I was slightly surprised to find that numbers of registered boats increased on both the Shannon and the Erne last year. The Erne ended the year with 5401 boats, up from 5192 in 2010 and 4659 in 2007; the Shannon ended with 8387, up from 8143 in 2010 and 7001 in 2007. Even the Royal, Grand and Barrow numbers increased: 634 permits were issued in 2011, up from 577 in 2010 and 527 in 2007.
However, there are two problems with the interpretation of these numbers. The first is that, because there is no annual registration fee on the Erne and Shannon, there is no incentive for owners to de-register boats that have been sold away from the river. The second is that an increase in registrations might reflect increased vigilance by the inspectorate rather than an actual increase in boat numbers.
The traffic figures for the Shannon locks and moveable bridges do not provide a complete record of all boat movements: a boat that stays on Lough Derg, for instance, will never appear in the figures. But they are a good indicator of show changes in levels of usage from year to year.
The earliest figures I have to hand are for 1998, when there were 74642 boat movements, of which 79% were of hire boats. By 2008 the total number of boat movements was down to 58787, 62% hire boats. By 2010 the total was 50706, 52% hire boats, and in 2011 the total was 45156, 53% hire boats.
But from 2006 until 2010 the numbers of movements of private boats were remarkably consistent: 24634, 24554, 22628, 24705, 24395. There was then a significant fall to 21442 in 2011. However, the fall in the number of hire boat passages has been much more drastic, from 58586 in 1998 to 23714 in 2011, a fall of about 60%.
Perhaps it is because it feels that the numbers reflect poorly on its effectiveness that Waterways Ireland's new Marketing Strategy 2012-2017 contains so few measurable output targets and focuses largely on inputs. It shows what WI intends to do, not what it hopes to achieve. Whatever the reason, I think the decision is regrettable: WI should get SMART.
Mineral Oil Tax
I could never understand why the Irish taxpayer should subsidise the owners of pleasure-boats by allowing them to use cheap (green, rebated) diesel (marked gas oil). I was delighted therefore when the European Union authorities finally lost patience with the Irish and British Governments' successive requests for derogations and instructed them to end the subsidy.
The Irish Government responded by allowing boat-owners to use either auto diesel or marked gas oil; if they use the latter, they must make a return, once a year, of the difference between the tax they actually paid on their fuel and what they should have paid at the auto diesel rate.
I asked Revenue how much duty was paid for the first two years of the scheme, 2009 and 2010; the amounts were e169,895.51 and e140,929.12. The 2010 figure means that the full tax was enough to cover just over 300,000 litres of diesel: say 30 litres a year for each of 10,000 boats, which doesn't seem to be very much. The inland hire fleets could account for most of that, so I asked Revenue how many returns had been received. They told me that they got 38 returns in 2010 for the year 2009, but the number increased in the following year — to 41.
I see two possible explanations. Either the vast majority of boat-owners are using auto diesel, in which case they don't need the scheme that allows them to use marked gas oil, or the vast majority of boat-owners are simply ignoring the law. If that is so, the system has been shown to be unworkable and Revenue should insist on the use of auto diesel.
WI's non-houseboat policy
Waterways Ireland developed some houseboat berths at Shannon Harbour, with funding from the National Development Plan. The berths, above Griffith Bridge, are designed for Grand Canal-size boats: there are seven berths available, with fixed timber jetties, water and (with smartcard access) electricity.
The interesting point is that the berths are not advertised on WI's website as houseboat berths. Instead they are described as the first release of "vacancies that arise at Waterways Ireland’s directly managed mooring sites", under a heading "Extended Term Serviced Mooring Vacancies". They are available on one-year licences, where "it is expected that the licence holders will live on board their vessels as their sole or main residence." However, the Mooring Agreement does not require that licence holders live on their boats.
That seems to leave it open to Waterways Ireland to allocate the berths to non-residential boaters. And, as the licences are being auctioned with a minimum bid price of e1250 for the year, barge owners who are paying up to three times that amount in commercial marinas might be interested. More importantly, the licence agreement would be easily adapted to use elsewhere on the canals and on other waterways; that might allow WI to begin to bring the long-term berthers, residential or otherwise, under control.
Éamon Ó Cuív TD keeps his eye on the ball. He asked a Dáil question about a Reasoned Opinion sent by the EU Commission to Ireland in November 2011, suggesting that Ireland had not correctly implemented the provisions of the Water Framework Directive that require "a cost recovery policy for water services that includes the environmental and resource costs of water use".
Ireland restricted cost recovery to drinking water and wastewater; the EU believes that it should also be applied to many other water uses, including hydroelectricity generation and the supply of water to navigations. If the Commission is right, Ireland may have to charge Waterways Ireland for the supply of water to the Grand and Royal Canals and to the Shannon-Erne Waterway. And as the Ulster Canal is to rely on water pumped from the Erne to Clones, presumably either Ireland or the UK will have to charge for it.
Denis Dillon has just taken up his new job as General Manager at Shannon Sailing's marina at Dromineer, and is looking forward to working with its "small but efficient" staff to develop the marina's services.
Denis started his working life as an ERA in the naval service, then spent twenty-four years in Shannon Airport's fire and rescue service, where one of his roles was as rescue coxswain. The airport, which is on the estuary, had a hovercraft and a jet-powered launch as well as its more conventional Zodiacs. He was a founder member of Killaloe-Ballina Search and Rescue and is now Deputy Area Officer of Killaloe Coast Guard.
Denis worked with the ISA as Motorboat Development Officer and as Southern Regional Development Officer. A powerboating enthusiast with his eye on a round-Ireland record, he helped set up the ISA RIB Challenge, sponsored by Yachtsman Euromarine, to promote the safe and responsible use of powerboats, including club rescue boats.
At Shannon Sailing, Denis intends to build on the strengths of the existing berthage, workshop and chandlery services and to increase activity in training (he has ten years' experience as a powerboat and motor cruiser instructor). That will cover barge, powerboat, sailing and motorboat courses, up to instructor level, as well as engine maintenance; there will also be multi-activity summer camps for children. Shannon Sailing will make more provision for RIBs, which can be kept ashore and launched when needed, and the workshop will include a RIB maintenance and repair service.
Denis sees Dromineer as the gateway to Lough Derg and Shannon Sailing as a one-stop boating shop that people enjoy coming to.
Royal and Ulster Canals
I asked Waterways Ireland to tell me the cost of the restoration of the Royal Canal, the annual cost of running it and the revenue it generates. I was told that capital expenditure on the restoration, since 1987, was e37 million, that the maintenance cost for 2012 was e2.46 million and that the revenue generated in 2011 (probably almost nil) was not available.
The surprising thing about this reply is the low cost of restoration. The Main Line of the Royal is 146 km long and has 46 locks and many bridges, some of them newly built as part of the restoration. Harbours have been improved, slipways have been provided and service blocks have been built. And all of this was done for e37 million (I don’t know whether that’s in constant prices and, if so, at which year’s rates: I’ve asked a supplementary question).
The proposed recreation of part of the Ulster Canal, from Lough Erne to Clones, would be 13 km long with one double lock. Some dredging would be needed on the River Finn and a new canal 0.6 km long would have to be provided; the work at the Finn end would cost e8.5 million altogether. On the line as a whole, work would be required on up to 17 bridges, some major and some minor or private bridges. And there would be a cost for land acquisition, although the Updated Economic Appraisal put that at a mere e1,268,280, a very small portion of the total cost. And then there would be the pumps and pipes to take water from the Erne, pump it to Clones and let it flow back down. The total cost of this lot would be e38m + VAT, which I am told is about e45 million.
Now, even allowing for the facts that there had been some voluntary and FÁS scheme work on the Royal, that no land had to be acquired and that parts of the canal were in water, I still find it difficult to see how a 13 km canal with one double lock can cost more than a 146 km canal with 46 locks. I am seeking enlightenment because I just don't understand this.