Thursday, April 30, 2009

Book Review: Treasure Trove of the Southern Seas

I wanted to like this book.

It was, after all, about plucky British lads sailing of to the southern seas in search of buried treasure. And it was one of my mum's books when she was young, as it was for her father, my grandfather. It even has a picture inside that he drew of someone that might be my great-grandfather.

What's more it starts with the line "I say, that's pretty ripping, isn't it?" which makes it clear we're in the age when men's upper lip are a stiff as their starched collars.

And yet its awful - not just badly written but dated in the worst possible way. I found myself embarrassed to be seen with it on the train for the daily commute to and from the office. I'd have to stop and put it away to continue only when in the privacy of my own living room.

Ridden with blatant, transparent race and class prejudice, it is all too clear why this book is no longer available even on the mighty Amazon's web site. The language used by its author Captain Frank H. Shaw is simply unacceptable today - as it really should have been then and indeed at any time.

There isn't much worth salvaging, as the story, while full of storms, pirates, sharks, and of course buried treasure, is mechanical join the dots with one dimensional characters. And I have no idea why a sailing story would have a cover picture that would be at home on a murder mystery.

Not all old sailing stories are classics, and this is most definitely one that would be better lost at sea.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Misty Morning

It might well be that Autumn is, as Keats put it, the "Season of mists" but this morning was spectacularly misty.

It seemed to roll in downriver along with the morning river taxi, which appeared out of clouds of fog like the vessel that ferries the dead across the river of the underworld to Hades.

Though I doubt that ferry serves free tea and coffee nor offers a discount for those in possession of a valid Transport for London Oyster card!

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Annual Antigua Ritual

I have this annual Antigua week ritual. Ok so far its only been two years in a row but that's still more years than Alinghi claimed was annual for the America's Cup challenger.

Anyhow it goes like this:

January: wander around the London Boat Show wondering what sailing will do this year. End up at the various sailing companies stands where over glass of champagne mention have been thinking of doing the Antigua week. Salesman gets very excited and hands out brochures and get contact details

February: said salesperson rings up and asks whether still interested, adding that two young Australian women have just signed up if that will influence my decision (for the last two years in both cases it was two Australian women). Look out of window at cold, dark, wet London streets and dream of sunny skies and sailing around the Caribbean with bikini wearing Australian women.

March: cold reality, bank accounts and business distract me from this vision

April: check out Yachting World web site and go OMG it's Antigua week already and decide that really, really will get organised next year!

At least this year I did actually see Antigua (above). But unfortunately was at 39,000 feet on my way to Caracas and so little details could be seen.

Next year! (er....maybe)

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Another vaguely nautical music video

Feeling a bit smashed this evening after a weekend paddling and sailing on the Thames (maybe should say in the river given the ducking we got after our Lark got hit by one of those gusts that come from no where) plus biking up and down to Barnes and Hammersmith plus a walk this afternoon plus cooking plus....

So rather than the post originally was going to give you, here is another vaguely nautical music video. Unfortunately the yacht is only shown for a short time and even though it has coffee grinders (which is always impressive looking) they never seem to raise the main sail (which is not at all impressive).

I'm afraid there is lots of padding involving someone driving a car and young people dancing around in beachwear - sorry about that, hope you don't mind too much.

Now off to put feet up for a bit.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The pain behind a slightly nautical pop video

Adam has been treating us every Friday with a music video, often from the classics from the seventies and eighties when as we all know there were real bands around.

Alas my modest YouTube video is less old school though it has a vaguely nautical theme and a hidden tragedy.

If you watch it you will of course see a rather pretty blond sailing what looks like a Turkish Gulet (well I say sail, but to be honest there's rather a lot of motoring).

At about 56 seconds in you will see a classic example of how not to coil a rope, and there no doubt will be those gentlemen out there that will wince painfully that the young lady should go so misty eyed on one who clearly does not deserve it.

But sorry chaps, lets not get overdramatic here, if you want real pain check out a story about the singer / model of this "Everytime you need me " by Fragma (no not Frogma who is of course a paddler from NY) ft. Maria Rubia.

Now Maria Rubia is the singer and also Prada model who has recently given birth to her second son Brendon.

If you want to know why Brendon should remember to send not just a card but flowers too every Mother's Day (and why doctors should make sure they diagnose correctly first time) click this link here.


Gentlemen, our rope coiling might not be appreciated but at least we don't have that to worry about.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Three Cheers for Robin Knox-Johnston

To celebrate the Internet's first Robin Knox-Johnston day here are three reasons to give the chap three cheers.

1. For being "Distressingly Normal"

Recently there's been this program on aunty beeb called "Top Dogs: Adventures in War, Sea and Ice" in which Robin Knox-Johnston, BBC reporter John Simpson and Arctic explorer Ranulph Fiennes challenged each other to enter each other's world.

The final episode all three had to go to the wastes of northern Canada somewhere in Frobisher bay and hike through -30 C conditions. They only had to do it for a couple of days and it was clearly pretty horrific. But it suited the steely glint in Fiennes's eyes, the look of a man who would - and had - chopped off his own fingers after they got frost bite (and do it in his garden shed).

Some great men and women have that look: Ellen MacArthur did when I met her. Its a drive that makes them appear slightly un-human compared to us mortals.

But Robin, while determined, while resolved to drive himself, is clearly made of the same stuff of us. Indeed the psychiatrist that examined before and after the record breaking Golden Globe voyage around the world described him in both cases as "distressingly normal".


2. For Not Stopping at 70

Sir Robin was born 17th March 1939, making him just over 70 - many congratulations to him. But is his retiring to nursing home or hanging up his oillies? No sir, not by any means.

Recently he competed in the Velux around the world single handed race, handling super charged modern Open 60's, called appropriately Saga Insurance.

And in the Top Dogs program he was at it again sailing around Cape Horn once more, battling against the elements and southern oceans:

In that episode ice man Fiennes was sea sick while in the Arctic one John Simpson's fingers were in such danger from frost bite that he was evacuated by doctors order.

Only Sir Robin did all three tasks - hurrah!

3. For being British

We're a small country with banks that are managing to keep their heads above water just about as well as the Titanic, so its worth banging the drums for something or someone worth trumpeting.

I'm always a bit dubious about the jingoistic "we're the best" form of nationalism, so while I enjoyed our Olympics success accepted it was reflected glory.

But when I travel the world its interesting to see how people react when I say I'm from old blighty. There are things this country has done that aren't anything to be proud of, but if they (or you) know of Sir Robin Knox-Johnston and his achievements and thinks of them as being in any way British, as British as pints of beer and marmite sandwiches, that can only be a good thing.

Hurrah, huzzah!

Is this blog killing Yachting World?

Ok, maybe a bit of a drama queen of a title, but its a long post and there's no pictures, so had to do something. Maybe you should get a cup of coffee as well.

Its one of the hottest topics at the moment, and of real importance to all of us. How will those that rely on the printing press, in particular the newspapers and magazines, cope with the internet and will that lead to a lowering of the quality of information?

When the income from the web from advertising is so low and the cost remains the same something has to give, and there has been a lot of articles bewailing the harmful affect of Google on newspapers and corresponding replies of rubbish - its the internet stupid, and Google is just the messenger.

But Elaine Bunting's post on the YW site makes a good point, in that the internet brings its own problems, in particular trust. Something like the New York Times has a reputation built up over many years and people who's job it is to fact check while blogs like this could for all you know be the fantasy of a 12 year old living in Shanghai.

One comment though got my goat - that blogs aren't as good as print as its all too simple to cut 'n' paste an article. Well let me tell you a little story.

I remember a few years ago ex President of Iran Mohammad Khatami went on a lecture tour of the United States. I find the whole US - Iran dynamic interesting, particuarly as its based on a whole series of misconceptions on either side, and Khatami in particular for being a moderate and not crazy like some could mention.

As I read on a UK based news organisation web site, one of the reasons for the tour, he explained, was to try to get his message direct to the American people as the media all too often demonised his country.

Ho, hum, thinks I, it will be interesting to see how that speach is reported across the pond, so went to Google News and found two facts out:

1) That aspect of his speach wasn't reported in any of the US based newspapers I checked

2) While there were many, many US newspapers, some from cities I remember visiting like Cleveland, Houston, San Diego, Seattle, all of those reported the speach the same way. I mean exactly the same, word for word the same, cut and paste the same (from AP if I remember right)

And you just have to look at various news sources that claim to be "fair and balanced" to know that truth isn't guaranteed in mainstream media either.

So I don't buy the argument that the print media as a paragon as originality any more than truth and honesty: in practice they are all too happy to print a nice PR note and put Paris Hilton at the top of the running order.

It is worrying because as citizens we need a free press and it is costly to have people on the ground, hacks prepared to sit through intermiably dull local council planning meetings and be shot at in dusty far away places.

But is there an alternative? I recently read this great post (that I recommend that everyone reads) that looks at a range of funding models including advertising and micro payments and basically says we are in the middle of a revolution and we don't know where we are going or where we will end up but the current model has hit its iceburg and like the Titanic is going down.

Should we fight to preserve these papers then? I'm certainly going to say no, because what I want to save is the journalism not the medium.

I check the news on various online sources far too often, several times a day. But not one of those sources is one of the US mainstream media (MSM). If even the New York Times was pulled down by its debts tomorrow I would be very sorry for the people but not an institution which has failed too often, and is failing now.

Yes it has won recently another clutch of Pulitzers and they are well deserved but all too often these are the exceptions rather than the rules and big stories are broken and followed up in blogs. The Webby is the prizes of the future.

The only news or information web sites in the US I check on a day to day basis are all blogs. Partly because the MSM is so parochial, but also because blogs can cover topics that interest me in so much more detail, richer, more responsive, more interestingly. Often stories come from participants: why read someone's report of a race when you can read stories from the racers themselves?

As Elaine says the unpaid blogger would find it hard to get the same reportage on (say) Somali pirates as a BBC reporter on the scene. But even there things are changing. US blogger Philip Weiss covers topics related to the Middle East and wanted to be able to go to AIPAC and the Gaza Strip to report directly and so he put out an appeal using PayPal and within a few days had raised enough.

The Obama campaign also showed that web based funding can raise huge amounts.

Of course there is the danger that the stories that covered will be the ones with money but the same is true to an even greater degree for the print world (consider the influence that billionaire Rupert Murdoch has on newspapers and TV stations world wide)

Apart from direct funding number of models might work, including micro payments (which I still feel has a lot of potential) or even state funding (the BBC approach, possibly replacing the TV licence with a broadband tax). The latter may be unpopular and indeed a classic case of taxation without representation but god bless the Beeb - the best value broadcaster in the world.

It is probably too early to say which will dominate and it is likely to vary by country and for their to be a range of levels from multi-national cross sub-sidising organisations like the BBC to Twitter.

But putting the ability to report in the hands of us the people of the world can only be a huge plus. Indeed while blogger Phil Weiss has raised enough money to visit Gaza it could be argued that his trip is less necessary due to the web, as there are bloggers there reporting on day to day life.

In the Shirky post he likened it to the transformation after the invention of the printing press, and how in the early years no one knew what was to work. There was a lot of experimentation and over the years there have been models than have come and gone (such as the pamphleteers).

But I'll end with his ending: "No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the journalism we need".

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Crash at Canaima

Couldn't help but note this very sad story in the papers this weekend, of a six year old British boy who was killed in a light aircraft crash in Venezuela near the Canaima airstrip. This is where flights to see Angel Falls leave from, and he and his family were in a Cessena 208 Caravan which apparently lost power just after take off.

Its a pretty unforgiving place to have engine failure, with wilderness pretty much all around the short airstrip, as you can see from Google maps if you click here.

My short flight by Angel Falls and into Canaima and then out again was luckily uneventful, though it did feel a bit more "interesting" than flying into Heathrow. The descent into London's main airport usually starts about 30 km from the runway and you join a regular line of aircraft spaced 2 minutes apart.

The descent into Canaima was a lot more exciting: we were quite low already as the flyby was about half way up the fall's near 1 km face, and the pilot didn't climb any further up, just banked a lot to get us out of the canyons.

We were flying a BAe Jetstream, so our guide joked if we went down it would all be my fault! Luckily of course we didn't, but I couldn't help but notice there were a couple of pranged aircraft around the airstrip.

Above you can see a photo of an old DC3 rusting away (spot the propeller on the ground by the right engine) which was on the right coming into land.

On the left was this - not sure what it was, but it looks like another aircraft that didn't make it.

There is some irony here, as Angel Falls discoverer, Jimmie Angel himself, crashed when he tried to land his aircraft at the top of the tepui. It took him, his wife, and others including his gardener 11 days to trek to the nearest settlement.

Natural Navigator - Solution

Thanks for all the suggestions and ideas about how to naturally navigate from trees in spring time - here's how I started thinking about the problem.

The navigational information here is coming from trees, and how the first shoots of spring come at different times depending upon geometry, most particularly how they are orientated with respect to the sun.

The photo above is the starting point, though it was actually taken afterwards.

What can be seen is that each tree starts showing signs of life across the whole tree at once: there maybe a slight difference on opposite sides, but that is a secondary effect, and looking at many of the trees either here or in the park couldn't see a huge difference in terms of number and sizes of leaf on north vs south branches.

That's probably related to how trees work: I'm no expert but guess the bio-chemical messages that say "spring is here" are transmitted around the whole tree at once, though will be triggered at different times depending upon the tree's location.

Though there is some navigational information in this first picture it could be dangerous to make an assessment from just this source. Firstly the tree to the right might just be a bit more to the south of the one to the right, not due south. Then it is a built up area and there could be other factors such as building shadow, drainage etc and so while it is an indicator, there is potential for error.

However for the picture of the avenue it's not just one tree but a whole load of them, and in particular:

1) All trees show the same effect: all the ones to the left are much further out than any of the ones to the right. So statistically this is a very strong signal

2) The difference between the trees to the left and right is pretty much the same all the way down.

If this avenue were aligned south-east or south-west you might see the ones at one end being different from the other end. But in this case they weren't: the trees were very similar all the way along.

Hence I'd suggest this shows the avenue is close to east-west, and the south is on the left hand side so we are looking close to west.

So about a trillian points to the Natural Navigator himself (who spotted a lot more than I did in the photo), points to Tillerman and Carol Anne for thinking on the right lines, while O'Docker of course gets the special "Google" prize for correctly finding the direction and location.

This actually is the avenue in Wandsworth Park which you can spot on Google Maps by clicking here: I was slightly surprised to see the avenue actually points slightly off east-west by 10 - 20 degrees. That's an easy mistake to make with the Thames on one side as it wiggles a lot so actually doesn't flow west to east that often.

I hope you all found this interesting: for me thats one of the key benefits of thinking about navigating naturally: you look at the world around you in new eyes and spot details and are aware of it much more.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Picture Puzzle Photo Clue

For the natural navigators working on the picture puzzle posted previously, here is a photo clue.

Taken around the same time as the other photo it shows just two trees but all of them and in isolation.

Its harder to get navigational information from just two tree, unlike an avenue. Again it was taken on another cloudy London day, so hopefully no short cuts :)

Friday, April 17, 2009

Natural Navigator Picture Puzzle

A picture puzzle for you natural navigators out there.

This picture shows spring coming to one of London's parks, but can you work out in which direction was this photo was taken?

Two clues for you:
1) It was taken in the northern hemisphere (doh!)
2) All the trees all the way along the avenue look pretty much the same on either side

Answers please.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Piracy or Blockade?

So you're a terror of the seas, heading out onto the ocean seeking adventure, barrel loads of gold coins and for your pockets to be heavy with pieces of eight, but don't know how? Well what you want is a trusted source such as this blog to give a bit of career advice.

Obviously the first bit of advice is to mend your wicked ways and retire to an honest life of toil on land, but if that very sensible and true words of wisdom somehow do not hit the spot, read on.

Today we received an email from a Mr. L. J. Silver who asks "Should I follow my current career of piracy or change to the blockading line of business?"

Well Mr. L. J. Silver, that is a good question and we must analyse it properly, looking at it from the angles of reward, working conditions, and fringe benefits.

1. Rewards

Recent research has indicated that the rewards of piracy can indeed be good. If you look at this report here you will see that Somali pirates are currently getting between $1 and $3 million a go - not a bad hawl for a an old sea cook like yourself!

However don't be hasty in your decision, as this report here shows that blockading can be profitable too - this report shows how French fisherman won themselves even more than that - a whopping 4 million Euros!

With the current exchange rates that's over $5million - so its round one to blockading.

2. Working Conditions

It must be admitted that working conditions as a pirate off Somalia have not been that good recently with increasing naval activity from countries such as France, Britain, and the United States. Indeed several pirates have lost their lives due to rescue operations from France and the US in recent days.

However the blockaders have been left alone to do their business and are able to go home to sleep in their own beds in the evening, possibly dropping in for a vin rouge on the way. And the Government rather than fighting invites you in for talks with unlimited coffee and buscuits!

Round two to blockading.

3. Fringe benefits

This is where piracy strikes back: recent studies as reported by JP showed that its rewards includes some that mere blockading can not bring. Says this Somali of the pirates: "They wed the most beautiful girls; they are building big houses; they have new cars; new guns"

Alas French fishermen at this point look downcast and agree they can not counter this argument. Round 3 to the yo ho ho brigade.


Well Mr L. J. Silver, I hope this detailed analysis has been helpful.

Our research has shown that blockading brings greater rewards and better working conditions, though lower fringe benefits.

It might well be that a change of career could be in order!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

France and the freedom of the seas

The freedom to travel the high seas unhindered is one of the cornerstones of the maritime industry, commercial and leisure. The recent rise in piracy off Somalia has prompted France to send a warship and use force to free a captured yacht, accepting with determination and sorrow the high price involved.

Alas any form of prompt and determined action is apparently not feasible closer to home. French fishermen have blockaded several French ports and refusing to allow ships to travel to or from the UK. This is seriously damaging trade, with the M20 motorway in Kent now little more than a parking lot for trucks.

I'm seriously at a loss to understand why these fishermen aren't just moved off. They are breaking the law, inconveniencing many, causing financial hardships at the worst possible time, and to do all this so that they can continue to over-fish?

Stock in these waters are approaching critical levels, and we have seen in the disaster of the Newfoundland cod banks how the destruction of through over fishing can be near complete.

What's more they already get subsidies (i.e. my taxes) and the majority of illegal fishing incidents involved French fishing boats.

Thankfully we have a tunnel that isn't affected by this blackmail, but enough is enough, time to stop the blockade, and not by just giving greater subsidies.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Yo ho ho - lets go racing!

On the Devizes to Westminster web site was interested to read a history of that race (which you can find here) and in particular how it was that anyone would come up with the idea of racing in a canoe or kayak across 200 km of England non-stop between those two particular places.

It was, you may not be that surprised to learn, the result of a couple of blokes yarning away over a pint or two (or more) in their local pub. And this is not some mamby bamby watered down stuff, this was strong West Country ale or cider, and after downing a few of them no doubt many things seem not just feasible but a jolly good idea.

I can't help wonder how many other races originated in the bar. The birth of the Volvo naturally springs to mind as it was born from the parents of the Navy (yo ho ho and a bottle of rum) and Whitbread (brewers of many a fine bottle of beer). And of course the answer to that question "what's your poison" after a day of hard sailing across those Southern Oceans was clear "make mine a pint of best".

Alas today its all got a bit too serious and the Volvo is all freeze dried food and nutritionist approved diets and the glass of red with the Sunday roast has gone. Maybe that's part of the team's incentive program: whatever Tillerman might say my experience of sailors is that the first, second, and third thing on their mind after reaching shore involves alcohol. Other priorities might come after that (though the TV programs show an alarming number of images of good dad's heading back to their wives and children - not the way of the traditional sailor) but the bar is the first port of call.

And I can't help wondering how much of sailing's history started in some drinking establishment. Was, I wonder, the great voyage of Columbus (1) inspired by one too many bottles of Chianti in some taverna beside the Mediterranean?

As conclusive proof of this theory I give you Sir Robin Knox Johnston who's ground breaking journey around the world was only threatened by shortage of Whisky! (2)

(1) I refuse to use the Spanish version of his name and call him Colon - that is either something from a medical dictionary or the secret password of the society of Punctuation.

(2) Don't worry Adam, this is not the official 22nd April post, that is yet to come

Monday, April 13, 2009

Remember your lights!

While was very impressed by the stamina, strength, and will power of those doing the DW did have a serious concern about some of their lights, or rather lack of.

Last night the stragglers of the "overnighters" came down the Thames that I saw had just illumination in the direction of travel, i.e. downriver, typically in the form of a head mounted white light.

None of those I saw had any lights at all upriver. Once they had gone passed it was very hard to spot them, a shadow against the reflections of street lights.

This is potentially very dangerous as the Thames in the tidal area does have traffic, and some of it can move very quickly. As these DW overnighters went under Putney Bridge there was some form of incident (probably and rather sadly someone thinking of jumping off that bridge) and so a Police launch went up river at roughly 30 knots while the RNLB lifeboat came down river at presumably equally fast (though couldn't see it) joined later by a more sedate PLA harbour master's boat, swinging its spot light from side to side, just in case.

So thats three boats that can go fast enough and are hard & big enough to do a kayaker some serious damage. All craft have a duty to show sufficient light for other craft to be aware of their presence, but these kayakers most definitely did not.

I hope they were ok but seriously as it would cost a only few pounds its not just thoughtless but dangerous to not buy that second head light.

Easter and the DW

Happy Easter everyone!

Hope you all had a nice relaxing break - I certainly did (still am actually). However there were several hundred for whom this Easter was anything but that, as it was time for another Devizes to Westminster International Canoe Race.

The DW (as it is known) is the world's longest non-stop canoe race, 200 km from its start in the sleepy rural Wiltshire town of Devizes along the Kennet and Avon canal to Reading and then following the Thames to finish in the heart of London at Westminster. As well as the roughly 125 miles it requires portage around 77 locks along the way.

That would be a tall order doing it gradually in stages but to do it all in one go is mental / inspiring (delete as you feel fit). The overnighters starts on the Saturday morning and most finish the following day, roughly 24 hours later, though looking at the times on their web site here you'll times ranging from around 17 to 38 hours.

Yesterday morning, Easter day, woke up to see the first ones heading downstream while I entertained my visiting sister with a latte made with Venezuela coffee. And in the evening there were still the one or two struggling to finish.

This morning there was a flood of canoes, this time from those that were doing it over the four day long weekend (as in the picture above).

Well done to all those that finished especially from those from my local canoe club.

Saturday, April 11, 2009


Oh no! Not another!

This is the waterfall on the far left hand side of the original picture, the one we went behind all the way across.

Praying Mantis

Ok, I knew when typing "one last post" that it wasn't likely to be completely the last on Venezuela but not that would be unable to keep away from this subject for a single day.

Anyhow, for Edward here is the Praying Mantis - close up!

Note: no special effects were involved in any part of this post.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Lost World

Ok, one last post on Venezuela.

The picture above is from the Laguna de Canaima, just to the north west of Angel Falls. A series of spectacular waterfalls stretch all along one side of the lagoon which you hear before you see. There are also walkways behind them, where you can look out through a curtain of peaty water.

Apparently they shot some of the Jurassic Park series of films here, but it reminded me more of The Lost World, which is not that surprising. The classic book by Arthur Conan Doyle was inspired by stories of the table mountains or tepius of this, the Gran Sabana region of Venezuela, and in particular Roriama. The plants that live at the top are isolated from the land around and as a result of millions of years of independent evolution have become distinct species, half of which don't grow anywhere else.

We saw no dinosaurs but if you look closely at the bottom of this picture you can see a Praying Mantis:

At the time I was reading not "The Lost World" but something very similar, which is also part of what is known as the lost world genre, namely "King Solomon's Mines".

Lots of epic adventure, lost civilizations in the wilderness, boys own stuff, and since then have just finished "She" by the same author, Henry Rider Haggard. Alas in my adventures I didn't meet Aisha or even Ursula Andress but maybe that's just as well.

Instead its back to a soggy Easter weekend here in London. But at least I have a stack of photos and memories of Venezuela.

Truly an amazing country to visit.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Angel Falls

Slightly lost for words to go with this picture.

I mean, what can you say about a legendary waterfall, deep within Venezuela's jungles, the highest in the world, nearly a kilometre of drop, head often as here lost in the clouds.

It was, like, totally amazing!

Wednesday, April 08, 2009


This evening I'm kicking myself. The local canoe club changed the date of the weekday Thames paddle to this evening because of the Easter weekend. But the weather forecast was for not just rain but "heavy rain", which wouldn't have been much fun.

However the meteorologists yet again got it wrong as it was a lovely evening and it would have been fantastic to be out on the river.

Now the evenings are getting longer and the walk home is now in daylight - unlike in the tropics where the sets like clockwork, almost the same time every day, as in the photo above.

As we drifted in the middle of the Orinoco river watching it sink behind the palm trees, I turned to the back of the boat where the Warao guide sat to see he was also taking pictures - on his mobile (cell) phone!

We exchanged smiles - people really are the same the world over.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Famous sailor turns commercial pilot!

Howdy folks, Buff Staysail here, Buff by name and Buff by nature.

Well JP wasn't that complementary about my exclusive "Is Ben Ainslie Aqua Stig?" post earlier this month, but if you know BS you'll know he isn't down for long.

And I've been off to Venezuela - JP's not the only one travelling to the tropics. And I wasn't travelling on boring old American Airlines or Lufthansa! No - Buff was travelling by Laser!!

Yes that's right, Laser is the airline choice for ol' BS!

And who should be in the cockpit, you may ask? Well as you know I'm a fantastic linguist (unlike JP) and so was able to understand the announcement of the tannoy.

And this flight was being skippered (if I can use that word) by none other than a certain Señor Tiller-Hombre!

Ah-ha! That explains the frequent disappearances when he is allegedly going to Laser championships around the world - really he's moonlighting as an airline pilot in South America!

Monday, April 06, 2009

Warao: The People of The Delta

One of the best bits of the trip to the Orinoco Delta was meeting a few of the Warao who are indigenous to the region. The word comes from "Wa" which means boat or canoe and "Rao" meaning people. They live in wood structures like the one above that are raised on stilts so that when the rainy season comes and the water levels rise their homes are not flooded.

This is the village we visited and where I bought some nice bracelets for my nephews and neices. I was wondering what they thought of us strangers from far away, but then noticed the DirecTV dish powered by a generator and decided they were probably a lot more aware of the big wild world than we give them credit!

Their lives revolve around the cycles of the waters in which they live, the wet and dry seasons and the tides coming and going. To them paddling a canoe is as natural as walking.

At one point we were mid channel waiting for the sun set when we were visited by a canoe from the other side of the river. As you can see from the picture below the Warao learn to paddle when very young!

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Navigating in the Orinoco Delta

I've always found navigation an interesting topic, and my friend Tristan's Natural Navigation course was a fantastic way of getting an overview of the subject. So it was, er, natural (groan, sorry about that) to think about it when travelling in those tropical latitudes.

To me felt that a different approach was needed than we use at higher latitudes because the geometry involved means the south/north methods don’t work so well. For example take the sun: up here at 50 ish North the best navigational information comes around mid day when the sun is due south (and vice versa in Australia). Morning and afternoon are a bit vaguer as have to guess how much south/north of east/west the sun sets, which depends upon date in the year, latitude, horizon angles etc.

However in Caracas there was minimal navigational information around noon as the sun at this time of year was pretty much overhead. Even with a stick that is exactly vertical it would be very hard to work out when the shadow was at a minimum. However in the morning / afternoon it was easier to gain navigational information as the sun is pretty close to due east/west. In addition of course its rather hot in the middle of the day!

Similarly at night. While up here we can see the stars going “round” the pole star, in the tropics it feels more like a conveyor belt (though I’d guess the locals would call it a flowing river) going from east to west. I think I did spot the pole star for a flash but at 9 ish degrees north it isn’t that easy unless in the middle of a channel on a clear night. The constellations also look different: we see Orion as being “upright” but overhead unless you orientate your head just right it appears at an angle.

Anyhow that’s what was going through my mind and had this whole theory about east/west being more important to people there than north/south which feel are the most important to us up here. However this could just be bunkum and my ignorance, in particular as you will see it wasn’t backed up by evidence.

I tried to find out how the Warao people who live in the delta navigate and as I speak no Spanish and they no English (they have their own language and actually not all of them speak Spanish) I had to use our Venezuelan guide as a translator. However English was her fourth language after Spanish, Italian and German and she was pretty tired at this point so could have completely missed the point.

Anyway I asked her to ask them how they navigate: did they use the sun and stars and if so how? The answer I got back (again take into account the layers of translation involved) was that they don’t. What they do is keep very good track of where they are in the tide cycle. The Delta has a 2m ish range between high/low waters, and so from that and the direction of current (which is easy to spot as there are these plants that drift around on it) they can work out which is towards the sea and which upriver. This is their main navigational tool, and when on an island they use blazes and “their nose” (not sure if that’s literal or means sense of direction) to find their way to the nearest water and then use water flow direction.

That would make some sense, but would result in a topological map not a cartographic, which actually would be more useful. Even with knowing the sun was east/west I found the many curves and bends of the river disconcerting but in terms of getting from A -> B irrelevant: what matters is the channel and whether you are going up it or down it.

Its a bit like the London tube map: what matters are the lines and interconnections (nodes).

Though the tube doesn't have obstacles in it like the sunk ship above, and the Orinoco River doesn't close for engineering works at weekends!

Saturday, April 04, 2009

The Curious Incident of the Frog in the Night-time

Overnight we stayed in the Orinoco Bujana Lodge which was surprising civilised for such a remote spot. I had one of the palafittes or wooden huts all to myself and there was basic plumbing including a shower, which was a very good way to cool off when trying to get to sleep. It even had river side view so I felt very much at home.

Electricity was provided by a generator that only ran for a few hours just after sunset during the evening meal. After that we relied on candles and lamps, as in the picture below. Not only was a lot quieter without the generator, it was also gave a lovely natural light to the scene.

Of course there is the fire danger given the huts are wood and the roof is made from temiche palm and recently two such cabins had been burnt in a fire.

The lamps were there on the wooden walk ways to guide you to your cabin's door. We had been told to be very careful when going in or out to open and close the door quickly to make sure any undesirables didn't get in as well. As if to emphasise the point on the wall of the communal area there were a number of photos including one of those big hairy spiders that wasn't on my wish list for encounters in the Orinoco Delta.

The trouble was that after quickly getting in and closing the door it was pretty pitch black. I should really have taken a torch, but hadn't, and the backup plan of using the iPhone on maximum screen brightness was only useful if had it to hand and it was somewhere hidden under the pile of books, clothes, sun cream, washing things, malaria pills, water bottles etc on the spare bed.

So I felt my way into the room to the little table where I remembered the candle and matches were to be found. Having felt around and located the match box, fired the first and there was a brief bubble of light, during which I spotted that they had decorated the little table with a miniature toy frog, about 2 cm long.

How nice I thought, as the match went out (too soon) so lit a second. In its light I saw that the little toy frog had moved and by the time I'd got the candle alight completely disappeared!

Hmm.... thinks I: if a frog that is clearly not inanimate managed to get in what else is hiding in the dark corners of the room?

It was a bit of a shame that hadn't managed to take a picture of the little frog to add to my wildlife collection - if only to reassure myself that I hadn't imagined it.

So next time I came in (after dinner, preparing for bed) before lighting the first match I took a couple of pics of the table. Initially I was very disappointed as in the preview screen at the back of the camera no little frog was to be found.

However when preparing to write this post I noticed that there is a something lurking just over the edge of the table, a something that retreats further into the dark in the second pic (see the highlighted area).

It might indeed be the missing frog - but it could also have been one of the creepy crawlies that emerged sometime during the night to feast on my legs. Apparently Englishman's leg was on the menu and it was even tastier than termites!

Friday, April 03, 2009

Wildlife in the Orinoco Delta

One of the many amazing things about the Orinoco Delta was the wildlife on display. Of course a lot of it was rather good at hiding from that primary predator called man, but some were more vocal in announcing their presence.

In particular a group of howler monkeys, such as the one above, started a group screeching sometime very early in the morning when it was very dark that got through my ear plugs (though was able to get back to the land of nod).

Having woken us all up they then have a mid morning snooze in the trees, like the chap below. I was very tempted to wake him up to see how he liked it!

There were also lots of birds on display. Alas I am terrible at recognising birds and my guide spent most of her time speaking German for the rest of the tour group so missed their names (any info most welcome).

However even I think that this is some sort of parrot:

One of the interesting thing about them (more below) is that they weave their nests - very clever!

Sorry to say have no idea what this is but looks magnificent!

Ditto for this wierd creature (indeed might be the above on a perch):

We went for a trek through the jungle which was very hot and sticky. There were lots of these termites colonies and we were invite to have a taste. So I wet my finger to make it sticky, put it where there were lots of them crawling around till had a reasonable haul, then put my finger in my mouth.

Hmm... yum, very nice. Their taste? Well, like termites, obviously!

Later went for a swim in the wide muddy waters of the Orinoco River, about where we saw these fresh water dolphins. My friend Anna says you should never bother to take pictures of dolphins as all you ever get are shots of fins like this, but that is better than another piece of water:

Funnily enough when the tour leader asked who from our group wanted to go for a swim there was only one enthusiastic volunteer who clearly was one of those crazy Brits. It might have been something to do with what we had caught fishing just an hour before - piranhas!

When it was dark we went looking for those creatures that come out at night and spotted this snake - honest it is there I promise!

Then there was the curious incident of the frog in the night time.......

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Under a tropical night sky

I remember gliding down a channel in the Orinoco Delta.

It is pitch dark, the sort of dark you get where there are no cities, no towns, no street lighting. The native guide has switched off the powerful light he was using to spot the reflected eyes of wildlife hiding in the rain forest. The engine is switched off too, so we drift silently.

But it is not quiet, as there is the background sounds of the jungle from the crickets and croaks of the frogs.

Above the sky is clear and the stars are bright. I can make out Orion high above and search for other constellations, but it is a strange mix of the northern and southern, it is a tropical night sky.

The crescent moon is setting, a sliver slither that isn't bright enough to blot out the stars and the path of the Milky Way can be seen clearly.

I spot a satellite flying high above, a light that varys slowly as it tumbles. There's the glowing line of a meteorite and the flash flash of fire flies.

It is a magical moment that I will never forget.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Is Ben Ainslie Aqua Stig?

Howdy folks, Buff Staysail here, Buff by name and Buff by nature!

I'm out here in the fair state of California and was asked by JP to post while he was off up the Orinoco or whatever he's doing, and I've got a pippin for you too. My research amungst the Bay area sailors has revealed what has long been sailings big secret, namely who is behind those famous all weather gears of Top Yacht's Aqua Stig.

It is I can exclusively reveal none other than Ben Ainslie - three times gold medalist and of course a world expert of Laser sailing.

I'm sure you'll all be as excited at me at this scoop and ask JP for more of the ol' BS magic!

Update: JP here, just got back, and what sort of post do you call that Buff? It was late and of course is complete tosh as Aqua Stig and Ben Ainslie completed against each other in the [censured] Laser Championship back in [censored] and there are photos of them together on the quay side of [censored] which can be found by a quick google. Did you do that research late at night in some bar?

Update - update! BS here again, hey, well I won't bother next time! And by the way what ever you do not ask JP about his travels as he's already been yacking away about eating termites, swimming in rivers where there are pirana fish, and something about the curious incident of the frog in the night time.