Monday, 27 October 2014

Two Authors In A Boat

The Background
In 2013 I encountered and 'followed' Anthony Howarth on Twitter. His tweets seemed to centre on his recent book about his and his wife's ocean sailing adventures (Boat, People & Me), along with his frustrations over various political injustices in the the world. I was drawn to them. There was irony and there were curt, irascible comments smouldering with dark humour, which I returned commented on. We agreed to read each other's recent books (I had recently had Long Road, Hard Lessons published) and pass honest comments. His story of learning to sail, buying a 30ft yacht in the UK, repairing her then sailing to La Coruña in Spain was as inspiring to me as it was entertaining. By the end of the book I felt I knew him fairly well. I think Tony felt the same after reading my story of the 10,000 mile cycle journey I made with my teenage son from Ireland to Japan. Hence my belief that it is not really so crazy for the two of us to agree to work together on Tony's current boat project, not having actually met one another, however wildly ambitious the project may seem to others.

The Teela Brown - 29ft Waterwytch by Maurice Griffiths built 1959

The Project
I think it was in early 2014 that Tony told me he and his wife (the impressive 'People' in his book) were planning to sell their current home and adjoining gites, located between Bordeaux and La Rochelle in France, then extend their old 30ft sailing boat by 5m to form a long 'barge yacht' for living and travelling on Europe's inland waterways. It sounded ambitious. Various sailing friends of mine used words like 'crazy'. Knowing something of Tony's background as an engineer and a car designer, however, I did not doubt his ability to make a good job of it. Moreover I had an overwhelming feeling that this was something I wanted to be involved in. I went ahead and offered Tony my help.

"He sounds like he might be difficult to work with," said a friend of mine.
"All the cleverest and most interesting people are!" I replied, undaunted.

Tony - The look that says 'Doesn't suffer fools gladly'

Hesitant Beginnings
The only hindrances proved to be financial (as many boat owners will know, such a project can easily run into large sums of money). I did not need or expect to be paid, I reassured him. There was one other problem Tony hadn't told me about. He had recently had one of his shoulder joints replaced and as yet could hardly use that arm. His doctor had warned him off such heavy work. Disappointed, I accepted that this was an immovable object. Since I had a work commitment to go to Asia for a year or so in 2015 it seemed I would not be helping even if the project went ahead after Tony had regained the use of his left arm.  However, after about a month had passed I received another e-mail from Tony.
"If you can spare 2 weeks in October, I would appreciate your help. My shoulder movement is much improved."

The Journey Down
On October 7th I set off from home in the rain during the early hours. I had taken delivery of a new
motorcycle 2 weeks before and had been looking forward to using it for the 800km journey down. I was not long out of the tunnel and into France when a predicted storm struck. I was travelling at fairly high speed along the autoroute minding my own business at the time. It was as if a dam had suddenly broken in front of me. In a second nothing was visible except the blurred brake-lights of large trucks and cars. I was already drenched. I closed the throttle and braked gently, hoping nothing was too close behind or that the 4x4 somewhere in front would brake too hard. I waited for visibility to return. It did not. I was riding blind, surrounded by large vehicles in a similar state of uncontrolled momentum. Fortunately none of us made contact before we had managed to slow to around 10mph. Cold and sodden I completed the rest of the journey with gritted teeth, determined to arrive at Tony and People's for dinner. Major challenges already and the boat work had not even begun!

Settling In
After a hot shower, dry clothes and great dinner I got to know Tony and People and our proposed agenda. The following morning we headed for the boatyard in Mortagne Sur Garonne. It was a pretty place. We drove to the boatyard in one of Tony's 'Africars'. These are cars that Tony designed to be used as affordable daily transport on the roads of Africa, where traditional 4x4 vehicles like Landrovers and Landcruisers still get stuck due to unworkable ground-clearance. They were featured in a five-part Channel 4 series in 1984 when they drove them from the Arctic to the Equator. Unfortunately, due to financial and political barriers at the time, they never went into full production. Experiencing the amazing qualities of these vehicles at first hand was a real privilege, and I really believe there is still time for production to happen.

The Africar - a truly amazing vehicle by any standards

Let The Butchery Begin
On our first day at the boatyard, Tony and I began by attacking the two fin-keels. Despite the nuts inside the hull having already been removed by the charmingly French boatyard owner, Claude, the bolts were pinched fast in the damp, swollen hardwood and marine ply. Even having driven the bolts out with great effort, the addition of a magically gravity-defying adhesive sealant named 'Sikoflex' used by Tony when he had extended the keels 15 years before in Florida, ensured that the extremely heavy galvanised steel keels refused to budge. Much chiseling and hammering was required before they were dropped. Following this achievement, day two proceeded with us drilling through the length of the main deep centre keel, then chiseling between the holes. The nuts of the 3ft long keel bolts had also been removed inside, but like the fin keels this huge and heavy sandwich of cast iron, hardwood and lead simply hung there. The eight huge threaded bolts were stuck fast. Pinched tight enough to allow the weight of that keel to sit there with daylight visible through the cut. Moving those long bolts at all proved impossible with normal tools. Perturbed, we took ourselves off to a builders merchants where Tony purchased a number of large steel log-splitting wedges and a 4kg sledge-hammer. This was my kind of tool. Judging by the distance he stood back I think I shocked Tony with my ability to swing it, given my skinny frame. Slowly, a millimetre at a time, the bolts moved. Buckets, of sweat, sparks and 3hrs of animal effort resulted in the driving out of the loosest bolt. It took a further day to remove 3 more before resorting to cutting the remaining bolts off with an angle-grinder. The keel came down with a sudden crash onto the waiting stands. By this time the stalwart Claude had moved the boat into a large covered shed.

Insect-like boatmover transports Teela Brown to a boatshed

 Main keel stubbornly refusing to budge despite wedges and violence

Finally after cutting through bolts the deadweight keel drops with a crash

Sawing A Woman In Half
The old keel lifted out of the way, Tony proceeded to carefully mark out the cut-line around the centre section of the 'Teela Brown's' hull. The following day, while Tony was away on other business, I ran a jigsaw around the marine-ply sections then finished the surgery with a nice sharp handsaw to cut through stringers, ribs and the agonisingly solid hardwood keel base. I felt nervous, as an apprentice magician might, sawing his first woman in half. Having expressed my reservations over my surgical efforts to Tony by phone, I was mightily relieved to receive his congratulations the following morning when he inspected the work. Soon after this Claude appeared at the open front of the shed with a large tractor pulling a boat-loading trailer. The bow-half of the Teela Brown was gingerly lifted forward with the insect-like square boatlifter and placed onto the trailer. With meticulous accuracy she was then moved forward until exactly 5m was left between the bow-half and the remaining stern. Measurements checked and double checked, both halves were fixed in place with supports, ready for the transformation work to begin.

"Tony, I will need a new saw"

The tense separation procedure ends with a couple of attractive cross-sections

The Transformation Begins
The first thing that became apparent to me, standing back and looking at the two halves of the boat, placed where they were destined to become fixed, was how utterly beautiful she was going to look at her new length. It almost seemed that she had always been intended to be that length. It was reassuring. Not such a crazy idea after all eh?

 The Teela Brown stretched to her future layout position
(I will not be doing the same with my motorcycle!)

Tony explains his plan to a group of amazed boatyard onlookers.
"Nobody has ever attempted such a thing before," says Claude.

"Now for some more gentle, technical work," I told myself.
But the hard physical work was not yet over. My next job, Tony told me, was to cut out stepped joints at each end of the old keel, ready to receive the 5m longer new keel base. For two days I ate and breathed hardwood chippings and sawdust. Somehow, whatever protective masks and equipment I wore, that stuff found its way into every orifice. So relieved was I when I finally completed this excruciatingly awkward task, that I celebrated by driving out the remaining five long keel bolts that remained stuck fast in the base of the hull. It was cause for celebration and only pure coincidence that we returned to Tony's lovely home that night to find that People had prepared fresh Garonne oysters (the best) for supper.

The Technical Bit
In the last few days of my visit, Tony and I prepared three large 6m long planks of iroko hardwood to bridge the gap between where my handsaw had cut through the base of the keel and where those two ends now stood. This was my first experience of using large quantities of epoxy adhesive on a boat hull. It is a messy business, dependent upon good planning and careful application. Tony taught me well. The following morning I was amazed to find that I could stand on the newly fixed wooden bridge and jump up and down with no ill-effects. This left us with two days to prepare the template for the sixteen new ribs to form the skeleton of the new 5m mid-ships section of the boat. To my great delight we actually managed to achieve that and to make the first sections ready to be sandwiched together with epoxy. By the time I left on my motorcycle for England, the transformation had truly begun to take shape, ready for a dramatic re-launch in July 2015.

 Two halves of the boat re-joined with small matter of a 5m gap to infill

Sense of hard-won satisfaction written across this man's face

The Sadness Of Leaving
I had learned a great deal about boatbuilding during my two intensive weeks of working with Tony and a certain amount about myself I did not already know. I had also learned a lot about Tony. My respect for his knowledge is only matched by my admiration for a somewhat frail one-armed man of 76 who would take on a project like this so calmly. Of course it is nothing compared to what he had to go through with his Africar venture. Tony will now work a week on a week off most of the time to ensure that he allows his shoulder to improve steadily. He will be assisted by his very capable wife. I feel sure that things will continue to progress well until the re-launch. Especially now that People is on the case.
I enjoy challenges, hence my desire to be involved in Tony's dramatic boat transformation project. After two weeks of nice warm weather, I was unsurprised to find myself riding through the tail-end of a hurricane as I headed north. But it was nothing compared to what Tony and I had managed to achieve in two weeks. Clinging on tight as I was buffeted about the debris-covered A10, I thought back on the day that the two halves of the Teela Brown had been separated. A crowd of boatyard onlookers had gathered open mouthed around the newly laid out boat as an audience might around two halves of a saw-wielding magician's pretty assistant in separated halves of a box. What was the plan, they asked?

"I'm doing it as a present for my wife," said Tony. "We need a bigger boat to live on but she didn't want to give up the one we have lived with for nearly 50,000 nautical miles. Too many memories."

Tony was once Britain's top magazine photographer, 
but 'selfies' were new to him.

If you would like to read Tony Howarth's book, 'Boat, People and Me', go to your local Amazon website or click this link:
Boat, People and Me on Amazon UK
Boat People and Me on

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this along with his two collections of short stories on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.

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