Bookshelf: North to the Night

North to the Night: A Spiritual Odyssey in the Arctic – Alvah Simon

North to the Night
North to the Night

Having for some time immersed myself in literature and film about the Antarctic (Endurance, Empire AntarcticaIce Patrol), I have lately turned my attention to the Arctic. Unlike Antarctica, the Arctic is inhabited by humans, but if you go too far north, you run out of land. This is not a problem experienced by Antarctic explorers.

Alvah Simon and his wife Diana set out to explore the Arctic in their sailboat, and decided (against all advice) to overwinter in a cove in Baffin Bay (which is more like a sea than a bay, and is situated between Greenland and the Canadian Arctic). North to the Night tells the story of their journey to the Arctic, and the dark, freezing winter that Alvah Simon spent there, alone save for his cat Halifax, with his boat trapped in the ice.

The subtitle of the book is apt: the intensity of Simon’s winter experience was such that he underwent a sort of spiritual transformation – perhaps an argument could be made that he started to lose touch with his sanity, or reality. The book thus serves to contrast the intensely practical preparations that the Simons had to make for the voyage, with the epiphanies they experienced as they explored and survived in one of the most challenging environments on earth.

I was frequently frustrated with Simon’s over confidence and willingness to disregard the advice of people with far more sailing and survival experience than he had, but to his credit he seems to be able to see his own stubbornness, and does not attempt to justify or defend it. He is also able to see, in retrospect and to his credit, to what extent he tested his marriage with this journey.

Probably a requirement to embark on this kind of trip is a certain steeliness of will and ironclad self confidence that manifests itself as arrogance, or even foolhardiness. It is also my suspicion that many with similar aspirations don’t return from their adventures, or don’t even set out in the first place. For this reason Alvah Simon’s beautifully written account is particularly precious and rare.

You can get the book here (South Africa), otherwise here or here.

Bookshelf: The Man Who Ate His Boots

The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passage – Anthony Brandt

The Man Who Ate His Boots
The Man Who Ate His Boots

The Northwest Passage  is a sea route (routes, actually) running between Canada and Greenland, across the top of the North American continent through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, and through the Bering Sea between Alaska and Russia. At its end is the Far East, for hundreds of years the destination of the thousands of sea voyages that made their way around the Cape of Good Hope, and later through the Suez Canal. Its existence was an enormously appealing idea to Europeans, because if the east could be reached by sailing along the top of the world, great savings of sailing time and expense would result.

For a long time the existence of the Northwest Passage was merely a hypothesis, and in the 1800s the British expended vast quantities of energy exploring the Canadian Arctic in search of a sea route. The passage was first traversed in 1850-54 by Robert McClure, by ship and sledge. Roald Amundsen traversed it entirely by ship in 1903-1906.  Until this century, the route was not navigable for most of the year owing to the presence of sea ice. Now, thanks (?) to climate change, there is far less ice to contend with.

Sir John Franklin was one of Britain’s most eminent Arctic explorers. He made several trips to the Arctic in search of the Northwest Passage. His final expedition, starting in 1845, ended in the disappearance of his two ships (HMS Erebus and HMS Terror), Franklin himself, and all 128 of the men with him.

The story of his expedition, and the searches for evidence of its fate (upwards of 30 expeditions were mounted to look for him), and the subsequent discovery of what had happened (no spoilers here – it was awful) is related in gripping detail in The Man Who Ate His Boots. Brandt also provides ample historical context, describing prior expeditions which serve to illuminate the British motivations behind their exploration of the Canadian Arctic.

There was a curious mixture of stoic heroism and wild arrogance at work during this period of British history. The rigors endured by early Arctic explorers cannot be overstated – the environment is almost entirely hostile to human survival. The British did not believe that there was anything to be learned from the Inuit, indigenous people who live widely spread across the area, and suffered as a result. As one of the Inuit pointed out when the awful lengths Franklin’s men had gone to in order to try to survive were revealed, his people “know how to starve.”

There is a strong thread throughout this book relating to the colonial attitude towards colonised peoples. A belief prevailed in Britain that, equipped with a shotgun and a good pair of shoes, an Englishman could survive anywhere, and that his Christian piety would serve to protect him and speed his endeavours. (On one of Franklin’s earlier expeditions, which was a complete fiasco largely owing to poor planning, the British officers survived whereas the mixed-race local fur traders – who were doing all the manual work and carrying the supplies – perished. This was attributed to the protective influence of the Christian beliefs of the British men.) It was further reckoned that there was nothing to be gained from studying the techinques of the Inuit. Eyewitness accounts from Inuit turned out to hold the key to the fate of Franklin’s party, although their account was not believed initially (they were dismissed as habitually lying “savages”).

Last year, one of Franklin’s ships, HMS Erebus, was discovered by Canadian archaeologists in Queen Maud gulf, where it sank after being trapped in the ice. They are still studying it (the area is only accessible a few months each summer), and I am watching this story with intense interest. There’s more on the discovery at National Geographic.

You can read reviews of The Man Who Ate His Boots at the New York Times, Washington Post, and The Guardian. If you enjoyed Endurance, then I recommend you investigate this book. In light of the developing findings of the excavation of HMS Erebus, the material has refreshed relevance today.

Get the book here (South Africa), here or here.

Want more Arctic? Check out True North. There’s also this article on what lives under the ice, and this one on what happens on top of it!

The NSRI SafeTRX app

At the beginning of this year, the NSRI launched the SafeTrx smartphone app. It is available in other countries, and the NSRI brought it to South Africa. I have been using it since February. It has taken a bit of getting used to with a few missteps on my part, but it now provides great peace of mind whenever I go out to sea. The app is a journey planner for boaters, with the capability of activating emergency contacts should you not return to port on time.

The app is available for iOS and Android systems. Skippers using the app can register a vessel (or more than one vessel) with the app (mine is Seahorse). You can provide a photo of the boat, its registration number, its radio call sign, and whether it has an emergency beacon (EPIRB or similar). When you depart for a trip, you select which vessel you are travelling in, how many passengers, what type of trip you’re doing (diving, cruising, safety, etc.), and an estimated time of arrival. You can also specify the route you’re taking by including waypoints on the trip map.

Once you’ve set up your journey, you can text it to your emergency contact(s). On your return to port, you re-open the app, close your journey, and have the option to text your emergency contacts again to let them know you’re home safely. These are screen shots from Clare’s phone showing the start and end of a trip with six people (including me) on board:

Text messages generated by SafeTrx app
Text messages generated by SafeTrx app

The SafeTrx app comes with a login to the SafeTrx website, which allows you to review your journeys online. You can actually see updates in real time; Clare took this screen shot from the website when I was out at Duiker Island in Hout Bay. When I started to return to Hout Bay harbour, the boat icon could be seen moving (jerkily) towards the harbour entrance.

The website information also allows you to evaluate the directness of the sea routes you follow, which is important when supporting open water swimmers, and gives useful statistics about how far you’ve travelled on the boat and for how long.

Viewing journeys on the SafeTrx website
Viewing journeys on the SafeTrx website

The first time I used the app, I didn’t set my ETA (estimated time of arrival) correctly, and left it on the default value, which is fifteen minutes after the current time. Not long after that time had elapsed, Clare (my emergency contact when she’s not on board) received a phonecall from Maritime Rescue stating that I was overdue and had she been in contact with me? She assured them that she had and that I was a first time user of the app, hence the mistake! We were extremely impressed by the speedy response, and glad to know that the system works so efficiently. Needless to say I have not made the same mistake again.

I encourage you to visit the NSRI website for more information about the use of the app, including download links. If you see me on the jetty and want to take a look at the app set up on my phone, please feel free to ask!

Movie: All is Lost

All is Lost
All is Lost

At the start of All is Lost a solo sailor far from land in the Indian Ocean gives a brief farewell message – maybe writing a letter – to unseen recipients that we assume must be his family. We then flash back eight days, to when he strikes a semi-submerged shipping container with his yacht. The rest of the film deals with his attempts to save his sailboat, and then ultimately simply to save himself. There are a couple of lines of dialogue, but no other people appear in the film and the sailor, played by Robert Redford, is alone for the duration of the movie.

Some people will find the spare nature of the production infuriating or boring – be warned. In other ocean films that we’ve watched, and even in the Deadliest Catch series, the ocean itself appears almost as an auxiliary character, full of sound and texture and power. In All is Lost, there are long periods during which Redford’s craft is becalmed, with a featureless ocean and distant, cloudless horizon almost fading into obscurity. During the storms the camera remains closely focused on him, not giving the waves and wind an opportunity to dominate the screen.

An interview with the director reveals how he relished the opportunity to cast Redford in a role in which he could not much use his voice – which is widely recognised and commands attention. His performance is gripping and disturbing. At no point could we guess how the unnamed yachtsman’s ordeal would end. The build up of tension was almost unbearable. I dreamed restlessly about sailing after watching the film.

There are interesting reviews at the New York Times and The Guardian. Tony, who has a bit of a sailing past, critiqued some of the decisions made by Redford’s solo sailor as being rookie errors (such as trying to put the storm sail up in the middle of a storm). Other sailors agreed with the points Tony made – Vanity Fair has an article here (but it’s likely to spoil the movie for you).

You can get the DVD here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here.

Wind speed on the go

Tony taking a measurement
Tony taking a measurement

We have had a couple of spectacularly windy weekends in a row, and have had the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the weather. We have a weather station at home, and for mobile use we have a WeatherFlow Wind Meter. These are widely used by para-gliders, sailors, windsurfers, kite surfers, and others who need to know what the wind is doing at a particular location. This miniature anemometer plugs into the headphone jack on iPhone and Android devices, and takes wind readings via an app.

The app allows you to save readings, which makes them available on the internet. If you see a facebook post with a wind reading, it’s from our Wind Meter, and Tony is probably on the boat. If the wind is very strong, he’s more likely on land! An example of a recent reading (taken when I snapped the above photo of Tony) can be viewed here.

We find this very useful to correlate wind speed and direction to sea conditions. A southerly wind, for example, is particularly uncomfortable for diving in False Bay. Using his mini anemometer, Tony has been able to establish at approximately what wind speed it becomes too unbearable! One of the effects that global warming is going to have on our local weather in Cape Town is increased windiness, so I think we’ll have plenty of opportunity to play with the Wind Meter and go FULL WEATHER NERD. Watch out…

Newsletter: Humpback winds

Hi divers

Planned dives

Saturday: No dives planned

Sunday: Boat dives from OPBC or Hout Bay if conditions permit

Midweek launch: From OPBC to see the Volvo Ocean Race yachts arriving in Table Bay

Dive conditions

The wind is forecast to do some real south easterly blowing over the next few days, so False Bay is messy but the Atlantic is a bit cleaner. There is too much wind on Saturday for any kind of pleasant diving or boating, but Sunday has less wind (according to some of the wildly contradictory weather forecasts) and I think the odds are good that Table Bay will be a better option than Hout Bay, if the water cleans up enough to make dives worthwhile. It is difficult to say for certain where would be best but we will make that call on Saturday afternoon. The plan will be to dive North and South Paw if conditions permit. Let me know if you’d like to be on the watchlist!

Baby basket star by Georgina Jones
Baby basket star by Georgina Jones

Last weekend we dived out of Hout Bay, visiting the BOS 400, Star Walls and then Tafelberg Reef. The water was less clean than expected: 8-10 metre viz and a very cold 9 degrees. Thanks to Georgina for this picture of an itsy bitsy basket star! On Monday I was out along the Atlantic seaboard for a film charter and despite the fog we found dolphins, a sunfish, a whale, hundreds of seals, and incredible bird life once we were far offshore. There’s an album of photos on facebook.

Volvo Ocean Race

The Volvo Ocean Race first leg comes to an end next week and the yachts are expected to arrive at the V&A Waterfront from Tuesday onwards. There is currently less than 9 nautical miles between the top four after several thousand miles of open ocean racing. The finish will be really exciting and we plan to launch as many days as possible next week to hopefully catch a glimpse as they race by… And perhaps a photo or two. Let me know if you think you’ll be able to take a midweek day of leave to go out on the boat.

Diversnight

Diversnight is an international night diving event that we try to participate in each year, just because. This coming Thursday, 6 November we will meet at Long Beach in Simon’s Town at 7.30 pm with the aim of starting the dive at 8.00 pm. We must be in the water at 14 minutes past eight to “count” and the aim is to set a new world record. There are currently 16 countries participating in this event. You can RSVP to the event on facebook, and read more about Diversnight here. There is no charge apart from any gear you may need.

If you need to rent gear, please let me know by Wednesday morning. You don’t necessarily need to be an Advanced diver to do a night dive, so give me a call or send me a mail to talk about it if you’re unsure. If you’ve been thinking about an Advanced course, though, this is a good time to get started.

regards

Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099
www.learntodivetoday.co.za
www.learntodivetoday.co.za/blog/

Diving is addictive!

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Newsletter: Paws for thought

Hi divers

Weekend diving

Saturday: No diving planned – why not join the coastal cleanup at Hout Bay harbour?

Sunday: 10.30 am and 1.00 pm to North/South Paw and Justin’s Caves, from Oceana Powerboat Club (very much dependent on wind strength on Saturday)

Monday: Seal rock at Partridge PointShark Alley, double tank dive launching at 10.00 am from Simon’s Town jetty

Recent dives

Last weekend we took the boat down to Buffels Bay in the Cape Point Nature Reserve to join OMSAC for a day of snorkeling, diving and braai-ing.. The conditions were terrific and both the shore divers and those on the boat had great viz. We took the boat to Batsata Maze and to an unnamed site just on the outside of the exclusion zone around the reserve. We were very fortunate to have a whale cruising by during the safety stop, fascinated by the divers’ SMB, and then hanging around as the divers surfaced.  It is a stunning setting for a day out and even the tidal pool was filled with interesting creatures.

There are some photos on facebook, and a nifty little time lapse video of us putting the boat onto the trailer at the slipway. I usually wind the winch much faster than in the video, though – I must have been having an off day on Saturday…

Waiting to put the boat on the trailer at Buffels Bay
Waiting to put the boat on the trailer at Buffels Bay

On Monday we enjoyed fantastic visibility at Partridge Point, where we snorkeled with seals, and at Shark Alley. There are still a lot of cowsharks around – the time of year when they usually disappear is approaching, so we are watching with interest.

This weekend

A southerly swell rolls into False Bay in time for the weekend. The Kalk Bay Shootout surf competition participants are all excited. When surfers are excited, divers are not. We share the ocean… Just not always at the same time. There is also the False Bay Yacht Club spring regatta taking place on Saturday and Sunday – more info here.

I doubt there will be anywhere pleasant to dive in False Bay. The south easter only starts blowing on Saturday so I doubt that the viz out of Hout Bay will improve enough for good diving. That leaves the Atlantic seaboard. Twenty four hours of strong south easter might clean the water close inshore enough for good diving.

I reckon the best options will be North and South Paw or Justin’s Caves and surroundings, so that’s the plan for Sunday. If the south easter makes it over the top of Table Mountain, and cleans the water sufficiently, we will launching from OPBC at 10.30 am and 1.00 pm. If you’re keen to dive let me know and I’ll contact you on Saturday afternoon to let you know if conditions are good enough.

Early morning at Cape Point Nature Reserve
Early morning at Cape Point Nature Reserve

If you are at a loose end on Saturday, an excellent way to spend your time is at the coastal cleanup dive in Hout Bay harbour. We attended a few years ago, and it is great fun and good for the environment. Just wear a kilogram or two extra of weight if your weighting is usually marginal – the water is not very deep!

Cape Town International Boat Show

In three weeks’ time the CTICC comes alive with the Cape Town International Boat Show. This year there will be a new addition in the form of a “dive village”. Collectively a bunch of local dive centres and operators have come together to make this happen with the goal of showcasing the incredible diversity of diving we have to offer in Cape Town. The village will have a pool in the centre and we will offer non-divers an opportunity to breathe underwater and hopefully come to enjoy the ocean as much as we all do.

The show is on from 10-12 October at the Convention Centre. Come down and visit the representatives of your local dive operator and bring a friend who needs convincing that diving is the best thing ever, and amongst everyone in the dive village we will do our best to get them in the water. SURG will also be there showcasing some of the best photos taken in and around Cape Town’s waters. There are also bound to be a bunch of interesting course options, gear sales, camera displays and the like. Plus the rest of the boat show, which is well worth a look!

regards

Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099
www.learntodivetoday.co.za
www.learntodivetoday.co.za/blog/

Diving is addictive!

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Bookshelf: Surf Science

Surf Science – Tony Butt

Surf Science
Surf Science

It is well known that:

  1. I am not a surfer (but Kate is, lately!); and
  2. Conditions that make for great surfing generally mean poor diving, and vice versa.

The second point above is exactly why reading a book on what makes waves turned out to be an extremely enlightening experience.

Dr Tony Butt lives in Spain on the exposed north Atlantic coast (good waves), but apparently spends the southern winter in Cape Town, surfing Dungeons where possible I imagine! He is a physical oceanographer. In Surf Science he explains where waves come from, and what leads to different kinds of surfing conditions.

His explanation of the origin of the waves that reach the coast starts at the very beginning, with an explanation of the drivers of weather systems. This section caused me to jump up and down with excitement, and to speak many long sentences to long suffering husband Tony. His expository method is easy to follow at each step, and for the first time I feel that I have a grip on . First we build up a mental model of the earth as a stationary globe with no land, and then gradually add rotation about its own axis, rotation around the sun (seasons), and the presence of continents to the model. At each step further understanding of the average world weather patterns (north Atlantic high, roaring forties, and so on) is improved.

The book goes on to cover the propagation of swell, and what happens when waves arrive in shallow water, break, and possibly allow surfing. Butt also deals with water temperature, tides, and rip currents, and concludes with a few chapters on surf forecasting models and how to read them. Throughout the concepts are illustrated with straightforward diagrams, and end-of-chapter boxes contain formulae for the mathematically inclined.

This is a shorter and more richly illustrated book than The Wavewatcher’s Companion, serving a different audience. Both surfers and divers can benefit from Surf Science, as well as the yachting fraternity, NSRI crew members, and anyone else who has an interest in the mechanics of the ocean. This volume has more the flavour of a textbook, with no unnecessary information, anecdote or humourous asides. There is a place for both books!

You can get a copy here or here, or here (if you’re in South Africa).

Article: Outside on the sinking of the Bounty

Having turned our attention to the mighty Gulf Stream current yesterday, let’s think about the kinds of phenomena that the warm current can give rise to. As weather systems such as thunderstorms move over warm water, they draw water into the lower atmosphere by causing the seawater to evaporate. This water vapour is pushed up, leaving space for more, and the storm grows in power as long as it stays over the warm sea. The Gulf Stream is a warm current in a cold ocean, and is thus a major generator of hurricanes. NOAA explains it properly.

Outside Magazine published a detailed analysis of the sinking of the Bounty during Hurricane Sandy in late 2012. The Bounty was a replica of HMS Bounty, an eighteenth century three masted sailing ship. She was built in 1960 for a Marlon Brando movie about the mutiny that led to the establishment of the pit of despair that is the settlement on Pitcairn Island. (Why pit of despair? Read this.) After the movie was completed the vessel passed through several owners, all of whom struggled to finance the constant repairs and maintenance required on a wooden ship of that scale. Her story concluded in the glare of the world’s media attention, as the ship struggled to stay upright while sailing into the eye of Hurricane Sandy (for reasons unclear).

As the drama of the Bounty’s final hours unfolded on CNN and the Weather Channel, seamen and landlubbers alike were asking the same question: what was a square-rigged ship doing in the middle of a hurricane—a storm that had been forecast for days?

But the full answer to why the Bounty sank was much more complex than a captain’s rash decision. It was a story decades in the making, a veritable opera of near misses and fantastic schemes involving a dogged captain, a fiercely loyal crew, and an owner who was looking to sell. 

This is a story of a nautical disaster told with a strong focus on the personalities involved. It’s quite a terrifying read.

Read the full article here.

The incident report was released by the United States’s National Transportation Safety Board in February of this year, and places much of the blame for the sinking on the captain’s decision to sail into the hurricane.

Bookshelf: The Gulf Stream

The Gulf Stream: Tiny Plankton, Giant Bluefin, and the Amazing Story of the Powerful River in the Atlantic – Stan Ulanski

The Gulf Stream
The Gulf Stream

Stan Ulanski is an academic with a special interest in the Gulf Stream, both as an oceanographer and meteorologist, and as a keen angler. I was drawn to this book because it reminded me of a book I took out of the school library when I was twelve, also about the Gulf Stream. I remember devouring that book, and have been trying to find it again for much of my adult life. I haven’t succeeded, and this isn’t it.

The Gulf Stream is a fast flowing, warm current that runs from the Carribbean up the east coast of the United States, past Canada, and across the Atlantic Ocean. It is responsible for about ten percent (popular opinion has always held this number to be higher, but it’s not) of the warming of England’s climate, transporting heat from the tropics up into northern latitudes. At the surface, where its flow is fastest, it can move at up to 9 kilometres per hour and the water in the current may be ten degrees warmer than the water surrounding it. Oceanographer/cartographer Matthew Fontaine Maury called it a “river in the ocean”, as it is so distinct from the water surrounding it:

There is a river in the ocean. In the severest droughts it never fails, and in the mightiest floods it never overflows. Its banks and its bottom are of cold water, while its current is of warm. The Gulf of Mexico is its fountain, and its mouth is in the Arctic Sea. It is the Gulf Stream.

The Physical Geography of the Sea, 1855

Ulanski divides his book into three parts. The first section provides an oceanography lesson, as well as a history of how we came to know what we know about ocean circulation. The second section, which I felt could have been beefed up significantly, has a chapter on the plankton, sargassum weed and other small life in the current, and another dedicated to bluefin tuna. I know from Richard Ellis’s tuna book how incredible these creatures are, and I felt that Ulanski could have made more of them. (He may have felt that since tuna have been so extensively eulogised, he has nothing to add – fair enough.)

The final chapter of the second section grated my goat and I struggled to read it – it’s about fishing, a sport of which Ulanski is a keen proponent, and profoundly smug (he “feels no remorse”). I cannot understand sport fishing  (or hunting) of any kind: if you’re going to release the animal after fighting it, exhausting it, and injuring it, what have you achieved? The inflicting of a prolonged, possibly fatal wound on a creature at a significant disadvantage to you in your motorised boat with expensive fishing tackle and crafty lures? How manly. We can appreciate how marvelously put together earth’s creatures are without damaging them with our ego in the process. (I realise that other people feel differently, with equal forcefulness.)

Ulanski concludes with an examination of the history of the exploration and colonisation of the New World, both aided and impeded by the Gulf Stream. It seemed that at times he wanders far from his main subject, but it is instructive to be reminded of what was involved in crossing an ocean before the advent of GPS and the creation of detailed charts. The section on piracy is fabulous and created in me a strong urge to re-watch Pirates of the Caribbean.

While my personal preference would be for a heavier focus on the oceanography and marine biology of the Gulf Stream, Ulanski is quite right to include a comprehensive section exporing humans’ relationship to this massive current. It has shaped the settlement and economies of all the lands adjacent to it.

Here’s an incredible visualisation of ocean currents – you can see the Gulf Stream prominently in the Atlantic. What is it like to be adrift on the Gulf Stream? Find out here.

The Perfect Storm deals with the 1991 nor’easter, a storm (not uncommon in the western United States) generated by the interaction of the warm water of the Gulf Stream with atmospheric phenomena. The Gulf Stream is the “weather-maker” of the western Atlantic, according to the author, and these interactions between the current and the atmosphere will become increasingly important and explosive as the global climate changes (and let me clarify, the change has come about because of human behaviour).

If you’re in South Africa, get the book here, otherwise here or here. For an even more wide-ranging view of the Atlantic ocean (minus the marine biology), check out Simon Winchester’s Atlantic.