A helping hand for the forgotten folk on the water

The chaplains giving a listening ear to the boating community

21st January 2019

Ratty said to Mole, in Wind in the Willows “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing, he went on dreamily: “messing –about-in-boats; messing…”

Peter Mojsa, Allchurches Trust Grants Officer, recently visited Debbie Nouwen, Deputy Senior National Waterways Chaplain for the North of England & Midlands, on her houseboat to see if Ratty was right!

What’s life like living on a houseboat?

Fab.u.lous to downright bizarre! It is an alternative way of life based around a close knit boating community, who value their independence yet enjoy the freedom of movement which a house boat provides. I’ve lived on one for 10 years.

So what is the role of a waterways chaplain?

It is very diverse, depending on what part of a canal you might be based near. Some can be rural, others inner city basins. Chaplains adapt to the needs of the community they work with and never know what they are going to meet. It’s not just boaters they care for but fishermen, cyclists and ramblers. One of the key things is that chaplains are not seen as “officialdom” but able to be a signpost, a listener, an enabler and an advocate to more official organisations. The Waterways Chaplaincy have a good relationship with the Canal and River Trust (the organisation which controls the waterways) and advocates on behalf of boaters when needed.

What are you looking for when out and about on the towpath?

Initially it is all about making connections and building up relationships. That can be difficult when boats can be on the move every 14 days. Sometimes it is just noticing little changes. One of the chaplains spotted a lady whose normally spotless boat was looking unkempt. She lived alone and had recently been diagnosed with cancer. She was undertaking chemotherapy and that was leaving her tired so she was struggling to clean, eat and generally keep on top of things. She was also being asked to move on having stayed longer than she should on her mooring. Rats had also started getting into the boat. The chaplain opened up a conversation and found out that the lady had no family and was really struggling. He arranged with the Canal and River Trust to extend her mooring beyond the normal period; got a local church to clean up her boat and arranged with the local Cats Rescue Centre for the lady to be matched to a cat (who soon sorted out the rat problem!). That enabled the lady to continue with her treatment and be monitored.

How many people live on the waterways across the UK?

Some 36 to 38,000 people live on boats and while some live on permanent mooring; the vast majority don’t and are required to move on at regular intervals. We have 80 Waterways Chaplains currently, mainly lay people, with a further 20 in training. The goal is to have 200 by 2020. If you want to find out more about our ministry then please do have a look on our website waterwayschaplaincy.org.uk.

If people ask, do chaplains refer them to churches?

They will do, but often they spend time encouraging churches to come to the canal side! There is also a Boating Christian Fellowship. Chaplains do get asked to hold “Boat Blessings” or arrange services, especially at times of need or celebration.

How helpful was the grant from Allchurches Trust?

As a result of the £56,000 grant to Workplace Matters to enable the development and expansion of Waterways Chaplains, I was appointed in January 2018 as Deputy National Senior Waterways Chaplain with a focus on the North and Midlands. The National Waterways Chaplain, the Revd Mark Chester, had done a fantastic job of growing chaplaincy in the south, but it was clear that we needed to develop the work in the north. I’ve been able to expand the network of volunteer chaplains with three new local ‘hubs’ being established since May.

As they walk the towpaths near their homes or where, if they are boaters, they happen to be, our Chaplains find that there is no shortage of opportunities to serve and love people who could so easily be forgotten about because they are ‘out of the way’. Many people think that life on a canal boat is idyllic. Although that can be so for many, that very general perception often masks hidden pastoral and other challenges that can be exacerbated by the very isolation that makes our waterways so attractive to those who only know them superficially.

The grant that supported my role has meant that we can continue to expand and grow chaplaincy to those who live on and around our 2000 miles of UK navigable waterways. It’s an exciting ministry.

So back to the quote at the beginning - Is life just as fine and dandy as Ratty thinks it is?

Definitely so! When it works well there is nothing to match it. Everybody is in it together.