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  • Writer's picturetheblacksprayhood

The Boat That Didn’t Rock

Updated: Nov 14, 2021

“Luciano looked nervously at it and wobbled the legs. “It’s too tall, all the other ones in the marina are much lower.” From below deck if the legs were wobbled, the deck shook. “We’re going to have to chop it!”"

So our views from the boat have been rather different this week. I don’t know what the cats have thought as they do their nightly patrol around the perimeter of the boat. Where they usually see the deep blue not far below, now they look very far down and see concrete. And all around, other boats on metal stilts. Yes, we’ve spent the past week living on our boat in the shipyard. Underneath the surface of the water, the boat has its hull and underneath that is the keel. The keel sticks out from underneath the bottom of the boat, like the fin underneath a surfboard. The keel is made up of a heavy weight to keep the ship upright and stop it blowing sideways. This means that when your boat is taken out of the water, it has to be supported by iron legs around the hull so the weight is taken off the keel. If the keel was to detach from the boat, your boat would be sunk. It also means that you end up pretty high up when you are onboard in the shipyard. Every time you need the toilet you have to descend down a long ladder and then back up again afterwards. Every time you need to get rid of the bag of cat waste, you need to do the same.

So last Thursday we crashed into another boat after losing our steering cables. On Monday Matusadona was hauled out of the water. Our steering wheel had been extremely stiff after having a new rudder stock installed due to water coming in around that area. This was one of the contributing factors to our steering cables fraying and us suddenly losing our ability to turn the rudder. The repairs took four full days of work by the torneiro mecânico. This profession sort of translates as ‘turner’ or ‘lathe operator’ in English. However, not only do these workers make specialised parts using a lathe to fit certain specifications - such as the exact size of a rudder stock of a random English boat from 1987. They also investigate the problem, make the part to solve the problem and then make everything work together. Coincidentally this was the profession of Luciano’s father, although he specialised to provide service to the shoes industry, the main industry in Luciano’s home town in Rio Grande do Sul, the southernmost state of Brazil. Luciano’s dad and his extensive tool collection had a big influence on Luciano growing up in terms of his creativity, problem solving and practical skills. He used to make wheels for his and his friends’ skateboards in his dad’s workshop. These skills are really important on a boat and are ones that I am sadly deficient in. This was also the profession of former socialist president of Brazil, Lula, whose active role in trade unions led to him entering politics and eventually becoming President in 2003. The upshot of the hard work of this torneiro mecânico is that we now have a steering wheel that turns easily. As a joke, our torneiro mecânico blew on the wheel as if to illustrate how easily the wheel spins. He’s not quite that good, but it can now be turned with one finger rather than the full force of your body and two hands.

He wasn’t the only one hard at work this week. Luciano took the opportunity to put some finishing touches to the structure of our solar panel arch. In order to be self-sufficient so we can live at anchor as well as fulfill our aims of living a more sustainable life, we had bought some solar panels to charge our batteries rather than having to use the engine to charge them. In order to work effectively, the solar panels need uninterrupted access to the sun, so a solar panel arch is an ideal choice. This construction is usually at the stern, or back of the boat, away from the sails and made from stainless steel so it is strong enough to withstand the wind and rain. The best type is welded so it is stronger. You can buy parts that attach together, but these are very flimsy and we weren’t sure how well it would hold up in strong weather. A fellow sailor in our marina had made one himself cheaply like this, but had lost one of his solar panels in strong winds when crossing the Atlantic. We looked online and saw that having this built wouldn’t be cheap, but we thought it would be an important investment. However, post-pandemic and post-Brexit has led to a mass exodus of workers from the UK. The pandemic has also led to more people buying boats as fewer people are travelling abroad. This has meant that prices for skilled work have massively increased as there is so much demand. The only person that was even willing to give us a quote, gave us a figure that was double what we had seen people had paid pre-pandemic. No one else even had time to do the job.

What to do? It was a real family affair. My cousin’s husband Dave is a very skilled welder and I may have guilt-tripped him into making one for us. Dave had never made a solar panel arch for a sailing yacht before. He lives in Manchester with my cousin where he works full time and they have two young children. Plus there were often travel restrictions during this post-pandemic time. Manchester-Southampton is at least a 4-5 hour drive and as the solar panel arch wasn’t part of his normal workload, Dave had to get permission from his work to be able to use the workshop and work on it in his own time. This meant he couldn’t just pop down to the boat to take measurements. Luciano and I are not structural engineers, but we cobbled together a plan for him, by taking measurements and looking at other designs online. We discussed it with Dave over several evenings after he had put the kids to bed so he could try and understand how it would work on the boat. And then he went away and made it! To collect it from Manchester, we hired a huge truck. Actually we first tried to hire a Luton van, which is like a mini lorry, but when we measured it, the arch wouldn’t have fitted through the doorway. We lost our deposit on that and had to wait another week. Then we hired an open truck so the legs could stick up in the air. That was an adventure as I’ve never driven such a large vehicle as that before. There were a few hairy moments in car parks and petrol stations, but I managed not to hit anything. We left it at the marina in Southampton. The following weekend my stepdad Andy came down to help us lift it on to the boat and drill the holes through the deck and bolt it into position. This process actually took the whole weekend as Luciano and Andy had to make the marine plywood backing plates and drill holes through the stainless steel plates that Dave had made. The arch fitted perfectly and was a thing of beauty, gleaming, smooth, strong and big. Very big.

Luciano looked nervously at it and wobbled the legs. “It’s too tall, all the other ones in the marina are much lower.” From below deck if the legs were wobbled, the deck shook. “We’re going to have to chop it!” I had just asked Dave to complete all this work, eating into his family time, which he had completed perfectly and exactly to our specification. Shouldn’t we have noticed we had designed it too tall before we asked him to make it? Maybe it would be OK as it was. I consulted some physics teachers at my school, who spoke of spreading the load with larger backing plates, but also said without testing, it would be impossible to know how it would behave with giant waves as the top heavy nature of it would cause it to act like a lever. We consulted Steve, who had completed quite a lot of work on our boat. “Yeah, that could rip your deck out.” Not only would it have to be shortened, but we had to massively strengthen the deck. The strengthening had to be over a large area, not only to spread the load, but because if we just strengthened the area where the arch was bolted through, the forces could then have an impact on a weaker area nearby, the windows. Loss of a window, like loss of a deck can cause your boat to sink rapidly. It was a potentially life threatening situation. These remedial works had no guarantee of working and it would delay us for crossing Biscay, which we were already past the ideal time for crossing. Both of us had ongoing nightmares about the deck ripping out and the boat going down.

We had to set to work as it was going to be a very time consuming and messy process. Our boat is built from glass reinforced plastic (GRP). It is made up of tiny strands of glass fibre mixed with epoxy resin. Once cured, it is extremely strong and hard, yet light. We had to learn how to work with it. The glass fibre is nasty stuff, dangerous to your lungs if you breathe it in and it can also get into your skin. In fact, Luciano still has some in his foot. In addition, as the epoxy cures, it generates very high temperatures. It also requires precise measurements of epoxy to hardener. Luciano coated large boards of marine plywood in layers of this, each layer needing to dry. These had to be epoxied in place, held in position with sticks to stop them falling below. Then strips of fibreglass needed to be layered over the top to create a smooth join between the boards and the underside of the deck. It took weeks of hot and uncomfortable work. We also paid a lot of money to a Southampton welder to chop 40cm from the legs and polish. He did it without ruining Dave’s beautiful craftwork and you can’t tell where the cuts were made. Eventually we were ready to test it. I had to be in London and so couldn’t help. Luciano was not going to be able to do it on his own. So we cheekily asked my brother who was visiting England from Qatar if he could help Luciano for the day. They filled the bolt holes with epoxy and butyl tape. This is important to stop water ingress. Then bolt it in place. They shook the legs and the deck did not move. Next was to test if water was coming through the bolt holes. Again, it seemed pretty watertight. This success meant that those weeks of hard work hadn’t been wasted and Dave’s masterwork hadn’t been in vain. In fact, he and his family finally got to see it in place just before we left Southampton.

Anyway, so far the solar panel arch, solar panels and the deck are going strong and our solar panels are doing a great job of supplying all our electrical needs. While we’ve been out of the water, Luciano put the final finishing touches to give him peace of mind - some backing plates to attach the arch to the pushpit, the stainless steel frame on the back of the boat to spread the load a bit. Plus some stainless steel pipe to add some extra reinforcements. Other jobs have included cleaning the hull and replacing the sacrificial anode on our propellor. The sacrificial anode is a piece of metal that corrodes easily and thus protects the propeller itself from corrosion by seawater. I collected the watermaker, which is why we came here in the first place, although its installation will have to wait and we also finally installed our new automatic bilge pump.

So the steering was fixed on Thursday and we were booked for relaunch on Friday. When we checked our instruments on Friday morning, we noticed that our AIS wasn’t working. This is how we see other ships and other ships see us and will be very important when going through the busy narrow Strait of Gibraltar. The electrician came and thought it might be the antenna, but we have to wait until Monday for a new one to be delivered. The next weather window to cross the Gibraltar Strait is not until Thursday as it is dangerous to cross in strong ‘levanters’ - easterly winds. It is somewhat of a relief as if we had been relaunched on Friday we would have had to leave straight away for a 48 hour trip straight through to Gibraltar, which is tricky with the strong tides and busy shipping lanes. Now we have an enforced wait. The only concern is the best crossing time to get to the Canaries is ideally before the end of October. Time is ticking by. We have to go to Gibraltar to collect the Hydrovane. We need a couple of days to fit the Hydrovane and then we need to head back to Cadiz in southern Spain and leave from there for the Canaries.

So what about fun? Well the cats tried out their harnesses for the first time. At home they had free access to our garden and while since they’ve got middle aged (they’re 12) they spent most of their time sleeping on the sofa rather than exploring the neighbourhood, they did still enjoy going outside every day. They’ve never used a harness before. They were both surprisingly unresistant to the harness itself. Being carried to the beach was less to their favour, Chocolate made his feelings quite plain with his sharp claws. Once there Suki quite happily walked along and then sat watching the sea comfortably on Luciano’s lap while I had to stand with scratched legs as Chocolate decided to lie down in some spiky plants. He’s always been much more of a homebody. As for us, we did go to the beach one day and while enjoying lying in the sun I finished The Alchemist, the famous book by the Brazilian author Paulo Coelho. (Paul Rabbit for those interested in the translation) It’s all about following your dreams no matter how much your sanity is questioned in the process. It’s also about looking for omens, but we’re ignoring that part of the book. Unlike in the book, for us the journey is not the means to an end, but the prize itself. All these repairs give us the opportunity to learn new skills, like electronics, plumbing and patience. Even the cats are having new experiences, like walking on sand for the first time. So our time on the metal stilts may not have furthered our journey geographically, but our horizons have expanded through our time here all the same.

This week's Vlog.

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