boating tips and rules for the Norfolk Broads
rules of the road (river) for motor boats

This page helps and encourages new and inexperienced boaters to safely enjoy the pleasures of motor boating on the Norfolk Broads and get you started into a relaxing and fun recreation.

picnic boat
cockpit of picnic boat

Typical picnic boat with front cabin and raised helm (steering)

A picnic boat more facilities but may not be as easy to move around in.

Typical day boat; level inside, steering at front.

So, It’s just like a car then? No!

So, why is it not like a car?  Starting, stopping, steering and the rules of the road (river) are all different.  Starting the engine may be just like a car, but pulling away is different.  As a car steers from the front, and the back follows, pulling away is just a question of turning the wheel and pressing the throttle.  A boat steers from the rudder at the back, so pulling away involves the back swinging into the bank, while the front swings out; a bit like pivoting in the middle.  If the bank stops the stern from swinging the boat may simply rub along the bank.  Therefore, to overcome this problem it is often a good idea to push the back out from the bank using the boat hook, and reverse out a little, or push the front out and move off straight, away from the bank.

diagram of casting off wrongly
diagram of casting off with help
diagram of casting off on your own

So now we’ve taken off, it’s plain sailing?  Not quite!

Firstly, remember you have NO BRAKES!  Therefore, there are two ways of stopping (without ramming the bank or another boat).  Firstly, you keep a controlled speed, thinking ahead and bringing the boat to a gentle stop using the throttle to slow down, with a little nudge forward if you do this too soon.  Skilled, experienced skippers can do this with ease and always look impressive, stopping exactly in place without loads of revving.  The second way is to use reverse as a brake.  Unlike a car “gripping” the road, a propeller does not grip the water so simply going into neutral provides little resistance.  Going into reverse creates a backward force that drags the forward movement.  Inexperienced “beginners” are always given away by the need to suddenly rev the engine, opening the throttle in reverse at the last second.  Not recommended, but essential as your “emergency stop” brake.

I can start, stop, and steer, so going along is just a question of driving on the right?

Well yes, but not quite!

Roads use well-defined lanes, and drivers usually drive close to the kerb.  Not so with boating!  It is very important to preserve the bank from erosion, protect wildlife, and avoid flooding the top.  All boats create a “wash” behind them that gets weaker the further away from the boat.  So you should not hug the bank, but stay in about the centre of the river.  As an oncoming boat approaches simply adjust your course so that you pass close to each other and to the right (you pass left side to left side (port to port).  This is more easily done the wider the river.  Most rivers meander.  Following the bank makes you go much further than if you are able to steer a near straight course down the middle.  Most rivers have a speed limit of 4 mph, and most hire boats have limiters.  This also reduces your wash.  If you go to overtake a slower vessel, make sure it’s clear on-coming and pull towards the middle of the river as you speed up.  The boat in front may move a little towards the bank to help you.  Again, overtaking this way helps protect the bank. Do not try to go through the gap between the boat in front and the bank.  In any case the boat in front may have slowed down because it is about to turn into the bank to moor.

diagram of too close to bank
diagram of passing boat

OK, so steering’s just like a car, right?

Not at all!  You may have a steering wheel that turns in the conventional direction, but that’s about it.  Because of the grip on the road a car’s steering is immediate and as extreme as you turn the wheel.  In a boat you just turn the rudder and you have to wait for the flow of water to change under the boat.  A boat pivots, so turning to the right sends the back to sideways to the left. Allow room for this. Steering takes time to react, so is a little delayed and changes happen slowly.  Be patient, and allow time.  Another clue giving away a beginner is over steering, leading to opposite compensation and a boat that is snaking along, instead of going straight.  Because it relies on the rudder flowing through the water, the steering is more positive when going faster.  Don’t be tempted to cut corners at bends in the river; what looks sharp for a road turns out to be a gradual curve at boating speeds.  Strong winds will also affect your steering.

diagram of steering
diagram of overtaking

Junctions and other encounters.

On an open broad there are no “lanes” and you can go anywhere.  So, if you come to a meeting of rivers, or another boat approaches you to cross your path, who gives way to who?  There are no white lines!  The rule is really quite simple; the problem is the other boat may not understand the rules.  You must be prepared for anything.  The general rule for who gives way when the paths of two boats are going to cross is decided like this.  Imagine a straight line going straight ahead of your boat.  You give way to the right.  That is if you are looking to the right of this line to see the approaching boat you are the “give way” vessel and should not impede the passage of the other boat.  In this situation you will be able to see his port (left) side, and if at night will see his red light.  Now this only works if the other vessel does not suddenly change course. This vessel is the “stand-on” vessel and should maintain its course and speed.  You will be the “stand-on” vessel if you are looking to your left to see the approaching boat, and seeing its starboard (right) side, showing green light at night.  “Give way” means slowing down or altering course to pass behind the stand-on boat.

diagram to test your understanding
diagram of giving way priorities

Any boat in the green sector has right of way over you and you should slow down to pass behind it.  You have right of way over any boat in the red sector.

OK, so what about mooring?

You can moor in open water by dropping anchor (well, mud weight), or at a bank or staithe.  Staithe mooring is often stern on. Look for signs or go by other boats.  You can moor at the bank anywhere that is safe, deep enough, clear of underwater obstructions (e.g. tree roots) and is not private, has official restriction signs, or blocks the safe passage of other vessels.  Suitable places can be found within forest, open countryside, public staithes, and commercial moorings owned by pubs, restaurants, boat yards etc.  Many good “natural” mooring spots can be picked out by simply looking at the bank, and are generally free, with very few places making a charge (signposted).  Most pubs etc are free to patrons, but there may be charges for overnight stays at marinas, or municipal moorings but these are generally cheap and can well be worth it for facilities offered, or available nearby.

OK, so how do we moor?

Mooring alongside a bank

This is another area that shows up the novices embarrassingly as there are often people watching from the bank (and posting your misguided attempts on U-tube!).  Remembering still,that you are not a car, you don’t just run up to the kerb (bank) and brake.  You need to adjust your speed carefully, allowing for any tidal flow (none within a day trip from Wroxham), and wind, (in strong wind aim to moor against the wind as this gives you more control), aiming to bring the boat to a natural stop, with may be a slight burst of reverse if needed.  Aim to bring in the forward (front) end first, leaving the propeller and rudder in deeper water and swing in, or even slightly reverse in.  Keep an eye out for very shallow water or tree roots etc.  Preparation is paramount.  Unless on your own, have someone at the front end (bow) with a rope (attached at one end to the boat). As the boat arrives within A STEP, (NEVER JUMP A GAP as you might slip and the momentum of your boat may crush your leg between boat and bank, step off and either tie up to a strong tree, or use a boat hook into the ground, or tie to any provided mooring rings, stakes etc.  Then tie the rear (stern) in a similar way.  Don’ t leave additional mooring rope loose for people on the bank to trip over. If too long, return the rope onto the deck and tie there, again not leaving rope for people on the boat to trip.  THINK SAFETY!

Stern on mooring

Bring your boat close, but leave enough room for your back end to swing without hitting other moored boats the turn sharply away until about aiming at the gap you are targeting to moor.  Reverse slowly, but steering is not good in reverse, and it sometimes helps to give the throttle a sudden quick nudge to force a change of direction.  Practice, not theory needed here!  Don’t worry about your prop and rudder on a hire boat; they are well underneath and will not hit the quay, and stern-on mooring will always be dug out at the edge.

diagram of mooring alongside bank
diagram of stern-on mooring

Mooring in open water.  One of the greatest features of the Norfolk Broads is that even in the largest open broads the water is never really deep (see the “How were they formed page on this web site).  This makes them relatively safe, compared with e.g. the Scottish lochs, or Lake District.  Choose a suitable spot in an open broad where you will not obstruct other vessels, and drop the mud anchor (if you have one).  Not all day boats do.  Keep the rope tight and tie to a cleat on the deck, so that the rope goes straight down.  The broad is not tidal, so will not need allowance (see tip, above, for tidal). The boat will swing round down wind from the anchor so allow for this if fairly near a bank.  If you allow too much rope the wind may swing the boat in a large arc. In very strong winds you may drift a little if the mud anchor gets dragged.  One or two very shallow broads (e.g. Hickling and Barton) have deeper navigation channels marked by a line of red and black (or green) posts.  When travelling keep in the channel between these and do not moor in the channel.  You may moor just outside the channel, but don’t stray too far as you may run aground.

diagram of mooring in open water
diagram of mooring in tidal open water
diagram of effect of wind on mooring

So, what about fishing then?

Many boaters see fishing as an integral part of the trip.  The water in this part of the Broads and rivers is fresh water; so coarse fishing by float, ledger or spinning is fine.  You may fish from a boat, as long as it’s moored.  Do not have a line in the water (e.g. Spinning) from a moving boat.  You may fish from the bank unless it is signed e.g. a fishing club stretch, private property or where forbidden by the Broads Authority e.g. near a restricted bridge etc.  Remember, you must have a National Rod Licence, and it must be in season. (Closed season is 15th March to 16th June).  You can see and contribute to “fishing” on the main fishing section of this site.

So, is that it then?

Well we can never say that!

Some other things you should know.  As a motorboat you have good control, so you must give way to all other river users: yacht under sail, sailing dinghy, rowing boat, canoe, and swimmers.  Watch out for these, slow down and take a wide birth.  Watch out for boats under sail, tacking, where they may change direction suddenly.  Watch their course and adjust your speed so you can get past at the right moment.  The skipper may signal to you his course, or may wave directions to you.  The yacht club on Wroxham Broad often has many sailing boats in the summer but they generally keep to an area marked by buoys. Keep out of this area.  There is also a yacht club near the sharp bend at the Swan PH at Horning.  Elsewhere, you may meet individual craft.

Hire boats may not be operated after dark.  You don’t have lights and in any case will certainly not be insured.  Private vessels are fitted with navigation lights, and may travel at night.  However, in high season it can be very light quite late into the evening.

diagram of who gives way

Remember, boating is not like driving!  It is not about getting from A to B as quickly as possible.  It’s about the journey itself.  Be leisurely; allow time; stop off at places of interest.  Be considerate and helpful to other river users.  Not withstanding “the rules” as a small day boat give way to larger craft and particularly the large tourist ferries.  These need a lot of room to manoeuvre on tight bends.

Within a day trip from Wroxham you will not encounter any tidal water, fast river flows, or marked channels, but you may encounter strong winds particularly on the open broad.  Always be aware of the weather conditions and how they may affect steering and mooring.

The tips on this page are not necessarily law, but simply our own suggestions gained from a few years of boating.

It is still common practice for the skippers of craft to wave or acknowledge each other as they pass, though less common in the High Season when there are simply too many boats for this to be practical.

Bon Voyage !

P.S.  The Broads are patrolled by river police (with a blue flashing light!), but although they are law enforcement, they generally understand the ignorance and inexperience of holiday makers and you will find that they are generally very helpful.

Tip for tidal waters.

If you moor for a long period, make sure you judge the direction of flow to find if the tide is coming in or going out.  The height of the water to the bank will change during your stay.  You may need to allow more rope to cope with changes in height caused by the boat going up or down alongside the bank.  This also applies to “drop anchor” open mooring.

©  The text on this page and the diagrams, as complete images, and files, are strictly the copyright of Wroxham Holidays, and may not be used without permission.  Permission may be obtained by applying by e-mail to the webmaster of this site.

Boating tips and rules for motorboats on the Norfolk Broads


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We are going to consider only motorboats, as a sailing boat does require some expert training.  In Wroxham there are many boat yards that can hire you a motor day boat or picnic boat, by the hour, day, or even week.  So what’s the best way to go about this?  If you’ve NEVER skippered a boat before we suggest you try just a couple of hours first in good weather to find out if it’s really for you.  Most day boats are diesel engine and can take 6 to 8 people.  Some boatyards do electric motors, which are much quieter.  Your preference!  In busy summer times it may be necessary to book in advance, unless you are prepared to just wait your turn at one of the large riverfront yards?  Otherwise you collect your boat from one of the boat yards just behind the main river.  See local map.  When you collect your boat the boatyard operator will ask you about experience, and they will show you the basic controls of engine start, steering and throttle.  They may take you for a short try out until you’re happy to go it alone.  They will provide you with life jackets and give you basic safety instructions.  They will usually give you a phone number so make sure you remember to take a charged mobile phone, so you can call for help if you break down.  If you are booking for a longer period of time, they will charge you for a full tank of fuel, and measure what’s left at the end, refunding the difference.  Booking for a few days or a week works out at a much cheaper rate, and of course means you can choose good weather to go out and you don’t need to get back before their office closes at the end of the day. See our map of the Broads.

Picnic or day boat?

A day boat usually has a straight through flat floor, and sliding soft top that allows cover in the wet, or as open as you like, and steering at the front.  A picnic boat may be about the same size, but may be on two or three levels, with a closed cabin below fitted with flush toilet and small gas rings for boiling water for tea and heating a saucepan.  Steering is usually on an open upper deck with canopy and more visibility than a day boat.  Look at a few different boat yards as they do vary slightly.  Some boat yards have a larger type too.  Day boats can carry more people and are easier to move about in;  picnic boats are great for being out all day, or even camping overnight; great for fishing trips.

Quick Jump to:

picture of day boat compared with picnic boat

Family boating on the Norfolk Broads is very safe and enjoyable if you have some basic knowledge and the right information to get you started.  Here are some tips and rules aimed at the casual boat hirer in non-tidal water, but also useful for private craft owners navigating the length and breadth of the Broads.

watch a choice of 12 short videos about boating on the Norfolk Broads
Wherry, 25 Peninsula Cottages, Wroxham, Norfolk, Norfolk Broads

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