Boating is not only an enjoyable way to travel, it’s also one of the safest ways! But while accidents and injuries are rare, a small amount of people do get hurt annually which is why it’s so important to stay safe and aware no matter how experienced you are. This guide compiles important safety information from the Canal & River Trust to identify the causes of accidents and how to prevent them, so you can enjoy your waterways adventure as safely as possible. If you do have an accident or near-miss, you should report it to the navigation authority office or member of staff on the bank, because your report could help to keep others safe. To voice any safety concerns you may have, please feel free to speak to a member of the team at any of our marinas.
Over half of all accidents to boaters are caused by falling from the boat, towpath, bank or jetty. Many happen even when the boat is tied up. Those accidents can be more serious when you fall into the water, which comes with the danger of drowning, hitting your head or being injured by boats and debris. There’s also the small risk of getting an infection from the water itself. Surfaces on watersides can be slippery or uneven and littered with bollards, rings and ropes, so it’s important to be alert and aware when walking on the waterside. Falls can happen especially when inexperienced boaters try to moor their boat, which is why it’s important to be knowledgeable about the boating basics before you set sail. For advice on how to moor safely, see our Basics of Boat Handling guide or visit the Canal & River Trust.
To avoid falls:
Although very rare, boat fires and explosions can be fatal. There are some specific risks to be aware of. Petrol vapour and bottled gas are heavier than air and highly flammable, so they’ll build up in the bottom of the boat if a leak occurs and any spark will ignite them. You should also be cautious of fumes from cookers, cabin heaters, water heaters, or the engine exhaust building up in the boat.
To avoid fires and explosions:
Have your boat’s electrical systems installed and maintained by a professional, know where to find your main switch, test your circuit breakers and never ignore the warning signs of burning smells or scorch marks. Your boat’s different sources of electrical power should never be connected to each other or the same wiring, this is only possible due to negligent or incompetent electrical work. And never let water come into contact with your electric equipment or wiring.
Collisions are another more common cause of injury on the waterways, which can lead to falls both on the deck and into the water. There’s also a risk of getting scalded or burnt if you’re cooking in the galley when a collision occurs. Collisions are caused by either cruising too fast, not paying enough attention to the waterway or general lack of boat handling experience.
Collisions lead to crushing – never put yourself between the oncoming object to try and prevent the collision! You may end up with crushed fingers or legs or even more serious bodily injuries. Keep within the boat, pay attention, and be aware of the size and momentum of your vessel.
To avoid a collision:
Capsizing is when the boat is turned on its side or upside down in the water, and it happens when there is too much of an uneven weight distribution on board. This is especially dangerous as people on board can get stuck under the upturned boat and be at risk of drowning.
To avoid capsizing:
Make sure everyone aboard knows the drill when a member of your crew goes overboard. Everybody should know where to find the lifeline or life belt, and the crew should know how to steer the boat and stop the propeller in case your skipper is the one who’s fallen in. The first thing you need to do when someone goes overboard is stop, take a breath and think! Don’t panic and don’t jump in after them (even in summer you can go into cold shock in the water, which can be fatal). Keep sight of the person in the water at all times.
If you’re on a narrow canal or slow and shallow river, put your engine out of gear, throw a line or a lifebelt and tell them to try to stand up – if it’s a canal they might be able to walk out. Steer the boat slowly to the bank and get one of your passengers off to help the person get out of the water (don’t reverse the boat – the person in the water could be dragged into the propeller).
On wider and deeper waterways throw a lifebuoy to the person overboard and ensure your propeller stays well away from them (if they’re at risk of getting too close to it, stop the propeller immediately by switching into neutral gear). On a river you might need to turn to approach them slowly going against the stream. Pull them to the side of the boat and help them climb aboard with a rope, pole or ladder.
Boating requires a lot of physical exercise! You’ll often be doing heavy work and using unfamiliar tools and techniques, which can lead to straining your muscles and back, getting cuts or worse. Operating injuries are caused by overstretching yourself, using equipment incorrectly, not preparing properly, and rushing the job in hand or not paying enough attention to it.
To avoid operating injuries:
Moving through a lock is perhaps the trickiest part of boating. There’s a lot to think about all at once and a whole series of tasks to carry out. Essentially all the safety tips we’ve covered so far apply in this scenario, so make sure to stay alert. If your boat gets caught up, it could come crashing down into the lock. Accidents in locks are caused by rushing, not paying attention, or a lack of preparation or knowledge about the procedures.
To avoid accidents in locks:
You can expect calm conditions and smooth sailing in most canals, but rivers are less predictable. With strong streams, currents and tides, the usual risks are magnified and collisions are more likely. It takes special skill and good judgement to sail in fast flowing water conditions. Accidents are caused by lack of experience, poor communication and underestimating the challenge.
To avoid accidents in fast flowing water:
Now you know what to be aware of when you set sail on the British waterways. Boating is an incredibly fun and adventurous pastime but it's important to be safe, sensible and aware of your surroundings at all times. For further safety information:
The Environment Agency issues River Advice for Boaters (RAB) on the River Ancholme, River Nene and River Great Ouse between Bedford and Earith, to keep river users informed of the changing weather conditions and to alert them of locks being prepared or used to discharge flood water. Look out for notice boards and lights on the riverbanks that inform boaters of the status of the river. Flags are also raised at many boat clubs, marinas and some locks. Boaters are strongly advised not to navigate when the Water Level & Strong Stream Advice message is in force when some locks may be ‘reversed’ for flood control. Boaters are encouraged to sign up and receive free River Advice for Boaters messages when using the River Thames and Anglian Waterways.
Check the Canal & River Trust for warnings and advice.