Thursday, August 30, 2018

Blue ice in Svalbard

Some of the icebergs near the glacier by the Texas Bar were a very striking blue!

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

SV Delos Moonshine at the Texas Bar, Spitsbergen

The day after the dragging anchor incident, we visited the fjord above and saw the magnificent glacier. After waiting for a big cruise ship to leave, we anchored by this little wooden shack and went ashore.

This shack was the famous Texas Bar:

To be honest, I have no idea how it end up to be called this, but the ever informative Cruise Handbook for Svalbard described how it came to be built by over-winter hunters in 1927. It could be the most northerly bar in the world but there are no serving staff.

It operates on an honour basis by which visitors leave offerings which give them the right to drink from bottles left by others. For example, we found the following on the shelf inside:

And yes, that is a bottle of the SV Delos's famous moonshine, which we found in a little hut towards the north of Spitsbergen.

For it turned out that the Delos crew had recently been sailing in these very waters on the 59N yacht Isbjörn and you can read about their visit to the Texas Bar on this blog entry. It says how they found a "a cheap plastic bottle of Vodka" left by Mats the previous year. Mats was our skipper and he had been emailing Delos and been told to look out for their moonshine.

Not having brought anything I felt I couldn't have a taste but did uncork it to smell its lovely aroma.

Then we all had a tipple of choice from those bottles that other crew members had brought, which included one of my favourites, namely Bruichladdich. 


Saturday, August 25, 2018

Dragging anchor onto the rocks of Spitsbergen!

It looked like a peaceful anchorage which we shared with one other yacht (above).

This was Virgohamna, which has a remarkable history. For it was from this sheltered bay, towards the north-west of the Svalbard archipelago, that several attempts were made to reach the North Pole by balloon.  One was the incredible 1898 expedition by Swedish engineer S. A.  Andree in which all aeronauts died under mysterious circumstances. The site is protected and it is necessary to get permission from the Governor of Svalbard to land.

I was looking forward to seeing the remains of this - and other - expeditions, but it was not to be. For one, I was feeling pretty sick by this point and for another the weather turned for the worst.

From gentle 10 knots all of sudden the wind veered and strengthened, maybe some sort of katabatic wind. Going ashore on the inflatable was a challenge and so some (e.g. me) were left on the boat as the skipper took the mate (with the gun) ashore as a first run.

While they and the inflatable were away we looked over at the other yacht and to our horror saw that they had dragged their anchor across the bay onto the rocks. They were all too aware of it and came on deck to do the international distress signs of repeatedly raising and lowering hands on either side. Then the VHF sprang to life on Ch16 with urgent calls for assistance.

It was a difficult moment as actually there was very little we could do apart from signal to the skipper that rather than coming back to us he should head over to them, which he did.

By now the mast was clearly leaning to one side and things were looking a bit grim.

However it turned out that the skipper had been talking via VHF to the Governor of Svalbard's support ship overnight which meant it wasn't that far away. So he was able to call them up and, yes, indeed, they were in range and could send a fast RIB to assist.

There was an anxious wait for it, but then an orange dot appeared in a ball of spray that approached and spotted us. It was able to get a tow line on the other boat and slowly drag them back to safe waters:

In the end nothing was seriously damaged and the yacht could continue on its way. Note that I've edited the photos to remove their name.

The previous post noted the downside the Svalbard's stream of cruise ships and yachts, but this incident showed the positive. Even when things were really bad, help was on hand. In Greenland this could have been more serious, though things could have been done (e.g. use the inflatables to pull off or kedge off).

As to me, my lurgy hit bad so I retired to my bunk while the others explored ashore at Virgohamna and the relics of adventurers a hundred years ago...

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Dodging Cruise Ships in Svalbard

When you think of Svalbard you probably think about wilderness. The far north, the high arctic, glaciers and mountains: surely here you are on your own surrounded by raw nature.

But no, what you will almost certainly see is this:

You will discover that most of the time you are not alone, but sharing remote fjords with a big cruise ship and one or two smaller (and more photogenic) vessels:

For Norway is a sensible, organised country and it has worked out a way to manage the flow of boats into what it has classified as a nature reserve.

The Governor of Svalbard (for there is such a thing, and is currently Kjerstin Askholt) requires visitors "to notify the Governor of Svalbard about your projected trip. Get in touch well in advance.When filling in the form, please state the names of other members of your party, as well as the type of gear you are taking with you and a description of your route".

Larger vessels will be managed so that (as I understand it) there will only be one such cruise ship in each fjord at each time - partly for safety but also to help give that pristine natural look.

There are advantages and disadvantages of this. It is a shame that we only rarely got that "we're alone in nature" feel but then it was reassuring to know that notification is also associated with mandatory insurance for search and rescue (SAR) support.

Quite a few times on Channel 16 we'd hear talk of the rescue chopper being sent out - for example when there was a polar bear attack on a crew member from the cruise ship Bremen in which "a 42-year old man from Germany, was wounded in the head". As someone who wasn't feeling that great, the knowledge that a helicopter could be there (anywhere) within 2 hours was sort of reassuring.

In the end we had to work around it. So (for example) when going to visit the Texas Bar (more on this later) the skipper had to call up the cruise ship in the second photo above and ask when they were planning on going, and then make sure we didn't overlap with them as they had 100 people on board and would overwhelm that little hut.

And the name of that cruise ship? It was the Bremen, just before that incident with the polar bear described above.

It was also just before another incident, in which a yacht ended up drifting onto the rocks, not a hundred metres from were we were anchored!

The Governor of Svalbard was to be busy those couple of days.

Monday, August 20, 2018

North to Ny Alesund.... and Ny London

From Longyearbyen we sailed north to Kongsjforden.

On the way we saw dramatic scenes of mountains and glaciers, light and cloud (above) plus one arctic fox, too far away for even my 70-300 mm lens.

In our circumnavigation we had to anchor at most stops but in Ny Alesund there was actually a proper harbour with quay we could moor alongside:

At 78°55'N it is one of the most northernmost communities, founded by coal miners by the Kings Bay Coal Company back in 1917. Mining continued until 1962 when 21 miners were killed in a single accident.

Since then Ny Alesund has found new purpose, mostly around research, with Auroral Observatory and satellite station for highly accurate modelling of the Earth's shape and movement. Indeed, because of the sensitivity of this satellite station's receivers, all mobile phones had to be set to the airplane mode:

There's also a historical connection with polar exploration. For example, in 1926 it was the site of the departure of Roald Amundsen's airship Norge which successfully reached the North Pole. The airship mooring pole was still visible:

I was interested to note that a series of huts were called London run by the British Antarctic Survey, but there were other connections to my home city as there was another site across the fjord (which we didn't visit) actually called London, or Ny London.

This was the site of the Northern Exploration Company Ltd (NEC) that tried to extract marble but alas turned out to be useless as the marble crumbed due to frost action. So it was abandoned and now is considered part of Svalbard's cultural heritage.

In the evening, as we sailed to our next destination, I helped bake foccacia, which was pretty good, though me and my fellow baker S. agreed it would have been better if it had another 5 minutes.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Blogging joining a new boat in the age of GDPR

There's a nervous excitement about joining a new boat. What will the yacht be like? Who will be the other crew? Will we get on? What will my bunk be like? What will my cabin mate(s) be like?

Blogging this is made harder in the age of GDPR when issues like "permissions" and "rights" have to be taken into account, and hence identities protected.

In this case the answer to the questions were all favourable. The yacht was large and comfortable (maybe too so, more on this later), the crew all friendly and everyone got on, the bunk (below) was cosy (and when not feeling well, a refuge) and my cabin mate an instant friend.

You can read all about the yacht Valiente as at time of writing its details were still up on the internet here.

While large, comfortable and with a strong steel hull, I must admit I struggled to connect to this yacht. It was designed to be managed by a retired couple and everything was push-button. With 14 on-board and two watches there were 7 per watch and to be honest at least 5 with nothing to do. We did raise sails by hand but that was for exercise as there was a button right next to the winch we could have pressed.

But having a wheel house was great - could watch the world go by in warmth and the saloon was a great place to read a book or doze.

The cooking facilities were electric hob (a bit like what Delos have just put in) and there was plenty of facilities such as showers (though as always there were some things not working, including the sensor to activate pumps to extract water from the heads).

Anyhow, bags were stowed, we practised putting on the sea survival suits, lines were cast off and we headed out to circumnavigate Spitsbergen...

Friday, August 17, 2018

Longyearbyen, Svalbard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Circumnavigating Spitsbergen: Getting there and going round

So how did I end up going round Spitsbergen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 12, 2018

A Circumnavigation of Spitsbergen

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

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

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

There were of course polar bears:

I smell the blood of an Englishman!

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

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Thames River Routes: which is right for you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope to see you on-board one day!

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

#alltheriverservices... ü

#allthepiers .... ü


Sunday, August 05, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, August 03, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Through the Thames Barrier and then back to Greenwich:

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Thames River Routes: City Cruises Westminster to Greenwich

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

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

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

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

Piers visited:

  • Westminster
  • London Eye
  • Tower
  • Greenwich

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

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


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

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

After The Tower there was Tower Bridge:

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

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

Finally we arrived in Greenwich:

So what did I think?

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

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

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