CanalAbility: Boating Without Boundaries

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With over 20 years’ experience dedicated to providing affordable canal boat holidays for disabled people with their families, friends or community groups, CanalAbility has gone from strength to strength. DG writer Catherine Ridge joins the Harlow based boating team by the River Stort to discover how this charity creates incredible opportunities for all involved.

As I stroll along the serene canal with Manager Doreen Goodall on a rather overcast summer’s afternoon, it is like a completely different facet of Harlow. I meet the maintenance team, who are busy restoring an old bench on the grass adjacent the river, and I am also introduced to Les Hunt, one of CanalAbility’s longstanding volunteers, who has worked with them for over ten years.

Les, who is also a member of Inland Waterways Association and has his own boat, proudly tells me, ‘‘All I get from it is the love and pleasure of being on the river, so you can’t keep me away from the water.’’ Despite the cloudy sky and drizzle in the air, it takes little effort to appreciate the river’s peace and tranquillity of which Les is so fond.

Although Les used to be more involved with the organisational side of the charity as a part-time employee, today at 62 years of age, he is semi-retired and his current voluntary role involves helping out in working parties, or as a skipper or crew member to enable others to enjoy the river as much as he does.

Early Days

Les enlightens me with a potted history of the charity, followed by a guided tour around two of their boats. The Canal Boat Project, which is the precursor to CanalAbility, was founded as a charity in 1989 with the intention of designing and building a boat for use by people with disabilities. Derek Fenny, who used to work for Essex County Council, was the original founder and chairman of the charity. As the story goes, according to Les, Derek was initially inspired to set up the charity after watching someone in a wheelchair being lifted onto the narrow boat at the Harlow Outdoor Centre, and he consequently decided that ‘‘what the world needed was a boat for people in wheelchairs.’’

Derek set up the charity which, after travelling ‘‘a long hard road’’ eventually resulted in their first boat, Stort Challenger, being fit and operational by the year 1999. Today Derek is still a volunteer of the organisation, along with many of the people he has worked with since 1990. Les joined the team in 2000 as a volunteer and soon gained his Certificate in Community Boat Management which allowed him to become a skipper.

CanalAbility Today

‘‘Since those early days when the project was struggling to find money, it’s gone from strength to strength,’’ Les explains. Twelve years later CanalAbility has four purpose-built, fully centrally heated and accessible broad beam boats, which enable everyone to take a full and active part in the boating experience all year round.

These boats include the original Stort Challenger and Red Watch, both used for holiday hire and accommodating groups of up to 12 people on board. The other two boats, Stort Daybreak and Dawn Treader, are used for day trips with groups of people including the disabled, elderly and infirm. The charity now has an extensive team of skippers and crew, who take the boats out, as well as a team who help with the maintenance, repair and servicing. Special ‘Christmas Cruises’ are even offered in December. As a result, CanalAbility has accrued an impressive number of customers and users.

All aboard

A loud horn alerts me of an approaching boat, which I learn is Stort Daybreak returning with a group from a day trip. Shortly after the boat is moored and its passengers disembark, I am taken on-board, where I meet the crew members, including Mary, who has multiple sclerosis. The boat is fully equipped with wheelchair access, a large toilet and wet room with all the necessary facilities for disabled passengers as well as a kitchen. Later I am shown the homely Stort Challenger holiday boat, which includes a disability steering system to enable passengers to steer the boat from their wheelchairs as well as a lift to allow wheelchair users out onto the front of the boat.

Incredibly, CanalAbility attracts holidaymakers from all around the world, even as far as Australia. ‘‘Our catchment area is the world,’’ Les laughs. Most of their custom comes from repeat business and word of mouth. Les explains that, although there are a number of similar charities, CanalAbility is unique because it is one of the few that have wide beam boats. ‘‘Many of the other charities have narrow boats which is more restrictive for wheelchair users, whereas having wider boats we can accommodate wheelchairs more easily,’’ he tells me.

From novice to skipper

CanalAbility relies heavily on its volunteers, which currently total 120, most of which are recruited either through local volunteer agencies, through word of mouth and personal contacts, as well as those who have enjoyed a trip with CanalAbility themselves. The only employed staff are those that work part time in the office and boat maintenance.

When volunteers join, they are put through a full programme of training, which Les says, ‘‘can take them from being someone who has never set foot on a boat before, all the way up to a fully qualified skipper or crew member.’’ Doreen explains that their volunteers offer a rich ‘‘variety of skills’’, coming from various backgrounds, from merchant seamen to school teachers. Therefore, besides becoming skippers, there are opportunities to join the charity in different capacities, including maintaining boats, marketing and fulfilling other organisation roles.

Empowering experience

Both Les and Doreen speak with great passion about the way the charity has benefited disabled people, which they have been privileged to witness first-hand. Les declares, ‘‘People love the peace, the tranquillity, the sound of the lapping water, the county air, the rain. We all love the waterways and we love to help people.’’

Doreen similarly lights up when she recalls the response of people on the boats. ‘‘One that really sticks in my mind,’’ she tells me, ‘‘was when our Chair of trustees took a group out recently and a member of that group was a gentleman who had had a stroke ten years earlier and was quite disabled. Because the skipper and crew always try to encourage the people to participate, they actually got this gentleman steering the boat and he turned round and said that it was the first time that he has felt in charge of something or actually done anything useful in the last ten years. And I just think that says it all.’’

Life is but a dream

Interestingly, Les perceives a ‘‘very calming influence’’ in the river, particularly evident in the young people he has seen with behavioural problems, ‘‘who have spent the whole day being perfectly behaved on the boat when on previous occasions their parents and carers will say they can be so disruptive that they get no rest at all.’’ The skipper concludes, ‘‘so there’s an element not only for those with disabilities but a respite care for carers and guardians.’’ Les also recognises ‘‘the different feelings and sensations that people may experience on a boat,’’ which he believes can be appreciated by people who are severely disabled or even blind.

One of Doreen’s greatest moments at CanalAbility she claims was taking part in the Queen’s Jubilee River Pageant with a group of students from St Elizabeth’s College in Much Hadham, a college for young people with epilepsy and other complex needs. ‘‘It was the most wonderful experience,’’ Doreen declares. For Les, the charity’s ‘‘biggest achievement is the vast number of people we have helped over the years, which on average is between 3000-4000 people a year, and covering every type of disability or infirmary you can imagine.’’

Not always plain sailing

As with most charities, funding is a huge challenge and the organisation raises vital funds through boat hire charges, sponsorship from various organisations, and charitable donations. According to Doreen, funding is becoming increasingly harder to secure, a problem compounded by the recession and budget cuts, which has also made it more difficult for customers to afford trips and holidays. The group are extremely grateful to their sponsors for their generous donations, for example Solar Tech in Ware fitted tinted film on the glass windows, Howdens in Harlow donated an oven and hob for one of the boats, and Lok n’Store in Harlow donated a storage space.

Looking ahead

Doreen explains that future plans for CanalAbility are focussed on ‘‘enhancing and improving facilities and consolidating what we have got, rather than expansion.’’ She adds, ‘‘We are looking to extend our existing moorings in order to better fulfil passenger needs,’’ as well as fulfilling the on-going cycle of replacing a boat every five years due to the 25 year lifespan of a boat.

One thing that is certain is that thanks to their experience, expertise and dedication, CanalAbility is set to sail into a successful future.

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