Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Hi Folks,

As it is now just a few days before we close the doors and put the key under the mat and consign Harry to the boarding kennels before his direct flight to London on 15th October, we thought we would give you the following news.

On Sunday 5th October we fly Auckland to LA for a stopover including 2 days in Las Vegas and 2 days in San Diego. We hope this will be our summer vacation before facing another winter in the north, however, we are very excited and look forward to our new adventure and wish you all well and thank those of you who took the time to contact us with messages of best wishes, etc, etc. Feel free to contact us at any time if we can assist with news and answers to any questions you may have.

With us staying put in London on the Thames until March 2009, Rhonda will get many opportunities to catch up on museums, castles and royalty - god help us!!

Our next blog page will be issued once we have settled onto the boat in London. Meantime, farewell and best wishes.

Monday, September 22, 2008

June 2008

Well it may not be the most colorful title for our story but until more history unfolds I guess what is there will have to suffice.

In 2004 Rhonda and I set off for a 10 week holiday to the United Kingdom with a week set down to spend in Paris to finish off what was agreed would probably be our last major trip abroad. As costly as it all was and with my inability to really concentrate on lots of the places we visited and saw due to the continued pressing desire to be back home in Albany where we had our dream house being built for us on two and a half hectares of beautiful land. All I could get to grips with was what I wanted to do on the property rather than be looking at old castles and buildings and museums etc. I guess history was a bit of a turn off as a school boy so Rhonda had to plan our visits throughout the holiday to try to keep me amused and to achieve most of the things she wanted to do and see.

As part of my rewards I guess for being a good boy and not complaining too much about how my feet and back hurt, carrying a back-pack walking castle ramparts and paths to and around gracious English homes and museums, she had booked us a trip to Edinburgh to view the famous Military Tattoo. I had often said that this would be a must for me and as both our parents had attended this world famous event years earlier and raved about it, we went to Edinburgh by train (which was an event in itself) and on our designated Tattoo date sat up in the castle on the only night it poured with rain in the week we were there. Apart from being drenched to the skin we loved the event, but little else from this cold miserable looking Dunedin of the north. If there was anywhere that “Wet ‘n Forget” should set up, it would be there. It would be a full time occupation for all the staff they could possibly employ. Green slime forever.

Sorry I digress as the other reward was that Rhonda had booked an English Narrow Canal boat for us for 12 days. These self-drive craft vary in length from 12m up to 24m and are only a couple of meters wide but are set up for tourists in every possible way from linen (with clean back ups all packed to ensure they stay fresh and dry until required) to wet weather gear to Pepper and Salts to TVs, radios, torches, toilet paper and even a pack of playing cards for any time you were feeling a bit bored.

We spent 12 days chugging gently along the narrow canals visiting pubs, and small villages, more castles and getting a real view of some superb English countryside. As the TV supplied was the equivalent to our free-to-air and the aerial was an inside one only, our stopover places to tie up for the evening were governed really by where the reception allowed for a half decent picture of Coronation Street. As a result, I sure did a lot of reading and was grateful for the amount of books left on board by previous renters.

At the conclusion of this adventure we both agreed how good it really was even though we had only traveled about 80kms in total as you always have to return to your original hire base at the conclusion of your hire period. I guess that looking back at the photos and the memories of this adventure during the months and now years since then we often spoke about how pleasant it was.

One of the things we did learn from talking to other bargers was how many folk had sold their homes and had bought barges to live on full time. Some of them were permanently moored against the bank of a canal but most were like caravans and folk quietly but surely worked there way around England enjoying life just like caravaners do here. You see many of these craft all done up with miniature flowerbeds and herb gardens growing in planter boxes on the cabin roofs and sides along with stacks of firewood and bags of coal for the inside stoves which seem to be lit from dawn to dark I guess to do the cooking on and to keep the winter cold out as some of the English canals do freeze over for a short period of time around February each year.

I hasten to add here, that we Kiwis probably imagine there are a quite a few folk who have, operate, or hire Narrow Boats but I have to say in reality there are thousands and as you travel along you get to meet a fair few and you see little marinas off to the sides of the canals which may have a couple of hundred Narrow Boats berthed in them as live aboards or just waiting to be hired or for the owners to turn up to set off on another adventure. You are never alone for long.

We ended our boating adventure saying “well that was great” and never thought we would ever consider doing it or similar again and over the years since then we have recalled many events which we saw or were a part of during that 12 days and sometimes said “Gee wouldn’t it be great to do that for a longer period of time” however, I was really thinking of the French canals as they are wider and the boats (barges) are larger and more like homes to varying degrees.

One night we decided out of the blue to sell our business and retire as I have not always enjoyed good health and stress seems to knock me about, so I asked Rhonda what would she really like to do if all this took place. As quick as a flash her reply was to go and live in England or Europe for a few years as she firmly believes she was a Pom in a previous life. Catching her at a weak moment this I said “Ok I had a dream last night” (No doubt you have heard those words before). Let’s do it, but I want to lease or buy a Dutch style barge to ‘do’ the canals of France, Belgium and the Netherlands. With some 8,600 klms of navigable waterways listed for France alone, I was sure we could find some places to fall in love with and to be able to avoid the worst of the northern winters.

We bounced the idea around for a few weeks and we seemed to really like the idea provided we could sell the business and our home and property and find a boat to suit. We spoke to anyone and everyone we could find or who was referred to us who had either, owned, hired or borrowed a barge to spend time on the French waterways. It is surprising how many Aucklanders alone have done this and some have enjoyed the experience many times over. I was hoping that by asking lots of questions I would get a mix of opinions as to how suitable and how good their experiences were. To date I have only had positive responses with most raving over the wonderful scenery, weather, food, wine and even the French people and other bargers they met along the way.

Our next questions were, “how do you get a barge and more importantly, one to suit our needs” however, that question is quite easily answered once you get onto the web and look at the amount of stock listed for sale of all sizes, styles and prices. Most of the listings are in English as well as Dutch or French so interpretation is really not too bad and the brokers we contacted were pretty open as were the individual owners. There are a number of registered fully qualified barge surveyors and valuers who work for the buyer, not the vendor and any money spent with such a person can be money in the bank. We downloaded details of many craft that looked to be of interest and discussed the merits with local boat people whose opinion we respected along with a few of the established barge people here in New Zealand who own craft in Europe.

It seemed that all of our friends and associates were saying, “Gee you wouldn’t want to buy something without seeing it first hand” which of course is great advice, so we planned a rush trip to UK, and Europe to some well known and trusted brokers plus a few private sellers to view first hand what was being offered and to see if the style of barges being offered suited our own ideas of a “floating home” and to see if the costs stacked up against what we expected to pay.

In May 2008 we flew out of Auckland on Air New Zealand on the first leg to Los Angeles with the grumpiest bunch of crew I have ever experienced. They looked like they all had marital or similar problems and sure passed this feeling on to the passengers so much so that complaints were passed on by a number of travelers including ourselves and backed it up in writing. To date, no response, so I guess the hierarchy at Air New Zealand doesn’t care too much about customer satisfaction.

After being off loaded in LA and held in transit for 3 hours where we were all eye photographed and had our finger prints taken, we were loaded back onto the same aircraft and met by a smiling, most happy London based crew you could hope to meet. What a delight to be looked after by them and they too picked up on the fact that a lot of passengers were unhappy with the previous crew and were astounded at some of the customer reports. However, that was a side issue I guess, but it sure didn’t help our own feelings of well being toward our national airline.

After some 30 hours flying plus 4 hours on the ground at Auckland awaiting departure we arrived at Heathrow wondering if they would try to put us into the infamous Terminal 5 but this was not to be the case, however, we were placed at the furtherest gate possible. Despite the moving walkways it took us almost 30 minutes to walk to immigration etc only to be waived right through and we wondered if London really was a security gate to the UK. I know this has nothing to do with buying barges but it sure opened our eyes if that was possible after all those hours of boring flight travel.

We caught the Airporter Express train to Paddington station and as usual when you arrive in London one is overwhelmed by the amount of people scurrying to and from home or places of work plus the noise created by the masses and this is compounded now by new laws which means smokers are now sent outside the stations to have their last or first drag for the day before rushing to catch their underground to home or to go somewhere so are standing in the doorways further adding to the congestion and noise of buses, taxis, trucks and cars etc.

After dragging our somewhat heavy bags out to the exits we headed along the footpath to our first hotel which was only 600 meters away, however, as luck would have it the heavens opened and hail and very heavy rain ensured we got a typical spring welcome to Old London Town.

I know that was all a bit superfluous to the real story but sometimes it is good to be able to paint a picture for people to show what was what.

Once dry and warm, Rhonda who was the self designated planner and navigator worked her magic in setting out our itinery and best method for the following day when we needed to get to Reading a near London town to view our first Dutch Barge which had been on the market for about 6 months.This first barge named Moonanbac 20m had been designed by an American yacht designer and engineer so as you can imagine all the engineering and building was very well carried out and it had had very little use as the owner was away all most all of the time sailing around the world. He must have had legs and arms longer than any person we know as the dining table was set on a plinth which Rhonda could not even climb onto and the bed mattress was set so high she would have needed a ladder to get into it. This all was a bit disappointing but as it was the first we had seen and we were optimistic we talked for ages about how we could change things to suit our needs. These ideas soon faded once we had viewed more craft later on however.
On day 2 we traveled again by train for approx 4 hours to where the owners of a 17m barge named Unique where the owners had agreed to collect us from the local railway station Doncaster just south of York. The train trip was great as it was fast, smooth and warm as yes you guessed, it the weather was cool and overcast to say the least. After a good ¾ hour wait on arrival standing on the platform feeling a bit peeved, a couple in a little van pulled up and asked us if we were the Blakies’ who were to look at their barge. We squeezed into the van and headed off on approx 1 hour drive to his so called marina which was nothing more than a security fenced section of canal at Pollington where he and about 10 other barges had permanent moorings plus little sheds set up along side where they could keep additional living stuff as this was their home. It was a wind swept treeless low lying area some 30km from the coast but the canal led down to the port of Goole so the bargers could go off for a few nights or days at any time.
"Unique" was quite beautiful with 2 cabins and a lovely saloon and galley and she had been built new to meet their live aboard needs. She was very warm as they had a small wood burner cheerfully glowing in the corner so all was snug and dry. This was a real barge/home and despite being slightly smaller than what we really wanted, we considered it could fit our needs if nothing better turned up.

We stayed in the great city of York overnight and as Sunday dawned a fine clear sunny day we set off walking to the National Railway Museum which we had visited the last time we were in York, plus the world famous cathedral. The railway museum is really breathtaking if you have any sense of railway history. The museum is a huge railway station and set-up yard where under cover you can view trains from Stephenson’s Rocket to parts of The Orient Express and The Flying Scotsman to carriages from the latest Japanese Bullet Train. It is mind boggling and in addition there is a full railway workshop where restoration of some old train engine or carriage is carried out every day. Add to this the huge storage room where 3 tiers of memorabilia from stations all over the UK along with miniature train collections are displayed. It is a must for all train buffs of all ages and is FREE.
After an early night we set off again by train to get to Gatwick airport to catch an Easy Jet flight to Toulouse in the south of France. This 1½ hour flight went without incident and we arrived in time to collect our pre-booked rental car in which we were to drive north to the River Lot where we were to visit the oldest barge we had listed to view. Well to say that driving a French car on the wrong side of the road was going to be a mission was probably a bit of an understatement as navigating out of the airport complex was bad enough and then we had to work our way to the motorway which would carry us north. Well, with Rhonda continually saying “stay on my side of the road, lane or roundabout, remember to give way to cars on your side” we joined the rushing hordes on the motorway traveling at 130 kph. Her reminders were well meant and worked well as I settled into this half forgotten skill used some 20 odd years earlier.

After some 2 hours of high speed travel and costly tolls, I suggested we get off the motorways and follow the secondary roads so we could stop to eat and to stretch our legs etc. We came across a small township about the size of Huntly where a building clearly showed the sign Restaurant. In we went to discover the biggest smorgasbord/buffet set up I have ever seen. The building seemed to be the size of a Bunnings with potted trees breaking up the various eating areas. Well, this was really the time to try out our very few words of learned French, however, thank goodness, the young waiter who greeted us could speak a heck of a lot more English than we could French so we were able to get advice from him as to how the whole system worked and what was what.

We overate due I guess to the fabulous arrays of seafood, salads, meats, breads, cheeses and desserts just sitting there awaiting our attention not to mention the array of wines and beverages and if you were not satisfied with that there was a whole a la-carte kitchen cooking up for the guests. It would appear as though this restaurant was a whole districts watering hole and Sunday was the BIG day to be seen there so here we were two little Kiwis among this horde of hungry Frenchmen.

Having been watered and fed we headed north to the area of Villeneurve-sur-Lot and followed the river along to St Sylvester-sur-Lot where we viewed a barge Affleurd’ O which was built exactly 100 years ago and was still in charter service every week during the summer. She was a real beauty but probably beyond what we wanted as a home. We stayed overnight at this little town and enjoyed the surrounds of the very famous wine district and the fact that the central focus of the township was a castle which was built some 300 years ago of sandstone and had hardly weathered at all. I wonder what the Leaky Homes Tribunal would have made of this?

We next drove to Agen d’Valence where we caught up with some kiwi folk who part owned one of Max Carters’ New Zealand designed and built barges. They had had many years of really enjoyable travel through France and enjoyed the space of this 20m barge named Whio. It was good to be able to spend a few hours with them and talk to them about the various benefits of a bigger barge etc and to actually see how well the craft had been built and performed.

Our return drive to Toulouse was uneventful apart from the illustrious navigator getting a bit confused, so again we circumnavigated the famous Toulouse Airport for what seemed to be an eternity until she spotted a hotel (any place would have done by this stage) where we gratefully checked in for a well earned nights sleep.

The next day after returning the rental car we made our way to Toulouse Railway Station to catch our first train using our Euro Rail Passes to take us to Dijon via the Mediterranean coast. The scenery was quite spectacular highlighted by the many thousands of acres of yellow flowered rape seed growing ready for harvest much of which would be used for the famous Dijon mustard. The 6½ hour train trip went quickly and we were soon ensconced in our Ibis Hotel chatting about the great trip so far.

The following morning we hired another car and made our way to St. Jean-de-Losne approximately 90kms out into the country where the marinas and brokers we wanted to visit were located. This most beautiful part of the world is so popular with barging and boating folk due to the number of rivers and canals that meet in this area. We looked at various barges at Bourgogne Marine and the large American Broker, H20. All in all I guess there would have been 250 to 300 barges and riverboats berthed here so it was a “boat buyer’s paradise”. Apart from having a wonderful lunch at a small riverside restaurant enjoying the chatter and banter of many nationalities particularly with some of whom we were able to chat to and exchange email addresses, we gathered much information to digest once we had made our back to our Dijon hotel.

Our next stop would be Rotterdam in The Netherlands via Brussels, so another wonderful train trip was ahead of us. Arriving in Rotterdam in the early evening, accommodation was hard to find and we were pretty exhausted by this time, however, we eventually found a nice hotel and we crashed out.

Rotterdam is a big city and being one of the busiest ports in Europe has a lot to offer, however, we only had time to visit a main broker with whom we had corresponded with on the internet regarding a couple of potential craft to look at. The Rotterdam Yacht Club Marine Brokers were offering a vessel called Mare which we fell in love with and found her to be quite different from standard barges and gave another perspective to consider. While we had to rule out Mare due to her deeper than normal draught, she would be a beautiful live-aboard vessel. We also viewed another couple of craft which lay nearby but they were not of real interest to us so we moved on.

Amsterdam was to be our next stopover so another short train trip delivered us to the very busy hub of this city from where we found our way to suitable accommodation. We decided we would have a day off from looking at barges so took a side trip to visit the Kneuf Tulip Gardens where the last week of the Tulip Festival was being celebrated. This is a site to behold and should not be missed and the 80 acres is jammed full of the hundreds of varieties of tulips, azaleas, soft oaks, redwoods and other northern hemisphere trees and shrubs.

The next day was spent in holiday fashion exploring the streets, shops and canals of Amsterdam and sampling the wonderful atmosphere of this vibrant city.

Early next morning we hired yet another car and traveled north to Harlingen which is across the giant dyke which separates the North Sea from the Zyderzee and is where the famous “Boy placed his finger in the dyke” to save Holland story is based. Harlingen is an industrial/fishing town with few attractive features that we could see, however, the boat building skills are re-knowned worldwide. Here we met with a private vendor who was selling his yet to be completed 16m dutch barge and we were very impressed with his openness and honesty and willingness to help us in any way he could.

While his boat would be too small for us, he directed us to the owner of Multiships where we viewed some large barges being built for customers, 23m to 28m models, which were out of our price bracket but he did offer us his private vessel for sale. This vessel was a 19m beauty which we again fell in love with and made us reconsider what our actual needs were versus our earlier preconceived ideas. Kimberley was again priced too high for us but convinced us that there would be craft of this standard available somewhere as long as we kept looking.

Our return road trip to Amsterdam followed by a train trip to Bruge (via Brussels again) in Belgium allowed us to visit an English couple who had brought their barge from London to live on in this delightful city often referred to as a fairytale city due to its magnificent architecture, churches and quaint shops and waterways. Theo is a 21m replica dutch barge which was 12 years old and which the owner had commissioned and completed the finishing work to a pretty high standard. She was a lovely comfortable craft and we were keen to consider her as a likely contender, however, a week after we viewed her some other Kiwis walked on and bought her outright. That’s the way it goes.

From Bruge we caught the Euro rail back to London (via Brussels again) whizzing under the English Channel in 20 minutes arriving at Kings Cross Station just in time to find somewhere to stay overnight.
Being a Saturday the next day, all Rhonda wanted to do was go to Westminster Abbey but I decided we should go to view another few boats so off we traveled again by train to Lowerstoft near Norwich in the lowlands. This is aptly described as the whole area appears to be a bog with just drains allowing stock to feed on the paddocks which appear to just above the water level. It is also world renowned for its bird and waterfowl life.

In Lowerstoft we visited a “builders yard” where we understood replica barges were being built on a regular basis. We found a couple who were trying to finish off their 17m craft and who traveled every weekend from London to carry out their work of love but we feel it will be many years before that boat reaches the water. Our guide, Ron, then advised us that the company who had directed us up there were not to be relied upon so took us to another yard where competitors were building hulls and other vessels which looked to be much more developed. We felt a bit cheated but we were assured by Ron that this really was a major boat building area for the North Sea Oil Exploration and fishing fleets of old. This meant the skills were still available provided one could find the appropriate people to build a vessel to suit. Sadly this town is slipping backwards as both of the above industries wind into their closing years. Back to London again by train via Norwich this time arriving at our hotel in time to pack and get ready for our homeward journey the next morning.

In conclusion, we had learned an awful lot from this very rushed and somewhat expensive trip through so many countries and regions but it confirmed to us that not only did we want to venture into this way of life for a number of years that by carefully choosing we would find a boat to suit both our needs and budget and the experience learnt would make us better selectors of any craft offered for sale.

Another 24 hour flight via Hong Kong followed and while we were pretty exhausted from the travel and the rush we considered it to be well worthwhile giving us the chance to evaluate both the market and to see product of all sorts first hand and would recommend any person interested in doing what we are going to do to do a similar evaluation visit or get someone they can trust to scope out what is required to meet their budget and perceived likes etc.

Once back home to Albany we sat down and perused all the material we had gathered during this trip and evaluated it alongside the stuff we had collected earlier from the various websites etc, somewhat made us reset our targets and budgets and decided that once the house was sold we would “go for it” so that we could make our way through this new adventure before health or other reasons got in the way. As our solicitor has always declared “This isn’t a dress rehearsal and you only get one real chance”.

Having previously met with the renowned Max Carter designer and overseer before we went overseas and who has had more years experience in drawing up boats and yachts than I have had birthdays, we asked him to draw up an 18 m barge to our specifications with the idea of perhaps having it built here and shipped over to Europe as he had done with some previous 4 barges of varying sizes.

Max was both generous with his time and advice and even accompanied us to Thames to meet a couple who were back in New Zealand for a couple of months of Kiwi summer before they returned to their barge in Belgium. Harvey and Jill had spent the previous three northern summers there and felt they would probably go and live on their barge full time from this year onward.

In the meantime, I started to get shipping quotes for the Auckland to Brussels voyage and having been advised by Max that he thought around US$ 35,000.00 would cover this, we were blown away by quotes around US$ 60,000.00 plus 25% surcharge for CAF and BAF which meant adding another NZ$ 100,000 .00 to the overall price to build the barge here in New Zealand. Despite assurances that there may be cheaper shipping by the time we built the craft, we were feeling very nervous and as a result decided to revisit some of the barges we had seen for sale during our visit to see if they had since sold or if the prices had softened. Some had sold, others were still on offer but with little or no softening of pricing at that time so we were feeling pretty deflated to be honest.

Max suggested reducing the size of the barge we wanted him to have built to 16 meters to reduce shipping costs and while we were tempted to do so we believed this compromised what our dream of having a home on the water was all about.

By chance Rhonda revisited an old website, where private vendors could list their craft for sale etc, and it was there that she spotted a May listing for a 21m barge called at that time Taraluh and the more she read about it the more she got excited so got me out of bed at around 11.00pm one evening to read the specs etc. Being a person who likes to retire reasonably early, around 8.00pm, I was not all that impressed by her insistence to respond to “Ken, you have just got to get up and read about this barge. I think it is what we have been looking for”. As I had heard this appeal at least 50 times over the previous 6 months I am sure, however, I dragged myself down to the computer room to read the specs and view the photos and to be honest I got real excited by what I read and saw until that is, the price came up and I nearly choked but was still drawn on by her beauty (the barge that is) and the specs she had been built to with all the extras which we had never seen on any other barge over there during our visit or even previous web searches. The closest thing to the quality was Max Carters design and built vessels.

Taraluh literally showed us it had everything we had wanted or dreamed of having on a barge in every way and more. After an exchange of emails with the owner who lived in London and finding the vessel was berthed in a marina not far from Heathrow airport,we learned a whole lot more about this 2006 model and why she was built and fitted out the way it was and why she was for sale etc, etc.

We advised the owner that we were interested but were waiting for final news that our home had been sold (unconditional) in other words and waited with baited breath to see if he would accept our cash offer to buy at a much reduced price from that asked due to the fact that we deducted brokerage fees from the figure then deducted another sum for what we felt this market may fall by, based on what was happening here in the New Zealand and Australian marine markets. It was all probably a bit cheeky but after being involved with Asians buying our home and the cheek of them I thought “damn it, here goes”.

Well the gods must have been looking down on us as that very week the house sale was confirmed and deposit banked and then a reply from the owner of Taraluh accepted our offer. Well, to say we were excited is a huge understatement and I had to keep pinching myself to understand it was true and we now owned subject to the usual legal search etc, our dream barge and while she is moored in London, not in Europe as planned it is all working out fine.

The owner had paid for his berthage right through to April 2009 so we have free moorings at this very up-market marina with full facilities for the remaining period of the berthage license as well as exchange rights to some other 2 marinas on the Thames which are owned by the same group including one at St Katherine's Dock right in central London by Tower Bridge so Xmas shopping will be a whole new experience in this the BIG APPLE of England.

While we are not so keen on spending the winter in this region it will sure give us time to get used to the barge and the rules and regulations set for boating in this area and to getting all our French nautical needs sorted before we get her over to France in March 2009.

It is now September 2008 so with Harry, the dog inoculated and vaccinated for rabies etc and costing around $ 4000.00 to get him over to the UK with us and having already sold a fair bit of our furniture and personal effects on Trade Me and shipped some 17 cartons of personal effects including Dads Lazy Boy chair to London, we are sure cutting our ties here so it is now time to buy the tickets and get ready to take off on our new and exciting adventure and while it will be a real wrench to leave family and friends we can look forward to their promised visits to come stay with us somewhere in Europe over the next few years.

Our plans are to fly out on the 8th October and to spend a few days in LA/San Diego getting a touch of summer before we face the northern winter and will arrive in London 13th October to begin the new adventure. We say Farewell for now and look forward to your continued emails with all the news from “Down Under”