Monday, 29 April 2013

Skylark's first birthday

Skylark was launched exactly a year ago. 

We signed the contract for her construction about six months earlier and the original idea for her started way back in 2011.

I described the whole process back in January 2012 (when I started my retirement and Blog) and have posted fairly regular reports about my trips. Of course, this is probably very similar to many other people's boating experiences but it may be of interest or help if I outline some of the things I have learnt along to way.

I should mention, there are shedloads of books about building, maintaining and using narrowboats, and you can read other people's blogs and websites 'til the cows come home. This post is only about my experiences, from my own perspective.

One of the main things I have learnt, which applies to all aspects of boat construction, maintenance and use, is to get on and do it. Yes, it needs lots of thought and discussion - comparing options, designs, materials, equipment, colours, moorings, and, most important, how you are going to pay for it all but you can't beat getting on with it. Talk to people in the know, read the magazines, try out boats, visit the boat shows, then take a leap of faith and get on with it. You will learn a lot more and probably make a few mistakes (hopefully not expensive ones) but your experience and the finished boat will be all the better for it. Life's too short to keep thinking about it or watching what other people have done. Just do it!

Now, without getting into too much detail (read my blog!), one of the most important things to decide is the size and configuration of the boat for your intended use. I knew I wanted a boat big enough to take on long cruises and maybe live aboard, so I started thinking about a hull at least 55 feet long, preferably longer. This would, of course, increase the cost of construction and use. If I had wanted a day boat or one for short holidays, maybe a 45+ footer would have done. Obviously the costs would be much lower but my flexibility would also be less. A shorter boat may also have a more limited market when I come to sell her.

I chose 60 feet overall because it would be a comfortable size for leisure and/or for living aboard. It can accommodate 1 - 6 people and all their gear. A 60ft boat can access all the UK rivers and canals, and the resale market is also good for this size.

Did I want a traditional stern, a semi-trad or cruiser? There's lots on information on the net and all narrowboaters will share their views with you if you ask.

I chose a traditional stern because it maximises the internal dimensions. I don't have the option for large social gatherings on the stern but that is made up for all the extra space inside. I also think a cruiser style looks too modern but you may think a semi-trad is a good compromise.

What size and make of engine did I want? I knew the overall size of the boat and that I wanted to use the boat on canals and tidal rivers. Skylark weighs in at about 16 tons. Obviously this varies according to the number of people on board, how full the 3 tanks are and the amount of stuff I carry so I chose a 50hp Beta. This is a well regarded make and is beefy enough to cope with any conditions I may come across, even where the Ouse becomes tidal. The power is not needed for speed but for control.

What internal layout did I want? Lots of people want a traditional layout with the main cabin at the front followed by the kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and engine room. Others want a reverse layout or one that puts the kitchen at the back, closer to the person steering. You may be able to visualise the layout from a plan but you can't beat inspecting and using actual boats. 

I designed an open plan layout with the main cabin, kitchen and dining area at the bow, followed by the wc and shower room, main bedroom, utility area and engine room. I opted for a traditional looking fitted kitchen, wc, shower and double bed but everything else is freestanding resulting in a flexible approach to furniture rather than having everything built in. I didn't need anything much in the way of fitted cupboards other than the wardrobe and kitchen cabinets but the open plan approach allows for them to be built in if the need arises. It takes a bit of a self-control not to clutter the place up and everything needs to be kept tidy but living for a short while in a confined space needs this approach. I also designed the dining area to be open plan but in a way that could be boxed in to create another bedroom if needed. Flexibility and simplicity were important aims.

Did I want windows or portholes or a mixture? Windows can be good if you like to see a lot of the outside world but they can be easy targets for opportunistic thieves.

I chose to have portholes as they look more traditional and are good for security but they do have limited visibility. Maybe a compromise of windows in the main cabin and portholes in the bedroom, bathroom and engine room would have been a good option. 

I also chose to have solid steel doors front and back and a steel side hatch, all without windows so that they are as secure as possible. I have not regretted this decision.

Some people have wondered if my portholes and solid steel doors makes it dark inside. The answer is, no. The internal 'lightness' is helped further by having the interior painted in light natural colours.

I also wanted a traditional approach to fixtures and fittings rather than contemporary. It's a personal choice here but I think it's good to go for one or the other, not a mixture of both. I planned what I felt happy with and always went with it when buying things otherwise my vision for the perfect boat would look more like the inside of a jumble sale.

I avoided cheap options if I could. I think you should try to get the best you can afford. It may be a stretch now but I think I will be glad I did in the long run. The same goes for everything else including the hull, the mechanical bits, the electrical fittings, pumps, toilet, furniture, etc, etc. Unless you have no option or are willing to 'make do with secondbest', my advice is to go for the best you can afford.

I chose to have a boat built from scratch so I could design it myself and get exactly what I wanted. I wanted to be directly responsible for its design and be involved in its construction and finishing off. You may want to buy new (off the shelf) or secondhand. In these cases, research is the key. It's your choice according to your means and/or your time availability but, whichever, you go for, you have to be happy with it. No point doing it otherwise.

Finding a mooring asap was vital. There's no point getting a nice new shiny boat and having nowhere to keep it. I found a mooring but had to reserve it with a holding fee until the boat was ready. You may be lucky and not need to do this but it's vital that you find somewhere before the boat is completed.

I was very lucky to find my marina mooring. It's in the perfect location to cruise the fens, it's not too far from home, it's got good security, adequate facilities and is not too expensive. Like most marinas, security of tenure is virtually non-existent.

Getting the capital to buy the boat is obvious. You may have cash or need a loan (or both). Do your research and work within your budget.

I also needed to budget for the annual running costs including boat registration, insurance, mooring fees and regular maintenance. I prepared a budget for fuel, heating, life jackets, cold/wet weather clothing, furniture, kitchen stuff, etc. and a contingency fund for unexpected expenditure for example repairs, replacements, repainting, etc. I had optional spending on things like joining boating organisations, adding more equipment, buying more kit, etc. etc. If you think golfing or going on holiday abroad is expensive, you probably shouldn't be getting yourself a boat.

Having said all that, I do try to keep the costs down by utilising furniture from home, buying fuel from cheaper suppliers, doing work myself (eg repairs and servicing), etc but you will only find out about these things once you start.

Pulling this all together, I knew I needed to find a good builder, someone I could trust, someone with the right skills who could complete the boat on time, to the right specification and to the budget I set. I was lucky that I found Mick and Gena so soon into my search. We hit it off straight away, sealed our deal with a simple contract, maintained a close working relationship and worked through every issue with good communication and respect. This relationship is vital and, if it goes wrong, I can imagine a very difficult situation arising. I'm very thankful my relationship with Mick and Gena not only flourished during the build but it has continued ever since.

So, what else have I learnt?

I had hired narrowboats before so I was not a complete beginner but taking my boat out for the first time was a combination of mild trepidation, excitement and self-satisfaction - a bit like driving your own car for the first time after passing your test. 

With Skylark, I learnt very quickly that everything had to be done slowly. This principle is simple and I have learnt not to be 'forced' to do things quickly. If I am negotiating a lock, a marina, a mooring, or a water point, I do it at my speed not someone elses.

If you have never used a narrowboat before, I suggest you have go with someone else first. It doesn't take long to get the hang of it but it helps. Most things are obvious but some things arn't.

I also learnt a new way of thinking about other people's abilities. When we start doing something new we always think that everyone else is better than us. Well, that may be true with most things but with boating, you have to think that the next person that comes around that blind bend or the person going into that lock (or whatever) is no better than you. You have to think they may be new to boating, they don't know where they are going or how to operate the boat so you have to anticipate them getting it wrong. Hopefully you will be proved wrong and you will pass each other with a friendly wave of the hand. But the key is your anticipation of all the things that could go wrong, and planning what to do if it all goes pear-shaped.  I have also realised that they are probably thinking the same about me so communication is vital, whether by positioning your boat clearly, by word of mouth or by obvious hand signals.

I am very prepared to offer help but learnt not to ask too soon. The other person may be doing what they want to do at their own speed - not mine! I have learnt to use my judgement; to be supportive, tactful and diplomatic.

I have met many people and I have learnt to take them as I found them (as they did with me). This means being open minded and prepared for a bit of 'give and take'. Most people have proved to be very nice indeed especially when you show them respect and consideration, eg slowing down when you pass them.

I have found it helps to say 'hello' and/or 'thank you' to everyone and the offer of a cup of tea or coffee works wonders, especially with Anglers who may have a negative view of boaters.

I have learnt that, while Skylark is my pride and joy and I may want to wrap her in cotton wool, narrowboating is a contact sport and she will get bashed and scraped. This is a fact of life but if I go slowly, these problems will be slight and easily repaired or painted over.

I have also learnt that Skylark needs constant care and attention to stop her looking tired. This involves keeping her clean inside and out, touching up the paintwork, polishing the brasswork, tidying up, sweeping the floor, removing any stains, keeping tools in their rightful place, maintaining ropes ready for use, sweeping the chimney, washing birdsh*t off the sides and top, etc etc etc. Its almost never ending but enjoyable nevertheless.

So that's it, happy birthday Skylark. The year has panned out as I hoped it would. I've learnt a lot and enjoyed every minute of it.

Roll on year two!

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