While some of the people who work for our charity already live and work afloat, many more of us have enjoyed having a ‘Boating Buddy’ to help us get out on the water for the first time. That’s why Sue Cook from Indigo Dream recently invited Waterfront, and your Friends supporter care officer, Rebecca Knight on board to show us the ropes.
The kettle is already whistling when we arrive at Campbell Wharf Marina in Milton Keynes. Better still, Indigo Dream's cabin is full of a delicious aroma. Almond and cherry biscuits baking in the oven are an early sign of Sue's warm hospitality.
“You know, I think every boat has a soul,” says Sue thoughtfully. “And I like to think Indigo Dream's soul is one of kindness and sharing, so please make yourselves at home.”
And we happily do, finding a comfy spot to sit on Indigo Dream's generous open deck, as Sue gives us an all-important safety briefing. Glad to know how to avoid banging our heads on bridges or falling into the canal, we're ready to cast off.
As Sue gently guides past tied up boats in the middle of town, we take the chance to get to know her and Indigo Dream a little better. How did it all begin?
“So just before we were married, we took a week-long hire cruise and just fell in love with boating. After owning a part-share in a boat for a while, we decided to buy our own. We commissioned Indigo Dream to our design in 2005 and by 2006 she was on the water. We're the proud owner of four retired racing greyhounds, so unusually the boat has a fully enclosed steering deck to keep them safe. They are so placid and lazy when not racing, so perfect for cruising.”
“We've covered almost every inch of the canal network. We love the Thames and as loyal country members of St Pancras Cruising Club, we've cruised the whole length from Lechlade down to the Medway and even taken her across the Wash. But our all-time favourite canals are the Birmingham Canal Navigations (BCN).
It's an astonishing piece of water. We love it with an absolute passion and have taken part in the BCN 24-hour canal cruising marathon challenge many times, finally winning it in 2018, having come third three times before.” Mischievously, Sue adds: “We're not at all competitive, you understand...”
Before we chat any longer, it's time for Rebecca to take the tiller for the first time, but with only 100 yards to go before we reach a bridge, we've put her right in at the deep end. “Remember, push left to go right, and right to go left,” says Sue calmly, and although there's a bump or two on the way out, Rebecca manages it with aplomb to get through first time.
As she continues to steer a steady course, Rebecca tells us: “I've always loved the canals having grown up in Birmingham, or as we call it, “the Venice of the North”, but having had limited time afloat, this is an amazing experience.”
While we drift along the Grand Union Canal enjoying some unexpected sunshine, Sue tells us how she became a Boating Buddy: “It's all part of our philosophy of welcoming people on board. We already ran cruising days as raffle prizes for our greyhound charities, so when the Canal & River Trust asked us to take a few of the team from the London, Leeds and other offices around the network we were happy to help.
I remember one guy who came on board at Stoke on Trent and part of his job was looking after all the vegetation on that stretch of the canal. At one stage he was piloting the boat around a quite overgrown blind bend, and afterwards he said, ‘Wow, I hadn't realised quite how the vegetation influences the line of sight for boaters here – so I'm going to get that section cut'. For me, that was a great illustration of what Boating Buddies can do. It brings people closer to canals from the boater's perspective too.”
Rebecca eagerly joins in the conversation too: “Whatever your role at the Trust, it's great to get out on the water with one of our Boating Buddies. It's the perfect opportunity to experience life through the eyes of our boating community and see first-hand all our hard work in action. I've got plans to get the rest of my team out on the water too! The fact that our Boating Buddies offer their time and experience to our colleagues for free is amazing and helps to build our strong relationship with boaters.”
As we turn around and head for home after a delicious mezze lunch, Sue reflects on what she has learned too: “I've been a trainer and mentor in the NHS for many years, so I know how big organisations work. Not everyone is on the frontline. Someone who has expertise in ecology or engineering, finance marketing or PR doesn't necessarily know the waterways inside out. They are simply bringing their own skills to bear for the good of canals. For me it puts a human face on the Canal & River Trust, and Boating Buddies remind me that both the passion of users and the skill of ‘keepers' are essential for maintaining these amazing waterways, today and for the future."
Returning to Sue's mooring, we thank her for her kindness and warm welcome aboard. “I'll definitely look at taking a boating holiday now,” says Rebecca as we get back to real life. “Leaving the stresses of city life behind, if only for a few hours, has definitely given me a new perspective. I'm just incredibly grateful for Sue and the other Boating Buddies up and down our network.”
It certainly has been a real privilege to spend the day slowing down by water with such a generous soul.