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The Coming of the Boat Railway

When I was young I heard a story about the coming of the railway to Sutherland.

It was said that when the Duke of Sutherland was building his railway, ‘na daoine beaga’ (the fairy people), being industrious and much interested in feats of engineering, were very keen to see the new ‘each-iarainn’ (iron horse). And so on the opening day they snuck down close to the line so they could see it, and then it came, hurtling at speed, fizzing and blowing and spewing out dirty black smoke. The poor fairy people took fright and fled in terror back to their mounds and it is said that from that day until now the Sutherland fairies have never again set foot above ground.

What has this got to do with oysters? Well nothing, but is it not a great wee story? Also, we now have our own railway but there is no danger of it frightening the little people as it is completely hand powered!

As you may be aware we have decided to farm oysters in a somewhat unconventional manner, well for this part of the world at least. We have decided to go with an Australian longline approach (BST) and service the site using a boat; no trestles and beach tractor operations for us.

As such the boat is a key piece of our operating infrastructure, in fact it is the key piece, and we have been very lucky in that we have a shore base with direct access to the sea at all states of the tide. That is not to say that we did not have to put in a significant amount of work to make it usable. If you have been following the blog you shall be aware that we have put hundreds of hours into making the old boathouse and slipway usable again, if not see here and here.

Initially we were content to simply use the old slipway to launch the boat but the slipway is actually more of cidhe for tying up alongside and it is also constructed out of stone blocks and despite our best efforts the surface is not exactly ideal. What this means is that launching, and more importantly, retrieving the boat is awkward, particularly in bad weather, and this makes things less efficient and more physically demanding than they should be.

Given that the boat is our key bit of kit it should be the strength of our operation and there should be no question over do we use the boat today or not. With this in mind, we decided it was time to sort out this issue and drive a key efficiency gain for the business.

What to do then? Well we have a winch and we wanted to be able to quickly launch and retrieve the boat and so the obvious answer was a boat railway. A boat railway is as it sounds, you build a set of rails and a trolley that can run on the rails, with the boat being mounted onto the trolley. Sounds easy or what?

So the first step was to measure the boat so that we could work out the size the trolley would have to be to support the boat. This in turn meant we could then calculate the spacing, or gauge, for the rails on which the trolley shall run.

The next step was to decide on how we would build the rails and we decided to use scaffolding tubes as the rails as these are tough, durable, easily available and not overly expensive. The idea is that the trolley shall have wheels rims and these shall run on the rails, with the in cut nature of the rims ensuring that the trolley shall not jump off the rails. In order to minimise the number of joints we ordered 6m lengths of tubing but we still needed more than you would imagine.

The third step was laying out the rails and this required further materials and this involved a couple of trips to the ‘scrappy’ to pick up offcuts of rebar and short lengths of scaffolding tubes. The rebar we hammered into the foreshore to act as anchor points, and this was no easy task. The short lengths of scaffolding we cut to length to be used as transoms and then drilled and attached them to the rebar anchor points. After this we then ran the rails into place and bolted them to the transoms to complete the rails.

The most difficult part of this effort was managing the drop of the rails across the top of the cidhe as at this point there is a large drop to the foreshore and we could not simply drop the tubes down as it would make the angle of the winch pull impractical if not impossible. As such we had to create a small support frame and also use a pipe bending machine to add a slight bend to the rail tubes to overcome this.

Before we could complete the top section of the rails that run into to boathouse itself, we decided to lay concrete on the floor to make a better working surface. We have already repaired the floor of the boathouse but it was less than ideal and doing this also meant it would be easier for us to lay the rails down. And so we spent several days laying concrete and we must have laid down over a ton of material, hard to believe but it made a huge difference.

Then we put in the final rails and it was good to go.

But we still needed a ‘buggy’ to run on the rails, something that was robust and that would carry the boat so we made one out of the left over scaffolding. A wee bit of welding and it was good to go as well!

Then it came time to test the system, we lifted the boat onto its new trailer, secured her and then used the winch to lower her down the rails. We watched nervously as the boat trundled her way down to the sea but she made it no problems at all. The final test was to pull her back up and this was the big one, as there would be a lot of stress on the winch as it pulled the boat over the lip of the pier, but again it went really well with no problems.

And so now we have a boat railway which shall make life so much easier and allow us to make full use of our best asset, am Bàta.

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