Boat Choice

Having decided to buy a boat there were several questions I had to ask myself;

  • Was I going to live in it?
  • Where did I want to sail?
  • How big did it need to be?
  • Did I have sufficient boating experience?

The answers to these questions and others changed as my knowledge grew. I knew I ultimately wanted a Dutch Barge but considered this a huge step especially as I’d never been on one other than at a boat show. My initial plan was to buy a narrowboat and explore the canal network and gain experience as a solo boater.

Much of my inspiration, training and knowledge came from our good friend Matt. Matt and his family have owned narrowboats for many years. He’s a solo continuous cruiser on his fine narrowboat Kathleen May, loves his lifestyle and makes it all look so easy.


I began by considering the various narrowboat styles and interior layouts. I look at a variety of builders, secondhand boats and talked to owners. Matt give me much invaluable training and advice particularly on single handed operations which can be very exciting climbing up steep slimy ladders in huge locks. I also began looking at the RYA helmsman’s course. It was at this point that I found a sailing school on the Thames that had just purchased a Dutch Barge from France which they’d convert as a floating classroom and trainer. The school at Bisham Abbey held Dutch Barge experience days which I signed up for this. It’s been many years since I was actually on the Thames. The last time was during a drunken raft race at the RAF rowing club at Medmenham in 1985 so my knowledge of the river was limited.

The Bisham Abbey sailing school is located in the grounds of Bisham Abbey a National Sports Centre and 2 miles from the town of Marlow (Non tidal). The area is stunning. The day course was run by Roy May the school’s founder aboard their boat Le Coq!!

Roy was great, very patient and totally professional. Le Coq is 56′ long and a dream to handle. We spent the day going up and down the river, through locks, mooring on the banks, chatting about the river and handling such a hefty craft. By the end of the day I had decided to come back and complete the 2 day Helmsman’s course on Le Coq. There is no legal requirement to attend any course or take any test to handle a boat. Many boaters just buy a craft and learn on the go!!

The helmsman’s course  under Roy’s watchful guidance gave me much more opportunity to learn more handling skills. On the second day I was the only student so Roy taught me to handle the boat single handed including through the locks to see how it felt. By the end of the course I felt quite confident that I could handle a Dutch Barge on this part of the river. This was backed up by Roy’s assessment of my capability. I found handling a barge is surprisingly easier than a narrowboat. Being much higher you have good visibility and looping ropes around bollards in the locks is much easier. As with anything the slower you go the easier it is. What’s the rush? I was and probably always will be little wary or other smaller boaters especially canoes and rowers who could easily get damaged if I rushed things.

A few weeks after the course I was back at Bisham Abbey this time attending the Dutch Barge Associations (DBA) rally. Over 20 barges of all shapes and sizes moored up for the weekend. Several talks took place from experienced members and guests giving incredibly useful information to potential new owners. The highlight however was visiting the boats and talking to the owners. Everyone was welcoming, proud of their boats and highly enthusiastic about life aboard. Several people questioned my logic in considering starting on a narrowboat as they are as I’d discovered very different craft. My plan was quickly changing.

Ange and I had already done a considerable amount of research into boat builders which helped. There are many fine boats available second hand particularly if you’re prepared to go abroad. Dutch Barges and narrowboats are not like cars, they hold their value quite well if the steel hull is looked after. Although I could save money buying a used craft, the saving was not great and for me made a new build more attractive. It meant I could have the boat I wanted from the start and not adapted or modified. Also as my boating knowledge and experience at the time was low I prefered buying from a reputable builder rather.

Unlike narrowboats there’s only a handful of companies making Dutch Barges in the UK. Some of those although UK based have boats built in eastern Europe. There’s not a problem with this but difficult to follow the boat through the build. Most only make one or two Barges a year. I narrowed my choice down and eventually chose Piper Boats. Pipers specialise in Dutch Barges and easily make more than any other UK builder. This has the advantage that each boat improves as they learn from previous craft as they maintain close contact with their customers.

After initial talks with Pipers whilst at Bisham attending the rally they put me in contact with the owners of Happy Chance a boat just launched and the size I wanted. I contacted Claire and Jeremy the owners who were very welcoming giving me their experience in the purchase, design and even allowed me to steer their lovely barge. Claire and Jeremy had clearly put a lot of thought into the internal layout and design it very much suited the sort of craft I was looking for.

The following week I went back and signed a contract for a Dutch Barge with Piper Boats.