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Doing the Black Bottom

If you're wondering about getting your (boat's) bottom blacked, here follows Sheila's account of our first experience.

We had been advised to re-black the bottom of Sanity after twelve months so we booked her into dry dock at Stone Canal Cruising on a do-it-yourself basis. Monday morning saw us ready to go into the dock at 8am. It was an interesting test of boat handling as Sanity was to go in backwards. I'm not sure whether this was because of slight uncertainty about getting her over the sill or because she would ride the flooding of the dock at the end of the week better if she was bows on. I suspect the latter. Although her draft put her right on the limit for the dock we had no trouble getting her in, she never touched the sill. Then with Bruce standing on the stern and me on the bow we held her in the centre of the dock by gripping the rafters of the roof while the stop planks went in the entrance to the dock and the drain was opened. I was just beginning to worry that I wasn't going to be able to reach when Sanity touched down and very quickly she was high and dry on the bostocks. A plank was laid from the edge of the dock to the gunwale and we were ready to start.

The first thing we noticed was the change in the feel of the boat once she was aground. Although not particularly aware of the movement of the boat when she is afloat there was a huge difference when she stopped moving. It was rather uncomfortable.

Stone Canal Cruising would have hired us a pressure washer but were happy to allow us to use our own. I don't think that an ordinary domestic pressure washer would be up to the job but we have one with a special rotating head which produces a particularly strong jet. It was fortunate that we had been warned that the first blacking would not grip as well as subsequent ones so we were not totally horrified when we had finished washing and most of the hull was back to bare metal. The washing process took us well through Monday and we left the hull to dry thoroughly for the rest of the day. Since there is a roof over the dock there is a good chance of being able to work in wet weather but we were fortunate enough to have dry weather. It was quite windy so good drying conditions but it did mean that we were a bit chilly on board. Lighting the stove was not allowed because of the risk to the roof of the dock (which is a listed building).

Tuesday morning saw us ready to start at 8am again. We had elected to continue using Comastic which had been on the hull before. This is a good blacking but a nasty substance to work with being Xylene based. The wind helped here as it blew the vapour away quickly so we did not suffer too much from the smell. The paint tin is covered in warnings about avoiding contact so we covered up well. We found by experiment that lightweight old waterproofs were the most practical coverall and frequently replaced latex gloves (a box of 100 from a motor factor) on our hands. We decanted quite small quantities of the paint into paint kettles as it was pretty heavy to hold whilst working. Our brushes were masonry brushes, with wide heads and short bristles, which we found easy to use. We took a side apiece and set to. Bruce won and came round onto my side to help me finish. I found it decidedly tiring as it was a bit like trying to coat the boat with black treacle but at least the skill component was pretty small (I'm usually a disaster with a paint brush).

We finished the first coat in time for a late lunch then left it to dry overnight. On Wednesday we repeated the procedure but swapped sides in case one of us was getting a thicker coating than the other. Thursday we left the blacking to harden and concentrated on doing a lot of retouching above the gunwales.

Friday morning 8am and we were ready to leave. Bruce and I were back to holding the rafters and the top stop plank was lifted. It was dramatic watching the water flood in but even when Sanity floated off there was not much disturbance. The most difficult challenge was to get out of the dry dock and turn south into the lock without hitting the bank and scratching the new blacking.

We'd certainly do it again - it's much more like painting creosote on a wooden fence than doing domestic paintwork, but people who are not so fit might well prefer to get the whole thing done by the yard.