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THINKING OF BUYING AND LIVING ON A BARGE ?

SOME THOUGHTS AND HINTS ON SELECTION.

First things first.

There are many people with vastly more experience than I in these matters, so I have listed the names of organisations and people that I am aware of. I am assuming that everyone has access to the internet, at least enough to get the phone numbers or addresses of the organisations listed below. I strongly recommend using the internet however, to search and look at lots of boats, before traipsing across Europe in search of the perfect example.

I also recommend >The Barge Buyers Handbook= from the DBA, as it is far more extensive than this simple introduction, being the result of many years of experience by its authors. Finally, the DBA, I suggest, is a >must join= organisation.

The DBA - A barge owners association

The DBA (formerly known as the Dutch Barge Association) has a website www.barges.org ; a handy book for prospective barge buyers titled >The Barge Buyers Handbook=; a raft of other publications including the Guide Vagnon and the Tests Vagnon - essential for gaining your >PP= or >Certificate de Capacite= (French barge operator=s qualification); and several internet chat sites for technical and other assistance. The cost of membership is reasonable and includes >The Blue Flag= a regular magazine with many more useful bits of information.

Training

Tam and Di Murrell ( email tamanddi@mac.com ) conduct regular barge handling and PP courses using their French based beurtschip. Three and four day courses are offered, some live-aboard and some shore based with daily training cruises. You learn lots, eat well, meet other interested people and end up with your barge operating certificate for France.

Understand however, that a three or four day course, sharing time with other students, is not going to make you an expert in all situations. Before you buy, you can hire boats for holiday cruises (Crown Blue Line, Locaboat Plaisance, Connoisseur Cruises, Rive de France and or charter a barge with friends. Another alternative is to find boats and owners like us who offer training and experience during a cruise on a share cost basis..

Brokers

A word of warning - I continue to hear reports about poor service and lack of ethics at H2O in France.  My own experience with them is such that I cannot recommend them to anyone and certainly would not have any further dealings with them.  Having spent considerable hours helping to repair and upgrade their facilities, having had the boat moored there and finally having used them for a year as a broker, I have to say that I was treated abominably and have proof that my boat was not offered to potential buyers (including one couple I sent there to test H2O).

A broker you like and trust can be a wonderful ally in finding and buying your dream boat. However, since they work for the seller, ensure that you know what you want and how to handle them. I understand that they (mostly) will access and offer boats available from other brokers as well as their own listings, making arrangements with the other broker on commissions and activities.

This list is certainly not exhaustive, and, it may help to be able to search the internet using also the French, German and Dutch names for >boats= and >for sale= - for example in Dutch >ex beerops te koop= (check that spelling it could be beroops or beroeps) or in French >peniche a vendre= or >bateaux a vendre=. Many of the best internet sites have a British flag symbol that magically translates the site into the English language.

GENERAL Boats for Sale www.boatshop24.co.uk Boats for Sale
FRANCE Bourgogne Marine www.bourgogne-marine.com

00 33 (0) 3 8029 1149

       
UK Bowcrest Marine www.bowcrest.com Tony Charman
Virginia Currer www.vcmarine.co,uk
US H2O  www.h2o.com
NETHERLANDS All brokers www.nbms.nl  This is worth searching !
Sander Doeve www.sander-doeve.nl  Sander or Jitse Doeve
General www.yachtselect.nl

Before buying Van Nelle from the distance of Australia, I spent a couple of years searching the web and finding many of the same boats, there today and gone the next week. Some that left, returned, as new owners worked on them and then decided to move on. Others are still there today - saying something about their condition.

Separately, my wife and I visited Europe about six months apart to visit the most likely boats in the major centres. Amsterdam (and the rest of the Netherlands), St Jean de Losne and nearby St Symphorien were our key sites but there are more. However, trolling the web gives you a good idea of the prices and features and cuts down much wasted time travelling.

We had Tony Charman recommended to us and we would endorse that recommendation. He gave me nearly a week in Europe, driving me around to boats and providing invaluable information, I made sure he was our broker when we decided on our boat.

SOME pre purchase ADVICE

1: Select a couple of boats that you would be happy to own before negotiating a purchase. This helps enormously in negotiations since you have less pressure to settle on the one and only boat you have chosen. It also reduces the anguish if you miss a >must buy= vessel. It also helps if they are with different brokers for the obvious competitive reasons.

2: Don=t panic if a good prospect sells before you have a chance to bid on it. Good boats keep coming back onto the market from time to time. But do act fast if you find something new just when you are ready to buy. There are more buyers than good boats in my opinion - friends offered their boat and sold it within a week !

3: While you are out looking, take notes, pictures and videos if you can. Don=t be hurried.

4: If you really are keen on a boat, make sure you take a trip on it, preferably on the spot, to ensure it all works. While you will get the boat surveyed in most cases (in order to get insurance most importantly), it is nice to know that the engine does start and there is no damage to prop and steering etc.

5: The broker might not like this advice - Try to negotiate directly with the owner if you are trying to reduce the price. I showed the owner photos of the boat I was going to buy but let him know that a big price reduction would swing my decision to his boat - it worked and we both ended up delighted with the deal. You need to have an alternative or eat crow if he / she refuses.

FINDING THE RIGHT BOAT

First of all, consider carefully what you will use the boat for. Is it for summer holidays or your new, year-round home ? This will make a big difference. Where are you going to use it ? What size should it be ? Will you have others coming to stay on the boat ? Do you have any physical impediments ? Are you a keen and experienced handy-person ? What creature comforts and accessories should it have ? Most importantly, what condition is it and its major systems in ?

All year or just summer ? You can put up with a bit of crowding or discomfort if it is just for the summer holidays - besides, it=s warm in France then, right ? But, if you plan to live, year-round, on a boat that is not insulated and centrally heated with good hot water, plenty of electric power, space and other living in comfort facilities, winter could be a real turn-off.

Where will you use the boat ? In general the canals provide 38 x 5.5 metre locks, 1.8 metres water depth and minimum bridge heights of 3.8 metres or more. In the Midi however, locks are 30m and oval shaped, bridges can be as low as 2.8m and water levels can reduce to near 1.2m in rainless summers. The Nivernais Canal has 1.2 m water levels and only admits boats up to 20m length and 1.0 m draft. The Bourgogne has a tunnel with restricted height approaching 2.8m. It is well to investigate the charts of the areas you want to explore before finding your boat will not be able to go there.

Summers are very hot in the south and barges have a way of catching the heat and holding it. Ensure your boat has adequate ventilation.

Rental boats abound on the Midi (and some other waterways) but when the Mistral or its opposite number off the mountains blow, steering and avoiding other boats becomes interesting, especially near locks, bridges and moorings. Do you need a bow thruster ?.

What size should it be ? Is there enough space for two people to spend many years in very close contact - everyone needs their own space occasionally and you may also need a work area away from the living quarters and saloon. How many sleeping cabins should there be, and are they doubles, twins or singles ? If people visit, will their clothes and cases be under everyone=s feet or spread out in the saloon where they may be sleeping when others want to use that space ?

Handling and mooring the boat should also be considered. (I happen to think that if you can handle an iron boat of say 18 metres (about 60ft) and 30 tonnes, its not all that different to a 25m (80') and 50 tonne version, but there are places (like the Arsenal in Paris) where boats over 20m are not welcome and over 25m not admitted at all.

Physically speaking: There are a couple of practical issues for older folks to consider.

Occasionally, someone has to jump off the boat, sometimes this can be some distance and onto sloping or broken ground, much lower than the deck. Sometimes its wet and slippery, but if you want to (or have to) stop and moor, you have to have someone ashore.

Most boats have steps leading up to the wheelhouse and deck and down to the accommodation areas. These have to be negotiated with luggage, shopping and other encumbrances.

Repairs and maintenance: All boats, new or old, need constant maintenance. From simple daily engine checks through to the replacement of major systems components, someone has to do the job and most often it comes down to you. Some things, like changing a membrane in a leaking water pump, repainting scratches on the hull, re-varnishing external timber work or replacing batteries are simple and require little skill. Some other tasks such as servicing an engine, replacing a control cable, diagnosing and repairing an electrical fault or repairing an engine component can be done by skilled tradesmen - if you can find them and wait for them to fit you in. Dry docks and ship yards are less frequently found these days and sometimes are few and far apart. It is best if you can do most of the work yourself. The better the choice of original equipment and its current condition are important considerations in the selection of a boat.

Features, functions and benefits: While cruising during summer, all you need is the ship to work, a barbecue to cook a chop on at night and a good book to read the same paragraph of as you doze during stops. Come winter, and five months in a small French village, you may want a few more creature comforts and divertissements - like heating, satellite TV, stereo sound, an oven, a good big refrigerator, a pot belly stove perhaps and a big comfy couch to doze on with that book you didn=t get to read during summer. Don=t think that because you left all that stuff at home that you won=t miss it or want it. If you used it at home, you will probably want it here.

Major systems condition: Buying a boat already fitted out is the best way to go but the choice of the systems has already been made. Therefore you will have to compromise somewhat if the type you inherit and its condition leaves something to be desired. We were extremely lucky. The Dutch tend to buy the best and we benefited by this in Van Nelle. The storage hot water system is a big, reliable, intelligent Kabola that heats water when necessary and provides our central heating as well as being miserly on diesel fuel. It has sensors in the boat that can be programmed for temperature and times and has not faltered in its work.

Likewise, the generator is a remotely controlled, 9kVa Mase silent gen set, based on a reliable and simple Yanmar diesel married to a 1200 watt inverter and auto operating battery charger. The electrical system is also intelligent in that it recognises whether power is coming from the generator, shore power or the inverter and automatically switches itself correctly to handle it.

The engine is a huge French Baudoin 6 cylinder diesel with a Baudoin gear box that was installed to haul 150 + tonne loads. Pushing the boat empty makes it perform like a sports version.

Most of the internal fittings (plumbing, electrical etc) are normal home type systems rather than expensive and fiddly boat parts, making the boat relatively simple and inexpensive to repair and maintain.

We didn=t go out looking for this sort of installation - but we should have - and we are very glad that we found it by accident. We have plenty of war stories about other owners with mickey mouse systems that spend their time worrying about when they will next break down. That=s a real drag as this life is supposed to be carefree and non-stress.

You should spend much of the time on inspections checking the what and how good of all the base systems - do they work, do they leak, when were they repaired or replaced, can you get at them, can you get parts for them, are there manuals for them, are there special parts required or special tools required to work on them. See them in action !

The hull condition should be checked by an expert surveyor and will be OK or not, and if not, can be overplated (if that is still allowed) or replaced at the current owner=s cost. You will need to check out the condition of the above water-line construction. Is the timber OK or rotting, is there rust, are the joins intact, does she leak or creak ? It is very rare to find a surveyor who will also cover engine and running gear let alone other systems. If you feel the need, hire specialists in these areas - a diesel mechanic, electrician, plumber etc.

In most cases, sound boats will look and feel right and can be judged to some extent by their owners. Most of these boats are older than us, some double the age, and they will probably be around for a few more generations yet.

SOURCES OF INFORMATION

There are a number of additional sources of information about barges. The Dutch have a newspaper that is solely concerned with the waterways and its craft. I=ve not seen it and would not be able to decipher it anyway since I believe it=s in Dutch. Fluvial is the French magazine of the same nature. The Blue Flag from the DBA is very useful and informative and probably more importantly, access to the DBA members through the internet is invaluable.

Contacts can also be most useful (I hope they don=t mind me mentioning them but), people like Bob and Bobby Marsland who run a charter barge  bobandbobby@mac.com , Tam and Di Murrell tamanddi@mac.com   Bourgogne Marine in St Symphorien for example.

 

Intended cruising ground, space and lifestyle.

There are beautiful cruising grounds in all the major canal systems we have visited. Coming from Holland, through Champagne down the Ardennes and a la Marne canals to St Jean was a pleasure as were the Bourgogne and the Yonne River and Seine into Paris. The various canals heading south from the City of Light, including the Briare, were splendid and our time on the exciting Saone and Rhone we would not have missed. The Midi is beautiful and historic and its extension, the Lateral a la Garonne is also scenic, and full of pleasant surroundings.

So where is the best - our experience says - everywhere.

We have a friend, Kate Hill, who runs Gascon cooking classes at her home 'Camont' on the canal Lateral near Agen and who also has a Dutch Tjalk barge.  She has lived and cruised just that canal from Castets to Toulouse for 15 years. You don=t have to see every inch of the entire system if you don=t want to.

Some people say there are too many boats on the Midi, where it also too hot, too windy and has too many low bridges, but we have seen more boats on other canals - like the Briare. Some people say there are too many locks on the Bourgogne, but counting them and comparing the number per kilometre, it seems to me there are about the same as other canals. Some people have a lot of negatives to say about just about everything. They must have very unpleasant lives.

Our first cruise was on a hire boat on the Nivernais (which we unfortunately cannot navigate with Van Nelle for size reasons) and we had a ball. We still think it is a wonderful waterway, but we spent that week with 4 other friends and that made a big difference to our enjoyment.,

There are only a few canals in France that are not connected to the main routes, those of the far west and that=s a pity, but hey, there are enough in the vast majority to keep us busy for years so why worry.

During spring, summer and autumn, the days are long and warm and apart from the odd spot of rain, we spend most of the time outside. We chose Van Nelle in part because it has a huge back deck that has a large table for lunches and dinners. We also have lots of sun deck space forrard so passengers and crew can watch the scenery and spot the locks as we travel. Some boats do not have any deck space, which seems a pity to me, and people have to stand or sit upright, or take meals below or on the banks of the canal. We think that to have some deck space adds an important element to our lifestyle.

Important features:

HULL - Obviously the hull is of paramount importance - but - since the boat will be inspected by a qualified surveyor, this should not be a cause of great concern unless the plate is just on or near the minimum thickness limits (4mm) when you buy it. If it is, it could mean having to pay later for overplating or plate replacement. If there are areas shown up by the survey that are too thin (but the rest is adequate) it=s the current owner=s responsibility to pay for plating before sale.

ENGINE - You need to be confident in your engine and gearbox. Generally these are not surveyed but you can pay for a reputable diesel company to test compression, chemically check the sump oil and generally inspect the rest. Engines are expensive and its difficult to find a good mechanic when you need one for your stranded boat. Pay close attention to this aspect.

ELECTRICS - You should have adequate battery power for pumps, lights and other appliances, especially if you use an inverter to run things like a refrigerator. We have 4 heavy duty,12 volt, 200 amp hour batteries, providing 24 volts and approximately 400 amp hours - about two days of all use without recharging. We use an inverter for 220 volt refrigerator, stereo, TV, microwave etc.

To provide power when shore power is not available we have a 9 kva, Mase, silent gen set. This is linked to the battery charger and inverter and can be used to start the engine if the batteries run down. To recharge the batteries while cruising we have an 80 amp alternator on the engine.

Shore power is very useful and imperative for long stays. When you plug in to shore power you need to be able to switch to that source. Many systems are manual, ours is automatic. Shore power is run through the inverter so that the batteries are always charged and there is an automatic backup if we are away and the power goes off.

PLUMBING - You are pretty well stuck with what you get here as plumbing tends to be buried under floors that have limited or no regular access. It is a good idea however to know where access can be gained to areas where blockages can occur - sink drains, toilet outfalls etc. Also to the pipes that supply central heating radiators if these could leak or burst in winter.

HEAT - we have full central heating with a variable control radiator in each room and four in the central living area. We also have a pot belly stove for wood burning and an electric radiator for use where electricity is cheap or free. These appliances are necessary during winter. There can be no more depressing thing that to be cold all the time. Our central heating is sensor controlled to both temperature and timings - such that we can program it to come on to a certain temperature at a certain time of the day. It has a night and a day setting.

ACCOMMODATION - We decided we wanted friends to come to spend long periods with us which meant having double cabins available for them to keep people out of the living areas. There=s nothing worse than having a guest wanting to go to bed (in the saloon) while everyone else wants to stay up or having their clothes and other belongings all over the saloon. This will have an effect on the size of the boat. We chose to but a boat with three double cabins (they were converted by us to doubles) but we have not yet had more than one couple at a time. We also have a pull out double bed and room in the wheelhouse for two extra if we are suddenly invaded for an overnight stay after a party.

COOKING - is important, and the mate insisted we have an oven - which surprisingly was not fitted. Many boats do not have ovens we found. We bought and installed an adequate oven quite easily so that we can have roasts, cakes and other oven cooked food. We also have a four burner cook top, and all these are fired by gas, giving us an alternative to electricity. We also have a large 3 jet barbecue on the back deck with an oven hood for summer roast cook-outs, and we have a micro wave oven - just in case.

COOLING - sometimes as important as heating since barges tend to get and retain heat. Ensure you have adequate ventilation, or, good spaces for cooler summer sleeping ! It is also important to understand that iron decks and cabins get very hot. Paint should be very light colours above the waterline especially where you want to walk, sit or lie !

WATER AND FUEL CAPACITY - It is important to have adequate water and fuel capacity so you don=t have to constantly worry about where you will be able to top up. We have about 1600 litres of both which gives us enough water for 2 - 4 people for 10 -14 days including showers everyday and no rationing. We did have one guest who took a 33 minute shower but we shot her ! Our fuel capacity gives us at least 4 weeks of consistent cruising or much longer if we are stationary. We use about 5 litres per hour on canals through the engine. The rather miserly water heater and generator also use this fuel, so that can increase consumption marginally if we use a lot of electricity and hot water.

Bear in mind that there are many companies who deliver fuel in medium size trucks - you don=t have to pay the exorbitant rates at the canal side hire boat fuel stops. The difference can be from Euro 1.10 at a hire boat pump to E 0.73c by delivery for >white gazole= the taxed variety. In winter you can use the untaxed, red fuel for heating and power at about E 0.40c per litre.

ACCESSORIES - A dinghy can be useful sometimes although we have only >needed= it when caught in floods at Aigues Mortes and for use painting the hull. We have had fun in it though as it is a sailing dinghy. A barbecue is invaluable ! Deck space sufficient for a table for outside eating ! A good source of music you can use inside and out for romantic dinners and rowdy parties ! Lots of different electrical and water hose connections since every place has a different connector. A good >passarelle= (gangplank), ours is a ten foot aluminium ladder with non slip painted timber attached to one side. Buckets, mops and brooms - for swabbing decks ! Satellite TV can be useful in winter. Hand held two way radios for communicating between the boat and the shore party. Email capable laptop PC and a phone capable of data transmission and connection to the laptop.

HOW TO GAIN EXPERIENCE

Barge handling is different from helming a yacht or a relatively small powered cruiser and since canals are restricted space waterways, things can get >pear shaped= very quickly at just the wrong times. Some of the hazards include - entering locks, waiting to enter locks, passing through narrow bridges, navigating simple canals on windy days, passing commercial barges, wild moorings, manoeuvring in ports and marinas, reversing under any conditions, mooring in restricted spaces and leaving restricted spaces - especially against the wind, oval locks, flights of locks. There are more.

Firstly you have to understand how a barge turns - by using power over the rudder to swing the stern. No power - no control. However, more power - more speed. How do you reconcile having to use power just when you want to slow down or stop ?

Barges are wind affected and when you stop before a lock and are pushed onto the left bank by the wind and then have boats coming out of the lock wanting that side of the canal - especially inexperienced hire boat users - what do you do ?

Barges are not built to go backwards in a straight line - so what do you do when you have to reverse 200 metres in a canal between boats moored on both sides ?

You approach a lock dead centre and suddenly the bow is pushed off centre by a water outfall, thoughtfully placed there by the canal constructors. You have 15 metres to react but just turning the wheel means slewing the boat onto an angle certain to hit the wall.

You are proceeding downstream on the Rhone with a tail current of 6 kmh and a following wind (the Mistra)l of 60 kmh. The ecluse gates are shut and you have 50 metres in which to stop but there is a barrage on the port side sucking you to it.

You are moored against a nice stone wall but after you took the space two other boats arrived and moored within a metre of your bow and stern. The wind is pushing you against the wall. How do you exit ?

You have been instructed to stay in the centre of the canal due to low water and bank erosion but you are approached by a fully loaded commercial barge also in the centre. What do you do ?

You are rounding a corner and see a narrow bridge a very short distance ahead. Also approaching the bridge, close to and from the opposite direction, is a hire boat (hotel boat, commercial barge - whatever). You will not be able to stop before the bridge - what do you do ?

These and many more similar experiences are not unusual, they are regular occurrences. You are about to buy a 20 - 25 metre, 50 tonne leviathan and you will soon be faced with them. How do you get the skill and experience to handle the situation - but as importantly - to be confidant when faced with it. It is a terrible thing to see people whose dreams are shattered by the first couple of unexpected dramas.

Do the courses. Hire a boat to see how the other half live. Go on a training cruise. Talk to barge owners, especially commercial skippers or retired versions there-of. Put yourself in all the above situations theoretically and figure out the logic that will take you through them, then get on a boat and try it out.

QUALIFICATIONS

The Certificate de Capacite or Category PP, is required for operators with boats of more than 15 metres in length that travel at less than 20kph. The Category C is required for those boats of less than 15 metres that travel at less than 20 kph.

In the case that you are asked for your papers or have an unfortunate accident - even if not your fault - your ability to continue and your insurance cover are at risk without the certificate.

As previously mentioned, Tam and Di Murrell conduct courses in France and have a 100% pass rate.

NEGOTIATION

1 All negotiation courses I am aware of rank information as one of the most important key ingredients to being successful. Knowledge of the other side=s position.

Do they need to sell ? How long has the boat been on the market ? How long have they had it ? Who did the conversion ? What problems have they had with the boat ? How long since it was surveyed and slipped - why - are the results available ? Are others looking ? Is the price reasonable ? What work is required ? Are they prepared to negotiate ? What has happened with any previous negotiations ? Are they prepared to undergo rigorous inspections, surveys etc ? Will they take you on a real test cruise ?

Ask questions before you see the boat. Brokers often know quite a lot and will give information if asked but probably not volunteer it, especially if the boat is not one of their listings. If not, ask to talk to the broker of record and get the above information.

Also LISTEN to whatever is said and try to read between the lines. Even have your partner silent - just listening and compare notes in private.

2 The other key as far as I am concerned is to have an alternative. Never be caught in a position where you HAVE to buy the one boat. Make sure the opposite party is aware you have another (possibly better) prospect.

3 Try to talk directly with the owners and let them know your alternatives. Don=t let the broker know how far you are prepared to go.

4 Start low and allow room to come up towards their price but bargain off price against allowances. If you pay more they should include more (furniture, dinghy, outboard, paint, passarelle, ropes, fenders, whatever). Look around before you make an offer and check what is and what is not included.

5 Be patient. Don=t be rushed and - once you make an offer, shut up and wait. The first to speak loses !

6 The best bargains are win / win. Both parties ought to feel good at the end of the day.

 

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