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When I mentioned to a group of local people that my brother and I went sailing before either of us could afford a car, there was a gasp of surprise. Yachting, in the popular mind, is only for the rich. Yet it wasn’t so. The sloop we acquired, built of plywood, was only 18 feet long; but she still slept three – and occasionally four if we lifted certain boards and propped them on a boathook. She took us everywhere between Belgium and the Channel Isles, in a tradition that served again later - on the canals.
When I bought Arthur from Michael Streat in 1970, there may have been more space, but the approach was similar. The Arthur, once the trading barge Mersey from the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, had been adapted by Michael for a holiday. Bricks acted as ballast. Above them: a floor of builder’s planks. Above that, a saloon constructed in three weeks by a trainee carpenter at Michael’s Braunston Yard, using caravan windows. There were four bunks there, and a cooking space. For water you worked a hand pump connected to a tank holding 20 gallons. If it was hot water you were after you put the kettle on.
There was the old boatman’s cabin forward, with two more bunks and a stove. The other portion of the hold was simply decked over. You crawled beneath this to reach the Elsan, or onward towards the (second-hand) engine. The hull was unlined, and scaling. Patent paint kept the rust at bay.
I paid Michael £900 – the price, then, of an unremarkable car. Before crossing the Channel, I welded up a frame out of scaffold poles, to support an awning over the tiller. Then friends came to join at pre-arranged places in France; later in Germany and the Netherlands. The joining could have been the tricky part, France having few public phones, so the arrangements were made beforehand. Based upon those sailing trips, for which if we’d reached the boat by car, then had to retrieve it, we would never have gone anywhere, folk traveled out by train.
All on board paid equal sums for food and drink, plus a fiver each towards wear and tear. In the second year, after I sold half the boat back to Michael, we raised the fee to £10 and, guiltily, made a small profit.
There were many lessons. A rugged boat is better than a delicate one, not least when clonking into some rough-at-the-edges harbour on the Rhine. Shared ownership was less than half as stressful than being on one’s own, as each of us thought the other was doing the worrying. On the downside covering the structure in roofing felt had not been such a good idea, as it soaked up heat. More hatches for ventilation would have been handy – France in summer can be sweltering. From the saloon we could only see out when standing (though there are few vessels otherwise, even today). But the hull was tough, the bollards well enough placed, which they had to be in all those locks. And, against rain or sun, the awning was invaluable. By taking it down – a halfway stage between morris dancing and tossing the caber – we were able to penetrate central Amsterdam.
I sometimes wonder if there is a market for a similar boat, a shell into which people could introduce their own structure (with beds from Ikea, perhaps?). Leeds & Liverpool barges might be pricy nowadays, but a newly-built craft, say 13 feet in beam, on the simplest of lines, could, at basic expense, provide the kind of experience we had. And the whale of a time that was.
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Hotel barge Luciole
Cruising since 1976
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