Projects: Building the Gloriana: epoxy’s role in history
Mark Edwards MBE explains how modern epoxy techniques have played a vital role in building historic replica boats – including the royal rowbarge Gloriana.
Mark Edwards has shipbuilding in his blood. “I discovered recently that my family history had been traced back to the sixteenth century, and a lot of my ancestors were shipwrights in St Ives in Cornwall,” he smiles. “One of them built a boat that sailed to Australia back in the 1850s. I don’t usually think things were meant to be, but it was interesting to find that out.”
Such a heritage seems fitting for a man who now spends much of his time repairing and building traditional and historic boats – and who was commissioned by Lord Sterling to lead the team that built the 88-foot royal rowbarge Gloriana in 2012.
Building The Jubilant
A decade earlier, in 2002, Mark had built The Jubilant, a 45-foot shallop commissioned to mark the Golden Jubilee. The experience was a big influence on his approach to the Gloriana.
With only 12 weeks to complete the Jubilant, relying solely on traditional methods or materials wasn’t an option. So Mark reached for the epoxy – just as he’s been doing since he first used it to repair longitudinal cracks in mahogany Thames skiffs in the early 1980s.
“We were using top-quality 9mm plywood to keep the weight down, and epoxy lent itself perfectly to scarfing up the boards,” he says. “We planked the boat, epoxy-coated the bilge and then glued and filleted the sawn floor timbers using epoxy.
“I also introduced a relatively weak keel,” he says. “You don’t want a big keel; it’s not a sailing boat. But you then need to create strength longitudinally, so we glued a keelson that ran almost the whole length of the boat – around 30ft.
“I knew this would hold because I’d previously used an epoxy fillet joint for a keelson on the Lady Mayoress – a 45-foot shallop I built in 1992. That had taken 20 years of abuse and was still holding strong.”
Building the Gloriana
Mark’s rich experience made him the natural choice to build the Gloriana – the boat that would lead the Diamond Jubilee Thames pageant in 2012. But with time short and an extremely ambitious idea in place to create a replica of an 18th-century rowbarge despite a lack of any surviving plans, epoxy was again at the centre of his thinking.
The objective was to create a modern, Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA)-certified passenger vessel – a real rowbarge, complete with auxiliary electric propulsion, to ensure the pageant timings could be met. But it also needed to have the elegant appearance of a traditional royal rowbarge, and to be constructed entirely from wood.
To turn this ambition into a reality, Mark used WEST SYSTEM® 105 Epoxy Resin®, in combination with various WEST SYSTEM hardeners, to coat and fillet the clinker-planked, marine plywood hull, and to create and secure two 1.2m keelsons, one on either side of the keel.
Placed on top of the iroko floor timbers, the keelsons were needed to compensate for the Gloriana’s extreme length-to-beam ratio (she’s just 12 feet wide). Epoxy was used – with careful precision – to achieve the necessary strength without adding unnecessary weight, and to protect the vessel long into the future.
A meticulous process
“The whole structure had to be certificated by the MCA, who passed the task onto to the Lloyds Register of Ships,” Mark says. “So they were monitoring and testing our plans throughout – and we were designing as we built.
“We had to be absolutely scrupulous, monitoring the moisture content of the air and the wood, the temperature and so on to ensure the epoxy was creating a totally sound structure.
“But it was absolutely worth it. I’d say that the longevity of the craft has been quadrupled, possibly, by using epoxy resin, because of its strength in terms of coating materials and not allowing water into joints.
“We decided that we wouldn’t copper nail any of the vessel, but if we had have done, it would probably have fractured in certain places eventually, creating a maintenance problem. With epoxy coatings and filleting inside and outside, that maintenance problem simply doesn’t exist.
“Epoxy is great in terms of coating and finishing, but I actually think the greatest advantage it brings is in reducing the need for future maintenance.”
On board the Gloriana
Mark describes the build as “extremely stressful”, but is full of praise both for Lord Sterling and for the “fantastic team of 15 boatbuilders” who spent just 18 weeks working on the project. The deadline was always tight – and became even tighter when six weeks were shaved off mid-way through so the Queen could name the Gloriana at the re-opening of the Cutty Sark.
As for his memories of the Diamond Jubilee Pageant itself, when the Gloriana led 1000 boats down the Thames in torrential rain, Mark remembers being overwhelmed by the number of people lining the river, but ultimately couldn’t resist the chance to pick up an oar.
“I started off fully dressed as a guest on the main deck, with a fantastic crew who were rowing away,” he says. “By the time we got near Westminster, though, the weather had turned vile and I was starting to shiver. So I rowed the second half of the journey.
“I’m an oarsman – I’d rather go and do something than stand and talk about it. Plus it helped to warm me up.“
After the pageant
Now a regular sight at charity events and royal celebrations, the Gloriana struck Kew bridge in 2013 and was then hit by the RNLI boat sent to offer assistance in treacherous conditions. The Gloriana was damaged, but Mark admits being “delighted” at the way the epoxy structure stayed together.
“All we had to do to fix it was scarf in some small pieces of plywood where the timber had been hit, and then epoxy coat inside and out,” he says.
Today, his focus is on repairing and building the Thames skiffs he lets from the Richmond Boathouse, where he started working as a 15-year-old – and which he now owns. “When you run a hire fleet, your have a research laboratory out there the whole time,” he smiles. “That tests the boat in all sorts of ways.”
To help with this process, the cans of WEST SYSTEM epoxy are never far away. And while there are currently no royal commissions on the horizon, you sense that – when the next one does sail into view – epoxy will once again be close to hand for Queen Elizabeth’s chosen shipwright.
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