Narrowboat Skippers: How to Learn Teaching Skills That Make a Difference

Open Lock photo 1 935611_1381791552069653_1503758344_n (3)Noel Neilan is a community boater based at ‘Open Lock’, which is part of Trafford Council Youth Services. They can be found at Gorse Hill Youth Arts Studios with moorings on the Bridgwater canal in south Manchester, and they operate two 70 ft. narrow boats.

In a previous article he wrote about how he got into community boating through his job as a youth worker.

From Skipper to Trainer at 3mph!

In 1987 the then skipper of the Trafford boat decided to retire and the council asked for interested people to get more involved in the running of the boat, Myself and three others went on an extended Training the Trainer’s course so that we could train others to use the boat safely. After completing the five day course we then put together our own internal three day training programme for boat handlers who wished to book the Trafford narrow boat to use with their groups, schools, scouts and children’s homes etcetera. Along with co trainers we delivered four to five training courses a year to a wide range of users for around nine years.

RYA Training

To expand my knowledge and skills and to allow us to advertise our course externally I undertook the RYA Inland Waterways Helmsman’s Certificate – Instructors Qualifying course in Feb 1996. Although we were members of the Community Boats Association we chose RYA because at that time we felt they were a nationally recognised brand and something paying clients would recognise as a national qualification. Also I held other RYA qualifications in dinghy sailing, power boats and safety boat skipper. As you would expect the course was run very professionally but tended to focus on my personal skills as a skipper.

NCBA Training

I continued to deliver our three day course until July 2004 when I did the NCBA Boat Management Trainer Course run by Paul Bryan. The reason I decided to move to the NCBA was the emphasis on the wider boat management aspect of the training, not just the boat skills of the skipper. Anybody familiar with community boating will know that your boating skills are only one part of being a competent community boat skipper. Also, by that point the NCBA had raised their profile and were the ‘go-to’ people for community boating.

We then adopted the NCBA syllabus and I continued to deliver training for a further two years.

As often happens in local authorities as a result of reorganisation and promotion I was no longer in a position to deliver the boat training, I was lucky to get a new young and enthusiastic boat manager, we gave the project a new name “Open Lock” and the project continued to develop. Shortly afterwards the management of the boats moved out of my sphere of responsibility. While I kept a weather eye on the project and helped out occasionally when they were short of a skipper my involvement was minimal.

Lottery Funding

Open Lock otto LOGO (2)Due to recent reorganisation and “what goes around comes around” I now have oversight of the Open Lock Project and am involved with the boats again, The project was fortunate enough last year to get Big Lottery Funding for three years and is out more now than ever. As part of our lottery Funding we are required to deliver qualifying courses to adults and volunteers but unfortunately our current staff are not in a position to do so. Because of my past experience and knowledge I agreed to take on the role of trainer, however as I had not delivered any training for eight years a spot of retraining was required.

This time there was no question as to who to go to for training, I had been on the NCBA website and I had been shown the trainers section. It’s absolutely top notch, clear, comprehensive and straightforward to navigate. I cast my mind back to 1987 when we were trying to put together our training pack, compared to this ours looked like it had been done at play school. Trainers now don’t realise how fortunate they are!


I spoke to Derek Stansfield, NCBA Chair and director of training. He was very helpful and when I explained my previous experience he offered me a place on a trainers course. However, he did say, “Don’t expect the same course, there have been a few changes since 2004.”

I got my first taste of these changes when I received an email confirming my place; the email had six attachments – lots of information including pre-course reading and homework!


The course was in October on the SCAD project boat. We joined the boat at Snaygill Boat Yard in Skipton. The course director was Bob Ratcliffe and he was more than ably assisted by Roger Nisbit. The course was unrecognisable to the one I did in 2004 and I have to say far more challenging. My practical skills as a skipper were a given: The whole emphasis was on teaching, teaching styles, lesson plans, delivering the syllabus and preparing and delivering practical teaching sessions. The boat did not move for two days, we were just in the classroom working. Some may grumble that NCBA are making things too complicated. My opinion is that these changes in emphasis are spot on, as in the past I have seen very competent and knowledgeable skippers and boat handlers who quite frankly struggled to pass on that knowledge and skill to others. Doing it right yourself is quite different to teaching someone else to do it right. Fortunately for me other aspects of my council role require me to deliver all sorts of training to staff and this stood me in good stead but I did learn a few new tricks on the course that I can use elsewhere. I would recommend the course to anyone who is keen to be a community boat trainer.

Training Makes Boating More Pleasurable

In fact I would recommend the whole range of courses the NCBA provide. Undertaking this type of training not only improves the skills and knowledge of those using the waterways but makes the whole boating experience more pleasurable. Another important issue within community boating is the spectre of litigation and the safeguarding of your clients and staff, having the confidence in your staff and knowing you have done the best you can in relation to training and competency helps you sleep at night.

Noel Neilan

If you want to improve your boating skills and gain a recognised qualification check out the range of courses that the NCBA provide.

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