About Me

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Life's journey has been varied. As a 30 year career soldier its been geographically, emotionally and intellectually nomadic, at times exciting, sometimes frustrating, its had highs and lows and it has challenged me, sometimes beyond what I thought possible. On the whole I have been lucky. I've developed a reputation for being unconventional, even unorthodox. I've made mistakes, plenty of them. Success and failure have left their marks. I've been able to develop my passions and interests. From the office to the trench, from ocean sailing to Antarctic exploration, from the philosophies of Kurt Hahn to the lyrics of Tom Lewis, and much more besides and between. Now I want to share them.

I am trying to bring meaning and sense to these experiences, learning from the past so as to signpost the future, not just mine but anyone else who might benefit vicariously. This blog, set in Shetland sailing aboard "Swan", a 100 year old ex herring drifter delivering youth development and sail training opportunities for young people, is a living reflection on that journey.

To share it read on . . . .

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Cape Farewell


It has been a while since I last posted a blog and I plead pressure of work and a relentless but very rewarding programme.  Although by accident rather than design, my own thoughts are now increasingly turning towards "farewell"  but that's for another post!

 
For the last 3 weeks we have been hosts to an eclectic mix of people from  the Cape Farewell foundation.  The foundation  (named after Cape Favel, the southern tip of Greenland and on the same latitude as Shetland - 60 degrees North) brings together artists and scientists with an interest in understanding and portraying the impact of climate change on the maritime environment and the communities who rely on that environment.  By bringing people together, they hope to encourage a conversation to develop ideas and opportunity to network future projects.  This year amongst other programmes they chartered Swan to cruise the Northern Isles of Orkney and Shetland.


For me this has been a particularly rewarding 3 weeks.  You may have already read my previous blog on my visit to Long Hope on Hoy in Orkney and this was one opportunity seized from their programme.    You may also already know of, or discern, my interest in personal and particularly youth development through expeditioning and outdoor experience.  Expeditions come in many quizzes and take many forms.  I have long believed it a mistake to think of then exclusively in terms of being some hard core activity in far flung corners of the globe.  Successful and beneficial expeditions are to be found on your door step.  It’s all about purpose and attitude of mind combined with learning and reflection.  Not only has this been within that definition but it has also been incredibly insightful and rewarding for me.  
 
I suppose at one and perhaps mundane level of delivery I enjoyed working with the group leader Ruth Little.  On the face of it she and I might come from very different experiences but right from our first exchange of e-mails I knew this would be an easy and productive relationship.  So I enjoyed the collaboration and whilst I was at one level the bus driver for their expedition, I also had the opportunity to facilitate and help deliver the experience.  The groups (there were two separate ones) contained a diverse mix of interests.  There was the Canadian venture capitalist investing into emerging renewables, there were the poets and playwrights, there was the underwater cameraman, there was the ex BAS marine biologist and ornithologist, writing a PhD on the impact of pollution on deep water systems, there was the folk singer, the sound recordists, the photographers and many many more.  
 
 
Not only did this diverse range of interests make for an exciting mix but more importantly so did such a diverse range of people with their own equally valid perspectives.

Starting in Orkney we cruised several islands before heading to Fair Isle and eventually on to Scalloway, where we started phase2 of the expedition.  Saying goodbye to the phase 1 participants was not easy and there is almost a cynical turncoat experience as you say goodbye to one group and hello to another; loyalty and focus shifting to the incomers.  We then cruised Shetland although we were unable to deliver the expected itinerary as the weather forced several programme changes.  However this flexibility of programme ought to be easily understood as inevitable when dealing with unknowns such as weather.  It can also act as a metaphor for the need to be receptive to changing situations and opportunities in life.   

The crew of the Swan or indeed any boat have a primary responsibility and focus to looking after her and this trumps other aspiration and on occasions meant being unable to take part in the shore side programme. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
However the itinerary did  allowed me some opportunity to join in and also follow my own interests.  So as well as Long Hope other highlights were a solo walk out to Muckle Flugga,

 
visiting the Unst boat haven ( a fascinating private collection of local boats and maritime artefacts)
 
 


Keeping tradition updated and preserved.  sea gull engines on traditional yawls.  local opinion is that the stern mount was less successful. 
 
 
taking the inflatable into caves and through arches around fair Isle

 
, sightseeing in Kirkwall and climbing Orkney’s highest mountain.

 John Rae's memorial in Kirkwall Cathedral.  He was an artic explorer who amongst other achievements discovered the fate of the Franklin expedition

 







At most ports of call the Foundation had already created links with local communities and also with specific individuals who were able to add to the expedition, so whether it was the evening of Shetland dialect poetry and fiddle music or the insight provided by a local archaeologist or an explanation of local approaches and initiatives towards sustainable fishing and marine conservation, we were privileged to fascinating evenings of informative discussion and debate.  Views were freely and easily exchanged, sometimes profound opposite views were debated but always there was a sense of respect and engagement with a desire to understand and learn.

 

Of course such activity requires the odd jar or dram of lubrication!

Now I would like to tell you more but the clock is against me and “tide and weather wait for no man”. So I am going to cheat by providing a link to their web site where you will also find a their own blog page (including one from me) I really do encourage you to get a cup of coffee (or similar) and follow the link below it because I almost guarantee that it will spark at least one, and probably more than one, chain of thought that will leave you richer. 

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

A Journey completed?


Scapa flow is immersed in naval and maritime history.  As home to the Grand Fleet in two world wars it is as steeped in Royal Naval significance as anywhere else.  The fleet left and returned to Scapa Flow for the Battle of Jutland.  The interned German fleet was successfully scuttled there under the very noses of the victor.  In the opening days of the second World war HMS Royal Oak was sunk by an audacious U Boat attack.  As an ex-servicemen any of these events would grab and headline my visit were it not for an event in my living memory.


17 March 1969.  I still vividly recall hearing the news of the Longhope Lifeboat disaster.  I was 6 and my sister Harriet 5.  As young sailors in our family boat “Hope” (see blog 15) we were starting to be immersed in the sea and the loss of an entire lifeboat crew hit home and was relevant in so many ways.  The story is better recorded elsewhere but in the face of a force 9 Sever gale, the crew put out to help a stricken cargo vessel manned by men they did not know.  They never returned.  That night the village of Longhope lost 8 men.  In the army we embrace as “brothers in arms” but that night 2 fathers perished along with 2 sons, some of whom also left widows.  Two women each stripped of a husband and 2 sons.  Scarcely a home untouched.  Today the lifeboat coxswain is the grandson of the coxswain lost that night.  Within days Long Hope and its lifeboat family put up a new crew from volunteers who included 5 relatives of the dead men and simply stood up to carry on the maritime tradition shared by generations of seafarers of help to their fellow man in time of need.

We wanted to do something and enabled by our parents we tracked down the local “shoreline” group (lifeboat support organisation).  Harriet and I had letters authenticating us as bona fida collectors and whilst I have no idea how much we raised, we collected both at school and around the village. 

The beauty of the memorial, its imagery, its location and its message moved me to tears.  Inspired by those men, their families and their community, I stood and reflected on the profound impact it had and has on me.  I wished Harriet there.  I feel the dearth of words to articulate the emotion that was woven into that silence.  Memories of friends and events from my own experiences came to mind, they stood out and yet merged into a timeless image of faces, events, impacts, character and I saw clearly how their courage and example has helped shape and inspire me. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
To conclude I want to share two songs that I sang and resonate strongly with me.  Both are sung by my friend Tom Lewis, the "widowmaker " was written by John Connelly.  Now technology has defeated me so follow the link below to Tom's website and hear a sample as well as read the lyrics but below is him singing the widowmaker.

 
 
 
HMCS Sackville written and sung by Tom Lewis
 
 
 
The Widowmaker.  Written by John Connelly and sung by Tom Lewis

Monday, 26 August 2013

Learning from experience - Three cautionary tales.


 

Whilst in Norway I ran the boat aground.   We had decided to visit the attractive village of Hadbakke and from thestart the detail of the chart made it clear that this would be a difficult entry.  However Swan has been in before and we had an on board pilot from one of those visits.  He advised the north channel and as we approached I became concerned that it really did appear very narrow but was reassured that breadth and depth are not correlated.  Never the less I slowed down to under a knot and just as we entered the pilot questioned his memory but we were committed.   We grounded gently with an initial bump and then a short grind.  We immediately ran in reverse but Swan wasn’t moving.  There are a number of other immediate actions such as checking hull integrity, shifting weight aft and of deploying anchors and inflatable.  All of which we initiated.   A feature of all propellers is a trait known as “prop walk” as well as driving the boat ahead or astern a propeller produces a force that “walks” the stern sideways its most pronounced at low speed and with her keel held somewhere forward she was simply trying to turn.   Fortunately our plight was spotted by two local fishermen who passed a line and by countering the prop walk allowed us to run off easily.  We followed them in through the south channel without further incident.  We monitored bilge water levels for the next 2 hrs and I am happy to say that there is no evidence of any damage. 

What to do next.  Well it was minor and some suggested that no further action was required.  Instead though I reported myself to the chairman of the ops committee.  We have had a very easy chat about the incident.

So what lessons?  Well I think there are two.  One of my expedition maxims was about contingency.   In this case it was the slow speed of approach.  I might often appear over cautious when entering harbour but just this one incident vindicates that caution.  The second is that having had the accident do the right thing not the easy thing.

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We cleared the Norweigan coast in a lumpy sea.  Having cleared the land I went below for a sleep before coming up for watch on later in the small hours.  I was told that one of the passengers had been sick, not an entirely unexpected occurrence and apart from feeling sorry for them thought no more on it.  Later that day I heard the full story.  The passenger had been below trying to put on waterproofs when she feel and knocked herself out momentarily.   She was then helped on to a seat and sat for 15 minutes, the motion made her feel sick and she then came up and was sick before going below and lying down.  Understandably she didn’t stand a watch.   Once I learnt about the entirety, I carried out some basic checks but by now it was more than 12 hours after the incident.  All appeared normal and I kept a close watch on her. She objected to the fuss but acknowledged some continuing discomfort.  

She was seen by a doctor on return to Shetland for reassurance and I am happy to say that there was discomfort but nothing more serious.

So despite my earlier post about having sorted out the medical chest, the follow up to this incident did not go as it should have done. 

So what lessons?  These accidents do happen and therefore they can happen to you.  There is clearly a technical learning in first aid terms.  Perhaps most importantly it highlights how despite an extensive medical chest, medical guides and first aid books, we humans can sometimes get it wrong.  There is an adage “its not what you know or have, its what you do with what you know or have.”  We simply didn’t use our knowledge and tools to best effect.

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“Do it now ,not later” was another of my expedition maxims.   When the weather Gods interfered with our planned departure for Orkney, we delayed by 36 hours.   And even then had an uncomfortable and lengthy crossing.   That delay was prudent  and seamanlike even if it had other unfortunate consequences about not meeting a planned timetable.  Do it now not later doesn’t mean rush in, it means once you have identified that the time is right to do something, get on with it.  I suppose “make hay whilst the sun dose shine” or don’t put off the business of today until tomorrow might be a better articulation. 

 

Friday, 23 August 2013

Fjords


As Maloy slipped astern, the fjords stretch out ahead and with the weather looking considerably kinder than it had 8 hours earlier we set about a gentle exploration.  As navigator I do have the advantage of studying the charts and am thus better informed than those who don’t look at them.  Or at least I should be!  Initially we headed inland with no fixed idea of a destination other than to admire the scenery of Nordfjord.   By unanimous agreement our eye was drawn to the impressive face of Hornelen, billed as Northern Europe’s highest sea cliffs.  The cliffs sit on the point of the fjord and opposite is a small channel to the village of Rugsund.  Although there were a number of possible routes, it seemed to me that the most appealing was one through that little channel as this would allow us to approach the Cliffs head on rather than simply following the coast line around to them.   People were already surprised by the narrowness of gap through which coastal traffic was passing but a characteristic of the fjords is that they are steep to and (normally) very deep. 


However and despite assurance from the chart I did have to hold my nerve as we entered the channel.  It can’t have been more than 25 foot wide at its narrowest and Swan’s beam is 18 feet.  There was less than 3 feet under the keel but that’s fairly normal for the sand banks, saltmarsh creeks and swatchways of my home waters.   Now you might remember from an earlier blog that I had asked to update our UK charts.  Sadly this did not extend to The Norwegian charts but I have now added the necessary chart correction!!

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
We had no option to turn round and reverse the channel. 
 
 
After a little bit of dithering largely caused by trying to accommodate everyone’s “wants” but confirmed by a heavy downpour we put alongside the little village of Rugsund itself.  It proved to be a good choice and despite the lack of facilities (which I now know exist) we enjoyed a first night in Norway and alongside.  I slept soundly.

 
 

 
 
The following morning we selected another route and motored round to the other side of the bridge and enjoyed the view we had hoped for the previous evening. 
 
 
We continued via a circuitous route to the old fishing village of Kalvag.  The only wall long and deep enough to take us was by the pub!  Oh well it would have been rude not to have visited. 
 
That night we ate ashore and whilst expensive ( a fact when in Scandinavia) it was excellent.  The pub occupied the site of a former herring processing plant and wharf.  The current building is not original but had originally stood in Bergen before being deconstructed and resurrected on the site of the beyond repair warehouse.

 
Kalvag then and now

 

 
 
 
 
 
From Kaslvag we headed down to Florø (see previous blog) before going on to overnight in the small village of Stavang.  Here we met a most delightful German lady and her children.  Her parents live in Stavang and she takes a holiday there every year.  She had hoped that her sons would have been exhausted by their long day walk but the allure of the Swan lying on the quayside brought them to life.  We did the tour of the “Swan” in a mixture of English that she then repeated in German as I have to admit that what little German I once knew is now lost to memory.  Hundreds of people have visited Swan this year alone and had the short tour and history that is standard but this conversation was easy and it was one of those chance encounters that was ephemeral and memorable.  After I had retired to bed but others were still up, the boys returned with a bottle of white port.  A very generous gift that was drunk with much delight a few nights later.

Our days settled into something of a pattern as we generally headed south made a lunch time stop for a leg stretch and explore and then headed away late afternoon to find a night time berth.  So it was that we met Hitra in Askvoll before taking the impressive channel to Hardbakke (more of which on a separate post). From Hardbakke we retraced our route through the 8 mile channel to avoid the this time known about low bridge and headed to the old trading post of Skjerjehan.  Were it not for the significant investment of a local man who became one of Norway’s wealthiest salmon farmers, this would be a an old run down packing shed living testament to the changing pattern of trade and fishing and telling a tale of centralisation and industrialisation.  Instead it is now a small marina and a sensitively converted packing house into a bar.  We had it appears just missed a festival weekend of traditional boats and thus bar stocks were lower than normal.  We were also treated to a view of an old passenger coastal steamer returning to Bergen. 


This seemed to focus thoughts on whether we too should aim there.  A spectrum of opinion; some more drawn to the scenery of the fjords and some to the “big lights”.  In the end though we made Bergen and moored in the old harbour not far from the fish market and opposite Byggern, the well preserved Hanseatic trading site.  This was our last port of call before departing for Lerwick (and more of that later).

 
 
 

 
 
 
Bergen is often described as the prettiest town in Norway and it certainly combines a thriving commercial port with a booming tourist industry and a history that is preserved alongside the modern town and of course for music lovers it is inextricably linked with Grieg.


 
The influence of fishing is everywhere
 
 
So what impressions.  Well firstly there is the extraordinary beauty of the fjords but I must also confess to sometimes feeling like the coach driver and tour guide on a package holiday rather than the skipper of a sail training vessel.  There was seldom time to relax and get to experience places and in the pace of life and it’s easy for one fjord, village, pier, view, mountain to blend into the next so that one is no longer inspired by it but becomes immune even blasé about it.  I suppose that in some ways it might be like a taster menu at a restaurant, great to get an overall impression but not quite sufficient to allow a full savouring of the dish and slightly rushed into savouring the next before the enjoyment of the last has subsided. However it was a fantastic experience and adds to my own learning and experience.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

The Shetland Bus.


 Previously on a couple of occasions in this blog, back in May, I have mentioned the Shetland Bus operation But I will make a quick recap and introduction for any new followers!

Shetland has always enjoyed strong links to Norway, most obviously and commonly recalled in Viking culture and the Up Helly Aa celebrations.  The strength of the bond though is much more than a far off history.  It surfaces throughout the years and manifests in language, culture and heritage.  It wasn’t until 1468 that Shetland passed from Norway to Scotland.   The Shetland flag is a Nordic cross in the colours of the Scottish Flag.  
 
 
During the second world war it the strength of bond between Shetland and Norway surfaced through the Shetland bus operation.  I can do no more than write the briefest of notes on this remarkable operation.

Initially Shetland was a place of refuge for those escaping the Nazi invasion of Norway; the sea crossing to Shetland being the shortest sea passage to safety.   It was quickly realised that what started as an escape route could also serve as a supply and infiltration route.  Many Shetlanders had vital roles within the operation but a specific policy decision restricted operatives to being Norwegian only.  Nevertheless there developed and remains a very strong link between all members of the operation whatever their original role.  Supported by the British with administration, training, weapons and other resources but manned exclusively by Norwegians, a small fleet of Norwegian fishing vessels was assembled and prepared for the hazards of weather and enemy action.  Using stealth and disguise as their primary cover runs across the North Sea were established by

Initially the “Shetland Buses” were able to blend easily with Norwegian fishing boats but soon a shortage of diesel and other restrictions in Norway simply drew attention to these craft instead of blending in, they now stood out as unusual.


By 1943 a number of heavy loses from both enemy action and weather combined to force a rethink in the modus operandi.  Help came from the US government which donated 3 submarine chasers.  These sleek and distinctive warships from the same sort of stable as MTB’s combined speed with firepower replaced disguise as there primary defence. The runs were re-established.
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The Hitra is one of these warships and thanks to an enthusiastic group of volunteers has been restored and preserved. 
 
Although owned by a Trust she is officered by retired officers but crewed by Royal Norwegian Navy ratings.  Don’t tell the MOD otherwise this might be a model and savings measure for the future of the Royal Navy. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
By complete chance we were to meet Hydra at our next port of call and then a few days later transiting a fjord just north of Bergen.  Hydra will be visiting Shetland next month and I hope we can meet up once again.

 
 
The ships might have changed but as ever, there was one constant and essential ingredient, the bravery of the operators.  These men and women served in a variety of roles from “driving the buses” to those who landed and conducted clandestine operations ashore with The Resistance.  Imagine then our delight and surprise in Florø to be greeted by an elderly Norwegian who recognising the Shetland flag made himself known to us a survivor of this wartime operation.  Language was something of a challenge and he was pressed for time but it was a privilege and pleasure to host Jans Larsen.  It was difficult to understand his precise role but from what we could gather he served on the “bus” with his brothers and made at least 2 runs.  I’m not sure if these were on the “sub chasers” or on fishing boats.  Presenting him with a Shetland flag seemed an appropriate gift and our own tribute to him and his comrades.

 




His fallen comrades are remembered in Scalloway.  A poignant cairn containing a rock from the village or local area of each man commemorated is blended with local Shetland stone from key sites in Shetland associated with the operation and together support a model of one of the original buses.
 


Friday, 9 August 2013

return to Norway


Returning to Norway was always going to be a milestone in mine and Swan’s itinerary.  The vagaries of weather would be an unknown element in the plan but a known challenge would be the relatively short time frame to prepare her.  This is exacerbated by the even sharper turn around on return from Norway when we have less than 36 hrs to slip for Orkney on the start of a 3 week charter (more on that later . . ).  Fortunately Scott and I have been reinforced by Ailish.  Having just completed a 1001 mile passage from Arhuss to Helsinki aboard the German square rigger “Alexander Von Humbolt 2” as part of this year’s tall ships race her mettle is up and she is amassing as much sea time as possible.  She has also realised that sea time is only part of her nautical education and thus has become a dockside fixture learning about the range of broader skills required to keep a boat like Swan in seaworthy order. 
 
 
 
The three of us thus turned to with a range of preparatory jobs, everything from having the capstan repaired (alas still ashore in ITU) to victualing for a 10 day passage.  As well preparing for sea we also had to squeeze in some other jobs, a potential film shoot (which only got as far as the recce and initial planning stage) and a day sail which was also cancelled; is there a theme here?  We finally convened a training syllabus meeting, something that I have been keen to progress and believe I can usefully contribute to as one of my strengths and interests.  Only be careful what you wish for since I had not only to articulate idea and circulate pre meeting but subsequently write and circulate a draft syllabus before departure.  It is however something that I believe is very important.

Enough of pre departure.  Having welcomed aboard the passengers, it was time to start to make introductions; social and seamanship.  There is a clear legal delineation between the terms “passenger” and “crew” and yet on an boat like swan I like to consider us as one crew who work the ship together and of course the strict “crew” can’t easily work the ship as a sailing vessel alone.  Its back to the difference between a group and a team.  So inductions, safety briefs, instruction in safe working practices and lunch before casting off shortly before 1600 hrs into the North Sea.  

There was a good southerly breeze and we set a reef based on the old adage of “if you are wondering if it is time to reef, then it is” but it was a cautious call.  No matter we made good progress with a steady 6 plus knots.  As with most sailing boats, Swan does well on a reach and as she does less well than modern boats do when going to windward the pleasure of reaching is extenuated.  She was showing a good pair of heels but reaching may be an unfortunate term for those of the crew having a less enjoyable time.  We had an uneventful night and Sunday.  There is not much traffic but breking through the line of oil and gas platforms provides a welcome miledtone at three levels.  Firstly it represents about half way, secondly it provides “scenery” to the backdrop of sea and sky and thirdly it provokes thoughts on man’s ingenuity as well as deeper questions on carbon economy and use of the earth’s resources. 

We also started to mull our destination landfall and after some discussion opted to headed north to Maloy.  This would allow us to then cruise the coast in a southerly direction and hopefully be a little further off the wind on the way home.  How far south we get will depend on a number of factors.  Turning slightly down wind and a general fall in wind strength anyway reduced the apparent wind.  For non sailors think perhaps of a car crash, if two cars collide head on each doing 15 mph then there is a collision speed of 30 mph.  if however one car “shunts” another when the front car is travelling at 15 mph and the rear car at 20 mph then there is a collision speed of 5 mph.  So with this fall in apparent wind we elected more sail but rather than shake out the reef we ran out the bowsprit and hosted the jib.  We back up to more than 7 knots and rapidly closing the Norwegian coast.
 
There was even time and weather to shoot the sun for a "midday run sun" sextant sight.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
It was now that we became a temporary stop over for a racing pigeon.  His (or her) arrival was greeted with much excitement as not only a break to routine but a chance to offer sucker to a shipwrecked mariner.  The pigeon did not stay long enough to gain a name but was delighted to take water and after a bit of a rest and a deck inspection as thorough as any 1st mates took off again and headed north until we lost sight.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Another good nights sailing was rewarded by a glorious sun rise
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
and shortly after a first glimpse of land.  This was fleeting as an offshore mist soon showed
 
 
the view and shortly after we were hit by a squall.
 
 
 
 
The wind strength rose 10 knots and we fought to drop the jib as the wind first caught it and then when sheet and halyard were eased and traveller hauled inboard, it flogged in the wind until grappled to the deck to be subdued and lashed.  Spray across the foredeck added to the drama and breaking waves on the skerries and rocky islets completed the picture and made for a dramatic landfall. 
 
 
As suddenly as it hit we found shelter in the lee of an island and were soon dwarfed by the surrounding fjord.   An hour or so later we tied up in Maloy.  This small industrial fishing town is twinned with Lerwick but otherwise had no particular appeal and so after a good lunch we slipped to explore further . . .

 

 

Thursday, 1 August 2013

One Hundred Years of Fishing History in 3 pictures


Swan 1900     

 



Comrades 1958









 
Adenia 2003


Some thoughts:

Length Swan 67 feet   Adenia  64 Meters
Draught Swan 9 feet  Adenia  9 meters

Swan fish hold capacity about 2 tons.  One of about 400 Shetland boats
Adenia fish Hold capacity 1100tons.    one of six Shetland pelagic boats