Friday, April 18, 2014

Considering condensation

Well you do, don't you? I mean it's something we all do, don't we? Consider condensation, that is. It's always been a part of my own life, and I'm sure most of the readers here who are of a similar age to me can conjure up the same memories of playing with it as children.

For instance, I distinctly remember trawling my fingers through the condensation running down the windows in the bedroom I shared with my sister when I was about six. We used to draw pictures of faces, animals, houses and trees in the beaded moisture, making up stories, and not caring, let alone worrying whether this condensation was doing any harm to the window frames. We were kids, after all.

Then later on, in student flats, I remember using an old windscreen wiper to clear the condensation from the windows in my room (cheaper than buying a proper window cleaner). Even then, it was just something that happened and the clearing was a routine - nothing to be bothered by, but slightly tedious when you had to do it every day.

That all changed when I moved onto a historic barge. All of a sudden, condensation transmogrified from being something you always got if you had gas fires and no double glazing to a substance to be feared - a thing of horror to be prevented and avoided at all costs. In fact, condensation became a subject all on its own. It would occupy entire conversations among barge owners - correction, it still does. Indeed, if you see two or more liggers gathered together looking sombre and shaking heads, the chances are one of them will have discovered they have a condensation problem.

Discussions then take place at great and serious length.

Most historic barges were built of 6-8mm iron or steel plates

Everyone has their own ideas about full-proof and failsafe solutions. Contraptions that would rival Heath Robinson's engineering contortions are conceived; constructions made up of serial fans, multiple-connected extractors, or airflow pipes: they have all been tried, tested and most likely, failed. But why all the fuss? What really is so terrible about a bit of condensation?

If you think about it, it's fairly logical. Barges, like many boats, are built from plated steel. These days, the steel is pretty heavyweight stuff and it's not unusual for the bottom of a new-built barge to be around fifteen millimetres thick. However, when my barge was built in 1898, the iron plates that were riveted together to form its beautiful old hull were only six millimetres thick. This is true of pretty much all the barges in the Oude Haven, although some of the longer and heftier among us were built from proportionally thicker plates.

The thing is that we are now more than a hundred years down the line and our barges have been sitting in water the entire time. Now, it's fairly well-known that as long as iron is submerged, it does not rust very quickly. The trouble is this is only true of the outer hull. The inside is always exposed to something - at the very least, the air. This in itself is not so bad, but at sometime in its history, my own barge was left open to the elements, meaning that a considerable amount of degradation in the iron has taken place as a result of rain, more rain and even more neglect. Iron certainly does rust in these circumstances. Consequently, there are places on my hull that are only just over the minimum limit of 3.5mm. That's not a lot between me and the bed of the river.

All the barges in our harbour are close to a hundred years old
if not more, like mine, which is a hundred and sixteen this year

But let me get back to the point of condensation. In the past, the historic barges we now live in were merely cargo carrying vessels with just a small area used for living. The bargees were not rich folk, and none of them had central heating. At best, they might have had an oil or wood stove, which was most certainly put out at night. These days, we live in what used to be the hold, and we insulate the sides of the barge with heavy Rockwool or other such protection against the cooling or heating effects of the outside elements. But the bottom, the area under the floor, is rarely insulated, so it is a trap, a catchment area, a veritable reservoir for all the condensation that forms from the luxuriously heated space above it. And during a cold winter, there is plenty of that. We do not brave the cold the way our forebears did. The point is that the damp, mixed with air, can have only one outcome: rust.

As a result, we all suffer from the same anxiety, we bargees, and we all spend hours contemplating the perfect solution to the dreaded condensation. In the Vereeniging, I have the added joy of internal rain during particularly cold spells in the winter. My exposed roof girders don't normally start their own sprinkler system, but when it's well into the minus figures outside, they do sometimes deposit a steady flow of drips like some kind of efficient irrigation set-up. This water has to go somewhere, and ultimately, it will creep under the floor unless I can stop it first. Likewise the steam from the kettle, the microwave, and the shower. I try and make sure there is always somewhere for it to escape up and out, but inevitably some of it will creep down the sides into the bottom.

The carnage caused by the curse of condensation

And so the stuff of nightmares is formed: pools of water on my century old bottom conjure scenarios in which the final flake of rust is the final straw, and I wake to water gurgling up around me. Every drip is thus suspect; every air bubble breaking on the surface of the water outside might, just might, be a leak inside. And so the fear of disaster remains a constant in my, and every barge owner's, life.

Condensation to most people is just a nuisance, but to the owner of a liveaboard barge, it is potentially a life-threatening catastrophe.

Okay, so don't shoot me for exaggeration…I did say potentially….it's the thought of that sinking feeling, see...

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Boats, water restrictions and feminine (non) vanity

The other day, I was musing on aspects of life on a barge that are different from living on land or in a house or flat. The obvious difference is that a barge is constantly submerged in water and keeps moving. A house doesn't, or it shouldn't at any rate. You might arguably be a trifle worried if your house was swaying to and fro in the breeze.

Typical liveaboard scene: the washing on the line

That aside, living on a boat has often been compared to life in a floating caravan, and there are indeed comparisons to be made. Even so, most permanently berthed caravans generally have mains water and electricity, so it is, in principle, possible to live a pretty normal life in a mobile home. On a boat, however, these things still tend to be different.

Take water, for example. On my barge, the Vereeniging, I have two five-hundred litre water tanks. Now in most homes, people use water fairly indiscriminately. A thousand litres? It's probably not difficult to go through that amount of water in a couple of days, is it?  On the Vereeniging, I make this quantity last around ten days. Yes, I do.

On the Hoop, the barge I lived on first, I had no running water at all for several months, and I had to fetch it in jerry cans - ten litres at a time. I have to say that such water restrictions concentrate the mind no end. Need becomes a relative concept. How much water do I truly need, and so on. When I eventually got my waterworks installed on the Vereeniging, a thousand litres felt positively decadent and luxurious, but even then, it had its limitations.

One of the two five-hundred litre tanks on the Vereeniging

I have to say I'd had some practice at this before even arriving in the Netherlands. My former home in South Africa was prone to drought and we'd always paid for our water usage. We were used to being careful; you know, turning off taps as soon as we'd filled anything, using tooth mugs instead of letting the tap run, putting bricks in the cistern of the loo to save water. All that sort of thing was quite normal to me. But living on a boat took water restrictions to new levels.

Just imagine this, for instance: filling the tanks means unravelling metres and metres of hosepipe, dragging it all up the loopplank and walking to the water point to attach it (the distance can vary depending on how far along the row of barges you are). Then once you have fixed both ends, you have to sit and wait for the tanks to fill, about half an hour in my case. You also have to be very, very careful not to over fill the tanks. The resulting overflow is not funny, and needs another post all of its own to explain why.

But for the moment, let's assume everything goes according to plan. The tanks are filled, so then you have to reverse the process: switch off the water, undo the hosepipe from both ends and wind it back up again. In general, the whole process from start to finish takes something in the region of an hour, and a bit more. Not a 'just job'. Nor is it something I've ever relished doing when it's snowing, raining, sleeting, or blowing a gale - all activities the weather likes to be involved in at various times of the year. Result: use as little water as it's possible to safely and hygienically get away with.

It was winter and freezing

So let's think of the next scenario. I am a woman of a certain age. Even before I started living on a boat, I was close to it, but I am one of those individuals who has gone grey very early. In fact I was completely grey by the time I was thirty five. I used to dye my hair in some attempt to deny this reality. For years, I succeeded in disguising my real hair colour with a variety of hues ranging from black to blonde and back again. But the crunch came when I moved on board the Hoop.

Now anyone who knows about messing around with hair colour also knows you need a lot of water to do the job properly. A lot. I didn't have even anything approaching to a lot on the Hoop, and by the time I moved onto the Vereeniging, I was jealously guarding every drop.

I remember it all so clearly. The thing is my hair tends to grow rather fast, so to keep up the pretence of having some kind of pigment in my mop, I had to 'do the roots' every two weeks. At least that's what I used to do in South Africa. On the boat, this became a huge challenge. I'd stock up on water for the event. Jerry cans would collect on the foredeck in readiness, and I swear people started making the connection between the unusual amount of water I was accumulating and my consequently brighter hair. Eventually, it all got too much to do every fortnight, so I started sporting scarves to cover up the badger stripe I would develop after about ten days. The scarves became a permanent fixture the longer I delayed re-painting my hair (as the Dutch call it), and then the inevitable day came.

It was winter and freezing. The water points on the quay were frozen. My tanks were empty. I had no water: nix, nada, nothing. If I wanted to 'do' my hair, let alone make a cup of coffee or have a wash, I would have to trek round the harbour to the little building where the communal washing machines were housed, fill up the jerry cans and walk all the way back again over frozen, icy ground with twenty litres of water. For what? For vanity? Even I admitted that coffee and cleanliness were somewhat higher on the priority scale, although I wouldn't like to say which of these two actually came first.

It took time to phase the colour out 

In any event, this was the defining moment for me. I decided to reveal the truth, unmask myself and just give in to nature. I would stop dying my hair and go grey. Other reasons rushed in to support my decision. My hair would undoubtedly breathe a sigh of relief - years of artificial colour not being particularly nourishing; the environment would send up three cheers as I would no longer be flushing chemicals into the river; and I would save a whole tank full of water, not to mention a multitude of fish.

So that's what happened. It didn't happen over night if I'm honest. I sort of phased out the colour in progressively lighter shades until the difference was barely noticeable, but during this period, the spells between the dying got longer and longer, and I saved myself and the Rotterdam water authorities vast quantities of clean water.

The long and the short of it is that when you live on a boat, you might be surrounded with water, but that's where the luxury ends.

The reality is that being submerged in the stuff is about as luxurious as living in a desert!

Saturday, April 05, 2014

A visit back home

On March 25th, I flew out of Amsterdam on my first visit back home to South Africa for nearly six years. According to my passport, the last time I was there was in June 2008. I remember it because it was in winter, but the sunshine is even more enduring at that time of year there and I was staying in Postmasburg, a small town in the southern Kalahari. You can read my blog about it here.


Moi looking at things at a country market
This time, I knew I would only be staying in Johannesburg, the city that was my home for more than ten years of my life in South Africa. My purpose in going was not for a holiday as such, but to visit my dearest friend ever, Moira. You can read a bit more about our long-standing friendship on a blog post I wrote about her fiftieth birthday in 2007 (yes, I have been blogging that long!). Without going into details, life's been uphill for my friend in the last two years, so I really wanted to spend some time with her.

It was a wonderful reunion. Moi and I will always just pick up where we have left off, and we spent our time talking, drinking wine, sitting in the sunshine, walking, drinking more wine and catching up as only friends who've been through the mill together can do. It was just wonderful.

Sitting in the sunshine at an outdoor cafe - there is no
indoor part

Moira's lovely garden - just four months growth from new

Saffron, her lovely and very old Siamese cat 


That said, the visit also gave me a chance to observe some of the changes that have taken place in the country since I was last there. Things have changed, and changed big time. Johannesburg has mushroomed beyond belief. There are suburbs with large housing estates in places where I used to drive on dirt roads through open scrubland. My old landmarks have disappeared and it is easy to get lost in this huge sprawling city. Sadly, most of these housing developments are more like compounds. They all sit behind high walls topped with electric fencing. As my friend says, people who have nothing will steal because they have nothing, but you still have to try and prevent crime.

On that note, there are still huge numbers of people living in abject poverty in South Africa.  However, things are better for many of them. There are large estates of what are in effect council houses - small low cost homes built from brick, and all with their own piece of ground. Most of these come fitted with solar water heaters too - an amazing sight as they are erected on the rooves of of these houses.

Solar water heaters - image taken from the net


The problem in South Africa is that it has had a tremendous economic boom in recent years, in some part due to the World Cup. I know, it sounds strange to think that such a boom would be a problem, but the improvements for the many and the increasing integration of society have attracted vast numbers of immigrants from neighbouring countries such as Zimbabwe and Mozambique. This has meant that although the suburbs and homes for South Africans themselves have been substantially upgraded, the dreadful squatter camps that marked the years of apartheid have not gone. If anything, they have grown, but now they are populated largely with immigrant families. This situation created severe tensions a few years ago with riots and xenophobic conflict. It is still an issue today and the immigrants live and work in awful conditions as well as fear of reprisals for taking locals' jobs.

Despite this persisting gap between affluent and poor, it was good to see the increased level of integration throughout the city and to know that there is at least a minimum wage for those in proper employment. Conversely, I was shocked by the spiralling prices. Seven years ago, I sold my last little corner of Africa for a hundred and forty thousand Rand (in those days, this was about fourteen thousand euros). These days, that same house would cost around eight hundred thousand Rands, or fifty four thousand euros. That's one heck of a leap up in prices. I only hope there are enough people now earning this kind of money to be able to afford a mortgage of that amount. At 10% interest, it must stretch them to the limit.
.

My last corner of Africa

My observations about my old home land are, however, just that, and I haven't had a chance to study how things are in supported facts. Johannesburg is the economic heartbeat of the country, so things might be different out of the Witwatersrand area, but even so, the changes since I was last there have been huge. I just hope that the forthcoming elections will see a consolidation of peace and prosperity and not a new wave of disruption and violence, which is what many South Africans fear. It is such a beautiful land and the people are so welcoming and friendly, it would be tragic to see it slipping back into armed conflict and chaos.