Shop front in the summer

Monday, 13 January 2014

Who ties where?

Journalist Peter Underwood has been turning his thoughts to moorings and here, in the first of his guest blogs he looks at visitor moorings and the heated debate about their use.

Mooring. It's a topic that obsesses boaters almost as much as toilets and seems to dominate much of the Canal and River Trust's policy-making time.

Why? That's a very good question and, considering the amount of time devoted to the issue you would imagine CRT had enormous files of complaints about mooring going back years.

I have been told several times by senior CRT staff and a trustee that the organisation regularly receives 'lots' of complaints about boaters without a home mooring.

But when I asked whether  the organisation kept a record of these complaints, whether it was willing to make it public and how did it verify whether such complaints had a basis in fact, the answer was a curious mixture of hearsay and assumption.

CRT's press office told me: These staff are probably referring to a wide mixture of informal feedback received verbally or in passing within correspondence. 
The number of formal complaints we receive is small in comparison.  Letters published in the printed waterway press gives a reasonable guide to the strength of views of boaters, and a casual analysis of the letter pages of Canal Boat and Waterways World over the past year or so confirms that the mushrooming of apparently largely static communities of residential boats in certain areas is a matter of quite wide concern amongst boaters. 
For most people, putting pen to paper on a particular subject such as this is a chore that theyd rather not do and, for every letter written, there may be many, many more who think the same but dont bother to write. 
So, this is a very long way of saying no, we dont have any quantitative evidence about complaints, but that doesnt mean we can ignore all other pointers.

Despite a somewhat inadequate factual basis for policy making, there is little doubt that a proportion of boaters do complain about being unable to moor where they choose in high season.

A boaters survey of the Southern Grand Union reported in November, asked: Are you ever affected by congestion at visitor moorings on the Grand Union south of Blisworth, highlighting Rickmansworth?

Just two per cent said they were frequently affected while 82 per cent were never affected or didn't bother to answer. Another 17 per cent were infrequently affected.

There are no figures for what proportion of visitor moorings are in use at any one time, a difficult task for CRT as their number-checkers only visit each stretch on average once a fortnight. However, the figures from the three mooring sites (Foxton, Stoke Bruerne and Thrupp) where they changed the rules with much fanfare this summer, show that around 75 per cent of the use was by Leisure Boaters, 20 per cent by Continuous Cruiser / Liveaboards and the remainder working or trading boats.

Given that 15 per cent of all boats on CRT's system are Continuous Cruisers that would seem logical as those who spend their lives on their boats are slightly more likely to be using them than those who are taking a holiday. 

So should CRT be motivated by the angry letters of a handful of leisure boaters to the boating press? It would easy to suggest that doing so is the equivalent of government making policy on the basis of the letters columns of the Daily Mail.

Certainly a more factual basis would be preferable and that may be slowly emerging as it combines the database of day-to-day boat checks  - although CRT admits, We do not visit visitor mooring sites sufficiently frequently to provide a reliable indication of usage levels; with a new programme of volunteer boat recordings at visitor moorings on a daily or 34 times per week basis.

In any event it thinks it has the right amount of visitor moorings, even in hotspot locations. The press office told me: The detailed discussions held over many workshops do indicate that the space allocated, overall, is about right.  

Given that there is a big difference in visitor mooring usage in peak boating months versus the shoulder months (eg Sept/Oct) we must beware the conclusions that if they are not full in late Sept/Oct, too much space is allocated.

With CRT itself saying there is enough space, boater surveys indicating that only a handful have serious problems mooring even in hotspots like Rickmansworth, what is all the fuss about?

It is possible that part of the anger is a matter of timing. A holiday boater naturally likes to cram in as much travelling as possible, especially those on hire boats attempting a 'ring'. That means they tend to arrive at their planned mooring late in the day and find it full. That makes some people angry and resentful of the boats that are occupying 'their' space.

Human nature being what is, there is a tendency to blame what are usually labelled 'continuous moorers' meaning continuous cruisers who do not abide by the rules.

The reality in most places is almost certainly different. One of five of the moored boats may have a continuous cruiser licence but the rest will almost certainly be leisure boaters who simply turned up before the boater making the complaint. On longer- term moorings there may be boats that have been there the full term but simple observation around the system this year shows an increasing number of leisure boats being left for a week or two at a time during the season, and moved regularly as owners avoid paying high marina fees. One owner near Foxton reckoned one in ten moorers in his marina were now only paying for the winter months.

Nothing illegal about it as long as the boat is moved regularly, and of course, as a boat with a nominal home mooring, there is no obligation to be on a journey, as there is with Ccers.