Sunday, 29 January 2017

New Year, New Plan

Alex decided recently that we shouldn't use the word 'plan' to describe what we hope to do next, as it always changes. Instead, we should use the term 'idea' in order to convey the fact that it may not happen. I think he may be onto something there, as already our idea for how 2017 might pan out has changed dramatically.

Beth''s first Christmas was spent in Normandy with the Mitchells,
in an Airbnb as opposed to on our boat.

2016 came to an end with us not completing the rudder in time to cross the Channel, so we left the partially constructed frame in Somerset and hopped on a ferry to Dieppe. We enjoyed a much needed Christmas break, staying in various Airbnbs around Normandy with Alex's family and friends, before returning to Bursledon in the New Year. After a couple of days back home on the cold, damp boat, we were feeling pretty deflated, to say the least. It was such a depressing feeling, because we have always loved living on boats, and every previous boat has really felt like home and been perfectly habitable, even during winter. Neither of us liked the fact that we now dreaded coming back home, as the living conditions were so dismal.

We spent three nights in this little caravan insulated with straw bales,
which was perfect for us. A nice small space with no leaks!

We planned to go back to Somerset mid-January to complete the rudder, and in the meantime tried to gather the motivation to get some work done on the boat. It took me all of two days to formulate a new idea, which was very well received by Alex, and we set about putting this new idea in motion. The idea was based upon the fact that our aim in life is to enjoy ourselves, and we were definitely not doing so in our current situation. I put it to Alex that we might as well cover the boat up and leave her for a few months, heading to London to work and earn some much-needed cash. This way, we would be able to avoid spending the rest of winter aboard our unfinished vessel and, instead, could return to her later in the year, when the days would be longer, the weather warmer and our bank accounts replenished. The new idea was a big hit, and so we got to work making the boat weathertight, before packing up and getting out of there as fast as possible!

New Year's was spent with a load of Alex's friends, in a big old farmhouse with an open fire.
We ate like kings and had a wonderful time, which made returning to the boat even harder.

We stuck to our plan to head to Somerset, as Alex was looking forward to continuing work on the rudder and we were also looking forward to seeing my parents. Sadly, my Nan passed away unexpectedly just a few days before we arrived, peacefully at the good old age of 93, but it was still a reminder that you never know when your time is up, which is why it's important to make the most of life. We were glad to be with my parents at this difficult time, supporting them as much as possible and, of course, having Beth around was a welcome distraction. We also celebrated "Fake Christmas" whilst in Somerset, having not seen my parents over the real Christmas period. Having committed to a plant-based diet as our New Year's resolution, Alex and I made a delicious nut roast for Fake Christmas lunch, which everyone enjoyed.

"Fake Christmas" lunch with the Shepherds and my Aunt Susan.
I hope Beth doesn't start to think that Christmas is a monthly occurrence...

Following the festivities, Alex got cracking with the rudder and did a sterling job of finishing the stainless steel frame. Sadly, we weren't able to progress to the next stage of gluing and fibreglassing the rudder, due to the weather. With temperatures hovering around zero, and a minimum working temperature of 5°C for the epoxy resin, we weren't keen to repeat our experiences from the aft cabin work. Working with cold epoxy seems to be much more difficult due to its decreased viscosity, which results in larger quantities being used and lots of stress when trying to get a good finish. We decided that, given we wouldn't be fitting the rudder again until at least May, we might as well wait another couple of months and finish the construction when the weather is warmer.

Alex with the finished rudder frame. Now we just need to cover the
metal 'tangs' in marine ply, fibreglass and paint it. 

The day after my Nan's funeral, we drove to London via the boat, to collect our living essentials ready for the few months we'd be away. I find it quite frustrating that we can easily get by with so few belongings that we can fit in a Fiat 500 hire car, yet for some reason we own enough to fill a 45 foot boat. I wonder if it's due to our consumerist society that we feel the need to fill the space we live in, or whether it's just human nature. Did our ancestors fill their caves with a plethora of rocks, bones, sticks and stones or anything else they found that might be visually appealing or potentiality useful, or did they enjoy a clutter-free existence, knowing that they would have to lug a load of replaceable crap to the next cave if they needed to move on?

My nan and Beth. She would not be pleased to see this photo that Alex
secretly took of her in December, as she had a phobia of being photographed.
Still, I think she looks pretty great for 93 and I'm so glad to have this picture.

Now, back in London, we have started preparing for the job hunt. LinkedIn profiles and CVs updated, we have decided that whoever gets the best contract can work and the other will stay at home and look after Beth. To be perfectly honest, I'd be happy doing either. I love writing code and would relish the chance to get back at it in a full time role, but I'm equally happy spending time with this fascinating little person we've created, who is changing so much day by day. Thankfully, Alex feels exactly the same and so it's really nice to know that, for the next few months, we will both be enjoying ourselves whichever way it goes. The plan has changed, as usual, but the aim is the same: enjoy life and be happy.

Back in London with the Mitchells...
 Uh oh, watch out Bertie - there's a new beast in town!

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Up The Hamble Without A Rudder

Last time we wrote anything about our boat, we were out in Portugal with Seahorse, starting work on the refit before going back to London for the birth of our first child. The bulk of the work we did was in the engine bay, in preparation for installing our brand new engine. It was filthy work, grinding the rusted steel back to bare metal, welding up any holes and then painting on primer. We were very happy with the quality of the work we had done, but realised that we had months (if not years) of work ahead of us, given our perfectionist tendencies and work rate. Having not even completed the engine bay or installed the new engine, we drove Reg (our Rover 75) back to London.

Work on Seahorse's engine bay was slow and filthy, and was only the tip of the iceberg.

A couple of weeks into life with our daughter Beth around, we came to the realisation that most people around us had probably already known for months; it was going to be completely impractical to attempt the major refit on Seahorse in a boatyard with a baby. Sure, it would be possible, if we took it in turns to work on our own down the yard whilst the other person looked after Beth elsewhere, but that didn't appeal to us at all. Neither of us wanted to miss out on any of this precious time with our new daughter, and we certainly didn't want to be without a proper home for all that time. We wanted Beth to grow up on a boat right from the word go, and a functional one at that. I began my search for a replacement for Seahorse, and we resigned ourselves to losing money in this exchange, as it would be difficult to find a buyer willing to undertake such a large project, let alone one willing to pay good money for the challenge.

We were determined that Beth should grow up on a boat,
hence us renting the yacht Anna-Maria whilst back in London for her birth.

With Beth one month old, and my new boat research in full swing, we went down to the south coast for the weekend to visit a few groups of good friends down there. One couple happened to be with their boat in a yard in Bursledon on the River Hamble, doing a refit themselves, so we were pleased to get the chance to pop in on them for a few hours. Whilst Alex was arranging this visit, he mentioned the fact that we were now looking for a new boat and our friend Warren excitedly mentioned that he thought that the perfect boat for us was moored astern of them at the yard. It was, apparently, a 40ft ferro-cement ketch ready for sea with just a bit of sprucing up to do beforehand. Now, 40ft was much larger than we were planning on getting - my searches were for up to 37ft, and we were also looking for steel. We had found plenty available in the Netherlands, but hadn't organised any viewings at that stage. So, with nothing to lose, we agreed to view this yacht out of interest, whilst we were in the area.

We were pleased to have found such a sturdy yacht that we could move
straight onto and was "ready to go" sailing - it felt like fate!

Over the next couple of days prior to our visit, this yacht grew from 40ft to 42ft in email communications, then upon arrival we discovered she was actually 45ft. Warren had not wanted to disclose this fact beforehand, as he knew that we would not be willing to view a boat so big. We laughed at how well he knew us, as this was definitely the case - we would never have considered such a large vessel. Anyhow, now we were there, she looked very nice from the pontoon and so Warren arranged for the owner to come and show us around below decks. She was very well equipped, incredibly spacious and Alex was immediately taken with her stowage capacity, especially her 1000 litre water tank and 300 gallon diesel tank. We liked her, and although we were unsure of owning a ferro-cement hull, she had been built by an employee of Camper and Nicholsons (a well-respected boat builders) to a very high standard. We negotiated what we thought was a fair price with the owner, on the one condition that he got the engine working prior to sale. He had tried to start it for us, boasting that it started first time, every time, which of course it then didn't. We didn't really mind, as Alex suspected the solenoid contacts had corroded (the boat hadn't moved since at least last year) and would just need a clean. We could tell that the owner was a real gentleman and would be true to his word and, of course, we had Warren's recommendation that the boat was sound. The deal was done, and we left Bursledon rather excited about our spur-of-the-moment purchase.

Alex's birthday meal on the new boat, with his family. At this point,
we were blissfully unaware of the work that lay ahead of us!

We had plans over the following few weeks to visit friends and family with Beth, so it was almost a month before we returned to our new home. We loaded a hire car with our worldly belongings (well, the small amount that existed with us in the UK, that is) and headed excitedly down to Bursledon, via the owner's house near Andover, where we had a spot of lunch, transferred the remaining funds for the boat and collected bits and bobs that had been in his garage (such as varnished grab rails, sails, cushions, etc). Now in mid-August, the weather was warm and we were keen to remove the tarpaulins that had been covering the cabin tops, to open the hatches and let in the summer sunshine. Everything was peachy. Until the next night, when it rained. It soon became apparent that this boat was not at all watertight, and so I used every available rag, teatowel and bowl to catch drips and soak up puddles. I covered our duvet with a bin bag and a towel, to prevent the leaking hatch above our bunk from completely soaking our bedding. As you can imagine, this put a bit of a damper on our high spirits.

As much as I like mushrooms, I didn't fancy cultivating them in our aft cabin.
The sides were so rotten in some places that Alex was easily able to poke a screwdriver through 30mm of marine ply!

The next morning we wrung out towels, emptied bowls and properly inspected the cabin tops and hatches. We weren't so concerned with leaks from around hatches and portholes - this can be expected over time, and is usually fairly easily rectified by removing, resealing and reseating the leaking object. When we first moved onto Firebird, she had plenty of leaks from poorly sealed portholes and deck fittings, but once fixed we had a dry boat for the remaining years that we owned her. What concerned us more was the realisation that we had large sections of rot in parts of the cabin tops. Whilst the hull and decks were made of ferro-cement, the cabin tops were made from marine ply and these, on closer inspection, were in a bad way. This was a big blow for us, as we began to realise that we did not, in fact, have a boat that was ready to put to sea, but rather one that needed a fairly hefty amount of work in order to even be habitable.

All our possessions, boxed up and removed from Seahorse, ready for shipping
back to the UK. Sadly, this is all now in storage, costing us £65 a month!

By now, we had already booked flights to Portugal to pack up our belongings from Seahorse to ship back to the UK and attempt to sell the old girl, so there was little more we could do than put the tarpaulins back up and hope that they held the worst of the weather out for the month we were to be away. Packing up Seahorse was not an easy task, especially in the stifling Algarvian heat, but I enjoyed that month immensely. I think this was partly due to knowing that difficult times lay ahead on our return to our new boat, which made every worry-free second away from it even sweeter. We successfully loaded all our possessions onto a single pallet, and then tidied Seahorse as best we could in order to sell. We advertised her at the price of her brand new Beta engine, and hoped that someone would be happy to pay for an engine and get a boat for free. We had lots of interest and viewings from Portuguese buyers whilst we were there in Lagos, but eventually it was a lovely English chap who took her off our hands shortly after our return to London. It was a relief to have found a new owner for Seahorse, especially one who was planning to restore her and make her his home. Although, I have since found myself wondering on many an occasion whether we should have just kept her, saved ourselves the best part of 20 grand and at least had the pleasure of a refit in the warm Portuguese climate.

Beth and I were always on hand, to provide cups of tea, crisps, and ensure materials arrived on time.
Mike and Alex did the bulk of the hard work, starting early and finishing late in a race against the weather.

Early October, we found ourselves heading back down to Bursledon, ready to start work on the new boat. We asked our friend Mike if he fancied expanding his business and opening a marine division to help us with the aft cabin top. Thank goodness he agreed, as without his help I think we'd still be trying to remove the old cabin top. Mike came down for a week and worked with Alex on removing the entire aft cabin top, replacing it with sheets of brand new marine plywood. Beth and I took on the project management, ordering materials just in time for the boys to use them, and ensured they were well watered and fed. To be honest, I think Beth could have pulled her weight a bit more in all this... I often felt like I was carrying her, but luckily she is super cute so can get away with being pretty much useless at helping out. One week turned into four, as we were hit with delays due to bad weather (not so much rain but cold weather preventing materials from curing and drying properly) and we were eternally grateful to Mike and his family that he was able to spend the time away from home, helping us out.

I managed to take a break from project management to help install the new portholes.
The finished aft cabin top looks brilliant and, most importantly, doesn't leak.

During that period, we had to take the boat out of the water to clean and repaint the hull ready for our trip to France. Oh, sorry, did I forget to mention that we had invited Alex's family to spend Christmas on the boat with us in France? Ah, how blissfully unaware we were of our situation back in the summer... Now in mid-November, we still felt like we had a fighting chance of getting over there in time - we just needed to antifoul, finish the aft cabin, restep the mizzen mast (which was removed to facilitate the aft cabin refit) and get the rigging and sails ready. Simples. Until, that is, we found more issues with the boat. The first was the gearbox. It turned out that, whilst the previous owner had been true to his word and got the engine running prior to our purchase, nobody had thought to see if it would go in and out of gear, and it wouldn't. Never mind, we thought - hopefully a simple problem to fix when we get chance... Perhaps a seal or something. We paid the yard to tow us to the cradle, and came out of the water to discover another problem. The existing paint system had completely failed and was now trapping water against the hull. Rather than just a new coat of antifouling, we now needed to strip all the paint back to the concrete, which meant an extra week out of the water and a large bill for expensive marine paint. After a few gruelling days cleaning the hull, Alex stumbles upon the next big issue - the rudder is broken and useless. The metal stock had corroded right through, and turning the wheel no longer equated to moving the rudder. The Channel crossing was starting to slip away from us. A quote from the boatyard of £4000 to fix the rudder and a probable lead time of two months left us no option but to attempt to build one for ourselves. We removed the old one prior to putting the boat back in the water, and took it to my parents' garage in Somerset, which they kindly agreed to let us use as a workshop in which to build our replacement rudder.

Mike and Alex continued working hard on the boat whilst she was out of the water.
Alex had to cut the old rudder off before she went back into the water, to use as a template for making a new one.

And so, as it stands, we are stuck on a leaky (we have yet to fix the leaks in the forward cabin), oversized boat on the most expensive stretch of water in the UK, unable to move to a cheaper mooring due to the fact that, amongst other things, we have no rudder. Note to self: never buy a boat without taking it out for a sail, prior to parting with any hard-earned cash.

Alex enjoys the luxury of a makeshift workshop in my parents' garage,
whilst welding the stainless frame for our new rudder