To say that our summer plans shifted a bit could be added to the pantheon of understatements beside “Other than that, how was the play, Ms. Lincoln?” and the Bridge officer on the Titanic commenting: “Seems to be a bit of ice ahead”
As we settled on the scope of work to be completed on Vivante, the realization that a substantial part of our cruising plans would have to be scrapped sank in. So, there began a long series of discussions and “negotiations” as to how we deal with a massively different situation.
First and foremost was the arrival of guests in a few weeks. Our original plans involved a bit of a cruise from Dijon up the Burgundy canal returning them to Dijon. As we sat in the dry dock with no idea of when the work would begin on Vivante, the nightmare scenario of welcoming our guests to the scream of an angle grinder and the dust of a sandblasting machine loomed.
Fortunately, the yard was so far behind schedule, they decided to boot us out of the dry dock for a couple of weeks while they sorted their immediate scheduling issues allowing us to get to Dijon in advance of our guests and giving them a nice visit with the added experience of re-entering the cale seche with us as we returned to Saint Jean to begin the work.
After their departure, alone again, we began the long journey through a summer at the shipyard. The trials and tribulations experienced as we moved through the steps of the process; sandblasting, grinding, cutting off plating with a torch, hammering, welding and painting whilst living on board are too numerous to discuss in detail. However, here are a few from the highlight reel.
Sandblasting is perhaps the dirtiest, noisiest and frustrating part of the process. We wisely left town during Vivante’s week long blasting adventure to hike the Alps at Annecy.
Upon our return the amount of grit and grime that had been deposited in every nook and cranny of the barge was simply amazing. I am still finding granules of the media around the deck. It was like having everything you owned covered in sand paper. The effect on my beautiful paint job on the top deck was pretty nasty.
Once the re-plating began, it was actually, for me, a fascinating process. The way the crew took 6mm steel plate and molded it like rubber around the complex curves of our hull was pretty amazing. Using hydraulic jacks and some rather large hammers, they made it look easy. Day by day they slowly transformed the 105 year old bottom of Vivante into a completely new hull.
One of the unavoidable side effects of this work is the risk of fire. Welding and cutting metal involves temperatures over 2000 degrees F. On Vivante, our construction minimized the problem when the workers were welding and other than a little smoke and scorched paint on the interior we were good to go. Cutting off old plating with a torch was another matter however.
As the torch melts the old welds around the plating, occasionally flames break through the plating and create a jet of flames that erupt into the interior of the barge. As a result, someone (that would be me) must be on watch to extinguish any lingering flames.
Goggles, respirator, gloves, full jump suit and a garden sprayer were my standard kit when the cutting torch was deployed. Hanging upside down through the access hatches in the floor, watching the cherry red blob of molten metal move across the hull I patiently am waiting for the plume of flames to appear.
Spraying the hot spots with water made quick work of most of the eruptions. Only once or twice did a full-on fire hose need to be engaged. Luckily, we had an industrial blower deployed that would suck out the inevitable smoke so it was simply just another part of the adventure.
There are likely some of you who have the impression that the French are wonderful people who really don’t work very hard. Based on my experience, I would like to offer you another perspective.
Gilles, the foreman for Vivante was one of the yards most senior employees. In his mid 60’s with the build of a bulldog, there was not much Gilles had not seen before. At 6:30 he was already at the yard setting up for the day’s work. By 7:00, Gilles and his apprentice Damelle were underway for the day. They worked steadily until 12:00 when the traditional one and a half hour French lunch began. At 1:30 work re-commenced and did not let up until 5:30 or 6:00. Some days we had only two men working, some days as many as 8. Gilles and Damelle normally also worked a half day on Saturday. This was not namby-pamby stuff either. Cutting, placing and welding 6mm steel plates is not for the faint of heart. I got tired just watching them work.
I will say however, that the work processes they used were not what I would consider the most efficient. Despite several attempts to propose what I considered to be logical improvements (I used to get paid to do such work) using excel charts and a lot of hand waving, I did not make a dent in the “French way”. C’est la vie!
As the work progressed, we fell into a rhythm of sorts. Carol and I had our work list that we pursued, trying not to get in the way of the plating team. In the mornings, we would deliver espresso to Giles and Damelle and whoever else turned up for the early start time. On Wednesdays, a large plate of croissants appeared on the break room table. As work wound down in the late afternoon, particularly on the hot days, cold Kronenbourg beers would magically appear for each of the remaining crew. While we were not sure how much this helped our cause, it certainly did not hurt getting a pretty long list of work done “off the books” by Gilles.
As the work effort approached completion, both on our side and the yard’s, scrambling for work position and ladders became a daily dance. Welders were added to support the last nasty bits of curved plates and final welding under the hull. We worked above the welding crews on ladders adding additional coats of primer and paint above the waterline. Hoping not to spatter said welders with too much paint.
Only once did a major a incident occur. Fortunately, the only injuries were to Damelle’s ego and Gilles stomach muscles from laughing too much. Vivante is equipped with a sump pump for our aft shower. This allows water to drain into a holding tank and when full, the pump automatically comes on to empty the tank. This is what is called “grey water”, soapy but far from noxious.
We were very careful not to shower or use the sink when workers were around. They live in constant fear getting doused whilst they are working below. So we really tried not to cause them any grief. However one of the idiosyncrasies of this system is that as the day warms up, the air in the tank expands and will occasionally cause the pump to cycle at odd times.
Unfortunately, Damelle was welding under the shower sump drain when said pump decided to start up one warm afternoon. I was below working when a loud yelp sounded, followed by a boatload of salty French language and howling laughter in that order. As I reached the deck and peered below fearing the worst, there stood Damelle fairly well drenched with soapy water and Gilles doubled over in laughter.
After much apologizing and a beer or two, all was well. However, I was very happy that it was not Gilles that got the dousing as he may not have seen the humor quite as quickly and we may yet still be in the yard waiting for work to be finished.
After 2 1/2 months of these fun and games the last bit of paint was applied and the last anode welded on, the water finally began to rise around us in the cale seche for the last time.
As we began the two week journey back home on the Centre canal, all of those days of grinding and fire fighting began to slip into the back of our memories replaced by the pleasures experienced on the canal reminding us why we do this and how much we were looking forward to next year’s cruise.
Thanks for your patience. We are heading to Paris in 2017 so keep your eyes open for our opening post of the new year!
Tom and Carol