Towards the end of the 2015 cruising season we started to consider our 2016 route options. Though we had just cruised 2,295 km including 734 locks, there were still plenty of water in France and Europe left to explore. Indeed it seemed that 2016 was the right time to make a first foray into Belgium and Holland. We wanted to explore the north before we became too entrenched in the waterways of France. The boaters that we talked to say that it is lovely up north. We wanted to see for ourselves.
In reality, the 2016 season was not ours to plan. Through 2015 Wanderlust’s troubles continued to develop. Worse yet by early 2016 the builder’s pledges to make repairs were replaced by letters from his lawyers and promises to inspect Wanderlust in preparation for a legal dispute. Either way Wanderlust would be tied down. Our plans to cruise to the north were in question.
At the beginning of the season we waited in Auxerre for a month for an inspection by the builder and his surveyor. A week before his scheduled date the builder canceled. Though they still said that they wanted to examine the boat, the builder provided no definitive date. It was an open-ended situation that left us on call throughout the year.
At this point it was clear that the builder would not accept our offer to truck Wanderlust back to his plant near Stoke-on-Trent, initially at our cost, so that warranty works could be performed. Nor had the builder accepted our offer to settle at a financial figure that ultimately proved to be ridiculously low.
Ominously the builder reconfigured his legal team, switching lawyers from a mediation/conflict resolution specialist to a litigator. The intent appeared to force us into a full-scale legal battle. The builder seemed far more willing to spend money on legal professionals than to make warranty repairs.
The developing legal battle and the need to make repairs changed Wanderlust’s 2016 cruising plans. We would not head north as planned. Rather we would search for a boatyard that could do the needed remedial work. Ideally we would find a boatyard that would provide an upfront quote. At this stage of the dispute, a quote would help immensely as it would assign a monetary value to our claims.
With the ongoing legal wrangling most of the repair work had to wait. If we went ahead with repairs the builder would have argued that we had given them no chance to make repairs themselves as part of a settlement. Though this would have been far from true, the builder was notified of many of the problems years earlier and had plenty of opportunity before the dispute to do work, it could have created difficulties for us in court. Thus, for the time being, all but the most critical repairs were on hold.
Before we started on our cruise of the France boatyards there was one problem we needed to resolve. Wanderlust’s engine exhaust had been leaking into the engine compartment since launch.
The builder had inspected the problem when we were on the Thames in 2014. He declared that the issue would resolve by itself; the leak would “soot in” with time. Wanderlust’s exhaust was normal, the builder said. I disagreed with his assessment; it seemed obviously wrong. But there was little recourse. Short of hiring a lawyer, there was no way to force the builder to honor the warranty.
Time did not help the exhaust system; the leaks did not soot in. And by the beginning of the 2016 season the number of leaks had increased and exhaust gases were escaping from the pipe in four places into the enclosed engine room. The situation had continued to worsen and not improved as promised; the leaks needed to be fixed before we started cruising. Thus after the builder canceled his visit we arranged for the repair of Wanderlust’s exhaust pipe.
It took six weeks in Auxerre before the exhaust was fixed. The delay was longer than expected as a new part had to be manufactured to seal for the main joint. Eventually the new part arrived. The wait was over; the exhaust system was back together. For the first time ever Wanderlust’s exhaust did not leak.
The forced delay to the start of our cruising season left us with more time to deal with the dispute. That was a good thing. We now had the opportunity to carefully collate a full list of Wanderlust’s problems, complete with the timing of the written complaints and full supporting documentation. The “Table of Issues” grew to more than 80 entries, most of these items reported to the builder while we were still on the Thames.
Some issues were minor. For example, several plaques and labels required by the Recreational Craft Directive had not been installed and were needed. This was an easy fix.
Other issues were more serious. On review it was easy to see that the harder and more expensive to resolve problems had collected over time on the snag list. Working through the emails and notes we collated the timing, details, and material facts behind each issue. This took considerable time: Putting a complete Table of Issues together was a huge effort. Indeed the dispute would continue to occupy a large portion of our time for the coming years. It’s a part of our lives that we will never get back.
I mentioned above that we had advanced a settlement offer. Prior to our marine engineer’s survey we floated an offer to settle the dispute for £25,000, not including legal costs. (At this point the legal costs were relatively minor.) We made this offer with no confidentially clauses attached. The proposed settlement would be full and final; we would have no further recourse if Wanderlust developed more problems. In retrospect, given the issues claimed in the dispute, and the pending costs of the surveys and solicitor fees, we were fools to make such a low offer. It was even more foolish for the builder to not accept it.
A financial settlement to the dispute came with risks for us. If we underestimated the cost of the repairs, the excess would be our responsibility. Any additional problems uncovered or unlisted would have to be resolved at our own expense. The biggest concern was that we would discover a big-ticket fault after the signing of a settlement agreement.
We were particularly concerned about the exterior paintwork, a very expensive item to repair. During Wanderlust’s build we learned the builder had been struggling with paint adhesion issues on other boats. Would Wanderlust have problems too or could we trust that the builder resolved the underlying painting issues?
In the end we were left with the vague hope that the builder, confronted with widespread expensive to resolve paint problems, would double down on quality. We hoped that they would do things carefully by the book. Unfortunately that did not happen.
Wanderlust’s exterior paint, particularly on the decks, was far from perfect at launch. There were early signs of problems, the full severity of which we could not imagine. At the beginning of the 2016 season we still figured that these were localized defects that we could touch up on our own.
It shouldn’t have been a shock when the deck paint lifted off of the primer and metal in several locations during a routine spring-cleaning at the beginning of season. But it was. It was surprising to see the deck paint come off of a two and a half year old boat. The problem was going to be both difficult and expensive to repair.
It was certain now that our offer to settle had massively underestimated the costs of Wanderlust’s repairs. Three weeks after we digested the consequences of the developing paint issues we formally withdrew the £25,000 settlement offer. The builder’s 21-day window to accept our offer had long since expired.
Wanderlust’s expanding list of issues pressed the need to find a boatyard to do the remedial works. Necessarily we reconsidered our cruising plans. The priority now was to find a boatyard that could do the work. If possible the work would be done over the winter to minimize our loss of use. Effectively this meant that we needed a French boatyard that we could use as a residence for our long stay French visa.
Instead of cruising to Belgium and Holland, as we had imagined, Wanderlust would travel from Auxerre to the Migennes via River Yonne. From Migennes we would continue on to Saint Jean de Losne by way of the Canal de Bourgogne. There were five boatyards we would reach on this route. Our goal for the season wasn’t a destination or a waterway. It was to identify boatyards that could make repairs to Wanderlust.
The first possible place to get Wanderlust’s problems addressed was at the port in Auxerre, though it was a long shot. The yard in Auxerre does winterizing and smaller repairs; they had just repaired Wanderlust’ exhaust system.
We showed the port’s owner Wanderlust’s issues and asked about doing the fuel tank repairs. After some thought it was decided that it was too big a job for them to commit to. This wasn’t a big surprise. It seemed a sensible decision, all things considered.
The second boatyard we contacted is not far down the River Yonne from Auxerre. In 2014 we had Wanderlust’ bow thruster replaced at the yard after it was damaged by debris downriver in Sens. The repairs were done quickly and without issue; we were soon on our way, leaving with the idea that this would be a place to get future works done if needed.
We were friendly with the second boatyard’s owner and invited him over to look at Wanderlust’s issues during the spring. He was good enough to drive over to the port in Auxerre to discuss the job.
Once on board the second yard owner spent a couple hours looking through the problems and discussing possible solutions. He was surprised that the builder did not take the boat back to do the work himself and said if he talked to the builder he would tell him to do that. But with the situation as it was, the yard owner was willing to consider taking on our project. It could be a good big job to do over the winter when things are slower. As he left we made tentative plans for a follow-up discussion when Wanderlust was ready to move.
Months later, as it was time to leave Auxerre, something had changed. We were having difficult getting phone calls to the second yard owner returned. Eventually after catching the yard owner by phone he told us to stop when we were near his yard and he’d come over and talk.
As arranged, once we arrived near his yard we called the owner. He told us we would come over to Wanderlust, setting a date a couple of days later. There was no time set, just a day. When the day arrived we waited on board through the midday heat and into the evening. The yard owner never showed. We figured he must have been overwhelmed by an emergency job or there was some confusion about the date.
The following day we called the yard owner again and arranged for a visit the day after. There was no mention of why he hadn’t shown up before as planned.
We cooled our heels on board again the next day waiting for the boatyard owner to visit. He never showed.
The following day, rather than phoning again, we walked the short distance to the boatyard to talk to owner in person. It was quickly clear that his mood about the job had changed. He was quick to volunteer that he thought we were “picky,” a quite definitive statement from someone that we had limited interaction with. Certainly there was no reason for him to think that we were picky when he repaired Wanderlust’s bow thruster. Nevertheless the yard owner had formed a strong opinion on us in our absence.
Then it came out that the boatyard owner had talked to the builder, a person he is friendly with. He went on to explain that he valued his business with the builder more than he valued his business with us. It was a striking statement. The yard owner clearly felt that if he did work on Wanderlust it would hurt his business relationship, and possibly his friendship with the builder, even though the work should have been separate. Working on Wanderlust should have had no impact on his business with the builder.
Despite his reluctance the yard owner finally came over to take a look at Wanderlust in the evening. He arrived equipped with a builder’s level intended to measure the tilt of the floor in Wanderlust’s galley, a surrogate for the slope of the vent and fill lines leading to the red tank. It appeared that the yard owner had discussed Wanderlust’s fuel blowback issue with the builder. Indeed, the tanks’ vent and fill lines are hidden below the floor: The only way the yard owner would think to measure the slope of the floor as a surrogate for the vent pipe slope is if he had knowledge of a piping configuration he could not see.
After the yard owner established that Wanderlust was trimmed slightly to the stern, as everyone new, he again reviewed the list of problems. We could see that the challenge of the project piqued his interest but he remained non-committal. He left saying that he would consider the work. But it was clear to us he wasn’t going to take on the job. We did not hear from him again.
It was hard to escape the feeling that we had been blackballed. Intended or not we had been sent a message by the builder: Play ball or he’ll make it difficult to get work done in France. The European inland boating world is small. If the builder could get a few of his friends to refuse to do work on Wanderlust, we would be screwed.
Nevertheless, the yard owner is free to do what he wants. We do not deny him the right to choose customers, as he feels fit for whatever cause.
What we do not respect is how the boatyard owner handled the situation. We could have been told a month in advance when we called by phone that he wasn’t interested in doing the job. We wouldn’t have asked why. The yard owner did not need to make us stop near his yard and wait for more than a week before we pulled from him that he wasn’t interested in doing the job. A simple, “I’m not interested” over the phone would have sufficed.
In any event the bottom line was that this second boatyard was not an option for Wanderlust’s repairs. We needed to continue on to St. Jean de Losne.
Forced itinerary or not, the Bourgogne is a wonderful route. When we first looked to hire a boat for our first venture on the French waterways the Canal de Bourgogne was our intended destination. Locaboat encouraged us to consider the Nivernais instead. It was likely good advice; the Nivernais is idyllic. But the desire to cruise the Bourgogne remained. Once we had the chance it turned out to be even better than expected.
At the opposite end of the canal the Bourgogne connects to the River Saône in Saint Jean de Losne. There are three boatyards in Saint Jean and thus three more options for getting Wanderlust’s repairs made. Before we arrived we contacted two of the yards to discuss the project. It was August and much of France was on vacation. Things moved slowly.
About a week after we arrived in Saint Jean de Losne the third boatyard owner arrived as scheduled and looked over Wanderlust’s problems. Again there was surprise that the builder didn’t take Wanderlust back to do the work, as it would be easier and cheaper for the builder to deal with the issues himself.
The yard owner looked through Wanderlust’s problems carefully. He spent considerable time discussing potential solutions and approaches to diagnosing exactly what needed to be done. Along the way he made suggestions that we later incorporated in the repairs. He left interested but non-committal; he would need to think about the project.
A couple of days later the third yard owner told us that he wasn’t interested in taking on Wanderlust’s repairs. We asked if he had discussed Wanderlust with the builder; this had become a serious concern for us after our last experience. The third yard owner does do business and gets referrals from the builder, so it was a legitimate worry. But he said that he hadn’t talked to the builder though he had heard things. It was an ominous nebulous comment possibly confused by the language differences.
For sure the scope and challenge of the project likely would have pushed the third yard’s capabilities, particularly if Wanderlust needed to be lifted out of the water. Nevertheless, there seemed to us to be something more behind the decision that was left unsaid. At the very least the yard owner seemed to be wary of getting involved with customers in the midst of a legal dispute, understandable for the yard owner but troubling for us.
It was now 0 for 3 with the boat yards. At this point we were concerned. Intentional or not, it felt as if we were getting blacklisted. When we started the year we had expected to be able to choose among boatyards rather than have a boatyard choose us. Apparently that would not be the case. Given the scale of the work that needed to be done we were fast running out of options: There were a limited number of yards in France capable of doing the needed work.
We started to consider what we would do if we could not find a boat yard to repair Wanderlust. What options would we have? At this point we started to seriously think that we’d have no choice but to sell our distressed three-year-old barge at a substantial discount because we could not get her fixed by the builder under warranty or otherwise. It was an awful feeling.
There were two more yards left to try in Saint Jean de Losne. Neither yard had a cozy relationship with the builder, at least that we knew of, which at least gave us some hope.
We contacted the first of the two remaining yards while we were in Dijon several weeks earlier. At first the key personnel at boatyard four were “en vacances”. It was August in France after all and you expect businesses to slow as the employees go on vacation. Still, even after the calendar turned to September and several calls and emails we made, nobody from the fourth yard came over to look at the job. It seemed to us that the yard was both busy and disorganized, a not uncommon situation in France. In any event, after weeks of trying, we couldn’t get anyone from the yard to look at the problems. Boatyard four was a bust. We were 0 for 4.
This left one last boatyard. If this yard weren’t interested in the job we would need to review our options over the winter.
At first we had hesitated to contact the last yard, having heard bad things. Indeed, the builder advised us during the build to avoid this yard. But at this point there was no choice. It was the only remaining option, at least for this year.
Fortunately the last yard was interested in doing the work. Even better the director of the service operation took the considerable amount of time to carefully consider and price a quote for the work. The cost quote was very useful with the legal dispute ongoing.
The last boatyard has a good working relationship with International Paints, the putative supplier of the paint used on Wanderlust. During one of International’s regular visits, the head of the yard’s paint shop invited their experts to come over to look closely Wanderlust’s paint problems. This was the first time that paint professionals looked at Wanderlust. The feedback was not good.
After the examination the paint was determined to be far too thin, the preparation, particularly at the welds, was improper, and there was widespread contamination by metal particles trapped under the paint. (“Pollution,” as we learned the French say.) The official opinion was issued a month or so later in the form of a new paint specification. International recommended that Wanderlust be stripped to bare metal by grit blasting and the paint build-up be redone from the metal up.
Repainting in the manner suggested by International would be an enormously expensive, complicated, and time consuming process. It was completely unexpected for a boat that at the time of examination was only three years old. The usual maintenance interval for the type of paint used on Wanderlust is ten years or more. Even then preparation for maintenance repainting requires a thorough sanding before the application of the top coatings. It does not require blasting to the bare metal.
Though the news on the paint was bad, it was good news that we had finally found a boatyard willing to take on a broad swath of the project. There was some hope, finally.
Even though we had identified a place to get the repairs done, we couldn’t start work immediately. The builder and his surveyor still had right to inspect Wanderlust. Indeed, more than five months after it was originally scheduled, the builder’s inspection finally did occur in Saint Jean de Losne in late October 2016. It was the first time anyone from the builder’s organization had been on board in the 18 months.
Months later, in February of 2017, the report from the builder’s surveyor arrived in an email. As we read through the report it was clear that there was some common ground between our surveyor’s report and the builder’s. There were also major differences, particularly for the more expensive problems. This promised to cause further problems and delays.
We were now stuck in a holding pattern; the builder’s solicitor insisted that the dispute be resolved before remedial work could begin. At the same time the builder repeatedly delayed the resolution of the dispute, frequently refusing to provide much of the technical information that was requested. All we could do was wait as we pushed the legal process forward through our solicitor. Legal costs built as Wanderlust’s problems festered.
And as we waited diesel continued to come into Wanderlust’s bilge and paint continued to come off of the decks. It was becoming clear that it would take over two years to resolve issues that the builder agreed to look into in May of 2015. In reality it would take much longer.
Log for the season
It is 265 kilometers and 199 locks from Auxerre to Saint Jean de Losne. With additional short trips Wanderlust’s engine ran 100 hours.
Click here for a map of the route.