How to Turn a Surly #Youth into a Cheerful #Boater: Just Add Water

The Open Lock Project

Nb. These are lovely children and not surly youths 🙂

New Year is a great time to think about learning new skills and maybe choosing a training course. I decided I wanted to speak to somebody who’s already done some NCBA training and find out a bit more about it. Noel Neilan agreed to help me out as he has done the NCBA old trainers course some years ago, and he was also on the October course last year to update himself on the new version of the course.

I was delighted when Noel wrote us an extended article describing his journey with community boating, explaining how he began, what training he has undertaken and the benefits of becoming involved. He has agreed to allow me to use some of his writing as a series of articles here on the blog. This first installment describes how youth work lead him to working with canal boats.


Community Boating – Opportunities for All

Open Lock otto LOGO (2)Our project is called “Open Lock” and we are currently part of Trafford Council Youth Services. However, the bulk of our funding comes from a Big Lottery Grant. We are based at Gorse Hill Youth Arts Studios with moorings on the Bridgwater canal in Trafford south Manchester; we operate two 70 ft. narrow boats the Princes William and Henry. We are a small but dedicated team: Janine Edwards project coordinator, Bill Dutton project worker, Nicole Hall our admin support and me. I have two roles; Management oversight and Trainer.

I have been involved with the Trafford boats for a long time but after a few years away from the project I recently returned and retrained with NCBA to take on the role of trainer with the Open Lock team.

Youth Work

I originally got into boating through my job as a youth worker. In the early 80s I was in charge of a large youth centre on an estate that had lots of social problems, with large numbers of young people involved in delinquent and anti-social behaviour. I was always on the lookout for activities and imaginative ways of engaging the young people in positive activity, and trying to get them off the estate, expand their horizons and improve their life skills and experiences.

As a youth worker I had always valued the opportunities that water sports and working in the outdoors offered young people. In those days I was a canoeist and a keen dinghy sailor with a dinghy of my own. We did lots of residential camps with young people, many of them based around water activities. We taught lots of young people to canoe, sail and water ski.

At one of our planning meetings for upcoming activities a colleague mentioned that he knew of a narrow boat that youth groups could use, it was operated by NACRO on the Leeds Liverpool canal as part of their support programmes for ex-offenders.

“The added bonus was that I enjoyed it!”

This was something new to me but hey “nothing ventured…” I signed up for the skipper’s course with NACRO. It wasn’t long after we set off on that first day that I realised the potential of boating and what opportunities it could offer the young people we were working with. The added bonus was that I really enjoyed it! I subsequently discovered that the council I worked for had a narrow boat but it wasn’t well publicised.

That was in 1984. After that I used the NACRO boat and Trafford Councils narrow boat with youth groups over the following three years.

Essential Life Skills

Narrow boating is a readymade personal development platform, it offers lots of opportunities for young people to learn the skills they need for life and work, even before they set foot on the boat they are planning menus buying food and planning routes. On the boat there is team work, developing personal practical skills, taking responsibility, communication, leadership, personal conduct and cooperation; you do not get a 70 ft. narrow boat up a flight of 12 locks without having to use and develop all these skills.

The change in attitude in many young people is remarkable, even over just a weekend’s cruising. The surly youth whose nose is pressed on to the screen of a mobile phone complaining that the boat is naff and too slow on Friday is often the one on the tiller on the return journey on Sunday confidently steering the boat, waving at people on the bank and pleasantly passing the time of day with other boaters and generally looking very pleased with themselves.

Noel Neilan

Coming Soon: In our next article Noel learns to train the trainers!


Open Lock photo 1 935611_1381791552069653_1503758344_n (3)



If you want to change a young person’s life for the better and change your own life at the same time why not get involved with Open Lock Gorse Hill? Or find your nearest community boating project with the NCBA.


Tel. 0161 912 2676

Would you like your project or personal experiences to be featured on this blog? Contact Peggy.


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