Monday morning was like any other, catching up with e-mails, deciphering the hastily written notes left on my desk, checking the diary for that week's appointments, and answering the phone, which invariably springs to life the minute the clock strikes nine. Then, around mid morning, after the initial rush of morning calls, a slightly more unusual phone call came through.
I answered the phone with the standard company response, only to be asked one of those left of field, out of the blue requests. "Do you paint lines?" a young lady enquired in an almost hushed tone, as if she was embarrassed to ask the question, "Yes, we do line marking on sports surfaces, if that's what you mean," I replied. "Can you paint the lines on the Queen Elizabeth cruise liner?"
For a split second I was asking myself if this was a prank phone call, but no, it wasn't. After a brief explanation, it transpired that the new Queen Elizabeth cruise liner was to dock at Southampton on the Friday, and the games deck needed the line markings to be applied as soon as possible, as the Queen was naming the ship on the following Monday.
This wasn't a mission impossible assignment but, with an already busy schedule, it was leading into the realms of 'just in time' management, which can easily fall foul at the last hurdle to become 'just not quite in time'.
So, with the sound of the theme music to the Battle of Britain ringing in our ears, and with great British resolve and a stiff upper lip, we said we were not about to let some white lines ruin the Queen's day, we would be there on Friday, but could they let us know what the postcode is for the sat nav?
After some discussions with my colleague, Dave, who, coincidentally, is my boss - but I feel more at ease typing this tale by referring to him as my colleague (sorry Dave, I mean boss, Sir) - we came up with our plan of attack. We would take as much stuff as we could cram into the van to counter any possible spanners that might fly into the works. This would be our hands-on approach to minimise any potential disasters, our very own interpretation of the boy scout motto "be prepared," and a nod in the direction of Emergent Strategy, the mumbo-jumbo management speak for thinking on your feet.
Friday came very quickly, probably because it was 1:30 in the morning when I got up. I said goodbye to my dog, Ziggy, and joked that I would be back in 24 hours. Perhaps, at this point, I should let all the animal lovers reading this know that other family members of the household were at home, so Ziggy wasn't left stuck indoors with her legs crossed all day!
I left home at 2:00am for the three hour drive to the work shop in Sutton Coldfield. The three hours goes by quite quickly, as this is the time of night when all the specialist radio stations come alive, with Livetronica, Hip hop, Punk Jazz, and Dixieland revival, through to New Wave, Drone doom, and Operatic pop all available, there's something for everyone somewhere on the radio dial. At Sweepfast GHQ, I met up with Dave, who drove the two of us down to Southampton while I attempted to catch up on the missed sleep; it didn't work. We were told that we should be able to board the ship at 7:30am.
We arrived in good time, due in part to Dave's liberal interpretation of the national speed limit, and partly because the roads where empty. It was 7:30am, so we were bang on schedule, brilliant - or at least it would have been if the ship was in dock. Inside the main terminus building the boarding pass desk was empty, but we were told by an official that boarding passes would be issued once the Queen Elizabeth was dock side, which was scheduled for 9:00am.
One and a half hours later, we got our first glimpse of the Queen Elizabeth; helicopters buzzed around it like a swarm of flies, while tug boats sailed in procession alongside, it was like a flotilla of ugly boats leading the ship to the ugly boat ball. I took a few photos of the incoming ship, but hang on, it wasn't stopping, it carried on past the dock; "are you sure we're at the right dock Dave?" I asked. Recalling the wise words of Dad's Army's Lance Corporal Jones and the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, 'don't panic', we waited a little longer to see the ship return; it had been turning around further along the harbour. It was at this time we thought we would see if we could get our passes to get on board.
Inside the terminus, a long queue was beginning to form, it comprised the various tradesmen that would put the finishing touches to the ship. We eventually got to the front and were met by a lady of a certain age, in fact most of the employees seemed to be ladies of a certain age; perhaps the WI was running the show? "You can't get your passes until the ship docks," the lady said in a polite, but firm manner. "Please wait over there," pointing to a far wall as she gave a strained smile. We knew the ship was docking; you couldn't miss it as it towered above the terminus. One after another, each group of tradesmen in the queue were turned away and told to wait for the ship to dock. The queue was growing at a pace by now, so we jumped back on, as the passes would be issued any time now.
When I finally got my pass, after the form filling and surrender of my passport, I thought "at last, we can get on with the work." Unfortunately, the reality was that it just meant I could join another long queue. This queue was for the final airport style security checks; the trial by metal detector.
Eventually, I was dock side, looking up at this skyscraper of the seas - it was massive. I waited for Dave to bring the van along the dock, as he had been subject to long queues and security checks at the dock entrance. After two lorry loads of crates had been fork lifted on board, Dave's pathway was clear and he drew the van alongside the ship. As we began to unload the van, a security guard with a sniffer dog came over to check our cargo, all of a sudden I thought "I hope no one has been smoking a crafty joint in the back of the van!" No one had, of course, and we got the all clear to board the ship.
A large number of the ship's crew were exiting via a large metal gangway down onto the dock, therefore we had to board via a lift in the adjacent building, which gained us access to the 2nd deck, via a walkway that went back and forth umpteen times. Entering the ship meant another round of security checks, but we were there, we were on board at last. All we had to do was find our way to the games area on the 11th deck.
I asked an attendant if there was a lift that would take us there, to which they responded, "you're not taking that in the lift are you?" looking at the equipment as if it were coated in something unspeakable. Admittedly, the paint sprayer did have splodges of dried white paint on it, which could have been mistaken for the fallout from a pigeon with a bad case of dysentery. "It's all clean," I replied, to which the attendant directed us to the nearest lift.
Operating the lift should have been simple, press the button for the 11th deck and Bob's your uncle but, all that would happen, was the doors would open again. It turned out that the 11th and 12th deck buttons were fake in this particular lift, they probably call them 'faux' or 'presentation' buttons in cruise liner speak, so we opted for the 10th deck which was better than nothing.
Inside the 10th deck we wandered into a bar to ask directions; outside, along the deck, and up the stairs, 'simples'.
Walking along deck ten was not for the faint-hearted. It was like looking over the side of a floating tower block. As we climbed the final stairway, the wind blew the mist that was rising around the ship to reveal that we had reached the summit of the 11th deck. By now it was fast approaching 12:30pm. Our schedule had fallen overboard but, unperturbed, we didn't think of this as a problem, it was a challenge.
The games deck has three different playing surfaces, a quarter sized croquet lawn, a paddle tennis court and a bowling green with two short mat bowling rinks. All we had to do was paint the line markings. We had not seen the site beforehand; we had only seen a plan of the deck, so you could say we were going in relatively blind, or as they say in nautical terms, that we were in unchartered waters. I don't want to give away too many trade secrets (the competition might be reading this), but suffice to say that emergent strategy prevailed.
What's difficult about painting a few white lines I hear you say? Read on, and I will explain.
The deck surface was wet all over due, in part, to having just been at sea, and because of the heavy mist that laid a layer of H2O over everything. Our initial chalk line markings were not clearly visible, as they had become watered down and absorbed by the wet carpet pile. The masking tape wouldn't stick to the wet artificial tufted surfaces either, not even masking tape with high tack adhesive.
Fortunately, we had taken some weights on board - the cram everything into the van strategy was coming up trumps already - which enabled us to weigh the tape down to hold it in place. This was necessary as, in spite of the windbreaks that surrounded the deck, it was windy enough to blow the tape off line. Interestingly, the lines on the bowling green had to be 12mm wide in accordance with the rules of the English Short Mat Bowling Association; therefore, the day before the painting extravaganza we machined our tape line applicator to produce a 12mm wide gap.
The playing surfaces had fencing right on their boundaries and, with the surfaces taped out, we found that it was impossible to use the pedestrian spray applicator. Unfortunately, the paint specified by the client isn't available in an aerosol can, so that was one back-up plan we couldn't cram into the van. But, we did have paint brushes and a few pots.
You couldn't use normal brush strokes as the pile would just flick the paint off in all directions, leaving a polka dot effect that looked more akin to a Jackson Pollack than a neat white line! For best results, we had to adopt the technique of a mild mannered Norman Bates in endurance mode, i.e. several hours worth of a gentle stabbing motion instead of the short sharp full-on psycho experience although, this time, the victim was an expanse of green carpet and not Marion Crane.
Lots of people were walking around looking at the ship, and then stopping to watch us on our hands and wet bended knees; it's surprising how much capillary rise can occur in a pair of old denim jeans. Several TV crews roamed the decks too, and even filmed us at work. Towards the evening, we were asked by the attendant in charge of the games deck whether or not the paint would be dry by early morning, as GMTV were to be filming on the bowling green first thing the next day. No pressure then.
We finished the lining at about 9:00pm; by the time we had got off the ship and cleared all the security procedures - fortunately no long queues this time - it was about 9:30pm. After the quick drag back to Sweepfast GHQ, via Dave's impression of Lewis Hamilton, I left for the drive home and those specialist radio stations. I got home bang on 2:00am and was greeted by an excitable Ziggy, exactly 24 hours after I left home. What is it they say about many a true word spoken in jest?
The Queen Elizabeth is an extraordinary venue in an out of the ordinary setting. The experience of that day has informed how we can adjust, improve and speed up the line marking process on cruise liners in the future; I just hope that next time the ship is moored up in the Caribbean, not Southampton.