it was cheap

dawncraft chronicles

it was cheap

When I bought my Dawncraft 25 it had to fit three strict criteria: available immediately, local and come with a mooring. The rest I thought an intelligent man like myself could sort out. The money was duly handed over and I stood on a flexing roof the proud owner of a 1973 icon of boating history.

Over the years each successive owner had added their many and varied improvements to life below decks from leaking shower tray to Paloma water heater with inbuilt frost damage – why this was never drained during the winter lay up should have alerted me to other issues like, where’s the paper work from a gas fitter? This being essential for the boat safety certificate.

Anyhow we go boating to live our idea of a dream, chugging along in the sunshine watching the world drift by and enjoying or escaping the hum drum of our reality, leaving behind all modern conveniences for the simple life. Which means we can simplify boat buying too. Does it leak, does the engine work and can it steer left and right and any subsequent problems we can rectify with those immortal words of “ all it needs is..." and "you can get one on eBay" or "I know someone who can do that cheaply".

Originally my Dawncraft was powered by a BMC petrol engine coupled to what was a reliable almost agricultural Enfield Z drive. It's worth noting that this arrangement was designed both for its weight and power by clever men with slide rules, in fact we could say that the whole boat was designed around this original power to weight ratio and that any subsequent alteration to this would effect the waterline and thus its handling and speed. The Z drive off memory is in effect a 20.1 reduction gear box and a petrol engine can rev at 4000 revs so you can work out prop rotation. Also the Z drive is / was 40 years old – I am in my mid 50s and the NHS has had to do more than one emergency repair to me. Though it is possible to take them off in the water – as I have done it more than once it’s not recommended because it comes from an era when boating stopped in September, all craft were lifted out and engineers called to do annual servicing. Sadly over the years many small boat yards no longer have the lifting facilities or slip ways etc to enable owners to do this and if you can I have just been quoted £300.

My pride and joy had been refitted with a twin cylinder Kubota Diesel engine – truly agricultural as it came from a tractor. Reliable, fuel efficient, powerful, - on paper just what was needed. In reality it weighed twice as much as the petrol engine and was modified badly to take a Jabsco cooling pump. The whole thing fitted the existing engine bay like a glove, which meant that you could not get another hand (especially one clutching a spanner) in there. Also we were now stern heavy to the point where the lower rubbing strake was below the water line and the bow bunk lockers useless as they now contained ballast in a vain attempt to correct this. Add a few guests and the rubber bellows essential to keeping the water out the boat and more importantly the Z drive was now well under water, which according to the owners' manual is bad news.

Before we go any further If you are considering buying an old bargain boat and you want to have people on board you are going to need a little faith as you are about to enter a world of barbed comments, a little


Buddhism doesn’t go amiss. So is what they are about to say true, necessary or kind? Your pride and joy is about to come under the “ if it was mine I would do this to it" syndrome and indeed you may feel so wounded that you start doing their bidding and miss the elephant in the room.

The inboard engine in my case got its cooling water from outside via a sea cock. Years of sailing everything from tall ships to racing boats taught me one vital lesson, holes below the water line are trouble and I always viewed this one with suspicion. I always intended to replace this the day I found somewhere that would lift it out cheaply, but being prudent I fashioned from a broom stick with a penknife something that is usually found on time team, the idea being if the worst came I could plug that hole in a hurry. Of course in reality I would have to be on board when it happened but it gave me peace of mind whilst I got rid of the old table and made a new one which was on the “I would do this” list .

A final word before the main event. Sea cocks etc are made of something that doesn’t usually corrode for some time, but corrode they do - usually accelerated by some chemical electrical action for example sea water, or stray current on board . Sea cocks are quite expensive where as DIY store taps are not. Sea cocks are an alloy that usually has copper in it somewhere which gives a wonderful pink tinge or patina when aged.

So to recap. We have one old boat bought cheaply with the wrong engine that no one likes because it is noisy and smelly, a dubious cooling system, a Z drive that despite being off 3 or four times in my ownership is too far down in the water, an interior that is inferior to everyone who ever visits it, and a dream of chugging along in the sunshine with happy friends and spouses getting a good dousing at every opportunity.

The Kennet and Avon above Bath is beautiful and we were lucky to have found a mooring on the Somerset coal canal – indeed we live in a cottage along side the now defunct bit. The Canal trust spent a fortune lining the notorious leaking bit in concrete, excellent. The K/A at that time suffered like so many from unregulated moorings so that bridge entrances had 3 or 4 barges moored close, add a blind bend into the equation and Sunday mornings can get hectic. Great for gongoozlers who come to watch events unfold but bad for any skipper.

To cut a long story short the Z drive hit the concrete hard, hard enough to stall the diesel engine all whilst I was trying to take immediate action in reverse to avoid being sunk by forty tons of steel barge. By the laws of physics something had to give and said agricultural lump gave – and what appeared to be everything. The faith said it’s just the gear selector again, the heart knew from the noise it sounded more dramatic. We now have everyone’s nightmare - a boat miles from home with no propulsion. Luckily because of my years of being at sea, I came prepared - not with an auxiliary with stale fuel and cooling impeller on its last fins but a 55lb thrust electric out board and a home made bracket to boot.

Dawn Treader with emergency rigPHOTO: DAWN TREADER WITH EMERGENCY RIG

OK what does it take to move a boat? Take a rope and tie a loop in it, put the loop over the top of the scales and pull. The Dawncraft will move at about 10lb. Now move faster and watch the scales go down as you encounter drag or water resistance, now halve this speed because your battery won’t last five minutes pushing this load at this speed, and you have propulsion all be it at snail's pace. On the bright side half the passengers are happy as the engine has stopped and they hated the noise. The other half have done the usual “ nothing to do with me” got off and walked home. Leaving just oneself and an unswerving faith and dream.

Get home we did slowly and with strange effects from the wind as we were close to losing steerage – usually defined as the speed required across the rudder to make it effective but in this case to avoid being the equivalent of a polystyrene slab with no control. This little motor cost a few hundred quid and has saved me too often so really worth buying for any one considering boating as a hobby. Remembering that in its simplest form a boat needs a watertight hull and engine and ability to steer left and right.

By the following weekend I was a proud owner of a well used Honda 8 pull start out board, with the ingenuity that comes from a youth playing with Meccano a simple steering mechanism was used off the old Z drive - we were mobile again all be it with a ton of now unwanted scrap metal in the original engine bay and a defunct cooling system of dubious age and quality.

Several trips were made to Avon cliff and people happy with the new quiet out board. I was happy with its new turn of speed, remembering the diesel engine drove the Z drive at almost half its recommended revs, although it had the pulling power of a Thames tug anything over 3 knots and the kettle fell off the cooker with the vibration and conversation was impossible. Indeed there was no point in watching the wild life as most of that was alerted well in advance of us arriving.

It was late Sunday afternoon and I was just about to leave for home, the boat tucked up on its moorings at the top of the Somerset coal canal, handy for the loo and the café, when I heard running water. My first instinct was the road drain from the A36 above and I walked up to it to listen, but the noise was 25 foot away at the back of the boat the lower rubbing strakes being well under water. We were sinking and fast. For any one new to boating and buying an old boat pay the extra insurance and get covered for sinking, even if it means a full survey which would have alerted me to everything I found and possibly stopped me buying it (though actually I doubt it - I had an unswerving dream that could justify any unforeseen event!)

Somewhere in my distant past I had training in just such an event and the first thing is don’t panic, start the bilge pump and assess. I even started the old engine for the first time in six weeks and used its now disconnected cooling water intake to pump said water. The rule of thumb for bilges is they are not added storage and should be free of dirt and gubbings that can block a pump. The water kept rising.

Now it’s time to panic for no other reason than a panicking man with a bucket can shift more water than any pump built and I shifted gallons and quickly. A side ways jet of water showed that the fitting had finally given out, a deft whack with the nearest heavy object to hand, the lock windlass finished the job properly, the time team bung still hanging in the locker was whacked hard into the offending hole and the water reduced to a trickle. Another decent whack reduced it to a seep.


The engine smoked and grunted as its cooling water ran out and the bilge pump spluttered to a halt sucking in a ton of dirt that I neglected to remove, being busy with the outboard. But we were still afloat – ish . The next day after work I arrived with tools, generator, underwater setting compound, glass fibre, and set about drying, sanding & cleaning the area around the intake. Six matt coatings were applied and a crayon mark left at the height of any water in the bilge. It seemed to have worked.

Nick Shepphard of Bristol boats saved the day, the idea was to completely rebuild the transom, take the engine out and Z drive off and have the out board on the back. I will save the journey down the river Avon flowing fast after dark for another time. Although we couldn’t get the boat out several planks of wood and a land rover towed its stern up the slipway enough to work on it. The following really needs to be seen by any one considering buying a 40 year old boat. Basically the rear or transom is made of an external panel of glassfibre and an internal panel. Sandwiched between this is marine ply. The bolts and the hole for the Z drive go through this with a rubber gasket. None of which after 40 years was really attached to anything. Z drives had an ability to be wound up out the water, excellent for cleaning props off but this gear mechanism required a further 4 inch hole and with the weight of the diesel which it wasn’t designed for, 2 inches of this was below the water line. I used to blame the Jabsco pump for the water in the engine bay as it would drip from the shaft, what I didn’t realise was that the Z drive would flex the transom every now and then and water would gush in, mainly because I couldn’t see past such a tight fitting engine. We could have sunk at any moment. Nick said that when they lifted the old engine which was apparently almost too heavy for their gear the rear of the boat came up 4 inches out the water.

Any how the result is a water tight old tub from the bottom up. Sadly it still leaks from the top down but that’s another article. A professionally built transom with paper work and photos for insurance, no intakes below water line and her name cut in half which everyone remarks on but I haven’t got round to fixing because I am still doing the inferior interior.

Oh and a second hand Honda 8 pull start that requires no batteries to start it but like myself is getting on a bit and has off days but it was cheap.

Oh yes sorry the Z drive, that managed to sheer the bevel gear clean off and bent the input shaft. It was sold for parts.

Someone got a cheap bargain!