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.

High and Dry

Sunday, March 3, 2019

It’s been an interesting few weeks for the Lucky Nickel. For a long time I’ve known something significant had to be done to address a persistent overheating problem with the engine. It’s been an issue almost since day one and makes moving the boat much more a fraught nail biter than a pleasant diversion. Any time I’ve spent extended periods of time on the boat in the last few years I’ve end up chasing problems and leaks around the system with depressing regularity.

To explain, here’s a brief GSWPL primer on engine cooling: All internal combustion engines such as the one in the Lucky Nickel are, of course, powered by combustion: tiny explosions of fuel (gas/petrol, diesel, whatever). That combustion creates heat that needs to be dissipated to keep the engine running happily. In cars (except Volkswagens, but that’s another blog) this is usually accomplished by circulating cooled water around the engine and through the radiator, which, as the name implies, radiates the heat out of the water, thus pulling the heat out of the engine. The faster the car moves, the faster the air moves over the radiator, enhancing the cooling effect. Radiators don’t work on a boat engine because there’s no way to get cool air moving that quickly across a radiator. Instead, boat engines take advantage of the fact that they’re surrounded by a ready supply cold water, and use that for cooling. A “wet exhaust” pulls water directly from the canal through filters, circulates it through the engine and then pumps it out the side. Wet exhausts are efficient but prone to clogging. Thus you usually find a closed system that circulates a fixed volume of water/antifreeze through the engine and in and out of a “skin tank” which is a large flat construction welded to the side of the engine compartment, pressed up against all that cold water. The water is cooled by circulating through the skin tank, thus keeping the engine happy. Easy, right?

The skin tank is the squarish thing on the left with the black hose connected to it. As opposed to the much larger squarish thing at the top with the yellow hoses running to it, which is the diesel tank.

Even though the Lucky Nickel came equipped with two skin tanks (starboard one pictured above) they’ve never been particularly effective or efficient. Any experienced engineer who sees them always comments that they’re too thick, meaning they hold too large a volume of water relative to the surface area available for cooling. Therefore the engine overheats frequently, causing the cap on the pressure tank to vent scalding hot steam and water, and meaning I have to top up the system frequently.

Opening up the system to refill also often introduces air bubbles which can prevent the water from circulating, because it’s a complexly routed system with a lot of high spots where air bubbles can hide. Thus I’ve become something of an expert at refilling the cooling system, to the point where I actually installed a bespoke filler hose and valve of my own devising that makes process slightly more efficient and lessens the chance of air bubbles being introduced. As you might suspect, through, none of this is ideal. Even less ideally, the starboard skin tank sprung a leak some time ago that I managed to fix with the magic of Araldite before it started leaking again, this time from a much less fixable place. Meaning I had to bypass that tank entirely, meaning that the already dodgey system became even dodgier. Really not ideal.

So, knowing that I’d be in London for a solid five months at least, I managed to get booked in at Uxbridge Boat Centre to have new, efficient, properly designed skin tanks installed. This is major work that involves drilling holes in the side of the boat, a task best accomplished with the boat out of the water. So a couple weeks ago I fired up the engine for the first time in more than a year and moved to the boatyard. With the assistance of trusty first mate Piran, we managed to creep along the canal at a speed slightly slower than an arthritic sloth while monitoring the engine temperature every 3 minutes and stopping frequently for coffee, biscuits and engine cooling breaks.

Thank you Piran for the moral support. I was exceedingly nervous about getting the engine running again and about leaving the isolated but comfortable surroundings of the marina after such a long time so it was great not to have to tackle that by myself.

Happily, we reached Cowley Lock without incident just before losing daylight. And there was a mooring spot just past the bridge and a very short walk from the Malt Shovel pub, which sits right beside the lock and served us several very nice celebratory pints.

The next day I puttered the last mile down the canal to moor across from the boat centre, all ready for the big event the following Saturday, when I steered my little boat into the slipway, cut the engine, and watched while two men pulled heavy slings under it and hook it up to a large green crane. And then this happened!

It was really unnatural.

And that’s how the boat sits now: high and dry for the first time since 2015.

With the boat out of the water I realised it was my opportunity to get the engine bilge properly dried out. (Quick reminder - the bilge is the lowest part of the boat, in this case the whole area under the back deck where the engine is installed.) In a newer boat the deck hatches covering the engine would seal out all the weather, supported by properly angled, self-draining steel channel that smoothly directs rainwater to the sides of the boat, where it can then escape out the scuppers. (Aside: I love that I just got to write a sentence that includes the word scuppers!) The Lucky Nickel has scuppers, but they don’t get much of a workout because the channel steel of the deck structure is bent and rusty and basically knackered, meaning that rainwater finds its way through the deck and accumulates in the bilge. (Also meaning that those bits of channel that support the deck are rusting and flaking away to such an extent that the upper edges have basically turned into jagged knives, meaning that when climbing in and out of the bilge - something I do with disheartening frequency - I have to be very careful not to allow a foot to slip and shin to land on said edges. I’m pretty sure I have scars to illustrate the inadvisability of this occurrence.)

Adding to the problem is the fact that engine overheating causes the pressure cap to release and expel water forcefully out into the bilges, as I mentioned. And even with the fancy Lucky Nickel Coolant Refilling System (patent pending), there is always a bit of spillover into the bilge during frequent refills. Oh, and the stern gland of the boat is also becoming quite leaky too, because the bearing is shot. So leaky deck, plus explosive expulsion, plus drippy refilling, plus leaky stern gland equals a LOT of water in the Bilge. Or at least there was a lot of water in the bilge, until I spent a few hours one Sunday afternoon vacuuming it out and carefully decanting it into large plastic jugs so it can be taken away by people who properly deal with water that has stewed for months along with a good measure of motor oil, diesel and antifreeze. All 140 litres of it. My much-abused, long-suffering shop-vac will never be the same.

Sadly, vacuuming up water was not the end of the project. In order to protect what steel is left in the hull of the boat it needed the same treatment that the cabin bilge got after I discovered the horror show of rust under the kitchen floorboards. That meant scraping out all the large loose bits of scaly rust, and then getting in with a wire brush attachment on a cordless drill to try to get even more out, and then vacuuming up the results. Then there’s the degreasing, and then the rinsing, and then the application of a special anti-rust treatment, which has to be left to dry thoroughly for many days before you can finally go in with heavy duty bilge paint. (And can I just pause here for a minute and ask, for the love of God, how long will it take autocorrect to understand that when I type bilge I genuinely mean BILGE and not BIKE? A thousand times? A million? Can I please just send Apple some MORE of my money and get this fixed??)

If that all sounds like a tedious process to you, then you are obviously an Astute Go Stay Work Play Live reader, but you still don’t know the half of it, sweetheart. As with everything on the boat, it’s not that simple. To start with, the engine bilge is divided into sections by the steel structure that holds the boat together, meaning you kind of have to tackle each stage separately for each section. In some cases this isn’t too bad, but in some sections the access is, shall we say... restricted. For one thing, there’s a rather large diesel engine taking up a lot of space. And there’s the diesel tank and the two cursed skin tanks and the six large batteries and the propellor shaft and the exhaust pipe wrapped in extra-itchy fibreglass insulation, and a merry assortment of wires, hoses, cables, ballast, and other crap all of which makes reaching some areas challenging indeed. Also, it is a trifle mucky down in the engine bilge because every possible surface you come in contact with is coated in a layer of grease and dirt.

What this meant, in practise, is that I spent two mornings pretzeling myself into the most ridiculous and uncomfortable positions imaginable in order to reach the eight different bilge compartments at least six or seven times each. It was like doing yoga in a dumpster for six hours while being pelted with the contents of a Screwfix catalogue. There was once, when I’d threaded myself alongside the alternator with a greasy wiring harness in my hair, copies of the Evening Standard duct taped to my legs as primitive shin pads, and at least eleven redundant wiring clips making divots in my right buttock when I seriously questioned the life choices that led me to that moment. Then I extricated myself to stagger over to the boatyard chandlery to pick up ANOTHER roll of rags and realised I looked like some kind of unholy cross between a bag lady and a Victorian chimney sweep, complete with Central Casting style black smudges on my face. Let’s just say that those instructions on the back of shampoo bottles that encourage you to “wet hair, later, rinse, REPEAT” where followed assiduously when I finally hit the shower later that day.

I’ve now just returned from what I hope will be my last dumpster yoga session for quite some time, having spent a few hours of Saturday applying a coat of paint to the bilge - at long last! Though of course not before tightening up a leaking connection from the diesel tank that managed to drip onto my formerly nice dry bilges, requiring a bit more cleanup before I could start. Because this boat will not stop defying me.

By now, 1900+ words in, your coffee is cold and you may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned anything about the actual work that precipitated this whole business - the skin tanks. Because that work hasn’t even started yet, meaning I’m homeless for another few weeks, and there’s more boat blogging to come. Until then stay tuned, and don't get any big ideas, because I've already registered the domain for Coming soon to a strip mall near you.

Kirkaldy Testing Museum

Sunday, February 17, 2019

I recently got to spend a cold but sunny Sunday on a little jaunt that absolutely perfectly occupied the sweet spot in the Venn diagram of “Quirky London Sites” and “Things that interest Pam” and “Things that are bloggable” - a visit to the Kirkaldy Testing Museum.

Hidden in plain site on Southwark Street, just a block from the Tate Modern.

David Kirkaldy was a Scottish-born engineer who pioneered the science and practice of methodical materials testing by establishing the first ever independent testing works to determine the strength of the new materials available to Victorian engineers - mostly cast and wrought iron. This was incredibly important because iron as a construction material is part of what fuelled the Industrial Revolution (along with mechanisation, steam power, and a ready supply shoeless orphans to dart around in all the shiny new mangling devices.)

The pediment above the former main entrance to the testing works.

Kirkaldy’s testing works opened in 1866 in a location close to the current site in Southwark. The engineer then later designed his giant hydraulic “Universal Testing Machine" for evaluating different materials in tension or compression, had it built in Leeds, and installed it in a new purpose-built building where it’s still located today. (Mercifully, it’s very much built into the Grade 2 listed property so it would have been difficult to remove anyway. Plus it’s more than 47 feet long, so it’s not like a vandal could have just slipped it into his pocket.) The testing works opened on January 1, 1874 and ran for close to a hundred years, headed by two more generations of Kirkaldy engineers, David’s son and grandson. And along with routine testing of the countless links and bars and columns and beams that built the modern world, Kirkaldy conducted forensic testing on failed structural elements, such as those from the infamous Tay Bridge Disaster. He also continued developing new machines and techniques for analysing materials, and the works received test specimens from around the world.

Luckily, after the works closed the site was recognised by members of the Greater London Industrial Archeological Society, who helped get it listed for preservation. (And can I just say that discovering the existence of the Greater London Industrial Archeological Society was one of the best things about my day? How can they have escaped my detection for so long?) Thanks in part to their intervention, Kirkaldy's works have been a museum since 1983, and it's now open to the public on the first Sunday of every month, staffed with volunteers (much like the poor Kew Museum of Water and Steam which Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will doubtless remember). A visit costs a mere £5 and for that you get a guided tour of the museum’s collection of vintage testing machines and - more excitingly - a live demonstration of some of them.

My guide was a small boiler-suited and bespectacled man who first showed us an introductory video in the basement of the building, and then a few of the smaller machines they keep.

Like these pendulum impact testing machines, which, as any fool can see, are scientifically designed devices for whacking things in a very precise manner and measuring how much energy they absorb when they break.

They also have an impressive collection of small moulds for making concrete test pieces, which are shaped like dog bones and used for testing the tensile strength of concrete by pulling the dogbones apart. They’re shaped like dogbones so that the machine has something to grab and so that the bit you grab is larger that the bit you’re testing, so you can be reasonably confident that the test pice will break in the right place and the results will be properly consistent.

This machine slowly adds lead shot to one side of a set of balances, while the other side pulls on the dogbone. When the sample piece breaks, the flow of shot is cut off and then weighed to determine the breaking point of the concrete.

They also make plain cubes for testing concrete's resistance to compression. Of course concrete is massively stronger in compression than in tension, which is why steel reinforcing is added to most modern concrete structures to increase their tensile strength.

Along with the surprising discovery of the Greater London Industrial Archeological Society, I learned another amazing thing at the Kirkaldy Testing Museum. As recently as 1977, an organisation called the London Hydraulic Power Company supplied high pressure water for hydraulic powered devices to businesses all over London, on both sides of the Thames, through a network of more than 150 miles of cast iron and steel pipes. Before it was established in the late 19th century, companies that wanted to power machinery hydraulically had to run and maintain their own boilers, often also needing to employ large accumulator towers for storing the energy they produced. With the establishment of the London Hydraulic Power Company, pipes ranging in diameter from 2” to 10” eventually stretched from Kensington to the Docklands, powering cranes, lifts, presses and other machinery of all kinds including, of course, Kirkaldy's large testing machine. At Kirkaldy’s they also employed a hydraulic intensifier to take the operating pressure up to an impressive 4,500 PSI.
"Hydraulic power raised the curtain at the Royal Opera House, rotated the turntable at the Coliseum, raised lifts at the Bank of England (and thousands of other offices and flats) and opened dock gates on the Thames. In its heyday the company's hundreds of workers pushed out up to 30 million gallons a week at 850 pounds per square inch from its six pumping stations.” From Subterranea Britannica
Once electric motors became established as a means of powering machinery, the need for the system waned and it was eventually closed down completely in 1977. However, a clever group acquired the assets of the company in 1981, recognising the value of the vast system of pipes. Those same conduits are now used to run fibre-optic cables through the heart of London. And I just think that whole thing is fucking fantastic.

A map of the LHPC network unceremoniously displayed in the basement of Kirkaldy’s

After viewing the impact tester, and the dogbone puller and a few other things like a 40’ long chain testing machine, we got to move upstairs and actually use one of the smaller devices to pull apart a piece of the devilish reinforced plastic strapping that gets wrapped around heavy pallets or packages and secured with those funny metal clips.

The tension mounts. Literally.

Of course the main reason to visit Kirkaldy’s Testing Museum is to see the big machine in action, which you can do if you stick around until 2pm on an open Sunday. (Or, happily, if you take in the other displays and then decamp to a nearby coffeeshop for a caffeine hit and a nice pain au chocolate and then return at 2pm.) I stationed myself with a good view of the area and watched while the grey-haired volunteers prepared the machine to rip apart a rusty steel bar cut out of an old street grate reclaimed from outside the building.

There was even one woman on the crew, which is very unusual in my experience. Here she is setting the moving end of the machine to the right position to accept the steel bar.

The hydraulics in the machine only work in one direction, meaning that the hydraulic ram has to be returned to its starting position by heavy counterweight in the basement. Switching the machine from pulling mode (tension) to crushing mode (compression) is quite labour intensive, so we only saw pulling mode. Also crushing mode tends to produce flying debris that is not conducive to public participation.

Once the carriage was in position another volunteer climbed into the machine to set the tiny steel bar into place. As I mentioned before, test pieces are normally shaped to give something for the clamps to grab, but in this case the bar was simply wedged with a series of tapered steel pieces banged in with a large sledgehammer. Nearby displayed showed lots of different wedges used for this purpose.

At the other end of the machine there's a large horizontal arm connected to the measuring part of the device, which consists of a balance arm and a series of counterweights. As the cylinder moves, the arm swings and transmits movement to the balance. The machine operator then slowly winds a gear that moves a counterbalancing weight to keep the big balance arm level, which simultaneously moves a pointer along a marked scale showing the pressure the machine is exerting. Once the sample breaks, the indicated measure can be noted. Or, if the sample is being proof tested, the pressure in the machine can be increased to that proof load to test that the material is adequate. Two out of every fifty of the giant links that make up the suspension chains in the Hammersmith Bridge were tested this way by that very machine.

Here’s the day’s operator gesticulating near the controls for the balance arm.

Our little test piece was about half an inch thick and two inches wide. And though it was impossible to perceive the movement of the cylinder as the test proceeded, there came a point when little flakes of old paint and rust began to fall off the test piece onto a sheet of clean white paper underneath. The volunteer running test then said, “We’re inconveniencing the material” which I thought was a masterfully understated way of putting it, considering that a machine capable of exerting loads up to one million pounds of pressure was, at that moment, attempting to rip apart the chemical bonds inside that poor little piece of metal.

Eventually the piece broke, after yielding about two inches. Disappointingly the break occurred inside the clamping jaws, so there was no big aha! moment. They did, however, manage to get the pieces out of the clamps, and passed them around.

It’s also possible to tour a part of the testing works office, which was quite lovely. There was a large glass fronted wooden bookcase absolutely filled with proper engineering books with titles like The Mechanical Testing of Metals and Alloys, Hydraulic Power Engineering, History of Strengths of Materials, and that classic page-turner, Theory of Elastic Stability. There were also framed copies of Kipling’s Hymn of Breaking Strain and a large framed copy of David Kirkaldy's obituary, published in The Engineer on February 5, 1867.

This is just the first paragraph, but it's appropriately laudatory.

It’s really not over-egging things, this obituary. David Kirkaldy made a remarkable and unique contribution to the modern built environment. He was methodical, meticulous and, above all, scrupulously honest. To run a completely independent and unbiased testing works, free from outside influence, was absolutely vital to the safe development of all kinds of structures, which of course qualifies him for the Go Stay Work Play Live Hall of Heroes, where he takes up a position alongside Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Joseph BazagettteHarry Beck, Captain Picard, and whatever genius it was who invented sticky toffee pudding.

Meringue, humidity, and chocolate ganache

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Yes, it’s been a while. I’m very aware that the last time I blogged was two months and three countries ago. Sorry, but sometimes life just gets in the way even when I’m not elbow-deep in a work project in a far-off land. And sometimes I just need a while to get back into the swing of things. (Also, I've been blogging for more than decade now, so cut me some slack, eh?) Having been away from London for 39 of the 52 weeks in 2018, I’ve mostly just been enjoying being back and puttering on the boat. I’m also getting a new show started. Oh, and I celebrated a pretty big birthday, which I did in fine fashion with a visit from my best friend Karen.

After the resounding success of our Prague trip, Karen and I decided to have another vacation-within-a-vacation, this time by catching the Eurostar to Paris for a long weekend. We managed to fill our time there very usefully, mostly with equal portions of walking and cheese, reasoning that if you’re racking up 14km per day on your feet then by God there had better be cheese at the beginning, middle and end.

Karen and the Cheese Plate to Rule Them All. (Clarifying note: This cheese was not all just for us. The giant platter was simply moved from table to table in the restaurant as each set of diners reached the appropriate point in the meal. The procedure was to slice off pieces of whatever cheeses looked enticing (ie: all, especially the one covered in raisins and the super stinky runny one), and then the waiter would take the whole platter to the next people. Such a good system.)

In between cheese plates we fit in a few galleries, some casual sightseeing, a bit of shopping and some long distance viewing of inchoate gilets jaune protests, complete with armoured cars and mounted police. One highlight was a long stroll through the Bastille Market on Sunday morning, which was very conveniently located near our AirBnB, and where we bought the ingredients for an amazing lunch. Also where it’s possible we may have got hot sauerkraut and sausages as a snack to fortify ourselves so we could power through the cheese, charcuterie and token vegetable purchases to come.

Waiting for the sausages

But one of our main activities in Paris was a class in baking macarons. (Another from the increasingly varied list AirBnb experiences, similar to the one Karen and I did in Prague.) For those who have not had the pleasure of encountering a French macaron, I pity you. They’re a lovely sweet treat made up of two meringue biscuits that sandwich ganache or jam or buttercream icing. The meringue shell manages to be both ethereally light in the crust and satisfyingly chewy on the base, and they’re usually made in a rainbow of bright colours matching the flavour, most of which is in the filling, though sometimes the meringue also has a subtle flavour. Popular offerings are vanilla, chocolate, fruit, pistachio and coffee, with more outrĂ© forays into matcha, rose, liquorice and even sea buckthorn. (Mon Dieu!)

In a first for this blog series, we’re repeating a photo! This is an encore presentation from back in 2011. Good grief, I’ve been blogging for a loooong time...

Our lesson started a bit too early in the morning for people who were on vacation, but we mitigated the earliness of the hour with a pitstop at the local bakery (Bien sur!) while en route to the apartment near Bastille where the class took place. There we met our host Nomar, who turned out to be from Venezuela, which seemed a bit odd considering we were in Paris to learn about one of the most iconic French delicacies. Then again, she was clearly the most experienced macaron-maker in the room, so we followed the instructions, even when they raised a few eyebrows, as we shall see.

The set-up, ready to go.

Nomar and her partners run a few different classes, including ones for crepes, chouquettes - another classic French treat that’s basically small balls of choux pastry covered in chunky sugar - and even one on traditional Venezuelan arepas. But our plan was to make classic chocolate macaron filled with ganache, so the first task was the ganache. I’ve seen this done countless times on The Great British Bake Off - enough to know that it looks simple, but also enough to know that anything to do with chocolate can be fiendishly fickle. There are traditionally just two ingredients that make up ganache: good quality chocolate added to hot cream, though it’s sometimes made even more shiny and gorgeous by adding butter (because: France!). However, Nomar’s method was a bit different - starting by melting the chocolate alone on double boiler on a very very very low heat (judging by the time it took I think it was only slightly above body temperature). Once the chocolate was finally ready, she incorporated the cream with a technique that involved pressing the back of a rubber scraper/spatula (let’s not get into that, ok?) into the mix and sort of mushing it together, as opposed to simply stirring. I’m sure she had her reasons, but it did seem odd. And it did actually result in the ganache splitting. (For the uninitiated splitting or breaking is what happens when the oils in the chocolate separate out leaving the ganache uneven, gritty and unusable.)

Nomar was ready to start a fresh batch of ganache, because only once in her experience had a course participant managed to bring split ganache back from the dead. However, your humble blogger was undaunted. So while Nomar measured out the chocolate again and cranked the stove back up to 98.6 degrees, I had a go at the split ganache by simply whisking the hell out of it for a few minutes. This was completely successful, so that new qualification is now going straight into my online dating profile: Meet Pam - inconsistent blogger, International Woman and Mystery, and Ganache Whisperer.

Next stop: meringue (also notoriously skittish). There are two meringue options available for the macaron chef - French and Italian. Obviously any Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Reader knows the difference, but humour me while I pad things out with a quick explanation. French meringue is made by whipping egg whites to a stiff peak and then carefully adding sugar. The beaten eggs therefore remain uncooked until the meringue is baked. French meringue is apparently a bit airier but more fragile than its cousin, Italian meringue, wherein the eggs are whipped first and then the sugar is added as molten syrup, thus cooking the meringue as it forms. Italian meringue is supposedly a bit tougher, and it doesn’t require additional cooking before it’s safe to eat. (There’s also Swiss version where the sugar and eggs are heated together and then beaten. It’s all explained here.) Nomar chose Italian meringue, which involved making the sugar syrup on the stove while the Ganache Whisperer tried her hand at beating egg whites. Sadly, the results were less than spectacular.

Two attempts at Italian meringue, both failures.

Popular myth is that it’s tricky to make meringue on a rainy day, so perhaps we can put that down as the reason why two different bids with a hand mixer resulted in bowls of white gloop instead of perky meringue.

It wasn’t until Nomar broke out the big KitchenAid mixer that we managed to tame the meringue and add a flash of bright pink to highlight our eventual success.

Next we combined the meringue with a mix of ground almond and sugar into the final batter for the meringue shells (that’s all that’s in macaron shells - ground almond, egg, meringue and colouring). Again, there was an odd pressing/mixing technique that looked well-designed for knocking air out of meringue, which didn’t really seem like the point. Nonetheless, we ended up with something that went into a piping bag and then onto a specially marked silicone baking sheet.

Action shot!

The tray of shells went into the oven for what turned out to be an unexpectedly long time, and I ended up having to rescue the ganache again, since it stiffened up considerably while we faffed with the meringue.

The Ganache Whisperer, Part Two

Luckily, while we waited for the shells to come out of the oven and cool a bit, there were a few distractions.

Like this.

And this!

Eventually, everything was ready for final assembly and managed to put together a plate of quite decent looking chocolate macarons. To be completely honest, the flavour and texture were not up to the standards of Ladurée, but for a first attempt on a rainy day I thought they were not bad.

Yes, there are a few wonky ones. But they all tasted the same with pink champagne.

We each left with a small package of our own macarons. And we left with directions on how to get to the specialist baking shop where they sold little jars of the powdered colour used to tint the meringue shells, which Karen bought in six shades and schlepped back to Canada. She’s also got one of the specially marked silicone baking mats on order, and claims she’s got all the other ingredients too, so no more excuses!

The successful patisseurs. Next stop: Lunch!

So that was the macaron lesson. It was a fun way to spend the morning. And though we had some issues, we certainly left with a lot more practical knowledge about the intricacies of the process than we had when we went in. I’m expecting insta-worthy photos of homemade macarons (in at least six colours) from Karen any minute now. I, meanwhile, will be squandering my ganache talents and concentrating on fixing the latest leak in the boat engine cooling system and getting ready to take the Lucky Nickel out of the marina and back onto the towpath en route to some much more extensive mechanical work that involves actually taking the boat out of the water.

What could possibly go wrong?

The Louvre Abu Dhabi

Sunday, November 25, 2018

In between working and battling stroppy appliances I've had a bit of time here in the Emirates to be a tourist. So at the first opportunity I found my way to the recently opened Louvre Abu Dhabi.

This is a peek at the building. (Thank you to Francisco Anzola, who’s a much better photographer than me.)

It’s a bit odd to find an outpost of the famed Louvre Gallery here in the desert but the two museums are actually entirely separate entities. They're linked by a $525 million dollar branding agreement that allows the Emirates institution to use the Louvre name for 30 years, with further $747 million spent for “art loans, special exhibitions and management advice. And that’s just for the name and a bit of what’s inside. The other part of this equation is the building itself, which is frankly magnificent. I went with friend and colleague Mika, who, before I stole him away to join the ceremonies circus, was an unsuspecting architecture graduate in Baku. We were both more interested in the building than its contents, but dutifully took in a large percentage of the collection.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi is billed as a museum of art and civilisations (apparently that S at the end is important), so it has galleries for temporary exhibitions of artwork, but also has a permanent collection of historical artefacts arranged in twelve interconnected rooms starting with prehistory and speeding through the entirety of human existence up to the contemporary era. The most modern of the galleries were closed for re-fit when Mika and I visited, but to tell the truth we didn’t make it past about Room 6 before bailing out for coffee and pastry. Along the way I enjoyed the Egyptian room, which has a very nice sarcophagus. And I loved that a display of stained glass showed not just the front side, meant for viewing, but also the back of the piece, revealing charming curls of lead securing the glass to the supporting frame.

I’m sure the front of this was delightful; sorry I neglected to take a picture of that. I’m sure Francisco would not have been so thoughtless.

But I just found this too fantastic

We also spent a good chunk of time in a temporary exhibition of Japanese prints, and a really fun display about Japanese manga comics (which former Go See Run Eat Drink readers will recall from many many moons ago). That gallery let us colour in the walls!

Me working hard at staying between the lines.

And they had interactive virtual reality goggles you could wear to “enter” some traditional Japanese woodcuts. We both chose a print of a boat on water with a range of mountains in the background. It was surprisingly immersive and impressive.

Mika on the boat, turning around to discover there’s another passenger behind him!

So we did take in the artwork at the Louvre, but that’s really not why we went. We went for the building. Because of this:

That dome is unbelievable. (And of course I didn’t take this photo either, because I'm not travelling with my own drone, jetpack or private helicopter.)

The design of the whole building is fantastic. As you can see, the galleries are a series of 55 smaller, almost discrete buildings arranged a bit like an Arabic souk with alleyways between them. The whole arrangement is completely surrounded by the sea, and the top is capped by that magnificent dome - 180 metres in diameter (almost 600 feet) and weighing in at 7,000 tonnes. (Articles about the dome inevitably mention that the weight is almost equivalent to the weight of the Eiffel Tower.) The entire dome is supported in only four places and appears to float over the “souk" giving cover to the buildings below, which are essentially outdoors, but still sheltered. The entire arrangement is completely beguiling but it’s the dome that makes it spectacular. It’s not simply that the structure is big, it’s that the roof is composed of eight separate layers of perforations shaped like eight pointed stars in different scales. Each layer filters the light, and as the sun moves across the sky the points of light that reach through shift and change creating what’s often described as a “rain of light”.

Astonishing. On the day we visited it was a bit cloudy so we only got the full effect in the brief moments when the sun broke through, but it was still breathtaking.

French architect Jean Nouvel designed the building and has said that "Sometimes, in the solar noon, the brightness is so dense that it looks like light stalactites are piercing the dome.” Walking under the roof among the galleries and alleyways is exceedingly pleasant. In a climate like this where the temperature right now - in winter - often reaches 36 degrees celsius, indoor spaces are frequently overly air-conditioned. (This sometimes creates the odd effect of having your glasses steam up when going outside, an unsettling reversal for someone who grew up in Canada.) The indoor galleries of the Louvre Abu Dhabi are also air-conditioned but under the dome, while you’re still technically outside in the true climate of the region, the breeze from the sea and the shade from the roof make it temperate, and while I’d never describe it as cool it does feel right. (To be clear, it is NEVER cool in Abu Dhabi. The overnight lows right now hover around 24 degrees and in the summer it gets into the high 40s. Basically, the sun is trying to kill you.)

Here’s a small taste of that stalactite action Jean was talking about.

Naturally, Mika and I were both fascinated by the design and engineering of the roof. As we stared up at it Mika, who actually went to school for this stuff, told me about a professor he had who dated from the Soviet era. This professor was a bit hidebound and taught his students, with unwavering certainty, that any structure must have a supporting column every six metres. No matter what. Every six metres. Which in the case of the Louvre’s dome would have resulted in a close to a hundred support columns around the perimeter as opposed to, er... FOUR. Luckily, no one called that guy to build the place, since he is clearly a twit.

We stared for a long time but couldn’t see how the repeated pattern managed to curve to the shape. Actually, we couldn’t even see the eight different layers. The whole effect was mind-blowing.

The site for the building is the formerly-mostly-abandoned island of Saadiyat near the port of Abu Dhabi. It was in there, in 2007, and long before anyone started building support columns and galleries and domes, that a huge sand wall was constructed to hold back the waters of the Arabian Gulf while the museum's foundations were laid. Pumps ran 24 hours hours a day for years during construction expelling the seawater that seeped through the wall. This went on even during an almost two year hiatus resulting from the worldwide economic slump and resulting drop in the price of oil. When construction resumed engineers and builders installed a waterproof membrane around the entire foundation, which sits as much as 10 metres below sea level, and fitted every one of the 4500 concrete supports for the building with cathodic protection to prevent the concrete from corroding in the seawater. (Hands up everyone who knew concrete can corrode?)

Throughout construction the seawall held back the water as if the entire building was in dry dock and the partially completed dome was held up by a forest of temporary supports strategically places around the galleries below. But eventually the pumps were turned off and water was allowed to reclaim the land surrounding the museum. There’s a really good article about the construction here, which I highly recommend even if you just skip to the short video that shows time lapse footage of various areas of the build site as they’re cleared of equipment and gradually flooded.

And that’s the other remarkable part of Jean Nouvel’s design - the water. It’s always there as you walk around under the dome. There are views out to the sea, and small, almost private spots where you turn a corner and find another unexpected bit of water. The sea doesn’t just surround the museum, it’s part of the place.

You can walk all the way down to the water in some areas. In others there are raised platforms that are completely surrounded, and in other spots what look like man-made tidal pools.

And every where you get views out to the sea. It truly is an island, with just three ways on and off. Look at it on Google Earth and you’ll see what I mean.

Saadiyat Island is very big. I mean it’s not exactly Baffin Island or anything, but there’s still a LOT of space to fill. Plans call for it to become a cultural centre, including a Guggenheim Abu Dhabi designed by Frank Gehry and the Zayed National Museum, along with a maritime museum, arts centre, schools and a residential community. So far though, it’s still mostly sand.

Mika and I thoroughly enjoyed the Louvre Abu Dhabi, but I also enjoyed the quiet evening at home that followed. Since then I've done a little bit more sightseeing, but work is catching up with me and the days are long. Mostly what I want to do in my small bits of down time is sit on the couch or on the beach, because it feels like a long haul since I left my frozen little boat last February and I'm getting a bit weary. I'm very much looking forward to getting this job done and being home - all of my different homes, that is - in time for Christmas.