Our dog Gigi might well have set us on a course for living on a barge in Europe but she wasn’t much help in making our dreams happen. The first step, buying a barge that is suitable for our goals and lifestyle, is a big one. Choosing a barge is a complicated task. How do you buy a complex piece of machinery that will double as a home when you just understand the basics? Is it best to buy a used barge and make it your own or is it better to have a boat built to your specifications? Either way, the expense is considerable.
Purchasing a boat is just a small part of a complex process of becoming a barge owner. Once acquired the barge must be registered and insured. Licenses are needed for the pilot, the radio, and the boat. Equipment for living and navigation must be obtained. A mooring needs to be arranged. Add in the complications of moving to Europe with the complex legalities and logistics. At times it just seems overwhelming. Gigi, as usual, was oblivious to the challenges that she cast before us.
Our research began with joining the Barge Association otherwise known as the DBA. DBA members willingly share their wealth of barge related knowledge over an Internet forum. The Barge Buyer’s Handbook, published by the DBA, is a good read for any potential barge purchaser. Included in the pages are all the basics of buying a barge. The handbook is an excellent first step but by the time the last page is turned the challenge of buying a barge looms even larger. Indeed, in the absence of knowledge, purchasing a barge seems straightforward. It’s only when one has learned about all the potential problems that might come up that the process really appears daunting.
The first choice is the type of boat to buy. There are a few choices.
De-masted sailboats, though they are not the optimal craft for the inland waterways, regularly transit through France from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. A sailboat is an option for those who want to split time between the inland waters and the open ocean.
Many opt for cruiser-style boats. Motor cruisers look like the style of craft you see on the open waters around the world. Purpose built inland waterway cruisers have a suitable draft and beam for the waterways of Europe; they are fitted with engines appropriate for low speed navigation. A cruiser’s maneuverability and versatility are advantages. On the downside, their typically shorter length limits the interior space.
Used purpose-built rental boats are also an option for cruising the inland waterways. These boats are often constructed of fiberglass in the style of a small barge or a cruiser. Rental boats are usually less than 15 meters in length and are normally fitted out to maximize the numbers of cabins at the expense of galley and salon space. Rental boats are designed for use during the warmer months. As a result they are less well insulated and colder during the winter.
Cruising Europe’s inland waters in a British-style narrowboat is not uncommon. Indeed, there are tens of thousands of these boats in Britain alone and many spill over onto the waterways of Continental Europe. With their seven-foot beams, narrowboats are the practical option for exploring the full extent of Britain’s constricted inland waterways. The downside of a narrowboat is its advantage; the narrow beam that allows wide access to the British canal network also restricts the interior space.
Many full timers opt for the space afforded by the wider beam, up to 16 feet, of a Dutch-style barge. Dutch barges come in two flavors, historic and modern. No matter the flavor, a barge can offer comfortable living arrangements.
Historic live aboard barges are old cargo carriers refitted for habitation. The hull of some of these barges dates from the turn of the 19th Century. In fact, some Dutch Barges started life as sailing ships. The suitability of an old barge for cruising depends on the fit out and the state of repair. They can be fully updated to modern navigational standards. Well appointed, an old barge can offer every convenience of home. At the same time, a poorly chosen old barge can be a money pit of problems and difficult to handle on the water.
Modern barges are more recently constructed using steel or aluminum. These boats loosely follow the form of historic barges. Often referred to as replica Dutch Barges, new barges are purpose built from the keel up for modern living and inland waterway navigation. While the layout of historic barges is sometimes constrained by a configuration determined by the original use, modern boats are designed from the beginning to maximize interior space. Replicas, like historic barges, can be fit out with all of the “mod cons”.
Cost is always a consideration. New fully tricked out custom steel cruisers and barges can push seven figures in Euros, Pounds, or Dollars. At the lower end, smaller used cruisers, hire boats, and narrowboats, all suitable for basic live aboard life, are advertised for tens of thousands of dollars on websites such as Apollo Duck. Between these two extremes, are the live aboard barges that are typically advertised between 100,000 to 500,000 USD.
The true cost of a durable item is the real money difference between what is paid up front and what it eventually sells for when it is no longer needed. Boats are not houses. They are not fixed to a plot of land that tends to increase in value over the years. At the same time, barges are not cars. Well-maintained barges can have more than a century of functional life; they do not depreciate like autos and RVs. Even when a barge no longer navigates the waterways it can still be tied to a bank and function as a home. Indeed, some say that barges older than ten years do not depreciate in value at all.
But can we really expect to buy an old barge, use it for ten years, and then sell it for the same price we paid for it? The reality is that buying and selling large expensive boats is not easy. The dynamics of the market place are not fluid. One might be able to resale an old boat for the same price or even a little more than one paid for it if they have the right boat, at the right time, the right place, and find the right buyers. On the other hand, if the economic conditions soften, technology or regulations change, or the supply of barges on the market increases substantially, it can be hard and time consuming for the sellers to get a reasonable offer on their boat. Indeed, many barge owners put their boats on the market well in advance of when they intend to stop cruising anticipating a long selling process. For us we figured it was safest to assume that any barge we purchased we would sell later at a significant loss. We’d love to be surprised to the upside but we would not plan on it.
Considering everything that we learned and undoubtedly biased by our limited experience, we decided that a Dutch-style barge was for us. With that decision made, we now had another important choice to make. Do we buy an historic barge, a used recently built replica-style barge, or do we start from scratch and have a new barge built from the keel up?
As usual in the barging game, there’s no easy or correct answer to this question. Old barges have character and quirky uniqueness that can’t be found in new builds. At the same time old barges have their challenges. Maintenance issues can lay hidden below the layers of paint coating the thin plates of steel that form the hull. Further, buying an old barge can often mean compromising on the onboard systems. Will the tanks be large enough? Is there a black tank for your wastewater? Are the electrical systems up-to-date? Have wires been pulled to support all the modern electronic toys? Are modern maneuvering and navigational aids such as bow thrusters and depth finders installed? All things can be changed but the effort, expense, and time needed is not insignificant.
We looked at a few old barges. None that we saw would fit our desires without substantial modification. And while remodeling an old barge is possible, it seemed a daunting and undefined challenge to manage from 5,000 miles away. Even the used new build replica-style barges seemed far from turnkey. Buying a pre-owned boat didn’t even offer the certainty of being a more affordable option. Having a barge built from scratch appeared an easier route to get the barge we wanted. It’s what we decided to do. With this decision our real adventure began.