Monday, 26 October 2015

Boat Renovation: Alternative Strategies

I’m in my third year of restoring this old boat. It’s taken so long that I’m now in maintenance mode – that’s to say, I have to devote increasing amounts of time to maintaining the renovation work I have done. Time spent re-varnishing, re-polishing or painting, takes away from the time I can devote to pushing the project forward. Do I, or did I have an alternative?

Well, one of the most interesting aspects of keeping a blog is that you develop correspondence and dialogue with a wide variety of people with similar interests and passions, so I can be sure that there are alternatives to the lengthy route I took. Here are two examples from people I met during the course of this journey.

Firstly, a guy called Tudor. He comes from an area of Eastern Europe just about as far from the sea as you can get. When I started my blog he didn’t have a boat and he didn’t know how to sail but he was passionate and driven; seems like the call of the sea can be heard even far away inland. Tudor was fortunate in that he has an internet based job so he can work anywhere (providing there is an internet connection close by) and he has a pilot’s license so understanding the rudiments of boat navigation don’t present a problem.

The first step and the hardest according to Tudor, was to strip away all the reasons for not doing what he wanted to do, bite the bullet and reduce his workload, pack a bag, and head for Brittany in search of a boat. He looked at several and eventually settled on a small cruiser of the popular ‘peche / promenade’ type, extremely popular in this region. She was sound but without engine and run-down in every respect. The price he paid reflected her condition.

He moved on board and negotiated a mooring in a small fishing village. From that point on, the boat became his home and his classroom. When the weather was bad, he renovated, when the weather was good, he taught himself to sail. Local fishermen took an interest in him and respected his efforts so he received help and advice in plenty. By the end of the season, his boat looked good and he was a pretty confident sailor and seaman. Without engine, every passage and manoeuvre he made was achieved under sail.

By the end of the summer he was lean, tanned, confident and capable, and the boat had been renovated to meet his particular needs. I met him last year and at that point he was renovating an old outboard and contemplating a new adventure, crossing the Atlantic aboard another boat, more suitable for long distance blue water cruising. Armed with his experience, he’ll buy one for a song and renovate her for the trip. I haven’t heard from him for a while – maybe he’s already on the other side of the puddle.

Another guy, Dave, bought a Channel Islands 22 a few years ago. He got her for an extremely low price because, despite the size of her engine, she was slow. Nothing, it seemed, could be done to induce her semi-displacement hull, to rise over the bow wave and plane. A boat which should have been capable of at least 13 Knots could never achieve more than 7. She had a bad reputation and no-one wanted to buy her. Davy took a look at her and noticed two stub keels, fitted to allow her to remain upright when drying out in local harbours. Those keels were not on the original drawings made by her designer Alan Buchanan. Could those keels be the reason why this boat was so sluggish? Davey took a chance, bought the boat for a very low price, cut off the keels – and she flew! He dropped in a newly reconditioned engine and now she achieves 16 Knots. He put in an intensive 1000 hours work, evenings and weekends and now she is pretty much the best example of her type that you will find. He keeps her in showroom condition.

But Dave didn’t stop there. On a trip to France last year aboard his Channel Islands 22 he came across an old English narrow-boat on the river. She was owned by a  Guernsey man who had used her as a weekend home. She was for sale, but there had been little interest. French canals are wider than English ones so French barges can be wider. Who on earth would want a boat so narrow?

Dave bought the boat for roughly half the asking price because the owner couldn’t get the engine started. He took a risk and it paid off. A friend cleared a few air-locks in the fuel line and she has run sweet ever since. There was a fully functional log-burning stove on board worth about £1500. We has since joked that Dave actually bought a log-burner which came attached to a 40ft steel hulled vessel with a Volvo inboard.

‘Tired’ was perhaps the best way to describe Dave and Natalie’s new boat. Structurally she was sound but she had a kind of worn-out look to her. They brought her down the canal to the first boatyard on the estuary that could handle her length and weight and they had her lifted out. Then they used every short winter holiday, or long weekend to transform her into a vessel that you could take pride in. 

Vacation time was precious but they didn’t waste a second of it. Each time they arrived at the
boatyard, they had a list of jobs and all the tools and materials they needed. They negotiated a power source and, under halogen lamps, they worked well into the night - every night. Jobs were prioritised and sequenced to ensure there were no delays; coats of paint and varnish were applied to ensure that they dried overnight. Exterior jobs were done in daylight. Interior jobs were reserved for the periods before dawn and after sunset. On occasions when Dave came alone, his day usually started at 4 am and finished well after midnight. Food came in the form of canned meals, warmed up and eaten when required – chilly-con-carne, beans and sausage or Couscous. This summer they re-launched and cruised back up the canal aboard a transformed boat. They had heating, lighting, refrigeration, hot and cold water and a shower. The boat exterior was freshly painted, below the waterline she was epoxy’d   and anti-fouled. The cabin was clean and cosy. Even the black car-tyre fenders looked new. There is still work to do, but it is cosmetic in nature and you have to get to know your boat well before putting together those final touches. So the hard work is over and those final tasks can be done at a more leisurely pace. Their efforts confirm the validity of the old adage – ‘where there is a will, there’s a way’.


Friday, 9 October 2015

Outboard in a Well

One of my early decisions on renovating this old Westerly Nomad was to use an outboard as auxiliary power. Not an outboard hung off the transom however; I find them ugly and inefficient. Ugly because they look like an afterthought and inefficient because, in my experience, the prop is often lifted out of the water in any kind of a chop. Writers often refer to this as ‘cavitation’, this is not the correct term but it’s frequently used to describe the problem.

I wanted an outboard in a well because it seemed to me I might get the best of all worlds – a power unit, as efficient as an inboard engine where the prop is deep enough in the water to avoid the chances of it turning in the air at the top of every wave, allied to the lower cost of outboard repair and maintenance. It’s always cheaper to take your unit to a mechanic than have him visit your boat, cheaper also because he can get to the problem without having to stick his head into the bilges or lift out the engine.

The process of creating a well wasn’t particularly easy because it required the rudder to be relocated and hung off the transom. Fortunately this had already been done by a previous owner. He’d also made an attempt at creating the well but the work hadn’t been thought through properly and the building of the well walls left a lot to be desired. So, the whole thing was replaced and the cockpit remodelled on the advice of a marine engineer. Was it worth the effort?

Yes I think so, in fact you could almost argue that it has already paid for itself. This summer we ventured under motor along the canal that crosses Brittany linking the English Channel with the Atlantic. It is a narrow, shallow waterway that no longer carries commercial traffic. From the towpath it is a beautiful ribbon of water edged with hardwood forests, ancient chateaus, idyllic picturesque villages and pastoral scenes unchanged for hundreds of years. From the deck of a twin keel sailing boat however, it is a muddy weed-filled creak that tempts and then betrays the innocent navigator.

Four days into our cruise the engine began to overheat. Well at least I could lift it out of the well and carry it shore-side where I could work on it in relative comfort. Then, having confirmed that I had neither the tools nor the expertise to fix the problem, I was able to phone a friend and get the engine to a specialist engineer who ordered parts and fixed the problem within two days. Three days later I was cruising again and the cost of the repair was about £35. Now how much would it have been to call out the engineer for him to diagnose the problem and then return with the appropriate parts to fix it? I don’t know the answer but I’m pretty sure it would have been significantly more - given that the current average hourly rate for a marine mechanic is in the region of £30 per hour. 

Something tells me I got something right – unusual for me to do that.


Friday, 2 October 2015

Boat Cabin Comforts

I had a friend, a seadog if ever there was one. He used to buy his boats as bare hulls and fit them out himself to suit his particular requirements. The start of any new project involved him sitting in the bare hull with a packet of cigarettes, a six pack of strong beer, a note-book and pencil. According to him, the cabin would be designed before the beer and cigarettes were finished. Time and quiet contemplation were required in order to achieve perfection.

I can’t say I used that technique on my boat but the wisdom of his approach wasn’t lost on me. Until August my efforts were directed towards making the cabin reasonably clean and comfortable for a short cruise. The purpose of the cruise was to spend time thinking about how best to make the available space suit my needs. Living on board would provide the experience required to make sound judgments about the next steps in the restoration of this vessel.

Provisioning the boat, cooking, sitting in the cabin on a rainy night, sleeping on board, all contributed to my understanding of what was, and what was not required. Just like my old friend, I came off the boat with some firm ideas. Perhaps I should point out here though that my Westerly Nomad makes this task relatively easy, the cabin roof runs right across the boat, there are no side-decks and the foredeck is very small. In effect, the cabin space on this 23 footer, is pretty much what you would expect to find on a 26ft sailing boat. So planning for comfort shouldn’t be a problem.

Here’s is what I have decided to do (and not do). Firstly, for aesthetic reasons, I had decided to put a few wooden beams along the cabin roof to help hide the interior GPS. By way of preparation I had painted the interior matt white. The plan was also to fit ceiling lights to the beams, hiding the wiring behind the wood. Well, that plan has changed. The cabin height is OK but life aboard tells me not to lower it. The use of matt white paint has largely achieved the aesthetic need to hide the GRP interior (the gloss white which had been used previously seemed to highlight the uneven texture of the GRP). As for lighting, well I have a strip of LED pin lights over the sink and cooking area opposite and they work very well. They give much more light than I expected and best of all they are discrete, you see the light but not the lights. So I’ll use the same system in the main cabin with pin lights all along the port and starboard roof and I’ll hide the wires, lights and curtain hooks behind a ‘pelmet’ suitably drilled to allow the light to fill the space. Less work, less expense and more efficient.

I recently read an excellent book by Ian Nicolson (Build Your Own Boat). It’s a book I would
recommend to anyone contemplating renovation. He makes a very convincing argument for not fitting a sea toilet. According to him, the old bucket and chuck it system is much safer than running the risk of sinking due to failed sea cocks. I couldn’t agree more. Take out the toilet and there are two holes in the hull that you don’t need. Last year two very good friends, experienced and well qualified professional sailors, had to call out the RNLI after water started to gush into the hull of their vessel in mid-Channel. Their boat was one of the most solid cared for boats I have ever seen. Even so, they almost became a lifeboat statistic thanks to failed sea-toilet fittings. So, my sea-toilet is coming out and the holes will be glassed in. The spare space will become a hanging locker. Unfortunately, the old bucket and chuck it system can’t be used on my boat either, well, not if I want to keep Susan as crew. So a small porta-potty – chemical loo will be installed.

About cabin heating; I have a stainless steel charcoal or driftwood burning Bengco stove on board. It was made by a company in Southampton, or maybe the Isle of Wight, probably now out of business. I was nervous about it. GRP can melt and burn can’t it? And, also I was worried about fumes. Before my trip I invested in a small cheap Carbon Monoxide alarm which I fitted to the bulkhead. Then one afternoon, in driving rain and 37 knot winds, I plucked up the courage to light the thing. It’s an ingenious contraption. You load charcoal or driftwood in the top and put a firelighter in the ash-tray at the bottom. It lit first time and threw out lots of dry heat. There were no fumes and no gas alerts and there was something charming about the wisps of smoke coming out of the chimney on a cold and wet afternoon, a promise of comfort inside. The stove is definitely staying. But the decorative plastic surround has to go.

Interestingly enough, the carbon monoxide detector did sound an alarm during the cruise. It was on the last day when we were motoring down the estuary, the cabin hatch was open and we had a following wind – the cause of the alarm? A build up of outboard motor exhaust gasses – wafted into the cabin by the breeze. Well, at least I know it works.

Finally, cooking; the boat has a locker for a gas bottle in the cockpit and a pipe to the galley area but no stove. I had thought of investing in a stainless steel two burner and connecting it to the pipe but I don’t know how old the pipe is (1960’s boats had a habit of exploding due to inadequate standards of installation). For a while I considered Meths burning stoves such as those produced by Origo. Unfortunately my memory of Meths burners is similar to that of Jerome K Jerome (Three men in a boat) who suggested that every meal cooked on one tastes of meths. I am of course willing to be proved wrong on this point and if anyone cares to send me a meths cooker I’ll be happy to road test it and report results.

So, for the cruise I carried a Campingaz Camp Bistro – a small flat single burner that uses gas bottles the size of a can of spray paint. This, along with a portable barbeque used shore-side or over the side of the boat seemed to be all I needed. I like the idea of small canisters and I like the idea that they can be taken away from the stove when not required – so, for now at least the Campingaz cooker has earned her place as a permanent fixture.

Seems like I still have a lot to do.

US Readers can get Ian Nicolson's book - Build Your Own Boat here
Build Your Own Boat: Building and Fitting Out for Sail or Power

UK Readers can get Ian Nicolson's book - Build Your Own Boat here
Build Your Own Boat: Building and Fitting Out for Sail and Power