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Canal boat shows the way

Young people who have reached rock bottom are rebuilding their lives on the waterways. Andrew Mourant reports

Jez McKenzie's last job on a schooner off the west coast of Scotland was teaching seamanship and team-building.

Water has an irresistible lure, but he's now moved inland and gives lessons on a 70-foot narrow boat. The Mary Rose is the latest extension of Amber, a charity that supports young people trying to rebuild their lives. Overseen by Jez, Amber residents carry out routine maintenance along the Kennet and Avon canal in Wiltshire: painting lock gates; trimming overhanging branches; clearing weed. They learn about conservation and canal maintenance. Jez also lets them drive the Mary Rose.

It is hard to imagine a more serene environment, chugging along at three miles an hour, kingfishers flashing by and herons prowling the towpath.

Most people come to Amber having hit rock bottom. Some struggle with literacy and numeracy. Few flourished within the education system. Amber's acquisition of the Mary Rose and the programme of lessons afloat is a new approach. The aim is to provide a mixture of life skills and environmental awareness through doing work for British Waterways.

Groups of five or six spend a week on board. Self-reliance and co-operation are key elements - for instance, the group must plan and prepare meals for their time afloat. Sometimes that's easier said than done.

"One night they decided on chicken curry and gave me a shopping list," said training programme manager Martin Lawrence.

"I brought back everything on it and then they asked where the chicken was.

I'd come back without any - it wasn't on the list. Lesson learnt."

They also soon discover that on a narrow boat, fresh water is a finite resource liable to run out quickly. "Points where you can fill up are few and far between on this stretch," says Martin. "You need to save what you can."

Martin, a narrow boat enthusiast, was a driving force behind Amber buying the Mary Rose. "The stuff we do along the canal is essential but time-consuming," he said.

The education programme has been pieced together by Jo Poulton who used to teach skills for life courses in further education colleges. "The plan is for people to be able to get a foundation training certificate through (the awarding body) Asdan," she says.

The scheme is in its infancy. A dedicated tutor starts soon who will teach communication skills, reading, writing and problem-solving.

"The environment lends itself to education and teaching," says Martin. "If you put people in a classroom, it wouldn't work. Take them outside and it will."

For those with troubled backgrounds it is hard to imagine anything more therapeutic than surveying wildlife and monitoring water quality. But it is not for everyone - one man left after 24 hours, overwhelmed by communal living in such confined quarters and walked back to his billet at Amber HQ.

Yet Jenni Austin, 18, finds it an ideal antidote to the turbulence of her recent life spent "sofa surfing and getting into mischief". "It's relaxing and chilled out here," she says, paintbrush in hand. "I now know how to steer a boat in and out of locks and I've taken it through a 500-yard tunnel."

Dean Cleary, 27, came to Amber five months ago. Previously, he had worked as a barman in Spain. When he came back at Christmas and split up with his girlfriend things went badly wrong. "Throughout my life, I've gone from job to job without any sense of direction," he says. "My aunt works in the probation service and she said that Amber might give me one. It's fantastic down here on the water - there's a lot to learn."

Dean wants to become a nurse, as does Paul Bell, 21, who lived rough on the streets of Salisbury before moving into a hostel. His key worker recommended Amber and life on board the Mary Rose offers a new window on the world. "It teaches people how to look after the environment," he says.

Martin Lawrence feels the scheme could work elsewhere. "It would be nice to get sponsorship and have another two boats on the canal system working in the north and Midlands. It could be possible to get income through the Learning and Skills Council to staff the boats and perhaps work with other disadvantaged groups."

Terry Kemp, British Waterways economic and social development manager, said: "In educational terms, this relationship can offer a range of things and an ideal training ground, particularly to the Amber age group.

"In future, we'll need to work out with them how they can build up relationships with neighbours living along the canal: farmers; people in towns and villages, which may offer further voluntary opportunities."

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