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Jackie and Jeff's Thomas 50 barge is currently under construction to a sailaway level. Over the next few months, the build progress, then the fit out by Jackie and Jeff at Port Medway Marina in Kent will be depicted here. Delivery update 3-Jul-07
We both enjoy life afloat and greatly enjoy short excursions along the coast and exploring the local rivers of Essex, Kent and Suffolk. In addition to this, we want to be able to enjoy the more tranquil pleasures of the inland waterways of both Britain and the rest of Europe.
In common with many people, Jackie and I caught the barging bug following a number of happy years messing about in sailing boats. We started with an elderly Westerly Windrush, which is a 25-foot sailing boat of the 60’s era and quickly moved on to an LM27 motor sailor that we intend to keep until the new barge is ready to use. Both boats were, and are based on the East coast near Maldon in Essex.
Our LM27, although ‘TARDIS’ like inside and a very comfortable and reassuring sailing boat, does have a mast which won’t eveather more with increasing degrees of discomfort, but we want to be able to live aboard with all of the conveniences of home for months at a time and possibly permanently. It is an acknowledged fact that every boat is a compromise and our LM has suited us perfectly for the last 8 or 9 years, but the new boat would have to fulfil very different criteria.
Having spent much time thinking about the use to which we wanted to put our new boat, we concluded that certain characteristics would be essential to us. Seaworthiness was of paramount importance: we have had so much fun doing coastal passages and fully expect to cross the channel at some point. Many rivers and canals can only be accessed from the sea, there being no suitable inland navigable connection routs. It would be a shame to find ourselves excluded from such waterways because of a lack of sea keeping ability. Most barges are constructed to RCD category C which is the minimum standard for a safe passage in calm conditions, but we know from first hand experience how quickly and unpredictably the weather can change and we decided very early on that our new boat must be designed to RCD cat. B. This category is reserved for craft that are capable of being at sea in winds of up to force 8 and coping with seas of up to 4m in height.
Under water profile
Having decided that the additional safety of a Cat B boat would be essential, it made sense to look for an under water profile that would give the most comfortable ride possible. Original barges are mostly flat bottomed and as such roll horribly in any sort of a seaway. Research implies that this is because their buoyancy extends right to the extreme sides of the vessel and as a wave passes underneath, it firstly lifts up one edge sharply, and as it passes under the boat to the other side, it drops that edge and lifts up the other one. The resulting movement is one of violent rolling, which is both extremely uncomfortable and very unnerving. We needed a ‘V’ profile to our hull, which may not solve the problem entirely, but certainly would help to give a smoother ride in rough sea conditions and as a bonus, the sweeter profile should also improve fuel economy.
Once away from the sea and into the calmer waters of the rivers and canals, the requirements change somewhat. The deep keels of sailing boats, which are so useful in rough waters, are a menace in shallow, inland waterways. Not only can a shallow boat venture up rivers that would be inaccessible to a deep boat, but also equally importantly they can get nearer to the bank when mooring. Once again the ‘V’ shape underwater profile will be able to moor right up close to a shallow bank side, whereas a flat bottom boat of the same draft may end up several feet away making the whole process of getting ashore much more hazardous.
The easiest decision to make was concerning the material from which the craft should be constructed. We had spent years living with fibreglass hulls and were aware of their good and bad points, but we did know for sure that the rough and tumble of negotiating locks and the associated minor collisions was not an environment to which the material was well suited. Steel is recognised by pretty much all as being the best choice, because it is very strong, and in extreme circumstances is more likely to deform slightly than shatter, as would the plastic alternatives.
When it comes to owning a barge, size is important. We have already discussed draft (the depth that is needed to allow the boat to float) and for the reasons already mentioned, it is best to go for the shallowest draft possible. We had in mind to keep the draft of our vessel to less than 3 feet. As for length, there are several considerations, the first of which is cost of ownership. As the length increases, so too does the cost of purchase and the mooring costs, not to mention the running costs and the cost of ongoing maintenance. In addition, the larger and heavier the vessel, the more fuel it will consume in order to propel it.
Transport and craning costs also go up dramatically as vessels increase in size. For example, a 15m barge can be hauled out and put back using a travel hoist that is likely to cost around £140 each way and this applies for initial launching and for subsequent hull maintenance. Whereas a larger barge will need to be craned in, which may cost between £500 and £1000 and will need to be dry docked every few years, which in Essex or Kent is likely to cost £750 for one week .
Many insurance companies require a periodic ‘out of water’ inspection, and at least every 3 years, most hulls will need a fresh coat of paint and most importantly, new anodes to prevent cathodic corrosion of the steel. Also, when cruising, many marinas and pontoons, particularly those prime ones near picturesque French towns, are imposing size restrictions of 15m as a maximum, leaving larger craft to tie up to the bank side elsewhere without the benefit of water or electricity at their side and a long walk into town for provisions.
Jackie and I considered all of these factors and since we would be unlikely to have to accommodate more than 2 or 3 guests at any one time, we felt that a 15m barge would provide all of the luxury that we require.
Vessel height can be a major restriction to ones cruising ground, where often the lowest bridges guard the prettiest canals and rivers. It is generally the wheelhouse of a barge that gets in the way, which is why – like so many others – we would opt for a collapsible one. The only proviso that we have made, is that the structure should look substantial and as much like a fixed wheelhouse as possible. It would need to have a light, but well insulated roof and a forward slanting front window. Also, having sailed a boat with a wheelhouse for many years, we would insist on double glazed units, otherwise, on a chilly or damp day, the glass would instantly mist up and safe navigation would be impossible.
The width of the craft is more important in a way than the overall length, since it is this dimension that has the greatest affect on useable space. An extra foot of width will allow the use of domestic furniture and fittings as opposed to the normally less comfortable built in alternatives. It is worth viewing several boats of the same length but differing widths to fully appreciate the difference between say an 11 foot beam and a 13 foot beam. You will be astonished. It was our view, that since we would restrict ourselves to an overall length of 15m (50 feet), we would need to find a boat with a generous 4m (13 foot) beam to be able to enjoy the maximum possible feeling of space inside the cabin.
Original Dutch or new build?
By this point we had a fairly good idea of the kind of vessel that would suit our needs, but should we go for a converted original Dutch Barge with all of its character and history, or should we opt for a new build? Although it is difficult not to enjoy the lines of an original, the fact is, that they are mostly around 100 years old and in varying states of repair.
The hull is of prime concern, since its ongoing repair can be enormously expensive and unavoidable because regular insurance surveys are obligatory. Although a surveyor can be instructed to do a hull thickness report prior to purchase and he can be expected to take numerous readings from across the hull plates, he cannot test every inch. Thin areas can easily be missed resulting in unexpected perforation. Older iron barges are constructed from plates that are riveted together and these can fail causing leakage. You can find yourself having to use expensive dry docks and paying expert welders every 2 or 3 years to keep an original barge in good and safe order. Insurance companies may insist that plates thinner than 4mm or so, are doubled up in order for them to maintain cover.
The benefits of a new build were becoming obvious. We could specify a plate thickness that would be at least double that required by most insurance companies and by using modern epoxy tar coatings from new, we could protect its surface for ten years or more. In addition, finding good quality 15m original barges is not easy and more often than not they tend to be far too narrow for our requirements.
We would also have to put up with a flat bottom and make sure that she never experiences wind conditions exceeding a force 4, as finding an original barge certified to RCD category B would be impossible. The choice was made; we would commission a new build Dutch style barge and have it built to our own specification.
Choosing a design
Despite what the traditionalists will tell you, there are some attractive new build
barges out there, a number of them still being made in Holland. We started our search there, but found that dealing from such a distance was troublesome and also that the costs were very much higher than a barge built to a similar high standard in this country. After a considerable amount of research and huge amounts of advice from barge owners and steel fabricators, we came across a design by Nick Branson called a ‘Thomas 50’. It was brand new design and at that time none were available to view in a completed state. We did however locate the first of its kind under construction in a UK boat yard and hurried off to have a look.
The Thomas was indeed lovely: she had the straight stem of a Luxmotor, curving down to a shallow ‘V’ shaped hull, which, as it continued aft, swept round and upwards into a sumptuously curved counter stern, so typical of an original Dutch Barge. We were delighted and eager to inspect the interior. The headroom ranged from a very acceptable 6’4” to a massive 7’4” (before fit out) and the beam was a perfect 13 feet. The cabin roof was gently curved in the traditional way and the accommodation was divided by a well-proportioned wheelhouse, under which was housed the engine. We were very impressed and set about looking for a ship yard to build our new barge.
Choosing a builder
Fortunately for us, Ian Petchey had already done the groundwork and his list of barge fabricators provided an excellent starting point. We worked our way through the list by phone, in order to isolate those who were happy to work on the newly designed barge. Some seemed more cooperative than others and some were more eager to send photos of previous projects and to give prices. We ended up with a short list that just about mirrored Ian’s, together with a couple of others that we had discovered for ourselves. The next stage was to visit each yard in turn for a detailed discussion and examination of previous work and projects in hand. We are based in Kent, which is about as far as it is possible to get away from most of the steel boat builders, so we embarked upon a trip that was to take us East to Norfolk and North as far as Manchester and then back down the spine of the country all the way down to Bristol. We spoke to boat builders who were enthusiastic, grumpy, keen, disinterested, flexible and completely inflexible. The premises ranged from vast, immaculate, new structures to tumbledown barns where you could not find the floor for steel off-cuts and dust. The quality of welding was also an eye opener, with some platers failing to grind the edges of the plates correctly prior to welding and leaving very untidy seams at the surface.
We were looking for an established barge builder with a reputation for producing work of the highest quality. After all, the completed barge is only as good as the shell, no matter how good the cosmetic finish. The chosen boat yard would need to demonstrate a history of excellent boat building, particularly in the production of steel Replica Dutch Barges and wide beam craft and we wanted to see several examples of their work. It was also important that we get on well with the team, as there has to be much discussion during the course of the build and we wanted to be involved all of the way with the decision making. We were also looking for flexibility, since we wanted to make several modifications to the original design, which would make the barge seem more spacious and create a living area that was easier to use.
Price was also an important consideration, and one complicated by the need to relate the price to the build quality. Since the bottom fell out of the narrow boat market, many builders of average quality narrow boats have turned their attention to producing wide beams and barges to similar mediocre standards. For this reason, one must weigh up very carefully the trade off between quality and price. My best advice, should steel fabrication not be your area of expertise, is to take along with you a professional welder or marine surveyor to inspect the yards work.
After weeks of searching and miles of travelling and hours of chatting (and gallons of Tea) we eventually ended up exactly where we had started our search, at the very yard where we had seen the first ever Thomas barge. The owner showed an enormous pride in his work and insisted upon making us try to find the join between two plates on a finished new build Dutch style barge. Having failed to do so, we were marched around various projects that were at varying stages of completion and then we were reassured that our modifications were of no problem to him and his team. He assured us that he had built many Nick Branson designed boats over the years, including the ‘Katherine’ and the ‘Coaster’ one of which we were able to view in his yard. We spoke about prices and although not the cheapest, we were confident in his ability and knew that we would get exactly what we wanted
The yard had now been chosen and a few decisions had to be made before contracts could be signed. We were keen and capable of finishing the barge ourselves to a high standard, but there were many important jobs that were best left to the professionals, so we chose to have our barge completed to a ‘sail away’ specification
The first choice to be made was which engine? Every new barge seems to be given the most powerful engine possible. The result is an engine that is never worked hard, which can lead to glazing of the cylinders, difficulty in starting, poor performance and atrocious fuel economy. Normally, marinised lorry engines are used in barges, but these are designed to work at high and constantly changing revs. as the driver changes up and down through the gear ratios. Barges in fact share a lot more in common with tractors, neither uses a foot accelerator, but instead rely on hand throttles, because both have their output fixed for extended periods of time - tractors whilst ploughing and barges whilst cruising. They both also tend to operate at low revs. and in a fixed gear, but need to produce their full torque under these conditions for hours on end without damaging the engine. It is worth remembering that not so many years ago, 80-foot barges carrying 60-ton commercial loads would happily operate over vast distances with no more than a 55Hp Gardner diesel. Many designers and yards would think nothing of recommending an engine of well over double this power on a much smaller barge that will never be expected to carry any sort of load. We needed a naturally aspirated diesel with an output not exceeding 90Hp. John Deere are renowned in agriculture for building some of the worlds finest tractors and build such an engine. It produces its maximum torque at just 1400 rpm and would be happy to run continuously at 1000 – 1200 rpm to sustain canal cruising speeds with an approximate fuel consumption of about 1.5 litres per hour; this would be the engine for us.
Steering came next in the decision making process. The Thomas barge comes with a Schilling type rudder which enables it to continue to perform when hard over at an angle of 70 degrees either side of neutral. This is far more than is possible with a conventional flat plate rudder, which would stall at about 35 degrees.
The result of this additional angle is to allow one to push the stern of the barge out, almost at right angles to the way that the barge is pointing. This makes close quarters manoeuvring much easier, for example when coming alongside a pontoon or entering a marina.
With a Schilling type rudder at the stern and a bow thruster at the sharp end, it is possible to crab a boat sideways into a very tight gap and to get out again with no fuss at all. The only consideration is that this type of steering requires a non-standard hydraulic system and this would need to be included, along with an emergency override in the unlikely case of a hydraulic failure.
Design modifications – connecting corridor
The Thomas barge was designed with a 24 foot forward cabin and a 11 foot 4 inch aft cabin with a 6’ x 8’ wheelhouse through which one would have to pass to move between them. This would mean the constant climbing of steps both up and down and an unnecessary opening the back wall of the wheelhouse which would make fitting benches and a table much more difficult.
The solution to this would require a passageway to be cut through the side of the engine room and underneath the wheelhouse linking both cabins. The living space would instantly feel much larger, all of those steps would be avoided and there would be no need to nip through the wheelhouse in your ‘Jim Jams’ in order to use the loo in the night. Another advantage, is that a little of the heat produced by the oil stove in the forward cabin, would naturally find its way into the aft cabin without the need to operate central heating.
This was an idea that I first saw on Ian’s barge ‘Elessina’ and coincidentally, our chosen builder was, in fact, one of the first yards to include this modification into their new build barges.
Design modifications - wheelhouse
The wheelhouse is a very important area in a barge; no matter how wonderful the cabin may be, you will spend most of your time in the wheelhouse just enjoying the scenery, entertaining or having a meal or Tea break. We wanted just a little more room in ours, but without reducing the useful size of the aft cabin and this was how it would be achieved. We asked our builder to construct a 2 foot deep bench, not in front of the aft wheelhouse bulkhead, but into it. This cut out would be seen as a box protruding into the roof space of the aft cabin, under which would be housed the wardrobe which would still be full length and would totally hide the existence of the bench above. By doing this, the wheelhouse is effectively extended by 33% from 6 feet to a full 8 feet square, giving room to seat at least 7 people in comfort, and the ability – after drawing the curtains – to convert the benches to a massive, occasional double bed.
Design modifications – hull plates
The Branson design stipulates 6mm plate for the hull and despite being assured that a similar thickness was used during the war on battleships, we were determined to specify 8mm. Now this doesn’t seem much on paper, but when you see it, it is very thick (almost 1/3 of an inch in fact) and the Thomas has some very beautiful but demanding curves, which must be accommodated. The only way that the steel plate could be made to conform to the required shape was to weld on lugs and use four, 10 tonne winches to haul it into position before tacking it into place. The result was superb and well worth the effort, giving a stiffer barge with a lower centre of gravity and the insurance policy of some extra thickness for strength and durability.
We wanted to protect the steel plate with the very best finish possible and research amongst barge owners and friends at the time left us in no doubt that Epoxy Tar would give the most durable and longest lasting finish. Given sufficient thickness, this product is capable of providing total protection against corrosion for 15 years or more. We would get Rod to spray on about 90 litres of epoxy tar in four thick coats, which should give us nearly 1 mm of dry film thickness, which is three times that recommended by the manufacturer as the minimum. All other steelwork inside and out would be epoxy primed and undercoated before handover.
We would also ask Rod to fit three full-length rubbing bands on each side of the barge below the sheer line. The bottom and top ones would be solid ‘D’ section steel bar and the middle one would be a much larger 4 inch tube section which would be both very strong and add greatly to the barge’s overall appearance.
Weed hatch & Bow thruster
Above the propeller would sit a watertight weed hatch, as a precaution against the stern gear becoming fouled with rubbish picked up along the way. Whilst at the bow we would have a bow thruster tube fitted, in readiness for installation of the equipment prior to launch.
The provision of tanks was an area that deserved much thought. You can’t really have too much storage capacity, particularly if you intend to live aboard. Now the rules have changed, one needs separate fuel tanks for both Red and White diesel and a holding tank for Black water (from the toilet) and possibly in a few years time one for Grey water (from the sink and shower) not to mention one for fresh water. The Thomas comes with one 1300 litre and one 1700 litre tank built in under the floor. In addition to this, we specified 2 extra 450 litre (100 gallon) steel tanks which could be installed in the hull sides either side of the engine room and also a 800 litre welded polypropylene ‘black’ water tank, which would live near the bow. Between them they should hold enough fuel for a year and water for at least 3 weeks of unrestricted use.
Having a barge built to RCD Category B requires consideration to many aspects of construction, including the provision of escape hatches and the strength and water tightness of windows. We had always insisted that every window and hatch throughout the barge must be double-glazed, and also that they should be certified as conforming to Cat. B. There are many window manufacturers, but most of them started life supplying narrow boat windows, which require nothing more than Cat. D or C at best. Their aluminium profiles are rather flimsy and not deep enough to accommodate double-glazed sealed units with both skins consisting of 5mm toughened glass. But this was what we wanted and eventually we found a superb company called Technautic Marine Windows who agreed to supply what we wanted.
The final items specified, were included simply for our convenience and to save us quite a few hours labour. We wanted every steel surface down to floor level to be coated with a full 2 inches of PU foam for insulation. We did consider the alternatives, but having a continuous vapour proof insulating membrane in intimate contact with the steel that is guaranteed not to degrade cannot be improved upon. Clearly it is only as good as the job done by the operators and we will be using Webster’s who have an excellent reputation, and who’s work I have seen and know to be to a very high standard. Other alternatives cannot offer an unbroken vapour barrier, and once moisture gets behind a fabric or wool and condenses onto the steel, it is only a matter of time until corrosion appears and then, even wet or the dreaded dry rot could affect the battens and panelling if ventilation is not maintained to the highest standards.
Flooring and Battening
We also requested that a Marine ply floor should be in place. Also, tanalised wooden battens would be secured to all of the frames. This would make our job of cladding the barge’s interior much less time consuming and far easier.
It was at this stage in the process that contracts were drawn up and signed. We placed our deposit in the Autumn of 2005 and everything points to our barge being ready for delivery to us early in 2007.
As I write, it is November 2006 and the build is progressing nicely. Our builders have consistently impressed me with their standards of workmanship. The shell itself is every bit as good as we had been promised. The edge of each plate was ground to a chamfer before the weld was run in to the newly formed gap. Every weld line was meticulously ground back and linished prior to priming and painting, leaving an invisible seam.
The addition of the linking corridor between the forward and the aft cabin has resulted in a feeling of spaciousness far exceeding what would be expected from a 50-foot barge. The generous beam and interior height have also contributed to this feeling, along with the larger than might be expected wheelhouse.
The wheelhouse itself is craftsman built and very solidly constructed in Iroko, but is able to be collapsed if the need arises. Its curved and insulated roof and arch top double glazed windows look superb, as do the very substantially made anodised and powder coated windows and port holes throughout the barge.
Up at the bow, a thick steel reinforcing plate was welded to the foredeck to support the strain on the anchor windlass, which is capable of developing a pull of 1.5 tonnes. All in all, I couldn’t be more satisfied and can’t wait to get going with the fit out.
We are delighted with our Thomas 50 replica Dutch Barge, and congratulate Nick Branson who designed her. As you can see from the photos, she is nearly six tonnes light and sitting very high in the water: particularly in the bow. Despite this, she was a dream to handle both in smooth and rough conditions. We spent two weeks camping on board during the delivery trip, which covered a total of 230 miles: mostly canal work, but with 85 miles of tidal Thames and Medway to test her to the full. We squeezed through 125 locks, ducked under low bridges and bumped along the bottom of some particularly shallow sections of canal.
She slipped through the water beautifully, with hardly any wake at all and proved to be very economical on fuel because of the sweet profile of her hull. On open water she is directionally stable, with only minor and occasional adjustments to the steering being necessary to keep a straight course. The Schilling rudder allows her to ‘turn on a sixpence’, which makes close quarters manoeuvring a delight. We experienced winds of up to force 6 and seas of 3 to 5 feet. When beam on to the waves, she hardly rolled at all and when going into the wind, she remained stable and crashed through the waves sending plumes of spray back to lash into the wheelhouse window: excellent fun! The engine coped superbly with these conditions and the speed did not drop below 7 knots at 1500 rpm. Externally, her lines were much admired by onlookers at locks, and internally, the connecting corridor worked brilliantly to make the space more ‘user friendly’.
We were particularly pleased with the double glazed windows by Technautic and were glad that we had specified 8mm steel for the hull having endured such a bumpy ride in the canal. Websters were meticulous in their application of the spray foam, with a coverage of 2 inches on all surfaces and particular attention being paid to enveloping all frames and other awkward corners, so that heat loss and condensation would not be a problem. Another huge improvement to the design was the extension to the wheelhouse. Window to window it is about 11 x 8 feet and should make a fantastic living space with superb panoramic views all round.
Preparing for the fit-out click here
Latest Photo of Polly J Updated October 2011
Please note: whilst we have tried to establish facts
wherever possible, any views given are only our opinions.
If you have any questions, I will be happy to forward your emails to Jackie and Jeff E-mail Ian
Created 23rd March 2007 - Last updated 21 October 2011