Thursday, December 06, 2018

The Vikings: Navigation


Recently Tillerman posted a comment asking how the Vikings navigated? It was a topic I had meant to address a couple of years ago when there was a British Museum exhibition about Vikings.

However the exhibition had been a major disappointment, and one of the reasons for that was it ignored topics like this one.

So how did the Vikings navigate?

One key tactic was to follow a line of latitude, which means head due east or west - and hence know where south and north are.

On a clear night the Vikings would have been able to see Polaris, but in the summer months that far north there was often no darkness, as we found when we sailed to the Arctic Circle.

During the day they could use the length of the sun's shadow if they had created a sun-dial for that latitude and month, but that didn't help on cloudy days.

So they must have had to rely on natural navigation methods, such as using glimpses of sun to measure the wave direction and use that to keep a constant course.

Other techniques were summed up in the phrase on how to reach Greenland from Norway:

From the west country sail west but keep far enough north of Shetland so that the islands are barely visible in clear weather. Stay far enough south of the Faroe Islands so that the steep, high mountains are just halfway up over the horizon. And stay far enough south of Iceland that you can't see land, but you can just about see coast-bound seabirds.

As we were to find out, that is an incredibly useful navigational instruction.

We too saw the Faroe islands from afar (see photo above) and that could indeed be used as a gauge of latitude.

What's more we spent time observing the birds, counting the numbers at the end of each hour of our watches, and we could determine the distance from the coast simply by the number and types of birds we saw.

It would be have been nice to read something about that in the British Museum exhibition, maybe see the writing quoted above or an example sundial but alas no, nothing....

Sunday, December 02, 2018

North to Svalbard: Tromso


Flights to Svalbard from Oslo go via Tromso and again rather than simply changing planes there, on the way up I spent two nights in this town in the far north of Norway.

One of the best things to do there is head over the bridge and get the cable car up mount Storsteinen which has great views (above and below).


In the town itself there were a number of museums and I went first to the Polar Museum. After the amazing Fram museum in Oslo I was expecting something similar, smaller, maybe more local, but actually it had a very different vibe. Take this photo:


This was more about hunting than exploring, with the big names the ones that had killed the most animals. There were relics all around the walls:


While not to everyone's taste it must admit if felt an authentic flavour of the old north.

But generally I really liked Tromso and had a happy time wandering the harbour watching the boats and their reflections in the still waters:


I get the feeling that this place is probably better for photography during the long winter nights when the aurora flickers overhead, so maybe worth a return trip sometime.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Oslo: The Kon-Tiki Museum


After lunch at the National Maritime Museum (and a quick look round) it was time for the last of the big three museums on the Bygdøy peninsular, Oslo.

The Kon-Tiki Museum, as you might have guessed, covers the expeditions by Thor Heyerdahl, in particular:

Kon-Tiki (above): from Peru across the Pacific to Raroia, Tuamotus in 1947

Ra II (below): from Morocco across the Atlantic to the Barbados in 1970.


It was interesting to see both of these boats up close - bigger than expected, rafts with sails that could go down wind/current.

Heyerdahl's  idea was that seafarers in ancient times could have crossed these vast distances with the technology of the day.

Before visiting I had the view that though the evidence was that they could have made these voyages, there was little evidence e.g. in the DNA, that they actually had. However it appears that more recent analysis suggested that while the majority of the Easter Islanders did indeed come from the rest of Poynesia, a small minority of 8% was Native American.

While measurement from a small sample, the fact that it was non-zero does suggest some form of contact, which makes these voyages more significant.

At this point was suffering a bit of boat-history-museum-history-heat overload, so decided to call it a day and go for a swim.

The water was very refreshing!


Monday, November 26, 2018

Oslo: The Fram Museum


It was a totally inappropriate day to visit this brilliant museum.

This museum celebrates polar exploration and contains two legendary ships, the Fram (above) and the Gjoa (below):


As well as these two ships, this museum is a treasure trove of all things related to high latitude exploration, of both the Arctic and Antarctic.

To get the full experience it should really be chilled like a freezer, requiring multiple layers of wool to enter. Alas on the baking day I was there it felt more equatorial than polar, the two triangular buildings housing the two ships trapping heat within:


But it was totally worth it as it was probably the best museum of high latitude exploration anywhere in the world, filled with objects and stories of interest.

The two main boats, for those that want a refresher, were indeed historic:

Fram: this was built for Fridtjof Nansen with sufficient strength to allow it to be frozen into the polar ice cap where it then was allowed to drift over the Arctic in 1893. Later it was taken by Amundsen to the south pole, allowing it to claim to have sailed further north and south than any other wooden ship.

Gjoa: this was the first vessel to transmit the Northwest Passage in the Roald Amundsen expedition of 1903- 1904.

There was an impressive surround sound + video installation around the Fram (below and top) that gave the impression it (and hence the visitor too) was exploring stormy seas dotted with icebergs.... somewhat spoiled by the temperature of course:


There was also a useful 12 minute film that gave an introduction to polar exploration.

As someone heading up north to Svalbard the museum was packed with useful information, such as the Norge airship expedition, the mooring pole of which we'd later see at Ny Alesund. Many stories had a similar theme which was: the Brits had a go, made a complete mess of things, then the Norwegians did it right (e.g. NW passage, race to south pole etc).

For me it was the top museum in Oslo and I really can't recommend it highly enough for anyone with an interest in high latitude exploration.

Even so, there came a point where my legs became tired and a break from yet-another-expedition's-story fatigue hit the point where lunch seemed a good idea, so I left and headed for the Norwegian National Maritime Museum which has a good canteen (but to be honest, not a lot else).

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Oslo: The Viking Ship Museum


The first museum went to in Oslo was the Viking Ship Museum. I chose to go here first as was afraid it would be over-run with tourists (or to be honest, other tourists) and indeed it was, with a car park full of big coaches from a visiting cruise-ship.

However it was pretty spectacular, with three Viking ships: Oseberg (above & below, built around 820 AD), Gokstad (built about 900 AD) and Tune (not so well preserved).


The Oseberg and Gokstad were buried as graves and a lot of objects found from those and other graves were on display, including these animal head posts from the Oseberg find:


It was all fascinating and there was also a interactive film of the Vikings life which was fun though it was weird to hear about the raids on Britain from the Norwegian side. We, after all, were remembering those that killed the innocent, burning homes and monasteries, looting and raping their way across the North Sea.

History as seen by the other side - how very topical!

There was also a film about Viking navigation, but it was one of two films and the audio alternated between English and Norwegian which meant would have to wait half an hour to hear it in full so left for the next maritime related museum...

Monday, November 19, 2018

North to Svalbard: Oslo


It's a cold, wet, windy November evening: time to go through the photo album and post some memories of the travels this summer.

To get to Svalbard had to take not one but three flights, the first one was to Oslo and rather than connecting directly on to Tromso decided to spend two nights there. I really liked this city but, as with so many places this summer, it was suffering from heatwave conditions so often wilted a bit and had to recover with something this:


At the heart is the harbour and fort as can be seen in the top photo and the fort was a good place to explore, get good views over the harbour and dehydrate:



It was also a good place to watch the sunset, but this is 2018 so rather than showing a sunset photo (how 2017!), here is a "taking a sunset time-lapse" photo:


Very IG.

Around the harbour you could see lots of boats (like, duh!) but also various sculptures:




All very cool.

You could get this ferry out to see three of the museums, and these were tops, so each requires a separate post:




Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Wey Navigation: West Byfleet Loop


After a book about canal boats, back to the summer's canal walks and a non-canal canal-walk.

Key facts:

  • Start: West Byfleet train station
  • End: West Byfleet train station
  • Distance: 10.9 km

This walk was amazingly picturesque and only short train journey from Clapham Junction to West Byfleet, the start and end point. While it could have been walked in this case I took the bike to make the getting to/from the Navigation easier.

The Wey Navigation goes all the way back to 1653 when the river was made navigable all the way from the Thames to Guildford. While going through Surrey, a county not know for wilderness, it feels remote and unspoilt and is an absolute gem.

Those that follow the TV series "Great Canal Journeys" in which husband and wife Timothy West and Prunella Scales explore the canal and rivers of Britain and Europe will recognise this parts of this from the Series 3 episode "London's Lost Route to the Sea".

That programme impressed me in its almost iconic representation of rural England, yet started on the Thames within the loop of the M25 - indeed I'd visited that end as part of the Ferries of London project.

And, golly, wasn't it just so pretty:



The segment I was exploring included the ruins of Newark Priory:


Yup, decided it was a good place to practice flying the drone:


What a place to have a boat to potter in, where Ratty and Mole could just messing about all day on the water:


These boaters, like so many I encountered, were heading off for a picnic: there was some sort of wedding going on in Windsor that day....

Friday, November 09, 2018

Book Review: Narrow Dog To Carcassonne by Terry Darlington


Like Estuary (reviewed earlier) I sort of enjoyed this book, but there were significant qualifications.

This book tells how the author, his wife Monica and dog Jim took their narrow boat Phyllis May down the English canal system from Stone to the Thames, across the Channel, through the French, Belgium and then French again canal systems all the way to Carcassonne.

It's described (as can be seen from the cover above) with words like "classic" and "comic" on the lines (I guess) of Three Men in a Boat or Bill Bryson's travel books, and some reviews are 5 star raves.

But I had a few issues. The word "comic" was one as I didn't really find it that funny. Recently I've been re-watching some old episodes of Cheers and each one has a proper laugh-out-loud moment:



Now Cheers is funny, this book less so. All too often it reverts to Daily Mail stereotypes of aren't the French odd, do lets remember the war, bash the EU and complain about not getting beer in pint glasses.

Then there's the writing style: this should be an easy read, yet too often it isn't, with prose like poetry (or poetry like prose), fantasies and at one point switching to the current tense.

Take one story about low flying fighter planes: the first description had them just 6 inches above the Rhone. This sounds like bar-room tall story, exaggeration, but then a second time round it changes to them and their boat being attacked by fighter-bombers - are the tall stories getting taller? - before a fuller description comes out, namely that they were fire-fighting planes picking up water.

Ok, so the author has to create tension but this just makes following what is going on harder.

My recommendation is if you're interested, maybe a canal boat owner, then try out the first couple of paragraphs or maybe even chapters and see how much you enjoy the viewpoint and writing style.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Book Review: Arthur Ransome under sail by Roger Wardale


Arthur Ransome's love of sailing can be read in every line of his Swallows and Amazon's series of books that went on to inspire many sailors.

In real life he spent a lot of his time afloat in a variety of boats, as described in this book. And there were quite a few of them, including Swallow, Racundra, Nancy Blackett, Lottie Blossom, Peter Duck and Selina King.

The voyages on Racundra he wrote up in two books, the first and third cruises of that yacht, which alas I discovered were all too boring.

This book has the advantages that a) it summarises those cruising recollections (i.e. its author, Roger Wardale, read those books so we don't have to) and b) it points out similarities between events in Arthur Ransome's life that might have been re-used in his stories.

For example:
  • The safety in sailing offshore in Racundra was similar to John's predicament in We Didn't Mean to Go To Sea
  • Ransome and Evgenia were helped to sail by Captain Sehmel, who was to become Peter Duck (both had sailed on the Thermopylae)
  • Going ashore on deserted islands in the Baltics was a bit like Titty and Bill going ashore in Peter Duck
  • The great frost of 1895, when Ransome was in the Lake District as a child, was re-imagined in Winter Holiday
  • Ransome also met the Norwegian polar explorer Nansen while in Riga
  • The yacht Goblin from We Didn't Mean to Go To Sea was a faithful copy of Ransome's Nancy Blackett
  • Research for that book included a trip by Ransome over to Holland
  • Sailing friends of Ransome on the East Coast had a yacht called Lapwing...which was included in Secret Water
  • Ransome also explored The Naze aka the secret water when living at Pin Mill (which was the Swallows base for two stories)
  • He also went sailing with friends on the Norfolk Broads, which were used in the stories of the Coots
And that's to say nothing of the countless connections with Ransome's life to the Lake District sailing stories.

I also learnt how Ransome was instrumental in forming the Cruising Association, where I've been for a couple of really interesting talks with good food.

The first half of the book was the best for me, the second had two flaws:
  1. It didn't make so much sense to me to describe retrospective literary connections i.e. when Ransome's sailing reflected his books (rather than his books coming from his experiences)
  2. Ransome kept on commissioning yachts and after a while it becomes yet another boat project
All in all, though, a very good read for anyone with an interest in finding out more about Arthur Ransome, the man behind some of our favourite children's books.

Note that Roger Wardale is a bit of a Ransome expert and there are two other books that might be of interest:
  • In Search of Swallows and Amazons: Arthur Ransome's Lakeland (focusing on the Lake District, as described here)
  • Arthur Ransom on the Broads (as reviewed here)

Updated: Racundra (as per here) or Recundra (as per front page)?

Saturday, November 03, 2018

Book Review: The History of the Port of London by Peter Stone


This book describes itself as "The History of the Port of London" and it does just what it says on the tin. I was a bit worried it might be dry but was pleasantly surprised as it's both informative and well written. As someone with living in London and by the Thames it was a subject I was really interested in and I learnt a lot.

From the very early days of the Romans the port of London grew slowly at first and then faster in medieval times, exporting first wool then cloth to the low countries. Very early on, London became a place where boats would arrive with sailors from countries far away, a mix of cultures and ideas that continues to this day.

It was then to explode with the Empire, docks dedicated to destinations such as far off India (for the East India Company) and more and more docks built, mile after mile, along with warehouses for storage.

The port of London became a city within a city, where thousands worked behind tall walls that protect the valuable wares within, sometimes in import duty limbo. But in the 20th Century competition drove some docks to bankruptcy and they merged together to form the Port of London Authority (PLA) in December 1908.

The PLA "inherited almost 3,000 acres of estate" with 32 miles of quays as well as 17 London County Council passenger piers and the Thames from Teddington to the estuary.

It reached its peak in the 1930s where around 100,000 men either worked there or were dependent upon its operations which accounted for 38% of the UK's trade. In a typical year there'd be:

  • 50,000 ocean going ships arriving
  • 15,000 round trips in coasters
  • 250 tugs working
  • 10,000 lighters
  • 1,000 sailing barges.

The port survived the blitz, just, but was to be swept away by the container revolution. A theme through-out the final century was continual battles between dock owners and works, between starvation wages (literally) and insolvency.

Now the docks have gone - or at least from London, though not the Thames, for there are still the docks down Tilbury way. It's hard to imagine how it would have been in its peak, though this photo (from here) gives an idea:


You'd need a good imagination to visualise this now as these docks were Canary Wharf, so this area is now all banks and beyond there is the O2 Arena.

An invaluable resource for anyone with an interest in the subject.


Wednesday, October 31, 2018

This blog is a TEENAGER


This blog has now entered its teenage years, being 13 years old.

In a TV comedy series by the BBC, teenagers were portrayed as slouching around yelling "that's so unfair" and "you don't understand" before rushing off to slam their bedroom doors. That seems rather harsh, as the teenagers I know are remarkably well informed and adjusted, a lot more than this little blog.

Looking back, the top ten posts by number of hits were:
  1. Empty sky, blue sky
  2. The northern lights over Greenland
  3. Fireworks night
  4. The northern lights from deck
  5. Three icebergs
  6. Writing like...
  7. Two years of Land Rover BAR
  8. Preparing for the Queen's Jubilee Regatta
  9. How to Watch a Tower Bridge Lift
  10. Fantastic Rio
Not sure if reading too much into this, but several of these are what I'd call photo posts, i.e. something that could work as well - if not better - on a platform like Instagram. Then again, Instagram wouldn't work for the longer text like posts such as book and exhibition reviews, such as the recent ones about Captain Cook.

But I am quite pleased with these photos, all from the third Greenland trip:



I have a note somewhere that I should write a post about "why I blog" but I can't for the life of me remember what that was to be about.

That is SO unfair.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

British Library Exhibition: The Voyages of Captain Cook


Earlier this year the British Library had an exhibition about the voyages of Captain James Cook but I've only just got round to blogging about it.

It's a big year for remembering Cook as its 250 years since the first of his three voyages set sail from Britain, heading to the Pacific. As well as the British Library exhibition there is also Oceania at the Royal Academy (as posted earlier) and the National Maritime Museum has just opened a gallery dedicated to Pacific Encounters (which have yet to visit).

It's become a rather hot political potato in some quarters, and these alternative voices were given hearing in the British Library's exhibition which examined some of the issues involved in his voyages.

Sometimes it felt like there was a need of further balance. For example, someone from Taiti said that Tupaia (who joined Resolution there and was to act as translator) was not named and yet clearly he was as the BL had Bank's Journal on display with Tupaia's name clearly written.

That might just have been lack of precision, but a chief of the one of tribes of the American North West said he wished Cook had just sailed by. But would they really have wished no contact (even now?) and do they really blame Cook for everything?

A key question is whether Cook is to blame for what occurred after his death, in particular the negative aspects of colonialism. But is that legally or morally valid?

There were alternative visions. Adam Smith, no less, writing at the same time as Cook's voyages, proposed that trade not conquest would be a better route. This would have been consistent with Cook's voyages as Cook himself traded with the locals he encountered. I was delighted to spot some of the paddles he acquired in New Zealand at the Oceania exhibition, which noted that trade not pillage was the source of most of the exhibits.

First contact was naturally a difficult time when two cultures met and signals could easily misread. But often the blame for this lack of reading is placed solely on Cook when a more nuanced view would note that (for example) grabbing an object of value from the guests, in particular if it is a weapon, might not be a sensible way to open communications. This occurred when Cook first landed on New Zealand and the culprit was shot. Maybe this was an over-reaction, but such meetings could be fatal in the other direction too (see Cook, death in Hawaii) so is it right to put all the blame only on Cook?

Having said that, it was clear that the Cook of the third voyage was different from the Cook of the first voyage (for whatever reason) and that played its part too. Maybe its something about the third circumnavigation, as William Dampier was also a shadow of his normal self third time round.

Anyhow, slight diversion from what - as you can tell from the thoughts it triggered above - was a really fascinating exhibition full of original documents and pictures.

David Attenborough chipped in with his concise summary: that Cook was the greatest sea going explorer of all time, and that seemed a good way of identifying strengths without heading into deep waters (politically that is).

In a way, Cook was the victim of cultural appropriation, for without his permission or authority his name and story were taken over by those that wanted to promote the British Empire. It is this image of him, rather than that of an explorer, that is the issue.

This exhibition was bold, challenging and fascinating, re-apprising one of the world's all time great sailors, flaws and all.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Royal Academy Exhibition: Oceania


Lets just say it: the Oceania exhibition at the Royal Academy is amazing!

It was full of the art and culture of Polynesia from Australia to Hawaii where travel is by water, over horizons to islands far away. It started with their boats and tools, such a navigation (another stick map) and lots of paddles (including those brought back by Captain Cook himself!):



The art work on some of the paddles was extraordinary:


Then there were the figures, gods and ancestors:



Then there were domestic, carved wooden beams and carpets, and weapons, spears and shields:


Finally there's an amazing audio-visual installation. Now often these are bit gimmicky but this was a delight.

It was a long wall on which a scene slowly panned to the left (Updated: see an extract here). The scene had the look of a water colour, the type that artists on Captain Cook's voyages might have painted of scenes of the islands and the islanders they encountered.

But within the painting were actors playing out characters from the indigenous population and also the visitors in the tall ships from Britain. Scenes were played out, from pre-contact days, to contact up until a dramatic recreation of the death of Captain Cook in Hawaii.

Beautiful and moving, this gives a feel for what one scene showed, the mix of indigenous and European, arts and sciences:


If you get a chance, definitely add it to your to-do list for your next trip to London.

Its on until the 10th of December

Monday, October 22, 2018

Lates at the Royal Academy: Cosmic Ocean


Recently I've discovered the joys of Museum Lates. These are events which, as the name suggestions, museums and galleries across London have special late openings. But not all Lates are the same, and the Londonist web site has identified two categories:
  • Museums and art galleries that open late
  • Museums and art galleries that have events hosted in their spaces in the evening
I'd been to the National Gallery late before, and that had been an example of the first category, but the Royal Academy [of arts] was firmly in the second category, described by the Londonist to be grand affairs with "DJs, cocktails, bizarre performances and so much more" that sell out quickly.

I wanted to go to the Oceania exhibition anyhow so when the email for the "RA Lates: Cosmic Ocean" came round thought why not? and it turned out to be a lot of fun. Indeed, at one point I thought I might give the actual exhibition a miss and just do the event.

First up were some talks, including "A guide to ocean sailing" by Oliver Beardon of Sail Britain. He touched on navigation techniques including those used by the Polynesians such as this stick chart:


One of the focuses of Sail Britain is to highlight the danger of plastics to our ocean, and there were some slides on this include the famous ocean gyres:


I had a brief chat with him afterwards and mentioned my experience from Svalbard of finding plastic on every beach and suggested he read Tristan's book on water.

The Polynesian navigation theme continued with a pop-up (or rather blow up, given it was inflatable) planetarium that showed the southern skies and how they were used to navigate. For example, this shows how to find south:



Around the horizon you can see the 32 directions that the Polynesians used - which is just like the 32 points of the compass used in the west. As they say, great minds thing alike.

The event was described as Cosmic Ocean so as well as a inflatable planetarium there was a similar hemisphere for a video of life in the ocean:


This video was more artistic, though less informative. It had a weird 180 degree field of view and there was no sense of scale. Many of the creatures looked like they were from the deep, dark depths where here be monsters:

Some of the best bits were abstracts, like the bioluminescence creatures flickering across the globe:


It certainly made the sky => stars and sea => bioluminescence connection very vividly.

There was lots else to see, with bars selling cocktails all over the place, rooms full of plot plants like a tropical jungle, courtyard with food stands and music complete with Hawaii dancers, London Hula!!


The audience looked similar to the dancers as there'd been a strong dress-to-impress message: "cosmic constellations, stars and moons, or alternatively opt for a deep sea creature". So some came as mermaids, many had glitter on their face or fair lights in their hair. I was a bit more modest but had dug out an old space themed t-shirt.

Along with the luau in the RA Cafe there was also a talk elsewhere about its "secret" history and why it is both authentic but also not-authentic (I think; must admit only got the tail end of this talk as was waiting for the Sail Britain one).

I missed some bits, like there was what sounded like a fascinating video on Polynesian voyaging traditions called Star Travel - see the trailer for it here. Unfortunately it was 50 minutes long and I didn't have that much time. I also skipped the coral sketching class and a site-specific art-film called "Exotic Savage: The Decolonisation". I was tempted by the DJ who seemed rather good but suspect it was aimed at a younger audience - i.e. those who weren't thinking it might be time to head off home.

It was all a lot of fun, plus there was the exhibition...