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Friday, 23 May 2014

Getting Afloat - Part 9

Peter Underwood looks what turns ordinary people into boaters
And now for the extras – only some of them optional.

Licences, insurance, breakdowns, mooring fees, maintenance they are all part of the cost of running a boat. Here's what it will all cost you to own a boat as well as a look at the equipment you really need – as opposed to what you might like to have – and the cost of key items. 

We'll also suggest how to order your priority buys and how to get the best bargains as well as looking at buying online versus buying in a chandlers.

Everyone wants to dip into your wallet!

COSTS on the waterways usually vary with the size of your vessel and many are unavoidable, but you need to know how much a boat is going to drain out of your wallet each year.

To make life simple I have based all the costs quoted on a second-hand, 60ft, steel narrowboat, in reasonably good condition, moored in a Midlands marina, used for leisure and worth around £45,000. If the vessel you are thinking about is different you will need to check the costs out for yourself. You will find marina charges and licences usually vary on size, whilst insurers are more likely to look at location and value.

In many ways the obligatory licence or registration of your boat for the waters on which you plan to use it is fairly straightforward. Most inland waterways in this country are operated either by the Canal and River Trust (formerly British Waterways) or the Environment Agency. Hopes that the two would be merged in the next couple of years have now been abandoned – although it remains an ambition.

The Trust offers two types of licences for private boats, the one most people buy is the Canal and River licence which covers all the canals plus the CRT rivers, the Severn, Trent and Yorkshire Ouse. That will cost our hypothetical boat owner £925.97 next year after several years of price rises well above inflation, although there is a promise to limit rises to the Consumer Prices Index in the coming years. 

The second type is a Rivers Only licence which drops the cost to £555.58 for our boat but you are limited to using it on the CRT rivers. This option is mostly used in London by boats moored on the River Lea who then buy a top-up licence when they want to use the canals.

The Environment Agency charges according to which of their river systems you are moored upon. Our boat would pay £627.12 to use the Thames and £825.26 to cruise the Anglian waterways.

Boaters who look to travel extensively across the UK system will often opt to buy a Gold licence that gives access to the waters of both organisations. This costs £1,234, so it's good value if you are a long distance cruiser.

There are, small scale bodies who control parts of the system. The Bridgewater Canal remains separate and has it's own fees and parts of the River Cam are locally controlled with some expensive and slightly odd charges, especially for visitors. You can even moor in the Fens, on the waters controlled by the Middle Level Commissioners around March which link the River Nene with the Great Ouse, and not pay a registration fee or a licence. The downside is that the Fen drains are not the most scenic part of the world and moorings are very limited. You will, of course, have to buy a licence as soon as you leave the drains.

Insurance is also obligatory in the sense that most navigation authorities won't sell you a licence without it. Comprehensive insurance will give you the cover you need and insurers are somewhat coy about quoting on hypothetical boats. Simone Spinks Group Communications Manager for Towergate Insurance, told me: “It’s hard to quote an exact figure as there are so many variables, but, as a very roughballpark figure; cover for fire, theft, accidental damage, sinking, storm and flood, Legal Protection and £3,000,000 third party cover, there would be a range between £195 for someone new to boating and £150 for someone who has boating experience and 5 years no claims bonus.

“For a top tier policy it includes all of the above plus protected no claims discount and an element of recovery and rescue if you break down, the range would be between £250 for a new boater and £200 if 5 years no claims bonus had been earned.”

Like cars, even the best boats are known to break down and there is another form of insurance that may appeal if you are a newcomer to boating with little mechanical expertise. River Canal Rescue provides a form of breakdown insurance that costs £155 a year for the silver level of cover for which you get a call-out service and cover of up to £1,000 on the cost and the labour in fitting certain new parts.

If you have enough experience to spot the likely cause of a problem there are plenty of experienced engineers at boatyards and even on boats around the system. Expect to pay around £60 for a call-out, which may include the first hour's work. Then hourly rates are usually around £40-50 an hour, more in the South-East.

The sums are easy, you just have to make a judgement about how likely your boat is to break down, and how often.

The other big cost is mooring your boat and it is fair to say a lot of boaters are finding this the biggest drain on their resources, especially in the posh marinas that have been springing up around the system in recent years.

Mooring our boat at ABC's Alvechurch marina on the Birmingham and Worcester canal next year would cost £2,760 if paid in advance. At Mercia marina on the Trent and Mersey the same length of boat costs £2,600 a year.

In the BWML marinas, owned by CRT, prices vary according to locality. Mooring our hypothetical boat at Sawley on a non-residential mooring will cost £2,700 but at their Packet Boat marina in West London it rises to £3,888.

Unless you have bought a traditional working boat, Buckby cans 
and mops are certainly optional extras.
Those sort of costs are putting many boaters off and I met several holiday boat owners this year who only pay to moor in the winter months and move their vessel between towpath moorings in the summer.  That is a cost saving measure only made possible because most marinas have spare berths and it may well be significant that one marina near Stafford is offering a year's mooring for any length of boat for under £1,000.

There are also owners of holiday boats who appear to think a mooring is unnecessary, even though the CRT rules say that if you don't have a home mooring you must declare that you are a continuous cruiser. I have met London-based boat owners who leave their boats on 14-day visitor moorings but travel out of the city to move them a few more miles every fortnight.

CRT are currently putting in place controversial new mooring limitations and fines (they call them overstaying charges) in the South East and they may make life more difficult for those trying to economise on marina charges.

Personally, I would be looking to make a deal with strapped marina owners, although you won't get much change out of those in popular spots who can still charge what the market will bear.

Without any of the running costs of the boat itself, our 60ft pride and joy is already costing us just under £4,000 a year in recurring fees for licence, mooring and insurance.

Maintaining your investment
Once you have spent tens of thousands of pounds it would be short-sighted if you didn't make every effort to keep your boat in tip-top condition (although a surprising number don't) and that means a regular service, every 100 engine hours or so and at least once a year. The cost of a service depends on who you listen to with marinas quoting any thing between £70 and £200 for a normal service on a normal engine – so shop around but make sure the service includes checking items such as the engine mountings, hose clips and other bits likely to work loose or wear.

Some will be able to change oil and filters themselves which reduces costs to consumables, around £40-50 at retail prices.

Bear in mind that the more you travel the more you need to service your engine and it could be a twice a year job if you are boating for long periods.

The outside of the boat needs some TLC and regular washing costs nothing but will keep that paintwork looking good for longer. Eventually, of course, it will get tired and a full repaint of our 60ft boat could easily eat up anything between £5,000 and £10,000. Repaint once every ten years and that adds £500 to £1,000 a year to running costs.

Every couple of years you need to have the boat out of the water and the bottom re-coated with blacking. On our boat budget for around £600 plus a fee for craning it out or using a dry-dock and probably another £150 or so for new anodes. Probably not a lot of change out of another £1,000.

Then there is the major consumable – diesel. The average engine uses around a litre an hour. As a holiday boater the Inland Revenue expect you to declare a 60 per cent propulsion (paid for at the full VAT rate and 40 per cent domestic (paid for at the reduced rate). On current cheapest prices this would mean 100 litres of diesel costing around £120, although it could be as high as £`150 in some boatyards.

A week of cruising for eight hours a day will use around 50 litres or, say £75. Use your boat for ten weeks a year, including weekends and that is £750 in diesel costs.

 Some extras are certainly a matter of taste, but for some people
a floating hutch on a small butty is an essential extra.

Bits and pieces
Owning a boat is all very well but it is difficult to use it without certain other pieces of kit. If you are buying second-hand try to ensure that the previous owner is including in the sale key items like mooring lines, mooring pins, chains and hooks, long and short shafts and a gangplank. You do sometimes find such things removed.

A quick online checks shows prices vary considerably but a set of three lines, bow, stern and centre, along with two mooring pins and two chains or hooks, a long and a short shaft and a gangplank will set you back over £200 and these are things you probably shouldn't go boating without.

A set of three lines, bow, stern and centre, along with two mooring pins
and two chains or hooks, a long and a short shaft and a gangplank will set you back over £200.

I'll probably get wrong for saying life jackets are optional and we never wear them on the canals. However, we do own life jackets, at around £80-90 each and use them on rivers. Life rings can be bought for around the £25.

On rivers, of course, you also need an anchor, another £70 or so plus chain and rope.
The other item I would regard as essential is a set of guides for the waterways you are travelling. Say a set of five Pearsons or three Nicholsons to begin with, another £50 or so.

That makes around £4-500 if you buy new. You can save a bit online and even more if you can pick up second hand equipment on sites like E-bay – as long as you make sure the things you buy are actually fit for use.

Total costs
Put it all together and over a ten year period you may end up paying out £5,000 to £6,000 a year on top of your original investment.

I suspect only those boat owners to whom money is no object will actually spend all that. Most of us find ways to save money, learning how to do our own service and breakdowns, is a good start, keeping the paintwork washed and polished helps it last much longer and you might well be tempted to black the hull every three years rather than two.

Buying second-hand helps keep prices down, but do be careful of quality online.
You could probably half that figure by doing much of the work yourself and, of course, a major expense like a repaint can be put off until you can't look at your boat with pride any longer.

However, if you begin boat ownership by realising that the price of the boat is just the start, then it won't all come as a nasty shock later.

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