Saturday 28 February 2009

Porthole Project Complete

Porthole Project Complete
28th Feb 2009

You may remember that I embarked on a project to create a wooden porthole cover for our cabin and came up with a design which allows a circular cover to be rolled back and forth.

It has taken me another two weeks of intermittent varnishing and sanding, but it is finally finished. Last night saw the application of eight picture brackets and today it was the fitting, the moment of truth.

Amazingly, the cover was the same size as the porthole and the concept actually works. No, it doesn't just work, it works well. Jeff took a look, rolled the cover back and forth a few times and deemed the end result "cool". That's teenage for "Dad, that's great, amazing, I stand in awe of your talents", but much shorter of course!

I will let you make your own mind up about the end result:

As I was rolling it to and fro I was reminded of Eeyore on his birthday when he was presented with an empty honey jar (Poo ate the honey) and a burst balloon (Piglet popped it) and proceeded to put the scrap of rubber in and out of the pot in a state of Donkey ecstasy.

It doesn't do to read too much into my illustrative parallels...

Thursday 26 February 2009

Standedge Tunnel update

Standedge Tunnel
26th February 2009

Great news: BW have announced their Standedge plans for 2009, and my passage(s) are booked.

As I said in my earlier blog on the subject, the tunnel will be open for through traffic on three days per week: Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays. Traffic will flow from east to west in the mornings and west to east in the afternoons.

Now here is the really good bit: the tug boat system has been scrapped, as have plans for piloted passages. Instead, BW will be operating a chaperoned system for the year, meaning I can steer Wand'ring Bark under her own power, accompanied by a BW "Tunnel Chaperone". The whole concept of a chaperone brings blushing damsels in costume dramas to mind, but I don't suppose that I will get to Diggle and find Helena Bonham Carter waiting for me (not that I would object of course) and a brooding Mr Darcy hovering in the portal at Marsden.

With only three slots in each direction on each of the days that means that the maximum through traffic is restricted to 9 per week in each direction. Add to that the fact that the exit to the Calder and Hebble will probably still be blocked (work starts on 10th March) and I suspect that we will be in for a few very quiet days on the Huddersfield side.

I am delighted at the turn of events and am eagerly anticipating steering WB through the UK's longest, deepest and highest canal tunnel. Anything less would leave me feeling that I hadn't really "done" the canal. Thanks BW - a great decision.

With the Huddersfield Narrow looking likely to the a "there and back" trip, other interesting possibilities open up:

1. Explore Salford Docks, the Irwell and the first part of the Manchester Bolton and Bury.
2. The remaindered western end of the Leeds Liverpool, right into the heart of the Liverpool docks.

February is rapidly coming to a close and its only four weeks to the off. Can you detect a whiff of excitement in the air?

Wednesday 25 February 2009

New Friends

New Friends

My sources tell me that hire boat bookings are consistent with this time last year, but my money is on 2009 being a bumper year in the final analysis.

Some sectors are becoming unexpected beneficiaries of the recession and it will be amusing if the slow nature of the canal boat hiring industry has something in common with fast food. I expect a flurry of late bookings as people realise that they will have a job in the summer, but are reluctant to spend the inflated prices needed for European or American destinations. As with eating out, people will trade down for their 2009 holidays.

To my mind, boating could be looking down the gun barrels of its own demographic time bomb, which would be bad news for all boat owners. Let me explain my thinking:

· The last 15 years of economic prosperity has parallelled an explosion in boat ownership, evidenced by the shortage of moorings and the belated opening on new marinas.

· A recent IWA survey indicated that about 80% of all boats are owned by the over 50’s.

· These boat purchases were largely funded from property sales and lump sum retirement packages (the market for boat loans is very small).

· Reduced property and pension values are not going to deliver the lump sums needed to sustain this expansion for the foreseeable future.

· The boat owning community will age and become less inclined to spend their time and money on cruising.

· Reduced demand for boats will decimate the new build industry

· Increased volumes of second hand craft for sale will outstrip demand, driving down values.

Fewer boats = less license income = less incentive to maintain the network

This is an unattractive scenario and it is in all our interests to see a thriving hire boat industry. We all started on hire boats and it is the standard point of entry into our watery world. We therefore need the next generation to catch the boating bug, and that demands exposure to the source of the infection.

I often read negative comment about hire boaters but I welcome them all. Like social clubs, churches and waterway restoration groups, the boat owning community needs a steady supply of new blood. Without it we die. Not today, not tomorrow, but slowly, member by member - we reduce.

So here’s to hire boats and all who sail in them. Yes, they can be a bit erratic at first but they are an essential part of the cycle of boating life. What’s more, they are our potential new neighbours and friends.

So I’m hoping for an exceptional hire boating season in 2009, with lots of people experiencing the pleasures of our wonderful waterways for the very first time.

Tuesday 24 February 2009

Carpentry catch up

Saloon and galley projects
2006 to date

When we bought Wand'ring Bark we knew that the internal layout was far from perfect and changes were needed. The great thing about the boat (apart for the light airy nature and the price) was that the internal fit out was sound, just not very imaginative or creative. This was good news because I love my carpentry and this presents lots of opportunity to make "improvements", whilst at the same time maintaining a perfectly serviceable craft to play around on.

I therefore had a plan in mind form the outset and have gradually realised this vision over the last few years. It isn't finished yet but these photos give an idea of the progress made to date:

One of my first tasks was to create scope for two single bunks as an alternative to the crossways double. On the starboard side this was achieved by removing a tall and rather ugly cupboard and reducing it down to coffee table height, with a draw and a small cupboard underneath. To regain the storage space I created a triangular cupboard and attached a "flap" of worksurface to the front end, making this section either part of a bed, a coffee table or a food preparation area. I like the cupboard but not the table, which is made from offcuts of the old unit. You live and learn.

The crockery storage consisted of an open shelf and as a result everything got rather dusty. This was overcome with the installation of a pair of glass fronted doors with spring catches to keep them closed when we operate in ramming mode.

The cupboard under the sink suffered from terrible access, with a 12" lip over which everything had to be lifted. This was solved by enlarging the door hole and making a pair of raised panel doors which go to within 5cm of the floor. With raised panel router cutter sets costing over £100 you will see a distinct similarity in all my door manufacturing projects!

Storage in the front cabin was restricted to space under the bench seats accessed by removable panels under the cushions. This was inconvenient and remedied by the construction four very large drawers which slide on waxed wooden guide rails. So far we have never managed to fill these drawers to capacity.

On the port side the cross bed was lengthened to 6ft 6 inches by removing another large and boxy cupboard, again creating a coffee table cub bed extension with a large drawer under. In the reduced remaining space I created the entertainment zone, containing a stereo, 12 and 240 volt power supplies and a surface on which the laptop can be used to play DVD's (WB is a TV free zone) and charge phones / ipods etc. The cupboard is covered by another Ahab special door and there is another small draw underneath for the dustette.

It all looks quite neat when closed up and accompanied by a matching step / log box. I found that a certain "house style" emerged during construction and this was developed further as I moved into the rear cabin. More of that another time.

Monday 23 February 2009

Pre Season Planning

Pre Season Planning
23rd February 2009

Easter is a movable feast and planning a destination for an early season cruise is proving to be a moving target. If flooding rivers don't drown your plans, overrunning maintenance or surprise breaches are likely to leave your plans dead in the water.

My experience of early season planning lotteries is in stark contract to the summer when you are likely to be free to roam untroubled by such impediments. But maybe that's part of the appeal of early season trips - there is more can I? / cant I? adventure in them. And then there is the fact that you have the more remote sections almost completely to yourself. During last years' trip we passed an average of one boat per day beyond Nottingham!

If you have been following my blog you may have noticed a preoccupation with Standedge Tunnel, as I want to cross the Pennines via the Huddersfield Narrow Canal.

Plan one involved a descent of the Trent all the way to Keadby and then up to the Huddersfield Broad via the Yorkshire Waterways. However, last years floods on the Trent have dampened my enthusiasm for this route so early in the season.

Plan two was to approach Standedge from the west, drop down to Huddersfield and then back across to Manchester via the Rochdale Canal. However, the washed out weir at Cooper Bridge on the Calder and Hebble has effectively blocked both these trans Pennine through routes.

Plan three is now to explore the Huddersfield Narrow on a "there and back" basis, which will probably let us get the most out of the waterway. With the tunnel now operating on Mondays as well as Wednesday and Fridays, this will allow a passage from west to east on a Friday, a couple of days on the far side and then back to the west the following Monday.

Plan three has the added advantage of giving time for an exploration of the Irwell and possibly the newly opened Manchester Bolton and Bury arm, all accessed via Pomona Lock,. There is also time for a trip right into the Liverpool Docks a couple of days later - providing the Barton Swing Aqueduct has reopened as planned during the 1st week of April!

One thing is for sure, we will be going on a two week cruise before Easter, but where we go exactly remains up in the air. If the weir is fixed I guess its back to plan B - but who knows.

In the end, I really don't care. I will enjoy the two week trip wherever it takes us and with all the options in the north, something is bound to be open. And what's more, the more bits we leave unexplored the more reasons remain for a return visit. I can't lose really!

Sunday 22 February 2009

New Years Resolution

New Years Resolution
22 Feb 2009

I don't generally make new years resolutions, but this year I did. It had nothing to do with abstinence or losing weight (I lost two stone last autumn) which are the more common focus of effort. No, when I was asked whet I really wanted to achieve in 2009, I said it was to achieve a "greater degree of carefreeness". Grammatically its a very bad aspiration but as a strategic aim it has great potential.

Those that know the real Capt Ahab will be aware that my domestic situation isn't exactly plain sailing, so achieving a more carefree spirit is easier said than done. I can't roam the seas at will because I am needed back at my home port most of the time - but that doesn't stop me giving my mind greater liberty.

I decided to indulge my curiosity more. If something captures my attention I have given myself the freedom to explore it and see where it leads - a bit like turning Wand'ring Bark's bows into silted backwaters and seeing just how far I can get, and then revelling in the whole experience of getting myself out again. Others may shake their sensible heads and scoff behind my back, but memories are made of such stuff.

So that brings me to my blog. Its lovely that others are visiting it and maybe vicariously enjoying my observations of the world, but basically it is a personal diary which logs my indulgences in the things I encounter and capture my imagination. The great thing about a blog is that it allows me to record those fleeting observations which are the colour within a sepia life, placing on record my feelings and impressions rather then a factual A to B to C itinary.

Yesterday I was struck by my lack of familiarity with my alter ego, the worthy Captain Ahab. I will share the story behind the name another time, but I have indulged my curiosity in his pursuit of Moby Dick with a visit to the Amazon on line bookshop and a brand new copy is winging itself to me as I type. Whilst on Amazon I couldn't resist buying a copy of Ray Shill's "The Birmingham Canal Navigations". I doubt it will be light read but I am sure it will be fascinating none the less.

In keeping with my resolution, I will indulge my curiosity and report back what I find.

PS - Its been a glorious weekend, the first real days of spring. Its a shame it wasn't a boating weekend as a trip to Brewood would have been lovely.

Saturday 21 February 2009

Standedge Tunnel

Standedge Tunnel
21st February 2009

My reliable sources tell me that when Standedge Tunnel reopens next month, it will do so for three days each week - Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. That will be a big step forward from the Wednesday and Friday options which have prevailed to date, and should stimulate additional traffic on this under used waterway.

What my sources are less clear about is the means of passage. I was expecting the electric tugs to be withdrawn in favour of a skippered solution, but it seems that this has yet to be decided.

A decision is due imminently, apparently. Watch this space....... I will let you know when I hear more.

Capt A

Friday 20 February 2009

Mr Propeller OBE

20th February 2009

The Queen routinely bestows honours on her faithful subjects, sometimes the rich and famous but at other times on the more lowly and unrecognised members of society. It's this second category that attracts my attention, unsung local heros or faceless civil servants who have delivered over and above the call of duty, people like Dame Shiriti Vadera, now infamous for her widely reported but misunderstood "green shoots of recovery" comment.

I may not be the Queen, but I would like to award an honour - to the propeller of Wand'ring Bark. It sits down there in the murk and the gloom year after year, springing into action at a moments notice, and withstanding all sorts of abuse as it has it's close encounters with canal bed debris. It's truly remarkable that it survives at all, and yet without it I couldn't move a single inch.

Not all propellers survive unscathed. Here's a picture of The Robber Button's after a really close encounter with submerged masonry:

Ouch - that's got to have hurt!

In truth, I have never actually seen Wand'ring Bark's prop. It replaced a smaller one which was taken off a couple of years ago when WB was out of the water for blacking. However, I feel I maintain an intimate relationship with the current incumbent of my propshaft, having spent many hours with my arms wrapped around its three blades, cleaning off a broad assortment of detritus (mainly from the BCN).

So there you have it - a reasoned rationale for awarding an honour on my unglamorous but indispensable propeller.

Why did I change it? Well, the old 16 x 11 unit caused the engine to over rev and a reasonable cruising speed could only be maintained with an engine speed of over 2000 rpm. The new prop is a 17 x 12 which dropped the revs to 1600, reducing engine wear, fuel consumption and associated noise levels. It also gave WB a better top speed which came in handy when we punched the flood current on the Trent last Easter.

For the technically minded the first dimension refers to the diameter of the prop (in inches - none of this metric nonsense) and the second refers to the pitch, which is best imagined as the forward travel of the prop in one revolution when submerged in a tank of soft butter! As with other things in life, size does matter and an extra inch here and there can deliver significant added satisfaction....

My old prop remains perfectly serviceable and is currently sitting in my garage going nowhere. If you could use it, it's yours for £50, but you will have to collect it from Birmingham cos it weighs a ton.

On the subject of surplus boating bits and bobs, I noticed that Mortimer Bones had a basin going begging and it made me think that lot's of boaters must have old stuff lying around, which could usefully be recycled if only a good home could be identified. If you have any boat related stuff cluttering up your shed that you want to get rid of, let me know and I will post a photo and description of it on a new "Captn Ahabs Marine Mart" page. That's my bit for a greener recycled Britain.

Wednesday 18 February 2009

Fag Packet Engineering

Fag Packet Engineering
18th February 2009

For many years I have worked closely with the Midlands engineering industry and have come to the startling conclusion that it's demise has a direct correlation with smoking.

Let me explain. The foundations of the UK's manufacturing industry were laid by back street engineers, who designed the engines that drove the industrial revolution largely by rule of thumb.

You don't have to look any further than our esteemed Mr Brindley to see what I mean. Here was a man of humble origins and limited training, who masterminded and designed an integrated communication system that turned the UK upside down, setting us on a path that would lead to world domination in trade and commerce. Did he have an MBA in Applied Transportation and the support of a high capacity laptop loaded with the latest versions of Microsoft Project, Critical Path spreadsheets and Visio process mapping? I don't think so! No, Mr Brindley managed to realise his Grand Cross vision from the back of a proverbial fag packet.

The recent transition to a largely non smoking nation has deprived an entire generation of engineers of their most vital support tool:

No smokers = no cigarettes
No cigarettes = no fag packets
No fag packets = nowhere to record those transient moments if brilliance

QED: The demise of smoking and the collapse of Industrial Britain are inextricably linked.

So, as recession teeters on the brink of depression, what are we to do? I could argue that the Government should do everything in it's power to restore the fortunes of the tobacco industry, but that is probably unnecessary. What we need is the innovation made possible by the humble fag packet, not the associated lung cancer - which would kill off the innovative spirit we are trying to encourage. No, all we need are the fag packets themselves. Come to think of it, we don't even need the packets, just the backs.

My suggestion is therefore simple. Pads of "virtual fag packets" should be produced under license from Players, and then distributed to every able bodied man and woman across the length and breadth of Britain. Armed with this essential tool, all those millions of bright ideas will be captured and developed, returning our once great nation to the forefront of innovation and economic prosperity.

Just a thought.

NB. On reflection, I can see a small but significant historical hole in my argument. Mr Brindley undertook most of his canal building endeavours in the mid to late 1700's, and certainly before his untimely death in 1772. Cigarettes, on the other hand, did not become generally available in the UK till after the Crimean War (1853/1856) placing the trusty fag packet beyond his figurative grasp by about 100 years.

However, I don't see why a small technicality like that should stand in the way of a good story!

Monday 16 February 2009

Which! Waterways Guide

Waterways Guides 16th February 2009

Life was so much simpler in Henry Ford's day. Back then, if you wanted a car, you could have it in any colour you wanted - just so long as it was black.

With a hint of spring in the air it's time to turn my attention to the first proper boat trip of 2009. I have two weeks of holiday booked before Easter and a relief crew scheduled up to bring Wand'ring Bark back from wherever we end up. That means that the inland waterways world really is our oyster.

Last year we travelled east, all the way to Boston (see my earlier blog entries for an account of our travels on an "in flood" Trent), but this year I think it's time for something completely different. I am thinking about Manchester and the Pennines, maybe taking in the Standedge Tunnel and the Rochdale as well if the weir on the Calder and Hebble has been fixed. It will be mean a lot of locks but Jeff will be with me and he seems up for the challenge.

So, I have been turning to my guide books and considering my options, but that presents a dilemma before I even start. Which guide book do I use?

My heart takes me to my trusty Pearson. I think I must have got the full set and I am very attached to the slightly whimsical format. Whilst they are now produced in glorious technicolour they have their roots in the black and white (also black and blue?) versions I remember from by youth in the late 1960's.

I love their complete focus on the waterways themselves and the interesting commentary which accompanies them. However, try using them when you stray off the waterways and they are as much use as a rubber nail.

That takes me to the Nicholson series. These guides present the waterways in a very different format, displaying the route in the context of a "proper" map, complete with contours, footpaths, railways and everything, stretching out for a couple of miles on either side. At first glance this is a big plus as it allows you to see how the waterway relates to its surroundings, and helps me reach local facilities with reasonable confidence.

However, they lack the "soul" of Pearsons and don't quite capture the "personality" of the route the same way. Whats more, all the waterways are listed in strict alphabetical order, which can be irritating. There you are cruising to the eastern end of the Leeds Liverpool canal and, hey presto, you turn the page only to find yourself in Kidsgrove - just because alphabetically the Macclesfield Canal follows Leeds Liverpool.

Pearson seems to flow more instinctively - if you know what I mean!

So there you have it - a dilemma before I even start. Which guide should I use?
The answer is obvious really - use both. I plan my journeys using Nicholson and cruise in the company of Messrs Pearson and Son, thus getting the best of both worlds. It costs a bit more, but whats a tenner in the grand scheme of things.

As with politics, there is a third way - the Waterways World Series - but they don't seem to hit the spot on any level, so are probably best forgotten!

Maybe choice is a good thing after all.

Sunday 15 February 2009

The collapsing cratch

The collapsing cratch
15th Feb 2009

My last entry made reference to my home made collapsing cratch plate and, given the interest in my boating DIY projects, I thought I would take a look at how I made it.

I think that I should point out that one of the greatest loves of my life (apart from Belle of course - thanks for a lovely Valentines day!) is my carpentry. I have been a wood junkie ever since my dad let me start to use / wreck his tools when I was about 6 or 7 - and the scope to do woodwork at Secondary school was a major factor in the planned failure of my 11 plus. As a result I have a well equipped carpentry workshop, and having the right tools makes a big difference to the end results.

So the brief was a cratch that was aesthetically pleasing (no sticking up bits for extra headroom), a glazed front to allow light in and to facilitate a forward view from the cabin and finally it had to be collapsible, so the whole assembly can be removed in nice weather, maximising the usable space in the restricted well deck.

As with any building project, one starts with the foundations. How to attach the cratch to the boat? The front of the well deck has a raised lip so I fashioned an "L" shaped bit of wood which fitted snugly across the top and against the front edge, shaping the ends to match the contours of the boat. I then a made a couple of shaped plates which could be hooked under the gunnels and then screwed into the top plank. The whole thing was then painted up to final gloss coat and fitted to the boat using exterior grab adhesive. This gave me a neat base for the cratch plate itself, and was attached to the boat without having to drill any holes in the metal.

Next came the central front post and top board. It was important to get the lines looking right so the dimensions were worked out by laying the boat pole partially over the well deck to get a height that is consistent with the height of the cabin roof. I then using a set square to get a 90 degree angle up from the foredeck. The foredeck slopes back a bit so this means I ended up with a slight backwards rake, which avoids the rather startled "sit up and beg" look which is often seen.

The top board is a simple pine plank hinged at the rear onto a wooden base plate made from some surplus hardwood work surface. This base plate has some runners attached to reflect the curve of the cabin roof and then attached from under the overhang using four non rusting brass screws. Because the cratch carries the tunnel light I needed to provide a power source. This was carried from the cabin into the mounting block, round the back of the hinge and along the top of the plank. As these sections move the wiring is vulnerable, so heavy duty multicore cabling was used (the yellow sort used on building sites and demanded by the BSC) and this was channeled into a groove routed into the top of the board. It was then fixed onto the groove using silicon and capped off with a thin strip of wood.

The front post was made by laminating (a posh expression for fixing together) two planks. I used a wider, thinner one at he back and a thicker, narrower thicker one for the bit on show at the front. This created a natural rebate for the glazed sections to sit into. To get a flush finish I used exactly the same thickness of timber for the front post and the frames of the glazed sections.

Because it all had to collapse, I cut the post about 2/3rds of the way up and put a hinge on the bottom. This allows the lower part to fold back down and hang flush with the front of the well deck. The top section was then hinged onto the top plank and the light attached to the front. I wanted the two bits to locate back together accurately so I created a rebate using the two bits of timber used in its construction, and added a couple of dowel prongs (male) in the top which fit neatly into two holes drilled in the the base the top bit (female). The pictures will make sense of this explanation!

So now we have a base plate attached to the front deck, the hinged top plank fixed to the cabin roof and the splittable front post connecting the two together, also carrying the tunnel light. You may be thinking "so what does he use for a tunnel light when its all collapsed?". A good question and an easy one to answer. If I need to pass through a tunnel with the cratch removed I simply flip the top plate back over and the top section of the front post drops down, complete with the light.

So that leaves the triangular window sections, possibly the trickiest bit of the job. With the base plate and front posts all working together I measured the width and height and cut the square profile timber to length. N.b. Always make the rule (the vertical bit) go the full length from top to bottom or you will encourage rot where it joins the stile (the horizontal bit). With the two bits of wood lined up on the bench you can find out how long the other side is (the hypotenuse if you remember your maths from school). The three sections are then fixed to each other using simple mortice and tennon joints, glued and screwed through.

To get a nice clean finish I then planed off the leading edge of the "hypotenuses" to conform to the lines of the boat, and provide a good point of attachment for the cratch cover. With the whole window frame fixed together I then routed a rebate in from the front and, after painting the frames, I had my local glazier cut some toughened glass to fit. This was bedded into silicone and held into the rebate with some pre painted square strips of timber, with one corner rounded off.

Finally, the windows needed attaching to the base plate and the front post securely, but in a way that was easy to remove. This was achieved by inserting four dowel pegs into the upright which corresponded with holes drilled on the the post. This has the effect of locking the windows in and stiffening the front post back into a solid unit. The bottom stile sits with is rear edge against a rebate attached to the base plate. Its important to make sure the glazed sections and the base plate don't sit in a puddle of water, so I created a gap by making them rest on a couple of L shaped angle brackets, which lift then up by 3mm and also prevents them sliding forward. I also drilled a hole in the base rail to line up with the outer angle bracket into which I inserted a long and well oiled bolt with a wing nut holding it in place from inside.

The last stage was to decorate it, which was achieved using the traditional harlequin design in colours used elsewhere on the boat plus a powder blue.

The big questions have to be:

Q. Does it work?
A. Yes - like a dream.

Q. How long does it take to disassemble / put back together?
A. About five minutes.

Q. How much did it cost?
A. About £60

Timber £15
Hinges (2) £3
Light Recycled from previous location
Wiring £5
Glass £35
Paint Used left overs

But it's not about the money.

As I said at the start, I an a wood junkie with PVA adhesive flowing through my veins. It's about the challenge of the task, the planning and problem solving, the making do with bits and bobs saved from previous jobs, its about sawdust in my hair and playing with my toys in the shed. Maybe you can now understand why I like Fred Dibnah!

Saturday 14 February 2009


Blacking narrowboats

WB needs to have her bottom blackened

It's two years since she was last out of the water and the rust is starting to show through. I am quite tempted to do it myself, and the guys at Stafford Boat Club are very happy to hire out their cradle and hard standing for a very reasonable fee. However, the annodes are shot and welding is currently beyond me - I have neither the kit nor the experience. I therefore think that this calls for professional intervention, and that usually means Phil Jones.

My dilemma is simple: Bitumen or two pack epoxy? I know that Bitumen is cheaper and Epoxy calls for shot blasting the hull, but is the two pack approach really worth the extra money. Come to that, how much more does it cost and how much longer does it last?

Blacking is a big expense but I see relatively little written about the alternatives. If you have a view please comment!

So, with the decision deferred till the end of this season, I am faced with a very scruffy looking hull for 2009. Wand'ring Bark has quite a hard life, she is out for nearly 10 weeks per year and a good proportion of that is in the relatively harsh environment of the BCN. She therefore suffers more than her fair share of knocks and scrapes. But that's OK, I subscribe to the school of thought that says that you paint a narrowboat mainly to protect against rust, and then enjoy knocking it all off again.

I know it is vanity, but the sight of her badly scuffed lower sections, and rusting rubbing strakes irritates me. I like a shower before I start a day and I like WB to look spick and span before we start the season. I therefore took her off for a wash and brush up in a handy little spot where there is a 12" recess, about 30 feet long and complete with a smooth concrete edge. Just right for straddling WB across and giving easy access to the sides down to the waterline.

My escapades in the ice had not been kind to the blacking at the front, and frankly she looked in a right sate. However, when we were out in the ice I happened to have a ton or so of timber in the front well, so she had been riding very low in the water. I therefore had the brainwave of emptying both the timber and the water tank, thus taking about three tons off the front end. The end result were the bows rising up about nine inches and the bare metal emerging into the fresh air.

A good rub round with a scraper and a wire brush provided a sound dry surface, down to within two inches of the new waterline. After a couple of hours aided and abetted by a small roller, a paintbrush and some rather stiff bitumen (it was only 5 degrees C) I had WB looking smart and clean again. With the bitumen dry, I then refilled the water tank which took the freshly blacked front back into the water, with the blacking extending a good three inches below the surface.

I know its mostly vanity, and the real benefit is the bit below the waterline, but it was most satisfying to look along the newly blackened sides and see an end result which matches the carefully applied paint job higher up.

If you see WB at the end of the season her nether regions will probably have returned to their natural state of abraded degradation, but by then she will be booked in to see Mr Jones and ready to feel the gentle caress of his pressure washer.

What do you suggest: Bitumen or 2 Pack Epoxy?

Thursday 12 February 2009

The £25 Cratch Cover

12th February 2009
A cratch cover on the cheap

The cratch cover on Wand'ring Bark is somewhat unique being home made and costing a mere £25! Is often elicits remarks from other boaters and therefore deserves a mention in the blog.

The cratch has something of a history. If you look at the early photos you will notice the the boat came without a cratch, and it was one of my earlier construction projects. The brief was a conventional glazed cratch, but one which could be easily disassembled in fine weather. The end result is something of a work of art, with glazed panels which can be removed, leaving the central post and top plank in place with the tunnel light attached. In addition, the front post can split, with part folding down into the well of the front deck and the top plate with the light section folding back flat onto the cabin roof.

But it's no good having a cratch without a cover. The plan was to commission a cover from Wilsons of Kinver, who make the Rolls Royce of covers. However, before they came to measure up we were hit with a very large and unexpected legal bill and something had to give. A £500 cratch cover is not one of life's essentials so the plan was abandoned.

A few weeks later we were on the boat and Belle was poorly leaving the Captain at a loose end. During some rummaging around I came across a three metre square of camouflage tarpaulin which I had bought for £10 from Machine Mart, together with a roll of Duck Tape. I positioned the tarpaulin over the cratch and, with some cutting folding and one largish join I fashioned cratch cover Mk 1. I added some eyelets and elasticated hooks and bobs your uncle - the very first stealth cover on a narrowboat.

Stealth cover Mk1 was only supposed to be temporary, till financial solvency returned. In the event, everyone became rather attached to it and it survived storms and gales for two years, before the constant rubbing on the top plank finally reduced its water resistance to nil.

A replacement was needed but not before we had a great laugh at the expense of some unruly urban kids. A pack of dodgey looking individuals were eyeing the boat and, seeing the camouflage cover asked if we were an Army boat. We had to see where this conversation would take us so we answered "yes, we are on patrol securing the canal". "So, whats under the cover?" they asked. "Well, I shouldn't really tell you this, but that's where we keep the machine gun, but we have to keep is hidden up cos all the other boaters get a bit scared if they know we have a gun with live ammo on the canal". It worked a treat, the kids were dead impressed and skulked off, dropping the stones they had been planning to use in an ariel assault on WB.

So that takes up onto cratch cover Mk2.
  • With No 1 failing badly I bought a huge (10 m x 10m) sheet of heavy gauge woven polyurethane tarpaulin off the Internet, together with a couple of rolls of high tack adhesive tape - the sort market traders use to stop their stall covers blowing away. Cost £40.

  • Using the old cover as a template I marked out and cut a new cover. If I started again I would buy a big plastic dustsheet (99p from Wilkinsons) and use it to create a template.

  • I attached two strips of 15mm copper water pipe to the leading edge and folded the flap back on itself thus forming a rigid edge, fixing it all together with the tape.

  • The front is held onto the cratch plate using cup hooks and elastic straps.

  • The back end of the cover is held in place with more elastic straps (50p per metre from Homebase) which stretch from some reinforced eyelets to some some chrome hooks pop riveted onto the side of the boat (£2.50 from Midland Chandlers)

  • Finally, to give it a better shape I cut some narrow pvc water pipe (the sort used for the overflow on a toilet) and stuck this to the inside of the cover between the front corner of the cabin roof and the top of the triangular glazed panels.

Whilst the end result is clearly not a professional job, it is 100% effective. The key factor for me is that in addition to the cratch cover I had enough material and tape left over to fashion a stern cover and have enough in reserve to make yet another cover as and when this one fails. Given its lack of deterioration so far, I am confident that it will last me 5 years, probably more. In addition, I have no worries about tearing it if I hit the cabin room on a low bridge.

All in all I have 100% of the effectiveness for about 5% of the price of a professional version. Ok, its not quite as beautiful as the one Wislons could make, but I can think of lots of things I would rather spend my £450 on.

So, as I sit and home in front of my new £450 widescreen TV in the sure and certain knowledge that WB's front deck is as dry as a bone, I toast you.

Sunday 8 February 2009

Porthole Project

Carpentry Project
Porthole Cover

8th February 2009

These long winter days get you down. I had big plans for January and February - I was going to rebuild the toilet / shower room on Wand'ring Bark in time for its Easter trip, but what with one thing and another I havn't made a start. I have therefore decided to re set my target completion date to the start of the summer holidays and focus instead on something slightly less challenging, which can be undertaken in the relative comfort of my workshop at home.

Last winter I installed a cupboard over the main bunk, complete with an archway over the porthole window, a project which was particularly interesting and to my mind, very successful. As part of this project I constructed a removable pine porthole cover and Belle has suggested something similar would be good on the other side. I mulled over the options for a number of months and finally came up with a design where a circular "plate" of wood can roll back and forth in a channel with undulations in the track to either keep the porthole covered or, during the day, to keep it open.

I cut the disc months ago but never got round to making the rest of the assembly. Well, today with snow lingering on the ground I decided to have a go and, for the sake of posterity, to take a few photos as I went along.

As with most of my projects, I only use a minimum of measurements in a workbook and then design it as I go along, following the classic maxim of making form follow function. For the uninitiated this means that before you make it look nice it has to do the job it is designed to fulfil.

Having cut the disc (41.5 cm - the diameter of the porthole plus the frame) on the bandsaw I routed a rounded edge onto the outside face.

Next I cut a template of one half of one rail (it can be turned over to create a mirror image at the other end), following the curve of the disc and using a paintpot to get the rounded end. I added a marking to this template so it can be reduced later on and help to create the "track" pieces of wood which will be fixed to the rear of the facing strips.

Because the facing strips and the track strips have to be a perfect pair the track blank was temporarily screwed in place and the entire unit was then initially shaped on the bandsaw, then planed / spokeshaved and finally sanded smooth.

With two identical pairs created, the two rear track sections had their grooves cut out, creating an undulating rebate with the top mirroring the bottom. Hopefully this will allows the disc to remain firmly guided as it rises and falls along the track from end to end. For the sake of an attractive finish the edges of the facing plates were also rounded off using the router.

A rear view of the finished item showing the undulating track, awaiting varnishing and installation.

I am not sure how best to fix this to the plywood cabin sides, but I am thinking that three brass picture fixings on each batten would probably be both neat and effective. I will post a photo of the end result in a week or so.

Thursday 5 February 2009

Lichfield and Hatherton Restoration Trust

15 minutes of fame

I get plenty of public exposure within my day job, but not so much in respect on my rather nerdy interest (obsession?) in canals. Belle would undoubtedly say that that is a good thing, and she is probably right!

I was amused to receive the winter edition of Cut Both Ways, the Lichfield and Hatherton Canals Restoration Trust's newsletter. I perused the contents and there in the centrefold was a picture of your truly being formally welcomed in as the 2,000th member by Brian Kingshott, the Chairman.

I suspect that this is the first and last time I will be a centrefold, and I didn't even have to take my clothes off...... I am such a classy act you see.

Having overcome my surprise it was slightly saddening to read how the current economic troubles are impacting charities such as LHCRT, causing them to tighten their belts, reduce their short term ambitions, waiting for the return of more prosperous times. LHCRT has been operational for 20 years now and whilst much progress has been made, the "to do" list is as daunting as ever. Restoring rural canals is a long term activity and the primary qualifications for committee membership has to be patience and dogged perseverance.

The most salutary section of the magazine was the fact that of the ten who formed the original committee in 1988, five are no longer with us, three have moved on to other things and two stalwarts remain. Well done Brian and Eric - you deserve a medal apiece.

Monday 2 February 2009

Cromford Canal - a short walk

Cromford Canal
Cromford Wharf to Whatstandwell
1st Feb 2009

Index of posts in this series:
1. Cromford to Whatstandwell - this post
2. Whatstandwell to Buckland Hollow Tunnel
3. Buckland Hollow Tunnel (Excavator Pub) to Ripley Bridge
4. Ripley Road Bridge to Butterley Tunnel (west portal)
5. Butterley Tunnel
6. Butterley to Ironville
7. Codnor Reservoir to Smotherfly (Pinxton Arm)
8. Smotherfly opencast section
9. Pinxton Wharf
10. Boat Inn at Pinxton
11. Ironville
12. Ironville to Erewash Meadows
13. Erewash Meadows to Langley Mill

A 9 mile return journey along the towpath, including the Nightingale / Lea Wood Arm

The narrow (7ft) Cromford Canal has a long and illustrious past, connecting Richard Arkwirght's Cromford Mill in the north with the Erewash's Langley Mill basin 16 miles away in the south.
The main section of the canal took five years to build and was opened in 1794, having cost twice as much as predicted. The waterway was an overnight financial success, paying the investors massive dividends and making it something of a boom of the 19th century. The freight traffic was so heavy that the Butterley Tunnel was obliged to work 24 hours per day to cope - if you take a look at the waterway today it is difficult to visualise where the demand came from.

Whilst the trade in coal, coke and limestone was very good for many years, volumes halved between 1840 and 1843 when the High Peak Railway was completed. From that time on the canal was in decline, with trade down to a handful of boats in 1888 when the 3063 yard Butterley Tunnel suffered its first major collapse. It took 6 years to repair, only to see it collapse again in 1900. This time the closure was permanent cutting off the north west section of the Cromford Canal from the main system.

For most of its length beyond the Butterley Tunnel this lockless rural waterway has avoided the ravages of redevelopment but some blockages exist around Ambergate which will demand a creative approach if navigation is ever to be restored. Much work was undertaken by Cromford Canal Co Ltd, a charity which operated in the 1970's and 1980's and focused on the northern section, near Cromford Wharf. Whilst this body was wound up in the late 1980's, they delivered a lasting legacy of an excellent linear water park with a well made towpath which continues to have massive appeal with walkers and cyclists alike.

Well, that's a potted history of the north western section. With Tilly's school nearby the canal seemed an ideal destination for a winter walk, with the prospect of a pub lunch at the far end.
We set off with the thermometer hovering on zero and Siberian blizzards forecast, so our expectations were not high. We parked up opposite Arkwright's Mill, which is backed by the feeder into the canal. This car park is free, unlike the "official" car park at the wharf which will set you back about £3 for a 3 hours.

The extensive restoration work undertaken in the wharf area is a delight and provides a beautiful jewel for the current restoration project to work towards. To complete the scene, just add boats.

The well maintained towpath leads south past Railway End Bridge (Browns Bridge) which was the southern terminus of the High Peak Railway, constructed in 1831 to connect with the Peak Forest Canal in Whaley Bridge via a series of 3 inclined planes. A canal link was considered but rejected on the grounds of costs, locks and lack of water.

A little further on there is the impressive Lea Wood Pumping Station which was used to raise water from the River Derwent at a rate of 4 tons, three times a minute. The steam engine is still operated by volunteers who raise a head of steam and allow visitors free entry on bank holiday afternoons, belching smoke from its distinctive chimney.

Close on its heels is the Wigwell Aqueduct which carries the canal over the Derwent via a massive stone span with an inset iron trough, reminiscent of the Dundas aqueduct on the Kennett and Avon. The structure can't be viewed well from the towpath but a diversion along the Nightingale Arm and then down the steep bank to the rivers edge will be rewarded with a great view from a perfectly sited wooden bench.

The Nightingale Arm was a half mile private canal, built by Florence's father, to serve a range of quarries, lead works and cotton mills, continuing to be used long after the closure of the tunnel as a connection to the railway transhipment yard until it too was closed in 1936. The canal bed remains, but the trough carrying it over the High Peaks Railway has long since gone, leaving just an outline in the abutments.

The canal winds round the hillside before passing over the same railway line as it emerges from the southern end of its tunnel. The High Peak Aqueduct crossing is made by a short iron trough, which is now showing signs of age and had been dewatered at the time of our visit.

The canal continues to make it's way south, hugging the eastern slope of the Derwent valley till it encounters a high ridge through which the 200 yard Gregory Tunnel was built, emerging into a large, heavily reeded up lagoon.

Whilst the CCC Ltd's tour boat John Gray navigated the tunnel as recently as 1988, this is the end of meaningful navigation for anything but canoes. The bed gets progressively closer to surface and at times there depth is reduced to a few inches with obstacles obstructing even such shallow drafted craft. Land drains cascade silt into the canal bed, creating alluvial deltas which have to be periodically dredged to maintain the canals residual drainage function. However, silt is easy to clear and the canal bed remains in good shape.

Lunch was taken at the Derwent Inn at Whatstandwell, about an hour and a half south of Cromford Wharf. This pub serves large portions of Sunday Lunch for about £7.00, making it a popular destination for walkers.

The return journey was completed with snow laden skies gathering over our heads and the temperature dipping below zero. We just had time for a wander up the Nightingale Arm before returning to the car, four hours after we set off.

This is a spectacular stretch of canal with a well maintained towpath, ensuring a steady stream of visitors, albeit in two feet or two wheels rather than atop a marine diesel engine. Hopefully the work of the Friends of Cromford Canal will result in a complete restoration in due course, with navigation possible all the way to Cromford Wharf. The journey high up along the side of the Derwent valley is spectacular and could rival the Vale of Llangollen, minus the Poncycellete of course! The linking Erewash Canal isn't currently one of my favourites, with only it's last mile hinting at the boating possibilities which could one day lie beyond the 16 disused locks above Langley Mill.

A lack of time and energy prevented further exploration but, having sampled the first four miles, that means that there are another 12 miles left, plus the Pixton Arm which justifies at least three more visits. As if I need an excuse to poke around a waterway! 

Update 6.1.10: THree more visits, what a joke! I havenow been back on four more occasions and have only just reached PInxton. Ironville to Langley Mills remains unexplored.