The Boat Test: a small boat with big ideas
- Credit: Archant
What started off as a day-boat soon turned into an attractive short boat with a very ingenous seating area at the bow
One comment we hear time and time again is that “no-one builds small boats any more”, and relatively few hire boats are of a smaller size either (with the exception of basic day-boats). Well, it’s not true that small boats aren’t being built, but it is true that there aren’t that many off-the-shelf, so when we saw an interesting new 37-footer at Crick this year, we wanted to take a closer look. We also have another smaller boat lined up in a few months’ time.
The initial idea for the subject of this month’s test is rather different from how it has turned out. Mark Fenton and Martin Parsons of MGM Boats (who have a pretty good pedigree when it comes to showing boats at Crick) wanted a day-boat to hire out from their yard at Thurmaston on the River Soar in Leicestershire. The aim was to market it not just for the usual Saturday and Sunday trips to mark birthdays and anniversaries, but also at businesses who wanted team building days or social events.
They approached the shell builder, Nick Thorpe, who’s built a few day-boats before. Most have been around 30ft; but the Soar is a river with plenty of wide stretches, so Mark and Martin knew that something a little longer would still be easy to turn around and settled on 37ft. Then, when it came to the fitting out, they got a little carried away: instead of fairly basic facilities, this boat was given a full shower room and a seating area that converts into a bed. Suddenly, they had a boat that could easily be rented out for short breaks, long weekends, or even whole weeks.
So rather than just take this boat out for a couple of hours, we lived with it for a couple of days to find out whether it really does work as a boat you could spend a few days or weeks on.
The challenge with a short boat is to make it look right. And this one certainly does: it looks like a proper boat. This is in no small way down to the fact that the bow and stern are both designs by MGM’s hull expert, Mark, and have been used on many of their previous boats (all of which have been much longer). So the bow is Josher-inspired, nicely curvy and with a substantial stem post and a large T-stud. The cruiser stern is large and squared off to maximise space. And there’s a lot of it – the deck is a full eight feet long, the same as if it were a 58-footer.
- 1 Second-hand canal boats for sale
- 2 10 pubs on the River Wey Navigation
- 3 Boat test: Mothership Marine’s solar-powered semi-trad
- 4 Boat test: 'Whitsuntide No2' hybrid 52ft canal boat by Trinity Boats
- 5 Boat test: “Oyster Catcher” the permanent house boat
- 6 10 of the best pubs along: Grand Union Canal, Tring to the Thames
- 7 Cruise Guide | Grand Union Canal, Part 3 | Tring summit to the Thames
- 8 Canal heritage spotter: turf-sided locks
- 9 ‘Let boaters sleep aboard’ says CRT chief
- 10 Cruise Guide | Grand Union Canal, Part 2 | Braunston to Marsworth
That’s ideal if you have lots of people on board and there are positives under the water, too. This boat has swims in excess of 10ft and, thanks to the long deck, they don’t intrude into the cabin too much. A guard rail with a broad wooden top surrounds the deck and makes a great place for crew to perch; a canvas ‘dodger’ completes the look.
Another MGM tradition is having slightly more tumblehome than usual which makes it easier to walk along the gunwales. But the most important aspect of the appearance is the way the open area at the front looks, and it’s here that Mark has done a great job. The roof continues right to the front of the boat, and, importantly, so do the handrails which curve in sharply with the line of the roof. It means the canopy looks as if it’s 100 percent a part of the boat and not some sort of afterthought. Underneath that extended roof, though, the cabin sides have been replaced by canvas covers, complete with windows, which roll up to open up the whole area.
An important element of this bow seating area is that the floor is lowered, so it’s on the same level as the rest of the boat which also makes it feel a part of the interior. With a lowered floor where the water tank would normally be, the water storage has been moved to the nose of the boat. The filler is actually in the bow flash on one side, with the vent on the other. And the knock-on effects continue, because the water tank is where the gas locker would usually go – so this has been built as a gas-free boat.
Nick Thorpe has done a good job with the steelwork. There is some nice detailing, such as scrolls in the ends of the handrails and there’s even a boatman’s beam across the roof. There are fender eyes below the gunwales and the windows are by Caldwells.
The colour scheme is pretty eye- catching – using the same dark maroon colour, called black-red, seen on MGM’s 2014 Crick Show boat, Posh Fox. On this boat (which doesn’t yet have a name) it’s matched with grey borders and a cream coachline and handrails, with the red-black reappearing on the gunwales.
LAYOUT AND FIT-OUT
The galley is at the stern of the boat, with steps down from the cruiser deck. Next comes a diminutive shower room, followed by the saloon which doubles as a bedroom. These three rooms take up less than 17ft of the boat’s length. The open seating and dining area is at the bow.
The fit-out makes extensive use of painted panels, both above and below the gunwales, which makes these small rooms feel more spacious. The trim is ash, as is the built-in furniture. The floor is lovely solid oak.
It has to be said that MGM had rushed to get this boat finished in time for the Crick Show and, when we borrowed it, still hadn’t had a chance to put some of the finishing touches to the fit-out. But we’ve seen MGM boats before and know that they do good quality boats for reasonable prices.
Three steps lead down from the cruiser stern deck into the galley. On one side there’s the electrical cupboard containing the inverter, with the door carrying all the fuses and switches and the dials for the engine. There’s also a car radio on this side. Opposite is a storage cupboard. In fact, there’s plenty of storage in the galley, with a range of cupboards and drawers.
The bottom step slides away to allow a couple of the doors to be opened, and the whole step unit moves to give access to the aft-most cupboards. These would necessarily be used for things you wouldn’t need to get at very often. The step treads themselves also lift and house the hosepipe and windlasses.
The worktops are attractive wood and there’s a large round sink which has a cover to increase work space. There’s no drainer, though, which means you have to dry up as you wash. The splashbacks are particularly nice, being a mosaic tile made up of both stone and glass in tones of brown. The fridge is a full size 240-volt model by Iceking, which is highly rated for efficiency.
As this boat is gas-free cooking options are rather limited. There’s an electric kettle, a toaster and a microwave which also has a grill, so preparing your own meals on board will require a bit of forethought – although, as this is primarily a weekend or short break boat, you’ll probably do what we did and plan to stop near a pub some nights.
The off-corridor shower room appears tiny at first glance (and is, in fact, pretty small) but it actually works exceptionally well. Space saving measures start with the door, which slides into the wall rather than having to swing open.
Inside, the loo is a small Thetford cassette, with the cassette access in the galley. Alongside there’s a unit offering loads of storage space with a smart rectangular white basin on top, complete with a very stylish waterfall tap. The unit is taller than you’d normally find as another space-saving measure: it means you don’t have to bend over so much to use it; bending over takes up room! More of the mosaic tiles add to the feeling of style, especially when they’re illuminated by the tiny LED lights set into the base of the mirrored high level unit.
For such a small room, the shower cubicle itself is very spacious, at 780mm square. The shower controls are slimline, and the laminate lining is a pale colour, both of which add to the feeling of space. The door folds and can open from either side. Between the shower cubicle and the cabin side are shelves and a cupboard, and there’s a heated towel rail under the porthole.
So this is a small room which works really well. It doesn’t feel cramped, even when you’re getting dried after a shower.
There’s minimal furniture in the saloon – really just a sofa which takes up the whole of one side of the boat. It’s surprisingly comfortable as a sitting area. Opposite the sofa there’s a small TV mounted on a bracket under the gunwales and a little shelf.
The sofa converts into the boat’s bed and the conversion process could hardly be easier: just pull the seat part out and the back drops down. Changing back to seating is just as easy, with the backrest lifting easily. The two parts have piano hinges, which helps. As a bed, the cushions, being brand new, are fairly firm and the bed isn’t very long – but we still slept well.
Storage is fairly limited. There are three built-in drawers under the sofa, and two high level corner cupboards. Together these give just enough space for a couple of people to put clothes for a few days. Any additional stuff might have to go in the plentiful cupboards in the shower room.
The seating area at the bow is without doubt the highlight of this boat. There’s fixed seating around three sides, with comfortable made-to-measure cushions. The seats also offer plenty of storage space, so this was where we stowed our duvet and such like.
The table, which is on Desmo legs, has been shaped to fit the gap, so it can drop down to form another sleeping area, which (because of its slightly short length) would be ideal for children.
The canvas sides are made to measure by DB Covers, and they’ve done an excellent job. They fit well and roll up neatly. On a summer evening, with the covers rolled up, this is the perfect place to sit with a glass of wine and some nibbles. You’re to all intents and purposes outside but, because the floor is the same solid oak as the rest of the boat, there’s tongue and groove on the hull sides and the ceiling, and there’s proper LED lighting, it also feels like a real room. It’s the very definition of inside-outside. There was just one addition we’d have found useful: a power point or two out here to plug in our tablets.
Later in the evening when it gets a bit cooler, or at breakfast time, or when it’s raining, the covers can be fastened down and you feel fully protected from the elements, without being cut off from the outside world. It’s an immensely appealing area – a view backed up by the many comments we had from passers-by who really liked the look of it.
If you thought a small boat would have a rather basic technical spec, think again. Remarkably, this boat is powered by a Canaline 42hp engine – a unit commonly found in boats 20ft longer. The reason is simply that the engine happened to be available at the time. It means this boat can never be accused of being under powered – but, if you were having a boat like this built, you’d probably opt for a smaller unit.
Access to the engine could hardly be easier. The central board of the deck lifts for everyday tasks such as engine checks and greasing the stern tube. The other boards can also be lifted if necessary and there are acres of space in the engine bay. While a hirer wouldn’t need to be doing the servicing, if you owned this boat and were doing your own oil changes, you’d find access very straightforward. The installation is very neat and tidy
As this is an all-electric boat with some hungry kitchen equipment on board, there’s a significant bank of five 110Ah batteries, plus a starter battery. The inverter is a 2.5kW unit by ZL Power, which also manages the battery charging.
ON THE WATER
The cruiser stern deck of this boat is a very sociable area. At the helm the tiller is light, and this little boat is incredibly manoeuvrable; it goes exactly where it’s pointed and can turn on a sixpence. It’s clearly not a heavy boat, but it doesn’t feel skittish; it sits nicely in the water, swims very well and makes little wash. It’s hard to find any fault with the handling.
We were amazed by the number of people who wanted to find out about the boat. As we sat in the bow, passers-by told us how pretty it looked and how nice the seating area was; as we waited on a lock landing right outside a pub, a woman got up from her table in the garden to comment on what a nice size it was.
This little boat is great fun. Of course, when you’ve got limited space to play with there will always be compromises, but this boat proves that you can have a short boat which provides all you need. This boat perhaps suffers a little from the change in emphasis from a basic day-boat to a fully equipped one, but Martin and Mark from MGM are already coming up with ideas to finesse the design, to create more saloon storage, for example.
And there are advantages to having a shorter boat. Licence and moorings are cheaper; you can fit into gaps that longer boats have to pass by, and they’re cheaper to buy.
This boat, if you wanted to buy it outright, could be yours for around £57,000 and for that you get a really good quality shell, a nice fit-out and a very appealing look.
And if the reaction we’ve found is anything to go by, there’s a real market for little boats like this – especially if they look as special as this one does.
Mark Fenton and Martin Parsons founded MGM Boats in 2002, although they both have years of experience of the boat building industry before that. Mark’s area of expertise is the design of shells, while Martin is the joiner of the team.
The company is based at a small yard on an island in the River Soar at Thurmaston near Leicester, which has a covered wet dock and a slipway. As well as boat building, they do repairs, blacking and paintwork. The island is also surrounded by moorings, many residential.
The extended roof over the well deck seems to have become rather popular. MGM are just beginning work on fitting out another boat with the feature.
BEAM: 6ft 10in
SHELL: Nick Thorpe nickthorpeboatbuilding.com
ENGINE: Canaline 42 canaline-engines.co.uk
INVERTER: ZL Power zlpower.com