Buying a Dutch Barge
This section covers us finding ‘Neo Vita’ up to the point of our first cruise, and is largely about her discovery, and purchase. We thought our experience might be of use to others thinking of embarking on the barging lifestyle.
Our experience was not typical, and probably not recommended, in that we purchased “sight unseen”, entirely remotely from 8000 km away. We remain absolutely happy with the outcome, but it must be a riskier approach than seeing and testing in person.
It’s rather long, and even then, lots of important detail is not here. If you are reading this with some interest in purchasing a barge, feel free to contact us for more details and certainly research other sources.
Our interest in barges is covered here, but once we decided to pursue this seriously, we did a lot of research, over a period of about 18 months before embarking on a purchase. We read books, blogs, articles, forums – and gave Google a real work over, exploring each new idea.
I think the two most useful sources were, first, following EVERY posting in the DBA – The Barge Association Forums on “Barges” and “Waterways – Continental Europe” (if we had been considering UK canals, then the “Cruising UK waterways” would have been appropriate). Over time, this gave lots of specific information, and also gives a great appreciation of the highs and lows of the lifestyle.
The second source was the Barge Buyer’s Handbook, again available from the DBA. Heaps of useful information.
Testing the idea
Most people do some sort of cruise test, either on a rental barge, or as a guest on someone else’s barge. In our case, we spent a week on ‘t Majeur, a 26 m luxe motor, cruising on the Canal Entre Campagne et Bourgogne. We were hosted by two experienced bargees – Michel and Rebecca, and allowed to ask lots of questions and help with minor tasks.
This was invaluable, and rapidly assured us that a barge and its associated lifestyle would be something that we would both enjoy and could cope with. As I’ve said elsewhere, it was the single most important and successful step that we took in the process.
Selecting the Barge
We developed a strong set of criteria for the barge that we wanted. This had the advantage of limiting our choices. Others might be less restrictive, and hence have more to select from. In our case, it had to end up at less than $A300,000.
Without any other limits, this would allow a lot of choice. But – we wanted a luxemotor (for slightly easier handling and resale value); it had to have a bow thruster (ease of handling – but most have this nowadays); two spud poles (for ease of mooring in the wild); a rear sun deck (part of the lifestyle we want); room for guests (just enough as we don’t expect many or for long periods given the cost of travel from Australia to Europe); and it had to have dimensions (water draft and air draft) that would allow it to travel some of the more restrictive canals, particularly the Nivernais and Canal du Midi.
Something not too big, perhaps under the TRIWV 20 m to avoid some expenses, and we felt that a barge with some history would be nice.
We also had a long list of ‘nice to haves’, and of course, ultimately it had to be in sound condition. I’ve linked a nice list that friends of ours, Deb and Howard created to help them prioritise their searching that could be a good starting point.
When all this is combined, relatively few barges (actually none) meet all the criteria. So it then becomes how much will it cost to correct the deficiencies of the close candidates.
Searching for a Barge
It’s pretty much the same as looking for a car, or a house. These days, you can do a lot of it yourself online. It is possible to hire someone to look for you, but many go the self-serve route, certainly most start off that way – dreaming! We spent many pleasant Sunday mornings breakfasting in bed with our iPads skipping from site to site.
The biggest marketplace is www.barges.apolloduck.com, make sure you are at the EU site, so you can search the Netherlands, Belgium and France. There are generally 400-500 barges for listed at any one time. Many of those listed for sale have their details at another site, so be sure to click on the appropriate links in those cases to get more details (although often in Dutch – so use Chrome as a browser which translates on-the-fly).
Beyond that, there are many other online barge selling sites (we had over a dozen) and this document provides links as of the time we were looking. Barges are also advertised in the DBA Forum, and in the DBA magazine ‘Blue Flag’. ‘Fluvial’ the French waterways magazine also has a number of ads.
Watching and listening, we now completely agree with the advice that by far the best place to buy or sell a barge is the Netherlands for a number of reasons: I’d estimate that 80% or more of the barges for sale are in the Netherlands; they have a very well-established system for buying and selling ships; they speak good English; and they are very knowledgeable about the whole process.
We searched exhaustively, keeping notes and downloading pictures and details of interesting barges. On a couple of occasions, also contacting the vendor/broker for more details.
We first noticed ‘Neo Vita’ just after returning from France in August 2013. As we weren’t actively looking, she was just filed away and an interesting prospect. At the time, she also was close to the top of our price range.
Once we had started looking a bit more seriously, she showed up again, with a significant price reduction. She met all our criteria except that she did not have a guest bedroom, and we were not sure her dimensions would be suited to the Nivernais and more particularly the Midi. Still, in late Nov 2013, we sent off a request for more details on the bow storage area as it had the potential for conversion into a guest bedroom. We collected some useful photos from the broker, and a floor plan, and paused to consider and look around for more barges.
The sale advertisement showed a luxemotor-style (actually a katwijker) barge, just under 20 m, with a modest water draught, and an air draft that was marginal for the Canal du Midi. There was however, a flange around the top of the wheelhouse that looked like it could be removed to lower the air draught significantly. She had a bow thruster, two spud poles and was kitted out with solar panels. The interior was clean and neat. There was no second bedroom, but the fo’c’sle was “suitable for conversion”. The engine and electrics looked pretty standard. Pictures also showed she had a working history dating back to 1916. The asking price was now well under our maximum, and she looked gorgeous!
By January, we had decided that it was worth assessing ‘Neo Vita’ in detail. Over six months of moderately intensive searching, no other barge had come anywhere near as close to our requirements. Usually one would arrange to visit the barge and inspect in person. Being in Melbourne this was not practical. We agreed however, that if our hosts on ‘t Majeur were willing to check ‘Neo Vita’ for us, we would have confidence in their assessment – in fact, as experts, their evaluation would probably be better than ours. Our candidate barge was similar to theirs, and on our cruise with them, we had discussed our ideas with them in detail. We approached Michel and Rebecca, and very graciously, they offered to visit ‘Neo Vita’ for us, and we offered to pay any expenses.
We contacted the broker again, only to find out he had just stopped brokering, and had passed ‘Neo Vita, to another broker. We made contact with the new broker, Jitse Doeve of Doeve Makelaars, and through him arranged for Rebecca and Michel to visit.
In the depths of the Dutch winter, they made the trip up to Medemblik, 60 km north of Amsterdam, and made a detailed inspection, looking and taking lots of photographs. The owners were not present to get their information, as they were away in Portugal until mid-April, but Michel and Rebecca extracted some information from their son who hosted their visit.
Briefly, Michel and Rebecca were very impressed, and had no reservations in recommending that we would enjoy the barge, and it was well suited to the kinds of use that we intended to make of her.
Thus reassured, we then proceeded to arrange a second visit by a friend of Michel and Rebecca, Willem, who had supervised the conversion of ‘t Majeur and had a sound technical knowledge of barges. After a little while, he made this inspection and again, said the barge appeared to be in very good condition, with only minor items he could see that might need attention. He also made an unexpected, but very useful comment that she was a “simple” barge, not having a lot of technical gear that would need a lot of maintenance or specialist knowledge. We reflected that this was perfect for us, as we didn’t have any significant maritime or handyman skills – so the simpler the better.
Willem also gave us some approximate figures for the conversion of the fo’c’sle to a bedroom, and to remove the flange from the top of the wheelhouse if we thought it would be necessary in order to pass low bridges on the Midi. This was to give us confidence that our budget would not be blown by subsequent modification.
As she stood, however, ‘Neo Vita’ was in “sail-away” condition for our initial use.
Purchasing ‘Neo Vita’
Now to the hard part, to see if we could negotiate a price and conditions to purchase her. The negotiation would be with the owner’s broker, who is bound to represent their best interests. Fortunately one of those interests is making a sale, but we were under no illusions as to who was paying him, and where his focus would be.
As we were in Australia, these negotiations had to be made at distance.
Right from the outset Jitse insisted that we have the negotiations verbally, not by email (in the event, we did them all by video Skype). This was very sound advice, and without taking you through ‘The Language Instinct’, suffice it to say that the written word is much less expressive than the spoken, it is much easier to misunderstand and very difficult to carry over the subtleties of emotion that make for good communication. If you add that Jitse had to speak, and even harder, write, in a second language (although his spoken and written English was very good) it would be very easy to get the wrong impression.
When you write without the nuances of English expression, the flat tone of the writing tends to sound distant and haughty. Easy to mistake for a lack of politeness. Email is very poorly adapted to the task of conducting delicate negotiations.
Anyhow, it was very good advice, and over a number of weeks, and several Skype video sessions, we worked through the various stages of exploration, offer, offer again, counter offer, offer and finally agreed on a price and the conditions each party was comfortable with. This was made more complicated because the owners were not in touch with Jitse, as they were away in Portugal.
The next stage was to encapsulate this into a contract. Again, this is a tricky thing. We did not know at the time, but several Dutch people have since confirmed that because of the way the legal system works in the Netherlands, contracts are a much more relaxed document than that we are used to in Australia, where everything is highly specified.
We would tend to push for very detailed clauses, while Jitse would push for softer statements. At the time, we thought that we were being slightly duped with a ‘leaky’ contract so we could not claim for defects. We now see that this was normal practice, and “when in Rome”… Pushing hard for a detailed contract is possible, but the Dutch will, justifiably by their practice, judge you as possibly untrustworthy, and impolite.
So we signed the contract on the 23 April 2014, and to seal the deal, paid a 10% deposit. This is usually held in trust by an independent notary. This brokerage also had a notary licence, and with a little trepidation, we accepted that this was normal practice (research on this company indicated they were able and reputable) we agreed it would go to their trust account. If the sale fell over, it would be returned to us. If we withdrew from the sale, we would lose the deposit to the vendor, which we understood to be standard practice.
The next stage was to test or ‘survey’ ‘Neo Vita’ for defects. We nominated a surveyor who is part of a regulated profession in the Netherlands, who must be competent and independent. He works for us, but must be objective. Usually barges are inspected when out of the water for the thickness of the hull (it gets thinner with age, and must be a minimum of 3.5mm legally, and most insurance companies will not insure unless over 4mm thick) and various fittings and equipment. Whatever needs fixing in order to meet certain minimum standards, must be fixed at the owner’s expense. Often, if too much is required, the owner may choose to back out but in our case, the contract did not provide an opportunity for the owner not to comply. And we were then obliged to complete the purchase or lose our deposit.
We also required that Neo Vita pass an open-water, cruising test, because we had not had an opportunity to be aboard while she was under power – as most purchasers would, who buy a barge in person. The independent surveyor also undertook this test.
We then received a report for both the ship and cruising tests, there were only a few simple items to be repaired. That was done by the owners and the yard where ‘Neo Vita’ rested, and so we were committed to complete the purchase.
Finally, in great excitement, on the 29th May 2014, we arranged a Skype call to Jitse, with the owners (Marianne and Paul) in attendance (having returned to the Netherlands a few weeks previously), to finalise the purchase by sending the funds to a Forex account to be transferred to the brokerage. Wine on hand, and in great excitement, I made a great show of pressing the button to complete the deal. And reduced Marianne to tears.
How insensitive of me! Of course, this was a desperately sad moment for them. Their “New Life” of 13 years, that they had entirely rebuilt, was no longer theirs. I should have realised how they must have felt, it would be huge loss. I am sure we will be the same, when we are in their position.
Anyhow, we hope to become friends, and have them show us how to look after ‘Neo Vita’ when we arrive in August, so we can take good care of her, to the same degree as Marianne and Paul did over their cruising years.
The last stage is the official papers, arranged by the broker, and the entry for ‘Neo Vita’ is changed in the Kadaster, which is the Dutch registry system for large assets like houses and ships. It provides the details of the barge or house, and most importantly, who are the owners. It is the recognised legal title to ‘Neo Vita’.
So we are now the owners of a barge. Although it aged me two years (my birthdate was wrongly entered as 1952). I’ve condensed this process considerably and there are a many of matters on which we can provide more details. If you are interested drop us a line, and we can chat in more depth.
Owning Neo Vita
Once owners, we were responsible for looking after her. This meant she must be insured, and moored somewhere safe. The latter was taken care of by Paul and Marianne, who found a safe and reasonably priced mooring at Middenmeer, a town nearby to Medemblik where Neo Vita had spent the winter.
We looked around for several quotes for insurance, and settled on Noord Nederland on the basis of price and recommendations from other bargees.
You can follow our wonderful experience over this first year of ownership in the 2014 section of our blog. If anyone who reads this every buys a barge, and has half the rewarding experience that we have had in finding, purchasing and then cruising a barge, then you will be extremely fortunate!