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Monday, May 10, 2021

Rockets can't afford to land in Wellington


NewsHub reports that there were some hilarious reactions to the news that the bits from the Chinese space rocket happened to miss New Zealand.

As we all know, the out-of-control rocket zoomed back to earth, and there was some speculation about where the bits would land.  And, instead of expressing great relief that New Zealand was given a miss -- despite our world-shaking reputation right now -- commenters gave rein to the odd Kiwi sense of humor.

"Is it weird that I'm disappointed that #LongMarch5B didn't land closer to New Zealand?" one person asked on Twitter.

As others pointed out, it meant that no nosy reporters were given the chance to ask the stray bits what they thought of New Zealand, and how did they "feel" about the unscheduled crash.

"Rockets can't afford to land in Wellington," another remarked.

Though another did meditate that it would have been very disappointing if his house was demolished before he had had finished the cheesecake in the fridge.

"It would be really inconvenient for my house to be hit by a satellite on a Sunday when the metal recyclers are closed," another wrote.

Remnants of China's biggest rocket landed in the Indian Ocean on Sunday, with the bulk of its components destroyed upon re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere, according to Chinese state media, ending days of speculation over where the debris would hit.

Parts of the Long March 5B re-entered the atmosphere at 10:24 am Beijing time (2:24pm NZT) and landed at a location with the coordinates of longitude 72.47 degrees east and latitude 2.65 degrees north, Chinese state media cited the China Manned Space Engineering Office as saying.

The coordinates put the point of impact in the ocean, west of the Maldives archipelago.

Most of the debris was burnt up in the atmosphere, the China Manned Space Engineering Office said.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Seafaring superstitions


Sometime in the 19th century, the Royal Navy attempted to finally dispel the old superstition among sailors that beginning a voyage on a Friday was certain to bring bad luck. To demonstrate the falseness of this belief, they decided to commission a ship named HMS Friday. Her keel was laid on a Friday, she was launched on a Friday, and she set sail on her maiden voyage in Friday the 13th, under the command of a Captain James Friday. She was never seen or heard from again.

Don't bother to look this up.  It's false, but a good story all the same, and a good illustration of the superstitious natures of seafarers.

It reminds me of a Wiki Coffin short story that was published by the prestigious Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, in which he was able to break the alibi of a captain who claimed that he could not have committed a murder, because he set sail that day. That day was a Friday, and Wiki knew that the skipper was constitutionally unable to sail on that day of the week.

Italians have it even worse.  Di venere né di marte ci si sposa né si partethey say, meaning do not sail on a Tuesday, either.  

This may be because of their Roman background.  An ancient Roman skipper got very upset if you sneezed, swore or danced on board of his ship.  How he punished a poor sailor for that incontinent sneeze is unknown, but the ancient Greeks launched their ships over a row of bound slaves, which might be an indication.

Mind you, the Vikings were no better.

As for contrary winds, the French sailors believed that it was because someone on board had not paid his whore. Had paid with the topsail, as they used to say. Well, as in all things in this world, it eventually comes down to sex.

A superstition that Wiki Coffin, that seafaring Maori detective, knew well was that hatch covers should never be left upside down.  The logic escapes me, but it was a widespread belief.

I was once informed by a seaman that it was bad luck to carry bananas. So how do bananas get exported? By parachute?  And the French did not like umbrellas brought on board, and again the reason is unknown. 

Animals had a bigger part to play in seafaring myth and legend. Many cultures painted (and still paint) eyes at the bows, so the vessel can "see" its way.  There are lots of landbound superstitions about cats, particularly black ones.  Sailors, as contrary as ever, thought black cats were lucky, and made great efforts to get one on board. 

Dogs, particularly Jack Russells, were also popular. According to a seafaring woman's journal I read once, in New England Jack Russells were deliberately bred to have a patch over one eye, to give the right piratical appearance.  But dogs were carried for their rat-catching skills, not because they were lucky.

And women. This one comes up all the time.  Were women unlucky on board ship?  Well, Horatio Nelson carried various "dollies" on board, including, most famously, Lady Hamilton. Did "the sainted Emma" bring him bad luck? He seemed to do pretty well until he was shot. And it should be borne in mind that busty women were featured in thousands of ship figureheads, many of them naked.

Seriously, this thing about women is a fishing superstition, harking back to the old fleets in the Shetlands, and it was applied to redhaired women.  If a redhead even crossed the fishermen's path as they were carrying their nets to the boats, the expedition was given up, as doomed.  Or so I was told.

So were there redheaded figureheads on any ships? Who knows?

Finally, if you ever get on a cruise ship again, don't cut your nails or your hair in fine weather.  It is guaranteed to turn the weather bad. 

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Snake lurks in lettuce


I have a rabid fear of snakes (New Zealand does not have any), but I do buy a lot of cos lettuce (what Americans call 'Romaine'). New Zealand also imports a lot of vegetables and fruit from Australia, which I suppose is a two-way trade.  

So, does our cos lettuce, the kind where you get two in a plastic bag, come from Australia?

According to the Guardian, a fellow fan of cos lettuce, who happens to live in Australia, bought a bag of two lettuce heads in an Aldi store.  Then he put his shopping in his backpack, and cycled home. And apparently it wasn't even a smooth ride.

Then, as he and his partner were unpacking their groceries at home, out peeped this little snake.

One really has to admire the coolness and savoir faire of Australians.  Alexander White said that he only realized that it was a little snake (and not a big worm) when it kept on flickering its little tongue.  So he phoned the snake hotline, and was told it was probably a baby eastern brown, one of the most venomous snakes imaginable.

Well, I would have freaked out.  He did admit that he would have been more comfortable with a worm, but still thought it was cute.  He and his partner took many photos, and shared video chats with it with their children, who missed the big treat because they were away on school holidays.

Then the snake hotline got back to them, and informed them that it was a juvenile pale-headed snake, which was "medically significant."

Alexander thought that perhaps this meant it produced something useful for medicines, or something like that, but no, it apparently meant that if the snake bit him, he was to get to the hospital as soon as humanly possible.  And it was a surprise that it hadn't had a go, because pale-headed snakes are nervous by nature, and likely to strike out if agitated.

This must have been an unnaturally placid little snake.  After poking its front end out and having a look around, it retreated back into the lettuce and went to sleep.

So the couple put the lettuce bag in a tupperware container, leaving a little gap for air, so the snake wouldn't suffocate, and then checked the rest of their groceries, which were, thankfully, reptile-free.

Eventually, rather late at night, a snake expert turned up to take over the snake.  The delay, apparently, was because the snake people had been checking with the Aldi store to find out where the lettuce came from.  They wanted to take the snake back home, you see.  It turned out to be a town I have never heard of, called Toowoombah.  So off the snake went in a heated container -- and the couple washed the lettuce and ate it.

They have stronger stomachs than I have, that is for sure. 

Friday, April 2, 2021

Wellington's "sealion" ship ordered to sail away


From Radio NZ

She has been a feature of Wellington's downtown waterfront for many years.  Eighteen, to be precise.

She has a lot of history, too.  Originally a World War II construction, built in Adelaide and intended as a supply ship, her job description changed when the war finished before she was launched.  And so she became a mine sweeper.  And then a squid boat.  And then a house boat.

Currently, four people are renting the house boat, living within walking distance of most of the capital's attractions, including high-end shopping.  They have to live with the constant sound of pumps, as she is taking on water, but they have fun presenting her as an arts venue.

"We've had a number of one-off gigs out here, where we've just had a band set up here and the audience on the wharf, with 50, 80, 100 people coming down and engaging with their music which is great," said one of the boat's occupants, Simon Van Der Zeyden
Residents of the boat Simon Van Der Zeyden (left) and Dylan Pyle.

Residents of the boat Simon Van Der Zeyden (left) and Dylan Pyle. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

"It's a beautiful open-air DIY gig opportunity that we've been thoroughly enjoying." 

Van Der Zeyden is one of four of the boat's occupants, who organise the boat as an arts space, organising film nights, games nights and live music. 

But all that is now under threat.

The boat is taking on water. While four pumps are being used to ensure it doesn't sink, the boat is classified as "non-seaworthy". 

That's why the City Council - who are taking over the mooring contracts on the Wharf - has decided not to offer one to the Sealion

Centreport are planning on tugging the boat to Glasgow Wharf by next week. 

Van Der Zeyden and co-housemate, Dylan Pyle, have started a petition, which so far has over 850 signatures.

"What we're looking for with the petition is an engagement of discussion is brought upon us, where we can lock in a feasible timeline that allows everyone to have a sense of satisfaction and safety," said Van Der Zeyden. 

"Instead the decision has just been sprung upon us." 


Meanwhile, the owner Selwyn Findley - who lives in Nelson - said he was loving the boat's current use.

"It struck a chord with me," he said.

"When the old owner said there's people onboard, I thought that's kind of good, and it's being used for a creative space. 

"I've been to concerts on board, and it's like a nice little intimate club down below, and it just suits it." 

Findley has only owned the boat since the new year, after it was sold by a fellow Nelson man. 

While his long-term plan was to do it up, then take it across the Cook Strait to enjoy in the Marlborough Sounds, he was in no rush. 

"When they first sent the letter to me, I was sort of, I guess, stunned a bit for a couple of days. 

"I just thought it was a shame. There's always going to be something that comes along, but it's just disrupted things, and put pressure. Financially it'll be hard.

"It's just involved a whole rethink." 

Inside The Sealion.

Inside The Sealion. Photo: RNZ / Sam Rillstone

Council spokesperson, Richard MacLean, said the boat isn't fit to stay put. 

"I'm no nautical expert but the thing is, Queen's Wharf is not there to be a permanent home for a vessel that clearly can't get around the harbour." 

He was unsure of the inhabitants' description of the boat as an arts and community space. 

"We're puzzled by that, we're a bit taken aback. We tend to think that people are overstating the importance of the Sealion in Wellington's community sector really." 

But the boat did feature an evening DJ every night as part of the Council-funded events programme "What If the City Was a Theatre?" 

And they also had plans to take part in June's Jazz Festival... but with the boat now moving on, those plans are sinking fast.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Tim Severin, seaman, adventurer, author


I was saddened to learn that Tim Severin, a truly remarkable man who was a living inspiration, passed away last month.

The Irish Times has a feature on his life, focused (of course) on his first big hit, The Brendan Voyage. 

Tim was born in Assam, India, the son of an English tea planter -- that planter being an employee, not the owner of the plantation, as his son was always anxious to point out.  As was usual in those days, Tim was sent to boarding school in England at the age of seven.  One cannot help but wonder how his mother felt to wave goodbye to such a small boy, but it is easy to imagine how tough it must have been for the boy himself, English boarding schools being notorious.  Was he bullied?  Probably.  There would have been an emphasis on toughness and survival instincts, which would have served him very well in the strange adventures ahead.

His first was as an undergraduate of an Oxford college, when he followed in the wake of Marco Polo -- on a motorbike.  The next was to follow in the wake of the Spanish Conquistadors, down the Mississippi, this time in a boat.

His big inspiration evolved in 1976, when he decided to try and prove that St. Brendan could have sailed from Ireland to Newfoundland in a leather boat.  As always, his research was intense -- he intended to recreate the voyage as exactly as possible.  So off he and a small crew sailed, bailing madly all the way.  And on June 26, 1977, they made port in Newfoundland, proving that St. Brendan could have definitely done it, 900 years before Columbus.

The books that gripped my imagination were The Sindbad Voyage and The Spice Islands Voyage, which can read with Alan Villiers' Sons of Sinbad, as a perfect entry into the craft and seamanship of the Far East.  Ever since, I have been photographing prahu and pinisi (and writing about them, too, in Eleanor's Odyssey and the Wiki Coffin mystery stories), and Ron painted and drew them.

The books poured out of Tim Severin -- more tracings of ancient voyages, novels about Vikings.  I remember him for his kindness, his helpfulness, and generosity to someone faraway who was seeking answers to the same sort of questions.  His eyes were those of a navigator or a mountaineer, always seeking a new horizon.  He will be greatly missed.

Monday, January 4, 2021

Are blogs still relevant?


Having just come back from 8 days in the South Island of New Zealand-Aotearoa, I thought about blogging ...  

Normally, I have lots to say about what I have seen and experienced, but is that suitable any more?

News about Covid dominate the world, so that carefree jaunts seem both irrelevant and inappropriate.

It is worth noting, however, that people are turning to books more than ever, and books about leadership failures and successes have more personal impact.

I guess that is why I came back to find that a host of reviews of my book about castaways, desolate islands, and leadership, ISLAND OF THE LOST had materialized while I was away.

And here is a little sampling. 

From Canada

Reviewed in Canada on January 1, 2021
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I didn't buy this book expecting to learn anything more than about shipwrecks and survival, but there are so many other intriguing pieces to it, like the sub-antarctic sealing industry, that there is no question that I will be expanding my reading to learn more about this time period.

The book's synopsis is a bit misleading; yes, there were two shipwrecks on the island that overlapped much of the same time period, but the focus is on the wreck of the Grafton and its small crew. There are also very serious environmental and seasonal factors (timing) that contributed to the shipwrecks survivors; differences in leadership played a part of how well each group succeeded, but was not the only defining factor in my opinion. As well, and something that the pulled the book together for me, each wreck had at least one individual who had a level of resourcefulness that contributed greatly to each groups survival. The forge building or the coracle building as examples!

The author's ability to meld two separate incidents and her writing style that is highly engaging and to the point, made for a relatively quick read and I look forward to reading more of her work on naval history.
Highly recommend this book if this topic or region of the world is of interest. However, would caution that there is a great deal of emphasis on killing seals, especially pups, as a main food source and this may be a big turn off to some readers. As the author notes in the afterword, one group of survivors were mentally prepared to kill seals. This was the one area of the book that I was not mentally prepared for myself!

From the United States

Reviewed in the United States on January 1, 2021
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Reviewed in the United States on December 30, 2020
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Reviewed in the United States on December 28, 2020
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Reviewed in the United States on December 27, 2020
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Reviewed in the United States on December 26, 2020
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More about the trip -- and the old steamboat Earnslaw later

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

The truth, the absolute truth


“What I’ve always believed is that humanity has the capacity to be kinder, more just, more fair, more rational, more reasonable, more tolerant. It is not inevitable. History does not move in a straight line. But if you have enough people of goodwill who are willing to work on behalf of those values, then things can get better.”

-- Barak Obama, a thought inspired by Genghis Khan and Ozymandias, and the lessons of history

Friday, November 13, 2020

Sea Princess deck officer wins medal for brave rescue at sea


From the BBC

A 24-year-old sailor who showed "incredible bravery" saving three men from drowning has become the youngest recipient of the Merchant Navy Medal.

I remember the incident well, as I was lucky enough to be on board for the 2019 World Cruise.

It was exciting, really.  The captain announced that the ship was reversing her course in response to a distress call from a sinking ship.  And off we raced into the gathering night.  By the time we arrived it was pitch dark, and the light of the rescue boat as it plunged down to the bumpy waves and then up and down on its way to the invisibly sinking ship seemed very small and lonely.  The whole complement on board, I swear, was hanging onto the nearest rail, gazing raptly.  First, we saw the distant, tiny light of the lifeboat carrying the survivors of the foundered craft, and then the nail-biting slowness with which the light of the rescue boat approached.

The two lights merged.  There was a sense of unseen activity, and then the rescue boat was plunging back to the ship.  She arrived, and everyone cheered.  Never had a rescue crew and their saved men received such a welcome, I am sure.

And here is what the BBC had to say about the sailor from Devon who commanded the rescue:

Max Bingle, from Paignton, received the award after navigating rough seas in the Caribbean to help a sinking boat.

He and two colleagues from a Princess Cruises ship carried out the rescue mission in July 2019.

Mr Bingle said saving sailors in distress was part of what he was "trained to do".

After receiving a coastguard distress call, third officer Mr Bingle lowered a fast rescue boat and sailed with his crewmates to reach the three men on the sinking boat.

He took the trio back to the ship he was working on, Sea Princess, where they were given medical care.

'Call of duty'

Mr Bingle said the commendation had come "completely out of the blue".

"Everybody on board acted in the highest maritime tradition by going to the aid of fellow sailors in peril on the sea," he said.

"Saving lives is what we are trained to do as seafarers, and I'm grateful for this recognition."

Another recipient of the medal is Fazilette Khan. Her Green Seas Trust charity works to place nautical-themed recycling bins in coastal towns.

Maritime minister Robert Courts said all the recipients of the award had "gone beyond the call of duty" in service to both their industry and the UK.

He said: "It's a special honour to award the medal to Max, its youngest ever recipient.

"He showed incredible bravery in saving three fellow sailors from drowning in rough seas, and this award is a recognition of his incredible selflessness that night."