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Waterways chaplains - help on the waterways for boaters in need

Waterways chaplains support boaters in need, helping to resolve a wide range issues from access to benefits and healthcare to being a listening ear and companion to the lonely and anxious.

Waterways Chaplain the Rev. Pat Willis  stands by her boat

Living on a boat is often seen as in idyllic escape from the perceived rat race of normal land-based life, but it's not a panacea for all of life's woes, especially if you've already got problems. When things go wrong, (and they often do when boats are involved), this can leave liveaboard boaters in a very vulnerable position.

Who are the chaplains?

Rather like street pastors, waterways chaplains are there to serve boaters they come across. The chaplains are Christian volunteers from a wide variety of different backgrounds. Some are retired and others are not, and they include clergy, boaters, anglers, community or health workers, IT experts and even a marine surveyor.

With over 100 volunteer chaplains, they aim to provide coverage for as much of the UK canal and river network as possible. The chaplains divide the waterways network into 10 regions, from London and the Home Counties, to Wales, East and West Midlands and the North, as well as a hub of volunteers who work in the Norfolk and Suffolk broads area.

Waterways chaplains help people with a variety of life's challenges, including health and wellbeing, relationships, employment and financial worries, and do so regardless of anyone's religion, race, orientation or socio-economic status.

Boaters in need?

Whilst living on the water can be cheaper than living on land there are still bills to pay such insurance, the boat safety certificate, boat licence, maintenance, fuel costs for moving and fuel costs for keeping warm whilst the weather is cold.

A sudden major equipment failure such as a broken gear box or engine, the loss of employment, a crisis of physical or mental health can lead to a situation where bills can't be paid, or the owner can no longer meet their obligations as a boat owner, for instance not being able to cruise when they don't have a home mooring.

Our boat licence customer support team do their best to support boaters in need to access to the support they need to keep their boat legal and on the water. But often the boater in need requires much more support than we can provide, so with the boater's permission we will refer boaters in need to the waterways chaplains.

Many boaters also know their local waterways chaplain from frequent encounters on the towpath as they are all regularly out and about. Others contact the chaplaincy for support direct through a chaplaincy website help request.

Meet Pat

We had a chat with the Rev. Pat Willis who is the senior chaplain on the Kennet & Avon canal about her life and the work she does as a waterways chaplain supporting boaters in need.

Pat and her husband are liveaboard boaters. After a working life that starting in nursing and which ended as an ordained minister in the Church of England, Pat fulfilled the dream of many by retiring onto boat to travel the canals of England.

Pat's first boat was bought as a wreck a few years before they retired. It was gutted back to steel and rebuilt whilst still working full time. Having completed this daunting task, they retired onto the boat and sailed off around the country on a grand tour. They then ordered a new boat as a sailaway, fitted it out again and then went off on another grand tour.

Pat certainly knows all about the trials and tribulations of fitting out or refurbishing a boat. These days they generally take a winter mooring in a marina and then cruise during the summer, mostly these days on the Kennet & Avon canal. Pat decided that she would become a waterways chaplain a little over four years ago.

Waterways Chaplain the Rev. Pat Willis chats with the Wessex Rose Hotel Boat

All in a week's work

Work for a chaplain is a mix of phone calls and actual visits. Pre-Covid Pat used to spend a lot more time out on the towpath but these days she tried to plan visits for just one day a week. The pandemic has changed the way Pat is working.

On the day we spoke to Pat she was heading off to Devizes the following day to meet eight different boaters and meet up with a probationary waterways chaplain too. Some visits can be a brief tap on the door for a quick "hello, is everything ok?" to a longer sit down and in depth chat. Her diary is always packed for up to three weeks ahead and it's always busy. Waterways chaplains do whatever is needed at the time.

Mental health matters

There are lots of boaters with mental health problems. If you've already got a mental health problem, moving onto the water won't necessarily fix it, and could actually make it worse. Some boaters can have a perfect storm of events that cause a crisis for instance; poor health, a lack of money, issues with benefits, licence fee due but can't licence until they get a boat safety certificate and not being able to afford to get the boat safety certificate.

For someone in a mental health crisis it can be difficult to even speak to other people to initiate help. Even for someone not in crisis, dealing with work and pensions issues can be difficult, complex, time consuming, and stressful. For someone with poor mental health these can be panic attack inducing, crippling any ability to do anything to remedy the situation.

Pat's relationship with boaters over the years has taught her a lot about mental health issues far beyond her basis training as a nurse. She told us "Some people need total and ongoing support, so the service offered by the waterways chaplains is invaluable. We can do anything from providing transport to job seeker or benefit interviews, through to providing a 'hand-holding' service for medical appointments." The chaplains can help unravel the multiple issues and break these down into manageable steps.

But what about the God bit?

Pat says that "Whilst we are a Christian organisation, and we are open in saying that we are a Christian organisation, we absolutely do not push our religion onto people. It doesn't matter who you are or what your background is, if you need help, we are happy to help."

People who are helped by the waterways chaplains are under no obligation and do not have to promise anything towards the church. What we want to do, Pat says, is to share God's love on the towpath and show people that he cares for them. We spend a lot of time praying for those we meet behind the scenes.

Waterways chaplains delivering shopping to a moored narrowboat

Do you need help?

Are you struggling financially? Are you battling to get the benefits and support you need? Has your health taken a turn for the worse? Have you got into difficulties with your boat licence?

The chaplains offer:

  • listening & confidential ear.
  • signposting to local support services e.g. foodbanks.
  • to act as advocates when a boater needs someone to unravel issues e.g. difficulties with paying licences, support with bereavement.
  • help to pay for coal/ fuel, food, emergency boat repairs via a Hardship Fund.
  • help in an emergency such as taking boaters to a doctor, hospital, or housing office.
  • Practical help such as washing and drying laundry for boaters or helping out after a boat sinking.

The chaplains are very careful about privacy and sharing of information. Here's a final word of advice from Pat. "Contact us earlier rather than later if at all possible." The sooner you get in touch the sooner you can get help.

Last Edited: 23 May 2024

photo of a location on the canals
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