What sort of boat you buy depends more on what sort of boater you want to be than it does on the boat itself. Finding a boat that fits you and your family’s needs is the best route to boating happiness.
Peter Underwood poses some of the key questions to answer before you go looking for a boat.
Okay, so you've decided to buy a boat, but what sort of boat? Well, what sort of boater are you? Are you a family boater, solo boater, a summer boater, an all-year-boater, a river person, or a canal fan, all those questions and more you should be asking yourself before you buy that first vessel.
So let's take a look at the pros and cons of types of vessels and how they suit different needs.
When the boating bug bites it spurs you into swift action, but try to resist, at least to the extent that you can think carefully about what you really want from boating. One thing that never ceases to surprise me is the number of boat owners who bought the narrowboat without even taking a holiday on one before. It's a bit like buying a car without taking a test drive and potentially, a bigger mistake. You can hire a boat for a few hundred pounds out of the main holiday season, and that's probably the only way of being sure that boating is really something on which you want to spend thousands of pounds and a lot of your free time.
Read the Canal Trust website, and you'll find it emphasizing with a slightly heavy hand the responsibilities of boat ownership. Still, I'd rather talk about the enthusiasm, the pleasure and the simple enjoyment it promises beyond the tedious official business and the finger-wagging about rules.
In fact, don't approach owning a boat from the point of view of the vessel itself, start with you, your family and what you want out of a boating life. At the end of the day, a boat is a means to an end, to a better lifestyle for you and the people you love. When you dream of being a boater, how do you see yourself? Are you moored in the countryside under leafy trees watching the sun go down with a glass of wine? Would you be equally happy in the same spot with the fire lit, rain lashing down outside and a glass of wine? (You may notice a recurring theme there). But the serious point is that boating in the UK is an all-weather sport and it rarely attracts sun addicts, so, any of those in your family are in for a bit of a disappointment if you go boating.
So do you want to explore the waterways taking your boat to all the hidden places? Whether besides the crumbling Mills of the industrial north or through the rolling hills of Welsh borders or behind the back gardens and the abandoned docks and wharves of our modern cities?
Perhaps you just want to spend weekends and holidays in a part of the country you've grown to love and have many of the comforts of home while being able to slow down to a pace of life only available on the waterways.
Can you switch from your everyday working life? Where things have to be done quickly to deadlines, and even leisure is often grabbed and consumed as if it might evaporate unless swiftly seized, to a life where nothing happens quickly, and the equivalent of a 20-minute road journey can take a whole day? Once you've answered those sort of questions about what you and your family want from boating you can start to think about what sort of boat fits the bill. Don't think about a new boat or an older vessel, just about the type of boat that will suit you.
If you're rushing about you may be better looking at something seagoing or at least River-going where you can within limits pile on the power and the diesel to your heart's content if you're a speed freak. If peace, slowing down and an outdoor physical way of life sounds more attractive, then the inland waterways may be for you. If you're the exploring type, then the parameters almost set themselves in order to explore all corners of the system you need a narrowboat nothing wider than 6ft 10" nothing longer than somewhere around 58-60 feet to fit into all the locks across the system. It also needs to have an engine big enough to cope with the flows on the rivers and even the tides of places like the river estuaries or The Wash.
If you're content to base your boat in a smaller area and won't want to explore further afield, then you can buy something wider or even longer. Check the minimum lock lengths and widths, as well as the air draft under the bridges on your chosen waterways and that, will dictate the external dimensions of your boat. Whether you and your family are summer boaters or all year boaters, along with your budget will decide whether you buy a yoghurt pot, (as GRPs often disparagingly described by the owners of steel boats) or one of those painted steel boxes regarded with some disdain by the owners of expensive GRP gin palaces, on the Thames and elsewhere. One of the funniest moments on a visit to London, was a collection of half-million-pound gin palaces gather in the lock of St. Catherine's dock by tower bridge. To come out onto the Thames, as they left a sea battered Greenpeace boat with his experienced deep-sea crew was waiting to enter and suddenly even the super confident Thames motor yachts were deferring to a different class of boater. There is a hierarchy of boats, but the joyful thing is that each only usually believes his or her class of boat to be the superior choice, so that's all right then. GRP cruisers tend to be cheaper, giving you more space for your money but they're less comfortable in bad weather and more difficult to keep warm.
Another reason to look at the decision to buy a boat from a personal viewpoint, rather than starting with the boat and trying to fit your family around it is, finance. Buying the boat will cost thousands and perhaps tens of thousands of pounds. If it's to become a comfortable part of your lifestyle, you have to be comfortable with spending that sort of money. That means either you have that sort of money or you can spend it without any impact on your family budget, only you know that. You may have an impeccable credit record and a really helpful bank, you never know.
But even though prices are currently quite attractive at least from the point of view of buyers, loans and boat mortgages have just about disappeared, resemble hen's teeth these days. So it's quite difficult for families to join the boating hobby, but you have to bear in mind, I've said it before, boats are not really an investment, no matter what anybody else tells you the chances are you'll sell it for less than you bought it. It doesn't really depreciate as quickly as a family car, but it's not going to gain in value. But there's sort of a sliding scale, you may not be able to afford a new boat without all the things you need, but you can pay the same money for an older boat with those facilities already in place. In a sense, boats are different than cars they don't deteriorate at the same rate, and you can bring them back to an improved look and value by spending a bit of money on repainting or refitting. But you must decide whether the depreciation added to the running costs is good value for you and your family.
Now the type of and dimensions of your boat are also decided by budget and as well as your preferred locations, and just how simple or complicated the boat needs to be, depends on the requirements of you and your family. At one extreme you may be thrilled by the idea of living in the back cabin of an old working narrowboat with just a small stove for cooking a bowl of water to wash yourselves in the gentle odour of diesel and oil from the adjacent engine room. Suppose that is a thrilling prospect and you have the skills and money to keep such a boat afloat. In that case, you can become one of the dedicated owners of historic boats, using your holidays to visit boat gatherings and festivals around the system. At the other end, your modern family may demand enough power to keep an army of gadgets going, twice daily showers all round, and the kitchen quite able to produce gourmet meals. I think in that case you may need to be looking at the sort of boat normally acquired by those planning to live onboard all year round. Most of us will be somewhere between, but it's advisable to explore the expectations of all the family if needed to give them a reality check. Almost every boat that is bought is a compromise, apart from the possible exception of those specified in design from scratch with an open-ended budget. Most of the time it's a compromise between hope and budget, sometimes the boat itself demands that you compromise.
So be warned, however good your list of requirements becomes you will always face the risk of seeing a boat that forces you to rethink your priorities and find the money to acquire a vessel that just catches your imagination. You can still need that list of what you want from the boat clearly in your mind or perhaps even in writing but, to go back to that car analogy boat buying is very much a matter of buyer beware. If you're buying privately, make sure the person who's selling has clear title to the boat, just as you would a car and that there's no finance outstanding, which might mean it's really owned by the bank or a lender. Most boats are sold by brokers, and they see themselves simply as facilitating the sale. Like estate agents, they won't take responsibility for any faults which may subsequently be discovered. In fact, many brokers won't even insure a boat is clean and tidy before putting it on sale. Once you sign on the dotted line and cast off the ropes you have to deal with any consequences of any breakdown and any other equipment that's missing; the boat is sold as seen. It's a bit more difficult in fact than buying a car, a boat doesn't have registration documents, there are no Land Registry for boats and even if you've had a survey (and I would say have a survey) even though it'll cost you around 400 pounds plus taking the boat out of the water you really only get a list of potential problems. Boat safety certificates should come with most boats but think of them as MOT's and about as reliable as an indicator of the boat's value. If the boats new or has been built within the last few years that may not have about safety certificate but a document called the declaration of Conformity, it means it's been built to the standards of the European Recreational Craft Directive and the declaration of Conformity can be used in the same way as a boat safety certificate. Now the recreational craft directive means that boats sold after June '98 should have the documents from the original builder with all the relevant data, so make sure you also get a bill of sale and collect all that documentation before handing over any cash.
Okay, so your search for the right boat could be a long one, and the simplest way of starting is to use the many adverts in the boating press to check what's on offer. Make a shortlist of those you want to explore further from online boat sales sites and a few personal advertisements in some of the magazines. Still, in the end, there's no substitute for getting on board and having a good poke around as well as the test run if the boats a serious contender. When you get out there in the boatyards and marinas, look for a boat that best fits you and your family, just keep comparing the wish list with reality. The chances are you have to come to a compromise but don't forget this is a buyer's market, so the boat you don't think you can afford could suddenly come into your reach if you make an offer that fits your budget; that would be good wouldn't it?