Never mind fixing boats, I thought I’d fix my dog last week so I took her to the vets, menopausal old mutt that she is.

Lots of blood, pus and horror and sickly slurping with the doggy tongue so we gave her some antibiotics and she picked up nicely but a week later she was down again so it was off to see the doctor.

Nothing we didn’t know already, a stinking, open Pyo’ and an emergency hysterectomy was all that would save the day.

“What’s this going to cost?” I enquired.

“About £650 but if it looks bad we’ll give you a call.”

It wasn’t about the money but it’s useful to know what’s incoming and the price didn’t seem out of the way, though she isn’t far off end-of-life, and the kids would love a pup so we opted not to euthanase, handed over the other end of the lead and left them to it. That was Friday lunchtime. On Saturday morning they called to say she was now fluid resuscitated, she’d been a little shrivelled up when presented, but was now ready for theatre. Good-oh, then they called again later to say she was recovering nicely but another night in hospital was a good idea as the op’ had taken its toll. No problem there either so it was Monday lunchtime when the call came to collect the old hound.

“Is the insurance company paying?” was the first question.

Now I’ve costed this out many times, being a lifelong dog owner, and my conviction remains that by the time you buy any sort of worthwhile cover it’s cheaper to put half the premium into a piggy bank, spend the rest on beer and still have more than enough set aside by the time your pooch hits about ten years old and needs that inevitable season ticket to the vets to pay for a double head transplant.

“Nope,” replied I.

“Did you get a price?” was the second question.

“Yes”, I confirmed, “Six hundred and fifty or a call to say it had gone all expensive and I’ve had no call no call so it’s six hundred and fifty quid.”

I watched her face cloud over as she tapped at the keyboard then she gulped as she broke the news.

“It’s doubled,” she said.

Now here’s how it seems to work… you present with your sick animal and in that instant they have you like an addict to his fix. Even if old Mrs Miggins sets aside her desperate desire for Tiddles not to die long enough to ask the price she’ll be given a rock-bottom number to keep her on the hook so best not to ask. They then hack their way inside your pet, spoon out some giblets then sew what’s left back together and screw you over as far as they dare on the basis that it’s not like booking your car into the dealers for a service then finding a fault with the brakes. In that case you can go have a look and make a judgement call but when Muttley is inside out on the operating table others have to make these split-second, life-saving calls and you’re damn lucky you got off so lightly. But don’t worry, I would later discover, they offer all sorts of ways for Mrs Miggins to pay for her winter gas and electricity, food and small Christmas presents for her grandchildren and pay off the veterinary sharks before they smash her arthritic knees with a baseball bat.

Without wishing to go all verbose on this occasion, the upshot was that I challenged their system for having doubled my bill and invited them to enjoy their new pet unless they sorted themselves out. I did offer to buy the dog back for £650 but said they could keep it if they could get a better offer.

In fairness, the big boss called me personally later in the day and he was a decent enough chap and in the end the wife bought back the dog at a fair price – though I’m sure the kids were halfway sold on the new puppy option. It left a sour taste nonetheless and all the next day I told the tale to everyone I talked to only to be met with,

‘Well that’s what vets do…’

Not to me they bloody don’t! Last time I had an old dog I had a wonderful vet called Mr Hamilton who would’ve made James Herriot look like a rogue so this new way of doing things is a real eye-opener. I was therefore in a bit of a grump when we took to the workshop later that day to see what was what with putting the lids on our sponsons. We got them pretty much ready to go but as ever it became an epic. It’s one thing to look at the archive shots and say, ooh, isn’t there a lot of bolts in that but it’s not until you get into prepping the thing that you realise just how many you have to deal with and just how involved it is. What’s seldom realised is that we often have to cram a dozen years of random, never-drawn development on the machine into only a few weeks of construction so that it remains historically correct but we like to understand it too and why it was done.

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Here’s a chunk of Righty’s lid partially prepped. None of the rivet holes are yet countersunk nor are any of the holes deburred around the back or in the sponson core. There’s the big hatch in the middle with a lid held down by a squillion 2BA screws.

That’s not the real number, but the list of fasteners for a sponson top is impressive nonetheless.

26 x functional bolts with captives/Helicoils & washers to anchor the sponsons to the spars.

49 x redundant bolts, with Helicoils & washers at the unused spar stations.

71 x 2BA captives, + rivets

Approx 270 x 3/16" blind, countersunk rivets

Approx 45 x 1/4" blind, countersunk rivets

There’s not a lot of aeroplane going on at the moment so the man formerly known as ‘Aerospace-Rob’, being a founder member of the Bluebird Project, returned to his roots and did some riveting on the old boat. It’s good to have him back.

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There’s a lot of those to get through so everyone had a go including Gillian who, long, long ago joined us with hopes of working on Bluebird but ended up one of the Barra’ Babes instead. Well, she’s served her apprenticeship – as was the original plan for new volunteers when taking on some aeroplane work – so she finally got her hands on the boat and her workmanship, or ought that be ‘workwomanship’, is exemplary.

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It took a few sessions to get the captives into both lids but they’re done now and looking all very fine and splendid. Notice also in the shot below that the paint has been keyed with a sander where it is to be riveted to an internal frame or an extrusion and they are all keyed similarly too. It makes the choccie sauce stick like poo to the bedclothes.

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Each captive needs three holes – the big one in the middle where the screw goes then two more 3/32nd holes for the rivets that keep them on. Each is countersunk and the captive is put down with a dash of choccie to be sure of no dissimilar metal shenanigans two hundred years hence.

There’s another small, circular hatch at the back with another round of captives.

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And, finally, another hole at the front that was drawn but without a cover for some unknown reason and in the archive pic’s it seems to be closed with some sort of tape or sticky paper. We made a little lid for ours that we could fasten down.

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There’s another four 2BA captives under there, plus it picks up on one of the redundant bolt fixings for the ‘spar neutral’ position. You can see other spare bolt holes and now the rivet holes are countersunk and that small hole to the right about an inch across was never drawn but was opened later when the original sponsons leaked so badly that they were poured full of expanding foam. We’re confident that ours won’t leak but we opened the holes anyway so we could check inside just in case and because they’re historically correct.

The two circular access holes, by the way, seem to be to check for water ingress. The one with a cover and the ring of captives is at the back at the bottom of the slope where the sponson reaches its maximum depth and the one we’ve made a cover for is at the bottom of the slope at the front.

With the lids prepped it was time to sort out the sponson itself and finally cover in for good all that green horror. One thing I suspect I’ve not mentioned so far is we bring the spar frames to a state of perfect height and levelness with a thin layer of two-part epoxy putty. In some cases the upper faces of the spar frames, because their attachment angles are a welded part and things move when you weld them, are a smidge low at one end or slightly canted over so we put a millimetre of putty on them then carve and sand it back to leave everything perfectly flat for when it meets the outer skin. That way when you pull the rivets or bolts down it doesn’t distort the skin.

It has the rather inelegant nickname of ‘dog s**t’ in our workshop.

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Now this brown stuff is not to be confused with choccie, which is gloopy, rubbery stuff. Dog s**t sets hard as iron and is a nightmare to work. It initially comprises two sausages of different coloured material not unlike Plasticine that you knead together then roll into slender lengths that you flatten onto the already keyed surfaces of the spar frames. Once it’s set and been smoothed to height the choccie goes on top of it.

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There you go – how gloopy is that? The stuff gets everywhere but it’s the reason we reckon the sponsons will be watertight this time around. Notice the orange things poking out of it. In a moment of absolute brilliance, Mike realised that if we put those squishy earplugs in the threaded holes they would gently expand as they’re designed to do in your ear canal and stop the choccie getting down amongst the threads  – he named them ‘Wotsits’ for their resemblance to the cheesy snack of the same name.

The result of this would make fascinating reading were you ever to consult a process sheet for putting down a sponson lid. The relevant section would go something like…

Apply dog s**t and allow to harden.

Dress dog’s**t to finished height (check with a straight edge).

Insert Wotsits in all helicoils and captives in ‘spar forward’ position.

Apply choccie sauce to a depth of 2mm +/- 0.5mm.

Remove Wotsits.

With everything ready to go and the choccie slathered everywhere the time finally came to slap the lid on Righty and give closure – quite literally – to the last two years of green horror.

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After that… a riveting jamboree.

We love blind rivets, those that are pulled with a gun rather than the solid type that need a hammer and a block and must be cut to the correct length and their myriad other considerations, whereas the others just need to be poked down a hole, the gun applied to the stem and a button pushed to be rewarded with a hiss and a pop and the job firmly joined together. And in this case we also got around the unending dilemma of which type of rivet to use in those tricky corners because with the lid there’s just no way to get on the back anywhere so it’s out of our hands.

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We have the most amazing support from Stanley / Avdel such that we can grab a handful of these safe in the knowledge that they’re a top quality fastener and that the box will never be empty.

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A bed of nails… now all we have to do is work from one end to the other with the rivet puller. But notice that there’s none at the pointy end. We’ll come back to that.

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As one of the chief sponsoneers, Rich, was keenest of us all to box in the core and never set eyes on it again so, starting at the back, he drove in rivet after rivet as we watched the excess choccie ooze from the gaps happy that what was left would keep the water out. But up front a different approach was needed. The problem where the sponson core comes to a point is that there’s not enough clearance to push one of those rivets down from above because it hits the lower extrusion, nor is there any access to get in with a block to set a solid rivet as we were able to do when attaching the lower skins. But what we could do on top is drill and Helicoil the upper extrusion to take a 2BA screw and we could do that all the way to the nose of the thing…

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John and I spent a very careful few hours drilling, tapping and Helicoiling a pitch of fasteners into the very front of the sponson so we could not only fasten all the converging skins and extrusions together once and for all but also so we could attach the ‘jawbone’.

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You can sort of see how it got its name and notice also that it’s very firmly nailed down with a good number of highly toxic cadmium-plated screws. They’re cheap because they’ll kill you if you eat them – what can we say, we’re always skint. Besides, they’re genuine 1954.

The jawbone is a part for which we have no drawing except for a ghost of a Ken Norris pencil line on the sponson GA that suggests how it goes whilst offering no clue as to how it was fixed down. The only other evidence is archive pic’s showing where the screws go in the sponson nose and they have to be screwed into something. So it’s a best guess and a sprinkling of artistic license.

Speaking of which, we had a guest artiste in the room this month. It’s a very long time since Chris from Proalloy called to say he’d been watching what we were up to and could he come and make a part for the boat. He’s a great friend nowadays and is always greeted warmly when he makes his annual visit with his family. He remains a brilliant welder and fabricator though he’s mostly off the tools and in the office these days so we set him the task of making the second jawbone for Lefty.

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John did the Helicoiling then we had a visit from some more special guests. Once a year our operations team come by at the end of Coniston Records Week and lend a hand. This time we’d saved the closing of Lefty for them but first we had a debrief on their meeting with lots of Park Authority people about Bluebird’s homecoming. We still don’t have a ‘when’ but the op’s guys certainly have a lot to set in motion, everything from extra portaloos to road signage but it’s all good so the debrief went well. Then we covered them in choccie.

Assembling the lid to Lefty was a smooth repeat of Thursday’s effort except for a few forgotten captives to retain the main inspection hatch but Gillian is a total pro with captives so she supervised and instructed as the guys learned how to put them in.

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Paul was inappropriately dressed for choccie work but we thought we’d just let him get covered anyway and, besides, fitting captives gave no clue as to the ungodly mess that lay ahead.

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Sir Malcolm was a little better off attire-wise and just as well because it wasn’t long before the choccie arrived – a two-tube job too – and all hands lifted the lid aboard having whipped out the Wotsits.

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But before that, seeing as it’s the last sponson skin we will ever fit (we fervently hope!), we took the trouble to sign and date the inside so if ever in the future someone pokes a boroscope into the voids they’ll find themselves crossing paths with the original build team.

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Then it was everyone on the rivets. 3/16th around the edges and ¼ across the spar frames, bolts and washers into all the spar fixings and the double pitch of 2BA screws to fix the jawbone and seal the nose of the sponson once and for all.

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Job-one is to make sure that every countersink has choccie smothered all over it and a rivet inserted so whoever is on the puller simply has to drop it over the stems and push the button. It’s fun and most satisfying at first as you watch everything tighten down and the good old ‘choccie-ooze’ but it’s also a heavy beast and a bit tiring to the point where you soon hand it on for someone else to have a go, preferably someone new and unsuspecting so you can then disappear to do something else.

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Mending Righty’s sponson nose was a priority. The shape has been slightly and infuriatingly off for ages but with the sponson lid floating around it’s not been possible to snag it – until now. It was soon savaged with a cutting disc, bashed with a hammer or three then given a spot of glue.

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Ahhh, the relief of finally ridding it of that horrid extra crown and a small twist! Now then, Ken produced a drawing for all these parts that no longer exist so we have to build anew and I see no reason not to work to the drawing. This is not the same as making old parts look as they once did and if this means making a section of sponson top look like a button-back sofa in the interests of historical correctness then that’s one thing but surely not on a new part. After all, we’ve not built the sponsons to leak, have we, they’re as close to the drawing as we could make them. But the shape police (Mike) wants button-back sofa all over the sponson tops and I’m having none of it. I sort of see where he’s coming from and we have these arguments in very much a fun sort of way but building these difficult shapes to a fine tolerance is an interesting challenge and if they’re purposely built all wonky people will think that’s the best we could turn out so my plan is to teach Mike how to stretch bulges in the panels with a hammer and dolly and he can make them as horrid as he likes after I’ve got them perfect.

Meanwhile, work to finish the lid on Lefty was completed and the excess choccie wiped away.

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Smart, eh… Notice how the aftmost bulkhead, designated the ‘A-bulkhead’ on the drawings, has two holes rather than the single letterbox-like slot on the other sponson. That one started out with the two holes too, as that’s how it’s supposed to be, but they were joined into a single opening on the other one to allow access to repair damage. We’ve never been able to assess how severe this damage was. The only evidence of it is a picture of a squashed end cap and the appearance of an extra pitch of 3/16th rivets on the underside and a pair of extra bolts in the upper corners of the A-bulkhead but whatever it was that went on inside must’ve been quite severe. We’ve also added another subtle departure from the original sponsons at the back end, or rather an adherence to an element of the design that was missed first time around. See how the skins extend an inch past the A-bulkhead. That’s how it’s supposed to go so that the end cap fits inside that overhang and is sealed all the way around but there’s a mistake on the drawing in the way that it’s represented and we almost missed it and had that happened the only skin extending past the bulkhead would have been the lower one. And guess what – that’s how the originals were built so the Samlesbury crew obviously fell for it first time around. The result was there being nowhere to secure the vertical sides of the end cap so they had to squish an extra thickness of material between the outer skin of the sponson and the sides of the bulkhead, which meant not only were the end caps virtually impossible to remove but the resulting bodge would have been difficult to make watertight in the lower corners and may well have contributed to the leaking.

So with Lefty fully skinned and Righty’s nose pretty much the right shape we loaded Righty and had a look at all those clean and newly prepared parts all bolted together.

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Only some mild tweaking on that nose now and the captives can go into the underlying formers. Much work went into saving weight atop the relatively heavy sponons and the upper fairings are as lightly built as is absolutely possible. The material is only 1mm thick and has the bare minimum of structure beneath, hence the ‘Do Not Stand Here’ warning on the mid-section. Stand on that and you’d go straight through because the sponsons were totally intolerant of even an additional ounce.

The Larch-Tower and its struts also built nicely and we popped the back end of the sponson top in place too just to see how well it still fitted – or not – following the final fixing of the upper skin.

You know what makes me incredibly proud and impressed… none of the boys and girls who built all of this are fabricators. We’ve all had to learn on the job, every last one of us. We’ve studied drawings and photographs, learned to understand what rivet does what to this or that material and how to make tooling to make the shapes we need.

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Looks good, doesn’t it. The lids are a masterpiece and this sponson top is all done except for the final fettle. The one for the other side is about half done too so that’s what we’ll be doing next and now that we’re not locked into endlessly repetitive sponson torture we ought to have more to report on a more regular basis.

’til next time…