What is a career made of?
Is it your one true ambition, with everything else you’ve experienced falling by the wayside as unimportant?
Is it the person you become through your work life, wherever that has taken you, including all the dead ends and back roads?
Is it simply a list of the education and jobs you’ve had?
We think it’s a bit of all of the above – but most of all, it’s the journey you’ve travelled, the decisions you’ve made, and the reactions you’ve had to both victories and setbacks. Everyone’s career has different qualities, and we can all learn from each other.
So in this series, we talk to people about where they are and how they got there, in the hope of inspiring our readers to think about what they want from their own careers.
James is based in and around the southern inland waterways of the UK, operating a hotel canal boat over the summer season.
This follows a wide and varied career, from photographer with the Medical Research Council to a retail manager to self-employed decorator, and goes to show that something you don’t think you want at all (interaction with the public) can be a huge and enjoyable part of your life a few decades down the line.
James talks to us about the evolution of his career, and how he’s found a niche industry that’s just right for him.
Can you tell me a bit about your job at the moment?
I own and run Hotel Boat Tranquil Rose, a floating hotel trading on the waterways of Southern England. We carry up to eight guests, generally on seven-day holidays cruising the rivers and canals in the south. We have a crew of three including two cooks, and we all muck in with the running of the boat including maintenance, steering, boat handling and lock work, as well as interacting with our guests. My job is to be the “jack of all trades”; maintaining the boat, carrying out the bulk of the steering duties, taking bookings and other admin tasks and generally running the business. You will rarely (OK, never) find me in the kitchen unless it is my turn to serve dinner or be the pot washer.
Is it anything like what you imagined you might do when you were young?
Far from it. I think my first thoughts were to be a vet at the age of 12/14, but I soon realised that my academic prowess would be unlikely to match the requirements of that profession.
What was your route into getting the job – was it a natural progression, or did you change around a few times?
After studying for a diploma in photography at college (no university/degree qualifications in photography back then) my first few years in work were as a photographer at the University of London and then at the Medical Research Council. The work mainly consisted of photographing “things” rather than people; I was not a people person back in the day, which is rather ironic when you consider that I now work with our guests 24/7. A two-year working holiday in Australia found me working in a film processing lab, a career I continued with when I returned to the UK.
My varying career path continued in the retail sector as an Area Manager looking after 20 shops in the south, and then a change of direction took me to running my own business in the construction industry, specialising in listed and historic buildings. After building up the business over 15 years I sold up and slowed down a little, working as a self-employed decorator. By now I had discovered there is a great deal of satisfaction to be gained in working for yourself … and also realised that for me, it was more rewarding than working for others.
I did not become interested in any sort of boating until my mid 50s when we bought a narrow boat, but I was soon off in another career direction, and I purchased Hotel Boat Tranquil Rose which I have run for the last eight years.
At the grand old age of 65 I still say that I do not know what I will do when I grow up, and long may that continue.
What are your favourite and least favourite parts of the job?
Much of my work involves interaction with our lovely guests and trying to give them a holiday that they will remember for many years, so the ability to chat to people is an important one. But to be honest the part of my job I most enjoy is standing at the back of the boat each day, steering through our wonderful countryside, and in all weathers. Having mentioned the weather, that also features in my least favourites as the damp and cold of early April and late October play havoc with my arthritis!
If this job didn’t exist, what would you be doing instead?
I am lucky that earning a massive wage is no longer a necessity for me, and many of my previous jobs involved elements of the service industry. The majority of us work in some sort of service industry but I believe it often gets a bad name. If I were not running Tranquil Rose, I think I would be working part-time in my local coffee shop, serving, clearing up and chatting to customers, and able to take pride in my job and having a bit of fun.
Are there any industry issues you think need to be addressed / overcome?
Our industry is very fragmented and consists of a number of small operator owners, none of whom operate more than one hotel boat. We have the opportunity to work together on many subjects, but as small individual businesses I do not think we take that opportunity.
What advice do you have for anyone who’s interested in doing what you do?
Part of me says ‘just go for it’, but being realistic I would suggest becoming involved in something to do with canals and rivers. Try volunteering with the Canal & River Trust, taking a holiday on a boat, walking/cycling along the tow path or even visiting one of the many lovely pubs situated beside the waterways. There are many thriving small businesses on the canal sides through our towns and cities; walk around and speak to people who work in these cafés, boatyards and shops and see what opportunities there may be for your talents.
What’s next for you, career-wise?
When the day comes that I sell Tranquil Rose I hope I will stay around the waterways either working, volunteering or just exploring and enjoying the environment, it’s great fun and (often) so relaxing.
You can join Stay Nimble for free and we can help you figure out what you want from your own career.