Peter Underwood looks what turns ordinary people into boaters
What are the options for today's boat buyer? Are you a family boater or a solo boater, a summer boater or an all-year boater, a river person or a canal fan? All those questions and more you should be asking yourself before buying that first vessel. We look at the pros and cons of types of vessels and how they suit different needs .
When the boating bug bites it spurs you into swift action – but try to resist, at least to the extent that you can think carefully about what you really want from boating.
One thing that never ceases to surprise me is the number of boat owners we meet on our travels who have bought a narrowboat without even taking a holiday on one before. It's a bit like buying a car without taking a test drive – and potentially as big a mistake.
You can hire a boat for a few hundred pounds out of the main holiday season and that is probably the only way of being sure that boating is really something on which you want to spend thousands of pounds and lots of your free time.
Read the Canal and River Trust website and you will find it emphasising, with a heavy hand, the 'responsibilities' of boat ownership, but I would rather talk about the enthusiasm, the pleasure and the simple enjoyment it promises, beyond the tedious business of officialdom and the finger-wagging about rules.
In fact, don't approach owning a boat from the point of view of the vessel itself, start with you, your family and what you want out of a boating life. At the end of the day a boat is a means to an end – a better lifestyle for you and the people you love.
When you dream of being a boater, how do you see yourself? Are you moored out in the countryside, under leafy trees, watching the sun go down with a glass of wine? Would you be equally happy in the same spot with the fire lit, rain lashing down outside and a glass of wine?
You may notice a recurring theme there, but the serious point is that boating in the UK is an all-weather sport and rarely attracts sun-addicts, so any of those in your family are in for disappointment.
Do you want to explore the waterways, taking your boat to all the hidden places; whether they are beside the crumbling mills of the industrial North, through the rolling hills of the Welsh borders or behind the back gardens and on the abandoned docks and wharves of our modern cities?
Perhaps you just want to spend weekends and holidays in a part of the country you have grown to love and have many of the comforts of home whilst being able to slow down to a pace of life only available on our waterways?
Can you switch from your everyday working life, where things have to be done quickly, to deadlines and even leisure is often grabbed and consumed as if it might evaporate unless swiftly seized, to a life where nothing happens quickly and the equivalent of a 20 minute road journey can take a whole day?
Once you have answered those sort of questions about what you and your family want from boating you can start to think about what sort of boat fits the bill. Don't think about a new boat or an older vessel – just about the type of boat that will suit you.
If you are the rushing about sort you may be better looking at sea-going, or at least river-going, vessels where you can, within limits, pile on the power and burn diesel to your hearts' content.
If peace, slowing down, and an outdoor, physical way of life sound more attractive, then the inland waterways may be for you.
Travelling along our canals in Summer can be a different experience from other times of the year.
If you are the exploring type then the parameters almost set themselves. In order to explore all corners of the system you need a narrowboat, nothing wider than seven feet and nothing longer than 60 feet to fit in all the locks across the system. It also needs to have an engine big enough to cope with the flows on the rivers and even the tides of the Ribble estuary if you want to venture onto the Lancaster canal.
If you are content to base your boat in a smaller area and won't want to explore further afield then you can buy something wider or even longer. Check the minimum lock lengths and widths, as well as the air draft under bridges on your chosen waterways and that will dictate the external dimensions of your boat.
Do you want a full length boat or a short one which offers easier handling and mooring?
Whether you and your family are summer boaters or all-year boaters, along with you budget, will decide whether you buy a 'yoghurt pot,' as GRP vessels are disparagingly described by steel boat owners, or one of those painted steel boxes regarded with some disdain by the owners of expensive, upmarket GRP gin palaces on the Thames.
One of the funniest moments of a visit to London for me was watching a collection of half a million pound gin palaces gather in the lock of St Katherine's dock by Tower Bridge to come out on the Thames. As they left a sea-battered Greenpeace boat, with its experienced deep-sea crew has waiting to enter and suddenly even the super-confident Thames motor yachts were deferring to a different class of boater.
There is a hierarchy of boats but the joyful thing is that each boat owner usually believes his or her class of boat to be the superior choice – so that's all right then!
Will it be steel or a lively little GRP runabout and does river or canal cruising suit best?
GRP cruisers tend to be cheaper and to give you more space for your money but they are less comfortable in bad weather and more difficult to keep warm. We started boating with a 32ft Viking, designed to fit narrow canals, even though we were based on the Yorkshire Ouse.
We loved it, it fitted our budget at the time and it enabled us to begin exploring the waterways of the North.
Later our family needs (and our budget) changed and we had a steel narrowboat built, but the exploration continued.
Another reason to look at the decision to buy a boat from a personal viewpoint rather than starting with the boat and trying to fit your family around it is finance.
Buying a boat will cost thousands and perhaps tens of thousands of pounds. If it is to become a comfortable part of your lifestyle you have to be comfortable with spending that amount of money.
That means you either have that sort of amount to hand and can spend it without an impact on your family budget or that you have an impeccable credit record, a really helpful bank and can easily meet to credit repayments.
Even though prices are currently at an attractive low point – at least from the point of view of buyers – loans and boat mortgages now have a distinct resemblance to hens' teeth and it is a difficult time for families to join the hobby.
Only you can answer the financial questions, but bear in mind that you cannot see a boat as an investment, despite what the brokers and boat builders may claim. The chances are that you will sell it for less than you bought it and, although it doesn't depreciate as quickly as the family car it is unlikely to gain in value.
The good thing is that there is a sort of sliding scale. You may not be able to afford a new boat with all the things you need but you can pay the same money for an older boat with those facilities already in situ. In this sense boats are not like cars as they do not deteriorate at the same rate and you can bring them back to an improved look and value by spending money on repainting or refitting the interior.
You must decide whether the depreciation, added to the running costs of several thousand pounds a year is good value for the weekend breaks and longer holidays you will enjoy.
While the type and dimensions of your boat are decided by budget and your preferred locations just how simple or complicated it needs to be depends on the requirements of you and your family.
At one extreme, you may be thrilled by the idea of living in the back cabin of an old working narrowboat with just a small stove for cooking, a bowl of water to wash yourselves and the gentle odour of diesel and oil from the adjacent engine-room. If that's a thrilling prospect and you have the skills and/or money to keep such a boat afloat then you can become one of the dedicated owners of historic boats, using your holidays to visit boat gatherings and festivals around the system.
At the other, your modern family may demand enough power to keep an army of gadgets going, twice daily showers all round and a kitchen able to produce gourmet meals. You may need to be looking at the sort of boat normally acquired by those planning to live aboard all year round.
Most of us will be somewhere between but it is advisable to explore the expectations of all the family – if only to give them a reality check.
Almost every boat bought is a compromise, with the possible exception of those specified and designed from scratch with an open-ended budget.
Most of the time it is a compromise between hope and budget but sometimes the boat itself demands that you compromise.
We had a 42ft holiday boat built for us, fairly standard design, slightly oversized engine, and were delighted with it. After just over a year we sold it to buy a second-hand 42ft boat that had simply captured our imagination. The upstart that intruded on our boating lives was a canal anomaly designed and built at Wincham Wharf on the Trent and Mersey with a solid steel cabin with windows and an indoor steering position taking up a third of the length at the stern, and yet able to pass under the lowest bridges on the system. It is still in use as a live-aboard boat on the Grand Union.
So be warned, however good your list of requirements becomes you will always face the risk of seeing a boat that forces you to rethink your priorities and find the money to acquire a vessel that just captures your imagination.
However, you do need that list of what your want from a boat clearly in your mind – or even in writing – before you set out to see what's on offer.
Wide or narrow depends on location and where you aim to take your vessel.
To go back to that car analogy, boat buying is very much a matter of buyer beware. If you are buying privately make sure the person who is selling has clear title to the boat, just as you would a car, and there is no finance outstanding which means it is really owned by the bank or lender.
Most boats are sold by brokers and they see themselves as simply facilitating the sale. Like estate agents they won't take responsibility for any fault which may subsequently be discovered. In fact, many brokers won't even ensure a boat is clean and tidy before putting it on sale.
Once you sign on the dotted line and cast-off the lines you have to deal with the consequences of any breakdown of the engine or other equipment as the boat is sold as seen.
In fact it is more difficult than buying a car or a house. A boat doesn't have registration documents, there is no Land Registry for boats and even after you have had a survey, costing around £300 or so (plus a fee for taking the boat out of the water), carried out you will only really get a list of potential problems.
Boat Safety Certificates, should come with most boats but think of them as MOTs and about as reliable as indicator of the boat's value. If the boat is new or has been built within the last couple of years it may not have a Boat Safety Certificate but a document called a 'Declaration of Conformity'. This means the boat has been built to the standards in the European Recreational Craft Directive and the Declaration of Conformity can be used in the same way as a Boat Safety Certificate.
The Recreational Craft Directive means that boats sold after June 1998 should have documents from the original builder of all relevant data. Make sure you get a bill of sale and collect all documentation available before handing over the cash.
Your search for the right boat could be a long one and the simplest way of starting is to use the many adverts in the boating press to check what's on offer and make a short-list of those you want to explore further.
There are also online boat sales sites and personal advertisements in magazines like Towpath Talk from boat owners wanting cut out the brokers. In the end there is no substitute for getting on board and having a good poke around as well as a test run if the boat is a serious contender.
When you get out there in the boat yards and marinas, looking for the boat that best fits your and your family, just keep comparing your wish list with the reality.
The chances are you will have to compromise but don't forget that this is a buyer's market so the boat you don't think you can afford could suddenly come into reach if you make an offer that fits your budget.