Perhaps a couple of hours on a lovely accessible barge on the Grand Union Canal in Hertfordshire isn’t quite the same as a life-time at sea but it certainly was fun. I was really chuffed to be invited onboard the newly re-furbished Queen Elizabeth Foundation’s accessible barge (also named ‘Queen Elizabeth’) recently and only a little terrified when – once up stream – I was invited to steer the boat.
This wasn’t my maiden voyage but was in fact, both my second time on a ‘wheely boat’ and attempt at taking the helm. Last time I ‘set-sail’ at Camden Lock and just as I sat at the ‘wheel’ the wind came up and it all very nearly ended badly; I’m glad to say that this time we took a smoother course.
This time around, from Winkwell Dock next to the Three Horseshoes pub, a portable ramp got me on to the barge itself and then, once on deck in my small but perfectly formed power-chair, a platform lift gave me access to the interior.
All mod cons
The Queen Elizabeth is something like a Tardis, in that it feels bigger inside than out. The barge itself does have slightly wider dimensions than ordinary canal boats that allow for up to three wheelchair users and has eight berths; including an accessible bed, complete with hoist should someone need it. The bathroom was complete with flushing toilet plus an accessible shower and the galley – see, I know the terms – was spacious enough to prepare the excellent lunch we enjoyed later on.
Personally, I was much impressed with how good my view of the canal was, from my position at a low height. Once on deck, the front of the boat was fully open so that nothing blocked my side view and inside, another raising platform allowed me a great view to steer from; just as well. Steering itself was done via a small joystick, very similar to the one I control my chair with. It took a moment to re-wire my brain and realise that I didn’t have to push the stick forwards to enable the boat to propel in that direction; I just had to navigate a straight course by moving it slightly from left to right. A dial in front of me indicated the position of the rudder, which has to be kept central for the boat to travel straight. (Of course, I’m sure I could fly a plane now too.) As an alternative control, there was also a small wheel which I really liked and made me feel like a proper Skipper. It was necessary to be quite forceful with it though and every so often the rudder dial would mysteriously move of its own accord and my little spins of the wheel felt somewhat redundant. I found myself thinking of my dad who passed his captaincy exams just before he left the Merchant Navy, many moons ago and I wondered if he was helping me steer from the great ship’s wheel in the sky. As it turned out, the skipper was just taking control from up on deck, to help me through the tricky bits (but I think Dad kept his hand in, too).
The voyage home
Time on the water was shorter than I’d have liked and having got far upstream we eventually had to turn around and make our way back to the dock. It was fascinating to watch the water rise and fall every time we passed through a lock, as well as ever so slightly scary at first.
We returned back to dock calmly and safely; even though we had `encountered’ a tree jutting its branches through the bathroom window whilst I was sitting on the loo. Needless to say, I wasn’t steering at that point.
The whole trip was very enjoyable; so much so that my friends and I are now thinking of hiring the Queen Elizabeth for ourselves for a little holiday. The ocean can keep its waves, a rippling canal is much more me.
The Queen Elizabeth Foundation for Disabled People
QEF is a leading disability charity working with people with physical and learning disabilities or acquired brain injuries to help them gain new skills and increase independence for life.
Tel: 01372 841100