What can I do to help the Harlow Canal Boat Project: Canalabilty? – Towpath Talk, July 2016

Continuing his artcles illustrating the diversity of the NCBA Derek Stansfield heads for the south of the canal network to allow one of its flagship projects based at Harlow in Essex.  Here Michael Banyard, “Banny” to all who know him – and to those that don’t and also a NCBA Senior Trainer, addresses albeit in his own humourous way, the issue of why volunteer.

Well now, Canalabilty is a Charity that operates boats targeted towards disabled users or family groups.  So, you could skipper one of these boats, cruising the picturesque Stort River.  Would you need a Small Passenger Ferry Skipper’s Ticket?  Well indeed so, but the Charity trains all its volunteers, from brass tiller polisher (me) all the way up, via crew to skipper. Skippers are trained to guide the passengers on safe lock operation. Blind people? Yes indeed, a real joy to guide youngster with their limited vision down the river.  Dalton House (remember colour blindness researcher John Dalton) have regularly used the boats, when their own craft, appropriately named, The Golden Duck, had more passengers than it could handle.  And yes the students did steer the boats, so why not you?

Become a volunteer and skipper down the picturesque Stort, mostly through rural Hertfordshire and returning through Essex.  A Small Passenger Ferry Skipper’s Ticket would be required so what would it cost you? A few days volunteering time, a few pub lunches (or bring your own) and a willingness to join the team. Would it be beneficial? enjoyable? If you count cruising the Stort, Lee and Thames Rivers, plus the occasional foray onto the canal system worthwhile, well yes.  If you want to help, but stay with feet firmly planted on terra firma, then still yes.

What’s the smallest commitment? A wave as we pass: it makes you feel better and our passengers will wave back (http://www.canalability.org.uk). If you feel like offering more, ask how long is a piece of string?  We do rather like a day a month commitment, in return for the free training provided by our nationally recognised trainers, regulated by the Maritime Coastguard Agency, operating under the National Community Boats Association banner (https://national-cba.co.uk).

How long are the trips? The shortest skippered trips are three hours; the fully residential trips vary from a few days to a week or more. Can anybody hire the boats? Well almost anybody, with residential hirers undertaking pre-trip training.

Has the fleet changed over the years? Indeed so, commencing with Stort Challenger, who is still with us, after nigh three decades and several refits, to keep her fresh and appealing and  suiting the ever evolving market place. At one stage, the fleet contained narrow boats, whilst these are more traditional, reaching the helm was a challenge on the Hartley, for the sprightly, never mind those with less spring in their heels.  The Hartley and Rose of Essex, much loved by Scouting Groups, have sadly, both gone to pastures new, together with the Dawn Treader.

Dawn Treader was an unusual craft, starting life with the Medway’s Kingfisher Trust, providing day trips for the disabled. So why was she unusual, apart from being named after Lewis’s third Narnia novel? Light as a cork in breeze, with wheel steering, she bobbed and danced on a sixpence, much to the surprise of many of our staid skippers, more accustomed to the ponderous old ladies who ploughed the seas in straight furrows. For me skippering the Treader was a “throw a sickie need to wash me hair Guv” day.  In less PC days I would have noted that the female skippers had no trouble steering her and making her go precisely where they wanted, a women’s touch was all she needed to behave prettily.  Want to try her for yourself? Off to the Chelmer & Blackwater then (http://www.blackwater-boats.co.uk ).

Can you influence the fleet, you could donate a quarter of a million and be blessed with a boat named ‘Stort You’, but for now, you could volunteer and wear the tidy blue uniform originally sponsored by the local Rotary Club.  Hirer’s come from as far afield as Norway for Boating Without Boundaries. Mayhap you have seen us on Television? We carried American CNN reporters for the Queen’s diamond Jubilee Parade of boats; mind you, we were barely visible with the sky coming down to meet the water and the torrential rain forming a continuous link from the stratus above to the Thames below.

Santa Claus takes a pre-rush break to cruise festively decorated boats, for 2017 maybe, just maybe we can at last convince Rudolph to pull us in traditional ‘horse’ drawn manner up to the pub? No flying mind, we have to draw tine somewhere.

Frustrated painters, welders, carpenters, electricians, cleaners, can come any day with a T in it (Tuesday or Thursday) to help paint, scrape & bow to the boats, with as much tea as you can drink.

See you there, at the Moorhen?



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