Friday, December 21, 2007

Visiting Briongloid, on Solstice Eve

It is late in the afternoon when I arrive at the cove; tomorrow will be the winter solstice, and a copper-gold sun is already sinking to meet the far shore. At the cove-mouth, a heavy swell is bursting against the cliffs, the huge eruptions of spray made brilliant by the sunset. Under a clear blue sky and a rising moon, the sea is cold, furious, and beautiful. Launching the dinghy, I open the throttle wide, and make a dash for Briongloid, taking a disconcertingly high swell on my beam as I cross the cove.

Coming among the moorings, our little yacht cuts a lonely figure, floating in a sea of empty buoys. Winter neglect shows only as a slightly greener waterline; weeks of storms have blown harmlessly past her. In the cabin, lights and radio snap to life; bright LEDs on the charging panel announce that the last of the sun is trickling to the battery. The cabin sole (under a foot and a half of water in my nightmares), pumps dry in seconds. Back on deck, Briongloid moans quietly as the near-gale strums her rigging- she misses the sea, and I too am suddenly hungry for open water; but the light is fading fast now. I tumble into the dinghy, and turn for home… and our little boat is alone again, waiting quietly for the turn of the year.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A Swell Time

Briongloid left her home cove on Saturday under blue skies, carrying myself and Mr. T. We beat to westward for 34km against a steadily rising wind - choppy, damp, but exhilarating. After dropping anchor in the shelter of Broadstrand Bay, her hungry crew took to the dinghy for a 4 kilometre transfer to dinner at the nearest pub.

The wind having risen further after sunset, the return journey, in the teeth of a badly-timed squall, was exceptionally wet and bruisingly rough. On the basis that "'twer well, it were done quickly", I opened up the throttle on our nifty little Mercury Marine 6hp outboard. With Mr T lying flat across the thwart to keep the bows down, we had a wild ride through the blackness. In between trying to clear my eyes of salt water, I found time to admire the green flecks of phosphorescence in the sheets of spray blasting over the bows. Reaching the relative calm of Broadstrand Bay, we glimpsed at last the light from Briongloid, now rolling drunkenly in the swell that had now found its way into the bay; and at that moment, to the battered, soaking, and half-blinded sailors in that tiny dinghy, the little 10 watt bulb swaying alone in the darkness was as warm and welcoming as the sun.

Our long-suffering dinghy on the crest of a swell

Sunday dawned grey but clear; after a leisurely breakfast, we raised anchor and set off for home on a broad reach, whizzing past the low black knife-edge of Horse Rock and the crashing surf on Black Tom to reach the Old Head in record time, rolling our way home through swells noticeably taller than the previous day (9ft ?). Back on our mooring, the GPS showed 24km covered, the trip having taken less than half the time of our outward leg.

* For an alternative version of this trip, see here...

Friday, September 21, 2007


Less than a week on dry land, and I was missing salt water already - so left the office early, a colleague in tow - Mr. G. After a slightly damp dinghy transfer across the cove, we were tumbling aboard Briongloid and losing no time in rigging her for open water.

As we cleared the sheltering land, we felt her rise on the swell rolling in from the south west. Her sails filling then, the rising burble from her stern was almost musical. As the light faded from another grey autumn evening, Briongloid cut smoothly south and west into the rising waves, alone on an empty ocean.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


An (adapted) extract from the log recording Briongloid's first cruise

On the last morning, I raised anchor at 08:00, rescuing two very bewildered starfish from the chain as I gathered it in. With the storm jib already set, Briongloid bore off a little and began to move as soon as the anchor cleared the bottom; I had already lashed the tiller amidships, and she "self-steered" very smoothly out into Courtmacsherry Bay as I finished my jobs on the foredeck.

Before the morning was out, the cliffs of the Old Head slid past - the final headland was cleared, and a few miles ahead, the bulk of Big Sovereign marked our home cove. Just then, I spotted black fins in the water off the port bow.

Dolphin surfacing in Briongloid's wake

I bore up a little to meet them, and was thrilled to see the fins turn and slice towards me.
Within seconds, Briongloid was at the center of the school, and looking down from her cockpit, I could see sleek shapes streaking along beside her, a metre or two below the surface. Every few seconds, a fin would break the surface as a dolphin caught its breath; and sometimes, a muscular body would arc completely clear of the water. The dolphins stayed with me for a kilometre or so, playing all around while I scrambled to get a clear photo; then, two rose into the air side by side, landed with a neat double splash, and headed east; one by the one, the rest of my escort broke off to follow them.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Briongloid's First Cruise: Encounter with a Giant

From "Briongloid"'s log for Thursday, August 25th

Raised anchor in Baltimore Harbour at 10:00 and slid gently out past "Lot's Wife" with full main and genoa set. Once outside the lee of Cape Clear, good westerly helped me to progress eastward, running almost dead down-wind with sails goose-winged, easy sailing under a clear blue sky, the sun bright enough to make me cover my hands for fear of their burning. The wicked-looking Stag Rocks (nemesis of the "Kowloon Bridge") drifted past very satisfactorily to port, and I allowed my course to take Briongloid well clear of the land.

By late afternoon, however, the easy progress of the morning was forgotten. Speed fell away, until an uncanny calm came over the water, and the sails hung slackly by the mast; after a week of light northerly airs, even the swell was undetectable. Four miles out, the land looked low and distant; the water was very, very clear and blue, and, just then, glassy and inviting. It was immensely quiet.

At 18:00, I had just decided to abandon all pretense of steering a motionless boat and break for dinner when I heard a deep "whoosh" to the south; a glance revealed the source to be a very large whale indeed. By the time I had my camera at the ready, I was too late: the giant's black back arched gently above the surface just once - then the weirdly small fin slid back under the surface, and beast dove deep.

Briongloid at Midnight, Broadstrand Bay

Just 5 minutes later, the long-promised strong north-westerlies arrived, and Briongloid was making 9 to 10 kph towards Seven Heads. The wind built quickly, and within the hour, I realised that I was over-canvassed. Foolishly, I decided against leaving the helm to drop the genoa, instead managing the steeply-heeling boat by luffing the mainsail. After two hours of fast sailing, I entered Courtmacsherry Bay just as the sun sank below the hills. Time to stop for the night; my charts showed a perfect spot close by - Broadstrand Bay, the perfect depth, and well-sheltered - though not so sheltered as to disable a boat totally reliant on sail power.

It was about this time that I discovered the damage two hours of luffing could do - the vibration had shaken loose the body of a bottleneck screw which attached a lee-ward stay to the deck. The genoa was doused in record time, and a temporary repair effected; then, reading my chart by torchlight and steering my moonlight and GPS, I tacked gingerly past the Horse rock in the gloom of early night, and dropped anchor right in the middle of Broadstrand Bay. The falling chain blazed eerily as it sank through the water: phospherence, very strong. The run for the day was 68 kilometres, made over 12 hours of single-handed sailing.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

To Trail's End

The final episode of the "Back Country" serial post

Our night at Mystic Camp was punctuated by long rumbling peals of thunder, and fat rain drops drumming on the canvas above us. By the time we woke, though, the weather was clearing up; and when we rode out, the sun was shining again - though invisible to us, riding now along a densely-forested valley floor. This was the easiest riding by far, covering a short distance on the widest and easiest trails of our journey. We broke for lunch in a clearing below the gloriously named Mount Fifi (very fine-looking peak, actually).

Riders at Mt. Norquay, Canadian Rockies

And then, we were back, the familiar mountain-scape around Banff opening up in front of us, riding through meadows that in winter become pistes. Nature had one more surprise for us before trail's end, though; trotting nonchalantly past only forty or so metres away came a coyote - the first I'ld ever seen.

Back at the corral, our guide was effusively thanked, and (we hope) generously tipped. If you'ld like to see something of the Canadian backcountry, you might think of dropping a line to Warner Outfitters, Banff.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

In the Back Country: the ride to Mystic

Continued from "to Flint's Peak" and "Into the Back Country"

We woke to another beautiful Rocky Mountain morning - to blue skies and the fresh smells of the dewy meadow and the surrounding pines. Back on the trail, a detour and a short walk along a rather exposed path brought us to the exceptional North Cascade Falls - a real gem of a waterfall in a gorgeous little canyon.

Back on the horses, our ride took us past a shuttered Park Warden's cabin - as a supplementary precaution against ursine intrusion, large numbers of nails had been hammered upwards through wooden pallets, and these left in front of all doors and windows. The location was pretty perfect - right beside a river, with a neat-as-a-pin corral alongside (including a chute to allow horses to drink straight from the river). Lucky people.

North Fork Cascade Falls

Fording the Cascade River for the last time, we rode up the crest of a steep and very exposed ridge - an arete, really. The views on this ascent were probably very good - but the author was too busy dizzying himself by looking down the precipitous drops to either side to pay much attention to the wider landscape. Fortunately for the future of this blog, Ajax behaved himself almost perfectly.

The ridge topped out into level ground eventually, and short stroll through trees brought us to the western shore of Rainbow Lake - a classic post-glacial feature, sitting in a high bowl with steep rocky sides, the shale still concealed in places by the last of the winter's snowdrifts. Perhaps a thousand feet above, mountain sheep were silhouetted briefly against the sky. In the lake at our feet, trout surfaced continuously. To add the final touch of wildness and beauty to the scene, an Osprey stooped down from the trees on the north shore, splashed once, then climbed with impressive speed to circle past us, a dripped trout wriggling in his talons.

We rode on; steeply downhill, and onto the broad open spaces of Forty Mile Pass, which sits on the old packer route between Banff and Jasper, and gives exceptional views to north and south. Then, down again, past a circling eagle, and into the forest, and at last into Mystic Camp.

Campfire at Mystic

It was at Mystic that we were introduced by the camp packer to the mysteries of the great Austrialian art of whip-cracking. This is done with a fantastically supple fifteen foot leather whip, which tapes slowly to a very light and narrow tip. The easiest way to get the crack out is to start by laying the whip straight ahead; then, a surprisingly slow and gentle pull on the handle lifts the leather up and back past the whipper's ear - after which the handle is brought smartly forward, accelerating the tip of the tip to Mach 2! This doesn't produce the crack - but the loop that has just been induced in the main body does, shooting down the thinning leather, concentrating the energy into an ever-lighter cross section, and finally breaking the sound-barrier. Done right, this sounds just like a rifle - and, when you think about it, the sound is generated in a very similar way. Done wrong, I found the thong very likely to wind up around my neck, on the back of my legs, or really anywhere I did not mean it to be. The evening ended around the campfire, with our guide and packer trading trail stories.

Friday, August 10, 2007

In the Back Country: on to Flint's Peak

Continued from "Into the Back Country"

On our second day, C rode out on a fresh mount, the very handsome Ricky - her previous mount, Gent, was being given an easy day, on account of having been bitten by Ajax while in the corral. Ricky was very lazy, always falling behind - until motivated with a freshly-cut switch, after which he became a reformed character.

We rode first along a winding trail through dark forest, tall pines close on every side. Once, we passed a ruined log cabin, built by trappers sometime around the start of the twentieth century. The walls still stood, but the massive trunks of falling trees had toppled inwards from all sides to crash through the roof; an imaginative observer might think the forest had sacrificed a few of its giants to drive the intruders out.

Dark forest became scrubby bog, followed by meadow; we sat a while beside an old elk trap, used to thin (by relocation) the local population. Later, we stopped for lunch in a forest whose floor was carpeted with the thickest and softest mosses became the mattresses for our siesta; we dozed beside an abandoned wolf den, under the solemn gaze of a young and fearless owl.

Fording the Cascade River

The afternoon ride was a little more challenging; we rode a very narrow trail across a steep slope, listening to loose stones rattle off into the forest below. I felt Ajax stumble once or twice, but my Appaloosa didn't fail me. Later, he took me safely through the cold, cold Cascade River a time or two (stirrup-deep, sometimes), and finally, very cautiously, down the break-neck steepness of the trail into our camp below Flint's Peak.

Camped below Flint's Peak

In camp, I took to the river to wash away the heat and grime of the trail; my chosen bathtub was a hollow in mid-river in the lee of an obstruction that broke the current. I reached it by edging out along some fallen trees, a very rough and slippery bridge, trying not to think about how it would feel to be swept downstream after a good raking from the sharp stumps of broken branches. It was the coldest (and easily the quickest) bath of my life - but what a location.

Thursday, August 02, 2007


I knew I was close - lots of fresh scat on the ground, seed-stippled, each heap with its own orbiting cloud of flies, the stink competing for my attention with the pervading reek of rotten fish. Turning a corner, I sent a cloud of scavenging ravens flapping into the sky; the eagles remained, unmoving but watchful of my passing. There were pug-marks in the mud, broad game-trails in the grass. Perhaps the bear was gone - or perhaps he was behind me. After three hours of stalking, that nasty eyes-on-the-back-of-my-neck feeling was stronger that ever, and my hand hovered above the holster on my hip.

I decided on one final pass through the thicket before giving up - having already seen the runs and the fish scraps, I knew that he must spend a lot of time there. Leaving open ground was a risky tactical move, though. In the thicket, I could pass right by whole squadrons of bears without ever realizing - and a pounce could bring me down before I could even draw, let alone aim.

Then, something clicked in my awareness, and 15 yards ahead, the dark shape framed by the bushes snapped into focus. Glossy black fur framed intelligent eyes that looked directly at me. For an instant, the bear and I stared at each other. His head was disconcertingly big and high. Being face to face with a large carnivore of uncertain intention concentrates the mind perfectly. The yard, the stink, even the surrounding thicket, all vanished, leaving nothing but overwhelming awareness of bear.

Before I could raise either camera or my Capsaicin-based spray, he turned- and, immediately, vanished in the thicket. I would hate to inadvertently trap a nervous bear in a confined space; I circled the thicket once, very, very warily. Then I gave up. I have no video; but I have found my bear.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Into the Back Country

Our guide, Mike, was waiting for us at the trail head, horses (10) saddled, mule (1) packed, ready for the trail. Riding out that sunny morning, we were one cowboy, born and bred (Mike), 3 keen riders from Indiana, a Danish family of 3 of mixed experience, and, finally, C and myself (riding dilettantes).

The first few yards of the trail took us through a shuttered ski resort (Mount Norquay). Then, tall pines closed in around the narrow track, and we said goodbye to "civilisation". Already, the deep quiet of the back country was upon us, the drone of the infernal combustion engine replaced by the by the steady clip-clop rhythm of strolling hooves. In that close forest, the mountains around us were only glimpsed, their presence mostly inferred by the steepness of the ground to either side of the trail, and by the sound of hidden torrents, still swollen with snow-melt.

We stopped for lunch in a clearing at the edge of a meadow, and turned our horses loose (except Mikes, for purposes of rounding-up). Gophers popped out of burrows to watch as Mike removed a grill from the back of his mule and set about splitting firewood to cook our burgers. From the edge of the meadow, we could see across the valley to the forest on the opposite slopes. Looking higher, the scars of fire and avalanche were easily found; above those, a crest of the slate that gives these young mountains their rugged good looks.

Lee and Shrynn, keen riders from Indiana

Post-lunch, the forest closed in again, but the ground around us leveled out - a fortunate circumstance, as it turned out. Up ahead, the guide's horse came to an abrupt stop; I was close enough behind to see the problem, which was an uprooted tree stump sitting on the trail. This was a "grizzly stump" - the ant-ridden remains of a rotting tree, dug up and ripped apart by a protein-hungry grizzly bear. Mike's horse shook its head and stamped its feet, and tried to go anywhere but straight ahead; he put his spurs in, forced its head around to face the stump, and soon enough, got safely past.

Well, the spare horse, Ricky, passed by without incident, and so did Rocket the lunch mule, and Kris from Indiana; but Ajax, my mount, lacked their confidence in Mike's judgement. Having been neck-reining him all day, I neglected to shorten my reins at the crucial moment, and Ajax shied, before heading straight off the trail and into the forest, removing his rider (me) with the help of the first pine he passed. Having separated rider, hat and even the port-side stirrup (replaced with the help of Lee from Indiana), he moved me, on recapturing him, to offer him a new career inside a sausage skin, should he ever repeat that little performance. Having led him past that sinister stump, I re-mounted in a state of mild embarrassment, and our party rode on.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Sorex minutus

Sorex minutus is a predator with a particularly high metabolic rate; so high, in fact, that going more than 2 hours without eating could be fatal. Over the course of 24 hours, this efficient hunter will devour prey equal to two thirds of its own weight. Teeth that do that much biting need to be tough - and they are, containing so much iron that the tips are red. Sorex is also extremely territorial, and the males defend their territories with ferocious violence.

I encountered my first specimen this morning - the corpse of the unfortunate creature was making small circuits in our garden, its tiny body(just 4 grams or so) propelled into the air by batting paws.

The hunter become the hunted

Our little assassin was having the time of his life. Well, somebody's life.

Friday, July 06, 2007


With a small-craft advisory and a gale warning out, I did the only sensible thing – drove as quickly as possible to the cove where we keep Briongloid. The row out was brutal – a squall hit, and actually kicked my dinghy sideways over the water; a vicious chop even managed to slap a little water over the bows.

My row out told me all I needed to know about sail choice; I cast off with a single-reefed main and a hurriedly-hoisted storm jib. One very conservatively managed jibe took me to the entrance of the cove, becalmed for a few minutes in the narrows, and sorely tempted to shake that reef back out.

Glad I didn’t do that! Speed over ground ticked up, up, up on the GPS, and suddenly I was far too busy to be looking at numbers. The burble-burble of our wake built to a hiss; a faint vibration developed in the tiller. Briongloid rose into a swell of some substance; the next was bigger, and the third was bigger again. A wave broke awkwardly on the bow just as we plunged down the back the swell, and spray burst into the cabin around three sides of the fore-hatch. That did get my attention: must get that seal replaced, and take a second look at those latches.

The open sea was a lively place; force 6, gusting to 8, a south-westerly swell combining with a healthy westerly chop – I clipped my harness to a strong-point on the cockpit floor after one well-timed wave nearly lifted me from my seat. A pretty considerable heel developed in the gusts, but Briongloid handled well – steering remained responsive, and I had no fear of a broach. Behind me, the backs of passing swells were already high enough to conceal the entrance to the cove.

Being an evening sail, it wasn’t long before I had to tack for home; bore off on to a real screamer of a reach; GPS says we topped off at 8.3 knots - presumably sliding down a swell with the gale driving us - and staying in the vicinity of hull speed the rest of the way home.

Back on the mooring, I slid back the main hatch to be confronted by utter chaos: a landlubber might have assumed that the boat had been picked up and shaken by a giant (which would be within hailing distance of the truth, I suppose) - tools, sail bags and yet-to-be-installed parts had made an obstacle course of the cabin floor, while a small puddle remained beneath the fore-hatch. An inspection of the rigging also proved educational – the flapping of an imperfectly reefed main and slackly hoisted jib had shaken one bottle neck screw apart, leaving the attached stay to hang slackly by the mast. A job for some tightly-wrapped electrical tape, I think.

Conclusions: a Pandora will handle well in heavier weather, but check your rigging - and your fore-hatch.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Sail at Sunset

Rowed out to Briongloid last night, for a evening wander, pursued for a while by a lone seal. We had an easy time of it, sailing close-hauled into a steady breeze from due west, and making about 8kph over the ground towards towards the light on the Old Head. With full main and working jib hoisted, she barely heeled at all; would have carried a genoa easily, I think.

Sun declining over the Old Head peninsula

As the sun eased down to the western horizon, we tacked for home, bore off onto a broad reach, and trimmed our sheets to make the best of the easing wind, riding a feather-light breeze for the last mile home. By the time we stepped into our dinghy again to row back to the slipway, the sun was down and the moon had risen above the woods framing our harbour. The light of it struck warm silver-cream highlights from the dew glistening on Briongloid's hull and deck - dings, scrapes and weathering all hidden in the dark, only her outline remained to the eye, sleek curves gleaming against the blackness.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Briongloid Sails In

Briongloid left Kilmacsimon at high water, carrying myself, C, and our teenage pilot (on loan from the yard). Mast lashed to the deck to clear the bridge just above Kinsale, motoring was our only option; the Bandon river looks broad enough at this point, but the part of the channel deep enough for a fin-keeled yacht is narrow enough to make for tricky sailing, even for a bilge-keeled boat (which Briongloid is not).

We putted steadily down river, passing herons every hundred metres or so - I noticed that birds even thirty metres from shore were barely knee-deep, and was very glad of our pilot's help. Green fields sloping into trees along the shoreline slipped past; we passed a beautiful riverside tower-house (mini-castle), and dodged the submerged pontoons of a ruined bridge.

Just above the road bridge at Kinsale, our old engine faded, then expired altogether. We hung for a while on our main anchor while the ebb surged past; then a skiff from the yard towed us into the marina at Kinsale, before snatching our pilot and racing the sunset back up the river. After a false start or two locating sufficient bottleneck screws, we rigged our main sheet to raise the mast, assisted by David of Four Bells. And so to bed...


On a Saturday afternoon, around low water, we slipping our moorings in Kinsale, main and genoa already set, and ghosted out into the middle harbour on a breeze almost too light to feel. Lots of boats about, including a rather larger visitor, the enormous white ketch Parlay. The gentlest of north winds carried us down the channel, beneath the empty gun ports of the old fortresses. In the outer harbour, we gybed our way past a little armada of kids in Optimists, then a small flotilla of Lasers.

Clearing the approaches at last, a low swell announced our arrival in open water. A few miles to the south, the light at the Old Head blink slowly against the gunmetal-grey of the overcast. As we drew away from the shore, the wind picked up a little at last - Beaufort 3? - and we turned east, sailing on a beam reach for Big Sovereign, the rock which marks the entrance to Oysterhaven. Coming abreast of the entrance, we began to tack in, but the wind fell till we barely had steerage way; with a little cajoling, our rickety old engine carried us the final kilometre. Cut the throttle, dipped the boat hook, and Briongloid was home at last, hanging for the first time on our own mooring.

Adventure awaits...

Monday, June 11, 2007


We didn’t see a thing until it was nearly over; the assassin had pinned him on the grass, and from the mess around the pair, we thought at first that she had killed him already. Kicks and curses sent her running for cover, and we turned our attention to the victim, who lay blinking silently at us; pulse running like a jackhammer.

We knew he must be dying. No need to extend his suffering further; I fetched a slash-hook, and brought the blade down beside his neck, measuring my distance for the coup de grace. Then, lifted the shaft for the fatal blow, but stopped my swing at a shout – “not there!”.

I slid the flat of that wicked old blade beneath the body of the little thrush, the better to carry him where a little bird-blood would make no mind – but just as the cold of the metal reach him, he erupted into a flurry of beating wings - and to our utter amazement, cleared the hedge at the end of the garden in fair imitation of a pheasant.

The cat gave us a look of utter disgust, then stalked off.

Monday, May 28, 2007

A Hole In the Head

We launched out kayaks (sit-on inflatables) from a broad and sandy beach in near-perfect conditions - a sunny Saturday afternoon with no detectable swell. Mr. T and I paddled south from from the beach in the generous lee of a long and narrow headland. To port, the cliffs of the headland rose from modest beginnings, while ahead and to starboard lay the open ocean. This early in the season, there were no masts on the horizon, and the dearth of wave action kept even the die-hard surfers away - us paddlers had the sea to ourselves.

Two miles from our launch point, at the foot of huge and vertiginous cliffs, we found our target: a cave glimpsed three years previously during a weekend sailing cruise along this coast. Then, I'ld glimpsed a semi-circle of daylight at the cliff-foot; intriguing, but not a feature susceptible to investigation by a 40ft sailing yacht. Now, three years later, we arrived at the corresponding point on the opposite side of the head to find several more cave mouths, of which at least two pierced the head right through. Calling to Mr. T to wait for me, I paddling a little further to scout for an easier, wider route, which I found. Go back and tell Mr. T, or go through?

Against my better judgement, and guessing that Mr. T would be making a similar decision at the first cave, I nosed forward into the darkness by myself, tempted by the bright daylight visible about 120 metres ahead. Not far in, I began to have misgivings; sea caves generally exist in the because the area around the mouth amplifies wave action. A previously invisible swell now rose in the rock-constricted throat - a rise and fall of up to a metre made me grateful for the high roof. Eighty or so metres in, bound by walls I could not see except as silhouettes and paddling waves detectable by touch alone, a new problem presented itself: I was now close enough to the far entrance to encounter a wind-driven chop. At this point, the combination of opposing waves from both ends created sea conditions which I considered a little dynamic, especially in such a confined environment. With no torch or light stick, with my fins strapped to my boat rather than my feet, and no leash to keep my paddle and my boat handy, I could not risk a capsize. I beat a retreat.

Mr. Spider Crab waves at the camera, but refuses to smile

Outside, no sign of Mr. T. Uh oh. Entering the likeliest alternate cave, I was very pleased to see him silhouetted against the daylight, paddle in hand - I'ld more-than half expected to find him capsized. Conditions in his cave being similarly marginal, we retreated to the entrance; back in the daylight, Mr. T's hands turned out to be a little bloody - his (collapsible) paddle had self-disassembled mid-cave, and, what with the darkness and the waves, recovering and reassembling it had been a tricky business*.

We hauled out on to a "beach" of large boulders, and broke for lunch. Later, we did a little snorkeling and free diving (capturing the pictured spider crab); then, after a short detour past a sea stack covered in sea birds, we began a 2 1/2 mile paddle back to the launch site.

We'll be back.

* It's true what they say about adrenaline and the strength it gives you. Later, packing away the canoes, neither of us could unscrew the paddle Mr. T had reassembled in the cave - this was finally managed a full day later, with the aid of special tools.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Promethean Moment

Our little vessel is about to acquire a fixed VHF DSC radio, navigation lights and cabin lights, in addition to her ancient NASA echo sounder. We'ld also like to add a socket or two for things like phone chargers. To run this modest little setup, we'll need a little power. Marina-dwellers can simply plug in, but on our swing mooring, shore power is not an option - so we are going solar, with the help of a neat little kit from SailGB. The gadgetry having arrived, Ms C took charge and soon assembled a test circuit in our back garden, wiring the panel (120 watt-hours per day) to a charge controller (pictured), a 70 amp-hour deep-cycle marine-grade battery, and a small cabin light (pictured) for a test load.

Bottled sunlight in action

When I returned in the evening, a flick of a switch gave us a beautiful steady glow - bottled sunlight. Watching the light of this little ten-watt bulb (a cheap-but-wasteful incandescent) , the implications seemed quite numinous - our little boat, who'll travel nearly every mile under sail, will now achieve complete electrical independence. Once that panel has been screwed to her coachroof, she'll be cleanly and silently self-powering, more or less indefinitely. Wonder how long it'll be before I can say the same of our house - or our cars?

Friday, April 06, 2007

Sunset Reflection

I followed the track through the darkening forest, moving uphill at a jog. The winter has taken its toll - here and there, trees lean at crazy angles, a few stubborn roots still scrabbling for purchase, while others, exhausted, are slowly dissolving into the earth that fed them. The zig-zagging of the trail is punctuated by dark stone slabs; in them, a man is painfully climbing a very distant hill, trudging upward to his death. The cool air carries faint accents of woodsmoke - some miles to the north, the hills are burning, as they burnt last winter, as they burn every spring. They will burn next year too, I think; we have been burning this land for some time now - 5,000 years perhaps?

Overworked lungs and leaden legs give notice that this foolishness should not continue; but the gradient eases, and I clear the last of the trees, reaching the summit at a run as the sun sinks to within a single diameter of the horizon. The sky is a perfect and uninterrupted blue dome, shading to copped and gold in the west. The hilltop is not empty; the mound to the south is the tomb of the one-eyed wizard-priest Mogh Ruith; they say that 17 centuries ago, it was his magic that beat the High King and sent him back to Tara. He was well rewarded: his fee was the lands below this hill, down to the Blackwater. One hundred years or so ago, he gained a companion for his long vigil; beside him now, there hangs the man from the slabs, nailed at the hands and feet to a great stone cross.

How many sunsets will pass these sightless eyes? And who will join them, on Corrin Hill?

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Master and Commander

I've been a sailor for quite a few years now - but, recently, really a lapsed sailor, with only the occasional afternoon on a rented dinghy. Well, I've been shore-bound long enough - so, this latest equinox, I left the office to do a little bit of shopping. Just the one purchase: her length overall is 21ft 10 inches, she is beautifully curved; slim and low, with just 435 kgs of ballast in a bulb at the bottom of a knife-like fin keel, boats of her type have a reputation for being weatherly (and wet!). In six weeks or so, I'm hoping to float her down the river, get the rigging up, and sail her to her new home.

My 80s-vintage Pandora on the hard

Lots of work to do first, though. This little boat has always been a racer, but I have ambitions of spending the occasional weekend on the water (fantastic cruising grounds lie all around the cove she'll be moored in), so before the season starts, I intend converting her to a pocket cruiser. She'll need a head and a simple galley, navigation lights, and maybe an extra instrument or two (although I'll probably not go quite so far as the owner of her sister yacht, the Arabella).

Today, her sails are filling the boot of my car; they have a damp and salty smell that gives me intoxicating daydreams of the passages we'll make in her. Lots of work to do and money to spend, but I really can't wait. Adventure is definitely beckoning again.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Red Moon Rising

Yes, really. Astronomically inclined readers will probably have seen this for themselves - the first total lunar eclipse in several years (and the first I've watched for quite a bit longer than that).

When I saw my first eclipse, it was through a very crude telescope - a toy, really. This time, we were armed with C's digital SLR and a 550mm telephoto lense - much lower magnifying power than my old telescope, but a much sharper picture. Which we can share. Wonder what we'll be up to when the next one rolls around?

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Back to School

On my last trip, I relied on "muscle memory" to get me safely down, with a rather mixed outcome (injuries and indignities mixed with occasional flashes of competence). This time, nothing was to be left to chance: I signed up for another round of ski school, claiming an "intermediate" skill level.

Cultural differences between Andorran and French ski-schools became apparent pretty rapidly; my instructor (and C's) were fairly ruthless critics. Although the class was full of moderately experienced skiers (moi very definitely the neophyte), it seemed that we couldn't make a single turn to our instructor's satisfaction.

Je fais le "windscreen-wiper turn" - très mal!

Ah, yes. Turns. While we could all descend moderately steep pistes with a fair degree of control, we all seemed to have the same très mal habit - the "windscreen-wiper" turn. Demonstrated in the above picture by myself, this turn involves allowing the skis to slip downhill as a turn is completed - throwing photogenic clouds of powder about, and, crucially, slowing one down.

I thought that I was skiing quite confidently; I was wrong. Although my weight was (just about) forward enough to make parallel turns possible, it wasn't nearly far enough forward to give really good control, or to allow the turn to happen with the minimum of effort. My turns were also unnecessarily defensive - on most pistes, most of the time, I don't need to brake so dramatically; instead, my instructor exhorted me to cut neat "rainbow" turns (sine wave might be a better description). Many pole-planting exercises followed.

You might think that since we could all turn and control our speed after a fashion, further tuition was simply gilding the lily - fancy techniques we would never actually use. Not so; later in the week, after a fairly considerable fall of fresh power snow, Thomas (our acerbic French instructor) took us a short but very instructive distance off-piste. He started us on relatively gentle inclines - broad, virgin powder fields between the marked pistes. One fast, straight run and a dramatic head-planting incident later (marked for a few days by a huge me-shaped snow crater) was enough to convince me of the need for further work on those turns.

Practice payed off; before the day's lesson ended, Thomas told us he had something special for us; turning off a perfectly good piste, we paused in sequence at the lip of a gully, ski tips protruding into thin air. I did the (sort of) sensible thing, and launched immediately, before reason had a chance to consider the possibilities... There followed a second or two of severe misgivings, obliterated an instant later by a flash-flood of exhiliration as my momentum carried me well up the far wall of the gully. Turning easily at the "hang point" was a kind of skiing epiphany - and then gravity kicked in, and I was accelerating again, ricocheting down that beautiful gully, skis hissing through deep, fresh powder; it was like flying.

Pure winter magic.

Monday, February 19, 2007

In the Haute Tarauntaise

Flew to Lyon on a Saturday evening; boarded a coach which took us east, slowly wending its way into that part of the Alps which curls south to define the French/Italian border. The bus made increasingly heavy work of the journey as the road became ever narrower and more precipitous. Eventually, it was a narrow two-lane switch back, with a rock wall on our left, and a deep void on our right, softly falling snow adding an extra element of interest to the driver's efforts to maintain traction.

We arrived at midnight in the village of Val d'Isere, towing our cases through streetscapes made magical by the simply alchemy of fresh powder. Our accommodation jarred a bit though - cramped, shoddy fittings, and a strong smell of vomit. Too late to move that night; but, the next day, I chewed my way through four unfortunate reps, finally getting us into a very nice chalet in on the main street very close to the lift stations.

Snowy lane in Val d'Isere

This was our first time skiing in France, and we found our resort lived up to its reputation - instructors who didn't flinch from telling us the unvarnished truth about our technique, and pistes that routinely turned out to be a grade harder than our maps modestly suggested. The ski area (Espace Killy) is truly enormous, and runs the gamut from very high (year-round) glacier skiing to gentle forest runs low in the valleys. The scenery, hidden in clouds for the first few days, made a pretty wonderful backdrop to our holiday when it eventually emerged - maybe not quite a match for the Swiss Alps mentioned a post or two back, but...

I still haven't gotten over the sheer wonder of standing on a high ridge and seeing a winter landscape that stretches to the horizon, deep snow blanketing the land from the peaks to the valleys - even the seracs on the glaciers almost invisible beneath it. Thirty miles away, the (ferocious) southern (Italian) face of Mont Blanc was clearly visible - the air so clear one might have thought it to be in the next valley.

To be continued...

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Finessing, with Trig

Adventure in a rather flatter environment today; the cartesian plane. An interesting problem came my way this morning, and I found it so exquisitely satisfying to solve that I decided to set out my journey across said plane for the edification of my readership. I realise that many of you will be starting out rather sceptical that words like “elegant” belong on even the same page as a mathematical formula; what I want to give you is sense of my own wonder that such fearsome beasts as trigonometric functions can be whispered and coaxed into perfect co-operation, solving problems with no apparent relation to geometry – and the sheer pleasure of mathematical tinkering.

For anyone still reading, my problem was this: a certain object is to be drawn by a computer using two very different devices. This object has an opacity ranging between 1 (opaque) and zero (invisible); now, the artist has found that his favoured opacity value looks nice on one output device, but a little too solid on the other. He doesn't want to set the opacity twice - he just wants his picture to "look right" on the second device. Clearly, I need a "creative" way to interpret my picky artist's choice of opacity.

Perhaps I could simply halve the value used for the "too solid" device? No, that wouldn't do; a setting of "fully opaque" would give a solid rendering on one device, and a semi-transparent from the other.

Clearly, I needed a more elegant function; some formula that would "preserve" the start and end values (1 and 0), yet interpret intermediate values in a way that improves (increases) the transparency for the second device. Since the default(x) forms a straight line, I realised that I need a curve to get “under” x while still starting and ending at the same points. Below, you can see a chart like the one I used to hunt for my function; x and x/2 form straight lines, while the functions sine, cosine and tan form various curves. The tan (purple) gave me an “aha!” moment. True, it did not start precisely at 1; but it “dived” beautifully at first, before leveling out and settling gently onto zero.

Nearly there; to make my formula start at 1, I needed to “squash” it to fit my range: I scaled it by adding an extra term: now, I had tan(x) * 1 / tan(x). Much better! Now, my curve started and finished with the line for x – but I wasn't happy yet. Wouldn't an even steeper gradient be better? It occurred to me that squaring x might be the answer: numbers between 1 and 0 get smaller when squared. For example, 0.8 squares to 0.64, and 0.5 squares to 0.25 – while, handily, 1 squares to 1 and 0 to 0 – perfect! Adjusting our formula one last time, we arrive at tan(x^2) * 1 / tan(x) – or, visually, a curve which precisely fits the range we needed, swooping gracefully towards full transparency. If the (elegantly!) fudged transparency values still don't quite suit our artist, higher or lower powers of the first x in our formula can be used to “tune” the dip of our curve to his taste.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Business & Pleasure, Part the Second

Continued from a previous post, we rejoin our protagonist the morning after a rather painful return to the ski slopes, high in the magical Bernese Oberland.

Just after dawn on Sunday morning, I limped back to the cable car through light drizzle; a blanket of low cloud gave the valley a rather melancholy look. Rather than continue to Murren, I stopped at Winteregg; at this height, the weather was a little better - snow was falling. An old chairlift dropped me off at the head of a couple of friendly-looking blue runs - deserted, except for a small group practicing with a rescue sleigh. Making cautious turns on the empty pistes, I soon realised that something had changed overnight: my balance, and the rhythm of my turns were transformed.

I rode the Winteregg lift once more, but this time turned my skis south, towards Murren. Emboldened by an uneventful run down a red piste, I decided to give Birg one more try. Good decision: long before it reached Birg, the cable car broke through into clear skies. Although some cloud remained on the Schilthorn and across the valley a mantle of cumulus hung across the summits of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau; a brisk breeze whipped around the Birg, and I began the traverse that leads from the peak into the valley below.

Minutes later, I knew my old "ski legs" were back at last; I let my turns lengthen, relishing the freezing wind on my face as my skis cut a fresh path down near-empty pistes. The vanished clouds had left a sprinkling of fresh powder, and each turn kicked another puff of snow into that clear, clear air; as the piste steepened, the falling powder began to keep pace with me, and I, tightening my turns, cut through the tumbling debris of my own descent.

Riding a chairlift back up so as to have another run to the Kandahar station, I had the leisure to discover an eerily beautiful example of turbulence in action; the high ridges above me were continuously throwing off weird eddies in the air - currents all turned in upon themselves, horizontal twisters, made visible to me by snow crystals they carried, more brilliant than any diamond against the deep, deep blue of the high-altitude sky.

That morning is still fresh in my mind; the thrill of rediscovery as I took again the steepest line down the piste, rhythm and balance restored, careless of gradients that I would hardly dare tackle on foot; how the cloud veil fell silently into the valleys, until sheer self-preservation brought me to a halt at the margin of the piste, so that I could stand in silent and awestruck wonder, that any living land could be so beautiful.

A week on, my business in Stuttgart completed, a certain date in February beckons from my calendar; more Alpine adventures to follow...

Friday, January 12, 2007

Business & Pleasure

Business brought me to Europe; pleasure led to arrive on a Friday rather than a Sunday, in Zurich rather than Stuttgart, and to take a succession of (very punctual!) trains to the village of Lauterbrunnen, in which I arrived around 22:30 to find the valley moonlit and snowbound.

The next morning, I rode a cable car up to Grutschalp; our cable car was met by a tiny two-carriage train, and a gigantic luggage tray was lifted by robotic forklift from beneath the cable car on onto a kind of trailer on the train. After a minute or two, we moved off, gliding almost silently in the direction of the village of Murren; a short run, but one of the most beautiful train journeys that I have ever taken. The track traversed a very steep slope, about 2,000ft above the valley floor; all about us stood a pine forest, with snow thick on the boughs. Between the trees, I caught glimpses of an epic scene to the east - the great trio of the Eiger, Monsch, and Jungfrau, all over 13,000ft in height, the old green ice of the gravity-defying glaciers on their northward faces just visible beneath thick blankets of fresh snow; on their lower slopes, great pine forests grow on improbably steep slopes and at the very lip of tremendous cliffs; here and there, mysteriously treeless ground reveals the violence done by the avalanches from winters past.

Skiers rise past the infamous Eiger Nordwand

I last saw Murren on a misty day in late May; this time, I arrived in bright sunshine to find the narrow streets covered not, as I remembered, with wet tarmac, but with snow. Murren is a car-free village (except for a single 4 wheel drive taxi), and people with things to carry (such as luggage or small children) tow small wooden sleighs behind them (just like the ones in Victorian Christmas cards). Although there appear to have been one or two unfortunate lapses of planning in the ‘60s or ‘70s, much of the village is postcard-pretty. A short stroll took me to a cable car, which whisked me to a height of 2600M or so - which is where the trouble began!

The rest of Saturday, I remember as a blur of majestic, awe-inspiring landscapes, skies of a blue that verged on Indigo - and a regular series of spectacular wipeouts, in which practically every piece of equipment became liberated at one time or another. At one point, in fact, I was under the impression that a particularly violent fall had sundered the bones of one of my favourite legs; on another occasion, after a fumbled turn at the edge of a steep and unguarded drop, I departed the mountain altogether, my descent only arrested by the pliant but sturdy branches of a serendipitously placed bush. After 8 hours or so of such performances, it was a very sorry-looking figure indeed who steered gingerly past a piste-basher beginning its night shift, removed his skies, and trudged slowly, painfully, back to his lodgings.

To be continued...