Friday, 26 December 2014

The Ones That Got Away - Number 3 ("Planet")

(Posted by Alan)

The "Grand Union" "Stars" are usually reckoned to make a balanced conversion.
Well this post relates to the third converted working boat we might have considered in our quest - strictly it is not the third one viewed, but although we took a quick look at some others we equally quickly discounted them.

"Planet" on the other hand looked more interesting.  "Planet" is another "Grand Union" boat, but unlike our "Sickle" (and indeed "Rufford") is a Harland And Wolff built type, rather than a W. J. Yarwood and sons built example.  "Planet" is what is known as a "Small Woolwich" boat of the "Star Class", and would originally have been of composite construction, with steel or iron sides, but a planked wooden bottom.  Most such boats have since had their bottoms replaced in steel, and this was the case with "Planet".

National engine and Brunton gearbox - but hand start only!
"Planet" met our "two cylinder" engine requirement, having a National, (the original type for the boat), although slightly worryingly this was hand start only, and these engines can apparently sometimes be hard to hand start.  Unusually the engine room had been converted to a "walk through" arrangement, although the mechanicals were far less guarded than in "Ajax", and some work would have been required before the dog could safely be in there on its own.

Comfortable and useable, but currently a bit more cluttered than some.
Internally the accommodation in the converted hold was not too bad, although different from others we have seen, with the layout reversed, to actually place the master bedroom at the front end of the cabin.  The fit out was well done, but we felt needed a fair amount of TLC to bring it back to its former self.  It was useable as it stood, though.

The problem areas were not in the main accommodation.  Externally we already knew the boat had tired paintwork, because we regularly used to see it in our area.  This again we could live with, although would represent a lot of work that really needed doing quite soon.

It's not just bad gunwales - it has rotted the steel engine room behind.
However the big issue was the back cabin, constructed in wood, sheathed over in various materials, but now in poor condition.  Also the wooden gunwales at the foot of this cabin, (and indeed past the engine room), had failed completely, and the sellers acknowledged that much water was leaking through to inside, effectively rendering the cabin uninhabitable as it stood.  Further investigation revealed the rivetted engine room to also be in very variable condition, to the extend it was at points perforated at gunwale level, and the roof having major areas of corrosion that had forced rivetted parts apart.

Engine room roof has seen better days, but can probably be fixed.
Other boats we had seen had needed work, but it had much of it been work we felt we could do ourselves.  I'm not a steelworker, and it was very evident that whoever bought "Planet" would need access to one, and if possible one that could repair and salvage as much as possible of the riveted engine room, but also build a back cabin skin in steel that was as sympathetic a replica as possible of the wooden cabin that would have been correct for such a boat in its working days.

Some helpful conversations were had both with a surveyor, and with one of the experts in this kind of steelwork, and, so far as they could without actually seeing the boat, they helped with some idea of costs of the remedial work.

The sheathed wooden back cabin was actually far worst than it appears here.
Conversations with the vendor convinced us that there was at the time too big a gulf between what they might be prepared to accept, and what we could reasonably justify, given just how much we would need to spend on "Planet" as soon as possible after purchase.

Ultimately the advertised price got dropped substantially, so we contacted the vendor again, but by then they had someone strongly interested.  The boat seemed to change hands very shortly after that, and I believe still for more money than we would probably have wanted to spend.  A shame in many ways, because it had the potential to be a truly stunning boat, and arguably the "Star class" boats with their lower hull sides make a more balanced conversion than the much chunkier deep holded "Town class" boats like "Rufford".  I await with interest finding out who now has "Planet", (we still haven't worked that out), and seeing just how extensive any restoration work ends up as being.

With this one at least the seller behaved completely honorably, and I am also grateful to the experts who took time out to give us advice about the likely work involved.

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Stoke Bruerne Village At War - 13th & 14th September 2014.

(Boat Sickle - posted by Alan)
(Very retrospective post for Fri 12th to Mon 15th September 2014)

(Still trying to catch up, but still over three months behind!)

"Sickle" takes "Sculptor" in tow, and heads away from the top lock.
At the moment we try to include both the major annual events at Stoke Bruerne in "Sickle's" calendar.  They are by no means the biggest in terms of either historic boats attending, or or all boats attending, but Stoke Bruerne has won a special place in our hearts, and nicely contrasts against some of the bigger, (and often more manic!) events we attend.

Under way, with "Sculptor" tied close on cross straps.

Not quite gridlock "Ling", "Sculptor" & "Sickle" with "Aldgate"& "Purton" moored.
Also Stoke Bruerne is an easy day's boating from where we keep "Sickle" further down the Grand Union, and now Cath has retired it is easy to turn an event weekend at Stoke Bruerne into a long weekend for the two of us - very much more pleasant in my view than when I was often trying to take the boat up much of the way, or to return it on my own.

Lorna and Kathryn take "Sculptor" out for a run on Sunday.
The weather can have a huge effect on visitor numbers at these events, which, lets be honest, are very much about fundraising.  Two good days, and the organisers will usually be very pleased, but if even one day is mostly "killed" due to bad weather, then it can be a very different picture.  Fortunately this year, despite less than brilliant forecasts, the mid-September weather was fairly kind, and visitor numbers held up.

A somewhat posher Cath chats with Lornam on "Sculptor".
Mostly Cath and I just "chilled", and met with other boaters and friends, but we were asked to get involved in towing the museum's boat "Sculptor", in homage to when "Sickle" is claimed to have towed it and two other ex working boats to the North in 1948 to become maintenance boats on the Northern waterways.  I had slight reservations about a very insubstantial set of "cross straps" that were hastily spliced up and handed to us, but I put the power on slowly, and "Sickle" managed to tow "Sculptor" OK, with nothing breaking or becoming otherwise detached.

Two tugs and one full length butty share Cosgrove lock, as we return home.
As the event was winding down, a couple came and introduced themselves, who proved to be Roger and Jean Hatchard.  Roger had been a working boatman on the Willow Wren fleet, amongst others, and remains to this day an historic boat owner, and an enthusiast with a very accurate memory of huge numbers of boaters, boats, and their histories.  Unlike many of the others, who you feel have tended to really get less accurate about some details over time, Roger's knowledge seemed absolutely spot on, and I have no reason to question a single word he told us.  A fascinating couple, and they seemed really nice people, so I am very much hoping this will not be our last conversation - particularly as we have since acquired an ex Willow Wren boat!

Fenny Stratford to Stoke Bruerne for event, then return.
Miles: 36.8, Locks: 18

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

The Ones That Got Away - Number 2 "Ajax" (TWICE!)

(Posted by Alan)

So "Rufford" was not to be, but we were alerted to a rather different boat, although this time it was not yet being actively marketed, but owner had indicated they were ready to sell it.

"Ajax" is a "Railway Boat" built in the early 1930s for the London Midland and Scottish Railway.  As it happens the builder was again W J Yarwood and Sons, the same as "Sickle".  Originally these boats were horse drawn boats built for short distance traffic between railway interchange depots, and other canal served locations.  My understanding is that like the majority of these boats built for the LMS, "Ajax" would originally have had no back cabin whatsoever, (although a much smaller number of these boats were originally built with them).

As an aside some people call all LMS boats of this type "Station Boats", whereas others say this only applies to those of the type that were much later converted to butty boats, to be paired with a motor boat, and which were given names of railway stations when this was done.  I have no idea which of these claims is correct!

"Ajax" - an earlier view taken when passing the mooring.
Initially we arranged to view "Ajax" in late September 2013. A very attractive boat from outside, with a very long fore-deck, even more so than a Josher, I would say.  Although I love the bluff lines of the "Grand Union" boats, "Ajax" is undoubtedly a "looker".  It would have course originally had a butty style back end, with a wooden 'elum, so the current counter and rudder arrangements are all down to its conversion to a "motor", only done when it became a leisure boat.  None the less, the feeling is very much of what a "Railway Boat" motor might have originally been built like, had such things existed.  The fully lettered livery in elaborate LMS maroon undoubtedly owes almost everything to LMS railway locomotives, and probably nothing to their Railway Boats.  It is not known how these were originally painted, (and "Ajax" had no cabin to paint anyway!), although something based on a simple grey scheme is probably likely.  That said the LMS maroon sits well on the converted boat, and as an admirer of Stanier's massive LMS pacific locomotives, it was a compromise we could live with.

There is much about "Ajax" to like.  For a start we really wanted a boat with a twin cylinder engine, so "Ajax's" Russell Newbery hit the mark there, (although it is actually quite a modern build from the 1980s).  The back cabin had a more generous, and hence rather more useful, cross bed than the norm, (most in genuine motor boats are actually what would be considered only a single in a house).  It also has a walk through engine room with safe access right through the boat, with most moving parts covered, so as not to suck up the dog's tail! (In our experience, it is rare to find converted boats that started life as motors that are fully walk through).  There is also a useful small bedroom in the middle that can double as an office or hobbies area, and a particularly pleasant and well arranged sitting out area at the front.

From saloon, looking rearwards to kitchen.
There were downsides too.  Parts were quite run down, and the actual saloon space not that generous, largely because of having an extra bedroom over many boats.  Also nothing actually seemed to be fully working, (fridge, water heating etc), and the owner seemed to rely more on kettles on stoves and a Porta Potti in the engine room than any built in services - there were also an ominous amount of containers clearly catching rainwater leaks at points like side hatches that were not fully keeping the weather out!

None the less we were very taken with "Ajax", which in many ways had a layout we could really exploit, given how we use a boat, and who tends to be aboard.  The owner had a fixed idea of what he wanted for it, which seemed a lot, given how much needed fixing, but he was not up for negotiation.  and we agreed we would pay it, because the boat suited so well.  However he would need some time before he could let the boat go, so no final deal was struck on the day.

After this, he proved impossible to get hold of, despite us having three different contact methods - his phones would either not accept a message, or when they did, he did not reply to them.  Emails went unanswered.  Eventually after a long while we did get him on the phone - he was sorry, but he had decided he no longer wished to sell "Ajax", after all.  There was not a lot to say in the circumstances, and we thought that was the end of it.

1980s build of Russell Newbery DM2 - a design dating from the 1930s
Except it wasn't the end of it, because after some time, the owner contacted us again saying he now wanted to sell "Ajax".  However due to his commitments, and various other issues such as the weather, and how far away he lived, it was many, many weeks before we went to see "Ajax" again, and this did not actually happen until March, getting on for half a year after we first saw it.

We were already fairly convinced we wanted "Ajax", and the owner was happy to take us out on her.  We went armed with a suitable cash deposit!  The trip was nearly cancelled when he rang saying the engine wouldn't start, but we took our own starter battery with us, and that did the trick.  The boat went along very well, and once back on his mooring, we were ready to do a deal, without haggling over the owners chosen price.

However when we started talking deposits, he told us he urgently had to be elsewhere and please come back and finalise everything tomorrow.  I suppose given our previous experiences we should have guessed, but when we did finally get hold of him the next day, far from being ready to meet us to complete a deal, he was on his way back to his home, hundreds of miles away!  Clearly he had changed his mind again.

Out for a test run - March 2014.
The bizarre thing is that only months later he ostensibly put the boat on brokerage at the Warwickshire Fly Boat Company, (although curiously only advertised as going to be available in September).  Having previously told us he was keen to do a private deal, and avoid brokers charges, this seemed decidedly odd.  In practice he made some limited use of the boat in the summer, (we actually met it twice whilst boating, including after he had just delivered it to Warwickshire Fly, where it did turn up for a short period only).  However I'm not sure it was ever really offered for sale, and the last few times we have seen it, it has been back languishing on it's home mooring.

So "Ajax" is the boat we agreed to buy, (twice), but which the owner ultimately decided he did not after all want to sell to us, (twice).  Had it been just the once that our hopes were dashed, I think I wouldn't be bothering to tell the tale.  As we got drawn into it a second time, and lost virtually 6 months over it, I think it not unreasonable to publicly tell the tale that in this game things do not always go as you expect.  This was a considerable time waster, and ultimately the whole experience quite stressful.

Should you in future see the rather lovely "Ajax" offered for sale, and be interested in buying, I hope you have more success than we did!

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

The Ones That Got Away - Number 1 ("Rufford")

(Posted by Alan)

In about July 2013 our quest to find a suitable converted ex working boat really began in earnest.  We had been looking "in background" for quite a while before then, and although various boats had been being actively marketed, from what we had managed to learn about each, none of them had attracted us sufficiently to actually prompt a viewing.  In at least one case, the boat had lingered on the market for an unhealthily long while, and the feedback from those who had seen it was not promising.  In another case the current arrangements in a fairly well known boat sounded very unsuited to out needs, and to many things seemed to need changing, (including the engine), to give a boat that would be close to what we thought we might like.

Rufford - an attractive conversion
However in July 2013, we were prompted to go and see "Rufford" - a "Large Northwich" "Town Class" boat built for the Grand Union Canal Carrying Company by W J Yarwood and Sons, the same builder as "Sickle", so definitely the right pedigree.

Riveted steel back cabin is a faithful replica, not an original.
It was an "estate sale", and although in sound condition, it was in need of considerable TLC, but it seemed with a lot of potential.  Those brokering the boat genuinely believed that because of little interest shown in it to date  that those handling the estate would accept what they advised was a realistic offer, and we got involved on that basis.

Air cooled Lister that had apparently spent nearly all its life in a packing crate!
On the whole we liked what we saw, but realised much work would be required - the front half of the living space was largely serviceable, but the rear half, including bathroom and toilet and a large "storage" area impractical, and in need of a complete rebuild.

However, as negotiations were proceeding in line with the brokers advice, another buyer saw the boat, and quickly had a higher offer accepted, so we realised that for us it was not to be.

The better half of the interior
There I might leave it, if I did not know the fuller story, but as it is a fair statement of the perils of entering into such negotiations, I think it not unreasonable to report what happened after we failed to secure the boat.  In fact those selling it having accepted the higher offer, then decided they were not going to sell to that buyer either.  Eventually they inflated the price by a further £8,000, traded in  the current licence of the boat for a refund, (itself worth hundreds of pounds), and tried to charge the new buyer extra for items left on the boat, (like some very tired arm chairs), even though the understanding was they were included in the sale.  I stress this was all of the vendors doing - those acting as brokers were clearly embarrassed by the twist this all took.  I felt genuinely sorry for the new owner, who did eventually secure it - he must have wanted it very badly, but from everything I know, the sellers acted in a very poor way, having welched on the deal they originally agreed.  On principle, I would have told them to get lost!

This wasn't to be our last disappointment, but shows that if you are unlucky enough to find the wrong seller, there is not a lot you can do about it.

Time For A Change Of Boat ?

(Posted by Alan)

Well we decided some very considerable time ago now that after having had "Chalice" for a lot of years, that the time was right to start looking for a change for our main cruising boat.

"Sickle" (left) & "Chalice" (right), our existing boats.
Years back, we would never quite thought things would turn out as they have, but over time both of us have increasingly caught the "old boat" bug - I suppose a fairly obvious statement, given that we have owned "Sickle" alongside "Chalice" for a few years now.  I suspect those who don't fully share our passion for old boats might feel that the expense and hard work associated with one historic boat must surely be enough, and that any couple daft enough to consider multiple boats wouldn't deliberately choose to take on another.  All of which, I guess, goes to prove we are driven more by the heart than common sense in such matters.

Simon Wain's "Northwich Remake" "Oberon" ("Sextans" following is an old boat).
A lot of discussion was actually had about "must it be an old boat?" - would for example a nice modern look-alike replica by one of the experts in this field satisfy what we wanted, particularly if accompanied by a nice appropriate engine?  We particularly like the "Grand Union" "remakes" built at Brinklow Boat Services by Steve Priest and Simon Wain, particularly those that replicate Yarwoods built "Northwich" boats, (could this be something to do with already owning an original Yarwoods boat, I wonder!).  Simon Wain has built himself the lovely "Oberon", and it is defintely a head turner.

"Oberon" is just about my favourite new build boat.
To the untrained eye, I guess the sole thing that separates it from the designs on which it is modelled, are beautifully straight sides, with a total absence of large dents in any part of the structure!  Unless massively restored, original working boats are usually full of dents, with wavy sides, where the width of the boat can vary by inches, and often very visibly patched or repaired.
Don't ask us why, it's a personal thing, I guess, but somehow the replicas and remakes, although they capture the lines of the original perfectly, simply don't give quite the same buzz, (to us), as an original, (warts and all).

"Themis" (left) - Example of a boat that had a conversion removed.
So it had, we felt, to be an old boat, and that's where it gets interesting.  Once you start looking, you quickly realise that converted working boats, with a decent pedigree, are few and far between, and that remarkably few ever come on to the open market.  What is certainly true is that working boats with a conversion on are in much less abundant numbers than they once were, because so many that were at some stage given a cabin conversion, have subsequently had them removed - there has been a massive swing towards putting boats back into an unconverted state, with the open hold restored - few of them may now carry anything, but many are now presented as if they theoretically could.

"Aber" - An example of an "under cloth" conversion.
We decided we were not in the game of taking a boat not currently converted, (even if it has ever been), and putting a cabin conversion on - at a stroke that probably rules out over half the ex working boats being put on the market.  Those that do carry a cabin conversion may have one based on a conventional "box" cabin shape, or possibly based on an "under cloth" conversion, where living accommodation is actually placed under structure that replicates the shape of a clothed up working boat, such that it can still be clothed up, and look more like an unconverted boat.  Although an "under cloth" conversion can produce a delightful boat, we decided it was probably not for us.

"Thea" is rare example of a shortened converted boat - not for sale, though!
Another major factor that comes into play is the length of the boat - is it going to be the full original length of somewhere typically just over 70 feet, or can you find a suitable boat that has been shortened at some stage in its life?  We know already from having considered it in the past that if you are going to retain the working boat layout of a traditional engine room forward of a back cabin, that the availble space in the remainder of the boat will be a lot less than in a modern built boat that typically has a compact engine at the rear.  We reckoned that a "Chalice" replacement based on a working boat layout needed to be at least 57 feet long, ("Chalice" is 50 feet).  Such a boat would be ideal for our use, as costs would be less than with a full length boat, and we could hang on to access to the many waterways where a 70 feet boat will not go, because the locks are much shorter, (broadly this means mostly the canals in the North of the system, many of which we covered in "Chalice" this summer).  However the reality is that converted working boats of more than 50 feet current length, but less than full length, exist in only small numbers, and hardly ever come up for sale - it would probably have to be a full length boat, if we were to own it before we were to old to go cruising in it!

Monday, 22 December 2014

The "South East Visitor Moorings" changes made at Stoke Bruerne in 2013.

More food for thought here, CRT.

Whilst preparing to "mothball" the "Sickle and Chalice" blog, to replace it with a new "Sickle and Flamingo" blog, I found the following yet to be moderated comments from one of those people Stoke Bruerne relies on for its popularity.

I'll just repost it here, as Bob has written it, but it sounds like a cry from the heart to me.

From: Bob Nightingale Blacksmith at the Tug Store, Stoke Bruerne.

The canal is dead at Stoke Bruerne. There are few visitors as there are so few boats - even the ducks are leaving. My business is down 50% due to lack of passing trade. If this situation is not remedied within the next 6 months I will not be here as the savings that I am currently using to survive shall have evaporated.

I wish CRT could see the short-sightedness of some of the actions they have taken, but some of us still find ourselves constantly challenging, in a bid to avoid "more of the same".

It happened again, didn't it? (The very lost blog!).

(Boats Chalice & Sickle - posted by Alan)
(Very retrospective posting for Saturday 30th and Sunday 31st August 2014)

It often seems to happen that at the end of a long trip, the thing that suffers first is the blog, and so it appears seems to have been the case this summer.

The bottom line is that over the final two days of our biggest ever trip, we got both boats, "Sickle" and "Chalice" safely back to their home moorings.

However, if any pictures got taken, I currently can't seem to find them, and if there were any unusual anecdotes to tell, I have already forgotten them!

Grafton Regis to Fenny Stratford ("Sickle") and Cooks Wharf ("Chalice")
Miles:  30.9 (Chalice), 15.3 (Sickle), Locks: 14

Total Stats for the whole Summer Trip

Miles: 875.7, Locks: 541  Days on board one or both boats: 51