An Art Gallery on a Boat? You Must be Mad! Part Twelve

These days we take the internet so much for granted. If I want to know how to do anything, I go to Google and YouTube and, so far, they have never failed me. Almost nothing need be a mystery. I have consulted the internet to show me how to repair my car, how to do work on the central heating system on my house and even, how to play my banjo, a 60th birthday present from the family (I bet they regret that one!). It takes only a matter of minutes to find anything. Admittedly, I doubt that DIY brain surgery is quite as well covered – but almost everything else is. I recently heard that there is a whole generation out there, who don’t remember a world without Google, let alone before the internet!

It is sobering to remember just how difficult it was to gain access to any form of specialised knowledge, back in the 1980s, or should I say ‘ back in The Olden Days!’

I needed to find information on how to insulate a boat effectively. Days were spent in the Central Library, trying to find answers. It could take hours just searching card indexes, trying to find which books might contain useful information. When I eventually did find the necessary books, they were completely contradictory. Some said insulate every square inch, others said insulate nothing at all, and there was every possible configuration between the two! The few that even mentioned vapour barriers, suggested putting them outside the insulation, but that just didn’t make any sense to me.

In the end, I ignored it all and tried to work it out logically for myself. I came to the conclusion that I should insulate the cavity between the steel hull and our inner lining. Then fit a vapour barrier behind the inner lining, but inside the insulation. I reasoned that the vapour barrier would be then at the internal temperature of the boat and so it shouldn’t cause condensation. If it was outside, any moisture that penetrated the insulation would not only reduce its efficiency as insulation, but also allow condensation to form on the vapour barrier which, being on the outside of the insulation, would be as cold as the steel hull, thus rendering it pointless.  We never had any condensation problems, so I guess I got it right.

The second problem was the mains electrical system. Even in those days, I could usually eventually find out from a book how to do something, but in the case of electrical systems, every book that I could find said the same thing, “Get a professional”. Well, we couldn’t afford to and that was that.

Then I had two lucky breaks. The first was when a friend lent me a book which explained household electrical circuits and how they worked. The second was meeting an electrician, whilst having dinner with friends. This chap was an absolute gem. He had the knack of explaining all the bits I still did not understand, in a clear and concise manner. Even better, his experience enabled him to understand exactly what would be required. Although, with the help of the book I had been lent, I was beginning to grasp the basics, designing a safe electrical system from scratch was still something of a tall order. Thanks to him, it all became clear. The most important advice he gave me, after I had explained the rough layout of our boat, was that I should run all the wiring from its entry point in the fo’csle, where the main switch and fusebox should be located, all the way back to the switches at the foot of the stairs and then back along the gallery for the lighting system. In this way, he explained, although it would require more cable, if there were any problems, they could only be at either end and would not require getting at junction boxes behind the panelling.

I installed the wiring with the book in one hand and a screwdriver in the other! As with the insulation, in the nine years we had the Glevum, it never gave us a single problem.

Insulation and floor

Insulation and floor

Our next major milestone was getting the floor laid. Walking on a real floor, after months and months of stepping from rib to rib (and often barking our shins when the boat was rocking and we missed our step) was sheer luxury. Another came with the building of the stairs: until this point access to and from the hold was by ladder.

Utter luxury - stairs!

Utter luxury – stairs!

It was now the end of the summer and all hopes of catching any summer trade when we opened were long gone. At the same time our budget was shrinking so rapidly that we could not afford to delay our opening until the following spring. We would just have to open as soon as possible and hope for the best.

One evening, two of our closest friends, Doug and Myrtle, invited us for a meal. Myrtle was a seamstress of the highest order and a talented artist. She also made applique pictures as a hobby . They asked if, when we opened, we might be interested in exhibiting some of Myrtle’s work. We explained that although we would happily do so, we had no idea of when we might be able to open, upon which they offered to help us finish the work, an offer we gratefully accepted.

Their commitment was amazing, they were there every day and, bringing fresh enthusiasm with them, were able to re-invigorate us. From here on in, with four of us working, progress was rapid and, in a short while, we were confident enough to set an opening day.

After much discussion, we decided on 24th of October, 1984. There was still much to do, but sometimes it is necessary to announce these things publicly and then one has no choice but to make sure everything is ready. I had been so busy with the barge for nearly a year, that I had very few paintings to show and so we would open with an exhibition of Myrtle’s applique work.

To be continued.

Next Post 6th September.

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An Art Gallery on a Boat? You Must be Mad! Part Eleven

An Unpleasant Diversion.

 

When we first arrived in the docks with the Glevum, the previous autumn, we had got chatting with a recently retired couple who had just sold their newsagents’ shop. Their names were Sid and Margaret. They had lived in the flat above the business, but had decided to retire and live a less stressful life after Margaret had suffered a heart attack. They had, for some years, had a pleasure cruiser, the Lady Helen, in the docks and were now living on that, with all their belongings in storage.

Sid was very taken with the Glevum, and especially impressed with the space available on a barge of that size. After a month or two, they were talking of buying a barge and converting it into a bed and breakfast establishment with a restaurant, hardly a stress-free retirement!

We did our best to point out all the drawbacks and emphasised just how much work would be involved. It seemed that the more we tried to dissuade them from the idea, the more enthusiastic Sid became. A month or two later, they arrived in the docks aboard the Wilclair, the motor-barge I had looked at in Bude, which they had just bought from Peter Herbert. Sid’s plans were to build upwards and have two decks. In the hold would be the sleeping cabins whilst on the upper deck would be a restaurant and kitchen and, atop of all that, would be an open sundeck with chairs and tables where, in good weather, afternoon tea could be served. The whole design would be based on a Mississippi steamboat.

Their progress was far more rapid than ours as they had something which we lacked – ample capital. Sadly, to me at least, the result of their efforts was hideous. The Wilclair, as a coasting barge, had been a beautifully proportioned vessel. The Wilclair, after conversion to what a layman thought a Mississippi paddle boat should look like, was a visual nightmare.

But they were so enthusiastic.

One day in August, I was in our wheelhouse making some coffee. My gaze ran down the quayside and along the moored boats until I got to the Wilclair. I was horrified to see thick black smoke belching out of the hold. I shouted to Kate and we grabbed buckets and ran down the quayside to see if we could help. Sid was standing on the quay looking stricken. He explained that he’d been using the oxy-acetylene torch to cut some pieces out of the hatches above the hold and a spark must have set fire to their belongings. They had moved everything into the hold to save money on storage. He ran off to find the nearest phone and ring the fire brigade.

Our buckets had ropes tied to them, so I ran around to the far side of the barge where I could haul water up from the dock to throw onto the fire. Sid’s wife Margaret was round there too. In the billowing smoke, she was trying to untie the mooring ropes of their cruiser which was tied up alongside. She shouted to me that there were gas bottles down in the fire! I got her to tell me roughly where they were and concentrated my efforts in that general area.

After a while, I could see flames through the smoke, but very little else. Then I heard the welcome sound of the sirens of the approaching fire engines. Fearing that they’d lose the Lady Helen as well, I stopped throwing water in and told Margaret who, in the smoke, was still struggling  to untie the mooring ropes, to get aboard, I quickly cast her off and gave the Lady Helen a hefty shove. Then I resumed hurling buckets of water into the smoke as fast as I could haul hem up. Sid had explained to the Fire Officer about the gas bottles in the fire and I then heard his command,

“IF THERE IS ANYONE ON THE BOAT, GET OFF – NOW!”

They also started evacuating the whole area. I called through the smoke to Margaret to start the Lady Helen’s engines and moor her alongside the Glevum and, just above the crackling of the flames, heard her call back that she didn’t know how to! There was only one option. I left my buckets on deck and took a flying leap through the smoke. Luckily, the Lady Helen hadn’t drifted too far out and I managed to scramble aboard rather than land in the water. I got one engine running – the other wouldn’t start, but one was enough to bring her under control and I motored the quarter of a mile or so up the dock and tied up alongside the Glevum. Having been excluded from the area of the Wilclair, Kate and Sid were already there.

By now, the fire crews were getting things under control and the smoke was beginning to subside. We tried to comfort Sid and Margaret as best we could, at least there hadn’t been an explosion, things could have been worse – but we had to admit, not much worse. Amongst their possessions that had been destroyed were all of Margaret’s family heirlooms and photographs. Her forebears had had distinguished careers in India and, as well as the photographs, there had been letters, citations and medals from Maharajas. they were all gone.

I must have looked a pretty sight, I was black with smoke and soot and, as I had been wearing thick socks with sandals, I found that the toes had completely burned off the socks!

This incident made Kate and me aware that not all boat owners were the ‘brotherhood of water gypsies’ as they liked to portray themselves. Rather than helping, the other boat owners had simple moved their boats out of harm’s way, and then watched the action from a safe distance. The only other people who had actually tried to help were passers-by!

The following day, we walked down to the Wilclair and looked at the smoke-blackened remains. The fire crews had done a brilliant job in averting a much worse disaster, but the charred remains of burnt carpets, bedding and wood, slopping about in a foot or so of water from the fire hoses, was as depressing a sight as there could be. The smell was even worse.

In spite of everything, Sid and Margaret were determined not to be beaten and announced that they would carry on. As Kate and I just aren’t the sort of people that can turn our backs on friends in need, we put the Glevum project on hold and pitched in with them. In about a fortnight we had filled several skips with charred, sodden rubbish and scrubbed the soot-blackened inside. They were ready to start again. We were even further behind!

Writing this, after a gap of thirty years, has set me thinking about this event and, in retrospect, I find myself having to revise my opinions, both of the people who simply moved their boats to safety and of my own actions.

Had the Glevum been closer, and in physical danger, I realise that I would have probably acted in the same way. Similarly, my actions that day were, in reality, utterly stupid. I actually achieved very little and, had the fire brigade not arrived when they did, our story could so easily have ended there and then!

To be continued.

Next Post 30th August

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Art Gallery on a Boat? You Must be Mad! Part Ten

Finally back on our mooring, we still had to insulate, install an electrical system, cut and fit portholes along the hatch coamings and in the hull, put doors into the bulkheads, build a staircase, panel the sides and install a floor; and then decorate it all!

No, we would not be open this summer.

 

As we had already overrun our deadline (and our budget to date) it became even more crucial that we save money wherever possible. We needed more timber and, by a stroke of luck, I heard that Mardon’s Printworks, the huge building between Redcliffe and Temple Meads, was being demolished. I visited the site and there, my years in the construction industry stood me in good stead. I could speak the language! A quiet word with the demolition foreman, a subtle backhander, and I was given permission to help myself to whatever I wanted. In a day, I had dismantled enough stud partitioning to fulfill our requirements and even got a curved steel guard-rail which was just the right size and shape to serve as an anchor davit. It was hard work but, compared with the cost of new timber, the cash that it had cost me was almost negligible.

 

Brass portholes were going to cost a small fortune (£60+ each). We couldn’t afford them. Instead, I found a company that rolled steel section into any shape required. I ordered one inch “T” section mild steel, rolled into 9″ and 12″ diameter rings, the smaller for the hatch coamings, the larger for the hull. These gave me an outer flange that could be welded to the hatch coamings and hull and an inner flange to provide a rebate into which my glass would fit. These cost £1.80 each, but still needed to be fitted. 

The welded joints in the hatches, that took so long to get done, were already leaking every time there was heavy rain!

In desperation, I had a word with Bill, my local car repair man. He was too busy to take on the work, but he assured me that it was a reasonably straightforward job to cut and weld steel. He suggested I buy a cheap arc welder from Exchange and Mart. He said the mask and accessories that came with the welder, would be useless and should be replaced with good stuff, but that the unit itself should be perfectly adequate for our needs. He also offered to lend me the oxy-acetylene cutting gear that I would need.

One of the portholes in the foc'sle, awaiting glass

One of the portholes in the foc’sle, awaiting glass

He was as good as his word and brought it down to the barge in his truck. After ten minutes, practising under his supervision, he left me to it. It was actually not too difficult and before long I had all the portholes fitted. In my enthusiasm, I began welding stanchions, mast fittings, the anchor davit and so on, as well as welding over the hatch joins to stop them leaking. Compared with the techniques required to join two pieces of wood, joining metal seemed fairly straightforward.

 

Before we could get the floor laid, there was about two feet of rust either side of the keel, left by the water that we had so laboriously pumped out, that would have to be removed and painted. Working on it with scrapers and wire brushes seemed to take forever, but eventually the twenty feet at each end were done and floor laid there. Walking around in these finished sections was luxury after months of stepping from rib to rib. Unlike the outside, where I had had a clear run, inside we had to work between the ribs and it made for really slow going. By the time we started on the middle section, I decided we simply had to save some time, so I said said to Kate I’d finish getting the rust off with the angle grinder. It was bound to be much quicker.

While I got the extension cable and the angle grinder set up, Kate climbed up the ladder to make us a cup of coffee in the wheelhouse. I suppose I had been working for about two minutes when I heard Kate calling. The coffee was ready but, from the sound of urgency in her voice, I assumed there was something more serious going on. Looking up, I could see nothing. The angle grinder had been turning the rust into a fine powdered dust that filled the hold. It reminded me of the smogs from my childhood in London in the early 1950s, but much thicker. I had only cleaned about two square feet, but had generated so much dust that it took hours before we could see from one end of the hold to the other. The following photograph was taken about four hours later! So it was back to doing it the slow way.

 

A dusty job

A dusty job

To be continued.

Next post 23rd. August

 

 

An Art Gallery on a Boat? You Must be Mad! Part Nine.

It was actually the middle of April before they finally got to work.

Kate and I had a dilemma, the marine engineering  business that we’d chosen to do the work had turned out to consist of an elderly, retired, able seaman from the merchant navy – and a retired metalwork teacher who loved playing with boats – and they were the nicest people you could wish to meet!

Our only options were to either cancel the contract, and try to find somebody competent to do the job (but there weren’t any), or put up with it and hope for the best. We went with the latter option. Slowly, very slowly, the hatches were shortened.

 After the oxy-acetylene cutting torch had done its job, the edges left were quite jagged and, although these would be hidden in the new structure, I just couldn’t bear to leave them that way, so I went around the whole thing with an angle grinder and tidied them.

After all, this was Bristol and so it had to be “Bristol Fashion”

Tidying up the steelwork

Tidying up the steelwork

At last, we were able to get on with building the new wheelhouse. The bottom half of the original was steel, the front of which was removed. This left the sides and back to serve a brace to strengthen the structure of the new one. We bolted the rear timbers of the new wheelhouse to the upright steel.

The first real progress

The first real progress

The old wheelhouse had had a removable roof, and the top half of the wheelhouse, along with the windows, folded down to enable the barge to go under bridges. This folding structure was made of mahogany which, initially, appeared to be in poor condition. But on closer inspection, it was only the varnish that was degraded: the timber beneath was sound. I dismantled it and stored it in the loft of our house for future use. The doors were both used as access from the gallery to the foc’sle and the cabin.

Incidentally, after 11 years, I finally got round to using that old mahogany and from it, made myself the studio easel and the drawing table/ work unit that I still use in my studio today. Even the brass-work was re-used.

My easel

My easel

When it came to actually building the new wheelhouse, one problem that we faced was how to find a vertical datum from which to work. It had to be at 90 degrees relative to the keel. But, as the barge sat in the water slightly stern down, a spirit level was of no use and nor was a plumb line; and, as the decks curved, I could not square off of them either. Even had I been able to, the movement of the barge, as she rocked, rendered both spirit levels and plumb lines useless. The problem was eventually solved by measuring the distance between the sides immediately under the deck-heads, and marking the bulkhead at the halfway point. Then doing the same just above the chine. I then fixed a timber to the bulkhead, bisecting these points and, using one corner of this as a datum, all measurements for the wheelhouse could be taken. 

I cannot continue this narrative any further without a tribute to Kate.

All winter long she had worked beside me, out of doors in Bristol docks. I had worked outdoors on farms and building sites through many winters and this year was as cold as any.

Never once did she grumble, or flinch away from a wearisome task. Indeed, throughout, it was she that kept me going rather than the other way around. It was also she that poured oil on troubled waters, when I was getting so infuriated with the lack of progress that I was in danger of losing my temper and breaking heads. In so doing, she enabled the whole project to stay on track.

And all the while, she was gaining confidence. She had initially told me that she’d do anything except water and heights. The following photograph was taken on a barge, less than a year after that statement.

Kate, working on the wheelhouse

Kate, working on the wheelhouse

By May, the wheelhouse was pretty much finished and we were painting it. But there were still a few jobs on the steelwork that our “engineers” hadn’t finished.

By May we were painting it

By May we were painting it

The following month, Bristol Powerboat Races were due to take place, and part of our agreement with the City Council was that the Glevum would have to be moved from her mooring outside the Industrial Museum for the duration of the races. So we decided to stay alongside the workshop barge until the end of June. In this way, once we were on our mooring, we wouldn’t have to move again until the following year.

While we were finishing the wheelhouse, an incident took place that I’ll never forget. Having cut away the forward hatch, our two engineers, very much “men’s men”, who had never really taken Kate seriously (they would only ever discuss anything nautical or technical with me) had, for about two hours, been debating the best way to shift the hatch that they’d just cut off, across to their barge and thence ashore. Admittedly, it did weigh about one and a half hundredweight  (81 kilos for any youngsters reading).

The hatch and coaming that Kate lifted!

The hatch and coaming that Kate lifted!

Eventually, Kate, exasperated by their lack of progress, elbowed them out of the way. She braced herself, lifted the hatch, carried it from the Glevum onto their barge and then around the deck and up the gang plank, where she put it down on the quayside. They were still staring in astonishment, when she came back and said to them,

“Do you think you can manage it from there on?”.

After that they treated her with a new respect.

After the Powerboat Races, we eventually got the Glevum back to her permanent mooring.

Getting back to our mooring

Getting back to our mooring

In our original plan, we had hoped to have the Glevum open as a gallery before now. In reality, although the outside looked almost finished, the inside was almost untouched.

We had to face up to the fact that we would not be open this summer.

 

To be continued.

Next post 16th August

An Art Gallery on a Boat? You Must be Mad! Part Eight.

The design for the new wheelhouse necessitated having the aft hatch coaming and part of the decks cut away, the sides shortened and then the aft coaming welded back onto the shortened sides. From what we had seen of work being done around the docks, there were so many ‘cowboys’ that John Wayne would have felt quite at home there. With the closing of the shipyard, there were very few people who had the experience of working on large steel vessels and this was before the David Abels yard had opened to take their place. Eventually, we chose one small company that seemed to know what they were doing and towed the boat to their yard.

It was now February and I hoped to be back on our mooring in two to three weeks. In order to save money, we had agreed to do all of the donkey-work and preparation needed, so that the “experts” only had to do the cutting and welding. In spite of the fact that we always had plenty of other work to do, the delays were almost intolerable. No matter how much we stressed the urgency of our situation, ‘manyana’ always seemed to be the order of the day.

Kate and I carried on working on other bits of the barge, anything to feel we were making some progress. The workshop of the company that was supposed to be doing the steelwork, was on a barge, moored near Junction Lock and Glevum was tied up alongside that. Very little work ever seemed to get done there; indeed, they seemed to run it more as a hobby than anything else. They had a resident ship’s cat, she was a pretty tortoiseshell called Brindle, who took a great shine to Kate and to the peanut butter and cucumber sandwiches that we ate most lunchtimes. Brindle would follow Kate about and settle down wherever she was working, sometimes even climbing onto her back when the job required her to bend over for any length of time!

Brindle's favourite seat

Brindle’s favourite seat

Another source of constant amusement, during those long winter months, was the chap who was teaching himself to wind surf. I have never seen anyone with such dogged persistence. Month after month, he would be practising most days. Never once did he stay on the board for more than five yards before he was back in the cold water of the docks. Then, one day in early April, Kate called out “He’s up and going!”

I turned to look, and sure enough, he was hurtling along, heading across the dock from the Cottage pub towards the sand wharf, on the other side of the dock. Unfortunately for him, that day was the first trip that spring for the Bristol Packet narrowboat, Redshank, which was coming down the dock, with a party of schoolchildren on board and moving at quite a speed. The helmsman sounded a warning blast of the horn and tried to take evasive action. Alas! All in vain!  Redshank was still going at almost full speed, when her bow hit the windsurfer’s board, right in the middle. The impact did nothing to slow the narrowboat and the poor chap, now back in the water, had to fend himself off the side, as Redshank continued down the dock with his mode of conveyance still wrapped around the bows, the sail trailing one side and the board the other.

We never saw him again.

They say “Everything comes to he who waits” and – at last – the work that we’d been waiting for finally got started, albeit at a snail’s pace. Seeing the first metal being cut away served to lift my spirits. It may have been slow, but it was progress.

Sparks start to fly

Sparks start to fly


To be continued. Next post 9th August