So how are inland skippers doing?

Being a skipper, living and working on your barge, often with a partner and children, is a job like no other. To support inland skippers and their families, community organiser and non-profit organisation De Schroef has organised several activities in the past 40 years, to bring these people together. At their request, our Social Inclusion Research Centre reviewed their operations and attempted to identify the current needs and requirements of this sailing community. So how are these men and women doing and what do they need? The research centre made several recommendations.

Meeting place

"The fact that skippers indicate that they struggle to develop and maintain contacts and a social network was not exactly a big surprise," says researcher Vicky Lyssens-Danneboom. "This has always been the case. However, the problem has increased significantly in recent decades. The demise of the skippers' bourse – which, along with the surrounding cafés, was their preferred meeting place – has eroded many of the underlying contacts. While the rotation system definitely had its drawbacks, it did ensure that skippers often had to wait longer periods of time before it was their turn again, allowing them to establish and maintain social contacts."

A lot has changed. It’s not as romantic as it used to be. But this is partly our own doing. A barge at anchor during the weekend costs money. Or doesn't bring in money. And so we tend to say, let’s sail through the weekend. But nothing prevents us from stopping on Friday and doing something else. Yes, this is possible. Because, otherwise, you end up living to work. Because your barge has to keep sailing. It’s a business.

Listening ear

Today, they need a drop-in centre, a community centre for their roaming community, a place where they can walk in and out freely, when possible and convenient, and where they can meet like-minded people, have a natter, and find a listening ear. In case of practical difficulties or problems with the ship or their finances, they can always fall back on family, friends, or services. "When it comes to relationship or parenting problems, however, 'nobody' is the most common answer in our survey. Obviously, the VHF radio, smartphones, Whatsapp and social media facilitate communication, but these means are not sufficient when dealing with deeply human problems. That’s when they often realise they are on their own. On the one hand, the living and working area of the ship is a cosy cocoon. On the other hand, it is very similar to a Faraday cage where any distress signals cannot find a way out. Hence the explicit request for a welfare worker they know and trust; a listening ear that can preferably also be reached online."

The community centre is also a great venue for events. De Schroef partners with several other inland navigation organisations to organise an annual party for Sinterklaas in which families with children and people of all ages participate. In fact, skippers have been known to mark the date on their calendars and sailing schedules because they don’t want to miss it. The respondents were unanimous that they wanted more of these events.

The Saint Nicholas party lasts two, three days even. [...] with young people from the community taking on the role of Black Peter. There are about seven in all. People across the community turn up for this connective event. The chairman of the Schippersgilde (Skippers' Guild) keeps the bar open. The guy from the Open Shipping Days serves tables, [....] mans the till. This is a perfect example of symbiosis in the skippers’ community. Not just the elderly... On the day that children get their gift from St Nicholas, you'll note that the event is attended by lots of young couples. They also know each other, they invite each other to baptisms and weddings. I think this is the main event every year where you meet all the other skippers...

Alarm bells

Another challenge for this community is finding a healthcare provider, such as a doctor, dentist, psychologist or welfare worker. They work by appointment only ánd struggle with long waiting lists, whereas skippers can never predict where exactly they will be on a given date. The threshold has become even higher, to the extent that the community is adamantly sounding the alarm. Obviously, this problem also arises for less urgent but no less necessary services such as pedicures, manicures, and hairdressers.

Finding a doctor or a dentist is really a problem for us. Usually dentists want you to book your appointment months in advance. But we don't even know where we will be next week. So it’s really tricky... Meaning we have no choice but to wait until we’re in pain and then visit the on-call dentist. Otherwise you have no choice but to make an appointment and hope that you’ll be in the area on the scheduled date. If not, your only choice is to cancel and reschedule your appointment.
My mother-in-law only knows three or four days in advance when she can disembark. And then she wants to go to the hairdresser and they are unable to give her an appointment. Because yes, nowadays everyone makes appointments. In the old days, you used to be able to drop in at the hairdresser's and wait, but those days are over. She sometimes gets worked up about it, because she never seems to be able to get an appointment.

Policy recommendations

  1. Well-being. Skippers and their families are entitled to full participation in society and full-fledged community organisation. Support policies will be needed to remediate the problems we identified.
  2. Recommendations to local and inland waterway authorities: a major concern among boaters is the scrapping of too many moorings which greatly complicates their contacts with the onshore world and their own community.
  3. In addition, inland waterway authorities should realise that inland skippers are expected to make considerable sacrifices. Very few contacts and networking opportunities, inadequate health, welfare, cultural, sports and leisure frameworks all raise the pressing question of whether young people will still be willing to work in inland navigation.

De Schroef vzw in brief

De Schroef vzw is the community centre and nursery for inland skippers and their families. They organise sporting activities, youth camps and all kinds of community activities. The non-profit organisation aims to lower thresholds and help skippers (and their families) participate in activities and use on-shore facilities, such as socio-cultural activities, education and training, employment and general welfare.

De Schroef developed organically 40 years ago. Since then, inland navigation has evolved considerably. Both the barges and the profession of skipper have changed significantly. Inland skippers have overcome a deep economic recession, but the abolition of the bourse - the proportional distribution of cargo - has led to cut-throat competition, resulting in a sharp increase in work and performance pressure. In addition, the skippers’ population now has an average level of education, whereas it used to be well below average.

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