How to build or convert a barge

101 tips to successfully convert your barge

Essential tips and things to know before building or converting a barge. How to make your dream home or business afloat.

So many of us have succumbed to the dream of being a skipper on his or her own barge. To take the helm of one's pride and joy, navigating along the calm inland waters, rivers, canals and lakes of France. What more can one desire?

Depending on your objectives, there are certain things to do and others to avoid like the pest... You believe in what you're doing, you've spent years putting your savings aside. So use this checklist of 101 things to do, but also, to never do.

This all based on what we have experienced, seen and know from other people. It's all been written with the tongue in cheek to lighten the subject.

Don't sink before you learn to swim

Before you choose the barge you want to convert, have you finalised your objectives? Is the project for just you? Or are your considering the full-blown thing, with luxury fittings, gourmet French cuisine, 12 passengers, a captain, deckhand, chef, hostess and guide?

Perhaps you're a keen mechanic, welder, carpenter or a businessman wanting to make a sound investment and to sell your vessel in a couple of years.

Remember that the boat you finally choose will be the deciding factor in accomplishing your plans.

Numbers and licences

My barge carries 6 passengers and 2 crew, I don't need a navigation permit.
I only carry a few people for day trips, do I need a licence?
My "skipper" already has a licence!

Define your purpose and obtain the necessary navigation licence "Titre de navigation". The first thing to do is to check with the "Commission de surveillance" in your area and explain what you will be doing with yours.

To clarify, if you make people pay whilst on board, then you are COMMERCIAL, this includes restaurants, day trips, charter barges, hotel barges etc.

If the barge is for yourself, family and friends then it is PRIVATE, but remember nobody ever pays to come on board.

What's the difference

There is a huge difference between a boat, yacht and a canal barge. The volume of a barge is totally limited by the size of the locks, and this you cannot change. Which means that the length, width, height above the water line and keel depth all have to fit into the locks and bridges which will stand in your way. The dimensions of the barge will determine the waters on which you will be navigating.

Your going to have to make comprises in the final plans. If not, to get from the north to the south of France, you can always pass by the Rock of Gibraltar (don't forget to take that photo).

Customs and bad habits

You're a British company and own a Dutch-registered boat, you plan on cruising all year round on the French waterways offering the best charters in the world. Well, it's very simple, you're not allowed. If the vessel is not owned by a French company or person, you must be out of the French territorial waters for 6 months and one day of the year. And don't think that jumping across the border for a couple of days, will allow you to come back to La France!

If you plan on keeping your barge in France, even if it was purchased in another country, you'll have to pay the VAT.

If you're taking passengers on board, then make sure you're running a clean act and keep it very legal. It's your responsibility.

Solid ballast

Converting a barge

There are many intelligent ways to ballast a boat, but using concrete is not one of them! If your trying to get a licence for transporting passengers, it will be refused if you've used concrete. The ballast used, must be moveable at a later date.

This is also a serious consideration when you are buying a barge with plans of conversion. If you have to replace steel plates on the bottom of the hull and there is concrete ballast then there will be problems...

Are water pipes or electrical cables set in the concrete? Yum... is the waste tank in the concrete ballast... I think there will be a problem.

Another important point in getting the ballast right is to allow your boat to float correctly, don't let the stern sit too deeply and the bow to lift, or the other way around.

Water water everywhere and not a drop to drink

Great, everything is going to plan, the boat has been finished, 8 passengers, 2 showers, 2 bathtubs etc... There is also a freshwater tank of 5 tonnes.

Here your problem is going become apparent very quickly! Apart from repeating to your clients to be very careful when using the bathtubs and apologising that the tanks are now empty. You'll spend most of your time seeking moorings which have a tap, at least once a day. When you arrive at some of these moorings, there will already be a few other barges moored there, so you'll end having to drag a 100 metres of hose, as they will not move. So make sure you install a water tank(s) with a capacity that corresponds to the number of people and also the equipment on board. By the way, use stainless steel.

Your water capacity is also going to affect the way the barge is ballasted. Fitting a 20-ton tank in the bow will change the way the barge's floating line. When your full the bow drops and the stern comes up when you empty the bow rises, can you still pass beneath that bridge?

Fill it up please

In France, there are two tariffs for diesel fuel. The "white" coloured fuel is the same price as the one you put into your own car. The "red" coloured diesel is the same that is used for central heating, it also has a lower tax, making it much more attractive when you fill up your barge at the next petrol station. However, which should I choose?

If your barge is running a commercial operation ( a registered French company), you can use the lower-priced red fuel. However, if your barge is for private use, be very careful. For the main engine, you must use white fuel, the red fuel can only be used for heating and generating electricity. This means that you must have two independent fuel tanks if you want to use red fuel. One for the main engine using the red, one to the heating and or generator.

Remember that the commercial barge which you may be renovating was often built to be used to transport cargo and not people. You'll often find that there is a fuel tank for 1 or 2 tonnes of fuel. The old bargee did not have a generator to heat the pool, air-conditioning, electric ovens... So when you decide to add a super generator pushing 380 and 220 volts through out the barge, do not forget that your daily fuel consumption is going to increase dramatically. So how many miles to go before the next diesel pump?

Low waters, low tide

This barge has everything you can imagine, double this, thicker that, double steel plated parts, hydraulic to assists doing this and that. The barge now draws 1.85 metres. So stable... even with a gale blowing, she holds course, no drifting. The only problem is that she cruises at a snail's pace on the canals, I need gangplanks that are twice the width of the barge to be able to get ashore, it's hell trying to pass a barge coming from the opposite direction and most of the canals are only allowing barges with a draft of 1.40 meters. Plus I have to go into dry dock every season to have the bottom of the hull repaired!

No headroom

You have designed the vessel with 5 cabins on the lower deck, a fabulous dining area and saloon with and an elegant bar on the main deck To make a sun deck you've used the roof of the main deck and added a cool whirlpool. The sun deck is very well protected with solid handrails, fixed and fast. To make sure you have a good view over the sunbeds, pool, tables and chairs from the rear wheelhouse, you've raised the helm 30 cm. Now the boat can longer pass under half the bridges or tunnels.

I forgot to build a wheelhouse which could be lowered to pass under the bridges...

Where's my bed?

You've built 3 huge cabins on your 30-metre luxury hotel barge, the bathrooms are spacious and the clients will have everything they need whilst on board. So where will the crew sleep? Remember you have a skipper, chef and hostess. Did you forget to include their sleeping quarters in your design? In haste, you decide to give the crew a mobile home or to employ only people who live nearby.

This means you have no crew on board at night, is this not risky? Consider some of the possible scenarios... Passenger falling overboard, your moorings being ripped out...

When you have passengers on board you have a crew on board, full stop!

Let there be light

You're a real professional when it comes to interior design and the most important ingredient is natural light. To allow the rays to fill the lower deck you've had custom made windows and fitted them along the hull, to be on the safe side they're 20 cms above the waterline. They must be safe as they cannot be opened and mess up the air-conditioning system. Do you think this will help you get a navigation licence?

What a waste

At some point, you'll have to consider what to do with the wastewater. The first point, make sure you have a good wastewater capacity (it also helps ballast). The second point, the maws are changing rapidly, with the environment in mind, so be prepared to change your installation and adapt to future laws and regulations which may vary not only from country to country but from region to region. In the coming months, years, you'll have to be equipped with some kind of treatment system or to pump out to a collecting device somewhere along your route. Make sure your capacity is adequate and that you have access to the piping in case it has to be modified at a later date.

Boat for sale (special price please contact me urgently)

Now that you've spent 500K Euro on what you consider to be a beautiful barge, it's time to sell and make some money, well at least to try and recuperate your initial investment. You may have spent that amount, but is your boat really worth it?

Why did you buy a 30-metre barge, cut it in half and then add 5 metres? Or on the contrary, a 38 metre and remove 9 metres so that you can cruise on the Midi? If you had taken a bit more time searching that perfect hull shape...

You say that you were so busy and couldn't oversee the conversion work whilst it was in the dry dock. Was all the work that you paid for accomplished? Did you get what you paid for? What was the name of that company again?