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It’s great to be back

Ahhh, it’s great to be back and as there’s so much going on I thought I’d throw another diary together straight away. Had forgotten how much fun it is to set the keyboard warriors off too. I love them because, dear creatures that they are, they never learn – even when you say don’t read it, here’s where the bit you’ll whinge about starts and ends so don’t go there, they blunder dumbly onwards then go tilting at windmills – but all’s fine because for every quixotic bleater there’s a thousand cheering us on but it seems our world is not the only one thus afflicted and that’s both disappointing and encouraging in equal measure.

Was talking with the guys from the Bute Brew Co. a little while back…

They, like everyone else on the isle, are four-square behind our crew training exercise and plan a commemorative brew for when we get there. I suggested they call it Jet-A1, we’ll see. But in the meantime they have another beer with the unlikely name of ‘Cock up Your Beaver’.

It’s named for a Robbie Burns song and so far as I can tell the beaver in question is a hat that the subject is to flourish, thus cocking up his beaver and if you put the title directly into Google you get (despite what you probably imagined) only an avalanche of Robbie Burns info and news articles – try it. Even twenty pages in there still wasn’t anything I’d not show the kids so that ought to be that – it’s a poem, nothing more; apart from in this instance brilliant and bold marketing on the part of the Bute Brew Co. After all, you’re unlikely to forget being offered a cock up your beaver anytime soon nor the hilarity that ought to ensue. Good on you, lads and lasses of the Bute Brew Co.

Ah, but no, it seems the same, thin vein of society that can’t laugh at anything not vanilla flavoured don’t want cocks up their beavers at all and would have the brew banned forthwith. Pathetic, isn’t it…

So – if yet again you don’t want to enjoy your latest serving of mildly spiced controversy, same rules apply, scroll from here to the first picture and enjoy your Bluebird with boiled rice and a plain naan.

Oh, and by the way, the boss woman who cancelled the calendar would certainly make you want to take a month off work… what can I say.


The deal was always that we’d take the wrecked hulk of Bluebird K7, recreate or acquire the mass of missing bits and rebuild her to full running condition using as much original as humanly possible and we’ve pretty much done it. Using more original than even we thought possible it’s taken ten steady years, which is about right for a living museum exhibit – Flying Scotsman was recently flagged as an example (despite having over four million quid in the pot and a full time crew) and I’ve joked at various times with the guys at Aero Engine Controls that we’d be finished before their new building was up and the ex CEO of Virgin Galactic who secured us the train plates that he’d not be flying passengers into space by the time we were putting a pilot in our vehicle for real. Lost the wager with AEC by a whisker but VG still aren’t there – the point being that these things take time but, as I’m oft wont to say, if you don’t give in you can’t fail and now we’re prepping the boat to get wet and run under her own power on Loch Fad on the Isle of Bute.

Straight away we were asked, why Scotland and not Coniston?

Fair question and the answer is twofold – Coniston was intended to be a big homecoming but we’re not in any shape and nor is the boat, to put on a show worthy of everything this project has been about so it would all be a bit crap, which leads me to the second point. No one has properly handled this machine in half a century and the difficulties were brought home to us good and proper when we took her round into the yard to simply run the engine. She’s a big, heavy lump and to operate her safely amongst a bazillion spectators we absolutely have to train our crew and learn and practice lots of stuff until we’re a slick operation.

Launch and recovery – never done that before, and fuelling (so we don’t drip a drop of completely biodegradable kerosene onto a blade of grass and cause the Cumbrian eco-warriors to stop knitting yoghurt and rise up in protest). Safety boat deployment and course control (in case some incurable moron decides that it’s a nice morning to swim across Coniston Water into the path of a two-ton jet hydroplane) and, most important of all, properly exploring and setting down the performance envelope of the machine so we know how to operate her safely. An appreciable length of the shoreline at Loch Fad can only be reached by able-bodied persons using common sense (which seems to abound on the isle anyway) so that helps and there’s lots of high ground for a good vantage elsewhere so that’ll keep everyone else out of mischief. Access is easy to control as there’s only one road in and out and the loch is shallow so if we drop anything it’s not the nightmare of deep-ish diving that Coniston is. We can’t begin to finish the boat before we go either because we’ll have to strip off covers to check for and possibly stop water ingress and monitor other potential failure points so she can’t be painted properly and that’s just for starters. Something is bound to break and we’ve no idea what or how long it’ll take to mend and there are many things still undeveloped like the onboard air start, for example, so we’ll be using off board gas this time around and carry on with the development during the extensive strip-inspection after our Bute trip. Still lots to do.

With all of this in mind we asked very nicely of the Mount Stuart Trust, who administer the isle, if we could use the loch and you’ve never seen the likes in your life. Job done, from speaking to the multifarious stakeholders to getting sign-off from the environment people to having the community right behind the effort in under two months. And for us to rock up for two weeks at the height of the hol’s with a biker’s festival the weekend we arrive, the highland games in the middle and the agricultural show the following week, the utter chaos has been fully embraced and it’s wonderful. It put me rather in mind of one of our Richie’s sayings.

We’ll have it – what is it?

Bute is so enthused that only the other day I was asked whether the folks from Rothesay could pipe the boat off the ferry and onto the dock. Seemed like a cool idea and entirely appropriate so we said yes, of course. Next came a request to narrow down our time of arrival because twenty-plus lads and lasses getting time off on a Friday afternoon to polish up and tune their instruments and get into their kit was logistically challenging. My image of a lone piper on the jetty fell a little short of what everyone else had in mind…

But here’s the tragedy in all of this. You see, ten years ago, June 2008 to be precise, we went to the Lake District National Park Authority and said that one day we would like to bring Bluebird back and run her under her own power on Coniston Water in a huge homecoming celebration of what we’d barely embarked upon back then but knew deep down we could pull off. The meeting was with a chap called Bob Cartwright, now retired, and what he said was this.

“We want world class attractions to sustain the park because the developers are nibbling at its fringes.”

I remember his words with absolute clarity for his sensible, mildly concerned and positive approach so we embarked on the process of having the byelaw changed. Four years of watch out, we’re coming, right at the outset. We also made it very clear then and we’ve repeated it countless times subsequently that we wouldn’t entertain the idea of poor weather with short days whilst we emphasised the total non-negotiability of running when the kids were locked up in school as our mission was to inspire, entertain, celebrate and provide a massive tourism boost and legacy for the whole of Cumbria with Coniston at its epicentre and that was accepted at the time and understood as the no-brainer to any right-minded person that it most certainly is to this day.

So, suddenly finding ourselves in the ascent, we ramped up our little project so we could accept donations from well-wishers, opened a bank account in the project’s name, had our branding designed (by a volunteer friend in the web design game), did a deal with an embroidery firm and began selling merchandise on our embryonic online shop, also set up by our volunteers. We had another friend of ours, cameraman Keith, come in and shoot and edit DVDs whilst we scrounged a copy of the TX master of our 2001 doco from the BBC and packaged copies of that up for sale too and adopted various paintings from which we could sell prints with generous help from world-class artists Arthur Benjamins and Keith Hick. We put a donate button on our website and watched as a tenner here and a fiver there began to fill our little pot. We knew we’d need it one day and so did our supporters.

At the same time we urged the powers that be in Coniston to do likewise, suggesting there must be a savvy youngster in the village who liked writing code and who would thrive on writing a new website (would have looked good on the CV for later too) for which we would willingly provide BBP related content whilst we also offered to set up their online shop to sell local produce thus giving a boost to both local economy and Post Office alike and we’d link all of this to our resources to maximise its impact. Get a brand similar to ours, we suggested, as ours began to be recognised, the idea being that if someone wanted to display one on their tee shirt they’d be as likely to want to show off the other. And stay across the Park Authority lot too because people retire and leave and new faces come along so keep them in the loop and in tune with all our objectives.

The years rolled by. We suggested beginning with a small, annual gathering for the enthusiasts. Take them for a walk to Pier Cottage, the north timing post, that sort of thing. Get some guest speakers along, I’d be up for that, I regularly travel to Coniston on my time and at my expense to do talks aboard steam yacht Gondola for the ritual fee of a bottle of wine and it’s great fun and organised to boost Gondola’s annual take to keep her going. Glad to help. We suggested a fundraising dinner at the Sun or wherever, maybe a charity auction, all in aid of the Bluebird Coming Home Pot and all good practice for organising and hosting an event. With ten years to polish it up it could now be quite the thing with a fairground, live music, burger vans, parking, catering and all the essential lessons learned and in the bag.

The years rolled by. We urged and urged and pestered and implored… where’s the website, the online shop, the brand, the plans for when the day comes? Occasionally we were told that planning was impossible without knowing ‘when’ but that’s just ridiculous. We’ve never known ‘when’ either. Often we’d begin a task that seemed really simple only to have it mire and torture us for months, or vice-versa. No way to know ‘when’ but very easy to have all your ducks in a row for when the day comes, as we always have. It’s no different to a fire drill.

The years rolled by and we built relationships with sponsors to supply everything from transport to jetfuel to spare vehicles and tools but, frustratingly, still no movement from our partners on the other side of the country so we parachuted in our Malcolm, chief of all things operational. Meticulous, thorough and multilingual. English may be his first language but he also speaks fluent Parish Council, County Council and several dialects of Bureaucrat. Malcolm’s mission, having breezed through the byelaw changes, (Malcolm did most of the work on that and not the LDNPA, as they’d have you believe) was to kick-start the planning and preparation process. By now we reckoned two to three years and we’d be good to go. It would be tight but if anyone could pull the threads together we believed it to be Malcolm but soon expressions like knitting fog, herding cats and pushing butter up a porcupine’s bottom with a hot needle were muttered around our workshop.

Imagine our frustration! We’ve promised our sponsors and supporters Bluebird back on Coniston Water in a dramatic, homecoming, spectacular closing of the circle and it’s the only reason the job has been possible. It’s the sheer audacity of what we have on offer that’s secured the backing that’s brought us to this place. The whole world can and does appreciate the bottomless pit of opportunity Coniston has first refusal on and yet they seem not only to have robbed themselves of this for the foreseeable future but no one else can reap the benefits until the blockage is cleared.

And then the crunch really came. Things were getting desperate so to generate a little heat we suggested the boat might be ready for a full-on proving trial by Easter 2019 – it wouldn’t, of course, but no harm in seeing what shook loose. First up, the LDNPA expected us to make an ‘application’ to run but it’s an event they said they wanted. So why are we supposed to be applying? Should be a foregone conclusion with all the barriers removed, assuming they still want it – or am I missing something here? But maybe it’s just a paper exercise so a few forms could be filled in at a push but it’s still not a mission we can properly fulfil. It’s Coniston’s event through and through. There are things like a traffic management plan to sort out, for instance. We build a boat. With the best will in the world we, the BBP, cannot march into Coniston and tell them which roads they’re going to have to close and police. Nor can we tell them how to manage their parking or emergency plans or disabled access. These and hundreds of other tasks can only be theirs – we have a thousand engineering problems yet to solve before we can join the fray so we expected they’d be our partners and shoulder their share of the work. We can say how we plan to safely operate the boat (after we work that part out on Loch Fad) but right now it’s like inviting a band to play an open air gig then telling them they have to first build their stage, sort out the security, parking, tickets, etc. and only then can they tune up and bash out a few numbers. We have no power or authority to make these calls yet there’s a fair chance we’ll be blamed if it all fails to materialise.

It gets worse… Malcolm pitched a few dates that included school holidays, as has always been the deal, or at least no one ever argued until now. They were rejected and another set offered that included a week when the Cumbrian kids were off but no others. I pointed out the uselessness of this to those who’d suggested the timetable only to be told that all would be well because the local schools would arrange a special day to come for a look.

“And what about the schools everywhere else?” I asked.

It gets worse… About a month after this saga began the minutes of a Coniston Parish Council meeting went public saying that they’d decided already that it would be too busy in the school holidays and they’d never cope. Seems this was decided by the time we pitched dates when the kids could come but no one said anything. Seems a lack of solidarity there and it stung.

And still it gets worse because next came some real naughtiness from the LDNPA who sent a document saying we couldn’t run on weekends or bank holidays or basically any time when those not free on a winter weekday could come see what was going on. But what was truly out of order was that they tried to pass this off as a ‘presumption’, that we’d known this all along, when in fact the document was from 2013 and related to Windermere. They were even dumb enough to fail to remove one reference to Windermere and send the document to two separate organisations on the same day, both of whom noted their blatant doctoring. There was never any presumption and had the LDNPA even hinted at anything so untenable back in 2008 there would never have been the byelaw amendment and we’d have been looking at alternative waterways ever since.

And none of this takes into account that the weather at Easter is likely to be less than ideal anyway.

And then the final roll of the dice for next year suggested we come in October just before records week 2019 – again with the attendant meteorological possibility of sitting out two weeks then returning home without a proving trial – don’t forget that we need a flat calm. This would include a week of half term but the insistence was that we come after the campsites have emptied and everyone has gone home so as not to disrupt village life. It also came with ‘certain caveats on running times’ that I didn’t even bother to ask about. Imagine the lake suddenly going glass-flat for an hour, as the fickle bloody thing often does, and being stuck in the middle of one of their ‘caveats’ – forget that. Worst case of missing the point any of us have ever seen but we’ve asked to see the proposals anyway because, although the big show will most likely have to be taken elsewhere – Scotland again, probably, to a bigger loch – we could always squeak in a few display runs on Coniston in October if the weather permits, just to say we did and assuming that all bureaucracy and bullshit is swept away ahead of us.

The bottom line is this – even if we decided to go there tomorrow with an operational boat we couldn’t run. First, the LDNPA would wet their knickers because we’d not made an application that we couldn’t make if we wanted to. Then the place would likely clog up with press and spectators to the point that the police would shut us down for making the roads unsafe and impassable to emergency vehicles and even if this didn’t happen there’d surely be some macrobiotic fruitcake who wouldn’t get out of the way thus making it unsafe to run anyway. These are not our problems to solve so we’ll stand by until someone does.

So for now it’s all hands on deck to prep for our adventure to the Isle of Bute.

We’ve long pondered the question of painting the boat. After all, the only part anyone will see when she’s out and about is the blue paint but we’ve had her into a million bits, mended them all then put everything back together again so as well as replicating a thousand other details we have to make her look like she’s been painted and painted and painted for the past twelve or so years when in reality we’re getting one shot at this. Well, two really as we can’t complete the paintwork until after Scotland because we’ll have to take things off to see if the water has got in so the final, clag it all over with blue paint so nothing can come off again, will have to wait for now.

First thing was to get a spot of filler here and there on the floors in all the places they used it back in the day. She was covered from stem to stern so we first replicated this but using metal filler this time. It’s hard as Hell and a bugger to sand down but it’s a far superior job to slapping in ordinary car bodge. With this done next was to paint the floors in a graphite-ish grey (RAL7022) with a satin finish. That’s what we found so that’s what we put back only using a quality automotive two-pack rollered on in multiple thin coats but to be sure of getting a good finish we first built the surface with high-build primer – again rollered on.

This was flatted off then a round of spotting putty spread here and there to lose the rest of the minor imperfections. We weren’t going for mirror smooth here, just the same finish that we found when we started.

Then the graphite grey went on – only a coat or two-

- before being flatted back and another couple of coats applied to build up the coverage before the final coat.

After much careful flatting and painting we finally arrived at a fabulous, satin finish with multiple coats looking just as it should whilst being extremely hard wearing and sure to last forever.

Very happy with that. And so we moved onto the sides.

Here we had to recreate there not being a single straight panel on the boat but with the look of melted blue plastic. It would have been oh so easy to sanitise at this point and having spent an appreciable amount of time flatting car panels to perfection allowing the block to follow the up-hill / down-dale nature of the panel without trying to lose the imperfections was counterintuitive. We did only enough to get the bodywork smooth without losing its wibbly-wobbliness.

It took many rounds but only a relatively small quantity of filler to get to where we wanted to be. The upper panels around the cockpit were especially gratifying as they were absolutely rolled in a ball when we started. We could have done these with only the high-build primer but chose to trade extra coats of paint for a round of putty instead.

Then off we went with the roller again…

Notice that the only filler on the new-build panel is a spot of putty to lose the little holes in the rivets. This was a problem in that this side of the boat was too perfect so we applied a little fudge here and there to emphasise where the rivets were to give the panel that button-back sofa look that so characterises K7’s tired, 1966 appearance.

Wasn’t too long before we’d sorted all the lumps and bumps and got the high-build applied to a suitable thickness then flatted back ready for the blue paint... We also masked off the interior just to keep the dust out as we worked.

Now to make her blue again – and that has been an epic in its own right. You see, way back when, we had the paint analysed spectrographically and it came out as RAL5009. Simple, you’d imagine. Nope – the problem is that if you get paint mixed to that colour, and you can do it a dozen times, you’ll never get the same colour twice and none of them look quite right and that’s annoying!

What’s even more annoying is that if you take it out in the daylight it changes again so now you have two dozen different colours and they’re still not right. We left it there for ages but it finally came around again. Years slipped by before we took some parts to the local specialists who have all new kit and they once again measured it at RAL5009 as expected then mixed up a pot of paint for us and guess what… Yup – no resemblance. We asked another specialist from a different paint manufacturer to look at it again and he zapped it with an extremely clever gadget that told us it was RAL5009 all over again (turned out the gadget was for makeup artists to measure skin tone and it was amazing) but we learned nothing new except that RAL5009 can be sneaked up on via any given primary colour thus introducing a tolerance and this explained why we never saw the same colour twice. Oh, for goodness sakes!

And then our Richie came to the rescue by outing himself as something as a paint fetishist. No, really… Turned out Rich likes to watch YouTube videos of exciting paint schemes and interesting surface protection and knew just what we needed. Cromadex Perfection Pro, apparently – a fancy-pants yacht paint designed for roller or brush application that flows out to a glass-like finish and looks a foot deep. Seemed too good to be true and even our friendly local Cromadex rep’ had to ask twice then go do some research until he found some so after a while and some string pulling and gathering up of what seemed the only few tins in the UK we duly received a supply of Perfection Pro along with its mysterious activator that looks like clear syrup and its equally mystifying thinner that feels oily smells like no thinner we’d ever come across and doesn’t evaporate.

But here’s the best part – Cromadex only make top-notch product and this stuff is expensive as paint goes if you don’t have a reason for them to sponsor your boat so when the lid came off the tin, to our unspeakable joy, it was EXACTLY the right colour. Oh yes, there it was before our very eyes, genuine Bluebird Blue!

There remained only one question. As history records, Bluebird suffered a failure of her air intakes, which were then stripped off, rebuilt and repainted before going back on. But look at the pic’s of the repaired section and for all the world it’s a different, much deeper blue-

At first we thought it had just been painted a different colour and that was that but further research revealed that it had gone back to where the boat had recently been resprayed and they likely had enough paint lying about to touch in the intakes so why would they paint them such a different colour? Still a possibility, though, so we set about finding out. The mystery was that the original air intake skin, now residing in the museum, is now exactly the same colour as the rest of the boat. It’s not a different colour at all – strange! After much research and working through every theory, such as it being a thinner layer of paint having been applied to bare metal following the repairs and the aluminium and etch prime possibly showing through, we reached a startling conclusion having spoken to the car detailers – you know, those who polish and polish and wax and anoint their cars until they’re improbably shiny.

The science goes like this – your blue paint is only blue because it absorbs all the other wavelengths and only reflects blue. Simple enough so far, but it also absorbs some of the blue depending on how shiny it is. The theory goes that if you could get it shiny enough all the light would simply fall in and never come out so it would reflect nothing rendering itself black. It would appear that the only difference between the pre and post repair colours is how shiny they got the new paint. Quite common practice amongst car polishers, apparently, if they wish to show off a darker colour so there’s another task for us…

Knowing now that we could paint everything the one blue then just polish like mad later we seriously de-dusted the workshop with the doors open, fans running and many compressed air lines to get the dust airborne whence it was whisked outside by the gale. Next we sealed everything up with tape and rigged three of Argos’s cheapest, nastiest gazebos over the top with their statically charged, plastic covers to catch any falling dust.

Seriously, they’re utter crap at £21.00 each and you’d not dare ever rig one outside unless in a total flat calm and a guarantee that it was going to stay that way. But for a one-off painting exercise indoors they were made to measure.

We mopped down the floors and sealed the cracks with gaffer tape then the game was afoot… But easy does it. To be sure of our processes we had some plywood cut into lengths then painted and flatted it with high-build before practicing with the clever blue paint. It seemed to work perfectly straight out of the box.

And with that in the bag we set about the real deal.

With all our utensils scrubbed, the floor wet and the workshop sealed to avoid bits getting into our paint we set off around the hull, Rich leading and me following to lay off the excess and snag any runs. It was a pretty good first effort.

This was going to be a slice of cake, or whatever it was Donald thought record breaking was before he scared the crap out of himself and so, as is typical when you get cocky, disaster struck.

The problem we had was trying to paint the boat in January with very low ambient temperatures. It’s incredibly versatile paint and can be applied down to 5 degrees Celsius but then it has to be re-coated whilst the previous coat hasn’t quite hardened or else that coat must be left to fully cure then flatted off but we had no data for how long to let the first coat cure in the low temperatures. The data we had only went down to 15C so we doubled the time and sallied forth. Bad idea! It simply re-activated the first coat and left us with 25 feet of blue orange peel.

Nothing for it but to let that coat cook off under the heaters (couldn’t run them whilst painting because they cause a gale and heat the boat unevenly so that would have been as bad) then flat it back with 500 then 1000 grit paper.

Lesson learned, we put on coat two, or three, or two and a half or whatever it was a few days later.

We were on a roll (terrible pun, sorry) by now – we’d finally worked out how to tame our Perfection Pro and coat three followed soon after a full-on Saturday effort by the whole team to do a final flatting with 1000 grit discs.

She looked magnificent when we finally took down the gazebos and ran a polishing cloth over her.

There she stood resplendent in shiny blue from end to end for the first time in half a century. Very good – now to get the bloody thing off that rollover jig for once and for all and get her built to go get wet on Bute… This is going to be tight!

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