Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Book Review: The Way to the Sea by Caroline Crampton

I've previously reviewed "Estuary" by Rachel Lichtenstein and had what is best described as a mixed response. One of the problems about that book was Lichenstein clearly didn't actually like being out on the water, which was a bit of a handicap given the subject involved. There was also a relaxed attitude to historical facts which I found frustrating.

But the Thames Estuary is a topic that clearly deserves a book, and in "The Way to the Sea" Caroline Crampton has nailed it. For one thing, Crampton is totally at ease out on the waters that she has been sailing in the family yacht since she was a little girl.

The book is also a story of her family and her parents arrival by yacht to London, first mooring in St. Katharine Dock. Many of my favourite topics are covered, from Bazalgette's sewers and the wonders of the Crossness Pumping Station to the London Stones and the Dickensian landscape around them.

There were even some odd coincidences, such as how her parents have sailed a Contessa 32 and sailed up to the Arctic Circle.

Well written and illustrated, flowing smoothly as the river it describes, this is highly recommended read for anyone interested in the Thames, its environment and history, from the source to the invisible and undefinable point where it is transformed into the sea.

Monday, June 17, 2019

I blame Game of Thrones

I've been neglecting this little blog and I'm going to blame Game of Thrones.

It's a topic where there are strong opinions. While I'm not one of the GoT-ending haters, the final two seasons were definitely rushed. Even though the script wasn't as nuanced as the book based episodes, the overall arc satisfied, completing the major story lines. It ended as all good GoT seasons should: with major characters heading off to create new stories. Bon voyage...

Anyhow, three months ago I was overloaded at work (with quite a bit of travel) and wanted to catch-up with GoT before the ending so spent the evenings watching from series 1 episode 1 rather than blogging. And I didn't finish catching-up until the beginning of this month.

It was rather nice to take a break from blogging.

But now I have a book I want to review, and some travel pics to post, so its back to the keyboard...

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Memories of offshore sailing

If I can't go offshore sailing then at least I've a lot of great memories including:
  • learning to sail in the Solent during the America's Cup 150th anniversary, Cowes packed with legendary yachts
  • sailing the Atlantic on the ARC
  • the first night of the ARC, with phosphorescence in the water, the stars above and a ring of yacht lights around the horizon
  • the night's sky offshore, particularly on the ARC, with Orion leading the way and the flash of shooting stars
  • swimming around the yacht mid-Atlantic, with a thousand miles to any land and 4 km of water beneath me.
  • flying the spinnaker by moonlight across the Atlantic
  • arriving at St Lucia and that all important first beer
  • competing in the RORC series of races, dashing around the Channel at night
  • rounding the Fastnet Rock (above) during that race
  • sailing from Lisbon to Gibraltar, stopping at Cadiz and seeing Tall Ships and fine sunsets
  • sailing around the Greek Islands, finding Nemo and some lovely tavernas
  • sailing double handed from Scotland to Iceland via the Arctic Circle
  • spotting the Faeroe Islands appear out of the clouds
  • navigating through the Faero Islands in the early hours of the morning (below)
  • seeing the sun above the horizon at midnight, sign we were truly in the Arctic Circle
  • that good watch as we sailed south out of the Arctic Circle round the north-west of Iceland
  • sailing into uncharted waters in the north-west fjords of Iceland
  • entering Reykjavik harbour, successfully completing our Scotland to Iceland voyage
  • leaving Ísafjörður, heading for Greenland
  • seeing icebergs appear out of the mist as we crossed the Denmark strait
  • watching a polar bear tear chunks from a narwhal
  • visit the hot springs of Greenland
  • kayaking amongst the icebergs of Greenland's amazing Kangerdlugssuaq Fjord
  • departing out of Kangerdlugssuaq Fjord under sail, dodging icebergs on the way
  • sailing down the coast of East Greenland
  • entering Tasiilaq in the early hours after seeing both noctilucent clouds and the northern lights
  • sailing round Scorsby Sound in a tall ship seeing a polar bear and northern lights most nights
  • sailing round Spitzsbergen, seeing many polar bears and the remains of many expeditions
  • ....

Many of these I've posted about, but I've included no links because these are memories.

Saturday, March 09, 2019

Goodbye to offshore sailing?

I had to cut short my sailing trip along the coast of Morocco due to illness and it wasn't the first time this had happened. Two trips I'd cancelled before leaving, another I flew to the start and then got sick so flew straight back, while another I'd managed to get round by staying in my bunk for a few days.

Maybe these problems are a message, that offshore sailing isn't for me. It would be a tough to accept, as I love offshore yacht sailing.

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Rabat: arriving and leaving

The next day we arrived at Rabat. I'd been very much looking forward to arriving at Rabat as I'd been there before (as blogged here) and really liked it. I'd planned to setup the GoPro to do a timelapse of entering the passage, passing the Kasbah of the Udayas (above) and entering the marina.

But alas was feeling really rotten so only just about made it up on deck in time to take the photo above.

From the Rabat the sailing would get harder, longer legs, more night watches and I alas decided with my lurgy it was time to be sensible.

So I collected my things and left Oriole:

It was to be an eventful stay in Rabat as one of the other crew broke her wrist but with great fortitude decided to continue onwards.

But for me it was to be the last port of call:

Sunday, March 03, 2019

Sailing from Tangier to Rabat

After Tangier we headed south. There was enough wind to leave under sail, though it was rather weak and from the wrong direction. So in the end the engine was started and we motor-sailed down the coast of Morocco.

I was beginning to feel not great but was determined to do at least one night watch. There was a lovely sunset which brought pretty much everyone on deck:

There is a magic to being on a yacht offshore at night.

The night's sky is amazing - full of bright stars, the Milky Way clearly visible. Old friends like Orion, Ursa Major, Cassiopeia ... (and all the other ones I should really know), the North Star on its own, pointing home, a crescent moon and even a shooting star. I tried to remember the equation of the star clock, but failed.

We had to dodge a couple of fishing boats but the ones we saw had lights so that was pretty easy.

I wasn't sure how much of this offshore night-time sailing I'd be doing in the future so tried to capture the moment in my memories before heading down to my bunk...

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Exploring Tangier

We had a full day exploring Tangier, though it was shortened as we found there was a Cafe Paul in the marina which felt like an excellent place to have an extended breakfast after a refreshing shower.

The marina is pretty central so it was only a short walk to the centre. Our first stop was the fish market (fascinating!) and then headed deeper into the Medina heading up to the Kasbah.

I head someone playing the guitar and stopped for a listen:

It was a lot less touristy than (say) Marrakesh, with people just living their lives:

Some went shopping while I visited an art gallery before returning to the boat and the amazing dinner the skipper magicked up from ingredients bought in the Medina we'd visited earlier.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Sailing from Cadiz to Tangiers

Back to the Morocco sailing trip....

Can you still call it sailing if you motor most of the way?

It was, alas, rather a calm day when we "sailed" from Cadiz to Tangiers. We started early in the morning, so we could see that lovely pre-dawn glow over Cadiz and then the sunrise.

It was fun to be back at the helm of a sailing vessel, crossing the Strait of Gibraltar, helping with the passage plan and keeping an eye out for the passing ginormous merchant vessels.

Alas due to the constraints of GDPR (and general concern for the privacy of others) I'm not going to go into details of crew but just say one in particular entertained us by acting out scenes from Moana.

After successfully crossing the strait we had to dodge lots of small fishing boats (above) on our way into Tangier.

We arrive in the evening and had a long, long wait for our passports to be checked. The key question was "have you visited Morocco before?" to which my answer was of course "yes" (for example as in this plot post).

Having officially arrived, we could relax and have dinner, listening to the sounds of the call to prayer from dozens of minarets and watching the new moon slowly sink:

Tangier has a brand new marina with excellent facilities so its worth visiting if you're heading by. The calm waters reflected Oriole's colours wonderfully:

Friday, February 22, 2019

Book Review: The Seabird's Cry by Adam Nicolson

If you are interested in seabirds then I can not recommend Adam Nicolson's The Seabird's Cry highly enough. It is fascinating, researched with many details and shows a great depth of understanding while remaining poetic, not dry. It combines scientific analysis with a passion for the environment.

Each chapter describes a different seabird, including:

  • Fulmar
  • Puffin
  • Kittiwake
  • Gull
  • Guillemot
  • Cormorant and Shag
  • Shearwater
  • Gannet
  • Great Auk and its cousin Razorbill
  • Albatross

A key concept is that of Umwelt, which means "surrounding world" and is about how each animal lives in its own world, driven by its needs, skills and environment.

At first I was thinking to write about each bird, folding down corners of pages of interest. But there were too many amazing moments and the edge of the book is now full of gaps. To pick just a few, flicking through at random:

  • How gulls can turn into sociopathic cannibal superkillers
  • How the fishing patterns of kittwakes follow the phases of the moon
  • How puffins can dive up to 220 feet over two minutes
  • How albatrosses tack their way around the southern oceans
  • How boobies are traumatised to turn psychopath and even rapists
  • How shearwaters fly between 10,000 to 20,000 miles a year by understanding the trade winds and knowing their location by its smell
  • ...

The final chapter, named the Seabird's Cry, is about how we humans are destroying our planet, with global warming, loss of habitat, depletion of fish stocks and endless plastic waste. It is a call to action to help protect these incredible animals.

Full of details and personal experience, maps of routes of seabirds gathered using GPS trackers,
this is an brilliant book, a masterpiece even.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Photography Blog: A6500, GoPro 5 and DJI Osmo Pocket 4k comparison

Following on from the blog post "Do you need full frame?" here is a short video of a bike ride in Richmond Park on New Year's Day that gives a comparison of the output from three cameras.

It was made using the Sony A6500 (with 18-135 lens), head mounted Go Pro 5 and the DJI Osmo Pocket, and hopefully you can see the difference. The most stark is between the A6500 and Osmo Pocket, particularly when videoing wildlife like deer where you can see much more detail on the APSC camera.

The Osmo Pocket shows the deer fur as being a bit mushy, without much detail, but despite that it can be used to tell the story of walking towards the herd.

Partly the difference is sensor size, partly lens and partly better processing (i.e. higher data rate capture)

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Visiting London's Underground Farm

More adventures underground, this time visiting the Growing Underground farm in a WW2 bomb shelter in south London.

I'd been down the Clapham shelters before for an art installation (natch) and was told tunnels nearby were being used for a farm. That intrigued me so when tickets appeared for a visit I snapped up one quickly.

The aim is to produce low emission high quality food within urban areas. The idea came from the vertical farm but the initial concept in that book has difficulties, not the least cost, but also temperature control.

Using empty tunnels is not just cheaper, it is actually beneficial to keep the plants to the required temperature, particularly if horizontal (like here), rather than a shaft, as there is less height differences and hence less temperature difference.

In the racks shown above, salad is being grown, and the colour isn't wrong, that's what it looks like: the LED lamps only emit the frequencies used by plants i.e. excluding green.

The seeds germinate in one hot and humid tunnel (below) that still looks like the air raid shelter it is, before being transferred to the growing tunnels such as the one above.

The seeds are "planted" on what looks like carpet with the roots below picking up nutrients directly using hydroponic techniques:

We got to try some of the crop and wow! was it tasty! Intense flavours - my favourite were the pea tips.

It was all very high tech, indeed these types of farms are being studied by NASA for future space colonies.

But its also potentially very useful here on Earth. The two biggest environmental problems with have are global warming and loss of habitat, and farming contributes to both of these. Putting the farm underground means land can be returned to wildlife (surely better) and the LEDs can be timed to come on when there is spare renewable energy (e.g. wind farms at night).

And there are lots of potential sites for expansion, from cold war bunkers to coal mines. According to this BBC article, in the UK there are 25,000 km^2 of disused mines and tunnels. And with the potential to have up to 60 crops per year, that could be very productive.

Plus, have I mentioned it was delicious? Already its products are being used in restaurants, and one of their advisers is none other than Michel Roux Jr.

Absolutely fascinating, another of the wonders beneath the streets of London.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Photography Blog: Do you need Full Frame?

The Bursledon Blog had a post about cameras and how much the tech is required which interested me as it's a topic I've been thinking about. In particular, the long debated question "do you need full frame?".

This question relates to sensor size which relates to how big a camera is and a whole host of other factors. Basically, the order is:

  • Full frame 36 x 24mm 
  • APSC 24 x 16mm e.g. my Sony A6xxx series, shown above
  • 4/3rds 17 x 13 mm
  • 1 inch 13 x 9 mm e.g. my Sony RX100m4
  • 1/2.3 inch e.g. my GoPro 5 Black, Mavic Pro drone
  • 1/2.6 inch 5.5mm x 4.1mm e.g. my Pixel 2 phone

There is a school of thought that to be a true photographer you have to use full frame and only noobs and amateurs use anything else. But is that right?

As always, the answer it that it depends, most importantly, on what sort of photography you do, and is strongly connected to the choice of lens.

Many years ago I did a camera comparison and Tillerman commented all the photos looked very similar, which is a good point. For scenes such as these, well lit, using medium aperture and results displayed on small sizes on a screen, there is very little difference and so you don't need full frame.

However there are times when this is not true, such as:

  • if you want shallow depth of field and use lenses with large aperture, then full frame is better (e.g. for portraits)
  • if you want to take photos and videos in low light, then larger sensor (again, with suitable lens) is better

But how often is that the case for you? With me its not that often, as I get sufficiently shallow depth of field for portraits with my APSC camera if use longer focal length and/or shoot wide open. Also, these tend to be family photos, so the moment and expression are most important, not technical details.

That's an important point: very often its composition that is key, not technical details for pixel peepers. On one of my Greenland trips, someone was just taking photos on his phone and they were great - but he was a film director, used to thinking about composition and using what he had.

The APSC camera is usually, but not always, ok with low light scenes. Sometimes you can get away using a tripod, other times there is actually enough light (e.g. London at night isn't that dark). But there are shots my A6500 can't handle - such as I tried to take a video of us sailing off Morocco under moonlight, and the noise & lack of dynamic range were disappointing.

However that's rare, and there's another consideration, which is weight and size. I take pictures for fun, often while travelling, and there is a significant difference in weight between full frame and APSC. On another Greenland trip I was there with my A6300 and someone else had the full frame Canon 5Dm3. In a battle on features the A6300 would win on all counts apart from sensor size and yet was literally half the size and weight, which to me is an important factor.

And if you're going to crop, e.g. for wildlife photography, you might as well go APSC to start with.

If you're a professional photographer then maybe you'd take what is required because its a job, but I was off travelling for fun, and that fun is a lot less if you're carrying many kilos of weight you don't need most of the time.

There's a saying that the best camera is the one you have with you: yes, the APSC camera might struggle with some shots but if the full frame is so large you leave it at home, you might actually get more shots using a smaller sensor camera as you'd actually bring it.

Then there are specialised niches, such as action cameras. Yes, you could strap a full frame camera to you head and take videos of you zooming down mountains, but its much more sensible to use a GoPro even if its sensor is smaller.

Similarly you might want a stabilised camera, using (say) a gimbal. These are what professionals use to get the butter smooth flowing shots, but that all adds weight. Say you have a full frame camera, good lens & gimbal - that might be 2 - 3 kg in total. Plus you'd need other stuff like ND filters, batteries, external mics, recorders etc etc. Yes the results might look great, but I'd never travel with it.

Instead what I've recently got is the DJI Osmo Pocket, small enough to take anywhere and weighing only 118 grams. Ok, the image isn't brilliant but what matters is story telling and the best camera is the one you have on you, and you can take this anywhere.

So there's not simple answer: it depends on what sort of photography you do.

Maybe one day I'll go full frame, but don't feel you have to. Focus on composition and think about what lenses you need.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Cadiz and Three Kings

I'd visited to Cadiz before when sailing from Lisbon to Gibraltar, and it was great to explore this beautiful city again. Previously (as blogged here) we'd moored at nearly the same berth in the marina as before, as can be seen in these two photos:

Oriole, 2019:

Selene, 2006:

Golly, time does fly by, doesn't it? So there were all sorts of memories when walked from the marina into Cadiz, as in the top photo.

The previous time was during the visit of the Tall Ships, which was very lucky. This time was lucky again, as was there for the Three Kings celebrations:

This is the big event in Spain, more significant than Christmas day. There were a series of processions on different days in which men dressed as kings throw handfuls of sweets at kids in the crowd.

Then we went for dinner had lovely fresh fish:

Thursday, February 07, 2019

Sailing Europe to Africa: Seville, Cadiz and a green ray sunset

I was to join the yacht in Cadiz, but there isn't an airport there, so you have to fly to one of the nearby cities and then takes a train.

I flew to Seville (seeing a great sunset on the way, above) as I'd been there before and really liked it:

There was time for some tapas, a stroll around the town (complete with ice cream), listen to a little guitar music then head for the hotel.

The next day took the train to Cadiz where saw yet another rather nice sunset:

There was even a green ray!

Monday, February 04, 2019

A partial sail trip from Europe to Africa

Last month I was meant to sail from Cadiz down the coast of Morocco then across to Lanzarote, as in this route map:

Alas the lurgy that I've had several times before came back so I had to leave the yacht at Rabat, but at least I managed to sail from Europe to Africa.

It was a trip by Rubicon3 down the coast of Morocco in yacht Oriole (top photo, in Cadiz).

Ah well, at least I can post on the first part of the trip.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Birds by the Thames

Can you spot the fish this heron has caught? It was still wriggling!

The numbers of birds out there suggest there are many other fish in the river:

I'm currently reading a book about sea birds and there was an interesting section on why cormorants need to dry their feathers:

Got to keep those feathers out of the water:

Thursday, January 24, 2019

The Thames Clipper Challenge - the Attempt

Friday the 21st of December, the shortest day of the year, and I had arrived at Putney Pier for my first attempt at the Thames Clipper Challenge.

The RB6 boat was late arriving at Putney: but I was pretty relaxed about that - as long as it did turn up, as there was time spare at Embankment.

The times for this leg were:

  • 17:18 Putney 
  • 17:25 Wandsworth Riverside (1)
  • 17:29 Plantation Wharf (2)
  • 17:34 Chelsea Harbour 
  • 17:38 Cadogan
  • 17:44 Battersea Power Station
  • 17:47 St George Wharf (Vauxhall)
  • 17:53 Millbank (2)
  • 18:00 Embankment

(1) Didn't dock and not sure what happened here. It might have been too low tide and/or no passengers but the boat ended up banging into the pilings for the new pier being planned for 2019
(2) No passengers so slowed but didn't actually stop.

So got to Embankment on time and here there was a pause. I could have continued from Embankment but there was the danger of getting the boat that stopped London Eye (Waterloo) but not Westminster. The only way of being sure of picking up the next boat from Westminster was to walk to Westminster. As it was a short way and had plenty of time that is what I did.

The South Bank was looking very seasonal and the moon was full:

Finally the RB1 arrived and off we went:

  • 18:40 Westminster
  • 18:44 London Eye (Waterloo)
  • 18:54 Blackfriars
  • 18:58 Bankside
  • 19:03 London Bridge City
  • 19:06 Tower
  • 19:18 Canary Wharf

That was a huge relief! Got to Canary Wharf in time for the RB4 over to Doubletree Docklands. But it wasn't over yet as had to get there and back and catch the next Woolwich clipper. They were slightly in "its CHRISTMAS" mode, with staff wishing each other "Merry Christmas" and "See you next year" but they (as I found generally) were very efficient and so soon off we went to the south bank of the Thames:

  • 19:24 Canary Wharf
  • 19:26 Doubletree Docklands
  • 19:30 Doubletree Docklands
  • 19:32 Canary Wharf

I then rushed to the display to see the next Woolwich boat only 3 minutes away - hurrah!

So I was in time to catch that and for the final time was off, stops including Greenwich (below, also looking seasonal) and on to Woolwich.

The final times were:
  • 19:38 Canary Wharf
  • 19:41 Greenland (Surrey Quay)
  • 19:44 Masthouse Terrace
  • 19:47 Greenwich
  • 19:55 North Greenwich (The O2)
  • 20:06 Woolwich (Royal Arsenal)

I used my phone as a stopwatch using the gangway up/down as the trigger and the times were:

My Thames Clipper Challenge time was 2 hours 48 minutes - exactly as predicted by the timetable!!

I was pretty pleased by that: but could it beaten, if so how?

Anyhow, it was good enough for me to declare the first Thames Clipper Challenge a success.

Monday, January 21, 2019

The Thames Clipper Challenge - the Route

So what route to take? It seemed obvious from the map above that the most efficient way would be to start at one of the two ends (Putney or Woolwich) and then head either east or west respectively.

To get a more detailed view, I downloaded the timetable the Thames Clipper web site. It was immediately clear that a limiting factor was that the RB6 Putney route currently only runs during the week which ruled out a weekend attempt.

So, looking at the weekday timetable, lets first consider starting at Woolwich in the morning:

The problem here is that the first boat arriving at the London Eye (Waterloo) pier isn't until 09:26 while the last boat to Putney has already passed it and is at St George Wharf (Vauxhall) at 09:10, so that's no good.

Next let's consider starting at Woolwich in the evening:

Here the problem is Millbank: the last RB6 that stops there is at 17:37 while the first evening boat from Woolwich (Royal Arsenal) is at 18:01.

How about the other direction? Let's look at starting at Putney in the morning:

There's a similar problem here: Millbank (which is clearly a pinch point on the route) has its first arrival at 10:05 but Woolwich (Royal Arsenal) has its last boat arriving at 09:27.

Things were looking pretty difficult and I was wondering if this was one of those mind-bendingly complex scenarios when I turned to the Putney in the evening page:

What's that? A route that goes through all the piers? Yes!

It starts at 17:15 at Putney and yes is scheduled to stop at Millbank (the last one!). Then its necessary to pick up Westminster and London Eye (Waterloo) so have to get off and change. Alas the next boat at 18:08 doesn't stop at Westminster (why?) so have to way until 18:32 (Embankment) or 18:40 (Westminster) to continue the journey.

This picks up all the stations to Canary Wharf at which point must alight to pick up the RB4 over to Doubletree Docklands:

Then back to Canary Wharf for the 19:37 to pick up all the remaining piers to Woolwich, arriving at 20:03, making a schedule journey time from Putney of 2 hours 48 minutes.

This RB4 over to Doubletree Docklands is the most critical connection: if the RB1 18:32 arrival is late then might not be able to take one of the two possible RB4 connections over to Doubletree Docklands. For example, if have to get the 19:34 over to Doubletree Docklands, I wouldn't manage to pick up the 19:37 and so end up on the 20:01, arriving 24 minutes later.

And there can indeed be delays or cancellations on Thames Clipper. Around that time I spotted these tweets:

If the RB4 was suspended (or indeed, any of the routes used) then you could call the whole thing off.

On the shortest day of the year, Friday 21st of December 2018 I headed off to the Putney Pier to take the Thames Clipper Challenge.

What do you think happened? Did I make it to Woolwich? 

If so, how close to the target time was I?