Boat test: Norton Canes Boatbuilders' new 60ft trad
PUBLISHED: 12:32 21 November 2019 | UPDATED: 11:29 13 January 2020
ANDY R ANNABLE
The pursuit of perfection is the driving force behind Norton Canes Boatbuilders so the latest creation was bound to tick all the boxes for its new owners
Choosing a boat builder has similarities with buying a new house: it's not just a matter of having all your boxes ticked, you also need to have that something extra - the thing that you can't quite explain, but is absolutely essential. That was certainly the case for Geralyn and Ken Lennon. "I wanted a proper boat from a proper boat yard", says Ken. "A lot of it was about things just feeling right".
The search for the proper boat took him to Norton Canes Boatbuilders at Glascote Basin. Ken had long been a fan of Steve Hudson's boats, and the Norton Canes team had fitted out the last Hudson shell built before Steve's death. He liked the style of that fitout - a style we also saw in a Norton Canes spec boat we reviewed last year (CB December 2018).
With the pedigree of the boat builders feeling right, Geralyn and Ken also wanted the boat to look right - so they have a trad stern (of which we see disappointingly few these days), and a beautifully traditional looking exterior. Inside is more contemporary, while the technical side of things is relatively straightforward.
This is a beautiful boat, whichever angle you look at it from. The shell is a Tyler Wilson sheerline Josher. Sheerline means there's a long sweeping line along the gunwales, with a slight rise towards the bow and the stern. The Josher style bow has the double curves you'd expect. It's very pretty.
But there are so many lovely features on this shell that you need a bit of time to spot them all and take them in. There are recessed panels at the stern. The handrails protrude slightly, to mimic the look of wooden ones; the same is true of the gunwales, which also protrude and have nice sharp corners. Below is a line of rivets. While the handrails have scrolls in the ends, the cants at the bow and stern don't - they are squared off in workmanlike fashion. There's a pigeon box on the roof (where a traditional engine room would be, if this boat had one) although in this boat it actually hides the shoreline connection. There's a boatman's beam too.
This boat has been built with a 12.5mm base plate - thicker than the usual 10mm. Ken specified the extra steel for the sake of longevity (although few people find that 10mm of steel wears away too quickly). But it also helps the boat sit firmly in the water, and may have meant that marginally less ballast was needed.
The gas locker is in the nose, while there's a plastic water tank under the well deck. The well deck itself has lockers both sides, one of which contains a diesel tank for the stove in the saloon. The lockers also have cushions, and there's a table which drops down from the cratch — so this is a comfortable place to sit. There are doors in the forward bulkhead, which give access to the bow thruster tube. At the stern, the hatch has been made extra-large, so there's plenty of room for the helmsman to have some company while steering.
A proper boat like this needs proper accessories, so even the fenders are done in the traditional way, with a couple of tipcats at the stern as well as a button. They're made by Glascote's resident fender maker.
The colour scheme is classic yet contemporary, with the main panels in grey, with black borders and a white coachline. The handrails are red. In traditional fashion, the gunwale tops are raddle red, as is the aft part of the roof, and the decks. The yard at Glascote has a dedicated wet dock for painting, and the firm specialises in two pack paint, which is sprayed rather than brushed on. Two pack is tougher and should last longer than the single pack enamels often used on canal boats. The Norton Canes painting team is all female, with the exception of the sign writer Steve Evans, who's done some nice lettering and decoration on the boat. The boat's blacking is also tough, being the latest glass-reinforced epoxy.
In keeping with the trad look, the trim such as the mushroom vents are brass — rather than the chrome seen far more often these days.
LAYOUT AND FITOUT
Phronesis has a standard layout, with the saloon at the bow, followed by a raised Pullman dinette. A U-shaped galley comes next. Beyond is a walk-through shower room, with the cabin at the stern. As this is a trad-sterned boat, there's also an engine room right at the back of the boat, with the modern engine under the floor.
The fitout uses oak, with narrow tongue and groove below the gunwales and panels above. This narrow T&G has become something of a house style, and is also used for cupboard doors, giving a nice bit of texture. All the trim is solid oak, including beams across the white painted ceiling. A very nice feature is that there's no boxing along the bottom of the hull sides. All the pipe work for the heating, for example, is under the floor, which gives a very clean and sleek look. The woodwork in this boat is by Darren Aldridge, who's based at the Basin.
The floor is Karndean in an oak finish. This should prove both very hardwearing and easy to keep clean.
SALOON AND DINETTE
On one side of the steps down from the well deck is a hearth tiled in a brick pattern the full height to the ceiling, with a stove which at first sight looks like a solid fuel one but is in fact diesel fired. On the opposite side of the boat is a corner unit with a tv on top, and a high level cupboard above. There is both an aerial point, and a control panel for a self-seeking satellite dish mounted on the roof. It's linked to a Freesat box, and there's also a Wi-fi router behind the tv.
Furniture consists of a couple of attractive grey armchairs, which came from Dunelm. The radiators are also grey, in a smart column design.
The dinette is Pullman style, and is raised so it's easier to see out of the windows. There is storage under the raised floor, and there are cupboards in the ends of the benches, one of which houses a small slide-out chest freezer. The dinette converts into a guest double bed.
The galley is U-shaped which means that whoever is cooking or washing up isn't in the way of anyone wanting to walk through the boat. The worktops are made from woodblock, and have a smart Belfast sink set into them. This has a wooden cover, so no working area is lost. Above the worktops are tiled splash backs in a brick pattern, which gives continuity with the tiles behind the stove in the saloon.
The gas hob is a four-burner model by Thetford. The oven which is set at eye level in the centre of the boat, is also by Thetford. The cupboard underneath houses a 12 volt fridge. There's plenty of storage space, with big cupboards extending into the dead corners, useful for things you don't use that often. There's also an under-gunwale cupboard on the other side of the boat, and a larger unit in the corridor towards the shower room. Light floods into the galley, thanks to a set of side doors, which are attractively decorated to match the exterior of the boat, and a Houdini hatch in the ceiling.
The walk-through shower room has a generously sized 800mm quadrant shower cubicle. It's tiled with a mosaic feature line, and there are some cupboards alongside. On the opposite side of the room is a square unit with a large white basin on top, with the loo alongside. The wall behind is tiled, and has the same mosaic stripe. There's also a high level cupboard above.
The loo is a Thetford cassette, but features a porcelain bowl and doesn't have the rather ugly back panel; in short, it looks much more like a normal toilet. To avoid having the loo attached to an extra bulkhead, access to the cassettes is through a hatch below the bed in the cabin beyond.
The bed is inline, and 4ft wide. As well as the hatch for the cassettes, which has a drop down door, the bed base also includes two sizeable drawers. There are high level cupboards above the bed, with reading lights.
There are wardrobes both sides of the door through to the engine room, offering lots of storage space for clothes. The corner cupboard on the corridor side also contains the Alde gas boiler which is hidden behind a pierced screen. It means this cupboard gets warm, so it's almost an airing cupboard.
There's not a great deal to see in the engine room of a modern trad, given that the engine itself is under the floor. The electrical cupboard is on one side along with all the switches and fuses, while on the other there's a place to store the tiller arm.
The floor lifts easily to give access to the engine, and a nice touch is that there's a strip light to illuminate the engine hole.
This boat is fairly straightforward technically. It is powered by the ubiquitous Beta 43, and has a Vetus 75kgf bow thruster. There are four 115Ah domestic batteries, plus one for the engine and two for the bow thruster. A 240 volt supply comes from a 3kw Mastervolt inverter charger. A 250 watt semi-flexible solar panel on the roof helps keep the batteries charged, and there's a Mastervolt battery monitor.
An addition is a heat exchanger on the engine, which feeds the radiators throughout the boat. This makes good use of the excess heat created by the engine (which means in effect free heating while cruising). Ken was also keen to have it because he's a fan of river cruising, meaning it's more likely his engine will be run quite hard. In such a situation, the heat exchanger could be used as an extra cooling mechanism, to avoid the engine overheating.
Central heating is from an Alde gas boiler. It was chosen so the boat had two forms of heating using different fuels — the diesel stove in the saloon, and this boiler using gas.
ON THE WATER
The location of our boat test at the end of the Ashby Canal didn't really give us much chance to go for a steady cruise. But throwing the boat around the winding hole proved that it handles very well, and reversing is pretty good too. We know from experience that Tyler Wilson shells are some of the best handling around, and this boat should be no different.
The helmsman is provided with a steering step just inside the rear doors, so there's a good view ahead. The extra long hatch means there's room for a member of crew at the stern too. The boat also has specially made cushions which fit between the slide and the handrails, so both steerer and crew can perch on the corner of the cabin top. It's something I do on my own boat, but I don't have a cushion; needless to say, I now want one!
This boat has a huge amount going for it. It's on a fantastic shell, and has a quality contemporary fitout, with a design and layout which works well. Technically it is straightforward but robust. If you wanted a boat like this, Norton Canes Boatbuiders would charge you around £170,000 — which is typical these days for a boat of this size and quality.
Trad sterned boats are increasingly rare these days, with most people opting for semi-trads, cruisers, or semi-cruisers (which are really growing in popularity). It's a shame because trads have a lot going for them — not least that they look right. There's also the advantage of having your engine inside, and that the engine room provides a buffer between the living accommodation and the outside world.
This boat both looks fantastic and provides excellent accommodation. It's definitely a proper boat, whichever way you look at it.
Geralyn and Ken Lennon have a long boating history, so they're well placed to know what they like and what works for them. They've been hiring narrowboats for twenty years, and have covered a large part of the network. Ken is also a sailor — he's been sailing since the age of 12 — so knows a lot abut other sorts of boats too.
Geralyn retried last year as an occupational therapist in the NHS. Ken was an electrical engineer for Scottish Power, although he's quick to point out that power cuts were nothing to do with him. His job was to provide technical services to engineers.
The couple are planning to spend as much time as they can on their new boat. They have a particular love for the Thames, so will undoubtedly be heading down there before long. They're already exploring the Midlands; a week after our test, I found them in Braunston.
And if you were wondering about the boat's name, Phronesis is an Ancient Greek word for a type of wisdom or intelligence — especially a practical wisdom. According to Aristotle, gaining phronesis requires experience, which is acquired through age.
NORTON CANES BOATBUILDERS
Norton Canes Boatbuilders is now firmly established at Glascote Basin, which for many years was the home of SM Hudson. The firm has been there since Sarah Edgson took over the yard in 2015, and moved most of the business from Norton Canes itself, which is at the furthest reaches of the Birmingham Canal Navigations. Her now retired father had been building high quality boats there for years, and had a reputation for crafting some of the best steelwork around.
The more central location means the business is flourishing, with around fifteen staff and an impressive range of services. There's steelwork, painting using the two pack system seen on this boat, and blacking using grit blasting and an epoxy coating — a technique not found in many yards. There are also moorings in the basin (and up at Norton Canes itself), facilities for servicing and repairs, and even a couple of hire boats. Sarah is also building up the brokerage side of the business.
There are more bespoke boats on the order book too — including one which includes the steelwork. This will be built to the patterns drawn up and made famous by Sarah's father, Graham — so that boat will be worth looking out for.
Norton Canes Boatbuilders, Glascote Basin, Basin Lane, Glascote, Tamworth, Staffordshire B77 2AH / 01827 311317 / www.nortoncanesboatbuilders.co.uk
Beam: 6ft 10in
Shell: Tyler Wilson
Engine: Beta 43
Inverter: Mastervolt 3kw
Bow Thruster: Vetus 75kgf
Arm chairs: Dunelm 'Meredith' £269.00
Diesel stove: Bubble B1 half pod £972.00
Radiators: Metro Anthracite from £99.95
Total Price: £170,000