Why is the boating industry stuck in the past, churning out pale imitations of the vessels of yesteryear? Hugh Pearman takes issue with today’s canal boats
How I love a good chandlery. Almost as much as I love a good stationer’s shop. In a chandlery you get all the boat stuff/ cleats and fenders and ropes and chains and anchors, all kinds of clever low-voltage devices, or conversely the sine wave inverters to turn 12-volt power into 240 volts. How they do that, I have no idea. It’s magic. Then there’s the specialist paint, epoxy pastes and suchlike. And don’t get me started on bow thrusters.
I don’t own a boat, never have. But I like the idea of them. I even go in them occasionally, though never offshore – I mistrust the sea. Even rivers are a bit dodgy, with their currents and weirs and propensity to flood. But the Georgians got it right: they built the beautifully Functionalist canal system. Nature tamed, the application of pure reason: how very Enlightenment.
I have to admit that the inland waterways require few of the desirable products of the chandlery, though sine wave inverters loom large. Canal boats are basically motorised metal pontoons, comically narrow floating caravans. There is very little nautical about them. That’s fine, but I have an issue with the way they are now. They are all weird fakes.
A canal boat used to be a converted working boat or a purpose-built cruiser. Some of the examples from the 1950s and 1960s were superb, well-proportioned designs. Whether made of wood or GRP, they saw nothing wrong with being of their time. They were different from the remaining commercial craft in operation.
Today, however, that outlook has all but vanished. Recently,I went on to the canals again. The Georgian infrastructure is still good, though now it is seen as a value-added property opportunity, and you float from one housing development to the next. But the real problem is the number of brand new historic-pastiche boats.
At new marina after new marina, there they were, lined up in indistinguishable ranks: the shiny, brightly painted £100 000-plus, 20m steel narrowboats. Inside are flatscreen TVs, central heating and washing machines – just like home, only squeezed into a funny-shaped space. Outside, they are designed to be simulacra of the old working boats, complete with dummy boatman’s cabin. Some even have fake boilerplate-style rivets. There is a pecking order to these boats: the ones considered the most authentic are the ones with the maximum number of these ersatz details. There is now a huge industry making these things – mostly in the UK, though some are imported from the shipyards of the former Eastern bloc. But why isn’t anybody making unselfconscious, functional boats? Not more or less pale imitations of a vanished era, but just good, ordinary boats?
It is a world with one of those strange illusions of consumer choice/ scores of manufacturers all offering the same thing, with only the tiniest of detail differences. Worse, all but a tiny proportion of these visual-throwback craft spend most of the year idle. These aren’t investments, they’re depreciating assets, like cars. What makes people spend so much money on something they seldom use?
Clearly, there is some aspect of the economics of leisure that I haven’t grasped. In the meantime, I’m busy looking at chandlery websites. My front garden needs a length of chain and some wall fixings to form a visual enclosure. I think I’ve found just the stuff. Technology transfer, they call it.