Life afloat with Waterways Chaplain Debbie Nouwen
Waterways chaplain Debbie Nouwen answers the questions
1 What first attracted you to the waterways?
I was made unexpectedly homeless after our landlord put up the rent by a silly amount. This was pre-2008 when house prices were at a premium. We struggled to rent anything suitable, so buying a boat seemed a good option. Living off the grid and being closer to nature remains as attractive now, as it was the first day we stepped on to the boat.
2 Where is your favourite view of the water?
Gargrave and Barnoldswick on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, utterly stunning and in God’s own county – Yorkshire!
3 What does the network have to offer the country?
In a world where so many live their lives like the rocket-heeled Mexican Mouse ‘Speedy Gonzales’ (from the cartoon Looney Tunes), our canals and rivers offer a place of relaxation and rest.
4 As new Deputy National Senior Waterways Chaplain, what will your role entail?
My role is to develop, nurture and support waterways chaplaincy in the North of England (and parts of the Midlands). I oversee three teams; in the North West, South Yorkshire/Lincolnshire and Birmingham region. A lot of my time is spent supporting those chaplains out on the towpath. Thereafter, I am exploring new opportunities to establish new hubs in the north. I liaise a lot with local churches, CRT and partner agencies.
5 Where did you learn about life on the cut?
We learned as we went along. I made so many mistakes in the early stages and the term ‘baptism of fire’ would certainly describe my experience in the first few years. However, I have benefited from meeting so many wonderful people and boaters.
6 So you are a seasoned liveaboard?
I have lived on a boat now for over 10 years. It has been an adventure filled with fun and joy, but at times also real sadness and difficulty. Life on a boat is never dull!
7 Tell us about your boat
When I bought the boat, everything inside was navy blue and chocolate brown! Ten years later, this has been rectified!
8 What do the waterways need most?
I think there needs to be far more affordable moorings (including winter ones). It would also be good for wide-beams to have the ability to sail around the entire network, instead of the limitations that are in place.
As a chaplain, I think those who use the canals and rivers could do with meeting an amazing man called Jesus. Obviously as a chaplain I would say that. But this guy was a radical who spoke out for the underdog, for those on the margins of life, for those who were least, last and so often forgotten (like many boaters).
9 Where have you enjoyed boating in the UK?
I love cruising around the North of England, especially the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, the Selby Canal and up towards the River Ouse towards York and Ripon.
10 What are your fondest memories?
My most recent one, was sitting in the grounds of Iona Abbey in Scotland, listening to music and watching dolphins leaping around next to the ferries on the Sea of Iona. There really was something of the divine about it.
11 What is the history of your organisation?
In 2008, there was a Salvation Army report called the “Seeds of Exclusion”. At that time it noted that 20 percent of the UK population lived in relative poverty, with some migrating to the waterways for a cheaper and alternative lifestyle. It concluded that it was the nature of life for people who live on the canals that there is a shortage of normal support structures. As a result, Waterways Chaplaincy was born through the support of Workplace Matters, who have over 50 years’ experience of bringing meaning and purpose into the workplace. A few weeks ago we celebrated our 10th Anniversary of Waterways Chaplaincy in the Tower of London.
12 What is the role of volunteer chaplains?
We are Christian volunteers from local churches coming from a diversity of Christian traditions including lay people and ordained ministers. Some have a background of boating, whilst others had no previous experience of inland waterways. The role of a WWC focuses on being a visible presence along specific stretches of the river and canal network in England and Wales, by providing friendship, support and a listening ear to all those who have contact with the inland waterways. Chaplains are asked to walk a mile of towpath a week in their local area, and the role really is completely flexible. Being a volunteer chaplain is challenging and rewarding.
13 Where can boaters keep an eye out for you?
I am based in the North of England but travel around a great deal, so see waterwayschaplaincy.org.uk
14 What is your proudest achievement?
I left school with no qualifications and not much hope. In my mid 20s, I decided to go to night school and did a GCSE in English language and passed with an A. Although I have since collected various post-graduate qualifications, my GCSE is the one that I am genuinely most proud of.
15 What would you like to see happen to the waterways?
That the hidden challenges so many boaters experience, will become more readily known and supported. That stretches of waterways can be expanded upon, such as the Chesterfield Canal.
16 Have you ever fallen in?
Oh yes, although I actually managed to get through seven years without doing so, only to then do it twice in a week.
17 You clearly enjoy the towpath community?
You meet the whole of life on the towpath from the absolutely wonderful through to the seriously bizarre! I love the diversity of people, the friendliness of many boaters and the willingness to help each other. There really is no other community quite like it.
18 Is your support well received?
Yes I think so. Sean Williams who is the National Welfare Officer (for CRT) write of us: …. “The Chaplains provide excellent support and are well regarded and very well spoken of in the boating community. The experiences I have had working closely with the local chaplains, in so often difficult and challenging situations, has been extremely positive”.
On a canal boat user’s forum, one boater wrote: “Trust me, waterways chaplains are not a bunch of Bible bashers, they really are great and will freely offer anyone support and help. Personally, I’ve received support from them when I was in trouble and they were great”.
19 What did you want to be at the age of 12?
A RAF fighter pilot.
20 What would your superpower be?
The ability to stuff myself with chocolate and grow thin!