To live aboard for any length of time in reasonable comfort we opted for the largest vessel we could find within the maximum dimension required to provide a good selection of European waterways on which to cruise excluding the UK. We began by including the UK but the length and air draft (the distance from the waterline to the highest point of the ships superstructure) limitations severely restricted the size of the ship. As we had already cruised much of England in narrow boats we decided to confine ourselves to mainland Europe.
This meant the length overall should not exceed 24 metres as an ICC (International Certificate of Competency) was all that was required for a UK registered ship with the exception of the River Rhine where a special licence would be required for any length over 15 metres. The maximum beam needed to be under 5 metres, the draft 1.3 metres and the air draft 3 metres. This, according to the guide books, would exclude most of the Canal de Nivernais but most of the French, Belgian and Dutch canal and river systems could be navigated. The Nivernais has since been navigated by us despite the supposed 2.7 air draft restriction.
Harmonie II was a little too high so the Canal du Midi might be a struggle and she could have done with a bit more beam to give us more space but otherwise she fitted the bill. The superb fit out, quality of equipment and high standard of upkeep by the previous owner left us in do doubt that this pretty vessel had to be ours.
There are lots of different types of Dutch barge which is the predominant one you are likely to consider, those from other countries not generally being of optimum size for pleasure boat cruising. The oldest ones, built around the turn of the 19th century such as the Aaks and Tjalks (pronounced 'challuck') were built of riveted iron and were sailing barges. Many of these have now been fitted with propulsion engines. They are pretty to look at but were not designed to be powered and do not steer well under power. From the early 20th century when Diesel engines became available, the first Dutch motor barges were built, most common among them the Luxemotor. They come in a variety of sizes but are recognisable by their vertical stem and cruiser stern. There are many other variables of Dutch barges from this era.
Harmonie II is a Luxemotor youngster, built by Theo Kemper in Holland in 1925. She is slim and shallow drafted and slides along narrow canals efficiently, creating very little wash and requiring very little power. Using only half the available power of the engine, Harmonie can cruise along happily at 10km/hr creating less wash that a 10m plastic boat doing half that speed.
The big advantage with a newly built boat is that it can be built entirely to your specification whereas an older one will almost certainly be a compromise. The cheapest alternative is to choose from a shipyards standard range of hulls and fit outs. This option negates the big advantage in that it will be a compromise, but you are getting everything brand new incorporating the latest technology. Most builders will allow you to vary their standards but at a cost. The more you change the standard the greater the cost and the chance that your changes are unproven and may cause problems later.
A new build, properly designed by a naval architect to your specification and built by a quality yard is the best and most expensive solution but you can expect to pay at least twice that of an equivalent second hand boat.
I have yet to see a replica Dutch barge which looks as good as the real thing. Most of the British designs are square boxes by comparison with little or no sheer and little style in the superstructure. Beauty is of course in the eye of the beholder. Some people even like wind turbines!
This is a way of getting exactly what you want at the cheapest price. You buy an old hull the size you want, gut it and fit it out yourself or pay a yard to do it. You will need to make sure the hull is sound before you buy it so some expenditure is required to slip it and have a hull survey carried out. You may even be able to save some of the original features like the stern cabin of a luxemotor and much more of the older sailing barges. If you are doing the work yourself the project can be spread over time as your finances allow. If you are in no hurry and can not find a ship already converted to suit your needs, this option seems to me the best way to proceed, however, Hulls of the right size are becoming increasingly rare and hard to find. Whatever you decide, a prospective buyer would be well advised to purchase The Barge Buyers Handbook from the DBA.