our waterways chaplain

waterways chaplains: 80 and growing

80 chaplains spread around among the canals and waterways of Britain doesn’t sound an enormous number: but when you consider that quite a few of them are continuous cruisers for all or some of each year it’s easy to see that we get about all over the system!

New personnel are always coming aboard and when they do they are commissioned in their local church – which may or may not be canal or riverside – and they are given a gilet by which they can be identified immediately, plus a token of what their chaplaincy means. That token is a cast aluminium lock windlass with their name engraved on it and some very old Bible words.

waterways chaplain Mark Rudall windlass and giletI have my own before me as I write this: it’s pristine and lives in my study because I have other windlasses aboard the boat, and the words from Micah 6 verse 8 are there loud and clear:

‘Act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God’.

That windlass on my bookshelf and the regular tinkling of the phone in my pocket to indicate the arrival of a WhatsApp or a text alert from fellow chaplains asking for prayer, means that all the senses are kept alive to the fact that there is a big task on the waterways as we seek to be proactive at a practical level, and reactive at a spiritual level – as people ask questions or seek specific pastoral support.

Walking my ‘patch’ today was quiet, but significant people were encountered and conversations enjoyed. I met nobody distressed by bereavement or harassed by debt or a relationship issue or even something amiss with their boat. Nevertheless, the bright August sunshine provided a brilliant opportunity to give thanks to God for the beauty of the River Wey – my local navigation and to pray for all using its waters, its towpaths and the various social resources a navigable river offers to a town like Guildford.

I didn’t do so at the time, but I probably should have prayed also for the graffiti artists who have expended a lot of acrylic under the bridge that carries the A3 over the river.

Mark Rudall beside Gospel Wagon at Black Country MuseumAs an aside, a recent visit to the Black Country Museum reminded me that churches have sought to provide support to waterways people for many years – long before the present Chaplaincy movement began. They have there a wonderful horse drawn caravan and I couldn’t help but ask for a picture on it!

But of course work we do is entirely contemporary and if you want to find out more or are considering joining us, do check out our website.


Mark Rudall, Waterways Chaplain, Guildford , River WeyMark Rudall is a Waterways Chaplain on the Wey Navigation.

Mark is a retired Comms Director with roots in journalism. He owns a trail-able steamboat, and edits the Journal for the Worldwide Steamboat Fraternity.

Contact details: Website link


what lies beneath?

I took Easter Week out with my two brothers and our wives on the Shroppie, aboard one of Chas Harden’s hire fleet based at Beeston Castle. It was great and all we did was head the very few miles into Chester and pausing there before the short hop to the National Waterways Museum at Ellesmere Port. I did not go as a Chaplain, although I did make a point of wearing my Waterways Chaplain baseball hat.
Mark Rudall photo of working boat Saturn in ChesterThere was very little about, but on the way back we encountered a large number of interesting traditional boats all heading for a rally at the museum. They all ploughed past us accompanied by the deep throated chug of a Lister twin or maybe a Gardner or a Dorman diesel and in one case certainly a Bolinder was smoking things up in its distinctive leisurely way. Most were looking their best and conveyed enormous colourful charm, but we were painfully aware that for many, crew accommodation was pretty cramped and minimal by comparison to the glamping luxury of our hire boat.

That was one ‘less beautiful below the surface’ observation of the week. 
Mark Rudall photo of submerged HSL with funnel showing above waterAnother lay at the bottom of the two locks to the lower basin of the Ellesmere Port museum. We were advised to swing our 65’ semi trad as sharply to the left as possible on exiting the bottom lock as there was a ‘wreck’ in the way. We duly did so, but the wreck intrigued me, and even more so when I found out that what had lain just beneath the surface for many years with the remains of its funnel sticking out was an old RN Harbour Service Launch. As a steamboat owner I know about these sturdy old wooden WW1 & 2 HSLs, many of which were steam powered, although this was a diesel specimen. But it was another contrast: something rather sad, mostly hidden beneath the placid waters of a lovely place.

It’s this business of ‘what lies beneath the surface’ that is so significant for the Waterways Chaplaincy. Most people on the cut are very happy to chat and be friendly, and as they do, things emerge signalling to Chaplains that all is not necessarily well. It’s all about listening with care and being prepared to ask pertinent questions which might elicit why someone is clearly not at peace, for example, or is struggling with paying for upkeep of the boat, or maybe is in need of support through a health or other crisis.
Waterways Chaplaincy logo

So, peaceful though our canal system is, there’s a huge amount of ‘stuff’ lurking just beneath the surface and that’s why Chaplains seek to be aware of the people around them who share their passion for the waterways but maybe could do with a modicum of support. The word ‘Chaplain’ may sound a bit frightening and give rise to thoughts that we all mildly crazed ‘sky pilots’. But far from it: the eighty or so Waterways Chaplains dotted around the system are highly practical people, motivated by a strong Christian faith most certainly, but they are there for everyone.

beautiful – but what lies behind?

Britain’s Waterways Chaplains, about 70 of them now, find that winter can be a time when they are really needed by some continuous cruisers.

Rather like this bridge on my patch of the River Wey Navigation, it can all look very picturesque but what’s going on inside cosy looking narrow boats with wood smoke curling from their chimneys might be a bit like what is or could be going on inside the minds of the graffiti artists who deface every concrete surface they find - although in this case they gave my photographer friend Daan Olivier his picture…

Winter throws up its own challenges, and a liveaboard feeling isolation from family or friends with, maybe, a health issue thrown in for good measure, might well find the occasional presence of a chaplain very encouraging.

In the course of the year, chaplains speak to thousands of people on the towpaths or on boats. Quite a few are boat owners themselves so they know the ropes and they also  know the resources available in the areas where you find them. They also can be very useful when hardship strikes boaters and they need a food bank, a local benefits office, NHS help or a bit of support in their dealings with CRT or EA. All in all they’re pretty useful people to encounter on the towpath.

Waterways Chaplains are all volunteers: they are all linked to churches but their hearts are also with the waterways and waterways people for whom they agree, as chaplains, to be ‘practically proactive and spiritually reactive’. So they’re there to help, but if anyone wants them to they’re also happy to delve deep in conversation on all kinds of subjects.

Watch out for the black gilets: we’re easy to spot!


notes from a waterways chaplain 

brrr… shiver me timbers… now the cold

follows the hot!

It’s a wet and grim autumn as I write this, but it follows an unusually brilliant summer which raised quite a few issues for water levels around the country.

My open day boat, a 20’ steam launch called ‘Mazeppa’, with its tall funnel an inch or three over canal gauge had no sweaty moments with low bridges this year (!) but now she’s all wrapped up against the winter cold and sitting slightly forlornly on her trailer in the garden… 

In my patch, Hampshire County Council (the Basingstoke) and the National Trust (the Wey & Godalming Navigations) have had, respectively, to face seriously low water levels and unusually heavy weeding, both of them legacies of lots of very hot sunshine.

That means things round here have been pretty quiet this autumn and Chaplains’ walks have been much more about engaging people on the towpaths and something else too: the business of ‘prayer’.

The Waterways Chaplains take that duty very seriously but we know it’s not much understood. We wouldn’t call ourselves ‘religious’ people particularly and for us there’s nothing mysterious about it: it’s not a case of telling the Almighty what we think he ought to be doing; much more it’s walking and observing, doing some serious reflection on what we see and offering that to God. 

Chaplains nationwide – well over 70 of us now, some liveaboards, some simply based near canals or rivers - are linked by a WhatsApp group which is very discreet but gets the whole team mobilised. At all hours of the day the phone will buzz to itself and we find a message which simply says ‘pray for boater B: serious stroke’ or ‘Can we pray for Boater H recovering from an operation but under pressure to move his boat’.  

So we pray: we don’t know who boaters B and H are, where they are or even which chaplain is involved. But that’s not a problem: our chaplains are of many different denominations, all bound together by the thought that God is big enough to know the ‘where’ and the ‘who’. So we pray a blessing on those people in difficulties knowing that there’s other stuff going on behind the prayer alert. 

Chaplains may be visiting the isolated patient in hospital, likewise the stroke victim, and may even be drawn into advocacy with the relevant waterway agencies if a boat can’t be moved or a licence paid while the owner is hors de combat.. So for us, prayer is practical: not about telling God what to do in some kind of blindly self righteous way, it’s about engagement with real people in his name…

basingstoke canal under snowIt’s quiet here on the Wey and the Basingstoke, yes: but now that winter is here, the challenges really start for new liveaboards and continuous cruisers around the network. 

We’ll see the usual pretty snowy pictures on the cover of the waterways mags, but behind those stories sometimes are, sadly, tales of people out in the cold both physically and emotionally.

Some may have problems because of present hiccups with the benefits systems, technical problems with their diesel heating systems, flooding for those on rivers, and mud, mud, mud all over the towpaths which can be a bit depressing when living in a relatively confined space. Most of all, winter conditions isolate, particularly as Christmas approaches, and that’s where our chaplains can make a difference, just being around, being aware and being a bridge to the wider world: Oh! And doing that praying thing…

The Waterways Chaplaincy wishes everyone a very Happy Christmas and a good New Year. We are there ‘to come alongside you’ so keep an eye open for the people in the black gilets! 

waterways chaplains are coming alongside you! 

When the first moves were made to begin a chaplaincy for the benefit of people who live on and around our canals no one could have imagined how effective it would prove. 

Now in operation for around ten years Chaplains are a growing ‘presence’, being noticed and recognised as a part of the British waterway scene.

Most people in the UK are aware of chaplains in hospitals , the armed forces, the emergency services, prisons and other places of high stress where they are available to support and encourage – maybe even to ‘defuse’ people in distress or under pressure. Few could imagine that Britain’s generally pretty serene waterways might also be harbouring troubled people and pastoral challenges. 

But they are: and in quite large numbers.

waterway chaplainsA 2008 Salvation Army report on poverty in the UK was what kickstarted things. Now there is a growing band of 75 or so Waterways Chaplains of all the major Christian denominations and they operate under the auspices of a Church of England initiative. ‘Workplace Matters’, based in St Albans, supports chaplaincies in industry, including airports and large companies. 

Thousands of Britons live in very close association with our rivers and canals and a good many are liveaboards. Some of those in particular have taken to the water in the expectation of a peaceful life only to find themselves in trouble. They might be challenged by poverty and lack of access to benefits, poor physical or mental health, bereavement, loneliness and lack of the kind of social support easily available to land dwellers who are not obliged to be frequently mobile.  

‘Waterways Chaplains are volunteers and they undertake to walk just a mile of towpath each week – out and back – to engage the people they meet,’ says the Revd Mark Chester, Senior Chaplain in the South of England. ‘If the Chaplain happens to be a cruising boater, as quite a few are, they can turn up anywhere on the system and because they are distinctively dressed in their marked gilets they are being noticed. The brief is to be ‘pastorally proactive and spiritually reactive’. 

Some of the help Chaplains give is very practical indeed, but behind it all is a discipline of prayer for those they meet.

‘There is a lot of loneliness and isolation among liveaboard boaters,’ says Mark. ‘This in turn can lead to problems with alcohol or other drug abuse and Chaplains frequently find themselves working with CRT or the EA to assist people who, for one reason or another, have found themselves unable to pay licence fees, unable to move their boats when they should, or whose poorly maintained boats, have become problematic. 

When a Chaplain encounters someone who may not have had a meaningful conversation with another soul for days, that chat can be revitalising: Chaplains can help with local information about medical services, post offices, food banks and so on. ‘

The experience of Debbie Nouwen, Senior Chaplain to the North and Midlands, is exactly the same and she herself is a very seasoned liveaboard boater and former senior social worker. 

waterways chaplaincy logoLook out for Chaplains on a towpath near you! 

They are there for you, and if you want further information simply Google up ‘Waterways Chaplains’.