Learning to drive – and navigate – a boat along Canada's historic city canal

Nick Redmayne
·7-min read
flotilla boats on water next to white wooden house with red roof and trees - Le Boat
flotilla boats on water next to white wooden house with red roof and trees - Le Boat

Leaves and twigs fell across the deck. The sounds of scraping and snapping combined with a confused throttle setting and a desperate whine from the bow thrusters. The excited “whoop, whoop” of a Second World War destroyer’s hooter played, too, albeit in my head. Just three knots’ headway, sustained laughter from Parks Canada lock staff, and the steady hand of Le Boat’s Lisa McLean reaching over to reset the rudder calmed the momentary storm. “There. That OK?” It was. Out of the trees, under control and back in the channel. All ahead full.

The 126 miles and 47 locks along Ontario’s Rideau Canal allow normally tranquil passage between Kingston, on Lake Ontario, and the heart of downtown Ottawa. Of course, indigenous traders navigated the Rideau and Ottawa rivers for centuries, but the origin of the contemporary waterway dates from the war of 1812, between the British Dominion of Canada and its less polite neighbour, the United States.

An hour’s taxi ride from Ottawa, through unprepossessing middle-Canada, Le Boat’s reception occupied a brick-and-white clapboard former lockmaster’s house in the small town of Smiths Falls. “Down on Dock” declared a note pinned to the door. I worked my way to the company’s mooring, where Le Boat’s Heather Whiting was hurrying to provision my home for the next three nights: a sleek 44ft three-cabin Horizon cruiser.

canal, trees and grand parliament building with spires - iStock
canal, trees and grand parliament building with spires - iStock

“I’ve never steered anything bigger than a dinghy,” I admitted. “Everyone is given training. We don’t exceed 10 knots. As long as you realise ruddered boats take a while to respond, you’re fine,” she counselled. “Though we’ve had some difficulty with the term ‘self-drive boats’, particularly with US clients. They thought they drove themselves. It’s not like that.”

Next morning, Sandy Crothers, Le Boat’s base manager, arrived to deliver training and reassure himself that I’d be competent at the helm: “This is an adventure. If you weren’t a little bit nervous something would be wrong.” I informed Sandy of the depth of my ignorance. “It’s people who say they’ve been working with boats for years and they know what they’re doing,” he said. “That raises a red flag…”

I was relieved that turning the wheel left turned the boat left, too. “What happens if I lose the channel?” I asked. Too quickly, Sandy whipped out his phone and pulled up a picture. “This was last week. They were on the rocks. We didn’t make a drama out of it. The hulls are reinforced with steel. Just C$400 [£230], we towed them off, and they were on their way.”

Tentatively, I took the wheel and traversed the nearest lock. Sandy was satisfied that I could be set adrift. From the top deck steering position, I pushed the throttle forward, felt for resistance on the rudder and eased the boat around. Merrickville, our overnight mooring, lay four hours’ gentle cruise to the north.

The Rideau’s locks and swing bridges operate from mid-May to mid-October. In that steady Canadian way, Parks Canada staff take care of all the hard work. Head in, tie up, turn the engine off and wonder at the reliable simplicity of Victorian hydraulic engineering. There were five drops in level between Smiths Falls and Merrickville, and despite August being peak season, canal traffic was sparse.

Four people on boat eating meal - Le Boat
Four people on boat eating meal - Le Boat

Unsurprisingly for a canal, the surrounding landscape was uniformly flat. However, 10 knots invites appreciation of nuance. Banks of rushes, and stands of maples, oaks and willows characterised the shore. Kingfishers darted to and fro, while ospreys watched overhead. Under way, the breeze was welcome. However, as the canal opened into one of its wider reaches, dark thunder clouds formed and grew ever closer. Then rain began to fall as the wind rose. Charts, cameras and phones were tossed inside. Channel markers disappeared as squalls whipped across the water’s surface.

My co-skipper, Lisa, had the wheel. I sat beside her holding on tightly to an umbrella. Lightning flashed beyond the reed beds. I referenced Captain Ahab. Then, as quickly as it had arrived, the storm dissipated. Blue sky fractured the grey. A warm breeze dried our saturated clothes. Merrickville’s fortified lockkeeper’s blockhouse hove into view.

“The water and the energy it provided drew industries and people,” said Jane Graham, our town guide. “Flour mills, sawmills and carding mills thrived on almost 25ft of fall.” Today, industry has morphed from heavy to artisanal, and the town of 3,000 had a prosperous, alternative feel. Jane introduced me to Larry Thompson, of Greyweather Press, a writer, lithographer and binder of beautiful books. Elsewhere, Claudette Hart, a felt worker, showed me her tiny fabric houses. (“These are structures from the planet Orcadia, somewhere my granddaughter discovered…”)

water surrounded by autumnal trees, duck and buoys - Danielle Donders /Getty Images 
water surrounded by autumnal trees, duck and buoys - Danielle Donders /Getty Images

Next morning I was early to rise, taking a fresh black coffee on to the top deck. Glassy water extended from the boat, opening out and finally disappearing among bulrushes. A purposeful couple arrived at the waterside carrying a kayak and camping gear. Quietly, they readied for departure, silently dipped in their paddles and slipped away.

Taking some minutes to examine the chart, Lisa and I plotted the day’s cruise to Manotick, another small settlement founded on water power. At a single turn of the key the engine thrummed reassuringly. Fore and aft lines untied, a short burst from the bow and stern thrusters, followed by a steady throw of the throttle, and we were under way.

Later, emerging from the second lock of the day, without enough throttle for positive headway, a current caught the boat. I ploughed broadside into those low-hanging branches, from one of which hung an angry nest of wasps. I was glad I’d lacked the hubris to don the captain’s cap (Le Boat standard issue).

Late in the afternoon we berthed at Manotick. I’d been plied with ghostly tales from the students employed to enliven the town’s historical Long Island Mill, but sleep came easily. The gentle motion of the boat and the lapping of water against the hull cultivates a quiet mind.

On the final day, the Rideau transformed from waterway to canal. Beyond a ladder of three locks, the traffic increased. Running down a pedalo or ramming a faux pirate ship would have been newsworthy – and possibly justified – but on balance a poor way to end my voyage. As metropolitan Ottawa closed in, Lisa maintained station mid-channel at a red traffic light. Overhead, cars halted, and a section of bridge rose, allowing us to pass beneath. Round a bend, the downtown skyline of Canada’s capital hove into view, including the Gothic French fantasy that is the Fairmont Château Laurier hotel. Its founder perished aboard the Titanic, never to see its doors open. Later, on Château Laurier’s terrace, drawing deep on a glass of champagne, I toasted a modest but rather more successful voyage.

The details

Nick Redmayne travelled with Le Boat (023 9280 9124; leboat.co.uk), which operates a fleet of over 900 self-drive boats on European and Canadian inland waterways. Week-long cruises on the Rideau Canal aboard a Horizon 1, sleeping five, operate from May to October and cost from £1,679 per boat. Air Canada (0371 220 111; aircanada.com) flies from Heathrow to Ottawa via Toronto, from £449 return. For ideas on where to stay, read our complete guide to the best hotels in Ottawa.

Overseas holidays are currently subject to restrictions.