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...