Lock etiquette

Lock etiquette - Locks can be confusing, even daunting to the novice boater, and if you don’t follow the correct etiquette you could end up in even more trouble.

`Believe me, my friend, there is nothing -absolutely nothing-half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.

`In or out of 'em, it doesn't matter. Nothing seems really to matter, that's the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don't; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you're always busy, and you never do anything in particular.’

Ratty, Wind in the Willows.

These carefully chosen words seem to capture the laid back lifestyle of boaters who head down to our inland waterways. The UK’s canals and rivers transport us to a more leisurely time; no rush, no hassles.

However, there is one aspect of the waterways that can cause friction, even anger, if not approached in the correct manner, and that is the lock.

Locks can be confusing, even daunting to the novice boater, and if you don’t follow the correct etiquette you could end up in even more trouble.

Cruising News caught up with RYA Inland Waterways instructor Andy Newman to pick up a few pointers on the correct etiquette to follow when heading through a lock.

Andy is in a privileged position to discuss the subject, currently principal instructor at Willow Wren training centre in Rugby; he has been messing around in boats since 1969.

He said: “Lock etiquette is not about the technicalities of getting through a lock, its more about doing it without upsetting other users, and there are certain guidelines which apply.

“These guidelines can vary on different canals and rivers, but they are all about politeness, consideration and common sense.

“I witnessed my first case of boat rage at a lock the other day, and this illustrates the importance of good etiquette. We’re all out there to have a good time; the last thing you want is to get wound up.”


Narrow Locks

Although lock etiquette can vary depending on which canal you are on there are a few hard and fast rules which apply and with canals getting busier, it has never been more important to show consideration for other users.

Here are a few pointers:

1)    Upon arrival at a lock, make sure that you don’t queue jump, a sure fire way to really irritate people.

2)    Check which way the lock is set, if it’s not in your favour and there is a boat heading the other way, make sure you let that person go through before filling/ emptying the lock for yourself.

3)    If you are second in the queue for a lock, make sure you offer to help the boat in front.

Andy said: “Always make sure you ask if they want help, don’t just wade in. Sometimes people will want to do it alone. By the same token, don’t offer unsolicited advice, as this can really wind people up.

4)    If you are sharing a lock with another boat, make sure that the lighter boat goes behind.

Andy said: “This has nothing to do with queue jumping, it’s simply that it minimises the risk of damage, particularly if you have fibreglass and a steel boat in together.”

5)    On leaving the lock, make sure you close all the gates and paddles, unless of course there is a boat coming the other way, who will want to use it.

Wide Locks

On wide canals it is possible to put two boats in side by side and this brings with it further matters of etiquette.

1)    If you are going into a wide lock on your own, in a narrowboat, then you only need to open one gate, if so open the towpath gate, it just makes things easier.

2)    If you are with another boat, decide who is going to go in first and discuss which crew is going to work which side of the lock.

3)    When sharing a lock, make sure you open the paddles evenly on both sides at the same time,

4)    When sharing, use a centre line (or bow & stern lines) to hold your boat into the lock wall so it can’t swing across and hit the other boat.

Andy said: “If you open the paddles unevenly, or don’t use a line, the boats get thrown around all over the place; no easier way to cause an argument at a lock.”

Staircase Locks

“Staircase locks will be controlled by a lock keeper. Make sure you go and find the ‘keeper first and then wait your turn to be let in, if not you could end up in a situation where you get halfway up and find a boat is coming down, not good” Andy added.

 “Don’t forget that you are also supposed to work your boat through the flight, don’t just expect the lock keeper or other boaters to do all the work. That would be a sure-fire way of causing upset.”

River Locks


Locks on the River Thames are operated by lock keepers, so the most important thing is to follow their instructions closely.

1)    When arriving at the lay-by, move right along so that other boats can wait behind, then turn off your engine.

2)    Just because you are first in the queue doesn’t mean that the lock keeper will necessarily call you in first, so be sure to wait until he calls you in.

3)    Don’t rush into the lock as there might be something coming out that you haven’t seen. Always wait for the lock keeper’s signal.

4)    Make sure you use bow and stern lines, as lock keepers will not let you through with a centre line on.

5)    When exiting the lock, make sure the gates are fully open before leaving.

Andy said: “It’s also well worth being nice to the lock keeper, it’s good manners and there’s every chance they’ll be the ones to let you through again on the return trip.”

Unmanned river locks

Andy said: “The main difference on unmanned river locks as opposed to canal locks is that you may be told to always leave the lock empty with the sluices slightly open.

“On the River Nene, for instance, you also have to leave the downstream “guillotine” gate up. If there is a boat waiting to come into the lock then obviously don’t empty it, as that is just going to really annoy them.

“However, if no boat is there, still have a jolly good look out upstream for an approaching boat, as they will really appreciate you leaving it ready for them, and it saves you some work as well.”


“There are other subtle differences in etiquette from river to river and canal to canal, but this is just intended as a general guide” Andy added.

“Lock etiquette is all about common sense and good manners, apply both of those and you won’t go too far wrong,“

The inland waterways are the fastest way of slowing down and the last thing you want to do is to start rushing around upsetting people, it kind of misses the point.”