Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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This article Launching Lorna-Ann is the copyright of Jim Shead - Buying a new narrowboat. First published in Waterways World September 1994
Boat buying starts when a long cherished dream becomes a practical possibility. My dreams of boat ownership started when I was a child but the reality had to wait until early retirement provided the cash and time I felt was necessary to do justice to boat owning. Most of my boating experience was not very relevant to modern boat buying, as it was based on holiday hire boats over a period of thirty years, so my first step was to get up to date with the technology and the market.
The regular purchase of boating magazines enabled me to see how second hand and new prices compared, and to see what features were included in modern boats. I found the Waterways World - New Narrowboat Builder's Book compulsive reading, although I had no intention of fitting out a boat myself, it contained a mass of practical information and advice and it became a major reference source for me. But reading alone cannot provide the answers to those questions of personal judgement and preference, like "will a boat with portholes instead of windows be light enough?" In these cases there is no substitute for seeing for yourself, so the next phase was visiting boat shows, starting with the 1993 London Boat Show and continuing with Nottingham and Braunston and finally the National Waterways Festival at Peterborough.
I soon realised that boat buying is far more a matter of individual taste, requirements and life-style than almost any other purchase - there is no universal best buy. This is hardly surprising since a boat is a means of transport, a home and a hobby all in one. Beryl and I wanted a boat that we could live on for the greater part of the year, that we could cruise throughout the waterway system and which could accommodate visiting family members. This was the basic requirement from which the detailed specification was built and developed.
The first, easiest and cheapest requirement that was satisfied was for a name, Lorna-Ann, taken from the middle names of our two daughters. The "go anywhere" requirement meant that it must be a narrowboat, but what length? At one time 46 foot was the maximum, due to restrictions in the Middle Level, but now the answer is less clear but most people seemed to think it is in the range of 57 1/2 to 60 foot. We had already identified quite a few "extras" that we wanted in the boat so we started with a specification for a 50 foot boat, on the grounds that we may not be able to afford a longer one. Another early decision was to have a semi-traditional design, which gives the space of a cruiser stern but with more protection against the elements.
Central heating is a must for cruising early or late in the year and for long cruises a washing machine seemed a good idea. We had seen washing machines ingeniously fitted into many of the boats at the shows and we thought a washer drier would be even more useful. The specification of a washer drier meant that we would need a 240 volt power supply and a generator. We wanted a bath, not just a shower, plenty of light in the galley and saloon were essential. Soon we had a lot of ideas and the time had come to get them on to paper, and to ask selected boat builders for a price.
My aim was to specify as much as I could so that, as far as possible, differences in the prices quoted were not due to the builders using different materials or omitting features. This aim could not be entirely fulfilled due to the limits of my knowledge - for example I did not know what was the best type of refrigerator or engine. In these cases I stated our basic requirement (e.g. We require a quiet, water cooled, Diesel engine of sufficient power to cope with rivers) and asked the builder to recommend something to meet our needs. As the specification could not be finalised without information from the boat builders I decided to call the initial document a "Request for Information" (RFI).
The RFI consisted of six pages of closely typed A4 paper divided into seven main sections:
·Outline Requirement, what we want in general terms;
·Layout, plan and side view of the boat;
·Responding to the Detailed Requirements, which explains the responses required to the following sections including the use of the price column (in the Detailed Specification section), which was either to be ticked for items included in the "standard" price or to show the price of the "extra";
·Detailed Specification, the largest part of the document;
·Terms of Business.
The last four sections all required a detailed response from the builders so they were drawn up as forms with space for replies and comments.
The information included in the Detailed Specification was in part gleaned from boatbuilder's brochures but for the most part relied on the technical information given in the Waterways World - New Narrowboat Builder's Book. This section was sub-divided into the following headings:
·Steel Shell, covering hull size, steel specification, decks, rudder, anchor chain locker, rubbing strakes, cratch. etc.;
·Additional Non-Steel Fittings, windows, cratch board and cover, ballast, etc.;
·Engine and Associated Equipment, engine, gearbox, propeller, acoustic treatment of the engine compartment, etc.;
·Heating & Plumbing, central heating, hot and cold water system, toilet, water tank, etc.;
·Electrical Equipment, 12 and 240 volt circuits, batteries, generator, 12 volt refrigerator, switches, sockets, tunnel light, etc.;
·Fitting Out, lining out insulation, wood finishes, floor covering, fire extinguishers, bed, oven and hob, etc.;
·Exterior Finish, Equipment and Fittings, paintwork, anchor and chain, fenders, mooring ropes, boat poles, etc.
How many, and which, boat builders should we ask for an estimate? As there are well over 100 narrowboat builders in the country a selection is necessary; I felt that picking six "possibles" for a quote would be enough, given the amount of information I was likely to get back from each. I also tried to cover the price range, as far as I could judge it, and on 10 September 1993 I wrote to Warble, Midland Canal Centre, Colecraft, Peter Nicholls, South Shore and Triton; the last two being boat fitters and the others being both steel shell builders and fitters.
The first reply came very quickly, most builders needed some prompting and one did not respond with a quote until the end of November - after I had placed an order. The price section of the form had boxes for standard price, extras, vat and total price; so should have provided a comparable price, but life is never that easy. Most of the replies left out several of the features we wanted from the price; inverter, generator, stereo and washer/drier being the most usual omissions. One company gave a total for the extras that did not agree with the total of the individual item prices. However I did get a lot of useful details and comments from this process.
My next task was to arrange the information from the quotes into a form that would allow easy comparison. This was helped by having all the replies in a standard format with detailed answers to 53 questions. I listed all the questions in a column on the left and against each recorded the responses, in a separate column for each builder. A computer with a good word processor or spreadsheet makes light of this task. To overcome the difficulty of features that were not included in the prices quoted I added an extra price entry into which I allocated a cost allowance for each missing item, this total was then added to the quoted price to give a price that was comparable with other quotes.
Having received five replies the total prices (including my allowance for missing items) ranged from £38,468 to £64,831 a 68% difference! What extra would I get by paying more? How can such a wide variation in prices be justified? To try to answer these questions we needed to visit some of the boat builders. At this stage I eliminated the highest quote, Warble, from further consideration because I thought that their high reputation and recent awards must be adding a premium to their prices. I don't pay extra for "designer labels" on clothes and I won't pay extra for a name when buying a boat, although there are plenty of people who are willing to pay for the reassurance of a builders reputation and if a company has worked to build a reputation they deserve any rewards that the market will allow.
We were now left with four builders to visit, but before doing so I drew up a small list of supplementary questions that I wanted to ask them all, some of detail others questions of design or layout, like where do we put the washing machine? Although I listed these questions the main thing I really wanted to ask each builder was either "Why should I pay extra for a boat from you?" or "How do you manage to build at so low a price?". It was also important to get a feel for how they operated and the sort of boat they were most comfortable building. We arranged to visit the yards in early November, two one Saturday and two the next.
All the builders were helpful and spent some time showing us around their work places and boats, and discussing boats in general and our requirements in particular. Their premises were a strange mixture: Peter Nicholls builds high quality boats from a series of steel sheds that, visually, fit well with the car scrap-yard next door; Triton operate from a modern industrial unit away from the canal; South Shore Narrowboats fit-out on the water at Middlewich using a caravan as the yard office; but Midland Canal Centre have the most impressive site with a marina, modern steel fabrication building and an undercover unit for fitting-out on the water. We received many good suggestions which we acted upon, for example Eddie Baldwin at Midland pointed out that we could add an extra seven foot to the length of the boat for a reasonable cost and Peter Nicholls suggested I could write an article on how we chose a boat builder.
After the visits we felt that Midland and South Shore were most able to build the sort of boat we wanted and we plumped for South Shore on the basis of value for money. My optimistic nature prompted me to ask for a March 1994 delivery date, however no one could deliver before May and South Shore could only offer us mid-June if we agreed to let them show the boat at the National Waterways Festival at Waltham Abbey in August. After our visit to Peterborough we were keen to attend the festival in our own boat so we readily agreed to this.
I now had to update my specification and boat plan to reflect the extra length, and other necessary clarification and changes. This specification was quickly agreed by Sheila Graham of South Shore Narrowboats; I signed the contract and sent a deposit at the end of November. We now had a long wait as construction was not due to start until mid-March when the first of the four stage payments would be due, the total cost being £45,237.50.
Custom building is still the norm for narrowboats, giving the buyer a vast choice of options rarely found with other purchases, but these choices complicate the decision making process and make objective comparisons between builders almost impossible. The ideal boat for one person may be an abomination to another. In the end it is up to the buyer to choose, but I felt that doing some research, having a process and organising the information gave a firm basis for our choice. I don't claim that to have hit upon an ideal method, it is not likely that a first time buyer would, but, should you be thinking of buying a boat, I hope you find some of these ideas helpful.
Welding Lorna-Ann's hull at Tim Tyler's works at Hixon near Stafford on 4th April 1994.
Lorna-Ann arrives at Middlewich to be fitted out on 15th April 1994.
The launching at Middlewich on 15th April 1994.
By the 2nd June the galley has progressed even though the Nottingham and Braunston Boat Shows have intervened.
Happy to be afloat at King's Sutton Lock on the Oxford Canal on 25th June 1994.
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