Sunday, 28 March 2010

Slate floor, sawn hornbeam floor

North Star will need a new floor at the end of the refit. Apparently there are like billions of possibilities. I hadn't really noticed.

It seems we are having 'slate' in the bathroom. Or the heads. Whatever.

And 'sawn hornbeam' for the rest of the boat. Meanwhile, Helen has been painting one of our bedrooms lilac. Except the paint is named 'fresh linen'. What is it with all these DIY companies?

As I sat on the train every morning all last week, I was thinking "We need sawn hornbeam for the floor of the boat. And that lilac paint reminds me of something, but I can't quite put my finger on what it is."

Ha ha....Day Skipper Theory in the bag

Did the exams today after a two-day revision session at Accenture's offices in Fenchurch Street. This part of the City really is dead at the weekend.

Did each exam in about 35 minutes. Confirmed that I passed. Now for the real stuff, and the practical course!

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Wharf Inn, Welford

Originally the George Inn, run by the Gilbert family, the pub at the end of the Welford arm is now The Wharf Inn, hard by the road and the canal, with the nascent River Avon an additional attraction alongside the garden.

It's all a bit scruffy and the garden is full of old and new kegs and bits of pub equipment.

However, the pub has a real pub feel. It's about drinking, socialising, good beer, good food and good company rather than hanging baskets and manicured lawns. It's all capped by cheerful and enthusisatic staff.

They did an excellent ham, asparagus and brie baguette that hit the spot, along with a really original range of real ales, including Slaters Original. If I didn't have work tomorrow, I'd still be there now.

An added attraction is that BW and the local authorities have created five local themed walks centred on the end of the canal here. A fascinating little corner of the world.

Refit update

A gorgeous day today compared to yesterday, and I had planned to have a trial sail in a Lark today, but we need to see progress on North Star. We could have done it yesterday but Helen was at the Ideal Home Exhibition. For me, an Ideal Home is one you rent from someone else that doesn't need me to work on any part of it.

We drive north and for the second time have to divert through the backstreets of St Ives to avoid the closure of the A14 at Godmanchester. This roadworks seems to have gone on for months now.

The work is progressing very well and Phill and his team have worked their way forwards from the bedroom. The bathroom has been removed entirely and a new vanity unit is being installed next to where the shower cabin will go. The pump out tank and calorifier are already installed under the main bed, and pipe runs all in place.

Slick. Sweet. We are happy.

Drysuits and that scene from Alien

Drysuits extend the sailing season so that as well as skimming the ripples in the glorious Greek warmth as the sun dips below the headland, you can also sail in a blizzard on the outskirts of Wakefield in February.

I've only ever sailed in the golden months, and I really miss it, so a drysuit has become an imperative. I decided to bite the bullet and go down to Brookbank at Waltham Abbey, which is a little like shopping in an industrial estate in the Ruhr, but they have a good choice of everything. Last time I was there, it was sub-zero and you could see your breath in the air after you'd gone in.

Drysuits, for the uninitiated, are one piece suits that keep the water out. Wetsuits, on the other hand, keep a micro-thin layer of water in, so have to fit like a glove. Drysuits have a neoprene neck seal and arm seals; most have rubber booties at the end of the legs as well, to reduce the number of holes. All of them have a massive zip diagonally across the chest, which is where you get in. But not quickly and not easily.

First, I had to confront an irrational fear.

"What happens if water does get in? Won't water rush in and fill the suit and sink you...and stuff?" I ask breathlessly and somewhat anxiously.

The shop assistant, a young man in his twenties, looks at me as if I am totally insane: "You're in water, so you can't sink. Anyway, you should be wearing a lifejacket"
He remembers to smile at the crazy person and shows me to the drysuits for the paddlers. These are the expensive ones as they like to attach themselves to their boats, but then escorts me upstairs to an impressive wall of drysuits.

Drysuits are not a fashion statement. You look like an anaemic Michelin man with a massive scar across your chest. Stella McCartney and Hugo Boss have never shown drysuits on the catwalk, and Gok Wan wouldn't be seen dead in one. So all drysuits are black or red or grey, or combinations of any two of those colours.

I grab a handful of suits and go downstairs to the changing rooms. I realise I have no idea what to take off or keep on. There's no way I'm asking the shop assistant for help. He's probably already on the phone to summon assistance.
I take off my jeans and shirt and look down at my socks. I'm standing in boxers and a T-shirt wondering whether to strip naked in a semi-public place in an industrial park in Waltham Abbey. (This should bring up some good Google hits)

I peer out of the side of the ill-fitting curtains. I have never seen more than about five people in the shop. As I prepare to strip off, the room is suddenly full of women shopping for shoes, canoeing gloves, helmets and whatever else. Two children are watching a kayak video on a TV less than three feet away. Curses.

I decide that I will never sail naked under a drysuit anyway, just in case I have to be rescued by a Coastguard helicopter (admittedly a little unlikely on small lakes in the Lea Valley). I clutch a black Gill suit and pull it on. I pull it up and wriggle my right arm. This is the tricky bit and I have to twist my head severely to get it in. I lose the head hole and try to share the arm hole with my arm. More curses.

I try to extricate my head with my left hand. It's all a little weird, having to use my hands to hold and steer my head around like some kind of disembodied ghost. My head is bent sideways and I can't get it out. I'm already having visions of firemen having to cut through an expensive drysuit with the Jaws of Life.

"You OK?" a voice calls cheerfully.

"Yes, fine" I respond, sounding as if I am skipping around a wooded glade with nymphs. I have my head stuck at 90 degrees in a neoprene suit and I can't find my ears.
My right hand decides to plunge through the head hole and acts like the runway lights for my head to squeeze through. I'm using the word "squeeze" in its tightest possible meaning here, as I was convinced this would appear like that scene in Alien. With a lot of silent squealing and grunting, my head was born again. With a big heave, I emerged triumphant, sweating and aching.

I pulled the big zip closed and walked through the curtain. It all felt good, but I definitely need a bigger size. As a word of friendly advice, it is critically important that you discover you have the wrong size drysuit before you get it fully on. After admiring myself for several minutes in a show of narcissistic self-preening that would have made Mr Bean proud, I returned to the cubicle to remove it.

I undid the zip then paused for thought. Now what? I couldn't remove my left arm. Damn! Getting the right arm out first was clearly going to be impossible unless the top half of my torso was removed. No, it would to be my head first. Given that my head had been almost spring-loaded into the suit in the first place, this would also seem to be impossible. The suit wouldn't lift enough off the shoulders. Check. Shoulder height critical!

I could have called the shop assistant but this would have been too awful.
"Help me, I'm totally useless and can't get in or out of sailing gear properly!"
I sit down for a rest, then get a bit angry and try to somehow jump my arm out of the suit. I bounce around the cubicle. On one bounce, I notice a woman on the other side looking my way. She can clearly see a bloke jumping up and down in a changing cubicle. It's like a private version of Riverdance in here. I catch her eye on my next bounce. I think she is already gathering her kids and heading for the exit.

Suddenly and with no explanation, other than that there is indeed a God, and my left arm twists back and my elbow pops out. Suddenly my shoulder can clear the top and I am free.

"Yes!!!" I shout silently. "I can take the Nationals now I can get the drysuit off!"

Having worked my way out of the drysuit, I now know what to assess in each suit. I return the collection of medium drysuits and return laden with Medium Large and Large drysuits. None are easy, mainly because these huge zips are painfully slow to work, but over a two hour period I try on every drysuit in the store. There's always something not quite right and when you are spending more then £300 on a single piece of clothing, you want perfection.

The closest I come to perfection is, totally unsurprisingly, the very first, black Gill I tried - well a Large version of it. Typical.

I may look like one of the dispensable bad guys in a Bond movie, but at least I'm warm and dry.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Day Skipper theory

After a couple of months I am close to completing the Day Skipper theoretical course. There's so much to learn. Narrowboats and dinghies are quite simple in comparison, but once you get onto estuaries and offshore the amount of knowledge needed seems to grow exponentially: tides, lights, pilotage, weather forecasting, colregs, navigation.

What is it with Harwich?

The finest harbour on the east coast of England, Harwich should have reaped the rewards of military and commercial occupation for the last 400 years. Sadly, the town is a shadow of its former self and despite whole streets - and even quarters - of truly outstanding architecture and urban form, the town feels somewhat squalid and run down.

The town has a formidable conservation society, the Harwich Society, but has yet to cope with the impact of large out-of-town shopping: in both Harwich and Dovercourt, boarded up and whitewashed up shops indicate that the recession continues to bite in this pretty corner of Essex.

I was astonished that despite the warmth of the older buildings, the strength of the Harwich Society and some individual efforts, the whole place looked grim and unloved, even on a bright day. Ten years ago, when we lived in The Hague, my wife missed the ferry and she had to spend the day with two toddlers, in Harwich. Her report, on arrival home, was not exactly glowing, and that layover was in July.

There were glimpses of encouragement, including the friendly lady at the RNLI Shop and the staff at the cafe on the Ha'penny Pier, but even this little cluster of structures at the port struggle to stay open. It came as no surprise that the original Ha'penny Pier was destroyed by fire and they couldn't be bothered to rebuild it. The original Continental steam-packet service left from this pier, then - later - from the adjacent Trinity Pier. The town could benefit from developing the Ha'penny Moorings, but little is done for visiting yachts, and most head for Shotley across the Stour or other marinas. Although the area is limited by its location crammed between the Navyard and Trinity Pier, there is no reason why this pier couldn't be developed to the mutual benefit of the town and sailors.

Of course, there's nothing wriong with Harwich or its people: it's a pleasant, friendly place. However, there is an endemic problem with urban Britain that manifests itself most in smaller towns. Small town Britain has adopted poorly to the decline in manufacturing and providing unskilled and semi-skilled jobs remains a huge problem. Current and past rules, regulations and policies in Britain have made it difficult for politicians and councils to do much other than encourage industry. It's not really a full range of instruments, more an 'on' or 'off' tap to encourage or discourage commerce and industry.

The result is that the approach to Harwich is characterised by a massive anti-vandal steel fence running for several miles along one of the most glorious estuarine scene in eastern England, then unnecessary roundabouts and high, blank walls. The Parkeston Quay complex has looked, for more than thirty years, like it's on its last legs. Tumbleweed, empty car parks and concrete blocks were probably on the glossy architects' drawings.

The shame of it all is that it all could be spectacular: a Torquay or Nice of the east coast. Easy to snigger at the thought, but the Essex Riviera is entirely possible. Take a drive down the Stour from Manningtree and Mistley to Harwich then round to Clacton. If some politician or council official can start looking beyond party politics and start responding to the very real need to build a new Harwich, this could become a year-round attraction with a real diversity of opportunities for all.

The end of a long journey

A little belatedly as work has been hectic the last few months, but all good things have to come to an end.

Nick Jaffe, a young Australian, has recently completed his huge single-handed journey from the Netherlands to Australia. It's a great achievement for him, but his last sailing post echoes the sentiments of many: that sailing is about the journey, not the destination.

Sailors are truly unusual beasts in that we are happy until we arrive somewhere.

Congratulations, Nick.

North Star gets stripped out

Almiost as soon as North Star berthed up at Wharf House Narrowboats, Phill and his guys started stripping the boat out. There are so many choices to make, not least the size and location of new windows. We love the external appearance of the tug-style but the down side is that it is claustrophobic inside, especially during inclement weather. We have settled on one 36" and two 42" windows.

"What finish?" asked Phill

"Errr. Glass?"

"No. For the framework."

So another night was spent discussing whether we should have black (my preference) or gold (Helen's) framing. I'm grumpy anyway because people shouldn't be inside during daylight hours, and don't see the need for picture windows on any boat other than a cruise liner.

The floor in the bathroom was found to be unexpectedly rotten. I say "unexpectedly" but I really mean "unsurprisingly" as nothing surprises me with any cost aspect of anything that floats in this country.

The Morso Squirrel stove is discovered to have a serious crack running through the top and back, so that will have to be replaced. Whoosh! There goes another £700, with 15% winging its way to Alistair Darling.

We have to choose showerboard colour, so Phill shows us a catalogue of showerboard. They all look the same.
Helen has ordered flooring samples. They all look much the same.

I'm beginning to see the advantage of a single-handed dinghy. You don't have to choose showerboard for a Solo.

Phill shows us over another boat that he is finishing off. It is a stunning boat, inside and out, not because it's all flashy, but because it is delightfully simple.

"Simple costs a lot more."
"Ah, but it's worth it."

RYA Dinghy Show last weekend

London's Alexandra Palace is truly a spectacular venue, perched high up above the suburbs of north London gazing south towards the Thames. It's ornate ironwork, timeless stones and eternally warm yellow bricks is one of the most delightful spectacles in London.
Curiously, Ally Pally seems much smaller on the inside than on the outside, but it is still a great arena for the RYA's annual Dinghy Show each March.

The Dinghy Show is an opportunity for sailors to discuss real sailing. No blazered crews, no GPS, no helicopter pads, no tenders and no acres of chrome. Just sailing. With sails. In the wind.

Many class associations present a few boats to seduce the unassociated or curious, usually with the promise of a day's trial sailing somewhere in the coming months. The Larks, for example, are being presented to the curious at Fishers Green SC next Saturday (although amusingly, volunteers on the FGSC stand were unaware of this!).

The world of sailing is populated by some very specific categories of people, notably the traditionalists (Enterprises, Solos, Graduates), the classicists (various One Designs from the Broads, the East Coast and Cornwall - and the Herons), the kids (Oppies, Toppers, Mirrors), the fit and active (Lasers, most of the RS's, Phantoms, Cherubs) and the insane (49er). You only ever see 49ers the right way up and stable when they are at a motorway service station behind a Volvo.

Most of these classes were present at the Dinghy Show and most did an excellent job of selling themselves, and delightfully dissing other classes. The only people who didn't warn me that Enterprises right with only two inches showing above the waterline were, oddly enough, those on the Enterprise stand. The implication was that when you roll an Enterprise, you need a salvage contractor to pump it out.

Funnily enough, the least 'sold' boats were the various Lasers and RS's. Maybe when you sell that many dinghies, you don't really need a class association. But the genuine warmth, friendliness and cheerfulness of the class associations certainly makes you head towards the Herons, the Enterprises, the Solos and the Cherubs.

Plenty to do, see and learn over two days, with the prospect of getting to see a celeb. "He's almost a cert for a medal at Weymouth," someone muttered to a mate, while nodding in one direction. All I could see was a stout gentleman in a blazer, looking lost.

The one downside was that the catering was just simply dire. The tables were filthy, everything was slopped into plastic trays and it was all so horribly unappealling. Truly awful. The food at the Excel in January was excellent, but I guess that's the difference between a monopoly and the free market, eh?

I was very surprised that there was no bookshop on site, other than the standard RYA selection. At Boat Shows, the book stands are always very well patronised.

I made my way home laden with class leaflets and brochures, and still no idea where I will land.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Timothy Spall encounters Richard Montgomery

Good to see it's not just Timothy West and Prunella Scales on the celeb boating A-list. Getting a bit bored of reading all their antics. Anyway I almost tripped over Ms Scales at the Wigmore Hall a couple of months ago. "Don't get up. Oh!"

Seems that Timothy Spall, forever Peter Taylor in my mind now, sails and describes a close encounter with the Richard Montgomery at the mouth of the Medway as his worst ever holiday incident.