Tuesday, May 23, 2006


The plan to go sailing in a tall ship was hatched nearly a year ago by a colleague in one of the firm's UK offices. The brief was clear: individuals would buy their own tickets and flights, and we'd all meet up at the boat itself on 14th May. I have already blogged about my own difficulties in obtaining a reasonable price for air tickets and the problems relating to Qatar Airways' inability to perform as advertised in terms of upgrades.

However, that aside, I arrived at Palma airport and as expected, failed to recognise anyone else who would be on the voyage. Taxi seemed the most logical way to get to the vessel, but my Spanish is limited to "Dos cervesas por favor", which is not useful when trying to explain my destination to a driver who knew hno hEngleesh. I was first to arrive on board, having identified a pair of square-rigged masts among the veritable forest of yachts that adorn Palma's sea front.

The Prince William is registered as a sail training vessel. She was built in Appledore in Devon in 2001, and includes all current maritime safety facilities including watertight doors, enough inflatable lifeboats for nearly one each, and a chart room with more navaids than a well-stocked chandlery. The rigging is to the eighteenth century design, when square rigging technology reached its zenith.

The permanent crew made the forty-seven voyage crew (me and my forty-six colleagues) welcome and introduced us to our watch leaders, volunteers who were also paying for the privilege of a week under wind-propelled canvas. Each watch got two cabins of eight very narrow bunks and the same number of even narrower lockers, we were issued with waterproofs and safety harnesses, and after a pep-talk the pre-voyage training started in earnest.

Everyone was assigned a bracing station. The big burly blokes got the heaving side and the lighter and more delicate flowers got the other side. Basically, a command from the captain to "Brace to port" meant that all the hard macho types formed up on the left side, and once the starboard braces were loosened, pulled the yard-arms around to port in a precision ballet of heavy engineering to the well-known lyrics: "Two-Six. Heeeeave!" This was repeated all week every time the brig or the wind changed direction.

And now the bit warranting the safety harnesses. One of the features of sailing vessels is the need to climb up regularly to the yards. Sails are normally bundled up on top of the yards and held in place by bits of string called gaskets. To put the sails 'in gear', the crew has to climb up and out along wobbly foot-ropes and untie the gaskets. This is all fine and dandy except for obese, middle-aged vertigo sufferers who found it a bit of a struggle. The lower yards are relatively OK, but up past the Course, Lower Topsail and Upper Topsail towards the Top Gallant and Royal got progressively more hair-raising. I have seldom been more terrified.

OUT ON A LIMB: Some fellow mariners on the lower topsail yard

'Handing the sail' is the reverse procedure. It's trickier because this involves bundling up a 30 square metre sheet of billowing canvas and tying it to the yard. I shan't complain again about folding bedsheets. The bottom (or outer) corners need special treatment, and the term 'not having a clew' refers specifically to my inability to reach far enough down to grab the metal ring. I can't help not being built like some mutant gibbon. Much profanity later I finally grabbed it with my spare set of white knuckles. Incidentally, with a breeze from behind the gaskets don't hang vertically, which makes them even more difficult to grab. Nevertheless, there's a good view from the top. It mostly comprises a very small sailing vessel about 45 metres away.

GOOD VIEW: But it's a long way down

For lovers of comfort food, the galley was excellent. Three full meals a day were provided, plus unlimited biscuits, tea, coffee and orange squash. Second breakfast was available daily, as were second lunch and second dinner. The dimensions of the crew mess meant that daily workers were assigned from each watch to serve food and recover the empties.

CRUISE MESS: Crew's mess, actually

The day workers also got mess-cleaning duties, washing up and other kitchen menial tasks. Other watch members got to be the bosun's daily help. My own turn as 'bosun's bitch' was curtailed by a day's shore leave in Soller on Mallorca. Everyone got to do 'happy hour', a general daily clean of the accommodation, heads, showers and decks to the accompaniment of Dire Straits over the PA system.

I want my -
I want my voice to break...

The Prince William has a wind-seeking bowsprit. This means that whichever way we turned, the wind turned with us. It's impossible to sail a square-rigger closer to the wind than about 70 degrees without use of the Iron Topsail, a big, green, noisy, smelly device hidden in the hold. The wind was favourable upon leaving Fornells on Menorca and we were able to leave harbour under canvas. The wind made up for its earlier blunder on the morning we left Soller. We hit a Force 7 and found ourselves making seven knots with only one sail set.

UNDER SAIL: Windjammin'

There were dolphins too, but alas no photos because everyone was busy 2-6-heaving. A certain amount of other heaving also unfortunately occurred. Luckily, the Grumpy Goat has a cast-iron constitution where matters maritime are concerned. That aside, the weather was glorious all week. No rain at all, and the waterproofs were entirely unnecessary. It must be said that persistent rain might have made enjoyment of the week very short indeed.

Last week I hadn't the first idea how square-riggers worked. Now I have a basic knowledge. I even learned a few things. Did you know, for example, that the traditional sailor's pierced ear may be related to an acupuncture point that (allegedly) improves night vision? And that strictly a 'ship' is a vessel with square rigging and three or more masts? The only extant ships are the Cutty Sark and Victory.

THE END: Sunset

Sunday, May 21, 2006

All at sea

To paraphrase Captain Rum (Blackadder II), "We'll sail round and round the Balearics until we get dizzy, and then set sail for home!"

I didn't know anyone else on board, which was not useful upon arriving at Palma airport. I grabbed a taxi and instructed the driver to cruise along the sea-front until I was able to spot a likely candidate amid the forest of masts. The only square rigger was a bit of a giveaway.

Prince William

Training Ship Prince William is owned by Tall Ships and organises both youth and adult sail training 'holidays'.

Upon arrival, the forty-seven of us were split up into three watches and given duties, safety briefings and a few rules. Then came the bit that involved climbing up the rigging. The ratlines, the rope ladders that hold the masts, were OK, but sliding out along the yards to put the sails in gear (and to hand them afterwards (which is nautical language for 'putting them away')) was a bit more hairy. Like Bruce Dickinson is a bit more hairy than Yul Brynner.

A week later and I now have a basic idea about how a square-rigged ship works. Basically there's a lot of pulling on bits of string. I'm suffering from near-terminal fatigue. The three-watch system ensures that the entire crew is kept in a permanent state of having had not quite enough sleep.

There is more to add to this, but a separate blog entry with more pictures will follow once I'm properly awake.

edited 23 May to correct a couple of tupographical mistokes. Thanks to Mme Cyn for proof reading.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Flight of the Goat

Yesterday I arrived in England for a brief stop prior to heading off to Mallorca to go sailing for a week. To my tremendous surprise, I arrived at Gatwick at more or less the scheduled time and collected the rental car.

Driving on the left-hand side of the road aside, one of the first things that struck me was how the M25 in the morning peak is rather like the good old Sheikh Zayed Road. Incredibly busy, all lanes going at the same speed and with sufficient gap between vehicles to insert a five pound note. Yes, they drive like atavistic maniacs in Britain too. The only perceptible difference in attitude is that in queues of urban traffic (we're off the M25 now) drivers actually leave gaps to allow others to turn off at junctions.

Now back to the airline. Qatar Airways, in their mercy, permitted me to pay for a free business class upgrade on the Doha to Gatwick flight. The pivotal word here is free. Indeed, I was expecting the same sort of freeness that was provided on the Manila to Doha flight that I wrote about here. Back in November the upgrade was confirmed by the airline, who were extremely keen to subtract the air miles from my account. Then two days before the flight, I was summoned to appear at the Qatar Airways Dubai office.

Despite every QA computer on the planet showing the status of my booking, I needed to get a paper version of the upgrade. I was then told that as a business class passenger there was an additional tax to pay. I refused, on the very sensible grounds that the airline should have told me when I first made the booking. And so I flew in economy.

The flight from Dubai to Doha inexplicably left half an hour late. And then we spent a further half an hour on a taxiway. You know how you can sit at a T junction in your car, unable to turn into the main road because of a never-ending stream of traffic? Well, this is eactly what happened at the end of the runway at DXB. Lufthansa, Emirates, Swiss Airways, Emirates... I imagine that there was a queue of aircraft behind us all tooting their hooters in accordance with traditional local custom and practice.

My next forway into the wonderful wild and wacky world of air travel is on Sunday morning. I have to leave Plymouth an an hour so early it's actually still late in order to catch the BA flight to Palma Mallorca. And then a week of Tall Ships sailing. No rest for the wicked.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Hong Kong; Shanghai; UAE

Isn't on-line banking a wonderful thing? Instead of dragging my sorry self down to the branch in order to manipulate bank accounts and pay bills, I can do it all from the comfort of a swivel chair in air-conditioned comfort. My bank, which is both local and global according to the advertising, operates this fabulous thing. I'm not allowed to hyperlink to the bank's website; that rule is in the terms and conditions.

Unfortunately, fabulous - according to my dictionary - means legendary or mythical. You know; like dragons or centaurs. In other words, although the concept is familiar, it doesn't really exist.

The theory is very simple. I go to the bank's website and enter various pieces of secret information such as account number, mother's inside leg measurement and name of a long-dead pet. Then the bank account details appear on screen and I can pay my bills, open and close accounts and generally move money around.

It is therefore unfortunate that in practice it doesn't quite happen like that. Since the recent upgrade to enhance the service provided by the local global bank, it typically takes twenty minutes from clicking LOGON to actually seeing the account details. And that's with a 2Mbps connection. What is more typical, and it has just happened again, is that the page crashes partway through logging on and I have to close the browser and start again. Another twenty minutes of my life stolen by the bank.

I'm told by the kind lady on the helpless desk to reset my browser and reboot the PC. Clearly it's all my fault, which is why I get exactly the same problems on the works PC, the home desktop and the laptop. Incidentally, I'm now through to my Account Summary page, but can't go any further because none of the links respond. Reboot; start again... And finally, despite trying several times a day, I managed to get through nearly a week after my previous successful attempt.

Incidentally, the helpless desk mentioned that lots of victims users of on-line banking are experiencing slow connections, as indeed is the bank itself. It would seem that the bank is unaware that the word upgrade means improve or become better. I should have thought that the new system should have been thoroughly tested before unleashing it on to the general public.

I don't have these problems with the bank which has a blue eagle as its logo. Just the one with the red and white triangles. Am I alone?

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Another skyscraper

New apartment block.
New views for new residents
And nowhere to park.

Parking in the middle of Sharjah city is a perennial problem. Until recently there was an area of undeveloped land just outside my office block where I could put the car while I spent all day driving a desk. I'm one of the arguably fortunate souls who has a window on one side of his cubicle, so I was able to cast the occasional glance to five floors below where the Hard of Parking were keen to demonstrate their skills.

All that is now history. A couple of months ago a wall of boards emblazoned with a contractor's name went up around the plot and I, along with about fifty other drivers, had to find alternative parking. I might have chosen to start coming to work by bicycle, except that this particular mode of transport has been banned by Sharjah Municipality.

Office entertainment has recently changed. Instead of watching the local driving style in a car park and also at a nearby T junction, I am currently being treated to the process of construction of a tower block. According to the project notice board it's going to be around ten storeys high. hardly a skyscraper, then, but sufficient to blot out the afternoon sun from my window. Perhaps I shouldn't complain. Situated at the far end of the office air conditioning duct, my afternoons are spent melting in the heat of direct sunlight. Attempts to increase the welly of the air conditioning result in teeth-chattering objections from the other side of the office. Perhaps construction of a sunshade will be of benefit to me. Now, on to the construction of this sun shade.

Phase 1: Excavation
Having evicted the last couple of parked cars, the contractor did nothing for a month. Then a machine, possibly a Case 721D, appeared and dug a two-metre deep hole the size, shape and location of the building's footprint. Unsurprisingly, the excavation hit the water table and a swamp soon appeared. Not to be outsmarted by mere water, the excavator operator drove around and around in the quagmire until he had succeeded in getting stuck up to the tops of the wheels. Enter a second excavator to pull the first one out.

Phase 2: Backfill
Rather a lot of lorry loads of gravel were then delivered and spread in a single two-metre thick layer, apparently to displace the water. Pumps? Dewatering? Wossat then? Compaction? Compaction consisted of a couple of guys with a Bomag 75 roller trundling noisily around the site for about a week.

Phase 3: Site Investigation
A percussion boring rig appeared and a couple of boreholes were sunk, with the inevitable donk-donk-donk disturbing my day. I should have thought that the site investigation would have been completed before construction started. Someone might have liked to discover the depth of the water table, but what would I know?

Phase 4: Piles
I have learned something. Drilling mud, bentonite, is in fact brown. No surprises there, except for me. I last encountered piling works in Portsmouth, England many years ago. As Pompey is constructed on and surrounded by chalk, all wet muddy slippery porridge found on a construction site is white or off-white. Brown mud? "It is not coming in Portsmouth, sir!"

Back to Sharjah. I should perhaps be grateful that owing to the proximity of other buildings, the chosen method of piling is bored cast in situ rather than driven. The construction noise is therefore limited to diesel horses and not the extremely loud DONK-DONK-DONK of a pile-driver.

It is gratifying to note that the steel fixers are putting reinforcement spacers on the whole length of the rebar cages. It is not unknown for spacers only to be fixed at the top where the inspector can see them once the reinforcement is down the hole. Huzzah for local workmanship! The spacers are little plastic wheels that are there to ensure that the steel doesn't poke out of the side of the pile after concreting, where it can go rusty.

SITE: Mud, mud everywhere

PILING RIG: Up close, and personnel

Edited on 4th May to add a couple of photos as requested. Sorry about the quality; the window really is filthy.

Phase 5: TBA
It's probably easy to anticipate what'll happen next. But it's not happened yet. More news when the structure starts to emerge from the mire that results from a piling rig, mobile cranes and a lot of very second-hand drilling mud.


I should like to thank my readers for helping this blog through its first 1000 hits. Perhaps it should be called a millestone. According to the counter, supported by ClustrMaps, today I made it into quadruple figures. That's just a trace over 14 hits per day since 20th February. It's not going to set the world alight, but is nevertheless nice to know that I'm not blogging in the wilderness.

It's interesting to see that I'm getting hits mainly from Europe and the USA, with some others dotted around Australia and south-east Asia and the Indian sub-continent. And there's even some activity from the Middle East. This is not all to do with me checking to see if there have been any new comments! But nothing yet from Africa, South America or Siberia. Perhaps it's something to do with the English language.

Blogging is, at least in my opinion, not a competitive sport. Whilst I'm pleased to see that The Grumpy Goat is getting some worldwide coverage, it certainly isn't going to break my heart if I never get millions of hits.

Thanks for visiting.

The opinions expressed in this weblog are the works of the Grumpy Goat, and are not necessarily the opinions shared by any person or organisation who may be referenced. Come to that, the opinions may not even be those of the Grumpy Goat, who could just be playing Devil's Advocate. Some posts may be of parody or satyrical [sic] nature. Nothing herein should be taken too seriously. The Grumpy Goat would prefer that offensive language or opinions not be posted in the comments. Offensive comments may be subject to deletion at the Grumpy Goat's sole discretion. The Grumpy Goat is not responsible for the content of other blogs or websites that are linked from this weblog. No goats were harmed in the making of this blog. Any resemblance to individuals or organisations mentioned herein and those that actually exist may or may not be intentional. May contain nuts.