Tracey's story

A guest blog from boater Tracey about living onboard a narrowboat and being severely vision-impaired. Tracey has become known as 'the blind boater' since moving afloat with hubby, Tim, in March 2014.

Guide dog Oakley gives Tracey a helping paw at the lock Tracey and guide dog Oakley

My eyesight shut down over the course of a few months, culminating in being registered as ‘severely vision impaired/blind’ in September 2011. This was due to optic nerve atrophy of unknown cause.

I now have just a pinhole of vision in my right eye only (the left one has never had any useful sight). I count my blessings that this pinhole, about 2% of a normal field of vision, is central. So, although I see absolutely nothing around the periphery, that little window, on a ‘good eyes day’, still allows me to read with some adaptations.

On a ‘bad eyes day’, however, it is like viewing the world through moving murky water, rather like a muddy canal on a windy day. Those bad eyes days are attributable mainly to stress, tiredness and high-speed travel (from trying to focus on things that are whizzing past at speed).

So, for me, life really is better by water, because the slow pace of life and travel reduces stress and avoids the eye strain of car rides. On occasional train trips to visit family, I can be found twiddling with my latest crochet project to divert my attention away from the view whizzing past the windows!

Boating guide dog Oakley

Until a couple of years ago, I had the pawsome assistance of a guide dog. For the first five years of living afloat, this was my infamous guide dog Oakley. A black Labrador who was a bit of a character and became quite well known on the cut, as well as from his own dog blog on Facebook. Oaks was a bit of a tinker when off duty, but he proved to be an utterly incredible guide dog for me.

Tracey and Oakley sitting on a lock beam Tracey and Oakley sitting on a lock beam

Our first year together was a ‘normal’ one, living and working around our hometown of Worthing. When we moved aboard the boat, we became the first and only guide dog partnership living full-time as continuously cruising boaters. At the time of writing this blog, this is still the case, as far as we know.

We have learnt to adapt working methods as we have gone along, to overcome the challenges of the historic waterway environment. Guide Dogs for the Blind Association UK had never been faced with anything like us before, so it was a huge learning experience for us all. They were fantastic though, such an incredible life-changing charity.

Adapting to the challenges

Oakley soon learned how to ‘Find the beam’ and ‘Find the paddle’ to enable me to work the locks. He also learned ‘Under the bridge’, ‘Over the bridge’, ‘Up-slope’, ‘Down-slope’ and ‘Find the boat’, as well as several other new commands needed for towpath navigation. Working along a towpath was actually relatively easy for him, as there was little in the way of finding directions. Too much deviation left or right would have resulted in a prickly encounter with the hedgerows or a chilly baptism!

However, he became fabulously good at steering me around things like overhanging tree branches, sticky-up roots and eroded indentations in the edge of the path. If he couldn’t take me around them, he would stop and nuzzle at my knee then nuzzle at the trip-hazard to show me the danger.

Bye bye Oakley, hello Teddy

Oakley had to retire early in 2019 after he developed some health/anxiety issues. Tim and I had to make the heart-breaking decision to let him go to a new home, a decision that has proved beyond doubt to be the best for him. He is now living a fabulously happy retirement life with a couple who have become our good friends.

I was then partnered with a new guide dog. A gorgeous big fluffy golden retriever called Teddy. During the training time with Teddy, the Canal and River Trust was fantastically helpful and supportive. We were granted permission to stay on the same mooring in Rugby for three months whilst Teddy settled in.

Sadly though, after all that, he decided that he wasn’t really cut out to be a guide dog. Not every dog trained is suited to the job. Teddy was rehomed to some friends in Sussex who now give him a wonderful life as a Very Important Pet. Since then, I have been on the waiting list for another guide dog.

Roving trader Tracey and The Doggie Boat at floating market Tracey and The Doggie Boat trading at a floating market

Tim and I are now licensed Roving Canal Traders selling all kinds of healthy dog treats, toys, leads and dog care products, both from the boat and our online shop. We felt that being 'The Doggie Boat' without a doggie was just wrong! So, we adopted a little rescue boy. Two-year-old Ozzie is a pug x Chinese crested and has the very important job of being Chief Product Tester of all the healthy doggy treats that we specialise in. ‘It’s a tough job, but somepawdy has to do it!’ says the little curly-tailed furry ambassadog.

I am still really hugely looking forward to getting another guide dog (Ozzie will be a great playmate), as that will enable me to regain my independence and freedom to get out and enjoy walking the towpaths.

Our boating life now

I do go out now using a white cane, but it is very restricted, especially on the more rugged stretches of towpath. Navigating using a white cane is really hard work and requires so much concentration that I struggle to appreciate the lovely surroundings of our waterways. With a dog taking care of my safety, I would be more able to listen to the birdsong and all the other sounds that help me to ‘see’ the world my way.

Life aboard our boat NB Sola Gratia is wonderful. We’ve lived this nomadic lifestyle now for over seven years and have absolutely no regrets.

You can read more of my story, as well as observations on life and some educational thoughts, on my blog

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Tracey is currently a co-opted member on our National Council as a representative of the ever-growing community of disabled boaters and other waterway users.

Last date edited: 1 December 2020

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