Keeping afloat

Welfare Officer Sean Williams is working to make it easier for vulnerable boaters get the help they need

Welfare Officer, Sean Williams

Peter Watts

Posted on 22/05/2019

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When the Canal & River Trust rebranded itself as a wellbeing charity in 2018, one of the people to welcome this was Sean Williams. Sean has been the Trust’s Welfare Officer since 2015, and the renewed focus on wellbeing has helped ensure his voice continues to be heard inside and outside the Trust as an advocate for boaters who are experiencing a range of difficulties.

“When I first started the role, I knew there was a need for support and a lot of boaters were struggling to get access to mainstream services, but I didn’t realise quite how many were affected,” he says. “As soon as I started meeting and talking to boaters I saw it was a bigger issue than I had first thought. Being a wellbeing charity is an exciting chapter in our journey and it’ll be interesting to see how this opens up support avenues for our most vulnerable boaters.”

Sean’s role is to act as a key point of contact within the Trust, responsible for offering advice, guidance and signposting for any person who has a concern about the welfare of boaters on the Trust’s waterways and to monitor and support the wellbeing of the boating community. It could be their physical and mental health, or their financial situation – although the three are often interlinked. As the Trust’s Welfare Officer, covering a 2000-mile network, a priority has been to train local teams of licence support officers. “They have had the training to support vulnerable boaters – to spot concerns and learn how to deal with them,” he explains. “In most cases the local teams were already doing great work signposting boaters to support, this has just helped bring everything together.”

This frees Sean up to communicate with external specialist services, who might not be aware of the needs or even existence of the boating community. There are also a couple of agencies – Bristol’s Julian House and national organisations like the Waterways Chaplaincy – that have a specific focus on boaters. “We do signposting, showing people where they can get help, but we need to make sure that when they go there, they will get the help they need,” says Williams. This can be a particular problem with mental health, where the support isn’t always immediately available and situations can develop until an issue reaches crisis point.

Frequently, Sean and the Trust will only find out about a vulnerable boater after the Trust has become aware of a licensing issue. “For example we’ll see that somebody isn’t cruising and they’ll explain they may have to stay in an area because of hospital appointments,” he says. “People don’t always feel comfortable volunteering that information until we ask if there is a problem. What I would love to see is if somebody is on a boat and their lifestyle changes, and they need help that, they will ring us up to let us know about it. That’s the goal.”

What happens in these situations depends on personal circumstances, with solutions often tailored to the individual. If a boater needs access to a medical service or is struggling with cruising, adjustments can be made with cruising allowances. Perhaps a boater with physical problems can have an adjustment that makes travelling more accessible. Sean will also help the boater access support they need for mental health or financial issues. Often, he’ll sit down with people, helping them with support and signposting as they wrestle with a complex benefits system.

The boating life brings with it specific issues and problems that need to be overcome, such as not having a permanent fixed address and the constant physical labour. It can make form-filling complex, it can make hospital visits more difficult and it can affect employment. Not having permanent neighbours to look in on you can also be problematic for vulnerable boaters, despite the generally close boating community. Sean has visited some boats with no heating or cooking facilities, a reminder that for some people, living on a boat is a positive decision, but for a small number it is because they have no alternative.

“A lot of people talk about how the canals are good for their mental health. They travel, they meet people, they are near water and they feel safe and secure on their boats,” says Sean. “But problems that affect land dwellers are also present on the water. For those with a low income or even no money who are struggling with mental health, anxiety or depression, it can be really tough because it’s easy to become isolated and not get the support you need.” Despite that, most wouldn’t live anywhere else. “A lot of times I sit with people and we look at their situation and sometimes that could include possible housing options but they can’t give up the life on the water, it means so much to them. We want to support people to get the help they need to continue their lifestyle to the best of their ability.”

Elliot Kennedy