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!

Closer to launching

July 7th, 2018

The last month has seen significant progress with Team Britannia‘s round the world powerboat Excalibur. Not only are the engines in place, but we’ve had a trial fitting of one of the jets in order to get precise measurements for the way they fit to the transom. And the complex skeleton of aluminium framework, exposed for so long, is now hidden from view with all the deck plates having been welded into place. The 3/4 inch plywood floor has been fitted in the wheelhouse, which is also taking shape, so there is now no longer an uninterrupted view from bow to stern. The upper section incorporating roof and flybridge has already been fabricated, and will be lifted into place very soon.

What hasn’t been shown photographically is the system of pipes and pumps interconnecting the six huge fuel tanks. Apart from delivering fuel to the engine room ready to be mixed with the Clean Fuel emulsifier and water, there’s another purpose. The attitude of a powerboat in the water is generally controlled by trim tabs acting as trailing edge flaps on the underside of the hull at the stern. They work well, but in so doing, they introduce extra drag. Excalibur will be trimmed rather the way Concorde was in flight, by pumping fuel from one tank to another to distribute the weight.

We also hosted our first public open day on 30th June, when around 150 people visited the boatyard, some travelling from as far away as Scotland. They included partners and supporters, enjoying a close-up look at the boat and chatting to members of the crew, all in glorious sunshine, with the barbecue and bar kept pretty busy throughout. We were delighted to welcome Portsmouth North MP and Secretary of State for International Development Penny Mordaunt, and the media were there too, including Portsmouth News, Express FM and That’s Solent News.

Top calibre Excalibur

June 2nd, 2018

As construction of Team Britannia’s round the world powerboat Excalibur approaches its final stages, here are some of the technical questions which have cropped up recently from social media followers.

State of the art round the world sailing yachts are made from carbon fibre composite. So why not Excalibur? We’ve had a strong eco theme running all the way through the project, and for that reason, we couldn’t consider carbon fibre. Light and strong it may be, but in some quarters it’s regarded as the next asbestos time bomb. It simply isn’t an environmentally friendly material – there’s no responsible way of disposing of it once it’s done with. Excalibur, on the other hand, is not only made from recycled aluminium, but in the event that she’s ever scrapped, over 90% of the boat will be recyclable.

The way she’s been put together is also worthy of note. We’ve used pulsed MIG (Metal Inert Gas), an efficient form of welding which provides a neat strong weld, and is particularly favoured for welding thinner aluminium plate, where the problem of warping and burnthrough would otherwise be a risk. Unlike other forms of welding, there is no spatter which has to be cleaned up afterwards, and it’s also favoured where the welder is operating in a confined space.

One of the great advantages of working in aluminium is the way bits can be added and removed to assist with the construction process. An early example of this would be the extra lugs welded on fore and aft to allow the boat to be turned over from its initial state upside down. With the installation of the six fuel tanks and retaining beams which will also support the wheelhouse floor, the top parts of the original frames in the wheelhouse area have now been removed. And with the FPT engines bolted in, you might wonder too how major servicing or replacement would take place, as the photos show the tops of the frames in the way. Here, too, when the transom is in position, the ceiling of the engine room will be remodelled to allow for a bolt-down hatch which can be unsealed if we need to lift anything in and out. Why did the engines go in first? Simply because it’s a lot easier sliding them in from the back rather than craning them in from above!

The boat has been built to conform to a whole raft of codings, verified at every stage of construction by an independent inspector. Excalibur won’t just be A1 – Lloyds of London’s highest shipbuilding quality – but well in excess!

With the installation of our two FPT diesel engines, some have questioned whether they have the power to push a boat of over 50 tons through the water. But having to run passages of over 3,500 nautical miles, the focus is not on brute force, but maintaining a modest average overall speed. This means that when the boat leaves each port fully fuelled, its initial speed will be quite slow. Then as the fuel burns off and the weight reduces, so the boat picks up speed. More powerful engines wouldn’t necessarily add much to our overall average speed, but could burn significantly more fuel.

Apart from a fuel-saving hull design, we have the most efficient power transmission, with the FPT engines coupled directly to our Castoldi jet drives with no intermediary gearboxes. The final piece of the jigsaw comes with our use of Clean Fuel, the diesel, water and emulsifier mixing process which will not only extend the boat’s range, but power it without emitting any of the pollutants normally associated with diesel engines.

Light at the end of the tunnel

May 22nd, 2018

Yesterday saw Team Britannia boss Alan Priddy talking technical stuff at ABC Marine on Hayling Island. They always knew that the mooring posts and cleats for the boat would have to be immensely strong, but just as importantly, they had to be sited in the correct positions.

Whilst crunching the numbers on this, they also ascertained the kind of stresses on the deck likely to be encountered in the extreme event of what is known in the boating world as “stuffing” – where the boat ploughs into a wave at speed. One hopes this isn’t too often, but it happens! On the round the world powerboat Spirit of Cardiff, the most impressive stuffs resulted in broken windscreens! While Excalibur has already been designed to withstand everything that can be imagined, they decided to add some extra upright bars between the keel and deck to provide additional bracing in the event of a full stuff, which could see as much as 100 tons of water on top.

They’ve decided too that the cabin floor will be made from 3/4 inch plywood, with substantial aluminium bracing underneath. With all six 6,000 litre fuel tanks and all the bulkheads in place, they’ve started attaching the deck panels, and the wheelhouse – already assembled – will soon be craned into place and welded on. If that isn’t exciting enough, I can also report that the engines are booked up to be installed in the first week of June. We’ve been down an extremely long tunnel, but the light at the end is now getting very close…

Progress at the boatyard

April 22nd, 2018

This photo of Team Britannia‘s round the world powerboat Excalibur caused a bit of a stir when it first appeared on Facebook. Was it Halloween? Evidence of Excalibur’s sharp edge? In fact it’s a special red dye used by our boatbuilders to check the quality of the welds, here along the position of two bulkheads.

And while the views inside the hull, steadily filling up with fuel tanks and bulkheads, look impressive, this above-deck shot with crew member Steve Mason standing through the deck on top of one of the forward fuel tanks conveys the real scale of the boat. It’s going to look even bigger when the wheelhouse and inflatable tubes are in place!

Tanks for the memory

April 18th, 2018

The first full week of resumed work at the Hayling Island boatyard building Team Britannia‘s round the world powerboat Excalibur produced some pretty impressive progress. First a bulkhead was welded into position, then the two forward fuel tanks, 6,000 litres capacity each, were manhandled into place and secured on beds of high-density rubber.

With the tanks in the bow, another bulkhead was welded behind them, followed by another further back, separating the main cabin area from the six-berth forward sleeping area. The main cabin area will actually be above the remaining four fuel tanks to go in – it will all make rather more sense when the already completed wheelhouse is welded into place on top of the hull.

And even as our ace welders from Latvia and Russia continue to work in confined spaces inside the boat, Team Britannia project leader and skipper Alan Priddy has concluded a deal with Technifast, a company manufacturing special mechanical fixings which will attach Excalibur’s enormous inflatable tubes around the sides of the boat.

At the current rate of progress, we’re hoping the boat will be in the water by late June or early July, at which point sea trials will begin, with one or two smaller world record runs before we base Excalibur in Gibraltar ready to tackle the big trip around the world.

Going to the movies

February 23rd, 2018

Last weekend saw me celebrate a birthday which some might regard as “significant.” Having survived quite a few close shaves over the years, I’m inclined to think that every birthday is significant!

But it has led me to think about one or two changes, including starting a long overdue project – making a movie about my first attempt to break the record for circumnavigating the world by powerboat, which took place in 2002. It produced at the time a highly acclaimed book, “Confronting Poseidon,” and I shot a lot of video which was turned into short TV documentaries as well as news output. But TV producers have different priorities when they’re making a programme, and I wasn’t really happy with any of them.

So the plan, once I’ve transferred about 20 hours of video from MiniDV tapes on to a new computer, is to turn them into a full-length feature documentary. I recently bought the DVD of a British-made production called “Mission Control” (reviewed below), all about the back-room boys of the Apollo moon landing programme. It intersperses lots of archive footage with present day interviews with surviving flight controllers and astronauts. “Confronting Poseidon – the movie” will have a similar kind of construction. Mine is even going to go one better – as a musician, I’m intending to compose my own soundtrack. I’ve already come up with a lot of ideas, and doubtless more will surface as I put the film together.

With the new record attempt with Team Britannia (which I will also be documenting in words, pictures and video) likely to eat more into my time as this year wears on, I’m not really sure about the timescale, but I don’t feel the need to rush it – I want to get it right. But in the meantime, if anyone wants a flavour of what to expect, they can of course download the book.

Down at the boatyard

February 5th, 2018

You might think that not a lot has been happening on the Team Britannia front, but things have been quietly moving forward. Having negotiated the funding to finish building the round-the-world powerboat Excalibur, the ABC Marine boatyard on Hayling Island is gearing up to resume construction, with launching projected for late spring / early summer 2018. Sea trials will include one or two record attempts before basing the boat in Gibraltar, and the round the world record attempt commencing in October.

In the meantime, there’s a bumper bundle newsletter to provide a little catch-up on the news. Download directly from here, or visit www.teambritannia.co.uk and enjoy a browse before finding the download link.

Mountain DVD duo

December 29th, 2017

I’ve been watching a couple of documentaries over Christmas, each one featuring British climbers with a mountain of achievements between them – Alan Hinkes OBE and Sir Chris Bonington.

“Alan Hinkes – The first Briton to Climb the World’s Highest Mountains” is a film by Terry Abraham, whose previous award-winning documentaries about Lake District hills have been broadcast in abridged form by BBC TV. Rather than just being a straightforward account of Alan’s achievement of climbing all 14 of the world’s 8,000 metre summits, gained over 27 attempts, he’s interspersed mountain memories with people and places that had an influence on him in some way. Rosebery Topping – the little hill in Yorkshire that started it all off, and fell-running legend Joss Naylor.

The film shows Alan indulging some of his passions, which include real ale and steam engines, but outdoors activities in all forms, including rock climbing, mountain biking, caving, or climbing up a waterfall. He’s extremely generous with his time helping charities such as the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, the Swaledale Mountain Rescue team and acting as an ambassador for the Youth Hostels Association. His previous existence as a school teacher has clearly helped him in his quest to give young people a taste of adventure, and this includes his own grandchildren, who nevertheless think he’s crazy! But he makes the point that you don’t have to go to the ends of the earth to have an adventure – you can do it even on a walk in the woods.

Having said that, it’s the sequences where Alan is interacting with the outdoors on a larger scale that really make the film – skipping along the classic knife-edge ridge scramble of Striding Edge on Helvellyn, being lowered into the cathedral-like subterranean expanse of Gaping Gill, or mushing huskies through the frozen wastes of the Arctic – where Terry Abraham’s talent for capturing the full grandeur of the landscape comes to the fore, along with some spectacular aerial shots.

The film includes scenes shot in Nepal, including the touristy sights of Kathmandu before taking a flight to Lukla and trekking in Everest’s back yard. Here Alan reminisces about his climbs, and you realise that this bluff Yorkshireman is also very aware that he’s beaten the odds, and that he’s quite happy not to have any more big mountains on his bucket list.

“Bonington Mountaineer – My Life Story” by Keith Partridge and Brian Hall is much more biographical, with lots of archive footage and photographs. Even so, the fact that the film opens with present-day shots of Chris Bonington recreating his ground-breaking climb on the Old Man of Hoy at the age of 80 simply leaves you open-mouthed with admiration. What fascinated me the most was the recollections of his early climbing days in the 1960s, where hemp ropes were the norm, and climbers had cigarettes dangling from their mouths – a far cry from today’s rock athletes!

It was also a time when not every corner of the planet was so easily accessible by air, with an expedition to South America entailing a long sea journey. But perhaps most amazing was how after making the first ascent of Nuptse (a mountain across the Western Cwm from Everest), he drove all the way back to Chamonix to do some more climbing! Of course, this was back in the days when overlanding was popular/possible.

The film features interviews with some of Chris’s climbing partners, including Doug Scott, Hamish MacInnes, Paul “Tut” Braithwaite, Jim Fotheringham and Charles Clarke, and inevitably also deals with the many friends lost along the way. Quite often these were tragedies which occurred at the moment of greatest triumph, such as Mick Burke on the 1975 Everest expedition which made the first British ascent.

Impossible to choose one film over the other, as the styles are so different, but if you like mountains, and want to know what makes mountaineers tick, you’ll get a good insight from both of these.

As a small digression, this seems to be an ideal moment to recount a day over 20 years ago, when, as Equipment Editor of Trail magazine, I was with a group of journalists on a product testing trip in the Lake District hosted by outdoors clothing and equipment manufacturers Berghaus. Amongst the company personnel were three of the main players in these two films – Chris Bonington, Alan Hinkes and Brian Hall. The day’s events included a hike over Great Gable, with a lunch stop by Napes Needle, a pinnacle of rock on the flank of Great Gable where the sport of rock climbing began back in Victorian times. The idea was that they would set it up so everyone that wanted to could have a go at climbing the needle. My experience at rock climbing was limited, but I was keen to have a go.

Seated at the very top on belay was Brian Hall, an accomplished mountain guide who has since carved himself a career as mountain safety and logistics expert in extreme locations for the film industry, with an impressive tally of achievements including the Bond movie “Die another Day,” “Touching the Void,” “Shackleton” and “Everest.” I was on what they call in the climbing world a “tight rope.” Every inch that I moved, Brian reeled me in. Even when I reached up for some miniscule blemish on the rock which I subsequently decided I couldn’t put weight on, Brian still tightened the rope. While all this was going on, Alan Hinkes was effortlessly free climbing the rock beside, then above me, suggesting where to put my hands and feet, as well as taking pictures of me. At one point he even crossed over my back from one side of me to the other!

I’m not sure how much of it was my effort getting up (it felt like a lot) or Brian’s taking a substantial amount of my weight, but I was delighted to make it to the top of this most classic of rock climbs. In order to speed things up and allow more people to attempt it, Brian lowered me down the upper pitch to a shoulder of rock where Chris Bonington was waiting to lower me down the rest of the way to the grassy slopes below. So my life has quite literally been in the hands of Britain’s best loved mountaineer. How could one possibly not dine out on that?