May 2011

We had a fascinating tour round the Albion boatyard and heard about challenges of restoring the Medway Queen. She was built in 1924 on the River Clyde in Scotland but sailed in the estuary waters of the River Thames and River Medway. In WWII she was requisitioned and converted to a minesweeper. Initially she operated out of Dover and later in the war was based in Scotland as a training vessel. Her finest moment came in 1940 when she made seven crossings to the beaches of Dunkirk rescuing 7000 men. The bravery of her gallant crew lead to the title ‘Heroine of Dunkirk” being bestowed, and this is why she is such an important vessel. She also went to the rescue of another sinking paddle steamer and rescued its passengers with no loss of life. She could do 14-15 knot. She was oil-fired so quick to refuel. After the war the ‘Medway Queen’ returned to pleasure steaming on the River Medway and Thames, under her original owners, until withdrawal in 1963. It had subsequently sunk twice, had hit a pier and broken her paddles so was in a very sorry state. It had been built to Clyde racing rules so thin plate had been used. At the time labour was cheap and materials expensive- now it is the opposite.

Andrew came to work at the yard in 1999 and said that the Medway Queen had been his most interesting project. They had been chosen because they were an existing shipyard. It is a fixed term contract to deliver a watertight box afloat by the end of 2011 otherwise funding is lost. Engine restoration is not part of the contract. 10 staff are employed. 32,000 rivets of a special domed shape have been ordered (the supplier thought they had made a mistake!) and we were shown the way a rivet was heated up to temperature in only a few seconds. Andrew had talked to many riveters to find out about the technique, since it was the first ship to be constructed in this way for 50 years, so was a dying art. He still had his own ideas having worked it out from first principles, and when he questioned them he found that sometimes they had been taught to do things in a particular way without questioning the reason why

The rudder is the original one. The engine and a couple of pumps were there too. There are no drawings so everything has to be worked out. We heard that some thieves had stolen some of the original handrail fittings from a Medway town which must have been a bitter blow. The boat is amazingly slender and only has a draft of 7’8” and length 179’9”. It is lovely to see the large covered dry dock originally built by Hillhouse in 1820 in use for such a venerable project. The group asked interesting questions such as about the lapping of the plates on the hull appearing to be upwards rather than downwards. 12,000 28 gauge brass screws had to be ordered. Work began in April 2009 to a fixed price and the hull has to be completed by December else the lottery money will be forfeited so it is a tight schedule. We also heard the sorry story about the Portsmouth ferry that had been ordered and half completed but had been cancelled at the last minute when there were plans to build a light rail transit system (which did not go ahead).

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