Dick Durham May podcast: Thank goodness the nether regions of the vessel can be ignored for another season, and the blow-lamp put to rest
“Scraping a burning surfaceinchesfrom your face while, lying on your back is a kind of torture”
By the time the weather’s good enough to launch your boat, the novelty of being able to see her bottom has worn off. The eagerly awaited sight of her unseen submarine parts is no longer a weedy mystery that was hauled out dripping into the autumn stillness. The thrill now is having her partly under water once more and being able to step aboard without climbing a ladder.
This year I will be relieved to see the back of the bottom as it represents some of the hardest graft I’ve performed for decades. But at least she returns to the sea with a completely renovated underside, because while poking and probing the thick layers of scarlet antifouling I noticed one or two bare patches had cracked off, revealing the pitch pine grain beneath.
‘Right,’ I said, ‘I’ll burn her off.’
Visions of a glass-smooth, wetted surface silkily slicing through the ocean had me searching the shed for my old blow-lamp before recalling that I’d dumped it in the recycling bin years before, at the beginning of my love affair with maintenance-free GRP.
That was when I discovered how difficult it is these days to find a blow-lamp man enough to torch a wooden hull. Chandleries have nothing. Nor do DIY shops. In the end I sourced an industrial burner from a builder’s supply depot and put down a deposit on a propane bottle.
I pieced together the burner with rubber tube, regulator and bottle and set to where I could stand upright, under the run aft, and soon had the paint blistering into black scabs. I scraped them along the plank line into shavings which hung burning from the side of the boat, until with another swipe of the scraper they joined the smoking scraps on the hard-standing. After many hours of labour Wendy May’s hull looked like a downed airliner, its fuselage surrounded by smoking terra firma. Removing the first coat was a slow and pedestrian task. Removing the second was like profiling Mount Etna. Heated by the first coat, it had become a sticky layer of magma-like goo, which instantly cooled to a solidified lava deposit of fissured rock.
But worse was to come because as her lines swooped forward the planking turned slowly from being nearly on edge to a 45° angle. I was able to admire her shape close-up as I contorted myself into a human jig. This I managed first of all in the sitting position from a plastic garden chair, thenfromacartyre.Finally I lay on my back, the gravestone chippings of the hard-standing cushioned by a charity shop raincoat.
‘That’s a labour of love,’ a friendly fellow yachtsman said, about to ask about Wendy May’s provenance.
‘More a labour of loathing,’ I replied while nuzzled up to the keel and he quickly retreated.
Scraping a burning surface inches from your face while lying on your back is a kind of torture. Burning curlicues of paint dropped down the sleeves of my smock and burned my wrists, the scraper blistered my palms and once, determined to finish a section I told myself I’d reach before dusk, I furiously applied extra flame to some stubborn layers around a bronze seacock aperture only to discover it was plastic.
If grovelling along the underside was tough, burning off the waterline was frustrating. Wendy May has no boot-topping, the antifoul abuts the topside paint. At first I tried leaving a gap of two inches, believing I would simply use brute force and a sharp blade to carve the remainder off, but 26ft times two was a Herculean task. So I hunted round the yard for scraps of beading, plywood and battening and, using panel pins, tacked on my wooden ‘masking tape’ at the edge of the anti-foul. This worked effectively: the wood was charred, but the paint beneath unaffected.
As for the third coat, it’s still there.