Life in the slow lane: Why inland boating can be so much more rewarding

After years of cruising the Mediterranean in heavy-duty passagemakers Martin Craddock decided to give inland boating a try, with a custom built steel craft fitted out to his dream spec…

For as far back as I can remember I’ve loved boats. Whenever I was on holiday, I’d make a beeline for the nearest marina and wander around dreaming about which boat I’d choose, if only I could.

The idea of approaching a beach or a port from the sea while everyone else was busy looking for the nearest car park seemed infinitely preferable to me.

In 2002 I finally got the chance to make it happen. With my business going well, but still knowing very little about actually owning a boat, I took myself off to the Southampton Boat Show expecting my £250,000 to buy a huge superyacht, only to find that boats are… er… rather expensive.

When I finally managed to get over my disappointment and began looking for something more realistic, I eventually settled on an 18-month-old Azimut 46 called Drifter. It was for sale in Antibes in the South of France so when the purchase went through I decided to keep it in the Mediterranean for a while.

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Mediterranean dreams

Drifter was a good boat. She was fast and fairly easy to handle and I was brimming with confidence, having done my week-long RYA Day Skipper course in flat calm conditions. However, I quickly learned that it’s not quite so easy in a blow and within a month (and a couple of bangs), my confidence was shattered.

It took a while to regain it but I was determined to learn from the experience and we had some amazing trips up and down the French coast including a memorable trip, for all the wrong reasons, across to Corsica.

Now according to some reviews of planing boats, 31 knots is so much better than 28 knots but, for me, bouncing around at speed while trying to carry cups of tea up to the flybridge is not a skill I ever managed to acquire. And shouting terms of endearment at your better half over the noise of two big engines is definitely not romantic either.

Martin’s first boat, a nearly new Azimut 46 called Drifter which he bought in 2002

So, after being tossed around by the mistral wind on our crossing to Corsica, I came to realise that speed, noise and bouncing around weren’t really my thing, whereas a nice sedate 8 knots on a seaworthy displacement boat would be much more my cup of tea. Unspilled, of course. Drifter had to go.

So in 2003 I sold Drifter and bought a Trader 575, which I affectionately called Doris. The deal was that if I took the 575 and agreed to buy a new Trader 64 – which was in development at the time – I could have all my money back in part-exchange when the 64 was delivered. My new Trader 64 was finally delivered, wait for it, in 2009 (yes, I know)!

On the plus side, Doris was a really safe, solid, comfortable boat. With her hydraulic thrusters, big anchor and wide side decks, she inspired confidence and thanks to her comfortable aft cabin and acres of living space, she was a true home from home.

In 2003 he decided planing boats weren’t for him and sold the Azimut to buy this Trader 575, Doris, while waiting for a new Trader 64 to be built

As well as Antibes being an expensive place to keep a boat, I eventually tired of either turning left to Monaco and Nice or right to St Tropez and Marseille. So, in 2007, I moved Doris to Alcudia, Mallorca.

I spent four happy summers exploring all four Balearic islands and found that the longer the journey was, the more I relaxed and enjoyed it. I was becoming a passagemaker.

When I finally took delivery of my Trader 64, Kuna, in 2009, travelling farther afield became a much easier prospect. With a range of 1,600 miles, the whole of the Med could be explored and that is exactly what we did, cruising non-stop for 36 hours at a time between Mallorca and Sardinia en route to Italy and beyond.

Martin enjoyed four happy years exploring the Balearics on board Doris with family and friends

I loved the planning and preparation that went into it, watching the sun go down and sitting up on the flybridge gazing at the stars while everyone else was asleep in their beds.

There’s something strangely exhilarating about knowing you’re a hundred miles from land in 10,000ft of water with no other boats for miles around. It makes you feel alive!

We began making trips with friends all over the Mediterranean. One year we cruised to Kefalonia and Croatia, another through the Corinth Canal and into the Aegean, then up to Thessalonika and down the coast of Turkey. And so it went on, especially once the business was sold and I could fully retire in 2011.

The Trader 64 in which Martin explored large swathes of the Mediterranean

Change of pace

By 2018, and at 68 years of age, I began to feel like I had seen all there was to see of the Mediterranean. I was ready for a change but what would I do next and where could I go from there?

At around the same time, I bumped into a friend who told me that he had a boat in Holland and was cruising the canals and rivers of Europe. He talked enthusiastically about the restfulness of travelling at a sedate 4 knots and stopping whenever he wanted to.

And the absence of waves. And the 50,000km of waterways running through the heart of Europe. I asked him how many miles a day he covered – 40? 50?

Transiting the Corinth Canal on board Kuna was one of the highlights of Martin’s Med-based adventures

“More like 10,” he responded. “You turn a couple of bends, see a nice little town or village and just stop. If you like it, you stay a few days. Or maybe a week if it’s nice. It’s not about going, it’s more about being.”

It all sounded rather appealing, as did the cost: Mallorca is expensive. A permanent berth will set you back around €30,000 per annum and a single overnight stop for a boat like mine in Sóller or Ibiza is around €400 per night.

Factor in the cost of fuel, at one mile per gallon, and it all adds up to a very expensive pastime. Compare this with the Netherlands where you pay just €15-25 per night for a 50ft boat which can do seven miles to the gallon.

My friend reckoned that the running costs would probably be a tenth of the cost of Kuna. And being based in Holland meant that I could throw everything in the car and drive there – no more airports and flights. Bliss!

And so a plan began to form. I’ve always loved projects and the idea of designing my ultimate boat for cruising the waterways of Europe really caught my imagination. But where to start?

I began searching the internet for Dutch manufacturers who could build a truly bespoke boat but it proved surprisingly difficult. Linssen makes lovely boats but not to the level of customisation I wanted and most of the truly bespoke yards are small family-owned affairs with very basic websites. So how was I going to find somebody to build exactly what I wanted?

Martin’s put all his hard-earned experience into specifying his new custom-built Smelne 1590

As luck would have it, I was flicking through an issue of Motor Boat & Yachting when I saw an article about a second-hand Stevens 43 being sold by Karl Farrant Marine Sales and built by Smelne Yachtcenter BV in Holland.

The boat looked nicely built and the article mentioned that Smelne would build anything the customer wanted. I called Karl and we chatted about the kind of thing I might want. I immediately warmed to him and liked the idea of having someone in the UK, with 25 years of experience, helping me to spec the boat and act as a go-between with the factory.

So the following week my partner, Linda, and I met up with Karl and looked round a couple of boats – we even took one out. It was a beautiful calm, sunny day, which always helps, and I was amazed at how quiet and easy to handle it was.

Martin and Linda felt the time was right to try a different style of boating on the waterways of Europe

I was hooked! And Linda, who’s a decorative artist, seemed to be getting very excited about choosing colours, carpets and curtains.

We had already decided that the new boat had to be a ‘home from home’ that was spacious but above all quiet, warm, comfortable and solidly built. Having been boating for 20 years I had a pretty good idea what I wanted and, more importantly, what I didn’t!

Design for life

Smelne makes a range of boats but, having been used to a 20-metre Trader, its trawler yacht was the one for me. With an LOA of almost 16 metres, it is wider and heavier than the others with a reassuringly thick 6mm steel hull.

Amity’s bare steel hull being transported to the paint shop for fairing and finishing

A trip to Holland followed and I was surprised at how large the site was but how few employees they had – around 14 in total. I learned that Smelne had started in the 1960s as a family boat-building business and at one point was selling around 30 production boats a year.

The family sold the business in the 2008 but when the new owner got into financial difficulties, Wypke Veenje, the founder’s son, bought it back and switched tack to building three or four custom-built boats a year rather than competing in the production boat market.

However, he kept the huge site with its marina, showroom and extensive manufacturing facilities as well as a core of skilled craftsmen. It was just what I was looking for – big but small.

Steps down from the aft deck

Over several meetings with Karl we worked on the specification. I wanted air conditioning, central heating, large showers, high water pressure, big tanks and a large lithium ion battery bank so that we could stay ‘unplugged’ for several days at a time.

I also wanted a big generator (15kVA), a large inverter (7kW) and, of course, two 55in televisions! This meant I also needed a really good WiFi installation. The specification just grew and grew until it was almost double the basic price and by some margin the highest spec and most expensive boat ever commissioned from Smelne.

But what a boat! After all, this was going to be my last, forever boat and I wanted to be certain I could live comfortably on it.

Amity’s home from home saloon

A big part of this was making sure it was as quiet as it could possibly be so I asked Karl if we could achieve sailing boat levels of noise, equating to less than 55dB(A) at 6 knots in the saloon.

During my brief test, I’d noticed that one of the sources of noise when sitting on the aft deck was the wake itself, so you won’t be surprised to hear that I specified a wake reduction system, extra sound insulation in the engineroom and a special propeller with a claimed 30% reduction in noise and vibration.

Done deal

I signed the order for Amity in August 2019 but there would not be much to see until early 2020 when the steel was cut and welded. The plan was to visit the boat every two or three months to check on progress with delivery due to take place in March 2021.

Thanks to full canopies and a very effective heater, the aft deck is a joy to use even on chilly spring days

Then the pandemic struck and all thoughts of regular visits evaporated. Everything had to be done via email with Klaas Hummel (who was responsible for final design and procurement of all the systems and equipment) sending photos and liaising with myself and Karl to make sure everything was as it should be.

It wasn’t easy trying to manage it all remotely but despite the pandemic Smelne was on track and in March 2021 we went over to take delivery. She looked absolutely gorgeous and when I stepped on board for the first time and asked the engineer to start the engine, he replied that he already had!

A short shakedown cruise over a few days enabled us to pinpoint any remaining issues before returning to the yard with our snagging list, but there were very few problems and all of them were quickly rectified by Smelne.

Amity’s spotless engineroom is lined with extra sound insulation for near silent passage-making

Cruising inland

In April 2021 we set sail for our first proper adventure around the Netherlands – and it was amazing. I’d driven through Holland many times and have to admit that I was fairly unimpressed but from the water, it’s a different story. It’s almost as though the Netherlands has been designed by boaters, for boaters.

There are almost as many waterways as there are roads but the scenery is so much better and the towns and villages all have fantastic facilities with marinas and town quays everywhere.

We spent the summer cruising to Amsterdam, Haarlem (nicer than Amsterdam) and down to Leiden, which a guy on the ferry said was the most beautiful town in the Netherlands. We reckon it’s a close second to Haarlem.

Berthing Dutch style

Often we covered just a few miles a day, turning left if it looked nice or right if it didn’t. We’d sometimes stay for one night, sometimes three. It simply didn’t matter because we were really enjoying just being afloat.

As summer drew to a close we found a marina near Aalsmeer where we could leave the boat for the winter and reluctantly said goodbye before heading back to the UK.

In April 2022 we picked up the boat again and headed south with a vague plan to go down to Maastricht and into France. Unfortunately, there was very little water in the rivers due to the dry summer and whilst we almost managed to get to the French border, we decided to turn back while we still could.

“In April 2021 we set sail for our first proper adventure around the Netherlands – and it was amazing”

We did run aground a couple of times but with the help of our big thrusters and fully protected propeller we managed to get ourselves off the mud without further problems.

The boat had also developed a few minor issues, including air leaking into the vacuum toilet system, which caused the pumps to activate every few minutes so Smelne suggested we bring Amity back to the yard for the winter.

This time we took a route back through the east side of Holland, arriving back at the yard in early November where she could be made perfect again over winter.

Martin and Linda now stop whenever the mood takes them to explore the towns and villages en route

Scores on the board

So now that we have enjoyed two seasons with her, what did we get right and what did we get wrong? Other than the sound reduction measures, one of the best things is the separate Eberspächer warm air heater for the aft deck.

With the canopy up, even on a cold day, it’s warm enough to sit out or eat on the aft deck and enjoy the sensation of being outside while feeling like you’re inside. It’s definitely something more boat owners should specify and it’s an all-year-round pleasure!

And wrong? Well, maybe too much deck gear. I guess I had my sea head on when I specified four large, powered capstans because being smaller than my last boat and based on the canals, they simply aren’t required.

Superyacht style cleats and railings

Likewise, the huge UltraMarine anchor and stainless steel chain that we… er… haven’t even used yet. I’m very pleased with the superyacht-style oval guardrails and oversized cleats, though, as they really do look and feel superb.

And don’t make this mistake either; being rather disappointed by the puny horn that Smelne fits as standard I upgraded to a pair of magnificent air horns. Unfortunately, they are so loud that it sounds like the QE2 is coming round the bend so we are now too embarrassed to use them!

Other good things? The hot water circulation system and water softener (instant hot water from any tap), a professional 4G wireless setup and full Mastervolt control system. Oh, and a brilliant little button right by the hob to start the generator.

No need for multiple big screen plotters when all you have to decide is whether to turn left or right

In April this year, we will return to Amity to continue our exploits over another relaxing summer. This time we might head for Berlin, or maybe carry on down to France as originally planned.

Or we might just stay in the Netherlands, because, as I said, it’s not about going somewhere, it’s about being on the water – on Amity, our beautiful second home.

First published in the May 2023 issue of MBY.

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