OwnerShips 2006-2010

Ownerships 2006 to 2010
by Peter and Elaine Scott

We have read Philip Duerden’s insightful and entertaining account of his years with Ownerships, and thought to fill in our memories of the missing years 2006 to 2010.
This is, of course,  from our perspective as a customer of Ownerships: and having begun thinking about those last four years, it seems worth having a go at writing about the whole life of Ownerships from the customer’s point of view.
Not that we ever fitted-in with Allen’s view of his stereotypical customers. Allen tried to set up his boats with two or three working-families with some schoolage children, then five or six (recently-)retired couples maybe with grandchildren, and the remainder from working-families with grownup children or no family responsibilities. The attraction for everybody was the much-reduced costs compared to hiring, a relationship with ‘own’ boat without the worry of maintaining it, and a chance to navigate the waterways using at least half of annual holidays-from-work.
Every Ownerships’ customer will have been unique in some way. By way of introduction, our distinctive experiences are that:
- we came to Ownerships with a brief exposure to another boatsharing scheme
-… and twenty years’ navigation of the waterways
- we eventually bought shares in two different Ownerships boats ...
- … both of which were differently designed compared with Ownerships’ fleetliners
- one boat developed a tightly-knit and mutually-supportive group of owners
- while the other group was brought together before the boat was designed
- … and was more fractious than other groups
- we watched Allen’s management and decisions closely and continuously
- and corresponded and challenged them directly with Allen
- we saw at close hand Allen’s response to two engine failures and two boat fires
- we were for a short while volunteer boat-turnaround crew at Stockton Top Marina
- we spent significant energy with Allen and owners on the online Ownerships message board
- we attended all possible boat-meetings
- we filed and retained every letter, paper and email from Allen
- we filled the boats with friends and maximised the navigation time while afloat
And if any of that is intriguing, then please read on ...

Life and Boating Before Ownerships
It was H’s idea.
H was the Master of the Southampton student bellringers and the end-of-summer-term week’s bellringing holiday had often involved cycling-and-tents. H had a different idea for 1969, and two Willow Wren 12-berth boats were hired from Rugby. In those far-off days from the mid-sixties, the boats had been converted from redundant working boats, and the hire charge, divided by twelve was much less than a vacation-week’s rent in a hall-of-residence. It was a cheap and fun holiday and had become a Guild Tradition a couple of years later when we joined in.
There was also Wessex Waterways, a student society that was formed with the idea of supporting the beginnings of waterway restoration, and eventually found more enthusiasm for weekends on boats, also from Rugby. Then there was a new hirebase with the Willow Wren name set up in Middlewich, and by the end of 1972, there were about five trips each year and canalling became our primary holiday choice. And it still is, fifty years later.
There’s an article in Ownersnips7 “Boating in the Golden Age” which explains our style of boating. To summarise, we took as many people as we could recruit, we chose the holiday weeks that were best value, and from the beginning to the end of the week we navigated for all the daylight hours, and seldom passed an arm unexplored.
By the end of 1980 we had completed  xxx miles and xxx locks on xxx trips, and there was a parenting-pause of a couple of years before we began organising all our trips ourselves, all with fewer crew, more space for cots and rattles, and cruising-days that were limited to twelve hours.
The pool of boating-friends was diminishing as work and parenting and other interests took over: a few younger student-types joined in, and being students they tended to be impecunious, and we tried to charge them not-too-much. An ambitious two-boat fortnight including the Tidal Trent both ways cost about four thousand quid, and it was our bank account that forked-out the hire-charge.
The money was an important issue, and we worked out the sums for buying a second-hand narrowboat. It was still poor value for just-holiday-boating despite the extra flexibility for extra weekends afloat. So we continued the (usually) three weeks of hiring each year, with the occasional extra weekend until along came …
Shared Boating
This time it was all P’s fault.
Allen Matthews didn’t invent shared boating. There were other schemes before Ownerships, and that excludes the even-earlier and parallel idea of timeshare. Let’s not go there: it’s hardly different from hiring (there’s a ‘usage charge’) as well as lodging a large lump of capital with a company which itself owns (or sometimes doesn’t own) all the chalets, boats and other resources which the timesharer can book.
P was a boatbuilder and we saw his advertisement. His idea was to bring together a syndicate of five families, who would then share between them the cost of his building them a fifty-foot boat. After the boat was launched, it was up to the owners to run it, and entirely optionally P would have it moored at his yard for a small fee for as long as the syndicate wanted it there.
At the time it seemed an ideal scheme for us, giving the flexibility of maybe eight weeks’ boating each year and a group of like-minded individuals to form together a working syndicate. P created a group, arranged a potential meeting. As Christmas was due to intervene, we set about contacting the others to assess whom we were taking on.
There were some downsides. The boat design had separate two-berth cabins with doors to the corridor, and a ‘semi-trad’ stern. We had been used to a steering position inside the sliding hatch of the traditional narrowboat and thought (and still do) that steering deserves full attention, undisturbed by the visiting crew, not to mention the wet-weather cosiness of half the anatomy being inside the backdoors of the boat. But the deal-breaker was P. His boat was as-it-was. In particular he didn’t like sand-for-grip in the gunwale-paint. They were too narrow to walk along, so crew shouldn’t be walking on them and …
There was no compromise on this or other issues and contacting others in the prototype syndicate was not, as far as P was concerned, a good plan. So P sacked us from his syndicate. Those who recognise the boatyard will understand why we called him ‘P-the-eponymous’; and sadly he died relatively young.
We also investigated F’s scheme. These boats were uncompromisingly frilly, much too much for shared use, and included a four-poster bed. Actually it had only one post, but it tried hard to look as if it had three colleagues. This scheme created a limited company to own each boat with a share retained for ever by the operating company. This seemed a good model, if slightly bureaucratic, and it does overcome the ‘joint and several liability’ issue which could theoretically scupper all the  shared boat schemes.
But F was not for us and we continued the search for something different ...

Central Networks
At the precursor to the Crick Show on the late-May Bank Holiday in 1990, held in those days at Braunston marina, we came upon the Managing Director of Central Networks Ltd sitting, rather forlornly we thought, at a desk in a marquee, and he had a shared-boating offer available. We added our name to a piece of paper of those who might be interested and a letter from Central Networks duly arrived dated 13 June 1990.
It said that  “in practice, for tax reasons and ease of licensing, the owners are actually shareholders in a private limited company that is the boat's legal owner.” and that as this company owned all the boats in the scheme, usage could alternatively be on a different boat on different waterways; for each use an access charge was payable to Central Networks, which itself organised cleaning, preparation and maintenance of the boat.
The letter described timeshare as “fixed weeks for a fixed period, … and the profits are retained by the organisers”. True enough, but from the letter, Central Networks had all the essential elements of a timeshare scheme. It was also still in a formative stage “we are reducing the price of shareholdings for owners of the first boat, which becomes available at the end of this year”
When a phone call followed, offering a meeting in Sheffield with the MD, I preferred to send a letter with follow-up questions – 183 of them – and the idea petered out.
Or at least it did until ...

The Ownerships offer
The hangdog expression hadn’t changed, and the modest stand in a marquee at an extremely muddy Wakefield Inland Waterways Association rally at August Bankholiday 1992 contrasted with the snazzy Challengerships display opposite.
But Allen Matthews had adapted his offering. Central Networks had gone. The owners now owned each boat directly, rather than through a multi-boat company. The emphasis was now on twelfths-of-a-boat and there were ‘special’ arrangements for those who needed to use school-holiday weeks for their boating.
It was a memorable day. I often say that I have been wed to a sewerage engineer who talks of her work over lunch: said engineer had volunteered to help with the rally, and she had taken to crewing the Lavender Boat (only ask if you’re not having lunch). There was lots of pouring to do. While I was talking to Allen in a marquee Elaine was overbalancing from her pouring position and falling into t’cut. Luckily uninjured but wet, some BWB staff found her a new but no-longer-required set of blue overalls (they had just rebranded as jolly-green-giants) and they posted an office-worker (female) on the entrance to the showers (only usually needed for the wholly-male workforce) while she cleaned up, before resuming her pouring.
Compared with earlier attempts at boatsharing, things now moved fast, and four weeks later we were at a ‘Steam and Narrowboat Rally’ having a ride on nbCopperkinsII on which we bought a Special (school holiday) share.

The Magic of Ownerships
Even with the benefit of hindsight through the failure of the company, Allen had a magical combination of ideas which brought together (eventually) over a hundred boatloads of contended owners, the vast majority of whom shared his vision of a brilliant boatsharing community.
All of them will have their own view of what-worked and what-didn’t, over those twenty years 1990-2010.  Here are ours, mostly in descending order of impact.
The Price Was Right

There’s a balance between the cost of the shares and the usage of the boat. Allen found a sweet-spot in the market at three to five thousand pounds which attracted a good range of customers: working families could use for boating most-but-not-all of their available holiday-from-work, without feeling they were paying for usage that was not taken up.
We were a Mixed Lot

That range of customers was not only those working nine-to-five, but also the active-retired, and families with school commitments. Because of the structure of bookings, customers from all these groups were brought together on each boat, with similar mixtures across all the boats. It generated mutual respect, or at least toleration, within the various groups.

It’s a popular narrowboat name: not necessarily about the Hebridean island, but the concept “I own ‘er”. Allen always emphasised Ownerships as a Private scheme, and the boats for the most part had no obvious outside show of allegiance to Ownerships. The (timeshare-)idea of booking other boats in the scheme was hardly ever taken up, and owners were genuinely a partnership using a single boat. Allen tried to persuade those who couldn’t use their weeks to be compensated by other owners of the same boat who took up the booking. This almost never happened, and the general view was that owners shouldn’t be paying extra for using their own boat: the annual fees seen as a subscription and not a (timeshare-)usage-fee.
Floating on a Log

Before the widespread use of email and social media, owners kept in touch with one another through the boat log: a day-to-a-page diary with something written each day about that day’s activity, for the consumption of the current crew and subsequently of the other owners. Ideas or changes could be floated in the log: its major impact was the common endeavour: if the current crew broke a mug, then the actions of the errant dog / child could be shared with others who would recognise the problem, instead of being irked by a mug-deficiency. Owners came to know one another by their written personality, and it worked like a very-slow-email circular across each year.
We Knew Where our Pillows Were

Allen emphasised Ownerships taking instructions from the owners. He gave us all the illusion (sometimes reality) of owners’ control of our boats. The Annual meetings were closest to achieving this, and by happenstance the first item on the boatmeetings’ agenda always seemed to be the pillows: in was inconsequential to Allen what decisions were made about pillows (and indeed the duvets) but there was then much less meeting-time to talk about anything that had gone wrong or what the costs were. A good discussion on where to moor for the next year was similarly diverting from challenging Ownerships’ control. If there was anything Allen felt really strongly about he could resist until a majority (sometimes needing unanimity) would write to him expressing a view contrary to his. (Pillows cf HHGTTG Towels)
It’s All New

The intensive use of the boats, needed to support the model of twelfth shares with three-weeeks-use-each, needed extremely reliable boats that would not break down and could be made ready for new users within a six-hour turnaround time. Being new made this achievable, and it became a hostage-to-fortune in later years. Allen also had an idea to combat this problem: to encourage the owners of each six-year-old boat to commission a new one and sell the old one. It worked a couple of times, but they were a minority. The new boats were brilliant to boast about and show to friends and family, and this encouraged all the owners to take pride in them. And this emphasised the allegiance to one special boat rather than the-one-we-are-in-this-week.
TGI Friday

Starting-on-a-Friday is more than a device to make engineers available for boat turnarounds: it is essential to maximise a weekend-away without using holidays-from-work. This works even better with customers who are within two-to-three-hours’ drive to the Midlands. Additionally, and maybe unexpectedly, these Friday-to-Friday holidays have a full weekend’s relaxation at the end, before work resumes its hold. With an increasing influence of dressdown-Fridays, more and more people can get away early to the boat for an evening’s unpacking and maybe some boating for a summer or autumn evening.
The Highs and The Lows

The boats are moving around in the waterways for (almost) every week of the year; this is brilliant for the waterways, and it brings the owners on to the waterways when they are quiet. It uses lots of fine winter days, that would be unattractive for an expensive hire. The cost structure gives the impression of paying for two-separate-weeks or one fortnight sometime in Spring-Summer-early-Autumn, and the third week feels like a “free” bonus, often delightful in itself, and all that gives the impression of the extra value from the boatshare. Having a High season and a Low season is simple enough to understand and it just worked as a system.
Let’s Go Boating

There is also the impression of available spontaneous trips: these could have been the ‘fourth week’ that still mathematically fits twelve-fours into 52 weeks, with another four for winter maintenance. Instead of that, these weeks were made available to owners with no more than seven week’s notice. Not all users bid for them, but those who did gained ‘extra’ (mostly) winter boating at no further cost. It was not really as spontaneous as the advertisements claimed, but owners valued the system.

And Why Copperkins Was Different
Firstly we were a secondhand boat: she had been displayed at the 1989 IWA Festival, and was so cheap that Pat Buckle had lots of orders for similar constructions. Pat Buckle and his good-value boats had attracted Allen’s commissions for Ownerships boats, and when Pat had begun to build Copperkins3, the owners of CopperkinsII and Allen came into contact, Allen bought the boat and sold-it-on to his shared-ownership customers.
Secondly the layout was as originally built. Allen’s designs were all very similar to one another, with a few minor tweaks: I called them ‘fleetliners’. Copperkins has a defining sweeping curved room-divider separating the kitchen from the dining/sleeping area, and the kitchen is significantly bigger. than Allen’s design The main bedroom is directly off a corridor, separated by a curtain, and this minimises the length of boat used for this. There is a bath, an ordinary oblong one, not the distinctive quarter-circle baths of Allen’s design.
Then we have ‘traditional’ steering position. It’s also bigger than those in traditional narrowboats, so it does allow a second person to stand with the steerer, usually for a short visit, which works well
We put a lot of effort into the group of owners as a group. We transitioned quickly from the hire-boat view of Copperkins (**Story) and we all diligently wrote in the boat-log. P+E were keen on away-from-base transfers, both to increase navigational options and also to meet the other owners for a chat.  …
At our first AGM there was an issue to resolve with Allen: the sidehatch looked sleek, but was a faulty design and it leaked. Our case was that this was not a new problem and ought to have been resolved before the boat was sold to us. As chairman I put the case to Allen when he joined our meeting, and we compromised on his paying half of the repairs. This had all the owners on the same side early in our collective relationship.
Also at this first meeting we had a question from Allen: was it OK for one of our owners to sublet his week(s) to a cousin / neighbour / co-worker because he lived in Aberdeen.  This was also the only one of our thirteen (two half-shares) owners to be absent. We decided ‘no’, and that we wanted an owner, if not present throughout (which was best) to be present and responsible for the handover to the next owner. And we weren’t keen on owners of other boats to use ours - partly because we had a different design, Effectively we opted-out of Allen’s shared-use (timeshare-like-)ideas. The use of other boats was also supposed to meet emergencies where a boat became unavailable.
And we wanted to kept the boat to ourselves ...
Selling Copperkins Shares
When shares became available, there was no requirement to offer them to existing owners, nor any mechanism to allow the current owners to vet any potential new owner.
Allen did notify current owners of share sales, and P+E usually offered to buy those in Copperkins that came available, intending if necessary to use these as long-weekends-away. The share sales arose about one per year, and although offering to buy the early ones, other owners could make better use of them and took them up.
This technique was not wholly successful, and one new owner joined, only to leave again after a couple of years. At this time there was another share available, and that was beyond our collective pocket: Allen found three new owners for us: two were from a boat whose syndicate had broken up acrimoniously with two of the owners forming a new partnership and the others excluded. And Elaine’s sister’s boyfriend also bought a share, which kept the boat ‘in the family’.
We have continued this policy and Copperkins is now owned jointly and equally by three of our original 1993 owners.
And Then There Was Odyssey
The idea of a seventy-foot boat was part of the initial Ownerships advertising from 1990. It was to be called Odyssey and one of the styles of boat that weren’t built yet, but would hopefully be, and those preferring this style could buy a share in an existing boat until their preferred boat became available.
By the time we became further involved, Allen had almost-a-boatful of interested owners who were meeting together alongside the normal boat AGMs. The boat was now to be called Senator, the assembled meeting was to make decisions about it, and Allen would arrange for it to be built.
Our meeting was chaired by T whose participation was dependent on some specific family requirements. T’s son had different holidays to the norm, and finished school at the beginning of July: they therefore wished to reserve to themselves those three weeks before the normal school holidays; for this concession every year they would pay a “Special” share price, but without counting this share against the normal limit of Special shares. They also wanted another share which would be an ordinary Special.
In addition, the boat was to have two televisions as well as their own video-player, all of which were to work all evening, together with all the other electrical equipment, after a maximum of five hours cruising during the day.
Allen had his own requirements: the boat was to be quiet enough to hear the birds singing while steering.   With the extra accommodation within seventy-foot of boat he wanted to try four special shares (as well as T’s extra one) which meant defining twelve school-holiday weeks each year. (This never worked properly). All of this was agreed, together with not having a bow-thruster, that the paintwork should be Red (unlike all other Ownerships boats), that we have fixed bench seating instead of the big Ownerships free-standing chairs, the boat should be called Odyssey; and maybe there were other inconsequential decisions about pillows which I now forget.
For the quietness, Allen wanted a diesel-electric engine arrangement, which is basically battery-powered propulsion where the batteries are on continuous trickle-charge from a diesel motor running at constant speed while cruising, but with no direct connection to the propeller. To investigate this, all the owners set off to Penton Hook for a ride on an existing cruiser with this arrangement. It summary it was a failure, and the engine just cut out if too much was asked of it. Allen profusely apologised for our fruitless visit, and redesigned Odyssey to have a conventional engine, but mounted on the left side, one third along the boat and connected to the propeller with a hydraulic drive.
To meet the battery requirement we were to have gel batteries, normally designed for remote telephone exchanges, and costing about three thousand pounds instead of the normal £250 for conventional batteries.
As Philip mentions, Odyssey was built at a loss to Ownerships of about £20,000 It was launched in 1995 and is still in shared ownership in 2020 with some of the original owners and lots of new ones. We left in 2012.
During building, T continued to make specific requirements, and as a launch date approached the booking chart was circulated. We all found ourselves waiting for weeks for T’s decisions, sufficiently to the exasperation of Allen, that he returned T’s money and effectively expelled them form the group. Frustrating though they were, I appealed to Allen to reconsider, and in the end he relented. It didn’t stop them thinking of Odyssey as their boat, which the rest of us used occasionally; for example for each trip they removed all the shared equipment (bedding, cutlery, glassware) and replaced it with equipment from their home.
This group was much more fractious and T continued to expect the boat to be run primarily for their benefit, until they left to buy their own boat. There was a continuing turnover of owners each year.
Allen and the owners’ groups.
Each boat has to be owned somehow, in a legal sense: in Allen’s model this has to be the group of owners, collectively: and as no other collective structure is defined, then it is a partnership. Logically, for Allen to provide management services to these boatowning partnerships, there would be a contract between Allen (Ownerships) and each partnership. This is exactly how the post-Ownerships-collapse boats are managed.
But it’s not how it worked when Ownerships was operational: there were (typically) twelve separate contracts each between Ownerships and the (as these contracts called them) part-owners. The contracts mentioned that the part-owners collectively owned the boats, and that for, initially, six years the owners had appointed Allen to manage the boats; for example, any access or use of the boats was determined and controlled through Ownerships according to the rules in the contracts.
Allen probably had no particular aim behind doing it this way: it had evolved from the CNL contract which was timeshare-like, and which had been tweaked to make each boat separate. It gave Allen complete control of the boats  “The boat will at all times be held by the Company upon trust for the Part Owner and other like Part Owners” and effectively prevented the owners’ group from making any binding rules for itself, or any decision that Allen disapproved of. There was neither a defined role for a owners’ meeting nor any requirement for Allen to consult us at all. At a practical level, if the groups diverged in how they managed themselves and had lots of different rules for each of their boats, then the whole Ownerships business would become more difficult to keep track of.
An example issue was Copperkins owners, as described above, deciding to require each owner to be on-board and responsible for the handover to the next owner. And as our decision was taken with only twelve of the thirteen owners present, and we failed to notice that there was no formal mechanism for telling our thirteenth owner, C, what we had decided, nor had Allen passed on the information, it wasn’t surprising that C didn’t comply. In the subsequent correspondence C argued there was nothing in his contract to allow this new requirement. Allen’s defence to this sort of problem was that he would change the way he ran the boat if the owners would all write individually to him to say they wanted him to do it differently. This was always a very high bar to jump over, and things usually carried on as before. In this case C sold their share to other Copperkins owners without ever using the boat themselves.
Allen, as above, fully followed everything decided about pillows. And everything else that owners decided as long as it didn’t threaten the scheme. ...
Ownerships doesn’t own any of your boat
There was one obvious way of Allen owning a share, as he writes in [Ownersnips]. Allen wanted to go boating, so bought one of his own barge shares for himself.
Other than that, Allen was keen to make the advertised position accurate, that Ownerships owned no part of the boats which it managed, and this was true for most of the time. And this was an important part of maintaining the (sometimes accurate) perception of the owners collectively giving instructions to Ownerships, their contractor.
There were some clear exceptions, and these increased as the Scheme matured.
New boats were built to a schedule of maybe three, or six or eight each year, and this was done independently of recruiting owners for them. Therefore there were some, maybe most, boats that launched without a full set of owners, and Ownerships continued to own part of them until all the shares were sold.
At the beginning Allen wished to fill his boats with owners, without at the time having a range of boat-styles from which they could choose. He therefore offered a transfer-guarantee that owners could move from one boat to another, paying maybe an upgrade-price, and Allen would take the share that was released. This had the undesirable business consequence that on a launching a new boat it was possible for Ownerships to be acquiring a complete boatful of old shares to find new owners for. And each of these was a more difficult sale than part of a brand-new boat.
As Philip mentions […] there was the occasional disruptive or awkward customer, whose antisocial behaviour of excessive challenge to Ownerships made it worth Allen’s while to refund their money or otherwise get them to leave the Scheme. So Ownerships became the owner of their share.
And then there were the owners who wished to leave. It might be to own their own boat – and Allen saw that as a positive development sufficiently to mention it in his advertisements […] Also it might be because of changes in their family, infirmity, different holiday enthusiasms, or any manner of other personal reasons. Whatever the cause, the ownership of a share comes with a continuing liability to pay for the boat-maintenance and to pay Ownerships their management fee, and that continued until a replacement owner was found. This, typically, cost a hundred pounds per month. Continuing to take holidays while seeking-a-new-owner was one possibility, but once it became impossible to use the boat then the continuing commitment seemed expensive.
The need of an expeditious sale therefore had owners selling shares more cheaply – much more cheaply - than a twelfth-of-a-boat would realise if sold as a whole-boat rather than in shares. Think £950 compared to £5,500. This had a knock-on-effect on Ownerships’ business: if existing-boat-shares are so much cheaper than new ones, there is more of a sales-effort in recruiting new-boat owners to commit to the new-boat-premium, and even if they think that’s worth it, they may see how much of their money will never return if they need to sell, and how much more can be used in waiting-for-a-buyer.
There is a business-opportunity here in brokering these old-shares for a fee of 7.5%, and Allen certainly did that. I always saw it as a defensive move, the better to keep all the prices up, rather than making sufficient profit from the effort expended. I can hear Allen expounding the argument that there were distinct marketplaces at work here, one for the cheaper existing-boat shares that particularly appealed to boating-enthusiasts currently regularly hiring, and another for those wanting a new luxury experience without necessarily knowing much about canals. Whether he believed this or not, it was one of the reasons that Allen would find any plausible reason to ‘improve’ the specifications of new boats to appeal to this luxury market.
Whatever the cause, it inexorably drew Ownerships into the complete management of the purchase-use-sale cycle of the boats, and intervening when necessary to have twelve contented owners all the time.  It was inevitable, and probably a good business idea, for Allen to provide a backstop for owners who wished to leave the scheme and could not readily find someone to sell to. His first attempt in 2004 had a buy-back guarantee for 75% of the boat’s insured-value once a share had been offered and unsold for a year. Then in 2006 there was an immediate buy-back at 100% of the insured-value in exchange for a £1000 maximum subscription, paid at the rate of £120 per year, provided the owner had been in this (optional) scheme for more than eighteen months.
Allen’s methods of raising capital in exchange for giving up future income were questionable and  Philip covers this extensively; and I will come to the customer impact later. This is a separate issue from the inevitability of Ownerships ending up as owner to these orphaned shares, and the rules by which Allen bought them. He wanted to retain the principle of not owning any of the boat, and created a sleight-of-hand that the investors in the Free Services Scheme were the true owners of these bought-back shares
A sales show and the associated work-to-organise also seemed inevitable from the above.. It was a forum to view existing boats-with-shares-for-sale alongside the new shares. Similarly there was a continuous advertising need for finding buyers for both sorts of share. I was never convinced that these functions sat comfortably together, nor that the second-hand-share sales were profitable.
There was no way that Allen’s initial design could be informed by the level of share-sales, but there was one lever that Allen didn’t or couldn’t pull ...

Own Your Boat For Life
That claim was part of the external advertising, but was not entirely what the contracts said.
At the end of six years, there was a decision to be made: should the boat be sold, or should the contracts be renewed in some way?  I drew a flowchart of this decision-making process for Copperkins. Our contract allowed each owner to have their boat-share-capital repaid to them at the end of these six years in December 1998, and causing the boat to be sold if insufficient other owners were available to continue.
Until Allen devised the buyback schemes above, the six-year point was the only way an owner could be sure of exiting their commitment without penalty, delay or uncertainty. While early owners had this unilateral-exit option,  for the later boats Allen changed the rules: for an owner to leave, they had to be part of a majority of their boat’s shared owners who wished to leave. That just never happened.
Allen offered [and there’s an advert explaining the idea] to build a new boat for all groups of existing owners, but this one issue he could not insist on. About three groups took up his offer, and the remainder had become sufficiently attached to their boats that they wished to continue past the six-year mark. Or maybe it was just easier that way. Or there were just not enough owners with the money to buy a new boat. Or even if there were, they wanted incompatible designs in a new boat.
Copperkins took this new-boat possibility seriously: we organised an extra meeting in June separate from the AGM, and without Ownerships in attendance. We all wrote down what we would value in a new boat, and collected the thoughts together, and then analysed what we could do with the current boat to meet these new ideas. It was unanimous that we preferred the current boat. So we, too, wanted to carry on past six years.
A timeshare-business would be well-advised to sell every six-year-old boat and replace it with a new one. With the intensive use that the Ownerships scheme requires, this would make non-availability of a boat for a planned holiday a much rarer occurrence..
There was an additional complication with these contracts: as boats came to the end of their six-year terms, owners who wished to sell found that buyers were not keen on one-year-remaining boats because of the uncertainty of holidays for more than one year. It was my suggestion that Allen adopted: that each boat-meeting each year agreed to extend the contract for three-more years, effectively creating a three-year rolling contract. If an owner wished to leave at the end of contract they now had to find a like-minded majority of owners for three successive years. This just never happened.
By this complicated route, the boats happened upon being ‘for life’, with the commitment to pay on-going costs being similarly for life. It all just happened that way. And in the end it defined Ownerships and pushed it kicking and screaming to the timeshare end of the shareboat spectrum.
The Life Of The Boats
The bits-and-pieces on a boat only last for so long. The six-year cycle was part of the way bookings worked for a group of twelve owners, and as above the twelve owners were the sweet-spot of pricing shared-boating on new narrowboats. Even though six years was unrelated to any expectations of boat-life, it would still have been a good point to stop.
But Allen didn’t insist on boats being replaced at the six-year point. It might have been because of:
- a lack-of-vision that older boats would cause lots more effort and less customer-satisfaction when breaking down ...
- “It’ll be all-right-on-the-night” syndrome - maybe they won’t actually break down for another ten years, after all
- the customers really wanted to continue past six years, and taking customers’ instructions is what Ownerships does
- not having the contractual right to insist on sale, or not wishing for the confrontation ...
- the business model being flawed, not working with a stable number of boats and therefore dependant on continued expansion
I used to think it was “all-right..” syndrome, and with Philip’s insight I am now more inclined to the flawed business-model.
Clearly the hulls were robust and could continue forever: Copperkins after thirty years has had some hull maintenance and may soon require a new steel bottom. All the Ownerships boats were built with thicker plate than Copperkins, so should last even longer.
Not all components are so robust, and the engine is likely to be the first to life-expire.
Engines Will Sometime Break Down
In […] Copperkins had some serious engine difficulty, and A, the owners on board at the time arranged with a passing boat for a tow, returned to the boatyard, and spent three days aboard while the repair was completed including driving a hundred miles to fetch a new part. It seemed to me that was what we should expect of our fellow-owners, who will have messed-up their holiday but they are the representatives of the owners’ group and we should all accept that these-things happen.
In […] Odyssey had a more serious engine incident, which after an initial visit from a boatyard call-out, seemed likely to require a replacement engine. B was about four days into a fortnight’s booking.  A boat with a broken engine is habitable for at least two days before the battery power is used up (Odyssey’s battery system was designed to last at least twice this). At some stage the waterpump will stop working and the lighting will cease; the stove will work for heat if there is enough solidfuel available, and the central heating and the cooker will work on the bottled gas while supplies last. Odyssey’s toilets would be unaffected. Progress along the canal is possible only with a tow from another boat or with bowhauling with ropes.
Rather than following A’s example, B arranged with Ownerships to summon a taxi and transfer to another boat: in concept this holiday-guarantee is backed-up by hiring a suitable boat. In this case Allen had a new boat which wasn’t yet fully sold, and B transferred to this.
Odyssey was in an inconvenient position on a towpath with no-one on hand to move her. The boatyard that attended the initial callout was not available for an engine replacement job, and in the end this was done in its towpath position at some inconvenience to the engineers who eventually agreed to do the job. The engine’s offset-from-boat’s-middle line was an additional difficulty for them.
From B’s viewpoint, they have paid for a whole year’s contributions and this fortnight is the whole point of their relationship with the boat. With the intricacies of the booking system it can be eighteen months between two holidays on the boat, and spending the time liaising about engine replacement is not what the holiday is for. I can fully understand the view that a broken boat is Ownerships (not the owners’) problem.
The whole repair cost about five thousand pounds, and that is more than the boat’s annual contingency of five hundred pounds in the sinking fund. If this is exceeded, under the contract, Ownerships are supposed to consult the owners for their authority to spend more: the other alternative is to sell the boat and liquidate the partnership. In this case Allen didn’t do these consultations, claiming the need for a  speedy repair. That’s understandable, but it changes the contractual relationship: in effect Allen can raid the bank accounts of all the owners to fix any expensive contingency. And that’s not in the advertisements. For some owners, and probably at least one on each boat, funding their share is a financial stretch, and unexpected mid-years calls on their finances can be traumatic, particularly if they had no idea that this would be allowed to happen.
The holiday-guarantee ‘insurance’ of using a hireboat instead of own-boat is not available was also hit and miss, and probably more smoke-and-mirrors. In the summer holidays, all the Ownerships boats are in use all the time. There may be a new boat available (part-)owned by Ownerships or there may not; if a hireboat were required, this was not paid-for on an insurance basis but from Ownerships funds on a ‘hope-it-won’t-happen’ basis; there was no insurance policy -  one might have been too expensive.
On another occasion the toilet-tank needed an expensive replacement and C, the owner-next-aboard, wanted a hire-boat for their fortnight, complaining that a nine-person crew couldn’t manage a fortnight with only one toilet. Allen offered five-hundred-quid as extra compensation, but C declined and wanted the hire-boat from a different base: they also only had a crew of four so that was an expensive cost to Ownerships.
As a result of the replacement Odyssey engine, Allen tried a modification to the sell-the-boat at six-years idea. He decided that he would recommend a planned engine replacement at the six-year point and that if the owners declined to support this, then their eligibility for an alternative boat would be terminated. 
And to end where we began, Allen’s new rule spooked the Copperkins owners into commissioning a new engine during winter maintenance: this Ownerships amended to a refurbishment of the old engine, probably because the engineer at the faraway location of our winter maintenance didn’t consider the expense of a new engine worth the money, and he didn’t have the workshop space to make the internal changes that would come with a new design. Errors in doing this refurbishment work was the direct cause of the breakdown with which I started this section.
Are Those Sausages Burning ?
They weren’t. But there was a fire in the Copperkins engine room. We drifted to the side and moored as best we could – near Coseley Tunnel on the Birmingham Canal Navigations. The fire extinguishers  didn’t extinguish the fire. Turning the engine off didn’t do the job either: the kitchen fire blanket was more successful. Phoning Ownerships interrupted the end of one of the set of owners’ meetings, and a visit was arranged for the morning. They advised us to get to a boatyard, and we cross-strapped a tow with a passing boat to the top of Wolverhampton 21. Going down the locks we were bowhauling with four crew, and that was faster than our towing boat with only two people ahead. So we lent them one of ours and that worked best.
The boatyard had no experts available and Ownerships arranged two engineers to drive from our base with instructions to rewire the engine-room and be prepared to stay overnight if necessary. They did the job in about five hours and after a bit of coughing the engine started and we were on our way again. It was a brilliant response from all concerned, and cost only about £250 in time and materials.
And We Are Coughing
The engine, refurbished (instead of replaced) in 2000, repaired as above,  mistreated by the fire was running  roughly in early 2004 and a boatyard consulted for repairs recommended replacement. The dilemma was similar to Odyssey’s. Allen made the same decision to replace the engine, and the same decision to spend our money without giving us a chance to take a different decision. Which might have been for a different type of engine if we had the time to think about it.
It was done during a spare week between bookings and Calcutt delivered what Allen understood to be a refurbished engine which had been destined for another boat. This worked better for a fortnight and was then running roughly again when we (P+E) took over for our fortnight’s trip. Fiddling with the engine’s innards by the boatyard would invalidate Calcutt’s guarantee, which only operated on a return-to-their-yard basis. So we abandoned our trip plans and struggled to Calcutt for them to sort it out.
As it turned out, they had repaired our original engine, rather than provided a replacement, and had confused its internal specification, spending our two-thousand-pounds but making the engine no better than when they received it. They took it out and repaired it again under their (difficult-to-invoke) guarantee, and we continued with what remained of our trip.
Paperwork and Customer Service
By some extensive email-discussion by the time of our boat-meeting we had complied a thirty-page dossier of the history of Copperkins engine, its tribulations and great expense; we had data of its engine-hours at each stage, and the emphasis that it had removed it from the boat four times (one to two thousand pounds per occasion) and re-fitted on each occasion.
The issue was that Ownerships as our boat managers had always taken the patch-and-mend and at-our-expense costly solutions, despite us once specifically deciding on a new engine, and not receiving it. On the last occasion, with a normal (see Odyssey story) crew we wouldn’t have held Calcutt to account for their expensive error. And we had not been consulted in the decision as the contract said we must be.
Armed with our thirty pages, and united in believing Ownerships to be at fault, we sent the message that we were ready for them to join our meeting, and they arrived mob-handed, including R, Allen’s latest right-hand-person. A fun discussion seemed likely …
Allen began by saying that Copperkins seemed in need of a new engine, one could be fitted during winter maintenance and that Ownerships would pay. We accepted his kind offer. And as Philip mentions, Ownerships didn’t have the money for such gestures.
This was the right response to a customer-issue: take responsibility and move on. It was always Allen’s priority to prioritise customer relations and this was part of the success of Ownerships.
In summary, the engine issues showed::
- it’s too expensive to allow engine replacement during the periods of intensive use
- that Allen prioritised the short-term-fixes to get-the-show-on-the-road again …
- … without consulting the owners about exceeding their budget and authority …
- … and expecting the owners to pay extra expenses without limit
- the hire-boat-backstop was mostly illusary
Our engine replacement was successful, and certainly didn’t need the engine to be removed for another 13 years, when it was in a good codition: on this occasion it was the gearbox that had failed. Significant for personal relationships was that the new installation made the access under the rear deck to the weedhatch became more difficult, and R came to meet us at Tewkesbury in the middle of a trip, to assess what could be done.
Nobody was injured …
… in the fire that destroyed Odyssey’s engine and left the back cabin waterlogged. So said the email that arrived from Ownerships on .. June 2006. K and the crew-of-four had travelled the River Nene and the Middle Level and were within an hour of entering tidal waters of the Great Ouse when fire engulfed the engine. The fire brigade were summoned, extinguished the fire, and the Odyssey crew, entirely reasonably, left the boat near … and went home. P+E went that evening to see the damage, which was extensive; we were all thankful that the fire left untouched all of the boat forward of the engine entirely. The seat of the fire was the battery system alongside the engine; it had worked for ten years without anyone looking at it, understanding it or maintaining it.
It was a proper insurance claim, and there was significant danger of the boat being written off. Allen and R negotiated a repair, and that included towing the boat to a craning-out point, journeying by lorry to Stockton Top Marina, relaunching there and persuading Kate Boats, who were the marina owners by that time, to rebuild the engine and back cabin.
Overall the job took four months, and Allen used his own quirky boat ShipHappens and J’s own boat as replacements. ShipHappens had spread slightly and was a too tight a fit in some narrow locks. It was fun to have a piano on board, but we would happily have swapped it for a tunnel light. Generally passing boaters understood the name on a second take ...
The rebuilt Odyssey had conventional batteries: R had priced replacement gel ones and T supported (and was outvoted) on that option. The back cabin was stripped out and rebuilt. Sadly Kate Boats failed to record how it was before, and how we had commissioned it to be rebuilt. There were major deficiencies: inside the back cabin doors the steerer needs to stand at deck level to steer the boat, but they forgot to do that. The old bunks folded down to make a day-cabin, but the replacement ones were fixed. And narrower, (similarly the cushions thereon) so much so that adults were uncomfortable trying to sleep on them. All this had to be redone, and at whose expense we never found out. We had a more-expensive Nanni engine, and Ownerships certainly paid for that.
We liaised with R throughout the rebuilding, and it’s not clear where the responsibility for the lost-design lay between him and Kate Boats. We got on well and that was crucial for What Happened Next in the Ownerships Saga ...
Copperkins Visited Bishops Stortford …
… and away-from-base changeovers were not unusual, and this one was in August 2006. We were keen to have fuel and pumpout and phoned Ownerships for advice. There were no convenient options, and it was R who had answered the phone. He was in grumpy mood. Allen had just sacked him. We arranged to have coffee on his boat – a brilliant dutch barge moored on the Thames.
And R was keen to discuss Ownerships finances and that the good thing about not working for Allen any more was not being part of that problem. The major issue was, as Philip pointed out, the amount of future income given up by the capital-raising schemes, and the amount of money wasted on barges-schemes.
It was also clear that Allen had used the sinking funds for any money-needing projects. He had funded Whisper from the Free-Services scheme monies before his sleight-of-hand in changing the terms of that scheme from “funding new narrowboats” to “funding boats”. In any case he had written in Ownersnips that Whisper was nothing to do with Ownerships. He had told us that it was funded by the bank and his bankmanager that it was funded by his customers.
We contined with a second cup of coffee.
There was a document written by Allen and presented to his senior staff and those working in the office showing a hole-in-the-finances of half-a-million pounds. It saw the solution as advertising Whisper and making a good profit on order for similar boats. None materialised. It might have been the strange patio-door on the back. …
… but it did result in an evening meal at which R and L told Allen that he should relinquish day-to-day-contol of Ownerships to them, take a back seat, and they would try to bring the finances back in order over an extended period. Allen rejected the idea, and it was shortly afterwards that R was made redundant. L stayed with the company until Allen’s death three and a half years later.
As we finished our coffee, we discussed whether Ownerships was trading while insolvent. If you consider all the sinking funds to be inside the business (not as funds held in trust for the owners) then Ownerships was able to meet its debts as they came due, and probably was just keeping its head above the waterline; it was probably not paying all the taxes it needed to, but a forensic accountancy investigation would only be possible if the company ceased trading. 
Allen had raised almost a million pounds in loans from the owners in the Free Service Scheme and had used at least half of that on Whisper, (with no realistic prospect of recovering any of it, at least in the short term) and much of the rest was irretrievably lost in compensation to customers and generally poor financial management of the business. All this loan-about money is due to customers on demand on the first of January each year, although almost all roll the commitment over to a new year. In exchange for this Allen had given up a hundred thousand pounds of fees each year, about half of his expected income.
I had already speculated a range of these possible numbers on the back of my envelope, but it seemed unlikely that they could be this bad. In fairness, it was necessary to be ...

Tackling Allen
I contributed a few comments to the Message Board, and Allen suspected a leak of internal information to be. He asked R for a meeting, and R denied giving me any information.
The now-repaired Odyssey was based at Stockton Top Marina and this was a good opportunity to speak with Allen. He denied most of the numbers. He claimed that two hundred thousand pounts had been invested accidentally by one of his office staff, in a term-share investment which was not now accessible for two years. This he said had caused a cashflow problem. I think this was a complete fabrication, but I told him he should be withdrawing it with whatever penalty was necessary, or borrow aganist its security.
In any case I told him that he shouldn’t go away from the conversation believing that I had been in any way satisfied with his answers. And that hangdog expression returned.
He expected me to raise the issue at the owners meetings and wrote a long defensive email in attempt to dissuade me. It was a more complicated problem than standing up in one of the dozen owners’ meetings with a claim that Ownerships was a busted flush.
So then, how best to ...

Tell The Other Owners
This was not as straightforward as it might seem. In a way it wasn’t my story to tell. The back of my envelope had always told me that the Free-Services Scheme was not as secure as Allen made it out to be, and that its 12% return on investment was really too-good-to-be-true. Which normally means that it’s not a secure home for money.
I tried the story on my my fellow-Copperkins-owners, starting with those I knew best. They listened politely. They were happy that the numbers were right. They thought Allen would scrape-by somehow and that it was all going a bit awry because he was a lovable rogue. We had moved towards running our own boat and were using less and less of Ownerships management. The contract was effecively a three-year rolling one and our meeting was content to start the process of bringing this to an end two years hence (instead of rolling-on to three more years). Those with an investment in the Free-Services scheme, including us (P+E), would not renew these into a new year.
I tried the same story on some of the Odyssey owners, again those whom I knew best. They too listened politely but were sure Ownerships would suvive, and shrugged their shoulders about whether Allen was at fault in any way. There was the thought that R, as an ex-employee was just trying to cause trouble and that everything was fine. There was no prospect of taking Odyssey out of the scheme in any way.
Against that background, the message “Ownerships is bust” was a hard sell. I continued to tell the story to those who would listen. I can remember the time and place of discussing with G, whom I knew well, had been a waterways professional all his working life, he also listened politely and tut-tutted in the right places. Shortly afterwards he invested another three thousand pounds in a Free-Services extension. When Ownerships ceased trading he lost all of this. I can raise a wry smile from him these days when the name of Allen Matthews arises in conversation. 

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