Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The Tide Turns

There is a stage in a renovation project where it looks like things are so bad they might never get better. This is when the most money spent for the least apparent results; instead of a sea-going boat with an engine, roof, windows we had an empty wooden hull, with huge holes in it. The new engine was still on the dockside and we spent a whole year and a sum equivalent to the cost of a comfortable house in Leeds to get to this point.

Some smart people say that restoring an old boat is like having a hole in the sea into which to throw money. But they lack passion and vision, because they don't see that this hull is truly worthy of appreciation and care, not only for her ease on the eye, (I've heard and read "bonny hull" many times) but it was made using ancient skills, handed down from master to apprentice for a thousand years since the Vikings and then some. Not a hole in the sea, but what we are paying for is a work of art; there was no strict engineering that put Heroine together in the first place but hard-won experience, rules of thumb, pride, native skills, and centuries-old know-how which is fast disappearing.

Heroine is a large bit of a boat - the skipper is a strapping 6feet so you can see how impressive she is out of the water.

Just behind the boat there is a pool of water with a ripple - this is the tide coming in and by the time I had taken 5 or 6 photographs my feet were getting wet.

The new planking at the top is called the gingerbread, which is rather lovely.

During an idle chat with a wooden boat builder we asked how much it would cost to make just the hull, and it was a seven digit number, up the big end. Of course, in her present state, the difference between the cost to rebuild the hull and what we would be able to sell it for is also probably a seven digit number. Possibly even more than that because we would have to pay someone to take her away.

It was with this in mind that we arrived at Eyemouth and we were both prepared for a forlorn sight, but driving down the winding road to the fish dock we could see things were better, although there is no wheelhouse yet the hull has been restored and there is work being done on the decks, so in a way, we have turned a corner.

Heroine is parked alongside the boat sheds in enough water for her to paddle - in a specially dug-out section of river bed so she had somewhere to stay until she's ready to float back into the main harbour, this arrangement is watery enough, but she feels marooned, stranded.

By the second day of our long weekend the weather is delightful, for Easter in Scotland, anyway and I am so excited about being in this place that I have come to love that I can barely supress a shriek of excitement and the urge to run around like an idiot, like a labrador just let of the lead on the beach. The skipper uses the time to chat up one of the people working on our boat - this chap was an apprentice when Heroine was built and says he remembers bending some planks on her. Unfortunately this individual, like most other interesting people in Eyemouth is not an expansive talker and needs encouragement to talk about his work and life, but nothing of value was ever obtained easily, so I'm going to persist.

This spring-fever has affected the usual dignified demeanour of the skipper too - as we climbed onto the boat and looked around he broke into such a smile and was whistling and singing Sinatra in his loud tenor voice as we went down the ladder to look at our new collision bulkhead.

This solid 8mm steel wall has been fixed sideways (alright, athwartships) and bolted onto the mighty frames to prevent any water from entering the rest of the boat if we hit anything serious, such as one of the possibly 10,000 shipping containers dropped in the sea every year, kept just afloat, at the water's surface (so you won't see them until it's too late) by the vast amount of polystyrene surrounding their contents...

This bulkhead has been created and installed by one of the most brilliant (sometimes melancholic) welders in the business. It will give us great confidence when we sail on a dangerous ocean to know that this potentially life-saving structure was built and installed by him (if only everyone driving on the motorway had something similar) His nickname is Morocco, a sunny and exotic place where people frolic in the surf and spend happy hours over spicy dinners with lamb kebabs and joyous dancing bellies, although I can’t think when I might need to buy one of Morocco’s camels he can weld my boat anytime, and I might book his dancers for the skipper’s birthday.

Parts of the deck are being re-caulked - a kind of woolly cotton is bashed into the gaps between the planks to help waterproof the boat. On top of that, traditionally, would be pitch to seal it, but as we are planning to head South, we are going for a smart, black, modern sealant which will not melt and stick to our bare feet or bottoms. The caulking process takes a long time, and is hard on the knees, see top-middle the specialist's own self-made kneeling pad.

There is so much joy in finding out about Heroine and and her history; it was today that we found the original carving of Heroine's first registration in Stornoway. In fact, the previous skipper's son had visited the yard, drawn there whilst on holiday after reading about her in the Fishing News. We have phoned him and promised to visit him when we are on our maiden voyage. Not least to get all his memories recorded of his father's time on Heroine. It seems only right and proper to take her back to her first home. My camera work does the lettering no justice, it is a very elegant Roman type, sadly scored across when she was moved from the Hebrides to her next owner when the registration was no longer valid.

Rather touching that this carving was made in such a key deck-beam, it made me wonder whether the intention was in those days that the boat would stay fishing, and with the same number for the whole of her days. The other thought of course, is that fishing out of Stornaway must be one of the toughest places to work and I am very keen to find out more about the life there, hoping that things will not have changed too much, and relying in my mind on the isolation of the Outer Hebrides, where I naively imagine everyone still wears fisher ganseys and herrings are still the main business...

For the dedicated marine-engineering readers out there (I believe there is one, who will be rewarded for his kind interest by a free ticket to the sea-trials at the very least) here is another interior picture, this time of the engine bed and the partial bulkheads to separate the engine room from the rest of the boat. The new propellor tube can just be seen in the middle.

For non-sea-farers, this is a view towards the back, or "starn", as it is called in Eyemouth. The light from above is the hole in the deck where the wheelhouse was, and the "tramlines" run the length of Heroine and are part of what might be described as the foundations, it is these great wooden structures on which the engine will be anchored, the weight distributed thoughout the whole lenth of the boat, in effect.

For lubbers and the writer alike, another aesthetic lift, apart from the beautiful engraved SY64 beam - there has been some washing of the interior timbers, and in some places the oak ribs and deck-beams, or "rafters" have emerged a beautiful honey colour. I am hoping that in time I will be able to wash or sand all of the oak to get back this amazing beauty. This is a picture of one of the vertial oak ribs and her "sister". The wood running horizontally is the planking of larch or "Scottish Boat Wood". Having looked again at this picture I am somewhat worried about the bolt, shown top-left, is sticking out instead of being tightly fastened.

As it got to lunchtime I went to the fish smokery on the dock and bought two lovely crabs for lunch, one for now and one for the next day, and at a quid each they are a bargain, they were straight out of the steamer when I bought them and too hot to hold. Skipper is not a fan, so he'll be having something else. I must say how fabulous Lawrence of the Ship Hotel is, he arranged for me to take some sandwiches and a whole tray of tea so we could have our lunch on Heroine's deck, it seems that nothing is too much bother.

The sun beat down and I picked over my crab and chucked the bits of shell to the seagulls, fishing boats coming and going and the sound of the fork-lift moving fish-crates on the dock at the Eyemouth Fisherman's Co-operative. There is a pheasant calling in the pretty ivy-covered bank near the ship-yard and I'm thinking surf'n'turf...

The progress on the boat has been astonishing. Many planks have been replaced as well as the damage caused by the life-boat screeching to a halt when they were towing Lenny in Crosshaven. There are new oak ribs exending up to the gunwale and new larch planks, all sweet and bright.

The picture of the bow shows the stem, and the new planks and ribs on either side as well as teh new capping strip. This is the best part of the boat for watching dolphins, it's very comfortable leaning over and looking vertically down at them as they surf the bow-wave.

The ribs here are the extensions of the ribs in the hull but they are not for structural strength - they hold the gunwhale on so that the crew don't fall overboard when she (the writer) is bringing the fenders in-board as the boat leaves harbour. There is new larch between the ribs and this complete the section.

This is one of the nicest parts of the boat to sit, you can see the rest of Heroine all before you, and the noises are the shush of the water along the bow and the wind as the boat moves though the air.

The picture with the clamps shows a new length of oak being bent to shape on the capping strip. This new bit is for a bar to sit inside the gunwale, don't know the term for it yet, but it supports the large wooden "bit" which are such perfect seats, when they are not being used for mooring lines.

The diagonal joint on the capping strip doesn't quite fit exactly, but we are fine with that - we are not aiming for a yacht finish, as they call it, and it fulfils its function, both strong and beautiful, and unpretentious.

The oak has been lying being seasoned before being put on the boat, and as the tannins seep out from the heart of the wood, it seems to darken, and they say it hardens enormously as it ceases to be "green".
The whole scale of the woodwork is more than man-sized, it is not easy to lift raw oak planks on your own and so the building process seems suddenly architectural.

I love the way that this method of bending the oak will automatically match the curve of the capping strip, that's the sort of thing that would take me years to think of, but there it is, just the way they do it.

Although it is a "sustainable" way to build, it seems that cutting down a hundred-year-old or more oak tree is a bit much just for our capping strip, but following advice it is the best thing to resist rot and will be beautiful for ever if we look after it. One of the things to see is the curve at the starn where the oak is one single solid piece. I feel like I am going to sea on the largest and most expensive shaker kitchen ever.

This is the astonishing curve of a single piece of oak around half of the stern. The edges will be rounded for comfort, it's the best place to sit anytime, and the wood will be preserved using something which will not make it too shiny.

One of the challenges will be to make sure that we can sit on the capping-strip but still have railings around the starn, might need some used envelopes, a pencil and a bottle of something to work this out, we also have to think about MCA rating (Maritime and Coastguard Agency) rating for taking paying passengers in the future when we run out of money.