Friday, March 27, 2009

Venezuelan Travel Plans

The picture above I found on Elaine Buntings blog on the Yachting World site and shows the relative danger levels in various waters of Venezuela, where of course I am now.

It suggests the most dangerous areas are around the port of Cumana, which matches what Liza Copeland (author of Just Cruising and Still Cruising) said when I asked her about it at the London Boat Show, namely its the small inner islands that are the most risky.

Alas I am rather landlocked at the moment. One plan was to find a way to get to that old pirate haunt of the Isla Tortuga. Charting a yacht to sail through the Caribbean night to an island of legend had a certain thrill to it. However it all proved too difficult as was planning to go to Isla Margarita but the yacht charter business is based in Los Roques.

The second plan was to find some resort here where could sail Lasers or Hobies, but all my googling and emailing failed to locate one, though I can't believe there isn't a single one on the island.

But why come to the Isla Margarita anyhow, you might ask? Well this turned out to be the launching place for trips into the interior, trips to the Orinoco Delta and to Angel Falls. And those two looked unmissable.

So here I am in an internet cafe (or Cyber Cafe as I've learnt to ask for), in a so called Caribbean paradise where it actually is poring with rain and monster waves are crashing on the beaches.

According to the figure the places which am planning to visit are yellow or green, though where I am now it is a rather less reasuring purple.

But I keep telling myself that the statistics are that most travellers have no problems, and actually you, dear reader, are probably in as much a danger from traffic accidents.

Though of course I hope that neither of us has any reason to be concerned!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Caracas: Work, work, work

After Sunday's exploration of Caracas it was time to get down to work. The client's office was six stops of the metro to the East and that was how I got there and back.

The metro was packed - I mean really packed, more a crush than anything else. While the guide books and my client were united in advising to hide even a watch or a ring that didn't seem to be something that the Caraquenos worried much about, as most people were glued to phones texting away, listening to iPods, or even playing on the DS2.

The view above is from my hotel room and gives a feel for the city. The central areas seem relatively prosperous and my client's offices were brand new with all mod cons. So there I was, receiving and sending email from my iPhone in the middle of Caracas - not the usual image of this city.

Attached to the hotel was a huge shopping mall, with a lot of the same shops as I've seen in malls in the UK or the US, a food court and videos of Kylie live in concert somewhere. Though I don't think there's a mall in the UK with a gun shop!

Again and again I've been staggered by the cost of things here. The problem is rampant inflation and a fixed exchange rate. The difference between official rate and black market is about 3, and I'd say the black market rates are right, as everything feels like it costs three times what it should do.

But the work is done, three days of 8am to 6pm meetings, and so am now packing for the next part of the trip.

The real adventure is yet to come.....

Caracas: Classical Concert

The other reason for visiting the Museo de Arte Colonial (or Quinta de Anauco) was that they hold chamber music concerts there on a Sunday afternoon. Venezuela has a strong classical music scene and the youth orchestra played in the Proms last year in London to great acclaim.

So shortly after my tour was sitting in a lovely little concert hall listening to finalists from the Conservatorio de Musica Simon Bolivar play Saint Saines, Haydn and Wagner.

It was an all brass concert, indeed an all horn concert, with some of the pieces transcriptions and with piano accompany. I really enjoyed it, and the brass playing was mostly excellent. It did have a slight college music concert feel about it, with fellow students cheering the players on, and at one point the horn player missed timed his entrance, and the piano accompanist stopped and they back tracked a few bars.

I was surprised to discover I could understand what the people in the row in front were saying - as they were English! They were four teachers from the British and I got talking to them after.

They were quick to invite me to give a talk to their students, but pleaded lack of time. I was introduced to the Director of the Conservatorio and asked him who pays for the instruments, a subject that my father had been curious about.

Apparently while some come from the government, the majority are the results of donations from the Inter American Development Bank.

Having had a rather busy couple of hours, missing Sunday lunch all together, decided at this point had done enough for one day and headed back to the hotel.

Caracas: Museo de Arte Colonial

I very nearly didn't make it to the Museo de Arte Colonial, the elegant country mansion known locally as the Quinta de Anauco. The map given me by my hotel put it in a different place from the Lonely Planet, and my first attempt to get there would have meant walking up one of those roads where that voice at the back of one's head goes "hmm... not sure about this".

However there was a really good reason for visiting (which will come to shortly) so resolved to try again, this time with the Lonely Planet as a guide. And this time was successful - and was really pleased as it is just lovely (above).

You're not allowed just wander around as there are some pretty expensive items on display. Instead you must wait for a guide to take you round in a tour. Alas my guide (below) knew no English and I know only a few words of Spanish so surely missed much.

But even without the commentry could enjoy the feel of the place, with its elegant polished tables and sumptuous four poster beds, such as the one below.

The need for them became clear as the "bedrooms" were as much corridors as rooms, and there could have been people coming and going and the drapes would have lessened the distraction and also given some privacy.

There was even a baby four poster for the child of the house:

It was clearly an upmarket mansion, with all mod cons including large kitchen, bath, and this rather elegant device they would use to wash their hands after a meal:

I learnt this fact from one of the other in my tour group who had basic English and struggled to find the right words.

In the second half of the tour we had a different guide who spoke English as well as Spanish, and my friend the translater kept complimenting her on her accent, saying it was just perfect. "What we would call the Queen's English" I suggested, and he seemed keen to agree with that.

I think there might have been some subtexts here as later spotted them have a whispered conversation and then exchanging phone numbers!

Caracas: Teleferico up El Avila

After seeing the colonial sights around Plaza Bolivar I took the metro back a few stops and then walked up to the base of the hills to catch the Teleferico to the top of El Avila.

It was clearly the thing for families to do for Sunday lunch and there was a long but patient queue that snaked forward slowly.

In my bubble were an extended family of five with a young boy that was more open about his curiosity as to this stranger from a far distant land than his elders. His dad helped break the ice by prompting his son to put forward his clenched hand so that I bump knuckles and say Hola!

El Avila is 2,175m high, and while I've been here mostly hidden by clouds, occaisionally visible to give a great feeling of nature looming high over the city. The day I went the cabins seemed to vanish into the void as we travelled ever higher, ears popping as we climbed.

It did of course remind me of skiing but it was far to warm for that. But at the top there was a series of entertainments including a full ice rink, with much laughing fun as the inexperienced clung onto the hand rails and watched the few who were zooming round and round.

The clouds alas meant was unable to see the view to the north which is meant to be a "stunning panorama of the coastline and the Caribbean sea" according to the Lonely Planet. All I could see was the occaisionially glimpse of other mountains sticking out of the layer of white:

If I had had more time would have walked down on one of the many inviting trails through the forests back down to Caracas. Instead I took the cable car back down, this time with no queue and the cabin all to myself.

Caracus: Panteon Nacional

From Simon Bolivar's birth place it is but a few blocks to his resting place in this, the Panteon Nacional.

His bronze sarcophagus has the place of honour at the chancel with four guards on sentry, and around the aisles are tombs of 140 of other notable Venezuelans (below)

Behind the mountains rise high until lost in the clouds.

Caracas: Casa Natal de Bolivar

This is Simon Bolivar's birthplace that visited on Sunday, which seems long ago now. From the front (above) it doesn't look that big, with two windows either side of a wooden door, though its clearly an impressive doorway.

But it stretches back and back, with long corridors like this:

And this not one courtyard but a whole series of them, like this:

I didn't have to read the guide book to realise that his family was reasonably well off. A lovely house to visit - and free too!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Caracas: Starting Exploring

Caracas doesn't have a good reputation as a safe city. The UK Foreign Office web site was full of dire warnings, as was my travel guide, as was indeed my client today.

So I was fortunate to be able to have my first experiences of this city on a Sunday morning, when the streets were quiet and the only busy buildings were the Churches.

And the best place to start exploring Caracas is the Bolivar Plaza (above), accessible from the Capitolio metro station. Around the square and the streets around can be found many an old colonial building as well as the Cathedral.

Bolivar is ever present in Caracas's old town, with his family house and the square named in his honour close together, while on a slight hill a short walk away is the Panteon Nacional where El Liberator lies to this day with his guard of honour.

Its strange to remember that he died abandoned, penniless and rejected at the age of just 47.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Caracas in time and space

The first thing to do in a new place is work out where you are and find out how to navigate.

Caracas is in principle very simple, as the city spreads out east to west pinned in by mountains on either side. The picture above is from Google Earth (not having a helicopter to hand) and is looking east, so the sea is to the north of the city, separated by a mountain range (the one with the cable car to the top).

Trying to use my natural navigation skills I looked at the sun and at this latitude and time of year it goes pretty much overhead from east to west, so in theory could work out one's orientation by knowing if its morning or afternoon. But alas it was often too cloudy to spot the sun.

Hence the white bits in the Google image are clouds not snow as the mountains are high, but at 2,175m not that high. To the west of Venezuela there are the end of the Andes, where there are really high mountains that have snow all the year round.

As a Londoner feel that the best cities are those that can be explorered by train and walking, and luckily Caracas is no exception. It has a rather good Metro that mostly runs east-west along the valley, connecting up the main places. In rush hour this morning it was very crowded!

If you've ever been to Washington DC, well Caracas has exactly the same trains and layout as there. I almost expected to hear "Red line to Shady Grove: doors open on the left" but of course didn't and not sure exactly what they did say (language problems again).

The other thing about Caracas is that it is in a half hour time zone: this is the first time I've ever been in between the hours and it feels slightly wrong some how. No doubt will get used to it!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

JP goes Caracas!

Hola de Caracas!

Si .... no, can't keep this up any more: my Spanish is most certainly not up to it. Yes, JP is off on his travels, forsaking London in the Spring for business in Venezuela.

So here I am in the bustling capital city that was home for the legendary Simon Bolivar and now the dramatic Hugo Chavez.

Just spent the day exploring and above is the first pic, which is taken from the Teleferico, the cable car that climbs to the peak of El Avila at 2,175m above sea level, which today meant just above the cloud level.

More to come (hopefully).....

London in the Spring

Ah, London in the Spring! Something special about this time of year, as the dafs come out, the trees begin the first shoots of life, and some are even in blossom. The skies are blue, the weather mild, and the coat can be left at home.

The river begins to tempt, and its time for the annual Oxford (boo!) vs Cambridge (hurrah!) Boat Race.

Its a great time of year, and you'd have to be crackers to leave this great city and miss the wonder that is London in Spring!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

...and don't be a herring either!

Oh joy, more bait balls on the BBC!

This time its the herring, swarms and swarms of them off the coast of Alaska feeding on the algae blooms. And there's a lot to feed on - according to David Attenborough (and who would doubt him) there is more mass of living things there than in the Amazon rain forest.

All those algae is great news if you are a hungry sea bird, seal, dolphin or hump back. But alas they do make the water a bit murkier than the previous sardine run (shame), and there are no armadas of gannets diving for their dinner (double shame).

But there was this great bit during the birds-eat-bait-ball-frenzy scene (above) when, as the camera man explained, "it all went quiet" as the gulls made their escape until.... WHAM!!!! as a monstrously big hump back stormed through the scene swallowing thousands of herrings in one go:

I'm guessing the camera man's heart rate is only now beginning to get back to normal!

In the "making of" program the Beeb uses to pad out a 50 min program to an hour we watched the divers, including the man behind the camera in the scene above, seriously debating what would happen if the whale ate them.

Ok, maybe they were semi serious, but it clearly was a bit of an issue, but apparently the whale does spit out things it doesn't like, clever thing.

And they really are particularly clever hump backs. About a hundred of them have worked out this real neat way to go fishing, whereby they round up their prey by circling round blowing bubbles (below, from above). The herrings get confused and fearful of the bubbles, so the loop acts like a net.

Then half a dozen whale rise up through the centre to eat some of the tonne of fish they consume every day.

And if that seems like a lot, well they were very very hungry. They head off to Hawaii which is a good place to hang out and have children (some lovely shots of a mum and her son below) but alas not much to eat if you're a whale, so actually the mother whale is near starvation after 6 months without food and a young mouth to feed.

The daddy whales mean while are out there impressing the ladies with their stunts:

Remember that's a fully grown hump back whale leaping out of the water!

Pretty good stuff and worth looking out for. The BBC site can be found here with video clips and stuff.

An amazing series - the sardine run in particular was stunning.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Top Yacht: Cross Channel Race, Part 2

EXT: Folkstone harbour: Hammond and May are sailing an old Wayfarer.

Hammond: Right, so here we go. We've got to sail to shore, load this old heap onto a trailer, then take drive to the Channel Tunnel to zoom us to Calais before Clarkson can sail across in the Class 40 (he points out to sea)

May: What is he doing?

Hammond: If he had any sense, which is unlikely, he'd be trying to get the mainsail up.

EXT: Class 40 yacht: Clarkson is trying to winch up the main sail

Clarkson: God almighty this is hard work!

He winches a couple of clicks round, the stops panting. The camera turns round to show the sail is only about half way up.

Clarkson: I just can't do any more.

Camera man (off screen): That can't be enough?

Clarkson: Well you do it then! Tell you what, Clive, if you'll get that sail all the way up I'll give you twenty quid.

Clive the camera man (off screen): Surely that's not allowed

Clarkson: Fifty then, and that's my final offer.

Camera is put down at an angle and we hear the winching start again while Clarkson makes fake "Gosh this is so hard work" sounds.

EXT: Slipway in Folkstone Harbour. Hammond is reversing car with trailer down to water where May waits with the Wayfarer.

Hammond: I had to do this bit as you just know May can't do the reversing bit. Never does get it right.

May gets the Wayfarer on and tied down, but the mast is still up.

May: Ok of we go

Hammond: What about the mast?

May: Its ok, I've checked on Google Earth and there's no bridges between here and the Channel Tunnel

Cut to: EXT: They have stopped where the road goes under a railway line.

May: Oh seacock!

Hammond rolls his eyes. May gets out to take down the mast. Shot of line of cars behind them, honking horns etc.

EXT: On the Class 40: Clarkson drops the mooring line, backs the main, and they head off.

Clarkson: See that was easy, and I did it all by myself!

Cut to shot of them sailing out of Folkstone Harbour.

EXT: at the Channel Tunnel, Hammond and May are in a queue of cars.

Hammond: Hurry up, hurry up, don't want to miss our crossing.

EXT: On the Class 40: Clarkson is steering merrily away.

Clarkson: This is the life, out at sea, not stuffed in some sardine tin in a concrete pipe some where down there (he points downwards). Fantastic boat this, totally responsive and reaching like this we're going over 10 knots already!

Something starts beeping.

Clarkson: What can that be?

It beebs some more

Clarkson: Sounds like the depth gauge warning, but how can that be out here.

Clive the camera man (off screen) What about the Varne Sandbank?

Clarkson: But that is only a problem at low water in springs.... oh bugger! Tacking!

Cut to: INT: Inside the Channel Tunnel train: it is moving. Both Hammond and May are sitting in the Wayfarer pretending to be sailing.

May: This must be the most relaxing Channel crossing I've ever done.

Hammond: Could do this in t-shirt and shorts even in depths of winter!

May: In a Force 10 and at night!

Cut to: EXT: Class 40: the French coastline can be seen close by now

Clarkson: There we are, that's France, we've done, a single handed all by myself crossing of the Channel. Now we've just got to moor up and I can have some steak frite avec du vin!

Cut to: INT: Hammond and May are in the car waiting for their turn to exit.

Hammond: Come on, come on, we've got to beat him!

May: Where do you think he is?

Hammond: Don't know, but he must be almost here

Cut to EXT: Class 40 approaching Calais

Clarkson (chart in hand): Where IS that buoy? Can you see it Clive?

Camera moves from right to left and back again as Clive shakes his head

Cut to EXT: Calais roads: Hammond and May are driving the car towing the Wayfarer

May: Down there, that road! Turn right!

Hammond: You're crazing its this way (he turns left)

Cut to EXT: Slip way in Calais. Hammond is reversing car so Wayfarer can be launched.

Hammond: Right he says! Is he always completely wrong about directions!

May (pointing out to see): Quick, I can see him, he's approaching the buoy!!

Hammond: What? No way? (he looks out to sea) Oh no........

Cut to EXT: Class 40 approaching buoy.

Clarkson: Oh yes, I'm going to beat them. Yet again!

He stands with boat hook ready to pick up the line. The Class 40 stops about 2 metres short and then begins to drift backwards.

Clarkson: Oh ****!!!!

Cut to EXT: Calais slipway: They have the Wayfarer in the water and are completing rigging her.

Hammond: He's missed! He's missed the mooring!

May: Yes!!

Hammond: We can still beat him!

Cut to EXT: Class 40: Clarkson is trying to sail her back up to the buoy.

Clarkson: Oh God! This is close! I can see them. I've got maybe one chance - at best - to do this.

The camera pans from him to the approaching Wayfarer.

Clarkson: Clive, how does another fifty sound?

Cut to EXT: Wayfarer with Hammond and May on-board

Hammond: What's he doing?

Shout from the Class 40 - Clarkson: I've done it!! I've got the line!

May: Oh seacock!

Cut to: Class 40, all three presenters are sitting on cabin having a cup of tea.

Hammond: So lets just go through this again.

Clarkson: Ok

Hammond: You managed to moor up all by yourself.

Clarkson: Yup

May: Without any outside assistance

Clarkson: Yes!

Hammond: And the on-board camera mysteriously had a malfunction just for that period so we can't see you actually do it.

Clarkson: Er..... yes?

May: hmmmmm.....


Hammond: Well, obviously we have to believe you.

May: Do we?

Hammond: And so we have to conclude that a Class 40 is quicker across the Channel than evan a Eurotunnel powered Wayfarer.

Charkson: That's right.


May: As long as it's not sailed single handed.....

Hammond (pointing at Clarkson) .... by him!

Clarkson: Fine by me. Good night!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Top Yacht: Star in our standard Laser

Top Yacht logo & post advert theme

INT: Top Yacht studio, usual three presenters, studio audience, various boats hanging behind etc

Clarkson: Welcome back. We'll have more on our cross channel race later in the show, but now its time to put a star in our standard Laser.

This week we don't just have a legend, he's the sort of guy legends call legendary. He is officially the most successful musician ever, he's a quarter of the greatest band of all time, he is the one and only SIR PAUL McCARTNEY!

Audience cheers! Sir Paul McCartney walks up and shakes hands with Clarkson, who does a "we're not worthy" bow.

Clarkson: I can not tell you how much I've been looking forward to meeting you.

McCartney: Thank you, its good to be here.

Clarkson: strokes his legs as per Reeves and Mortimer and turns to the audience: (whispers) He's really here!

Audience laughs!

Clarkson: So Sir Paul, what's your sailing history?

McCartney: I've always enjoyed a bit of sailing when on holiday, its a good way to unwind, to get relaxed.

Clarkson: We've noticed that. This seems to be you on a Sunfish.

They show the following picture on the tv:

The audience laughs.

Clarkson: You don't seem to be doing that much sailing!

McCartney: As you can see it worked and when that was taken was feeling really relaxed.

Clarkson: So your lap, how do you think it went?

McCartney: It was good, Aqua Stig was fantastic. Does he ever take off those clothing?

Clarkson: You mean the all weather gear? No, for the Aqua Stig all weather means just that - he wears it whatever the weather!

Audience laughs

Clarkson: Done much Laser sailing?

McCartney: A little, in between sailing the Sunfish: a good fun sailing boat

Clarkson: Shall we see his lap?

Audience: Yes!

Clarkson: Roll the tape!

EXT: Out on the Top Yacht race course, McCartney is sailing back and forth in a Laser Radial.

Clarkson (voice over): So you're ready for the start, good positioning

Gun goes off, McCartney sails across line

Clarkson (voice over): Heading off on port tack, interesting...

McCartney (voice over): Well there was no other boats to worry about so I thought I'd try and do the windward leg in two tracks

McCartney sails his Laser Radial towards the windward mark.

Clarkson (voice over): Looking good, keeping the boat nice and flat

McCartney tacks.

Clarkson (voice over): Oooh... not sure about that, looks a bit soon

McCartney (voice over): It was!

McCartney tacks twice to get round the mark

Clarkson (voice over): Nice tidy turn.

McCartney sails downwind

Clarkson (voice over): hmm... not sure about that

McCartney (voice over): I remember the Aqua Stig said something about to sit but when I was out there clear forgot.

McCartney gybes, the boat rolls alarmingly as he crosses over

Clarkson (voice over): Nearly! Almost got you in then! Now you're almost there.....

McCartney crosses the line

INT. Back to studio: audience applauds

Clarkson, indicating the board: So where do you think you are?

McCartney: I have no idea, hopefully better than Sting!

Clarkson: Oh, yes, you're above him. You did in it.... (he pauses dramatically) in 5 minutes 25 seconds!!!

Audience cheers!

Clarkson: You're third!

McCartney: That's great, very pleased by that.

Clarkson: Well its been an absolute dream come true to have you in the studio, ladies and gentlemen, Sir Paul McCartney!!!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Top Yacht: Cross Channel Race, Part 1

Credits, Top Yacht intro music

INT: Top Yacht studio, usual three presenters, studio audience, various boats hanging behind etc

Clarkson: Good evening and welcome to Top Yacht! Tonight we start with some viewer's letters

Hammond (holding a letter): Actually just the one letter, but it was a good one. A mister T. Man wanted to know why we spent our time blowing up J101's and drooling over Volvo 70s, rather than real world sailing.

May: You know, such as what would be a good boat to sail across the Channel, or a safe family dinghy.

Hammond: And we were really up for doing a proper, sensible, report into that. But alas the letter was opened by.... guess who?

Hammond and May point at Clarkson who shrugs his shoulders. The audience laughs.

Clarkson (raising his hands): Wait, wait. I know what you thinking, but for once I listened to our viewers needs, and decided what we needed to do is have one of our Top Yacht Races!

The audience cheers.

Clarkson: But of course we didn't want just do one of those standard RORC style across the Channel to Cherboug with IRC rules race, so we decided ...

Hammond (interupting): You mean "you decided"

Clarkson: If I can just finish! So I wondered, what would be the quickest across the Channel, a yacht or a dinghy?

May: I see, so you wanted to race some light weight skiffs like the 49ers against an equivalent form of racing yacht? That actually would be quite interesting.

Clarkson: No, what I wanted to do is race one of the latest Class 40 yachts against this old Wayfarer.

He indicates to a very old and heavy wood built Wayfarer dinghy.

Hammond: That old thing? It hasn't a chance!

Clarkson: What if I could tell you I could get that Wayfarer up to a hundred miles per hour?

May: Not rocket powered sailing again!

Clarkson: No.

Hammond: You haven't been smoking those "special" cigarettes have you?

Clarkson: No, think about it....

Cut to: EXT, Folkstone harbour. All three are sitting on a Class 40 moored along with the Wayfarer against a bright yellow buoy.

Clarkson: So here we are in Folkstone, its a lovely day, 10 - 15 knots of wind from south west and Calais is about 26 nautical miles that way.

He points out to sea: its ESE if you're interested.

Clarkson: I'm going to sail over to Calais in this typical every day yacht ...

Hammond (interrupting): Its only typical if you're an offshore single handed sailor

Clarkson: ... and you're going to race me in that dinghy.

May: But how?

Hammond: Aaahh! I've just had an idea. We don't have to sail all the way do we?

Clarkson: No

Hammond: Now this is interesting.

May: I don't follow

Hammond: There is another way to Calais. We go under the Channel.

Clarkson: That's right. While I hoist my sails and head out to sea, you head off in the opposite direction, load the dinghy onto the trailor, and drive to the Eurotunnel terminal.

Hammond: Where we zoom along at about a hundred miles an hour or something to Calais, drive to the port, unload the dinghy and see which of us gets there first.

Clarkson: Exactly. First one to moor up to a buoy in Calais harbour wins.

May and Hammond: You're on!

Advert break! So who do you think will win this Top Yacht race! You'll have to keep watching to find out......

Spring on the Thames

The daffs are out and its jumper but not coat weather, with spring definitely on its way. And talking of spring we've just had a super spring tide, with tidal ranges of over 7m at Tower Bridge.

And the river is looking more inviting by the day. I must confess not to be that good at going out in the midst of winter, as cold, rain and dark are not my favourite combinations.

But when it's like this who could say no, and above you see some canoeists and kayakers and below some rowers. It looks a bit like the Cambridge boat race team doing a photo-op as the University boat race is the 29th March - just two weeks away (alas looking like will miss this one).

Buts there's lots of other stuff on: just look at this long list of river events on the PLA site. Regattas, boat races, Tudor pulls, Thames barges, and much more to look forward to.

While not out on the river had nice bike ride up to Barnes, once to visit the farmer's market by the pond (below) and once just for the fun of it!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Don't be a sardine....

Or if you are a sardine (tough luck), whatever you do, don't join in the great sardine run off the coast of South Africa.

One of the treats recently on the Beeb has been another great series from David Attenborough, this time of "Nature's Great Events", and there was one program on the sardine run. It was totally and utterly amazing.

The sardines live in their millions if not billions in the cold waters off the Cape. Usually once a year a current pushes a thread of cold water together with the sardines up close by the coast, and there are predators, thousands upon thousands of them waiting to pounce.

As always with the BBC's nature series the photography was amazing, close up from divers in the water coupled with overhead shots from slow moving spotter planes.

The attack starts with the dolphins breaking off a bait ball away from the main shoal which, at maybe 500 million strong is too distracting and large for most predators. One of the nice things about the dolphins is how aware they are of the divers: for a shark its either eat or ignore but the dolphins roll over to peer curiously at the intruder into their world.

Having created the bait ball, the sardines become vulnerable to more attackers, starting with the gannets diving down in uncountable numbers like bullets. There was once a battle scene in Star Wars where there were meant to be more craft than the eye could take in: well that was nothing to the gannets:

Along side the gannets were the sharks, and for once they ignored each other and concentrated on the poor sardines. It apparently was ok to dive with sharks if the sardines were running but the previous year there had been no run (maybe due to global warming) and the hungry and frustrated sharks took a bite at the camera man's flippers.

Finally the biggest predator of them all turned up, the Brydes whales, swallowing up to 10,000 sardines in one gulp.

Maybe 100 million sardines in total are eaten in the run. An amazing spectacle and worth watching if it comes up on you local station (which, given BBC World's track record it will).

More from the BBC site here and background on Wikipedia here.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Book Review: Still Cruising

Recently I reviewed Liza Copeland's Just Cruising, which I very much enjoyed and immediately ordered the follow up book "Still Cruising".

The first book described how the family Copeland family of Liza, Colin and their three boys set off on their great adventure, swapping land based life for one roaming the world's oceans. They very sensibly started with a gentle year long cruise around the Med before making their first family ocean crossing in the company of the ARC, exploring the Caribbean, and then traversing the wide Pacific to end up in Australia.

And there they stayed for a whole year, giving the children a chance to mix with other kids and be tested against their peers rather than a remote learning school.

Still Cruising covers the rest of their circumnavigation, from Australia, through the Indonesian islands to Singapore, then up further to Thailand before across to Sri Lanka and the tip of India. After that to the Maldives and Seychelles, before finishing their crossing the Indian ocean in Kenya.

From Mombasa they sailed south to Madagascar, exploring several west African countries, before arriving at South Africa. After a long break there they crossed the South Atlantic by way of St Helena before crossing their outward tracks and eventually arriving in Florida.

So you can see it was a pretty demanding and intense journey! You get the feeling that after the successes of the earlier voyages their confidence was high and they felt bold enough to sail well outside most people's comfort zones.

And there is more of a sense of exploration than the long cruising holiday feel in the previous book. They have more adventures as they sail into waters where the locals have seen no yachts ever before (such as in some Indonesian islands).

Where as in Just Cruising most of the time most people seemed well and there are few breakages, in this book there were more dramas with a tragedy on another yacht, some serious illnesses, a couple of robberies, a lightening strike blasting almost all of their electronics, and responding to a Mayday call off Cuba.

But there were rewards too - such as seeing the amazing Komodo dragons in Indonesia, and elephants and zebras in Kenya. The children were much older and could be more involved in the explorations, though the eldest was often away in "proper" school in Vancouver.

One thing did strike me as odd and slightly disappointing. They were in South Africa for quite a long time in 1991 when the country was subject to sanctions due to the apartheid regime. Now Liza mentions the sanctions and mentions some tensions, but not that it was due to apartheid, which to me was a shame as it was probably the most important fact about South Africa during those years - in the time between Nelson Mandela's release and the first genuine elections.

Overall if you liked Just Cruising you have to get Still Cruising, if only to find out "what happened next", and that's not just where they travelled next but how the family continued to grow in experience as well as (for the kids) height.

The boys in particular must have had an amazing childhood, experiencing sights that were rare then and must be rarer still today. To visit communities untouched by the modern age is something harder and harder to do in the 21st century, and one must remember their journey is now about 20 years in the past.

On my bookshelf I've placed Just Cruising and Still Cruising next to that classic of the 1950's Around the World in Wanderer III by Eric Hiscock. That book describes what really was a different era, of sextants and colonies not GPS and independence.

But one day, and not that far off, they will say the same of Liza's books, which undoubtedly will also be considered snapshots of their time, and also as classics of cruising.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

My Fair Lady

Alan sat at the navigation table, wondering what he should do. Absent mindedly he twirled a winch handle round and round like a football rattle. Suddenly it reminded him of his youth when his Dad took him to watch Leeds United play in some half remembered northern darby: guiltily he stopped.

Cleo came down the companion way to join Alan in the main cabin. “Time for a drink?” she asked.

He nodded and watched as Cleo mixed two G&Ts. He seemed loss for words, unsure what to say to his wife of 18 years.

In recent years he seemed to know her less and less. He had been distracted by his business which had taken all his time as it had grown and expanded until a major competitor decided it was cheaper to buy him out than battle over margins. That deal had taken time too, late nights with lawyers and accountants, then handling the hand-over and tying up those final loose ends.

This was meant to be his reward – and hers. After all that grind, after seeing the kids head off to university, to live the dream and sail off into the sunset. So he bought a yacht called My Fair Lady and talked her into leaving their plush Surrey home for the cramped quarters and hard slog of a double handed yacht.

“Do it for us” he had argued “Give it a chance – give us a chance. Be adventurous for once”.

It was probably the last little dig that had done it. He suspected she couldn’t face being considered less adventurous than him. He’d always felt a bit second rate to her and her family: they were all professionals, lawyers and academics, while his business – though successful – involved equipment hire to construction companies. They met with politicians and journalists, doers and makers, while he met with builders.

So here they now were, starting off on the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers, the ARC: three thousand miles of blue water with the warmth of the Caribbean ahead, and just each others company for the next three weeks.

“What are you doing down here?” she asked “Its lovely up on deck with the sun just about to set”.

What was he doing? Was he hiding from her? Frozen for a moment he then thought of something.

“Wanted to listen into the radio net” he said “They often have a get together this time of day”.

He turned on the SSB radio and they started to listen in.

“Howdy sport” said an Australian voice “How’s life on X-Change?”

Alan started. “Wasn't X-Change on the berth next to ours?” he asked.

He could picture them clearly. The skipper had been an ex-city type called Hugo who had insisted their two boats crews should have a dinner together and then patronised Alan for two hours before he’d managed to escape back to the boat on the excuse that he had to check the lightening conductor was properly earthed.

“I’m in the dog house” replied another Aussie voice “Skipper’s not forgiven me for walking in on him shagging that Cleo from “My Fair Lady”.

Alan snapped the radio off. His inside tightened as they got colder and colder and then his stomach churned acid. His hands clenched tight around each end of the winch handle and he found his teeth were grinding as out of control cheek muscles pulled his face into a grimace.

He finally looked up at Cleo. He could see that her hands, wrapped around the drinks glass, were shaking. Her face had gone paper white that made her lipstick appear to be floating above her face. Her eyes were locked on his, and looking at them he felt that for once he could actually see her, not the mask she normally wore.

Then the mask snapped back and her chin rose slightly.

“Well” she said “This is awkward”.

This is awkward

Carol Anne of Five O'Clock Somewhere has taken up Tillerman's Group Writing project with the topic of a short story ending with the line "This is awkward" as described here.

You'll have to wait for the next post for the proper response but here is a quick half hearted shortie:

Recently I found a poor seagull with a broken wing and took it into the RSPB to see what they could do. After tending to the invalid I was given a tour of the RSPB's bird hospital by a very friendly young lady.

She showed me the Seagull wing and the Heron operating theatre. However one door seemed unused and covered in dust so I asked her what was behind it?

"Oh", she said "That's the Auk Ward"

(boom boom).

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Top Yacht Challenges: The Rules

Credits, Top Yacht intro music

INT: Top Yacht studio, usual three presenters, studio audience, various boats hanging behind etc

Clarkson: Good evening, and welcome to a very special Top Yacht!

For many years we've wondered why more people don't following sailing races.....

Hammond: Like for example those crowds that support for Touring Car races.

Clarkson: ... so we wondered what it could be and the answer seemed simple. The rules are too complicated.

May (waving rule book around): And these two adrenalin junkies might for once have a point - I mean look at all this (reads from book) "Giving room".... "Overlapped at the zone"...."Not overlapped at the zone". Could anyone on shore or on their sofa give a monkey's BEEB about all that?

Clarkson: So we thought, lets make it simple and have just three rules: 1) You have to sail the course i.e. no engines 2) If you cross the line before the gun starts you have to heave to until someone climbs the mast and 3) ........ no can't remember the third

May: And 3) you have to wear safety gear.

Clarkson: Bla bla bla! Anyway, we thought we'd try out these new rules and so got ourselves each a J101 with some professional crew, made a couple of suitable modifications, put on our crash helmets and went out to the Solent.

Hammond: And this is what happens if you try and make sailing more like Touring Car racing.......

EXT: Solent, shot of three boats manoevering around a start line. Clarkson, Hammond and May are each onboard a J101.

Hammod: Right, so this is the start, so remember there are NO rules except get round the course, and what we are trying to do is push Jeremy across the line. Literally.

Two J101's are heading to windward just the right side of the line. The leeward one heads up, colliding with the windward one. There is a great screatching sound, and the big mark along its the windward boats and it is pushed over the line.

Clarkson: That little toe-rag: have you seen what he's done to our boat?

A gun goes off.

Clarkson: That's it we're off! What?

Voice out of shot: We were across the line!

Clarkson: No!

Hammond: (laughing)

Clarkson: So we've heaved too and the skipper has selected the lightest to go up the mast - thank God I eat lots of pies.

He grabs his belly: Look at that, no one's going to haul me up the mast.

Hammond: Right one down, now lets get May.

May: While those two were messing about - as usual - we just sailed off nice and steady

Leaving Clarkson's J101 heaved too as one of the crew is winched skywards, Hammond and May's J101's head off to windward.

May: So we're still ahead of Hammond. Soon we're going to tack: doesn't matter about port and starboard but being ahead does.

Hammond: right, we've got overlap: now this is important! Not of course because of the rules (yawn) but because we can get him if he tries to tack across us.

May (loudly): Hammond: we've got to tack - its shoal water over here!

Hammond: Can't hear you!

May (more loudly): Hammond: we really have to tack right now.

Hammond: Just you try!

May's J101 tries to tack, but the bow of Hammond's boat pushes his boat's head back: for a moment it is in irons, then, as Hammond's boat pushes further, it returns on the old tack. Mean while Hammond tacks.

May: Hammond!!!

May's J101 judders to a grinding halt and the mast snaps in two.

May: Oh Sea-Cock!!


Clarkson: While those two have been distracted, we've done our penalty mast climb and are about to grab the lead. I can see the top mark coming up now.

Hammond: That's what he thinks. Actually we're still just slightly ahead!

The two J101's approach the mark from opposite tacks: it is very very close.

Clarkson: Right Hamster, this is where we unleash our secret weapon. You know how J101's have that bowsprity thing out the front? Well we've made some modifications.....

The two boats get closer together, then it can be seen they are on collision course.

Hammond: Get out of the way Clarkson!!

Clarkson: Right: brace for impact, tighten up the back-stays, be ready to take the tension off the main.

There is a huge crash as Clarkson's J101 rams Hammonds midships.

Hammond: What have you done?

Voice off camera: There's water coming in!!

Clarkson: Oh yes, we moved the bowsprit till it was under the water, strengthened it, then sharpened it. Oh yes, we're a J101 with a battering ram!

Clarkson's J101 turns around the mark and hoists their asymmetric.

Hammond: I'm not having that.

Hammond reaches for the flare box and launches a rocket flare into Clarkson's asymmetric. It goes up in flames, followed by the main.

Clarkson: Abandon ship!

Hammond: Abandon ship!

As one J101 burns away and another gradually sinks we see the RNLB lifeboat rushing to rescue them.

Voice over (Clarkson): So there you have it: the new Top Yacht rules results in one dismasting, one sinking and one J101 burnt to the water line.

As all too often we were ambitous but unsuccessful.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

What TV program is the Vendee Globe?

I posted previously how the Volvo TV show reminded me a bit of Top Gear as its rather un-PC but with high entertainment value. And I still do - can't you just picture the scene:

INT: Studio, big sign says "Top Yacht". Three presenters are doing the cool wall.

Clarkson (for it is he): So what do we think, Volvo 70s, cold or super cold?

Audience, misc: cold! Super cold! Freezing! etc etc

Clarkson: You know the old Volvo 60, good yachts, but these new ones. God they're fast!!

Hamster: That's right, that extra 10 feet make all the difference - and there's a canting keel too!

Clarkson: The power is just awesome, I just can't say no to it

HamsterHammond: The Stig took one out for a spin - think I saw him hitting 40 knots on the Top Yacht course.

May: Of course they'll need ice gates now.

Clarkson and Hammond look at him in disgust, shake heads, raise eyebrows etc

May: If they're going 40 knots and hit an iceberg its all over, all this fancy carbon fibre, give me solid steel any day.

Clarkson: Well, thank you Mr Health and Safety, but who cares, I want one.

He slaps picture of V070 at the ice-cold end of the board and the audience cheers.

You see what I mean? It would so work.

But what TV show would the Vendee Globe be? I haven't had chance to see for myself what its actual TV coverage is like but it surely would be more character based. Maybe a TV drama series - or even dare I say it a soap.

The skippers would be the focus, not the just the power of the boats, and interactions between them drive the story forward, with a cliff hanger at the end of each episode:
- when will the curse of Mike Golding strike?
- can anyone get to poor Jean le Cam before his yacht sinks?
- who will get in first, Roxy or Safram?

and of course:
- When will Elies be rescued, broken leg and all?

There'd also be the light humorous story line to keep spirits up and Sam would do her bit with stories of lost chocolate, karaoke, iPod dancing etc.

Of course a soap never ends so it can't be that. I'd suggest a drama like Lost but that series is just too irritating. So maybe something classical, like Dicken's Bleak House, printed in 20 instalments.

What do you think?

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Volvo & Vendee on TV

As suffering from Vendee withdrawl symptoms was pleased to learn from Yachting World that it was going to be on TV over the weekend - though at the rather weekend lie-in hostile hour of 7.30 am. So muttering something about Channel 4 executives bad scheduling when it comes to sailing, decided it was one for the PVR to record ready for when fully awake coffee mug in hand.

Alas the PVR decided to die: gracefully it must be admitted, but when there is 39V on the line that should have just 13V it was brave but most definitely beaten.

No matter thinks I, there is always C4 + 1, the TV channel to catch the first half of programs where enjoyed the last half - or in this case, for those getting up just after 8.

Alas, again, it was not good news as the TV reported "no signal" on not just C4+1, but C4, and indeed every single channel. Apparently the antenna on the roof of the block of appartments was in morning for the PVR or something and refusing to work on even numbered floors (no, don't understand that at all either).

So thinks I, this is the 21st Century, we have 4OD - standing for 4 "on-demand", a web site for those with broadband and a Channel 4 program missed.

Alas, a word that is becoming over used but still - er - alas - is appropriate, there were many programs to download from Desperate Housewives to Dispatches: Unseen Gaza, but no, the Vendee Globe is "currently not available".

But as a consolation prize there was a catch-up of the Volvo Ocean race programs. Now if you think the Vendee Globe slot was bad at 7.30 am on a Saturday morning have a feeling for the Volvo which has got the graveyard 01:45 - 02:40 am slot, even earlier than the Vendee.

Nope, even the C4+1 times of 02:45 - 03:40 that don't sound that good. What is it about TV schedulers and their dislike of sailing?

But the Volvo program was available on download so spent an hour with some VO70s racing from the doldrums to Cape Town and then up into the Indian Ocean. And rather a fun 48 minutes it was too.

Ok, I've been a bit disappointed by following the Volvo, but as a TV show it has certain wow! factor. Those boats are pretty impressive when fully loaded going pedal to the metal and maybe thats what they are all about.

They can give some perzang! to any corporate video, showing leading edge sailing, teamwork, high tech, healthy outdoor competition, and a nice warm buzz of seeing your company's logo on a spinnaker on a boat surfing at 30+ knots across sun lit waves. Followed by some spectacular wipe-outs, shredded sails, broken booms etc.

Woh! Yea-ha! (or something)

And of course the port on starboard miss by millimetres near collision shot:

Having enjoyed that and started the download of the next episode, went over to the VOR web site, and... nope, didn't feel the same.

Five boats, in a clump, just going along, it was like..... slow. Those long offshore legs you really need to have strong characters to keep the interest up, as the Vendee does (or rather did).

So maybe the Volvo has got some strong points, and TV is a good way of getting across the power and exhilaration of the VO70 class. Its a bit like the Top Gear of sailing, you know its not PC, but actually its very watchable.

Of course I have yet to see the Vendee Globe on TV. Now the PVR has been returned from repair and the TV is reporting signal again just have to wait till Saturday morning to compare the two.

I'll be there, coffee mug in hand - unless something else goes wrong......

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Volvo vs Vende Globe (again)

The Vendee Globe is winding down and those with Sam Davies withdrawal symptoms have been checking out the other circumnavigating yacht race, the Volvo. But to me at least it's not the same.

I remember back in November posting a 10 point list of why the Vendee is better (ok, it was only 9 but surely there must be another there somewhere) and a similar comparison has been bubbling through the mind of Yachting World's Elaine Bunting in her blog here.

The post raises a number of topics, including the degree to which the greater loads in VOR70 gives a bias towards male sailors and how that could put off some members of the public. She even raises the Mike vs Michelle Golding debate on whether female sailors get greater coverage and if so is that right?

I've been thinking over her arguments over the weekend and don't have any conclusion, just some further points to mull over.

If having men only in teams was a significant problem then Manchester United wouldn't have a global fan base and Formula 1 would be in even greater financial difficulties than it does at present. There does seem to be an appetite for sport viewers to see the highest level of competition - or, as the VOR marketing team would no doubt put it - at the extreme.

And it is certainly true that the VOR is getting support: see the crowds by the dock side for the races and most impressive armadas of virtual sailors following it in the Volvo game. There are some virtual racers that have over a month of log-in time -now that is real commitment and advertiser friendly eye-ball time.

But the VOR does have a problem that neither Man U nor Formula 1 has - lack of continuity and hence fan base. It is harder to feel connected to an international telecom vendor that has funded a campaign, and even less so when it is a one-off sponsorship. It is notable that Ericsson is unusual in that it funded a boat in a previous campaign, not the norm.

If you support a football team you have a good chance of following them not just year in year out, but decade after decade (though that can be a bad thing - one's sympathy must go to those Leeds United fans who have now only distant memories of life in the Premiership).

You can follow individual sailors in the Vendee, but for the VOR its usually a different crew and team name each time round. So Torben Grael is skipper of Ericsson 4 this time round, but in the last race it was Brazil.

It hasn't helped that the VOR didn't offer the great Virtual Spectator viewer which I really appreciated when it was available for the previous race.

Also as posted earlier, the single handed nature of the Vendee Globe makes it a more gripping story, and it is story that we humans like and brings engagement. And it is this engagement that brings media coverage with it, as Sam Davies showed.

Ultimately it will all be decided by sponsors and whether they happy with the return they get on the huge sums required to fund a VOR team. But it is notable how few there are: given the drop outs the fleet for the current leg is only 5 strong and given the two Ericssons that represents just 4 sponsors.

Probably this isn't a question that only Ericsson corporate PR can answer: given what they know now would they rather sponsor next time round a VOR or a Vendee Globe?

It might well be the answer has nothing to do with gender or sailing but something much more simple. If you are doing a corporate PR junket you can get more wanabee sailors in a day sail on a VO 70 than in an Open 60!

So what do you think? If you could modify the VOR what would you change?