Thursday, 13 April 2017

A reformed Rockhopper's Thoughts on Ballast

I have a couple of confessions to make and don't know which of my sins is worse.

In the West coast of Scotland, where I sail, there's a great deal of deep water, but sadly there are also an awful lot of rocks, with a strange capacity to spring up at odd times, usually when you're opening another bottle or storming along on a beam reach without a care in the World or both.

Some of these rocks have special names, after the ancient mariners who found them and maybe foundered on them. Nearby we have Campbell's Rock and Hutchison's Rock to name but two. Others just have generic names, like Sgeir Dubh, the black skerries that you find all over. Anyone who has sailed here for a while will have met one or two of them, otherwise is probably dishonest.

The problem has been recognised by yacht designers over the years and may be a reason for the considerable drag often given to his long keels by Alfred Mylne and contemporaries. The old yachties knew that with luck gravity would help them to slide back into deeper water. Indeed an old lady assured me that Scottish Islanders carried a spinnaker pole for the sole purpose of assisting on those occasions.

Mylne's keels also feature a sloping forward end, which means that when you do strike it's the lead that hits and absorbs the shock rather than the delicate timber structure of the boat. Contrast the extensive damage done to a deep modern fin keel cutting the corner in a race at speed - boatyard's delight!

This brings me to the second confession. I've messed a bit with Iain's design, bringing the ballast keel forward and sloping it, as you will see from this photo showing the pattern for the lead.

The effect of this is to add some lead forward, but I've also deepened the ballast from 125mm to 135mm, an overall increase in weight of about 8% to something a little over 400kg. Factors in this were receiving from Iain at the start of the year an amended construction drawing suggesting a modest increase in draught and a feeling that there's plenty displacement and it won't harm a beamy centre boarder that is not to be trailed about to carry a bit more weight. Also we're experiencing much stronger winds around here in Summer, due to climate change. Time will tell.

I haven't posted here for a while, as having got the hull done in January progress has become slower, building deadwood and the keel pattern. I had a trip to the wonderful town of B'oness, a Victorian jewel surrounded by oil refineries, where Ricky the foreman at Ballantines Foundry declared that my effort should just about serve as a pattern, so the keel will be cast in Scotland at one of our oldest family companies, now in the seventh generation.

I'm now coating the hull and turnover day draws nearer.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Hugh Gray's Viking Funeral

Hugh Gray 1947 to 2016

"He loved nothing more than filling his boat with friends and going for a sail.
Hugh was kind, generous, self-effacing and deeply intelligent.
And a good friend to very many of us.
He will be missed." 

Brice Avery

It was very appropriate for Hugh to be given a Viking Funeral and it seems that most of the island were in attendance at Atlantic Centre a week or so ago.

Hugh had been one of the Bilderglug people since the first muster on Toberonochy in 2001. For the uninitiated the muster is similar to Bilderberg because of its total secrecy, which I am breaking with this post, and the fact that it happens in a lovely place, but also rather different, because the people who go are unfailingly nice, decent, interesting members of the human race who value the company of our fellows and the natural environment. At least that's our story.

It was quite emotional to say farewell to the first of our stalwarts to die. Will the muster end up as a sort of Hebridean tontine with sometime around the year 2090 some poor ancient sitting on the shore pondering a fleet of lovely wee boats hauled up on the shingle, that he or she is too old to sail?

Here are some images from the event.

Across from the bigger island on the Belnahua

The ship, with the ghosts of former islanders looking on

The ghosts arriving on their puffer

A brisk onshore wind made things look doubtful

Farewell messages all written and stowed.

Getting an offing.

Ready to launch


Hugh on his journey.

Well alight and still afloat.

The good ship Hede, the man himself at the helm.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Hull Complete

Of course I know perfectly well that when the hull is planked up you're only a fraction of the way along the voyage to the completed boat, but it's quite an important stage psychologically, because in a way the boat has life from this point and what happens from now on is a steady progression.

There was a bit of a worry in this case, because I think this is the first time that Alec Jordan has produced a kit of planks for the Kotik. Right now in the World there are, I think, two of these boats, in Russia and Austria, with another perhaps building in Australia. The idea for stretching the proven Wee Seal design by Iain Oughtred came from Mikhail Markov, whose hull was built for him in the Netherlands by Bert van Baar.

The professional builders would have lofted the planks themselves, but doing that requires not only skills that I don't possess but a suitable lofting floor, completely impossible in Argyll  where most of the floors are off-level, either deliberately to allow hosing out after the cows have been in or because most of the local builders haven't heard of spirit levels. I've been very lucky to have found one of the few truly level floors around, even if it's open to the elements.

In the event I and, I suspect, Alec have been relieved to find that the planks which he plotted on computer from Iain's drawings have gone together rather well and in a timescale of about four weeks, which included a short break at Hogmanay and was occasionally disrupted by gales of about 120kph.

Now that the ship (sort of) exists she needs a name and I think she'll be called the Seamew.

Naming ships is a tricky business, for all sorts of reasons.

You have to avoid everything with bad connotations and some with nice ones are already ubiquitous.

In Scotland one should avoid Gaelic names unless fluent in the tongue. Taking advice from a Gael is fraught with problems, as evidenced by the many white settlers who live in Tigh Beag. The late Iain Christie of Portree wrote a poem on this subject, see below. I've seen some boats around parading some pretty bad Gaelic and have only minimal knowledge.

You may have to say or spell the boat's name on VHF at some stage.

Avoid accidental misunderstandings. John Gardner told me that in the French navy of the Eighteenth Century the first captain had the privilege of naming the ship and so the name La Belle Pauline was submitted for his wife, but a wag in the Admiralty changed it to La Belle Poule, a very different sort of lady altogether..

Seamew is an old Scots word for a seagull, akin to the Danish Mage and the German Moewe (forgive lack of accents). Quite short and there don't seem to be too many others about (the boats, that is, not the birds).

The Crofters Song

Words by the late Iain Christie, Portree
Tune – The Road to the Isles


From Brighton and from Aldershot and Kensington we’ve come
And we want to buy a cottage here in Skye…
With at least a hundred acres and a view of Eigg and Rhum
And seclusion… for we’re really very shy


Electricity and gas we want and water from the mains
Easy connections to the nearest motorway
With connections to the telephone and to the sewage drain
And a Gaelic name that’s not too hard to say


The house must be authentic like a Hebridean croft
Central heating from the peat upon the fire
With room for a solarium and sauna in the loft
Fitted carpets in the stable and the byre



We’ll arrange to have it surveyed for an architect’s report
That there’s damp proof course beneath the hardwood floor
That the walls are made of granite
That the windows aren’t too short
And there’s double mortice locks upon the door



To keep our poodle company we’ll breed rabbits, geese and goats
Make our fortune making butter, milk and cheese
From the Highland Board we’ll get a grant to make toy plastic boats
And to titled friends we’ll offer B & B


Friday, 23 December 2016

Hull coming along

Moorings in the loch, waiting for boats

It's great to be back doing something creative after three years working in the shadow of other highly creative people in the fine art world. I think that without realising it I became a bit intimidated by being surrounded by a group of incredibly talented folk. Of course good artists work very hard at keeping their skill levels up and that's true of boatbuilding as well.  Actually with boatbuilding persistence trumps skill and in wood working it's always possible to fix blunders, provided you spot them early.

It's exactly thirty years since my first build and four years since my most recent one, which is too long a gap because I find I'm remaking old mistakes.

I deliberately carry no advertising on this blog, which means that when praise is offered it is unsolicited and really meant. I can't praise highly enough the effort and care taken by Alec Jordan in providing a kit of planks and moulds, absolutely true to the millimetre, but of course unforgiving as a result. This has taken months off the building time, even if I had possessed space big enough to loft the planks. As it is they have to be assembled in the house and only the incredible suppleness of Vendia Plank allows it into the workshop for cleaning up.

Once the planks are ready I have to walk them along to the building shed, lent by a wonderful neighbour.

Progress so far has been quite good, more than half the hull planked in less than a fortnight, working in an open shed in winter. Planks five six and seven are nearly ready to go, but I'll need to wait for the storm to abate because if I take one outside just now I'll be blown across to the top of Cruachan.

First half of plank one, 9 December

Plank two installed, 15 December

Plank four done, 22 December

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Lovely Boat-building Weather

It's a great delight being able to build a boat by the sea and especially nice in Argyll, where the weather is better than anywhere else.

Building any boat requires a lot of time spent on the plans, as it's easy to miss important details, even when Iain's drawings are beautifully drawn and self-explanatory. The more I study them the more I feel that the Kotik design is ideal for safe inshore cruising in comfort, the latter guaranteed by the installation of a Sardine Stove.

I pondered for a while on the rig and decided on the sloop rather than the yawl option. The main advantage of yawl rig in a small boat is getting home safely in a blow, but the cost is a cluttered stern deck and many more fiddly ropes to keep tidy. A small trysail seems a more sensible option.

It seems quite a while since the wood for the keelson, stems and so on arrived on the old car, now gone to Volvo Valhalla, as my devout brother says, "Rust to Rust and Bashes to Bashes".

I'm trying a few innovations with this build, including choice of materials. I chose Accoya for the main structural parts, as it doesn't rot. It's an interesting material. A fast-growing softwood such as Radiata Pine, grown in huge quantities in New Zealand, is sent to the Netherlands where it is pickled in vinegar and machined into useable planks. It's now the wood of choice for makers of good quality timber windows and I'm sorry it wasn't used in our house.

I got some big chunks of this stuff from James Latham & Sons at Eurocentral and it may be the first they have supplied for a boat. It's pretty well clear and stable, as can be seen from the images showing the forward stem in place, fitting perfectly.

The stems were made a few months ago, while details of the kit were sorted out with Alec Jordan

Having the planks machined by Alec means that I may get a chance to sail this boat before I expire. I reckon that 90% of the time spent on my yellow boat was marking out and spiling planks, which I still didn't get entirely right.

It was a great day when the kit arrived, fortunately dry and sunny, as it usually is here of course.

The plank pieces are easily extracted with a Japanese saw. It's a huge mistake, as happened with the Seil skiff, to allow a bunch of old guys with jigsaws to do this. The pieces come out fine, but you've got days of work removing what's left of the wee webs every foot or so.

In line with the spirit of innovation I'm using the Finnish Vendia Plank for the hull. Most glued clinker boats are dry-sailed, but this one will spend months on a mooring and I don't trust conventional "marine" plywood. The Vendia is made differently. Rather than the tree being peeled, as by a giant's pencil sharpener, the wood is sliced lengthwise and reconstituted with most laminations running that way, meaning that you get a stable, very strong material.

Here are some images of progress to date.

Just enough space in the house

Mould one goes below the building base line.

pin-holes showing that Mr Holmes is an old hand with his bandsaw

Saturday, 1 October 2016

A Twenty first Century Model of Livadia

The memory of childhood visits to the Kevingrove Art Gallery, from the era when much of the ground floor was devoted to the ship models, has stayed with me, in common I’m sure with many other Glaswegians of a certain age. Among the sleek racing yachts of George Lennox Watson and the great Clydebuilt liners some real oddities stood out, none more than the almost circular Russian Imperial yacht Livadia, her mystique enhanced by her association with the exotically named Admiral Popov.

In the old days you couldn’t touch the models in their glass cases, but at least you could see them from all sides and get a real sense of their form and beauty. As the years went by they seem to have diminished in importance, first moving to the old Transport Museum at Kelvin Hall, where only a fraction of the total complement was on show, then on to the Riverside Museum, where it seems even fewer can be seen. Much worse, the survivors are now largely built into wall displays. Livadia in particular is currently immured at a height that makes it impossible to appreciate her remarkable design.

The Riverside model was built to the order of Sir William Pearce, the owner of John Elder & Co, and for many decades it sat in a case in the boardroom at Fairfield. A second, more elaborate, model was built at a reputed cost in 1880 of £500 (about £50,000 in today’s money) and sent by Pearce as a present to his client Tsar Alexander II. It sits today in a museum in St Petersburg.

Such models were an important part of the process of obtaining an order and creating goodwill for the builder. Pearce would have realised that the model would enable the Tsar’s dream to be shared with an audience who would otherwise have had little opportunity to see the ship in real life and put his shipyard into the limelight.  It gave the Tsar the opportunity to explain his designer’s radical ideas to those who may have had little or no experience or interest in reading technical drawings. No doubt he would also have pictured himself strolling the spacious decks or hosting a reception or ball in rooms of a size and proportion not usually found on a ship.

Viewing that model, it would be easy for the layman to appreciate just how radical a departure from the conventional Livadia was to be.  It would have been obvious that thanks to the ship’s enormous beam it would be stable in the water (and incidentally make a steady gun platform), for this was the thinking behind the project.

At the Leiper Gallery we decided that our contribution to the Festival of Architecture would be an exhibition dedicated to the life and work of William Leiper and we wanted to include Livadia, which played a significant part in his story, the commission to design the interior being a sufficiently attractive project to lure him back from Paris to resume his architectural practice.

This raised the question, should we try to borrow an existing model or commission a new one? Faced with a choice between which of the two great cities would be more easily persuaded to lend its model we decided not to try.

Model making as a craft has been around for centuries and has greatly moved on recently. Victorian modellers sought total accuracy, a “good” ship model being expected to show every screw and rivet, even where it was impossible to produce this truly to scale. Sadly the effect of doing this could be  distortion and a loss of the viewer’s ability to appreciate form.

Recently a young pretender emerged in the form of Virtual Reality.  But this has some major shortcomings. Interfacing with the world via a screen or visor though impressive, even useful in some applications, has distinct limitations.

A physical model is passive until the viewer approaches it, then without any need for intervening technology he starts to explore the subject, to engage with it on his own terms. Every child will start to examine some new object not just visually but with the fingers, the sense of touch adding another perspective to understanding. Adults do not lose the urge to reach out and feel even the most delicate detail, so sadly many models have to be protected behind glass.

We felt that we had to have a physical, rather than a virtual, model and wanted something that would demonstrate the best that can be achieved with current technologies.

The search for a modeller who would deliver on time to the finest quality was simplified by the discovery that James Pierce of Ambleside had recently acquired Russian in-laws and was likely to be favourably disposed towards the idea.

James studied at Lancaster College of Art and graduated with First Class Honours in Modelmaking for Design & Media from the Bournemouth Arts Institute.  After brief periods with Dyson and the architectural model maker Threadgill  in London he headed back north bringing with him hands-on experience of the latest materials and computer aided machining techniques.  But, perhaps most importantly a fresh approach to model making, a sense of theatre.

Ten years ago he became a partner in a Cumbrian company. Initially the firm built full-sized yachts, moving later to become established as  a world-leading manufacturer of ship and yacht research models. In 1995 & 2000 they contributed to the success of New Zealand’s America’s Cup victory and numerous super-yachts, after which building ‘real’ yachts fell by the wayside to concentrate on research and concept modelmaking. 

With towing tank models the emphasis has to be on accuracy, but concept models primarily require inspiration to make a project come to life. Such models are the client’s first tangible, physical link with a new ship or super yacht design. The excitement of everyone involved is at quite a different level, way above viewing a set of drawings or a computer animation. The project is coming to life. Model making is no longer a technical skill, it is elevated to an art form.
It is interesting to compare the 1880 Livadia model at the Riverside Museum with James’s 2016 interpretation. Having engaged the onlooker without blinding him with an excess of detail a thousand questions are posed, the perfect way to start a new conversation.

All images courtesy of James and Richard Pierce

Thursday, 29 September 2016

The Romanov yacht Livadia - Imperial vanity or prototype weapon of war?

There’s an old saying that the last things anyone wants on a yacht are an umbrella or a naval officer, but a fairy fountain decorated by electric lights in changing colours and sitting in a circular basin surrounded by floral displays must come close.

The fountain, built from statuary marble by Messrs Galbraith & Winton, who were later to create the interior of Glasgow City Chambers, was only one extraordinary feature of Tsar Alexander’s fantastic floating palace Livadia II, built by John Elder & Co at Fairfield in 1880.

Shaped like a giant turbot, the ship measured 259 feet in length with a beam of 153 feet. She was probably the biggest and certainly the most expensive ship launched into the upper reach of the Clyde at that time.

For the Glasgow architect William Leiper the commission to design the interior of this extraordinary floating palace was sufficiently attractive to bring him back from his spell as an art student at the Ecole Julian in Paris.  One can only guess at the excitement he must have felt on being given an unlimited budget to indulge his imagination.

The Architect (23 October 1880) described there being on the awning deck the great State Saloon, 70 feet by 40 feet, “in the plan of an elongated octagon of twelve wide-span elliptic arches” with at one end a highly architectural sideboard with Ionic columns, the Imperial arms supported by carved figures and “foliage festoons” with elaborate candelabras The ceiling was richly moulded and carved in white ivory relieved in gold, the seating in the finest French silk tapestry against a backdrop of heavy crimson plush curtains, the whole in the style of Louis Seize. 

Leiper commissioned the stained glass artist Andrew Wells to design the ceiling of a suite in “Crimean Tartar” style and William de Morgan made a minor but significant contribution with tiles of a special artichoke pattern.

image courtesy of the de Morgan Foundation

That the commission to create the flagship of the Imperial Romanovs, one of the wealthiest families in the World, came to Glasgow was a great tribute to the skills and versatility not only of Glasgow’s shipwrights but also her craftsmen and women. There was also a serious purpose, because for some years naval strategists had been discussing what form the battleships of the future should take, given the new technologies that were developing.

In 1868 the Scottish engineering genius John Elder had read a paper at the Royal United Services Institute entitled “Circular Ships of War, with immersed motive power”, arguing that increasing the beam of a warship could enable it to carry heavier armaments. This was probably based on thinking about some of the vessels involved in the American civil war, in which Elder had played a significant role by providing the Confederate navy with many of its fast blockade runners. He would have become aware of the circular monitors that the Americans had developed.

Vice-Admiral Andrei Alexandrovich Popov was attracted to Elder’s concept and in September 1879 appointed John Elder & Co to construct the Livadia as a prototype. By this time the yard was owned by the formidable Isabella Elder, John’s widow, who had head-hunted William Pearce to run it. It seems that Popov gave the yard at Fairfield an unlimited budget, the price being on a “cost plus” basis with a massive bonus if the ship exceeded fifteen knots on her trials.

William Pearce, assisted by the Dutch engineer Bruno Tideman, produced a modified version of Popov’s design, reputedly  towing a one-tenth sized scale model about Loch Lomond. The result was a turbot-shaped hull, 259 feet (79m) long with a maximum beam of 153 feet (47m), that was launched before about 10,000 spectators on 7 July 1880, when she was named by the Duchess of Hamilton and blessed by a Russian Orthodox priest. Her machinery included three main engines for propulsion and about twenty smaller ones to drive equipment and generate electricity, powering inter alia the fountain.

On 27 September Livadia on her third attempt achieved a speed of 15.725 knots, her engines running in excess of an estimated 12,000HP, earning Pearce a bonus of 414,000 Rubles on top of the base price of about 2.7 million Rubles.

At the end of September Livadia left the Clyde on her maiden voyage. At Plymouth the Grand Duke Constantine joined the ship. On October 19 she left Brest despite warnings of foul weather further south, the Grand Duke insisting that there was no better opportunity to put the yacht through her paces than to have her ride out a storm.

The following three days and nights were a nightmare for the imperial passengers, with the Livadia meeting 27 foot waves. With her shallow draught and blunt entrance she was unable to part the seas, as a narrower ship would have done, instead slamming onto them from above. On the third day the crew found that at least one of the bottom compartments was no longer watertight and it was decided to put into Ferrol in North West Spain, where divers reported that the hull had suffered quite extensive damage. Through the winter, while repairs went on below, the public spaces were used to host numerous balls and high society events.

Tsar Alexander never got a chance to enjoy his eccentric yacht. By the time she arrived in the Black Sea in the Spring of 1881 he had been assassinated. Oddly, Livadia had indirectly saved his life a year earlier, when a bomb placed by one Stefan Khalturin in the basement of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, directly under the dining hall, went off at exactly half past six, but the Tsar, a man of very punctual habits, wasn’t there. He had taken a detour to show his mistress Princess Catherine Dolgoruki the model of the Livadia, a present from her builders, which had arrived that day.

A future post will discuss the building of the model illustrated in the opening image

The Wherrymen

The Wherrymen
Two old friends on the water