There are a few signs that the South Dock Marina in Rotherhithe is finally creeping back to normality. On Friday, a welder fired embers into the air while repairing a rusted hull and a carpenter put the finishing touches onto a new porthole that he had carefully assembled.
For the last three months, workers have been unable to touch any of the boats in the dry dock because of the lockdown rules. Instead, volunteers from the tight-knit community at one of the last working docks in London have spent countless hours hand-making 10,000 visors for front line staff.
Miryam Brizuela and her sister Patricia, owners of Marine Canvas Hut, usually spend the spring months creating made-to-measure covers and upholstery for yachts. But when they started hearing news of a deadly disease spreading out of China in early March, they put down their usual tools.
“We couldn’t just do nothing while we knew we could help. We had the skills and the materials,” said Miryam. “My sister always works with the radio on and she was listening to a lot of news and she was getting more and more worried. She said, ‘we have to do something.’”
The Brizuela sisters, who work out of a studio in a converted shipping container and live on boats nearby, started coming up with products to help combat the spread of Covid-19.
“At first, we devised these visors for the staff in the marina including for the dockmaster. They told us they would come in handy,” said Miryam.
Workers from Southwark Council soon put in an order for 1,000 visors after seeing the sisters’ designs.
Neighbours and colleagues started gathering at the studio to help and the sisters launched a crowdfunding page to pay for raw materials. They eventually raised £7,422 through 193 donations.
“Initially, we never dreamed of making so many. It was going to be my sister and myself then two more friends came and it got bigger and bigger. We never planned to make 10,000 visors but the idea grew,” said Miryam.
A total of 27 volunteers worked alongside the two women for eight-hour shifts each day. They took on tasks that included delivering and assembling the visors, as well as sourcing materials.
“The atmosphere was amazing, people talking and listening to music while making the visors. There was a lot of quality control as well,” she said.
There were stretches when the volunteers struggled to source materials during the peak of the PPE shortage in April when the price of acetate sheets skyrocketed.
Miryam said it was “horrible” receiving calls from care home workers who were short of PPE and desperately searching for supplies.
“I was on the phone all the time. Every day I was crying,” she said.
The group supplied visors to supermarket workers, nurses at Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospitals and doctors at GP surgeries throughout London.
The volunteers teamed up with other visor makers in Surrey and Essex to share surplus materials.
“I now know so many people I wouldn’t have known without doing this,” said Miryam.
Jack Blake, a designer and boat owner at South Dock Marina, was one of the first people to step in and help the sisters. She said: “I am so grateful for that experience. It enabled me to have a focus and be with people. Every day I had contact with my neighbours and my community and we had a laugh. I think it lifted everybody’s spirits. If you had told me at the beginning that we would be making 10,000 visors, I would have said, ‘forget that’. It’s unbelievable to have made that many.”
She added: “It was really hard work, standing up for eight hours, doing something quite laborious, mentally we were tired by the end.” Jack also praised the “incredible” sisters and said: “This wouldn’t have happened without them. It was their idea, they were the organisers and they were the inspiration behind it all.”
Demand for the visors has waned in the last fortnight after the government released new guidelines around PPE production.
But the sisters, who sailed from their native Argentina to the UK on a 34ft steel sailing boat they built by hand, are already hard at work on their next project.
They have started producing colourful face coverings to sell on their online shop – items which the government has recently announced will become mandatory on public transport in England.
“At some point, we will go back to boat covers. In the meantime, we are making mask coverings and clear separation screens for offices, pubs and restaurants. We work with canvas and PVC material and this is what we do,” said Miryam.
To buy one of the sisters’ face coverings, visit www.marinecanvashut.co.uk.
EMILY FINCH is a former reporter for the Islington Tribune. We have been able to commission her to write for us because of the generosity of people who fund 853 with monthly memberships. Thank you to all who have helped.
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