A magical time on the waterways

Make the most of winter on the inland waterways with our top tips
Inland waterways in winter

Winter is a magical time on the waterways.

While hire boat traffic may have mostly been put to bed for the season, the nation’s river and canals remain in constant use as passionate boaters enjoy the kinds of unique experiences only the winter months can deliver. 

With little foliage on the trees, views and vistas can be spectacular, while with less traffic churning it up, the water is clearer, giving a sparkle to your wake. Wildlife changes with the seasons, and reduced human impact, too so there is always the chance of glimpsing a rare bird or mammal you have never seen before.

All in all there is a calm, tranquillity only winter boating can bring.

But to enjoy it fully is to enjoy it safely, as temperatures plunge and conditions become more unpredictable.

Take note of these tips to make the most of one of boating’s greatest pleasures. 

Prepare for the cold

Sounds obvious but common sense isn’t always that common! Wear more layers plus hats and suitable gloves and think about shorter sessions on the tiller. Standing inactive for long periods will see your core body temperature drop so take it in turns to helm more often. 

Inland waterways in winter

Be weather aware

Conditions can change quickly often with little warning and water levels can rise rapidly to dangerous levels in some areas. Check the following resources for up-to-date river level data and flood warnings:

Go steady

Winter typically means ice and ice means the increased risk of slipping and hurting yourself on deck and around locks. Take extra care, wear shoes with good grip and remove ice where you can see it. Also be aware lock mechanisms are made of steel that can get very cold and hurt, with almost frostbite like symptoms, if you grab hold of them. Wear good gloves! 

Cold Water Shock

Accidents do happen and Cold Water Shock is a real danger in water below 15°C. The sudden exposure of the head and body to cold water can cause a number of involuntary reactions, such as sudden increase in heart and blood pressure that may result in cardiac arrest, even for people in good health. It can spark a gasping reflex, causing you to inhale and drown as you go submerge and it drastically reduces your ability to hold your breath underwater, from around a minute to less than 10 seconds. It induces vertigo and the ability to differentiate between up and down too. Wearing a lifejacket in tricky conditions or around locks will help you stay upright, keep your head above water and buy extra rescue time. 

Winter is not summer

Don’t expect all the waterside services you take for granted in the peak months to run the same operations over the winter. The Canal and River Trust have a number of resources to to help you plan your journey better, including where services are and locks or sections of canal being repaired or upgraded. 

Inland waterways in winter

Barmy ballast

So often over the winter you see canal boats carrying fuel sources, such as piles of logs and bags of coal, on their roofs. This extra load – sometimes amounting to an additional ton of weight – can make the boat very unstable. It only takes someone to open a paddle too quickly in a wide lock and an unbalanced boat is in serious danger of tipping over. 

Always expect the unexpected

The lack of traffic and peaceful tranquility can give boaters a false sense of security, but always be on your guard for unanticipated obstructions and meeting other water users. Familiarise yourself with the waterway you are on and where you can pull in or stop if needed. 

Keep your boat ticking over

Even if you are an active winter boater, there will still be times when your boat is not in use when winter can play havoc if you don’t guard against it. All boats should have essential annual maintenance to stop them breaking down and keeping them safe.

Meanwhile simple winterising advice, including giving the engine a once over, checking all fluid levels, maintaining fuel tanks and primary fuel filters, checking there is the right mix of coolant and antifreeze and draining domestic water systems to prevent freezing and cracked pipes, should be followed to avoid nasty surprises. 

Inland waterways in winter

Get trained

If you want to really be confident you would be effective if an accident does happen or your boat breaks down, consider taking a one-day RYA Diesel Engine or RYA First Aid course.

Alternatively the RYA Inland Waterways Crew and Helmsman courses will teach both beginners and seasoned boaters what it takes to be in charge of your own boat, operate the locks and remain safe and confident on the canals at any time of year. 

For more information about RYA courses and to find a training centre near you, or in your ideal holiday location, visit www.rya.org.uk/training