Sunday, September 25, 2016

Wildlife of Greenland

A recent report into the world's wilderness showed a dramatic reduction, under attack by humanity's ever spreading presence.

But East Greenland is one of those areas that is still mostly untouched and there is a fair amount of wildlife to see, such as the polar bear above and below:
We also saw quite a lot of muskox:
They always seemed rather sad at their lot: wandering around the freezing wilds, eating the sparse shrubs and under threat of attack from polar bears.

There were also quite a lot of Arctic hare which seemed more chilled:
The seals seemed curious as to what we were doing, though also rather good at diving just as had the camera pointing in the right direction:
There were quite a variety of birds, though I'm not really an expert on types:
Some saw narwhal, but all I really saw were some blobs on the water without resolving exactly what they were.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Victualling in Greenland

There are no marinas in Scoresby Sound - and that's definitely a good thing. We saw more muskox than other boats, and I hope it remains unspoilt for as long as possible.

But how to do you victual the boat if there are no marinas with fresh water on tap and nearby supermarkets?

It turned out that watering is relatively easy: find a stream that is running (a surprising number were dry) then run the boat aground as near as possible.

It helps that there is usually a steep drop-off at the coastline so you can get even a schooner like Opal (above) close in relatively easily. Its worth checking for large underwater rocks to avoid a clunk! as the boat bounces off one and go for the type of beach here where there will just be a gentle crunch!.

Then lower a pipe into the fresh waters and start the pump and lo and behold the fresh water tanks are full again.

Food is trickier, but a top tip is to talk to the local Inuit hunters to see what they have on offer. We were offered this chunk of very freshly shot muskox:
Being so fresh it was left to hang for a few days until nicely matured and then made some superb appetisers and dinners, including a fab spag bog.

While there are no marinas there are plenty of anchorages and if you know where to look some special places where you can set your mooring lines into shackles attached to one of those 1,800m high cliffs:
Worth having those fenders at the ready to moor up to The Wall and have a whisky and pancake party!

Friday, September 23, 2016

Sailing the schooner Opal

Ok I was "guest" not "crew" but whenever Opal went sailing there was a call-out for willing hands and I was pretty keen to help out (*).

As noted early, sailing was only attempted when going downwind as tacking a tall ship upwind in a narrow channel full of icebergs isn't much fun. But we did sail on 3 of the 6 full days on-board and tried out 6 of the 10 sails, which isn't bad.

You can see four of the sails in the photo at the top and there were also the two below:
Square rigged sails seem to have a lot more lines to manage and we had a go at almost all of them.

Most interesting was untying the lines holding the topsail and topgallant sails to their respective yards. This involved heading up the mast and then along the yards to the ends, untying knots as you went. The view was very impressive:
This pic was taken from another time when only went to the crows nest (with a glacier in the background).

However, an idea of what it was like out on the yard ends can be seen in this pic of the sailing instructor tying the lines (with an iceberg in the background):
We also hoisted the gaff rigged mainsail which involved lots of swigging and making sure the throat and head went up as at the same speed so the gaff was nearly horizontal.

The final sail was the course sail.

Then we could switch off the engine and properly sail. I had a go helming and remember going about 5 knots down Ofjord trying (successfully) not to steer into an iceberg.

Charts were pretty useless so it was good that visibility was excellent. The difference between charts and reality can be shown in the image below in which radar reflections from the mountains at the edges of the fjord can be seen to be very different from the chart's positions:
The Opal was at the centre of the channel at the time, not ramming into the cliffs. The blobs on the radar plot on the right are of course icebergs.

All in all, a lot of fun.



(*) ok, there was this time that the shout-out went to go up the rigging to furl and tie the topsail and topgallant and I said no thanks as had just had a double whisky and it seemed to fail the key health and safety test (**)

(**) namely, could I tell this story to mum without getting into trouble

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Sailing Scoresby Sound, Greenland

This is very approximately the route we took on the schooner Opal into Scoresby Sound.

Scoresby Sound is said to be one of the longest fjord systems in the word, if not the longest, extending around 300 - 350 km from the opening.

The opening itself is nearly 30 km, so similar to the closest point of the English channel. But the other side is much clearer as the fjord is surrounded by staggering high mountains. Cliffs drop from 1,900 m down to the sea and keep going under water for a couple of hundred metres more.

The scenery is spectacular, so much that even when the weather was 7 layers cold it was hard not to be on deck. I can see why so often would meet yachts at Reykjavik either on their way there or back.

The typical route is to do a circumnavigation of Milne Land, as in the Google Earth picture above, which is about 700 km or 375 NM over the week.

Top highlights included:

  • Inuit dinner at Ittoqqortoormiit
  • Uncountable number of icebergs
  • Countable but unknown number of glaciers
  • One polar bear
  • Many muskoxs
  • Several arctic hare
  • Lots of seals
  • One icy dip
  • Two trips up the mast
  • Sailing on three days
  • Five nights saw the northern lights
  • A wealth of geology
  • One bonfire
  • A couple of BBQs
  • Lots of good food
  • Fresh bread
  • The Wall pancake and whisky party

... and much more. I'll have to groups these by topics, starting with sailing...

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Schooner Opal

At Constable Point (Nerlerit Inaat) we joined the Opal, above, and from the start I just loved this ship.

The Opal was built in 1951 in Germany as a trawler and then converted into a schooner. Later the gaff rig was modified to include foremast square rig topsails and topgallants.

This modification was because in waters such as Scoresby Sound the wind tends to blow along the fjords, meaning you're either going slap bang against it or with it. And tacking into the wind in a narrow channel full of icebergs isn't much fun, so in practice you'd motor. Hence you'd be most likely to sail downwind where a square rig is actually more practical.

Also it looks just lovely.

The engine was electric with a generator, so it could be ultra quiet plus it was very efficient, which helped reduce CO2 emissions. The owner (North Sailing) was keen to go carbon neutral and when Opal is sailing close to Iceland it can recharge the batteries from the renewable grid.

So lovely and good for the environment!

Below deck there were cosy cabins with bunk beds named after exploration vessels:

There was also a log burning stove which made the cabin nice and warm and created atmospheric scenes on deck:

Monday, September 19, 2016

Flying to Greenland

It was almost to be expected that the flight to Greenland was delayed.

It's not an easy country to visit - one time I visited the fog was so bad all helicopters and planes were grounded for hours and it felt like a bit of a miracle we took off on the planned day.

This time it was a weight issue as the plane from Reykjavik to Constable Point (Nerlerit Inaat) only flies once a week so also brings valuable supplies and it wasn't clear if we were within the Dash 8's limit.

So we had to sit around for a couple of hours while things were checked and then we were off.

An hour and 40 minutes later we were circling over the fjord (above) and what looked like a very short runway. But these things are designed for short take off and landing (STOL) operation so with an intense engine buzz we were down. 

Soon we were walking down the water's edge and could see our home for the next week. This was the schooner Opal, and what a beauty it is:

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Sun Voyager, Reykjavik

This sculpture sits on the Reykjavik water front, and everyone thinks its a Viking ship. I thought it was a Viking ship.

But apparently its not, as its called the "Sun Voyager" by Jón Gunnar Árnason. The "pattern is a magical symbol of healing" which "symbolizes hope and healing rather than conclusion or death".

However even knowing that it still looks jolly like a Viking ship to me.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Super yacht Dwinger in Reykjavik

I saw a vertical line piercing the Reykjavik skyline, like a telecommunications mast, but it was down at the old harbour and the foresail showed it was a yacht, so I decided to check it out.

As I walked towards it there was a moment when the scale clicked into place and my jaw dropped: this yacht was HUGE. It's not so much a yacht as metallic cruise ship with the rig of a yacht.

The s/v Dwinger is a 46m long expedition aluminium sloop with an aero-rig and the tallest unsupported mast in the world at a height of 63m.

Everything about it was super-scaled, with the boom more like the crane on a construction site:

As I was standing in front of it two other British sailors turned up to gawp. They were in the other marina, one from the boats on their way back from Greenland and the other from a marine science expedition yacht (which I hadn't got round to visiting).

We agreed it was a whale of ship.

A bit of googling later on brought me to this news article with a video that is mostly in Icelandic apart from the interview with the skipper which is in English. It appears that this boat also was just back from Greenland.

Greenland was clearly the destination of choice for sailing yachts in Iceland. Which was fortunate as that was indeed where I was heading.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Sailing stories from Reykjavik

I rather like Reykjavik, capital Iceland, though it has got rather touristy in the last few years. But the Brokey yacht club marina is the same, always my first port of call after checking into the hotel.

It's behind the Harpa concert hall down by the old harbour, its glass walls reflecting the sky, whether grey or golden in the sunset:
I've often found interesting boats moored there, and this trip was no exception as there were two yachts that had sailed up from the UK.

One had an aluminium hull, clearly designed for high latitude sailing which was from Fowey where I'd sailed classic yachts a few years ago. The other was a lovely Bristol Pilot Cutter called Dolphin from... er.. Bristol, which appeared to have sailed everywhere in northern waters.

They were just back from Scoresby Sound, which was a coincidence as that was where I was heading... so we had a good chat, yarn even, about people and places we both knew, such as Siggi on Aurora with whom I'd sailed with a few years before, and also the ship and people I was to sail with this time.

What a good place to visit -  plus of course this was where Tristan and I arrived after our sail to the Arctic Circle.

We also talked about another yacht we had seen moored in Reykjavik, but not in the Brokey Yacht club marina....an epic whale of a yacht....

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Book review: The Remarkable Life of Victoria Drummond, Marine Engineer

I got "The Remarkable Life of Victoria Drummond, Marine Engineer" to complement my little library of books relating to the Blue Funnel Line and what a joy it turned out to be.

This is the biography of Victoria Drummond written by her niece, Baroness Strange, but based on her writings, so possibly partly autobiographical in nature. It certainly has a wonderful direct voice as if she wrote it herself.

Victoria Drummond was born in 1894 into a very well-to-do family in Scotland - so connected that she had none other than Queen Victoria as a godmother and Prince Albert came to stay (she gave him some rather sticky toffee).

But then came a financial crash when the family lost their money and parent's their positions. The 21 year old Victoria was told by her father she could choose her career and her response was: "I'm going to be a marine engineer"!

The difficulty was that at the time there were no female marine engineers: it was unheard of for Britain in 1915.

Little discouraged, she started in the local garage before moving on to the Caledon shipbuilders. Then she had the stroke of luck, when waiting at Dundee railway station, to meet one of the directors of the Blue Funnel Line who offered her a place after she finished her apprenticeship.

And so she made her way to Liverpool, ending up signing in August 1922 as 10th engineer to the Anchises, sailing to Australia and back several times. Her signature for this voyage can be found in the archives of the Merseyside Maritime Museum, the first British woman to become a marine engineer.

It was the start of a lifetime of voyages, making her way up to finally becoming Chief, fighting discrimination and Nazis on the way. Indeed her bravery in the Second World War, when she kept the engines under full steam while being bombed out in the Atlantic, earned her an MBE.

With her good family connections came opportunities on her voyages. She was invited to dine and dance with the Governor of various British colonies and stay at Biltmore thanks a cousin who had married Cornelia Vanderbilt.

Less glamorous was being in Vienna when Hitler marched in and seeing him drive down the street outside her hotel.

Full of good stories of a rich life, strongly recommended.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

The search for Beckfoot

Of course Beckfoot is fictional, a house in a novel. But many of the places in Ransome's books are very closely based on real places, such as Holly Howe, Swallowdale and the secret harbour.

A number of books have been written that try to identify these matches, such as "In search of Swallows & Amazons" by Roger Wardale and there are some good posts by Sophie Neville from her trips to the Lakes plus the original filming.

A number of different identifications have been made for Beckfoot - for example Belle Grange on Windermere looks sort of similar, but then Ransome was more closely connected with Coniston Water.

Roger Wardale highlights Lanehead and Tent Lodge around Coniston Water, and for good reason as it was this lake that Ransome visited when a young child and again as a young man where he met the Collingwood family - a key milestone in his life.

In the early years of the 20th Century the Collingwoods were staying at Lanehead and befriended the young Ransome. The father was an artist with children around Ransome's age and they become close friends - indeed he proposed to two of the daughters. In the boathouse below Lanehead there was a dinghy which they sailed on Coniston Water, teaching Ransome himself, and it was called the Swallow.

So could Lanehead be Beckfoot and the Collingwoods one of the inspirations for the Blacketts?

The Blacketts are likely an amalgam of people, from Ransome himself as Jim Turner and maybe the Collingwoods too, but they were not in any sense rich, unlike the Blacketts. According to an autobiography, their school and university fees were paid for by a "rich friend".

This "rich friend" has been identified as Miss Emma Holt who lived at the nearby Tent Lodge, which is another of the candidates for Beckfoot itself.

There are other connections: it is said that boats used by the Collingwoods were actually those of the Holt family. This would fit into the background of the Liverpool based Holts with multiple shipping lines to their name, include Blue Funnel (Arthur Holt, Emma's uncle) and the Lamport and Holt (George Holt, Emma's father).

They also had a piano (as per Beckfoot) which the Collingwoods would use and it is said that Emma Holt's high fashion outfits were the model for the GA (not the character of course, which was said to be "polite, kind, mild-mannered and generous"). When the Collingwoods ran out of money during the time that they knew Arthur Ransome they stayed with Miss Holt at Tent Lodge and let Lanehead, so Ransome would have known both her and the house.

This certainly sounds like the sort of money the Blacketts would have had: substantial and related to the sea, to inspire the children with all things boating and allow Jim Turner the means to travel the world to his heart's content.

It is of course impossible to say for certain how strong the connection was. Could you argue that if the Amazon's great aunt was a Holt then they were at least part Holts too - especially if there is a connection between the Emma Holt and the red hatted girls that Ransome mentioned as an inspiration? Or only that the generous Emma Holt, in opening Tent Lodge to Ransome's friends, the Collingwoods was just one factor, along with Lanehead, in the mix that became the Blacketts and Beckfoot?

But it could well be that the original Swallow was a Holt boat, and along with the shipping lines the family played its part in the creation of Ransome's great sailing stories.




Note 1: photo above from the web site for Tent Lodge today which looks just lovely and you can apparently hire it for a week or long weekend. The view looks wonderful!

Note 2: there were to be more Ransome - Collingwood connections, as one of the daughters who rejected him would end up having the children that inspired the Walkers.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

The treasure of the Amazon pirates!

There was always something that puzzled me about the Blacketts aka the family of the Amazon pirates.

The other children's parents had well defined professions, such as naval officer, doctor, lawyer, boat builders etc. but not the Blacketts. There was mum and an uncle, neither of which seemed that worried about money yet never did any real work (if you ignore that book).

And yet they lived at Beckfoot: a four bed detached house (above) where the bedrooms were not squished cupboards but large enough for double beds, drawing room - with piano - dinning room, kitchen and a separate room just as a study. There was a hall, staircase with banisters and landing at the top. Outside there was a lawn too big for them to maintain by themselves, stables and a boathouse.

Then the boathouse wasn't empty but had at least a rowing boat, the Amazon dinghy and a launch described as having seats running round the open front end together with a cabin for tea and steering (and firing arrows from, obviously). Jim Turner also, of course, had his houseboat.

There was also a car and a telephone plus the location gave them river and lake frontage. The lawn was clearly large and half leveled "where once upon a time people had played lawn tennis or croquet" and there was a flagpole and sundial.

Then they had staff: cook, sometimes a housemaid and Billy Lewthwaite to drive the car (and possibly mow the lawn) with bells to summon them. When the Great Aunt (GA) comes to stay they took a horse drawn carriage around the lake. The Amazon pirates themselves went to a public (i.e. private) school.

As if all this expense wasn't enough there were projects: repairing Swallow in Swallowdale, hiring houses during Winter Holiday, decorators during Pigeon Post, new roses and trellis in Picts and Martyrs when Mrs Blackett and Jim Turner were off on a Scandinavian cruise.

Indeed Jim Turner was always off on travels, and not like Ransome because he was a journalist. No, this seemed to be just for fun and destinations included Colombo, Hong Kong, Upper Egypt, San Francisco, Buenos Ayres, Rangoon, Melbourne, New York, Moscow, Khartoum, Ceylon, Shanghai, Zanzibar, the Malays, Java and other places in South America and Africa. He had been a while at Oxford before chucking it before they chucked him.

There was enough capital around for a wild goose chase for gold in South America and when copper was found in the moors above the lake funds to invest in mining them.

So I had a bit of a problem with this new film that seemed to portray the Amazons as non-posh - working class even - for they were arguably the poshest of all the families in S&A.

Where did this money come from? Ok, this is fiction and there isn't any real information to go on so how about looking at the real world, for literary investigators have spotted many connections between the life of Arthur Ransome and the people and places of S&A.

(to be continued)

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Film review: Swallows and Amazons (2016)



So after the previous post on the difficulty in filming S&A, what to make of the most recent attempt?

As is well known, the team involved decided to spice it up by adding a spy thriller angle involving Captain Flint aka Uncle Jim being chased by dastardly Russians.

To be honest it didn't really work for me: there were too many aspects which felt wrong.

The Russians threatened with real guns, making the imaginative land of explorers and pirates seem like empty fantasy, yet those are the heart of the book. John (2016) was too old and a bit surly and less able to sail than Optimist champion John (1974) and not at all like the 12-13 yo in the book.

2016 Nancy's accent seemed an attempt to make one of the characters not middle class, but an analysis of the Blacketts (to come) makes it clear that they clearly weren't working class. Nancy (1974) was much closer to my mental image and the play caught a truth about the Amazons as having "only the clouds and a four bedroom house for shelter".

And those man overboard rescue attempts dead downwind - surely John would know better than that!

And yes, I get the logic that Jim Turner = Ransome who was mixed up with Lenin & co. But surely he wasn't that rude?

There were some the ok parts. Roger (2016) was still Roger, Jessica Hynes and Harry Enfield as Mrs and Mr Jackson were fun. Russian spy Andrew Scott smouldered like his Moriarty in Sherlock. The Lake District looked lovely.

Is it enough to capture the youf market? Well, at the showing I saw there were only 3 other people in the cinema and at least 2 of those were adults, so maybe not.

In this case I'd say better as a book than as a film, but they should get at least some credit for raising Ransome's profile and showing kids having fun in boats.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The difficulty of filming Swallows and Amazons

Recently I saw the new film of Swallows and Amazons, but before a review a few comments about the difficulty of the task.

Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons must be a hard book to convert into a film - or at least hard in 2016, the era of Harry Potter and, god-help-us-all, the endless re-hashed superheros and battling robots.

Books are often defined by the promise from the earliest chapters - i.e. how is the book framed for the reader, what expectations can they have for the story to come?

An excellent example of this is Chapter 1 of Book 1 of the Harry Potter series in which we learn that our hero has a mortal enemy who is the evil wizard that killed his parents. So that's the peril, the difficulty to overcome and the necessary resolution all made clear - plus major characters like Dumbledore, McGonagall, Hagrid and the Dursleys all introduced.

But in chapter 1 of Swallows and Amazons they learn they are to be allowed to camp on an island, with no sign of the primary plots of Amazons or Captain Flint which evolve later.

It comes from a different time, where more children roamed outdoors - or wished they could - and there were no apps to distract. The style is bordering on episodic, like Dicken's Pickwick Papers, where much of the story involves the characters travelling the countryside, having adventures.

So in one chapter, called prosaically "More Island Life", the Swallows go fishing and catch some but lose one to a pike (above) - and that's it.

I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing in a book, but it makes it harder to market as the current style is for the story to hit the ground running with peril from page one.

Part of this comes from the writer: he was describing scenes from his childhood and stories he told his friend's children, not sitting down with a plan for a book. That came later - and the following books are definitely better structured and plotted. There is clear peril in The Big Six or We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea.

But it gives film producers a headache: do they:

  • Accept the slower pace (as per the 1974 film)
  • Jump into these better plotted books (as the BBC did with the 1984 series)
  • Re-write the plot to introduce drama (as per the 2016 film)?

Back in the 1970s I read the book then saw the earlier film which still has a certain magic for me. All the characters are as I imagined them in the book(s), the sailing was pretty good and it stayed close to story as written by Arthur Ransome. And I loved the behind the scenes stories of the filming in the ebook from Sophie Neville aka the girl who was Titty.

So what of the new film...