Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Of Blacking One's Bottom

Last week I was not afloat, although I did feel somewhat adrift.  After three and a half years living on my boat I had to face facts that is was time to re-black.  Boaters know precisely what I mean, but any casual reader might be unaware that, every once in while (the “while” depends on who’s making or saving the money when I talk to them), a boat has to come out of the water and be cleaned and repainted with bitumen.  Bitumen is the black covering of choice unless one is a modernist and can afford one of the more esoteric coatings.  This time I didn't even examine that possibility.  I had put off any decision as well as the job itself for a year or so while I was thinking about how I would go about it.  I detected a bit of an expectation among other boaters that I would find a slipway, have the boat hauled out of the water and do the job myself.  I understood that scraping was involved and pressure washing and glooping lots of tar-like paint on to the hull.  I didn’t have the faintest idea how to go about doing even one of these tasks and so I did what I always do - I left it and did nothing - while I fretted that something awful might be developing below the water line.

In the end I dropped into the boatyard in March (the Fenland one, not the annual one) and enquired about having someone else do the job.  They quoted me not that much more than I thought the job would cost me to do by myself, or even with an army of friends, so the prospect was quite attractive.  They would certainly know what they are doing and I could watch some of the process happening.  So last April I booked it in for re-blacking last week.  Of course, being out of the water rendered the boat uninhabitable (I was quoted “Working Height Regulations”), no one would able to enter or leave once it was out of the water.  I would be homeless for a few days.  Fortunately there is a campsite fairly close by, so I booked a few days there.  Unfortunately, this sort of change to what passes for my routines throws me a lot more these days.  I had to make sure I removed from the boat anything I would need during the time I couldn’t live on it.  I would also need to finish up or take any perishable food and remember several days worth of clothing.  I don’t usually go anywhere for more than a day or two except for P’s place in The Alps, where I already have all the clothes and toiletries I need.  My panic about precious belongings meant that anything I didn’t want to leave on the boat would have to come with me or go to my lockup.  Of course this week just happens to be the week where I have a day-long rehearsal with a quintet with whom I am playing as part of a local arts festival this weekend.  I could not expect to set up a percussion rig on a campsite and bash through the music in preparation for the rehearsal.  Naturally I left it to the last minute to carry out any of these personal arrangements.  I don’t think I have had more than four hours’ sleep a night for weeks.  I also needed to work out how I was going to manage without my van.  I could take the boat to March or the van.  I needed help.  Luckily a friend was able to meet me in March where I left the van while he took me back to the boat so I could move that too.

If you’ve read any of the previous entries regarding my boat you may know that I have been battling leaks of various substances into the engine tray and the bilges.  For three and a half years I have made (mostly) half-hearted and often downhearted attempts to stops leaks in the domestic water system, the cooling system and the fuel system.  As far as I know I have not had any major oil leaks, but I’m not holding my breath.  This has involved the tightening and sometimes the replacement of clips, pipes, hoses, gaskets, washers (who knew some were made of copper, some of steel and some were fibre?) and parts like the thermostat and the complete refurbishment of the thirty year old fuel injection pump (which turned out to be shockingly expensive, but had amazing results).  Unfortunately, despite many attempts to stop diesel leaking from the pipe leading out of the fuel tank it is still dribbling where it goes into the diesel shut off valve that looks suspiciously like a washing machine tap, even with the help of The Engineer.  There are also inexplicable exhalations of coolant from somewhere … I just can’t see where (and I thought we’d done that cooling system).  Any pending trip has usually been abandoned before I start out.  I don't like taking the risk.  I wonder what happened to the young man who used to take his ancient Morris Traveller out on to roads that were clearly visible through the floor of the car (I used to call that my "Flintstone Car"), or when the brakes were nearly all right?  Maybe he just used up all his courage in those stupid days.  If only he'd used up all his stupidity too.

With all fears lived and relived I managed to get the boat to the boatyard without mishap.  I arrived after the office closed on the Sunday in preparation for Monday's big day when I would see for the first time the secrets the boat had been hiding below the water line.  On arrival I checked the bilges and, sure enough, the area that I had mopped out before embarking on the journey was now awash with fluids.  To the best of my knowledge this appeared to be a mixture of coolant, diesel, river water and grease.  Oh joy!  I was going to be able to stay on the boat for the night and that suited me well enough.  I drove to the campsite, checked in and erected my tent although I had decided I would not be sleeping there that night.  After another fitful night I rose at 6am on the Monday and set about getting the boat ready for the boatyard to do what it had to.  This included emptying the water tanks, switching off the gas, turning off the power to everything and emptying perishable food from the fridge as well as making sure I had everything I needed from the boat transferred to my van.  Anything and everything that could be damaged if it fell on the floor I put on the floor in anticipation of the worst.  Then I reported to the workshop just as 8am was approaching.  The engineer suggested I bring the boat round to line it up with the slipway where they would do the rest.

Bringing the boat round to the slipway dodging
round the hire boat I had cast adrift!
I had been told to moor up where the business moors its own hire fleet.  When I arrived at 4pm on the Sunday, no other boats were there, so I chose what seemed like a sensible place.  In the morning I found one of the hire boats had tied up to my stern end, so I had to cast it off to be able to free myself from the mooring.  Unfortunately there was no way I could work out to re-secure the stern of the boat, which meant that the hire boat would now only be tied to its own mooring by its bow mooring rope.  Perhaps it would stay put long enough for me to get back to it?  No such luck, of course.  The wind caught it and gently pushed it round so that by the time I reached the entrance to the slipway I had to perform evasive manoeuvres to avoid bumping into it.  What made it worse was that, after tramping up and down with a foot on each boat's abutting gunwales causing each boat to roll quite dramatically every time I made the trip I noticed, after casting the other boat off, someone moving past a window.  That must have been a surprise awakening for them.  I'd have been far more careful had I realised someone was actually on the other boat.  I felt slightly sick realising that the stern end was now looking as though it could swing round and hit the concrete path with quite a thump before I could get to it to head it off.  Thankfully, once it had swung round heading into the wind it stopped its momentum towards the bank.  This would not be the first time the wind would cause me problems in the marina.  Worse was to come.

I disembarked and left the yard staff to pole the boat on to the tractor-driven cradle.  As they started to haul the boat out I realised that I had left windows open in my rush to do things properly.  They stopped the extraction so I could climb back on and secure the boat properly.  How many more stupid things could I do in the time remaining?

Easing the boat on to the tractor-operated cradle

The rest of the operation went without any further distractions and I saw my boat for the first time as I had never before seen it.  It was with some dismay that I realised that the extra layers of bitumen that had been applied by the previous owners had not really been the investment in time, materials or effort I had been assured.  I should have taken the boat out of the water a year or more ago.  Worryingly the sacrificial anodes (magnesium blocks fitted to the hull to deflect the effects galvanic erosion - here's a better explanation) had been completely sacrificed. I scanned the hull, the rudder and the propellor to see if I could spot any evidence of the substantive parts of the boat sending atoms flying off into the far reaches of the river, but I didn't really know what I was looking for.  Some slight scars on the propellor could have been where it had hit something as it was churning.

The starboard side with the yellow spongey growth
What I hadn't expected to see was that the port and starboard sides showed very different effects of water and weather.  On my mooring I generally turn the boat so that it faces into the prevailing wind.  This means I can look at the river as I stand by the galley window and watch the fish swarm to attack the porridge scraps from breakfast, chat to the swans as they sail by or stare out of the window across the river to the willow tree when I am supposed to be practising.  The port side facing the river showed more general wear while the starboard side (the bank side) had a thick spongey growth that would require much scraping.

Once out if the water, two engineers set about the task with incredible speed and efficiency.  It looked like back-breaking work, but I guess it was no more back-breaking than the contortions required to access most boat engines.  One told me later that it is far better to do the job while the hull is still wet and when it is more easily scraped and cleaned.  So while one scraped with a scraper that looked like an extended Dutch hoe, the other used the pressure washer.  Within an hour and a half the hull, including the bottom plate, was scraped, washed and new brackets had been welded on for the four new anodes that were to be fitted after blacking.  The boat was left to dry and the bitumen was going to be applied in the afternoon.  I wanted to see this part of the operation too, but I missed it.

Scraping off the sponge and other growth
Simultaneous pressure-washing and welding anode brackets

The scraped and washed hull drying in the sun

I went back to see the boat on Tuesday morning and this is the sight that greeted me.  One coat of bitumen all over the hull and the bottom plate and and a second coat around the water line.  Beautiful!

Since the boat was in a boatyard with experienced marine engineers on hand I decided that I had to ask for help in solving my leak problems.  It was stupid to carry on as I have been.  Nothing would be able to be done about the engine until the boat was back in the water on Thursday, the day of my rehearsal ... naturally.

Another 6am start to the day on the camp site ... shower, shave, breakfast, clean up the pitch and make sure the right things were in the van, including sustenance during the coming day of rehearsal.  I arrived at the boatyard at 8.15 by which time the boat was back in the water.  I unlocked it, giving access to the engine room (from where I had to clear out the tools and other stuff that tend to accumulate in unseen spaces) so that boards could be taken up to give access to the engine.

The diesel leak was apparently simple - special paste and PTFE tape.  They had also replaced a split plastic grease pipe with a copper one.  Hopefully now I shall spend less time and money packing grease into the screw for the prop shaft.  The major puzzle was the coolant leak.  Yay!  Maybe I am not quite as stupid as I thought.  Others are also confused.  They had traced part of the problem but not the reason.  The plumbing of the cooling pipes as designed when the refurbished engine was installed did nothing to encourage a flow of coolant through the expansion tank.  The arrangement seemed to be that water flowed into the tank and straight out again on one side only allowing fluid in the tank to heat until boiling where it forced its way under pressure through the filler cap.  It required a complete rethink about the routing and the acquisition of some new parts.  If they ordered the parts it would be the following week before they arrived.  I volunteered to go and fetch them myself, so we could have them for Friday.  This involved another 6am start and a 180-mile round trip to Braunston for a £40 rubber manifold.  The rain started while I was away and fell out of the sky for the next twenty-four hours of more.  I was back by 11am and the project began with the aid of oilskins and a golfing umbrella.  The boat was ready to try out by 4pm when I decided the best option was to take it home.  This would be an excellent opportunity to try out the waterproofs that P bought me for my birthday a few years ago.

The first task on casting off was to turn the boat round.  Normally I go into the residential compound where there is a large turning space in the middle of all the boats moored around the edges.  I've done this a few times and it is a relatively simple operation.  I had never, though, tried it in a wind such as blew on Friday.  I judged it to be manageable, but I misjudged the fact that it was gusting occasionally.  I entered the compound by passing under a low footbridge and thought about which way to turn.  I should have thought this through before I set out.  I was trying to take account of the wind and working out whether I should swing the boat clockwise or anticlockwise.  I knew that at one point the wind would hit the boat and push it towards the boats moored on the river side of the compound.  I needed to give myself enough space so as not to be pushed up against the boats.  I turned the wrong way.  This error of judgement got me into trouble as, on the turn I was hit by two substantial gusts of wind that sent me hurtling towards the boats I was trying not to hit.  Somehow I managed not to smack into any of them, but now I had no space for manoeuvring and the wind was still pushing me towards the boats. Whichever way I swung the tiller would result in the front or back of my boat hitting one of the moored boats.  Again, I'm not quite sure how, but I got away with only rubbing the front fender of one of the moored boats as I swung the stern out into into the wind.  By now I was being blown into a part of the compound which gets progressively narrower and where the boats are made of much more fragile fibreglass rather than steel.  At the moment when I was about to abandon all hope to the inevitable insurance claims a young man leapt to the rescue.  I was close enough for him to jump on to my boat and he crabbed his way along the gunwale to grab my pole.  With that he helped me by pushing the bow back out into open water, so I could straighten up and get out of the compound.  He very kindly stayed with me until I got through the marina.  I hope he likes Watergull and MileTree Brewery products, because I shall be heading back to the marina with a couple of thank-you bottles for him.  I wonder how many people were staring through their portholes in fear, amusement and horror as I was making a complete pig's ear of turning round in the onslaught of wind and rain.  I have mostly stopped from shouting at hire boaters who go by too fast and it was a lesson that I too lack experience.  I'm going to have to put that right.  Anyway, that young man had great presence of mind and I thank him for it.

En route I pulled over to fill with water at the water point near the Town Bridge in March.  The rest of the journey was relatively unremarkable save for three kingfishers and the rain which continued to pour out of the sky for the three plus hour journey back to my own mooring.  It continued to pour throughout the night into the next day.

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