attaching ropes)

Let us start with the Clove Hitch , as illustrated below. This is a simple knot, quick and easy to tie, and very useful when mooring to a post for a short time, but it’s not a particularly secure knot and should only be used while someone is in attendance to make sure that it doesn’t start to slip.

Perhaps the most useful knot of all is the Round Turn & Two Half -Hitches which can be safely used in lots of situations where your boat is to be left unattended as it is not prone to slipping

There may be occasions when you need to join two ropes together to make one longer rope . When doing this you should use a knot called a Sheet Bend, as illustrated below:

Finally it’s quite important to know the correct way to attach your ropes to the cleats on - board your boat!

The following picture illustrates the correct way to do this:

Read Part Two (chapter 3 and Appendix A)

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About Clive Edwards

Clive has been a Coastguard Rescue Officer, Station Manager of a Coastwatch Station, and a RNLI Water Safety Officer. He is Commodore of the MNA Boat CLub, and was recently elected Chairman of the Institute of Seamanship. Clive now does most of his boating on the Norfolk Broads, where he and his wife Lois keep their boat "Elsa ll" and carry out safety boat duties as a Guardship for the famous annual Three Rivers Race. They also undertake shore crew duties for Hemsby Independent Lifeboat Station and their "Lifeboat for the Broads"