Part four.

The endless saga comes to an end??

1. The Launch!

Launch day had its high and low points. The tarpaulin sheets and frames were dismantled, and the full lines of the boat were at last revealed after more than two years. All worries about having constructed a block of flats on top of a lifeboat hull were dispelled. It looked extraordinarily handsome and the hull profile was quite graceful.

At 9 am precisely, a large mobile crane nosed its way down the narrow lane, which led to the old piggery. Down from it climbed a very cool-looking customer indeed. He started to lay down large railway sleepers, aimed at stopping the whole shebang from breaking through the concrete. He enquired casually about the weight of the boat. Nobody knew. “Never mind”, said the cool dude, “We'll soon find out if it's too heavy”

Next to arrive was a 60-foot low trailer. The driver, who appeared to be 15 years old to Don and Charlotte, backed the rig into a narrow space beside the crane with nonchalant ease.

At this moment, Don discovered in a flash of insight that he had sadly missed his true vocation.

The moment of truth, the lifting of the boat on to the trailer, coincided exactly with the eclipse. Despite the gloom, it was apparent that the crane would do it, by ½ of a ton [the boat weighed 20 ½ tons, the crane could lift 21 tons!] It was more than a little nerve-wracking to see the dream of a new life being swung through the air, to the intermittent clamour of the crane overload alarm.

The least said about the trip from the workshop to the launch site the better! In the secret film archives (now destroyed), it is revealed that more than one telegraph pole was left leaning at an angle; the number of roadside trees which required trimming by chain saw was more than anticipated because that the huge rig had to be backed a mile down a tiny country lane. Then, the traffic jam created in Acle, Norfolk was nearly a mile long.

Craftsmen all, except DonIt floats!

The culmination of three year's work was lowered into the water late on the afternoon of 11 August 1999 and it floated! Furthermore, it floated with grace and confidence. Even better, it did not leak much; so two years of lying on back, painting and sanding, had finally paid off!

Shortly after launch day, there was a barbecue on the riverbank beside the boat. Copious quantities of food and drink were consumed by all who had worked on the project and Don read a thirty verse Epic Poem, celebrating the heroic conversion to the assembled throng several times. He claimed that the second and third readings were by popular acclaim. Charlotte asserted that by this time, a reading of the bus timetable would have raised similar enthusiasm, such was the condition of the poet and the audience!

Job done! Copious amounts of alcohol consumed.Job done??

2. Ready for sea? False hopes....

So finished the epic conversion. After all these Herculean efforts, what we had ended up with pleased us immensely.

The wheelhouse is spacious. It sits well up on top of the deck giving excellent visibility on three sides plus some view on the fourth and its headroom can accommodate the tallest family member, Don's son, Alasdair who is 6” 2'. Under the wheelhouse floor are three hatches, which provide excellent access to the engine room.

Don and Charlotte have big tugboat seats, Don's to the left behind the wheel and Charlottes to the right (unless, of course, we are practising role reversal!).

The main instrument panel stretches the width of the wheelhouse. In front of the helm seat is an array of engine instruments, for oil pressures, engine temperatures, and a special gauge, which indicates when the magic electronic pressure-greasing device is feeding the propeller shafts. The needle on this gauge sporadically flicks to the right, and then slowly subsides to the left as grease pressure decreases. For the first sea-going month or so, careful observers of Don would have seen him anxiously watching this needle as it reached the end of its leftward travel across the gauge. Then, as it flicked to the right, indicating that grease was being pumped, he would grin and sigh with relief, for no apparent purpose. “This man is quietly bonkers”, they would have thought, with some reason....

In front of the helm seat is the autopilot control panel, with the VHF radio console and handset behind it. Up above, at eye level to the helms-person is the main magnetic compass, so that one can easily look out of the windscreen and keep half an eye on the compass course.

Further to the right, at hand-level, is a large array of switches for lights, wipers, demisters and the like. Right in the middle, between the helm and navigators positions, is the radar screen, which can easily be read by both. Flat-screen displays have made radar readout so clear and easy to read that modern small radars are a delight to use. On the right-hand side, closest to the navigator, is the Global Positioning System display and panel. Both pilot and navigator can read this marvellous instrument, which constantly updates course to steer, speed over the ground and many other functions. Then, the navigator has another magnetic compass, and an array of switches relating to navigation instruments.

At the back of the wheelhouse is a full-sized chart table, so that it is possible to use electronic and more traditional methods of navigation at the same time. In normal conditions, Charlotte uses GPS, radar and visual observations to navigate. Close in to shore, visual pilotage is normally the most important. Occasionally, in very bad visibility, we have to rely on radar and the extraordinarily accurate GPS to get us close to a harbour entrance.

At the rear of the wheelhouse, beyond a neat space for lavatory, shower and cupboards, and down two steps, is the main cabin, which, after our previous boats, feels really quite extensive. The table will seat eight people with vast amounts of storage space under the seats. It also lets down into an extra long double bunk. On the opposite side is a good big galley with a four-burner cooker and oven, the biggest fridge that we could fit and lots more cupboards with working tops. Aft of that again is another double bunk with its own storage and together these two parts create a space with sufficient windows to make it light and airy in the day. In the evening, the mahogany colour of the woodwork and the dark red upholstery and curtains together with the shelves of books make a cosy haven for food, conversation and reading.

We also have a fore-cabin accessible though a hatch in the deck, with 2 full bunks and a child's half bunk and with its own heads, basin and storage. Don and Charlotte tend to use this cabin most of the time, reasoning that we don't have to be so tidy when our cabin is hidden from the public gaze.

The whole effect from the outside seems to have turned out even better than we hoped. There was the image, which haunted us, of a superb lifeboat hull carrying round a garden shed or a small block of flats on its back. Whilst the boat was under its tarpaulins, and whilst we could only get some hint of the total effect by standing relatively close by on the ground, the height of the wheelhouse looked immense and somewhat out of proportion. However, once the tarpaulins had been removed a couple of days before the launch, we were really pleased by the finished effect.

So here we were with our fine new boat. Now all that remained to be done was to fill the tanks, provision up and set sail.   

3. Phoney completion

On the way home from the GREAT LAUNCH, Charlotte was driving, as Don had realised at the last moment that the boat already had a name, and anyhow champagne bottles broken on the bows would ruin his beautiful paint-work. Therefore, he reasoned, the best thing was not to waste the precious fizzy liquid on redundant ceremonies, but to down it with the colleagues and friends who made the boat. A cursory referendum revealed heavy support for the proposition, with the result that several people decided to leave their cars and vans by the boat, and walk home. Luckily, Charlotte possessed a modicum of self-control, so she drove, and listened to Don's happy babble.

"What a fantastic boat, doesn't it look brilliant, it has all been well worthwhile, now we can really get on with it - a week of trials on the river, then we can get on with the sea trials, and THEN we can take it to Fowey to show it to the old crew and get their blessing - so the summer will not have been wasted after all."  By this time, the car was drawing up outside the "Bell" at Cretingham, where the celebrations continued, as the locals had been fully involved in the conversion saga, whether they liked it or not.

The next morning the atmosphere was less bubbly, so to speak.  Everybody was hard at work by the time Don arrived.  Nobody mentioned river trials, and some of the interior woodwork was being stripped out, again.  Cursory questioning revealed that on average, the view was that there was at least a month's work to be done before the boat could be moved.  Nobody had said that!  Or, perhaps nobody had asked.

Thus was made Dampening Discovery Number One: Launch is just another phase in the conversion process, not the Completion.

There was nothing else for it but to accept the fact that the chaps were not going to let the boat go until they were satisfied that it met their standards. There was also some painting and curtain-making still to be done. Then, one day towards the end of August, intimations emerged that the boat might be ready for its first trial under way.

4. First voyage!! And a nasty discovery

Imagine the scene! The engines are fired up, and making a happy burbling sound.  Don is at the wheel, trying not to look nervous, and rehearsing what to do ("Both engines slow ahead for a short burst; engines into neutral; give it a nudge to the right on the bow-thruster to point it into the main river; hard over to starboard on the wheel; and slow ahead down the river. God, I hope the bloody thing works!")

The colleagues seem more relaxed and go about untying the boat and pushing it off.  She moves, for the first time in maybe five years!  She goes in the direction in which she is pointed, the rudder works, the bow-thruster works!  Off we go, down the river, in a most stately fashion.  Pleasure boats move aside rather nervously to let us past.  People point from the riverbank. After a mile or so, we stop at John Krejsa's behest and institute a turning procedure. With the help of the bow-thruster, she turns in twice her length. It is more like turning an ocean liner than a motorboat.  It is going to be a big adjustment from a motor cruiser, which turns easily in its own length, to this, which seems to behave more like the QE2.  How on earth did lifeboat Coxn's control these boats alongside a casualty, in a hurricane?  There is much to learn, but no time to reflect, as the chaps are talking about "vibration" on the starboard engine.

Thus we move smoothly to Discovery No. 2, "There's always Bloody Something to go Wrong with boats".  This 'bloody something', a rather alarming vibration, seems somewhat intractable, causing Paul Watts, the engineer, to look pensive and puzzled, not his normal state.  He explains; "It is either the drive shaft that is a chuff out of line, or there is distortion in the gearbox.  And at the moment, I cannot locate which."

A week passes, and then another. Paul wrestles with the enormous drive shafts and the gearbox.  The rest of the chaps work away as though the boat had never left the piggery.  Eventually, Don is dispatched to the precision engineer's workshop with the offending shaft. As always, the workshop is in a farm building at the end of a muddy track. It must be that most of British industry is located in millions of small sheds, scattered around the countryside and not in shiny factories.  Maybe this is a good thing.

A day later and the news is good. The precision engineering man says that he has located a problem with the face of the drive shaft - something about being two thousandths of an inch out of true.

Paul reassembles the drive shaft and makes the momentous announcement that, whereas before precision engineering, the shaft was Three "Gnat's Chuffs" out of line, now it is only One and this is OK!  Don celebrates by writing a Triumphal Verse/Truly Appalling Doggerel:

"Meeting Wattie's needs for precision is incredibly tough

For microns and thousandths he gives not a stuff.

His favourite measure is the Standard Gnat's Chuff

And three Chuffs are too many, only one Chuff's enough!."

5. First solo

With the boat now vibration-free, Don and Charlotte start to agitate for access to the boat so that they can practise driving it.  Eventually, the colleagues are persuaded to clear the clutter on the boat so that the first solo trip can take place on a Sunday at the end of August.  At first, both Don and Charlotte are rather tense, but after a few miles, confident smiles replace anxious furrowed brows.  After going five miles or so up the river, both feel that it is time to turn round.  So, the standard procedure is initiated:

Step 1: Stop the boat. [Engage reverse gear on the starboard engine; we are going slowly, so one engine will do] Green Jesus! Nothing happens! Try the port engine. Whew! That seems to work. Further experimentation establishes that whilst the engine is going OK, there is no drive to the starboard propeller.

Not to worry, that's what we have two engines for.

So, to Step 2:  Turn the wheel hard over to port, ready to turn the boat. Sweet Mother of Jesus, something has fallen on the floor and the wheel has come off in Don's hands!  Now is the time to express those negative feelings!  Don manages this brilliantly by jumping up and down, shouting "F---k" at the top of his voice.

Charlotte remonstrates, requesting the wheel, so that she can try to put it back. Don feels that he needs to demonstrate that all is not well to the queue of boats, which has gathered behind, by waving the wheel at them. Charlotte demands the wheel back. They wrestle over it. Finally, Don relinquishes the wheel and starts to wave the other boats through.

For some reason, they seem reluctant to come. [Envisage the conversation on the first boat in the queue - "Dad, why is that boat swerving across the river? Oh, look, there's a man jumping up and down shouting!  He's got a wheel in his hand, seems to be waving it at us in a very threatening way.  Now he's having a fight with his wife—is he trying to brain her with the wheel?  Look now, they have stopped fighting, and he's waving us past, and smiling." 

 "Stay where you are son, he's obviously barking mad. No knowing what he will do next!"]

Eventually, Charlotte managed to rig the wheel back on to the spindle, by wiggling the sprocket or something, and we limped back to the mooring on one engine. All good experience!

The next day, an acutely embarrassed Paul Watts installed the steering wheel properly and replaced a hydraulic hose on the starboard gearbox. Several other trips revealed nothing else amiss. Time for sea trials!

6. The Bridges at Yarmouth

It was round about this point that the colleagues began to mention "The bridges at Yarmouth". "What bridges at Yarmouth?" asked Don. "Well, the low bridges at Yarmouth", said Tony Hewitt.  This seemed ominous, as Tony, as always, seemed to be deputed to carry the bad news.  Further exploration revealed that there were two very low bridges on the river Bure, just as that river flowed into Yarmouth harbour.  So that was why all the Norfolk Broads boats had virtually no superstructure!

Nothing would satisfy Don but to visit the offending bridges immediately. "Holy God", he said, on seeing them, "We'll never get under there". (Sorry, but boats do seem to encourage blasphemy.)

Careful measurement of bridges and boat revealed him to be wrong, but not by much, and only when the tides were especially low. Extensive conversations with experienced locals in pubs and elsewhere provided more food for thought.

Don summed up the results of his research; "Provided that we go at lowest spring tides, and provided that there is enough depth in the river, and the local lads have not been throwing supermarket trolleys into it, as is their wont, and the wind is not blowing from the West, we might get through.  How much is it to hire the crane, and take it by road?"

The colleagues smiled in a reassuring way. Lots of boats went through there, and if they could do it, so could we. Don began to have dreams about being swallowed up in dark caverns.

Acute observers at this time would have noticed two characters lurking by the Yarmouth bridges, frequently looking at their watches and peering at the tide gauges.

Again, Don sums up. "If we get it right, we will have at least 9 inches clearance.  If we get it wrong, we will remove the wheelhouse, get stuck under the first bridge and sink the boat.  And if we fail to sink it, the Fire Brigade will arrive and cut the boat into bits, as they have many times before in similar circumstances.  Charlotte and gentlemen, the way I see it, we only have one option, get it right. How do you view the situation?"  All are impressed by the purity of the logic, and there is no need for a vote.

The big day, the day of especially low tide, arrives and the old craft mast down, looking her very best, moves smoothly to a position just above the Yarmouth bridges. Several pairs of binoculars scan the tide gauges. At the chosen time, the highly trained and motivated team untie the boat and she proceeds towards the bridges, Don at the wheel, quietly wondering what acute stress can do to dicey hearts....

Charlotte has made the clever discovery that if she stands right on the bow and is not decapitated by the bridge, then the boat will also have clearance. As well as being practical, this method is good psychology, placing great pressure on the naturally cautious Don to give it a go. This new form of tide gauge has since been adopted as standard practise and so far has proved infallible. Just as the old boat enters the bridge, the nose of a pleasure boat hoves into sight, coming the other way. There is a short moment's hesitation, then Watty springs to the bow and by force of personality and a stream of wonderfully colourful invective, literally drives the other boat back until it collides with the bank. All clear! Serve them right for getting in the way. Don's anxious enquiries about the condition of the pleasure craft are briskly dismissed. "The river is full of prats", says Watty.

7. At sea. At last!

The way is now clear for the next event, the first sea trials, during which we will also take the boat thirty miles or so down the Suffolk coast, to her new home at Southwold.  Everybody connected with the conversion volunteers to come. This is taken as a good omen, and a hearty dinner is arranged for the night before.

Come the great morning, the weather is moderate, nothing to frighten an ex-lifeboat. Several members of the crew look a little less up for it than the boat after an extensive dinner, spent chatting up a forward and busty waitress. But the old boat makes her way purposefully down Yarmouth harbour, carried by a brisk tide to the harbour entrance where she turns her nose South down the coast. At last! After at least five years, she is back to her natural saltwater home.

Very rapidly, we make Discovery Number Three, that old lifeboats are lively at sea.  The boat, which had glided like a swan in the River Bure, now rejoices in her first encounter with her natural element by cavorting in a most sprightly fashion. She rolls and pitches with great gusto, and occasionally flings a burst of spray over her shoulder.

So this is what all the old life-boatmen had meant when they had said such things as.... "Good sea boats, they'll always get you home, but do they roll" ...and... "Best thing is to let the boat get on with it, they have a mind of their own."  We had clearly become the owners of a real character, with very marked sea-going habits. And we had better get used to it, because the boat wasn't going to change! Charlotte and Don are both fortunately endowed with strong stomachs, even in the aftermath of the pre-sailing dinner!