Building An Aluminium Narrowboat – Part 9

Continued from part eight

9th & final Sea Otter Boat progress report.

16th of January 2014.

Me and my Sea Otter Boat are now on the Lancaster Canal, and I’m looking back over the last two and a half years.  I have had a few major teething problems a couple of years ago, and some were avoidable.  For example, that concerning the calorifier.

But I can’t blame Sea Otter for my faulty gearbox, which needed changing after two days usage.  That must be down to Nanni, or their agents Peachments.

Remember the bill I paid from Kate Boats for £1,107.08 for the gearbox to be replaced, along with my first service ?  Peachments (the agents for my Nanni Engine) eventually only supplied a new gearbox and paid the £350.00 + VAT, which was  the labour cost of replacing the gearbox, but not the £400.00 + VAT for the craning in and out.  The craning was necessary because Sea Otter do not recommend replacing the gearbox when the boat is in water, because of the particular type of stern-gear that they fit.  The boat could sink if the work is carried out with the boat in the water, they say !  Sea Otter advised me to chase Peachments for that cost, their reasoning being that, if there hadn’t been a problem with the gearbox, there would have been no need for the craning.

But Peachments turn the coin and say that :-  (Quote)

“We have never understood why the boat had to be taken out of the water to change a gearbox?
This is not covered under Nanni warranty and we did not give the go ahead for the boat to be lifted so we are unable to cover the cost of the boat lift.”

In the end, and as a gesture of goodwill, Sea Otter pay me half of the £400.00 + VAT for the cranage for which and I am very grateful.  Peachments paid nothing towards that.

Despite my teething problems I CERTAINLY DO NOT regret buying a boat from Sea Otter.   It was fun helping to plan it, and I thank Paul and Anthony for all the time they’ve spent discussing the various aspects and design features with me.  Some of my original ideas were used, and some were not, by mutual consent.  They permitted me unlimited access during the building of the boat.  They provided all the right paperwork including a purchase form approved by the RYA which protects both sides.   The stage payments were requested (and of-course paid) at all the correct times.  Okay, it was completed a little later than promised, but that’s better than corners being cut to rush the job through on time.  And very importantly I have a “Boat Safety Certificate” !   This gives me great peace of mind.  No nasty surprises when the boat is 4 years old and out of guarantee.

There will always be teething problems with a new boat, and I commend Sea Otter and their team for resolving all my problems, small and large, efficiently and as quickly as possible, which is all very reassuring.

So far I’ve just told you about my experiences.  I haven’t been giving advice.  But here’s some.

If you are considering having a boat built, in addition to the usual precautions, I advise you to specify the following :-

1)     Get a RYA approved agreement form filled out by both you and the builder from square one.

2)     Have it in writing that you will be supplied with a Boat Safety Scheme certificate (BSC) on completion and before the final payment needs to be paid, even if you need to pay for the examination yourself, but preferably not.

(It should be noted here that my BSC examination was carried out by Peter Hopley, from Denton, Manchester, and that Sea Otter paid for and arranged for the examination for me… you may smell a rat.  But the fact that Peter initially failed my boat on five points proves to me that there was no collusion, and I have the greatest respect for both the very thorough examination process, and for Peter himself, and for the integrity of all concerned.)

3)     Get the following in writing :-

“The builder will be responsible for the costs of removing the boat from the water, and returning it to the water, if the undertaking of any warranty work by the builder or his agent/s necessitates this.”

Get the builder to agree to these 3 conditions right from the start.  And finally…..

4)     When you take delivery of your new boat, choose, if you can, a mooring close to the builder for the first few weeks, if not a month or two !  It will make it easier for them to solve your teething problems (and you will have them) so they’re more likely to be rectified quickly !

I like my boat very much, but before concluding my report I’d like to tell you about the 14 things that I PARTICULARLY like about it :-

1)     I like my engine.  This Nanni 43HP engine produces no unpleasant fumes whatsoever during normal use. At no time have I detected fumes in deep locks.  Combined with its reassuringly regular heart-beat, it makes a perfect engine for my boat.

2)     I like my trace heating, which will maintain my piece of mind through the winter months.  I know I’ve mentioned it before, but just in case you missed it, the trace-heating wires run alongside the water pipes throughout the boat, except those already protected by having anti-freeze inside.  This is a photograph of the thermostat which is located in the drying (calorifier) cupboard.

Trace heating thermostat

When the temperature drops to near freezing, the thermostat permits mains electricity to flow through the wire, it heats up, and stops the water within the pipes freezing.  No need to drain water systems down.  But for obvious reasons you DO NEED A DEPENDABLE 240V SUPPLY !

Sea Otter will fit this system for you as an optional extra.

3)   I like my “Smart Gauge”.   What a great bit of kit this is, the most useful feature is that it tells me the power left in my battery bank as a percentage of when fully charged.  That is so useful !  Let me give you four examples why.  (Bear in mind my battery bank has a 540 amp-hour capacity, and I have two 100 amp alternators fitted.)

a)     I know that if I have my microwave on full power for 10 minutes through the inverter I use
3.5% of the power in my battery bank.

b)     My Webasto boiler uses 4% of my battery bank power per hour.

c)     It can take 2 hours of cruising to charge my batteries up by 10%.

d)     I can recharge my batteries by 8% per hour by running the engine at 1200 rpm in neutral.

Just the sort of information you need to ensure that you maintain a good charge in your batteries.

4)    I like my boarding plank !  I like it VERY much, because it typifies the attention to detail that Sea Otter pay when building their boats, even when fabricating such a mundane item of equipment.  It’s made of aluminium so it’s light;  It’s painted to match the boat;  It is well located in retaining brackets, along with a very nice aluminium pole with a wooden handle;  It doubles up as a water escape ladder, with anti-slip paint, and complete with foot-holes !

Boarding plank & pole
(Actually, the “plank” wasn’t finished when the boat was launched, so Anthony posted it to me to Crick Marina !  But it was just a little bit wider than the supporting brackets on the top of my boat.  Luckily I carry a suitable file in my heated tool-store, which I used to remove a couple of mm off the bracket….and left it at that !  On a normal steel boat I would have needed to prime the open wound with a rust-prevention product, followed by a coat or three of red-oxide, and then apply a couple of coats of green paint, AND collect up all the iron filings before they rusted on the top of the boat!)

Incidentally, in the photograph of my boarding plank, see what I mean about my tiller being longer than usual  ?

5)     I like my lounge.   The two settees allow us to relax sitting looking forward, with a back-rest, and  feet up, rather than compulsorily looking sideways across the boat.

This photograph shows the front end of the lounge, with my home-made log-box (under a cushion) between the end of the starboard side settee and television cabinet:-
Front end of lounge
With the addition of 3 wooden in-fills (one of which doubles as an excellent fold-up-table) the gap between the settees converts into a massive full-width bed.

Both of my lounge radiators are hidden behind the sofa backs, but easily exposed by the simple removal of a specially made back cushion on each side.

Here is the starboard settee in normal “Summer Mode” :-

Lounge settee in Summer mode
And in “cold-winter-night-mode”, radiator exposed :-

Lounge settee in cosy Winter mode

And my heated tool-store under the same settee, with access from side or top :-

Heated tool store

6)     I like my sky-lights !  Two of the eight are shown on the same photograph as my boarding plank.  Their main job is as a ventilator, and very important for the BSS, but they also let lots of light in !  I really don’t need roof-hatches, houdini hatches or prisms with eight of these !  And they look good from the outside too….low, inconspicuous, and not likely to be nicked !  The one in the kitchen does a THIRD job, because in addition to letting air & light in, it incorporates a dual-speed dual-direction fan.  The one in the shower does a FOURTH job, because it has a fan AND a 12v light in it !  All standard on a Sea Otter Boat of this length.

7)     I very much like the fact that I haven’t run aground in the relatively shallow waters experienced by almost everyone on the Lancaster Canal this year.  And in the last two and a half years I have not had to remove anything to speak of wrapped around the prop !  And I was most definitely moored closer to the sides than any other boat in the location on many occasions !

8)     I like the fact that my engine bay looks as good as the day I took delivery.  No rust down there, just sparkling shiny aluminium!   Any leak easily spotted !

9)     I washed and waxed my boat the other week, and it was a much more pleasant job than I thought it would be.  In doing so I appreciated how very smooth the paintwork is, and because of that,  the end result was very satisfying.  You get to know the irregularities very intimately when doing this job, and I can tell you that there are very few.

10)     I actually like my airing cupboard very much, even though the leaking calorifier was a problem for a day or two all that time ago.  I was told that the modern calorifiers are so well insulated that the amount of heat escaping is not enough to dry clothes.  But most of the heat in the cupboard doesn’t come from the calorifier…but from all the pipes leading to and from it !  I can tell you, that after I’ve been cruising for an hour I can put a selection of wet clothes and a wet towel on the rails inside, and they’ll be dry within a couple more hours.  I would NOT want all that useful heat to be dissipated in my engine bay where it is least needed.

11)     I like my Squirrel Stove.  And of-course it’s aluminium surround !  I quickly learnt how to keep the stove going all night, and get it going quickly in the morning.  Even in the wintery months we use the Webasto and the mains heaters only very rarely.  Of-course the bedroom won’t be very warm, but that suits us fine.


12)     I like my Wesley windows.   They have attractive curved tops incorporating removable hoppers, which can be left in the open position in most rainy conditions for ventilation.  Below the hopper is a large sliding glass section half the size of the window, which allows excellent air-flow on hot days.

Kitchen window

As it happens, I did have a leak from one, but Gary from Wesley came to my boat to fix my problem the very next day….from Newark !

13)     I like my television aerial !  Sea Otter do not fix television aerials to their boats as standard bits of kit, because everyone wants something different.  So I thought I’d use my old magnetic clamp to support my Omni globe aerial……well we all have our bad days.  Fortunately I realised, before going to a lot of trouble, that magnets and aluminium are not in the least bit attracted to each other, so I asked Sea Otter to add an aluminium tube somewhere to support an aerial.  As usual they thought of an excellent solution, by welding an aluminium tube behind the starboard grab-handle on the bow bulkhead, and of-course they painted it to match the boat.  Within this aluminium tube is another smaller one, and an even smaller one within that, and some stainless steel wing nuts too.  I now have an inconspicuous aerial mast which can telescope up to about 20 feet high, on the top of which I can clamp a decent DM Log aerial in a matter of moments for a perfect picture.

I hope you can see it on this photograph taken just 2 months ago, when the boat was well over two years old !

14)     I particularly like my fenders, because I don’t need any !  You’ll see from the photograph above that there are two thick rubber strakes fitted right along the sides of the boat.  These are very thick and very strong, and very well glued on, and I don’t require additional ones hanging down the side of the boat (even though Sea Otter did provide 8 recessed fender eyes, which I tend to use for other purposes).     The exception is when I’m moored up for the evening, and I drop one or two of my big white fenders down between the boat and the bank, as shown here, which promotes a peaceful nights sleep.

You may notice an additional thick rubber pipe (reinforced internally with steel) hanging down at the bow, which is held on by rope passed through it.  One end of the rope is tied to the chain holding the bow fender on.  The other end of the rope is tied to the first of the recessed fender eyes along the side of the boat.  Well, I added that rubber pipe myself, just as additional protection, which I also did to my previous steel boat.  It is actually 2″ fuel delivery hose, from Centre Tank Services.

Incidentally, in that photograph I’m moored at the Tewitfield picnic corner, the most Northern and most shallow part of the presently navigable Lancaster Canal, and I’m almost against the bank, despite being on a bend !  Most boats can’t get within 2 foot of the bank at that spot !

And you may notice I have my shorter Morso “cruising” chimney” on, not my longer mooring chimney !

It is hard for me to think of some things that I don’t particularly like about my boat, but after much thought, I ‘ve come up with only 4 :-

1)     The first.  My “intercalated generator” which is attached to the end of my Nanni Engine.  The reason I’ve chosen that is because it cost me 2.5 grand, and it only generated 240volts at the relatively high revs required to stop me going South on the River Severn.  It’s a nice bit of kit if you can maintain 1,600 revs to 2,000 revs on your canal cruise.  I can sometimes if I really need to, but I don’t often want to.  I cannot blame Sea Otter for my bad decision regarding that.

2)     The second.  I had a little problem with light switches……I usually enter the boat at the stern, where there are 2 handy light switches.  One of these turns the lights on in the bedroom, and the other turns the lights on in the corridor up to the loo, approaching the kitchen.  But once I’ve reached the next switch bank in the kitchen, I need to backtrack, because there isn’t a switch in the kitchen to turn off either of the aforementioned lights in bedroom or corridor.  But, I’ve got round the problem, by locating LED sensor lights on top of the radiator pipes.  If it’s dark (and only when it’s dark) they come on as I walk towards them, and go off a few minutes later.  Perfect !

3)     The third.  I did experience condensation in some of the cupboards in the Winter.  Particularly in my small kitchen cupboard fitted under the gunnels on the starboard side, but also in the shower-room vanity unit.  But I’ve found that fitting vents into the doors almost eradicates the problem.  I’ve fitted quite a few measuring 165 X 75mm from part number 51044 and they’re under a couple of quid each.

I’m very happy with the type of sheet foam insulation that they used in my boat, and the way it was fitted.  I get no condensation anywhere else apart from the windows and frames, and I’ve devised ways of coping with that.

I don’t know the facts here, but I sometimes wonder if aluminium transmits heat more quickly than steel !  Because…..the inside of my boat cools down more quickly than I remember my previous steel boat doing, and conversely, seems to heat up more quickly when the Sun shines on it !!  But this is not a big problem with 3 heating systems, and large openings in all the windows.

4)     The fourth & final one, and I really can’t blame Sea Otter for this extra expense, but over the last two years I’ve felt it necessary to change all 31 of my Halogen bulbs for LEDS (from Midland Chandlers) thus reducing my 12v lighting power consumption by 90%.

And finally I’ll correct a few commonly-held misconceptions about Sea Otters :-

My Sea Otter gets blown about in the wind no more than my previously-owned steel boat of about the same length.   Some folk think because it’s made of aluminium it’ll be too light……not with the water ballast system and all my gear in it it isn’t !

I’ve given my boat a couple of really good whacks against parts of locks.  Of-course I did both deliberately to test the strength of the boat, but as a consequence it suffered no damage except for a minor tear to the “rubber bumper” which surrounds the boat, bits of which can easily be replaced or repaired.  None of my experiences indicate that my Sea Otter boat is less strong than my previous steel boat.

A final word on water leak detectors !  Every boat should have AT LEAST ONE !  Here’s just a few of my 11 !

Detector & water pump
Detector & shower pump
Detector & calorifier
Detector & internal bilge access

Detector & engine bilge
(The water detector contacts in the last photograph are held in position a couple of inches above the base plate with the black velcro)


I have every reason to think that this boat will last and look good for many years to come, with relatively little maintenance.  With no rust preventative measures to take, I should have a lot more time to relax on it rather than working on it !  And that, if you remember reader, was the main reason I chose Sea Otter to build my boat in the first place.  Well done Sea Otter.

Useful contacts & numbers ?

Sea Otter Boats.  Paul & Anthony.  01246 470005  Tell them Brian (On Cloud Wine) sent you.

Me.  Brian. 07774 141916.

10% discount for my reader at my Spanish beach-side holiday rental apartments:-

2″ Fuel delivery hose from   Part number WH1

Kitchen sliding baskets.  Part number 106 4025

B & Q pull-out sliding rack.  Part number 3082478

Kate Boats.  ALWAYS just across the canal when needed. Nick, Molly & Cheryl. 01926 492968

Stratford Marina.  John & Heather.  01789 778358

Peter Hopwood.  BSC examiner (Manchester) 0161 336 2680

Water-leakage detectors.  I’ll advise on application !

Heat-trace freeze protection.  Martin.  01483 825193

Vents for cupboard doors. 020 7228 1183

Wesley Marine Windows, Newark.  Angie & Gary.  01636 704363

Useful Information
Paul Smith

After six and a half years living on a narrowboat on England's inland waterways, Paul and his wife Cynthia wandered Europe by motorhome during the winter, and on the Dutch and French waterways in the warmer months on their 35' Dutch motor cruiser. However, the pull of England's muddy ditches proved too much for them. Now they're back where they belong, constantly stuck in mud in a beautiful traditional narrowboat.