The Seagull Trust, a charity funded entirely by donations, runs free canal cruises for people with special needs. Gayle becomes a volunteer helper for a morning…
Steering a car is one thing. Steering a gigantic barge is quite another.
I’m at the wheel of a 56ft-long one and I’m seriously worried I’m going to crash into something.
The barge, named St John Edinburgh, stretches infinitely ahead of me from my high vantage point and I’m on a mission to take it down the Union Canal.
As it swings left, I overcompensate by turning the wheel to the right, and to my horror, the boat starts zigzagging wildly.
I’m the personification of panic and flap as I try to get the damn thing away from the stone wall that we seem to be approaching. Eek!
Thankfully, I’m only doing a very brief stint at the helm of this beast of a boat, and I’m relieved (as must be everyone on board) when skipper John Ferguson takes over.
“You can be inclined to oversteer!” he winks, expertly swinging us in the right direction.
I’ve joined a group of Seagull Trust volunteers for a morning cruise down the canal and while great fun, I think I’ll leave the skilled stuff to others.
There are plenty of other jobs for volunteers on the flat-bottomed boat including rope handling, welcoming passengers on board, offering coffees, teas and biscuits, helping folk with wheelchairs, and informing people about the Seagull Trust’s history.
The friendly crew members work in rotation and everyone mucks in.
Groups of all kinds enjoy free trips down the canal, including people from care homes, those with disabilities, learning difficulties, Alzheimer’s and dementia, nursery children and disadvantaged youngsters.
On board today is a group from Leonard Cheshire in Rosyth, a charity that supports disabled individuals.
As the group – some members of which are in wheelchairs – gets settled, volunteer Kenny Robertson tells me how he got involved.
“Sailing was my hobby for a very long time and I loved the idea of being on the water,” he says.
“When I retired, I had more time on my hands and wanted to see what I could do to help.
“The Friday crew are a fantastic group of people and we have some great banter.”
Kenny, a retired livestock auctioneer and land agent from Dechmont, is full of anecdotes but one in particular makes me laugh.
“One of our volunteers had sailed the QE2 – in fact, he’d been captain,” he recalls. “Despite that, he wasn’t qualified to sail this boat, so he had to do some training!”
Kenny also has high hopes that some younger folk might consider volunteering on cruises.
“It’s great for all ages, but there seem to be a lot of volunteers, myself included, well over 60!” he smiles.
The aforementioned John Ferguson, a retired farm grieve from Kirkliston, is skipper for the morning trip.
“A neighbour talked my wife Jean and I into getting involved and we just love it,” he says.
“I’m often the skipper while Jean does the catering. It’s great to see the passengers having a nice, relaxing, quiet time.”
Meanwhile, retired joiner David Watt started life as “Santa” on special winter cruises and enjoyed it so much, he joined the Trust’s regular teams of volunteers.
“It’s better than being sat at home in my slippers, twiddling my thumbs!” he beams.
Having set off from Ratho, we drift west along the canal at around two or 3mph.
It’s extremely peaceful, and I relax as Kenny points out landmarks of interest along the way.
“The journey is always slow and gentle – we never hurry on the canal!” he says.
We pass a wooden model of a castle on an island, which Kenny explains was once used by cruise boats as a stop-off point and a pseudo Santa’s grotto.
There’s also Wilkie’s Basin and island where the canal widens.
We stop just before Lin’s Mill Aqueduct, a stunning piece of architecture which carries the canal over the River Almond in five arches, 75ft above the river.
Heading back, Kenny points out a path heading up to the International Climbing Arena, a great place for coffee, cake and, well, climbing.
There’s no need to go there because of course, Jean is serving coffee and biscuits on board and as I tuck in, I chat to Glynis Clarke, a support worker from Leonard Cheshire.
“We’ve been coming on cruises for years and the crew members are just brilliant,” she tells me.
“It’s something different. We all love the peace and relaxation and it gets us out and about for the day.”
While Kenny says funds are tight because there’s no charge for cruises and the Trust relies entirely on donations to operate the barges, they’ve received some substantial funding recently.
“These donations from mainly local residents and businesses, and particularly some farming sources, have been welcome and necessary,” he says.
“It’s a great help and allows the Trust to continue operating, which in turn benefits many people.”
Seagull Trust Cruises are operated with teams of trained volunteers. The charity is funded solely by grants and donations.
The barges can accommodate up to 12 passengers plus crew. The boats at Ratho have lifts to accommodate those with mobility problems or wheelchairs. Each has a disabled toilet and a galley.
The Seagull Trust was founded in 1978 to provide cruises for disabled people across Scotland. In 2007, the Trust became known as Seagull Trust Cruises with a goal of extending its work across Scotland.
As well as offering cruises from its original base in Ratho near Edinburgh, there are cruises from Falkirk, Kirkintilloch and Inverness.
Christmas cruises run until December 14 but are already fully booked. Cruises in 2020 start in March. Annual maintenance on the three boats at Ratho, all carried out by volunteers, will be completed before cruises commence.
The Union Canal opened to navigation in 1822 and celebrates its 200th anniversary in 2022.
For more details or to book a cruise, see seagulltrust.org.uk or contact 07711 545133.