The Independent - Sept 07

Make your getaway!

Once poor relations at the Boat Show, barges are now hip and hi-tech, says Stuart Alexander

In 150 years, the pace may have increased by a mile an hour or two, and these days, it isn't horses ontow.paths but inboard diesels that do the donkey-work. But, while the idyllic image of rural tranquillity may have stayed the same, life on the inside of one of the colou ñ barges on Britain's rejuvenated 2,800-mile network of canals is, well, bang up to date.

For years, canal and boats were the Cinderellas of the annual, post-Christmas London Boat Show ball. But this year, until Sunday at the ExCel exhibition centre in London's Docklands, the inland boys will be well represented in the North Hall.

Canalboats offer the perfectway to sail without risking navigational disasters, being wrecked on our craggy coastline or being gale-torn and battered to the point where the fillings are being bounced out of your teeth and the children are wailing inconsolably. Taking advantage of the UK's waterways, rather than hopping on a plane to holiday abroad, is better for the environment, too.

At the Boat Show, the glitter and glamour will still surround the big power-boats, which Britain manages to export so successfully wearing the Fairline, Princess, Sealine and Sunseeker badges. And the sleek yachts, which need a football team to handle the sails, will also fuel hypothetical conflicts about what to do with a major lottery win or City bonus, though power continues to outgrow sail. But the ostensibly humble canal boat or river cruiser has a lot going for it. As a floating country cottage, it can be parked close to some of Britain's major towns and cities (though it will be interesting to see what Ruth Kelly's attitude is to planning applications for new marinas).

Canal boats are also economical. Once you are aboard, you can stay put, cook for yourself, go to the pub, or venture a few miles to wherever there is some.thingofinteresttovisit, and back, knowing that you are using perhaps only three gallons of diesel an hour, which also charges your batteries and heats your water. Try that on the big twin-diesel cruisers or muscle-bound outboards that the coastal craft use.

And those coastal costs are set to double and treble. The EU bureaucrats have told Britain that its derogation to sell 'red' marine diesel to pleasure-boat users will not be renewed. Ordinary pump prices of over £4 a gallon will replace the present marine price of about £140. It may take 18 months to two years, but the battle is already lost.

Another political battle is raging round the Government's financial support for the British Waterways Board Speeches about how wonderful the inland waterway network is are the usual work of duplicitous politicians, who flatter to deceive. Investment, for we are all investors now, is being cut. And that, not unnaturally, annoys the manufacturers in the UK, who have to live by a set of standards not always applied to overseas manufacturers enjoying the open-gates policy to trade in what often looks like a Lewis Carroll philosophy of unilateral globalism.

Sam Shepherd, a boat- maker, describes the boats being sent for sale here as "shockers, absolute shockers", which reflects his attempt to maintain what he thinks is one of the best production lines in the world (if just over a boat a week can be described as a production line - it is 20 per cent of the UK market).

His modern Sea Otter Boats factory, built in the Poolsbrook Country Park region of the Peak District, near Chesterfield, which used to be the site of the Ireland Colliery, builds and fits out, with four cabinet-makers, anything from 21- to 56-footers, with the most popular being the 41-footer at a "fully loaded" price of £80,000. "Every mod con" includes not just luxurious galleys and bathrooms, central heating and air-conditioning but all the latest communications technology and entertainments.

He uses specially rolled, 8mm sheets of aluminium, which are 2mby 15m, on his boats, and is so confident of the finished product's quality that he offers a lifetime guarantee on his new hulls.

His paint oven is one of the biggest available, and he even has a test tank in the yard behind the two sheds. Leaks shouldbe a thing of the distant past, but paint jobs can either be traditional or modern.

If you want to try out your lock-handling skills first, there are plenty of barge holidays on offer. And once you feel confident, you could even have your floating cottage shipped across the Channel, and explore not just France but Eastern Europe, and right up to St Petersburg.