Alice Griffin caught up with Giles Williams – your helmsman!
WHEN Giles Williams found himself recovering from illness in early 2016 and looking for work that would take him into the open air, he could not have foreseen that an initial job as towpath ranger for the Canal & River Trust would lead him on the path to set up his Your Helmsman business, moving boats and training people how to steer.
He shared with me: “While on the job I’d mentioned my many years of experience as a holiday boater and this led to them asking if I could help crew some boat movements for the trust. They liked what I did, and I went through their internal training to become a skipper for them in London.”
The rest is history, as they say, because it wasn’t long before boaters in London got to know Giles and began to ask if he could move their boats for them. “I looked into the details of the insurance and licences I’d need to do that and, well, the first client I had paid for all of those!”
Things progressed when, in September 2019, a good friend asked Giles if he might introduce a young couple – new to boating – to life on the waterways aboard their own boat.
He told me: “I was a bit nervous about doing so, but I gave them a day on the water aboard their new boat demonstrating simple manoeuvres and encouraging them to try things out for themselves and I found I enjoyed it!” Perhaps more importantly, though, so did his clients, who found the learning experience calm and reassuring.
Giles next decided to take the RYA Inland Waterways Helm and Crew Instructor course and now teaches using its methods, although as he’s not currently associated with a training centre he doesn’t offer RYA certification. “I concentrate on coaching people on their own boats, with an emphasis on building confidence and how to safely navigate single-handedly.”
He loves his work and is a real advocate for our wonderful waterways. “I love getting up early and particularly enjoy being afloat in the golden hour after dawn, when the water is still and reflects the light of a new day.” I couldn’t agree more, Giles!
And I also agree when he observes how extraordinary it is that “a system designed and built for heavy industry in the past 300 years has become a tranquil, green haven, even in the centres of the cities it created.”
With his obvious love of the canals you might wonder if there is a link in his past and, well, you would be right. Giles told me: “My paternal grandfather was in the merchant marine and my mother’s side was a family of carters from London’s East End.” It seems both water and moving things is indeed in Giles’s blood!
Despite this, his work is not without occasional apprehension: “When I’m offered the task of looking after someone’s boat, especially if it’s a particularly new boat, there’s a great deal of pressure in avoiding getting even the most minor scrapes and scratches.” However, two summers spent skippering a narrowboat for cocktail cruises in central London has certainly given Giles a high level of confidence.
“I learned how to ensure every contact between a boat and anything else (when mooring up, for example) was as gentle a kiss as it could possibly be.”
Despite having travelled much of the canal system, there are still stretches on his bucket list. He shared: “Although I’ve holidayed there in the past, I’ve not spent nearly enough time on the Birmingham Canal Network. It’s such an important part of the system I don’t know why my peregrinations have taken me around the outside of it so much!”
And of everywhere he’s explored, he’s always happy to be on the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal between Kidderminster and Wolverhampton: “It’s one of the prettiest canals in the country, I’ve never had a bad day there.”
Giles’s passion for the waterways extends beyond just enjoying the nature though, as he also helps administer the London Boaters campaigning Facebook group, striving to improve conditions for boaters on London’s waterways.
“I want our waterways to thrive, and while I know the organisations managing our waterways want that too, I also know they are under-resourced, under-funded, and subject to policies. I’m 100% behind the new Inland Waterways Association campaign to properly fund Britain’s waterways.”
It seems that despite illness being the unfortunate catalyst for his life on the water, everything has come good as Giles helps others on their journey to valuing our canal system as much as he does!
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Alice Griffin is a nature-loving writer and yoga teacher who has spent a large part of the past 15 years living afloat. She runs online and in-person courses that help people invite a sense of slow into their lives. Website: www.alicegriffin.co.uk YouTube: @wanderingalice