Monday, October 27, 2014

Book Review: Sea Legs by Guy Grieve

This is one of those "we  took our family including children away from the life ashore, living in a yacht and sailing around the Caribbean" books. The plan was for the couple and their two children to explore those islands, then sail across the Atlantic back to Scotland, but they didn't, and the failures are what makes this story interesting.

Armed with little more than a day skipper certificate they let their house and flew off to the island of Bonaire in the Netherlands Antilles to their new home, a 41 foot Hans Christian yacht. It was to be a tough beginning.

For a start it was a difficult port, close to the dangerous waters of Venezuela, the air full of mosquitoes and community unwelcome. Forget these stories of eternal friendships made in the cruising community; here there are sad faces and histories, people trapped in unseaworthy boats without money or hope.

Then to head in the direction they wanted it was basically upwind and everyone but the author's father-in-law got terribly seasick the moment the bow poked its head outside the harbour.

The learning curve was as they say steep. In fact the requirements on the skipper came faster than he'd like, resulting in a prang at one harbour, bashing into another yacht causing it damage. From there led to disputes with its vengeful owner and remote insurance companies.

The tourist images of unspoilt waters and friendly locals were unrealised, with aggressive local sales people, rip off merchants, wasted taxi drivers, unwelcome night time visitors and an encounter with all too likely real pirates.

As you'd expect the boat required all sorts of repairs, draining their savings, so that by the end the credit card was fully loaded and the father-in-law had to be tapped to pay the diesel.

By the time they'd sailed up to the good old USA they'd come to a realistic conclusion: the cross-Atlantic passage wasn't the place for their family including two young boys. They and the mother flew while Guy was joined by a friend he'd made on their travels to sail home double handed.

It wasn't an easy crossing, with ghastly storms, huge waves and a knock-down.

I wasn't that surprised that at the end of the book they family had sold the yacht and returned to their house on the island of Mull.

Too many of those sell-up and sail-away books paint a rosy picture that won't be realistic for all. If anyone is thinking of doing just that I'd really recommend you read this book to get a balancing picture.

Family life in a small boat, far from the stability of home, isn't all cool drinks at sunset in a bay of crystal clear waters.

I'd rather risk icebergs than real pirates any day.


Thursday, October 23, 2014

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Late Turner at the Tate

Another Turner exhibition as rolled into London, the third in five years after the NMM's Turner and the Sea and the Tate's Turner and the Masters. Is there really more that can be learnt about this artist?

The Late Turner: Painting set free exhibition covers J. M. W. Turner's work when he was 60 or over, and he continued to create art at a prolific rate during what his time would have considered his declining years.

Seascapes and landscapes mostly, with some of his greatest pictures, such as "Rain, Steam, and Speed - The Great Western Railway" (above), a work that connects one of Britain's greatest artists with one of its greatest engineers - Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who was the mind behind the railway and in particular this bridge at Maidenhead over the Thames.

It's a great example of the swirling clouds and an impressionist abstraction that became a trademark of his later years. Some even suggest it pre-dated 20th century symbolic artists such as Cy Twombly.

But where did this style come from? Could it have been more than artistic genius - could it have been a symptom of Turner's physical decline?

On display were his glasses, for his eye sight was poor, and these could be a clue as it has been suggested that "Turner, suffering from early, slight colour-blindness and later cataracts, was painting exactly what he saw".

But there were later works, such as watercolours of the mountains around Lake Lucerne, that did show sharp lines and clearly distinguishable features.

Some of the most abstract works had another simpler explanation - they were not finished. There is described as a sea monster, but the title was given to that work by the National Gallery and it was never completed by Turner. In his Whaler works his ships were simple lines together with off-white paint, so that their sails merged into the background clouds. It wouldn't have required much work to change that sea monster into a fishing boat - if he had time.

For example have a look at this oil, "Hurrah! for the Whaler Erebus! Another Fish!":

The lack of time could be another explanation, for Turner seemed driven to create as much as possible while he still could. Where other artists would relax in what we'd call his retirement, admiring the scene as they drifted down the Grand Canal in Venice, Turner was forever sketching, filling his notebooks (several on display) with scene after scene.

Maybe with the sands of time shortening and his energies weakening he felt he could spend less time on each canvas, and so the technique become more economical, avoiding time consuming detail.

Yet despite his failing health, eye-sight issues and limited time his weakest work would blow any of the contenders in 2014's disappointing Turner Prize straight out of the water.

There was clearly so much creativity and ideas in Turner's work that the answer to the initial question is a resounding yes: there is more to discover in this astonishingly prolific artist.

Definitely worth a visit if you are in London.


Sunday, October 19, 2014

Longitude & Steampunked at Greenwich

Greenwich is officially ground zero for longitude, and so tourists from all over the world come to queue for the chance to stand on that line (above).

But how does one calculate longitude where there aren't helpful metal lines screwed into the ground? That was a question that puzzled some of the top minds for years, and after far too many ships were wrecked parliament passed the Longitude Act in 1714.

To commemorate its 300th anniversary there is currently an exhibition on the subject of Ships, Clocks & Stars: The Quest for Longitude at the National Maritime Museum (NMM).

Some of the suggestions put forward were simply bonkers - and in one case cruel to the dogs that were thought could have been used as a communications medium. More sensibly, John Harrison developed with his famous H4 watch that could be compared against local time to calculate longitude to sufficient accuracy.

All of Harrison's watches are part of this display - a remarkable collection.

Up on the hill above the NMM sits the Royal Observatory where official time was marked by dropping the red Time Ball every day at 13:00 precisely:
Here there is another view on the story of longitude taking an alternative, steampunk, approach:
It is hugely entertaining.

For example take these great quadrants that were used in calculating angles, such as this one used by Halley (which is actually just outside the exhibition but I didn't take a picture of the one inside):

The caption inside the exhibition was as follows:
The Commodore, by the way, was the fictional character around which the Longitude Punk'd exhibition was built, in particular The Rime of the Ancient Commodore, which starts:

There was an ancient Commodore,
My Granddad told to me,
Who'd lived three hundred years before
And sailed a wond'rous sea,
With flocks (or herds) of Kiwi birds,
A wander was he

I found myself laughing out loud at this one, which was attached to a sad picture of a ship o' the line aground:
Both are worth visiting, one for being informative and the other entertaining.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The last ship's biscuit and other baking experiments

Two years ago inspired by the BBC TV series the Great British Bake Off (#GBBO for those double screening - and if you do check out the suggestions for #MaryBerryHarryPotterTitles) I baked the humble ship's biscuit.

Since then I have been undertaking an experiment on its durability. Would it really be edible to a hungry crew undertaking a circumnavigation in the great days of sail months if not years later?

The answer at four months, six months and then one year were all positive: the biscuit might be tough and lacking in flavour but it was sustaining and enduring.

So how about after two years? Well just now I ate the last of that batch and it tasted as bland as all the others had, so I guess that counts as a success.

There are no more ship's biscuits left, that tin is empty, and to be honest I'm not planning on repeating that experiment.

There are other more interesting things to bake:

But its good to know I could bake for a long offshore sail should I have to.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Museum of London Docklands

I went to the Museum of London Docklands (above) to see the Bridges Exhibition which was rather underwhelming so I went round the permanent collection, which is much better.

It tells the story of London's docks from the Romans to the present day.

Despite its name and location it isn't focussed just on the area we now call Docklands but covers the older docks that went as far as up as Aldwych, which is Saxon for old market. Incidentally the nearby road called the Strand is named after the old English word 'strand', meaning shore.

There is a beautiful 1:50 scale model of old London Bridge, or rather models as there are two, one showing the east side in 1450 and the other the west side in 1600. My eye was caught by the lovely Nonsuch House:
Now that's what I'd call having river views! Note how the gaps between the arches were quite small which must had made navigating them difficult when the tide was running strongly.

You could see a wood sculpture of Pocahontas:

Plus explore a reconstruction of the dark, winding streets of Wapping in the mid 19th century which would have been the home of many sailors:
All in all lots to see, from trade to slavery, shipping from the Romans to containers, bridges to tunnels, pleasure paddle steamers to war time blitz. If any of those interests you then its definitely worth a trip out to Docklands.

For more information, check out the press pack here.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red

Despite being sick this summer I consider myself very lucky for living during a time of mostly peace.

2014 is of course the hundredth anniversary of the start of World War I and as part of the commemoration of that event an installation has been commissioned for the moat of the Tower of London, and today the Queen went visiting.

Called "Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red" it comprises 888,246 hand made red ceramic poppies gradually planted one by one to make a sea of red, each representing a British fatality.

Moving and beautiful.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Palazzo di London

The Thames in London has gone in and out of fashion.

In the 19th century it was heavily polluted but before then the river bank was graced by many grand buildings which made London look like Venice with its river side palazzos:
Many of these mansions are now lost or replaced, including the one above. This was originally a Tudor Palace built by the Duke of Somerset, and once was the London residence of King James I's wife, Anne of Denmark.

It was re-built towards the end of the 18th century with this grand river front: the great arches allowed boats and barges to enter into the building itself where there were landing places. There was a downside for this close access to river as critics said of the basement offices... "in these damp, black and comfortless recesses, the clerks of the nation grope about like moles, immersed in Tartarean gloom, where they stamp, sign, examine, indite, doze, and swear..."

Then there was the Great Stink of 1858, when the Thames was so polluted that Parliament could not but notice the horrible smell. London's expanding population required a sewage system and Joseph Bazalgette was the man for the job.

Thinking big, his team re-claimed a long stretch of the Thames, embanking it to create space for sewers, an underground railway and telegraph cables, while on top was built a road. It meant that the great building above no longer heard the lapping of waves and creak of oars but the endless roar of traffic.

But the building is still there, now called Somerset House after the site's original owner. You can just see the arches, though they are hidden by a row of trees:

Try to imagine that instead of art experts there were barges and ferries heading under this grand arch, and instead of concrete pavings there was muddy Thames water...

The area behind is due for regeneration, but the square at Somerset House already has many new uses, not least the ice rink:

And it will re-opening soon. This year seems to be rushing towards its close all too fast!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Talk on Sumara of Weymouth's Expedition to Jan Mayen


On Thursday evening I went along to the central London ship chandler of Arthur Beale Ltd for a talk by Alasdair of the Sumara of Weymouth about their trip up to Jan Mayen and ascent of the mighty Beerenberg.

I really enjoyed it: even though I'd followed the story on their blog and watched the YouTube videos hearing it all in one go certainly gave a better feel of the expedition.

It took a lot of planning, over 3 years. What struck me was the comment that maybe as many as 100 people were involved in ways big and small. To keep the wider group in touch there were newsletters and meetups.

There was useful tips about training (ice work in the Alps, some half marathons to keep the strength up and weight down, camping expeditions) and gear (the 15 kg Rocna anchor is apparently the one of choice).

Most of the talk was of the voyage north over three summers: the first and last year's tasks involved delivery of Sumara between the London estuary and the Scottish highlands.

I must admit I got rather misty eyed hearing about the sailing part:


It was such a shame I got sick this year so couldn't go north again!

On display was the Tilman award they received for their climb of Beerenberg:

A very enjoyable evening and talk, with two more to come, so check out the calendar of events at Arthur Beale. The next one early November is about Albert Strange and then the one in December about Bill Tilman - by someone who I met at the talk who actually sailed with him!

Worth putting that in the diary.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Natural Navigation Picture Puzzle

This picture was taken looking directly across the river towards Fulham on Putney Embankment where downriver is SE.

Two questions:

  1. What was the state of the tide?
  2. What was the wind direction?

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Buff's Covent Garden Nightmare!!

G'day all! Buff Staysail here! Buff by name and Buff by nature!

Have you noticed how the same place can mean two completely different things to two different people?

Take Covent Garden: to yours truly of course it means a good night out, with the bars and pubs, cosy corners with pretty barmaids and a glass of something cold and golden in hand. But to a square like JP it means music plus maps at Stanfords for one of his trips abroad.

But by golly last night ol' Buff got the fright of his life. I'd just had the best reunion with some of my Oz chums who'd come over - you'll remember them, Brucy, Wes, Dave-boy from my circumnavigation of Australia in a Laser.

It was a cracker of an evening and we were all tumbling out into the cool autumnal night when blow me down we saw that Covent Garden had been cut in two!!!

Some supernatural power had smashed through pillars and buildings and yet the roof was just hanging there unsupported!!!!

Jeez, that's not what I wanted to see at 2 am just after hearing Dave-boy's ghost story (my spine was nicely chilled as they say).

It was straight back to the Buff basement and I don't plan on returning soon, though I asked JP to swing by and take a photo (Ed: see above).

This is Buff Staysail, needing a stiff drink, over and out.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Where can you find the Thames Hippo?

There are two possible answers to this question.

Firstly the Totally Thames Hippo can no longer be spotted on the Thames just upriver of Vauxhall Bridge ... but where is the new wallowing hole?

Fortunately finding it is a little easier than a Where's Wally? (or even Waldo) hunt, being after all, 21 metres long and made of light wood that gleams in the sunlight.

In fact you can currently find him / her / it in St. Katharine Docks by the Tower Bridge (above).

Secondly it could mean the fossilised remains of the hippo found under Trafalgar Square, which were recently to be seen on display at the Natural History Museum in London:

I think that exhibition has closed so they have probably gone back to the British Museum.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

The lure of the mighty Beerenberg

It is fair to say that 2014 has not gone to plan.

After 2012's double handed sail to the Arctic Circle and 2013's sail along the East Greenland coast I was keen to head north for a third year. I'd met some of the guys from Sail Norway at the Southampton Boat Show who were planning to charter a Challenge 72 to sail to high latitudes.

One of the high spots was to be a visit to the remote and rather wonderful Jan Mayen Island and an attempt at the mighty Beerenberg mountain.

Alas that plan failed as for some reason the insurance company and owner had concerns about sailing late in the season in icy waters. Then of course I fell sick, writing off the summer.

But I'd like to hear more from those that have reached Jan Mayen and climbed the Beerenberg, all 2,277 m of that dormant volcano, the most northerly in the world.

And there's just such a chance on Thursday as there'll be a talk at Arthur Beale’s Yacht Chandler in central London by Alasdair who went up there a few years ago. It will also be a chance to see the chandler since its refurbishment.

Tickets available by emailing using the address to be found here.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Paddle Steamer Waverley on the Thames

I might have mentioned it before, but there's a boat on the Thames that makes me grind my teeth and mutter "wrong, wrong, wrong" under my breath, namely a fake Mississippi paddle steamer, transplanted to London to keep tourists happy.

I'd be very happy to go on one of those vessels on that great river but as explained in the post on the Murray River the characteristics of each river drives the design, and over the years that creates a tradition of naval architecture.

And there's a fantastic example of a paddle steamer that looks just right for the Thames in the PS Waverley, currently in the capital. According to Wikipedia the PS Waverley is the last seagoing passenger-carrying paddle steamer in the world

As can be seen in the picture below it looks just right as it heads into the Pool of London passing the Tower:

The Thames was busy with Thames Clippers and sight-seeing boats and it was low water, making the river narrow, so it was a neat job to turn her round just by London Bridge with St. Pauls in the background:
Then it was back down river under Tower Bridge which was raised again, making a magnificent sight: