Friday, June 23, 2006

Destroy Almost Everything Else. Or 'What’s this? I dunno..'

August 2005. All the big lumps of crap were still on board after our first destructive missions, for the simple reason that we found things like the engine block hard to lift. We needed to strip the boat entirely, and it took weeks of heaving lumps of weird shaped metal over the side before we were in a position to call the crane in and finally lose the really huge stuff. Of the myriad machine parts we eventually salvaged only: Donkey engine (it works), Day Fuel tank (ditto), Water tanks, forward compartment floor, hydraulic pump and huge Selfchange hydraulic gearbox. And the toilet. Ah, the toilet- it’s still a good source of argument between B and I, eventually she’ll probably win and before long it too will join the scrapheap.. The entire main engine was definitely destined for the scrappies. Before freaking out- remember that this was not the original engine, nor was it fitted and was in a million pieces, a lot of which were broken, bent or very rusty indeed. So having tried in vain to find it an enthusiast type home even for giveaway we eventually waved goodbye to a Rolls Royce Eagle 280 engine with a certain sense of relief. What we actually said was ‘thank fuck we’re finally rid of that pile of shit.’
One thing that I’d have liked to witness but unfortunately missed due to having a job was the day they pulled the two exhausts out of the funnel. These eight foot long tubes had developed huge rusty holes in the wrong places and were about to follow the engine parts to metal heaven- aka. China.
It wasn’t all without profit, Wendy’s previous owner had optimistically installed a domestic washing machine and fridge, neither of which worked, not wanting to waste valuable crane time in removing these I set about dismantling them instead. I only removed the doors of the smelly old fridge to render it disposable, but I had rather more fun cheerfully kicking the washing machine up and down the engine room before taking a crowbar and sledgehammer to the stupid thing. And finally found treasure! Ok- it was only three discoloured pound coins lodged in the drum housing, but it made my day, and later contributed the local pub’s takings for the evening.
Up came the floor plates and over the side they went as well, although we did keep them to one side, stashed underneath in the greasy muck was the other piece of treasure, a whopping great big heat exchanger. So we haven’t got an engine but we do have the best part of seawater cooling. Well you can’t have everything can you?
We did however have the filthy bilge water. Actually water isn’t correct. Just the filthy bilge. Amongst the more unidentifiable objects the mire contained old engine blocks, rusting snakes of chain and even a dozen bags of very wet clay- all weakly intended to contribute in some vain way to ballasting. It took some time to deal with it, we tried pumping the liquid stuff out by hand, we really couldn’t afford to get the pump out firm to come around, having instead agreed to separate our grease and oil from water as best we could and store the former in oil drums for proper disposal later. An octopus of diaphram pumps and massive 2” bore hoses developed. Everything got very dirty and more than a bit silly. In the end a strange inspiration drove us to dump 75 kilos of wood shavings (horse bedding, B works with horses see), leave it for a week then shovel up the resulting sludge into bags and take them to an incinerator (nice one Supersam, thanks for your cheerful assistance!). Would you believe it worked a treat and for a blissful moment the inside of Wendy Ann smelt more of fresh cut pine than stinky old ship.
Beneath the filth the concrete laid in wait. I think it was deliberately trying to look menacing.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Doctor's Diagnosis

Late July 2005. There stood Wendy Ann, nearly 80 tons of her waiting for us to figure out what the hell to do next. John had a final trick up his sleeve for us and introduced us to the brilliant Di Roberts- marine surveyor. I wish I had a photo of her to show you. Maybe I should give her a call. So after all these months and thinking along the lines of closing doors after horses bolt we embarked on the process of obtaining a real, out of the water hull thickness survey.
Di met us at the boatyard, and had brought along a cool bit of kit- an ultrasonic thickness meter. These work by firing three beams of ultrasound into the steel at your chosen point, listening for echoes and then agreeing with itself (or not, as we were about to find out) about how thick the metal is (or isn’t). You use jelly on the probe, pressed against the hull to enable good conduction, and read the results from a little LCD screen, so Wendy Ann was about to undergo a medical.
Stethoscope ready, Doctor Di showed me what to do, and the first few readings came nice and clear 7, 8, even 9mm. We marked the point and thickness in chalk and moved along, grinding little spots where scale or thick paint was in the way. My heart lifted prematurely. Not as bad as I’d thought, But as Di worked along and under the hull it became apparent that there was a huge area directly below the forward compartment where the meter just couldn’t find a reading to settle on. She explained that if the steel was uneven (outside, inside, or both) this would cause those echoes to go bouncing off all over the place and produce a distorted or non-existent reading. Hmmm. Lots of lumpy hull then. What causes lumpy steel? Corrosion. Eek. The job was to build a picture of the state of the hull overall, and after lunch Di left me in charge of reading to complete the survey. I found myself trying to mirror what she had done, and baffling away at the results. Wendy’s bulk looked incomprehensibly huge with my nose about three inches from her and I kept thinking ‘how do I decipher this?’ But the next day Di came to collect the ultrasound device and helped me to step back and see the wider picture for what it was.
There were two main areas of concern and impossible readings (never mind the myriad other little eyesores, or the gaping hole in the keel). A large area of the hull bottom forward, and most of the stern around the propellor. Readings suggested the following:
Forward seemed to have rusted away inside more than outside, we knew there was concrete in there, poured in as a quick fix by some previous owner of miss Ann. Concrete is cheap, moulds itself to complex shapes and physically supports dying steelwork. It has it’s own drawbacks though. And for the very first time the horrifying suggestion was bandied about that we might have to remove the concrete before repairing the hull.
Aft it seemed to have gone mainly because of cavitation around the prop, but inside the final stern compartment was once a trim tank, into which raw seawater was pumped to adjust Wendy’s attitude whilst working. More internal corrosion. Anyone brave enough to clamber into the trim tank could see a litany of rust and heavy scale, it really didn’t look good.
We spent a while weighing up the pros and cons of patching (overplating, or doubling) versus replacement (proper job, and expensive). Then asked Di if she knew any good welders who might be up for it, “well let me see...” she said.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The Flight of Wendy Ann 2

We woke to see the world slipping by the cabin porthole. That’s not right I thought, then I thought ‘ Drat, I knew I was crap at mooring boats- we’re adrift!’ I stumbled from sweaty cabin into harsh morning sun and the smiling visage of Matt, Saxon Wharf’s manager bloke, who was leaning from Wendy’s stern spring and dragging the boat forward into the lifting dock. Blimey what time is it? Only seven in the morning and we’re creeping toward the open arms of the strops hanging from the hoist. Bloody hell it’s time to get off.
B and I stood like bedraggled gypsies on the pontoon wearing flip flops and dredging the sleep from our eyes; watching Wendy Ann being expertly guided into position. The strops went taught all round and slowly Wendy rose gracefully in a direction that boats rarely travel. There was nothing to it and thankfully no need for the divers that we’d been warned we might have to call should events below the waterline develop in a wrong way. Luckily we’d done the homework/guessing combination about right- having marked the extent of the bilge keels on the hull in dirty white spray paint that gave the appearance of our having been visited accurately by a very ill gull. So there wasn’t much to do except smoke roll ups and observe. We observed half our anchor to be missing, somewhere along the dinosaur coast it’d dropped off, having rusted away too much, thus proving itself non commissionable in a decisive manner and gone to join the bones at the bottom of the sea. We observed the frankly embarrassing state of our bowfender, it completed the whippet on a string look of our venture (a week later whilst removing it for disposal I found a dead fish trapped inside its tendrils).
Once our boat was safely up and over the boys set her down, still cradled in the hoist- onto a pair of temporary blocks. The nasty fouling was pressure washed from the hull and the air smelled strongly of barnacle soup, then it was time for tea and nail biting, I’d already spotted something that didn’t look right about her keel at stern, from a distance it appeared missing (!) and on closer inspection I realised there was indeed a six foot long, six inch wide hole… We’d only stayed afloat because there was concrete filling the bottom of our hull above this. Get a proper survey before you buy a boat kids! Let’s just say there were a lot of interesting expressions worn by the faces of the staff at Saxon Wharf that morning. Wendy was going to be accommodated on the opposite side of the yard to the lifting dock so the hoist moves to allow this. With glacial speed our boat, which suddenly looked tiny, floated across the apron. God do these guys know what they’re doing. Never mind hand signals, hardly a word exchanged through the whole transit, hoist driver and banksmen seemed to communicate by a subtle telepathy.
Wendy Ann 2 was chocked up on massive oak blocks and an old ladder was kindly donated so we could get on and off. All over by lunchtime and that was that, hands were shaken, sighs of relief exhaled and our boat stood firmly on dry land.
Then the fun really began.

Wendy Ann Undertow

July2005. We stood tensed on deck out in the stream waiting. This time we knew that tug Kingston was out at Plymouth harbour and we still didn’t know what on earth we were in for. Hardly anything moved at all in the still summer heat and we heard him long before we saw him. The needle whine of a small outboard motor and slap of water slapping hull followed by the growing blossom of lurid Hawaiian shirt proclaimed the arrival of John Evelegh, riding in a small fast inflatable; coming to inspect our state of readiness.
Whether ready or not it was time to go, I certainly didn’t feel it and hopped around in agitation- but after a cursory look around John nodded and went to fetch Kingston.
She came steaming upriver toward us and with a mighty blast on the horn which felt like being punched in the chest, flipped around to present her stern and portside to our starboard. This boat was magnificently huge, and we suddenly looked small and shabby by comparison. We hurried our introductions to the crew of four and next thing I knew we’re fast alongside and it was finally time to let go the mooring hawsers and bloody hell we’re moving! I nearly failed to notice at first, so gentle was the pick up, but sure enough the entrance to Pomphletts creek was behind us and I was agog at the speed and ease by which this dynamic transfer had occurred. We marvelled at the bow wave thrown out by our own little ship. While the tea brewed John gave us a tour of the orchestrated mechanical hellchamber that housed Kingston’s collection of engines, he bellowed over the noise all the names and specs of the furiously working parts and I tried politely not to trap my fingers anywhere.
Safely past Plymouth harbour breakwater they attached the towing line to our rusty old bow, closing the loop with the biggest shackle I’d ever seen. After returning the mugs we received temporary lighting to denote our ‘vessel under tow’ status, the life rings and, yep, distress flares; Kingston’s crew let us free and with huge grins and waves bye-bye allowed us to drift into line behind.
Right. I knew the drill and it was- ‘Watch for leaks. If you start to ship water, plug the hole with anything at all, sit on it if necessary, then phone me and remember this. There’s no better bilge pump than a desperate man with a bucket!’ OK then, seems easy enough- and as Plymouth receded over the horizon I set about doing just that, I quickly developed a routine which involved moving from forepeak through the compartments, banging my head on that damn frame again, all the way along to bosun’s store peering into bilges and checking areas that I considered suspect i.e. The whole boat. When I was done I’d retire onto deck to marvel at the brilliant view. We’d waited over a fortnight for the weather to turn our way and it repaid the patience by deciding to be almost better than perfect, westerly force 4 dropping to 2. This meant the surface of the sea was like rolling black glass. And then in a big mess of red, the sun started to set behind us.
I suddenly realized how wound up we’d become over the last few months, because the feeling was ebbing away, washed overboard by joy of the huge adventure in which we found ourselves. This was turning into fun.
We knew it’d be a long night so we assessed our provisions, ham and cheese sandwiches, crisps, chocolate biscuits, flasks of hot coffee, half bottle of rum. Yummy. I opened the rum first and we toasted being all at sea.
With the dark all around and the cabin lights lit we adjusted to the unfamiliar rhythms of our new world, The gentle rise and fall of Wendy Ann as she pitched her way forward was surprisingly soothing and later this would knock Becky comprehensively for six hours straight sleep. Or maybe that was the rum. The bangs and scrapings took a little more getting used to and it was a while before I realised that these were for the most part caused by the old tyre fenders that dragged around our rubbing strakes. I heaved the buggers inboard and then it was the insistent sigh of the waters stroking Wendy’s hull that captured the imagination. Sounded like faraway song or half heard voices, although this felt friendly and reassuring I gained small insight into the kind of thing that made sailors superstitious. Except for the loud bang at three in the morning which caused consternation, bother and both of us leaping into action for a moment of near outright panic. We flew down the ladder and took only a few agonizing minutes to discover that our (loose) gearbox had shifted down in its position.
Between my torchlit forays into the hull to check for leaks that didn’t spring, I spent most of the night sat at the wheelhouse steps and losing myself in the inky seascape. It was like infinity made acceptable to the human head. The little sparks of phosphorescence in our wake mirrored the stars above and everything was perfect. Drifting over the water came the muffled insistent tugtugtugtug of Kingston’s engine that had deafened me up close only hours before. I was thought myself too watchful to sleep but I must’ve dozed off at some point, not for long though. I watched gangs of seagulls trailing lazily behind us before one by one wheeling overhead and away. Something for them to do I guess, or maybe they wanted my sandwiches. I went below to look for leaks and banged my head again.
B woke up long after the brilliant sunrise, disappointed to have missed it; truth was I couldn’t bear to wake her, as she seemed cradled so deeply asleep. The silhouette of the Needles was slipping into view, and we realized our joyride would end, soon. Once around the marker buoy into the Solent and surrounded by hundreds of sailing vessels, boats and ships of every description, Kingston again brought us alongside. This time the wash from speeding powerboats was forcing the two tugs to crash and scrape together, chucking up great sheets of sea between the two bows. Becky got a brief dousing, but was more bothered about her inundated cuppa. Kingston cut engines to a crawl each time and we slowly forged a way through. We drank a lot more tea, ate the last biscuits and the mouth of the river Itchen beckoned us in on a glorious Seb’s birthday morning. I never did tell John either, figuring the experience was celebration enough. Tug Kingston brought Wendy Ann past the car transporters and massive cruise liners to the work berth at Saxon Wharf. With the rolling hoist towering over us and a very expensive looking plastic boat close behind we moored up as best we could manage and departed on our new found sea-legs for the nearest pub to buy the crew a round.
I was exhausted, filthy, hot and elated. I couldn’t believe that overnight our situation had changed so utterly. I clutched the sensation close feeling that somehow I should bottle it in preparation for the next awesome challenge. Little did I know then how much I’d need to remember that enlightened moment. Sometime the following week Wendy Ann would be in that hoist and clear of the water, but we didn’t realise how soon that hour would be..

Monday, June 12, 2006

Out of our Depth?

Late June 2005, the weekly pilgrimage had gone far beyond chore. Wendy Ann had to come out of the water but we had no idea how much hull welding needed doing- having been dim enough to make a purchase without proper survey. Suffice to say we had an inkling it’d take more than a few weeks at an all in, they do all the welding and everything else type shipyard. So we decided on a kind of DIY approach, hire our own welder, do as much of the work as we could ourselves; that sort of thing- and we just had to move the boat somewhere suitable. Simple? Nope.
We’d realised she wasn’t going to make it as far as London- where we lived at the time. The cost of getting her there would be astronomical and we just knew there was no yard to take her to that’d do. In the course of investigations we discovered our eventual destination would be a place called Saxon Wharf, in Southampton. They had a rolling hoist that could lift up to 200 tons and plenty of yard space to accommodate what they called ‘filthy projects’ like us. At the time we were completely unprepared for just how filthy we’d be, but ho hum. We approached the impossible plan of moving a dead boat one hundred and ninety nautical miles with trepidation, correction- I was shit scared of what would go wrong. I had no experience of this at all, apart from a sort of nagging longing feeling every time I visited the local beach where I grew up in East Anglia. And I was suddenly aware that we were going to be literally out of our depth. The prospect of shifting a great big lump of steel and rust from the seeming safety of a muddy creek- (although now I look back and know that if we hadn’t come along it would have become a muddy grave for Wendy Ann before too long) and out into real sea water was too big for me to imagine.
We rang a whole bunch of towage companies and some of them really freaked me out by asking if I had MCA certification, whatever the fuck that was, but I was sure Wendy was too far gone for a ten metre swimming certificate, let alone some proper paperwork. Other towage guys filled me with horror stories about swampings, outright sinkings and Bad Things. So the telephone calls were not going well, except out of the blue one of B’s leads turned out sympathetic, reasonable and interested in taking us on. The madmans name was John Evelegh, and he runs Griffin Towage. After many many phone conversations we agreed on a date for our little venture to take place and duly met him in a motorway service station to hand over half the cash. This was weird, I was about to hand over a lot of used notes packed into the traditional manilla envelope to a man I only actually met half an hour ago over a crappy mcdonalds coffee. I was not in a very balanced state by the time I did and I tried to cover my nerves with much head nodding and agreeing with whatever the man in the blue overalls said. He was very nice about it though and even laughed at my unintended punning as he showed me pics of his tugs new propellor (proper job, and Fantastic!)
We had just introduced ourselves to the first hugely inspirational character in our voyage so far, although we didn’t know it at the time. This man is a bloody legend, someone once told me that he was shat out by the gulls and hatched by the sun- I’m sure he wouldn’t approve of this but even so. He’s frighteningly intelligent and encouraging and absolutely lives for Tugboats. And when we finally met him I was surprised at his youth, somehow I’d imagined some swarthy salty old guy from his voice over the phone.
Off we went to Plymouth full of advice about covering over any holes and hatches where the enemy salt water might ingress. Oh dear- where to start. We got hold of some squirty foam and set about filling all the holes we could find in bulkheads and decks. Suddenly I found an awful lot of holes. I’m still not sure that foam would’ve helped much if we started shipping water.
Problem. Johns main tug, Kingston- is a three hundred ton sea going monster (beautiful though) and there was no way that she’d get up Pomphletts creek to pick us up directly. We’d first need another kind of tow altogether. The last man who used Wendy Ann as a commercial vessel still ran a small towage enterprise in the area and we got in touch with him. His name was Nick Grenney. Nick agreed to take us out from up the creek and into the deep water channel where he said we could moor whilst waiting for Kingston to collect us. More phone calls followed and soon it was all arranged. One magical day loomed and the plan was set. On the morning tide we’d leave the creek and on the evening tide we’d leave Plymouth for good.
Nick arrived on his river tug threading his way through the narrow channel left between all the little plastic boats, and we figured it had to be him, he fitted the description after all, looking like a young angry popeye.. The rudder on Wendy wasn’t set quite straight so we had to start her donkey engine, which powered the hydraulic steering. Popeye siphoned diesel from his vessels own tank (I reckon he swallowed some in the process) and we cranked the old two cylinder Lister engine over by hand. Since our wheel was missing I proudly steered my new old boat with a 32mm wrench, and in the blink of an eye the mooring ropes were cast off and with the donkey going bangbangbang Wendy Ann 2 coughed into life, just about.
Out past the rows of pleasure boats Nick helped us moor to a pair of buoys. When I raised consternation at the new information that these buoys were connected to mere one ton blocks of concrete buried in the mud of the river bed, he replied by declaring “ this’ll make sea dogs of you yet”- with a wry smile; it was going to be that kind of day.
That kind of day developed a new and interesting twist when, almost as soon as we were deposited safely back on shore my phone rang. I’d already paid Nick and waved him bye-bye, but John was on the blower telling me that the weather was forecast to change direction and increase in force. Therefore Wendy Ann was to go no further until meteorological conditions satisfied him. Oh GOD. My boat is inaccessibly moored in an exposed position on two tons of concrete for christ’s sake what do you mean you’re not picking her up?!? Me and Becky argued a lot for a couple of hours and then I calmed down a bit. That evening we had no choice but to take a forlorn look at Wendy and drive a long way home.
I developed a pathological fascination with the Shipping Forecast, and my sense of paranoia went through the roof. Back at stinky work in London I was filled with frightening visions of Wendy breaking free and drifting out to sea, or worse- hitting something expensive. I convinced myself that we’d go back to Plymouth to find no boat, or scenes of maritime carnage. Or that the harbourmaster would find me and beat me up for being such a romantic whelk. Day by day that bloody forecast kept predicting the wrong predictions. Force 7? I think I started praying at one point in some sort of futile hope that an omnipotent deity would take pity on our predicament, but still the phone didn’t ring. I’d almost gone completely bananas with worry and given up when, Halleluja! B was talking to John and I gathered from the half conversation that I could hear that suddenly it was all on again. Over two weeks had passed and my hair was visibly falling out, but we jumped in the car, got out again at Southampton and took a train the rest of the way to Plymouth. This was because John wanted us on board Wendy Ann. Why? In case she started sinking. Very Excited now but this latest development rankled a bit, especially when he tried to reassure us by promising to give us lifejackets. And distress flares?! That’s ok then, no problem, how far from shore will we be? Only 15 miles? Fine fine, excuse me I think I need the toilet again.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Destroy everything.

I'm going to tell you about two important people now.
Becky Hewlett, aka B, B-b or occasionally just plain Missus. Is obviously My Missus. It's fair to say that all this would have remained a big fat fantasy made of nothing, if not for her skills, hidden talents and sheer bloodymindedness. It was mostly her idea to buy a boat instead of a house so technically it's all her fault and I officially blame her for the whole joyous adventure.
Jan calls Becky "Tigger". Says a lot really.
Jan Cicmanec is an old friend of ours and the first of a whole bunch of amazing mates who've permitted themselves to be pressganged into helping out on board. He's a Slovakian who now works as a tailor for Hardy Amies, Saville Row no less, but was once a contract mining engineer. It stands to reason that anyone capable of such a dramatic U-turn in their career is likely to be able to turn their hand to anything- and Jan can. In fact it's sometimes difficult to make him stop and there's always a risk of the golem effect, like casting a spell and commanding 'dig me a ditch' and returning some time later to discover a chasm forty feet deep and three hundred miles long. You've got to watch out- but he's a very handy helper indeed, and he looks quite heroic in that picture.
Our mission? to remove as much crap as possible so we could begin to see what we'd actually got that was of any value, and therefore work out what to do with it.
I lost count of the number of times we'd drive late on a friday night from London to Plymouth and pitch a tent at a site near to the boat, wake up after nowhere near enough sleep to bolt breakfast before scrambling to get on board and use as many short hours as possible wrecking stuff.
The first tools we bought included a kettle, some crowbars and a lumphammer. This was not going to be pretty. The fact that our boat still sat out from the wharf side presented a problem actually getting junk off the deck so we crafted a very crude ship to shore pulley system in order to solve it. The effects of tides were a bit tricky though and the line had to be adjusted A Lot, as the boat rose off her muddy resting place and then settled back down twice a day, and then listed hard to starboard as the tide went out. Made life inside the hull interesting, and wonky.
All that old paint was a bit of fun too and I remember the bottom falling out of a lot of the cans as we lifted them, things got a bit wierd after that particular afternoon and I think I scared a few innocent bystanders in the local supermarket. The fumes must've got to me.
One trip was really just Not Funny. I'd properly injured my back at work but saw no alternative but to continue with the Wendy plan and some good strong painkillers, then it rained. Hard. All day. By mid afternoon I couldn't climb the engine room ladder; let alone swing the damn hammer about. I drank myself into a torpor that evening but I cried into my beer so much that it was probably considerably weaker by the time I tipped each miserable sup down my throat. Mind you mixing it with painkillers compensated neatly.
This kind of maniac behaviour went on for around three months until we realized there wasn't a lot else that we could lift, hell- we'd even rowed the bathtub ashore and we had still found no treasure hiding in the bilges. In between our demolition runs we'd slowly formulated a plan to deal with the actual boat itself. And driven by our increasing frustration at spending anything up to seven hours driving each way we quickly began to look at bringing the boat to us rather than the other way around. This was going to be expensive. But it was to develop into one of the most perfectly brilliant things I've ever taken part in in my life...