I've not written much this year because basically I've had a year where I haven't been full time on the project, my first since 2001. I never thought that day would come. There has always been the next step, the next gremlin to kill, parts to build or source and systems to get stable and reliable but early on this year we knew the pressure had lifted for a while. It was a glorious summer, I got my gardens in order and, best of all, I got back to my first love - Group B rally cars, but more of that next year.
That's not to say we didn't keep working on the big blue boat, mind you. As everyone who has ever restored or rebuilt something knows, the final 10% takes as long and is as difficult as the previous 90% and that was where we found ourselves on our return from Bute.
The delays since then are something we never imagined would happen and on one hand it's been frustrating but on the plus side it has given us the time to really puzzle over some of the more difficult problems that we worried might still be unsolved when it came time to display the boat.
By far the most annoying one was the gremlin that lived in the igniters. It first raised its ugly head on Bute when we blew an igniter fuse ahead of our first attempt to get up on the plane. A quick dash ashore, strip off the engine cover and a new fuse and our first planing run was made all the more spectacular by the fading light, but despite our belief that water ingress was the trouble, and Sally's valiant efforts with waterproofing tape and her hairdryer, it happened again and again.
And it kept happening after we got home resulting in complete failure of the right hand igniter on two occasions, which Clever Barry remedied by rewinding it and us using ever smaller fuses, but then it started affecting the boost pumps too, causing them to switch on uncommandedly and blow their fuse. This problem plagued us right up until the middle of this year when Checkie returned to the fold following a few years of other commitments and Clever Barry was once more consulted. Between them they brainstormed the problem, took a few wrong turns and blew a LOT of 10A fuses but the day finally arrived (after I also electrocuted myself twice for the cause) when the igniters switched on and ran perfectly and the boost pumps stayed contently on their own circuit.
An igniter with its lid off. A fairly common sight to everyone who's scratched their head having previously stared forlornly at yet another popped fuse. The internals are all new, built by Clever Barry and contain things like home made capacitors and platinum points from aircraft magnetos, even when they're not blowing fuses setting them up is a black art.
But when we finally found the answer and fixed the issue, it was a connection from one of the coils that allowed stray volts and things to leach into the boat's frame that would normally be connected that way but not in our case, it all worked beautifully and the sight of a healthy, crackling spark at the igniter plug was a great reward.
A small thing but a big thing really. Imagine if we'd not had the time or the luxury to put so much work into solving that. We'd have an ongoing problem with no solution and Barry wont be rewinding coils forever. Tick that one off the list.
Another system we really wanted to develop to reliable perfection was on-board air starting. Just to recap, they used an experimental Lucas Rotax system in 66. Single-use spherical gas bottles made by Bristol Aerojet for rockets (scary and dangerous even when new, said the man from Lucas Rotax when he fitted them!) were linked by the grandfather of the V-Bomber rapid start system into a high pressure start turbine on the nose of the 701 Orpheus. The test figures from Haywards Heath in 1966 seemed like the stuff of wishful fairytales. Clean starts with good temperatures in 2 or 3 seconds with virtually no gas used and from a total of only 32 litres at 200bar.
For comparison, we used 100 litres of gas at 232bar, achieved slow starts with higher jetpipe temperatures than those recorded in 66 and almost emptied the bottles every time. It was a problem we really had no handle on ahead of Bute, which is why we used another boat to get the engine going. It was an awkward way to do it and it introduced a whole extra layer of difficulty we could have well done without so the air start was another major item we've had the luxury to work on.
The short version (and I will write all of this up with much more detail next year along with the other topics) is we obtained a HP starter (which is completely incompatible with the 101 engine so we couldn't just bolt it on) and reverse engineered its characteristics into a modified LP starter. We had to get engineers from the French company who inherited Lucas Rotax to do some numbers for us to be sure it could handle the extra loads and thankfully that all proved out. And so, armed with a starter that could do the job, we then went ahead and designed on-board gas storage and valves as a drop-in replacement for the old system (which is restored and can be bolted on for display purposes) that will fire the engine and match the 66 figures. It worked well straight out of the box but there was room to re-route hoses, fine tune the pressures at various points and generally get the most bang for our buck, so to speak, so we did a lot of that this year. It was a long haul to get it where we want it but we know now that next time K7 goes out on the water she'll fire up independently with all the correct sounds and sights that people saw back in the day. We're very pleased with our ongoing start system development.
The new start system rigged for testing. We secured it to a trolley, connected it to an engine on our test stand and charged the bottles. Once we had it thoroughly tested away from the boat it was painted and fully assembled and the boat taken outside for a series of live firing trials. At last we could fully replicate the results from 1966 with a new and safe onboard air system.
The engine is literally blasted from a standstill through the speed at which it lights and almost up to idle before it can even get warm! The vapour is from the rapidly expanding compressed air, made especially exciting by the slightly misty weather.
So that was another box ticked.
We got the signwriting finished too.
A charming veteran of the trade called John was volunteered by his son to come and paint the sponsons. He was ready to retire and wanted an interesting job on which to bow out and hang up his brushes so he came to visit with us and it was a pleasure to watch him work and hear his stories. No vinyl graphics were used in the recreation of this iconic boat.
There's still a pair of Bluebird motifs to paint on the rear flanks of the tail cover but I'll do those next year.
Our other major effort this year has been canopies. As anyone who has followed our story will know, we built a beautiful canopy with the intention of replicating it on our return from Bute that is now somewhere in bits on the bottom of Loch Fad despite our efforts to get it back so we've been working on moulds and processes to cast new canopy frames. (The one we made was hand carved from acrylic and a nightmare to make and fabricate into an actual canopy). The one we assembled so we could run after losing the first one was never great and after being used for lots of development it was cracked and split and finally retired.
The new canopy frame development is almost there, though we've not yet attempted to actually build a canopy but it's coming and it will be as good a job as the air start and the igniters when it does. We're very proud of the standard of our work.
There's also been lots of detail work. For example, we chased leaks out of the boost pumps. It doesn't do to let them dry out, they need to sit with a bit of inhibiting fluid bathing their carbon seals even when they're not running and if it leaks out it's messy, smelly and not there. So we sorted all that. It also lengthens the time between maintenance visits.
So we're not far away with all the major jobs. There's the airspeed indicator to finish plumbing in then test and calibrate but as its pipes need to be parted to take the fin off, and the fin has to come out to get the boat not only through our door but also that of the Bluebird Wing, we need to know we can separate and reconnect those pipes reliably and as they were simply aluminium pipe joined with short pieces of rubber hose in 66 we may mock up the visible parts and put some proper connectors out of sight. Some clever ex-RAF people are coming in the new year to get it all working and it wouldn't to to accept their kind offer, expert work and experience only for us to make the system unreliable in the long term. There's the jetpipe cooling ducts to fabricate too. The Orpheus 701 and 101 have their cooling ducts on opposite sides of the engine so none of that is compatible with the result that half of Loch Fad was vacuumed under the engine cover whenever there was any spray about, which was most of the time. That, at least, is an easy fix and a relatively simple piece of fabrication so we can rattle that off in no time.
All that's left is the elephant in the room. Namely how much longer until the delays are over and both parties can move forward.
We had hoped agreement would have been reached by now and 2024 would be a clean sheet but unfortunately we're going to spill over into part of the new year but the good news is that the talking is happening and we're getting closer and if everyone pulls together we can achieve a lot in 2024. It's a complex thing to put together such that both parties get what they need from it, which is why it's taking a little longer than hoped, but the plus side of having lawyers to do the talking is that they suck all the passion and emotion out of it and deal only in business-like facts. They don't want to mess about, they want the job done and admiring words from their clients in the Legal 500, a snippet on their bio saying 'I settled this difficult case' and then move on to the next case. They've seen it all before, know what's to be done and make every effort to guide their clients to a fair conclusion. It's refreshing once you get used to it so with a fair wind we'll soon have a fresh and exciting partnership knocked into shape where everyone can come and meet the team and see K7 displayed on water and/or visit her while she takes a well earned rest in the museum. It's all very exciting!
It remains only to say thanks to the ever-loyal team, our families and supporters and to wish everyone a happy and prosperous 2024.