Canal Boat Brokers

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Having spent one afternoon last weekend on a canal walk, today I persuaded Diana that going to look at a couple of narrowboat brokerages would be a good idea. The idea stemmed from one of my fantasy thoughts... When she gets round to semi-retirement wouldn't it be a great to have a boat in the Midlands that she could use as a "crash pad" rather than her flat. It could be used for holidays and weekends when we're not in Norfolk. It would probably be no more expensive to maintain than her rented flat and would certainly offer a lot more scope for fun.

Narrowboat Eliza Jean on sale through ABNBEliza Jean was one of the boats that we looked over at Andy Burnett's Crick Wharf.
There was much to like about the boat. The huge paintings of a kingfisher on one side and heron on the
other wouldn't be to everyone's taste and her fixed saloon furniture was not to mine

Well, that was the theory! I'm sure there are lots of practical arguments against it, but somehow it seemed worth going to see roughly how much an acceptable second hand boat would cost these days. I'm twelve or more years out of date and Diana's experience of the purchase price something that could be used as a crash pad is of great plastic things on Windermere, not a narrowboat.

We used my Sat Nav to direct us to Whilton Marina. Big mistake! We ended up crossing the canal and heading straight for the centre of Northampton. It turned out that according to my my Sat Nav the post code NN11 2NH does not exist, so it decided to send us to NN1 1NH instead. After that I set it to go to Whilton and we worked out the correct destination for ourselves.

Whilton MarinaThe view of Whilton marina from outside the sales office
There are often 30 to 40 boats available to view

For the casual boat browser Whilton Marina is a good place to start. There are always a large number of boats present and you are just handed the keys and invited to wander. However, there is a downside. In my experience, the boats at Whilton are often ill-prepared for sale and rather run down.

One example that we chose to look over was, as many narrowboats are, lined with plywood panels with a fine straight-grained veneer. An earlier owner had obviously fitted quite a number of objects, pictures, hooks, and the rest of the paraphernalia of boating life, to these panels. Whether that owner had removed them before sale or not, one could not say, but a more recent owner had fitted a new set of objects to the same panels. This they had done, and in their turn removed them.

By the time we visited the boat it had multiple screw holes on just about every panel throughout the boat. The position of the various holes suggested that the second owner had done nothing to disguise or cover the holes created by the earlier owner and had happily lived with the boat with holes all over the place. Then with no consideration for what the boat would look like to a new owner when they came to sell, they removed their belongings. With the second set of belongings removed, every cabin was left with walls that looked like the top of a pepper pot.

To make that boat look good, would require a complete re-lining. That wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing if the boat had been priced to reflect the work needed, but as we found out later, it wasn't. But why did the owner do it? No matter how valuable the objects removed had been, it's hard to believe that they didn't devalue the boat by several times more than their value by stripping them out.

Having seen over about four boats we'd had enough. There was nothing inspiring there. The visit only reinforced my feeling than Whilton is a depressing place containing only unloved boats. You would almost think it's a deliberate strategy of the management to keep the second hand boats there looking tatty, so you feel more encouraged to splash out on one of the new craft they have for sale.

We moved on. Our target was Andy Burnett's Narrowboat Brokerage, though it's been known as "ABNB" for as long as I've known the place and certainly since Andy sold the business to Paul and Lesley Mudie in 2004. Moving on turned into another Sat Nav disaster. This time we ended up surrounded by fields and miles from anywhere. Once again I had to enter the village name and hope that I'd be able to work out where to go from there.

The boat details that you get issued by Whilton are brief and often inaccurate. They seem to rely on information supplied by the vendor on a simple form and the marina appears to do little to confirm the accuracy of the information. The internal layout plans are also crude. I suppose that this matters little at Whilton, since it's a case of "what you see is what you get" and the brochures are no more than a crude aide memoire for when, once home, you discuss the boats you've seen at the marina.

ABNB works on utterly different principles to Whilton. You are very lucky, if you visit ABNB's Crick Wharf unannounced, and find that the boat you are interested in is still available. Even if at the Wharf, you won't be allowed on the boat if a deposit has been taken and should the boat still be available you will not be given the keys. Your viewing will be accompanied by one of the ABNB team.

However, what really sets the two companies apart is that ABNB's main business is selling boats from their home moorings. If you are going to travel maybe hundreds of miles to see a single boat, and then travel another hundred to see a second, you want to know that the trip is likely to be worthwhile. This is achieved through an incredibly detailed and highly accurate set of boat details. About the only criticism of them is that their contents are arranged in somewhat idiosyncratic fashion. It takes a while to familiarise yourself with their layout.

There is, I suppose, the fear that some foolish owner has asked Paul not to include some less than flattering detail about the boat. I say foolish because it wastes both the vendor's and purchaser's time if the boat is not as described, and failure to refer to things that may not be obvious from photographs, such as a non-working central heating system, numbers and condition of anodes, when the boat was last lifted from the water or whether the paintwork has lost its gloss or is in less than sound condition.

Diana and I arrived quite late at the Wharf and the boat that I had most hoped to view had had a deposit taken. We did view one other that was of interest and, because we said that, at this point, we were only checking on the quality we might expect for a given price, we were encouraged to look at a new boat they were selling, although it was beyond the kind of budget that I had in mind.

I have strong views on the features that I look for in a boat, but those are almost entirely founded on my past plans for buying a boat - for permanent live-aboard cruising. While Diana and I have exchanged a sentence or two on the possibility of long term cruising, I think that she thinks that perhaps my priorities should change as my circumstances are now rather different. I guess it's something we need to talk about some more.