Archive for the ‘General’ Category

One good turn

Friday, 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

Sunday, 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

Saturday, 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.

Happy Birthday Today!

Saturday, October 28th, 2017

As BBC Radio 4’s flagship “Today” programme celebrates its 60th anniversary, I’m reminded of the time nearly 30 years ago when I got to interview its then star presenter – Brian Redhead. I had been commissioned to put together a lavishly produced 24 page brochure for an art exhibition called “Artists in National Parks,” staged at the Victoria and Albert Museum (otherwise known as the V&A) in London. The artists chosen to depict Britain’s National Parks included Anthony Eyton, Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy, and apart from interviews with each (all telephone), I amassed a collection of quotes from celebs of the day, including “Last of the Summer Wine’s” Bill Owen, David Bellamy, “Treasure Hunt” presenter Anneka Rice, TV journalist Julian Pettifer and royal photographer Lord Lichfield.

But my main full-page interview was with the president of the Council for National Parks – Brian Redhead. As this was going to be a bit more in depth, he agreed to be interviewed in London. And so it was that we met in the foyer of Broadcasting House just after he finished the programme at 9 am, and we went into an adjacent hotel where he very kindly bought me breakfast. He was rubbing his hands together with glee because he’d just interviewed Norman Tebbit and “really stuck the knife in!”

I was nursing a broken wrist at the time, and he was most sympathetic, particularly as I had to tape the interview without making notes. It occurred to me then that while his stock in trade was interviewing people (and making politicians very uncomfortable), he probably didn’t actually get to be the subject of an interview himself that often. We enjoyed a very leisurely meal while he waxed lyrical about the National Parks, and how he hoped this high profile art exhibition might help raise their profile. He also had some deliciously waspish things to say about his co-presenters Sue MacGregor and John Humphrys, but that’s maybe something for my memoirs!

Mission Control

Wednesday, July 19th, 2017

The latest acquisition for my DVD library is a British-made documentary called “Mission Control.” Made by the same people that produced “The Last Man on the Moon,” it tells the story of the unsung heroes of America’s Apollo moon landing programme – the engineers, scientists and backroom boffins who made it all work, using archive footage cut with present day interviews. If you’ve seen the 1995 hit movie “Apollo 13,” you’ll recognise some of the names of the men remembering their roles, including Flight Director Gene Kranz, John Aaron and Sy Liebergot. Astronauts Jim Lovell, Charlie Duke and Gene Cernan also take part, while British audiences will be delighted to see several clips featuring James Burke, presenting the BBC coverage of the Apollo moon landings.

It has a special resonance for me, as my interest in spaceflight goes all the way back to 1957, when at the tender age of four I was taken into our back garden one night by my physicist father so we could see the bright light of Russia’s Sputnik 2 – the dawn of the space age – tracking across the night sky. I followed Apollo throughout my school years, and in 1972, my first solo trip abroad was to the USA to see the launch of Apollo 17, the last flight to the moon, remembered in this blog from eight years ago. The trip also included a visit to Houston in Texas, where I got to see Mission Control for real, and sit in the viewing room at the back of the nerve centre.

“Mission Control” covers the history of the space race, the tragedy of the Apollo 1 launchpad fire which defined the way the whole programme was subsequently run, the historic first landing on the moon, and the nerve-shredding moments and sheer hard work and tenacity that saved the crew of Apollo 13. Excellent viewing for space geeks. Available in Blu-ray or DVD.

Bear visits boat

Friday, April 28th, 2017

It would be nice to say it was a pleasant surprise, but it had actually been on the cards for some time. Even so, when renowned TV adventurer Bear Grylls paid a visit to Team Britannia‘s round the world record-attempting powerboat, under construction at ABC Marine on Hayling Island, it was still a nice boost for the project, making a story in the Portsmouth News. It was quite a coup, too, for Team Britannia’s PR director’s young son Edward. He managed to land a Cubs’ communication badge when he interviewed the Chief Scout on a wide variety of topics.

Team Britannia skipper Alan Priddy had remained in touch with Bear ever since 2003, when Alan, Jan Falkowski and I made a northern crossing of the Atlantic in the round the world RIB Spirit of Cardiff, just ahead of Bear’s own attempt via a similar route in an open RIB. Our crossing was quite a bit quicker (we set the unofficial record for a fastest transatlantic by RIB), but to be fair, we had a cabin and Bear didn’t, and that does make a big difference. And of course it wasn’t us that went on to make TV survival programmes which included the US President!

Needless to say we were delighted to welcome Bear to the boatyard, where apart from seeing the boat, he got to meet some of the injured veterans who will form part of the crew. He was also extremely interested in all of the project’s environmental angles, which include the fuel-saving hull design, the pollution-busting Clean Fuel, and our plan to monitor suspended plastic content in the sea throughout the circumnavigation.

Panto season

Thursday, April 13th, 2017

Over the years, I’ve had quite a few comments on my spectacles, mostly making some comparison with John Lennon. Throughout the 1980s I went for efficiency, with aviator-style glasses providing maximum coverage. But since then, I’ve been wearing Savile Row Panto, indeed, a model once worn by John Lennon.

In fact, there’s a long list of famous people who’ve had their faces graced by Savile Row Pantos – Johnny Depp in “The Ninth Gate,” Harrison Ford and Sean Connery in the Indiana Jones movies, not to mention Captain Mainwaring in “Dad’s Army,” the original TV series and recent movie. The classic round Panto design dates back to the early 1930s, and the frames are all hand-made to order from 18 karat rolled gold.

I’ve never been a slave to fashion, and while my Savile Rows have a timeless charm, I look upon them as an investment. Your average mass-produced frames don’t take much before they fall apart. I have two pairs of Pantos, both around 20 years old, and still going strong. I’m sure they’ll outlast me!

Hog roast in action

Saturday, January 21st, 2017

When Team Britannia‘s round the world superboat was turned right side up – once described to me as “like a giant hog roast” – at the beginning of December, we had no shortage of still photographs showing the hull at different angles through its 180 degree turn until she was resting on blocks looking much more like a boat. But this recently released video conveys something more of the drama and tension of the day – a day with one or two moments where it looked as though things could have gone horribly wrong. But the professionalism of the skilled workers at the Aluminium Boatbuilding Company shone throughout.

Since my last post about the project, team boss Alan Priddy has also confirmed that the round the world attempt will now take place in October 2017. A variety of technical problems have contributed to delays so far, and after the boat was turned, a couple more came to light which have since been rectified. But that, combined with the Christmas break has meant we would be pushed to be ready to go in the spring weather window. At the very least, if we went at the tail end of it, we would be looking at a bumpier and therefore slower circumnavigation – not what we want at all!

With the boat not far from completion, we’re still hopeful of getting her in the water by the end of March or early April, and sea trials including a couple of world record runs before basing her in Gibraltar.

Onboard video

Wednesday, December 14th, 2016

This rather handsome beastie supplied by Wex Photographic in Norwich is going to be my main camera on board Team Britannia‘s superboat when we circumnavigate the world next year. It has a number of features which make it my perfect choice, including enhanced focus and aperture control, dual-codec recording, fantastic low light performance, very good built-in image stabilisation, and abilty to transfer files direct to a USB drive without using a host computer.

Rather than filming a typical “point and shoot” adventure documentary, what I have in mind will be somewhat more cinematic in style, which I suppose may come down to the fact that I’ve been an avid movie-watcher my entire life!

One good turn

Tuesday, December 6th, 2016

Monday 5th December was quite literally a pivotal moment for Team Britannia. It was the day the hull of the round the world superboat was finally turned right side up. Since construction began in June at the Aluminium Boatbuilding Company on Hayling Island, the internal framework and hull plates had all been assembled with the boat upside down, purely because it makes the job a lot easier, with gravity lending a helping hand as well. With all the continuous welding completed, the lower part of the hull was sanded down and given a coat of primer.

The actual process of turning the boat was painstaking, and took a whole day. The boat had already had parts welded on at bow and stern to support it during its rotation, held up at the bow by an “A” frame, and at the stern, suspended from a crane. But before the “giant hog roast” took place, the upside down hull had to be jacked up on wooden blocks before the crane took over. Team Britannia boss Alan Priddy admitted to one or two nervous flutters during the operation, but was delighted with the outcome.

With the boat finally the right way up, one gets a much better appreciation of its size, and that’s still without the wheelhouse, which has been assembled in the unit next door. Apart from craning the wheelhouse and fore and aft decks into place, the internal fit-out will be preceded by fitting the six massive fuel tanks, the engines and jet drives.