Saturday, July 31, 2010

Book Review: The Last Grain Race

This is such a classic tale that it is hard to know what to say about it without repeating it word for word.

The book tells the true story of how Eric Newby signed on to the four masted barque the Moshulu on the traditional trading route from Belfast in Northern Ireland to Port Victoria in Australia. Here they load with grain and join a small but select fleet of tall ships racing back to Britain.

It was to be the last ever such race, for they arrived back in June 1939 just weeks before war started, and the world was never the same. Never again did these great ships sail the trade winds across the wild seas of the southern ocean.

One thing was certain: it was a very hard life, and very badly paid. If (say) a bucket was dropped overboard it would come out of the sailors wage, which were pretty meagre. An apprentice like Newby was on just 10 shillings a month, and out of that he had to pay for a lost hammer and cigarettes bought on-board.

The food sounded awful, the bed bugs huge and hungry, the company rough to the point of aggressive, the watches relentless, the rigging dangerously high, the work backbreaking, and the boats riding potentially lethal storms without any insurance.

But it was a moment in history, the last in the line of oceanic voyages by sail that goes back through the history of Dampier and Hawkins, an era that has come and gone.

Ironically I read recently that in order to cut costs and CO2 emissions, shipping lines are reducing their speeds until they are less than the average that Moshulu and her sister's achieved on their last great race.

As to who won that last ever race? Well if you've read the book you'll know and if you haven't I won't spoil it for you. For The Last Grain Race is one of the classics of sailing history.

Friday, July 30, 2010

What the fadom?

So I was re-reading The Tempest after Monday's trip on my iThing and something didn't seem right in this bit:

    Full fadom five thy father lies,
    Of his bones are coral made:
    Those are pearls that were his eyes:
    Nothing of him that doth fade,
    But doth suffer a sea-change
    Into something rich and strange.
    Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell

Shurely shome mishtake, thinks I. Maybe it was scanned or something... I'll just email the App makers and let them know.

But no! It was right, sort of, because "fadom" is an alternate spelling in ye olde English for fathom. However the Shakespeare App maker also said they tried to use modern spelling and so will update the text to say "fathom".

You learn something new every day.

The picture above, btw, is just a random pic of a rather nice sunset taken after yesterday's evening kayak on the Thames, trying out the new iThing's camera. Slightly disapointing to be honest, but maybe there's an App to fix that too.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Yo ho ho and a bottle of £ 600 rum?

On the 31st July 1970 the Royal Navy toasted goodbye to it's daily ritual of the tot of rum, on what it called "Black Tot Day".

Forty years on the remains of that last consignment of Royal Navy rum are up for sale at a staggering £ 600 per bottle (ok, technically on sale for £ 599 at this site, but shipping is £5 so a spot of rounding seemed sensible).

Tasting notes, to be found on the main site here, use phrases like:

The Nose Initial treacle notes precede dark chocolate with super-ripe black fruits, muscovado sugar & walnuts. A drop of water releases notes of black banana, liquorice root, tamarind paste with an exotic edge of balsamic.

However I'm going save myself that £ 600 odd by going direct to the dark chocolate, black fruits, muscovado sugar, walnuts, banana and balsamic, all of which I have stashed away in cupboards at home.

After all that's the price of an Apple iPad or iPhone 4!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Shakespeare and the sea

Yesterday, as you might have guessed from the last post, was off to the Old Vic to see Shakespeare's The Tempest, which starts off with a dramatic storm at sea.

And it got me wondering about the bard's nautical connections, for that is not the only shipwreck in his plays, and he is famous for saying things like "There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune."

Despite his early years in land-locked Stratford it was in London that he wrote his main plays, and in those days London was already a great sea port. In the Elizabethan age its population was much smaller, likely around 200,000, clustered around what we now call The City and Westminster, and across the river in Southwark, the home of The Globe theatre.

Here Shakespeare could not be unaware of the ships coming and going in the Pool of London, barges and barques, river traffic and those heading across oceans. No doubt he would have talked to captains over a pint or two of beer in some pub by the banks of the Thames, and the ebb and flow of the tide would have been as well known as the rush hours of today, and as important to traffic.

It made me think of the book I'd read recently, The Defeat of John Hawkins. At first I thought they might be contemporary but the Hawkin's third voyage was 1567 - 69 when Shakespeare would have been just three. However he was 24 when the great Spanish Armada came threatening England's shores, and when the likes of Hawkins and Drake went out to battle in their galleons.

Those days of fear and the relief at eventual victory, combined with the stories of ship's captains of lands across the ocean must have made a huge impact on him, as can be found by the references dotted thought-out his plays.

Wishing to know more I did the inevitable Google and found this book with the title "Shakespeare and the Sea" which sounds like should just the thing. I then found a second hand copy on Ebay with a Buy It Now Button which then, in the heat of the moment, clicked upon.

While slightly concerned it might just be a list of quotes I'm hoping for more, for this could be a fascinating subject. The connections between England's greatest play-write and our maritime history should be a good read, but for now all I can do is just sit and wait for the parcel to drop through the letter box.

It could even be a holiday read, but that might be asking too much. Either way it will no doubt become the subject of a future post.

Updated: review here

Monday, July 26, 2010

On a ship at sea

        Here, master: what cheer?
        Good, speak to the mariners: fall to't, yarely,
        or we run ourselves aground: bestir, bestir.
Enter Mariners
        Heigh, my hearts! cheerly, cheerly, my hearts!
        yare, yare! Take in the topsail. Tend to the
        master's whistle. Blow, till thou burst thy wind,
        if room enough!

Of course I might have been dreaming......

....we are such stuff as dreams are made on....

Friday, July 23, 2010

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Seals on Blakeney Point

One of the "things to do" at Blakeney is to go on one of the many trips out to Blakeney Point to do a bit of seal and bird watching.

Actually the tourists boats no longer go from Blakeney since it silted up and you must now walk the mile or so along the coastal path to Morston where the boats come and go like buses along Oxford Street.

There really was rather a lot of them, every five minutes another pop-popping along, packed with camera toting day trippers like, er, me. Most also stop on the point so you can go for a short walk over the sand dunes to see the old lifeboat station.

I did wonder what the impact of this stream of interruptions would have on the population there. I had a look on Google maps and you can actually see the seals as short line dotted along the beach in this photo below or by clicking on this link.
There seemed a lot more then. Maybe they don't welcome being continually interrupted as they doze or go about their daily activities.

I think the best thing is to let them all in peace.... just after I take one last pic!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Cockle

Amongst all the many boats of Blakeney the one that caught my eye was the Cockle. I'm not sure if it should be called the Cockle or the rather wonderful sounding Stiffkey Cockle as per this site, but either way it looked a lovely craft.

While the modern made versions are made of simulated clinker they remain faithful to the old design, one that no doubt has enjoyed decades of pottering around the waters off Blakeney.

What was particularly impressive were the shear numbers in moorings in every creek:
And there were more out on the waters, having fun:
If I lived up at Blakeney it's just the sort of boat that I'd be tempted by.

Monday, July 19, 2010


This is the view from the Blakeney Hotel (highly recommended), taken very early in the morning of what promised to be a lovely day - though of course there is the saying "Red sky in the morning, shepherd's warning."

Fortunately was able to get back to sleep and later the village was a bit more awake, including these brave swimmers and many boats small enough to get up the silted up creek.
The silt ended Blakeney's long history as a commercial port, where it and prospered from exporting the rich agricultural products of Norfolk. Plus, according to Wikipedia, undertaking a bit of piracy.

Now Blakeney, along with the villages along Norfolk's north coast, are much quieter, apart from the influx of tourists. But it is a very pretty corner of England, where property prices are no doubt extortionately high and locals are priced out by weekending Londoners.

You can see why: attractive unspoilt villages, pebble built houses with buckets of character, lots of places to row, kayak and sail, and lovely walks enjoying under skys that really do seem bigger.
Alas even here you can not escape the British weather, and while enjoying a nice morning walk within minutes of this photo we were drenched by a squall.

What was that about shepherd's warning?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Catching up with Keep Turning Left

I've been meaning to catch up with Dylan Winter's videos of him on his voyage around Britain in a little boat he calls the slug in which he keeps turning left.

Though I've been getting the odd YouTube subscription email and though always enjoy the vids, had to a degree lost track of how far he'd got. But this afternoon there was not just one but five that I had to watch without delay.

Because Dylan's latest (first to be found here) are from the Norfolk Broads round to Blakeney. And it just happens that this weekend was at a family get-together - yup, in Blakeney.

The picture above is of Blakeney itself with hotel on left and creek centre stage. More photos to come but now I've got to search through the pics, looking in the background for Dylan's slug......

Friday, July 16, 2010

Writing like...

According to this site I write a bit like Margaret Attwood, Dan Brown, Arthur C. Clarke, Ian Fleming, James Joyce, Stephen King, H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allen Poe, J. D. Salinger, Jonathan Swift and P. G. Wodehouse.

Well at least those are the writer names that popped out when I pasted in some examples of my writing. I was reassured to find out that my pastiche of a Wooster story blogged earlier this year was indeed like P. G. Wodehouse. However my fake Dan Brown was apparently more like H. P. Lovecraft, but that might be because I haven't actually read anything by him.

Though I'm told that a key attribute of a writer is that they believe in themselves. So maybe I should say that Margaret Attwood, Dan Brown, Arthur C. Clarke, Ian Fleming, James Joyce, Stephen King, H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allen Poe, J. D. Salinger, Jonathan Swift and P. G. Wodehouse write a bit like me!

Anyway, who do you write like?

Updated: changed the picture above (long story)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Two oldish boats and one really old car

One of a half dozen or so classic cars seen on Putney Embankment last weekend.

Here are the sea cadets with what looks like a real Swallows and Amazon's style of dinghy.

This is the rowing boat I tried to take a picture of last week but was thwarted by a drowned camera.

Alas it has not responded to treatment, namely being left in the airing cupboard to dry out.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Unnatural Natural Navigation

My friend Tristan teaches a great course all about how to navigate naturally. Recently for example he has been posting on his blog about using lichens to find direction, in particular in a graveyard.

Natural navigation is all about finding your way by looking for signals in the natural environment around you rather than just switching on a GPS to get a fix. Its a great idea, not just because there are times when you can't get GPS but also because it enhances the experience of being out in the open air on this great planet Earth.

However I also thought there was another category, an example of which was navigation using satellite antenna. In the UK most of the residential small dishes point roughly south-south-east: indeed it is impossible for a fixed (i.e. not steerable) antenna not to be pointing somewhere south, just as in Australia they must be pointing somewhere north. In Venezuela near the equator things are very different and they must point somewhere east or west, such is the geometry of the geostationary arc.

This I decided to call unnatural natural navigation, in that you created navigational information by looking at the world around you, but in this case at something man made.

And last week out on Thames I identified another example of U-NN. As is well known the Thames in London wiggles, with downstream anything from north-north-west through east to south. This can get very confusing, and sometimes one does wonder which way one is facing, particularly on those rare (ah-hm) days when its cloudy.

The answer can be found in the sky, where the aircraft heading to London Heathrow go in a dead straight line west. So you can use that to work out which way you're heading in a trice, just by looking up. The pic above by the way is from a rather humid day when the lower pressure above the aircraft's wing was just enough to get that cloud to form.

Of course this navigational technique isn't quite up to the skills on display by the Warao people of the Orinoco Delta of Venezuela.

But then I suspect they see a lot less aircraft. If they lived under the Heathrow flight path then who knows - maybe they'd have developed this technique instead!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Book Review: The Defeat of John Hawkins

I bought this book second hand some time ago and it sat quietly on my shelves. It didn't look promising, dull with its shabby cover, written in the fifties and after all about a defeat. But after I picked it up I was entranced.

It tells the story of John Hawkins's third voyage to the New World via Africa, for alas he was slave trader, and then over to the Spanish colonies to sell his ware. He was one of the first to ply the Atlantic Triangle, from Europe to Africa, to the Americas and then home, hopefully making a profit on ever leg.

The book is written with so much detail that at first I thought it must be fictionalised. But apparently the voyage was very well documented, with everyone from captain down to ship's boy writing up their experiences, and so you can get a real idea of what life must have been like on-board.

They had wild adventures up uncharted rivers of Africa, taking sides in tribal conflicts and then sailing an ocean and convincing the Spanish governors they wanted to trade in slaves. This was illegal according to laws dictated by Madrid but Hawkins managed to convince them otherwise, usually by pointing a canon at them

They were on their way home when Hawkins's luck changed, and in a massive storm in the Gulf of Mexico his ships were damaged so badly they had to find a port to undertake repairs. But the only one available was Spanish, and not just any port, but the one where the flota was due to arrive.

He hoped to be in and out before they appeared on the horizon, but it was not to be, and what resulted was the Battle of San Juan de Ulua, which is not on the list of English victories.

Two boats from Hawkins's fleet escaped heavily overloaded, and 110 men were left behind to make their way by land. Most were captured by the Spanish and enslaved, though some were offered positions of responsibility. A recurring theme was of efforts to escape and make their way home, and some managed it, while others were caught.

And they those that were caught were faced with the Inquisition. Its worth remembering that this is not the buffoons of Monty Python fame, but legal minds trained in torture.

The most amazing story was that of David Ingram who claims he walked three thousand miles from Mexico to Nova Scotia in 11 months: in some minds too amazing and there doubts about how trust worthy his tale was.

In the end this voyage was a failure, many of the crew died or were captured. But it taught Hawkins much, and from these skills he and his fellows were able to lead the English fleet in later years against the Spanish Armada.

And one of those fellows was a surviving captain from that voyage, who too had first hand experience of how to battle the Spanish. His name: Francis Drake.

But that is by the by. The core of the story is the wild adventures they had, how unknown, wide and untamed the world was in those days. They were on their own, making rules up as they went, guts and glory.

An extraordinary story.

Friday, July 09, 2010

News clip of the SS Great Britain

For those interested in the story of the SS Great Britain, as posted on earlier this week, but frustrated by the BBC's iPlayer UK only rule, you can click here for a video from the more global news site.

It's only a short clip but has some nice shots of the rescue and the restored boat.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

A proper summer

Us Brits like to grumble about the weather, particularly if we can add a dollop of nostalgia at the same time. "We used to have proper summers" is a typical complaint "when it was warm and sunny for weeks on end."

Well by golly that is just what we are having in London, and I have concrete proof: I have been out kayaking four weeks in a row! And every time it was as perfectly warm as you could want and what can only be described as summery.

Above you can see Putney Bridge earlier this evening.

There were also out on the Thames some rowing boats, old wooden ones that is not the racing type, which I thought Chris would have been interested in. Alas the "water proof" bag the camera was in turned out to be "water collecting" and soon after I took the photo above the on switch made no difference.

Ah well, it was a lovely evening.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The return of the SS Great Britain

It's the 40th anniversary of the return of the SS Great Britain to her home port, and in commemoration there's to be a series of events in Bristol.

The SS Great Britain was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, arguably the greatest engineer of the Victorian era, when the British Empire was at it's height.  And it was what I was going to say the Concorde of its day, though that too is now a museum piece. It was the world's first propeller driven iron hulled steamship, and the first of the great ocean liners to connect the old world to the new.

It's launch was a huge event back in 1843 attended by royalty, and its return was one too, when a hundred thousand people lined the route as it came back under another of Brunel's great achievements, the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

The rescue of the Great Britain was an epic story in itself. After suffering storm damage in 1886 she was abandoned in the Falkland Islands where she rusted away in a forgotten bay.

After a national campaign a rescue mission was mounted that had to struggle with weather, the decaying structure, and it's very size: for example it had the largest ever wooden masts.

But they managed to re-float her and then manoeuvre her onto a sunk barge which was then pumped out to take her over eight thousand miles back to her home country.

Since her return she has been wonderfully restored: just compare the before and after pictures here:

In BBC is marking the anniversary by a range of programs and web site posts, as described here.

My favourite is the original Chronicle TV program of the rescue first broadcast back in 1970 which is available on the BBC archive here (not sure if can be streamed outside the UK). It may be a bit faded but the story is as gripping as it was back then, though probably all I saw were the highlights on Blue Peter.

There's also going to be another program next week which will give an update and I'm looking forward to iPlaying that. Alas no plans to go over to Bristol to visit the ship and exhibition in person though it no doubt will be well visited over the coming weeks.

It's strange how lumps of rusting metal covered in barnacles can bring an emotional response, but the SS Great Britain does for me. It's a combination of respect for the engineer that built it and the times he lived in, and how the ship reflected an important part of British history.

But mostly its for the story of the ship herself, the rise and fall and rise again; from launch so many years ago, to forgotten hulk, to finally her safe return to her home port.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Ebony and Ivory at Trafalgar

The song calls for ebony and ivory to live in perfect harmony. But a documentary on TV last week described how together they fought the French and Spanish at Trafalgar.

"England Expects" was what Nelson called for, but the fleet was a mixed bag of nationalities and races. The British Navy (for it wasn't just the English) was for its time relatively egalitarian. It needed sailors, lots of them, and how they worked was more important than the colour of their skin.

Of the 18,000 sailors in the fleet there were 1,400 non-Brits from 25 nationalities. The program looked at the log-book of HMS Bellerophon, which included Swedes, Danes, West Indians, French (possibly Royalists) and American's (one white who was press ganged and one black, likely a run away slave).

Indeed there was maybe a couple of hundred coloured sailors, mostly ex-slaves for whom a life in the Royal Navy was better than that in the plantations.

While below decks black and white could work together as one, there remained limits in promotion opportunities. The quarter deck was beyond reach, a petty officer role was the most they could hope for.

But their role was not forgotten. The frieze above is from one side of Nelson's column in Trafalgar Square, and on the far left there is clearly an African sailor, one of the crew along with Nelson.

The face might look different, but the navy in 1805 was one of the few institutions where that meant less than what a person could do. And that was one of the factors that led to them winning the day, beating the combined fleets of both France and Spain.

Updated: O'Docker kindly tweaked the pic to make the faces stand out more

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Jurassic London

These are life size pterosaurs, flying monsters the size of Spitfires, and there are currently three of them suspended above the South Bank complex. Two more are on the ground, nurturing their eggs and eating small dinosaurs.

It is quite a display and they are as realistic as possible, courtesy of the University of Portsmouth. Worth checking out but hurry as they will be flying away after tomorrow evening.

South Bank site here, BBC short film of their installation here and Wikipedia article here.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Google Mash-up Thames Clubs

On my bike rides down to Kingston and back have often been amazed at the number of sailing, kayaking/canoeing and rowing clubs along the way. I've toyed with the idea of making a Google mash-up showing where they all are, but alas there are so many more things one could do than can be done.

But then there isn't a need to do everything when others are just as able to do the same. So if you click here you'll get to a site that shows things like the clubs and slipways along the river Thames. Though it isn't complete - pretty sure I can think of some not on it.

It's part of a new Port of London Authority (PLA) web site for leisure users on the river: "Making the most of the Thames"

Well worth a wander around.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Blogs & Spies

I was reading an article on The Register about the alleged Russian spy ring unearthed by the FBI recently, including Anna Chapman (above). It claims they communicated using "steganography".

According to Wikipedia this involves hidden messages in open text or pictures that can be in plain view. And one example of this is leaving comments on blogs!

Golly! So those might be harmless comments about the yacht on the Thames. Or they might be instructions by an evil-doer (no doubt stroking a white cat with one hand) to let loose the sharks to attack humble kayakers on the Thames (i.e. me).

But how to spot these fiends? What clues would they leave? Maybe one should look for a poster that comments a lot and then decides later on to have his own blog as a cover story.......

Keep your eyes open, fellow bloggers!