Red Alert! Red Alert!

Sunday, July 31, 2016

I think I'm generally pretty calm when things go wrong, which is a good quality for a boat-dweller.  Or at least for someone who lives in a forty year old boat that's seen better days.  So far I've survived a few small and not-so-small boat-related mishaps without too much drama.  But last week I admit I had a wobble.

To explain what happened, a bit of nautical terminology:
BILGE: the bottom-most inside part of the boat.
If water is going to collect anywhere, it'll collect in the bilges.  In the Lucky Nickel the main bilge is in the stern where the engine is.  This bilge tends to collect water, most of which is rain water, because the deck hatches above it are not perfectly sealed.  Water can also seep in around the point where the propellor shaft goes through the hull.  Obviously having any kind of hole in the hull below the waterline is not ideal, but equally obviously it's kind of impossible to have an engine inside the boat and a propellor outside the boat without connecting them through such a hole.  The traditional way to mitigate this problem is with a stern gland stuffing box.
STERN GLAND: a fitting surrounding the propellor shaft, stuffed with compressed packing material, and regularly injected with grease to form an (almost) water tight seal.
I say almost because even the most well-greased stern gland still drips a tiny bit, which brings us to the next bit of terminology.
BILGE PUMP: Even Less-Than-Astute Go Stay Work Play Readers can probably deduce that a bilge pump's purpose is to pump out the bilge.
My boat's main bilge has a dedicated 12v pump and a float switch that's supposed to turn on if the water level gets high enough, and it pumps right out the side of the boat.  When I leave the boat the only thing I leave turned on is the power to the bilge pump.  Also in the main bilge, directly underneath the engine and gearbox is a separate contained bilge that segregates the grease that drips from the engine so that greasy water doesn't mix with the other water and get pumped out into the canal.  You have to empty that one into a sealed container and dispose of it properly.

Under the cabin is a long bilge that runs the length of the boat.  Rainwater doesn't get in there, and unless you're in very very deep trouble, neither does canal water.  But because the water in the canal outside is cold and the environment inside the boat is warm, condensation forms under the floor and drips into the cabin bilge.  And because narrowboats are always a bit stern-heavy (due to there being a massive hunk of metal called an engine in the back) this condensation collects at the back of the boat.  I was completely unaware of this phenomenon until earlier this summer when I was having my new diesel fuel tank installed.  Because the old fuel tank was discovered to have a small but unrepairable leak, the water in the main bilge had become contaminated, and as part of the removal and replacement of the tank one of the boatyard guys had to completely empty out that bilge and dispose of the diesely water.  And while he was at it, I asked him to pump out the cabin bilge, which I'd noticed had a fair bit of water in it.  Larry - the boatyard guy - is a boat dweller himself and lives on a boat of a similar vintage to mine.  And as he pumped out the cabin bilge with a shop vac, pausing to empty it over and over again, he asked me the last time I'd emptied the cabin bilge, at which point I had to admit I'd actually never, in the year and a half since I bought the boat, removed any water from the cabin bilge.  Larry was horrified at this and berated me at length, in between filling and emptying the shop vac.  So I started checking that bilge regularly, and even made a little recurring reminder to check all the bilges.  And I'm happy to report that once I got all that residual water out of the cabin bilge it has remained nice and dry.  Or at least only slightly damp, which on a boat of this vintage is a tick in the Win column.

There is one more bilge area on the boat - in the bow.  And because I'm now kind of hyper-aware of the water level inside the boat I check this one regularly too.  Since I've owned the boat the area under the front deck has always been quite dry.  However, I started to notice a bit of water collecting in this area.  At first I thought it was overspill from the water tank, which sits under the bow deck.  Lacking a more sophisticated water level indicator, I simply push the lid of the tank aside when filling and stop the water when it gets near the top of the tank.  And because the amount of fresh water on board is one of those finite boat resources that has a very direct effect on my lifestyle, I tend to fill it up as high as I can.  And sometimes I push it a bit and water slops out the back.  So I naively thought that was probably the source of the water.

(If this blog was an After School Special at this point there would be ominous music in the background foreshadowing the downfall to come caused by the main character's hubris.)

Recently as I was doing my weekly Bilge Check, I noticed that the amount water accumulated in the bow was getting a bit worrying.  And as I was inspecting, I could see a small disturbance in the surface water, causing a tiny bit of movement.  And then I saw it.

THE LEAK. (Cue organ crescendo)

True, it was tiny.  The merest pinprick.  But it was still a leak well below the waterline, and I could see the tiny stream of water coming in.  It was clear that the boat was TAKING ON WATER.  So naturally I was kind of freaked out.  Never mind that the rate of the leak was such that it would take about three months to accumulate even a few inches of water.  And never mind that I suspect even if the bow bilge was half full it would not send the Lucky Nickel to the bottom of the canal.  (See aforementioned back-heaviness.). And never mind that the bow bilge is sealed off from the rest of the boat.  Never mind any of that.  Because all I could see is that I live on a boat and THE BOAT WAS LEAKING.


(If this blog was an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, this is the point at which claxons would sound and red lights would flash and the ship's computer would start saying, "Red Alert. Red Alert. Hull breach in Sector 7G. Initiating automatic containment of the affected zone.  Depressurisation imminent."  And then Riker would say, "But Captain, Wesley Crusher and a brand new litter of puppies are in Sector 7G!"  And then Captain Picard would do what I did and text Nes in South Africa.)

The permanent fix for a hole in a steel hulled boat is a welded steel patch.  However, to do this properly it needs to be done from the outside of the boat, which means the boat needs to be taken out of the water.  This is a genuinely Big Deal that can only happen at a proper boat yard with a crane and real boat-fixing people, and certainly not something that was going to happen in the next hour or so.

So yeah, I texted Nes, the Lucky Nickel’s Official Offsite Boat Repair Hotline (WhatsApp South Africa Division) and he suggested doing what I was going to try anyway, which is to clean the area as well as I could and then patch it with a lump of two part epoxy putty.  But first I needed to plug the hole with something to slow the water down and have a chance of creating a dry enough surface for the epoxy to bond.  And this is where the blog turns into an episode of MacGyver, which is generally how most boat related repairs end up.  Read on, but know that eventually, in true MacGyver fashion, all of the following were employed: a Leatherman multi tool, a hammer, a matchstick, a hairdryer, and the lid from a jar of Marks & Spencer strawberry jam.

The two-part epoxy putty.  Which claims to work underwater.  *snort*

Nes's suggestion for plugging the hole was to use a small sheet metal screw.  So I dutifully dug out a small sheet metal screw, and even fashioned a rubber washer using part of a bicycle inner tube patch.

Eat your heart out Richard Dean Anderson.

Then I looked at the size of the hole - probably less than a millimetre in diameter.  And I looked at the size of the screw - about three millimetres in diameter.  And I texted again, and Nes confirmed that yes, I'd have to make the hole bigger in order to get the screw in.  And I balked.  I knew intellectually that he was right.  The screw would thread tightly into the steel of the hull and the rubber would probably seal things up long enough to get a patch on. Captain Picard would not have hesitated.  But there is a reason I'm the captain of a forty year old narrowboat and not the captain of the USS Enterprise, flagship of the United Federation of Planets.  I couldn't do it.  I couldn't deliberately make a BIGGER hole in the side of my boat. What if the repair didn't work?  What if the steel of the hull in that area was actually thinner and weaker than we thought and the screw didn't hold and the hole got EVEN BIGGER?  And what if, while I was in the middle of the repair, a cloaked Romulan vessel appeared and we couldn't engage the warp engine because of the hull breach?  The consequences if anything went wrong were just too great.  And let’s face it - something was gonna go wrong.

Instead, I went with Nes's Plan B.  I shaved off a tiny pointy bit of matchstick and gently banged it into the hole with the hammer; that slowed the water to a trickle.  And then I dried the whole area with the hair dryer, except for the tiny bit where the water was trickling down, which wouldn’t dry, of course.  And I mixed up a lump of epoxy putty and pressed it onto the leak and used the strawberry jam jar lid to apply even pressure over the whole thing and sat there, crouched in the bilges, pressing that lid into the side of the boat for ten minutes.  Oh, and did I mention it was raining while all this was happening?

The clamping system

After a cup of coffee I went back to check and I could see there was still a small trickle of water escaping the patch.  So I started to prepare the surrounding area to put a fresh donut shaped ring of more putty around that and while I was doing so the entire patch - jam jar lid and all - popped right off.  Of course.

Crucially, though, the tiny sliver of matchstick held, and the flow of water into the boat was still a mere trickle.  Clearly that epoxy was just not the right product for the job.  But equally clearly, I wasn’t heading to Davy Jones’ Locker in the next few minutes, so there was time to fall back and regroup.  After a bit of googling the WhatsApp South Africa Division suggested a company called Wessex Resins.  So I seized the moment and called them and ended up talking to a lovely and helpful woman named Jackie.  I told Jackie my whole tale of woe.  And even though this is a company that supplies heavy industry and the Ministry of Defence and stuff, she really took her time with me to try and figure out the best solution.  Eventually she suggested an underwater epoxy that they use to apply rubber patches TO THE OUTSIDE OF SUBMARINES WHILE THEY’RE IN THE WATER.  In my case it involved using a special open-celled foam in conjunction with the two-part epoxy.  You apply the epoxy to the foam like you’re buttering a piece of toast - completely saturating it.  And then you press the toast onto the leak and the foam sort of squishes into the surface and holds back the water long enough for the epoxy to cure.  Maybe the bit right at the hole wouldn’t harden, but all around it would, creating a water tight seal.  Or that’s the theory.  (But again: SUBMARINES!!!)

And then Jackie asked again about the size of the hole.  Tiny by MoD standards, I imagine. Just a millimetre or so across.  “Well I guess you won’t need much then.” she said.  "We normally sell this in 10kg packs.”  (10 kg is about 9.93kg more than I needed.)  And then Jackie said, “So why don’t I just send you a couple of sample sized pots and an off-cut of the foam?  Just give me your address and I’ll pop it in the mail for you.  No charge.”  And so I thanked her profusely and repeatedly and gave her a mailing address swore that I would call her first and forevermore for all my future underwater epoxy purchases (which, given the eclectic nature of my work, is not actually an empty promise).  And a couple of days later I had this:

The epoxy and toast

About five days passed, and the matchstick MacGyver repair held admirably through six locks and two days of cruising, until I was finally ready for my second attempted repair on a quiet Sunday morning.  This time I was very diligent in preparing the surface - using a wire brush attachment on a drill and then cleaning the whole area over and over with solvent to allow for the best possible bond.  And I prepared a piece of plywood a bit bigger than the foam toast and covered it in clingfilm, as instructed by Jackie.  This was because Marks & Spencer doesn’t make jars of strawberry jam with lids big enough to press on this new, bigger patch.  And I dug up my heaviest piece of lead ballast and wrapped it in a plastic bag because it was covered with the grot of ages and impossible to handle.  And I tested pressing the plywood against the hull and holding it in place by leaning the ballast weight against it.

The plywood

The epoxy and toast, mixed and ready for spreading

And then I cracked open the epoxy and mixed.  And I buttered the toast.  And I stippled the surface of the area with more epoxy, according to the instructions, sort of like you do with contact cement.  And then I stuck the toast to the boat.

The buttered toast.  Butter side down, of course.

Then the plywood went on, and the ballast weight went against it, and I braced it all in place and made sure it was holding and backed slowly away.

I left it there for more than a day, which drove the WhatsApp South Africa Division slightly crazy, but I really didn’t want to do anything sudden.  And with such a small amount of epoxy pressed up against the cold steel of the boat I figured the cure time might be longer than the instructions said. (Very limited opportunity for an exothermic reaction to accelerate the process.  Obviously.)  Plus if I screwed it up I figured I’d end up having to buy 10kg of epoxy to try again, so Nes had to wait.  In the mean time though, I could see that there was no water trickling down out of the patch.

Eventually I took off the plywood and here’s what it looks like.  I suspect the toast really needed more butter - it’s probably supposed to soak through completely all over.   But the layer of epoxy is probably half an inch thick overall and - crucially - it’s holding.

And then I went online and ordered flowers and sent them to the lovely Jackie at Wessex Resins.  Because that’s how we roll here at Go Stay Work Play Live World Headquarters aboard the now-once-again-watertight Lucky Nickel.

I think Captain Picard would have done the same thing.

The Days Out Just Keep Coming: Chatham Dockyard

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The political disarray / turmoil / armageddon following the referendum result I wrote about last time continues unabated this summer.  But here at Go Stay Work Play Live World Headquarters we're resuming normal service in an attempt to pretend that the world isn't crashing down around our ears.  So, with my Hampstead Theatre show up and running and proving to be a critical and box office success (phew) and with a new job starting in September (more on that another time), I've got the leisure to put my feet up for a bit and sip G&Ts on the back deck and enjoy the tiny intervals of sunny weather that pop up over the next few weeks.  I've also go the leisure to tell you about an excellent Day Out I had in May when my friend Nes came for a visit.  Astute Go Stay Work Play Live readers will remember Nes as the the official Lucky Nickel Remote Engine Troubleshooting Hotline - South Africa/Whatsapp Division, and the Officer in Charge of Iron Smelting Explanations, Driving and Diesel Engine Inspection on previous Days Out.

Anyway, Nes was in town for a long weekend.  Originally we'd hoped to take the Lucky Nickel on a great adventure on the Thames, coming out the locks in the west at Brentford and traveling downstream though central London, under a Tower Bridge (!!) and back into the canal system at Limehouse Basin.  Sadly, the logistics of that turned out to be a bit daunting, and the potential for disaster a bit too high, so we decided to rent a car and strike out for another sort of adventure.  Since Nes and I are similarly minded on the subject of Big Greasy Gears and cool engineering in general, I consulted my go-to manual for such things (the “Guide to Britain’s Working Past” by Anthony Burton) - a handbook to basically every large gear in the country) and we decided on a quick jaunt down to Chatham Historic Dockyard.

There’s been a shipyard at Chatham since the mid 16th century, building ships for the Royal Navy until 1984, when it was shut down.  The working dockyard used to encompass more that 400 acres of buildings, slipways, dry docks and workshops.  When it was shut a portion of the structures were turned into a commercial port with other areas becoming residential.  What was left - the 80 acre core of the Georgian era dockyard - was opened as a tourist attraction featuring, among other things, a massive collection of lifeboats, three restored warships of different eras open to the public, and a still working Victorian Ropery.

Because we were visiting on a Monday, the place was gratifyingly deserted, and we started off in a massive building housing the dockyard’s collection of lifeboats.  It’s worth pausing here for a few words about the RNLI - The Royal National Lifeboat Institution - a venerable and much respected group here in the UK whose describe themselves simply as “the charity that saves lives at sea”.  Given that this is quite a small island in quite a large sea (there’s nowhere on the island that’s more than about 70km from tidal waters) it’s no wonder that this group of mainly volunteers is held in such high esteem.  Started in 1824, it operates 237 lifeboat stations around the coast, with more than 400 individual lifeboats.  Most boats are crewed by volunteers (only one in ten of which have any professional maritime experience) who undergo extensive training for 18 months before becoming qualified lifeboat crew members.  The RNLI also provide lifeguards on the UK's beaches.  Remarkably, over its almost 200 year history, the RNLI has saved more than 140,000 lives (That’s not a typo.  One hundred and forty thousand.)  However, this figure has come with the loss of 600 RNLI crew lives.  In 2015 alone, RNLI crews rescued an average of 22 people EVERY DAY.  It’s a remarkable institution staffed by people who are prepared to drop what they’re doing at any moment and put to sea to save the lives of strangers.  You know those little plastic collection buckets you see at checkouts in shops all over?  Here those are often branded for the RNLI.  Drop a pound or two in the next time you see one - donation like these account for 28% of their funding.

Here’s me at the oars of a mock-up lifeboat in the collection. I'm pointing out that the guy in front of me is not pulling his weight.

The lifeboat collection is housed alongside an odd and eclectic bunch of vehicles and machinery, including this steam-powered forging hammer, which was labelled for “light work”.

Naturally, we both thought this was excellent, if a bit on the titchy side.

Mostly, though, we were killing time before we could visit HMS Ocelot, tickets for which are issued for timed tours. The Ocelot is one of those three restored warships I mentioned earlier. HMS Gannet is a Victorian sloop built in 1878 and HMS Cavalier is a WWII-era destroyer - they’re both open to the public and you can wander in and out at your leisure.  But the Ocelot can only be visited on a guided tour with a limited number of people allowed on each tour, because of the tight space involved.  Why is space so tight?  Because the Ocelot is a submarine!

The tour was conducted by a volunteer and took us through the whole boat, which is setup in permanent dry dock.

We started in the forward torpedo bay, which included six torpedo tubes (amusingly, the two aft torpedo tubes were later taken out of service and used by the crew as beer coolers).  The Ocelot was equipped with wire-guided torpedoes - a concept I was not familiar with.  Basically, the torpedo is attached to a very very very long cable that allows the boat to adjust the heading of the torpedo en route by changing the position of the torpedoes fins.  The forward torpedo bay also housed the escape system.  In the event of a shallow escape (up to 100 feet) the compartment would be flooded and breathing air supplied through a series of tubes for each man in line for the escape hatch.  The man at the head of the line would take one last breath and then swim through the hatch, while everyone in the queue behind would move up one space to the next breathing tube.  They also had a limited number of deep escape suits which could be used at depths up to 700 feet.

Breathing tube, and deep water rescue suit

Moving through the submarine, which was crewed by 69 men, you could appreciate the cramped quarters and way every surface was festooned with equipment.  (As the permanent crew of a similarly long, skinny and somewhat cramped floating vessel myself, I could sympathise.)  We travelled through the crew quarters and past the galley, where two cooks provided for all the crew on board, even cooking fresh bread every day.

Crew quarters

The galley

And we visited the control room and got to look through the main periscope, which was remarkably clear and bright.

Nes at the periscope

This was absolutely my favourite bit of the engine control room.  More control panels should include such useful indicators.

We also saw the engine room - powered by diesel.  I was surprised to learn that the diesel engines don’t actually propel the ship.  HMS Ocelot is a diesel electric vessel, meaning the diesel engines are run simply to charge massive battery banks.  The boat is propelled by 3,000HP electric motors powered by those batteries.  On a long deployment - up to about 3 months - the engines would be run three times a day to charge the batteries.  Normal speed would be about 6 knots, but at top speed - 17 knots - the batteries could power the boat for only 45 minutes.

The submarine tour was excellent, and our group was small, so we got to ask lots of questions of the guide, all of which I’ve now forgotten (hey… it was two months ago!).  I’ve got notes about something to do with oxygen generation and CO2 absorption.  And one note that reads, and I quote: "Attack periscope, search persuasive, radar, induction mast gives fresh aircraft”. Make of that one what you will, but bear in mind that autocorrect may play a part.  I also clearly remember something about how a submarines sometimes descend all the way to the seabed to avoid detection but that this is a risky practice because it’s actually possible to get stuck to the bottom of the seabed by suction and even blowing out all the ballast tanks won’t free you.  Which certainly made me grateful that the bottom of the canal is only about 2 feet lower than the bottom of my little boat, meaning that even if it were stuck fast to the bottom I’d still only get wet up to about my knees and the Lucky Nickel’s collection of priceless artworks would be quite safe.

After the submarine, we spent a bit of time poking around on HMS Cavalier, the WWII destroyer, where I had my picture taken with the ship’s bell, which seems to be becoming a tradition.  (And yes, the Lucky Nickel does have a bell, in case you were wondering.)

We also looked at the tall ship HMS Gannet, but again, that was just killing time waiting for what for me was the main event of the day - a guided tour of the Victorian Ropery!  In the age of sail, the navy needed prodigious amounts of rope to fit out the ships built in the dockyard. Each ship required, on average, TWENTY MILES of rope for its rigging, so you can imagine why there have been dedicated rope-making facilities on site since 1618.

The Ropery at Chatham is distinguished by its ropewalk - the long building where the strands of yarn come together to be twisted into rope.  Since the length of the completed rope is determined by the length of the strands that go into it, and because those strands need to be stretched taut during the rope-making process, a ropewalk building is necessarily very very long.  The Ropery at Chatham, built in the early 1700s is 1,135 feet long (close to a quarter of a mile) and when constructed it was the longest brick building in Europe.  Even better - the Chatham Ropery is still in operation, run by a commercial company that still use the traditional equipment and methods to produce rope.  They’ve even recently taken on an apprentice, which is positively excellent.

The current building dates to 1792 and in order to see the whole thing we were once again channeled into a timed guided tour.  However, instead of the system on the submarine where the tour was led by a volunteer who was knowledgeable and interested and happy to answer questions, the Ropewalk tour was conducted in that infuriating and now-vogue manner by a woman dressed in historical clothing and taking on the persona of a ropery worker from the 18th century.  I find this a tiresome and awkward practice, and in this case it was worse than most, since the character this woman was portraying was particularly disgruntled and unlikable.  I suppose this might be considered innovative or interesting but in fact is almost exactly like being given a guided tour by someone disgruntled and unlikable.

Nevertheless, the woman did manage to get the information out, and I was able to lurk in the background well enough that I didn’t have to interact with her directly (though one poor guy in out group was picked out as “husband material” by our guide and subjected to more or less constant poorly-delivered asides).  But back to the rope-making:  naturally, the process starts with raw fibre.  Traditionally this was hemp from Russia, though later manila from Filipino banana trees was used and more recently sisal (from cactus) and coir (from coconut) have come into play. The fibres are first combed out in a process called hatchelling, which was originally done by hand, but later came to be done by machines.  After hatchelling, the fibres are spun into yarn. Here again the process was once a highly skilled trade done by spinners who could produce 1,000 feet of yarn from a single 65lb bundle carried around their waists.  By the late 19th century a single mechanised spinning machine could produce the same amount of yarn as 24 spinners.

Once the yarn is wound onto spools it’s ready to be turned into rope.  Individual threads of yarn are fed through register plates and then onto the hooks of a forming machine.

Here’s the yarn going through register plates

And here’s what the travelling end of the machinery looks like on the big ropewalk.  It’s got wheels because as the yarns are twisted they become shorter, so one end of the apparatus needs to be on wheels and moves forward as the yarn is twisted.

Each hook spins, twisting several yarns together into a strand.  Once the strands are complete, they’re twisted together into rope.  This was all demonstrated to us in the exhibition area outside the main ropewalk, with two of the gentlemen of the tour group pressed into service operating both ends of a small set-up, turning cranks in opposite directions at each end.  First they formed the yarn into strands, then the guide reconfigured the strands on the machine and the guys had another go at the cranks and we watched the three strands come together into rope.  Ropes made for naval service would also include a coloured tracer line.  Because rope was such an important part of naval life, each of the major naval rope makers (at Chatham, Woolwich, Portsmouth and Plymouth) was required to include in their ropes a single yarn of a specific colour so that if the rope failed in service the navy could trace it back to its origin.

The demonstration was actually quite impressive and remarkably quick.  Best of all, after it was finished we were left to our own devices to explore the actual ropewalk itself.

The ropewalk

It’s so long the employees often use bicycles to get from one end to the other.

These wooden horses keep the rope off the ground as it’s being made.  
You can see they’ve been around a while.

Most of the tour group abandoned the ropewalk at the first exit but Nes and I walked the whole quarter mile, and we were rewarded because the far end housed all the supplies for the actual ropemaking company, including racks full of spools of yarn and extra machinery and stuff.  And to counteract the annoying tour guide woman, we also came upon an employee of the dockyard who was every inch the eccentric English enthusiast.  An older gentleman, tall but a bit stooped and dishevelled and somewhat pre-occupied in that the manner of one who would almost certainly not be wearing matching socks but would be able to explain, in excruciating detail, the difference between a three-stranded hawser-laid rope and four-stranded shroud-laid rope.  We listened to him ramble for a bit and then slowly made our way back to the main dockyard area.

Rack of spools of yarn

It was late in the afternoon by this point, and the whole place was almost shut down.  We wandered through a few more exhibits, but quickly decided it was time to move on.  We made a quick attempt to see Upnor Castle, but it was closed too.  Also, Nes had a flight to Johannesburg to catch, so we sped to Heathrow where he hopped out after giving me somewhat vague directions back to the hire car place.  It was around this time that I realised I hadn’t driven at all since last Christmas, and hadn’t driven on the left since about October of 2014, and had only a rough idea of where I was headed and had only Google maps to guide me, which kept insisting on taking me on a faster but much more complicated route than I wanted.  So let’s just say the trip back was fraught and ended with me abandoning any attempt to find a petrol station to fill up, thus incurring a somewhat steep penalty charge. Still, I’d have paid double that just to get it all over with.  And regardless of the day's ignominious end, it was most certainly a Grand Day Out.

Nes, hamming it up at the wheel of HMS Cavalier.

P.S.  As usual, there are more pictures at Flickr.


Monday, July 4, 2016

This week I was going to blog about another fun day out.  I sat down in the requisite coffee-shop-with-free-wifi and opened up my notes and then I realised I couldn’t.  Because on June 23rd the world broke, and it’s been impossible to ignore, and I feel like I have to get some things out.

Unbelievable.  Unthinkable.  Impossible.  And, these days, inescapable.

You’d have to be living under a rock on Venus to be unaware of the EU referendum vote result here in the UK, but I’ll say it anyway.  In a vote that many think David Cameron never should have called (surely now including Cameron himself), 52% of those who participated decided that the United Kingdom should leave the European Union.  There were a lot of issues involved.  The Remain side focussed on the economic consequences of a vote to exit; Leavers dwelt heavily on immigration.  I admit I didn’t examine the issues in detail.  For me, and, I think, for a lot of people, this was a time to vote your conscience.  There were no party lines, as evidenced by the open warfare in the Conservative Party, and the continuing upheaval plaguing Labour.

(Wait, actually, I lie. Some people voted along party lines. Apologies to all those GSWPL readers who support UKIP.  (Hands up out there!  Hello? Helloooooo???)  For Astute but Non-UK-based GSWPL readers: UKIP is a right-wing, populist, Euro-sceptic party whose leader, Nigel Farage, is kind of like our very own Donald Trump. Except that he and 21 of his fellows are Members of the European Parliament.  Yep.  A strongly anti-EU party has the largest number of MEPs of any party in the UK.  You could not make this stuff up.)

Because the polls closed so late on referendum day (10:00pm) everyone said there wouldn’t be a result until morning, but I woke up a few times in the night and rolled over to check the news when I did.  When I went to bed the general feeling was that Remain would win but when I woke at about 2:30am, the BBC was reporting an unexpected shift towards Leave.  I rolled over and went back to sleep.  Then at 5am I roused again and saw the unthinkable had happened.  The BBC had declared the Leave vote had won.  I’m not sure how I got back to sleep after that; maybe it was the ostrich effect.  When I finally woke up completely it was to a three-letter text from my friend Gerald in Amsterdam: “OMG…”  And it was clear I hadn’t dreamed it.  My response: “What the fuck?!?”  and then: “It’s like waking up with the worst hangover ever, and then realising someone gave you a racist tattoo while you were drunk the night before.”  I started getting emails from friends back on Canada saying things like:
“You can still come home."
"Well, um, congratulations on Britain's new found state of being.  As John Oliver said 'Britain would be batshit crazy to leave the EU'. I guess no one saw his show."
And I kind of just lay in bed, feeling sort of paralysed.  And ripped off.  Part of the reason I got my UK citizenship in the first place was precisely because of the European Union.  Because it meant that I had the option of living, working, or even retiring, in any EU state, not just the UK.  In a very real sense, my UK passport was a golden ticket. (I originally wrote that sentence as "IS a golden ticket" and then had to go back and change the verb to the past tense.  Damnit!)  Without that passport, I wouldn’t have been hired to work on the London 2012 Ceremonies or the European Games in Baku, which led to gigs in Cairo and Abu Dhabi. And I know withdrawal from the European Union doesn’t mean that the UK will no longer be part of Europe.  That’s just a geographic fact.  (Which reminds me of the first Quebec referendum in Canada, held in 1980, when I was in elementary school.  When we were discussing the topic in school a classmate asked, “But if Quebec separates from Canada, where will they go?”, as if the whole land mass might just separate from the continent and drift off towards Bordeaux.)  But I can’t help but feel that the country has pulled up the drawbridge.  It feels like a smaller, more parochial, sadder and decidedly unfriendlier place than it was.

The other thing I did when I woke up that Friday morning was check the exchange rate on the pound.  Back when I was a normal person with a job and a house in Canada I had the usual pension funds and retirement savings and was well on my way to a comfortable if dull dotage supported by the Canada Pension Plan (ha!), my own savings and the power of compound interest.  Then I took a large chunk out of my prime earning years by quitting that job and selling that house and spending a year traveling, closely followed by leaving the country completely to restart my career and reestablish myself in a much bigger and tougher labour market.  And while I have no regrets at all about this decision (unless it’s that I should have done it five years sooner) it does mean that until recently I wasn’t really doing anything about retirement planning other than casually googling recipes involving cat food and suggesting to my much more grown-up friend Karen that she might keep a space for me in her garden shed.

Last year I finally got my act together and started properly investing and have since been slowly transferring money back to a portfolio in Canada.  But, being the cautious sort that I am, I still had a chunk of money here in the UK that, while earmarked as “retirement savings”, was a bit of a safety net.  On referendum day, as the pundits were saying the vote was too close to call, I wondered if I should seize the moment and send that pot of money back to Canada.  The pound at that time was hovering near 1.90 CDN, not as good as it’s been, but still very respectable.  However, the general mood was that Brexit would never happen, and I figured when the vote went for Remain, there could very well be a slight bump that would work in my favour, so I held off.  When I woke up on Friday morning the pound had plummeted against the Canadian dollar, and I’d lost about $1700.  And while it levelled off a bit in the days after the vote, it’s actually taken another dive recently.

Screenshot 2016-07-02 14.58.52
When the media says the currency fell off a cliff, this is what it looks like.  And it’s not just the pound, of course; the euro is suffering too.  (Sorry, euro…)  Yeah, sure, it will recover some of what it’s lost.  Eventually.  But soon?  No, I don’t think so.   Because everyone says the market hates uncertainty, and that’s all we’ve got right now.  
Huge, yawning, scary uncertainty.

I have a close friend who voted Leave.  I remember being shocked when he told me; it just seemed so weird and insupportable. Cosseted as I’ve been in the London bubble (where the vote was 60% for Remain), reading The Guardian, and hanging out with a lefty arty crowd, it was easy to think that most everyone felt like I did.  Confirmation bias, I guess.  We talked about it a little bit, me and my friend, and mostly I think for him it came down to a question of national sovereignty.  He didn’t like that the UK was subject to EU law and regulation, and he wasn't interested being part of the EU's "ever-closer union".  I can see that point.  Being in the EU is like being in a marriage (albeit a sort of Mormon-ish marriage with 27 spouses…).  You accept certain restrictions in exchange for certain benefits.  Help support your wife’s Uncle Stavros because he’s fallen on hard times, but also enjoy using the in-laws’ vacation house on the French Riviera.  Hire a hard-working Polish woman to clean your house every week, but acknowledge she deserves the same health care and social support that your English-born neighbour needs.  Enjoy the free movement of goods and capital but understand that it comes along with the free movement of services and people.  Unfortunately, while I trust that my friend simply has a different opinion about the cost vs. benefits of being in the EU, I fear that many who voted to leave may not have based their opinion on such firm ground.

This was certainly the case for another acquaintance who voted for Leave.  I was shocked to hear his anger and disillusionment with what he described as lies told by the Leave campaign to bolster support. (For instance, the now-infamous claim, splashed on the side of the Leave campaign bus, that £350 million per week would saved and re-distributed if the UK left the EU).  I know the Remain side were also not innocent.  And it's easy to think that anyone who believes all the claims politicians peddle when on the hustings deserves what they get.  But my friends anger was palpable and as he claimed that he'd "never vote again" I couldn't help but wonder how many other people in the country were simply giving up on the entire system after this ugly and divisive vote.

I said earlier that this feels like an unfriendlier place now, and I really mean it.  There have been reports of a sharp increase in incidents of racist attacks and rhetoric since the vote (reported incidents up 57%).  Most people now say that the main issue that swayed Leave voters was immigration.  I’m an immigrant to this country myself, but of course I’m not the kind of immigrant people are reacting to.  People are reacting to non-English speaking, brown-skinned, non-Christian or otherwise Different immigrants.  People they see as taking away jobs, flooding the health care system, drawing social benefits and basically overburdening the country.  People that make their country feel like it's not their country anymore.  The parallels with Donald Trump’s supporters are inescapable and, based on this referendum result, kind of frightening.

The referendum vote divided sharply along a few key demographic lines.  The older you are, the more likely you were to vote Leave - 21% of under 26s voted Leave whereas 69% of over 65s wanted out.  Most pundits attribute this in part to a sort of nostalgia among older voters to recapture an England that simply no longer exists. (And likely never will, regardless of the EU). More tellingly, those in prosperous areas of the country like London were strongly for Remain; perennially poorer areas like the North-East went for Leave.  Level of education was also a strong indicator - 64% of university graduates voted to remain compared to 25% of those with no formal post-secondary qualifications.  And, corollary to that, those in professional or management jobs were 58% in favour of remain compared with 27% in unskilled jobs.  I could quote stats all day long (these ones came from this article) but they’re all saying the same thing, and in my view it’s the same thing that’s fuelling Trump’s rise in America.  People with the economic means or education or professional contacts or temperament or, well, who are we kidding? - people with money or power - benefit from the kind of globalisation that the EU represents much more than people without.  What we’re seeing is, as one Guardian columnist termed it, “a howl of rage against exclusion, alienation and remote authority”.  

I don’t know what the answer to all this is, and I fear this blog has been little more than a semi-coherent ramble.  There’s been an online petition calling for a second referendum, but I'm not really sure it’s right.  Never mind that a referendum is a remarkably blunt instrument for a complicated issue.  Never mind that David Cameron should really be considering getting a tattoo that says “Ask a stupid question…”.  Never mind reports of small but statistically significant numbers of Leave voters saying they wouldn’t have voted that way if they thought Leave would actually win. (Aside: ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME???).  Never mind all of that. Because flawed though it may be, a referendum is still about as pure as democracy gets. There’s not much left to do but buckle up and see what happens.

For now, I leave the last words to someone I suspect few on the island would accuse of being anything less than the truest of Englishmen, Sir Winston Churchill:

On the one hand:
“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter."
And on the other:
“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried."

At least some of us have rediscovered their sense of humour.