Peter Underwood looks what turns ordinary people into boaters
In the first of a series looking at all the joys and potential problems of moving from being a gongoozler on the bank to a boater on the water we tackle just what it is that distinguishes one from the other.
OST people seem to enjoy being by water, whether it is on the beach, fishing a bubbling stream, strolling on a towpath of drinking in a pub with liquid outside the windows as well as real ale in the pumps.
But what takes some people from being observers to being participants? You can make the argument that our island heritage gives us a natural affinity with boats but the reality is that only a small percentage of the population are actually boaters.
Perhaps it is linked with childhood. I was born and brought up on the east coast, by a tidal estuary, and all the theories suggest that I should be terrified of the water after being swept away in my little rubber ring by a eight knot tidal flow even before I started primary school.
In fact, I was rescued by a passing boat – perhaps that explains my obsession – and went on to swim, sail and fish in those grey waters throughout my youth.
However, there are plenty of enthusiastic narrowboaters who would avoid choppy seas and tidal rivers like the plague, so childhood experiences are not necessarily what makes a boater. Perhaps it is because we associate canals, rivers and boats with freedom – walks on sunny days as children, our first fishing trip to an unpromising urban canal, early family holidays.
Simon Jenkins, a long term boater who runs the Norbury Wharf boatyard and hire fleet on the Shropshire Union Canal reckons it all starts with a canalside cup of tea.
“Give people what they want and they will visit the canals, enjoy them and steadily fall in love with them,” he says. “People want somewhere to enjoy their leisure and that often means nice scenery, plenty of action to look at and somewhere to buy a drink and some food. If you can add a bit of history, that’s so much the better.
“We see people of all ages visit our tearoom here at Norbury and they sit and watch the boats stopping on the wharf or moored along the popular towpath. They become fascinated and many move on to hire one of our little day-boats, so they get their first taste of actually travelling along the canal system.
“That gives them confidence that they can manage a boat on the canals and it is surprising how many day boat trippers move on to take one of our fleet of hire-boats out for a short break or a longer holiday.
“By that time they are hooked, like so many of the rest of us, on the waterways and they may even go on to buy a boat themselves.”
Curiosity about boats is the starting point for many people on the road to hiring and, perhaps, owning a boat.
Which is a nice theory, and clearly canals attract the curious, you only have to be moored in a popular spot and be sitting outside to attract all sorts of questions from the passing public. They range from the little boy who wanted to know it we had to kneel down inside the boat – he hadn't been able to work out that there was another half a metre or more below the water surface – to those who clearly daydream about moving lock stock and barrel onto a boat.
I reckon that curiosity is the key. Most boaters seem to be curious – about what's around the next bend, about the history of boats and canals, about their fellow boaters and their boats, even about the wildlife that surrounds them on the waterways.
Boaters love to explore their own history. Historic boats gathered at the Ellesmere Port Boat Museum.
It means they are keen to try new things, meet new people, travel to new places and try new experiences – even if that new experience is pushing your boat up a muddy ditch that forms one of the less well used parts of the Birmingham Canal Navigations.
I suspect curiosity also makes potential boaters impulsive. After all, buying a boat is a big step and a large investment in something that can cost a lot of hard cash just to keep it available for use. Cautious people, who study every worse-case scenario before making a commitment are more likely to stay walking the towpath and look at the more adventurous boaters with a little bit of envy.
Certainly, we would own up to jumping into boating without too much time spent looking at possible consequences. A week on the Norfolk Broads, followed by a three day break on a hire boat from the now-defunct Water Travel hire firm on the southern end of the Shropshire Union nearly 20 years ago convinced myself and my wife that what we really had to have for our 25th wedding anniversary was a boat.
Within weeks we had started looking even though the anniversary was a year away and within a couple more week we had jumped the gun entirely and bought a 32ft Viking GRP boat on the Yorkshire Ouse at Boroughbridge.
It soon became an obsession that meant we travelled to the boat, nearly two hours from our home, almost every weekend and often spent three or four days on the boat each week. We may have run out of fuel the first time we took it out and been left drifting down the Ouse, we may have scared ourselves heading back upstream from York as flash floods brought large tree trunks down river, but it was all one wonderful adventure.
So, too, was our first major summer journey, down the Ouse to Selby and then on to Leeds and along the Leeds and Liverpool canal. That gave us our first taste of the camaraderie of the canals and we were adopted by a single hander in his steel narrowboat as we joined the Aire and Calder and he gave freely of his advice and experience for the next week or two, giving us our first insight into proper canals.
Even before we began living on our boat it became an obsession. We had a new steel boat built, a 42-footer, which we proudly named Boadicea. Within another year or so our curiosity led to selling that to buy an unusual Ensign design from Wincham Wharf on the Trent and Mersey with a fixed steel cabin at the stern.
Curiosity, you see, it leads you by the nose in the boating world.
Getting afloat becomes the ultimate aim for those bitten by the bug. A couple on the Staffs and Worcs canal.
So, it you are wondering why you have this urge to splash out hard-earned cash on hiring a boat for a holiday, or even buying one, it is probably down to a combination of things, love of water, earlier good experiences, even a good cup of tea in a canalside café – but, above all it is because you are a nosy person who wants to know what's around the next bend.
Over the coming weeks we will be looking at the best way to scratch the boating itch, hiring a boat, buying into a boat-sharing syndicate, the pros and cons of buying an old boat, the risks of buying a new boat, the best boat design, the best place to keep your boat, the equipment and training your really need, the places your should consider going with your boat and the organisations that may be able to help.