Thursday, 2 April 2020

Mr Brightside

The nice thing about playing in a covers band is every so often something makes its way into the set that's a revelation to me. That breaks me out of my bubble.

I think I'm too self involved to really devour much of anybody else's music. My tastes were probably set into jelly back in the late 80's or early 90's, and so whilst being peripherally aware of stuff coming out over the last twenty years or so, with a couple of exceptions (Snow Patrol & Coldplay spring to mind) I don't really listen to music on the TV or radio, so much of it simply passed me by.

A little while ago, for my own amusement, I did a summary of how the band's set broke down across the decades. I was a little surprised at the results:

2010 2
2000 22
1990 9
1980 2
1970 3
1960 3

I probably shouldn't have been. It seems we're a millennial band. Most of the band's repertoire has made it's way into the set by way of recommendation, request or suggestion. The good ones stuck.

Possibly one of our most popular covers is a song from 2004 by a band called The Killers, called Mr Brightside. I don't know how it got into the set. I think it was a request for a wedding back in 2008. In any case, it turned out to be both stupidly fun to play, and hugely popular. I wish I understood why.

I mean, I love the song, but you can guarantee that the second we open up with that first riff, people will absolutely stampede to the dance-floor.

Glancing back through our set lists, and I keep a record of the oddest of things, the earliest instance I can find of this was as the fifth song of a set list for a wedding on 31st July 2008. But the song obviously stuck. In April 2009 it was the opening song of our second set, and it's pretty much been so for almost every gig since.

If I only understood the alchemy then even now, in this (still early!) twilight of my career, I could probably still write a song that would finally make me rich and famous.

Not that I particularly hunger over those dreams any more. I find myself quite happy with how things have turned out after all.

Anyway, the following then is a slightly different vibe to the usual on one of the band's most popular covers, recorded last Thursday after work, and possibly the perfect illustration of why I really need the band to play with . . . .

the tunnel

I found this story on the Guardian's website unutterably sad.

Elliot Dallen: Terminal cancer means I won't see the other side of lockdown

Unutterably sad, and beautifully expressed. Elliot Dallen has a clear gift for words, my heart really goes out to him and his family.

I'm very fortunate. I miss karate, I miss the gigs and my band, I really miss sailing. The empty office has a sepulchre atmosphere and I'm drinking too much of an evening, because after I've walked the dogs there's not all that much else to do.

Actually, who am I kidding? I always drink too much of an evening.

But my troubles are trivial and, ultimately, transient. Well recovered now from the chest infection that floored me earlier in the year, I'm well, my family are well and my friends are well. And, despite the fact that my fitness levels must be crashing through ill discipline and inactivity (and it's actually more than within my gift to fix this), this enforced pacificity means that both my shoulders and elbows are, for the first time in almost twelve months, almost continuously pain free.

Without in any way belittling the undeniably serious nature of the current situation, I've often found myself riling at the sensationalist, almost apocalyptic coverage both the mainstream and tabloid media is giving this virus, and the hysterical amplification it then gets through social media.

As an aside, I've made a point of temporarily blocking anybody that's posted or shared anything concerning this that I felt was unduly sanctimonious, hysterical or blatantly misinterpreting or misrepresenting the facts. And I've blocked more friends, family and acquaintances in the last few weeks than I ever did during the December general election. My social media feeds have fallen very quiet of late.

But these are difficult times. For some of us, the difficulty is imposed mostly for the benefit of others. And we should bear this willingly and cheerfully, even if the costs are disproportionately spread. I'll probably come out of this relatively unscathed. Others have lost or will lose their businesses and livelihoods and need to rebuild from scratch.

But there is a whole raft of our society, the "over seventies", the old, the vulnerable and the ill, that we've now shuttered away into isolation for twelve weeks or more, cloistered for their protection, for their own good.

Most will lack Elliot Dallen's clear eloquence and will simply have to endure.

Tuesday, 31 March 2020

The Folker

For a reluctant introvert who is happiest in his own company and resolutely unfond crowds, I've always had an odd attraction to standing up in front of them and performing. I blame my parents. I guess. Dad does say there's something of a family history of this. On my mother's side, at least. Through their interests I was certainly raised in the company of performers, of folk clubs, community choirs, amateur dramatic societies and the like.

By age 7 I'd already been put into tights and pushed onto stage as part of the kids' chorus of a Christmas pantomime.

Growing up in Kuwait, in the late 70's, along with Company yacht club it has to be said, the local expatriate amateur dramatics society, the Kuwait Little Theatre or "KLT" as it was affectionately known, was the hub of my parents social life and therefore mine.

The previous year I'd simply accompanied them to the rehearsals and shows whilst they got involved in the whole tramping around on stage in tights bit themselves. For the first few nights of the production they sent me out front to sit and watch. It was pretty much a gated, privileged community back in those days, and folks could afford to let their kids pretty much run wild and unsupervised. By the second sitting, I'd memorised all the lines, and was sat out in amongst the audience reciting them milliseconds ahead of the actors actually delivering them, to the frustration of all concerned except myself. I was enrapt.

I got into a bit of trouble over that, it really wasn't the done thing to steal a pantomime dame's punchlines, and so wasn't allowed out audience side of the stage again. And the following year I was, as mentioned, put out on the stage myself.

I'm pretty sure my debut, tights, tunic, stage paint and all, was as one of a crowd of minions of the Gnome King in the pantomime Cinderella. There was a song involved, cunningly entitled "The Gnome Song". I seem to recall we didn't actually sing it, but danced on stage as the Gnome King performed it for us.

I've never been much for dancing, but needs must. It was, after all, pantomime. We've all got to start somewhere.

I am moving to a point here, some kind of segue into the actual purpose of this post.

The Gnome Song was by an irreverent English West Country comedian and folk singer called Fred Wedlock. Or, at least if it wasn't written by him, it was certainly performed by him. I discovered later that Fred, just like most of his comedic contemporaries of the time, was, well, "artistically light-fingered" when it came to lifting material from other sources making it his own.

Anyway. Mum couldn't sing and Dad couldn't play, but a musical instrument is, essentially, a mathematical and mechanical puzzle, and Mum was a smart lady with both gift and taste for such a challenge. So we had a full piano sized electric keyboard in the house, a "Bontempi" if I recall, and a guitar or two.

Mum never really took to the keyboard, although I was given free reign with it and by the age of 6 or 7 had deciphered where to find middle C, worked out the basics of a scale on both paper and keys and was picking out the melody to the Beatles "Yesterday" for my own amusement. Not because I knew who the Beatles were, or particularly liked them, but rather because it was in the song-book Mum kept on the music stand of the piano.

Meanwhile Mum was deciphering the chords and transcribing the lyrics so she could accompany Dad on the guitar singing various folk songs, both of the serious, "finger in yer ear" kind like Barbara Allen and The Water is Wide, and the less serious, tongue in cheek parodies penned or so skilfully adopted by the likes of Fred Wedlock, which included sophisticated titles like the afore mentioned Gnome Song, or The Bantam Cock, or The Frog and the Vicar, or An English Country Garden or The Widow and the Cat. Or British Rail:

"In the carriage there is a chain / And if you pull it it stops the train / There's a twenty-five pound fine if your unwise / So ladies if you're being molested / Wait until you've been divested / It ain't worth five fivers otherwise"

Sorry, I was tripping down memory lane for a second there. I'll stop. Self-indulgence ill becomes me. In any case, that gives you an illustration of the quality of wit involved in this stuff.

Anyway, skip forward some five or six years. I'm now into my early teens. I've had half a decade's worth of piano lessons but, like my Mum before me, have discovered that the guitar is so much easier and so much more versatile. Not to mention cooler. And you can (or could back then) carry it on board an aeroplane as hand luggage, and for most of my early teen years I was doing a lot of air travel, back and forth between my boarding school in the UK and my parents who were still working in Kuwait.

And I wanted to perform. I've always been drawn to that spot in centre stage. It's not about me, it really isn't. And that's not false modesty. Sure, I'll happily talk, or preferably write about myself until the cows come home, I'm very familiar with my own opinions and my ego; next to sailing I'm possibly my own favourite subject.

But really, honestly, that spot on stage is about anything but the actor, the band or the musician. It's about the song, the verse or the play, about the escape; immersing yourself in something that's entirely external to you, and drawing in, feeding off and living within the reaction and participation of the audience.

I'm very much of the opinion that art is intrinsically worthless in and of itself. You may have a different opinion and I can respect that. I think certain members of my band have a different opinion, although I suspect that's just a limitation of their particular perspective. They're artists. But whatever slim pretence I may have towards that, it's quite secondary to my role as a performer.

And in my view, a singer is nothing without the song, the song is nothing without the gig, the gig is nothing without the crowd. The validation of an audience is everything. Though don't get me wrong: a crowd can be a crowd of one or a multitude. I've performed to both. I've had gigs good and bad before both. The quality of a crowd is not a simple, numerical metric.

To return to my original thread however. The trouble was, I'd figured I could just about string together a few picked chords, sing a steady note and had a definite gift for remembering lyrics and a tune. But I wasn't centre stage material, I was more pantomime chorus or third guy on the right in the crowd of extras. I don't walk into a crowded room and immediately draw attention. If I talk, more often than not I'll get talked over, unless I force the issue.

Which is perhaps why I prefer to write.

But I'd found this raft of comedy folk songs, hand written or occasionally typed chords and lyrics deciphered by Mum all those years ago when she used to accompany Dad at those monthly KLT folk nights. And Dad had all these tapes of this bloke Fred Wedlock singing these songs in a comfortable, familiar, West Country Bristolian accent, and to my delight I discovered they were bloody hilarious.

The realisation hit me that even if I couldn't sing and I couldn't play guitar, I could at least learn these chords and these lyrics and hammer out these old Fred Wedlock tunes and if the quality of the performance, of the singing or the playing couldn't justify or hold the audience, then the comedy of the material still would.

In pursuit of the limelight I've never really been bothered about whether people laugh with me or laugh at me. Because if they have to laugh at me, I've always been able to still laugh along with them.

This has to be the longest winded introduction to a song I've ever given. I'd never get away with this on stage. If you're still with me, congratulations; in this new age of quarantine and self isolation, you must really be running out of things to read!

There was one Fred Wedlock song I always loved, but Mum and Dad never covered it themselves, which meant that, unlike the rest of Fred's repertoire, I had no easy access to the chords and lyrics having already been transcribed for me. So, in a pre-Internet age, when you couldn't just look these things up on Google, I continued to love and admire the song from afar, but never actually put in the hard graft to learn it.

I've always meant to, it's just one of those things I've never gotten around to.

The song is a parody of folk clubs and the pub-gigging rock 'n' roll lifestyle and desperately trying to "make it big", put to the melody of one of my absolute favourite Simon and Garfunkel tunes, "The Boxer".

Actually, I love pretty much anything Simon and Garfunkel ever recorded, so could easily call any of them my favourite. But Fred only nicked the tune to The Boxer, so it's special.

One of the advantages of my current situation at work is that when the rest of the staff go home at 5pm (ie. by "the rest" I mean my mate Matt) and I can relax my vigilant watch over our company networks, I have the entirety of this old mill to myself, with nary another soul within earshot.

That's a rare treat for me. I also keep a couple of guitars in the office, always have.

So last Thursday, after work, I stayed on a little late at the mill and finally worked out the chords and lyrics to my favourite Fred Wedlock song, "The Folker".

It's not the sort of song the band would ever let me play at a gig, but as a suddenly socially distanced, involuntary solo performer with a camera phone and the length and breadth of social media spread out before my digital feet, there was nothing but my dignity and self-respect to stop me.

They never really stood a chance.

A quick word of caution. Whilst not exactly justifying an "Explicit Content!" warning that so many of these up and coming youngsters in the charts seem to actively aspire to these days, the content of the song that follows is a little coarse in places. And I don't (just) mean the production values . . . .

So, without further ado, I give you "The Folker"

Monday, 30 March 2020

proof of life

Monday 30th March 2020. The UK is about to enter it's second week in lock down. According to our illustrious leader, we can only leave home for one of the four following reasons:
  • Essential shopping
  • Getting medical help
  • One form of exercise per day
  • Travelling to and from work if you cannot work from home
With regards to the fourth point, that's currently me. It's hardly essential work, but my being in the office to keep the servers and networks up and connected to the Internet means that our other twelve staff can all work from home. There is one other member of technical staff in the building with me to assist. With 4000 square feet of office space between the two of us it's very easy to maintain our distance. We occasionally wave to each other when we pass from opposite ends of the building. 

All this means that our company survives, our staff continue to remain employed and contributing to the economy and our customers continue to benefit from our service, which in turn helps them continue to do business themselves. I realise how lucky we are, so far at least, and how difficult a lot of folk less fortunate than us, many friends and family included, are finding things at the moment.

I also feel like a bit of a pariah, which might explain a little as to why I felt I had to justify my current circumstances and the fact I'm still working 9 til 5 each day. There are a lot of "key workers" delivering "essential services" to the country at the moment. My wife, who works in food retail (includes alcohol!) is one of them. Our company primarily services the insurance industry, so I'm not sure we could argue we're an essential service as such, although for as long as insurance remains a competitive market I guess we are an essential part of that service for our clients and their ability to deliver to their customers.

But in any case, we can, with very minimal risk, continue to operate a pretty much uninterrupted service. So I think it's very important, for many reasons, that we do just that.

Ironically, Nikki's currently taking a week's leave, although she's on call and has to go in to help out when they get their (currently much more regular than usual) deliveries. I was supposed to be on leave too; had the year proceeded as planned, we'd currently be somewhere west of Fowey with Dad and Calstar. However, under the circumstances, I figured it was best I cancelled my leave for now.

Calstar is a weight on my mind at the moment.

She's currently berthed in Queen Anne's Battery in Plymouth, which has been her home for the last couple of years. This year we decided to move her to the more sheltered cover of neighbouring Sutton Harbour. So just before Christmas we arranged and paid for an annual berthing contract for 2020 in Sutton that would go into effect when the 2019 contract with QAB expired.

At the end of March.

At the beginning of last week, when the advice was still vestigial and advisory, maintain social distance, self isolate for 14 days if anybody in the household shows symptoms, etc, I observed the media hysteria, social, tabloid and otherwise, generated by the entirely predictable reaction of the crowd to a particularly sunny spring Sunday, and realised things were likely going to become a lot more draconian.

Monday lunchtime I called Dad and suggested we headed down to Plymouth the following morning to move Calstar to her new marina, rather than waiting for the weekend as we'd originally planned. At 2030 Monday evening they announced the lockdown with immediate effect and our plans were scuppered. I really should've acted the moment I thought of it.

So Calstar currently remains in Queen Anne's Battery. Our annual contract with them expires on 31st March, when our new annual contract with Sutton Harbour comes into effect. However, we've no way of moving Calstar from the one marina to the other before then; nor is there anybody else that could do it for us.

I can only hope that the lovely folks at QAB are reasonable in allowing us to arrange some kind of temporary extension to our current contract, given the extraordinary circumstances we all find ourselves labouring under.

All that said, in light of all the other turmoil and travail abroad in the world at the moment, however much a weight on my mind, these troubles really are quite trivial in comparison.

It was the strangest weekend. Got home, the gig was long cancelled, so nothing to do Friday night except settle down with a beer and chill for the evening. I'm not very practised at that (the chilling with nothing to do of an evening, that is; of beer I've had practice aplenty!) but thought I could probably get the hang of it with a little dogged persistence. Saturday morning, woke up, nothing planned except to walk the dogs and chill for another evening.

Saturday night was funny. Still no gig of course, so another evening home with another beer and the Internet. I look up from my beer and entertainment to glance at my watch, notice it's 0020, and think I really ought to consider going to bed. Figure another thirty minutes or so, finish my last glass (of by then no longer quite so so chilled) beer.

Next thing, I glance again at my watch and am horrified to see that it's now 0220. I can't for the life of me work out where the last hour has gone, but shame-faced and possibly a little tipsy from the night's, um, "chilling", I wake Nikki up from where she's nodded off on the sofa and we head off to bed.

Sunday, walk the dogs, cut the grass. Nothing else to do. Is this how normal people live? Sunday night, go to bed at a more reasonable hour, but having not done much all day read in bed into the early hours (EM Powell, historical fiction, a page turning style akin to Bernard Cornwall) then take an age to finally nod off. And oversleep a little the following morning.

It isn't until I'm pulling into the office car park after a very quiet drive into work, thinking it's around about 0900, not too late, that I glance at the clock on my car dashboard, the only time device in existence old enough to not get automatically updated by satellite, Internet or it's own artificial sentience.

It reads 0800. The clocks have leapt forward this weekend, and living in a bubble of my own isolation, I'd never realised.

Anyway. I'm fit and well. In fact, I'm pretty certain I already had this dreaded virus at the end of February before it became fashionable or was even supposed to be available in this country, go figure? Although that's another story, and there's no way to prove it, so I'm working on the clear assumption that I've not and taking all the appropriate precautions, washing hands like I hate my skin, staying a full cadaver's body-length distant from anybody not in my immediate household, coughing into my elbow when I must, etc.

The photos accompanying, completely out of context, are of our last time afloat. Dad and I had a weekend tramping around the Solent with my brother-in-law Jim, his wife's brother-in-law and my friend Paul and their friend Leigh aboard a Hallberg Rassy 34 called "Blue Spirit" that Paul had chartered from the Metropolitan Police Sailing Club of which he's a member.

I've not been sailing since, and it looks like I'll not have the chance to go sailing again for quite some time to come. So I thought I'd post the photos to accompany and lift what was otherwise a fairly bleak and self-indulgent, even self-pitying post, to combat the risk of a growing sense of captiaterraphobia that I fear may only get worse as the land-locked weeks wear on.

Monday, 2 March 2020

SCSC: fifteen

I finally got back out on the water on Sunday.

John races a Flying Fifteen called "Silkworm" at South Cerney, and his regular crew was poorly, so our mutual friend Dave, seeing that my own boat still had work to be done before she was fit to relaunch, volunteered me.

The Fifteen is a keel boat, about 20' long; the biggest and heaviest boat raced at South Cerney. Despite being a keel boat, she essentially sails like a big dinghy, complete with toe-straps to hike out on. With the wind gusting up into the high twenties or more, the reaches were very fast and very wet; as the gusts hit we'd slide our weight aft, I'd hike out hard to help keep her flat, and Silkworm would climb up onto the plane in an exultant ball of spray and adrenaline.

John, whom I'm sure he wouldn't mind me saying, is in his early eighties, is clearly a bit of a speed freak. On more than one occasion as we tore down the reach we were both whooping like teenagers with the exhilaration.

The Fifteen is a muscular boat that seems to love heavy weather. And John is a deft helm around the race course. Out of the thirteen boats racing, we took a very creditable third place.

Three didn't finish. My usual crew Amanda sailed with my mate Mark in a borrowed Albacore. They're just off our port bow in the picture above, having just caught and passed us. They would've had a very good result, except on the penultimate lap they wiped out in a big gust on the second gybe mark. Mark slipped and the boom got him on the head as it came over, giving him a good smack that ended their race.

Nothing broken thankfully, although he spend most of the rest of Sunday in an A&E department in Bristol strapped to a spine board waiting for them to run a CT scan to double check. But he's now got four stitches in his scalp that are going to slow him down for a week or two.

Our Albacore made it back to the club on Sunday, most of the work done, but some splicing of the shroud control lines still needs to be finished, and the patched up centreboard needs to be refitted. Because it was blowing a hoolie, we secured her back in her berth and postponed the mast raising until next Wednesday.

The splice work means the mast is going to have to stand un-stayed whilst the lines get cut to length and spiced. Not a problem ordinarily as the mast is keel-stepped, but with the wind gusting up to the 30's, patience and discretion were the better part of valour on Sunday.

However, once we're finished, the Albacore's rig will have been fully modernised: adjustable shroud and forestay tension plus independent adjustment of the port and starboard shrouds, mast ram and prebend controls, all led back to the helm. We've also replaced the kicker, jib sheets, main sheet, and toe-straps, resealed and refinished the cockpit floor and patched a chunk that was missing out of the trailing edge of the centreboard.

We now need to refit the board, put the mast up and finish splicing the shroud lines. Then, once we've tuned and calibrated her controls, she'll be race-ready.

By which time Mark will hopefully have had his stitches out and we can get back to chasing each other around the lake.

Rather than attempting all this myself, Paul at CS Boats has been doing the work for us. Dealing with tradesman can often be a bit of a nightmare, especially if it's got anything to do with boats. But dealing with Paul has been an absolute pleasure.

Aside from his huge, infectious enthusiasm, it helps that what he doesn't know about Albacores isn't worth knowing.

He's also kind to dogs.

Thursday, 27 February 2020

Freefall: that old question

"Do you really need another guitar?"

I think we've already previously established that the answer to that question is always an absolute, assertive "Yes".

That said, guitars are a bit like boats, insofar as I suspect they all look the same to Nikki, so after I "accidentally" found myself in a guitar shop yesterday afternoon, and accidentally came hope with a new electric, by the time she got home herself later that evening the guitar was already hanging on a stand in my den, and the case was stacked up with all the others against the wall.

So the new acquisition has passed unnoticed. So far, at least.

I average around 40ish gigs a year, give or take half a dozen or so. Usually more "give". On top of my other interests and various obligations that absorbs quite a bit of time and effort. For a good number of years, it got so it seemed like I'd only ever pick a guitar up to actually gig or, occasionally, learn something new at a band practice. Though for many years, said band practices have become very infrequent in themselves. We just don't get time.

Then about 18 months ago, I bought an electric piano. Even in a life with as many happy distractions as mine, there are little moments of downtime here and there. Having the piano simply available whenever I had a couple of minutes seemed to change the dynamic. I started playing for myself again.

Which is, of course, why I got into the whole thing in the first place.

In the fading months of last year, I started leaving a guitar out on a stand in my room. I don't part with guitars easily, so have collected a few over the years. But have always resisted leaving them out; they gather dust, get knocked over, or just simply get in the way. But, consequently, I have half a wall in my room with cased up guitars leaning against it, guitars that haven't seen daylight for years.

I tend to have a particular guitar that I perform with; it'll serve for a few hundred gigs or so, then something will wear out. The pre-amp will start to fail and crackle (that would be the Taylor), or I'll actually wear through the top (the Takemine) or something, and so I'll find a new guitar, and then that will become my new favourite for the many gigs to follow. She's currently a Martin, previously mentioned here I think, and we're still getting along famously together.

But with a guitar out on a stand in my room, I found myself reaching for it in those odd moments.

So I've been playing a lot more. Practising isn't the word for it. I don't know that any of this contributes anything towards a performance of any kind. Maybe an open mic night or two away from the band, maybe an odd YouTube video for the fun of it, but it's far from the core of what we do with the band. What I've done the last thirty years.

It's entirely selfish. Which, in this context, is a good thing.

I play acoustic. I've never really understood electrics, and always felt I lack the precision for them and the dedication to correct that. A point my brother (who is also the band's bass player) seems never shy to remind me of if I'm tempted to stray from my familiar, comfortable ground. And there is something, well, visceral, almost percussive about performing with an acoustic guitar that I don't think you can get, or at least I can't, from an electric.

I've been doing a fair bit of recording lately. Recording is very different from performing live.

The technology that lets you record onto a computer at home these days has moved on so much since I last strayed into this area. It's really quite incredible. Almost to the point that, were I starting again from scratch now, I'd probably not bother with a band. I can see why a lot of people don't.

And the computer doesn't snark or get antsy if I dare stray from the comfort zone of my own familiar territory. I've found myself playing with an old Washburn electric (a Mercury II series) that I bought many years ago (and had been in its case since 2014 apparently). The guitar has its limitations. Most of those are, admittedly, the guitarist.

But that led me to thinking that if I were going to start exploring with an electric guitar, perhaps I should find something a little more mainstream, more of a standard? A Fender Stratocaster, perhaps?

Turns out there isn't one available at the moment in either of the two guitar shops in my hometown of Gloucester. But when I found myself in one of those two guitar shops yesterday afternoon, hanging around waiting to give Dad a lift home from the hospital, a very nice man called Mark put an old, second-hand, Japanese Fender Telecaster into my hands, plugged me in to a big amp at the back of his shop and then left me alone for a good long while.

By way of an aside, if you want to sell me a guitar, that is exactly how you do it.

And so, predictably perhaps, when the time came to leave and go pick up Dad, I found myself terribly loathed to give her back.

Thus my newest guitar. A black, second-hand, Fender Telecaster. Made in Japan, her serial number suggests she was made in 1990. Which, coincidentally, is the year I returned to the UK and the year before I first started the band. She's a little the worse for the years, a few cracks beginning to show in her veneer. But aren't we all by now?

I think we're going to get along just fine together.

Friday, 14 February 2020

Wide Waters

I don't do cards. Not very good with flowers. But do appreciate how lucky I've been. So I wrote her a song. Well, nicked an old folk song and butchered a couple of verses, rewriting them so they were hers.

So I recorded her a song. Yeah, we can settle for that. Though the two verses are all hers.

Naturally, I'm talking about my wife, not my boat.

Tuesday, 11 February 2020

Calstar: seasonally beached

As is, I find, not unusual for this time of year, I've been somewhat shore-bound of late. Dad and I did have a weekend away with Calstar at the beginning of the month; she'd been out on the hard for some general TLC and overdue maintenance on her mast and had gone back in the water on the Friday.

Unfortunately, the wind was such that the Marina wouldn't let the riggers use the mast crane, and so she, and therefore we, spent the weekend alongside the pontoon beneath the crane, mastless. Which, according to my spell-checker, isn't a word. But it will serve.

The weather was such that we couldn't have sailed anyway. Perhaps on the Saturday, but returning on the Sunday would've been nasty.

So by way of compensation we ate at Dad's favourite restaurant in Plymouth on the Saturday night. We duly arrived at 8pm, spot on time for our reservation, to discover our table hadn't yet been cleared of its previous occupants. The eatery was, as always, packed, so we happily agreed to wander down the road for a pint and come back in half an hour. It's not like we had to run to any kind of a schedule.

The Admiral MacBride was as comfortable an establishment as any for us to pass the time in; it's one of my favourite pubs in the Plymouth Barbican, partly because it's nearest the Marina and I am a creature fond of convenience when it's offered, and partly because it's just on the outskirts of the main drag, so often a little quieter than the pubs further along.

I'm also a creature generally unfond of crowds. Unless, of course, they are there to see me.

Nowhere is really that quiet in the Barbican on a Saturday night. I almost lost Dad to a crowd of of enthusiastic young (and some not so young, but who am I to judge these days?) ladies out enjoying themselves, celebrating the birthday of one of their friends.

However, whilst arguably over-enthusiastic in their revelry, they were not unfriendly. I can't believe Dad didn't enjoy the attention.

A storm blowing through this weekend saw racing at the lakes both at South Cerney and Frampton cancelled. In any case, I was stuck on a First Aid course, necessary to maintain my sailing and powerboat instructor's ticket, so couldn't have sailed anyway. Next weekend I'm on the Safety Boat at South Cerney, so again, no sailing.

That said, the Albacore is currently in the workshop, having some modifications to the rigging done, so isn't likely to be ready in time for the weekend. Although with the forecast (albeit still a long way out) suggesting we might see gusts of up to 50 knots again next Sunday, it's not certain there will be any racing anyway.

If there is however, it should at least be entertaining to be on the Safety Boat.

Friday, 24 January 2020

Albacore: baby steps

photo: dave whittle

We've so far been very pleased with the new Albacore 8232. She came with the name "Lateron" painted on her transom, but I'm  not a fan so I'm going to rub it off. For now, she's just "the Albacore". Which isn't to imply I in any way lack affection for her. She's lovely. And she's mine.

Well, mine and Amanda's.

Amanda and I have had her out on three occasions now. The first was an informal practice day at South Cerney at the end of December. Lot of other boats, multiple short races, lots of start practice.

The wind was good, a steady direction, not too strong, not too light. Perfect for a first sail in a boat that was completely new to us. The format of the event, such as it was, was exceptionally confusing, but on the odd occasion we could work out where we were and what we were supposed to be doing, the Albacore held up well against the other boats on the water.

photo: dave whittle

The next outing was the second weekend of January, and entirely different conditions. The wind was blowing an absolute hooley. Not so good for getting used to a new boat, but we rigged anyway and launched, eventually.

Teething problems meant we were late getting on the water, and so missed our start by about 90 seconds. Unforgivable, if we'd had any pretence towards knowing what we were doing, but in the circumstances I found myself feeling pretty sanguine about it.

We were afloat, we were under control, the boat was staying upright. Despite not knowing a thing about how to set the rig - adjustable forestay, mast ram and highfield levers on the shrouds all of which adjust and control rig tension and mast rake whilst out on the water - we was surprisingly forgiving in the heavy weather.

photo: dave whittle

Until there was a nasty bank, the mainsail twisted up and the forestay sagged horribly.

Turns out the kicker and forestay both led down to a single metal hoop secured to the bolt holding the foot of the mast in place on the mast. Under tension, beating to windward, the nut had sheared off the bolt, disabling both the kicker and forestay tension.

We turned into the wind, dropped the jib and limped back to shore, our race over.

It was a clear weakness in the rig setup, obvious once we were back on shore and I got my head under the foredeck to have a closer look. I think the previous owner had bolted on the hoop as a compromise because the two existing secure points on the mast had pulled up under tension and didn't leave much room to get a shackle in to either.

But putting both the kicker and the forestay tension onto that one piece of metal was asking too much of it, and obviously once it failed, you lost both sail controls. It could've been worse. If the bolt had completely failed, the whole mast could've potentially come down.

A couple of flat shackles fixed the problem in time for the next race the following Sunday.

The conditions couldn't have been more different. Icy cold, still air, the lake mirror smooth. It's not such a problem to my mind, a small, light sailing dinghy will ghost along with the slightest whisper of air if handled right.

Once we'd broken the boat out from under the iced up cover and flexed life into the stiff, frozen sheets, we launched in good time, unlike the week previous. The first race was a pursuit, a fleet of a dozen, so the slower handicapped boats, which at South Cerney is most of the rest of the fleet compared to an Albacore, started ahead of us and we had to chase.

In turn, we were chased by a couple of the faster handicapped boats.

The drifting conditions made it impossible for the race committee to predict any kind of a course, and so it turned into a running start and a downwind first leg. The boats ahead of us were all in each other's wind, such as there was, so we took advantage of starting behind and sailed low, but in clean air.

The couple of boats starting behind us had the same idea but worked their course even lower, and to their benefit.

We caught up with the boats ahead about halfway down the leg. Our own pursuers had already passed us. The first mark turned into a chaotic raft up. We'd passed half the fleet, but the other half were all overlapped and queuing on the mark, so I ducked out behind them, simply intent on keeping our own boat moving and not getting in anybody's way.

It's not really a question of manners. In a drift, any kind of boat on boat tussle just slows both parties down and never pays off as much as simply staying clear would do. An RS Vareo cut in and looked like he was going to barge through. He had no rights, but I was quite prepared to shift enough to give him room if I had to.

He tacked out at the last moment, taking his place at the back of the pack.

A gybe around the mark, and then the next leg turned into a close-hauled fetch. Halfway down, most of the Solos and RS's now dropping well behind, but we found ourselves underneath a Laser, slowly overhauling him but not fast enough to tack and cross in front to make the next mark.

I should've seen it coming, but assumed he'd simply want to sail the fastest course he could himself and so wouldn't be too aggressive in such a drift. He was out in front of the Solos, so would have no difficulty staying there if he simply sailed a clean course.

I was wrong. A victim of my own complacency. He pinned us out. Both of us on starboard, we couldn't tack without hitting him, and I didn't dare slow the boat to drop behind. Eventually he tacked, and we went with him, but he left us no room at the mark; we were overlapped, with the choice of hitting him, the mark or missing our course.

Now, there are rules that cover this sort of thing. We both tacked within three boat lengths of the mark, and at a windward mark, the rules of port and starboard, windward and leeward govern all anyway. I don't believe he had the right to block us out, but we're very new to the Club and I felt disinclined to argue with a guy whose name I didn't even know yet.

So we ducked the wrong side of the mark. Now we were exactly where he wanted to go, and therefore pinning him out whilst we manoeuvred, gybed and then tacked back around to get on the right side of the course. I didn't feel like I was in a rush to get out of his way.

By the time I did, the rest of the fleet were on top of him and us.

We sailed around the outside of them all, our momentum keeping us going, so we regained all the places we'd just lost as they all rafted up together trying to round the buoy.

We almost caught the Laser back up, had an inside track for the next mark and were slowly overhauling him, when the clock ran out.

We ended up with a 6th place out of a fleet of 12. Baby steps taken in learning how to sail the new boat. I'm not unhappy, except for the fact that I didn't catch that Laser back up.

But that's okay, I'll remember his boat. It's always good to have an objective when you're racing.

They abandoned the second race on account of the light wind. I think I've already adequately expressed my views on that elsewhere. We stayed out for a bit as the wind inevitably filled in and I passed the helm over to Amanda for her to have a play.

It was a good day to be out on the water.

FOSSC: catkins and snowdrops

I attended the funeral of a friend this morning. The church hall was packed with his family and friends. He was a gregarious, generous soul and he touched many lives. He was one of the people that taught me to sail. His grandson, a youngster whom I've not met, gave a very touching eulogy and spoke exceptionally well.

On the way to the church for the service, I noticed the first snowdrops of the year by the side of the road. Returning to the office later, I noticed the first catkins.

No connection.

Life renews. I find some comfort and reassurance in that simple truth.

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Laser: sanguin grit

photo: roger gribble

There were two races over the Christmas break at Frampton. The John Sanguin Cup on Boxing Day, and the True Grit Trophy on New Year's Day. I've done both most years, in a variety of boats, but with the Albacore at South Cerney, and nothing going on there until the first weekend of January, Christmas became strictly Laser season.

There was a little more wind for the John Sanguin, though both days were light. Despite that, I still managed to capsize the Laser on Boxing Day. It was all going well, until I followed a Solo and another Laser around the windward mark of the course. They both cleared the mark, but went wide and, somehow, the Solo infringed on the Laser.

Seeing the michief, I came in to the mark behind them and bore away hard to exit nice and tight, intending to pass them both. The Solo then decided to take his penalty turns, turning his boat straight into me. I dodged the collision, but in doing so, found myself hiked out on the wrong side of my now involuntarily gybed boat, and the thing fell on top of me, dumping me unceremoniously in.

The weather wasn't cold. But the water damned well was.

photo: roger gribble

I pulled myself up on to the dagger-board, boom now vertical in the air and sail full of pressure, the boat powering away with me downwind on it's side. I pushed the boom down, righted the boat still pointing downwind, vaulted aboard as she came back up and the boom gybed over. Despite expecting that to happen, I foolishly didn't duck quick enough and it smacked me full in the head, sweeping me back out of the boat and toppling the Laser back over, on top of me again, now on the other side.

Not my most glorious of moments. But funny, looking back at it now.

The second capsize recovery was quicker; practice makes perfect and I've got a hard head, with not much up there to damage, so I was soon back in the race. But with half the time gone and needing to claw my up from the rear of the fleet. To my satisfaction I eventually caught and passed the miscreant Solo in the last minutes of the course.

New Year's Day was an absolute drift, the lake surface for the most part mirror smooth and undisturbed by the slightest rustle of air on the water.

It's a continual source of amazement to me how little an amount of wind it takes to move a sailboat. And if a boat can move, it can race. Although I know of a few people that would disagree with me, despise such light weather and would argue that the race should be called off.

I accept it's not exciting to watch, and understand that many folks find it very, very frustrating, but I actually really enjoy the challenge of racing in a drift. It helps that I'm usually quite good at it. If you're going to abandon a race because the wind has dropped to a whisper, unless there's a safety element at play, then you should also abandon a race if the wind builds above a F3, because once I'm fully hiked in the heavier winds, much as I love the sailing, the bigger, heavier guys have a clear advantage over me.

And I'm not saying a race should be cancelled if the wind creeps above a F3. That would be silly. What I am saying is that you shouldn't call off a race just because the conditions don't suit some of the competitors. If a boat can move under sail, it can race.

But I digress.

They rarely ever call off a race at Frampton for anything except the lake being frozen solid. We did abandon a previous year's True Grit race because the winds were hitting 45 knots or more. Once you're looking at gusts up in to F10 then things start to break, even on a small lake. But I don't think they've ever abandoned a race at Frampton for lack of wind.

So the True Grit went ahead.

photo: roger gribble

I had an indifferent start, so spent the first half of the race trying to climb back past the other two Lasers. Once clear of them, the Byte and the Solo fell behind as a matter of course.

Pete and his Comet were initially a fair way clear ahead, but with clean air once I was through the rest of the fleet, I slowly closed the gap across the remainder of the race, and eventually passed him in the last couple of minutes before the end.

photo: roger gribble

My first trophy of the year, and after more that a decade of trying for it, sometimes getting very close, the first time I've actually won the True Grit for myself.

merry christmas

And a Happy New Year. Belatedly so, for which I apologise, albeit I seem to do this every year. 

Christmas was good. I have, just about, sobered up now, or as much as I'm likely to. We had everybody over to ours Christmas Day. Nikki cooked far, far too much food. As she always does. And it was delicious and everybody loved it. As it always is and they always do.

My daughter Tash and her other half Dan couldn't stay for dinner as they were eating with Dan's family, but we saw them in the morning. Tash got me a t-shirt . . . 

It's a line from a Frank Turner song. She and Dan also got me a book the man wrote, about gigging, I think. I had to confess I hadn't yet read the one they bought me the Christmas before, which was about his song-writing. 

The problem is an age thing. 

My eyes have deteriorated to the point that I can't read the text of the average "real-life" book without my reading glasses. And I'm so resistant to the idea of needing glasses, or unpractised with the concept, that I never have them to hand when I need them. After all, I've only had them for a couple of years.

If you see a guy in a restaurant with his mobile phone taking pictures of the menu just so he can zoom in on them and decide what he wants to order, that's probably me.

The admission was taken in good humour. I gave the original Frank Turner book from the previous Christmas "Try This at Home" back to Dan so he could take it and read it. I promised I'd read the new one.

As it happens, after they left, I had the genius idea of buying the Kindle version of Try This at Home and reading it on my phone. In parallel with Vasily Grossman's Stalingrad on my Kindle, which I'd started reading before Christmas.

I just finished reading Try This at Home today in fact. I'm still working my way through Grossman's Stalingrad.

Lilly got a bath. As in a professional groomers type bath, as there was no way we were going to be able to get her into our own bath. If she sees a lake, a river, the sea or even a muddy puddle, she'll leap straight in.

Show her the bath, and she bolts.

As we were having our bathroom refitted in December, she spent a few weeks coming into the office with me. Out from the context of home and field, into the sanctum of my office, it became very obvious, very quickly, just what a scruffy, smelly old woof she'd become.

So we booked her into the local grooming parlour over Christmas, and for a week or two after, she became once more lovely and fluffy and sweet smelling. Insofar as a lump of a German Shepherd can ever smell sweet.

My eldest son Ben (on the right hand side, sat next to his younger brother) came home from school for Christmas. Which was lovely. We didn't get to sail together this year; he doesn't have any winter kit that will fit him anymore, but he did persuade us to sit down and play a family game of Risk.

I don't know why we do it. He normally wins. Not through any great tactical or strategic genius, he just manipulates Nikki, Tash and Sam into ganging up on me, then takes them apart once I'm off the board.

This time I successfully persuaded Sam and Nik to gang up with me on him first, and then once he was gone, capitulated to Sam. We all thought it was highly amusing and medicine long overdue. 

Ben demonstrated that despite being a fully realised grown-up now, with proper qualifications, a proper job teaching secondary school kids, a proper flat of his own and a proper steady (and quite lovely) girlfriend, he still has the absolute capacity to throw a toddler-style tantrum and sulk like a surly teenager.

It was a great Christmas, loved every second of it.