Projects: Tenacious by name, tenacious by nature – building with epoxy
In 1990, the Jubilee Sailing Trust unveiled ambitious plans to build Tenacious, the world’s largest wooden tall ship, with a view of making it fully accessible to people with physical disabilities. The Trust invited John Birkett the position of construction manager as part of the team to oversee the ship’s construction, which took place between 1996 and 2000 at Jubilee Yard, formerly Merlin Quay, Southampton.
John says, “I was extremely happy to get involved – it was a fantastic opportunity for local boat builders like myself to work on a big project in the area. It was also exciting to think that perhaps thousands of volunteers would help build the ship, which would give both able-bodied people and people with disabilities the chance to get out on the water and experience something new.”
Experts and volunteers working together
When the construction of Tenacious began, John already had decades of experience building wooden and fibreglass boats. “I lived on the Hamble River as a boy and I was always messing about in boats. I often visited a local boatyard and asked the boat builders what they were doing and why. I started building my first wooden boat at 14 and I’m now 59.”
With John at the helm, a large team of constantly changing volunteers worked to build Tenacious, including many people with physical disabilities. Many team members, who typically worked on the project for just a week or two at a time, had no boat building experience whatsoever.
“We had lots of volunteers who were in wheelchairs and many said they’d been more active during their weeks working on the ship than in the rest of the year put together,” says John. “That kind of commitment leads to great camaraderie, and the fun we had building Tenacious sticks out most in my memory.”
Overcoming unique ship-building challenges
The design for Tenacious, created by Tony Castro, was based on a three-mast barque with traditional clipper ship lines had a hull which was to be strip planked on laminated frames.
Building a huge wooden ship like Tenacious presents unique boat-building challenges. “All the normal construction principles still applied, but Tenacious was a very different kind of project, mainly because of the immense size of the ship, which was 65 metres from stem to stem. There was also the complexity of the design, which makes the ship fully accessible by wheelchair,” says John.
To streamline construction work and ensure that Tenacious’ enormous hull is as strong and durable as possible, The Jubilee Trust decided to use WEST SYSTEM® epoxies to bond the ships wooden components together.
“When I was in my teens, I saw some local boat builders using epoxy to bond components using the ‘cold moulded’ method, which is the method we used for Tenacious,” says John. “In the intervening years, I used epoxies quite extensively myself to build wooden and fibreglass boats and I also used them to build large wooden ships similar in size to the Tenacious. That’s how I knew epoxy would work for Tenacious,” he adds.
Stronger bonds, simpler construction
With specialist, marine-grade epoxies such as WEST SYSTEM products, it is possible to use simpler construction methods, which was critical for reducing construction times and costs on the Tenacious project.
“To build a wooden ship of this size using traditional techniques, we would have needed hundreds of large timbers and frames cut extremely accurately,” says John. “With the epoxy, we were able to use smaller wooden components, which made the construction process more economical and reduced mess and waste to a minimum.”
The use of marine-grade epoxy also allowed John and his team to build up structural components that had been cut too small and fill gaps in imperfect joints. “We went for the perfect joint every time, but if there were gaps we could fill them quickly and easily with the epoxy, which was a great benefit,” says John.
Impeccable organisation and commitment to quality
To maintain quality standards, controls were put in place for a wide range of construction activities. “We had to make sure that the mixing process for the two-part epoxy was completely standardised to ensure the best results,” says John. “In addition, we had to be highly organised to apply the epoxies to laminate pieces, position them correctly and clamp them together to form the giant frames, stringers, deck beams and other numerous laminated sections of the ship – all before the epoxy cured.”
The fact that Tenacious was (at that time) the world’s biggest timber constructed tall ship means that epoxy construction on this scale had never been attempted before, but John’s attention to detail meant that quality standards were upheld throughout the build, and, ultimately, that the ship has stood the test of time.
Technical experts from West System International provided on-site support to help John achieve the best possible results during key phases of the build – including the sheathing of the 900 square-metre hull. “While many epoxy companies talk the talk, West System International is the only company I know of that provides this level of technical support, which was a major factor in our success with Tenacious.”
The success lives on…
Since Tenacious left the yard for her maiden voyage in February 2000, the ship has carried around 6,500 disabled sailors, including 2,687 wheelchair users. Ellen, who is deaf and losing her sight, sailed from Palma de Majorca to Barcelona on Tenacious in 2003. “For a whole week I lived life equal to everybody on board,” she says. “This might seem like nothing for somebody who is able bodied but for me it was liberating.”
The decision to build Tenacious using WEST SYSTEM epoxy will ensure that the ship can continue to bring hope and change people’s lives for the better for many decades to come. “Since we finished the build 14 years ago, there hasn’t been any need for any major maintenance or repair work on the ship’s hull,” says John. “It’s just the beginning, though – the ship could easily last another 100 years.”
To find out more about Tenacious and how it is providing life-changing experiences for disabled and able-bodied crew members, and to get involved, visit https://jst.org.uk/tenacious. You can also find out more about WEST SYSTEM brand products and how they help fabricators create stronger, more durable boats at: https://wessexresins.co.uk/.