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The building of "Earnest"


Index | Fabrication of the steelwork | Fitting out | Paintwork | Launch"Earnest" in detail | "Earnest" Repaint 

Harefield Marina

The T.N.C. mega cruise of 1997 exposed some of the weakness in "Beatty's" design and age, these will be discussed in the opening paragraphs, with a view to whether "Beatty" should be modified and refitted or replaced.

Owing to it becoming repeatedly necessary to go on to tidal river and estuary sections to reach far flung navigations the "seaworthiness" of a cruiser style narrowboat was in doubt. There has been a lot of heated debate about narrowboats in tidal waters but our now personal experience has led to the following conclusions. As long as a narrowboat has a reasonable amount of low down ballast (that will NOT shift!) rolling sideways when hit by a wave or turning against a strong current had not been a problem with "Beatty". I personally think that the worst thing you can do is to strap two narrowboats together (a la NEW Manchester Ship Canal Rules), this leads to lack of manoeuvrability, not something we would of liked to experience when we met an oil tanker going through Cadishead Viaduct on the M.S.C.  The worst natural waves ever experienced in "Beatty" close to home, was just below Tower Bridge on the River Thames. Ian Clarke knows from experience that there is often a funny low amplitude wave effect here at most states of the tide. We certainly experienced this when we went from Bow Creek to Brentford in June 1993, less than ideal conditions! A narrowboat rides waves like a submarine i.e. it does NOT and tends to plough through the wave leading to a lot of water exposure at the bow and stern. "Beatty" has a fairly high bow, the cratch cover was essential in situations like this, but the bow well deck is too low causing the drain holes to be taking on a lot of water. The exhaust could have been higher, as this has caught the odd wave, but the exposed cruiser deck could be a disaster if a wave came over the stern, flooding the engine in seconds. Only a Trad or Semi-trad style narrowboat can plough through the odd large waves like the bow wave of a distant oil tanker, i.e. a possibility if we went down the River Thames estuary to get to the River Medway. This is of course as long as as rear outer doors are shut tight (or in the case of a semi-trad it HAS outer doors) and it has a proper trad steering position i.e. INSIDE the rear doors! Another consideration is that a modern pseudo-tug narrowboat with a low bow and free board could be a disaster in this situation. This style also tend to be more top heavy and  roll more than a more conventional "modern" design. Another problem with "Beatty" under power was the rather blunt bow, the final speed being dictated by the huge bow wave it created. As "Beatty's" steel work was of  late 1990 R & D Fabrications 50ft and under stock, it had a 8mm base plate. This has never proved a problem, with good anodes the base plate corrosion has been minimal. But this would not be a plus point in a future sale, especially when "Beatty" got older. Also a 10mm base plate would have given a bit more free ballast and stability.  

"Beatty's" sturdy little B.M.C. engine was getting a bit high in the hours department and it was getting smoky all the time and not just when cold. We were never totally convinced that it had been totally re-built. The cooling system and engine mount legs always seemed to be a bit of a disaster in "Beatty", along with the drive plate and gearbox coupling. Neil had sorted these out over the years and when "Beatty" was sold it was "sorted" and probably better in this area than when new. Still the aggravation had worn down Neil down and a change of make of engine and gearbox would have to be considered if "Beatty" was to be kept. The wooden side and rear doors and hatches had always driven Neil mad, having to be frequently re-painted to stop rot and the ply "lifting". These would have to be replaced with steel tray type and the existing door innards fixed inside.

Internally the layout of "Beatty" was liked, as this was the main thing that led to it being purchased, but a lot of the services and equipment led a lot to be desired, things had moved on a lot in 8 years. The main piece of internal equipment that was extremely annoying was the infernal Batts fridge, no wonder they went caput! The fridges idiosyncrasies have been described in the "Beatty" page. It was also not large enough to hold a decent lager stock! If an electric replacement was bought the house battery bank really wanted to be increased, with probably a larger alternator and advanced controller, especially as Neil wanted a bigger boat stereo! The Alde boiler once sorted was very effective and quiet, but getting through a 19Kg Calor bottle every week in the winter was getting expensive! An electric flush toilet would be nice along with a stainless steel tank. Due to the water tank being in a strange place on "Beatty" a larger stainless steel one would be impossible to fit without a major bow redesign. Mind you this could sort out "Beatty's" bluff bow problem! A decent 240v AC system, a washing machine and a tumble dryer would also be needed for continued serious cruising.

The list of improvements to "Beatty" soon spiralled out of control and a refit along with a rebuild with a new lengthened bow and semi-trad stern just was not financially viable on a boat of any age.

The obvious candidate for a replacement for "Beatty" was the known quantity of another R & D Fabrications hull fitted by Phil Gardner at Waterways Services. Phil was contacted, but he could not give any start date as he was about to have a knee operation. The next choice was for a complete R & D Fabrications boat. When Ray helped Neil out with "Beatty's" problems he finally saw it's birthplace, Neil made the crack about a one day wanting a new boat. Ray said that they had only recently started doing fitted boats again from their Loughborough boatyard. Ray showed Neil around the fabrication shops and he took quite a bit of video, but Neil never saw the fitting operation at Loughborough. Neil took another look at this video from a new perspective and this finally pushed him into the decision to buy a new boat. There next followed a lot of research to plan "Beatty's" replacement. The name "Ernest" was the obvious choice as it was another of Neil's father's Christian names, his other being Maurice, this being better suited to our final retirement continental cruising Peniche, this being another story, the final stage of  T.N.C. on tour? I think it was Julian that made the pun that cruising will now begin in "Earnest", so this slight play on words was chosen as the final name. A horrific (in boat builders terms) 20 page specification was created to scare off all but the most hardened  builders and fitters!

"Earnest" basic specification :-


The items we were supplying ourselves were either from "Beatty" to provide some link with the past or were items of a personal choice.

Also included in the "Quote" pack were a series of scale drawings of each cabin in "Earnest" as well as a side and plan view to show the paint scheme.

Boat builder's and fitter's we approached and asked for a quote, our impressions and their response are discussed in the following  paragraphs :- 


R & D Fabrications, joinery by Woodworks

Many trips were taken up to R & D to discuss "Earnest". On our first visit we were immediately made very welcome by Ray's wife Sheila. While being plied with numerous cups of tea she listened attentively to his thoughts on "Earnest". Ray is still very active even after a lifetime building narrowboats and still not afraid to experiment to achieve his customer's desires. Ray was summoned for his opinion on some technical points and his confidence that he could build "Earnest" as we had envisaged, and not as HE wanted to build it, was very apparent. He gave us a tour of the works pointing out that he had all the presses, guillotines and equipment to build the steel work, whereas some fabricators get a third party to press out the hull side plates and do other work. He pointed out that since "Beatty" was built the hull to cabin side ratio had been altered slightly giving a slightly higher gunwale level. Also the gunwale to the angled top of the side hull plates was of a sharper angle. Another big change since "Beatty" was the double curvature on the bow plates. While studying the plans Ray said that with the vertical calorifier in the far rear corner the rear swims would be extremely short if they were not to cut into the space needed for the calorifier. His answer to this was to ask if we had considered having his "slipper stern", with this he promptly showed us another few examples of his narrowboat shells under construction with this kind of stern. With this style, which he has perfected for his narrow beam Dutch barges, the bottom plate starts coming up at an angle at the rear cabin bulkhead, to flatten out again to form the counter. Above the water line all looks normal. The small swim pod cuts through the angled section of the stern, being just wide enough to internally accommodate the engine bearers and engine. Ray said that the benefit while under way was that much more "still" water was taken from underneath the boat causing less cavitation and wash from the stern. Of course his fins on the top of the rudder blade were standard and we could try them on the bottom as well. 

When we asked about the amount of swim and height of  the bow he said it was entirely up to us and that when a customer's boat was started the allocated fabricator liases directly with the customer to achieve the customer's wishes. Ray said that with the amount of shells on the go at any one time (often around 10) he found that the best results were achieved by allocating each shell to one fabricator. On average each shell took a month to build. Ray pointed out some more of their interesting options, an inner lip on the roof handrails, centre boss of mushroom vent in steel and part of the structure of the boat (useful for getting LOW vents), grab rails built into the front cabin side over hang, steel tray type cratch with folding (sensibly INWARDS) wings. Also shown were a nice low rear navigation lamp bracket, the post of which was a steel tube THROUGH the diesel tank. Their standard type of side fender eye were set into the gunwale. We could have them any size and wherever we wanted. Standard features were a recessed and flapped panel into the rear cant to take the tank inlet and outlet plus the cut off cock. This Ray said was the only way he could interpret the CE rules concerning being able to shut of an engine room diesel fire with out going into the engine room! The fuel lines in a typical Ray fiddly but smart fashion was to take them through yet another steel pipe going through the diesel tank to get into the engine compartment. The only thing he insisted on that we thought would present a problem in tidal conditions was a louvered vent high up on each side of the stern. These were vents for the battery box and for fire fighting in the engine compartment. He said that these have to be fitted for CE certification, but he could make some plates with some threads welded to the back. These could be sealed with a rubber gasket and held on with some washers and wing nuts. These of course could only be fitted at our own risk, for tidal crossings.  

As we have mentioned R & D Fabrications were a known quantity in the steel work department and we were already convinced that they could build the shell that we wanted. The unknown quantity was to have a boat fitted by them! Next Sheila took us over to Andrew's shop which is in another line of units behind the main fabrication shops. Also in these shops boats were being painted  as well as an elderly Harborough cruiser narrow boat being lengthened and turned into a stylish trad. Sheila said that Ray is totally potty and as long as the shell is sound Ray still likes the challenge of doing a seamless extension and conversion to any ones work! Sheila soon introduced us to Andrew Hooke their young (early twenties) woodworker and internal fitter. We were immediately taken by Andrew he was softly spoken and obviously highly intelligent. He showed us over the boat he was working on at the moment (he only works on one at a time), being built for Mrs. Petts. The quality of the wood work was as good, if not better than we  have ever seem in a narrowboat. Mrs. Petts boat was of a fairly conventional layout, except, as she was an artist, she wanted a studio bench in the rear cabin, which had been nicely executed. Andrew carefully studied the plan for "Earnest", which as you can see from the layout diagram is a VERY fitted boat. Andrew said that he was a bit concerned with some of the dimensions as there was no recovery space, but would study it carefully and report back. Andrew the asked us exactly what kind of woods we wanted and showed me some patterns and some trial sections he had machined up for the hard wood cappings. He said that as all the hard wood sections were machined out of rough cut timbers from the same tree he could design something distinctive and exactly to our taste.  We took a lot of video for future comparison and went back for our last cup of tea with Sheila. We further discussed the boat with her, she said that they had bad experience with Mason's paint but if that is what we wanted it would not present a problem to their painter Don, who was of a commercial vehicle and sign writing background. She said that Ray was very pro Kubota based engines but had I considered a Nanni? Neil said that obviously he had, but Neil thought that the Beta package was better because of the steel sub frame, not cast alloy legs and the option of the 3.5 KVA 240v Electrolux Travelpower. With a few exchanges of letters and phone calls we got a very reasonable quote (54,000) for the boat WE wanted, and not something near it based on someone's standard spec or layout.           

Kingsground Narrowboats

Good reports had been heard about Reeves shells fitted out by Aynho Wharf, but this was before Richard Haynes and Clive Mant had left to form Kingsground, so we thought it best to investigate them first. Neil spent along day looking round the Kingsground workshop in the old Upper Heyford air base in Oxfordshire. Clive showed Neil around the two boats that were being fitted out. Neil also had the chance to inspect a recently delivered Reeves shell. The shell was nicely constructed and was also of a similar size (60ft) and a semi-trad. Clive said that they would fit out any make of shell and have used some Tim Tyler shells in the past. Their preferred option was Reeves because they were so well finished off. Tyler shells were of a deeper draught (which meant a 3:1 reduction gear box and a larger propeller could be used), but not so well finished off. He said that they would quote me for a Reeves shell, but it would be up to us to negotiate with Reeves many of the extras and alterations we wanted to his standard semi-trad design. The quality of the engine compartment fit out was most impressive along with the International paintwork, on the boat that was nearly finished. The woodwork, which is the one area where an owner can do no "improving" was good of a very distinctive style, but there were some little areas where Andrew of R &D had a better finish. A quote came with only one reminder, this was because we were in a slight hurry to place an order before or at the Braunston 1998 to hopefully beat the rush and get it finished for the 1999 season. The quote (64,000) which at first seamed reasonable for an up and coming firm was complicated by having many of my specified items added as extras and deletions to their obvious standard price, these bumped the price up in excess of  70,000!

Aynho Wharf  Narrowboats 

Neil was shown around an assortment of boats, again all based on Reeves shells, the paint work I saw on repaint job seemed of a reasonable standard, but all of the fitted boats had not yet been painted (just primer under the already fitted windows). The wood work side of the fitting was not up to much and I suppose Neil did not seem all that interested. Neil got the impression that they would have given a reasonable quote, but for "their" standard specification boat with a few alterations. A quote even after one reminder never materialised.

Stenson, Midland Canal Centre

We booked an appointment to come up on a Sunday, Dean Baldwin who was in charge of the fabrication shop showed us round. There was one nearly completed shell in the fabrication shop and another just started, they surprisingly did not seem that busy. We discussed all the steelwork requirements for "Earnest" and got the impression I would get what I wanted in this department. Unfortunately all their finished boats or ones being trialed were out for the day, we were shown a nearly completed Irish hire boat (not at all well finished of internally), but this we were informed was built to a price and not to their normal private customer standard. Two private boats were being fitted in their wet dock, one had only just been started, and the other was to their basic specification. After one phone call the quote which was reasonable (58,500) arrived, this was surprising as we were expecting this to be higher from this firm. The quote led Neil to believe that only the basic requirements were covered and many "extras" would be added along the way.


We had arranged with Dom Cole to come up to Long Itchington (near Daventry) on a Sunday morning, he said that his Brother Sam would also be in. Dom Cole who is in charge of the fabrication shop worked with Ray when they were at Hancock and Lane in Daventry. They both still know each other as Ray Denton keeps in touch with people in the area in which he grew up and first worked. Colecraft are rightly respected as solidly built craft, always recognisable. Unfortunately Sam was not about and we were shown around the works by just Dom. There were several boats under various stages of construction. Dom had just put in some recessed fender eyes on one shell, he said that this was because he normally got lumbered with doing the bits the fabricators did not fancy! All the fabrication work under way was nicely finished off in the normal Colecraft fashion. Dom said that a lot of our features could be incorporated in one of their shells, but we got the impression that it would still look very much a Colecraft! He showed us around a lined sailaway that was nearly finished and an older boat that they were altering and putting a bow thruster in. Dom gave us their specification and price for their standard fitted 60ft trad boat (60,000) and I left the specification pack for Sam to study on Monday. We never received the quote and did not phone up to ask where it was. We got the impression that Colecraft prefer to build shells or sailaways and that to ask for too much of a departure from "their" fit out would be impossible. We know and respect the typical fitted Colecraft, it is made like "A boat" with no domestic kitchen unit doors, but by today's standard it is a little staid for our taste.

Peter Nichols

Unfortunately we pissed off the gentleman "Godfather" of narrowboat building! We were to meet Peter later the same day as seeing Colecraft. Peter did try to put us off saying that a boat of the specification I was talking about would cost around 1400 per foot (80,000). Peter had said that as his boats have long swims fore and aft our plan would have to be altered to re position the calorifier and washer / dryer. Neil managed to do this by staggering the rear bunks, putting the washer / dryer up against the Bathroom and having a very small junk cupboard. This meant loosing virtually all the space gained by having a boat longer than "Beatty"! and was a real compromise. Also he mentioned that his standard hull design allowed for a larger propeller and 3:1 reduction gearbox. He had offered to take us out in a nearly finished boat. We arrived early and found the boat that he had mentioned. We looked around it from the outside and were not immediately impressed, the obvious International non slip roof paint had been applied by a brush and not a roller, it looked worse than my one coat brushed attempt on "Beatty"! There were other annoying little things that we could spot in a boat that would cost more than R&D's quote plus the cost of  Neil's newly purchased Volkswagen Passat Estate. We soon left and phoned Peter up at the time we said we would meet him, he was not impressed and said that he had left a Canal Boatbuilders Association meeting early just to meet us. I calmed him down a bit by saying that this was better than wasting more of his time with a demo and a quote.  


At the Braunston Show we saw Ray and Sheila on their showboat "Obliesk" a 45ft trad, with a more cluttered internal layout than "Earnest"! Most other boats were inspected, there was a high turn out of R&D shelled boats, the Irish hire boat that they fully fitted for Canalways, their own and an Advanced Marine Developments boat which although of a semi-trad appearance had a cross rear cabin under a tunnel in the rear cockpit! Clive and Richard of Kingsground were visited on their show boat where we were told that it was over a years waiting time for their next building slot, god knows what it is now with all their new found fame! The only other contender price wise was Midland Canal Centre, their show boat was very disappointing it looked thrown together just in time to get it ready for the show. It was then an instant decision to pay our deposit (just 50) to Sheila on the R & D Fabrications show boat to reserve our provisionally booked slot in October1998.             

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