Behind the scenes at Chichester Canal

 You know how stressful it is getting ready for Christmas. Now imagine planning for 2665 people.  That’s 1450 adults, 1139 Children and 69 babies. Because that is what our amazing Chichester Canal Volunteers did this year.

Every year we start planning in the summer. For every boat trip, (75 this year), 6 positions need to be filled. Including that special certain someone in red! Armen, the canal’s resident IT guru, loads up the booking system and online roster. Volunteers can go online and choose the boat trips that best suit them. Whether it is as skipper, mate, cabin crew, Santa’s driver or the man himself. The last two canal boat trips of the day also need 3 extras, 2 to drive the emergency tug. And, it wouldn’t be Christmas if there wasn’t an Elf to greet you off the last boat, would it.

Sounds busy? Yes it is. But it is also a lot of fun. Jean, one of our cabin crew describes it as being like “a short haul Easyjet flight with so many refreshments to serve before we ‘landed’ at Santa’s Grotto. But customers loved the experience…and so did we.”

Bookings open from mid-September.

To say this keeps Sarah and her cafe volunteers busy is an understatement.

From when bookings open there are calls, queries, name checking, ages and allergies to deal with.

And we are not joking when we say you need to book well in advance. By the end of September nearly all spaces were sold out.

As October lands, our present elves get  together the present order. This is  based on a printed manifest listing the age, name and gender of each child who will get to meet Santa. Sarah, the cafe manager, gets her own list of refreshments to purchase: Sausage rolls, mince pies, biscuits and drinks, plus allergies to cater for. That’s 1139 presents to arrange and enough food and drink to satisfy 2665 hungry people. No mean feat!


By November the presents have arrived and are stored in our top secret ‘warehouse’ ready to be selected, named and packed for the 75 boat trips. Also, by now, cabin crew training has taken place and the all important Christmas CD’s found and put in a safe place. The roster manager is busy pressing the volunteers to fill the gaps so there is a full crew for every trip. And it’s time to consult with Chichester and Portsmouth model boat display teams re their excellent illuminated display and fireworks at the end of November.


Works to erect the Christmas lights and boat decoration begin. This involves rigging up the electric feed across the pontoon, climbing trees, testing the lights and uttering the odd choice word. Especially when the pontoon electricity feed was  vandalised! But nothing gets our volunteers down for long, and a dedicated work party soon had it all up and running again in no time. This year, they also erected Snow White, Elsa and friends along the canal to help Santa along.

Fingers were crossed for 25 November, launch day. Would all the lights work? would the weather hold for the BBQ and live music? Were the volunteers able to make enough mince pies? Everyone held their breath as Santa  flipped the switch and there was a collective sigh as every light twinkled beautifully around the Basin. The BBQ was a success and mince pies plentiful.

And so starts the busiest weeks for our cafe. From 8a.m., Sarah makes her ever popular mulled wine using her own unique blend of Christmas spices. The cafe swells with excited children brandishing their gifts from Santa, bubbling with excitement. By the last two weekends before Christmas there are 7 boat trips running a day.

But our volunteers go above and beyond, something not lost on customer Becca Young who noted that “All the volunteers we met…were so kind nothing was too much trouble”. Every day more volunteers pitched in with tieing the boat up, cleaning it down and washing up. Keep in mind there is only one place on the canal where boats can pass, so this is all kept to a tight schedule. If anyone from Southern Rail needs some tips, they should call in!

Of course it doesn’t end there. All those decorations and displays have to be dismantled ready to open in the New Year on 5th January.

So, thank you, Chichester Canal volunteers. It wouldn’t be Christmas here without you.
As customers, the Hammett family, said “Absolutely fantastic… Every single person involved was truly amazing. It was well organised and it was just so magical. My 3yr old boy absolutely loved it. I know you are all volunteers but you truly do an awesome job……”

We all know that volunteering isn’t just for Christmas. There is always something to do all year round. If you would like to help in 2019, even a few hours here and there to suit you, please do get in touch. Age is no barrier as there is something for everyone… From marketing, working in the cafe, being part of an outdoor work party or joining us as cabin crew on one of our boats.  It’s great fun, you get to meet lots of new people and it would make a huge difference to our charity. If you are interested please contact us via email at

Authored by David Stares (volunteer)

Thank you to Ben & Jodie Hewitt and Becca Young for submitting family photos.










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