Thursday, July 31, 2014

Buff's America's Cup Adventure: Night Encounter

All that day we powered on eastwards.

At times I’d wondered what the outside world would be thinking, what the headlines would be. Most would guess yet another capsize, and search parties would be looking for splintered carbon fibre or support boats with engine failure. No one would be looking 1,000 nautical miles away, a distance that stretched further every hour.

Michael, Rachel, Ali and all were getting the hang of this beast, trimming more subtly, keeping the animal from bucking us off. Both hulls were clear of the water, with only the rare nose dip leading to “we’re going to die” thoughts.

In the afternoon I dozed again, escaping the afternoon sun in the shade of the jib, dreaming I was on a train flying across the Australian outback, back in the days of Walkabout. It felt good and I even forgot about the lack of beers.

When I woke the old fears returned, and I tried to have a quiet word with Ali.

“We're an unarmed civilian vessel in International Waters taking medicines to hospitals: to attack us would be a war crime" he said.

There are times when I wish I listened to the news and this was one of them. I could tell that Ali would simply go where ever Rachel wanted to go, making her dreams become real.

In a way they all seemed to have been captured by the image: the great yacht, wing-sail mirroring the sky, flying metres above the water, racing to Gaza. It was that picture that kept them going, that mattered to them, more than the West-Eastern Yacht Club, more than the medicines or surgical spares, more than the memories of suffering and death.

Over dinner I got chatting to the bearded guitar player Samar and the suffer dude Gideon and we exchanged yarns and jokes as the sun set, and it was one of those best friends forever moments. They “got” Buff and I got them.

But I could tell the tension was rising, and they kept telling each other how amazing it was to be sailing a foiling cat at 45 knots. Which it was, but as the darkness fell the fears returned.

Ali had a GPS and he kept track of how many hours we had to landfall. At midnight we had our first encounter with the blockading fleet. A bright light appeared, a floodlight tracking us but whatever it was it couldn't keep up, quickly dropping astern with shouts from a megaphone.

The next boats were faster, but not quite fast enough. A pair of them appeared at our bow, screaming at us to stop, but Ali just called out “trim, trim, trim” and Michael steered between them while Rachel turned on the VHF radio for the first time since Palermo.

“No weapons, no fight! Civilians!” she said.

They seemed calm but I was looking for somewhere to hide, and I was right for next thing the Israeli boats were firing at us, bullets snapping over my head.

Jeez, to be back in a bar, any bar, anywhere.

To  be continued....

(or you can read the earlier version of part 12 here)

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Buff's America's Cup Adventure: Secret Rendezvous

It was a little fishing boat, packed with boxes which they started lugging aboard.

Suddenly my suspicions came flooding back - what was in those boxes? Could it be guns? Explosives?

Jeez, was that what this was all about? Had Luna Rossa been selected as the most souped up gun-running blockade breaking speed boat on the planet? Not that it wasn’t pretty good at that. The netting between the two hulls could be used to rope down a lot of those boxes, and there was nothing on water that could catch us.

And they’d be ducking away at the sight of even the slightest whiff of another boat on the horizon.

Oh my god! Had Buff’s deep sea intuition guessed the true story straight away - these truly were the pirates of the Med, genuine gun toting bandits! I had to get away and on land as quickly as possible.

My face must have given me away - or the way I backed away to the furthest corner of the leeward hull - but Rachel came over.

“Relax, Buff” she said. “Do you really still not trust us? You are funny.”

Me? Well I do tell a good joke.

“Come and see for yourself.”

I followed her, wondering how she looked so cool and pretty after a day at sea on a monstrous yacht in the baking heat of day.

“Look” she said, as Doha strapped down some more boxes. “Medicines, bandages, baby food, nothing nasty.”

“And this” said Doha. It was just another box to me.

“We’d ordered a whole range of surgical components for the catheterization theatre at European Gaza Hospital. It was out of action for several months... and that was before the Israeli's starting bombing and destroying the hospitals... before they began to run out of medicines...”

Jeez, women. All of a sudden she was crying, and Rachel sniffing too, comforting Doha.

There was a silence, broken by sniffs and the slap of waves against the hulls, and I wanted to be somewhere else.

“No more; never again” said Doha, making cutting motions with her hand. She stood up and marched to the little fishing boat, or at least as well as one could over netting.

“Her sister - Ali’s other sister - died when the machine broke” said Rachel, softly. “I was visiting Gaza with a Code Pink delegation. It broke my heart; it opened my eyes. So we take these medicines to break the blockade, to remind the world that this is wrong. These are war crimes.” 

I don’t get politics but I didn’t want to see Rachel cry again. So when the fishing boat left I stayed on-board and we headed off again, flying faster than the wind, to do a good deed.

To  be continued....

(or you can read the earlier version of part 11 here)

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Buff's America's Cup Adventure: The first night

Jeez, if I live to a hundred I’ll never forget that night.

Racing east across a moonlit sea, flying at a height of a metre or two above the waves, effortlessly, near silent apart from the creak of sheets and winches.

It was dreamlike, as if some joker had either paused reality with a huge remote control or set it on fast forward or maybe both, looping us around and around the same couple of seconds. But what an ace couple of seconds they were. Made me all poetic like, imagining that the wave tops were beer foam and the moon ice cream.

And it wasn’t just a couple of seconds, it was hour after hour, so long they had to break into two watches, Rachel leading one and Ali the other, while Michael was on standby.

Every now and then a hull would drop and its prow would crash into a crest sending a fire hose of spray blasting through the yacht. They seemed to keep the nose a bit higher afterwards, no doubt fearing the Oracle Team USA nose-dive-of-death or remembering poor Andrew Simpson.

I bunked down in a sleeping bag in the leeward hull and tried to get some kip, lulled to sleep by the bearded Samer, who turned out to be a crooner and guitar player of some skill, learnt while passing time out at sea on his fishing boat.

You’re probably wondering about the facilities given Luna Rossa was designed as a day sail. Well there was a no nonsense approach involving a bucket stored in the leeward hull and we just chucked the contents over the side. To be honest I missed and that lovely mirrored hull, well, let’s just say it was a bit less reflecting the next morning. But I’d gone easy on the beers (as in none) so they’d been less heads trips than normal, which was a plus for all.

I had this great dream that I can’t remember and woke a couple of times. Once I saw the moon set behind us and the next time it was gone. I remember thinking jeez how do they sail this thing in the dark but managed to drift off again.

Dawn seemed to come early. I couldn’t remember the last time ol’ Buff had been up with birds so to speak (unless you mean the other sort).

I wondered where we were. We’d been going 40 something knots most of the night so could be as much as 500 nautical miles from Palermo. If the boat had been reported as missing who’d look this far away after such as short time? And still we powered on, Rachel and Ali’s watches switching over every four hours.

After the sun rose they kept a pretty good eye out, changing course to avoid the slightest blip on the horizon. I’d doubt anyone saw us as the mirrored wing just reflected the sky as if we were some sort of stealth rocket-ship, which I guess we were.

Once they let me helm and wow was that amazing. We hit 45 knots and that’s easy Buff’s speed record. They had to prize my hands off the wheel - literally.

“Better let me drive, Buff” said Rachel. “You’re going the wrong way.”

Ok, I might have been headed up a touch.

Soon after we spotted this little boat, and this time we didn’t do a runner but went right up to it and heaved-too. It was as if they were expecting it to be there.

“What’s up?” I asked, journo-like.

To  be continued....

(or you can read the earlier version of part 10 here)

Monday, July 28, 2014

Buff's America's Cup Adventure: Falafel and foiling

Turned out there was nothing to drink on-board, just water. Jeez, if I’d be planning things would have been very different.

There wasn’t even a cooker so it was all cold, and vegi at that. Buff wouldn’t have said no to a nice steak sandwich at this point but it was a wrap with brown balls inside, balls that opened up to some sort of green mush. Falafel they called it, and seemed to like it too, plus all the rabbit food and sauce around it. Homemade hummus dip followed by some sort of lemony sticky cakes and more water, the drink of last resort.

Over this lightweight meal I got chatting to the others such as Isaac, a tech-head who’d spent the last six months skipping engineering lectures at Auckland University to head out on a RIB to watch, video and learn from Team New Zealand and Luna Rossa’s training program.

“They thought I was a spy for Oracle” he grinned.

Then there was a pair called Ghazi and Samer I had trouble distinguishing which was which so I mentally called Tweedledee and Tweedledum. One was a fisherman and the other a farmer but jeez, who knew which was which. They both had cream coloured slacks and thick black beards.

One seemed to keep to himself: Gideon looked like a surfer dude with curly hair, wrap-around sunglasses and obligatory shorts and t-shirt. He’d grab a bit of food then head for the prow to watch the leeward hull slice the water in two.

As I grabbed another of those lemon cakes (rather moreish they were too) Ali introduced me to Doha.

“Buff, I’d like you to meet my sister” he said.

Sister! Maybe I’d been so taken by Rachel I hadn’t noticed there was another woman on-board. She’d been in the background, quiet, helping out in a dozen places, and I’d only seen the back of her head.

She shook my hand. “You must tell the world” she said, before turning back to tidy up the dinner.

Baffling: woman are like that.

Rachel and Ali returned from the foredeck where they’d been inspecting the dagger-boards and foils. With the setting sun behind them they’d been little more than silhouettes, cardboard cut-outs against a glittering sea.

“Is it time?” asked Michael.

“I want to foil” said Rachel, her eyes sparkling like the water, and Ali, watching her, nodded.

“We should lower the foils then bear away” he said. “We are out of sight of land and our new easterly course would be safe deep water all the way.”

Michael nodded.

“Do it” he said.

Ali’s seemed to smell the wind, feeling for its angle - which was a bit like putting your head out of car’s window while driving at 30 mph - then called out to Gideon who abandoned his vigil on the prow and bounced over the netting to the port hull and winched down the foil, locking it into place.

There was a slight upwards lurch, but there was still not enough lift to bring to hulls clear, not yet, we were not sailing fast enough.

“Ready” said Ali to Michael.

The big man looked apprehensive, a bit like Brian Blessed about to go on a first date. Gingerly he turned the wheel, and the yacht, a flying building his to command, turned to port; slowly at first, but controlled. Rachel looked up at the wing and gave orders to bearded twins Ghazi and Samar who slowly winched, opening out the wing, increasing its lift. Isaac and Gideon were at the other coffee grinder, letting out the headsail.

For a moment Luna Rossa seemed unsure, like a horse when its stable door has just opened, poking its nose cautiously outside. Then as if released from chains it bolted forward, straining at an invisible leash, hulls breaking through waves with clouds of spray. Michael kept his focus, adjusting the helm rapidly from side to side, holding Luna Rossa to its track. There were a couple of bumps as the speed increased, the showering sound amplified a thousand times and then it was like the boat had been lifted by a giant, maybe Neptune himself. Upwards we rose, hoisted into the sky by the foils under us. As we climbed we accelerated as if a rocket was attached to our tail until we were well over 40 knots, racing smoothly over the waves rather than through them.

It was astonishing: we were going twice as fast as before but much quieter. It was less like sailing and more like sitting on a train, looking out of the window at the sea apart from the gale in one's face.

Doha came back to the stern to stand by me and Michael, grinning broadly.

“This is amazing” she said. “Whatever happens later this was worthwhile.”

I didn’t know what she was talking about, but she was right. It was am-az-ing!

To  be continued....

(or you can read part 9 here)

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Buff's America's Cup Adventure: The West-Eastern Yacht Club

I’d found myself a spot at the stern next to the big chap who was steering, and Rachel came back and joined us, which was nice. I felt a bit safer with her there, to be honest.

“We keep on this heading for two hours” she said, “then change course during the night.”

I thought it was time to do my journo thing, ask a few probing questions, like.

“What the fuck is going on?”

They laughed, and I suddenly realised who the big guy reminded me of: Brian Blessed. He had the same deep belly laugh and beard.

“Buff, I’d like you to meet Michael” said Rachel.

“Welcome aboard” he said. He seemed a lot more relaxed than a couple of hours earlier, and kept his eyes on the horizon and sail rather than me.

“Are you pirates?” Which to be honest was a stupid question: of course they were pirates.

“Not really” she said. She took the gun off Michael and gave it to me. The moment I held it in my hand I could tell it was fake, lightweight and plastic. A toy.

“I got it in a Palermo toy shop” said Michael. “I was an actor - played Julius Caesar at the Ramallah Play House.”

He leant back and took one hand off the wheel.

“Let me have men about me that are fat” he quoted, looking at me (cheeky!) and laughed again. “Then I became a fisherman, sailing the waters of the Med.”

“But you hijacked this boat?”

“Borrowed” Rachel said. “We wanted something fast, something that would be iconic, something the media couldn’t ignore, something sufficiently valuable to protect us. We are sailors, Ali and I, that’s how we got together, racing Foiling Moths in a reservoir in London, near Heathrow. Truly we wouldn’t want to damage something as amazing as this.”

The sun was setting in the west, directly ahead.

“We are the West-Eastern Yacht Club” she said.

“You what?”

“Isaac named us” she said.

One of the men on the grinders turned and raised a hand, before a command from Ali made him turn back to trim the wing.

“Isaac was a bassoon player for the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, created by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said to bring Palestinians and Israelis together. But he realised it was changing nothing, just normalising the occupation. We have to act, do something, something together. Isaac and I are Jews, Ali is a Muslim, Michael a Christian and together we can achieve the spectacular.”

Politics; strewth, not my strong point.

“Is there anything to drink?”

“Yes” said Michael. “We should have something to eat before it gets dark.”

“And drink” I said. Let’s get first things first.

To  be continued....

(or you can read part 8 here)

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Buff's America's Cup Adventure: Pirates of the Mediterranean

The Sunseeker re-started its engines and headed off north, towing the RIB behind it. As the rumble of its engines gradually faded it became suddenly peaceful, the sun warming my face as the breeze cooled it, the slap-slap of waves against the hull. It was a good time to look around me.

I’d seen the cat from afar of course, but I’d never been on-board. The scale was overwhelming, that wing towered over us like a skyscraper with mirrored windows, winches as big as beer barrels, ropes industrial strength, hulls long but dagger thin, separated by empty space. Where most cruising cats had a wide plastic space for sunbathing and BBQs all she had was netting, on which I took a few tentative bounces like a kid. It felt good - maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all.

“We should get going” said the big man. “Ali, Rachel, now is the time to show us what you know.”

I saw them exchange a worried glance and then simultaneously draw in a big breath, then Ali grinned and Rachel nodded back.

“Let’s go sailing” she said.

While the big man was in command it was those two that were the experts. They did a tour of the boat together, checking out the lines, talking rapidly. Their language might not be one that Buff knows but some words didn’t need translation, such as mainsheet, wing, hydraulics, backstay, forestay, jib, back, foil and trim. Ali tugged on halyards while Rachel tracked the line back to the coffee grinders and switches, then in reverse she’d get two of the more muscular ones to grind slowly and Ali would check which line went taught. They’d flex the wing, bringing it left and right, testing as a pilot would an aircraft before take-off. Then they’d be pointing, working out things, agreeing to plans with a nod.

No one asked me what I thought.

“We are ready” said Ali.

“Go” said the big man.

“We will start with the foils up” said Ali.

The jib had already been rigged, it just had to be unfurled with a grind of its sheets by Rachel and her crew with Ali in charge of the foredeck. Partially open it backed, while the wing was swung in the opposite direction, together pushing Luna Rossa’s nose away from the wind.

“Photos, Buff, photos” said Rachel, and I clicked away.

There was this trickling sound, then it was like being in a car when the driver put his foot down, hard. The boat accelerated and we were suddenly racing, the waves flashing by, and the trickle became a gurgle, then that showering sound of spray against the hull. Smoothly, like a bridge being raised, the windward hull rose out of the water.

We were sailing. Already we must have been doing 15 knots and none of the sails were properly trimmed.

“Easy” said the big man from the wheel.

“It’s fine” said Ali. He grinned, though anxiously looking around.

“Power her up” said Rachel to the grinders, and with a groan of sheets we were away, slicing upwind through the waves, well over 20 knots. We were heading west, away from Palermo.

But where were we going? And why?

To  be continued....

(or you can read part 7 here)

Friday, July 25, 2014

Buff's America's Cup Adventure: Capturing the America’s Cup

Jesus! What was going on here!

The others dropped their ice creams (in the sea - what a bloody waste!) and split into two groups. One followed the big man onto the catamaran and started handcuffing the sailors, while the other led by Ali and Rachel went to the support boat, where they started dropping anything electrical overboard as well.

“Give us your phones, now” screamed the big man.

I don’t know about the Luna Rossa team but I was shitting my brand new boxers I can tell you that.

For a moment I wondered if I should try to send a quick text off but then they remembered me and Ali came over and frisked me. I found myself regretting it wasn’t Rachel and that cheered me up - if I could think along those lines I was staying cool enough to remain ol’ Buff.

“Sorry Buff” he said, taking my battered old BB and dropping it into those crystal blue waters. “We can’t take any chances.”

For a moment I could see it glinting under the waves then it faded away, dropping towards the sea floor.

They seem very well organised, fully equip with plenty of handcuffs and everyone with their tasks. The VHF radio was removed from the RIB, together with its engine’s spark plugs, which followed my BB down to where the water was cold, dark and still. Then all the sailors together with the support crew made to strip down to shorts and t-shirts before being shepherded onto the Sunseeker.

“We mean you no harm” said the big man. “You will be taken to an isolated beach on Sardinia, where you will be released. We just want to borrow your yacht, and we need time before anyone comes looking for it.”

Was that it? Were they just really keen AC fans who had been gagging for a sail on this high tech beauty, or was there more to their plans than that?

“Now is your last chance” said Rachel to me. “If you want to find out why we want Luna Rossa you must follow us now. Otherwise you can stay with on the Sunseeker. I should warn you it will be very dangerous: we will understand if you are scared, if you’ve had enough.”

Jeez, what to do.

I watched as Ali and the others shifted their bags into Luna Rossa’s starboard hull. So there really was more to it than I guessed, and I was thinking longingly about getting back to the hotel for a shower and clean boxers when she touched me gently on the arm.

“Please stay, Buff: we need someone willing to tell our story.”

Maybe I am a sucker for a pretty face and maybe it’s because my arm is tingling all over again at the memory of that brief contact, but I said yes, and swung my legs over the side and onto the hijacked challenger for the 34th America’s Cup.

To  be continued....

(or you can read part 6 here)

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Buff's America's Cup Adventure: Catching our yacht

It was quite a hike out there and it was then that something odd struck me. Why had they asked for me to bring an overnight bag on an ice cream delivery trip?

Maybe there'd been a change of plans, I thought. But it wouldn't be the end of the world to be back in my snug room that night, sending out emails, selling my photos and story to the world.

On the horizon I could see that wing, taller than a jumbo jet is wide, a sun bright dagger cutting the sky, powering Luna Rossa quicker than even a speed boat could travel, and if rumours were true they'd make it go even faster. As we approached I could see her head up to wind and furl that headsail, luffing up to a halt just by their support RIB. It was time to get the trusty old SLR out.

“Well done Buff” said Rachel, approvingly.

It was good to be appreciated, noticed even, as the others had been rather quiet on the way out, not responding to Buff’s gentle ribbing.

“Port side” said the big man, and the others lined up, a long row of Prada t-shirts, and Rachel handed each of them two ice creams, a selection of Magnums if I remember right, which they waved at the approaching yacht.

“Ice creams!” they screamed. “Sponsor refreshments!”

“Nice one” said one of the sailors, covered in sweat, for we were close enough for me to capture shots of the drops trickling - no, flowing - down his face.

“Cracking good idea” said another.

The skipper, not Francesco, but someone I didn’t recognise, did mutter something about no one telling him, but that was it. We were universally welcomed, which made the surprise all the greater when the big man leaped on-board and stuck a gun to the skipper’s head.

“No one move” he commanded. “And no one use a radio!”

To  be continued....

(or you can read part 5 here)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Buff's America's Cup Adventure: Prada Ice Creams

So with bag packed, underwear clean and newly purchased hat on my head I met Rachel and Ali as agreed, but found they were not alone. There were a half a dozen or so others, all young, tougher looking than Rachel, and like Ali either had a deep tan or had spent a long time in the Middle East, standing by a huge pile of sports bags.

I spotted they were all wearing Prada t-shirts and the name of the hush-hush sponsor became pretty clear. This could be good news as though the main show was over there were rumours their cat had some unseen tricks that had to be tested way offshore away from prying eyes. Not for long!

"This is the journalist, Mr Staysail" said Ali, and they muttered a greeting. There was this huge chap, like a hunk of beef, who just stared at me. It was a bit disconcerting to be honest.

"Call me Buff" says I.

"Buff!" said the big chap. It didn't sound welcoming, scornful even. "Buff!" He reminded me of someone, but couldn’t place who.

Then he and Ali were blabbing away in whatever lingo they were into. Looked nasty at one point but Rachel said something and that seemed to be it.

"So what's the story?" I asked. They had promised a scoop after all.

"We are delivering ice creams" said Rachel "to the Luna Rossa boat training out in the bay.

So I'd guessed right, sort of.

"You should wear this t-shirt too."

She rummaged around in her bag and handed me one. It was L but I'm more of an XXL chap so a bit tight around the belly area; it sounds better if you say figure hugging or streamlined.

The big chap seemed to take charge, leading us down the pontoon out to a Sunseeker, standard white plastic box fitted out for the offshore fishing day charter market. Everyone slung their bags down below and grabbed a seat: I picked one close to Rachel and Ali, not knowing anyone else.

With a roar we were off, nose pointed for the horizon, separated from us by a sea sparkling under the afternoon sun.

To  be continued....

(or you can read part 4 here)

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Buff's America's Cup Adventure: Rachel - and Ali

"G'day" I said, being friendly like.

"Hello" she said. For a moment she looked at me and boy were her eyes nice looking, brown and capable. All too often women seem to look at yours truly either as if I was an idiot or got the plague, but she seemed to see beneath the Buff exterior.

"You in Palermo for the sailing?" It was what I asked everyone, as if they said yes we'd be away if they said no I could explain all about it. Either way the ice was broken.

"Are you a sailor?" she asked.

"Buff Staysail" I said. "Journalist and writer, you might have caught my show on Queensland Community TV. And you?"

I was ever hopeful, on many levels.


"And you? A journo too?" I asked.

She seemed to think over that question. "I follow the sailing for interest" she said "with my boyfriend, who is late.”

All the nice ones seem to have other halfs.

As if on cue in came this unshaven chap with glasses wearing a leather jacket, who was typically slimmer, younger and better look than Buff, who promptly kissed Rachel. I was prepared to dislike the bloke but he was very friendly and when she explained who I was he offered to buy me a beer.

"I understand you journalists like the odd drink" he said with a smile.

As I said, he seemed a top cobber, Ali he was called.

Then Rachel and he went off jabbering in some language or other that I didn't follow. It seemed like a bit of a bummer from what I could gather from Rachel's expression, but then they started looking at me as I'd seen the farmers back in Queensland check out the calf to be slaughtered.

"Mr Staysail" began Ali.

"Call me Buff."

"Mr Staysail, would you be interested in a sailing scoop?"

Does the moon look like cream cheese? Should a rainbow be the other way up so it's smiling? Should beer be chilled?

"Scoop is my middle name" says I, which isn't true as really its Frederick or Freddie after my ma's great uncle. "Tell me all."

"We have a ... project ... that could use coverage and our contact’s father is very unwell so couldn't come. We need a replacement, fast. I can't say more now, our ...sponsor... has an embargo in place."

"No worries" says I. There had been similar restrictions about this trip.

"Meet us by the entrance to marina F, tomorrow at 4 pm. Bring an overnight bag."

I was in!

To be continued.....

(or you can read the 3rd part here)

Monday, July 21, 2014

Buff's America's Cup Adventure: The Luna Rossa Assignment

G’day all! Buff Staysail here! Buff by name and Buff by nature!

I’ve been off on another of Buff’s adventures, and it began a few weeks ago when I was invited by the Luna Rossa team to one of their media events in Sicily. Now Buff never says no to helping one of the 34rd America’s Cup teams raise their profile, especially if there’s a jolly to somewhere warm, so in a jiffy the bags were packed and yours truly was at thirty thousand feet in an aircraft heading south.

Buff must just for a moment say what stars the Luna Rossa PR team were for putting on a hit event. They picked us up direct from our hotel then whisked us out on fast RIBs for a photo-shoot to watch their boat training off Palermo. And what a sight it was - levitated by their foils, flying across waves reflected in their mirrored hulls. I’d gone snap happy, filling up the camera’s memory card with shot after shot, relishing in the strong sunshine after what has been one heck of a depressing cold and grey winter.

Who needs or wants a hat, I said at the drinks reception (top notch Italian bubbly guys) afterwards, when people commented I was looking a bit red:I was making up for six months of lost time.

We had to listen to some sort of presentation about how they’d shipped Luna Rossa back to this, the home yacht club of Circolo della Vela Scilia, to raise the team’s profile with the Italians and Sicilians (who apparently consider themselves very different). For the evening ol’ Buff considered himself one of them and rattled off a couple of ciao bellas to the PR team’s girls.

Alas the next day was not so good. I had a wall-banger of a headache and skin blistering in a dozen places, some of which, weirdly, hadn’t seen any sun. It was a day to stay indoors in the dark kept company by a bottle of water trying out the full range of after-sun lotions stocked by the pharmacy next door to the hotel.

So while the other hacks took the minibus back to the airport I asked Jenny the Luna Rossa girl if she’d be an angel and re-arrange my flight for another day. After all, I pointed out, if their boat had had a spot of shade I’d not be suffering from sunstroke.

And she agreed! Didn’t expect to get away with that one, to be honest. As I said, respect to the Luna Rossa team.

After a day self-nursing myself back to true Buff-ness it was time to get out there again and I headed down to the quay side for a cold one.

Ports, whether for fancy yacht racers or working container ships, mean sailors, and that means bars, so many that even if Buff should get chucked out of one there'd be plenty of others to explore. After a short walk I found this place called Estrella, just on the boundary between the swanky, meaning expensive, and less costly, but more homely, further down the quay side. There were hams hanging from the ceiling, curing slowly, their fat dripping into yogurt pots, bottles of red wine as decoration and a TV always on, playing or replaying football games.

All in all a good place, and imagine how my mood was helped when next to me sat down this dark haired young woman. The evening was looking up!

To be continued.....

(or you can read the second part here)

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Building the Blue Funnel Line - Ships

The first of the Blue Funnel fleet was an order for three, Agamemnon (above), Ajax and Achilles, and together they cost £ 156,000, which in today's money would be about £ 17m (according to this site).

Initially business was slow but they hung in there and made some good connections - most importantly with the Swires. One problem was that rates per tonne were initially higher than sailing ships, and it wasn't until the 1870s that their costs were lower.

By 1875 the fleet was 14 strong, ten years later it was 28, then in 1895 up to 36: steady and controlled growth, taking advantage of opportunities to buy new ships at economical prices.

There were tensions, with the Swires pushing for more, newer, faster ships: but they were thinking of the cargo they could ship, not the costs involved.

The long Victorian era of stability was not to last, and in 1914, and again in 1939, the company found itself at war.

Photo from: here

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Rowing Calendar Row

Last year's safety message from this blog about the importance of wearing a personal flotation device (PFD) was brought to you courtesy of the Warwick University Women's Rowing team.

Their annual calendar raised thousands of pounds for Macmillan Cancer Support (hurrah!) and this year they are yet again doing their bit to raise money for that charity.

But their latest calendar, an example of which is shown above, has run into a controversy with Facebook banning their page but not that of a similar calendar from the Warwick University Men's Rowing team, (as described here).

One can only hope that this publicity leads to more funds to a cause most definitely worth supporting.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Time to say goodbye to Sitemeter?

I recently posted about strange sounds coming from my blog and have been continuing to look into the possible source.

I had a look at the underlying html (in Chrone its right click on the relevant component and then "Inspect element") and there was some unexpected links in the Sitemeter section, including something called vindicosuite.

I had a google of "Sitemeter" and "Vindicosuite" and found this blog post about how Sitemeter has been taken over by a more aggressive advertising company, and some of those sounds have been advertising like, e.g. Visit Jersey!

So I took out the Sitemeter link and touching wood haven't had the problem since.

In addition I have just heard it while visiting "Hear the Boat Sing" which also uses Sitemeter, and having checked its html there was a link to Vindicosuite there too.

Things change. Technorati has gone - should we say goodbye to Sitemeter too?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Building the Blue Funnel Line - Management

In addition to good timing, the Blue Funnel Line's Holt management team made some good decisions.

Firstly they would hold off buying new ships until there was an economic downturn when prices were low.

This was helped by them being a family owned business, so they could decide to build up and keep large financial reserves.

These reserves also meant they could self-insure their boats, reducing their costs. This in turn meant they ordered their boats to the highest specification and developed their own training programs, which led to fewer accidents and losses.

They also made good decisions about agents, in particular teaming with John Swire in China. This partnership led to joint ventures and development of assets such as company owned docks.

The Holts and the Swires thought long term and knew that good business was also about good working relationships and trust.

Monday, July 14, 2014

PicoMicroYacht in Putney

As I have previously posted, I've been off sick and spent a lot of time watching the river flow by and the boats on it.

One that caught my eye was the Laser Pico dinghy (above) that had been converted into a rowing boat. I wasn't sure what the story was but took a quick pic and today Chris over at Rowing for Pleasure gave some background.

Apparently it was Robin Morris rowing the Thames from Lechlade to Greenwich, and you can find out more here and here.

Chris mentions how rain can put a damper on things and indeed for this part of his journey Robin must have been getting very wet.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Building the Blue Funnel Line - Timing

Setting up the Blue Funnel Line in 1865 turned out to be a very good decision by Alfred Holt, though it was helped by a number of factors.

Firstly it was one of the first, if not the first to use iron hulled steam powered screw propelled vessels to carry cargo between Britain and the far East.

Then it was fortunate that the Suez Canal was to open just four years later, a route that was quicker than round the Cape of Good Hope and easier for powered ships than sail.

Furthermore there was a huge growth in cargo to be transported as China and neighbouring countries opened up and there was a continuing stream of new areas of business. They were well located, with their main base in Liverpool where they were the largest shipping company.

But margins were not driven too low to be profitable as conferences with other shipping companies ensured prices that allowed long term planning.

They also made good management decisions, as will be blogged the day after tomorrow.

Image from here

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Blue Funnel Line

In 1851 my great, great, great uncle, Alfred Holt, was unemployed.  He'd finished an apprenticeship as an engineer in the railways just at they entered a depression.

After taking odd jobs including clerical work he set himself up as a consulting engineer, and was soon busy applying his steam engine skills in the shipping industry.

It was a period of rapid technological change, with the introduction of steam power, iron ships and screw propellers opening up new opportunities.

After working on his father's ships for many years Alfred Holt saw the opportunity to take steam power shipping to the furthest corners of the world: between Britain and China, to topple the tea clippers that still ruled these long distance routes.

So on the 11th January 1865 he and his brother Philip set up the Ocean Steam Ship Company. It would be one of a host of other subsidiaries known for their famous blue funnel.

It was the start of one of Britain's greatest merchant marine fleets.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Weird blog sounds

Recently I've noticed something weird about my blog: there have been sounds coming from it.

It seems to be triggered by clicking on one of the blog roll links, but I can't understand why or how to stop it. It's as if the blog has been hacked but I can't see how.

Has anyone seen this before and know what to do about it?

Monday, July 07, 2014

Noctilucent clouds over London

I have been off sick spending a lot of time staring out of the window.

I have seen a lot of boats go by and wished I could be out there on the water sailing, rowing or paddling.

And last night I saw the above - noctilucent clouds over London. More here from Wikipedia on this rare cloud formation.

There are also two building cranes: there are meant to be more in London than the whole of the rest of the UK so its hard not to include them in a shot.