Friday, August 17, 2018

Longyearbyen, Svalbard

The main town of the Svalbard archipelago is called Longyearbyen and that is where the main airport is, together with harbour, shops, hotels, museums etc.

Its a small but very pleasant place whether you're working locally (e.g. at the satellite ground station) or a visitor waiting for their boat. There's a path for pedestrian heading up the centre to avoid the roads, even though the roads themselves aren't that busy.

I don't know whether it is busier in winter or summer as a lot of the activities rely on dark skies (aurora watching) or snow (for the snow mobiles). In the summer the latter stand idly by, waiting for winter:

There are hotels and restaurants for all budgets, from hostels to 4* luxury, from simple bread and soup to 12 course Nordic tasting menus (we found 10 courses enough and all totally yummy plus instagram-friendly).

Svalbard has an unusual status in that while it is part of Norway, i.e. there is Norwegian sovereignty,
but it has a separate legal status under the Svalbard Treaty. This meant that we had to go through passport control to/from Svalbard and the shops are duty free.

The Svalbard Treaty allows signatories to engage in commercial activities there and in particular Russia has a mining town on Spitsbergen and many other countries research bases.

The harbour is very busy with boats coming and going. Chatting to my neighbours on the plane I found that they too were joining a boat (an icebreaker in their case) and that seemed to be common among visitors.

Some of the boats were dull tourist cruise ships but others had character:

Many were busy beavering away to fix repairs for the short time they were in port:

I went down to say hello to the crew of Valiente and got a friendly hello-see-you-tomorrow so left until then as they were clearly in turnaround mode.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Circumnavigating Spitsbergen: Getting there and going round

So how did I end up going round Spitsbergen?

Well to a degree it was down to a chance meeting at the Southampton Boat Show. I'd gone to hear a talk by Skip Novak about sailing at high latitudes which was jolly interesting. Afterwards I got chatting to Emil and Henry who'd also come to hear the talk and then we walked around the boat show.

They were planning a trip to northern islands and after my trips to the Arctic Circle and Greenland I was interesting in joining them. The idea was to sail from Svalbard via Jan Mayen to Greenland, then Iceland, in a Challenge 72, but alas that fell through (insurance issues). But we kept in touch, for example saying hi at various events, including the London Boat Show and London OnWater.

Since then Emil set up Sail Norway (sailing trips in high latitudes, Norway, Svalbard, Jan Mayen, Greenland, Iceland etc.) and Henry Kraken Travel (web site with lots of really interesting sailing adventures on it. Updated: as mentioned in this month's Yachting World) and both were on my browser favourite list.

So when on Henry's web site I saw a trip via Emil's sailing company to circumnavigate the wild and wonderful Spitsbergen (just the name is fantastic) it rose quickly to the point where bank transfers were made and kit piled high on my bedroom floor.

But to get there was a long journey, taking many days, stopping over at Oslo and Tromso (which deserve blog posts on their own as both were great) before flying into Longyearbyen, the main town of the Svalbard archipelago.

Here I joined the Valiente, a 70 foot steel hulled lifting keel yacht to do the circumnavigation in the Google Earth map above.

BTW, the KML of this route was based on the log with a bit of tweaking as:
1)  Mostly the log just kept the degrees and minutes at each hour, and this wasn't really enough to avoid the dreaded path-on-land problem. It really needs at least one decimal minute to get sufficient accuracy (which a few did, those initialled "JP")
2) Even with accurate logs it is likely that tracks will go across land if logged once an hour as you can go round a cape in half an hour and it will look like you've gone through it.

It took 10 days to get round including several stops at anchor for half days, about 800 NM.

And in every single day between leaving Oslo and returning two weeks later there was 24 hours of sunshine, endless midnight sun.

Must admit I really missed the sunsets and nighttime and found the first sunset rather exciting:

Sunday, August 12, 2018

A Circumnavigation of Spitsbergen

So its time for the "what-I-did-in-my-summer-holiday" set of posts, and this year it was a circumnavigation of Spitsbergen in the yacht Valiante (above) with Sail Norway. Spitsbergen is the main island of the Svalbard archipelago, and we also visited some of the other islands.

A lot to post and I haven't quite worked out the order but the first thing to note is that, yes, its north and cold but that's what I like. The other thing to note is the bug I've mentioned a few times came back so was stuck in my bunk for a bit, but eventually was able to get back into the watch system.

It didn't feel good not to be able to pull my weight, but found it reassuring that this something that even the Delos crew have to do every now and as documented in a recent video of them.

There were of course polar bears:

I smell the blood of an Englishman

More likely it was the bacon that was grilling at the time!

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Thames River Routes: which is right for you?

On one of the posts Barubi asked which would be the best route to take? That is a very good question as the answer is it depends, but here are some pointers.

The first thing to say is that all of them are good in their own way and a boat trip is a brilliant way to see London whether as a Londoner or visitor to this great city. I once blogged The Ultimate Walk by the Thames and it covers the Westminster to Tower Bridge section of the river which overlaps with many of the boat trips listed (e.g. RB1, RB2, RB6, City Cruises, Circular Cruises and Thames River Services)

If (say) you are a Londoner wanting to commute or travel between point A and B somewhere near the river then the Thames Clippers are fantastic. Compared to tubes / trains / bus, the view is better, the comfort higher and often you are less likely to need to change.

One downside to the Thames Clippers is they are often not taken into account in the route planning tools such as the CityMapper app and the TfL web site. This might be because they are often slower than the equivalent train, but for me its not that much difference in time and a lot in quality.

The best approach is to download the route timetable as a PDF to your phone and then check the times yourself.

It's also being aware that there can be problems in that there don't seem to be available back-up boats when the main Clippers break down so its worth following them on Twitter if only to be warned of these types of events:
But if you are a tourist and want to see the sights of central London the Thames Clippers are not ideal as they don't give time for a proper view or include a commentary. However, they are inexpensive and quick, so if you are short of time and/or money they would be the best bet.

If you have a bit longer and want a 360 degree view then one of the tourist boats such as City Cruises or Circular Cruise would be good bets. In this case go to Westminster Tube and head out to the river and there'll be an array of ticket booths and then boats to catch. City Cruises seems to be market leader but then I experienced a crush waiting for the boat so it depends which you want (note that part of the problem I had was wanting the longer Greenwich route: had I just been doing the central section I'd have been on-board much quicker).

If you just want to go down to Greenwich (or indeed Woolwich) then Thames Clippers might still be the answer even if visiting London as a tourist as there aren't that many sights downriver of Tower Bridge so you might as well get down there quickly. But if you're already on one of the tourist boats (to see the central section) then you might as well just keep going.

For the upper river the problem is the journey time: if you're in a hurry to get to Kew or Hampton Court then the river isn't the answer as it takes hours. But it is a very pleasant way to travel, so if you want to see more of the Thames, both tidal and non-tidal, to get a feel for the river's history and changing scenery from the Palace of Westminster to the palace of Henry VIII jump on board - preferably on a nice day so can sit outside without getting sunstroke or drenched in rain (again, start at Westminster tube).

Not sure about the Turks route from Richmond to Hampton Court - that seems a long way for a visitor to London to go just to get the boat, so maybe more of a locals day out thing.

If you put me on the spot and said I had to choose just the one route, which would it be? That's actually an easy question as my fav is my local RB6, starting at the centre, e.g. from Blackfriars or Embankment, passing the London Eye and Westminster and heading upriver to green and pleasant Putney.

Hope to see you on-board one day!

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Thames River Routes: All The River Services, All The Piers

One of my all time favourite YouTube channels is called All The Stations in which Geoff and Vicki visited every single railway station in Britain (possibly including the Isle of Wight) during the summer of 2017.

Their motto of "All the stations" was joined by another "Life is short: have an adventure", which is a good principle to live by.

And adventures can come in many forms, including visiting all the railway stations in Britain or, in the case of the Thames River Services, all the piers on that Transport for London (TfL) web site map:

So the list of piers visited, from upriver to downriver, was:
  • Hampton Court
  • Kingston Town End
  • Kingston Turks
  • Richmond Landing Stage
  • Richmond St. Helena
  • Kew
  • Putney
  • Wandsworth Riverside Quarter
  • Plantation Wharf
  • Chelsea Harbour
  • Cadogan
  • Battersea Power Station
  • St. George Wharf
  • Millbank
  • Wesminster
  • London Eye
  • Embankment
  • Festival
  • Blackfriars
  • Bankside
  • London Bridge City
  • Tower
  • St Katherine
  • Canary Wharf
  • Doubletree Docklands
  • Greenland
  • Masthouse Terrace
  • Greenwich
  • North Greenwich
  • Woolwich Ferry North
  • Woolwich Ferry South
  • Woolwich Royal Arsenal

#alltheriverservices... ü

#allthepiers .... ü


Sunday, August 05, 2018

Thames River Routes: Circular Cruise Westminster to St. Katharine Dock

The final boat trip was the Circular Cruise route from Westminster to St. Katharine Dock. Was it to be another City Cruise cattle crush or Thames River Services holiday-mood?

It turned out to be a bit of both. The service was, well shall we say erratic? The ticket booth (where I paid £6.83, no idea how that number was arrived at) was empty for the 5 - 10 minutes just necessary for me to miss the 6 pm sailing resulting in a half an hour wait for the next. There was a shortage of staff down by the quay, leaving some confused tourists trying to get on a party boat full of surveyors out on a "networking event".

Then an unbranded boat turned up and it turned out to be the same I had been on for the Thames River Services trip - turns out they are the same company.  But different from City Cruise and Thames Clipper - they seemed very keen to point that out.

Hmm... maybe need to raise the company profile a bit as couldn't help but notice there was one company much more visible out on the river:

So off we went, one evening after work when I was in town anyhow. There wasn't much of a commentary but I sort of could see the point now of the tourist boats.

The thing about Thames Clippers are they are the boy and girl racers of the river, throttling up and zipping in and out of the other boats, causing them to through their hands up in the air. There's limited outside space and its far too close to the diesel exhaust.

The tourist boats take their time, have a big open space so you can see in all directions and sometimes have a commentary.

This route was a bit of a an-hoc affair with stops on request rather than every time so you had respond when they said anyone for Embankment or St. Kats (which I did, to the latter). The official list of piers was:

  • Westminster
  • Embankment
  • Festival
  • Bankside
  • St. Katharine

And at the last of these, off I stepped, having been on all of the scheduled river routes in London.


Friday, August 03, 2018

Thames River Routes: Thames River Services Westminster to the Thames Barrier

Not another boat trip! I thought, one sweat-oozing Sunday.

Fortunately there was lure, namely there were tall ships out at Woolwich and while this boat didn't go that far its voyage took it right down to the Thames Barrier at a time where some were meant to be heading upriver.

So I paid the princely sum of £ 14 for a one way ticket and headed off.

Yes, the view was very similar and the commentary as before was focused on the history of pubs along the Thames (with a side commentary about the plague of luxury apartments), but for some strange reason I enjoyed it, particular the lower river bit.

For one reason there was no crush like with City Cruises, waiting for ages under the sun in cattle pen queue, and fewer stops, so we were under Tower Bridge much quicker. The piers stopped at were:

  • Westminster
  • St Katharine Docks
  • Greenwich (first time, before going to the Thames Barrier)
  • Greenwich (second time, after going to the Thames Barrier)

As we went round the O2 Arena we did indeed encounter some tall ships, though there seemed less than went on them last year when went on one.

Through the Thames Barrier and then back to Greenwich:

I think the secret was to relax and stop worrying about whether it was ok to go on one of these river cruises and just enjoy the view. I put on Noel Gallagher (who'd played at the Greenwich Naval College the previous night) on the headphones, rested head on hands and simply watched the world go by.

Then on shore by the Cutty Sark had an ice cream:

Sometimes you've just got to roll with it.....

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Thames River Routes: City Cruises Westminster to Greenwich

Obviously as a Londoner I've never been on any of the tourist buses or boats, but the call of duty led me to Westminster Pier at 11ish with a £ 12.75 City Cruise Westminster to Greenwich ticket in hand.

Just in case anyone might recognise a true Londoner on a tourist boat, I had a hat pulled down low and dark glasses on: if in doubt I'd deny everything.

I did wonder if it was going to be one of those revelations that even Londoners should give it a try but was not impressed by initial impressions, namely a long queue, out in the baking heat, snaking between cattle barriers:

It wasn't helped by the first boat being too small and the next one going only as far as the Tower but eventually everyone was on-board and off we went.

Piers visited:

  • Westminster
  • London Eye
  • Tower
  • Greenwich

There was commentary of sorts, ad-hoc, a bit like the one up-river. There were three big subjects:

  1. Thames side pubs and their history. So we had pointed out The Mayflower, with its British and US flags, The Captain Kidd near execution dock and The Grapes, owned by Gandalf (ok, Sir Ian MacKellan).
  2. Riverside developments and million pound apartments outside the reach of poor watermen (and reminder that any tips at the end would be much appreciated so they could do further research - mostly related to point 1)
  3. How modern art is crap and there's a reason why the Tate Modern is free:


There was some history stuff, about how traitors would be sent to the Tower through Traitors Gate:

To be honest this wouldn't be news to anyone with eyes and an understanding of what the word meant. But then Thames watermen know more about tides than history.

After The Tower there was Tower Bridge:

It was a very hot day, one for hats, sun-cream and sun-glasses, but most stayed on-top to see the sights.

Commentary got a bit thin on the long way down to Greenwich, though the odd pub or luxury property development did get pointed out.

Finally we arrived in Greenwich:

So what did I think?

It was a lot slower than the Clippers, and more expensive. But there was a commentary of sort and you can get a 360 field of view, unlike on the Clippers which just have a few seats at the back (and rather too close to the diesel exhaust).

Given there is more to see between Westminster and the Tower it would make sense to take a cruise if you're new to London but for the long trip down to Greenwich a Thames Clipper would be both quicker and cheaper.

Not that I know: after all, I deny ever taking this voyage.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Thames River Routes: Richmond to Hampton Court

There were two problems with blogging this route.

Firstly, the vessel for the first half of the voyage was the boat above which, to quote someone on Twitter, is SO FAKE!!!!

It's not just that it isn't a paddle steamer (the wheel rotates on its own) and the smoke stake is a prop (rotated up and down for bridges) but the design is foreign to the Thames - see this post here.

The second problem was that had already covered this part of the river on the Westminster to Hampton Court route.

However as there is always something happening on the river went along and did indeed get some blogging material. The route can be seen in the map from the operator, Turks, here:

A one way ticket cost £ 9 and stopped at the following piers:
  • St Helena Pier, Richmond
  • Turks Pier Kingston
  • Town End Pier, Kingston
  • Turks Pier, Hampton Court

There was fun at the Teddington lock when the narrow boat ahead went through the wrong lock and then dropped the boat hook, which entertained those watching:

As I said, things do happen on the water.

Entertainment for all was increased by a local boy's response to the fake smoke stacks on the Turks boat, which was to exclaim very loudly that "its got two giant d*ld*s at the front!!":

At Kingston we had to disembark one boat and get on another. This had just had a crowd of what looked like a "Made in Chelsea" party. If you haven't seen that TV show (and I haven't, only the trailers, though Sassi "loves, loves, loves it") it involves a bunch of young, beautiful and rich types with a sense of entitlement enjoying life in that part of London.

The second boat, which the MiC lot had just left, had a floor sticky with spilt drink and crew in full "thank god they're someone elses's problem now" attitude.
Anyway, it pottered on up, and we passed a few other boats (it being a cool overcast day) and a little wildlife. I don't think its a great way to go bird watching, TBH, as its the wrong time of day (dawn / dusk better) plus of course its a large, loud, human machine disturbing the water.

Finally made it to Hampton Court after an hour and three quarters just in time to see the train head back to London and realise the next was 30 minutes away.

Ah well, that's why we have a smartphone on one.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Thames River Routes: Westminster to Hampton Court

This is the longest of all the river routes I went on in both duration and length. Taking about three and a quarter hours it connected the following piers:

  • Westminster
  • Kew
  • Richmond
  • Hampton Court

That's about 35 km worth of the upper river while remaining in London (as defined via the London Stones) including both tidal and non-tidal Thames.

It's a very pleasant way to spend a couple of hours. It starts in the centre of London, full of tourists and tourist sights:

It then heads upriver and keeps on going....

... and going...

... and going....

... all the way to Hampton Court (top photo).

On the way, the Thames bank can be seen to go from hard stone to green vegetation:

There is officially any commentary but unofficially the staff give a good job of quirky did-you-know facts including pointing out where Elton John, Robbie Williams and Cher live (Chelsea Harbour if you're interested).

To get from the tidal Thames to non-Tidal Thames there is one or two (depending on state of the tide) locks to go through, in particular this one at Teddington:

Prices and timetable can be found at the operator's web site here which are worth checking as they change depending upon the tide and time of year. They also give this useful map:

It's a good way to make your way to Kew Gardens or Hampton Court Palace if you're visiting those places. It was also interesting to see the route from the water having walked or biked it from the Thames path.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Thames River Routes: RB6

RB6 is the river bus route I use the most as the far west end is Putney. The full list of stops (west to east) is:
  • Putney
  • Wandsworth Riverside
  • Plantation Wharf
  • Chelsea Harbour
  • Cadogan Square
  • Battersea Power Station
  • St George's Wharf
  • Milbank
  • Embankment
  • Blackfriars
  • Bankside
  • London Bridge City 
  • Canary Wharf 
As always the timetable is a mess in the sense that I can't find a single sailing that goes to all of those piers, there're always some that are missed off. For example:
  • Non-peak hours, the route west ends at Battersea Power Station
  • Non-peak hours, the route east ends at London Bridge
  • Peak hours, the route misses out Bankside and Milbank
  • etc.
The time I took it was peak hours so went the full route from Canary Wharf to Putney (on way back from the NMM conference on the history of navigation) but missed a few piers, which picked up when taking other routes.

The river east of Tower Bridge (above) is wide and sided by many warehouses turned into apartments plus famous pubs and the Thames Police and their museum (as visited many years ago):

The central section is chockablock with tourists top sights:

Note all photos taken with phone as main camera battery mysteriously died earlier.

I like to sit at the back outside when the weather is good and you have to choose which side to sit (unless you sit backwards and see both directions not so well). In this case I was on the north side so the pics are of that bank.

Alas Big Ben wasn't a great subject as currently undergoing restoration:

This photo also emphasises the way the Thames wiggles as it is clearly taken into the sun while on the "north side" of the boat: here the river actually runs south to north.

Further up pass the great development work at Battersea Power Station:

This is still work in progress but they have a lot of convincing to do as the general impression from locals is its aimed out non-resident non-doms wanting to park some money. The old Thames of Lots Road Power Station is also undergoing development:

Towards the end the river banks turn green and the river quieter:

The boat arrives at Putney at 18:30 having left Canary Wharf at 17:25, so that's just over an hour. In a rush a train/tube combo might be a little quicker but its definitely not as scenic.