Having decided, on that fateful visit to Oundle Marina, to buy a narrowboat I became a woman possessed seeking a boat. This anxiety-driven-need had happened to me before, in relation to buying flights (hence having travelled a ridiculous amount), houses (luckily I have managed to buy only two – not at the same time) and on one demented occasion a ticket to see U2, in Rome – establishing a double whammy of concert ticket plus flight. None of this anxiety-driven need is particularly healthy but it is a ‘thing’ in my head that I try and unravel and understand, but, in the midst of a moment it is beyond rational understanding. So, driven by anxiety-boat-buying the search for a narrowboat began. With zero knowledge of such things it seemed logical to begin on the internet, first with the website Apollo Duck, then emailing boat brokerages (they politely suggested I had a limited budget), then Ebay -after all you can buy anything there- and finally, Preloved, a lesser known random sales site – think Craig’s list or Gumtree, but with love…. Of course, more logical may have been to drive 45 minutes to the local brokerage and actually look at different boats to get an idea of layouts and prices, but as an historian I recognise hindsight is a wonderful thing.
My budget of £10,000, a lot of money to me, especially with no job and university fees to pay, was the redundancy money that I had squirrelled away for two years and kept as an emergency ‘just in case’ fund. Logically the only ‘just in case’ reasons to buy a boat would be an imminent Biblical flood, or a desperate need to get to somewhere else. Although the summer was characteristically damp and the political fall-out from the Brexit vote was looming large in July 2016 neither situation appeared so catastrophic that I would need to escape via boat, plus it is a hardy soul who takes a narrowboat to sea (I have seen YouTube videos). Basically, not even I could rationalise spending the money on such a whim/ luxury item, but of course in the midst of anxiety-boat-buying nothing could prevent the relentless drive to find a boat. I now realise that £10,000 is a very low budget when buying a narrowboat, and it didn’t take into account the cost of moorings, Canal and River Trust licence nor boat maintenance. (Subsequently I have been told, far to often, that BOAT stands for ‘bung on another thousand’, which is quite possibly true.)
On Ebay I found two fabulous looking 40ft boats, both listed with a ‘buy it now’ price of £6,000 with solar panels – I felt solar was a good thing, and additionally both were nicely decorated inside – how shallow am I? I messaged the seller of one and got an immediate response saying yes the boat was still available, but was no longer at its listed mooring and had been moved to Southampton. However, if I could just send the money, by BACS transfer, then they would deliver the boat anywhere in the UK….. Mmmmmm anxiety-boat-buying I might have, but I could smell a rat. I responded asking if I could pay cash on delivery, and that like the boat I too had moved from Northants and was now living on Shetland and would delivery there be OK? For some odd reason the delivery to Shetland was not a problem but cash on delivery was, so sadly the seller lost interest. Later, when I finally began to read narrowboat forums I learnt of some who had been stung, and had transferred the money, never to receive the boat and never to see their money again. As my frenetic search continued, just a few days after I had started looking, I found a boat on Preloved, a website I had neither visited before nor since, yet somehow I ended up there to buy my second largest ever purchase after buying a house (I buy cheap cars). Crazy? Yep, pretty much – boat buying that is, not cheap cars.
The ad and picture of the boat on Preloved completely drew me in, a bright green narrowboat, with a up-pointy bow, and a harlequin design on the front cratch-board, it looked like a ‘proper’ narrowboat. Added to the harlequin design it also had traditional canal roses painted on various points, further confirmation of its narrowboat status. (I knew this from deep delving into my childhood copy of the Ladybird ‘The Story of Our Canals’, which has a whole page on canal art.) The seller’s description backed up the pictures and was similarly poetic with talk of ‘water lapping’ ‘the sound of ducks’ and a ‘dear little boat’, and all within my £10,000 budget. I immediately messaged the owner, asked for more pictures and enquired about the state of the toilet! This was my boat buying obsession after solar panels. I wanted to know whether it was a portaloo, often known as a Thetford, i.e. a camping toilet you physically haul off the boat and empty down an Elsan point or a pump-out toilet, where the boat has a tank to hold toilet waste that has to be pumped out. As I look back now 18 months later, I don’t even remember what my preference was, nor why it was my biggest concern, but it seemed to be the question I agonised over. I asked nothing about the state of the engine, wattage of the solar panels, the number of batteries and how they were re-charged nor whether the boat had any leaks, I didn’t ask if the boat had a mains hook up, nor did I enquire whether everything worked. Instead, I was swayed by the colour and the traditional look of the boat and the onboard toilet, nodoubt a a psychologist could provide insight into all of this! With a few more emails I arranged to visit the boat, at that point moored at Cosgrove, some 50 mins drive from my home, the owner, who had moved away designated the people moored next door to show me the boat and answer any questions.
Willy Nilly, who was admittedly somewhat miffed that I had conjured up the cash to buy a boat, when it was his ‘dream’, did agree to visit the boat with me, to provide a second opinion. (However, as his knowlege was less than mine, after all he hadn’t read The Story of Our Canals, his input was hardly that of an expert.) At Cosgrove we negotiated an obstacle course to reach the marina, walking down the tow path and clambering across a lock to reach the mooring. On arrival I was immediately taken by the bright green boat, even though the engine wouldn’t start (fairly fundamental) and the engine hole was full of water (‘is that normal?’ I asked, ‘oh yes,’ came the reply). Later, when I removed 25 litres of water I learnt that this was not a good thing nor was it normal. The engine was original, a 1973 Sabb (no not Saab), Sabb are a Norwegian engineering company well known for their quality marine engines – think North Sea trawlers and lifeboats. The 1973 boat had a steel hull with a fibreglass or GRP top cabin over a wooden top, which I was assured was watertight.
The boat was built at the canal Makkah of Braunston, by a man called Chris Barney; originally it had had a wooden top cabin and the green, which I had found so alluring, was infact a GRP gel coat and definitely not a traditional narrowboat colour. What I now know is that the boats Chris Barney built between 1968-1976 have become quite sought after, some referring to them as the ‘Morris Minor’ of the canal boat world, and as I have taken her along the canal it has made me smile when people have asked if she is a ‘Barney boat’. Grand Union Carriers who hire out holiday boats in Braunston have based two of their small modern hire boats on the original Chris Barney design, but nodoubt with more mod-cons than my boat has.
Only three years younger than me the boat was showing her age, the floorboards in the bow were loose, the paint was peeling in places, and bits of wood were falling off the bathroom wall. It seemed that the owner’s new home miles away from Cosgrove meant there hadn’t been much regular upkeep of the ‘dear little boat’. I am sure anyone else would have run a mile, yet despite all of these warning signs, and after animated and excited discussion with Willy Nilly we both bizarrely agreed that it was a good buy, and I merrily went ahead and made an offer of £8,000, with the caveat that I would need to see the engine running first . The owner had had the boat for sale for sometime and agreed to my offer, and so with that the boat was mine. A mere 9 days after my foray into inland waterways I bizarrely owned a boat, with my anxiety-boat- buying sated I had undoubtedly broken the first two laws of purchasing a boat – that of buyer beware and get a survey!