New Internationalist

Fresh-water sharks

I returned to the barge late last night after a hellish drive from Oxford. The main road had been closed - an accident, I presume - with the result that streams of heavy traffic, including giant trucks, were diverted through tiny Cotswold villages with overhanging trees. For a while my distopian vision returned - dead drivers strapped into cars that have been immobile for years.

It’s beginning to look as if an average week of my current routine will take me 250 miles in the car, cost $50 in fuel and place the vehicle very firmly back in my subconsciousness. Today I’ve had the brakes repaired and the tyres rotated - $300.

My neighbour Bob has performed a small miracle while I’ve been away. My hot water tank split because the pressurized system is too much for it. You must turn
the water supply on and off before it reaches the tank - something I had forgotten to do. The tap used to be hidden away in an inaccessible spot beneath the steps that lead down from the hatch into the main cabin. Bob has moved it to a place by the kitchen (er, ‘galley’) sink where it will be less easy to forget.

He has also performed a skilled electrical feat, moving the switches for the generator, battery charger, inverter and water pump into my bedroom. As a result, instead of going outside and lowering my creaking limbs into the forward engine room (and, more to the point, trying to lever them out again), all I have to do now is reach for switches in the bedroom.

Small things like this make a big difference. But they require skills I do not have - something I am being made increasingly, and uneasily, more aware of.

Bob is my neighbour and a genius. It took him two days to finish the job, which like most jobs on boats probably required a good deal of contortionism. When I asked him how much I owed him he wanted to show me the receipts for parts I wouldn’t even have known I needed, let alone where to find them. And two days of his time? He quoted a ridiculously low figure. We began an illicit-seeming haggle, with me bidding up the price of his time and he bidding it down.

Today he’s gone fishing - something I never thought to do myself, but which now suddenly seems rather appealing.

Pete and Flor are back from the Netherlands. That’s where they’re buying a bigger, sailing barge to replace the one they sold me.

It is, apparently, a vintage gem, which the Dutch are increasingly reluctant to sell to Brits - just as well, then, that Pete and Flor are Dutch. Requisitioned during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, it was taken to the Baltic and only returned in the 1970s.

It sounds like a monster, too big to get down the English canals, with a 30 metre mast that takes an hour to raise or lower. So, after crossing the Channel - as my barge did - it will have to be sailed around the coast and up this river from the estuary. Quite a hazardous undertaking at the best of times, let alone in a boat designed for inland waterways. Pete thinks it will take him three years to complete the refurbishment.

He told me with a mixture of despair and gratification that when his new barge was lifted out of the water in the Netherlands and its hull was hit with a large hammer by a marine surveyor, a good deal of ‘thinning’ was discovered.

This is what happens to almost all steel hulls over the years, and it’s the single most important issue on a barge. There’s a standard minimum thickness of four millimetres of steel - less than that and you can’t get insured, quite apart from the risk of sinking or breaking up.

On vintage ships there are layers of paint that cover old types of steel which modern electronic devises for measuring thickness can’t cope with. So the hammer still has to be employed. The marine surveyor mimics the piano tuner, judging thickness from sound. The usual cure for thinning is over-plating - welding new steel to cover the thin patches - or the laborious replacement of the plates: both of them very expensive undertakings. The cost of repair is withheld or deducted from the selling price of the boat.

Pete said he knew how the vendor in the Netherlands felt, because I’d inflicted the same thing on Pete when I bought this barge from him. He may even have used the same surveyor - apparently a giant of a man, named after an Oxford college, who is intent on serving the interests of his clients, the purchasers. This is less usual than you might imagine, since some surveyors work out of boatyards that have a rather obvious vested interest in doing whatever work the surveyor deems necessary.

There are sharks even in fresh water. I’ve been quite fortunate to avoid them so far, I think, though the overplating of my own barge remains to be done, sometime in the near future…

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