Saturday 29 June 2013

On The Canal

For me, the trip up the Kennet with the Home Built Boat Rally came to an end at Newbury, where there is a fabulous range of facilities to wit:
A shower in the nearby leisure centre (£1.70);
A public slipway.
I think this is the first proper picture of the boat I had borrowed to do the trip, a Salter double skiff. A fibreglass brute but the right boat for the occasion. Paul Hadley and I could get her up to a decent clip and she could hold all our gear with no problems.
Three of us pulled out at Newbury and took a cab back to Pangbourne to collect the cars and trailers. The driver was a tremendous guy from Zimbabwe. We told him proudly how we had rowed/paddled/yulohed ALL THE WAY down the Thames and up the Kennet, and he told us how he used to avoid hippos in the Zambesi river.
The rest of the flotilla continued, pulling out at various points. Tim got to Bath. Adrian and Pete made it all the way to Bristol - kudos to them. There are more pictures herehere, here and here.
It was a great trip in great company. Thanks everyone.

Friday 28 June 2013

Yay for the Spork!

As I have mentioned before, camp cookery should involve no more than:
1) Open tin and slop contents into pan;
2) Heat and eat.
A pre-raid sweep through Tesco for camping stuff discovered a much greater range of canned instant meals since my last expedition. 'The Works' was a great find, but the top culinary experience was Beans with Chorizo Sausage yum yum. Also Thai Chicken Curry, but that needs rice as well so doesn't really count.
The big surprise in the camping aisle was a spork. The spork is probably the most reviled cutlery innovation since the fork itself ("God in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks - his fingers. Therefore it is an insult to Him to substitute artificial metallic forks for them when eating," thundered a senior cleric back in medieval times).
The classic spork has a spoon with short stubby tines on, so it is fairly useless both as a spoon and a fork. Tesco's new one is a redesign by a Swedish designer called Joachim Nordwall, which puts the spoon and fork at opposite ends of the handle, and adds a serrated edge to the fork. For tinned ready meals, it is ideal. The spoon holds a proper quantity of beans, and the long tines of the fork can spear the sausages, and you can hold the canteen in one hand and eat with the other. Brilliant.
Just don't leave it hanging over the edge of the canteen when on the stove though - notice the bubbly edge?

Thursday 27 June 2013

Gadget Anxiety

Electronics and water don't mix, so gadget anxiety is high on boat trips of more than a couple of days. Luckily, I was well prepared.
My phone is a Sony Xperia Go, which is not only a fine phone with a decent camera but waterproof.
It was kept charged with a couple of excellent pieces of kit. First is the Freeloader Classic solar charger, which has a battery that you charge up from the mains before you leave and then top up by leaving it out all day with the 'wings' deployed, soaking up rays.
The battery is big enough to totally recharge a smartphone, and the solar panels can recharge the battery in a couple of days. The sun doesn't even need to be out, though it helps. I suspect that a non-stop-chatting, always-texting, continuously-Facebook-updating, games-playing teenager would not be kept going indefinitely by solar power alone, but it easily coped with my needs.
So I didn't really need the Mophie Juice Pack Duo, a battery big enough to recharge a tablet and a smartphone in one hit. This is a very smart bit of kit and would have been invaluable had I not left my iPad in the car....

Wednesday 26 June 2013

The River Kennet

Going up the Kennet Navigation from Reading to Newbury was interesting. I had assumed that it would be canal-like with virtually no current, but the early 18th century engineers had clearly been told to keep spending to the absolute minimum. The natural and rather steep river bed was used wherever possible, with artificial cuts being dug only to take boats up to the locks. 
It can be quite a slog, especially in a notorious stretch through Reading called the Brewery Gut, where the canal company could not divert the stream because of a brewery. The drop is particularly sharp and the course winding. The prospect of a 70ft narrowboat labouring slowly upstream meeting a 70ft narrowboat hurtling out of control downstream is too horrible to contemplate so the stretch is controlled by traffic lights. You have 12 minutes to clear the stretch.
I have to say that us rowers seemed to manage with far less grumbling than the paddlers.
The pictures show another 18th century cost-saving measure, a turf-sided lock. 
These are very rare now, having been replaced by proper brick and stone walls everywhere else. The sloping sides may have been cheaper to build but waste astonishing amounts of water. In a totally artificial canal this is a big problem but on the Kennet water was plentiful.
The first time we were faced with the torrent of water coming through the paddles in the top gates everyone's faces froze in panic. By the end of the trip most people used the stops in locks to tidy up in the boat, send a few texts and generally relax.

Tuesday 25 June 2013

Another Mirage Drive Boat

There were two boats powered by Hobie Mirage turtle-flapper drives on the HBBR Raid this year, but unfortunately Paul Smithson could only bring his boat as far as Mapledurham before turning back to the wonderful world of work.
A few years ago boatbuilder-turned-furniture-designer Paul made an interesting waggling rudder to power his boat, but this had the disadvantage that you couldn't steer the boat at the same time.
Now he has returned to the 'human-powered outboard' idea by hanging a Mirage drive out the back. The drive is mounted where the rudder would normally be and linked by ropes to pedals in the cockpit. No big hole in the hull, then.
Steering is by a push-pull rod. It works very well.
The workmanship is amazing, and all in wood though it looks exactly as though he had made metal castings. 
The hull is John Welsford's Walkabout design, with an extra strake to increase the freeboard and no decks.

Monday 24 June 2013

HBBR Raid down the Thames and up the Kennet

As the Beale Park Thames Boat Show drew to a close on the Sunday, the Home Built Boat Rally fleet left for its annual raid. This year the objective was to go down the Thames to Reading and turn right up the River Kennet, which leads via the Kennet and Avon Canal to Bath, Bristol and beyond.
The first stop was Mapledurham, a fabulously beautiful house, church and mill. Tim O'Connor demonstrated the latest development on his Hobie Mirage-driven canoe Zelva - a fitted tent.
The tent is supported by wooden hoops that fold down over the bow and stern. They blend into the lines of the boat nicely when down, and when up give lots of headroom although the shape might be a bit odd.

I wandered down to the mill and was astonished to see electricity being generated by a reverse-Archimedes screw, a very impressive bit of kit. The old mill wheel (or a replica thereof) showed how technology has moved on.
In the morning we arose to find Zelva hauled out of the water and Tim looking worriedly at a long crack between two strakes just below the waterline. He had been woken at 3 am by a worryingly damp feeling. The dampness continued to rise so he reluctantly got up to investigate.
The crack seemed to have been caused by the trailer, which had been modified slightly bringing a roller up too far against the hull.
But the Home Built Boat Rally has the expertise and the tools! Application of marine sealant and duct tape made Zelva watertight in minutes and we continued down river.

Saturday 22 June 2013

Skiff, Stirling and Sidecar

Beale Park now has a Racing and Riverboat Museum which I didn't get to see because I had to get away early on the Sunday to go downstream with the HBBR, which will be the subject of the next few posts. However, the Museum had a tent at the show and showed this gorgeous double skiff made by Wally Downing of Ashleighs Boatbuilders in nearby Pangbourne in 1906.
It was made for boat operators Hobbs of Henley and the Hobbs family still owns it, remarkably. It is mahogany on oak frames.
A new feature at the show was a bunch of Stirling engine fans. Stirling engines are the power plant of the future and always will be. They are theoretically highly efficient, totally silent and completely reliable, but they are fantastically complex and have never taken off. The Swedish navy had some Stirling-powered submarines but that is about it.
The Stirling engines propelled boats round the lake in eerie silence, but the engines themselves were clearly works in progress, not designed to be lovely and old-fashioned like the steamers at the show.
By the way, by a nice coincidence the performances of a Stirling engine is indicated by its Beale number.
I omitted to post a picture of the sidecar/cordless canoe actually attached to its motorcycle yesterday, so here it is.
Which gives me an excuse to show you a photo of the wonderful boat-tailed car on the Henwood and Dean stand, as usual.

Friday 21 June 2013

Cordless Canoe Challenge

It wasn't rowing but it was sure entertaining - Water Craft's Cordless Canoe Challenge produced the usual rich crop of boats driven only by standard power tools.
They varied from the beautifully designed and crafted to Heath Robinson concoctions of string and elastic bands; from the straightforward to the wonderfully eccentric.
Joe Rutland made a return appearance with last year's winner, Velociraptor, to triumph once again. I just love the design values of this boat, simple wooden parts bringing four cordless drills into a recognisable 'four cylinder' engine.
The other contenders were largely based on long thin kayaks, but my favourites were clearly there for fun rather than any serious hope of winning (though the prize, two top-of-the-range Makita cordless drills) was certainly worth having.
One guy had a cordless drill in each hand and one mounted on the transom, switched on by pulling a string run over his shoulder and round his foot.
Another had created a wonderful detachable sidecar for his classic bike. Complete with a properly salty wheel. Left hand down a bit, Mr Mate!
At the prizegiving, Joe Rutland extremely generously asked that his prize be distributed among the runners-up instead, as he had won last year.
Joe is about to offer a pedal-powered version of Velociraptor for sale - see his website here.

Thursday 20 June 2013

A Folding Boat at Beale Park

Beale wouldn't be the same without a folding boat or two, and this year's highlight was the amazing Frankton Dinghy, developed by design engineer and sailor Martin Walford.
The hull is W shaped both for stability and to avoid the need for a centreboard to sail to windward, Martin says. 
But the truly wacky thing is the way the hull folds into itself to form a compact box for carrying on deck or on a car roof.
Boards at bow and stern fold in, then the side coamings fold over to bring the rowlocks inside the hull. Then both ends fold up and over. It really is small when completely packed up, but should be easy to deploy when needed.
Martin reckons it will be handy for yachtsmen who want a tender they can keep at home rather than left to the mercy of great British weather/thieves on the foreshore. Just open it out, row to the boat, fold it up again and stow it on the deck, where it will double as a lifeboat.
Apparently it rows well, but sailing trials are yet to start. The Frankton Dinghy will be available as a kit for home construction - more details here.

Wednesday 19 June 2013

Naval Rowing at Beale

The Historical Maritime Society (HMS - geddit?) demonstrated their replica of an 18th century frigate's launch at Beale Park.
The replica is very impressive, 23ft long and pretty well made and accurate as far as I could see. The costumes looked good, giving an excellent impression of what a naval crew would have looked like in the age before uniforms.
Most of the crew needed to lose a couple of stone and at least three decades to look the part properly though.
Their rowing needs to sharpen up too. The authentic rowlocks, simple slots in the gunwale, obviously limit the swing of the oar but they must be able to come forward more and lean back a little further. Arms straight, boys!
And their timing is awful.
Apart from that, a top job.

Tuesday 18 June 2013

Thames Traditional Boat Society at Beale Park

As usual, the Thames Traditional Boat Society brightened up the Beale Park Thames Boat Show with its beautifully-maintained collection of antique Thames skiffs.
I got to row Thomasina, a vision of wood under bright varnish. I can't believe it was the first time I have rowed with Thames-style rowlocks, the hardwood frames that can be slid out for replacement if damaged.
The oars were familiar, with their original buttons made of layers of leather held down by a pair of copper nails. They were ubiquitous once, so even today the plastic collars on carbon-fibre blades ares still referred to as 'buttons'.
Thomasina was a joy to row, especially with the friendly TTBS members who took me out. Despite the usual problems fitting into a boat evidently designed for midgets.
The display included a racing punt, a terrifyingly narrow plank that was nonchalantly being propelled down the river by an expert. The invited me to have a go but I really hadn't packed enough spare trousers to cope with the inevitable ducking so I declined. Some other day perhaps.

Monday 17 June 2013

Good Wood at Beale Park

Conventional wisdom dictates that you should never buy and ex-demonstrator vehicle. The clutch will be shot, it will have been driven by hundreds of incompetent drivers over short distances and will be a nightmare.
But this ex-demo can only have taken up and be better than a new traditionally-built clinker boat, which can be expected to leak copiously when first put into the water. And the 13 grand price tag is very reasonable for a craftsman-built boat in perfect decorative condition, as far as I could see.
The boat is a copy of a Lakes skiff, built by Good Wood Boat Company in Cockermouth. The owner, reformed nuclear engineer Steve Beresford, was commissioned to make a copy of a hire boat owned by Keswick Launch on Derwentwater and provide proper plans so they could replace time-expired boats in their fleet as the need arose. The craftsmen who used to be able to do it by eye are long gone, it seems.
The outriggers are interesting - an unusual but attractive semi-circular shape with a pin for the traditional-style oar with a hole.
I didn't get a chance to row her, unfortunately, but one suspects that the oars are too short and the handles too far apart.
But that must be expected for a hire boat.

Saturday 15 June 2013

A Peapod at Beale

Peapods are East Coast (of the US) boats originally used by lobstermen and such. They look a bit like half a peapod, a flattish double-ended hull.
Tim Talo built Jesta, a 14ft Maine peapod from a design by Joel White when he was at the Boat Building Academy at Lyme Regis last year. It is strip planked in western red cedar, so it has none of the framing or stringers that make traditional boats a bit busy internally. There is a series of pictures of the build here.
Tim kindly let me row it round the lake a few times and it moves quickly and smoothly, in fact a lovely boat.
But...I know I am going to sound a bit monotonous about this...the oars are too short. Inboard, the handles are too far apart so your hands act independently instead of as one, and outboard the shafts are not long enough to get enough leverage in the water.
I am thinking of setting up a consultancy to advise boatbuilders on correct oar length. Fees will be modest, and payable in the universal currency of BEER.

Thursday 13 June 2013

At the Beale Park Thames Boat Show

Traditional boatbuilders were a bit thin on the ground at Beale this year, with several longstanding exhibitors missing. The recession, the cost of stands and the sad fact that few sales are made actually at the show (though the contacts may result in sales down the line) has made boatbuilders with slender budgets think twice.
But of the few that made it, a gratifyingly large proportion had rowing boats. Salter was there with their plastic skiff at a mere two grand (well, £1,995 if you want to be pedantic), and a young company called Classic Sailboats was showing the Menai 14, a lovely skiff in grp with wood trim.
Adrian Richardson took me out in her, and she showed a nice turn of speed (one of the sailors complained "Why are you going faster than us?"). She looked great, despite the fact that the varnish was not dry when she was put on the trailer (where have I heard that before?).
No price yet, and Adrian said the oars will be longer and spoonier in the production model.

Thanks to Mrs Richardson for the photo.

Wednesday 12 June 2013

Wot I did on my Hols

I've been away and I had a fantastic time, thanks for asking.
First stop was the Beale Park Thames Boat Show on Saturday, where I saw the magnificent Hoi Larntan, the first St Ayles skiff in the south of England. She really is beautifully built, but the oars are, shall we say, way too short and far too heavy. This is already apparent to the builders, who are planning to make some new ones out of spruce instead of the more economical deal they started with.
They are also going to change the steering arrangement from the tiller, which prevents sharp turns to port, to more conventional yoke and lines.
I got a scratch crew of Home Built Boat Rally types out and we took her onto the Thames for a quick thrash. As with all St Ayles skiffs, she moves nicely but the rowing positions are too short for those of us of average build. The picture shows eminent boatbuilder David Bewick coxing, with some antique Thames skiffs of the Thames Traditional Boat Society in the background.
St Ayles skiffs were featured in Countryfile on the Beeb recently, including an interview with Alec Jordan and the traditional humiliation of a TV journalist who was forced to join a crew in a race and came last.
But for me the highlight was an interview with a chap who remembered the coastal rowing scene in the 1950s, when miners used to build their own boats and race them as a change from the cramped and stifling conditions in the pits.
Hi father used to own a boat, the True Vine, which one would assume would indicate a religious bent but in fact seems to have been a reference to his fondness for a jar or two. He didn't win the rowing races but did win the race to the pub afterwards, his son recalled.
The segment is about 55 minutes into the programme.

Friday 7 June 2013

St Ayles Skiffs Everywhere

It's all go on the St Ayles Skiff front.
Tomorrow, I am going to the Beale Park Boat Show on the Thames near Pangbourne, where the southernmost skiff in Britain (so far) will be making an appearance.
Constructed over the winter by a group in Blakeney, on the Norfolk coast, the skiff is called Hoi Larntan, local dialect for a skipper or master, meaning 'high lantern' or 'high learned one'. Apparently.
I hope to get a row in her tomorrow.
The picture above shows Adrian Hodge working on a spar, wearing what looks suspiciously like a Langstone Cutters beanie presented to him when he put us all up for the Carrow Cup race last December. We hope it kept that famous Norfolk nip at bay.
The westernmost St Ayles Skiff (probably) is coming over to Scotland for the World Championships, and she is without doubt the most unusual so far constructed. In fact, she is unique among boats, being also rigged as a sort of harp.
Sephira was built by pupils of the Moravian Academy in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, under the direction of the woodwork teacher Michael Brolly. He decided the boat did not do enough for the plight of whales, so he added a series of strings that can be rubbed to produce sounds at the frequencies that whales can hear, down in the briny deeps.
"It is believed that the size of the instrument will convey to the whales the seriousness of our intent to communicate with them", Michael writes on the Musical Ark website.
Michael is bringing Sephira to Scotland under his own steam, unassisted by the school or anyone else, and he needs a lot of help with the cost. Contribute lavishly to this endeavour at his Kickstarter page, which also has a rather good video of the boat in action.
Finally, the first St Ayles Skiff in Canada has hit the water of the Bay of Quinte.
One might assume it was the northernmost St Ayles Skiff ever. After all, it's in the Land of the Frozen North, no?
No. The Bay of Quinte is 44 degrees North, and even my house in the soft south coast is 50 degrees North. Thank god for the Gulf Stream.

Tuesday 4 June 2013

Rowing gadgets

Home boat builders just love rowing gadgets like the Hobie Mirage drive or the various forward-facing rowing gadgets you can get.
Unfortunately, Hobie make buying a Mirage drive without one of their effective but rather horrid rotomoulded canoes extremely difficult and expensive, though that hasn't stopped the Home Built Boat Rally's Tim O'Connor from obtaining one and fitting it in his self-designed camping canoe. 
Paul Smythson of the HBBR has even fitted one to the rudder of his Walkabout, linked by an ingenious crank mechanism to pedals in the cockpit to form a human-powered outboard.
The Frontrower from Ron Rantilla is very readily available to home builders, in contrast, and his latest newsletter shows how varied and interesting the results are.
Frontrower boats are stylish
Frontrower boats are speedy
Frontrower rowers are tough and resourceful