Sunday, July 8, 2007

Well done, Wanda!

The main reason that I’m sitting in Canterbury, New Zealand, shivering somewhere between a log fire, an electric blanket and a hot water bottle, rather than Tikeibank-ing through the sun-struck Pacific islands, is Wanda.
And, yes, Wanda is – as you may have guessed -- a horse. A three year-old brown (officially) filly by Wrestle out of Gwen, bred and owned by K F Gänzl and B D Collins, and trained at Motukarara, Bank’s Peninsula, by Murray Edmonds. When she gets to the races it will be under the name of ‘Sabre Song’.
She isn’t at the races yet, for she’s only a young thing, and we’ve been bringing her along slowly. At the end of last year, she went to the public workouts a couple of times, and she showed enough talent to be sent straight away to the qualifying trials. There, in spite of a bit of inexperienced stargazing, she duly cracked the required time limit, and then came home to Gerolstein to rest on her baby laurels, and grow bigger, taller, stronger and older, before being launched on the world of real racing.
Now, half a year later, the last stage of her preparation is underway. While I have been trotting the globe, Wanda has been trotting towards what we hope will be a career on the racetrack, with the month of July scheduled to be the final and public part of her readying. I had to be here to see it, freezing or not.
Her first appearance at the workouts, this time round, underwent a bit of re-scheduling, as various meetings were abandoned because of bad weather, but last night my phone rang, and the news came. Today was the day. So, at 11am, I and ‘Red Ted’ (my Suzuki Alto) crawled forth on to the still frosty roads and set out on the hour’s journey to Motukarara racecourse.
Wanda has definitely grown. She is, nowadays, almost an ordinarily sized horse, far from the tiny yearling that one horseman christened ‘the eggbeater’ because she would, he thought, have to take two strides to other horses’ one, just to keep up. And she’s got a nice attitude, too – keen and jaunty – and she evidently enjoys running. Well, it all helps!
There were just four starters in her heat. One was an unqualified newcomer, but the other two were more or less experienced racehorses. ‘Nowhere To Go’ has had 24 races and finished in the money on several occasions; ‘Leggiero Del’ has had half a dozen starts and shown some promise.
Both the racehorses went away splendidly, and my heart sank as the commentator called Wanda as having galloped. Something she has never done before. But it wasn’t disaster. She’d just been a bit eager to get going, and thrown in an initial couple of unkosher steps. They cost her five lengths, but she quickly made up the lost ground and tucked in behind the two leaders, as they all ploughed their way through the first lap on the heavy grit of the sodden racetrack. But things didn’t stay that way. As the little field came down the straight for the first time, Murray popped Wanda off the fence, moved her briskly into the lead, and there she stayed. Into the final run home, and, not unexpectedly, ‘Nowhere to Go’ came at our girl, down the passing lane. It looked a certainty that, having worked a bit, she would be run down. But Wanda wasn’t having that. She refused to let the older mare past, and hung on to win by something like a head with ‘Leggiero Del’ a couple of lengths away third. What a brave wee girl.
OK, so the time – thanks to the heavy track – wasn’t so smart, and the horses which she beat are undoubtedly not champions, but for a first up effort – well, I was pleased, Murray seemed pleased, and several professional horsemen around me obviously thought she was all right. So did Wanda. Having already captured the imagination of the commentator by her size and her guts, she caused a fair bit of amusement as she stalked proudly back looking as if she thought she had just won the Derby.
Well, you can only win. And she’d done it.
So, since she seems to have got the gist of what’s needed, she will go next week to the official trials. One step up from workouts and probably several steps up in quantity and/or quality. If she can do well there, then her debut as a racehorse may not be far away.
Well done, Wanda!

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

The worst day of a farmer's year

Well, we think it is. Give or take when it rains on the hay on the ground...

Tree-topping day. An hour or two of a tentacular tank-like vehicle waving a blade like a Pearl White circular saw at the crowns of the hundreds of trees lining the property and the track .. an exercise which results in ten or twenty hours of cleaning up. Hulking huge bits of branch and treetop, logs 2-3 metres long and thigh-thick, away from the track and the drive ...

Work has to go on, and the horses have to be trained, and theres no one else about twiddling a thumb, so it's up to yours truly...

Today I am bruised, cut, scratched, scraped from wrist to ankle .. I have jellyish legs and a pain in the .. well, everywhere really .. and I just want to curl up by the fire with Minnie the kitten ..

No chance... ah! a farmer's life...

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Back in the Land of the thick white cloud

Not to mention steady rain. But happily – in Auckland anyway -- not too much wind or cold.

Arrival went like clockwork. No bits fell off or out of the ship, and it negotiated its way gently into Auckland harbour bang on time. It’s years since I last did ‘Approaching Auckland by night’, so I rose at 6am, popped up on the bridge, and Lyndall and I watched us coming in – in that half-darkened, eerie atmosphere of ‘hush-up-for-the-pilot’ -- through sufficient mist for me to have a qualm or two about whether planes would be flying to Christchurch.

I didn’t go round saying extended goodbyes. I don’t like them one little bit, and anyway we’ve been feting my imminent departure for the last three days. Plus, I’ll be keeping in touch with the Tikeibankers as they trundle on, without me, towards Papua and Suez and the Mediterranean, and probably even after that, so it’s not any sort of goodbye, its just ‘au revoir’. So it was just a hug for Lyndall, and a big handshake for the Captain … then, with customs and MAF having done their work like lightning … Sveta swept me and my bags silently into the lift to main deck, Alexei called the port shuttle from the cargo office, and I was on my way. It all went so much more smoothly than usual. Valery, ‘il barbiere di Tikeibank’, helped me down the gangplank with my bags, the shuttle shuttled energetically, Babs at the port gate called me a taxi, which turned up – to my amazement -- in next no time, and by 8.26am – just half an hour after berthing -- I was heading out to Auckland airport, having a jolly chat with a delightful Samoan driver upon whose lap I emptied my entire meagre supply of NZ dollars ($55, the price has doubled since I last did this 7 years ago) before steaming on in to the Air NZ booking office…

Up till now, it had been the most unbelievable speedy doddle. I – with memories still fresh of horrendous internal-NZ post-ship manoeuvres in earlier years – couldn’t believe my luck!
Of course, it was too good to last. There was no direct flight to Christchurch until the afternoon. The bloody something Princess cruise ship had docked an hour before us, and the cruisies had snaffled all the seats on the morning flights. I could go on the 11.40am stopping over at Palmerston North (Palmerston North for God’s sake!) and getting in at 3-something. Finally, the sweet lady behind the counter fished me up a ticket for the 10am to Wellington. There I shall have to change to another flight to Christchurch, getting in at 1.45pm. Total price, one way? $477.00. The price of a return ticket to Australia. Oh well. At least I’m on my way. And 1.45pm isn’t too bad. The sweet if expensive lady even rang Wendy for me…

And now they have just announced that the 10am flight is delayed … I can feel an hysterical laugh gurgling up inside me .. ah, its all right, its only a 20 minute delay and I have a 2 hour wait in Wellington, so its of little import… I shall sit here, shut my eyes and dream of ‘Suva’ and forget that I’m probably heading to a flooded farm, a frozen house and 4 months supply of letters that I don’t want. Sigh.

What? There are 300kmph winds powering between Wellington and Christchurch. After four months non-stop travelling through two hemispheres, am I going to hit the rough stuff minutes away from home? I’d better get my magic wand out again…

Sunday morning

You know, there must be something about that magic wand.

Sure, there were a few bumps lurking in the atmosphere to chuck our 138 seater down towards Wellington, then Christchurch .. but it wasn’t too bad.. and then blow me down if, just as we reached the last 10 minutes or so of the trip, the once gale winds dropped to a whisper, the solid white clouds vanished, and we floated into destination in bright sunshine!
By two o’clock I was on the road, direction Gerolstein … by half past two I was here. It took about two seconds for the place, the horses, the kitties to suddenly transform themselves from the half-dream they’d become in my brain back to solid reality … a slightly damp reality, because it really has rained torrents here recently, but this morning again the sun is out, Wendy is out jogging the horses, I am trying to organise the 200 emails, 100 letters and bills etc that were awaiting me, trying to upload the blog (a slow affair) and preparing to set off at 11am to be barman at the local race meeting ..
Life is back to semi-normal..


A nice autumnal Sunday at the Rangiora races, back in my old place behind the bar in the President’s Bar, meeting and greeting and pouring liquid down the throats of the day’s winners. The day’s action mightn’t have been the classiest bunch of races I’ve seen this year, but that didn’t matter: it was a fine, happy, good-fun New Zealand country race meeting. It also gave me the chance to catch up with all my local horsey pals – and it seems that my French articles in the Harness Racing Weekly have been somewhat of a hit! Even the chief Stipendiary Steward gave me a ‘rave review’!

Monday dawned fine again. I am still neck deep in the paperwork that has accumulated in the past four months, and determined to get it all settled at top speed, but ‘Roman’, our newest pensionnaire was about to have the first training swim of his life, so all hands were needed on the ropes. He tugged and he balked, but once he got into the pool he went at it with enormous vigour.
And I decided I couldn’t spend the whole of such a day indoors, so I went round to say ‘hello’ to all the ‘family’: the five foals, the five broodmares .. the Grand Duchess with no coat on, because she won’t let anyone near her .. except me. She obviously remembers her baby days when I fed her from a hand-held bucket. Lovely Elena who, thank goodness, looks as if she may finally have stopped growing and who started jogging ‘work’ today, along with little Barney who has grown so much I didn’t recognise him! He was back ‘in the cart’ for the first time since being broken in, and doing well.
Neddy too has shot up, but little wee Dobby won’t ever. Which isn’t stopping him being a promising racehorse. Then there’s handsome Ty (as in ‘phoon’), the girls, Merry and Justine .. the retired Boofie and dear old Dion .. and the rather nice new fellow.. seems like the population is still in the twenties!

But as always, Duchess, in spite of now being all grown up and a mother herself, manages to be the cutest photo subject. Here she is (right) with another mother, the very fast Tui (aka ‘Hot Blooded Woman’).

And now .. back to the paperwork.

The Last of the Waves

Friday 29 June

Well, it’s all but over. Tomorrow morning at 6am we take on the Auckland pilot, and a couple of hours later we should be tied up on Quay Street. After customs and immigration, it will be a taxi ride to the airport and the first available plane to Christchurch, Sefton and Gerolstein, to Wendy, the kitties and the horses. Not to mention the cold and the rain of a Canterbury winter. Happily, on Sunday there’s a Rangiora race meeting, so I can throw myself straight into the atmosphere ... It should be OK. But, right at the moment, I feel a bit ambivalent, somewhat ‘stateless’. Almost scared at the idea of saying ‘goodbye’ to my cocoon of a cabin and going back to the place that has – rather by default – been ‘home’ to me for the last few years. I went back into the real world to try to ‘find myself’, or what’s left of myself, and to find out what I was might like to do with myself henceforth. I didn’t really find a clear answer. If anything, I’m more confused now than before. But it doesn’t matter, for I have my immediate future pretty well mapped out. Some time in Australia, sone time in New Zealand, and then … why, I’m going to do this whole thing (with variations) all over again. I’ve even booked myself back on this bateau ‘same time, next year’!

My last days aboard have been a mixture of highs and lows.

Wednesday night was party night. But, this time, it was the sort of party that I used to enjoy the best on Blue Star. Not upstairs, but downstairs. The occasion was the birthday of Evgenyi, the bosun, and we all got together in the crew mess and lounge after dinner. Much to my surprise, no sooner had I sat down than Sveta plonked a large plate in front of me. ‘But I’ve just eaten’ I expostulated. Silly me. The cold cuts and other edibles piled along the table (lemon slices – a soi disant hangover preventer -- strongly featured) are the traditional ‘padding’ that comes between the bouts of vodka.
This time there was no sliding out. And, anyway, I didn’t want to. Quite the opposite! In case of disaster, bed was just five flights of stairs away. And, if said disaster should occur, Grev had promised to roll me into the lift. Well, it did occur … but not to me. I tossed my vodka down with the best of Russian style, ate nothing, swilled Coca Cola in between tossings, and was still thoroughly standing and entirely sober at 2am.
Andrushka, the second engineer, proved to be an admirable guitarist-singer with a grand repertoire of national and international melodies, and with the vocal help of my pal Sergei and the intermittent aid of others – though, alas, not me, the keys and the selections being out of my reach -- the entertainment flowed on into the small hours… non-stop music in the mess, chat and cigarettes in the corridor, a decrescendo on the vodka (which, as a novice, I was amazed to find I really liked!) … it was a truly happy and convivial evening.

When I didn’t show up for breakfast and lunch the following day, the sound of conclusions being jumped to rang through the ship. Oh, sure, I was hurting, but not in the head. I woke with a helluva pain in my arm. Legacy of the effort by a stainless-steel-armed Eastbourne ex-fisherman to clasp my refusing hand round a huge whisky somewhere about 2am. But an early morning sally to the email machine had brought me a much greater pain. The lovely Hilary Dowie – with whom, so very few weeks ago, I had passed such a marvellous week in the Mayenne, and whom I was looking so much forward to welcoming to Gerolstein in November – had died in hospital in Angers on Tuesday afternoon, as the result of a horse riding accident.

In the face of such a dreadful tragedy, it’s just impossible to keep up the trivial daily round. I shut myself away in my cabin, where Lyndall brought me arnica for my arm and sympathy for my grief. Oh, Lord, what a lot of grief life throws at you once you get to a certain age.

Perhaps fortunately, I did have to emerge in the evening. It was ‘Farewell’ night. To me, and to Philip who also gets off in Auckland. A little premature, but certain officers cant drink and stay up late on pre-arrival night. So I snapped out of my blues, put on the red shoes, opened the Mouton Cadet, and let rip. It was another – if very different – nice evening. A buffet supper (welcome, after a day unable to eat), more Mouton Cadet, chatter with the Friends with a capital F to whom one has grown so close in a month of communal living and travelling, the whole highlighted by Philip’s recitation of a nicely-incisive V C Clinton-Baddeley-style comic poem about us all -- perfectly flighted so as to be amusing without offending …
Oddly enough, my ‘characteristic’ was my eternally unbuttoned shirts. I’d never thought . well, apart from my now well-established tan .. my middle-aged chest (such as it is) is not exactly errrr notable!
As ever, the evening ended with the ‘A Team’ still glued to the bar: Lyndall (with her glass of water), Grev, Mikie and Kurt. It’s getting to be tradition that I’m the first one to falter off…..

Today I packed.
In between albatross sightings. Lyndall took over 100 albatross shots, as the funny brutes wheeled around our wake for hours on end. But she’s a vet. I hope that kind of a ‘shooting’ of said bird doesn’t bring the fate of the Ancient Mariner upon the SS Tikeibank.
Suffered a grave panic when I realised that nowhere did I have, written down, Wendy’s phone number apropos of the coming airport run. I have everything else you can imagine on this machine, but not that. Well, I’ve never had to call it. But I thought … well, I thought I knew it by heart. I didn’t. Nor could I remember my own Gerolstein number. Is it the vodka, or is it age? But, lesson well learned. During my weeks in NZ, I shall feed heaps of address book data into ‘Entourage’ (silly name). I will not be caught this way again. I spent all morning dredging through old emails, searching for one where I might have said ‘call Wendy on her mobile …’. Nothing.
But, happy ending, by mid-afternoon Wendy (who often doesn’t look at her computer from day to week) had come back with the needed number..
Hell, after such a hiccup-free voyage, it would be awful to foul up on the leg Christchurch-Sefton!

So its my last Tikeibank night. For now. Hopefully, if the bookings pan out, I’ll be back on here in January.
Until when …

Au revoir to the oceans of the world and hello Gerolstein!

'You Jammy Lot!'

Saturday 23 June 2007

It didn’t happen.
It simply didn’t happen.

At 11 sharp on Thursday morning we sailed out of Papeete harbour, under a glorious sky. Past the harbour wall, past the airport, and out into the open sea. In the distance, the ocean was creased by the occasional herd of white horses – well foals, really, Fritzl and Seppl sort of thing: they were truthfully not big enough to be called horses -- and a frothle of foam could be spied tossing itself over the reefs alongside the lagoon of Moorea, ‘cross the way'.
How odd a thought it was, cruising amid all this blue and white and gold scenery, that rough and rude high seas were waiting for us just two hours away.
One hour later, and we could just about count the houses (on not too many hands) on the approaching Moorean shores, one hour and a half, and the reefs and sticklebacked mountains of the island’s volcanic ridges slid by to starboard. But the sky was incessantly blue, and the white whiffs on the edges of sea seemed, if anything, to be getting fewer and smaller, while the horizon showed no signs of darkness or of threat. Two hours. No storm. Quite the opposite in fact. And not even a sign of a storm.
I, who had bossily lectured everyone on stowing everything in their cabin and preparing for the worst, began to feel just a little silly.
As we lounged around with our aperitifs that evening, the Captain poked his head past the bar – ‘you jammy lot’ … we’d been reprieved. The storms had unexpectedly taken a different course. For the moment, at least, it was a case of cruise along as normal.

And so, Thursday, Friday and Saturday passed ... three of the most deliciously warm, sunbathe-y and utterly agreeable days of the whole trip.
I’ve pretty well skinned the library by now, and have been reduced to reading run-of-the-mill detective novels and, ultimately, the classics (I have Captains Courageous and Hard Times lined up, and, as an ultimate reserve, the complete works of Jane Austen). But I hit one unexpected jewel.
The Fairy Gunmother (La fée Carabine, and yes, I get the joke) by Daniel Pennac is a French sort-of-thriller noir, gory and grotesque but irresistibly and almost surreally funny. The English translation by Ian Monk is unusually fine, but I would love to read this in French (with, I suspect, a dictionnaire d’argot close to hand). I couldn’t put it down. It’s actually part of a series of four, so I shall be looking for the other three when I get back to Europe. Remember that name: Pennac.
I took time off from literature to have a haircut. Valeryi, the welder, who desecrated the cadets hair on Crossing the Line day is the local barber, and he put my scanty hair-do beautifully in order. So much so, that Philip followed on and exchanged his rather longer locks for a number one like mine!
Then, yesterday, Lyndall proffered the opinion that it was a shame that our ship had no figurehead. So we thought, perhaps, we might offer our services. Whilst the workers were at their morning smoko, we whipped down to main deck, up to the foc'sle, and did a little photo-auditioning. I’m afraid it was no contest

The winner, Miss Tikeibank Bowsprit 2007

The wooden spoon

Sunday 24 June

Five days to go and, I think, our reprieve may soon be coming to an end.
The sky is smoky-cloudy. There are jigsaw-puzzle pieces of blue here and there, and the sun stares through the peepholes in the grey from time to time, but the no-longer-motionless air has cooled noticeably and there is a slate-coloured line along the horizon. We’re still pretty smooth as we go …
And the Captain’s head goes side to side instead of up and down.

Has the jam run out?
Has my witchcraft of the winds lost its sting?
Do I go up on Monkey Island and give the elements a warning bit of Handel’s ‘Hear me ye winds and waves’?
Or do I just curl up in my cabin, with Rudyard Kipling, and wait for the elements do their thing…


Well, it didn’t happen. Once again it didn’t happen. An hour after penning those last lines I was up on top, not intoning out a warning message to the four winds and the tritons, but sunbathing once again, on a nice comfy long swell, in the company of Kipling (enjoyable) and Dickens (oh so windy). Both of them having been disposed of, I’m now going to launch on to something where the characters don’t speak in unreadable phoneticky ‘common’ accents.

Anyway, Kipling and Dickens weren’t the event of the day. They were quite outshone by the appearance of a large whale not too far off the starboard side. He was a nice whale, and provided us with all the ritual leaps and splashes and ultimately the essential bit of spouting before gambolling off northwards.

Oh, and I mustn’t forget the evening bike ride. With the friction gauge now set securely on maximum, I powered through 5km in just 19 mins 47 secs, breaking not only into a very drippy bout of perspiration but also the 4-minute-kilometre rate I’d set as my target. Then, as I sat there waiting for my pulse reading to settle down to a final reading, I thought ‘OK, target achieved … but what sort of a target was it?’ Is it a target attainable by 80 year-old grannies? Or is it actually better than might have been expected from a slightly shapeless (see above), 12-stone (?), 61 year-old who hasn’t exercised for 35 years. So, I took a plunge. I have asked second mate Igor, the ship’s slim, bulging, shy, twenty-somethingish fitness champion to do me a trial run. To see what a top notch 5km (max friction) time would be. I think he understood what I was asking, his English is pretty good. Anyway, he – who has watched me daily punch those sweaty pedals, while he twirled his 70k weights around -- grinned wolfishy. So watch this space.

PS Captain, Purser, Lyndall et al simply hooted at my Igor idea. Apparently he doesn’t do legs. Top half only. ‘All shirt and no trousers’ was how Steve maliciously put it. How strange. I may have to offer a prize.

Wednesday 27

On Monday 25, there was no sun. Nor sea. Nor ship. For, for us, Monday 25 did not have a being. In crossing the International date line, the Tikeibank and all who sail in her quite simply ‘lost’ Monday 25. We went to bed on Sunday and awoke on Tuesday.

Tuesday was a grey day with 3.5 with metre swells on the sea, and a morning of the staunchest rain we have had yet. It was not a day to stick one’s sunbed or even one’s head outside. So I curled up, in various corners of the ship and, between meals, demolished two fair old-style English murder mysteries (guessed ‘em both, but I usually do, unless the author cheats). The swells had gentled by the late afternoon, so – having expected to be exempted from my cycling on weather grounds -- I dragged myself to the gym. Every kilometre en selle was a calvary, I longed to give up before kilometre one was even reached, but to my surprise at halfway I wasn’t doing too dreadfully. So I gritted my false teeth and ploughed through the muscular shriekings to ... yesterday’s record broken by one second! 19 mins 46 secs.
To celebrate, I decided to have a ‘clean’ night. Instead of going straight from my post-gym shower to the bar for aperitif and a bludged cigarette, I stayed on my bunk with a ‘Discworld’ novel by one Terry Pratchett, who must be famous as he sports an appended OBE, presumably for writing. He’s written a lot of these books and they are obe-viously a popular cult, but to come in as a first-timer to a late in the series volume, when you don’t know the style and the geography and the in-jokes and such .. well, its hard work. And I’m not that keen or hard work in my reading.
But after dinner, instead of repining to the lounge and the bar as per habit, I returned – with a jug of iced water -- to my cabin and to Discworld, and I worked hard. Soon I started to realise who and what people and places and things were, soon I started to recognise the clevernesses and the intricacies of the plotting, and before the end I was thoroughly hooked. I shall have to read some more of these, though preferably starting with number one rather than number seventeen!
At 9pm I sank into a Discworld-dreamfilled sleep, interrupted around 3am by a particularly characterful lurch from the ‘ground’ under my bed, but otherwise a splendid 9-hours of semi-oblivion.


This storm isn’t going to happen! I mean, it’s happening and happened, but our master mariners are seemingly going to get us through with nothing worse that a few 5 or 6 metre swells, and the odd torrent.
In fact, this morning, up on the bridge, deck-cadet Dion was occupied in steering us on a veritable slalom course through the various showery areas of this part of Pacific. Unfortunately, just as I arrived, one particularly anodine looking bit off white fluff revealed its true, tricky colours and dumped a couple of minutes of tropical torrent on us.
We’ve taken a 90 mile detour in our efforts to avoid what had previously seemed to be an unavoidable bit of filthy weather, but it has certainly worked. We are up to time, the outside workers have been able to do their outside work, and we have even been able to parsimoniously proceed under less (and less expensive) power than would otherwise have been the case. I guess that’s what seamanship is all about.

Actually, today would be, but for coldish wind – and the odd dissimulating cloud -- a thoroughly agreeable day. Claudie dared, for a while, a chair in a rare semi-windless corner of the deck, but I opted to stay indoors and wasted the morning reading William Golding’s The Paper Men. How bored I am with the interminable list of ‘quality’ novels in which the people spend half their time drunk or drugged. This was just one more such, with anything that might have been a worthwhile tale, or indeed a worthwhile character, drowned in yawnsome, skippable gallons of self-indulgent alcohol. For that you get a Nobel Prize? You can fool some of the people all of the time. I already automatically shun anything which banners itself a ‘New York Times Best Seller’, now I am getting ready to wipe Bookers and Nobels and such things from my reading list. If it weren’t for the fact that I’ve won a handful of the jolly things myself, in my time, and for books like the Whitbread-winning English Passengers, I’d be ready to consider all literary prizes and their winners a Bad Thing.

I hasten to add that I have nothing against alcohol. He and I are, as you will have gathered, extremely well acquainted. But, as we all know, whereas booze – having been intaken -- may be ever so enjoyable from the point of view of him who has intaken, its effects are – to those who have not intaken -- achingly boring to see, hear and, above all, to read of.

Two other events of the day.
With getting on for forty healthy males on this ship, only one person could be found to take up my challenge of 5km of exercise bike. It was, of course, not a male at all, but the best bloke of the lot: Lyndall. And the resultant proof was that my 19mins 46 weren’t so very lousy after all. Maybe I should keep on with this? Except that Wendy’s email from Gerolstein, toda, tells of cold and heavy rains down Christchurch way… sigh, back to real life.

Kurt in Tahiti

Thursday 21 June 8am

I’m writing this from the wharves at Papeete, Tahiti. The sun is blazing down outside, from a clear superblue sky over clear superblue sea, and it would seem like an ideal time to be up on deck.
I know that if I don’t get this down now, it may be a while. Because the storm warnings are out. Just a couple of hours south from here, a couple of hours after our scheduled 11am departure from Tahiti, there will be no more of the calm seas and prosperous voyage that have favoured us for the past month. The effects of the huge meterological disturbances which have been ripping Australia apart in recent days have spread as far north as here, and for the week of our trip from Tahiti to New Zealand we are going to be heading – and I mean square on heading – into increasingly rough seas, culminating in all likelihood in force 8 or even 10 gales.
If that happens, it will be a record for me. So far, the most stormy passage I’ve gone through was a force 9, years ago on the ‘Northern Star’, off Brisbane. And that was just for one day, not a week. Also, the Star was a rather bigger vessel than this one. Ah well, I survived that one without blenching, so I should be able to survive this one without being ‘lashed to the Bosun’ (as the Captain rather attractively suggested) or confined to my cabin, as I rather fear one or two of our nautical neophytes might be.
Anyway, I’ve cleared all my possessions away into the hooked closed drawers, and into my suitcase, emptied out everything liquid except the drinking water (which can go in the fridge when things get rough), and the last thing to be packed away, this afternoon when the sea cuts up rough, will be this indispensable machine. I don’t want it toppling off the table on to the floor…

We arrived at Papeete in the night of Tuesday to Wednesday. I didn’t wait up for it. Instead I awoke to find us already berthed.
Now, I have been here before. Twice, if memory serves. Maybe only once. And 35 years ago. But, whichever, I came away with a pretty muted appreciation of the place. I remember, a ‘Pacific-French’ bar-cum-dancing, all lined with mirrors, and Alison and I dancing in what became a virtual floor show as the locals stopped, one by one, their own gyrations, to gawp at the two lithe, tanned, lively stunners that we were in those days, reflected over and over in the mirrors…
And I remember a motor bike tour of the Island with the boys from the band: Alison riding pillion behind I think the drummer, and I glued rather too closely to the decidedly substantial guitarist. Well, the pillion footrest was broken off, so I had to sort of twine my leg round his, and clutch tightly round his vast chest, so as not to destabilise us… Maybe that’s why I don’t remember too much about the scenery, just the disappointing Gauguin museum which, of course, only runs to prints not originals, and the fact that we couldn’t find a decent (by NZ standards) beach to laze on.
Anyway, my feelings about Papeete were pretty much ‘been there, done that, don’t really care to do it again’. But when I peeped out my porthole, when I bounded up topside to watch us tying up and click a photo or two, I was quite surprised. I’d remembered the place as rather shabby and dingy, in the way that so many tropical places all round the world are. But, from the Monkey Island of the Tikeibank, Papeete didn’t look like that at all. It looked really rather pretty. The green misted mountains, the trim little town (and it is indeed little) with what passes for its residential suburbs scattered loosely up the hillsides behind, the blue sea and the blue and white ferries shuttling past heading for the misty island of Moorea – James Michener’s Bali H’ai – in the distance.
And such a nice day.
Should I perhaps change my mind and go ashore after all?
It would, in any case, be good to stretch the legs a little, to have a proper walk after a month at sea.
Lyndall, Grev and Michael were planning to take the 9.05 ferry to Moorea to do some moped discovering on what is supposed to be the nicest island of the group, so I decided that I and my useful command of the French language would just wander along with them to the ferry port.
It was about a 30 minute walk from our far-end-of-the-port berth to the ferry terminal, and most of it is through the various marine installations of the island – from the Tahitian military naval yards to various repair docks and the berths of the local ships: never the choicest part of any town, but nevertheless far from as shabby as I’d expected.
So, once the Moorea-bound team (including Biddy and Hugh, picked up en route) were safely away on their respective ferries, I decided to stroll on a bit further, along the water front to the other end of town.
I am very glad I did.
There is nothing exceptional about Papeete. It is a typical French tropical or Polynesian town. Just like Noumea. But typical French Polynesian towns aren’t quite the same as they were 46 years ago when I first visited New Caledonia. The essential character is still there, though. The funny dark little cafes and bars, the dusty boule or basketball grounds, the ubiquitous, shabby Coca Cola signs, the proliferation of official and government buildings, and, of course, the people. Those lovely plump-cheeked, shyly sparkling girls who are destined in too few years to become the obese, waddling dentally-challenged dames one sees everywhere, and the broad-built, gentle and also often semi-shy men. Perhaps nowadays there are more ‘other-races’ around than there used to be, but it is still the Polynesians who are the glory of the place.
But, on top of what I remember as the characteristic French island of half a century ago, have come the modern additions. The shops and the offices of the late twentieth century. Now, as the whole world knows, very often old plus new equals horrible aberration, but here, somehow, I felt that it worked. The funny little bars and cafés, and the splendid colonial buildings stand side to side now not only with nature, but with never-grotesquely-tall 20th century constructions – many already sandpapered into happy cohabitation by the tropical sun and rain – in what I found a decidedly agreeable way.

My little walk finally ended up being three and a half hours. I followed the waterfront to the town’s end, where the very erratic footpath vanished into a motorway and forced me inland to ‘centre ville – Papeete’. Centre ville turned out to be just one or two streets back from the waterfront and I comprehended that Papeete is decidedly smaller than Rangiora, NZ. But it was full of enjoyable sights – and remarkably few tourists -- and even though I was getting a touch sweaty and decidedy footsore as I headed back to the docks I had duly enjoyed myself.

I enjoyed the churches. Yes, for once, I really did. The Protestant church is painted pink, for heaven’s sake, with a green roof, but the Cathedral de Notre Dame (built 1875) is even better -- bright yellow and scarlet! They seem to shout ‘God can be good fun’. How different from the greys and browns of the Anglo-Saxon world.

The Presidential palace was quite something too, an enormous old-time edifice, with impressive iron gates and a fountain in its front courtyard and with half a tree-lined boulevard of mixed and matching other official and ceremonial buildings to hand. The important looking war memorial, which was surrounded by freshly laid wreaths, celebrated a different area of war to those I’ve been used to hearing about.

I duly ‘did’ the market – the traditional mixture of food and the favourite tourist items – woven bags, fantastical hats, and racks and racks of the Tahitian pareo, the brightly coloured all-in-one garment that spells ‘Tahiti’ to the rest of the world. I suspect at least some of them were ‘made in China’, but they certainly were colourful. (I found out later there was a second floor to the market .. but one floor did me fine).

I passed a delightful colonial building – perhaps once an hotel – painted up in red white and blue and labelled Kuo min tang and something in Japanese, I passed the dim, discrete and not very royal-looking Royal Papeete Hotel, I walked by all sorts of eateries and drinkeries, ranging from the fondly familiar little gloomeries of yesteryear, to glistening brasseries (with a small beer at $10NZ a pop!) and an up-to-date Internet Café, elbow to elbow with a sinister looking nightclub (men $1000 entry, girls free!). I passed, alas, a MacDonalds too. And it was full. But as I stared sadly, an old man walked past me, sucking the milk from cocoanut through a plastic straw. Long may he live.

Back on the waterfront – such activity – a whole section of shabby old booths getting repaired and licked with paint, a funfair under construction, a huge up to date arena with state of the art sound and lighting .. apparently this is all in preparation for the 14 Juillet festivities .. which I understand get off the ground here some time before the end of June! The juxtaposition of the splendid arena and the shanty booths summed up Papeete nicely.

And I liked it.

Back on board for a cold shower, a few cold beers, a bit of lunch, a snooze, and down to the gym. I put the bike up to the porthole, and as I dourly pedalled my 10km I had the joy of watching a hundred or so little coloured one-paddle skiffs racing across the harbour. A few eight-man longboats varied the entertainment, but I liked the skiffs best. Modern, lightweight boats they may have been, but once again, watching the men plying their paddles like Olympic canoeists, I enjoyed the mixture of old and new.

Bit by bit, the rest of our ‘family’ returned. Everyone seemed to have passed his or her day in a difference way, and each and every one of us had had a thoroughly good time.
And, good grief, I didn’t spend one cent.

Hey! We’re moving. It’s 11 o’clock already … time to go up and wave goodbye to Tahiti. Until next year…


The Equator Party

Happily, any event (and I’m not talking about Russian Independence Day) is a good reason for a party at sea, and we duly partied in the approved style with a barbecue dinner and flowing beer-chests on the bridge deck…

Biddy was duly serenaded and presented with the ritual cake by chief stewardess Svetlana

and the early evening rolled into mid-evening into late evening into night as we chatted and danced and beered the hours away…

I met up with my friends of the last party, and made a few more. Yevgenji, the Bosun, 29, the ship’s undoubted jeune premier speaks excellent English and I discovered to my semi-surprise that he’d begun life as a ballet dancer before taking to the sea. Then there was Valery, the demon barber of this afternoon’s proceedings.
I also did my best to have a conversation with our chef, who was all willing, but alas has about two more words of English than I have of Russian. And I feel may have also had two more beers than I.
Anyway, Bosun and chef duly posed for the imperative Gänzl camera, with the very decorative Viktoriya between them

Another splendidly relaxed evening in delightful company …
And just to prove that I WAS still standing at the end…
(no, I am laughing at Valery trying to point my camera at us, and the gorgeous Natalja is NOT holding me up!)

Crossing the Line

13 June 2007

Its Wednesday. And we are in the Southern hemisphere. We’ve actually been in the Southern hemisphere since 8.00.40hrs local time yesterday, and I have photographic evidence of the fact. (see below)

Yes, all those zeroes at the top mean that we were plumb in the middle of the waistband of the world .. and since we only stayed there for something less than second, and that my Kodak has a delayed reaction of an amount which I have never been able to quantify, you will understand that enormous algebraic skills (or something) were put into use in order to capture that moment at which everything begins to turn the other way.

Yes it does. The story about the bathwater going down the drain the opposite way in each hemisphere? It’s true. I actually knew it was true, because I can remember, years ago, on one of my ships, standing at the sink in my cabin watching and waiting as we crossed the equator. OK, so its not instantaneous, but it happens. And its not just the bathwater, cyclones do it too, and so do the oceans’ currents. That I didn’t know, but our beloved Captain, with the aid of an orange and a felt tipped pen, demonstrated what is known as the Coriolis effect (or was it force?) for us in the bar before supper on the relevant night, and Dion dug up the right spelling of the damn thing in the Mariners’ Meteo Manual on the bridge, so that I (who thought it had an h in it) wouldn’t make an idiot of myself in this blog.

Since leaving Panama, life has been wonderfully uneventful. Well we did have some rain, but since we’ve hardly seen any on this trip, that was more a diversion than anything else. So a day inside, which I put to good use taking a lesson from Lyndall on how to upload music on to my computer. This experience made me realise that I should be profiting from being surrounded by young folk to expand my computer horizons. Today I have been introduced to ‘memory sticks’ for the first time, and perhaps more significantly to the ‘ipod’. Michael (age: 20) was able to download the whole of the 480-part photo archive that I’ve put together since setting out in March onto his ipod, and can now dole out the various pictures that the other lads (and lasses) would like to have to them at leisure. After supper, I shall pillage Lyndall’s photo store…
Ah! Modern science….

Otherwise its been the usual blue, calm sea and warm to scalding days, punctuated by the usual food, drink and exercise mental or physical. Feeling that it was now safe to go out of the house without a shirt again, I spent a whole day up on deck sunning myself. The result will be visible below… I am somewhere between Mexican and Maghrebin, and (with a little assistance from my Hoar Cross Hall SOS cream, and the Hawaiian tropic sunblock brought on by the agent at Panama) I sort of glow in the dark.

If the first days out of Panama were uneventful, one certainly couldn’t say the same for yesterday. Apart from crossing the line, with all the ceremonial that entails, we had two birthdays to celebrate – our Biddy from Zimbabwe, who was hitting more milestones that day than the equator – it was her 70th! – and Sacha, **** perhaps the rotundest of our crew, but with height to match and the classic teddybear gentleness as well. And, apparently, it was also Russian Independence Day. Although no one could tell me independence from what.

We started our busy day, straight after breakfast, on the bridge deck, toasting Biddy in early morning champagne and awaiting the precise second of our arrival in the Southern hemisphere. That precise second which I have preserved for eternity and the blog, above. After which everyone retired to his or her cabin for a personal experience of the Coriolis business.
The next event was the day’s Main Event. At 3.30pm the ship’s complement was summoned, by King Neptune himself, issued (or so one would imagine) from the waves, to attend his court on the poop deck. Well, old salts like yours truly know what that means. It means a rather messy ceremony, redolent of the old army and university ‘initiations’, involving the usual sort of indignities practised on the usual sort of victims, in this case anyone who hasn’t crossed the equator by sea (planes don’t count). Now, the principal sacrifical cows today were clearly going to be our very own Tikeibank Fab Four – the cadets Grev, James, Dion and Michael – but there had been all sorts of veiled threats and hints coming out of, in particular, the purser’s department for the past weeks, so one wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Particularly as I had a shrewd suspicion that the ‘rules’ could very easily get bent.

Anyway, the victims of the day had two things in their favour. Firstly, there were ladies aboard, which meant some of the umm more extreme bits of the ‘initiation’ process were out. And secondly … King Neptune – imposing in an ankle-length ‘grass’ skirt, a fish net, some Xmas decorations, a tin foil crown and a cottonwool beard -- bore a striking resemblance to birthday boy Sacha!

The Fab Four were the first to come under the trident of Neptune. Our bondage man, Steve the purser, soon had them (reasonably) tightly tied to a set of plastic chairs … the Captain read out a list of their Misdeeds to date … and then it all began .. first the ordeal by vinegar (wouldn’t have bothered some NZ wine drinkers), followed by raw vodka (we think!), then the oceanic barber! Michael and Grev got their initial shaved into the back of their head .. Grev was given an impromptu Mohawk, James a couple of handles over his ears and Michael .. well, I’m not sure what Michael’s was supposed to be, but he also got part of his luxuriant chest done as well (although it stopped there, in modern day fashion) ... Dion, whose rather impressive haircut obviously impressed Neptune as well, escaped more lightly.

Then came the goo. I think its flour and water, coloured with cochineal, but it’s the sort of stuff you see being flung round the stage in pantomimes, and its clammy as all get out. Bosun Yevgenyi, equipped with two casseroles and a huge ladle, supervised operatons as the filthy stuff was poured down back and chests – INSIDE the boiler suits (and here was another part, thanks to the ladies, which was abridged from the days of my experiences) – after which Oleg, the ***** brought out the ship’s firehose. I suppose you could call it ‘pressure cleaning’ but his idea didn’t seem to be very cleansing. A thorough dowsing was more to the point.

At the end of the affair, when the lads lined up for a ‘team photograph’ with King Sacha, they were drenched, coloured and sporting a very original set of hairstyles!

The second set of victims went through much of the same routine. Minus the barbering. This time it was Natalja and Viktoria, the two ‘new’ stewardesses, Lyndall – in spite of the fact that she was sure that she had popped across the Equator at the age of three or so – and Philip, a genuine novice. This round was a tad less boisterous, although it can have been no coincidence that the Bosun let the hose linger on Lyndall’s chest much longer than normal until it was quite clear to all that under the sodden yellow T-shirt was a dark blue bra! Sorry, boys. The splendid Natalja didn’t even wait for the same treatment .. she quite candidly hoiked her T-shirt up ..

Philip put up a great show.. and, by the way, thank you, Philip. I have just a tiny suspicion that if you hadn’t got on at Panama that, in spite of my long Equatorial record, that 4th chair might just have been filled by me. That’s what I meant about bending rules. Next time I must bring my 1972 Neptune certificate, just in case!

Although, come to think of it, I need a haircut.

Postscript: Michael has today solved his bad hair problem by simply shaving his head. I suspect that dinner time may see a few more tonsorial changes in the cadet department!
Double postscript: It did! We have three monks! Grev somehow doesn’t look any different .. but I didn’t recognise James. Hmmm. I wonder if Dion will be allowed to ‘survive’…

Two Birthdays: Sacha & Biddy



Kurt out of the Canal

Friday 8 June

Well, it didn’t happen.

I take back all and anything complimentary that I said about Panamanian efficiency. We did not leave Gamboa when the fog had cleared. We did not leave Gamboa at 8am, nor at the announced (by them) time of midday, nor indeed at the re-re-announced time of 7pm. We finally released our buoys and set forth towards the Gaillard Cut at something more like 8.30pm.

And thank goodness for that.

We had a delightful day bronzing on the upper decks in the sometimes fierce tropical sun, watching the procession of huge container ships and bulk carriers passing first one way and then the other on their way through the canal. The entertainment was varied by the occasional flash little yacht (American flag, inevitably), the occasional long, winding train, laden with containers, which – with a shrill and piercing hoot – snaked its way along the dark green banks, and by the antics of the giant crane with the improbable name of ‘Rialto M Christiansen’, which turned out not to be a fixed item, but officially a dredge and mounted on a barge. Like everything here, it seems!

It was well and truly dark when we steamed out of Gamboa and took a gentle virage to starboard, past the Chagres River bridge and into the newly widened (to almost 200 metres) Gaillard Cut. What a sight! One would say a fairground on water, or the airstrip of Fairyland Airport. The more or less straight ‘Cut’ (and that is exactly what it is, a C19th ‘cut’ through the original hills) simply glitters with lights of all kinds, lights which rebound from the daytimely-uninviting brown surface of the water in a delicious festival of dancing colour. The bright directional pillars of gold and green, lined up on the adjacent banks, which in the sunshine hours are such ordinary-looking aids to navigation, now, lit up, are almost exciting. The little gold ‘alligators eyes’ which mark the edge of the waters, water-level blue lights and green lights all with some doubtless vital meaning too obscure for a layman, the huge ‘radio masts’ higher up the hills with their irregular silver flashings, like the RKO logo gone mad on all-white firework night .. and, creeping darkly towards you, in a flurry of tug-light, in this wider two-way portion of the Canal, the shadow of an other-way-bound ship, with just its red and green navigation lights showing. Here a maintenance barge, equipped with all sorts of looming equipment and blazing with busy ‘overtime’ light, there a coven of tugs bathed in their own busy little brightness, and there again a team of busy dozers and diggers, working through the night, behind glaring gold eyes and under vast panels of floodlight.

Since my last passage of Panama, six or seven years ago, the widening works then in progress have been completed, to be replaced by goodness knows how many other endless kinds of amenagement. However, the most noticeable change is a whole new bridge! Whereas before the Bridge of the Americas (which actually isn’t strictly ‘in’ the canal) was the only span over the water, now we have what is called the Ponte Cucaracha or the Cockroach Bridge. This isn’t a comment on its cleanliness but simply because it sprouts from a piece of the canal known as the Bordava Cucaracha (which may very well have been such a comment, back when it was named). It seems to lead from nowhere to nowhere, although I did spy a few lights amongst the dark vegetation on the previously untouched southern bank of the canal. Anyway, it is apparently, if relatively useless, determinedly commemorative, and wherever it comes from and goes to, there it is, a nice modern suspension bridge, outlined in the traditional halo of electric lights, with the occasional vehicule buzzing across its span like a glowworm with an outboard motor.. a fine addition to the tourist scenery.

It seemed like no time at all before we glimpsed, down the ‘runway’, beyond the bridge, a veritable city of lights and the Pedro Miguel locks reared glitteringly up before us. And, with it, eleven o’clock reared up as well. The ice bucket was empty, and the festive whisky bottle seemed to have taken a bit of a bashing too. And since one lock is pretty much like another, and we’d already had one bridge, the last Monkey Island survivors decided to call it a day. Or, rather, a night. Graham (who had slept much of the early part of the evening) later crept up to watch us through the last locks, just after midnight, but the rest of us cried happily ‘enough’. I watched the first Pedro Miguel ‘hoist’ from my private porthole and then went contentedly off to sleep.

Alas, I have no photos to illustrate this very pictorial part of my story. Given the humidity here – which has reached 100 percent at times in the last couple of days – the lens of one’s camera insidiously fogs up, resulting mre often than not in pictures of nothing but a humid, foggy blur. Oh well, you can’t win em all.

The morning of Friday 8 June dawned to find us parked out in the Pacific Ocean, in misty sight of the Bridge of the Americas, and of the tower blocks of Paitilla on the Gulf of Panama, in a gentle warm rain which had – from the evidence of the inundated decks – previously been very much less gentle. Limpeted to our side was a very punctual sludge barge, downloading our waste oil. It has gone now, but is soon – or not soon -- about to be replaced by a fellow barge (largely late, wouldn’t you know it) which will upload the fuel which will take us through the Pacific.

So … here we go! En avant and Tally ho for Tahiti!

When Panama gets its act together.

Scenery, or Officer Cadets at work:

Kurt in the Canal

I didn’t expect to see too much of the Panama Canal this time round. We were scheduled for a 6.45pm transit, and in spite of the floodlights that blaze over the operating bits of the locks, and the lighthouses that dot the hills above the canal, lighting the path from the Atlantic to the Pacific, much of the trip was clearly going to be little more than a voyage through the tropical darkness.

‘Clearly’ turned out to be the key word.

We sat in the bay off Cristobal through the afternoon, the uneventfulness of the day enlivened only by the comings and goings of the various official launches. One of these brought what looked like customs folk, a fellow with an ominous looking sprayer, and the latest addition to our passenger quota. Philip, a retired business writer turned writer-writer from Bournemouth, had made has way to Cristobal via the ‘Queen Mary’ and a variegated selection of buses down through the southern parts of the USA to Mexico, Guatemala and so forth to Panama. Not without a certain eventfulness. The night prior to joining us, he had been mugged in that delightful city named Colon, and today the launch bringing him to the boarding gangway simply refused to back up in the fashion required for him to transfer. Incompetence or engine/gear problems? They claimed the latter. Anyway, in the end the launch in question had to go right back to port, Philip was transferred to a larger and more competent vessel and he finally made it aboard!

Things got rather more competent from there on in. Our tugs turned up on time and at the time appointed we – number four in an unbelieveably small westward convoy of four – duly glid off towards the Gatun Locks, and the entrance to the canal.

As I’d suspected, night was falling fast when we all gathered topside for our buffet supper and a first experience, for all save myself and Graham, of the Panama Canal. In fact, the whole Gatun area looked rather magnificent by night, with its blazing floodlights making the place look like something excitingly colourful and romantic something out of a space or science fiction movie. The shabby bits, the scrub and the mess that I remember from my twentieth century visits were (if they are still there) gratefully hidden in the gloom outside the range of the lights.
We set up some ‘front stalls’ on Monkey Island, and duly made our way into and through the Gatun locks. When you get to your umpteenth lock, their fascination begins to somewhat diminish, and as we steamed out past the Gatun Dam and into the Gatun lake, the ‘front stalls’ began silently to empty. Michael and I were the last survivors, and at 10.10pm, as the ship headed on into the blank darkness, we tidied up the chairs, the lolly papers and the beer cans, and descended to our bunks. Maybe, with any luck, I would wake up around 1am (I so often do) and I could creep up and see us go under the Bridge of the Americas.

Shortly after I’d headed off to bed, that soupy, smelly tropical fog, which makes its mysterious looking appearance in ‘Indiana Jones’ and ‘The Piano’ type movies, had come down over the Panama Canal and – literally unable to see the next light or corner -- we had been obliged to pull up. Instead of being at Balboa, we were moored half way through the Canal, at Gamboa.

I’ve passed Gamboa many a time. A scruffy little settlement, set in the greenest bit of the Canal Zone, at the mouth of the Chagres River, and sporting one big crane and a selection of rickety looking wharves. Why, I can remember thinking years ago, does this place exist? Well, now I know one reason. It’s a passing bay. And we are in it . And we will be in it until lunchtime, because this is a one-way Canal and it’s now the turn of the ships coming in the opposite direction to us to have their turn at the ‘highway’.

This hold-up is doubtless an irritating event for those involved in running the ship, but for us – the seven merry passengers – it’s a delight. For we are going to get the chance to see the Canal both by night (and that was definitely worthwhile) but also by day. When we thought that the Gaillard Cut, the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores Locks and the Bridge of the Americas would all have passed us by under cover of darkness, now we shall be able to see them all.

The Caribbean

6 June 2007

I’ve sailed the Caribbean Sea many a time during my life. The first was in 1972, on the dear old ‘Northern Star’, heading for Australia on our ‘deep sea’ trip, with a dozen twice-nightly shows to play and sing and … laryngitis from the air-conditioning system. The next, the next summer, was a solid four months or so, on the benighted QE2, a season which at least gave me a chance to get around and visit–cum-explore a good number of the islands. I remember happy times visiting a barren lighthouse in Aruba, scaling the heights to visit John Nash in the posh part of Saint Thomas, sheltering under the leaves of a banana tree in a rainstorm miles from anywhere in St Lucia and, above all, making the adventurous tour on foot of the lovely island of St Martin/St Maarten (half French half Dutch) …

Since then, of course, I’ve traversed various areas of this same sea, twice a year for a number of years, on the Blue Star ships between New Zealand and Philadelphia. Blue Star used to call in at Jamaica for a cargo of rum, but the Tikeibank is already carrying rather more explosive stuff than rum, so we just press on, past the Tropic of Cancer, down the straight between Anguilla and my fondly remembered St Martin/St Maarten (where my binoculars pick up some worrying looking objects which seem to be – please, no! – tower blocks) towards Panama.

The delicious sun-drenched, blue-skied monotony is broken only by one boat drill, the inevitable three large, cooked meals a day, the odd session at the bar, an occasional bird or fish sighting (boobys and dolphins) and the usual amount of reading. 

The latest book bundle has been particularly successful:
‘Falling Angels’ by Tracy Chevalier: a delightful, simple, not-too-long novel of Edwardian England, beautifully written. I really, really enjoyed this one.
‘Balham to Bollywood’ by Chris England: a true life tale of English actor-cricketers making an Indian film in India. Funny.—sometimes very -- when it doesn’t try too hard. Normally I find books that make Margaret Thatcher jokes to be really klutzy and pretentious, but this chap ultimately redeems himself with a real and delightfully original tale.
‘The Master Butchers’ Singing Club’ by Linda Erlich: atmospheric and nicely written, but its ‘saga’ ambitions lead to the killing off of too many supporting characters in whom one has become interested. Unusually for me, I didn’t expect the final twist. Sagas don’t normally have them. Enjoyed the first ¾ a lot.
‘Barbra Streisand’ by my ‘heritier’ Christophe Mirambeau. A very tidy star biog which hits just the right tone. No fan-type gush, no fabricated scandal, a genuine ‘biography’ or rather ‘biographie’, because its in French.

There is one more thing which has, in the last four days, become a feature of my shipboard life. Lyndall’s fault. In spite of my announced scorn of the gym, I’ve started working out. Just a little. No weights or anything impossible like that. After all, I’m sixty-one, and given my mostly sedentary life of the last 35 years, grotesquely unfit. So we settled on the exercise bike as being likely to be beneficial to my cardio-vascular being, also perhaps even to improve my blood pressure problem, which is not being aided, I am sure, by bacon for breakfast.

I started gently on day one. Fifteen minutes. At the end my pulse had gone up from 88 to 118, and several minutes after finishing it was still 108. Not good. The machine told me I had burned 100 calories. Lyndall says that is half a slice of bacon. Sigh.

Four days later, I can report that I am doing decidedly better. I now do 10km (364 calories) before breakfast, and 10km (more calories) before cocktails, and I’m gradually pushing up the speed. I have brought my 10km time down from 33 minutes yesterday to this morning’s 27 minutes 28, and the recovery times are improving gradually. My Jacques Esclassan-type sprint for the finish this morning took me up to pulse 141 but, 3 minutes later, I was down to just over a hundred and falling. A long way to go until I win the Tour de France, or vanquish the blood pressure thing, but I shall persist.

If nothing else much changes as we press on into the Caribbean, the heat does. It has been getting progressively hotter and, last night, after dinner – a gloriously clear night – we were able to sit outside in the glasshousey air with a beer or two and watch the constellations go by above. These days I can only recognise Orion, and there he was full frontal. Next trip I shall bring a star map.
In the distance, we could see the flashing, bolting lights of a typical Caribbean storm. Wonderfully dramatic and suitably far away. This morning it was still going on.

6 June and 8am.

The cycling done, breakfast done (sigh: four slices of bacon, two croissants, some melon and coffee), two showers – hot then cold -- already, and all the emails answered …

In about 4 hours we are due to arrive at the breakwater at the Panama Canal, ready to take our place in the queue. At which time it's very probable that not only will the smoke stack start to spout little black oily burning cinders, but the biting beasties of this not very salubrious area will also doubtless be out. I think a little stripped-off laze in the sun is called for before then, because afterwards it will be time to cover up ….