Canalside travesties

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 t

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.

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  • andytidy November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I see your point. There are individuals who commission very individual boats which deviate from the norm but such a step carries huge risks.

    1, Function is paramount. Canals are a rough place for a boat to exist and they therefore must be extremely strong and fit in the 70′ x 7′ infrastructure. The ideal hull therefore has to be very similar to that perfected by our victorian predecessors. If you use ply or plastic it will break quickly and depreciate terribly.

    2. Boats cost a shedload of cash and like houses, one always has to consider the resale value. If you own what most people like you will sell it easily but if you go for a unique “Grand Designs” approach you can easily lose tens of thousands of pounds overnight. A traditional looking boat is therefore the safest option.

    3. Boats tend to be used as floating holiday homes either out and about on the canals or staying on their moorings. Much of the enjoyment is, as Ratty said “just messing about on the water”. If you are using a boat as an alternative to a fixed holiday home there is no reason why you shouldnt used all those goodies in the chandlery to make it a home from home.

    Steel barges are ideally suited to their environment and many people hanker for a nostalgic “viantage ” look, which can be very attractive and gives the canals a retro nostalgic look – good for them.

    There is nothing stopping innovative design in boats (look through the back editions of Waterways World and you will find lots of examples). However, the sad fact is that yesterdays award winning design often becomes tomorrows white elephant.

  • Steve Johnson November 27, 2012 at 8:12 am

    Take a look at Qrooz..the Dutch are producing innovative barge designs !
    Although, unfortunately, they will not be as easy to sell on as 19th century Tjalk or even a new copy of the same.

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