Monday, March 31, 2014

What's the connection puzzle?

This one's pretty obscure, but then that is what they call a "challenge" and timely given the boat race is next weekend.

What's the connection between offshore sailor and Olympic & Extreme Sailing Series commentator Hannah White (above with Lord Coe) and the Cambridge University Rowing Team (below, with a rowing team from some other university):
A clue for non locals would be that if you don't know the answer then get social with a tip from Pippa (below, with a chap with what looks like curtain trimmings glued to his suit):
And no, its nothing to do with goat racing.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The long and the short of the PLA

You can't spend long on the tidal Thames without encountering the Port of London Authority (PLA). So if you want to know more about this organisation that is also an institution here are two videos.

The longer one is above, the shorter version below.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Why offshore sailing is like space travel

I'm currently reading Chris Hadfield's book An Astronaut's Guide to Life (spoiler alert: its great) and he wrote this:

The rough-and-ready, improvisational quality to life on board is reminiscent of a long trip in a sailboat: privacy and fresh produce are in short supply, hygiene is basic, and a fair amount of the crew's time is spent just on a maintaining and repairing the craft.

There're more similarities in the preparation involved in getting into space and:

The first explorers who crossed the ocean in sailing ships didn't blithely set off without considering the practicalities and logistics. Before they even left land, they tried to figure out which kind of timber would hold up the best and what kinds of food would keep on a long voyage.

Must say I had a similar idea - I thought that the Inspiration flyby of Mars trip with two people on-board sounded just the thing for a long-distance double handed sailing team.

BTW: I like double handed sailing.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Clipper and the mysteriously invisible yachts

I enjoy a good ocean race, particularly one where someone else is doing all the hard work. So I've watched in the past the Whitbread, then the Volvo, Global Challenge, Vendee Globe and many others - and now its the turn of Clipper Round the World Yacht Race.

But I'm finding it a bit difficult to follow via their tracker (above). First up there are these timed legs where you don't know who's won until the end, and now a couple of the yachts are in stealth mode, where you don't know where they actually are.

In either case I have to wonder what's the point of checking out the viewer?

Imagine watching a football (trans. soccer) match where every now and then a player disappears:

Wayne Rooney is on the pitch but we have NO IDEA where as he is INVISIBLE

No, don't see how that would work either.

Ok maybe it makes it more exciting for the teams out there in the Pacific and to be honest they're the ones that have paid tens of thousands of pounds for the experience.

But it doesn't help armchair sailors feel involved. It's almost as if I might as well be working instead....


Monday, March 24, 2014

Rowing on a choppy Thames

I've a work deadline end of this week so little time for blogging except to post this picture.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Sunshine and rain

I was going to post about the 3D printed kayak but Tillerman got there first so instead back to that old blighty favourite, the weather.

It was of course a rather wet January and there was so much water coming downriver from the flooded Thames valley that the barrier had to be raised day after day after day.

In fact it was raised a grand total of 50 times in just a few weeks - which is a problem as for maintenance reasons the maximum number of times the Thames Barrier is meant to be raised per year is 50.

Fortunately spring seems to have arrived more or less with last weekend being spectacularly sunny.

And in the good weather we can come out to play with our toys, printed or not. In the video above someone has a rather impressive toy helicopter equiped with a GoPro camera.


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Why aren't Android chartplotters as good as iPhone ones?

End of last year I moved from an iPhone 4 to a Nexus 5 and mostly the migration has gone fine. But I can't help but notice that the chartplotters on offer aren't quite as good.

On the iPhone I had both the iNavX application and also the Navionics application, and both could do more than just display charts.

In particular iNavX I used on the Arctic Sail could not just calculate VMG and COG but also download and show GRIBs. Navionics requires some add-ins to get the nav features which I haven't purchased, and maybe that's why I preferred the iNavX.

But on the Nexus 5 running Android the options are more limited. There is no iNavX app at all and the Navionics app is restricted, without the navigation options such as VMG.

It seems rather odd - after all Android is currently outselling iOS pretty much everywhere.

Hopefully in the future Android chartplotting apps will improve - but maybe I missed one of them?

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Picture Puzzle

Sunday evening picture puzzle:

1) Who is this?

2) Where is he?

3) What is he looking at?

4) Where was this photo taken?

5) What did Buff have to drink?

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Musketeers, polar explorers and a dodo at Two Temple Place

Sometimes you come across something in London so wonderful you can't quite understand how you never knew it was there (*), and your reaction is a bit like Keats:

  Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
    When a new planet swims into his ken;
  Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
    He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
  Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
    Silent, upon a peak in Darien

For Two Temple Place is just lovely - but then to fill it with a giant model DNA guarded by the building's wooden musketeers, a dodo, a polar explorers diary and much more ... well, what a treat.

Two Temple Place was built by Lord Astor in 1895 and is crammed with goodies, from a boat shaped wind vane (below) to doors encouraging women into arts and crafts (below that):

It is currently home to an exhibition from Cambridge University, focussing on Discoveries in Arts, Sciences and Exploration

And there's been quite a few scientists they can refer to, such as this egg collected by Charles Darwin on his voyage around the world on the Beagle:
If you're wondering who broke it, well that would be Darwin himself, trying to squeeze it into a slightly too small box (oops).

There was also a complete dodo skeleton (top) and in the background an amazing bronze roaring lion mask from south Arabia that is apparently so unusual it is hard to date, as it has no comparisons. Even the exhibitions own web site's page on the item seems unsure, dating it as either 350 - 750 BC or 600 - 800 BC.

In the central stairwell there is a wonderful DNA, a replica of the one created by its discoverers, James Watson and Francis Crick, guarded by a musketeer:
Upstairs there are more exhibits including this diary from one of the many high latitude expeditions organised by Cambridge's Polar Institute:
All in all a gem: enough but not too much, and in a truly spectacular building.

Free to entry its open until the 27th of April and you can get a feel for it via this BBC audio slideshow.

(*) It turns out it has been opened to the public since October 2011 and then only during an exhibition.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

How to remember 3 London bridges

Yesterday I had a difficult meeting in central London that overran, but as a reward I had the pleasure of being able to take the river bus back to Putney.

On the way we passed under three bridges whose names confused me for a long time until I found a good mnemonic.

The three bridges, alphabetically, are Albert, Battersea and Chelsea, and on their strip of the river there is Battersea on the south side and Chelsea on the north, so they could be in any order (there are things named after Albert dotted all over London so it doesn't mean anything).

You might think that proximity to the iconic and highly visible Battersea Power Station (below) would be a clue as to the name of the nearest bridge, but no.
However it's easy to remember.

Just imagine yourself in a taxi, a classic London black cab, heading home to Putney after a good evening out in the West End, maybe seeing a film, concert or something, and you're driving along the Embankment, you'd see the bridges in this order:

- C helsea
- A lbert
- B attersea

Geddit? Just think taxi CAB and you can easily remember the order of those three bridges.
For how to remember some NY bridges, using BMW, head over to Bonnie's blog.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Greenland Video: Home Ground

Home Ground from James Aiken on Vimeo.

Home Ground' is a short anthropological film exploring how two very different, but geographically close, cultures relate to one another within a striking and vast natural landscape.

Featuring Siggi owner and skipper of Aurora, which I sailed on last year, and Dines the Greenlander who helped us out (in particular by bringing out to us a vital engine part).

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Sailing to Greenland with three Disney Princesses

I'm a great believer in the ethos of travelling light: the problem with packing is so many things seem essential.

But on the trip to Greenland I tried really, really hard, for example ditching the DSLR for a lighter mirrorless camera, and then going through Siggi's what to bring list with a tooth-comb.

Sleeping bag - tick. Layers - tick. Camera - tick. But there was no requirement to bring a towel. It did puzzle me, as in most sailing trips I've had to bring my own, but not all. Following the essentials only ethos I therefore left all mine at home and made my way to the remote Icelandic small town of Isafjordur.

Relaxing on the boat with all the chores done and under an hour to go before our planned departure I mentioned I hadn't yet received my towel.

"But you're supposed to bring your own" was the ship's mate's response.

Eek! It was past 6 pm on a Saturday evening and I had under an hour to magic up a towel.

Isafjordur is really not that big and all the main shops had closed apart from a general store. It sold many many things but alas towels were not one of them. The closest were tea towels and on the principle that, given this was the only shop open and they were better than nothing, I bought half a dozen.

On the way back to the boat I spotted there was a hotel here and had a brain wave: hotels have towels, lots of them, and commercial if-it-makes-money-lets-do-it attitude.

So I popped in and threw myself on the mercy of the receptionist, explaining I was about to sail to Greenland and had no towel and could she help. She wasn't sure, but said she'd go and talk to housekeeping.

She was gone a long time, and I was beginning to give up, seeing the time on my watch approach the 7 pm departure time.

But she came back with a towel, a white one, and said that one of their guests had left it behind so I could have that for free.

Thanking her profusely I ran back to the boat, arriving just in time.

It was only back on the boat I checked my towel and discovered that while mostly white there were embossed at one end three very pink Disney princesses, not the sort of the thing any man wants to take on a wilderness expedition.

Maybe that's why, when I took a photo of my bunk (top) with the towel drying on one side (left) these three ladies were discreetly hidden from view.

At the end of the voyage I decided not to take the towel home but left it - together with the tea towels - as "gifts" for the boat.

It is, after all, important to travel light.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Tristan Jones and the Greenland Yarn

The idea for the Greenland Yarn came from reading Tristan Jones. His are good stories - yarns in an old fashioned way - but I found them too good, to the point that one doubts their truth.

A little research and I discovered I wasn't alone - indeed he has a reputation for being "flexible" with the facts in his writing.

However reading the stories it's clear it isn't all fiction, there is some truth there, but where to draw the line and why did he write like that?

I think that partly it was his character, and so, in my review of his book "Ice", I imagined him in a pub, telling tall tales in return for drinks.

But also one thing that offshore sailing does give you is time for the mind to wander, and you are also spending a lot of your time wondering "what if?".

What if the wind backs? What if we get iced in? What if a polar bear attacks?

And in each case, how would I respond?

I think his stories came from those long spaces between events when he lived with his dog Nelson and his imagination.

So I thought I'd try the same, starting with four true stories from my sail last summer, when I saw an iceberg in the Denmark straight, when we went for soak in a natural hot spring, when we were caught in the mist ashore and when we had engine failure when moored deep in a fjord.

What if there'd be something on that iceberg? What if those hunters had joined us in the hot spring? What if I'd been alone in the mist without a compass? What if the outboard engine had failed during the tow?

The last one for obvious reasons was on my mind a lot during the towing, and I'm really glad that that one was fictional.

It was then split into 9 chunks with the last line of each a suitable hook for the next post.

Which reminds me, there was something I said I'd post about sailing to Greenland with three Disney princesses...

Friday, March 07, 2014

The Greenland Yarn Literary Quiz

Well I hope you enjoyed the Greenland Yarn, even if you were probably scratching your heads and wondering what the heck that was all about.

But rather than just explaining here's a quiz that might point you in the right direction:

1. There was a definite format to the story: what was it?

2. The format was a homage to one of sailing's great story tellers: who?

3. Tillerman wondered if it was all a shaggy dog story: there wasn't even a single dog involved, but if there had been how many legs would he have had?

If you're very lucky I might even tell the (true) story of how JP ended up going to Greenland with three Disney princesses.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

A Greenland Yarn: A Night Encounter

Darkness fell but I could still make out a safe route, just, for the white bergs stood out clearly against the deep blue of the sea, reflecting what light was coming from the sky. We had a lovely display of noctilucent clouds to the north and Vega high above, the best nav light in the heavens.

By now I was faint with fatigue, mechanically paddling, brain shutting down with tiredness, cramp in my legs and muscle ache in my arms. Then I was aware of a faint green shape waving in the sky like a ghostly figure. It was the northern lights - and I was seeing them to my south, for our latitude was that high.

I stopped paddling, worn out and transfixed, and became aware of a presence in the water next to me. A great spike pierced the waves, followed by a head with an eye in it. It was a narwhale, watching me watch the north lights.  I slowly turned my head and we made eye contact, human and whale, aware of each other and the moment.

Then there was a cry from the boat. "We're sailing, you've done it!"

Instantly the narwhale dived, and as if in sympathy the northern lights flickered one last time and went out. I could have cried with frustration.

But someone was pulling the tow rope in, and unknown hands hauled me back on-board. I was exhausted beyond caring.

Without a word I crashed in my bunk into a dreamless sleep as Aurora sailed south through icy waters to our final anchorage, the little Greenland town of Tasiilaq.

--- The End ---

Tomorrow: The Greenland Yarn Literary Quiz!

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

A Greenland Yarn: The Tow

In a flash I saw what had to be done and, using the tow rope, pulled the ship’s mate and me back to Aurora.

"Quick - launch that kayak" I cried and in moment I'd made a bowline with the end of the rope, wrapped it around myself and jumped into the sea kayak. There was no time even to put on the skirt for Aurora was rapidly approaching the tennis court sized 'berg.

At first my paddling made a lot of spray without much result, but I soon learnt to take short but frequent regular strokes to maximise our motion. It was touch and go - more touch than go to be honest and we scratched Aurora's side along that big berg, all of us wincing with every inch of contact.

There was time before the next one to begin to creep slowly forward in the right direction. Soon the cold forced the rest of the crew below, leaving only the helmsman on deck but out of my sight. I was effectively alone, paddling constantly, as if pinned to the water, like a running track in the gym where you run and run without moving a millimetre.

At least the exercise kept me warm, which was helpful as the water collecting inside the kayak was literally freezing cold. The air temperature was dropping too as the sun set for its short Arctic night. What I could see of the sunset was spectacular, fingers of light illuminating the sky above, painting Overhang Mountain an ominous red.

As we approached the sea the swell increased, causing ever greater strains on the tow line as I'd surge down each wave on my kayak only to be yanked back by the weight of the yacht.  But I paddled and paddled, focussing simply on the task at hand, to get the boat to safety, to do my part until the end.

To be continued...

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

A Greenland Yarn: Engine Failure

We enjoyed the rest of our stay in Kangerdlugssuaq Fjord, exploring the abandoned village, kayaking, baking and practising our rifle shooting, and were not too sorry when a storm in the Denmark Straits kept us locked inside for another day. But we were running out of time for the final leg to Tasiilaq and so the following day we prepared Aurora for departure.

I was checking the water outlet when Siggi turned the switch that was meant to turn over the engine. There was a whir but no motion, and the outlet remained dry.

"What's up?" we asked, but Siggi was silent, opening up the engine housing and reaching for his tool chest. He was busy all day, trying all possible solutions, but to no avail. The starter motor was broken. We were locked in an ice filled fjord, 200 miles from any other human and no answer to our calls on VHF.

I had time to think through our options, and there seemed to be just the one: to tow the yacht out to sea like the sailors of old, though they had used oars and we'd use an outboard motor. To be sure of success we'd need an outgoing tide and negligible wind inside the fjord, and by golly that's just what we had.

"Let's do it Siggi" I said, and jumped into the Zodiac with the ship’s mate.

We picked up the tow rope and after Siggi had hoisted the anchor began to make way slowly towards the exit of Suhaili Bugt and the main fjord. We had to go behind an iceberg twice the size of the yacht and then close between two rocky islands, trusting the water was as deep as promised by Robin Knox-Johnston's survey.  We reached the main fjord and so far it was working, but we couldn't relax for we had many miles yet before the open sea.

We were passing an iceberg about the size of a tennis court when the outboard made a cough and died - the fuel tank was empty, and Aurora was now drifting out of control, in an ice packed channel far too deep to anchor!

To be continued...

Monday, March 03, 2014

A Greenland Yarn: Lost in the Fog

The temperature dropped like a stone and soon I was shivering: I had to get moving, and at first I just ran, hoping to catch the others, but it was useless. All I did was disorientate myself, so that when I finally just stood and looked around I had no idea which way was which or recognise any feature.

I was completely lost, in the fog, in Greenland, in icy conditions, with no compass and totally inadequate clothing. I knew I needed to go south, but without luck or guidance I'd most likely head the wrong way, in a land where there was no human settlements for 200 miles in any direction.

Think! I told myself, sitting down on a rock. Think!

There must be clues nearby. Never again would I leave the ship without a compass but that would be for later. I knew enough of natural navigation to be able to orientate myself from the sun or stars but there could be no sign of either in the white out conditions I found myself in. There was nothing in sight apart from scattered rocks in every direction.

Except there was something else - the odd creeper, shrivelled ground hugging bushes. Not much, hardy types, that couldn't survive without direct sunlight, so it had to grow on south facing slopes. I stood up, transfixed. I could do this!

Scouting around the valley a pattern began to emerge: signs of green on just the one side while the other was bare. I knew now where south lay, and quickly headed off.

At times it wasn't possible to keep a steady southerly course but had to zig-zag around the terrain. In one valley I wasted valuable minutes debating whether to go left or right when straight ahead was barred by a steep cliff. I chose right and was delighted when half an hour later I spotted the waterfall with a rock wedged above it we had passed on the way out. I was back on the right track.

An hour or so later I scrambled down a rocky slope almost tripping over one of Aurora's shore lines. The dinghy was waiting, with the last of the main group about to go back on-board.

"There you are" said the ship’s mate. "You're just in time for tea".

To be continued...

Sunday, March 02, 2014

A Greenland Yarn: The Hike

We and Aurora made our way south, twice anchoring for the night, each time heading ashore for a leg-stretching hike. In D'Aunay Bugt we spent all day climbing over an endless shambles of rocks to reach the foot of a glacier. The uphill climb under clear blue skies was surprisingly warm: we all started off wearing too many layers and enjoyed drinking from streams fed by fresh snow melt.

The third leg took us into Kangerdlugssuaq Fjord. Here we navigated through a maze of bergs up a narrow channel between rocks into a sheltered anchorage, Sulaili Bugt, named after Robin Knox-Johnston's yacht.

Robin and Chris had started their approach by heading up one of the glaciers on the far side of Watkins Fjord, just north of Sulaili Bugt, and we decided to hike over to see it. After the sweltering scrambling at D'Aunay Bugt I'd learnt my lesson and dressed down to t-shirt and shorts, which helped make light work of the hours clambering up and down countless ravines.

The view did indeed make the walk worthwhile and I was loath to leave. "I'm going to head over to that lookout" I said to the ship’s mate, indicating a tempting outcrop. "I'll catch you up".

It was pretty stunning: the channel was chocked in ice, fed by no less than three glaciers. But the scene suddenly vanished as the whole landscape was engulfed by a wave of thick encroaching sea fog.

Visibility dropped from tens of kilometres to tens of meters in just a few seconds, and I realised I had no way of knowing where I was or how to get back to the boat!

To be continued...

Saturday, March 01, 2014

A Greenland Yarn: Palo and the Kunik

Our new friend had dark hair tied into a ball on top of her head. Her smile was wide and friendly and cheeks full and curvy as the rest of her figure. She pointed to her chest and indicated her name was Palo and then pointed around at the party, enquiringly.

By this time some of us were bright red - and not because of the water temperature – and were looking for an excuse to return to the boat. However I decided it was time to do my bit for Anglo-Inuit relationships and told Palo I was called John.

It was then that I learnt about the custom called kunik, which is not like the Eskimo kissing you see in movies but rather more of a pressing the nose against the forehead and breathing in.

Palo started prattling along like there was no tomorrow and to be honest I'd be happy spending some time trying to work out what she was saying.
Unfortunately at this point the others told me that we had to return to the ship for dinner as Siggi had made his famous narwhale steaks stewed in ginger and he wouldn't appreciate late comers.

It was with sense of loss that I made my way back to Aurora. Looking behind me I could see Palo alone lying down in the water surrounded by clouds of steam, apparently lost in thought, watching the icebergs glide by in the fjord below, her bare back white and gleaming.

I still dream of her, sometimes.

To be continued...