Alasdair Kirkpatrick explains how he came to launch Beacon Park Boats and how a personal setback prompted him to build wheelchair friendly and electric canal boats
When I was working for the National Grid I decided that I wanted to be self-employed. I’ve always loved sailing and fancied running a yacht marina. I was flicking through the Saturday Times when I noticed an advert for a canal boat business in Llanfoist, South Wales. I asked for the details and when I visited the site (with a house and 10 very old boats), I knew this was the project for me.
I had to raise the finance, and I remember the bank asking what my nautical experience was. I told them my parents had a yacht on the River Orwell, which I’d sailed from Harwich to St Katherine Dock on the Thames, and they said, ‘that’ll do’. That was in 2000, and 23 years later, here I am, running Beacon Park Boats.
When I first took over the boats were very tired. After a year of running the business, I took a good bit of advice from a colleague. He said, “don’t renovate your way out of a problem, build your way out.” Like with a house, it’s often quicker and cheaper to start over.
I had an engineering background so in 2001 I built my first narrowboat, and continued to build one each year, replacing the old ones.
By 2010 we were running out of space so had to relocate. I asked around the local farmers and found one who agreed to sell me some land in Llangattock, big enough for a fleet of 20 boats… and a large shed for my aluminium yacht project.
Each boat is a variation on the last. I always want to improve my boats, but you can’t get all the features into the same boat. Owl, for example, has a hot tub and a 4-poster bed and Kingfisher a canopied front deck. Meanwhile Puffin, which was boat number four, has totally self-contained cabins and en-suite bathrooms, which is unusual for a narrowboat.
We’re now in the process of building Drake, which will have the best inside viewing platform of the canal. This one will have a log fire and a large dining table with lowered windows to appreciate the breathtaking views of the Brecon Beacons.
I’d always wanted a yacht. Like many PBO readers, I’d been going to boat shows for 20 years, but could never find the boat I wanted. Back in the 1980s it was common for people to buy the hull and decks and do their own fitout. I liked that idea because you can control the quality of the fitout. Unfortunately, though, I couldn’t find anyone to do this.
In 2001, by pure chance, I came across K&M Yachtbuilders at the London Boat Show. They were exhibiting a boat made out of aluminium. I liked the look of it, and asked if they could do one for me. They spoke to yachtbuilders in Amsterdam, and we agreed on a 50ft boat for bluewater cruising. I kept adding things to the design – deck saloon, dinghy storage, a walk-in shower – and finally called it a day at 60ft.
The hull and decks were built in Holland and then shipped and trucked over here five years ago. Using the skills I’ve learnt from canal boats, I’ve been fitting it out ever since. My daughter is 27, and the goal is to cross the Atlantic with her in the ARC 2025 so we can celebrate her 30th birthday in St Lucia.
Change of tack
A lot of our customers are sailors. Often their partners have had enough of the sea and will only go on a canal boat with the luxuries you have at home. Even then, after 10 or more holidays, they’d say things like, “You probably won’t see us next year,” or “we’re getting too old for this.”
I told them not to worry, I’d build them a small boat that’s easy to handle. It would be lightweight and powered by batteries. In the UK most canals are 6ft 10in wide, but the Mon & Brec was built for short, fat boats. You can go as wide as 8ft 6in (keeping length to a maximum 61ft compared to 72ft) so I made full use of this width.
Part way through the project, however, I had a brain haemorrhage. I lost use of my left arm, left leg and left eye. I had to make the right side of my brain do the work that the left one had. I had to teach myself to walk all over again.
I was left one-handed and in a wheelchair for a year, and it made me realise the fleet was missing something.
Currently in build, Drake is our newest boat. Drake’s large 8ft wide luxury rear deck houses her new hybrid propulsion engine system for silent electric cruising and enables ample space for lunch time dining, fishing and enjoying the views of the Brecon Beacons.
She has an extra wide doorway and generously proportioned staircase to her lower floor. This enhanced accessibility will make her the easiest boat to enter. I’m sure this will be the grandest staircase you’ll ever find in any narrow boat! And the lowered windows make the most of the views of the beautiful Mon and Brec canal
Last October, we also managed to launch Robin, one of the UK’s first battery powered houseboats that doesn’t need charging during a week’s vacation. Robin is powered by lithium batteries, which are charged back at base via solar panels, making the boat completely fossil-free green cruising.
We’d already built a hybrid boat, Coot, the year before. Electric is the way the world is going so I decided to jump before we were pushed and go fully electric.
I’m a fan of electric engines – I own a Tesla and an electric bike and had worked in the electricity industry for 12 years. When a lithium battery says it’s got 1% left, you know it has. I like that.
We’re quite traditionalist in this country, so I took inspiration from the Dutch and had Robin built in Holland. Most electric boats require charging every night but Robin can do a week’s cruise on her Mastervolt lithium batteries, which we monitor online. Hot water for showering and washing-up is heated via a water source heat pump using the canal water. All the upper surfaces of the boat are covered in solar panels.
Of course, the biggest variable is the customer. One couple might eat out, another might cook each night and use a lot more power. We have spare batteries, though, if needed, and can meet them on the canal and swap the batteries over.
Every launch is an anxious moment; the first contact with water ruthlessly exposes any weaknesses, but thankfully, putting Robin on the water was a breeze. It had taken two and half years – from the lengthy design process, to hull fabrication in the Netherlands and all the hard work fitting her out in our boathouse. It’s great to finally see her on the water, and know she’s lowering our carbon footprint.
- Read about James Wood’s canal boat holiday onboard Puffin on the Mon & Brec Canal.