- I tell you, if you want to see a hundred or more gorgeous steel cruisers you must come to Friesland!
- In 2008, the global financial crisis dealt a fatal blow to countless Dutch yards and support industries.
- I knew I’d overstayed my time in Cumbria when the claustrophobia set in.
- The Vripack 1150, for so many reasons, had the edge over the rest – it just looked ‘right’.
Grant Wyness recounts the tale of the search for the liveaboard of his dreams …
A notion that’s never failed to stir me – it pulls right at the root of my
desire to lead an interesting life. I have no memory of it ever being a bad
idea, just knew that it would have to be addressed at some point. As a young
man, I looked into the narrowboat life and quickly dismissed it. The peer
pressure to buy property and stop messing about with escapist ideology won out.
Yet it wasn’t escapism I was after – I figured a barge decked out with rugs and
sheepskins would offer an affordable nest and perhaps make me an attractive
proposition to the opposite sex. Those things were important to a 21-year-old
Grant. Not knowing himself well enough yet, he was clueless in regard to getting
his needs met.
a Pisces, it follows that water should feature in my life choices. Way back,
out of sheer necessity, I spent a part of my teens holed up in a camper van,
earning a crust by salvage diving in Australia’s Sydney Harbour near the Opera
House. With a scuba tank on my back and extra lead on my weight belt for
ballast, I dug old bottles out of the murk, selling the least valuable ones to
tourists. Lucrative as it was, the sheer number of biting and stinging things I
encountered put me off scuba diving and the salty stuff for years. Returning to
my motherland in 1987, I made new beginnings in the Lake District. To explore
those famous lakes, I restored a 1960 Windermere classic wooden speedboat,
followed by a plastic Winner Tigress. Much fun was had on Lake Windermere
before the controversial speed limit.
knew I’d overstayed my time in Cumbria when the claustrophobia set in. Had the
21-year-old Grant ignored society’s call for convention and bought his narrowboat,
it would have manifested in the form of cabin fever and disappointment. Dark still
waters and I were not well suited for the long term. The preprogramming for
locational contentment must be in your DNA somewhere. I’d always viewed living
by the sea as a life choice, not an absolute necessity. I needed a fix!
moved to Menorca; I even towed the Winner Tigress there – and back. Adventures
notwithstanding, I still hadn’t nailed a truly harmonious life. Next, water
fix. Plymouth, Devon – that’s more like it, I thought. Access to a world-class
harbour and coastline without the large biting fish to spoil my snorkelling. The
full-on watery commitment was still a long-forgotten concept, until searching
for a dayboat on the boats-for-sales with the £ slider unintentionally turned
up. Among the sea of plastic, a Dutch steel cruiser called a Stevens 1040 popped
up. It was the interior that appeared on the website first, and its vast space
and amenity[u2] threw me. I considered Dutch
steel cruisers to be canal/river boats, but this thing had twin Volvos, twin
helms and proper keels to sit on if need be – it was meant to go to sea.
wife and I made haste and viewed this boat in
situ, finding it in need of essential steelwork. It was obvious that the
boat was expertly made, and fitted out with copious rainforest materials. Woeful
neglect had beaten the gloss off her inside and out. In an impulsive moment, I
made a crazy low offer of £18,000 and it was accepted. I knew nothing of the
Stevens brand and judged it purely on what was in front of me. The potential
for a liveaboard was obvious – one that could take you across the Channel and
beyond. The reassuring solidity of its expertly welded 5mm steel was
unquestionable. What I didn’t realise was how difficult it would be to restore
a 14-ton steel boat in Plymouth. Extensive sandblasting and grinding/welding are
not marina friendly. The only feasible yard that would accept the boat had a
crane limit of 12 tons. Property development and building is my day job, and as
such I fancied getting thoroughly involved in the refurbishment. Taking the
boat to another city was not an option, so I had to let her go. The following
months of what-ifs haunted me, fuelling enthusiastic searches for another
seagoing liveaboard. This time it had to be mint.
like me, you cogitate and research things to the nth degree, your perceived
‘rightness’ in the end makes your quarry a very rare beast. My understanding of
Dutch steel cruisers had grown, but it soon became apparent that my ideal boat
wasn’t for sale in the UK at that time. Cost expectations had been blown to
bits – £50,000 wasn’t even close. I had to look at it from several perspectives
to make sense of the prices: 1) it’s a bespoke and unique place to live, and
how cheap can you get that these days?; 2) it can take nine months to build a
steel boat; 3) there are a huge number of complex systems and specialist
materials in a 12m Dutch cruiser; and 4) there are very few being made anymore.
Supply and demand.
you didn’t know, the Stevens, De Steven and Smelne brands are all the same
Dutch boatbuilder. The Smelne name was dropped for the British market for
reasons you might guess. When I stumbled upon the Smelne website, I was bowled
over by the selection of used boats afloat under one giant roof. My wife and I
had no choice – it was the perfect situation to really try on a range of boats
Smelne yard in Drachten is a 70-minute drive from Amsterdam – Drachten is in
the Friesland province up in the north. Friesland, incidentally, has its own
language, ‘Friesian’, the cow’s namesake. We didn’t expect somewhere sporting a
big industrial estate to be so nice. The Dutch really are the masters of the
urban aesthetic – business and home perfectly separated, entire villages of
sensibly scaled bespoke houses with jetties out back, the masts and flybridges
often standing taller than the house. I was a bit jealous that they could get
it so right. Drachten is a cyclist’s
fantasy, with endless wooded and flat open spaces, and lots of water as you’d
expect. We stayed in an Airbnb in a lovely village called De Wilgen minutes out
of town. If you do go to look at boats, you can make a mini holiday of it. The
trip to the Smelne yard made me chuckle – the road it’s on is called De Steven.
The romance was busted!
were met by English-speaking Henk, who revealed all about the Smelne yard and
the state of Dutch boatbuilding in general. In 2008, the global financial
crisis dealt a fatal blow to countless Dutch yards and support industries. Traditionally
the Dutch would pay off their mortgage early and use their home as collateral
to buy a boat, but the banks pulled the plug on this immediately following the
crash, with the market for new boats disappearing virtually overnight. Generations
of highly skilled and specialised boatbuilders lost their jobs – exceptional
know-how thrown overboard because of paper shufflers. To survive, Smelne
commandeered their old steel workshop and turned it into a mini boat show. Haines
Marine share this space too. The yard today offers decades of expertise and a comprehensive
one-stop shop for a refit. Notably, people sail/haul their boats from all over
Europe and the UK to get the Smelne finish. These days Smelne outsource the
steelwork for their new boats, but the rest is still done in-house. The good
Smelne name survives.
search was for a seaworthy twin-engine cruiser. There were a few beauties to
look at, but we’re not ready for the £300,000+ leap just yet. The Holland
mission was to see in principle what does and what doesn’t work for us as a
liveaboard. So many brands and internal layouts. Dutch cruisers are truly
bespoke. Every customer wants to make them their own. The Dutch do the DIY
thing too. The hull and deck are made and the engine, running gear, steering
installed, then driven off to a mooring or water garage to be fitted out at the
wife insisted we looked at a single-engine cruiser called a Vripack 1150
(€139,000). Technically she’s not a Vripack as they are the designers not the
builders. Vripack Naval Architects have a long pedigree and hold benchmarks for
superyacht design. The 1150 was conceived by Dick Boon in 1996 based on his
world-famous Doggersbank design. She is a wonderful shape, designed to go to sea,
yet her conservative draught made her a fine river cruiser. The original owner
used Dick’s plans and had her made at one of Vripack’s recommended steelworks, finally
sailing her to an undercover water garage. It took another six years to
complete the luxury fitment. The interior is a work of art. But she had only
was a headache. One engine for coastal waters leaves no redundancy, which I’m
not comfortable about. But it was too late – the love had descended. As a
solution, I wondered whether the waterline dive platform held the key. How many
horses would it take to push this hull? Inside one of the cupboards sat a
folder full of the original plans for the boat’s construction – something worth
framing. The Vripack office is based in Sneek, a 25-minute drive from Drachten.
We borrowed the plans (with permission), and within moments of walking into
Vripack’s office we were sat having a one-to-one with Ebele Tamminga, senior
marine concept engineer and part owner. An out-of-body experience followed as I
asked him whether a 20hp Power Thrust Honda fixed to a bracket in the middle of
the dive platform would be a workable auxiliary. Yes, in reasonable weather,
but it needed to be set 40cm to starboard to be out of the disturbance from
rudder and prop. He said the power required to get the 1150 to hull speed (9 knots)
was a paltry 67hp (theoretically). She was indeed an efficient hull.
the final obstacle was the price. The boat held huge sentimental value for the
deceased owner’s wife, and the fixation on her perceived value vs the work/modifications
necessary left us with an unworkable overcapitalisation situation. While we
were in Sneek, we discovered that a few doors down from the Vripack office
there is a De Valk (brokers) showroom. While we cogitated on blowing the budget,
the distraction of ‘another’ indoor spectacular floating showroom confronted
us. I tell you, if you want to see a hundred or more gorgeous steel cruisers
you must come to Friesland!
Vripack 1150, for so many reasons, had the edge over the rest – it just looked
‘right’. It’s the closest I’ve been to achieving my old dream. I could finally visualise
the liveaboard of my desires: the abundant light and space; the latent
potential to up anchor and cruise as far as you dare; sheepskins and rugs de
rigueur, of course!
the time of writing this, Lynne and I are still hoping for the all-important
call. Meanwhile the euro gets stronger. Stand by!
Notes on buying a Dutch steel
tanks will need to be drained to remove any sludge before a sea crossing. Calm
river cruising doesn’t agitate the tanks enough to send the muck into the
will need to be changed for the salt version.
anchor windlass will usually be the hand crank type – you might want to change
it to electric. The anchor chain/rode will also be too short for deeper waters.
with outboards are not common – count on buying them.
boat brokers will do the paperwork to change the country-of-origin flag for
you. They will also inform you of any VAT or finance liability.
Smelne and De Valk will arrange haulage for the boat to the UK – Drachten to
Plymouth: €4,500 to €6,000.
likely insurers would consider the ‘Day Skipper’ qualification to be the bare
minimum for a voyage from the Netherlands to the UK.
jackets are not common – be prepared to bring over or buy all the safety gear
seats are usually the unfixed type. Obviously not good for a Channel crossing!
Dutch are fastidious about their boats, which are likely to be in far better condition
than the UK equivalent.
are usually taken before surveys and trials, but this is not mandatory.
and full surveys, including cranage, are considerably cheaper in Holland than
hull shapes will not be seaworthy. Multi chines will be more stable – look for
keels and skegs in the design. Retrofitting of stabilising keels is difficult
due to the welding (heat) in the proximity of the fuel tanks and systems.
boats will need careful thought as to how you limp them home in an emergency –
Sea Start doesn’t operate everywhere.
single-engine boat will need a bow thruster as a minimum – hydraulic bow and
stern thrusters will serve you well among the UK tides and wind.
The Smelne yard are happy to provide helm tuition and navigation advice.
or under is a good size for sensible marina fees, yet plenty big enough as a
liveaboard for a family of three.
is still a sensitive concept for many of the ‘posher’ marinas. Quite rightly
they don’t want you building herb gardens on the pontoons. Talk straight and
true of your intentions and you might be surprised how accommodating they can
on £550 per month for the basic costs for a 12m boat in an accommodating marina.
cleaning and antifouling: at least £1,000 per annum. DIY is cheaper.
paint systems like Alexseal and Awlgrip should have a 12-year life – if need
be, allow £20,000 for a complete professional strip down and respray.
There’s great camaraderie to be had in the marina environment. Help and advice are more forthcoming than in any land situation.
stayed in De Wilgen – email Oebele Veenstra on email@example.com. The rate will be cheaper bypassing the Airbnb
contacts: www.smelne.nl – ask for Henk van der Velde.
Valk contacts: www.devalk.nl/en/offices/sneek.html – ask for Pieter Bosma.
Karl Farrant is the UK
contact/agent for Smelne: www.karlfarrant.co.uk;
Tel.: 01932 853925