Thursday, 16 May 2013

Inland Waterways Passport

I have never really understood the "us and them" mentality to be found amongst a group of people with supposedly similar interests. But then when you read about the angst demonstrated by some about the benefits of pumpout -v- cassette toilets I suppose I should not be so surprised after all.

The conflict between "new and old" boaters is a common scenario that comes around time and time again. There are the regular "coming together" events between owners and hirers that fill pages on various forums. We have ourselves witnessed some spectacular action with novices. This situation is not helped by the promotion of the myth that "boating is a contact sport." It might well be acceptable behaviour for some, but you could only have such notions when its not your own boat paintwork that is being damaged. The media also perpetuates the myth. 

I am sure that there are only two opinions on this issue. But I can't for the life of me see any other leisure pastime outside of fairground rides that would seek to suggest boats being used like bumping cars is perfectly acceptable. We have come across instances of boats being damaged by new boaters including ourselves. For me, the bit that sticks in my craw is damage to someone elses property created by unskilled hands on the tiller. Which is seen by some boat hire businesses as being "perfectly acceptable".  However, I don't accept the notion that it's acceptable for their clients to damage someone's boat in the perpetuated hogwash that there is some unwritten "rule" about narrow-boating being a "contact sport".

Looking through the media its possible to find some narrow boat holidays that are occasionally advertised as "little or no boating experience needed". To a point this claim is true. There are also terrible planted "advertising"  articles in the media which are appalling in their content. One of the worst I have ever come across was in the Sun.


There are first time boaters with a natural affinity who seem to pick up the skills quite quickly. However there are those who need some additional assistance and advice before being put in charge of a tiller. I am opposed to the health and safety Taliban who would want to create some sort of "health and safety" inspired cocoon. Then go on to regulate everything into submission. There has to be a balance between the activity having some excitement and at the same time reducing the risks of confrontation and possible injury. The problem for first time boaters is learning by using trial and error. Usually means that errors are far too frequently made. Add to the mixture the fear of looking foolish, which is common to us all. This makes a recipe for confrontation between new but inexperienced boaters and some old time boaters with short memories who can show an amazing lack of even a little compassion and understanding. 

I have long held the thought that some sort of "Inland Waterways Passport" is needed for everyone who aspires to own or hire a boat. Especially for people hiring a canal boat for the very first time. This is the crux of the matter – getting the right system, with the right balance and emphasis in place. I have a similar sort of "passport" which is a "PADI certificate" issued for scuba diving. It doesn't make me a highly qualified diver - but it acknowledges that I have undergone some formal awareness and diver safety training. It actually makes me acknowledge my limitations and recognise that I am a novice diver. If I wanted more knowledge and skills I could then choose to undergo further formal training. The RYA inland helmsman course is available for boaters and would be the natural second stage for more extended formal training. However, it might be a bit too formal for someone just wanting to hire for a short holiday break. 

What I would like to see implemented is an Inland Waterways Passport issued as part of a hire contract. To obtain the initial passport the hirer will have to undergo a course of training on basic boat handling, mooring and locking tasks. There would be no test beyond a few simple multiple choice questions. Just a practical hands on introduction backed up with some practical advice. This could be done for a small additional fee that is included in the first time hire charge. The passport could last for a period of say five years. Each time a boat is hired the passport is stamped. If a passport has not been stamped for five years then the hirer would undergo the basic training course again. This would have several distinct benefits. The first would be that the level of tuition offered would help to provide a common level of understanding of the practicalities of basic boat handling. Secondly, it would help to inspire some confidence into the first time boater. I am sure their enjoyment will be enhanced for the whole experience. The tuition syllabus could be based around the Environment Agency "Boaters Handbook" which can be downloaded or a paper copy sent out with the hire paperwork to all first time boaters. 

There could be hands on tuition such as the operation of locks, boat steering techniques, how to moor up and basic safety issues like keeping feet and fingers inside the boat envelope. Add into the mix some awareness of potential hazards. Plus some simple boat upkeep tasks like the stern gland greaser and fresh water filling could also be addressed. There is so much written about the trials and tribulations of "real boat owners" coming into conflict with holiday boaters. In the main due to the "experienced boat owners expectation of what a holiday boater should know and the actual level of their skills." There are additional benefits for the hire company - better customer service and a reduction in accident and canal incidents involving their boats. People hiring a boat could be encouraged to keep their passport up-to-date with future holiday bookings with discounts being offered on boats for holding a current passport.

The passport should be retained by the boat yard until a boat is returned. If a boat is damaged or if a hirer has been found to be behaving in an antisocial way the passport and any damage deposit refund could also be cancelled.

Who could give the training? 

There are a large number of experienced boaters who would be happy to give a few of hours of their time once or twice a week. Boaters who would welcome the chance of encouraging new boaters and have transferable boating skills to offer. At Easter this year, we needed to get a boat moved at very short notice from West Stockwith down the Trent to Keadby. We managed to obtain the services of a retired barge skipper. He would not accept any payment and did the job for the pleasure of being able to enjoy getting his hands on the tiller again. Relishing and enjoying with his mate the chance of a cold and crisp fine day out on the Trent. I think that there is an untapped source of expertise readily available. 

So who would benefit from such a passport system?

I think that this falls into the remit of the hire boat industry. It would be a very good public relations exercise. It would go some way towards demonstrating a positive attitude to the issues. It would find some additional short term hire income for their boats. I know people who would be happy and willing to try a boating holiday - but are put off by what is in their perception a very daunting task. We have had friends who have come along to enjoy a day out with us. Just to gain some experience. Everyone has said that it was a confidence boosting experience. The operation of locks are perceived as the most daunting of tasks. Locks are always the first thing that everyone wants to talk about. From our experience its the basic stuff that they don't understand and so they are very concerned about everything else. 

However, everyone on the cut could also do their bit! 

We have met many new boaters who we generally find are eager to get to grips with the task in hand. We have even come across new boaters who were a bit upset. After being torn off a strip by some irritable boater. We have occasionally come across new boaters in a pickle of their own making. Nearly always at a lock, nearly always involving open paddles that should be closed. They are often stressed because they can't understand the problem and that only causes them even more confusion. In this sort of situation experienced boaters should take control and give a bit of guidance those who may need it. 

But to be fair, its not just a problem for new boaters. Going up on the Wigan flight last year. A boater with many years of experience managed to drain several pounds leaving other boats stranded. The year before going down the same flight we followed a private hire boat. Whose crew who insisted on locking every paddle down securely. Even when we were stood alongside them at the lock waiting to operate the lock for ourselves. Only to be informed by the Mrs Bucket with handcuff key and windless "It's the law don't you know!"

Whenever I see a hire boater having a problem, I try to befriend and I always ask how its going. I always try to help resolve the issue and explain what their problem was. I always comment that its a common mistake and one that we made when we first started boating. To be honest, it often was a problem that we have had when we first started out. If the truth be known - many experienced boaters could relate similar stories and much worse about the time when they got it wrong. We have dear friends of ours with many years of boating under their belt. Who unfortunately sank their boat in a lock. They would be amongst the first to say, no matter your level of experience it could happen to anyone.

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