Monday, 22 August 2011

How it all started

Nine months ago I knew nothing of narrowboats other than their derivation from the long, thin working boats designed to carry loads in the past through the narrow canals and locks of the UK network. Sure I had spent a day on one belonging to a work colleague, but that was back in the 70's. No one could fail to be impressed by the brightly coloured traditionally patterned paintwork many wore though.

Having recently sold the yacht I lived on for eleven years, seven of which in the Caribbean, I did know I wanted to move on to cruise the UK canal network. Discussing the idea with my partner Val met with approval as it did with my whole family.

The appeal other than that of repatriating myself to the UK, was a less stressful lifestyle coupled with seeing town and country from the backside so to speak. I guess I've always had an interest in industrial archeology, so cruising the canals seemed an excellent opportunity to discover more.

Since returning to the UK I have immersed myself in narrowboat culture jumping onto a very steep learning curve. First decision made in what boat to purchase was dismissing wide beam ones. As I wanted to cruise as many canals as possible in England and Wales, a narrowboat would be needed to pass through the many narrow seven foot wide locks. Next came boat length. I was in the fortunate position to finance a purchase of any length, but initially assumed 57 feet would be the lock limited length to meet my go anywhere needs.

On this premise I started looking at secondhand ones. Vendors would explain the attributes of trad style boats with Josher bows etc., but to be honest such explanations went right over my head even when shown examples. Same with trad v semi-trad v cruiser sterns. However after viewing maybe half a dozen and watching a few videos it dawned on me in an almost pre-ordained way that what I wanted was a traditional style narrowboat with boatmans cabin (BMC), trad stern and a big twin cylinder vintage diesel chugging away in its own engine room. Even the Fellows, Morton & Clayton red/green/yellow paint scheme seen on many old working boats was the only one that looked right.

I already had the AC and DC electrical requirements planned out given my background and previous experience in boat ownership. It then became apparent that a new build might best suit me. Various builders were contacted but I had been impressed from the outset by Steve Hudson's offerings. What really appealed was that he seemed to specialise in exactly what I wanted whilst providing everything from raw steel to sign writing in-house. The fact that he was highly recommended by several folk in the know convinced me he was the man.

I drew up scale plans using CorelDraw on my laptop. Fitting in all the compartments as well as engine room and BMC proved that space was a little tight, but by allowing the length to creep up to 60 feet I was able to shoe-horn everything in. I was assured that most 57 foot locks would accommodate a 60 foot boat at a pinch, so accepted that what limitations this imposed would be minimal.

Around about the same time I discovered Marine Power Services, a father and son business based near the south coast. Their excellent website displayed a range of vintage diesels for complete rebuild at what first seemed alarming prices. Browsing through the on-line videos of their past rebuilds the choice seemed to be between a Lister JP2 or Gardner 2LW. It was the huge external flywheel, individual cylinder heads and the whine of the gear driven timing on JP's that won the day. I met Martyn at his base near Poole and shortly after put down a deposit on a sad looking but rare Lister JP2M marine unit built in 1936. This to be fully rebuilt with electric start conversion to complement the original overhead chain driven hand start, and mated to a modern hydraulic PRM gearbox. I could have had the original Blackstone box, but almost total lack of spares and the fact that the cones were prone to jamming after continued time in gear made me plum for the easier life.

I guess it would have been easy to say I just wanted a totally traditional build and dismiss anything modern, but for the same reason the trad approach just grew on me so did the need for something practical and user friendly to live on, hence the electric start conversion for the JP.

The best part of a day spent with Steve Hudson revealed that he could build what I wanted although I would accept as far as possible his well proven design features. At first a £500 build slot deposit was placed on a 60 foot trad sailaway with completed BMC, my rebuilt JP fitted and running plus a working bathroom. As plans developed however I realised it would make more sense to have him build the whole boat although I wanted to be actively involved in the main AC and DC electrics.

First run of completely rebuilt Lister JP2M idling at 300 rpm. Note life support connections for water cooling and oil from external tank as this marine engine has a dry sump. Also the compression changeover handwheels facilitating cold start on the first diesels Lister made. Oil pressure at correct 20 psi although still cool.

My build slot was initially booked to start early April but this eventually slipped and the first steel was laid down early May. Meanwhile the engine rebuild started at the beginning of the year, was progressing nicely. So it was on Monday 9th May I took the train to Steve Hudson's boatyard in Tamworth to meet him for the second time, with the rebuilt Lister seen for the first time when delivered to him the same day. In Steve's steelwork shed the chosen 15mm baseplate was being welded up, so with a feeling of euphoria I saw the intensive planning made in the preceding months finally turning into something tangible.

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