Coming soon to an ocean near you

July 22nd, 2019

I’m rather mindful of the fact that recent progress updates on Team Britannia’s round the world powerboat project have been largely the same: “By the time you read this, Excalibur will be afloat.” And then of course it isn’t. And while completion of the boat has not been without its delays due simply to the fact that we’re building a one-off which departs from the norm in both design and construction, the bottom line has been – as you might expect – money. Fortunately we have a lot of supporters who’ve maintained faith in the project, and while lean times have forced us to suspend building operations every so often, it has only ever been temporary.

A summer resumption of activity in the boatyard has seen the hull and wheelhouse finished off, with just the transom to fit to make the boat watertight. Then comes the exciting part where the boat is wrapped – bright red for her topsides, and black below the waterline using a special hydrophobic antifoul material. We’ve also hosted a number of open days this year to which members of the public, supporters and partners were invited, and they’ve been well attended – even when the weather hasn’t been up to much. But the reaction from everyone that sees Excalibur for the first time is pretty much the same: “Wow, it’s big!” And visitors with boating or engineering backgrounds all remark upon the quality of the construction and attention to detail.

We’ve also made it easier for people to become involved by launching a competition on our website, with two crew places per round the world record leg as main prizes, and short trips out in the boat for runners-up. And even if the idea of a trip on the boat seems less than appealing, each entry is rewarded with 25 shares in Clean Fuel Ltd. Their pollution-busting technology forms a cornerstone of the entire project, and has the potential to clean up internal combustion engines without any mechanical modifications, so everyone’s a winner. Once Excalibur is in the water and operating from her base in Gibraltar, with a projected attempt in 2020, that round the world record may finally be on its way back to Britain.

Afloat on the Broads

May 27th, 2019

Earlier this month saw me taking my first paddle on the Broads in a long time. It was something of a trial run to see how I would cope with reflected glare after my third bout of eye surgery the previous week. The staithe at Barton Turf is an easy launching point, and a short paddle along a channel brings you out into the northern end of Barton Broad, one of my favourite paddling locations. Nelson’s sister lived in nearby Barton Hall, and he used to sail on the broad whenever he came to visit. Legend has it he lost a chain and locket in the water here.

The plan was to paddle south down the broad, and then continue along the River Ant until I felt it was time to turn round and start back. I was amazingly lucky to see not just one but two grand old ladies of the Broads. Under sail on Barton Broad was the historic trading wherry Albion (built in 1898), which I’ve been fortunate enough to sail on twice. Down the river at How Hill I found the pleasure wherry Hathor (built in 1905 for the Colman mustard family). I didn’t tie up here, but I’ve been on board before, and the Egyptian-themed interiors are quite remarkable.

How Hill was as far as I got, and by the time I emerged onto the southern end of Barton Broad for the final leg of the return journey, the breeze had got up. While inflatable kayaks are great for their portability, and stability afloat, the fact that they’re on average half the weight and twice the surface area of a comparable hard-shell does make them more susceptible to wind. I was being blown off-course so much, it was actually easier to retrace the track on my GPS watch rather than navigate by line of sight. Even so, a most enjoyable round trip of just under six miles.

Click here for my Kindle guide to the Broads: “The Broads – A unique National Park

Introduction to a boating career

May 2nd, 2019

It was 20 years ago this month that I first met Alan Priddy. Little did I know at the time that I would end up circumnavigating the world with him in his powerboat Spirit of Cardiff, or more recently help him found Team Britannia – another British attempt on the UIM round the world powerboat record. The catalyst was actually the previous summer, in 1998. I’d badly sprained an ankle on a three week trek in Kazakhstan, to the point that I was unable to do any serious walking for the next year.

Fearing I was about to lose a large proportion of my income, I started writing about more sedate things, but with watery pursuits as my little outdoor action fix. So I did a day learning to sail with the RYA on Hayling Island, a feature written for the Sunday Express. Apart from discovering the difference between a tack and a gybe, I also spotted Olympic hopefuls Iain Percy and Shirley Robertson training with the British sailing team. They both went on to win gold medals at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Somehow amidst all of the watersports activities I was introduced to the PR for Yamaha Motors UK, who had just supplied an engine and outdrive to Portsmouth-based expedition powerboater Alan Priddy to drive his newly built Rigid Inflatable powerboat Spirit of Portsmouth, purpose built to attempt the round the world record.

“Alan’s looking for a journalist to go out on the boat to do a story,” I was told. When I phoned him up, the initial idea was that I would join him for a short trip in the boat – just enough to get a flavour of it. My mistake was to ask if I could spend a night on board – I thought that way I’d get a better appreciation of what it would feel like when they attempted the big trip.

“If you can spare a few nights,” Alan told me, “you can join us when we attempt to set the first ever record for powerboating around the British Isles.” It was a bit like a cash register going off in my head. I’d gone from a short trip which would probably make an interesting story for an inflight magazine to something which would get me national newspaper and radio commissions.

Having agreed to take part in a world record attempt, I thought it would be a good idea to meet Alan before the trip itself, and so it was that I joined him in Portsmouth Guildhall for Spirit of Portsmouth’s official naming ceremony, a lavish affair with the mayor and other local diginitaries, along with people from the marine world. The boat made an impressive entrance, too, towed on her trailer in front of the Guildhall by a brewery dray horse.

My first trip out on Spirit took place the following month, and we made headline news when not much more than 12 hours into the trip we collided with an unseen obstacle off Lizard Point which disabled the boat, ending up with us being towed into Falmouth by RNLI lifeboat. You could say it was a baptism of fire, and I passed the test. A lot more followed, not least the boat’s name being changed to Spirit of Cardiff, all of which you can read about in Confronting Poseidon. Click here or on the ad opposite to download your copy.

Win with Team Britannia

April 2nd, 2019

My last visit to Team Britannia‘s round the world powerboat Excalibur at her boatyard was back in January, when the weather was somewhat icy. The latest open day at the end of March saw rather more pleasant conditions, and a great turnout of visitors. It’s always interesting to get people’s impressions, particularly from those who have followed the project closely, but only previously seen photographs. Everyone remarks on the size of the boat, something which photographs of her in the cramped boat shed really can’t convey.

Apart from giving visitors a guided tour around the boat, we also used the open day to launch a new facet to the project, something which has consumed a fair amount of time over the last few weeks. We now have a prize competition, with a £25 ticket potentially winning a place in the crew for one of the legs around the world, with a hundred other prizes of short trips out in the boat after the circumnavigation.

And while you might think the odds of winning such a special prize are slim, the truth is that everyone is a winner, as each entry also gets 25 shares in Clean Fuel Ltd, whose pollution-busting fuel will power Excalibur around the world. In fact, if you’re interested in combating the Nitrous Oxides and Particulate Matter which form the awful traffic-generated pollution in our towns and cities, your support for Team Britannia and Clean Fuel will make a big difference.

100 walks later

March 19th, 2019

While I’ve been Camping magazine’s lightweight camping equipment expert for the last 20 years, since 2010, I’ve also devised a weekend backpacking walk for every issue, which has always made a very nice double page spread. As the editor told me recently – knowledgeable yet accessible. But increasing demands on my time have led me to decide to call it a day on the monthly walk.

The June issue (on sale May) will be the last to feature one of my weekend walks, and while it is purely a coincidence, that last walk will be number 100! I’d originally planned this in order to free up some time to spend on the Spirit of Cardiff documentary which I’m making, but some very exciting developments with Team Britannia‘s round the world powerboat project are also about to happen, and they have already soaked up some of my spare time.

I’ll still be reviewing lightweight tents and outdoors clothing and equipment in Camping, but the walks won’t be forgotten. With 100 weekend walks spread across the country, I’m already thinking that at some point they’ll enjoy a second lease of life either in a print or electronic book. In the meantime, there’s a big red boat to get into the water, and the time is coming close!

Team Britannia open day

January 20th, 2019

It might have been many degrees colder than the last time Team Britannia invited members of the public to visit Excalibur in her shed on Hayling Island, but even so, those that came to marvel at the big boat on January 19th included visitors from Dorset, Essex, Norfolk and North Yorkshire. And with our guests fortified with hot drinks and the most amazing homemade soup supplied by our MD and PR guru Alistair Thompson, our welcome was warm, even if the boat shed wasn’t.

As we anticipate picking up speed again in the boatyard in the next couple of weeks, things have been going on in the background, including a start on fitting out the crew quarters. We also have a couple of trial patches of the plastic wrap with which we hope to clad the boat. The red for the topsides looks stunning, but more interesting technically is the black antifoul material which will be used below the waterline.

Touch it when it’s dry, and it feels quite sticky, but the moment it’s in contact with water, the surface becomes incredibly slippery. So ideal for antifoul, and with the added bonus of improved fuel efficiency. The manufacturers claim an 8% improvement, so add that to the 30% extra afforded by the design of the boat’s hull, along with our use of Clean Fuel, and you start to see how Excalibur could possibly become the most fuel-efficient boat afloat!

There will be an open day every month from now on, so check out Team Britannia’s Facebook page for up to date details.

Click here to read the report about the open day in the Portsmouth News.

Britain by Boat

November 29th, 2018

Even before she has been launched, Team Britannia‘s round the world powerboat Excalibur is attracting celebrities. Last year it was TV adventure star and Chief Scout Bear Grylls.

This year – and we’ve had to keep it secret until the programme was about to air – it was telly icons John Sergeant and Michael Buerk. They visited the boatyard during the summer before the boat’s big turn round, spending a day filming with Team Britannia boss Alan Priddy. The series “Britain by Boat” will air on Channel 5 on Fridays at 8 pm, following Messrs Buerk and Sergeant as they sail around Britain in a 50 ft yacht, stopping off at places of interest along the way.

Their visit to the Solent didn’t feature just Excalibur, as they also visited the boatyard next door, where volunteers were busy restoring Sir Alec Rose’s historic round the world yacht Lively Lady. Since then, Lively Lady has gone back into the water, and the restoration team has been honoured by National Historic Ships UK with the Marsh Volunteer Award for Historic Vessel Conservation 2018.

Watch “Britain by Boat” episode two – the Team Britannia segment begins at 06:20.

Letters from the past

November 17th, 2018

I’m still trying to get my head round the workings of my latest word processor. You can’t plug it in, there are no USB ports, and the only way to adjust the contrast on the screen is to fit a new ribbon. I found it in a local antiques shop, and it sort of spoke to me.

I suppose it harks back to my earliest days of writing – I was still at school, and I would write things out in my appalling almost illegible longhand, and my dear mum would type them out for me on her Hermes Baby typewriter. Years later, and my pre-computing attempts at writing were bashed out on an IBM golfball electric typewriter. Since then, I’ve gone through CP/M, PC-DOS, MS-DOS, Windows 3.1, 95, 98, 7 and 10, and a variety of handheld devices including Agenda and Psion. But my 1941 vintage Imperial The Good Companion Model T isn’t burdened with disc formatting or conflicting software. Try to type too quickly and you may get a jam, and the backspace doesn’t magically delete what you’ve just typed.

And while the advertising of the time proclaims it to be portable, at 6.3 kilos complete with its sturdy baseboard and carrying case, it’s possibly not what might be deemed to be portable these days. Having said that, one of my early laptop computers from the 1980s wasn’t that far off weight-wise.

What makes the Imperial so attractive to me is that it is an amazing piece of mechanical engineering. While it works perfectly for a 77 year-old, I suspect its value to me will be more ornamental than practical. Bashing out the copy so physically may be OK for some, but I’m just not the type.

One good turn

September 7th, 2018

Wednesday 5th September was quite literally a turning point in the construction of Team Britannia’s round the world powerboat “Excalibur.” Having spent the last two years with her bow into the main boat shed, with a temporary structure (a glorified tent) over the stern, the decision was taken to pull the boat out, rotate her through 180 degrees and put her back into the boat shed stern first. The reason for this is that the remaining structural work is all on the wheelhouse and stern, where the temporary shelter didn’t offer enough space.

With the temporary part of the boat shed dismantled, all 17 tonnes of boat was lifted out by a giant crane over the quayside, and for a tantalising while, suspended almost over the water. Not that there would have been enough to float in, as the tide was out, and Excalibur still has yet to have her transom fitted before being watertight. And while everyone marvelled at the size of the boat as she sat in the lifting strops, we were reminded that there’s actually another two metres to fit to the stern – this will include a large dive platform which will sit over the jet drives.

Yes, it’s been a long time coming, and even since we resumed building the boat this spring we’ve had one or two delays, but that’s what you get with a one-off that’s pushing engineering excellence to the very limits. But all being well, the boat will be completed, fitted out and in the water well before the end of the year.

While it’s sometimes easy to become so focussed on what you’re doing that you forget that significant boating advances are happening elsewhere, I produced a feature which highlights the environmental aspects of record-breaking in boats, and got to speak to Peter Dredge, a powerboat racer with many world championships and records to his credit. This year he broke the record for the fastest electrically powered boat, so it made an interesting contrast to Team Britannia. Click here to read: The Clean Green Boating Machines.

Once upon a premiere

August 19th, 2018

Something reminded me recently that it was 20 years this year since I attended my one and only movie premiere – the IMAX movie “Everest” in 1998, screened in the IMAX theatre at the Trocadero Centre at Piccadilly Circus in London. It was the first ever IMAX movie about an expedition to climb Mount Everest, sponsored by fleece fabric manufacturers Polartec, and it subsequently went on to become the highest grossing IMAX documentary ever. As an outdoors writer specialising in reviews of clothing and equipment, I was well acquainted with Polartec, hence my invitation to the London premiere.

Filmed in Spring 1996, it tells the story of an attempt on Everest led by American climber Ed Viesturs. With him are Jamling Tenzing Norgay, son of the legendary Sherpa Tenzing, who made the first ascent of Everest with Ed Hillary in 1953, and Araceli Segarra – who became the first Spanish woman to climb the mountain. There’s added human drama when climbers and film crew are involved in the rescue efforts as storms rage across the mountain, claiming eight lives. Technically, the film is absolutely stunning, with six-channel digital sound to add to the frightening reality. The film’s soundtrack includes suitably grand music for the big vistas, but for me, it was definitely enhanced with the inclusion of clips of a number of George Harrison tracks.

IMAX movies are incredible for their sheer size on-screen, but while some go into overkill with the stomach-churning effects, “Everest” keeps them in check. Even so, the sight of an advancing avalanche had me ducking off my seat, and some of the airborne shots have incredible depth, while the climbing scenes test your head for heights. You really do feel as though you’re there! 20 years on, it’s not quite the same viewing it as a DVD in your lounge, but it’s still pretty spectacular!

I ended up sitting through two premiere screenings of the 45 minute documentary, the first with the BBC’s Paul Gambaccini sitting directly in front of me, and there was a fascinating Q&A session with some of the people involved in the production. Filming high on Everest is challenging at any time, even more so with the specially-constructed IMAX large format camera, built to operate at temperatures as low as minus 40, but still not exactly lightweight at 25 pounds (the standard camera weighs 60).

For me, the whole experience was rounded off with the after-party, when I joined my Polartec PR chum with the movie’s director/producer David Breashears, Stephen Venables (first Brit to climb Everest without oxygen), and the movie’s two stars in a little visit to a nearby pub for a drink or two. I enjoyed a very pleasant chat with Jamling Norgay, and a cheeky dance with the charming Araceli Segarra!