Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Wreck and The White House


Look, no ever said "The White House". Or "and". What someone said was there was this wrecked boat and in the background a building which was white.

But it turned out there was a wreck and a white house - everyone knows that! So don't listen to those false facts or fake news! What I, Boris Staysail, say is true, is true - I have this instinct - and I'm the one writing this so it must be right and you're the fictional one not me!!

If you don't understand you're sad, so sad.

Do svidaniya!

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Book review: "A Race Too Far" by Chris Eakin

Of all offshore sailing races, none can compare to the 1968 Golden Globe. To this day it fascinates and is the subject of this great book by Chris Eakin, A Race Too Far.

Its a story that has everything: the place in the record books for the first single handed sail around the world, the battle with the elements, boats that literally fell apart in storms, a great victory, a broken man cheating and lying.... so much drama, so many great characters.

And its been the subject of a series of books, from participants like Robin Knox-Johnston's A World of My Own and Bernard Moitessier's The Long Way to writers like Peter Nichols's A Voyage for Madmen.

At the London Boat Show I met Chris Eakin and picked up a copy of his book, A Race Too Far.

I did wonder what more there was to say about this race, and it turns out quite a bit. For the story didn't end when Knox-Johnston stepped ashore: the participants and their families still live under the shadow of the events of 1968/69.

I really enjoyed this book and its very well written and researched. He tracks down the survivors of the race and some close relatives to competitors for their reflections and memories. These were not always easy given the inevitable damage that comes from the suicide of Crowhurst, the inexplicable death of Tetley and the abandonment of his family by Moitessier.

As you'd expect Knox-Johnston comes across as the most rooted, (distressingly) normal and supportive of the families of other competitors. He also seems to have moved on the most and least likely to dwell on the past (apart from correcting the niggles that Moitessier might have got their first).

Strongly recommended, a worthy addition to the literature about this great race.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Boat work, Richmond

It was a lovely spring day yesterday, and a walk along the Thames by Richmond saw many busy either out on the water or preparing for the year ahead.

There were also lots of men walking around in sort of skirts, but I have a feeling they didn't enjoy the afternoon so much.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Before "All is lost"

I missed seeing "All is lost" at the cinema but caught it on TV earlier this year. It's a really good film and Robert Redford is brilliant. 

However like many sailors I found there were also some issues. I couldn't work out why there was no waterproof handheld VHS or GPS, why no EPIRB, why he seemed so unfamiliar with a sextant, why a container can get stuck in the side of a yacht in a calm (and why a sea anchor helps release it), why not use the official Mayday wording, the poor heavy weather technique... and so on.

But since then I've worked out a back-story that makes it all fit together, so here goes:

The Man wasn't the owner or skipper. The Yacht Owner (again, no name) was a retiree who lived in South Africa and was sailing round the world. He (probably a he, but could be a she) left Cape Town some years ago, heading west and had reached south-east Asia.

It was beginning to be a bit of struggle and his health wasn't great. So he got in touch with an old sailing friend, The Man, to see if he could help crew for the final legs back home.

Now The Man was a keen sailor, but not yachts, and not offshore. He sailed dinghies - maybe Lasers or Sunfishes, now moving on to Aeros, possibly on the east coast of the USA. But he was up for a challenge so booked his flight  and flew out to join the Yacht Owner.

The first leg was great. It was classic offshore ocean sailing, downwind or reaching, lovely clear nights, perfect anchorages, and it gave The Man a sense that offshore was wonderful and not as hard as he feared: it gave him a false sense of security.

Then disasters struck. They'd reached the last port of call before "All is lost" and the Yacht Owner's health was hit hard. Maybe the big C, a stroke or possibly the heart, but he had to have an emergency medivac home.

So The Man is in charge of his friend's yacht, in a strange port. But the visa is about to run out, and he has to leave, but he is unsure what to do. His friend is in a hospital back in South Africa and unable to make decisions.

One night The Man is lying on his bunk on the yacht, rocking gently at anchor, wondering between two paths of action. He could leave the boat there and fly home or he could sail the final leg as planned, from the last port of call to Cape Town, but by himself.

Then then is a bang outside and invaders on deck then in the cabin! An armed gang of robbers bursts in with guns and knives, grabbing what they can. They take the waterproof laptop, the handheld GPS, VHF and EPIRB and are about to rummage about (and find the old rubbish laptop) when a passing boat spooks them and they run, leaving The Man scared and trembling.

He fears that if he leaves the yacht there it will be burgled again or wrecked. How much better, he thinks, if he can save the boat for Yacht Owner and bring it safely back to Cape Town. Surely it would help his friend and assist his recovery to know that his yacht is safe in the habour nearby.

And the last leg wasn't so bad: he could do that by himself, he, after all, knows a thing or two about sailing.

The Man just wants to do the right thing: so he lets slip the lines and heads out.

What could possibly go wrong?

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Art of Fiji at the Sainsbury Centre

All sailors must be impressed by the skills of the people of Micronesia,  Melanesia and Polynesia in crossing the vast Pacific. They combined expertise in boat building with navigation to cross literally thousands of miles of open water. The Marshall Islands chart was one of my highlights of the recent British Library map exhibition.

So I was intrigued to hear of an exhibition of "Fiji: Art & Life in the Pacific" and, grabbing a book to read on the train, headed up to Norwich and the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts.

Alas most of the exhibition was a no-photography zone apart from the two items at ground level, in particular the boat above and the matting below:
The exhibition notes said this about the boat:

A highlight is a beautiful, specially commissioned, eight metre-long double-hulled sailing canoe that has been built in Fiji and shipped to Norwich for display. Made entirely of wood and coir cord, with no metal components, the canoe results from a project to encourage canoe-building skills and is a small version of the great 30-metre-long vessels of the 19th century, the biggest canoes ever built.

You can see more of the exhibition in the video they produced by clicking here (they have switched off embedding). When I went there was no dancing, and I also missed the Queen who dropped in to have a look, arriving by helicopter from nearby Sandringham according to my taxi driver.

There was also a video that showed these outrigger sailing canoes racing in Suva harbour which was fascinating as they can sail in either direction so tacking / gybing involve moving the sail physically from one end of the boat to the other while the steering oar goes vice versa.

Very interesting and rather at treat to see all this art together given how away Fiji is from the UK.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Removing the Wandle Half-Tide Weir

Recently I visited a bit of marine engineering that combined my interest in the rivers of London with the famous Thames Tideway Tunnel.

Where the Wandle River meets the Thames there has been for many years a half-tide weir. I'd been puzzled as to quite why, though I remember it did create a rather nice waterfall at low water:
I've got to know the Wandle a bit by walking up it and also kayaking down it: its a pretty little chalk river with (apparently) quite good wildlife, though it was always let down a bit by the mess where it meets the Thames.

But now work is underway to improve it and it all relates to the famous Thames Tideway Tunnel aka the "super-sewer". This is being built under the Thames to cope with the requirements of a London that expanded more than a little since the Victorians, in particular Bazelgette, built the sewage network including the wonderful Crossness Pumping Station.

As part of the project the Wandle half-tide weir is being demolished and I had a chance to visit the works barge and see how its going. The two aims are to improve the environment and allow lighters to be brought into where one of the access tunnels to the super-sewer is being dug, so that extracted soil can be barged away rather than clogging up the roads.

The environmental gains should be extensive, as there's a lot of silting and the mud contains nasty hydrocarbons, rather than nice gravel to allow trout to lay their eggs and eels to flourish. So hopefully both will become more common and that must be a good thing.

The demolition is being undertaken in various stages: firstly dredging to get back to the 1970s level of the river, then the concrete steps (above either side) are being drilled out (as per photo at top), then the weir plates removed, then the top of the weir sides leaving just the metal pilings. These are then cut off using divers, leaving a river flowing naturally.

As to why the weir is there in the first place? Well apparently there was talk of a marina a bit like Chelsea Marina but after the weir was put in place there was the big crash of 1987 and so money ran out and it was never followed up.

So it started to fade and decay, leaving the area where the Wandle meets the Thames in sore need of a little TLC.

There's also talk of the river bank being upgraded to be part of the Thames river-side walk, so hopefully in a few years all this area will be looking much healthier.

Who knows, maybe seals will be visiting this stretch of the Thames more often in the future:
The team from Land & Water have spotted a couple of seals, many cormorants and herons, trout and elvers plus was visited by an urban fox (of course).

Thanks to Land & Water for the highly informative tour.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Inside St Pancras Lock

There are miles and miles of canals in London and my hikes have only touched a fraction of them.

When walking along them there's always a feeling of not-being in London, of a culture and way of life very different from the rapid pace of the big city. On the tube woe behold anyone standing on the left of the escalator and the true Londoner is the one muttering "come on, come on, come on!" at the visitor holding up the flow.

Narrow boaters don't seem to feel that urgency, only too happy to amble and dawdle (preferably over a real ale), so there could be expected to be a bit of a culture clash when the Canal and River Trust did an open day on the Regents Canal by St Pancras. The focus was on the restoration of the St Pancras Lock, built in 1819, and there were opportunities to go down for a look inside:
It was quite impressive to see brick-work that must be almost 200 years old in a lock that is still in use.

There were actors in period costume which did rather stand out given that Kings Cross / St. Pancras is one of the most recently developed parts of London and across the bridge behind flew Eurostar trains on their way to Paris or Brussels:
As the Eurostars zoomed by they would have been able to see the narrow boats in the nearby basin:
I got a voucher for a free trip on one but had just missed the boat (literally) and faced with a wait decided I was more of a Londoner (come on! come on! come on!) than narrow boater, so headed off.

It wasn't like I hadn't had a trip on a narrow boat down the Regent's Canal before.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Down Down Street Tube

When at the British Library exhibition, I spotted this old tube map and these are often fascinating in showing the changes to the network, both in the gaps where lines should be which were created since then, but also stations shown that have closed.

There's a certain mystery about abandoned tube stations and if you know when to look out of carriage windows you can sometimes spot them - or at least where they once were.

If you look at the yellow line above in the middle there is Down Street which is one of the most famous abandoned station as it was used as a bomb shelter during WW2 by the Railway Executive Committee and none other than Winston Churchill.

This elevated platform was where the typing pool used to be:
You can still see remnants from those days, when people used to live and work down here for weeks on end, with bathrooms and a telephone exchange:

Lighting wasn't great so often we had to use torches:
Tube trains were continually going by and when they did all torches had to be switched off so as not to distract the drivers and then it was pitch black indeed.

It was a very memorable trip, and one of the guides would be well-known to those that follow the Londonist YouTube channel who in this series gives more information about these old tube stations.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Drawing the line: Maps and the 20th Century at the British Library

I love maps and quirky events so the combination of British Library Late and their exhibition on Maps and the 20th Century was a where-do-I-buy-a-ticket combination.

I'd been to a previous Late at the Library event which had involved a performance of the theremin and return of a top 1,000 album, namely 76:14 by Global Communications which had been fab and weird and this was a bit more sober, though that might be because I didn't partake in the bar.

The exhibition had all sorts of 20th maps including politics, military, commerce and entertainment, starting with one of those wonderful / awful (delete as appropriate) maps of the British Empire with acres of red paint as produced by the Navy League in 1901.

Here a trio decided to stand directly in front of it and have a long discussion about their family while those interested in maps had to peer around them. Ah well, free country and all that.

Some of the maps were rather chilling. I saw a photo from the air of London in the 1940s in which could spot Battersea Park and Power Station, but it was created to guide German bombers during the Blitz.

At least we can move on from that: other maps are still extremely topical, such as that showing the infamous Sykes Picot Agreement.

One of my favourites was the Marshall Islands Stick Chart (above) which Tristan no doubt knows all about. Another that caught my eye was this map and horizon drawing around the Bank of England:

After a bit the eyes did glaze when faced with a series of maps of 5 year plans and oil refineries and so it was time to leave and head out into the Late events.

This included a couple of virtual reality installations including one of London (they judged the interests of their audience well) and another of what it would be like to be in the land of Revelations. Artists could be seen drawing maps freehand and selling those created earlier and a DJ mixed tracks that echoed around the atrium:
There were also opportunities to contribute to a user generated map where the Thames was given but all the rest was up to us:

I added a pub: I think Buff would have approved.

On until the 1st of March so go now if you're interested.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Book Review: Casting Off & Untie the Lines by Emma Bamford

There's more than one way to get that wow! moment in a sailing story.

A traditional example would be Race 4 of the 2003 America's Cup when New Zealand were dismasted, but equally memorable to me was when Josje announced she was leaving SV Delos.

So you don't need an epic-challenge at the heart of book - or indeed pair of books - about sailing to make it readable. It can also be how to decide between two alternative, conflicting paths. Or indeed that most fundamental of questions: what is life all about?

Emma Bamford's two books tell of her conflicting urges between working and living in London and the lure of a cruising lifestyle, sailing blue waters amongst deserted islands.

Of course the dream of cruising as a life of leisure is just that, with the reality one of hard work to get boats seaworthy and savings being drained. One of the impressive things about the Delos crew is how they knuckle down on boat work and have the skills to do a host of repairs themselves.

But one of the downsides to the cruising life Emma would encounter were long months stuck in anchorages while repairs seem to go backwards. Then those idyllic imagined Caribbean islands often turned out to be overrun with cruise ships or quiet enough to drive you crazy.

However London can be a pretty tough place, particularly if you have a job that leaves neither time or energy for anything else - in her case as newly promoted editor of the Independent's "i".

So how to balance out these two alternative lives? Emma tries one then the other (in the first book), then the second follows on directly with two more trials on life on land or water. The writing, from a trained and experienced journalist, flows nicely and is clear and honest about what she was experiencing, the good and the bad.

As you can imagine, the story of a fellow Londoner struggling between the pull of the big smoke and crystal seas was one I could relate to. Its not a "sail into the sunset" story and yet avoids the "tears before bed-time" emotional dramatics of Two in a Boat.

I certainly enjoyed "Casting Off" and "Untie the Lines" -  indeed I read both books back-to-back, finishing in under a week.

Highly recommended for anyone with sail-away urges.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Niagara Falls trip 3/3 - Chicago!

After Niagara Falls I returned the hire car and flew to Toronto, as in the photo above, which shows the view from the CN Tower of the CBD with Royal York Hotel and Union railway station. It was to be the start of the second part of the excursion from the business trip - by train to Chicago.

The scenery the train passed through was pretty impressive and there was lots of leg room, though I got a proper "Paddington Bear hard stare" from the US border guards, it being shortly after 9/11.

I rather liked Chicago, with a mixture of new and urban decay:

I did of course think about the Blues Brothers and that chase scene.

The music was totally amazing and visited some great blues clubs but also managed to see this new British band that had just released their first album, Parachutes:
I wonder what happened to them?

The rowing on a Saturday morning felt very familiar:
All too soon it was time to catch that train back to Toronto and the flight home.

Monday, February 06, 2017

Niagara Falls trip 2/3

I was pretty impressed by Niagara Falls, a lovely horse-shoe shape, water pouring thundering down.

It was a dull November day so the Maid of the Mist boats weren't running but enjoyed getting up, close and wet to the clouds of water:
I rang my niece to wish her Happy Birthday, took a final look, then drove back towards Ottawa....

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Niagara Falls trip 1/3

Bonnie recently went to Niagara Falls but only saw it from the American side so I though I'd post on my trip to the Canadian side. It was many years ago now so things might have changed, but I hope not too much.

I was visiting Ottawa on business, and must say I really liked it (above). It reminded me of a bit of Edinburgh with the Gothic architecture and green copper roofs.

After work was finished I decided to see some sights so hired a car and headed south west across the beautiful landscape of Canada:

Rather than staying close to the Falls I found a B&B at the nearby Niagara on the Lake and it was great, with Toronto just visible on the horizon: