Supporting vulnerable boaters

Life can have many challenges and for liveaboard boaters it’s no different, but problems can often be magnified when you live on the water. When you move around the country, it can be difficult to access essential services such as healthcare, welfare benefits or other support services. That’s why our welfare officer, Sean Williams, works with vulnerable boaters to ensure they get the help and support they need.

Signposts in a rural setting, one saying 'HELP' Signposting welfare for boaters

In his role as welfare officer, Sean has seen first-hand some of the difficulties boaters might face. “It’s definitely harder to access services when you’re living aboard,” Sean tells us. “And you do get people that slip through the system.”

Sean and his colleagues who work in other teams, provide an essential link between the boating community and outside agencies such as local authorities, charities and the NHS.

Whether boaters are struggling with physical or mental health problems, face financial difficulties or live with disabilities, our local team provides a listening ear and signposts people to the services they need. “For us, it’s never about telling people what they can and can’t do,” Sean says. “It’s about how we keep our boaters safe and supported.”

A narrowboat on the canal at sunset Sunset, Leeds & Liverpool Canal

Matthew Aymes heads up a much wider team that works closely with Sean to identify boaters who might need support. As he explains: “It’s important to recognise that the boating community is just a microcosm of the wider world. All the issues you find in everyday life are there on the water.”

One way the team do this is by working closely with the Waterways Chaplaincy. Quite often people just need someone really to listen to what they need. The chaplains perform a vital role, simply by giving people a chance to speak.

Reaching out during lockdown

During the pandemic, the work of Sean and his colleagues has been even more important to people’s mental and physical wellbeing.

A narrowboat moored in winter on the Grand Union Canal at Tring

The recent lockdown has put a significant strain on some liveaboard boaters, with issues around healthcare, finances and feelings of loneliness and isolation. 

In recent months, Sean and his colleagues have intensified their efforts to ensure the boating community has easy access to things like vaccines, support groups and local charities managing safeguarding concerns. As Sean tells us: “Your lifestyle shouldn’t be a barrier to how you access support.”

Another big issue for boaters in the past 12 months, especially those who are continuously cruising, has been ease of movement. “We’ve tried to be as supportive as we can,” Matthew explains. “The requirement for movement has been relaxed and we’ve been encouraging people to keep in touch, so we can be aware of where they need to overstay and if they require any additional help.”

This supportive approach is one that Sean and his colleagues are keen to promote. As Sean explains: “When I started five years ago, very few boaters would contact their local team unless they really had to; now we’re getting to a stage where people come to us and say, ‘I need some help’.”

“There’s been a real shift in the way people perceive us and that’s the real journey for me. The whole plan is to keep our boaters on the water and give people the skills they need to stay safe and well.”

If you know of anybody within the boating community that could benefit from the help of Sean and his team, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Last date edited: 26 February 2021

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