Experiences of an Assistant – Towpath Talk, February 2021

This is the story of Madhurika and her experiences as an Assistant Trainer at Hillingdon Narrowboat Association

My first experiences as an Assistant Trainer

I love to teach. Nothing beats the buzz you get from spending a few days working with a bunch of inquisitive and enthusiastic students with a common interest in boating and then sending them home armed with tools to be able to go boating either on their own, with a group of friends or within their capacity as a group leader for an organisation.

So how did an Indian girl from Finchley end up becoming an Assistant Trainer at Hillingdon Narrowboat Association (HNA) in less than two years from qualifying?

Well, on a whim I bought a 35ft Springer narrowboat called Lady Rose (a mid-life crisis?), for leisure cruising with friends and family.  However, with only my previous experience on the water being a waterbus trip on the Thames and a pedalo on the Serpentine about 10 years prior I really had no boating experience or knowledge of boats!  So I thought to myself now I’ve got to learn how to steer her and look after her.  So I signed up on a training course at HNA which I found from my Scout contacts.

So in July 2014 I achieved my National Community Boats Association (NCBA) Boat Handling Certificate. This then gave me the boating bug and I wanted on to expand my boating experience so volunteered to crew for HNA.  I also wanted to take groups out for HNA so decided to sign up for the NCBA Certificate in Community Boat Management course (CCBM) in October 2014.  The course as run by HNA was a 4 day residential trip going round the London Ring.  It was intense but very rewarding as I gained valuable boating skills and knowledge.

I also wanted to take my boat out on the Thames so I signed up for an RYA VHF Radio course, only to find out that I didn’t need it for my boat as she is too short.  Once I got confident in boating I was fortunate enough to be asked to assist on a boat move going from the Cape of Good Hope at Hatton all the way to Newbury on the Kennett & Avon via Brentford on a Dutch barge. What a lucky girl I am! Having experienced engine problems on the barge I the decided I wanted to know more about the ins and outs of my boat itself so signed up for a RCR/RYA Diesel Engine Maintenance course.  Having gained these boating qualifications in a relatively such a short time I was a more confident boater.

So, when I got asked if I would like to become an Assistant Trainer at Hillingdon Narrowboat Association (HNA) I jumped at the chance.  I love boating and it’s thanks to HNA’s excellent training that I am a more confident boater in the first place so I saw this as an opportunity to be part of a great team delivering a great course.

My challenge was to teach the technical knowledge I had learnt from my courses and practical experiences to date and finding a way of delivering it to the students all the while learning from my peers on how they teach themselves.

The thought of training 10 students was daunting and I was nervous but I drew experience from being in their shoes three years ago and realised how far I had come and wanted to impart that achievement to them.

Meeting the group was fantastic, there was a boat owner looking to learn basic boating skills to manage her boat, like myself 3-year prior, experienced boaters looking for qualifications to take their groups due to new regulations and even one person who just wanted to find out if narrow boating floated her boat as she was considering buying one, a real mixed bag.

It soon became apparent that we would need to cater for different needs and adapt the course accordingly to their individual needs.

The set up was fantastic too.  Paul was the lead trainer on one boat and a Dave a senior trainer on the other boat, I floated (not literally) between the two.   This gave me a chance to work with all the students each day.

The course started on Thursday night where Paul presented a power point presentation of the work HNA do and what the course would entail.  The students then introduced themselves and their reasons for joining the course.  Each student then took part in a learning style questionnaire and we all discussed the findings.  The evening ended with a meal and trip to the nearest pub.

We set off from HNA’s boathouse on Friday morning after splitting the group into two teams of 5. and I found myself right in the thick of it straight away.  It soon became apparent who was experienced and needed very little tuition on steering and who needed a little more help.

Every night we done a group debrief.  ‘How did it go?’ ‘Did you enjoy it?’ ‘What did you learn?’ this was a great way of finding out if the training model was working and what could be improved or kept the same.  We also exchanged experiences and stories and found this a very productive way of informal training and learning about the olden days as well. Dave related some interesting stories and tips about boating on a working boat, I will never forget what thumb pins are ever again or what they were used for (to hold back the butty boat in the lock)!

On day two we went to Duckett’s Cut (Hertford Union Canal).  I had never been there before so Paul and Dave both thought it would be a great opportunity for me to train the students on turning left into the cut (blind leading the blind came to mind), however I used my knowledge of turning to teach them and was relieved when they came through with flying colours.

On day three I taught them winding on the River Lee.   We had strong winds which worked both for us and against us and taught them essential skills when winding the boat.  They learned quickly what can go wrong like stemming up (going aground), however, they also learnt valuable skills to recover.

Unquestionably going out on the Thames was the highlight of the course and every single student thoroughly enjoyed that challenge.  They were exhilarated by the end of the 2.5 hour journey.

The main challenge for me was at the Hanwell flight (8 locks) and made me the most nervous as this was where everything myself and my peers had taught the students came to fruition.  Needless to say they all shined and coped very well.  It might have been because I was armed with a clipboard so they knew they were under the cosh but I believe this only made them better.  At the top of the flight the students took a well-deserved rest by going through the theory aspects of any items that they hadn’t come across i.e. lift bridges with Paul.  While they did their theory myself and Dave finally got a chance to do some boating to Cowley.

At Uxbridge Paul called the end of formal training and the students were then told to bring the boats home while the trainers all took a well-deserved rest knowing that the whole team had been exemplary and the trainers felt confident that each and every one of them would look after their group and boat respectively in the future.

Was I tired at the end? Absolutely! However, seeing the transformation in the students who had no previous experience and building on the knowledge of those who had was simply overwhelming.

It was strange being on the other foot and have no doubt some of the students will follow in my footsteps.

Thanks HNA for making this boring Indian accountant into an NCBA qualified boater!

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