Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Yacht sailing on the Thames

Just another sailing picture you might think, of a yacht heading downwind close to shore. But no, it was actually taken on the Thames, upriver near Putney, where there are mud banks and bridges, low bridges.

I've seen the boat motor by a few times as the mast can be lowered to go down river, but this is the first time I've seen her out sailing.

Single handed too by the looks of it.... impressive.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Some Whitstable Photos

I like Whitstable a lot. Indeed, what is there not to like: its got loads of character, history, a beach, beach huts, great food, famous oysters, easy access to London and of course sailing.

I've just checked the Wikipedia entry and found to my amazement that it's Regatta dates all the way back to 1792 when there were three divisions and 26 entries. A reporter noted that "Much nautical skill was displayed in the maneuvering of the various squadrons. Every hoy, smack, wherry etc. in the vicinity of Whitstable was crowded with company and formed quite a fair upon the ocean"

Well that makes the America's Cup a bit of a brash newcomer!

Anyway, here's a collection of photos from the weekend.

Monday, June 28, 2010

What makes a good beach BBQ?

1. Location

Or as estate agents (trans: realtors) put it: location, location, location. You need obviously a beach, but it doesn't have to be sand. On Saturday we were in Whitstable which is pebble and mud but still very authentically English seaside. Find a free spot and look out at the sea.

As you can see the tide has gone out a bit and anyone wanting a dip would have to go for a walk first. But tide and weather are two out-of-your-control variables. I managed to get a swim in before the waters disappeared off towards the horizon.

2. Company

This was another brother and family production, so here was definitely Uncle JP, above entertaining a nephew with a lesson in how to take that all important feet with shoes on beach shot.

3. Food

Ok obviously there was a BBQ and big thanks to A - or should I say Professor A now - for his stirling work feeding the hords.

My contribution was the Chocolate Tart above - or maybe, given it was from a French shop, Tarte au Chocolat. Doesn't really matter whether you call it Tarte or Tart as it disappeared quicker than you could name it.

4. Decide what sort of party it is

What, you might be saying, about going for a sail? We were at Whitstable, which is a cracking place for a sail, as can be seen from the picture above. And Professor A has a cat, which in previous years has gone for out for a blast out to sea. So why not this time?

Well, many there had small children, including Professor A, who as noted above was also hard at work at the BBQ. This was a children's party, with kites and silver plastic balls (as per previous photo), and there wasn't time or energy to add sailing (or kayaking, though other parties on the beach had a number of sea kayaks).

In years gone the party goers were twenty something, events went on long into the night, included skinny dipping and gossip for the next day.

In years to come the children will have grown up to either crew the boats or (preferably) the BBQ.

In the mean time, you can still enjoy the beach, the company and the food.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Finding a gun on Beverley Brook

It wasn't really a case of "I couldn't believe my eyes". Rather the brain was having trouble processing what the eyes could see. Those circuits that beaver away without us noticing it, matching things in the world with its database of objects, were confused.

It's just a bar of metal the neurons would fire; no, says others, it's a gun. But there can't be a gun here in this pastoral scene in Putney on a fine summers day, so it must be a metal bar. But it does look awfully like a gun....

For a brief moment the two images, the two interpretations, flickered in my head. Then there could be no doubt: it was a gun. I had found a gun, in Beverley Brook of all places.

It was another of the Thames 21 projects to clean up the waterways of London. I'd volunteered for a similar event earlier this year one weekday on the Thames slightly up river just beyond Hammersmith Bridge. This was smaller scale but a constructive way to spend Sunday morning.

At first it went as expected. We got our waders, gloves and plastic bags, had our safety briefing and then went down to the river. And from the start it was a good haul: the previous Thames had been rather boring junk to be honest, mostly plastic bags and fragments of a carpet.

We found long metal bars, a child's bike and (sorry to say) a used condom. We're were just about to move on further up river when I saw it.

I called the Thames 21 organiser, Judith, who called the police. She's German (do not mention the game) so at first couldn't remember what British emergency services number to call. But then she got through to the police and they promised to send someone along.

So while the rest of the team went off with their plastic bags and wheel barrows full of junk we waited for the bill to turn up, which after a short wait they did. Four in total, including an expert with all the collection gear. One problem was the gun was on other side of the Brook from the path and the river is very muddy, deep thick and clinging mud, the sort that means that welly boots are not enough, you need full leg length waders.

With much laughter one of the policeman put on the Thames 21 gear, leaving behind his official jacket in case he slipped and waded across. Gingerly he picked it up and making sure it was pointed down brought it over and then put it carefully in what looked like a picnic bag. But this was not your average M&S bag: apparently in there it could go off quite happily and not trouble us. It was in fact made with thicker kevlar than the police's vests.

It was a Colt, he thought, it felt heavy, most likely real and loaded. Names were taken and pictures too, as I think the picture of the policeman in those long plastic waders will be on display at the station.

And I learnt that you can indeed find a gun on the pastoral banks of the Beverley Brook on a fine summers morning.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Aliens on the beach?

What is this? Has a rather small alien space ship landed on a north Kent coast beach?

More to come....

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Final Score: iPhone4 0: Kayaking 1

I was going to buy a certain phone today, but the there were long long queues on the shops that had stock and while a technophile am not a true Apple fanboy.

But all was not lost as went kayaking after work. So saved money (a lot) and had an eco friendly pleasant time on the river enjoying a lovely evening, plus also a good upper body work out.


Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Admiral of the Port's Challenge

Early this evening I must have presented a strange figure to the spooks of MI6. Just outside the windows of their James Bond style spy HQ they would have seen me wandering around on the mud flats looking towards Westminster, camera in hand.

It was maybe appropriate that I ended up in that spot as it was thanks to the blogger information network that I'd been tipped off that there'd be a host of Thames Waterman Cutter's racing from Westminster to the Westminster Boating Base, just the other side of Vauxhall Bridge, as part of the annual Admiral of the Port's Challenge.

In this case it is luckily not a state secret so can reveal my informant was none other than Chris over at Rowing for Pleasure - many thanks for that top tip!

And it was indeed quite a sight, especially enjoyable in what was a lovely evening with the gulls flying overhead and the waves lapping on the pebbly shore.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Round the Isle of Black Race?

If the oil spill had been here in London, then yup, the Round the Island race would be round a rather blacker island, those pristine cliffs of the Needles no longer white.

Not good :(

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Book Review: Close to the Wind

A confession: I actually read this book earlier this year but some how the time wasn't right to blog. So this review has had time to what we could call settle in my mind (rather than fade).

While an autobiography, authorship is shared between Ben Ainslie and a Nick Townsend and I did wonder what that meant. It does sound like Ben's voice, so I'm guessing he was interviewed by Nick who then transcribed what was said, tidied it up, and generally structured it as a book.

The book certainly works overall, telling Ben's story from lad sailing in an Optimist, through the Olympic years with the Laser and Finn classes, to Sydney to Holberts and the America's Cup.

It is of course an incredibly impressive list of sailing achievements, and there is enough of Ben's character on display to get an understanding of the relentless drive that pushes him to train endlessly and to dig deep even when exhausted and ill to get that vital point. Remarkably at the Beijing Olympics he had a bad case of glandular fever - for which as a past sufferer he has my sympathy.

The first chapter starts with that famous duel when he won the gold at Sydney by pinning Robert Scheidt to ensure he didn't come in the top 21 boats. It was a ruthless display that led to a lot of bad words both on and off the water. It was the sort of professional take no prisoners that is the opposite of the gentlemanly do the right thing of more traditional sailors. But it works, and at that level there is no doubt the opposition won't be pulling their punches.

And you can tell Ben remembers that, whether a protest, insult across the water or sneaky tactic. He certainly remembered how the BBC played a bad trick on him by broadcasting an unflattering clip of him during Sports Personality of the Year (as blogged here).

Reassuringly there are also some grade A cock-ups, including being in the wrong helming the 100 supermaxi Leopard during a start of the America's Cup Jubilee Regatta in 2001 which led to the pranging of the 80 foot Morning Glory owned by SAP billionaire. Even our "greatest Olympic sailor" does sometimes get it wrong, spectacularly wrong.

At the end he repeats that truism that he "will never stop learning" which reminds me of another: that he "has probably forgotten more about sailing that I've ever learnt."

A truly remarkable sailor and a good book to get an insight into sailing at that level.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Friday Quiz: Why the bale?

Ok a quiz to distract from the England game.

This rather fuzzy photo (must have been water on the lens) from yesterday's Thames paddle is of Barnes bridge and there is a bale of straw hanging underneath: why?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Sensation on the Thames

There was a shock for the paddlers and rowers out enjoying today's lovely evening, and even the squawking geese were momentarily silenced. Yup, JP had finally made it out for a kayak on the river.

To just by a whisker get that in before the year reaches half way is inexcusable so I won't even bother.

Tonight I tried the club's rather elegant sea kayak so was nice and stable when faced with wind against tide. It was very good to be out there again.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Review: Navionics Mobile Charts

Following on from yesterdays iPad review here's another, of the Navionics Mobile Charts, and to be honest it's a bit disappointing.

Maybe its the glow of a recent purchase and seeing something about entering lat/longs directly made me think there was iNavX style features. But no, waypoints can only be entered by finger taps on screen.

There are some nice features, such as ability to overlay Google or Bing! maps:

And as before there is a pretty graphic to show tidal rates and directions:

But the round the island route had only a little more functionality than Google Earth's path tool.

It's not a serious navigational tool, it's like a coffee table book: nice to look at and talk about. The market is social, for occasions where trips are planned or talked about afterwards.

As the warning goes: not to be used for navigation.

Get iNavX instead and download the charts you need.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Apple's iPad Impressions

I've had the iPad for just over 2 weeks so it might be time for a post on impressions so far. To sum up: what it does, it does well, but several times have just hit a buffer, which can be very frustrating.

To give a simple example, I was sending an email and then decided it would be nice to attach a picture, only to find out there wasn't an option to do that. I'd have had to copy the text, cancel the message, go to pictures and then select send by email and paste back in the text. Bit of a palaver for what most emails systems do by having a single button that says "Attachments...". But that would require a file system, something that Apple have hidden from us the users.

The iPad shows that is the V1.0 of a new device: great potential but work in progress. And there are many things that are wonderful about it.

Its best features are its large screen with low weight and fast response, including instant-on. If it does what you want to do it will do it quickly and beautifully. So taking it away to visit parents and show photos and then book a hotel online for them it does fantastically. I'm happy carrying it most the time without worrying about weight.

Graphics are great, and its super for consuming content, particularly music, videos, web and articles. I'm not sure about books: I don't think either my eyes or arm muscles would welcome that. But there were examples of magazine or news articles that can be downloaded and look great, including extracts from Yachting Monthly.

There's a RSS reader called Pulse that is so good the NY Times tried to stop it being available, but then the NY Times is a bit of a dinosaur, and I've not included them on my list of feeds. Business types will be interested to hear there is the GotoMeeting online conferencing software plus the FT mobile app rebuilt for the iPad. Yes it is a walled garden but at least you don't have to worry about viruses etc.

The Pages and Numbers apps are ok - I wouldn't want to write a book on them but for quick notes and calculations they are pretty good. Safari, as have posted already, has problem with Google sites like Docs and Blogger for me is very annoying. Again that could be because this is all so new, and ultimately everything will be HTML5 aware, but I would rather use Chrome than Safari.

Something that has defeated me over the weekend was the promised cloud based MobileMe. The idea is great: you can sync your laptop calendar, iPhone and iPad via the web so if you add an event to one all the others know about is. Alas it didn't work, with a lot of all day events being offset an hour i.e. without daylight saving time or duplicated and then sync didn't work so some platforms had two, three or four copies of the same event while others had none. Having serious doubts about MobileMe to be honest, especially as you have to pay extra for it.

But the iPad in general very happy with: it does pretty much what it you think it will do. Web pages load fast and look great, and you can instantly consume content that looks beautiful, pretty much everywhere.

Review of Navionics chart app to come later, and probably further reaction as the key question is still to be answered. After the new purchase thrills have worn off, how often will it actually be used rather than the iPhone or laptop?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Photographing London

In the last but one post I did something I thought Londoners never did: I went to Trafalgar Square with my camera, as if I was a tourist rather than a resident. In this case of course it was to snap away at the statue on the fourth plinth, namely Nelson's ship in a bottle.

But it appears I am most definitely not alone, as shown by the rather wonderful picture above. This is one from a series which make use of geotagging information loaded along with a photo to sites like flickr.

The data was analysed to work out who might be a local and who a tourist, based upon the fact visitors are likely to be only there for a few weeks while a local will have many pictures taken in the same town over many years. The red dots show the location of photos taken by tourists, blue locals and yellow indeterminate.

And it turns out that London is the Worlds No. 1 city (tempted to stop right there, but there is more) for being photographed by locals. So I was being a proper Londoner after all.

Soon I must go to get ready to cross this urban sprawl, as have been invited over to friends, and have been told to arrive by 7.30 pm. Now what might be happening around then?

Big hint: good luck England!!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Waterbloggers Food Tour: Dorado Ceviche

Carol Anne has a challenge - what would we serve some tired sailors (or kayakers) when they come back to land?

That brought back a lot of memories, mostly at a tangent to the original idea, relating to the longing for proper cooking that comes after a voyage.

It was a frequent subject of conversation on the ARC: what would we eat when we get to land? Over many days as St Lucia got ever closer the mouths would begin to water more and more and the decision was made: steak and chips with a glass of red wine to wash it down.

Of course the wine got skipped as that we went for that sailors favourite, the cold beer, which came first, second and third before finally getting some medium rare avec des frites.

Then there was the Fastnet in which we crawled into Plymouth early one morning to be welcomed with a crate of beer which was sampled a couple of times before heading off for a gloriously greasy full English breakfast.

A shorter voyage was an overnighter to Cadiz where we were delayed by many a fishing boat and lack of wind. Arriving late morning at what the pilot book scorned as being a remote working port we decided we couldn't face the long walk into town so plumped ourselves down on some plastic chairs outside a drab portacabin.

We found to our amazement it was a gastro experience, as razer clams, baby squid, clams, prawns and much much more, all dripping in garlic butter were produced. Plates were wiped clean with bread and we still remember that meal to this day:

Ok, a recipe, and its simple, easy to prepare and uses no fancy cooking stages or ingredients. Indeed its one we used many a time on the ARC, sailing our way on the trade winds from Europe to America.

1. Catch your fish (see photo at top). Basically just tow a line behind the boat with a lure and most days we got at least one. Indeed there were complaints from those less enthusiastic about fish. The biggest problem was bringing the beast on board as they are good swimmers and at times the only way was to heave to the boat: not popular with skippers.

2. Kill your fish. There is some debate about this with some suggesting a bang to its head or smash it against a winch. Apart from making a mess there is a much better way - pour vodka into its gills. Sounds weird but I was glad to find out the Copelands did the same in their round the world journey recorded in the "Just Cruising" books.

3. Gut, clean and fillet the fish. Just do it, get it over with, using the ship's bucket and knife.

4. Cut the fillets into slices or cubes and marinade in lime. You could also use lemon but we were all Brits so what better for a bunch of limeys. You can also add some chilli for a bit of kick.

5. Wait. The on-watch crew will begin to ask "is it done yet?" after about 10 to 15 minutes, but tell them to concentrate on their steering and it will be all the better.

6. After a certain amount of time (depending upon taste - maybe 30 - 40 minutes) serve, then sit back and enjoy the feel of the ocean as the swell passes by and look up at the spinnaker gently waft to and fro and think to yourself: "this is the life".

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Nelson's Ship in a Bottle

On one corner of Trafalgar Square here in London is what is known as the Fourth Plinth. For many years it was left empty, as if kept spare for some British hero in the future, though I've heard it suggested that its reserved for our Queen.

In the mean while it is the home of the Fourth Plinth series of specially commissioned art works, the latest is seen in the photo above. It is called "Nelson's Ship in a Bottle" and is by the Anglo-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare.

The ship is indeed a scale model of Nelson's flagship, HMS Victory, on which he simultaneously won his greatest victory at Trafalgar and lost his life. It is presented in a huge glass bottle, just as the sailors of old used to make scale models of their ships and insert them into (one guesses) used bottles of rum.

The sails, however, are made not from canvas but in the colourful fabrics used by Africans in their dress, as can be seen in the photo below. It's a nice touch and a good way to remember that the British Empire was a two way experience with an exchange of culture and goods.

It also reflects the diversity of London today. As the artist puts it "For me its a celebration of London’s immense ethnic wealth, giving expression to and honouring the many cultures and ethnicities that are still breathing precious wind into the sails of the United Kingdom"

Well worth dropping into Trafalgar Square to have a look if you are in London.

I wonder what Nelson, standing high above up on his column, would have made of it?

Monday, June 07, 2010

Review: Full Blooded Tosca at Walcot Hall

Diversion from boating tales to review a stunning performance of Puccini's Tosca at Walcot Hall (above) this weekend.

This elegant and historic hall was the seat of Clive of India, so linked to some of the bloodier bits of British history. And yet it is as picturesque a spot you could ask for, looking over the rolling hills of Shropshire.

It is for hire for weddings and balls - yup, they really mean old fashioned balls - and the odd musical event. It's a bit like, if you can imagine it, a small scale but rather exclusive Glyndbourne.

The Ballroom can only handle 200 people and so you are within feet of the singers. The scale means you can't have a full pit and stage, but it was ideal for the Opera A La Carte company who did an amazing job given they were constrained to 10 singers and a piano.

Tosca is one of my favourite operas as it combines stunning music with an interesting plot. Many operas have plots that, to be honest, are rubbish: silly or convoluted. I mean, Cosi fan tutte? Anything by Wagner apart from the Meistersingers?

But Tosca, the battle between an oppressive secret police and liberal resistance is distilled into the central battle of wills between Scarpia and the heroine. And on Saturday that conflict was sung full blooded by Cheryl Enever and Paul Keohone - the latter in particular was stunningly menacing even though struggling with laryngitis. He drunk repeatedly from a cup of red liquid: my guess is not wine but Ribena laced with aspirin.

In the interval there was time for a picnic in the beautiful grounds or for some a sit down dinner - and to inspect the other opera goers. And anyone with an antenna tuned for the English class system would have soon twigged that this was a bunch of upper aristos. Blue bloods left and right, Viscounts and other hons (as Nancy Mitford would call them) wearing their DJs ("tuxes" to those across the pond) as if they wear them all the time.

But in the end the blood on stage was red as the drama spun its way relentlessly to its bitter end.

Classy on every level.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Thames Trip: The Swan

The river teamed with wild life. I wish I knew water birds better so could list them all, but there were definitely loads of geese, ducks and, as above, swans.

Alas no moles, rats or toads to see, but I like to think they were there in the river banks.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Thames Trip: A Navigational Hazard

Ok, a story for you: one I cleared with the people involved. But thought it was worth it as it highlights the different priorities that can come on-board a boat.

So imagine the scene: the lock doors open and JP carefully steers the Winnebago Caversham Royal inside, choosing with care a space with plenty of bollards to loop lines around.

JP: Ropes on left please

(it wasn't the moment for "lines" or "port side")

Senior crew: Oh look at those lambs!

Junior crew (chorus): Oh wow! There's another one! Ahhh!

Ship's mates: Be careful children, mind the gap!

JP: Hey people, can we have some ropes please?

Junior crew (various): Oh look at the that one - it's black! Where? There! etc

Ship's mates: Wait for a grown up to help you get on land


In retrospect I regret those exclamation marks. As always boating is a learning experience and this was no exception. Better communication would be a good goal for next time, to avoid having to speak in capitals.

But it did leave me with a thought - would that have happened had I worn the captain's hat?

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Thames Trip: The Boat

This is the boat we were on for the weekend (in the background is Shillingford Bridge). It's called the Caversham Royal and at 45 feet long and 12 feet wide its meant to be the biggest boat for hire on the Thames. It was able to fit in me, Senior Crew, Mr and Mrs Ship's mate (my brother and his wife) and their four children under ten with relative ease.

At first it was a bit of a shock, especially having just come from the powerboat course and a RIB that can easily do over 20 knots. This was in contrast slow and resistant to any rapid turn. Initially there was a bit of strong language as the turning circle felt as wide as the Isle of Wight and in reverse there was no steering at all.

As the river narrowed there became the worry of how to turn her round, and the styling was also something out of the 1970s, less Miami Vice and more middle England nice cuppa tea.

But eventually she did grow on me. Maybe I became adjusted to her rhythm, but I found she responded willingly to every manoeuvre I requested of her, and took the battering that came when we tried to moor too close to a tree, and added another dent to the pulpit (visible in the pic above).

Maybe the 70s are in again - certainly it seemed appropriate when the nephews and nieces put on Abba Gold. At one lock someone even called out how they liked my boat! I was for a moment speechless.

Its one of my beliefs that its great experience to try out as many different types of vessels as possible, and I'm happy to add the Caversham Royal to my list of boats.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Thames Trip: Motivation and Route

The genesis of the idea of the boat trip was a visit by my brother and his family to Goring (the lock there can be seen in the photo above).

Here they found a lovely village, with great pubs and restaurants, all next to the beautiful Thames, flowing gently through green meadows. And the idea came - why not see the region as it should: from a boat.

And from that seed discussions were held and bookings were made, until we all met at the Reading boat yard on-board the Caversham Queen. And from here we headed up river, back to Goring.

On the way we also stayed at Pangbourne and travelled up to Shillingford, before returning stopping at the same places. In total over the long weekend we went through 10 locks and travelled about 33 nautical miles or 62 km.

There was of course the alternative to go down river to Henley, Marlow etc, but we couldn't do both and as well as being more pastoral we had arranged to meet another relative at Shillingford, so upriver it was to be.

And as it has been said many times before, there is nothing quite like simply messing about in boats - and in this case it was in a motor boat.

On the way we'd experience the Thames of the Wind in the Willows, passing what was the inspiration for Toad Hall and visiting the last home of its author, Kenneth Grahame.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Piracy and Israel

I'm just back from my "Wind in the Willows" experience up the Thames, and have a stack of posts mentally drafted including Why lambs are navigational hazards.

However what did I read in my bunk on my iPad but a brutal example of piracy (or alternatively an act of war (*)) in the Mediterranean. A humanitarian mission taking supplies to a population suffering from a medieval style siege (clearly an act of collective punishment - and punishment for the results of free and fair elections) is attacked in international waters, leading to the death of several civilians.

I really wonder where the line beyond is which Israel has to go in order not to get unquestioning support from leaders in the west, in particular from the US Senate and Congress though also some over here in Europe to a lesser degree.

Again: this was a humanitarian mission in international waters.

Latest updates here from Al Jazeera which is continuing to show its strength at covering international issues.

(*) Updated: analysis of legal status here.