People do boat-build blogs. Breathlessly they document the progress of their build, keeping everyone up-to-date with up-to-the-minute information about how it’s all going. I am breathless about my new boat. I want to document the progress of the build and keep everyone up-to-date. I have a blog. It’s a very exciting event in life and I want to share it with my friends and family. But it’s also something I’ve never done before, not remotely, and, whilst I’ve been in good hands, there are so many horror stories out there that I didn’t want to tempt fate.
The reverse is true of boats
So, this is the story of the birth of ———, told with semi-hindsight. The ———s are because the name of the boat is not yet settled. Naming children is, I believe, very difficult (although my grandmother, on more than one occasion, reportedly decided the names of her children on the spur of the moment when asked by the government official, to the surprise of my grandfather who thought they’d agreed to call them something else). But there is a palate to draw from. In some countries you have a rule that you can’t give your child a name that isn’t on the list. The reverse is true of boats. I have no doubt that whilst there are boats called “John” and “Helen”, they’re not typical. Boat names tend to be more creative. There isn’t really a list of acceptable names. There is a list of unacceptable names though, kept by the Environment Agency, who mandate that every boat on the Thames must have a different name.
I have a mooring of a certain length. I’ve been there for a few years and the arrival into my life of someone so incredibly special that I would re-consider living in Dawn precipitated some Thought. The concluding thought was that I have a mooring, and we may as well try and fill it out as much as possible. So we decided to go for a boat that was about the same length but double width. It happens that my mooring, and attendant boat (or vice versa) are quite short, at 35ish ft. Finding the right boat to put on the mooring in the first place wasn’t easy. Finding one double width was impossible.
So I phoned up a few builders and talked with them. I wasn’t immediately successful. One person I spoke to made no effort to hide her contempt. Another said they only build widebeams to patterns, but they could build me one 50ft long and chop out the middle. But I’d have to pay for the longer boat. A 37 ft widebeam (we managed to get an extra couple of ft out of the mooring) isn’t conventional. It’s not something that many builders would take on. It’s certainly not the kind of thing that the production-line builders would contemplate.
I spoke to my uncle and aunt, who know what they’re talking about, for some advice. The conclusion was that a widebeam shorter than about 45ft was going to look weird. It wouldn’t handle well. It would be difficult to sell. I gratefully stashed this advice away and mulled.
There is understandable tension in the narrowboat community between real boats and floating apartments. I myself have lived on a gorgeous boat, Dawn, for over three years. She’s a proper narrowboat, with a nice profile. The cabin tapers. There’s a Lister SR2 engine from 1969 (the gearbox is a decade older). Her prow glides through the water, her stern makes thud-thud-thud-thud diesel noises. My dad and I cruised down from Staffordshire, through Birmingham, when I first bought her, en route to Oxford. I ‘get’ narrowboats and the life that goes with them. I understand the objection to a floating apartments.
However Dawn is small. I get out for as many boat trips on the Thames as humanly possible (I had a total 50 visitors on various boat trips over the course of the first year). They’re fantastic. But we (two of us) do live there, every day, and I can’t neglect that fact. The balance that informs my decision is advisedly different to some others’.
I called Sherwood Narrowboats and talked to Martin. I said “I want a boat with these dimensions”. We had a productive phone call and he sent me a quote. We had a few conversations and I went away to mull.
Typically boat building is split into two sections: building the shell (i.e. all the steelwork that comprises the hull and makes the boat want to stay above water) and the fit-out (i.e. all the wood-work, engine, etc that makes you want to stay in the boat). Martin, a.k.a. Sherwood Boats is a fitter. He works with the Affordable Boat Company, which is Dean and his colleagues. They build the shell. Martin was responsible for drawing up the contract, negotiating details, accepting payment, doing the fit-out and generally seeing the whole process through. Dean was responsible for the shell. But it turns out that I talked to Dean just as much as Martin.
We went to see a boat in Abingdon that they’d built, occupied by a friend-of-a-friend. They were very happy with their boat, gave us a guided tour, talked over the process etc. I also contacted someone else who’d had a shell built by Dean who was very happy with the quality. To be honest, I was a bit worried that I couldn’t find much by way of reviews on the web, but it’s foolish to assume that because I turn to the web first, other people do. I certainly found no horror stories. My goodness, the horror stories you hear about from some builders. We felt confident that Sherwood + ABC Boats was the right thing to do.
So more phone and email conversations. Martin drew up a contact, we drew a deep breath, and signed. There are five stages to the process as far as I can tell:
- make a decision
- commit to it
- wait for a built slot
- boat is built
- boat is delivered
We were lucky to get a slot in Dean’s schedule and, four weeks from signing, the build started. We went up the day before to talk to Dean. Waiting for us was a pile of Tata steel.
It was almost impossible to believe. Putting my empiricist hat on, I decided to prove that it was real as best I could.
When we arrived they were shipping out a boat that had just been built. You’d be amazed what a skilled practitioner can achieve with a forklift or two.
We’d agreed in the contract the length and width, the number and type of windows, the style of roof and stern. I hadn’t expected a CAD model, but the process of building turned out to be much more interactive than I thought.
It seems that Dean never builds the same boat twice (although would if asked). I know from more than one builder who can only build to set patterns that if you go down that route you get their stock shell or nowt. Dean explained that the curve of the prow is defined by the curvature of the steel (it seems obvious when you put it like that), and that the precise measurements of the prow and the swim at the back depended on how the steel bent. My dad and I (he has been heroic in his help) had kind of expected to go leave with a detailed finalised plan of how the boat would turn out. Instead we left trusting Dean to do a good job. We were right, he’s built us an excellent boat.
Dean’s wife sent us pictures of the boat as it was built. They arrived about one or two per week. And how exciting those photos were. Email notifications were accompanied by a rush of adrenaline.
Dean said that we should come up absolutely as often as we wanted. In his own words “if it was my boat I’d be there every day”. There were decisions to be made such as the exact position of the door and the windows which made absolutely no sense until the relevant bits of the hull existed to cut them out of. We were able to visit once during the build, as it was a bit of a journey. For other decisions, photographs did an acceptable job. There is no replacement for being there in person, though. I would strongly recommend visiting once or twice a week during the build if you can.
So here are the photos. Here is the story of the Good Ship ———.
The first photos we got were of the base-plate.
Last time I saw that steel it was sitting in a pile. Now it had assumed a shape. Here was the stern of the boat, with a very sexy curve to the swim. The steel section you see is the transom, from which a rudder will be hung.
When we went up to talk the first time, he said that he thought that we could get more space by not having a weed-hatch, having a transom-hung rudder (i.e. hinged off the back rather than partially under the boat), and the ability to step down and remove weeds if need be. I’ve had bad trouble with weeds (and other things) on the propellor on the canal near Birmingham, but nothing on the Thames. The new boat won’t even be able to fit on the canal. We agreed that it was a good idea, so that’s what we did.
A few days later came the transom.
This photo is the first of many that gave my brain trouble. I’ll be honest, I looked at that picture and panicked a little. I understand perspective. I understand foreshortening. But the boat was clearly half swim and half the rest, much of which was taken up by the prow. The living space we’d carefully planned suddenly evaporated and we had made a very expensive mistake. My aunt was right.
But another photo fixed that.
This one shows that the swim is well proportioned, just the right length, and there’s plenty of cabin.
There is no denying that ——— is a short, wide boat. My aunt said that it would be ‘stubby’. Dean’s job was to make a boat that actually gives is more space than Dawn does, but not to make a floating apartment. The shape of those curves is very important to how the boat handles. If they were too short you’d get loads more space inside, but it wouldn’t look like a proper boat, and wouldn’t steer well. Dean got just the right proportions to compromise between the fact that ——— is an unconventionally proportioned boat, but a boat nonetheless.
When you look at a long narrowboat, you can see the taper at both ends, and the long parallel sides between and you think “that’s a narrowboat”. When you look at ———, it really depends on the angle, and the lens on your camera. In person she is just the right size and shape. But I had to constantly keep reassuring myself of that when looking at the photos. I’m used to looking at narrowboats. When I see photo it’s easy to assume that it’s the width of a narrowboat. It really isn’t. But your brain really plays tricks. Well, mine does. If that isn’t a good reason to visit in person as often as possible, I don’t know what is.
The curves are really cool. If you designed a boat on a computer you would probably design the curves as Bezier splines. These are mathematical equations to describe curves, and give some very nice shapes. Dean used Bezier curves, (I think), but he used real ones, by bending real steel and seeing how it bent. The prow is truly a work of art.
I mean really, look at those curves.
From memory I think the top edge came up to my chin. This is a big piece of steel. And the floor bends up, too.
Next came the back deck. We were still arguing over the size of the back deck as they were building up to this point. I don’t think you’d even get a choice with a pattern builder. We eventually went for a deck 3ft deep, to allow for socialising on boat trips (it can get lonely at the helm). He also made a gorgeous rudder. More on that later.
Look at it.
With the back railing in place, this photo gives a nice perspective of the whole boat.
This is a transom-hung rudder, i.e. hung from the back surface. The reason for this is so we can shift the swim back as far as possible (to make as much room as possible inside the cabin), which means shifting the propellor backwards. The problem with this is cavitation, which is where the rudder sucks air into the water. This lowers the density of the water and means that you get less ‘purchase’. This has happened to me a couple of times on Dawn, and it feels like the engine has suddenly lost power. Not a good thing. So Dean put anti-cavitation plates on the rudder to prevent this happening.
“Normal” rudders are made from a single sheet of metal. You can’t really see them. You can see the swan-necked tiller, but that’s different. My rudder is much more visible, which is why, I think, Dean really went to town on it. It’s tapered (I’m sure there’s a name for it) and generally looks a lot nicer than it could have.
This is the point at which we came to visit.
I have been in a few widebeams. One made by Dean, others made by others. They feel massively wide, because they are, at least compared to narrowboats. Dean sent us this photo the night before.
When we arrived they’d put the cabin sides up. They’d done it all that morning. Incredibly fast workers.
Words cannot describe the feeling of seeing my new boat. Beyond excited. Far beyond excited. We climbed up onto the back deck and peered in.
And again, my sense of perspective got the better of me. This boat is big. Very big. Big to walk round and stand in. I know for a fact, almost double the width of Dawn. But it felt smaller inside than I had expected. Apparently without a roof it’s difficult to get a feel for the space. We went in. And posed.
I noticed some particularly nice welding on the integral keel cooler (that curved double strip). It’s a cooling tank for the engine.
As we departed they were sizing up the roof. With sledgehamers.
We left with measurements and the most indescribable feeling.
It wasn’t long before they emailed us with progress on the roof.
They must have known I wasn’t a natural born architect, as they drew a swan for scale.
This photo illustrates the front of the boat, something that struck me as one of the most interesting exploratory part of the build. Our spec was basically ‘take the front bulkhead as far forward as possible without it looking weird’. It’s not just a question of deciding on dimensions then doing it. The roof has a camber to it, which is fine for the straight bits. But then it’s tapering in, there’s only so far you can bend it in the other dimension. I’ll be honest, I don’t quite understand it. So the position of the bulkhead was governed by a combination of “as far forward as possible”, “not too far forward” and how the steel decided to behave. I’m sure pattern builders know the precise measurements before they begin but are unable to deal with a custom request. This was the state of the cabin sides when we visited, before he’d decided how far forward the bulkhead would go.
Meanwhile, look at the stern.
Look at it.
Take a good look.
And quickly scroll back to that pile of steel at the top. What a transformation.
The next development was the positioning of the front bulkhead. In our plans we’d made a reasonable stab at where we thought it might go, but Dean was able to push it quite far forward. All the more space for books and living in.
It’s got both sides, too.
And a top.
For scale, at a guess, I think that space would very comfortably sleep one or two people. And who wouldn’t want to? What a magnificent vessel.
Such a pretty nose.
And then all of a sudden it was over. We looked the other way and she’d been off to powder her nose.
Everything was suddenly covered in primer.
I don’t normally using language like this, but Dean gave great customer service. He was always on the end of the phone, ready to listen to our ideas and give his advice. Ann’s regular photos kept us up to date and meant that we could make the decisions that we wanted to. Dean works fast, and to a high standard. But what he did next, to risk imitating the worst excesses of social media, was above and beyond. Into my inbox dropped aerial photos. Photos, in flight, of my boat.
Lots of them, from all angles.
The direct-from-above one was particuarly useful. We’d been developing the floor plans for the duration of the build (and before). Now I could superimpose them.
She was craned onto a low-loader and driven to her new home.
Where we got a 360-degree view.
And from where, in the workshop of Martin, of Sherwood Boats, she will continue her journey.
A few short weeks later, the new boat has been named MONSTRONAUTICUS and looks like this: