Sunday, November 23, 2008

Whale Patrol

Day-dreams of craggy headlands, taut canvas, wide blue horizons - clearly, I was in the grip of a bad case of sea-fever. The fever was not reduced by a steady stream of reports that huge beasts were on the move just off-shore. This far north, the sun sinks early, and gales are frequent; I would have to wait my chance.

I found a Saturday with a weather window just wide enough to slip through (framed by gales); found a willing crew (Mr. H); and so, arrived at a deserted slipway at dawn to launch my dinghy into the teeth of a nor'wester whose brisk chop delivered a bucket or two of seawater into the dinghy before by the time we reached Briongloid.

With only a modest set of sail, Briongloid fairly leapt along under a mostly-blue sky, across an empty sea - not another mast to be seen; we steered south west to bring us close by the Old Head. We could have dodged south to escape the tide race generated by the flood coming east around the Old Head of Kinsale, but the gold of the early sun on the craggy cliffs and the lighthouse tempted us within convenient photographic range. We knew the tide race when we met it: Briongloid's bows buried to the deck, and a certain skipper dogged the forehatch down tight in a hurry...

The Old Head about an hour after dawn (Picture: D. Hoberg)

The pounding of the tide race was short-lived, and soon we were around the headland, beating across the white-capped chop of Courtmacsherry Bay; a good wind, force 5 to 6. Three hours out, investigations of circling sea birds - gannets, mostly - lead us to our first sighting, a brief glimpse of a common dolphin no more than 10 or 15 metres dead ahead. Mr. H missed it; not long after, I saw a patch of mist hang in the air 50-70 metres or so ahead - gone again a moment later. Did I imagine it? Within a few tens of seconds, I had my answer: another whale-breath misted into the air, and a huge black back showed for a moment before vanishing once more into the depths - straight towards us - almost certainly a Minke whale.

There is something uniquely heart-pounding about encounters with the mega-fauna of this planet, something beyound the sheer physical bulk, a thing that is absent in mere scenery; perhaps it is the sense of an encounter between human and non-human minds... that we look at a beast, and the beast looks back. Now, in the cold blue vastness beneath us, something huge and wild moved unseen; but though we turned and searched, and turned again, our whale escaped us.

Not long after, a small pod of common dolphins moved across the bow; too close for co-incidence, I think. Mr. H saw them this time, but they moved off to windward, and dived; perhaps they just surfaced to take a look at us? We searched on, sailing into the easternmost extent of Clonakilty Bay, with the white gleam of the hotel showing above the strand. Then the clock told us it was time to turn, and we tacked for home, taking our lunch a few km south of Seven Heads - hot tomato soup, very welcome on a cold winter day.

The final incident of the day came when a bottle neck screw vanished from a stay on the leeward side - I really have to get hold of some seizing wire. Luckily, I had a replacement, and got it fitted while Mr. H paid especially close attention to keeping a steady course. Not so luckily, we heeled well over, a sea stole on deck and crept inside my waterproofs, soaking me to the knees. That gave me a real problem: I was wearing jeans, and the cotton wicked the water steadily up my legs; by the time I was finished fixing and checking rigging screws, I began to shiver, and my speech to slur, and my mind to get a little foggy. Hypothermia is an isidious enemy. I dried off my feet, keeping them bare, then layered up, and wedged myself into the (comparitively) cosy corner of the fore-peak while Mr. H stood watch alone.

Right on schedule, we slipped into the cove against an ebbing tide as the sun dipped below the horizon, saluting a feeding seal as we came, and tacked onto the mooring as a huge flock of crows swept in a black gyre low over the woods and the river mouth; from the east, more dark wings swept by in squadrons, until thousands swirled above us, and the twilight echoed with their cries. Well might they huddle in their roosts: their worst enemies fly by night.

Day's run: about 65km, in 8 hours, almost entirely under sail (GPS track on Google Maps).

Important Lesson: wear hydropobic synthetics only - and bring a change of clothes, no matter how good your outer layer is.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Other thoughts

This blog is for adventures; to record them, to share them, and to remind me to have them. Quite often, I have ideas that don't belong here - and so I've started a new blog which I'll be writing in parallel with this one.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Sur la Cote d'Emeraude / On the Emerald Coast

Picture a peerless Sunday morning in mid-October; the sky is cloudless, the air crisp. To the left, a vast sweep of sea, a rich and perfect blue, over which dozens of yachts are gliding, white hulls all a-gleam, borne on a land-breeze just sufficient to fill Spinnakers and mainsails. Some older rigs, too - the complex and gorgeous gaff-rigs of the classic yachts operated by Etoile Marine are a fine sight, fully canvassed in these light airs.

The very beautiful "Etoile Polaire" in harbour

On the right, a sweep of golden sand ends at the foot of ruddy sandstone cliffs surmounted by houses built in classic French 19th century style: faced with stone, eaves trimmed with elegant, unfussy woodwork, above which rise densely tiled roofs, pieced with garret windows. This is Dinard, a small town on Brittany's "Cote d'Emeraude", a little jewel of the French coast line which made its fortune in the 19th century as a resort town which found particular favour with wealthy English visitors. As I stroll along the town's waterfront, my host points out the beaches of neighbouring St Malo, separated from Dinard by the mouth of the Rance. St Malo made its money from wealthy English too - men like Robert Surcouf are still legendary here.

A beach beneath the walls of St. Malo at low tide

St. Malo is protected by batteries mounted on an arc of low outlying islands; they cover the reef-strewn approaches with fields of intersecting fire, creating a huge killing ground on three sides of the town. History has a sense of humour, though: and today, that which was built to keep strangers out draws tourists in huge numbers. You should try the crepes.

Monday, September 08, 2008

On the Blackwater

Some equipment needed testing, and that testing required a large body of water. So it was that on Sunday afternoon, I went a-boating on the largest convenient river. Pushing my dinghy clear of a deserted launching ramp, I allowed the current to take us. The air was perfectly still, and so Briongloidin rode swiftly downstream in complete silence; the river waters were very dark, rich peaty earth swept from hillsides by a sodden summer. Recent floods have left their mark: mudstains on leafs, a clear line six feet above the current water level.

Soon, a bend in the river erased all sight of the little slipway and the town behind, and I drifted alone, savouring the space and the silence. Really alone, too - around me lay nothing but broad and empty river, and beyond that, densely-treed banks, in full summer leaf - and no house, no field, no road to break the illusion of an escape into the wild.

I was not alone for long, though: the current took me quickly and silently within 30 feet of a fallen tree snagged on the bank, from which a small dark face gave me only the most cursory glance - Neovision vision, commonly known as the "American mink". In this part of the world, he is an interloper - but I was glad to see him, especially so close - close enough to glimpse the sharp little teeth so much regretted by local fish and fowl.

The river soon asked me to chose between the main channel and several intriguing braids split off by islands; aware that the river depth was marginal for motoring, I kept the main channel, and marked them for future exploration. The few signs of human activity that I did see were mostly negative - like bank where several wrecked cars had apparently been used to re-enforce the mud.

From Blackwater

My turn-around came just upstream of a very striking cliff, whose sheer face turned the river sharply to the right; the cliff-face was heavily ivied, by the tallest ivies I've ever seen.

As I turned, I spotted an intriguing tributary entering the main stream from the north bank: a hundred metres or so from the main river, a strange-looking road-bridge crossed a small river to meet a very elaborate gate-house which appeared to have strayed quite a few thousand miles from its architectural roots.

From Blackwater
Onion dome, far from home

Back on the main river, I tugged the outboard into life, and moved back upstream, passing close by what I think was Lutra lutra, the Eurasion Otter - much bigger than the mink, and an animal I've wanted to see ever since I read Gavin Maxwell's "Ring of Bright Water"; if it really was an otter, then it was only my second-ever sighting.

My final contact with the wild came as dusk approached and the slip drew near: a very brave and skillful flying display by Martins (Sand or House?), swooping in low dives to touch the river, then soar away- not a manoevre which they can afford to get wrong.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Fresh Eyes

Sometimes, I get a little blasé about the sea; through familiarity, the magical slowly comes to seem mundane, and the hundred little jobs that any sailor must do to keep even a very modest little yacht seaworthy and neat begin to weigh a little heavier. Then, it is time for a sailor to see the old plaything and the old playground through the eyes of a novice. A few days ago, I had the pleasure of an evening sail with a young couple, natives of land-locked southern Germany, who are touring this country for the first time.

We were very, very lucky with our weather: this has been the worst August for many years - one memorably awful day saw enough rain to fill four ordinary weeks. Some of the older people say they have seen worse: but, unless they crewed for Noah, it hardly seems likely.

Little Sovereign, photographed by Mr. H

On this particular day, the window of my office revealed a slow procession of enormous cumulonimbus, dark and vicious, not so much raining as delivery a steady barrage against already-saturated city below. Imagine, then, our wonder, as my guests and I arrived in the little cove where Briongloid swims to stand beneath a perfect blue vault, the only clouds visible being miles away over the city - safely downwind. After weeks of rain, a clear sky seemed something like a miracle.


The starter cord of the outboard I use on my dinghy decided not to co-operate; rowing myself and two tall guests three quarters of a mile against wind and tide to the mooring did not appeal, so I made the trip solo with all possible speed (not much, in my tubby little inflatable) and sailed back to collect them, borrowing a handily vacant buoy near the slip - the last time I was to hold the tiller on this particular evening.

Mrs. H., a complete sailing novice, agreed to hold the tiller while I cast off the borrowed mooring, and then to pull the tiller towards her when we came free. We slipped loose, I backed the jib, Mrs. H pulled the tiller firmly, and Briongloid teased me with a moment of tortuous hesitation, then cooperated perfectly, turning her head for open water, falling back clear of the buoy. Back in the cockpit, I trimmed her jib, and in a few seconds, we had steerage way, and could escape across the cove on our first tack.

I took the opportunity to give a little lecture on sail trimming, and watching the luff. A sudden cat's paw heeled us over nicely - 20 degrees or so; my pupils were too polite to complain to their instructor about their imminent drownings, but their expressions suggested it was time for a little lecture on the wonders of the fin keel, on leverage, and on the wonderful power of 440 kilos of well-positioned lead to keep the sea in its rightful place; viz, not the cockpit.

In a few minutes, Briongloid had swept clean across the distance that had raised blisters on my earlier row, and as the serrated sandstone of the shore prepared to nibble at Briongloid's skin, I described the motions of changing tack, and told Mrs. H that she could try the manoeuvre as soon as she liked. Round we came: and so neatly was it done, and so nicely was the wind placed, that this tack brought us clear out of the cove.

Noticing that one of the clips that keeps the jib on the forestay was loose, I decided that Mr. H and I should go up to the bows to fix the problem, thinking the experience might be a little adventure for him. I made the distance almost at a trot - not a very good example to set. With a healthy chop meeting our bows at an angle of 45 degrees, and the deck canted at 15 or 20 degrees, the tall Mr. H made a brave and fascinating sight as he followed my lead along Briongloid's lethally narrow side deck while standing fully upright, swaying at incredible angles in all directions, showing a suicidally courageous disregard for hand-holds. To the amazement of all aboard, Mr. H included, Mrs H. was not widowed by this performance; once I had a firm grip on her husband, I congratulated him on his survival and explained the "one hand for the boat" principle.

Then, we started the job that Mr. H almost died for, and we completed it in only twice the time it would take me on my own. Considering that Mr. H was required by me to re-joist the jib while standing full-height on a corner of the well-canted cabin roof, he on the leeward (therefore low) side, and this his first sail, he did very well.

Briongloid's sails against the August Sky (Photo: Mr H.)

We tacked about a bit, and took some pictures, and watched the sun set. The light on the Old Head blinked at us (2 Fl., 10s), so we practised taking bearings and I showed how they can be drawn onto the chart to give a position. My guests marvelled at the craggy sea cliffs which I had almost stopped noticing, contrasting them with the flatness of Germany's own coastline. Finally, the sun well and truly sunk, we ghosted back into the cove on a dying breeze, breasting an ebb tide while a full moon rose over the sea, and the planet Jupiter blazed to the south. Mrs. H turned onto the mooring with a final flick of the tiller, stopping Briongloid against the ebb as neatly and casually as if she did it every day.

Mr. H rowed us back to the slip by moonlight. The water was stilling now, and we sat quietly in the moon-lit dusk as the oars dipped and rose. At the slip head, we stood to say goodbye: I had been worrying a bit about my guests, and whether the enjoyed the evening - I had worked them hard, taken them into open water, and used enough sail to make Briongloid a little lively for novices, and most likely starved and frozen them into the bargain: then Mr and Mrs H told me that they didn't know how to thank me, and what a wonderful trip it had been, and praised the whole experience so much that I was embarrassed and didn't know what to say.

What I should have said was that it is a real treat to sail with novices for whom even the sea itself is a wonder; and even better, for those novices to be very good company, quick students, and diligent, brave crew. Really, it was my pleasure.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008


We are still getting to know the small personage who entered our lives with such spectacular effect, but have already discovered his main interests; these are feeding and sleeping – mostly sleeping. He does this for 3 or 4 hours at a stretch, before reminding us that it is breakfast, or lunch, or dinner-time, or any one of a number of other mealtimes of his own invention. This is indicated by him in such a subtle and understated way that neighbours living as close as 30 or 40 miles assure us that he barely breaks their sleep at all.

I had heard said that children grow, but, as the Queen of Sheba said to Solomon, behold, the half was not told me; two weeks and a half after this child's arrival, clothes which were baggy and loose – which I fondly imagined would suit him for a year or two - cannot safely be buttoned around him.

In my few modest encounters with deserts, forests, mountains, oceans and large beasts with intruiging dental equipment, I had begun to think I was tasting adventure. Not so, dear reader! As I type, I hold on my lap a tiny human being, whom I will guide and guard through tribulations without number; of his ultimate destination, or the length of our journey together, I know nothing. Together, we have a universe to explore...

Monday, July 21, 2008


Last Wednesday, the centre of the universe made a considerable shift, at least for this observer - from a point lying about 14 billion years astern of the Milky Way to the centre of a small table overhung by a heat lamp. Wriggling on that table, Briongloid's youngest crew member, LOA approximately 0.5M, grossing 0.0035 metric tons, my dark haired, blue-eyed first-born. He is approximately two minutes old. I note with approval that he grips my finger tightly; this will grip of yours will come in very handy, little boy... Holding my son for the first time, life is wonderfully simple: my single purpose, to arrange the world in such a way as to be good to this tiny one.

This little one of mine... will be fed whenever he likes. The calories he takes from Mum will easily be replaced by a full and varied diet. Over the next few weeks, his immune system will be armed with the first of a collection of vaccines; such old foes of humanity as TB and polio will never touch him. When he is older, the water and solids he gets will be safe and plentiful; no mosquitoes will come to fill him with protozoans. Whatever evil-intentioned microbes slip through the ring of filters and detergents surrounding him will receive the attentions of doctors toting a full pharmaceutical arsenal. At four or five years old, proud and tearful parents will send him to schools where he will learn as much as likes - spend 20 years there, if he chooses; he will have his choice of professions.

Perhaps it is the 36 sleepless hours that slow my brain; but, sitting in a happy daze with my hour-old baby son in my arms, it is simply incomprehensible to me that we can offer less to any child.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Landing Party

By way of rounding off a weekend of preparing a certain Mr. B to enter married life, I put to sea on a Sunday afternoon with a full crew - of my three brothers-in-law, plus Mr. B himself. Sailing in the lightest of airs, my crew made a neat job of tacking their way out the mouth of the inlet to open water, while I orbited them in Briongloid's dinghy, shouting helpful advice and snapping pictures.

With no particular object in mind, we wandered slowly out from the land... until a large rock - "Little Sovereign" - caught our collective imaginations. An excellence chance to demonstrate anchoring: the rode was flaked, the anchor laid, the sails dropped, and a landing party dispatched to claim the barren rock.

Three of us made a shore party: we picked a cove-in-miniature, then changed our minds at the last second when the suck and surge of the swell made our prospective landing spot seem more like a good place for a wrecking; instead, we chose a set of natural steps in the rock, as safe and easy a landing spot as any steep piece of rock covered in weeds and mussels could be. For all the times I've cursed the rowing characteristics of inflatables, sometimes it is very, very nice to have a hull that bounces instead of denting or splitting.

Briongloid lies at anchor, as seen from the summit of Little Sovereign

The island itself is shaped from a sedimentary rock with very well-defined planes. These are warped and bent from ancient pressures, and slope at about 30 degrees into the sea, so that the whole island, viewed end-on, appears to have developed a serious list. The summit lies on a dramatic ridge, with a very sheer drop to seaward, while the landward side is a little friendlier - a single uninterrupted sloping slab of smooth rock. I stood for a while at the summit precipice, drinking in the view - the dramatic cliffs of the mainland to my north, Briongloid toy-like at anchor below me, the great sweep of the open ocean to the south. Climbed carefully down again, back to the dinghy and my waiting friends, and tucked the memory away for safe-keeping.

We will return...

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Apodemus sylvaticus

Another day, another piece of natural history, courtesy of our resident furry psychopath (FP), who has been on something of a killing spree these last five days - catching two blackbirds (one male, one female), a "probable rat" (identification based on a single scrap of bloody fur and unusually large entrails), one robin, two tiny birds with yellow plumage (unidentified as yet), and, this morning, a fine specimen of Apodemus sylvaticus, ("Wood Mouse").

Apodemus sylvaticus

This gorgeous little animal lives an inoffensive life, eating mostly seeds and nuts, which it will often hoard, squirrel-like, against leaner days; its other trick for eking out a living during hard winters is to reduce its metabolic rate, allowing its body temperature to plummet and saving lots of calories. It is a successful little creature, with a range extending from Western Asia to Ireland, a country where it has been living for at least 7,000 years. According to my reference book, it enjoys the unfortunate distinction of being a "very important source of food" for all sorts of predators, from long-eared owls to domestic cats. To add insult to injury, it is often mistaken for the common house mouse - hence the Latin name Apo (not) demus (or domus, house) sylvaticus (of the woods) - "not house, wood (mouse".

Burial service this evening; no flowers, please.

Friday, June 06, 2008


Still bleary and slow with sleep, I had already served breakfast to our resident furry psychopath (FP) when I noticed the scatter of black feathers on the lawn - nearly a third of the grass being covered in down and flight feathers. The corpse of the victim, a female blackbird, lay upright, black eyes still bright and unclouded - a bit fresher than the maggot-ridden male blackbird that I had buried the previous evening.

On closer inspection, this little bird was still breathing, her sides heaving, but too exhausted to move - probably the only thing that kept her alive, since the FP will chase and rip at anything that moves (flies, dogs, laser beams). Her rump had been plucked almost completely bare, but she seemed otherwise intact. I scooped her up in a single (gloved) hand: she was very light, tiny beneath the bulk of her feathers, and trembling with fear. Could she could still fly, with only a single tail feather - or would it be kinder to give her a quick death? I couldn't bear to kill the terrified creature - especially since, having buried a male of the same species the previous night, I might be orphaning a nest-full of unfledged chicks, and even a small chance is better than none.

So I slipped her into the handiest container (a cat box!), then released her to the (relative) safety of An Undisclosed Location. The little bird hopped into the best available ground cover, then cowered and froze. Back in the garden, the FP had left his breakfast bowl and was scouring every nook and cranny for his reluctant playmate - but I told him nothing.

In the evening, she was gone, leaving no more feathers behind; and no fresh carcass appeared in the garden. I think perhaps she did survive - so will be keeping watch for a blackbird with a bald rump and a single tail feather. The moral dilemmas of the cat owner...

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Through the Head

We slipped our mooring early on a foggy Saturday, motoring on a sea as slick and smooth as silk. Outside the cove, we steered into blank fog, trusting to GPS. We were not the first to sea, however - the surface was thick with birds a-fishing, and I glimpsed the fin of a hunting dolphin. A long line of tall masts loomed out of the murk: yachts in a line, racing in slow-motion, inching out to open water in the slackest conceivable wind. By the time we dropped anchor in the great cliff-lined bight of Holeopen Bay, our inflatable canoes were rigged and ready to launch. Festooned with torches, light-sticks and cameras, we abandoned Briongloid. Soon, a little flotilla of two canoes and a dinghy paddled off to the foot of the mighty sea-cliffs which define Holeopen Bay.

Beneath the Old Head of Kinsale

Using an ancient ruined tower on the cliff-tops as a guide, we soon found what we were looking for: the entrance to tunnels which pass clear through the Old Head of Kinsale, running east-west from Holeopen Bay to Courtmacsherry Bay. The first tunnel was a little narrow, but the second had a large and welcoming entrance. Inside the cave - surprisingly well lit - we soon began to feel the up/down motion of the swell, amplified by the funnel-shape of the entrance. Progress along the narrowing tunnel was good, until the last fifteen or so metres, when Mr T ran the lead canoe hard aground on a barely-submerged boulder. No sooner was the problem announced, when a roar from behind me announced the solution - and a breaking wave lifted me well above Mr T before launching me forward into his back and blasting us both well clear of the obstruction.

A second wave followed the first, and soon we were both capsized, grabbing in the darkness for boats and paddles, and bracing for the next breaker. Turning, I saw Mr. J approaching in Briongloid's dinghy, the tunnel so narrow that he had to paddle with a single oar. I shouted a warning just as he ran aground. Just then, the next breaker reared behind him, before breaking over the dinghy. A good time to send the dinghy back... I waited in the blackness and the crashing of the waves until the dinghy was safely on its way.

Choosing a tunnel

My swimming fins being already on my feet, I turned my face to the light, and covered the last few metres into Courtmacsherry Bay as a swimmer, pushing my kayak and paddle before me. The western side of the headland was just as dramatic as I remembered - even taller and steeper cliffs, and a huge sea-stack covered in nesting birds. Big grins from me and Mr. T - a long time since we'ld first attempted the transit, and great to be finally through. We found a second tunnel - much wider - and a little hairy paddling later, were safely back in Holeopen Bay, and boarding Briongloid, ready for our lunch.

By now, the sun had burnt the fog from the water and a gentle breeze had got up; we weighed anchor under sail and tacked out around the Old Head of Kinsale under a perfect summer sky. Angler's boats dotted the water, and helicopters circled the lighthouse on the headland - a really spectacular backdrop. Tacking gently southward with main and genoa, we moved out to sea, hoping for a sighting of a Minke whale, or perhaps a Basking Shark. We spent the rest of the afternoon on a single tack, moving gently on the clear blue water of the open ocean as the coast behind us diminished to a smudge on the horizon. Dinner was served about 19:00, by which point we were about 19km almost due south of Oysterhaven - within a mile or two of the grave of the Lusitania; time to jibe for home, and work north as the summer sun sank slowly towards the land. Picking up our mooring just after sunset, our distance for the day was 54km aboard Briongloid under power and sail, and perhaps another 2km in canoes and dinghies.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Bird of Passage

Working on Briongloid's foredeck on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I was in the perfect position to watch the arrival of a sleek low double-ended boat I didn't recognise, coming in the from the open sea with only a singly scrap of sail still flying. At her tiller sat a man in full foul-weather gear who waved a salute as he sailed by up-river. As I worked, I saw the red hull work a few hundred metres up-stream, well clear of the moorings, and drop anchor.

The Ness Yawl "Rat" anchored in the Belgooly river

A little later, I saw a white shape appear above the hull: through binoculars, I saw that an awning had been rigged, using the main mast as a ridgepole. A cruiser then... I hopped in the dinghy, and put-putted over to say hello.

The sleek red shape I'ld been admiring turned out to be a Ness Yawl, a two-masted open boat of about 22ft LOA designed in the double-ended style of a Norwegian Faering by Iain Oughtred, a boat architect from the Isle of Skye. This beautifully-finished example of its type had been built by its owner, Robin, an allegedly amateur boat builder. A slightly stretched version of the original plans, the good boat "Rat" had just been sailed from the vicinity of Fishguard across the Irish Sea to Tramore, and hence, propelled by an easterly gale, to Oysterhaven, in the course of a few hours of particularly intense sailing - lively going, in an open boat. At least, with such a wind, her lack of an engine was no hindrance...

Robin turned out to be a returning visitor to these waters, having cruised these bays several times before, both for pleasure in his own 27ft wooden yacht, and as skipper of a 90ft super yacht - also of traditional design. Robin is well-supplied with good sailing stories, having previously cruised his own engine-less yacht to New Zealand and back (out across the Atlantic, through the Panama canal, across the South Pacific to New Zealand, and home around Cape Horn). This summer, he is taking the diminutive Rat on a cruise of indefinite duration, to waters undecided.

Talking to Robin gave me an even worse case of Sea Fever than I already had. Lucky, then, that I'm due to catch the ebb-tide this coming Friday for a voyage to points westward...

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Death Trap

Late one evening, I went to the garden to fetch our resident assassin's food bowl. It being after sunset, I saw no more than the silvery outline of the steel bowl as I reached to pick it up - so the soft squishy/slimeyness that met my fingers beneath the rim came as quite a surprise. An inspection in better light revealed a solid mass of slugs on the walls of the bowl, drawn by the rich odor of the protein the bowl had contained. The numbers were really incredible - an infestation of almost biblical proportions.

Dying for a drink?

Revenge for this outrage was swift. Having terminated several dozen of the intruders with extreme prejudice, I deployed my secret weapon near the food bowl's usual spot. A jam jar one third filled with beer, dug in so that the lip is at ground level makes a simple and convenient death trap: it might even be humane. Just a day or two later, the trap had claimed the lives of dozens of drunken slugs.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Pipistrellus pipistrellus?

Another surprise outside the door this morning - mouse shaped. On closer inspection, this particular mouse had one sad little wing furled up beside it. Our resident assassin had subtracted a third or so from the whole, but the small snout, reddish-brown back and grey underbelly suggest that I am looking at Europe's most common bat, Pipistrellus pipistrellus, described by Schreber in 1774, with a home range from Ireland to Iraq.


Opening the tiny jaws, I found an array of sharp white teeth. Clearly a regular brusher. This mouth means business though - a night's hunting can account for 3,500 insects. The hunter is also the hunted, pursued by kestrels, owls - and particularly agile cats.

Sources: (i) A fresh corpse (ii) Exploring Irish Mammals, Tom Hayden and Rory Harrington

Monday, April 28, 2008


Our jeep rattles through the dilapidated centre of a struggling town, and on into similarly struggling suburbia. Our driver stops outside what seems to be a small cafe: outside, old men of un-defined function - not patrons, but not apparently employees either - are talking in the shade. A guide takes us down a leafy path, and into the dark mouth of a large cavern.

The rock around us is weirdly ice-like: I see dozens of formations that look exactly like "beards" of icicles. Here and there, great pillars have come to stand from floor to ceiling. The stone looks motionless - but ever so slowly, millenia on patient millenia, it is reclaiming the void.

At the bottom of the chamber we see the agent of change: a pool running the full width of the chamber. The water is a magical blue, and so clear that the twenty or so feet of its depth does nothing to obscure the bottom. I'm so entranced by the water that I barely spare a glance for the beauty around me before donning mask, snorkel, fins, and giant-striding into the depths.

The pool is lovely, dark and deep

The water is immensely refreshing without being cold, and perfectly still. Below the surface, the sculpture garden continues, and with my torch I begin to probe ledges and hollows around the edge of the pool. Those magically clear depths, however, are what really hold my interest, and soon I swim to the centre of the pool, turn head-down and fin slowly into the depths.

When I feel the time has come to return to the air, I stop my finning, and angle my body towards the silvery sheet high above me, and wait for physics to take over. To my immense surprise, nothing happens - by now, the buoyancy of the air in my lungs should be rushing me to the surface. I understand immediately what is happening: I have swum so deep that the press of the water above me has compressed my chest, and with it my lung volume, until the density of my body matches perfectly with that of the water surrounding it. Now, my body at rest neither floats nor sinks. For long seconds, I hang motionless in that deep and wonderful place, suspended without weight, without effort, in the quiet blue coolness. It is an inexpressibly beautiful moment.

I fin slowly back to the surface, and soon we are back in the sun, rattling onwards; but I think a little piece of that cave came with me.

Monday, April 21, 2008

On the Beach, Part II - The Rescue

After several days in a resort where sailing boats were far too valuable to lent to mere guests, I was champing at the bit. Every day, a perfect breeze blew over the blue, blue waters of the Caribbean, and every day, I was without a boat, while Hobie Cats tacked in and out under my very nose. My wife was under the necessity of keeping me under a very close watch, lest I attempt a "cutting out" expedition. Eventually, a close perusal of the binder describing the hotel's facilities let me to a kind of garage at the back of the water sports centre, where the staff kept a cache of windsurfing gear (something they had omitted to mention during any of my previous visits). As pleased as if I'ld discovered a pirate treasure chest, I picked out a very wide (stable) board and a sail (one size only - small). A few minutes later, I was doing my first independent sailing of the holiday.

The Caribbean swallows another unwary sailor (me)

A day or two later, I was back for another sail. This time, the wind was obliquely offshore, slanting out to sea from my launch point (at the centre of the sandy beach). So... sailing through the open channel and out to sea was easy - but returning was not. Two or three hours of beating to windward ensued; every now and then, I would take advantage of a particularly strong gust, and bear off onto a reach - and even my big fat board got up on a plane, skittering across the swell.

Slowly, hours of hard sailing under an tropical sun began to wear me down. Try as I might, I could make no ground to windward. Eventually, I tried to make progress into the wind by paddling my board and sail. Spray from the swell made seeing my way almost impossibly, as the salt stung my eyes to copious tears, and tired shoulder muscles protested at every stroke. I made ground, but modestly.

A Hobie Cat from our hotel approached and picked me up. However, my rig's windage now made it impossible for the instructor to tack the Hobie in - so back I went, into the sea. A second attempt was made a little late, with two boats - one Hobie for the board, one for the sail. Just then, I spotted a two-man open canoe approaching (this 400M from shore, well outside the shelter of the reef, top and centre of this map). This turned out to be my almost-seven-months-pregnant wife; not by any means a keen sailor, with very limited experience of boats and the sea, and far from comfortable in deep water, she nevertheless took it upon herself to bring me in, and did not turn a hair as she paddled past surf breaking on barely-awash coral and out into the Atlantic swell. She turned her little boat head to wind and waiting calmly as I struggled in over the stern, then handed me a spare paddle; we even beat one Hobie Cat back to the beach.

I should point out to any anxious readers that, even in the absence of outside help, I was not very likely to lose the number of my mess: I could have attempted to cross the westerly reef on which surf is breaking in the above link. Although this would not have done the rig much good, my chances of getting ashore would have been excellent. Alternatively, I could have jettisoned the sail, and paddled back on the board. In the event, I was very pleased to be rescued - and deeply, deeply impressed by the coolness and courage of my very-pregnant wife.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

On the Beach, Part 1

Nearly ten hours in the air took me across my local ocean to a middling-large island, and into an entirely different season. A couple of days of excessively easy living later, I stood on coral sands beneath a dark but starry sky and looked out to sea, past the gleam of surf on the reef, to where the stars met the water. Above and to the north, Polaris gleamed low in the sky... back in the tropics at last.

Wading into black waters, I'm soon at swimming depth, finning out towards the reef. My torch sends a thin cone of light down through the water column to search the sea-grass meadow below me. The winds and waves have generated a strong long-shore current, and keeping course is hard work. The first fish I find is hand-sized and very confused by my torch, which I hold at arms-length to my left: the little fish is fascinated by it and does not see the camera in my right hand, which comes too close to focus - within a foot.

That is the last fish I find for some time, though, and I've searched acres of shallow and empty meadow when a huge shape flaps out of the gloom only a few feet away, very nearly causing me to swallow my snorkel. The Ray twists and turns in the torchlight: I don't think it is pleased. Is it better to keep it lit up - but irritated - and know its position, or to let it go? After what feels like an eternity - perhaps 5 seconds - the ray makes my decision for me, and I'm alone again in the darkness. My only other find of the night is a porcupine fish, which appears untroubled by my light, secure within its formidable defenses.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

New Worlds

We arrived home a few hours after sunset, and I commenced unloading luggage and tools. Glancing upwards - now a fixed habit - I found the sky pretty clear, even with waxing moon grown near to full. The constellation Leo was pretty high in the sky, well clear of our garden wall, and Saturn blazed a few degrees below the Lion's head. Exactly the opportunity I've been awaiting for two whole months... bags and boxes were dropped on the spot, and my shiny new reflecting telescope (focal length 500mm, aperture 150mm) deployed.

A sketch of Saturn as I first saw it

After one or two false starts, I got my finder lined up nicely, placed my right pupil carefully before the main eyepiece, and gasped. Even with the lowest-power eyepiece inserted, both the disc of the great gas giant and its magnificent rings were clearly visible; I even thought that I saw a faint band in its atmosphere. Close observation revealed a faint point of light quite close to the planet - confirmed, after a quick glance at my star atlas, as Saturn's moon, Titan!

Further observation did nothing to diminish the wonder of seeing clearly this solar system in miniature, at a distance of nearly 1 billion kilometres. I am convinced now that rings are really almost an essential accessory for any planet wishing to attract my attention - those, and large, fast-orbiting moons. And what a moon Titan is! Half as big again as Earth's companion, it has a nice thick atmosphere and plenty of water (ice). The mind boggles at the view any inhabitants would have of the giant they orbit... how cosmically unfortunate, then, that on Titan, the freezing clouds never clear. I can sympathize.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A Whole New World

This Christmas, the box I found under the tree was really enormous. A few seconds later, I was holding an enormous tube - as it turns out, my gateway to the universe. After quite a bit of fiddling with intricately-made parts, I got its equatorial mount into something like the correct configuration, and there it stood: a brand-new fully-functioning Newtonian reflecting telescope of my very own.

Our neighbour, mid-phase, pictured by
camera phone through a
big, big telescope

Unfortunately, the weather did not co-operate that night; when it did clear though, what sights! Our near neighbour I saw as never before, plains and mountains picked out clear as anything in the razor-sharp shadows along the edge of lunar day; I particularly remember a tall peak catching the sun from an otherwise night-befallen crater. On moonless nights, I found huge numbers of stars where my unaided eye had seen only blank space; happened by chance upon a huge glowing nebula... absolutely astonishing sights.

Friday, January 11, 2008

At First Sight

I went along on the trip to the hospital only because I knew there might be bad news; expected just to stay in the waiting room, brought a thick novel to keep me occupied. Then, they let both of us into the radiologist's examining room, where I sat with eyes glued to the monitor looming above the workstation.

Then, there you were - in fuzzy, monochromatic cross-section, but suddenly, magically, real and complete. I looked in wonder at your tiny beating heart, the lobes of your brain... and a little nose that your mother immediately attributed to her side of the family. You lay on your back, and kicked your little legs... and then one hand came up, as if to wave, and made our heats jump.

Some day near mid-summer, when this waiting winter is far behind us, I'm hoping to see you again, no longer ultrasonic echoes relayed in digital monochrome, but warm and noisy and pink, as you lie for the first time in your mother's arms.