If you’d rather ply the inland waterways than explore offshore, there are plenty of bargains to be had. Nick Burnham picks out four of the best riverboats for sale
After years of offshore boating, a friend of mine relocated due to work and took up inland waterway boating instead.
He described it as the most relaxing form of boating in the world. Navigation is easy, you just need to decide whether to go upstream or down. Short of a full-blown gale the weather conditions are largely irrelevant (and there’s not much stopping you boating in a gale, it’s just getting on and off the mooring that might be a little lively).
But best of all was his description of the lack of peril. “If your engine breaks down, you just drift into the bank, tie up and either fix it or wander off to look for help. Even if it sinks, you’ve only got to climb onto the roof as it settles into the mud and wait for someone to come past.”
If this sounds like the life for you, here are four very different but equally suitable boats. From a dedicated narrow boat or a ‘VW camper for the water’, through to a steel cruiser or a boat equally adept offshore, there should be one that fits the bill for you.
Stevens VLET 950 Special
Built by the Smelne yard in the Netherlands, this steel cruiser is badged a Stevens (rather than Smelne) which means it was built to a high UK-specific standard specification and is British Safety Scheme compliant from the off.
Being a Smelne built boat, a huge amount of personal customisation would have been available to the original owner; no two Smelne boats are ever exactly the same.
With two permanent vee berths tucked way in the fore cabin (an infill turns these into a double berth) and the rest of the beautifully trimmed interior given over to living space, this is a terrific day cruiser or a great escape boat for a couple.
There’s a decent sized, well equipped galley on the lower deck opposite the heads, leaving the main deck almost entirely as living space. Deep windows down both sides enable you to watch the world go by even when seated at the dinette. The indoor helm does without a fixed seat so you can either stand or pull up a chair.
Wide-opening saloon doors connect the interior and cockpit. Side decks are low, broad and well protected by high rails. Of particular note is a generous lazarette beneath the cockpit sole with plenty of space for folding bikes and bulky items.
The boat’s standard engine is a single Volvo Penta shaft drive diesel. It’s very well insulated, keeping noise levels to a minimum, and gives the 950 a maximum speed of about 7 knots flat out, with an easy cruising speed of up to 6 knots and a level of fuel consumption that’s simply not worth worrying about.
Seakeeping might be largely irrelevant for a riverboat, but actually the Stevens Vlet 950 is pretty good. A very low saloon floor means that you get little of the pendulum effect that exaggerates the roll you’d experience higher up on the aft deck of an aft cabin boat, and it’s a very solid, steady performer capable of admittedly low speed estuary or coastal work.
Bilge keels were also an option (in fact pretty much anything on a Smelne built boat was an option) but were rarely specified.
LOA: 31ft 1in (9.5m)
Beam: 10ft 1in (3.1m)
Draught: 3ft 0in (0.9m)
Displacement: 6 tonnes
Fuel capacity: 300 litres
Engines: Volvo Penta D2 55hp diesel
Contact: TBS Boats
‘A VW camper van on the water’ was the thinking behind the Haines 26, according to the manufacturer’s managing director Justin Haines, who describes the boat as a ‘perfect weekender’.
Built at the family-run Haines yard in Catford, Norfolk, the Haines 26 is the smallest boat in the range but every bit the quality build of its larger siblings.
Two layouts were offered, one with a small single cabin to starboard and a double forward and the other the open-plan layout you see here.
In reality, every boat built so far has had the open-plan option, which puts a neat dinette at the front of the cabin and a settee/berth opposite the galley, which pulls out to create a double berth creating sleeping inside for four people.
The wood interior is available in a lighter oak finish or the classy darker walnut of this boat, and a fixed glass ‘skyscreen’ in the cabin roof as well as a perspex foredeck hatch allow plenty of natural light into the interior.
A simple cockpit, wide non-slip side decks and a double foredeck seat sum up the exterior of the Haines 26. A transom door gives easy access to the bathing platform and the canopy is quick and easy to erect. Bonded windows and the powder coated black framed windscreen (which folds flat) give the boat a contemporary look.
The single Nanni N4.38 38hp diesel engine of this boat is an upgrade on the standard N3.30. Both are shaft drive for simplicity and reliability. An entirely river friendly top speed of 7 to 8 knots makes typical 5 knot inland cruising a doddle and even with a fuel capacity of just 135 litres, you’ll rarely need to stop for a refill.
The hull majors on low wash and stability, exactly what’s needed for inland waters. Manoeuvrability is also a prerequisite and a bow thruster is a must with a single shaft drive. Amazingly, most Haines 26 models left the factory with not just this but a stern thruster too, allowing the boat to go completely sideways at the touch of the thruster controls.
LOA: 26ft 0in (7.9m)
Beam: 10ft 6in (3.2m)
Draught: 2ft 6in (0.8m)
Displacement: 3.75 tonnes
Fuel capacity: 135 litres
Engine: Nanni N4.38 38hp diesel
Contact: Norfolk Yacht Agency
Aintree Wide Beam
If you’re going to cruise inland, why not buy a proper narrow boat? The name gives away the build location of this one – Aintree riverboats are constructed a mile away from the famous Grand National steeplechase in Merseyside.
Rather than a model range, Aintree will supply a boat in any length up to 70ft and to different levels of completion, from a basic hull and deck requiring fitting out through to a finished vessel.
And those lengths can be had in two widths. Standard narrowboats are 6ft 10in wide. The wide beam boats from Aintree are 12ft across, gifting massively more interior volume at the expense of not being able to access some of the narrower inland waterways.
That wide beam really makes itself felt with ‘home from home’ accommodation. Accessed from the aft cockpit, steps lead down to a large kitchen area with domestic appliances, and ahead of that is a saloon with two sofas and a wood burning stove (surely a first for an MBY used boat review!)
A passageway to starboard takes you past a guest cabin and the heads to the full-beam master cabin in the bow, complete with built-in wardrobes.
As is typical for a narrowboat, most of its length is taken up with the cabin, leaving just a small cockpit aft. But rather than a flat deck as many boats of this type have, this has the shelter of a sunken well with seating around the stern and protection from a canopy that encloses this area. The helm position is here too, with a wheel rather than the tiller that many narrowboats usually get.
Performance is probably the wrong word – it might have a 90hp Beta engine, but this is 65ft of steel barge. Nevertheless, it’s fit for purpose, allowing the boat to cruise at the kind of brisk walking pace appropriate for inland cruising.
Again, it’s not really about seakeeping with a boat like this. Sheer length should make it track straight, and there are bow and stern thrusters that will help position the boat. All you really need to get used to are the slow reactions of a long, heavy steel boat carrying this much momentum.
LOA: 65ft 0in (19.8m)
Beam: 12ft 0in (3.7m)
Draught: 2ft 2in (0.7m)
Displacement: 28 tonnes
Fuel capacity: 400 litres
Engine: Beta 90hp diesel
Contact: TBS Boats
Halvorsen Gourmet 32
Halvorsen has a fascinating history. Founded originally by a Norwegian in 1870, the family ended up building boats in Australia where they’re still based. The boats, however, are now built in China. The 32 shows more than a nod to ‘down east’ styling, with its classic simulated planking to the topsides, sweeping sheer lines and traditional superstructure with peaked overhang to the deck saloon roof.
Halvorsen has resisted the temptation to cram in two cabins. The result is a wonderfully indulgent boat for two with a big centreline double berth in the forward cabin and separate toilet and shower compartments.
Interestingly, the main deck is a galley aft layout, way before these became fashionable, tucked behind the helm on the starboard side. The port side of the deck saloon is given over to a large dinette that will convert to an occasional double if required.
The ‘old school’ profile means low, easily accessed teak-capped side decks leading up to a foredeck with a good old-fashioned Sampson post. There’s a single central door in the aft bulkhead of the deck saloon, rather than wider-opening double doors, which reduces the connection between saloon and cockpit but does create space for two sheltered aft-facing seats – a great place to tuck yourself away with a wonderful view aft.
Although the low air draught and single engine make this boat ideal for inland work, it’s more powerful than a typical riverboat at 315hp. What that creates is genuine offshore reach and a top speed of 15 knots, making this a great boat for zipping across the Channel before diving into Europe’s inland waterways. In fact Halvorsen also offered twin engined versions with a pair of 155hp or 250hp engines.
It’s a semi-displacement hull, giving good seakeeping and a comfortable ride at the expense of pushing plenty of water as it barrels through big waves rather than bouncing over them like a planing hull. At low speeds the boat tracks beautifully and a standard fit bow thruster helps with close quarter work.
LOA: 32ft 0in (9.8m)
Beam: 12ft 0in (3.7m)
Draught: 3ft 8in (1.2m)
Displacement: 7 tonnes
Fuel capacity: 719 litres
Engine: Cummins 315hp diesel
Contact: Norfolk Yacht Agency