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On patrol with a boat licensing ranger

Canal crime fiction author Andy Griffee spends a morning on the canal network’s front line with Steve Broad, one of CRT’s 27-strong army of licensing rangers

Steve and Andy on patrol

It’s still quiet at 8.10am at Stourport Basins as 55-year-old Steve begins his shift. He has been a Canal & River Trust licensing ranger for 13 years and shares a large West Midlands patch with just one colleague, a younger man called Mike. They regularly cover up to 8 miles a day on foot or by bike.

Occupational hazards
Checking boat licences, issuing written warnings and policing the towpath can be a dangerous business. Steve knew Clive Porter, a CRT ranger who was killed by a boater on the Grand Union two years ago. “He joined CRT in the same year as I did and we often met up at conferences and meetings,” he tells me. “His death was a real shock. As soon as we were told a colleague had been killed, I knew it had to be a ranger.” Sylwester Krajewski, 50, was convicted of murdering the 63-year-old ranger and former policeman, who had issued a ticket to the Polish man’s unlicensed boat.

Steve was a Special Constable patrolling the streets of Birmingham when he joined CRT. Nevertheless, he draws some comfort from the body-camera issued to all rangers in the wake of his colleague’s death. “It’s all about how you approach people and not taking risks,” he says. “I probably wouldn’t approach a gang of three young men in a remote location. I want to go home at night.” Steve has a wife and seven-year-old twin sons.

We begin by walking carefully past two swans on the Staffs & Worcs Canal. Birds can also be an occupational hazard. “I was on my bike when a flying goose chased after me. It had been spooked by some kids and wanted to attack someone,” laughs Steve. The other occupational hazard at this time of day is having to walk past the smell of frying bacon. He peers under a tarpaulin covering a trailboat with an outboard and then makes an entry in his electronic device. Steve and his colleague have a set schedule which means they cover their 150-mile patch every 14 days. This means they’ll catch continuously cruising boaters who stay over the two-week mooring limit – in theory, at least. If the little boat is still there in a fortnight, its owner will be left a postcard asking them to get in touch.

Hire-boat traffic
The August boating rush is much in evidence by 9.10am. “I didn’t get a parking ticket, did I?” calls a man on the stern of hire-boat Star Gazer. He turns out to be Steve Bryant, an ex-pat Englishman who married a Norwegian and has now returned for a canal holiday. He may now live in Stavanger but he is fully up to speed on CRT’s funding crisis.

“It’s a 250-year-old network,” says Steve. “It needs more money invested in it, not less.”

“You’ll need more electric charging points,” says Mr Bryant.

“We need to fix the shower blocks first,” replies Steve.

Like many, Steve has written to his MP protesting at the 40% real terms cut in Government funding that begins in 2027. He shakes his head in despair at the prospect of some canals having to close if the funding gap cannot be plugged. He tells me he already gets many complaints about overgrown vegetation on the towpath.

Steve and Andy soon come across a 70ft boat crewed by more friendly Scandinavians

We soon come across a 70ft boat crewed by more friendly Scandinavians. Three couples from Sweden are on a hire-boat and one of them is adjusting his country’s flag at the stern. Steve quickly notices the paper licence in the window has a different number to the one painted on the boat. He checks his online records and, sure enough, the painted number is incorrect. The CRT’s business boat manager will be informed and the muddle will be taken up with the hire company.

Steve’s electronic gadget gives him an exact satellite map of the boat's location

On patrol
Back at Stourport Basins at 9.30am, we peer down at a boat moored on the Severn. Steve’s electronic gadget gives him an exact satellite map of the location. He enters the boat’s name and number. It’s only a 48-hour mooring. However, most of the Severn’s licensing issues are policed by a patrol boat from Gloucester, which makes a once-a-month inspection as far as our location.

We are soon off again in the CRT van to Kinver...


This is an extract of the full feature that appears in the October 2023 issue of Waterways Worldclick here to read it all.