Five Things You’ll Love About Community Boating

The Open Lock Project

Noel Neilan oversees a community boating project in South Manchester. In his previous article he described how decent training can make the whole boating experience even more pleasurable, and in this final article he offers five good reasons to get involved in community boating.

Five Good Reasons to Get Involved

For a 20 year period I used the boats frequently with young people from a wide range of youth groups. Because of the nature of the project and where the boats were moored most of my boating took place on the Trent and Mersey the Shropshire Union across to Chester; perhaps a dozen trips round the Cheshire Ring or over to Llangollen. We did one extended cruise to Birmingham one year which was great but it did present some logistics problems as we changed groups about four times.

1) The Scenery

Cruising the canals in this area provides some quite contrasting scenery from the rural idyll to those “dark satanic mills”. Even our local canal goes from Trafford Park to Dunham Park; two very different parks. Much of our industrial canal side heritage seems to be disappearing these days along with some of those green canal side fields where cows used to look vacantly over the fence as you would glide by, are being turned into new housing developments, there seem to be more every year. It seems it’s fashionable now to live by the canal. But nothing beats those really early morning starts in the summer with the sun out and mist on the cut, tiller in one hand cup of tea in the other, a kingfisher flitting alongside in the low overhanging branches and a solitary heron looking for its breakfast. Bliss… then the young people wake up!

2) The Highs and Lows

Over the thirty years the project has introduced hundreds of young people to narrowboats and the pleasures of boating. There have been the on-going hassles of running boats, not enough money, leaks, refits and replacement engines. There have been highs, like when Princess Diana came to commission the two new boats, meet the team and some of the young people; and lows when Prince William (the boat!) sank in Salford Quays in thirty feet of murky ship canal water while on loan to a theatre group.

3) The Memories

Considering the nature of the young people we have worked with it is nice to say the ups heavily outnumber the downs. There are lots of memories to smile about; like the three girls that lined up on the canal side to have their photo taken. When a fourth girl joined the group the photographer asked them to step back so he could get them all in. They did so in unison – straight into the cut! I can still hear the shrieks. I also remember a colleague, Mick, after coming out of the lock shouting at three boys under the bridge, telling them to stop messing about and get on the boat immediately, only to realise 200 yards down the cut that the boys were nothing to do with us, but were three local lads watching the boats go by!

4) The Challenges

There was one trip I remember where we had agreed to take a particularly challenging bunch of young people away for a weekend. We had been told by everyone they were a real handful, that they were uncooperative and to watch them all the time. They all turned up, on time, on Friday morning.

We drove down to the boat loaded the gear and as the weather was good had a very long day cruising. Contrary to expectations the group were great. They helped with the gear, did the chores helped with the meals, washed up and were polite and cooperative. After the evening meal we decided to go for a short walk, and as they had been so well behaved, as a treat, we called at a pub with a big garden. We sat in the garden having pop and crisps and spent some time looking at the animals in the petting zoo, rabbits and the like. Later we walked back to the boat, with the young people leading the way. Then with no fuss they all went off to bed and the staff congratulated themselves on how well they had done with this supposedly difficult group.

At half two in the morning I was woken by muffled laughter and sounds of scurrying. I opened the bulk head door to the kids’ bunks and switched the lights on and there, running up and down the corridor were two white rabbits and four Guinea pigs. While in the pub garden they had stolen the animals out of the petting zoo, shoved them up their jumpers and coats, and smuggled them back on board. After a period of chastisement and telling off (not to mention Guinea pig catching) we had the problem of what to do next, take them back in the morning, ‘fess up and risk getting the boat a bad name?! We decided to take them back before anyone realised they had gone. So, Mick (again) and I put the animals in two big holdalls and in the middle of the night went back to the pub. Skulking about in the dark at the bottom of the pub garden we could not tell which cage was which. Then a dog barked, we panicked and shoved the rabbits in one hutch and the Guinea pigs in another and shot off back to the boat. I hope we put them in the right cages, otherwise there would have been some confused staff the next day! We gave that pub a wide berth for a long time.

5) The Training

Last year was a busy year for us with almost maximum bookings and we are looking forward to the same this season. We are also hoping to offer the full range of NCBA courses this year, so if you are interested contact us on or on Facebook Openlock Gorsehill or ring 0161 912 2676.

For anyone thinking of getting involved with a community boat, whether currently a boater or not I would say just do it, it will change your life and probably help change a young person’s life for the better. If you know of a community boat project just go down and introduce yourself; the staff in my experience, are always a nice friendly bunch. We are always looking for volunteers and training is generally available. If you don’t know of a community boat contact the NCBA and they will be able to tell you where your nearest project is.

Happy Boating!

Noel Neilan

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