August into September 2005. Three weekends, four jackhammers, two shovels, five Very obliging mates and an atmosphere more suited to the gulags. All this would eventually be needed to achieve the impossible task of removing the concrete that lined much of Wendy Ann’s hull.
We knew it had to come out, did a test dig that revealed strata to the damn stuff. Sandwiched between good-looking layers of concrete was wet sand, gravel, and bitumenized steel rivet punchings. The last of these was probably original, but the rest had clearly been added later. At the interface between steel and stone there was a gap you could’ve slipped a credit card into and the metal underneath clearly wasn’t happy. Pouring concrete into boats is common practise, often done to help support thinning steel thereby cheaply extracting a few more months of commercial service from a boat that’s coming to the end of it’s life. It’s also true that many new working ships have concrete ballast right from the start, and in these cases; where the stuff goes over good steel that’s properly prepared it usually doesn’t present problems, however Wendy Ann definitely fell into the former category.
B and I dreading the coming weekend, even so we made our preparations, formed the beginnings of a very happy relationship with Handy Hire, and rapidly progressed our choice of tool from light through medium to ‘what’s the biggest you’ve got’- heavy duty breakers. (That’s Handy hire, call 02380 863275, based in Totton- these guys are really cool.)
I cried at the beginning. It’s the most unholy work I’ve ever done, narrowly beating the process of grinding paint and rust from deckheads (tell you later).
I’d lost the plot with frustration and fear after our first little attempt and, back in London; was rescued by colleagues Richard, zero9John, Leathermann Jan, Sleepy Jesus and DJ Chris- all of whom found me in bits, staring moodily into the floor one afternoon at work. These nutcases actually volunteered to get to Southampton and then put themselves through this torture. I don’t think I’ll ever understand why, I’m just sincerely grateful that they did.
We bought in ten sets of gloves, deafies and goggles.
The heat and the NOISE was just insane, We all wore both ear plugs and defenders, stripped to the waist and bounced around on the blunt end of the hammers. How on earth do road crews do this sort of thing all day every day? Hats off to them. I never ever ever want to do it again. (Recently I had to eat my words and get on with it, up in the forepeak, which I’ve rechristened ‘Get Me Out Of This Triangular Purgatory’. And we’ve just discovered even bloody more beneath the stern tube. Drat.)
The process was quite simple really, smash up concrete until you can’t see where you’re aiming anymore, scrovvel up all the lumps into buckets and rubble sacks, bash the concrete some more. You can usually tell when you’ve hit the boat because the note of hammering changes, not always though; a good few times I kept digging thinking- surely I must be near the bottom now? A little walk around the outside of the boat proved whoops, I was actually well past it- with the point of the hammer protruding cruelly from Wendy’s bottom. Not that it mattered anyway, when the job was done there were so many tiny pinholes in the bottom of ms Ann’s forward compartment that you could stand on the floor bearers and imagine the milky way beneath you. Next time (there won’t be a next time!) I would seriously just cut the bottom off the boat. This is not as crazy as it sounds. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight I realise that since then, in a roundabout way we’ve found ourselves replacing not only the hull plates, but most of the keelson and every other frame down there. So we could have had ourselves a much scarier but potentially more efficient time being brave and cutting large bits of boat off, concrete and all, much earlier. Ah well, live and learn.
This would have helped on account of the fact that by far the most frustrating part of the job was attempting to remove the loose stuff and hoist it up and out of the boat in manageable quantities. About ten ish tons of concrete went this way, and as a means of illustrating how naively determined we were, we determined not to hire a skip- choosing instead to dispose of our waste at the local tip, about a quarter mile away. B clocked up nearly fifty miles one weekend in her Ford Fiesta, suffice to say we tested that suspension good and proper, I guess we may have managed about 250 kilos at a time, and B would drive each load away thinking heavy thoughts in an occasionally futile hope this might help keep the front wheels on the ground. Amazingly we are still driving this car.
Every one of the maniacs who helped us has our profound and everlasting gratitude. John, on bass deserves an extra special mention. Barking mad, all the heavy tools were HIS Alright? Woe betide getting in this mans way, He’s afflicted by a sort of sadistic competitive streak- and took it as his own personal mission to dig more than everyone else put together. He worked like an absolute robot, refused to put the tools down at teatime, sweated rivers and bloody well got the job done. I did try to keep up, rising to my pathological lunatic friend’s challenge.
Richard was quiet, laid back and unflappable as he dug and dug for victory. Jan, the unbreakable Slovak did his usual thing and worked non-stop, displaying as ever his frankly scary east European work ethic.
Dj Chris comprised our wild card pt1, maintaining a completely irrepressible sense of humour, and seemed even enthusiastic about taking part. Wierdo.
Sleepy Jesus, wild card pt2, was very sleepy indeed after one of his big nights out on the potions and powders, but incredibly found it within his powers of endurance to lug breakers and heavy bags of rubble around all day after having no sleep whatsoever the night before.
These are my friends; they’re the sort of people that usually treat pubs like black holes. They’re irresistibly drawn into them, but once in they find it very hard to get out again. London’s bicycle couriers are for the most part professional drinkers and hedonists, but after 12 hours of graft inside Wendy we took ourselves to the local, and struggled our way through a pint and half each in a stunned silence. Now that’s a proper days work.