Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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This article More than a Mooring - Stenson Marina is the copyright of Jim Shead - The twelfth of a regular series of articles on marinas and boatyards. First published in Waterways World September 2004.
Stenson Marina is situated above Stenson Lock on the Trent & Mersey Canal. It was developed in 1974 from the lay-by at the top of the lock, which was expanded to provide moorings for about a hundred boats. Over the years it was also the base for various hire fleets including Black Prince, Barrington Narrowboats and Clayton Line Narrowboats but they had all stopped using the marina by the 1980s.
By 1986 when Eddie Baldwin took over the marina there was very little going on there, the workshops were empty and the business was losing money. Within 12 months they had started servicing and building boats and it was this aspect that was soon to dominate the marina and establish Midland Canal Centre as one of the foremost inland boatbuilders.. Eddie had been involved with boats all his life but not on a commercial basis before he came to Stenston. He had an engineering background in plastics technology and tool making. When they built their first boats they did the design drawings and had the shells built by another company but within a two year period they took on the shell building themselves. They had more control, with the whole process of drawings, shell building, fitting-out and engineering all in one place and they no longer had to rely on third parties. The site had been a farm and the building where they do the steel work fabrication was converted from a Dutch barn.
Over the past few years they have been investing in modern equipment so they can compete with the best in the world. They have CNC (Computer Numeric Control) machines that take the information from drawings and convert the data into control commands for computer controlled cutting of the steelwork. This technology has been extended to the fitting-out workshops so now all the timber is cut this way. Eddie has created a library of design modules that can be fitted together within a boat to meet a whole range of customer requirements. In this way he can produce bespoke boats by assembling units that are standard for construction purposes and fully utilise the technology and the skills of his workforce.
The cost of making even small changes to a design is very high compared to a standard unit because of the amount of manpower involved, in understanding the customers exact requirement, amending drawings, explaining the requirements to those doing the work, the extra time taken by the worker doing an unfamiliar task and often resolving queries that arise in this process.
By using standardised modular design linked directly to the production of parts the Midland Canal Centre can build bespoke boats while keeping down costs. This is allowing them to compete with European boatbuilders and half their production is geared towards boats used on European inland waterways, especially motor cruisers. Last year they decided to address the residential boat market and about half these buyers want Dutch barges so they have now completed their first, 86 feet long with a 14 foot 6 inch beam, and have now started looking at smaller versions.
Their market is split between; Bespoke boats, those who want to do some of the fitting themselves and a standard type of production boat that has been distributed through BW Marinas Ltd at Sawley for the last two years and has been very successful. These and other boats supplied to trade buyers are delivered on an agreed schedule. For bespoke boats the lead time is currently about 9 months and for part fitted boats 5 months.
In addition to boatbuilding they do all the general engineering and steelwork repairs but don't get heavily involved in stretching boats, preferring to recommend a specialist in this task. Boat brokerage is provided mainly as a service to moorers and new boat buyers who have a boat to sell as they don't have the space for many boats. Originally half of the 100 moorings were used by plastic cruisers but these have now gone and the marina is geared to larger boats, therefore the moorings have been reduced to about 80. Over the last few years a lot of new moorings have been developed in the area making the extension of moorings at Stenson an unattractive commercial proposition. Recently there has been a change in the market and they have responded by putting in new pontoons with more modern facilities. They also have all the usual marina services such as diesel, pumpout and Chandlery.
Midland Canal Centre is a family business employing just under 50 people with a good core of craft skills, some of the people having been with them for 15 years. The next expansion of the business needs to be a large one but in their present situation they are not eligible for assistance from any of the various business expansion schemes and are therefore considering whether or not they can stay on the site.
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