Sunday, 1 March 2015

I saw a plane

Walking from the car to feed a parking meter I was lured by a siren song issuing from the gloom behind a half open door. I should have tied myself to the meter but I was already lost to the prospect of treasure and soon I was standing in a dark room piled high with promising pieces of interesting old tat. There was no one about and so I began to rummage. Passing over a dutch oven, a Tilly lamp and a varnished case of cutlery I found, under a table in a shadowy corner, a wooden box of assorted tools. A quick delve and my hand alighted on a rebate plane. I felt the heavy, smooth wood and the cold steel blade. Although I could barely see it I could make out glue marks on the back. Then, “As if by magic, the shopkeeper appeared.”

'What's this glue?' I inquired.

'That'll be where the carpenter glued on a piece to act as a fence.' He said with confidence. It seemed a reasonable, if slight odd, explanation.

'How much?'

You're supposed to haggle in these situations but for non confrontational people like myself it's easier to assume that sellers have given their wares an honest evaluation and are not trying to extract an extra buck. I coughed at his price, handed over the cash and resolved to watch a few old episodes of Lovejoy.

The next day in the bright light of The Invisible Workshop I gave the plane a perusal and immediately realised that I'd been a sucker. A carpenter hadn't touched this plane for many years. The blade was wrongly set and it was immovable, as was the wedge. And what was all the white gunk? The working parts were welded in place with glue, and that explained the adhesive marks on the back. This plane had spent years as a decoration, probably glue to a restaurant wall, adding a rustic touch.

A few days later I was up country with a friend pollarding olive trees with my dependable bow saw when I was overcome with exhaustion and stumbled to the car for a rest. My friend tidied up our tools and drove me home. The fatigue developed into a condition that required hospitalisation and when I next found myself in the workshop I discovered my bow saw was absent. Doubtless rusting in the long grass under the olive tree where I'd let it fall.

Quick research revealed that the cost of a round trip to recover the saw would total more than a new saw. And the spondolicks I'd coughed up for that 'objet d'art' plane still hurt. I was punishing myself—You had a saw, you lost it. What do you expect? A new one?—Quite why I'm so harsh on myself I don't know... Maybe because I'm so lenient on my children...

Some time ago an astute business acquaintance of mine bought a cut price lot of 100 folding chairs from that Swedish furniture store. Nice ones in beech, stained black. The problem was that every time he sat down he ended up on the floor amid a pile of kindling. I've been using the kindling produced by him, and the members of the association he sold the chairs to, in my wood stove for years.

I'd been looking at traditional hand tools for some time and realised that with half a chair, a new saw blade (aquired for a piffling amount) and some string, I could make a bow saw.

I still had a heap of driftwood— brought to the beach by a winter storm—to cut, and found that my new saw was perfectly adequate for chomping through the uniformly bleached wood.  

Thursday, 26 February 2015

I saw a horse

Sanded spars are not photogenic. All the old layers of varnish are gone and the masts are somewhat thinner for it, they may well rattle in the decks. Any weight I may have removed has been added to the boom, to which I've scarfed an 8cm extension. It was always a short boom, thin too, and made from a scuzzy length of baton that once belonged to a stage set. I've glued clean trim to the bottom and sides and set a sheave into the clew end to redirect the reefing lines and make shortening sail quicker.  

But the work has been hampered by the usual problems of having an invisible workshop and exacerbated by the state of my tools. I've spent a lot of time traveling back to square one—rediscovering what constitutes a functioning arrangement in which to manufacture and repair items of wood and metal. Working in poor conditions—the bench wobbling wildly with every stroke of a dull plane, tools, pencils, rulers, shaken to the ground, loose screws becoming lost in the grass until, barefoot in the summer, I find them with my heel—I can only hope to produce shoddy work.

I started by making a solid working surface. Solid but not flat. The piece, laminated from MDF and chipboard, warped as the glue dried in the sunshine. I followed up by going over the rotting pair of trestles with a set square and then refastening them with glue and dowels. Where ever I set up this surprisingly heavy contraption one or two trestle legs fail to rest on the ground but this is resolved with a pair of wedges.

Nowadays the attitude in The Invisible Workshop has shifted away from results to focus on process, the satisfaction being in the accurate stroke of a properly functioning plane.

On this little journey I've learned to get the most out of a worn, parted whetstone and have restored my chisels and plane as well as an old screwdriver my grandfather once lent me to adjust the air/fuel mixture on my Morris Minor van. In the way of many that borrow tools I failed to return it and through some whimsy of happenstance it has stayed with me. Though paint-stained and much pitted with rust, the handle split and scuffed, the shaft loose in it's socket it was evidently an object that deserved restoration—for the memory of my grandfather, my unreliable Morris van and the 30 intervening years. I removed the rust with wet and dry sandpaper, reshaped the handle with a file and sanded with progressively finer grits until the wood was smooth as skin. Then I left it to soak in teak oil for a few days, and reassembled with wood glue.

I soon put it to use extracting some brass screws from a rebate plane that I bought from a junk shop for 8 euros. It was then that I discovered that the antique dealer had ripped me off.  
Chisels, knives, screwdriver, restored blocks, parted whetstone and Morris van.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

All tied up

'You can never have enough of them,' boatbuilders like to say. I wouldn't disagree, I'd love to have plenty of clamps but if ever I've had a spare 20 euros it seems to end up on a haul of household basics. No, I've never prioritized clamp buying.

Any workshop will only have as many clamps as it can store, I have a small cupboard, if I tried to imitate some of the projects I see where the gunnels are gripped as if by legions of leaches, I would quickly reach peak clamp.

Lime Regis' St. Ayles Skiff gunnel glue up

I've got on alright with four reasonably sized clamps and four small ones (no idea where they came from). Anything beyond what these could manage I've sorted out with a length of cord. You know, bowline in one end, figure of eight with a bight 20 or 30cm back from that. The working end goes round the piece to be clamped, through the bowline and back through the loop. You've then got a 2:1 reduction to get some good tension on the line and it can be tied off with a clove hitch round the standing part. I built a lot of Onawind Blue using that method and still use it to lash kit within the boat.

But while glueing up a crate built from some scrap, I thought it was time to look more closely at the clamp situation. And it appeared that I had enough wood left over to make one. I was keen to move on to another project to take my mind off the failure of the crate, which was simply too heavy to do the jobs I'd had in mind for it. Put an aubergine in it and it became cumbersome.

I discovered some truly talented and inspirational woodworkers on youtube, soaked up as much information as I felt I needed and began. I work rather like I cook, seeing what I've got and taking it from there rather than going out for a bag of ingredients. So this clamp had to come from the cupboard. The blocks that I'd just made hadn't cost me a cent and there was even less reason why a clamp should.

Since the cordless screwdriver/drill packed up I've stopped using screws. The upside of this is that I am becoming familiar with the dowel joint. So making a strong, right angled clamp head was not a problem. The rest of the system is rather more clumsy and not quick but it is strong and for glueing up it will work fine.

Having finished the clamp and being confined to the house for days I couldn't help spending some time on the finish. I enjoyed the irony of trying to achieve a good finish on something as humble as a clamp that spends a lot of time at the bottom of the tool box scuffing against all and sundry.

Following my boating doctrine that kit should have more than one function I inscribed the clamp with an exhortation not to lose my cool. I now need two more with slogans, one to encourage me to make decisions and another to discourage me from rushing in headlong.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Mechanical Advantage

Though much conspires against it, solo sailing is still my aim. No longer the muscled, younger man of my earlier sailing days I need some help on the beach moving Onawnd Blue to the water and back, particularly when there is some urgency to get her out of the waves. Passers-by are undependable, difficult to control if once they get their minds fixed on the idea of moving the boat, and sometimes downright dangerous. And reliable crew, well...

As I've so often found it is better for all concerned if I am independent. To this end I decided to make some blocks and asked my stepfather Bob to turn some oak sheaves. This he did with surprising alacrity given the temperature of his workshop on the welsh borders.
Most of the tools in the Invisible Workshop have rusted or become irrevocably blunt but at least the belt sander can be relied upon to munch unappeasably through soft woods. Thanks to this, plenty of filler and some ropework in the evenings, I bungled together a pair of blocks.

I let some bad weather pass through and with only a few little waves remaining decided to test it. All my calculations had been based on the merest speculation so I had no idea if a 5:1 reduction would be sufficient, or a 9 cm diametre sheave or an 8mm fibreglass axel made from an old flexible tentpole. With this reassuring level of uncertainty I made for the beach with the blocks, a tangle of assorted lines and the dog. (The only family member to show any interest in witnessing what might evolve into a minor nautical disaster.)

I set up the tackle as I thought best and left it laid out on the sand for my return, then rowed out through the waves. Sharper and more powerful than they appeared from the beach, not to say wetter, a couple of waves came rowidly over the bow. I rowed in circles waiting for onlookers to stop examining the blocks or devine whether the dog, who'd set up a desolate whinning, was lost, before pointing the bows at the waiting tackle.

My aim was good and I'd waited for a gap in the sets of waves but the boat made as if to broach on the first wave and was pushed off downsea at a dangerous angle. My adrendaline up I flailed at the oars to right OB and got her stern on to the next wave but again she tried to broach and slewed off side-on to the next breaking wave. Surely a capsize, but no, I earned a soaking but kept her righted by getting my wieght on the rail. I flailed again and her bows ground on the sand. I hopped out, immediately grabbing the eyelet on the bow to avoid her being dragged off by the backwash from the waves.

I was 15 metres from where the block lay waiting, I couldn't leave the boat to go and get it as she'd drift off and the tackle wouldn't reach that far anyway. What's more I lacked the strength to move the boat that critical one or two metres onto the safety dry sand, especially when a quarter full of water.

The situation was a familiar one and I'd learnt that I couldn't yield one inch to the sea that would drag the boat away from her destination with every wave that washed under her. However, with every wash of water that floated her I managed to gain a small amout of ground. In this way I took a very long time to travel the short distance to the waiting tackle, I hooked on with relief and started to haul on the line. I hauled and hauled some more. Nothing appeared to be happening, other than an ominous tension growing in the line. Then suddenly the boat lurched and turned to face up the beach. I tied off the line to a cleat in the boat and got a fender under her bow then unscrewed the drain plugs and pulled again. She came forward another metre and there, out of danger from the sea she could drain while I pondered. The line was far too elastic. For two metres of ground I should have hauled ten of line but there seemed to be rope everywhere.

I didn't like the looks I was getting from the people stepping over the taughtly streched lines crossing the beach, but the tackle had done its job and I now had as long as I needed to heave and harumph the boat, on fenders, the 20 metres to her place in the dunes. Then I stowed her gear, replaced the cover and tidied the lines away.

I got home, ate a large plate of potatoes, took a hot tot of brandy, put on my best woollens and went to bed for the rest of the afternoon.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Goodbye to Ella

It's not always easy having relations to stay but Onawind Blue's cousin Ella was the perfect guest. Pretty, undemanding and grateful of the fresh water clean out and other attention she received at The Invisible Workshop.

The time for her to leave came about all too soon and unfortunately I hadn't had the chance to take her out on my own. (Though the doctors would say that solo sailing is still beyond me.) I hadn't expected Jordi and Anna, the intrepid pair that were to sail the next leg, mainly because the wind was foul. It would be a slog for them even though the leg was short. They were keen to get going and we wheeled Ella to the beach, me inwardly cursing that I hadn't organised some crew so that I could sail with them in OB. I desperately wanted some photos of the two boats together on the briny.

We set up Ella and launched her with out mishap and I watched from the beach as she beat out to sea, tacked and set off up the coast. 'There goes a missed opportunity.' I thought as I sloped home, stopping beside OB to tidy her interior. While deciding how best to spend the afternoon without feeling sullen, my friend Alex cycled by on his way home for lunch. 'Going sailing?' He asked. I looked at him, he's only 24 and built of solid muscle.

'Fancy coming?'
I saw a sparkle in his eye.
'Quick, go and put your bike away. I'll see you back here in 10 minutes.'

Ella had a good half an hour start on us and from the beach I could no longer see her. Having seen that she's fairly good upwind I wondered if OB could catch up. Alex and I boarded and took a long beat out to sea. Hoping that familiarity with my boat would give us an advantage close-hauled I arranged Alex's 80 kilos to provide the best trim, milked every gust and never fell off the wind except to gain speed when slowed by waves slapping on the windward bow. With a racer's grimace across my gob I tacked and set off on the new course in earnest pursuit.

Although Alex and I maintained a continual yakety yak my mind was on the sailing, and on my boat. Could it be that I'd forgotten how well she sails? It wasn't long before I could see Ella's sail, she was just closing with the marina at Roda de Bara. She tacked and I judged that OB was two thirds of a mile downwind. After a few more tacks we were alongside her.

Sailing close-hauled it was clear that OB had more speed (as one would expect from a longer waterline and more sail area) and I spilled wind so that we could sail together and converse. Ella had a problem with the sail, it wasn't setting well, with wrinkles (girts, Michalak calls them) from the clew to the throat. I'd noticed this when sailing her myself though had hesitated to heave on more tension as the throat didn't seem to be sufficiently reinforced. I'd strengthen the throat in The Invisible Workshop but still those girts persisted.

The force 3 breeze fell to a low F2 and we began to wallow. I thought about what to do. We couldn't complete the whole trip because I wouldn't have the energy and I was worried that the wind would entirely fail. Of course I could strap Alex to the oars, but I knew it was time to be going, OB and Ella had sailed together. So I turned OB towards home.

After a short distance I spied a kayak and hailed it. Alongside it transpired that the kayaker was one of my blog readers and so I felt confident in asking him a favour. I passed him my camera and turned once again to pursue Ella. Unfortunately I didn't get my new friend's name but am very grateful for the photos he took of OB and Ella sailing together. (Moltes gracies company!)

Sailing towards home the chit-chat lulled and Alex and I fell into that blissful trance-like state that comes when sailing broad in a light wind under a hot sun. My mind turned to food, just a few days ago I'd emptied OB of rusting tins and made a small feast of the mackerel fillets a la diablesse, smoked cod liver and partridge in vinegar marinade. OB still hadn't been restocked with emergency rations. Alex was peckish too. To relieve our sun-baked brains we stopped for a swim. Alex is a skilled diver and spearfisherman and he immediately headed for the bottom in search of an octopus. I swam quietly round OB, washing grime off her sides with handfuls of seawater.

Alex returned empty handed and we sailed home. Heaving OB up the beach and onto her trailer Alex said, 'Did you really do all this on your own before?' 'Yes,' I replied, 'but I never used to be this hungry.' We smiled at each other, weakened and wan sailors. Alex sped off to his mum's cooking and I went home and gazed into the fridge.

Ha! Grilled skirt steak with fried potatoes and Dijon mustard!

Ella details

Sunday, 1 September 2013

A day with the Ella Skiff

There's a great project underway here on the Catalan coast. It all started when a group of boating enthusiasts decided to build a boat together. They chose Gavin Atkin's Ella skiff for the obvious reasons of simple construction, free plans and good pedigree. The build took a year and the boat was launched on the Costa Brava at the beginning of the summer. After sea trails with a polytarp standing lugsail the boat was towed down to the south of Catalonia and the next stage of the project began. Whosoever, with boat-handling skills, was invited to sail the boat, in short legs, back up to the Costa Brava.

When Ella arrived just north of Tarragona I signed up to sail a leg, hoping to get the boat as far north as my home beach at Creixell. Being 10 kilos underweight and receiving potent treatment for a dastardly lymphoma I needed some crew and was flattered when my 16 year-old daughter, Yoeh volunteered. She doesn't have much sailing experience but I could rely on her ability to follow instructions, her common sense and excellent company. Now I needed both health and weather windows to overlap. Happily I didn't have to wait long.

The forecast showed 6 knots from a favourable quarter between 1400 and 1800 and I had woken with good levels of vim and vitality. But my main concern was that the wind would fail once we were at sea. The skiff is equipped with no auxiliary power beyond a pair of kiddy's paddles, which to me aren't really a viable means of traveling more than a few hundred metres, if that.

With the idea of hugging the coast like babes to a mother's breast Yoeh and I set up the boat on the beach. The skiff is equipped with the basics and well organised. One significant modification has been made to the design. With the idea that the boat might be left unattended on faraway beaches for untold days, openings have been made in the transom and interior bulkheads to allow the spars to be stored inside the boat. This would appear sound practice for the projected use of the Ella Skiff, though I'm always slightly wary of considerations that make life on land easier as they generally have some consequence at sea. In this case I worry that eventually the threads of the plastic lids that cover the holes will wear, leak and compromise the built-in buoyancy. Provision has been made for this however, and the manual that comes with the boat exhorts all users to line the threads with tubing before removing the spars and to exercise extreme care.

Ella is quite heavily built, revealing the builders' origins in lateen sail. In Catalan trad-boaty-speak mast is 'arbre'—literally 'tree', and the solid, sturdy pole up which I hoisted the sail could easily carry twice as much canvas. We rolled the boat to the water's edge on the fender that I'd brought for the purpose (and to serve as a seat once afloat) and waded out until we found enough depth to ship the rudder and daggerboard. We boarded, sheeted in, put the tiller to windward and away Ella flew.

The boat had caused some interest on the beach and I turned to wave to a small send-off party then re-trimed the sail to go broad and tootle along just 200 metres off the shore. 'Wow, she's fast.' said Yoeh, and yes, Ella was already well into her stride as we were still sorting out our seating arrangements. I sat on my fender inside the cockpit, wedging my torso into the after starboard corner with the tiller under my armpit and Yoeh sat on the windward side of the central thwart looking forward. Ella and her crew were comfortable all we could wish was that the wind hold.

The GPS registered a healthy 3 knots and after sailing a mile or so Yoeh cut up a baguette for sandwiches, complaining that I could have bought ready-sliced cheese. 'Pre-sliced, industrial packed cheese is not for those who go to sea in small home-built boats,' I retorted snobbishly, 'Now use the boat knife to cut that nice, sweaty wedge of Emmental.'

As the sandwiches went down the wind came up and white caps began to appear. The breeze settled at a solid 10 knots, causing us no great problem but raising our speed a knot. At this rate home was going to turn up far too early in the day and so we changed course to practice other points of sail.

The boat had already shown herself to be well balanced, with a light tiller and a touch of weather helm but I was impressed at how high she pointed to windward. She was wet though, with the moderate breeze and chop and would have liked a reef. I tacked carefully and she came round well. I repeated the maneouvre with less finesse and got caught in stays, I backed the sail, put the tiller to leeward and reversed on to course. Sailing dead down wind with the daggerboard raised Ella became unstable and ached to gybe but by lowering the board a tad and turning slightly to windward she regained posture.

Ella was not designed for these open sea conditions but like Onawind Blue she behaved well with the decent breeze and short sea and frankly I wouldn't have expected less.

I'd added a 2 kilo anchor to Ella's kit—I just don't feel happy going to sea without one—and thought about stopping for a swim but the bays under our lee looked too crowded and lumpy and so we pushed on past OB's old haunts, Waikiki beach, La Mora, Tamarit Castle. We let everything fly briefly as we peered down at jelly fish and then I passed the helm to Yoeh and settled myself up forward facing aft. Yoeh turned Ella off the breeze, trimming the main and we were galloping again. The wind had risen but on this point of sail Ella was still comfortable. I worried slightly for the straining polytarp but knew that the spars could handle a gale.

'There's a big lump of plastic up ahead.' Said Yoeh. After little more than an hour aboard she was sounding like a wooden boat owner. 'It's coming straight towards us.' 'Don't worry, hold your course.' I said, 'we have right of way.' But she was uncomfortable and started to head up. 'Hold your course!' I repeated.

'But it's going to hit us.' She said with a rising tone. I thought it might be time to look round and check out the situation. For a minute It did indeed appear we were on a collision course but then a gap widened. The boat made no hint of modifying its course and throbbed by to port with its fenders out, girls sunbathing on the foredeck and suntanned swankpots yakking on the fly bridge. I've always exercised extreme tolerance with this breed of water-user but now, for the sake of my daughter's education I let fly in full colour. Satisfied with my imaginative combinations of expletives I sat back to enjoy the wind in my mustache but was nearly knocked off my perch by the arrival of motorboat wake.

The wind remained firm and windsurfers skittered out from the beach at Torredembarra. Back at the helm I still felt no need to reef. The waves had grown and Ella hinted that she'd like to try surfing. I was happy to indulge her, bearing up ever so slightly at the base of the wave for maximum speed then turning stern to the swell, urging the crew to get her weight forward. As the skiff caught the wave we lent back and Ella zipped along with spray singing from her shoulders. (The GPS marked a max speed for the trip of 9.1 knots ) We whooped with joy and caught a few more waves before Creixell beach turned up. It was impossible to de-power the sail on this point of sail and we howled towards the shore, raising the daggerboard and rudder at the last minute and skidding a metre up the beach like jerks on a jet ski.