Blast(off) from the past

April 27th, 2021

I was sorting through some old slides recently, and came across this one, shot at the Paris Air Show in 1973. Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, on the left, was the first man to walk in space (March 1965), while Eugene Cernan, in the wonderfully understated jacket, was the commander of Apollo 17, and the last man to walk on the moon (December 1972).

As an avid space and moon mission junkie, I’d actually watched Apollo 17 blast off from Cape Kennedy six months previously, at the time never dreaming I would come to within feet of Gene Cernan while he was still a rock star. Moon rock, of course.

Cernan was at the Paris Air Show with the rest of his Apollo 17 crew along with other astronauts and cosmonauts to promote the first ever international space cooperation – the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, which in 1975 would see an Apollo spacecraft in earth orbit docking with a Russian Soyuz via a special adapter. They’d even brought their own illustration of how it would look in space using not just a mock-up, but actual spacecraft that had either been used as a testbed or put together from spare parts. It was the first manifestation of détente between the two Cold War superpowers, and the first project which combined two very different approaches to engineering.

And while I didn’t take the plunge into full-time journalism for another 10 years, it’s clear I was well able to handle myself in a media scrum to get a good photo. In fact, I almost elbowed the chap on the right out of my way to improve my shot. I didn’t think about it at the time, or in the subsequent 48 years, but taking a closer look when I scanned the slide, I realised it wasn’t just another member of the press pack. Note the clearly defined receding hairline, solid sideburns and loud shirt, then take a look at the official NASA photograph to the left. Could it be that in my haste to get a decent photograph of Gene Cernan, I nearly elbowed past Apollo 17 Command Module Pilot Ron Evans?

20 years on, and still a world record

March 24th, 2021

In an age when records come and go almost at the blink of an eye, it might come as a surprise to know that the official world record for a powerboat transatlantic has stood unchallenged for 20 years. After all, isn’t this the same record that was challenged by the likes of Richard Branson’s “Virgin Atlantic Challenger II” in 1986, or the Aga Khan’s gas turbine-powered “Destriero” in 1992? Well, not quite. Both boats produced impressive times, but neither operated under the rules of the international governing body of powerboating – the UIM (Union Internationale Motonautique).

At the time, the official route for a powerboat transatlantic was New York to Bishop’s Rock in the Scillies, which was indeed the route Branson’s boat took. Except he refuelled at sea, which is forbidden under UIM rules. And while “Destriero” produced impressively fast non-stop crossings in both directions, they weren’t registered with the UIM as record attempts (they were more interested in claiming the Blue Riband, and they failed to meet the rules for that, too.) It all became somewhat academic in 2000, when the UIM changed the finishing post for official powerboat transatlantics from Bishop’s Rock to Lizard Point, at the tip of the Cornish mainland.

It just so happened that “Spirit of Cardiff,” fresh from breaking the fastest port to port record set by the round the world record-holder “Cable & Wireless Adventurer” (Gibraltar to Monaco, October 2000), was being prepared to attack Adventurer’s final two port to port records from New York to the Azores, and Azores to Gibraltar in the spring of 2001. But with the newly changed finishing post for an official powerboat transatlantic, the board had been swept clean. By continuing from Gibraltar to Lizard Point, “Spirit of Cardiff” would be able to claim the official world record, albeit via a somewhat dogleg route.

Things didn’t go quite to plan, but “Spirit of Cardiff” did indeed complete the first official world record transatlantic under the new UIM rules in May 2001 with a time of 248 hours 47 minutes, and the record has stood unchallenged ever since. That transatlantic was the last big trip “Spirit of Cardiff” made before her attempt on the round the world record in 2002. In recognition of holding a major world record for 20 years, “Spirit of Cardiff” transatlantic record-holders Alan Priddy, Jan Falkowski, Steve Lloyd and Clive Tully will be appearing in a series of “On this day” posts on Team Britannia’s Facebook page, including many previously unpublished photos. The story is taken up as “Spirit of Cardiff” is established in New York prior to several weeks of promotion, touring ports along the eastern seaboard of the USA.

“On this day in 2001 – retracing Spirit of Cardiff’s record-setting transatlantic” will commence with its first post on 29th March 2021.

Remembering Doug Scott CBE

December 8th, 2020

Others will remember Doug Scott purely in mountaineering terms, and surely that is right, as he was undoubtedly the most accomplished British mountaineer of all time. Many of his climbing companions describe him as visionary, and while that undoubtedly applies to the way in which he approached mountaineering, to my mind, it stretched to something far more.

I met Doug Scott in the mid-1980s. We had a mutual friend in David Oswin, who ran photographic and walking holidays in mountainous parts of the world, and whom I’d met on a very early press trip to Iceland. We got on well, and soon I was helping David with copywriting for his brochures as well as becoming tour leader for some of his trips, while Doug had gone with David on one or two promotional jaunts, notably to Iceland, before progressing to leading some of David’s trekking holidays. This was the forerunner to Doug setting up the Specialist Trekking Cooperative, which subsequently became Community Action Treks.

I wanted to become a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and that required me to find two existing Fellows to propose and second my application, and to provide a reference as to why I should be admitted. David had agreed to be my proposer, and when it came to finding a seconder, he said “I know, I’ll ask Doug.” And so it was that my application to be admitted to the Fellowship of the Royal Geographical Society was seconded by one of the world’s most famous mountaineers. The RGS could hardly refuse me, could they? And they didn’t.

Doug was still climbing big mountains in those days, and he first asked me to help out with a bit of publicity when he was planning an expedition in 1987 to what was then the last unclimbed route on Everest – the north-east ridge. I couldn’t have done too badly – he sent me a postcard from Advance Base Camp describing the conditions on the mountain, and how well the team members were working together. He asked me again for subsequent climbs, including Jitchu Drake in Bhutan.

I stayed at Doug’s house in Cumbria several times over the years. When he was married to Indian mountaineer Sharu Prabhu, his house had a timber beam stretching across the stairway to the upper floor. Mere mortals would duck slightly to avoid making contact, but Doug, even then still smoking evil-smelling French cigarettes, would do a number of pull-ups as he passed. I could barely manage one!

But one moment which sticks out was when I was nearby, visiting David Oswin with my wife, and daughter Aislinn, then a small baby of just a few months. We’d had an evening meal, progressed to a few drinks, and Doug joined us later. Aislinn was a bit fretful and not settling down well, so my wife brought her downstairs and tried to soothe her to sleep, but Aislinn was having none of it. “Come here, child,” said Doug as he took hold of Aislinn, cradling her against one shoulder. Within a minute she’d quietened down, and within another minute or so she was fast asleep. Having performed a minor miracle, that might have been the point when you’d expect Doug to hand Aislinn back to her mother, but no, we carried on chatting away, with my daughter fast asleep on the great man’s shoulder for a good hour. Others have spoken of the extraordinary Zen of Doug Scott, but this was it in action!

With Doug’s world increasingly intersecting with the tourism industry as he started organising his own trekking holidays, I remember us meeting up at the World Travel Market in London and wandering around the stands. It’s a fascinating experience tagging along with someone instantly recognisable, and seeing the reactions of people. Some just stood slightly open-mouthed and pointed as we walked past, while one woman came up to Doug and said “What was it like on top?” She had of course omitted to say on top of what, but obviously she meant Everest. Doug’s response was typical understatement: “A bit cold!”

And then in 1996 I led one of Doug’s treks in Nepal. Actually I was more a guest tour leader, taking over from the editor of Trail magazine, who should have gone as it was a Trail reader offer trip, but he had to pull out. As Trail’s equipment and travel editor, I was the logical choice to take his place. And while I did visit Doug for a briefing beforehand, in fact it wasn’t too onerous a task – the man actually leading the trek was Ang Phurba, one of Doug’s support climbers on the 1975 Everest expedition.

Before setting out on the trek proper to the holy lake of Dudh Kund, in Everest’s back yard, we went off the beaten track to a village called Ghunsa, where Doug’s charity had built a school and medical centre. Nepal is, of course, one of the world’s poorest nations, and while villages on the main trekking routes don’t do so badly, those further away have a much tougher life. Doug had started out installing clean water supplies in various villages, then progressed to building schools and medical posts. His passion for helping the Nepalis was absolute, and the gratitude felt by the people whose lives he touched was equally profound.

We’d visited Ghunsa because as a journalist, there was a story for me to tell, and the stunning welcome we received from the villagers made it all the worth telling. But for me to be the recipient of gratitude for other peoples’ generosity was overwhelming. The whole village turned out for us, the children sang and danced, and everyone in the trekking group was garlanded. Some moments in life slip happily into the sidelines. That one didn’t.

I came home from that trip to Nepal with two things – one of which was uninvited. Shortly after arriving back home I went down with a severe illness subsequently diagnosed as Q Fever. I even know where I contracted it, from the day I took our group to Bhaktapur, the ancient capital of Nepal, on a holiday when livestock had been slaughtered in the streets.

The other was the determination to do what I could to get Doug Scott’s efforts recognised in the wider world. As a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers, I put forward the Ghunsa school project for a special award, and was delighted when it won. The grand award was to take place at the 1996 World Travel Market in Earl’s Court. Doug and I had already agreed to meet up an hour before the award ceremony, and so it was that we sat down at a small table on Iceland Tourism’s stand. They plonked a couple of glasses and a bottle of Brennivin, Iceland’s famed lethal herb-infused vodka, between us, and left us to it.

There’s another story to tell about the way I ended up having to be carried out of Earl’s Court by security guards, but the important point is that the BGTW award was the first of many major recognitions of the incredible work done by Community Action Nepal.

I last saw Doug when he came to Norwich five years ago to do a talk, fundraising for CAN. It was weird, but whenever he phoned me up over the years, I knew instantly it was him before he spoke. Or at the very least he would just say “Clive…?” and I knew it was Doug. On this occasion, he’d had about 20 bookings for his talk, which was a bit light. Could I do anything? I guess it wasn’t much, but in 24 hours I managed to circulate his press release locally and boost the numbers up to around 40. And I helped to diagnose a slight technical hitch in the computer projection equipment on the night. The audience, of course, was absolutely enthralled with Doug’s talk, as was I.

The world of mountaineering has indeed seen the passing of an absolute titan, but the impoverished mountain people of Nepal have lost their champion. Long may his influence continue.

Everest 45 years ago

September 24th, 2020

To my left is Doug Scott CBE, who 45 years ago today (24th September) stood on the summit of Everest with Dougal Haston to make the first British ascent. Not only that, it was the first ascent of the south-west face, a route which many had deemed impossible (it hasn’t been climbed many times since). They arrived on the summit as the sun was going down, and with not enough time to get down to their top camp, they instead spent the night in a snow hole 100 metres below the summit. With no sleeping bags, and despite their bottled oxygen running out, they survived the night, and without frostbite!

Many have climbed Everest since via the technically undemanding “tourist route,” with Sherpa assistance and fixed ropes – but that’s light years away from the monumental achievement of the 1975 British South-West Face Everest Expedition. Doug’s other exploits have been the stuff of legend, too, and his climbing style has been described as visionary.

Doug was still climbing big mountains when I met him through a mutual friend in the mid-1980s – he seconded my application to become a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and it was my pleasure to help out with a bit of PR for a couple of his climbs, and later, when he started to organise trekking holidays, along with his charity Community Action Nepal, which has built many schools and health centres throughout Nepal. I even got to be guest trek leader on one of his treks!

Poles apart

February 18th, 2020

I’ve been using trekking poles – either telescopic or folding – for decades. Originally developed from ski poles, the idea of the trekking pole is to give you stability when you’re out hiking in rough terrain. That could be in the mountains, where a pair of poles can improve your balance and give you the equivalent of four-wheel drive to help you on steep uphill slopes. But they’re also extremely handy going downhill, where it’s like you’re carrying your own set of banisters downstairs. On less hilly but no less tortuous terrain, trekking poles take some of the load off your leg joints – especially good if you’re backpacking – and they add an extra level of security to stream and river crossings.

Note I’ve said “a pair of poles.” While you can buy them singly, and one is better than none, a pair is more than twice as good as one! There are many variations on the types of poles you can get, from the materials they’re made of, to the way they pack down when you’re not using them and thus more likely to have them carried within or attached to your luggage. There are plenty of websites which can offer advice on how you choose what type of pole to go for, but the purpose of this post is to go off somewhat at a tangent.

Apart from seeing an increase in the use of poles out in the countryside, I’m seeing more and more people using them in urban settings – the older generations particularly. With rubber feet attached to the sharp tungsten carbide tips, you can wander along the streets and even in shops without causing any damage. But what I have seen amongst this level of user is frequent misuse of the wrist straps. So many times I’ve spotted where people have simply put their hands through the Nylon loops without thinking that there’s a right way and a wrong way to use them.

A lot of downhill skiers dispense with wrist straps on ski poles for the very good reason that if they take a tumble, a pole attached to each wrist could be more likely to cause an injury, so best be able to jettison them as you fall. But with trekking poles, the idea is to put weight on them, and while you can certainly do that while holding the hand grips, the wrist loops make it so much simpler – provided you remember to put your hand into the loop from underneath. So if you lift your hand up without grabbing the hand grip, the pole will dangle by its strap from your wrist. Then when you bring your hand down to hold the hand grip, you can pull on the trailing end of the strap to adjust the fit for comfort.

With your hands properly located in the wrist straps, you can put lots of weight on the pole without having to hold on to the hand grips that hard, and if you stop for a moment to take a picture, your poles are still attached to you ready for action. While it might seem obvious to many users, I wonder whether the manufacturers of trekking poles are missing a trick by not including these basic instructions on how to locate your hands correctly in the wrist straps.

Remembering Dresden

February 13th, 2020

When I visited East Germany in 1986, this statue of Martin Luther stood in front of all that remained of Dresden’s Frauenkirche, destroyed by allied bombing in February 1945. The post-war Communist authorities had wanted to clear the site to turn into a car park, but realising that might be a step too far, instead preserved the ruins as a war memorial. After reunification, moves to rebuild the church gathered pace. Construction began in 1994, with the completed church rededicated in 2005.

Read about my visit to East Germany in the Kindle book One of our Balloons is Missing.

Getting wider

December 9th, 2019

Friday 6th and Saturday 7th December saw another landmark moment in the Team Britannia round the world powerboat Excalibur’s construction – she gained an extra two metres in width! Fitting the inflatable tubes (also known as collars or sponsons) was backbreaking work carried out in horrendous weather. Why not wait until a sunny day? It had been planned some time in advance to take advantage of the tide times – depending on which side of the boat is being worked on dictates which side of the dock she has to be moored, and once floated over, we then have to wait for the tide to go out and for the boat to settle in the mud before the heavy work begins.

With the coated material sponsored by Orca, the tubes were assembled for us by Henshaw Inflatables Ltd (Wing). Each one is 19 metres long, weighing 250 kilos, so just manhandling them was a major effort! There are 116 fixing bolts per tube, all of which had to be drilled, tapped and special inserts fitted into the hull to accommodate the bolts. After floating the boat over to the opposite pontoon, Alan Priddy, Elliott Berry and John Garner braved the pouring rain and howling gale to fit the starboard tube. “To say it was a struggle is an understatement,” says Alan. Meanwhile, we also had a working party inside the boat – Steve Mason and Alan Goodwin completed the two two-berth cabins at the rear of the wheelhouse before moving on to the stairwell and front cabin.

After a night spent on board, which included sampling some of Team Britannia’s excellent freeze-dried meals, the boat was floated back over to the other side of the dock for the port tube to be fitted. With Elliott Berry’s place taken on Saturday by Andy Reid, they managed to get finished late afternoon just before a storm came in and the light went. We also had a steady stream of visitors, including Dave Stanway, one of our competition prize winners. We should add that corporate sponsorship opportunities for Team Britannia and Excalibur’s round the world record attempt are still available, so if you or anyone you know might be interested, please do get in touch.

Launching Excalibur

October 7th, 2019

Getting Team Britannia‘s round the world powerboat Excalibur into the water after over three years in a shed in a boatyard on Hayling Island was a painstaking affair. The following video, about four and a half minutes, provides a flavour of the afternoon.

Excalibur hits the water!

October 3rd, 2019

It’s tempting to describe the launch of Excalibur on October 2nd in Churchillian terms – “not the end, not the beginning of the end, but it is the end of the beginning.” The operation to move Team Britannia‘s superboat out of her shed and into the water was a slow, careful and painstaking operation which took the entire afternoon. If you’ve ever watched the filming of a movie or TV production, it was a bit like that – long periods of waiting around (for the watchers, not the crane crew) interspersed with short bursts of activity.

The stern support blocks were replaced by a trolley assembly, and then with a single sling from the crane taking the weight of the bow, the remaining support blocks were removed. At this point, one of our crew was busy with a paint roller applying antifoul to the small sections of hull previously obscured by the blocks.

Then, slowly, very slowly, Excalibur was inched forward until her bow was suspended over the edge of the quayside. At this point she was lowered onto blocks once again while the crane crew changed their lifting gear to fit two large strops around the boat. And then she was up in the air, and very gently swung round over the quayside into the water, and mooring lines made fast. Somebody wondered why we didn’t crack a bottle of champagne over her, but that’s something we’ll save for when we have a proper naming ceremony. It certainly felt a bit strange simply stepping across onto the boat’s aft deck instead of having to climb a ladder. All credit to our fantastic welders – as Slava helpfully pointed out yesterday after checking inside the engine room: “She’s not leaking yet!”

The boat was moored at the quayside outside the boatyard on her first night in her new environment, then moved to a mooring at the adjacent Hayling Yacht Company for the remainder of the work to be carried out. There’s still a lot to do before she’s ready to commence sea trials, but having got to this point is an accomplishment in itself, and it certainly spurs us on to the next stage of the project.

The Big Red Boat

September 19th, 2019

With a week to go until her scheduled launching, things have been moving swiftly at the boatyard where Team Britannia‘s round the world powerboat Excalibur is being finished off. The last couple of weeks or so have seen fairly painstaking work, filling and fairing the hull – filling in any minor dips and smoothing out any lumps. This week the lower section of hull has had its first coat of antifoul, while the upper part has been wrapped.

In a process often used with powerboats, the hull has been encased in sheets of what Blue Peter might describe as “sticky back plastic.” It makes for a superb durable finish, and achieved in a fraction of the time it would take to paint.

The wheelhouse and superstructure will receive its wrap early next month, once we’ve taken delivery of the special glass being used to make Excalibur’s windows. At that point, the boat will be in the water. In the meantime, the end of this week sees the massive Castoldi jet drives installed again for the last time. There’s still a lot to do to get the boat ready for its first sea trials, but we’re definitely getting there.