Back Afloat

Sunday, April 21, 2019

The Lucky Nickel has finally been released from the boat hospital in Uxbridge. It was a long, expensive process. Just like with a terrestrial home renovation, once you get started the list of work to do and the amount of money you spend increases steadily until you reach a point where something that previously would have felt like a large expense passes by with barely a flicker of recognition. The phrase “while you’re at it…” is a particularly fraught one.

However, before we get into the nitty-gritty of what went down, I feel I should provide my less boaty readers with a few definitions of terminology that will help everyone get the full effect.

Bow: The pointy bit at the front

Stern: The back end where the engine, propellor and rudder are.

Swim or Swim Deck: The part of the stern that sticks out over the propellor.

Propellor: I’m sure I don’t need to define this, but did you know that propellors come in right-handed and left-handed versions? Remember that bit of trivia for later.

Counter: The floor of the swim deck

Rudder: The flat vertical blade of steel that sits underwater behind the propellor and allows you to steer the boat by pivoting it back and forth.

Skeg: The bar that extends from the bottom of the stern to stabilise the rudder and give it something to pivot on.

A photo illustrating how the swim deck juts out over the propellor and rudder, which is supported by the skeg.

Gas lockers: The compartments in the back corners of the swim deck that contain the large propane cylinders (gas bottles) supplying the hot water heater and stove.

Weed hatch: A tall square sleeve with a lid, located on the swim deck and positioned directly above the propellor and extending up above the waterline. Opening the weed hatch allows one to reach a hand in to clear vegetation or other muck that might be fouling the propellor. Obviously, this is best done with the engine off.

Freeboard: The amount of boat that sits above the waterline. Having too little freeboard is inviting disaster.

Base plate: The flat bottom of the boat

Overplate: To add a new layer of steel plate to an area to strengthen it

Gearbox: An enclosed collection of gears connecting the output of the motor with the shaft and propellor. The gearbox is designed to decrease the turning speed, thereby increasing the torque - the twisting force applied to the propellor.

Stern Tube: The steel tube the pierces the hull and allows the propellor outside the boat to be connected to the engine’s gearbox inside the boat. It’s actually a two layers of tubing that sleeve inside each other with increasingly fine tolerances, supported by a big bearing.

The old propellor shaft extending through the stern bearing and stern tube

Ok, definitions done! Now back to our regularly schedule bog post:

I knew going in that it was very likely I’d need to do more than just have the new skin tank installed. Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will recall the alarming amount of rust and scale that I discovered under the floor of the cabin during the last round of renovations. With the boat scheduled to be out of the water anyway, I decided it was a perfect time to have the hull properly inspected by a marine surveyor, and braced myself for bad news about the amount of sound steel left between most of my worldly possessions and the briny deep. (It’s really more like "slimy shallows", but allow me a bit of poetic license.)

So it was that a lovely man named Vladimir came to give the Lucky Nickel a thorough going over as it sat beached in a dirty shed. Vladimir spent a full day examining the hull with a couple fancy ultra-sound devices. For those keeping score they were a UM-1D, 5 MHz, 10 mm ultrasonic gauge with twin crystal probe, which had echo-echo and single echo functions, and a Tritex 5600 2.25 MHz, 13 mm multigauge, with single crystal soft face probe for multi-echo mode. Also he hit the boat with a hammer.

As he went along, he marked the hull with mysterious chalk symbols and numbers which are apparently highly meaningful.

At the end of the survey Vlad walked me through everything he found, and the list was not short. Surprisingly, the one thing that did not raise alarm was the thickness of steel in the base plate. It seems that it’s already been overplated with 6mm steel at some point in the past, so my fears about water geysering up into the cabin of the boat were unfounded. Yay! But of course there were other areas of concern, which is unsurprising in a steel-hulled boat fast approaching its 50th birthday.

I was so relieved about the baseplate that at first I wasn’t phased by Vlad’s long list, which went like this:

1. Overplate the bow halfway up on both sides
2. Overplate the entire counter on both sides
3. Straighten the bent skeg and reweld where needed
4. Line the gas lockers with extra steel plate
5. Make the weed hatch taller to allow for more freeboard
6. Replace the stern tube and stern bearing, and repack the stern gland
7. Wash the hull and apply fresh paint

And don’t forget there was still the new skin tank to do, and the re-plumbing of the cooling system, which was the whole point of the exercise. Once I got the cost estimate for all this work I had to sit down and catch my breath; it was more than double what I’d anticipated. I’ll admit a small voice in my head said, “Walk away. Just leave the keys and walk away…” But of course I didn’t do that. Other than the moment of madness when I bought a geriatric narrowboat and starting pouring money into it, I’m actually a very practical and sensible person. (Oh, and there was that quit-job-sell-house-travel-the-world thing too I guess…) Regardless, in the years since the “Lucky Nickel” became part of my life, I’ve wisely squirrelled away a pretty hefty chunk of money that I labelled the Boat Emergency Fund. This was alongside another chunk labelled Boat Renovation Money. Together, those two pots of cash were mostly enough to cover all the work.

Also I reasoned that everyone everywhere has to pay for where they live in some way. Most people pay rent or a mortgage every month. Even people who own their homes outright still have to buy new roofs or repair foundations or re-do the siding. As a boat-dweller, I cruise for long stretches with no meaningful outlay at all and then occasionally have to vomit up masses of money all at once. There really are no free rides, especially not in London. And even if I’d walked away, I’d have had to find somewhere to rent, and it wouldn’t take many months of that before I’d spend as much in rent as I was contemplating spending on repairs, with nothing to show for it. At least the freshly-repaired boat is an asset that has some resale value. So I swallowed hard and gave the boatyard a wheelbarrow full of fifty pound notes and waited for them to get on with it.

And waited. And waited. And waited. This is the shed where the boat sat while the yard tried to find time to do the much much larger list of work that needed doing.

That’s why things took a lot longer than expected. First, the list exploded. And second, the boatyard  had only planned to spend a week welding the new skin tank and slapping on a fresh coat of paint. Instead, they were stuck with the nautical equivalent of the Six Million Dollar Man. ("Lucky Nickel. Narrowboat. A vessel barely alive. Gentlemen, we can rebuild her. We have the technology…”) So all I could do was keep extending my stay in the Uxbridge garden shed, or in generous friends’ spare rooms, and wait for the work to be complete.

This is the new skin tank under construction. You can see the holes in the hull where the water will enter and exit. Plus it’s wafer thin! Unlike my old, fat, crappy skin tanks. The chalk marks show where they put internal baffles that force the water to take a long and chilling path through the tank, so I have pretty high hopes that engine overheating is a thing of the past.

The overplating was pretty standard and boring, but the new stern tube was an interesting process. First a welder had to chop out all the old fittings, including the entire plate the old bearing was bolted to. I’m guessing he tried to unbolt the bearing and got frustrated with the gunked up rusty old hardware and just took a torch to the whole thing. I don’t blame him. The boat often makes me feel that way too.

Here’s the new propellor shaft. Oh, and the new propellor.

AGSWPLRs should now be saying to themselves, "Wait, did she say new propellor? That wasn’t on the list!” And they’d be correct, because they’re astute like that. It turns out that when the mechanic came to install and align the new shaft he noticed that the gearbox had been connected to run in reverse. He surmised that the original engine for the boat was what they call left-handed, and therefore the propellor was also left-handed - designed to spin in a certain direction. Somewhere in the boat’s past the engine was replaced with a right-handed model. And rather than getting a corresponding right-handed propellor, the installer simply reversed the controls to the gearbox, so that when you pushed the throttle forward the gearbox ran backwards and the propellor shaft turned in the correct direction for the propellor. (Yeah it made my head hurt a bit too.)

So I’ve been running all this time with the gearbox going backwards. The Boat Engineering and Maintenance Division in South Africa claim that the gearbox can run happily in either direction. Mechanically there’s no difference. But I got a new propellor anyway because, as I mentioned earlier, this was at a point where an extra £330 seemed like a drop in the bucket/canal.

Then, finally, Lucky Nickel was lowered back into the water and I got to fire up the engine and point myself back down the canal. And drumroll… the engine temperature stayed steady the whole time! And I’m pretty sure the new propellor and newly re-oriented gearbox gave me more oomph than I used to have. The weather wasn’t ideal - for instance, I could have done without the hail - but I still enjoyed being back on the canal. And as the hours went by I could feel some of that too-familiar engine anxiety slipping away, and it was a great relief. I’m sure some other issue will crop up soon enough. But for now, for today, I’m taking the win.

Back at the tiller at last, with the boatyard fading in the background.


Sunday, April 7, 2019

The saga of the Lucky Nickel continues, so an update on that will have to wait. For now, suffice it to say that the initial booking at the boatyard that started out as one week then swelled to four weeks (after the hull had been properly inspected) went on to become five and then finally six weeks out of the water. This means I was displaced from home for that whole time, which was mostly ok, but did get tiring. I spent many of those weeks at Uxbridge's tiniest AirBnb in the back garden of an old house approximately equidistant between the boatyard and the tube station. Billed as a “Teeny Weeny Rustic House for Two”, it was basically a comfortably appointed garden shed complete with full bathroom, very small sitting room and low gabled bedroom mezzanine. Luckily, I’m something of an expert at small space living and managed to settle down to a workable routine in the 14’ x 7’ space. Having just a fridge and kettle got a bit dull (though I was welcome in the kitchen of the main house, I wasn’t feeling that sociable). I was able to dust off my kettle-cookery skills (honed in a dire hotel room in Sochi and mostly confined to making perfect soft-boiled eggs). I also brought the toaster over from the boat which, coupled with the discovery of toastie bags, was a game-changer.

This photo shows about 60% of the ground floor and the only seating in the place.

As adaptable as I may be to challenging living conditions, I still jumped at the offer of a week in a real flat in the centre of town. Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will recall my friend Piran, who’s appeared here frequently, most recently as first mate on the Lucky Nickel’s latest voyage. Piran is the Barbican resident who precipitated this blog post, so when he hared off to Cornwall for a week and offered up his flat while he was away, I jumped at the suggestion. I therefore got to spend a happy week living just minutes from several tube stations, running loops of the highwalks, and fitting in a bit of neighbourhood exploration. That’s how I found myself one rainy Sunday, contemplating a nearby green patch on Google Maps that turned out to be The Charterhouse.

The entrance gate on Charterhouse Square 
"The Charterhouse is a former Carthusian monastery in London, located between Barbican and Smithfield Market, and to the north of what is now Charterhouse Square. Since the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century the site has served as a private mansion, a boys’ school and an almshouse, which it remains to this day.”
I love how that quote says “since the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century" as casually as you or I might say, “since last Tuesday”. It’s just another demonstration of the depth of history in the area. On my Barbican highwalk running route I passed by at least one section of the exposed Roman city wall - 4th century AD - so the dissolution of the monasteries actually is slightly "last Tuesday" measured against that. In any case, I booked myself onto a Charterhouse guided tour, to be conducted by one of the resident Brothers. My introduction to the complex started with a visit to the bijou museum, a good introduction to the history of the site, which started life as a Black Death cemetery in 1348, and where a small chapel and hermitage were constructed soon after. The monastery was later established in 1371.

A plague victim in the museum. Apparently, analysis of the bones tells us he was breast-fed as an infant and ate a largely plant-based diet (very on-trend!).

The Carthusians are a Catholic religious order founded in 1084 (latecomers…) in the valley of Chartreuse, France. The name Charterhouse actually derives from Chartreuse, and (fun facts!) the order are also the originators of Chartreuse liquor from which we get the name for the electric lime green colour. Sadly, this link is not reflected in the decorating scheme at Charterhouse.

The Carthusians are a cloistered order, meaning that they separate themselves from the affairs of the outside world. The reclusive hermit monks, sometimes called Choirmonks or Solitairies, lived alone in individual cells, cut off from all direct contact with others. The cells, or cloisters, were actually quite generously sized, each including a space for sleeping, an area for prayer and study, and a small private walled garden where the monk could meditate and grow food to contribute to the community. Each cloister had a small turntable built into the wall whereby the monk could receive his meals and other necessities without having to come in contact with others. Cloisters are normally arranged around a central square and are still evident in the architecture at Charterhouse.

This hallway looks onto a garden on the right. On the left, the former doorways to individual cloisters have now been bricked up.

Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will recognise that the reclusive hermit monks must have had some assistance from those on the other side of the doorway, and in Carthusian monasteries this was provided by lay brothers, who cooked meals, did laundry, maintained the buildings and fetched books from the library, managing all the day to day operations of the monastery. The lay brothers led less contemplative and more active lives, but were still part of the religious order, attending services and living in silence.

After the dissolution of the monasteries (slightly before last Tuesday), Charterhouse became a private home for wealthy nobles, and remained so until it was purchased by Thomas Sutton in 1611. Sutton turned the site into an almshouse and school for boys. The Charterhouse School operated on the site until 1872, using the Great Chamber as one of its classrooms. Famous Charterhouse old boys (called Old Carthusians) comprise a smattering of MPs, an impressive number of composers, including Vaughn Williams, and the writer William Makepeace Thackery, the current (for the minute) Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt (a former Head Boy, of course), and the founder of the world scouting movement, Lord Baden Powell.

The Great Chamber, not to be confused with the Great Hall, coming up later

Schoolboy graffiti, etched into one of the room’s windowpanes. At least that’s what our guide told us, though the fact that the school moved operations to Godalming in Surrey in 1872 makes one wonder why Mr. Pardoe was still loitering in the Great Chamber 12 years later. Maybe he missed his train?

As well as founding the school, Sutton established the almshouse, which survives to this day. An almshouse is a type of private charitable housing usually (but not exclusively) for retirement age people who are able to live independently but have limited means. The almshouse was originally established for men who, through no fault of their own, were unable to support themselves and were drawn largely from the armed services and the ranks of government. Today, Charterhouse’s 43 residents come from a wider range of professions and currently encompass those from the arts community (including musicians, actors and stage managers) as well as teachers, journalists and priests. Our guide for the day was Brother Philip, a resident of Charterhouse and former journalist and counsellor.

Though it’s no longer a religious order, the residents are still called Brothers, as a nod to the site’s start as a monastery. Interestingly, Charterhouse recently started accepting female residents, who are also called Brothers (like how everyone on Star Trek is called "Mister"). Residents must be single, and if they marry while living at Charterhouse, they must leave. The organisation is run by a Master, who also lives on site, and there’s a resident priest as well.

Life at Charterhouse seems quite a pleasant affair. A short film in the museum on site made it seem like a jolly place, with residents walking in the gardens, meeting up for a pint at a local pub, and going out in the evenings. Each of the Brothers has a private flat which includes a small kitchenette, but meals are taken communally in the Great Hall. It seems like a sort of superannuated Hogwarts, a not at all unpleasant notion.

Seating is assigned at the tables, in order to ensure that people don’t club up with those of similar profession or background. Requests to change tables are rare, but do happen. Scandalous!

There are guest rooms for Brothers who want to have visitors, and an on site infirmary where Brothers can convalesce from illness or where they live full time when they can no longer manage in a private flat. It’s an enviable set-up, in a fantastic location. Naturally, there’s a waiting list to get in, and even once a resident is accepted there’s a six month probationary period of settling in. The site also has some commercially let flats in the complex which are snapped up speedily, despite what must be eye-watering prices.

I recall that Brother Philip called this Wash House Court or possibly Washing House Square, so named because the laundry facilities are located there. This picture shows the windows of some of the Brother’s private apartments, and the higgledy piggledy nature of the architecture that makes Charterhouse a popular location for film crews and special events.

Who wouldn’t want to film here?

As well as those impossibly picturesque views, the site includes the old monastic chapterhouse. Not to be confused with Charterhouse (with a capital E and an R instead of a P) a chapterhouse is simply a meeting room for the monastic order. It’s been converted to a chapel, and hosts weekly services and the tomb of founder Thomas Sutton.

Sutton’s Tomb

I was surprised to learn that the site of Charterhouse encompasses seven acres of land in the heart of London, all enclosed by a high wall. In addition to the older Tudor era buildings, some Brothers live in modern flats that are clearly newly designed, but still blend reasonably well with the surroundings. Much of the rest of the place is given over to gardens, which were not especially diverting on a drizzly Sunday in February, but are evidently well worth a visit in July.

You can see the potential. Apparently the summer garden tours are very popular.

Touring Charterhouse, and seeing another of London’s hidden bits of history was an excellent way of spending my Sunday afternoon as a Barbican resident. As was my visit to The Old Red Cow, for a fortifying pint after the tour concluded. However, what might have been the most satisfying part of the day was the fact that I managed to navigate my way back to Piran’s flat on the other side of the Barbican, without having to stop and get my bearings. A proud moment indeed.