In our latest series Howard Walker sets off from the Netherlands, heading to the Mediterranean via the French canals, but first he has a London stop-off in mind
Buying the dream
For years it had been a bucket-list dream of me and my wife, Mary Webb, to live on a boat and cruise, to do it while we were still (relatively) young – in our late 50s – and to be agile enough to enjoy the experience. And to still work part-time from the boat.
As we’d lived in the States for the past 20-odd years – I’m a Brit, my wife’s a Yank – the original plan was to buy a trawler in Florida.
We’d ‘Do The Loop’, cruising America’s Great Circle Route up the eastern seaboard, into the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.
Trouble was, most of the cool places we’d go through – Washington D.C, New York, Chicago, Tightwad, Missouri – we’d already visited many times through work. Well, maybe not the last place.
Why not buy a boat in Europe and cruise there? Why not indeed. So three years ago, we flogged everything; the waterfront home in Tampa, Florida, the beachfront condo on the Gulf of Mexico, my treasured ’76 Cadillac Eldorado convertible land-yacht. Our garage sale could have been hosted by Sothebys.
After days, weeks, months of scouring the internet, we found a full-displacement 56-foot steel AlmTrawler being sold by a broker just outside Amsterdam.
It had been built in 2005 by the DeAlm yard in Holland for Christian Swarovski, a member of the Swarovski crystal family. Sadly there were no shimmery chandeliers, or even sparkly crystal bunny rabbits, in the master cabin.
The boat is kind of unique in that it is Class A rated so capable, in theory, of traversing oceans.
But, with the ability to hydraulically lower its radar arch and shed its windscreen, it could, again theoretically, limbo under those 11-foot high bridges of the French canal system.
Its 16-foot beam also meant it should be able to ease – at a pinch – through the 17-foot wide locks.
It was well-fettled with a couple of muscly 225-horse, straight-6 Perkins Sabre turbo diesels, with big hydraulic bow and stern thrusters for turn-on-a-dime manoeuvrability.
Big steel skegs were there to protect the props and barn-door-sized rudders on the notoriously shallow canals. It was perfect.
To captain her, my wife and I took seamanship courses in France to get our ICC International Certificate of Competence tickets, primarily to learn how to stay the heck away from the 300,000-tonne barges barrelling along the Dutch rivers.
We did a VHF course in the UK to get licensed for the boat’s three radios. And 20 years of owning a sailboat in Florida taught us that a lack of forward motion usually meant we’d run aground.