Friday, July 29, 2011

Baltimore to Oysterhaven

An odd motion of the boat woke me with a start around 03:30, a slight bumping and jerking uncomfortably reminiscent of her motion when floating off a trailer. Not having a functioning echo-sounder, I had relied on my charts to find a good depth for anchoring: could I have made a mistake? Perhaps even now we were going aground as the water ebbed all around us. Briongloid is a fin-keeler; she cannot take the ground without a friendly pier for support, and the subsequent rising tide would drown her for sure.

A glance at the harbour wall and a two bearings with my hand-compass reassured me; the tide had risen while we slept, and, mentally calculating forward from the tides of the previous day, should only be ebbing again around breakfast / anchor raising time. Back to my bunk.


I woke properly around 06:30 to what at first seemed like a viable offshore breeze. We raised sail and anchor, and began a slow glide out of Baltimore, drifting gently with the ebb. The wind soon disappointed, unfortunately, to the point where I decided to abandon ship, and jumped into the dinghy to row ahead and take some pictures.

From Bantry to Oysterhaven
Becalmed in Baltimore Harbour

Outside Baltimore, we gave up on the wind; I returned to the mothership, we sparked up the iron genoa, and re-commenced our journey eastwards. Almost immediately, we encountered a pod of a smallish whale species - could have been pilot whales. They seemed to have been travelling along the coast, and, when last seen, were paralleling Clear Island on their way out to sea.

We put-putted on past the Stag Rocks, a photogenic landmark, sadly in too much of a hurry to try free-diving the Kowloon Bridge. The wind did rise eventually, and at last we were able to cross Clonakilty bay under one of my favourite pieces of canvas, a large red genoa-ish sail cut quite round, very good for reaching. The wind was just right, just a nice strength from a pretty favourable direction. This was sailing as we dream of it, gliding easily across a flattish sea on a perfect summer afternoon, with nice views, and the pleasant feeling that home is only just over the horizon. My crew hopped into the dingy and let me sail past him a few times for photographic purposes.

From Bantry to Oysterhaven
Crossing Clonakilty Bay

The rest of the trip was very uneventful; our friendly wind died off eventually, and it was back to the infernal combustion engine for our last few kilometres, rounding close by the Old Head of Kinsale (there is something very like a fossil trackway on the great slabs that form the terminal cliff) and so past Big Sovereign to our home mooring, have travelled about 160 kilometres in about 48 hours, with only 2 of those hours spent on terra firma.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Berehaven To Baltimore

I awoke around 06:30 to find my boat still anchored in Lawrence Cove. Good start! A light breeze is raising light ripples - and is blowing our way. No engine this morning! We weighed anchor under mainsail and jib, washing some reassuringly clingy grey mud from the anchor flukes - ideal holding ground for our anchor.

Soon, the very convenient direction and strength of the wind suggests the notion of raising Briongloid's spinnaker. This gorgeous sail is very definitely the most frightening piece of equipment aboard, rockets and bolt-cutters included. My second best memory of this monster was the time I went forward to douse it; instead I was myself hoisted clear off the foredeck, arms clamped grimly to the starboard (outboard) end of the spinnaker pole, not actually overboard but taking a keen and lively interest in the possibility of returning to the deck at some point in the future.

The channel being broad and calm, with only a wreck or two for hazards, I pulled my old adversary from the forepeak and hoisted the gorgeous rascal. This time, we had a lovely run straight down-channel, our spinnaker submitting quietly to be gybed, and, eventually, doused, as we rounded up to exit Berehaven via its western channel. The lighthouse here has a nice feature: the beacon sends a fan of white light over the whole channel, and a much narrow red beam to show the fairway. When first built, it remained dark for some years. The notion of a lightless lighthouse did not amuse the local skippers, who didn't appreciate having to circumnavigate Bere Island to reach port via the (lit) eastern "man o' war" entrance (much the easier approach for sailing craft), leading to this parliamentary exchange with Baron Ritchie..

A port tack took us out of Bantry Bay and into the open Atlantic, propelled now by mainsail and genoa. A swell coming from the west and refracting around Dursey Island began to rise. As the land shrank astern, the crests rose higher and higher against the green hills on our beam (Sheep Head and Mizen Head), until, from our perspective in their troughs, they swallowed up the land entirely, even (I checked) when I stood on the fore-deck. Disconcerting as it was to be looking up at a wave, these giants were harmless, with a smooth, rounded shape and definitely no breakers.

We tacked in for Mizen Head eventually, crossing tracks with a lone dolphin who didn't stop to play. As we closed with the land, the sun came out and the wind died. Keen to see the landmark familiar from so many shipping forecasts, we came a little too close; replacing fickle wind with faithful engine, we blithely motored straight into the tide race than runs east of the Mizen during a flood tide (clearly shown on Admiralty charts, up to 4 knot currents at spring tides). Here, the wave fronts were short and vicious, and weird vortices betrayed extreme turbulence underneath. No more rising serenely over the summits; Briongloid slammed her bows straight through a particularly vicious specimen, which promptly burst all over the fordeck, passing safely over the anchor locker (well dogged down) and straight through the forehatch (ajar), whence its waters settled comfortably among our cushions and general effects. As the next wave ran eagerly after the first I jumped on the hatch, and remained damply in that position till sea and boat returned to their traditional configuration.

Eventually, normal service resumed. I went below for a doze. We found a whale, who showed no interest in us whatsoever and dived before we could identify it. My helmsman said "the whale is gone". I pointed out the very significance difference between absence of whale and invisibility of whale.

Fastnet Lighthouse (From Bantry to Oysterhaven)

We motored on, beckoned by the rather special Fastnet Light, old and beautiful navigation marker and part-time race buoy. It functions with roughly the same relation to yachts as a moth has to a candle; essentially, the ship killing reef and boiling tide race notwithstanding, it is too beautiful not to approach - two other boats were circling when we arrived.

From Bantry to Oysterhaven
Lot' s Wife, Baltimore

We turned in for Clear Island and Baltimore, passing a drowned calf and, later, cattle grazing on an un-fenced cliff-top by Lot's Wife, a Victorian re-build of a much older marker. We anchored in Baltimore harbour, near a very pretty Cornish Crabber, and ate with friends of my helmsman in a cafe above the harbour. After 13 hours and 70-odd kilometres, sleep came easily.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Bantry to Berehaven

On a fine July evening, microlights droned through a summer sky as we loaded Briongloid against the BBSC slipway in a couple of frantic minutes as the ebb tide sucked its way through the perilously thin margin of water below our keel, tossing kit bags, mattresses, ropes, groceries etc straight down the companionway. Then, suddenly, we were free, bow and stern lines back aboard, bow firmly set for open water, the last of the club moorings drifting past.

Windless, we put-putted out to sea, leaving the inner bay through the narrow channel by the airfield where a row of tiny aircraft now sat a-roosting. As Briongloid came abeam of the seal colony south-west of Whiddy Island and began to pitch gently in a faint swell, the chaos of embarkation was gradually resolved into packed lockers and tidy bunks. The sun slid gradually down towards the mountains that make up the backbone of the Beara peninsula, and we began to plot our entry to Berehaven.

As dusk fell, we tracked towards the lighthouse which has blinked its warning since the 19th century, marking the limit of the reefs defining the eastern "Man O'War" entrance to Berehaven. The non-sailor might imagine lighthouses, built as they are on boat-munching reefs, would be something of a deterrent, sending sailors on a wide wreck-averting arc; what is missed from this calculation is that when the sun is gone, the navigator perched in the cockpit of a tiny sailing boat is now afloat in a black void containing innumerable invisible rocks and just one or two with beacons that can easily be identified ten miles off (each having a locally unique sequence of flashes, printed neatly beside them on our excellent Admiralty charts). Being right beside the very well-lit danger gives one the great comfort of being far as possible from the hazards unseen.

I used the last of the daylight to go to Briongloid's tiny foredeck and flake the anchor rode. This procedure involves laying out the chain and rope which will keep the anchor and the boat connected after the former is dropped off the latter. This is an excellent opportunity to inspect the knots and shackles that tie anchor to chain and chain to rope. The bolt closing the second shackle I inspected had almost completely unscrewed itself; I covered its threads in Loctite and closed it up, banking another point in Mr Vigor's leaky black box. Measuring out the rode is actually quite an important job, because the length you need to drop off the bow depends on the depth of water you intend to anchor in: when the wind and tide try to pull your boat away, you want that tug to reach your anchor as a force which is as close to horizontal as possible, tugging its hook into the seabed. Use too little rode, and the wind may raise anchor for you; use too much, and your securely anchored boat may swing into a neighbour - or the shore - as the wind or tide changes.

Night was fully upon us as we entered Berehaven turned into Lawrence Cove, our chosen anchorage. "Haven" comes from the old Norse word höfn - so this cove is a harbour within a harbour, a really excellent place to shelter. One other vessel swung there already, a small ship with lights burning and generators humming. We gave them a wide birth, and dropped our hook, which shot the black water with bright sparks as it felt towards the mud, each little light a tiny animal in fear of our anchor, and attempting to advertise its passing to some larger predator. Not long after, I lay in my bunk and watched through the open companionway hatch some other tiny lights glide silently between the stars: satellites flying far above the shadow of the earth.

I woke once during the night to check our position with a hand bearing compass and sleepy eyes (another point for the black box). We never budged.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A trip to the theatre

After a day of mildly painful "trapped wind" during which I completely failed to belch my way back to a happy belly, I fell back on the obvious remedies - Andrews, Rennies, a couple of paracetemol for comfort. After a couple of hours of completely failing to begin a healing slumber, I tried some Zydol (normally used to erase post-operative pain). My "indigestion" chuckled and nipped me a little harder for my cheek.

My health insurer, VHI, provides a "nurse line" service, which I called. The very nice lady who answered my call immediately detected that I was speaking through clenched teeth and skipped the formalities, something that I really, really appreciated. Through a series of questions, she ruled out obvious suspects like gastroenteritis, and suggested that I visit my nearest hospital's casualty department. I decided to try my GP's out-of-hours service instead.

A nice South African doctor turned up pretty quickly, and offered sympathy ("Shit mate... I'm sorry") and some intra-muscular pain relief to supplement my own efforts (chewing my way through a leather belt and making a serious effort to put my fist through the arm of my sofa). He also thought casualty seemed like a good idea, and told me to phone if the drugs didn't help.

Feeling very silly to cause such a fuss over a simple case of indigestion, I woke my poor wife and got her to drive me to our local acute hospital, where a sympathetic triage nurse took me straight past the usual queue and into an examination room where a doctor gave me some morphine, intravenously. Light-headed as I was from the "discomfort" of my worsening "indigestion", I was interested to observe the effects of the "gold standard" of pain relief, a close cousin of heroin. Morphine acts directly on the central nervous system, and within seconds a warm sensation began to suffuse my body. My belly, however, felt no better. This was my lowest point: 4AM, sleep-deprived, very sore indeed, and now failed by the pain reliever. My Doc returned and doubled the dose... and, at last, the pain retreated.

Several hours of dozing on trolleys, examinations and blood tests followed. White cell counts indicated an infection. An IV line delivered antibiotics to fight it. Then a brisk, brusque gentleman quizzed me and poked me for a minute or two before announcing that I had appendicitis and would be operated on at the earliest opportunity. I added my autograph to proffered paperwork, and awaited developments. Another kind nurse brought me a fetching new outfit that tied at the side.

Eventually, I found myself in theatre watching my pulse on a monitor. Well past 100. Hmm. I must be nervous. As the aneasthetist's drugs began to pull me into oblivion, my fading mind made a final, terrifying observation: the wall-mounted computer provided to inform and guide my surgeon was running windows. I blacked out.


I came to after 90 minutes or so, feeling extremely comfortable and very pleased with the whole experience. A chat with my attending nurse and a glance at my chart explained this - lots and lots of pain-relieving drugs, plus a straightforward and successful operation. My surgeon stopped by my bedside looking pretty pleased with herself and told me how terrible my appendix had looked - said she should have taken a picture to show me (gangrenous, necrotic tip, etc).

And that was that, more or less. I've got three neat little slits in by belly, used to insert probes and remove the source of my "indigestion" and also 8 little stainless steel clips that my GP will yank out in a few more days. Not the worst possible result!

Lesson learned: take sudden and unexplained pains seriously.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Hauling out

Winter haul-out is a melancholy time; the final admission that, this year, there will be no more sailing... no more anchoring in quiet and beautiful places, no random encounters with big beasties from the deep. This winter, Briongloid will get new pintles & gudgeons, and maybe a few electrical tweaks to satisfy her owner's fantasies of hot drinks in cold places.

In compensation for having to leave the water, I did get to participate in the small adventure that is the haul-out. I'm aware that city-folk hire full-time experts who simply crane the vessel straight out of the water and deposit it neatly on a trailer or a stand. Where I grew up, the ritual is practiced in an older and more character-building and ingenuity-testing form, and this last weekend, my Briongloid experienced this form for the first time.

This haul-out went relatively smoothly, but not too smoothly (that would be boring). The local haul-out wizard and myself used van power, muscle power and ultimately an interesting grapnel+outboard engine technique to get the trailer into about 6 feet of water. Briongloid was towed on with an anchor laid out astern to check her way (boats don't have brakes!). Unfortunately, she landed just slightly off-centre on the trailer, missing the trough that normally holds her keel. I did try to fix this (setting a personal speed record for time taken to change into a wet-suit), swimming down to hold the trailer and kick the keel (it has worked before), but she was already too well settled (we had used the van/rope combination to haul the trailer higher on the slip, not a reversible procedure), but ultimately, it was not serious balance problem, and had the advantage of allowing us to clean beneath the keel.

The keel: ah yes. The one part of the boat I couldn't reach to anti-foul before launch. I knew the result would not be pretty, but... wow! After 4 months afloat, the bottom of the keel was encrusted with sea-life. Most prominent were several kilos of mussels - which I seriously considered saving for the pot, until I remembered how close to lots of very toxic paint they had grown. There were also several mysterious animals that were quite transparent - oblong, featureless, with a small yellow structure inside. When squeezed, they squirted. I asked the haul-out wizard their name; he said a local boat man had called them "pissers" - but this wasn't the actual Linnean name. I was amazed to find a relatively large and completely static animal I've never seen before in water I've spent quite a bit of time snorkeling in.

Funny thing about that haul-out: technically, it is mere drudgery, part of the price of owning a sailing boat. This one ate up some hours on a sunny flat-calm Sunday, and involved some moderately heavy manual work, a few good chances to get a nasty crush injury, and at certain points I was cold and wet. Oddly enough, I really enjoyed the whole thing. Water Rat has a point about messing about in boats.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Checking the weather

Last night, a tiny light blazed above our neighbour's rooftop, far brighter than Vega or Deneb. It couldn't be the ISS (which really whizzes past) , so I knew I was looking at Jupiter, currently a mere 368.8 million miles away. I can resist anything but temptation, so I finished my chores as quickly as possible, pulled a middling-sized Newtonian reflector out of my car boot and took aim at the heavens.

My luck was in, and my sighting tube was still calibrated; Jupiter appeared almost immediately in my field of view, and seconds later was focused perfectly. I could see the bright disk of the giant himself, and four bright points almost in a line - the 4 largest moons, 1 to the left and 3 to the right*. Knowing the moons to be only a little smaller than Earth, the vast scale of Jupiter was obvious. As I watched, I realised that I could a dark reddish band running across Jupiter's disc, some distance south of the equator.

Standing beneath the glowing windows of my home on a chilly autumnal night, it boggled my mind to be looking at alien weather. Of course, I've seen pictures of Jupiter many times, but somehow, this was much more real. Just think...
  • 70 minutes previously, the photons now hitting my eyes were leaving the roiling surface of our star
  • 30 minutes previously, those same photons bounced off freezing cloud-tops in the very toxic upper atmosphere of a truly enormous planet, and off towards a tiny blue speck...
  • ...where they whizzed down a plastic tube, bounced off two small curved mirrors, and into my eye.
How amazing is that?

* The informed reader, comparing my observations of cloud bands and moon positions with Jupiter's actual orientation might think I'm either observing while standing on my head or an Australian. Well, I'm innocent on both counts - a reflector telescope typically doesn't preserve up/down left/right.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Glacial Galtees

Week after week, the frost has held fast; on some days, the sun can chase it from the grass, but rarely from the shade. Below the sun's reach, the ice is creeping deeper into the earth; mud has set like cement, and the ice reaches a full foot below the ground. Freezing fogs turn bare branches into a freezing filigree, every twig heavy with ice crystals. Apart from the fog, the sky stays clear, and the stars shine bright and hard, the colours more brilliant than I can remember, with Mars a brooding red, Sirius a really cool and brilliant blue. All over Europe, the snow is thick - but not here.

Serious frost foils local arachnid

Now, a weather front rolling in from the east has delivered the coup de glace; at dawn, a weak sun cast a rosy light on the Galtees, covered at last in a deep blanket of fresh snow, smooth and dangerous. I can resist anything - except tempation; packing for the mountains takes fifteen minutes. My walk starts in an oak wood, as fresh snow begins to fall, whitening a path that had been bare. Beyond the last trees, sheet ice makes the lower mountain treacherous and adds an extra frisson to fording streams. Higher, knee deep snow lies beneath an icy crust that nearly supports my weight. Unfortunately, I have no snow shoes; and so the going, on a trackless mountainside, is brutally hard.

Icy stream, the Galtees

Then, a devastating disappointment; reaching the slope that I wanted to sled down, blades of grass rising above the snow have collected thick sheaths of ice. They form an endless forest of finger-thick spikes, glittering like glass as the sun breaks through. Gorgeous, but totally un-sledgable. I am getting tired; the going is too hard, the snow too deep, the ground too rough; I need a way out. There is my own trail up, but even that will not be easy going. Suddenly, sunset seems all too close.

At exactly the right moment, walkers appear higher on the slope, moving very quickly and easily; the ground allows me only a waist up view, but I can see they have found a better way. More slogging gets me higher, to a mountain trail; here, the snow is well trodden, and at last I can walk easily, and look beyond my next step. After the slog of the deep snow off-trail, the relief is incredible. The air is very clear, and I can see a great distance over a completely frozen landscape. At this height, no stream can flow, and the only sound is the crunch of the snow beneath my boots and the whistle of an east wind carrying arctic overtones. It lifts and flips my improvised sled (a bodyboard) and numbs my face, so that when I call my wife, I stumble over my sibilants.

This high place is wild, beautiful, and killing cold; reluctantly, I turn to descend the path as the valley below sinks into shadow, muscles already two-thirds spent, fresh bruises darkening. I am exquisitely happy, intoxicated with the magic of deep winter in high places.