Beautiful, brilliant, blue-eyed, peaceful, imaginative, humble Papa John Playfair dies aged 83, quite suddenly. The shock is of course enormous, the gaping void plunging. Maman Line Playfair needs emotional rescue from the Chiswick (London) cottage they shared for so many decades. I find a boat for rent on the Thames- quite by chance, and Angie the owner is surprised by my call.’I’m off to Australia to visit my son for 3 months, leaving tomorrow. Send your mum round today and we will see what we can do’. A perfect coincidence, a perfect fit, the two ladies unite and strike a deal, maman’s heart goes pitter-patter and whilst waiting for a decent offer on the family home, she moves onto Angie’s boat. It’s a short bus ride from Chiswick, and the depression lifts enough to make life without Pa seem possible. The river heals and soothes. The ducks quack and distract. When the house is sold, maman asks if buying a boat might be an idea. (OMG) The search begins, very gently, with no haste or pressure, just pleasure. We had no idea of course, no idea..

An immaculate 1920’s dutch barge in Leeuwarden.NL, is the reason for the mini-break to Friesland. My guy at the time, Richard, loved floating too. Maman Line, being an island girl from Corsica, needs water, the sea, lakes, anything fluid, close to her. She dreamt of barging holidays during my entire childhood, but it was no use, Pa was a land cat. I had always spoken of living in a house boat though the engine part was never essential. ’I love her’ I whispered to the boat broker Luc in Leeuwarden, ‘but there is something missing. She is just too perfect Luc. She needs a few parties and floor cushions to loosen her up (!) and, more importantly, she is simply too expensive’. Luc knew it was his lucky day. He could sell that dutch barge to anyone, but that old rusty heap in Workum…

It was pouring with rain, and I almost slipped into the canal boarding her, but she caught me. A smouldering need to protect and restore this tired hunk of battered steel overwhelmed me. There was no contest, Vaporetto Hippopotamo was incomparable, soaked in emotion and sunshine despite the wet and wind surrounding us. The spirit and magic of the millions who had boarded her, like the feeling one sometimes has when relaxing in a warm breezy garden full of visible and invisible life, was palpable. Like a zoo animal in the wrong climate, she lay quietly swaying in the reeds, under no illusions that she would appeal to anyone in her dishevelled state. How wrong she was. I spotted the diamond, just as Michael Simonsen Kiersgaard had, that day in Venice. The particles around her were vibrating, jiggling. I felt the imprint of history, of past movement and human activity.

2016 .
It took a year and a couple of trips, one with maman Line, to decide. The decision was taken around Christmas time 2016 in a blur of bubbles and port.. By March 2017, HIPPO was tugged from Workum to SRF boatyard in Harlingen and major steelworks began immediately. The magnitude of the project sank in bit by bit-a lick of paint would not do. I was a woman in a man’s world, and everyone had advice, so I listened, and mulled and made decisions.

2017 .
Enter NIKOLAJ BLOCH- friend from the Thames, boat whisperer, bearded Dane, musician, extraordinary human being. He agreed to project manage. He needed a job to support his family and goodness knows maman and I needed guidance and protection from the boatyard giants. Without him, the dream would have melted away and become a half-baked chaotic fiasco like so many others. Nikolaj saved the day. With Richard and countless other wonderful local helpers, we dismantled all the previous owner’s loving work. It was heartbreaking but the rust needed attention, and we had to reach it. E VE RY THING had to come out. We numbered planks, carefully crating up memories and knick-knacks we hoped to re-use. We stripped her bare, and it took at least 6 months to do so. We scratched and scraped and ground perhaps a cubic metre of rust from her steel shell. I learnt to use giant man-tools that seemed fresh from MAD-MAX II. Then we treated, primed, and primed, and primed some more.

2018 .
By 2018, Nik and I were on our own organising the workers, and Tooney one of my oldest friends joined in the fun. She was inspired to make technical drawings for the carpenter to work from, as our sketchy ideas developed into ambitious visions. By recommendation, I found Paul Croly from boatfiteurope to build wooden foundations that bitter Winter, and we then insulated with the best spray-on foam around. A vast truck with trunk and a spaceman came on board to turn the inside into snow. It was a marvellous day, adding foamy fat to steel bone.

Nikolaj’s imagination was on fire- removeable floors, lithium batteries, back-up systems, all the while understanding my desire for modernist design, comfort, safety and 1930’s luxury. He supported me through some grey clouds and propelled me.

. SRF, Harlingen, Friesland – I lasted a year with them. Main steelworks: repairing the hull, re-shaping windows, reconfiguring the stairs and engine room access, wheelhouse & extension re-designed and enlarged, internal destruction and rehabilitation, full priming and anti fouling hull protection. Hydraulic steering is installed- an emotional decision to let go of the original push-pull system. I thank the boss Lex Tichelaar and the excellent steelworkers there.

2019 . NIEKO’S SCHEEPSWERF Franeker – 1 year, 39 (OUI, 39!) BOHAMET double glazed windows & portholes installed, 6 vast stainless steel waste and 3600L water tanks, hot water boiler and all 24 flexible solar panels installed. Continued steelworks, electrics with JSF, plumbing, and saloon carpentry with Douwe Van der Ploeg.

Filling, priming and painting begin (thank you Olly Dewey!) Thoughts of installing a RAY BRADLEY family stained glass window are explored. My brother makes contact with the artist Ray. He is excited and invigorated by the idea of having his early work afloat. Chilli Penguin (wonderful Welsh company, superb service, check them out chillipenguin.co.uk, wood burning stoves ordered and installed. Nikolaj must go home and look after his family. HIPPO and I continue solo. He trained me well, I have more confidence, we forge on.

.Harlingen Singel – 1 year, continued carpentry, electrics and plumbing, painting begins. Everything is painted in two-part epoxy, inside and outside. The process is lengthy and much tougher than with one component paint, but the extra durability is worth it. Gruelling work and getting a perfectionist’s finish near on impossible. I think I was high on toxic fumes for 6 months straight. Taco expertly makes canvas cover for back deck, creating an all season dining room with wood burning stove. Douwe’s superb back deck dining table is installed.

2020 . HIPPO moves to her present home. Exterior paint and deck design is painted, poles decorated ‘à la Vénitienne’ electrics continue, Marijke starts work on detailed carpentry and secondary ventilation doors (the hot Summer proved they were essential). Internal paintwork continues. At least three coats are necessary. All mirrored doors and panels are fitted and tricky detail finalised. HIPPO is now turning heads. Front deck seats are considered and a perfect large search light is donated to the ship. Living onboard begins in earnest, with the new challenges of filling water and diesel with ease, and understanding the systems. A third wood burner is ordered for downstairs-for ambience and as back-up in case one day the diesel heating fails momentarily. Guests are welcomed onboard, small celebratory parties are enjoyed despite lockdown and HIPPO begins her new life, appreciated and loved by her local community.

..read on in the next chapter, and keep the thread alive by following the adventures of this big, bountiful steel lady..