In 1974 I bought “Lilith” for £100 and uttered the fateful words “I’ll do it up”. The die was cast!
At the time I was living on a pair of floating chicken hutches in Chester. Across the canal was Taylors Boatyard where Alan Parry was busy rebuilding the Taylors Cruiser “Barbara Joan” which had been burned out by vandals. I went over and asked where I could get some oak from. He said I shouldn’t bother with oak. “Just go down to Deeside timber and get some planks of red deal, It’ll be just as good as oak for what you want” he said. I thought this was odd, but I was short of funds and Alan was obviously a really good boatbuilder.
Off I went to the timber merchant and bought the longest piece of 2″ X 8″ red deal that they had. I ripped a rotten plank out of “Lilith”s side, cut some rough scarph joints in the ends of the new wood, then bolted it into the gash that I had made in the boat’s side. Soon I learned how to steam planks for the stern end of the boat and gradually the rotten old oak was replaced by sturdy new pine.
By 1976 the entire back half of the boat above the waterline had been renewed, but I was getting uneasy about Alan’s advice. He had actually given me bad advice through kindness. Assuming that I would just do a bit of work on “Lilith” then give up, the usual pattern for young hippies working on wooden boats, he didn’t want to see me waste a lot of money on top quality materials.
I bought some larch and later some oak. With these I rebuilt the fore end, making longer planks than it was possible to buy ready cut from a timber merchant.
Another difficulty with the stern end of the boat was that I didn’t know how important it was to fit some bracing when bending the planks. The old wooden knees had become weak and wobbly. They simply moved inwards under the pressure, making the stern end of the boat very slim.
Now has come the time to start putting things right. The old pine planks have actually lasted quite well. A couple were replaced after about 10 years, but most of the deal has lasted nearly 30 years. Now it’s deteriorating rapidly and the next few dockings will have to concentrate on replacing it. Generally the plan is to replace two short pine planks with one long oak plank. At the same time the shape of the stern end has to be returned to what it should be.
In December 2003 “Lilith” was put on the slipway at Ashton Canal Carriers for inspection and to enable major repairs.
A few years ago I put a screwdriver through a plank behind the range when “Lilith” was on dock. There was not the time to renew the plank so I let a piece of timber in and plated over it. This seemed a good place to start. As the curve of the plank was to be changed it would be necessary to replace the corresponding plank on the other side to keep the boat symmetrical.
The two condemned planks were ripped out but, as the one on the sidebed side was removed, the one below it started to crumble away. This had to be removed too, which meant that another one had to be taken out of the other side to keep the symmetry. As the lower plank on the range side was rather short, the next one along was ripped out too. The plan to replace two planks had suddenly expanded to five. Though only 4 new planks would be fitted, one of the new oak planks replacing two pine ones.
With a gaping hole in the stern of the boat I took the opportunity of improved access to strengthen up the hatches and step as they were starting to get rather weak. The next job was to cut a couple of pieces of hardwood to make up the difference between the old profile and the new one, copied from one of “Lilith”s sisters sunk at Ellesmere Port. This wood was spiked down to the top of the oak bottom strake ( fitted in 1982) on a bed of chalico to seal it. Pieces of softwood were then steamed to fit against the old slim curve of the stern and planed on the outside to the new curve. These packing pieces are to act as formers for the new planks but will be removed when the top two planks are replaced in a few years time.
A day was appointed for unloading the new oak log from “Forget me Not”. I rang round selected volunteers who I knew to be strong and sturdy and recruited a sufficient timber heaving team. For various quite valid reasons most of them didn’t turn up! Instead I had to rope in various strong people who just happened to be there anyway. Luckily, one of the people who did arrive was Phil Dixon. Without the aid of his ox like strength I think the wood would still be aboard “Forget me Not”
The next job was spiling. This involves tacking a thin board inside the gap left by the removed plank and marking it with the shape of the plank, then transferring that shape on to the new timber. Once this is done satisfactorily the new plank can be cut, using a hand held circular saw.
The day allotted for steaming the first of the new oak planks, one 25′ long and the other 18′, was one of vicious gales and intermittent lashing rain. Steam was provided by Ashton Canal Carriers vertical boiler. The ends of the planks were put into an improvised steambox made from a length of ducting and an oil drum wrapped around with two large bulk bags then insulated with layers of old carpet. With steam fed in through a rubber hose, this box did its job well.
At one point a powerful gust of wind went down the boiler chimney and caused jets of flame to roar out of the ashpan. Roy the boilerman wisely retreated outside, only to be showered with hot cinders, along with the rest of us, when the air flow reversed and sucked most of the fire out through the chimney.
After a couple of hours steaming the planks were well cooked and it was time to start fitting them. The first one was manoeuvred out of the box and carefully pushed into the hoodings ( a rebate in the stern or stem post intended to receive the plank ends) and I drilled it and spiked it to the sternpost as the rest of the team held the plank steady. Once the back end was firmly fixed, the other end was steadily carried towards the boat and the hot oak plank bent like liquorice round the moulds. It was then drilled through a knee and bolted up where it needed extra pressure. With the first plank pulled as far in as it would go, we repeated the process on the second plank. All went smoothly.
The next day work started on bolting in the planks and cutting scarph joints to join them to the next planks along. Two more new oak planks then had to be spiled, cut, steamed and fitted, then all the new seams caulked with oakum.
Meanwhile work was in hand renewing the ice plating on the left hand side, as this was rusted through. Graham Quantrill has become an expert on making chalico as vast quantities of this excellent material were needed to seal the ice plates to the planking. More chalico was needed when some of the pine side planks were found to need pieces letting in where they had gone rotten. They were then plated over. This is a temporary measure until those planks can be replaced.
Colin Sales and Duncan Glynn have made an excellent job of renewing the shoeing for the whole length of the boat. This is thin metal folded round the ends of the elm bottom boards to protect them from abrasion. It normally has to be renewed about every 10 years. Some of the new shoeing is stainless steel so that should last well.
As the work on “Lilith” progressed Winter turned into Spring, which was followed by Summer. I never expected the job to last so long. The next few dockings on “Lilith” are likely to be fairly long ones as she needs quite a bit of work. All the deal planks fitted in the mid 1970s are reaching the end of their lives. I had assumed that on her next docking “Lilith” would receive more new planks in the stern end, above the new ones that we’ve just done. However, it now looks as though the planking along the right hand side of the hold, including the first plank that I ever fitted, is in worse shape and will need to be tackled next.
Eventually, all of the new planks were fitted and everything caulked up tight. The seams were pitched and everything given a coat of good hot tar. A day was appointed for the launch and, after the surveyor had come to have a good poke around the hull, the chocks were removed and Lilith moved sideways down the groaning tracks into the canal.
Don’t worry, we ain’t finished yet. There’s still masses of work to do on the cabins and cloths to get her looking decent again. More volunteers always appreciated.