The story of "Chimere"
Back to the sea - via a major refit
Chimere is old. By modern standards, very old. This is the story of how she was given an additional lease on life and returned to the sea where she had started work over 100 years ago.
My introduction to boating was as a four-year-old with my mother leading me, miserable in the pouring rain, across the meadow at Abingdon to join our first boat on the final leg of its trip to its new home at Oxford. Little did I know I that boat would still be a major part of my life over sixty years later!
The original sale picture of 1958
Norbert, as she was then called, was the result of my parents taking a trip on a Salter's Steamer in 1958 (they really were steam in those days) and getting bitten very deeply by the boating bug. Within weeks, we were the proud owners of a thirty foot cruiser lying at Sunbury on Thames. I was far too young to understand the details, but I got the impression that she needed some work, particularly on the superstructure - the rain did not seem to stop falling on my head that first day I entered the main cabin.....
In the 1960's
The required love and care was provided by my parents for the next 23 years, reshaping the superstructure and refitting the interior gradually over the years. They were aided no end by the top quality construction of the hull. Double skin of teak on oak ribs would be unbelievably expensive to build nowadays even if you could get the timber. But before the First World War the empire provided and boats were built extravagantly - and they lasted. Despite living in freshwater with only the occasional haul out and antifoul, there were no leaks and no rot.
A river boat
Norbert was, however, strictly a family river boat. The alterations to the superstructure over the years meant she was increasingly top heavy and rolled unnervingly when anyone of weight stepped aboard. 'Low initial stability' is the polite expression used by surveyors, 'tender' by kind observers, 'frighteningly unseaworthy' by me.
In the 1970s and still getting taller
When the never-ending maintenance finally took the edge off my parents' boating, I became the proud owner and I have been broke ever since! A few years of using the boat as she was convinced me that something radical needed to be done and that maybe, just maybe, Norbert could once again to taste salt water. The existing superstructure had to come off, no question. But what would replace it? The centre of gravity had to come down. There were only two of us using the boat, so no need for extensive accommodation. But she had to look good, be practical, and above all be safe in inshore waters.
1980's - final shape before the refit
Thanks to many hours of boring meetings that plagued my job at the time, a design emerged from sketches surreptitiously drawn while trying to look engaged. These ideas were tested by cutting out pieces of paper and sticking them onto a side view of the boat and then drawn on to squared paper to see if it all fitted together in practice and the bunks would actually be long enough to sleep in. (I discovered computers a bit later on....)
Removing the superstructure took just thirty minutes. Replacing it and fitting out took nearly eighteen years!
Convert or restore?
They don't build them like this anymore. The metalwork (other than the shaft) is solid bronze and gunmetal - the rudder alone takes two people to lift. Originally the rudder would have been six inches deeper and joined to the "A" bracket by a skeg.
Chimere started life as an open steam pinnace on or before 1914. The only indication of date is the test marks on two secondary lifting eyes added sometime after the original construction. That she was steam is evidenced by her age, the engine and boiler bearers and the size of the sterngear; the construction techniques particularly at the bow indicate an open boat.
To restore her to original would have been possible and probably no more work than converting her to a semi open cruiser. There would have been some guess-work involved as the term "pinnace" covers a wide range of small boat layouts and engine designs and few detailed records exist.
But the big question was: what use would she be afterwards? A show boat yes, but a boat with very limited uses. The bank balance was not big enough to support two boats and we wanted something we could use all summer around the coast or on the river. So to the horror of some purists the conversion route was taken. I think it was the right decision as it means a very old hull is still going strong, looked after and most importantly, used. Lack of use is often a death sentence to old wooden boats.
The hard work begins
Ready for launching. The narrow beam, fine entry and shallow stern make it a very efficient hull, built in the days when boats cut through the water rather than skim over the top. The round bilges allow more roll than modern designs
First the engine, an old petrol Morris Navigator was replaced with a reconditioned BMC 1500 diesel and PRM gearbox. This came as a d-i-y marinisation kit of oddments from a failed project at Walton. Next came the wheelhouse superstructure, built over weekends and holidays in the sheds at Val Wyatt, Wargrave. The opportunity was taken to replace a worn stem post and forefoot, three short sections of external planking and the top of the transom where rainwater had softened the wood. Nowhere near as dramatic as it sounds as the stem post and forefoot are bolt-on timbers and the inner skin was sound. Otherwise, the hull and keel is original.
Hull and superstructure
- 30ft LOA, 7ft 6in beam, 2ft 6in draft.
- Hull construction: double skin teak on oak, circa 1914
- Cruising displacement: 4.5 tonnes (estimated)
Engine, propulsion and steering
- Marinised BMC 1500 30HP diesel; PRM 101 gearbox
- Stainless steel shaft (1 5/8”) with 16”x11” three blade propeller
- Transom mounted balanced rudder
- Cruising speed 7 knots at 3 litres per hour
- Double bunk in forecabin
- Heads with sea toilet to holding tank
- Galley in wheelhouse with gas stove, refrigerator, sink, hot and cold water
- Seating and table in cockpit
Navigation and safety
- Chart plotter; GPS; digital compass
- VHF; speed, depth and wind;Navtext
- Lifejackets, flares, MoB rescue gear, etc
- Anchors, chain and windlass
- Get-you-home outboard (sea use only)
- Inflatable tender with outboard
Stage two was back in the water (no leaks) on a mooring behind Blakes Lock at Reading. This was probably the hardest part as everything had to be carried back and forth across the lock, there was no power and work was done under canvas. Interior carpentry took forever and the work stalled.
Stage three was the final make or break push. The boat was moved by road to hard-standing at the GUC marina, Croxley Green, Watford, and much nearer home. There, with easy access, security and power, work proceeded like never before. The hull was repainted from scratch (when the paint is off, you can still see the original scribed waterline and the outline of the identification plaques from her days as a ships boat). The decks were re-canvassed, water and waste tanks fitted, wiring installed, interior carpentry and trim completed, galley fitted out, soft furnishings made, and cockpit canopy designed and fitted. And finally the necessary sea-going equipment installed. All that was left to do (I joke of course) was to refloat and test.
Sea, here we come!
As she is now, anchored on the Alde at Slaughden Quay, near Aldeburgh. The original 1914 hull is from the lower rubbing strip down
Renamed Chimere and with the all clear from a survey, we went for our first cruise down the GUC in 2001, turned right at Brentford and onto the non-tidal Thames at Teddington. Only a few small changes, some more ballast and we felt ready to see the sea.
2002 we turned left at Brentford and headed down the tidal Thames, round to the Crouch and on to Brightlingsea and the Orwell. It is not until you are out there with no land in sight that you really appreciate how small your boat is and how much you relying on a 90 year old hull and your own self-taught workmanship. Exhilarating I say, frightening says my partner!
Was it all worth it? Oh yes. The non-tidal Thames is a great river but there is nothing quite like the sea, albeit inshore coastal waters. We now balance our summer cruises between the Thames and the east coast and get the best of both worlds.
What's in a name?
Norbert was the name she came with back in 1958 but during the refit years the Environment Agency reregistered the name to a GRP boat. Knowing that we would go back to the Thames occasionally and not wanting those horrible temporary licence stickers when we did, a new name was needed.
At the Thames Traditional Boat Festival
The original Chimere was a 30 foot varnished mahogany Thames slipper stern launch complete with etched glass day cabin, and a petrol engine displayed in a glass topped casing. She was beautiful and completely destroyed by vandals in the early 60s within weeks of my parents moving her to Oxford. I think we only got to use her once or maybe twice.
So to keep the memory of that boat alive, Norbert was renamed Chimere with all due ceremony and the obligatory champagne - most of which went inside us, Chimere getting a glassful on the bow.
The dictionary says Chimere means a Bishop's cloak among other things. It is a fairly unusual name and somehow seems to suit her.