How to Operate Canal Locks When Cruising in Your Narrowboat

canal lock next to tree with pink leaves

Locks are found in most inland waterways throughout the UK, which means a narrowboat owner must know how to use them if they are planning on cruising and traveling in their vessel. Locks are devices that are used for raising and lowering vessels over hills on stretches of water on the canal. There are different types of locks with varying mechanisms to operate them.  

About Canal Locks:

A lock is made up of a lock chamber that holds water and is made of brick, stone, or metal. In order to allow entry and exit for the boats, and to keep the water in the chamber, there are gates either side of the lock.

Opening a gate is only possible when the water levels are the same on both sides. Paddles on the locks are raised and lowered in order to change the water flow and adjust the level, and the cill is a large, raised ledge at the top end of the lock which the top gate shuts against.

Amazingly, there are no electric motors or pumps in the standard canal lock, they are worked by water pressure and the users muscle power.

Canal Lock Equipment:

Visit ABC Boat Hires website for full definitions of the equipment below.

  • Paddle gear
  • Windlass
  • Anti-vandal key
  • Lock landing
  • Sluices

How to operate a canal lock properly and safely:

As previously stated, the flow of water within locks is controlled by the paddles, so as well as learning how to operate a canal lock, you must consider safety.  Here are some tips on how:

  • Make sure you keep a firm grip of the windlass whenever winding. If it ever needs adjusting, ensure the safety catch, or pawl, is put back in place and start again.
  • Do not use a windlass that fits the spindle incorrectly or loosely. This could result in you hurting yourself or others when trying to use it.
  • Do not leave your windlass handle on the paddle gear. This could result in losing the windlass or an injury to someone should the safety catch disconnect causing the handle to spin around.
  • Make sure you wind down the paddles and do not just let them drop after use. This could result in damage to the lock.


Once you arrive at the lock, you should moor up and a crew member should check to see if the lock is full of water or empty. If the lock is already being used by another vessel, you should moor your boat a distance away that you avoid currents whilst it is emptying.

If the lock is empty than you will need to open the gates by pushing against the balance beams, then steer the boat in carefully and close behind.

Should the lock be full of water, moor your vessel next to the lock and empty the lock by slowly raising the paddles. Once empty, steer your vessel in the lock.

Close the gates and slowly open the top ground paddles that are located each side of the lock, then wind up the ground paddles to fill.

It is important to understand that opening the paddles slowly prevents the boat moving about too much in the lock. You can use gentle throttle in bursts to keep the boat steady and make sure it does not hit anything and damage it.

Once the lock is full, open the top gate and steer the vessel out. You will need to shut the top paddles and shut the gate behind the boat. If another boat is coming towards you, you should leave the gate open for them.


Upon arrival to the lock, moor your vessel and check the lock. If the lock is full when you arrive you can open the gate and steer the boat in. If the lock is empty, then it will need to be filled by winding the paddles that are located nearest to the vessel.

Once full of water, open up the gates and steer your boat into the lock, then close the gate and lower the paddles. Ensure you keep the rear of your vessel away from the cill located on the top gates.

Then open the paddles to the front of your boat in order to empty the lock. As it is emptying, make sure you check the rear of the boat to ensure it is clear of the cill so no collisions will damage the lock or your boat. You can use gentle throttle bursts to keep the boat steady.

Once the water level is equal you can steer your boat out of the lock, making sure you close the gates and lower the paddles before you continue.

Make sure you are insured before you set off:

When cruising in your narrowboat you should always make sure you are properly covered in case something goes wrong. When dealing with locks for the first time, there is a lot of room for error which could lead to damages, so ensuring you are properly covered can help give you peace of mind. Contact us today…

Get in touch

Get in touch with the team at Collidge & Partners today for insurance advice, call 01303 290872 or...