Sunday, 22 September 2013

Old Westerly Nomad

With summer guests and visitors gone, a good load of logs cut and stored for the winter and plenty of
produce from the vegetable garden, I was able to make real progress on the restoration of this little vessel. I was quite frustrated a few weeks ago because all my efforts had been focussed on the cockpit. I had obtained good results but as the boat is on a trailer no-one could see or appreciate the fruits of my labour. I have been working to the early advice given by my good friend John (the unlikely Boat Builder). His advice was to concentrate on those things that would get her launched – interior comforts and decoration could wait. It’s a logical argument supported by the fact that working on the outside of the boat when the days are dry and inside when they are wet means that I have no excuse for failing to do something most days.

While we had guests and visitors I was able to work on bits of the boat I could detach and bring home.

To date however, in the boatyard I had little obvious to show and, perhaps even worse, the beautiful painted hull was beginning to look as bad as the rest of the boat due to my sanding efforts above it.

So, last week I embarked on a slight deviation in strategy without compromising the over-riding philosophy. I took a long hard look at the boat and decided the single biggest effort I could make that would make a noticeable change would be to clean up the cabin sides and polish the green hull. For the cabin sides, it took five days of full time effort. Starting with a wash and degrease then a P50 sanding disks, followed by a P120, then a P190 attached to a Bosch detail sander, then hand sanding with P340 and finally a P600 grade paper. Some advice suggested that I should continue down to P1000 and then P2000 (wet). I couldn’t source these final two grades and so I can only hope I have gone far enough. Following the sanding I used a heavy and then a light grade rubbing compound. At this stage I washed the hull paintwork and then applied two coats of marine polish (with Tefal in it!). The overall effect was outstanding and the result was well within the standard 100ft test. In fact she even looked good from 10ft away - a real boost to my morale.

The disc and detail sanders ran off my Honda suitcase generator – an item I would not be without (thanks Peter for selling it to me at such a reasonable price!) When it came to compounding and polishing however, I found the electric polisher to be far too heavy to work with especially on the cabin sides which were above my head. Instead I used rechargeable drills fitted with wool bonnets. The first is a Black and Decker which has proved to be remarkably good. The second is a recent purchase from my local builder’s merchant (the 'Man Shop' as Susan calls it) It’s an 'Energer' and it came with a set of screwdriver tips and drill bits of assorted sizes all for 29 Euros – best of all it has two batteries. It’s not as fast as the Black and Decker but for compounding and polishing it's fine. The advice is never to use a mains driven drill for polishing unless it is variable speed because they turn too fast and can burn the gel-coat. So two rechargeable drills and three batteries, charged overnight, provided all the power I needed to complete the job.


Monday, 16 September 2013

GRP Restoration

Susan and I took some time out recently to visit yet another of the many 'Ships Graveyards' dotted here and there along the Rance Estuary where we live. At first sight you'd be forgiven for thinking this old wooden hulk dates back to the nineteenth century.

This is not the case however, armed with the St Malo registration number, a little bit of internet research enabled us to date the building of this boat to the 1960s. Now I know she is a wooden boat and that she was probably worked hard during her day but she serves to show how quickly a boat can deteriorate in the harsh marine environment. At best, this vessel is only eight or nine years older than the craft I am busy trying to restore and renovate. Makes you think!

Now, there are two guys, regular internet bloggers, in whom I have absolute faith. Both have proven track records as craftsmen and boat restorers. If either said ‘jump’, the question would have to be ‘how high?’, but it doesn't help when their advice appears to be contradictory. John (the Unlikely Boat Builder) suggests a very practical benchmark for the standard of work you do on a boat hull – he calls it the 100 ft test. Basically after painting or polishing how good does your boat look from 100ft? If she looks fine from that distance she'll do. 

Helge Stokstad at Miranda og (gamle) Svarten however, suggests that you should sand the gel-coat way beyond what I need to achieve John’s standard.

Add 100ft test seems OK
Basically gel-coats become damaged and stained as time passes. To restore gel-coat you have to repair damage, remove cracks, fill holes and dings, then wash and sand the whole surface back to a nice new pristine white. The worse the original surface, the coarser sandpaper you begin with. Sandpaper is graded according to the number of grains for a given area of paper so the lower the number the larger the grains and the courser the paper. The grade is referred to as a ‘P’ number. A really course paper for use on gel-coat will have a ‘P’ number of about 80 or even 50.  A medium grade may be P125. My boat restoration ‘bible’ suggests that a really bad gel coat may need an initial sanding with P80 and a final sanding with P125. When it comes to preparation for polishing however, you need a much finer finish.

I started with P50 (the gel coat was really bad) and sanded down with progressively finer grades finishing with P190. At this stage the gel coat was quite smooth and it easily passed the 100ft test. Next stage for me then would be finishing with rubbing compound and polishing. Helge however, suggests that this isn't enough. He suggests continuing with progressively finer papers until I get to a P2000 wet paper. Problem is I haven’t ever seen a paper as fine as P2000.

Not only that but this seems like a huge amount of additional work, especially as I suspect that P2000 (if I can get it) will be in sheets for hand sanding rather than discs.

Why is Helge suggesting such a thorough treatment? Well it’s difficult to say because Helge’s blog site isn’t written in English so I have to rely on the brief English comments he makes to me. On this occasion I got the instructions but not the argument behind them. 

I have an idea though. When I started sanding I noticed that many of the scratches and marks I was trying to eradicate were circular in form, as if they had been created by a previous sanding session. So, you can get a perfectly good looking surface (according to the 100ft test) yet still have traces of groves and scratches cut into the gel coat by the sanding treatment. Polish and it will look fine – but how long will it be before dirt manages to get back into those hidden grooves? Helge’s suggestion, of working towards a finer surface, probably provides for a longer term fix.

So, what to do? Well, I have found some sheet P600 but it is flimsy stuff - meant for hand sanding. I’m going to try sticking it onto the back of used P50 discs. This will take me closer to Helge’s standard and with luck having a P600 paper on a disc will help speed up the process. Meanwhile, I’ll keep looking for even finer grades for finishing. Lets face it, I don’t want to have to go through this sanding process again in a couple of years time.


Monday, 9 September 2013

Bringing Back Gel Coat on a GRP Boat

One problem with this semi self-sufficient lifestyle we have adopted is that the exchange of time for money is not an equal equation. The only way to spend less money is to do jobs yourself and those jobs can take four times longer than a professional would calculate. There is no real saving in materials if you want to do a reasonable job. In terms of renovating this boat therefore, it seems as if I have been working on this project forever and yet there is little to show for it so far. So little in fact that the average guy walking past my boat would suspect that no work had been done at all. One reason for this is that I decided to tackle the worst, most worn scratched and degraded parts of the boat first – the cockpit. This is where badly directed ropes had worn groves in the gel coat, where countless sandy soled shoes had scratched their way across the decking, and where water, both salt and fresh, had laid in puddles or soaked into the edges of ply locker lids. The boat is on a trailer however, so the average boat yard stroller would see nothing of the work I had done in there.

Time to move things on. Time to do something that will cause people to realise I mean business. This boat is a Westerly Nomad, a very distinctive design. The cabin is stretched right to the sides of the hull, there are no side decks, Westerly lovers say she is a ‘whaleback’ design; less generous critics refer to her as a ‘Banana’. Either way, those cabin sides above her hull are really noticeable. If they’re clean and bright they make the boat look cared for. If they are dirty and scratched she looks like a derelict. So, maybe here is a job that I can do with some speed which might produce results much more striking that the effort would suggest.

We have family staying with us at the moment – been like that most of the summer, so it would be impolite to disappear to the boat each morning returning home just for lunch or evening meal. So, I have been visiting the boat for one or two hours at a time, when guests are happy and catered for. I keep the Honda generator in the boat cabin, so that I don’t need to use the car to visit the boatyard every trip but it is a heavy old beast and getting it out of the cabin onto the ground for use takes time. It’s also quite a job to get her back into the cabin after use, so for short working episodes it’s impractical.

Instead I have been relying on a Black & Decker cordless drill. Generally I don’t like Black and Decker tools – too many have burnt out on me. But this particular specimen seems to be an exceptional piece of kit. I got her for nothing, thanks to the loyalty points system operated by our local Supermarket (Super U). In effect, the more wine I purchase there, the more points I get – points mean presents and so I am now the owner of this item.

So, the cordless screwdriver charges overnight and that gives me one hour of cabin side sanding each morning. It then recharges during the afternoon and I get another sanding session in the twilight period while others are settling down to nibbles and appero’ drinks.

Well, three days (six hours) of sanding with a 50 grade disc attached to the Black and Decker have had a remarkable effect. All the big surfaces on the starboard side of the boat have transformed from grey, yellow, scratched and gritty gel coat, to pristine white. There is still a lot to do, small areas around windows, port lights and cleats, angles where the cabin sides meet the hull around the rubbing strake – but my! She’s starting to look good. Next job, will be to go over the area again with a less abrasive paper – probably 125, then again with a 200 or 250 followed by rubbing compound and then polish. I’m pleased with the results so far though, and the effort (for once) has been minimal.


Tuesday, 3 September 2013

A Small Boat Voyage: St Malo to St Valerie en Caux

Le Gand Jardin Lighthouse St Malo
So, a good friend of mine Alain Hugues, secured a contract to deliver Toinoux a 33ft Moody sailing boat
from St Malo to St Valerie en Caux, a sea voyage of some 180 to 200 nautical miles. He recruited three others to act a crew, myself, Ken (both English) and Francis (French).

The original plan was to set off on Tuesday 27 September and enjoy a reasonably leisurely cruise arriving home by car sometime on Saturday 31st at the latest. Things never work out quite as they should do they?

Le Skipper
The Boatyard where Toinoux was laid up was closed for the owner’s annual holiday and was not due to open until the 27th so it was always unlikely that he would have nothing better to do on his first day back at work than to move several boats in order to get his launching tractor near our boat. In the end he agreed to try to get the boat in the water for us on Thursday 29th. We had a problem however, the tides were neaping and if he was unsuccessful in launching on the 29th, there would be insufficient water to launch at all until the following week.

We crossed our fingers, kept an eye on the shipping forecast and hoped for the best. A 14:00 hours on Thursday, we received news that the boat had been launched and so we threw 30 euros each into a communal fund and headed for the local supermarket to purchase supplies for the trip. At 15:30 the supplies were on board and we headed out down the Rance estuary towards the sea lock at St Malo and then out into the open sea. All thoughts of a leisurely cruise were now gone because the neap tides were also having their effect on our destination. We had a window of only one hour to enter our port of destination on Saturday. Earlier or later and there would be insufficient water at the entrance to St Valerie en Caux that day. So, with a 200 mile sea voyage ahead of us we had to be sure to reach St Valerie no later that 08:30 on Saturday morning.

We passed through the sea lock at 18:00 on Thursday and headed straight for sea. We sailed west of the Minquies rocks to gain a clear northward passage to Guernsey, where we could obtain the cheapest diesel fuel. From there, our route took us north eastwards through the Channel Islands archipelago leaving Sark, to the south and Alderney to the north, then approaching the French coast and running out into the English Channel via the notorious Alderney Race. From there could run north easterly until we were on the same latitude as St Valerie, and then easterly in clear water along the parallel past Cherbourg, Caen, Le Havre, to our destination.

We arrived at St Peter Port Guernsey on Friday morning round about 06:30 (UK Time) and enjoyed a full English breakfast (Bacon, Sausage, Egg, Beans, Mushrooms, Tomatoes and Toast and coffee) in a harbour-side café while waiting for the fuel berth to open.

By 08:30 (UK Time) we were leaving St Peter Port with 120 miles to go to our destination. We had to make
the trip in 24 hours to obtain the depth of water needed to enter St Valerie so regardless of wind or tide we had to maintain an average speed of 5 knots.

Sunrise among the Islands was spectacular but low cloud rain and fog soon obscured the view. The wind was light from the south west which made for easy, but slow sailing.

At lunchtime was entered the Alderney race, a sixteen mile wide stretch of water between the Island of Alderney and the French coast. The race is relatively shallow with an uneven rocky bed and it acts as a giant plughole as water fills the Gulf of St Malo or pours back into the English Channel each tide. There is a quiet period between tides but generally speaking, if there is a tide running in any direction, you can expect currents and rips of up to ten knots in places and the sea is lumpy and confused all the time. We were in a period of neaps so we didn’t expect conditions to be extreme and in any case we needed the kind of push that the race can offer. So we went straight through – pointing pretty much east and travelling pretty much north.

It was rough, but not rough enough to make two Frenchmen postpone their lunch. We ate cold meats for starters and enjoyed a hot chicken and potato stew with a good bottle of Bordeaux rouge in the cockpit making good progress towards our destination with the sea bubbling and boiling all around us.

By nightfall, we were well offshore, on schedule and free from most other shipping except the odd fishing boat and cross channel ferries entering or leaving the Normandy habours. The wind remained light however and frustratingly it veered and came from dead astern, the worst possible, direction of you want to improve your speed. 

Sure you can run the engine to gain an extra knot but that additional knot effectively reduces the power of
wind in your sail and so what you gain on the one hand you pretty much lose on the other. Given such a light wind, the sea was remarkably lively – fortunately we had a fifth crew member who came to be called George – a GPS Linked autopilot. It soon because obvious that George was a better helmsman than us and so he took over until we were ten minutes away from the harbour entrance.

We arrived at our destination about a half hour earlier than we needed to despite some anxious moments when the tide or wind seemed to conspire against us. St Valerie harbour is entered through a gap in the chalk cliffs. It isn’t a harbour I would wish to enter in heavy weather. The waves funnel and build through the long narrow entrance and once you are in the channel there is no room to turn. Once in the harbour, the town is pleasant enough but I guess that after about 40 hours of non-stop sailing (except for the brief stop in Guernsey) none of us were feeling energetic enough to take in all the sights. Coffee and baths, followed by beer food and sleep were the priorities.
Toinoux arrived St Valerie en Caux awaiting her new owners

Memorable moments? Yes several – the evening meal on the first night on our run up to Guernsey – cold meats and beer for starters, tuna salad as a main course, with a good red wine, a selection of cheeses and a Breton cake for desert followed by a strong expresso coffee. Where else but on a French boat would a crew member ask if you preferred salted or unsalted butter?

The sunsets on both nights were spectacular

A meteor shower as we cruised along the west coast of Jersey

The full English breakfast in Guernesy (just what the doctor ordered)

Sunrise among the Islands

Eating lunch in the notorious Alderney Race

Hundreds of Cormorants diving and feasting on a huge shoat of mackerel north of Cherbourg

An unexplained smell of fried potatoes while at least 30 miles from the nearest land with no other vessel in sight

A copper coloured Milky Way on the second night at sea –maybe there was a wisp of cloud colouring the sky – but if so it wasn’t thick enough to obscure stars. Either way, the Milky Way was spectacularly bright and copper coloured that evening.

A beer at the Local Café back home in Plouer Sur Rance with my three shipmates after the trip. Plouer is a town steeped in maritime history, fishing and seafaring, it’s good to think that we’re keeping up the tradition.

Finally a comment on the watch system we kept. Each night at sundown one crew member would keep watch for the first hour and a half. Then after that time a second crew member would join him for a second trick of one and a half hours. After three hours the first crew member would go below and a third crew member would join the remaining lookout for one and a half hours. The second lookout would retire after three hours in the cockpit and would be relieved by crew member number four. In effect each crew member spent three hours in the cockpit and for half of that time he would be responsible for the helm – he would then get three hours rest. The system worked well. Each lookout had ‘back up’ and support if required and could also rely on a crewmate to keep him supplied with coffee and snacks. The system also ensured that you had two different crew members with you during the course of your three hour watch so there was a variety of company and conversation.