Square peg, round hole.
04 August 2016 | or Take a run at it
I suppose, if you want to come over all philosophical about things, all human existence and endeavour involves compromises. Competing demands and different priorities have to be judged and balanced. This is the raison d’être of politics despite the manifest failure of most politicians to demonstrate the wisdom, judgement, will and intellectual honesty necessary to its being satisfactorily carried out. Indeed, they seem to serve primarily as exemplars of the seven deadly sins with particular attention being paid to pride and avarice.
Compromises, however, pervade our lives to such an extent that we are frequently unaware of them. They are so all-pervasive, in fact, that we carry many of them out on a subconscious level. They are brought into sharp, conscious relief, though, in the boating life, as has been exemplified by our recent successful transit of The Dreaded Ham Tunnel.
The Dreaded Ham Tunnel is a 565 metre long hole that a load of knackered French navvies hacked out of the rock by hand in 1880. In doing so, they by-passed a two kilometre loop of the river Meuse, thus saving all of twenty minutes on a journey of five days from Troussey to Liege. Someone obviously thought it was worth it. Personally I’d have just knocked the transport costs of slate up by a couple of groats a ton and stuck with the river.
Of course, the more rock you have to dig out, the more navvies you have to pay for more hours. This starts to add up, even if you are only paying them sixpence a fortnight plus a bowl of watery gruel every other day and all the mouldy spuds they can eat.
They may not have had hydraulic tunnel-digging machinery in the 1800s, but they knew all about minimising costs. They dug the tunnel to the minimum cross sectional area they could get away with, just big enough for the standard barges of the day to squeeze through if everyone on board breathed in. Everyone, that is, except for the newly unemployed navvies who now earned their day’s ration of mouldy spuds by lying on their backs on the top of the barge and walking it through with their feet on the roof of the tunnel that they’d just finished digging. The builders had been too tight to include a tow path.
The tunnel is a tad over six metres wide and has a head clearance of 3.1 metres over a width of five metres. Birvidik is 4.7 metres high at its highest point. This, clearly, poses a wee problem.
This mismatch was due to neither ignorance nor oversight. It was a compromise between living accommodation and ease of manoeuvrability. We were well aware of the height limitations of the French canals, but we did not want to spend our lives aboard doing Quasimodo impersonations in a dark and dingy floating facsimile of a stone-age flint mine. Birvidik is a joy to live aboard. She is spacious, light and airy.
And, as mentioned above, tall.
We, however, in cahoots with the builders of the boat, have a cunning compromise. Birvidik is dismantleable.
Her highest point is the stainless steel arch that supports the navigation lights, horn and assorted antennae. This is cunningly hinged so that it can be dropped into a horizontal position on the aft deck merely by removing two heavy duty bolts and then risking a bilateral hernia. This reduces the height to 3.75 metres. Still too high for The Dreaded Ham Tunnel.
The next step is to remove the bimini. (1) This is a rather more challenging procedure than dropping the arch. It starts off easily enough. Firstly, remove all the boathooks, mops, brooms, squeegees, assorted sunglasses, cloths and bungees that are clipped to it. After that, undoing a zip separates the front half from the back half which then folds down over the davits at the stern, conveniently out of the way. You are now left with a sort of narrow canvas wheelhouse fixed onto the glass windscreens. To remove this, undo the 36 press studs holding the bimini onto the windscreens, hold up the bimini frame with one hand while simultaneously removing a drop-nose pin from each side of the boat and then try to lower the whole caboodle onto the aft deck, preferably without getting any delicate body parts caught in the multitude of hinges in the frame. The leverage here can produce some serious forces. You should see my thumbnail.
This knocks the height down to 3.5 metres.
Still too high.
The windscreens were going to have to go.
These are sheets of 4 mm toughened glass, held in metal frames, 1.2 metres x 0.8 metres. They each weigh about 20 kg and there are five of them, three at the front and one on each side. Luckily, the builders have installed them on hinges. Pulling on pins at the top of the joint disconnects the screens from each other and they can then be folded flat.
This gets the height down to 2.82 metres. Actually, it would have been 2.82 metres if the washing machine and spin dryer hadn’t been on the coachroof and were now the highest point on the boat. They had to be manhandled down onto the aft deck. Now we had a height of 2.82 metres. Jackpot!
Well, it would have been Jackpot if two of the front screens didn’t overhang the coachroof when they were folded down. This left them vulnerable to collision with the arched tunnel ceiling. Replacing them would be very expensive. It was no good – they’d have to come off. Ten nuts and bolts later they were, indeed, off and stacked on the aft deck which now looked like a boat jumble.
This led to intellectual challenge number two. There was a lock at each end of the tunnel. For the borderline Asperger’s amongst you, these locks measure 48 x 6 metres and have a rise of just over 3 metres. All of which means that the sluice gates have to let almost 900 tonnes of water into the confined space of the lock in about five minutes. This can produce a fair amount of turbulence.
The prime objective here is to restrain the boat so as to prevent it being bounced around like the ball in a pinball machine and, in the process, engaging in altercations with the lock walls and the other boats locking through with us. Such activities tend to lead to chunks being gouged out of the immaculate paintwork and sodding great dents being knocked into the 6 mm steel.
This requires laying out several long ropes then scampering up ladders in the lock walls before rushing around the boat adjusting ropes and deploying fenders, whilst simultaneously avoiding falling over the side into the maelstrom issuing from the sluice gates. This is difficult to do when the aft deck looks like an obstacle course set up for a particularly misanthropic episode of It’s a Knockout. In order to preserve life and limb, therefore, there was a further delay while windscreens, washing machines et al were manhandled down the companionway steps and into the interior of the boat. All we had to do then was set up the searchlights as the tunnel is pitchblack - not so much as a brace of moonlighting glowworms to lighten the Stygian depths. After about two hours’ preparation we were off.
All the effort paid off. We breezed through the locks and the tunnel without a hitch, although there were enough bats flitting about in the tunnel to populate a Hammer Horror compilation. We made our way contentedly to Vireux-Wallerand where we tied up and spent around three hours putting the boat back together. Why does it always take so much longer to put things together than it does to take them apart? (2)
Not to worry, only another three tunnels to go this season. Mind you, that covers 300 kilometres over which there are about 300 bridges, the heights of which are shrouded in mystery.
Watch this space.
(1) For the non boaties, a Bimini is a sort of canvas tent on a stainless steel frame. This provides the aft deck and the steering position with some degree of protection from the weather.
(2) Because you have to do it so many times before you get it right, that’s why. Think about it statistically. There are a lot more ways of taking something apart than there are of putting it back together again and it still working. In fact, for the latter there is frequently only one way.