Wednesday, 4 July 2012

189. Coming up for air..

25th June 2012. On Sunday morning I went out in the car to take the dog for a run on the beach at Anglet and I noticed that the Adour was unusually active with traffic. A tug was sending up two powerful jets of water high up in the air and I could hear ships sirens and hooters being sounded. I continued along the banks of the Adour to a point  where the river narrowed to the port entrance channel to the open sea just in time to see a small flotilla of pleasure craft (and a traînière - seen briefly at 02:11 on the video below) escorting two coastal working sailing boats that were gliding down river on the tide. I later found out that the event was the Escales Marines de Bayonne (another video here)

Looking up river, I was surprised to see the majestic sight of a 3 masted barque, the "Belem", that was also making its way out to sea. A few minutes later it slid silently past right in front of me and it dawned on me that this was the first time I'd ever seen a full rigged ship under sail. I've always been interested in pioneering technology of the kind that produced steam locomotives, cars & motorcycles from the twenties and thirties, early clocks, biplanes and much else. I found the close proximity of "Belem" to be an unexpectedly moving sight and it started me thinking about how our world had been discovered using small ships like these. I have to say I was completely transfixed and spellbound by the "Belem" and it made me realise that yes, today's ships may well be faster, more efficient & reliable, independent of the winds and all the rest of it but, like so many other advances in today's world, I think we've lost something indefinable in the process - perhaps that sense of continuity with our history.
Once we've discovered something that makes previous technology redundant, we are usually quick to junk the old. What struck me so forcibly about the "Belem" was that there are so few visible traces remaining of the age of sail. Sailing ships were very labour-intensive and many crafts and trades were necessary to build and support them. When the ships disappeared so largely did the associated small industries. All of which makes the re-birth of the "Hermione"(mentioned further below) even more remarkable. 

By the way, if, like me, you too are fascinated by windjammers and barques, then I would unreservedly recommend that you read Eric Newby's "The Last Grain Race". In 1938, 18 year old Eric signed up as an apprentice on "Moshulu" - a Finnish 4 masted steel barque - and sailed out to Australia to pick up 5000 tons of wheat, returning to the UK via that southernmost tip of South America - feared by generations of sailors - Cape Horn. The only Englishman on board in an otherwise largely Scandinavian crew, he had a wonderful ear for dialogue and he painted an unforgettable picture of life at sea  under sail. (now sadly out of print, you can buy a used copy for £0.01 here!) Arriving on the main deck of the "Moshulu" berthed at Belfast, after reporting to the First Mate, without further ado he was told "op the rigging" to the top of the main mast - all 185 feet of it.

Here, he describes a storm in the Southern Ocean:

"We were cold and wet, and yet too excited to sleep.. watching the seas rearing up astern as high as a three-storeyed house. It was not only their height that was impressive but their length. Between the greatest of them there was a distance that could only be estimated in relation to the ship, as much as four times her entire length, or nearly a quarter of a mile."

Newby goes aloft into the fore rigging:

"At this height, 130 feet up, in a wind blowing 70 miles an hour, the noise was an unearthly scream. Above me was the naked topgallant yard and above that again the royal to which I presently climbed ... the high whistle of the wind through the halliards sheaf, and above all the pale blue illimitable sky, cold and serene, made me deeply afraid and conscious of my insignificance."

This photo (left) gives an idea of the size of "Moshulu". Imagine climbing up there on a dark and stormy night..!

Unlike many other big sailing ships, "Moshulu" escaped being lost at sea and also she also managed to avoid the breakers yard. She is now a "fine dining" restaurant (ie, expensive) in Philadelphia - which is pretty ironic, given how poorly the crew of "Moshulu" were fed in Eric Newby's time.

Here's a romanticised view perhaps of those vanished days of sail:
And some footage I've found that shows it as it was - cold, wet, highly dangerous, physically demanding and definitely not an enterprise for the faint-hearted to take on lightly!

Finally, a modern day replica of "L'Hermione", a famous XVIIIth century 12 pounder Concorde class frigate of the French Navy has just been launched at Rochefort.. (slideshow here)
Here's how this immense labour of love was realised:

4th July 2012. For the last few days I've been sweating until all hours over the latest batch of work and I finished the first run through of it early this evening. As it was a warm sunny evening - and as it was that time of day - I went downstairs to the cellar to see if I could find an old bottle of gin as I suddenly had a craving for a long G&T. Yes, there it was, gathering dust next to a 5 year old bottle of tonic water. Aah, that hit the spot even though the tonic was a bit flat.

I must mention last week's weather - we had temperatures of 37C with high humidity. It was too hot to be outside so we battened down the hatches to keep the house cool.

7th July 2012. A steamy morning on the river today.. had an outing in a mixed VIII. Did 16km but to be honest it wasn't an entirely satisfying sortie. It felt as though there were a number of people in the boat who were moving to a different tempo to the rest of us. Which leads us to one of the oldest rules in rowing - it's always someone else's fault! Next week, a group of us are going to a rowing club in Les Landes for a day of single seat sculling on a large shallow lake (above). The reason we use this lake is that it is highly likely that some will take the opportunity for an early bath.. but as the lake is only a metre or so deep, it's quite safe - in comparison to our own river - the Nive - which can flow very quickly depending on the state of the tides. With this being France, an email has gone out to all those attending regarding the all-important provision of lunch.. Some of the girls are bringing foie gras and the men are asked to bring wine.. No egg & cress sandwiches here!

After a quick shower and change at home, we headed out to Zugarramurdi (in Spain) for lunch. This beautiful Basque village has a macabre history involving witchcraft, the Spanish Inquisition and auto-da-fé. However, luckily for us, none of these were present today and so we enjoyed a superb paella in some hot afternoon sunshine with a welcome breeze. In fact, it was all-you-can-eat but after one plate I could eat no more. The car registered 32C on the way home.

8th July 2012. The annual fiesta of San Fermin at Pamplona started yesterday - and here's a clip of the running of the bulls through the streets this morning.
Question du jour: You have two choices - it's either the three minute dash through the streets of Pamplona hotly pursued by 600kgs of snorting prime Spanish beef that has dibs on your backside - or it's up the rigging of a four masted barque and out on to a steel yard high up above a lonely dark ocean. What's it to be?

10th July 2012. Here's yesterday's encierro (bull run) and a few selected images that may help you make up your mind:

Seen enough? Right - "op the rigging!"

I've had a stressful few days with my PC - it was taking increasingly longer & longer to boot up, plus there were innumerable system lock-ups, repeat instances of the dreaded "Blue Screen of Death", disappearing mouse pointers, mail program crashes, go slows, you name it. Today was the last straw though. After spring-cleaning my hard disk, defragmenting it, scanning the hard drive for malware and/or viruses (none found) and generally getting it all gussied up, this morning I experienced yet more disappearing data, mouse pointers and a final Blue Screen etc.. and I thought enough's enough. I've felt at times as though I was being nibbled to death by ducks.. I couldn't risk losing all my work. Numerous problems - if each one taken was singly they weren't too difficult to solve but coming all at once - well, I'd had enough and so I went down to our local computer store and picked myself up a real bargain of a PC - plus 100€ cashback..! The only problem is that it came with an AZERTY keyboard. Nothing is where I'd expect it and I'm having to re-learn all my painfully acquired typing skills.


Lesley said...

The thought of climbing rigging on one of those sailing ships ...awful. Mind you, after watching The Posieden Adventure as a kid I won't 'do' a cruise and a rowing boat on the rough water of your Landes lake could be difficult.
Wuss or what?

Pipérade said...

Apparently those sailors had a saying: "One hand for the ship and one for yourself"..
Climbing up the rigging would be one thing.. leaving the security of the mast and going out on a yard would be another. Letting go to untie a knot or to manhandle a sail would be something else entirely. Especially at night or during a storm - or both! Unimaginable..
Wuss? I don't think so..

Lesley said...

Answer de Jour.
Get your Mum to phone and say that you are not coming in today.

Pipérade said...

Too easy! Those days are long gone..
Think I'd have a go at shimmying up the mast in preference to running in treacle with an enraged bull breathing all over the back of my neck!