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August 2011

I’ve just spent two weeks herding two, cat-like children from shady spot to beer-bar beneath the scorching Mediterranean sun but it made for a pleasant break and, as the dedicated follower of fashion that I most definitely am not, pretty much every garment I own is embroidered with the BBP logo nowadays. Consequently, its significance was questioned here and there and, as the world seems full of whingeing pains in the arse, I thought I was in for the usual treatment at the hands of one of those eco-do-good fools when someone mentioned that old chestnut – our up and coming ‘environmental impact’. But no! If the Type III idiot has an opposite I was pleasantly surprised to find I’d just met one. Just imagine coming across someone who understands that having an electric motor in your Prius is a bit of a waste of time because what actually makes it go is the petrol you just burned to charge the batteries in the first place, and that’s before you find out just how horribly environmentally unfriendly it was to manufacture to begin with. Someone who knows without having to have it pointed out that Coniston’s glacier buggered off before the catalytic converter or that the constant alarmist cry that cutting down rain forests is killing the lungs of the world when in fact mature trees metabolise oxygen just the same as you and I and that the world’s O2 is actually produced by photosynthesising algae in the sunlit layers of the oceans. Oh what a joy to discover a vein of common sense when the world seems silted up with H&S and rampant political correctness. This bloke made many valid and equally irrefutable points but my favourite, which I’m sure anyone with a spoonful off common sense will gladly lap up for their own defence against the enviro-mentalists, concerns that dreaded scourge of our delicate planet - carbon dioxide. He began with a lesson in biology – what are trees made of? They’re made of carbon fibre, he explained, just like Formula 1 cars only it’s nature’s version, a bit like bamboo cane. That’s carbon fibre too because what photosynthesis does is snaffle CO2 from the atmosphere and use the sun’s energy to fix it into organic compounds. The big trees in the park are built of gas and water and they’re bloody strong. But way back when, the vegetation got a bit out of hand, fell over and got buried for a zillion years until mankind discovered you could hack it out of the ground in the form of coal or oil and keep warm in winter by setting fire to it thus releasing all the energy the sun poured into it in the first place and the trapped CO2 along with it. So here’s the point… Next time some macrobiotic vegan sets about you for trashing the planet with your car be sure to point out that the CO2 you’re spewing out actually came from the atmosphere in the first place. OK – it’s been out of circulation for a while, but even so, all you’re doing is putting it back from whence it came and, assuming some resultant global warming results from your efforts, the plants will soon go crazy and promptly lock it all away again. Such arguments are always handy to have in your pocket and another that’s likely to crop up is the best month for running the big tin boat. It’s one of those politics-riddled issues where there’s an almost gravitational pull towards putting on the Bluebird show outside of the tourist season to boost visitor numbers. It makes sense on paper but there’s a good reason why there’s no visitors – the weather’s crap and this might possibly affect a craft designed for mirror-smooth water because it has a freeboard of only about two inches and the wash from a passing swan could easily sink it. We wouldn’t even attempt to get her wet unless we had a good forecast so to that end we’ve had a word with the Met Office for a heap of data to see what is actually the best time of year based on hard facts and irrefutable data. We don’t know when that is yet but whenever it proves to be is when we’ll be going for it. I’ll not laugh much if twenty years worth of hard data points at July, and I really won’t laugh if it shoves us straight into January but fair is fair – we’ll roll the dice and go with what it says because ultimately that’s what’ll be best for the boat and the public’s chances of seeing it go. It’s all somewhat academic without the tin machine though and we’ve taken a holiday recently from cruddy tin and corrosion and spent some time on new stuff. The last diary entry ended just as the engine cover was starting to go back together. It sits up top and only keeps the weather off and it’s a delicious, doubly curved shape too so we didn’t want the endless pain of inserting weld repairs and reworking the shrunken metal this time around so, once assembled, it became doubler-tastic.

We constructed a tool to hold it clear of the floor in the vertical position and the whole team set about closing every last corrosion hole and patching the skins. One area of particular interest was where those two little horns poke out of the top. Go check a few images of the boat before her mishap and you’ll find two of these things.

So far as we can tell all they did was blow a draught of air down into the bilges. On the inside they were attached to thin-wall tube that meandered its way to the lower recesses of the hull then pointed aft so that air shoved down the pipe by forward motion was blown the opposite way at the bottom. Presumably this was to waft nasty vapours overboard before the whole lot exploded but for now the problem is that the steel horns completely demolished the alloy skin into which they were fastened to the point where we had to completely double the first station of the engine cover on the inside then shape patches where the horns go. It proved a good fix… There was a hell of a lot of dissimilar metal lurgy in there though. All it takes is a former to be a slightly different alloy to the outer skin, which is close but not quite the same as the rivets then simply add water and you have a battery that nicks your electrons and scatters them to the four winds.

Here’s the job part-done. The doubler with the row of swaged holes was immediately named a ‘cheese grater’, by the way. Girl worked out and perfected the process for making them so any cheese grater requirements are immediately sent her way. We put them over the worst affected formers. It took several weeks to fabricate all the doublers we needed but the end result is tremendous. 100% originality.

Another important job we did while the engine cover was being mended was to make sure the start system still squeezed underneath it. The bottles, being steel, had a good old munch at the surrounding aluminium when it was all wet so many of the original edges were long gone and as the inside of the engine cover was hacked away in 66 to make room for it in the first place we had to be sure that what we’d put back didn’t foul anything.

It took some getting back in the hole! The bottle frame has been welded as has K7’s main frame and between the two of them moving slightly as a result and various thicknesses of paint combined with the tightness of the installation meant we had a struggle, but it went.

And, of course, it fouled all sorts of things under the cover until we took some remedial action so the exercise was well worth the effort. We’ll not now be grinding the paint back off to get the lid down. The final act was to pull it all down into a heap of scrap and deliver it to Bettablast for painting.

There was one last use for the engine cover before it went though and that was to align the aft edge of the air intake skins. They’re new-build and had to be trimmed to a nicety so we knocked that job off too, which enabled us to finish the detailing on the intake structure and there was no shortage of that! Wheeling the skins didn’t take long at all and they looked smart with their little letterboxes down the lower edges…

There’s three skins covering the intakes. One down each side and a larger one over the top that’s a properly tricky shape though it doesn’t look like much. It’s flat at the front edge where the flip-up canopy used to hinge but rounded at the back where it meets the forward edge of the engine cover and for some reason we found it especially challenging.

We got it in the end though, and another irritation was that we didn’t have a big enough piece of tin from which to make it so look at the end that Girl is holding and you can see that we had to weld a strip on to get the size we needed – a 2x1m sheet just isn’t the same an a good, old-fashioned 8x4. I always feel well chuffed when a piece of tin is made to fit, especially if it’s tricky, but when I see the work that then must be done to turn it into an historically perfect piece of Bluebird the simple act of pushing a shape pales to nothing. Take this for example…

This is one of the widgets that held the inboard end of the strut that supported the spray baffles seen here still attached to the original outer skin. You can see where the bolt has torn through as the spray baffle let go so that had to be fixed before the thing could be repositioned on the new skin.

Mended. There’s actually a fair amount of work in this considering it’s the original. The other example was completely wrecked because that’s the side that hit the water first but we fixed it just the same.

Then there’s this… At the front of the intakes directly above the headrest there’s a small tube about three inches long and an inch in diameter that passes from the inside to the outside. It’s either a vent of some description, though if so its design intent still eludes us, or a wiring conduit for antennae and the like, but it’s original so we popped it back in place.

It likely makes little sense in this shot so we added this piece next.

That grey piece of steel is the hinge from the flip-up canopy. Just look at the left-hand edge and you’ll see that it was once a hinge and our pipe passes straight through it. Then we made a little cover just like the one Donald used to have and popped it over the top…

Now you’ve seen it I bet you can find it on the pic’s of our boat at the time… It’s one of those things that tends to go unnoticed until it’s pointed out. Still don’t know what the pipe was for though.

Further down, the upperworks are connected to the rest of the boat below the waist with closing strips that, on paper at least, should be four inches high. It’s fun to measure the originals and poke fun at the Samlesbury workmanship as they wander between three and three-quarters to a smidge over four inches wide as the poor sod tasked with making them fit had to file them into some very wibbly-wobbly joggles in the panels above and below. At least ours had parallel edges.

All this stuff is now finished and away to the paint shop and that only leaves the tail cover to do. Despite it having a massive, steel saddle inside to support the fin and being positioned over the steel end of the engine it’s actually in better shape than the engine cover, this being mostly because we brushed and painted the inside shortly after it came off so the oxygen hasn’t been at it in the meantime. We saw it starting to fizz and took the executive decision to conserve it with a coat of etch-primer. It was a completely reversible process in keeping with museum practice and we thought we were doing no wrong. But we were also in negotiations with the lottery fools at the time and thought we’d best alert them to this urgent conservation requirement but their reaction was to summarily ban any further interference with the wreck or they’d take their ball and go home – morons! Another conservation need concerned the bluebird motifs on the flanks.

This is the starboard side one and it was intact when we found it but it suffered an unfortunate accident. What happened is that we’d not really noticed them back when we started diving the wreck and it was while we were imbibing a beer or three in the Bull that someone spotted them in a pic above the fireplace. Next morning we set about finding them with the ROV but we knew they were right down by the mud line so they might be buried. We flew up and down the port side without success – that side was completely buried – but had better luck on the starboard side where the mud wasn’t heaped so high. There’s a gentle current running north to south down the lake and the wreck was facing roughly east/west so the sediment was piled a little higher down the weather side but the lee side gave us a glimpse of the top of the motif through weed and mud so we sat with the ROV lights shining on it. Big mistake… Divers, being what they are, one of them wandered over to see what we’d found and decided that what the motif really needed was a good shine up with a scratchy diving glove. That was the end of that one… The other, we decided, would be preserved at all cost so the divers were briefed to avoid it and we successfully got it out of the water only to have some numpty reporter prod it as we reached the beach and smash the blistered centre into a million bits.

You may also notice that what remains of the motif has been varnished in the above pic’… well, not exactly, it’s been consolidated with Paraloid – a soluble, clear plastic that you dissolve in acetone then paint on. We just didn’t bother telling the lottery fools this time as they’d undoubtedly have dreamt up a way to cock that up too.But what to do about these iconic pieces of artwork? We couldn’t exactly consign them to the stripping bath or blast-room but to properly fix the panels they simply had to go so in a move that would give a museum purist a coronary we took them out with a drill.

It reminds me of another argument we had with the museum lot. They told us we couldn’t rebuild Bluebird because every ding and dent was a snapshot in time and we’d destroy all that history. I argued that they had a hundred thousand snapshots and we only needed the hundred best ones to tell the story so we could use the rest to make a boat and end up with the best of both worlds. Naturally they didn’t buy into that but it worked and the motifs are no different. OK, so there’s now a hole in the panel that we have to mend but big deal… we still have all the history intact. Next we threw it at Rob to pull it down.

Then we cleaned all the bits and started putting it all back together again… Now here’s an interesting snippet. You know how the boat was once sunk at Lake Mead by the wash from spectator’s boats… Well she landed on her back end and smashed the jetpipe off but she also dinged the surrounding bodywork and spent her remaining years running about with this repair in the aftmost tail cover former.

The former is quite heavily built and a strong shape so there’s no way it would have simply dinged back into shape so it looks like they either took it out or at least released it partially from the outer skin and inserted a riveted patch repair. It’s easier to see from the back…

And easier again when it was taken out to mend the rest of the former.

The cutout on the outside between the one and two o’clock positions is the bit we’re talking about. The cutout on the inside is what we took away in order to repair the bashed former. It wasn’t a big job though and it was soon back together.

Notice the little cluster of yellow pins on the aftmost former holding the repair section in… Then there’s the question of those two circular (roughly) holes in the flanks from where we nicked the motifs. Richie produced a very elegant fix for these.

Having never used an English wheel in his life, new boy, Richie, over the course of a few days, taught himself how it worked until he was able to wheel a couple of donor panels to exactly the same curvature of the original then cut them up to make perfect patches.

For having never worked sheet before this was an outstanding effort – well done, Richie. Meanwhile – up at the pointy end… Remember the big hoo-ha about the Bloctube control? The HP fuel cock lever down the right hand side of the cockpit?

This piece of kit was with K7 from her original build in 54 and partook in every record attempt successful or otherwise including the last when it went to the bottom with everything else and had to wait thirty-four years to see daylight again. It’s a bit crunched and rotted in this shot but essentially OK and could easily be mended and put back as a working piece of the machine. But… and it’s a big but this time. Notice that lever? Well it’s in the ‘ON’ position and guess who left it there in 1967. Suddenly we have a fabulous conservation conundrum. You see, we couldn’t mend the control box without taking it apart and as soon as we do that we move Donald’s lever and that’s classed as destroying history. Even we could see the logic this time (to a point) so we put it to a vote on the forum and polled our public with the unsurprising result that we should repair it like everything else and stop being so soppy and sentimental. To that end we easily dragged the lever to the ‘OFF’ position, scrubbed it back to good metal, whacked it with a hammer ‘til it was straight again and put it to rights with a fresh coat of paint. Job done.

Looks OK, doesn’t it. But the question of the speedo box wasn’t answered so easily. Half the problem there is that we don’t have it. The instrument panel is still in the lake so far as we’re aware. There was a rumour that it came out but I tracked down John Futcher – commander of the Rosyth RN dive team back in 66, out in Australia where he now lives, and I have a natter with one of his trusted divers, George Porter, most Monday nights down the pub and both are adamant that the panel was never recovered – they’d have remembered. What seems more likely is that the fire panel was lifted – a wholly unremarkable little thing with a couple of switches and bulbs but enough to fuel a myth. From a technical point of view we know how the instrument panel was fastened in and at what angle it departed. We know what shape it was and how much it weighed and how it would behave when landing in the soft mud on the bottom of the lake and the chances of it being anywhere near where the divers searched and visible above the mud are extremely slim indeed. Best to build a new one until time allows us to go looking for the original so it’s been a work in progress for the past couple of years. Advancing slowly as this piece or that becomes available or a new picture shows us something we didn’t know.

It started life as a rectangle of 3mm thick ally with a few holes and has remained Mike’s baby ever since. To begin with it had no real shape because when it was cut we had no upperworks on the boat and therefore no means of trimming it to suit. The lower edge was simple enough because we had original scribe marks in the left-hand cockpit rail and rivet holes to position the angle bar that spans the cockpit and picks up both the instrument panel and the steering column.

With that in place, shortly followed by the top deck, it was then possible to trim in the other sides of the panel and fasten it in using eight, rubber shock-mounts just as it was back in the day. We know it was on shock-mounts because we found half of one of them still attached to the wreckage and, if you know what to look for, Paul Allonby’s famous cockpit shot gives it away too. Below is how our panel looked once we’d blended it into its surroundings.

And that’s where progress ended for a very long time. That’s as it was laid out when K7 arrived in Coniston in 1966 but by the end a couple of major changes had been made. The airspeed indicator was moved upwards and fitted into a box presumably to make it more readable and, because this appears still not to have solved all the problems, a small sun visor was added. Our difficulty was that virtually no photographic record exists of exactly how it was all fitted together. At least none with sufficient detail to allow us build with confidence – and this was the show-stopper. At least until recently when we finally found the last clues that tied together all the pieces of the puzzle.

The box was a no-brainer – easily scaled from the pics, Mike simply provided the sizes and the tin-bashery dept soon spat out a suitable receptacle and the bracket beneath it quite obviously covered what remained of the old hole for the ASI whilst attaching through its fixing holes. Another problem bottomed. It was the sun visor that baffled us but thankfully enough photographic reference was eventually found and another obstinate problem was made to go away.

And, yes, we know this ASI reads in knots and K7 had one in MPH but do you really want us to risk dropping the genuine MPH example that we sourced after a massive effort when the identical gauge in knots can be picked up on eBay for two bob a dozen? That was about the last detail to square away with the instruments so with that, Mike gave it all a dry-build and for the first time in almost forty-five years Bluebird K7 had a full complement of instruments and controls back in her cockpit.

Below are a few details of note… The genuine Longines stopwatch is near as makes no difference to the one lost in the lake and the holder clamping it so firmly, as regular readers will know, was reproduced for us by Barry, but the rest of the shot may seem at a glance to be unremarkable. That is until we tell you that Barry also dismantled the EXH (jetpipe temperature) gauge and made a new placard for the centre – the bit that reads ºC x100 EXH He made that and engraved it and fitted it to the face of the gauge because we’d not found one exactly as it should be then he included the red limit line on the inside of the glass for good measure.

We’re back on the systems side of things too because our fuel control system is all sorted and pretty-looking and, most importantly, it all works so we need to think about getting the rest of the engine gubbins up to speed. About the only thing outstanding is the air start. It consists of a main air valve that releases air in horrific quantities from a pair of eighteen litre bottles… Got a telling off the other day, by the way. I went to talk to a compressor expert for some advice and, without thinking, I called the air receivers ‘bottles’ as we always used to refer to our diving kit. “Coca-Cola comes in bottles, they’re cylinders.” I was told bluntly. Lesson learned. …and a pressure regulating valve, (PRV) to ensure that it gets into the start turbine at the correct rate and pressure. The system is triggered by a small, solenoid-operated ‘piggyback valve’ bolted to the side of the main air valve. We were told it couldn’t be mended because it was a super-duper close-tolerance part… yawn… yet for a while we thought this may actually prove true, but no, Barry got a tune out of it at the second attempt whereupon the main valve fired successfully at the push of a button with a blast of air so terrifyingly violent that it blew a box of spanners across the floor and my end of the workshop will never have to be swept again. The only untested part now is the PRV as it needed a considerable amount of work to even get it back into one piece so we’ve not even begun to calibrate it yet. The problem has always been getting enough HP air to test the damn thing as the main valve lets all those hard-won, compressed molecules loose at an alarming rate and refilling the cylinders (even if they’re actually spheres) takes an age when decanting from dive bottles so to sort that little problem we procured our own HP compressor.

This means we can fill the cylinder-bottle-spheres quickly and easily and as many times as we like. Another problem we have to sort is that our 101 Orph’ is now wearing the inlet bullet from Donald’s old 701 unit and it isn’t supposed to fit so we had to make up a new flange where it bolts to the front of the engine. Luckily the old one was more or less gone so we lost nothing in doing so and our engine thus became more original as well as looking the part but using the old inlet caused another problem because we’re using an up to date (relatively speaking, it’s from the seventies) start-turbine for the want of an older one and the two components don’t marry up very well. The start turbine is essentially an air driven starter motor whose job is to gulp down the HP air released from the spherical-cylinder-bottles (must ask the compressor man what he calls these) and spin a small turbine to horrifying speeds that then spools up the engine to the point where you can light the fire and it’ll go on its own. The start-turbine lives inside that shiny, alloy bullet but Donald’s old start-turbine (now dissolved) had its inlet in the side whereas ours is fed from underneath so we’re going to have to make some very fancy ductwork to get the 330psi air in the side and around the corner but we’ll do it. To be sure we’re ready to go when the ductwork’s built we made up some mounts to fit the entire system to the engine and I’m sure you’ll agree it looks hauntingly 1966.

There’s a whole diary to be written about the rebuild of the start system and it’s coming soon because our work is almost complete but, before I go, remember the mended Bloctube controller? Well I told a small fib earlier because, despite overwhelming encouragement to bash it back to life, we found we couldn’t in the end even though it remains debateable whether Donald actually left it in the ‘on’ position at all. It could have been knocked anywhere in that crash but just in case we decided to leave well alone and make a new one. First things first… we scrounged a noggin of Iroko from the wood yard next door and made a tool.

Those Iroko trees are made of damned tough stuff and it’s as well considering what we were about to do with it. We set the tool up on top of a hydraulic bottle jack then strapped a piece of tin over the timber and clamped it with Mole grips, which we then pulled down using the reliable, old Spanish windlass arrangement – basically a bar of some kind with which you twist and tighten the rope then lock off to hold the tension. It was a raggedy assemblage but fine for the kind of one-shot deal we had in mind. Then we used heat and hammers to literally push the tool through the tin thus forming the desired shape. Easy when you know how…

In truth we ought to have used different material because the marine grade alloy we used was a smidge tough to pull into this shape but it went after a lot of persuasion. From there it needed much finishing and fettling until the two ‘pie tins’ were ready for the next stage.

The next stage involved handing the original, plus the new parts, to Barry who basically did everything else. Machined up new internals, engraved the maker’s plates, applied the crinkle finish and hard anodising, etc. You know, the stuff we can all do when we dig the gear out of the garage cupboards and put our minds to it. Yeah, right…

Stunning, isn’t it. And it has the most delicious action too, because of course it’s fully working, with a Mercedes-smooth detent action at either end of its travel. All that remained was for Mike to apply, in anally precise locations, the Dymo labels he made with Donald’s old Dymo machine using the last of Donald’s original 1966 roll of red tape and the job was, as the say, a good-un…

An outstanding job by all concerned but especially Barry whose genius seems to know no bounds. So now the original can finally be home-ported in the museum still in the ‘on’ position and the museum purists can breathe a sigh of relief and if anyone can spot a detail we have wrong please don’t be shy. Oh, and don’t ask when it’ll be finished either. Do you want it now or do you want it right?

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