Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Reporting Issues (2)

Henry Ford said 'don't find fault, find a remedy' but then Ford was not trying to work with the communications and reporting systems of the Canal and River Trust. 

Sending an email - currently gets the following reply:
Thank you for your e-mail. We just wanted to let you know that it’s taking us longer to respond to our emails than usual because of the high volume of enquiries we’re handling right now. We’re really sorry for the delay and are working very hard to get back to our usual prompt time scales as soon as possible. 
Just like buses you stand around and wait and then two come along almost at once. Here is a bit more feedback from the trust. You may remember from a previous Micks Musing that I reported the item below to the customer service team at the trust on the 12th of June.
On the Birmingham main line between the Netherton tunnel branch and the Gower branch. The canal narrows from the remains of an old toll gauging station. Whilst heading towards Birmingham we became stuck on something in the entry side of the right hand channel. It took us some time to get our boat clear of the obstruction. As it fouled both the propeller (which suffered damage) and the tiller. The left hand channel was clear and we were eventually able to pass through. Boaters should be made aware of the obstruction.
Today 6th July (24 days later) I received the following update.
Thank you for your email which I passed to the customer service team, they have visited the site and ensured that all obstructions are now cleared, should you have any further issues when using the canals in the West Midlands please do not hesitate to contact this office  
On the 19th of June I wrote to Customer Services.
Dear CaRT customer services.

Please pass on to whoever deals with the Droitwich Canal.

Droitwich Barge Lock (wide lock with central swing bridge) in the centre of Droitwich. All four gates on the lock cannot be fully opened. It seems that there has been a build up of materials or objects placed behind all four gates. Today is the start of the Droitwich festival this weekend which will be attracting numbers of boats into the area, as it is held alongside the canal. (CaRT have a stand) We struggled to pass through the lock last evening with our narrowboat. We had to enlist the help of people passing by to help swing the gates at each end far enough apart to squeeze through.
 On the 5th of July, sixteen days later I got a reply.
Thank you for your email and apologies for the late reply. I have copied in the local waterway office for you to make them aware but if you would like to contact them directly, their email address is enquiries.southwalessevern@canalrivertrust.org.uk
On the 5th of July, sixteen days later I got a second reply.
Thank you for bringing this matter to our attention, We are aware of this issue and are working to try and resolve this shortly. I will pass your details to our local team so they are aware.

On the 16th of June we were on the Birmingham and Worcester Canal. At bridge 86 we came across a fallen tree that almost blocked the canal. This was reported to CaRT straight away as a hazard to navigation. However, in all fairness its only been three weeks and counting, since I made the report.  Which is just as well, because we managed to squeeze past. I am still waiting for an acknowledgement to that one. 

We have arrived at Sharpness, on what seems to be visitor moorings. Once again its another chapter in the mystery that is CaRT and the way it employs signs around the system. Sometimes they are meaningless, sometimes they are confusing and sometimes you will need the services of a crystal ball.

Note the arrow and also note the penalty notice appended below.  Which is displayed like a parking fine charge in a council car-park. However, no where on the post is there a time limit displayed. 

Now if I moored to the left of the arrow I could face a fine of £25 rising to £50 a week. If I moored to the right of the arrow - would I be subject to the same fine?  Yet, there is more mooring space (20 narrowboats) to the right of the post than there is (10 narrowboats) to the left!  Is the whole of this visitor mooring a 'place' and if so, why is a penalty fine levied from the middle of the mooring to one end. But not the other way?

Now, you might like me think that the standard 14 days applies. Looking at the post there seems to be a gap where another plate could have been added. However there is no evidence of previous screw holes and the lichen would seem to support there has not been anything there for years.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Reporting Issues

Its not getting any better with CaRT's hand on the helm. By way of offering some corroboration of how bad thing are. On the 12th of June I reported an incident that we were caught up in, directly to the trust customer services department. If nothing else I usually (but not always) get an acknowledgement that way.
*'Dear Customer Services. On the Birmingham main line between the Netherton tunnel branch and the Gower branch. The canal narrows from the remains of an old toll gauging station. Whilst heading towards Birmingham we became stuck on something in the entry side of the right hand channel. It took us some time to get our boat clear of the obstruction. As it fouled both the propeller (which suffered damage) and the tiller. The left hand channel was clear and we were eventually able to pass through. Boaters should be made aware of the obstruction.'*
Today the 29th of June I finally had an acknowledgement to the report. 
*'Thank you for your email and apologies for the late reply. I'm very sorry to hear about what has happened. I have copied in the local waterway office to make them aware of this for you.'*
Now you might be like me and thinking a delay of 18 days is not really anywhere close to an acceptable time frame for an acknowledgement. Never mind a time frame for passing on the report. However, I have reported things in the past and never had any form of acknowledgement. So in cases where I do know that items have been reported - I still don't know if they are being passed on in the system.

On the 30th of June I had another email which said that the issue would now be passed on to Customer Services. Note: Not passed back to Customer Services but passed on to the place I sent it to in the first place. I wonder if this is the same Customer Services or maybe there are several CaRT Customer Services to choose from. 
*'Thank you for reporting this issue to the West Midlands office. I have passed your email to the customer service team so they can arrange for the obstruction to be removed as soon as possible. If you have any further concerns when using the West Midlands Canals please do not hesitate to contact this office. enquiries.westmidlands@canalrivertrust.org.uk'*
On the 16th of June we were on the Birmingham and Worcester Canal. At bridge 86 we came across a fallen tree that almost blocked the canal. This was reported to CaRT straight away as a hazard to navigation. However, in all fairness its only been two weeks and counting, since I made the report.  Which is just as well, because we managed to squeeze past. 

I am still waiting for an acknowledgement. 

We now have new manager(s) in place to look at and organise communications. While I know that they have not been long in post. Its not rocket science and it is a fundamental requirement in any business today and a key part of the whole customer service ethos. In my old employment within a University. A request was made (either made in person, via email or telephone)  and a 'support ticket' was issued in seconds. The ticket would name who would be dealing with my request. 

But its not only CaRT with a poor maintenance record. On arrival at Worcester - we decided to stop for lunch on the visitor moorings. Which due to the warmth of the weather, we then decided to stay for the night. This is a pay and display moorings (pay in the nearby carpark) at a charge of £4 a night.

However, the moorings in places are in a very poor condition with heavy overgrowth of vegetation such as stinging nettle which is restricting access along the bank side and up the steps to the road above. There are also some large deep holes in the footpath which will require urgent repair. It is possible that a cyclist, walker or boater could either fall and break a leg or even stumble and fall into the river.
  Some of the holes go clear through the surface and the river can be clearly seen beneath. 

I reported the issues to Worcester Council by email - it will be interesting to see how long it takes for a reply. The reply came a shirt time later the same day. 'Thank you for contacting the Worcestershire Hub. Your enquiry will be assessed and responded to shortly. Your unique reference number relating to this request is xxx. 

Which started me thinking - why don't CaRT issue a report number to the customer. So that the customer, whoever they are, boater, walker, cyclist and fisherman can follow up on the issue. A simple phone call to Customer Services to enquire what the latest situation is on issue number xxx? 

Our summer cruise continues along the River Severn, we had just passed through Bevere Lock when we came across a sand and gravel boat called 'Perch' belonging to Thompson River Services. It was hauling another craft which seemed to be best described as a derelict boat.  Covered in black plastic sheets and tarpaulins.

A bit further along the River Severn we came across a place where the craft had possibly been removed from.  Various bits of detritus were scattered scattered around and some seemed to be being picked over already. There also seemed to be someone living rough in the trees.   

The other item of note was the number of abandoned and sunken or damaged boats we came across.  There are few moorings along this part of the river and the equivalent of - wild camping - seems to be being practised.

We arrived at Upton upon Severn moorings to find the tail end of a jazz festival. CaRT had suspended the 24 hour restricted mooring times for the week long festival. There was a buzz going round that one small cruiser had been turfed out of the local boat yard and was now moored up on the pontoon.  It seems that the owner was causing issues which had led to his expulsion and his dog had also somehow been drowned. The ins and outs of the situation were very vague. Later the boat left the mooring unnoticed.

We met up with a wonderful group of Australian boaters on a hire boat. However, these were well experienced boaters back in Australia. One owned a fleet of boats and had built and operated a spectacular river hotel boat of his own. As usual the Aussies immediately organised a barbecue. Which was good fun. We introduced them to the delights of Henderson's Yorkshire Relish which was added to mushy peas. 

I was regaled with a tale of what was described as 'Boating in Flinders'. My knowledge of the Flinders Range in South Australia is very scanty, from a visit many years ago. However the Flinders area is a ancient and unique part of the world, very rugged and very remote.  The Aussies took 18 months to build their boat and then went off to explore the Flinders coastal area. Basically it is living on a boat where your nearest neighbour is hundreds of miles away from your location.  Being self sufficient in obtaining food with various kinds of fish and oysters frequent items on the menu. There were tales of going to the rescue of a downed helicopter in the water. Fishing for tuna where the sharks would also have a nibble at the ones on the fishing hook. But there would be enough left on the hook to feed the family. Other more minor problems included salt water crocodiles and small snapping sharks. Plus storms of a kind we don't get in our coastal waters. I'm hoping that I have convinced them to write up their adventure.

Later we saw the police helicopter circling overhead, for about an hour. The fire service were zipping up and down the river in their emergency RIBs. At about 10:30pm the fire service group turned up towing a small plastic cruiser. Which was dumped onto the moorings. The boat had no mooring lines so we had to supply the fire service with some of our spares. It turned out to be the boat that had been thrown out of the boat yard earlier. There is something about bad pennies!

We decided to Diesel up at Upton Marina. The price was high (we paid more than double what we paid at the previous boatyard)  so we only part filled the tank with 57 litres, just below the half way point! A steady cruise along the River Severn and on to a partially tidal part but only during spring tides.  We were given a photocopy of a notice at Upper Lode Lock for how to approach the Gloucester Docks area which is the next point on our journey. Made our way as far as Ashleworth Court mooring which was in such a poor state of repair and in a dangerous condition. With perished and broken planking. So we retraced our steps back to Haw Bridge the only other viable mooring point in this section.

The River Severn is a couple of feet below normal. So water conservation was in full swing at Gloucester Dock Lock. We had to wait until there were enough boats (3) to pen down before we could be penned up.

The old Lightship that is 'Sula' is up for sale. The lightship was originally stationed off Spurn Head at the mouth of the Humber estuary. Decommissioned in 1985, she has served as the headquarters of a yacht club and as a complementary health care training centre.

We have just rescued a juvenile 'Gull' possibly a 'Lesser Black Backed' its hard to tell with the juveniles. The Herring Gulls round here were trying to kill it for food. So its now sat under the pram cover eating best minced steak. The Memsahib says we are only giving it a lift out of town before releasing it. So tell me, which one of us is most Gullible?

Don't answer that - I think I know the answer already! 


Saturday, 4 July 2015

Tracey and Oakley

A miracle in the form of a wet nose and waggy tail. Are you training him? When do you have to give him back? How long does it take to train one of those?”

These are the most common openers to conversation. My responses are usually very polite and patient, delivered with a smile and happy willingness to explain. “No, he came fully trained. We're a qualified partnership”, “I don't have to give him back, he is my guide dog”, “He was fully trained at 21 months when I got him”....

Then the penny drops: “Oh! You're partially sighted!”, “I'm sorry, I didn't mean to offend. You don't look blind”.....Conversation usually then turns back to the subject of the dog: Oakley, my amazing black Labrador Guide Dog. Oh...and I'm not offended at all. I much prefer open honest enquiry to whispering and speculation. When appropriate I am more than happy to answer the above questions and any others. Mind you, I am still trying to work out how one would 'look blind'!

I am told that gongoozlers often gaze open-mouthed when they see me coming with a windlass in my right hand and Oakley, on harness, to my left. Of course, I am blissfully unaware of such expressions because I can't see them. I am registered 'Blind/Severely Visually Impaired' with approximately 2% of a normal Field of Vision. I was born with no functional vision in my left eye. My right eye decided to follow the trend in 2011. (For a rough idea of my visual world, cut a 0.5cm length from a standard drinking straw, place it between the bases of your middle and ring fingers, closing your fingers around it, cover both eyes and view the world through just the section of straw.)

I have undergone a most comprehensive barrage of medical tests including blood works, neurological scrutiny, wires, probes and detectors, lumbar punctures, MRI scans, heart scans and monitors.....the list goes on, and all is good. I remain a bit of a medical mystery in that the cause of my vision loss is undiagnosed. The only clue is Optic Nerve Atrophy. This is by no means a precise term. All it means is that my optic nerves have withered. Cause unknown, therefore future prognosis unknown, except to assume that the deterioration will probably continue to totality.

In September 2011, when I was handed the Certificate of Visual Impairment, it was devastating news. Over the course of the following few months I have to admit that I became increasingly down-in-the-dumps, withdrawn and disinclined to go out. I concluded that, because crossing roads had become very hazardous and frightening, and as I became increasingly bruised and battered from bumping into street obstacles, it was easier and safer to stay in and manage without, than to try to get to the local shop for even so much as a pint of milk. Arguably though, much more upsetting was the thought that this spelled the end of our dream to eventually move aboard a narrow boat.

We became smitten with the boating life when we hired a boat and cruised the Black Country Ring in October 2008. That was when the blizzards hit the Midlands and we loved every bit of it! At that time, the idea of living afloat was literally an impossible dream. We had so many commitments, responsibilities and issues to deal with, but we had been clinging to and building upon our dream of eventually making the move. This news seemed like a massive blow. How could I possibly live on the waterways if I couldn't see?

Then came a miracle in the form of a wet nose and waggy tail. Having got through the rigorous assessment process after applying for a guide dog, I was told by Guide Dogs for the Blind Association (GDBA) to expect to wait two to three years before being matched with a dog. I actually got 'the call' after just two months! Ironically, my matching visit (when the dog is brought to check compatibility) was just a couple of days before we were due to go to Scotland on a narrow boat holiday to celebrate our silver wedding anniversary. That matching visit was a very emotional afternoon: Taking that first walk with a dog on harness, and realising that I had not even so much as brushed against any obstacles, because the dog had so expertly taken me around them, was simply overwhelming! After this walk and a couple of hours of chatting and getting to know Oakley, the Guide Dog Mobility Instructor (GDMI) asked me “Well, what do you think? Do you like him?”. Like him? I was head over heels in love and admiration!

With spirits significantly lifted, we went off for our wonderful two weeks on the canals between Glasgow and Edinburgh, arriving home on Saturday evening. Then, first thing on Monday morning, I had to set off to begin training to become a Guide Dog Owner. This included nine days residential intensive instruction, followed by more local work from home before the final assessment walk and the wonderful words; “Tracey, you and Oakley are now a qualified Working Guide Dog Partnership”. That was 8 November 2012.

Since then, life has changed beyond dreams. Oakley and I continued to learn to work together in and around Worthing, West Sussex. This strengthened our bond and boosted my confidence no end. Learning to put such implicit trust in an animal is an incredibly humbling and astonishing process. He became not only my guide, but also my soulmate, my comedian, my shadow, my fitness coach (we worked up to walking around 6-8 miles a day), my lifeline and, on several occasions, my lifesaver.

During this time, many of our circumstances changed and, in time, a string of miracles all added up to the dream coming true. In early 2014 we sold the house, cleared the mortgage and debts, and we now live aboard NB Sola Gratia. Indeed, we are pioneering – Oakley is in fact the first and, as yet, only continuously cruising Guide Dog on the Inland Waterways!

Leading up to this, we had joined the Boaters Christian Fellowship. This brought us many blessings including several generous and trusting offers of boating times. We borrowed and/or moved a number of friends' boats, which gave us the opportunity to test our sanity in thinking that the life would, after all, be possible with limited sight. And, with Oakley, it most certainly is! We are absolutely loving it, he has proved beyond all doubt that he is very capable of adapting, and we have no regrets whatsoever.

GDBA have been fantastic. Although having one of their dogs living a nomadic floating lifestyle is outside of their experience, they have been very supportive and helpful. I had to sign an 'addendum' to my contract with them and they have adapted their thinking and systems to encompass our situation.

Oakley and I have continued to develop our partnership and adapt our working practices to life on the waterways. The towpath is often far from ideal territory for a Visually Impaired Person (although it is pleasing and encouraging to discover newly refurbished surfaces in some areas. Thank you CRT!). Oaks, like all Guide Dogs, is trained to work on harness on my left hand, walking beside and slightly ahead of me. In some places the towpath is too narrow (usually due to overgrown vegetation and/or crumbling banks) so we have developed a technique whereby I lie the harness handle on his back, give him the command “Go ahead”, and he then leads me via a long lead. Ideally, it would be great to have an adapted, telescopic harness handle for such circumstances but, for now at least, this works for us. Of course, normal working practices come back into play when we walk into the towns and villages along the way and Oakley slips seamlessly between the environments.

Working the towpaths is quite different from street guiding: For a start, there is seldom any route choice! Deviation from the 'Straight on' command would result in either a prickly reception in the hedgerows or the inevitable big splash! His job is primarily to simply keep me on the straight(ish) and narrow. However, he has learned extremely well to navigate me around obstacles such as crumbling sections of bank, tree roots, mooring pins, bollards and rings, and even puddles!

Another question that I am often asked is “Does he work the locks for you?” My response is generally “Haha! If only!” What actually happens at locks is he guides me to the lockside and follows the command “Find the bollard”. I then simply loop his lead around the bollard and he sits patiently waiting for me to work the lock. I, at least for now, have enough remaining vision to find my way (cautiously) around the lock mechanisms. Of course, like any Labrador, Oakley enjoys any fuss and attention he can glean from passers-by while he is waiting! A greeting sniff and wag from any friendly dog always helps to pass the time too!

One particularly remarkable feat of this dog's instinct had me in tears: We were coming down the Braunston flight of locks. It had been raining quite heavily and the towpath was awash in many places. Oakley was doing a superb job of guiding me around the puddles wherever possible. On one particular stretch, where the puddles joined together to form an elongated lake down the path, he gallantly waded through the lake and pushed me to the right where I could walk on the dry bricked edge. All of a sudden he stopped in his tracks and stepped across in front of me. I became aware that he was nuzzling at the floor and then looking at me. What he had done was astonishing: He had noticed that the bricks at this point were broken up and, rather than pull me into the puddle, he had alerted me to the hazard and made sure that I safely stepped over it. This was a truly exceptional act on his part. It is not part of his training. This was pure instinctive care and attention. Quite amazing! He certainly earned himself a treat that day! (Shortly after this, the towpath was renovated by CRT.)

When we first moved aboard the boat, we invested in a boat handling course. This proved to be a wise move as the instructor taught Tim (my Hubby) to single-hand. This means that, if ever my sight does deteriorate to the point where I really can't be of any use on the locks etc, then Tim is more than capable of doing it. I shall just have to make myself useful in other ways! But, for now, we are managing very well. Oakley clearly loves the life. Indeed he has not only adapted to it, he has positively embraced it. He loves his work and he certainly thoroughly enjoys all the relaxation and fun that he has in his off duty time, which is abundant. When he is off duty, he is a regular (slightly delinquent) Labrador – with rules, but when I harness him up, he switches into work mode. Without him, this life would be almost impossible. With him, it is absolutely amazing.

On July the 4th, Tracey and Oakley set off on their sponsored walk from Bath to Reading, with Tim following alongside them in NB Sola Gratia. Their aim is to raise £5,500 for Guide Dogs. To support this inspirational partnership. You can sponsor Tracy and Oakley Click Here: