Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Everest 45 years ago

Thursday, 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

Tuesday, 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

Thursday, 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.

Excalibur hits the water!

Thursday, 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

Thursday, 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.

Excalibur: the clock is ticking

Tuesday, September 10th, 2019

Since the completion of all major welding on Team Britannia‘s round the world powerboat Excalibur, attention has turned to getting her ready for launching, and at the time of writing, that’s scheduled to take place at the end of September. While the below waterline antifouling is now going to be paint, the rest of the hull and wheelhouse will be wrapped in a bright red vinyl. Even so, preparation remains the same, with every square inch of hull being faired and filled in order to remove high spots and fill shallow areas to even up the surface. It’s all about providing the least resistance to movement through water, and of course to present the best finish aesthetically. The last few days have seen Alan Priddy, Wayne Priddy and Steve Mason hard at work, helped by willing volunteers.

“Using a grinding machine is a physically demanding job,” says Alan. “It’s important that the visible sections of the boat are as close to perfection without grinding down the thickness of the metal.” With the top part of the hull finished, Steve Mason set about painting the more intricate parts which can’t be covered by the bright red wrap.

Further work on the boat will be needed after launching before she’s ready to commence sea trials, but at least people will see her in all her glory, and realise that when we say we’re going to do something, we do it! It might even persuade one or two potential sponsors to jump off the fence and commit to supporting us.

Coming soon to an ocean near you

Monday, 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

Monday, 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

Thursday, 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

Tuesday, 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.