December 6, 2014

Crossing the North Atlantic: 1 plane, 3 ships, and a guitarist

I came to America on a ship. That statement, which is true, can be useful in conversations. For example, when I want to emphasize my age. At that point in the conversation the fact that I came to America from somewhere else is usually apparent from the remnants of my English accent.

Proper-plane: Britannia

However, the truth is that my first visit to America was by car, from Canada, when I was six. And I got to Canada not on a ship but in a plane, one that had propellers on it, just like this:

That's a Bristol Britannia, which first flew a few months before I was born. The plane entered service in 1957 and my family flew on one from England to Canada in 1959. The Bristol company has a storied history dating from 1910 until the present. The flight was wonderful. I got to sit with the pilot for a while and received an enameled pair of B.O.A.C. wings.

Proper Ship: Saxonia

For about a year my family lived in Renfrew, Ontario. I attended Queen Elizabeth Public School. When we returned from Canada to England a year later, we traveled on the Cunard liner you see below, RMS Saxonia, built in Scotland in 1957:

Despite a rough late autumn crossing from Quebec City to Southampton, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. We were not in first class, but we had an assigned steward at our table in the dining room and he was terrific. For some meals I was the only one at the table (did I mention it was a rough crossing - my mother lost 14 pounds in 5 days). At the end of the trip the steward gave me a certificate he had drawn, stating that I not been seasick the entire trip. Little did I know that the Saxonia would reappear in my life many years later.

MS Mikhail Lermontov

Back in England, I attended King Henry VIII School for Boys and then went to university in Leeds where my first year roommate was guitarist Steve Donnelly. During the final year of my Bachelors degree I applied for and received a post-graduate teaching post at McMaster University, in Ontario, Canada. To get there I booked passage on a Russian ocean liner, the MS Mikhail Lermontov:

In the mid-1970s the Lermentov was making round trip cruises from New York, via London, to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in Russia. Traveling at a leisurely pace, the ship was a floating showcase of Soviet culture, and a way to obtain U.S. dollars from the mainly American passengers who took the round trip.

I have no doubt that my "student" fare of 100 Pounds Sterling for passage from London to New York - cheaper than airfare and a real bargain when you consider it included as much luggage as you wanted - was a ploy to expose young people to the wonders of the Soviet Union. These included some terrific Russian cuisine, Russian dance performances and all sorts of classes (balalaika, borscht, Russian literature and of course, the poetry of Mikhail Lermontov himself).

However, the most memorable cultural experience for me was passing under New York's Verrazano-Narrows Bridge at dawn and sailing past the Statute of Liberty as the sun came up. After that, the trip by Greyhound bus from New York to Hamilton, Ontario, was a bit of an anti-climax.

TS/S Stefan Batory

After graduate school in Canada I went back to England, choosing an ocean passage again, from Montreal to Southampton on a Polish ocean liner, the TS/S Stefan Batory that was originally built in the Netherlands in 1952:

The Polish crew were great and the service was wonderful. In fact, the Batory went on crossing the ocean from Gydnia to Montreal until 1988, the last regularly scheduled transatlantic passenger service.

Note: TS/S stands for Turbine Steam Ship. MS in a ship's name stands for Motor Ship, indicating that it is propelled by an internal combustion engine. These abbreviations are a great source of trivia questions, like what does the RM in RMS stand for? It's not Royal Majesty, but Royal Mail.

The Steve Donnelly Connection

Some 29 years after my last transatlantic crossing by ship I met up with my former college roommate whom I had not see in more than 30 years. To cut a long story short, and leave out the many expressions of wonder, it turns out that after Leeds, Steve had played guitar in a house band on the Saxonia! So my roommate had sailed the seas in the 1970s on the same boat that took me from Canada to England as a boy.

And get this, the ship Steve played on was Soviet at the time! It turns out that in August 1973 the Saxonia was bought by the Soviet Union-based Black Sea Shipping Company. She was renamed after Leonid Sobinov, a famous Russian tenor, and put to cruising!

Not only that - and this is where it gets really spooky - as the conversation continued, we realized that Steve had played in another ship band, on another Soviet vessel: the Lermontov! Apparently, she had been upgraded to a Western-style cruising ship in 1982.

A few years ago, I was at a wedding reception in Toronto and late in the evening the bride's father, a gracious host and serious follower of rock music, asked me: "What's the biggest coincidence you've ever experienced?" I had to tell him the one about the two ships and the rock band roommate.

The epilogue is a sad but telling one:  In 1986, in an incident that prefigured the tragic fate of the Costa Concordia, the Lermentov hit rocks while sailing close to shore and sank. That was in New Zealand waters. Steve was not onboard. In fact, all aboard were saved, except for one crew member. She now rests on the ocean floor and is considered one of the world's finest wreck diving experiences.


Let me end this strange tale of ocean travels with Steve on guitar...he's the serious looking one on the right.

You will also find Steve on all Nick Lowe albums since Dig My Mood, and on Suzanne Vega's Nine Objects of Desire plus Sheryl Crow's eponymous album. Fans of Bill Nighy may know Steve from the 1999 movie Still Crazy, for which Steve provided most of the music and guitar solos. More recently Steve appeared on Bonnie Raitt's first studio album in seven years: Slipstream. Finally, check for the iconic Fender coming in at 1:48 in the following, that's Steve Donnelly:

May 24, 2014

Alpha woman and the days of sail

Chey at the helm of Alpha, a Bristol Pilot Cutter built 110 years ago.
Although we live just 5 blocks from the Star of India and other fine sailing vessels in San Diego Bay, we do not get out on the water much because of Chey's health. However, 20 years ago Chey was an active sailor, studying for her Yachtmaster on the Isle of Wight and sailing historic wooden sailing ships around Scotland.

Chey's favorite was Alpha, a 52 foot Bristol Pilot Cutter. On one trip she sailed Alpha from Scotland to Portugal and back, straight up through the North Atlantic and around the western side of Ireland. Bear in mind that pilot cutters were the "built for speed" boats of their day, sleak, stripped of deck rails and any other impediments to pace. Why? Because pilots made their money guiding large cargo ships through coastal waters and into port. The pilot who was first to reach an incoming ship got the job!

August 28, 2013

Electric Car2Go is a Gas!

The all-electrtic Car2Go fleet in San Diego is not why we moved here, but we did sign up for the service as soon as we got here. Now, with nearly two years of experience, what do we think? It's a gas! Just take a look, and then read on...
Not all of these electric Smart Cars come with a highly-skilled driver like the one you see here, but they are all fun, whether you drive or are driven. Okay, we do have some quibbles that I will address in a moment, but basically this is a great service and the car is very impressive.

If I have to run errands involving more miles than I feel like walking then I often choose a Car2Go over our trusty old BMW 323. The iPhone app makes it very easy to locate nearby cars and reserve them.

At first, I tended to avoid Car2Go trips involving freeway miles, then my wife (the highly-skilled driver behind the wheel in the photo above) found the boost switch. You activate it with an extra push on the gas pedal when accelerating and it really helps with highway on-ramps and overtaking.

Of course, like all electric vehicles, the Car2Go can tap maximum torque at zero rpm, so it is always ready to leap off the line at the lights (great way to elicit gob-smacked looks from drivers of big sedans and hot hatches).

As for handling, the word is nimble. You can turn corners and cut U-turns where no other car would dare. I should point out that the ride is a little on the rough side over city streets, but most of the trips that I take in a Car2Go are too short for this to matter. The highway ride is acceptable. I did chat recently with someone who had ridden in her daughter's regular, bought-from-a-dealer, gasoline-powered Smart Car. She reported that it also had a somewhat rough ride on city streets (maybe someone should tell Mercedes Benz that America's city streets are not as well-paved as they used to be, and adjust suspension accordingly).

So far the electric-ness of the Car2Go has not been a problem. I have never run out of power. If the San Diego Car2Go fleet is short of anything it is cars-to-go. We can't always rely on there being one handy, and we live in the densely-populated Little Italy part of town. That would be one niggle. Another would be the length of time it takes to get the support folks on the line in the evenings.

Why would you need to call the support line? Well, it is possible to lock things inside these rentals. Yes, members have an RFID card that opens cars, but cars don't open to you if they are reserved by someone else or if they are out of service. So here's a scenario I encountered: Drove back from the supermarket in a Car2Go. Exited the vehicle with my groceries. Ended the rental. Then noticed that there was one more bag of groceries in the rear storage area. Tapped my card on the card reader but was told car out of service due to low battery. It took about 15 minutes to get through to an agent who could unlock the car.

Another problem I have encountered is missing cars. You see a car on the app, walk to its location, but it is not there. This may not be the fault of the system. Cars left in parking structures can give rise to this issue.

There are some restrictions on Car2Go, like not transporting our dog. I understand this policy: not all dog owners can be relied upon to keep the cars clean of dog hair, etc. And of course, only two people will fit in the car. However, they fit very well. I have a friend who is nearly seven feet tall and he owns a SmartCar. Not only that, his SmartCar was hit by another driver and protected him so well he got another.

So, bottom line: 9.5 times out of 10, my Car2Go experiences are 100% positive. So much so that they have allowed us to give our second vehicle to our daughter. So she likes Car2Go and has never driven one.

July 7, 2013

Wheels on fire: the curiously British need for speed

For a small island that is increasingly crowded with people, Britain displays a strangely persistent fascination with traveling fast, as reflected in several recent news stories about speed records and vehicular races.

Last month, a British built vehicle set a new world land speed record for electric cars. And while nobody dislikes the idea of aristocracy more than me, I must admit to being impressed by the BBC report that: "Lord Drayson, who was behind the wheel, said the achievement was designed to highlight electronic vehicle technology's potential." I'm assuming this is Lord Drayson, sitting on the amazing vehicle (and I'm hoping he doesn't mind me displaying this picture--which is particularly interesting to me since it shows one of the sponsors was Qualcomm, based in my adopted home town of San Diego).

Lord Drayson is CEO of Drayson Racing Technologies, developer of the amazing Lola B12 69/EV which hit a top speed of 204.2mph (328.6km/h). Drayson is based in Oxfordshire, England. The vehicle was built using a lot of parts from Lola, a leading supplier of chassis for prototype racing, such as you see driven in the Le Mans 24 Hours race. Lola is based in Cambridgeshire, England. Drayson's car handily beat the previous record of 175mph set by Battery Box General Electric in 1974.

Building fast cars has long been a passion in England, from the early records set by Rolls Royce powered cars in the 1920s to the Formula One cars of today. Regardless of their official country affiliation, most of the F1 teams are based in England, where the lion's share of the engine and chassis development occurs. This graphic from NBC coverage of Formula One makes this quite clear.

All of which seems a bit odd for such a small and crowded place. In Britain, the phrase "Land's End to John O'Groats" is synonymous with "one end of the country to the other," and this is about 600 miles as the crow files. The journey by road is 837 miles according to Google, which estimates you can cover it at an average of 60 mph. Compare that with my drive in 2011, from Upstate New York to Southern California, when my Jeep clocked 3,000 miles. Google reckons you can average that one at 67.35 mph.

Brits also like speed in the air and on rails and on water. Back when trains were pulled by steam locomotives, the highest speed attained was 126mph, attained in July of 1938, by an engine called Mallard, seen here:
Mallard photo by Dudva

This month there will be a big celebration of the 75th anniversary of that achievement and six examples of this type of locomotive, designated A4, will be reunited at a museum in York. This inspired the Daily Mail to produce a great graphic explaining how to drive a steam locomotive. Nowadays you might not associate Britain with high speed train travel, given that the French hold the world record for rail, hitting 357mph using electric power delivered by overhead lines. But it is worth noting that British Rail Class 43 holds the Guinness record for the fastest self-contained locomotive (diesel powered).

As I have written elsewhere, Britain currently holds the world land speed record at 763mph and is looking to push that past 1,000mph. (But props to America for setting and holding the wheel-driven and combustion-engined records.)

Why do the Brits have this need to make machines go faster, I don't know. But it makes for exciting times, whether it is a Formula One race or a record attempt.

October 7, 2012

1,000 MPH on Land? The SSC Bloodhound takes aim

At the end of the English street where I was born sat the Alvis factory, turning out automotive works of art in a part of the world--The Midlands--that still harbors some of best engineering talent in the world. I've been a car nut and land speed record junkie since I was a boy, no doubt encouraged by learning that one of the legendary record holders was John Cobb (exact connection to family tree not known).

John Cobb was the first person to take a ground vehicle over 400 mph, back in 1947, and arguably held the land speed record longer than anyone (1939 to 1964). Cobb's Railton Special, with its twin W12 Napier aircraft engines, was the height of internal combustion-powered, wheel-driven technology. After Craig Breedlove put a turbojet in Spirit of America around 1963, the focus of land speed records shifted to jet propulsion. That is what took Andy Green and ThrustSSC through the sound barrier in 1997. Where do you go after breaking the sound barrier? How about 1,000 mph, the target speed of the BloodhoundSSC shown in this amazing computer visualization.
The power system for BloodhoundSSC is complex to say the least, incorporating a Cosworth V8 gasoline engine, a jet engine, and a rocket. Yes, a rocket. In fact, Gary Gabelich used a rocket to take his Blue Flame to 630 mph in 1970, setting a record that stood until 1983 when Richard Noble hit 634mph in Thrust2. BloodhoundSSC was originally designed as a rocket car but a jet engine was added for greater control.

The Cosworth V8, made in the Midlands and currently used in a number of Formula One racing cars, will not drive any wheels; its job is to pump rocket fuel and support the electrical and hydraulic systems on this huge vehicle.

The first attempt on the world land speed record with BloodhoundSSC should take place in 2013. To learn more about this extreme automotive adventure, check out the official BloodhoundSSC site.

July 21, 2012

The Rich Guy's Maserati GranTurismo by Pininfarina

For me, born and raised among some of the great automobile marques, one of the pleasures of living in Little Italy, a neighborhood within San Diego, is observing some excellent automobile designs up close. I do this while walking the dog or walking to the coffee shop or walking to work. In fact, walking is a great way to see cars, especially when they are parked. Which is how I came upon this beauty:

As many cars fans will immediately know from the distinctive trident emblem on the grille, this is a Maserati (the current Maserati GranTurismo to be more precise). Ask any automotive design aficionado which design house came up with this look and they are likely to say, without any additional data: Pininfarina. And they would be right. So who would own such a car without knowing that? Apparently the guy who owns this car.

While I was admiring this superb piece of automotive styling a man walked across the street making a b-line for the car and I asked him: "Yours?" He replied that it was. "Beautiful car," I said. He agreed. "One would expect no less from Pininfarina," I said. To which he responded "Huh?" Fearing it was my accent that confused the man, who was now standing by the driver side door, I explained: "Pininfarina design, always outstanding." I nodded toward the classic logo spelling out the name between the wheel arch and the door:

To which he replied: "I thought that had something to do with the rims." And he wasn't wrong, because the design of the wheels on this model does echo the trident emblem, repeated three times, but he clearly had no clue that Pininfarina designed the entire look of his car, or that Pininfarina is a legend in automotive design. Here's Wikipedia:
Founded as Società anonima Carrozzeria Pinin Farina in 1930 by automobile designer and builder Battista "Pinin" Farina, Pininfarina has been employed by a wide variety of high-end automobile manufacturers, including FerrariMaseratiRolls-RoyceCadillacJaguarVolvoAlfa Romeo,HondaFiatPeugeot and Lancia. It also has designed trams in France and Greece, high-speed trains in Holland, and trolleys in the USA. Since the 1980s Pininfarina has been consulted on industrial and interior design.
I might not be able to afford a Maserati, and frankly I don't need a Maserati, what with all the walking and public transportation, and cheap pay-as-you electric cars parked all around. However, I would like to think that people who can afford a six figure car at least have some idea of where it came from, but apparently that is not always the case. Sigh...

April 15, 2012

Hotel Travel Tip: More humidity, less luggage, and clean clothes

Here's my tip for alleviating a problem frequently encountered by folks on the road: notoriously dry hotel air. At the same time, this tip offers a way to travel lighter, packing fewer clothes:
Wash your shirts and such in the hotel sink and use the hotel towels to dry the clothes, adding moisture to the air as both towels and clothes dry out.
I used to think it was just me, but lately I have learned that many of my fellow travelers also suffer from the incredibly dry air you find in many in hotel rooms, particularly during the winter. This air often seems intent on totally desiccating hotel occupants.

One way to add moisture to the air is hang damp fabric around the room. So I figured, why not hang damp towels, my washed shirts and, yes, my washed boxers?

[WARNING: Never hang anything from a sprinkler or other fire response/alarm device!]

The damp towels are a by-product of a clothes-drying technique I learned from my wife. So here is my strategy for adding moisture to your room while traveling lighter:
  • Pack a smaller number of shirts than there are days in my trip; 
  • at the end of each day, rinse the shirt your wore that day in the bathroom sink; 
  • wring out the excess water from the shirt;
  • lay a bath towel on the bed;
  • lay the shirt on the bath towel; 
  • roll the shirt up in the towel;
  • then roll it tighter by holding one end of the towel/shirt bundle on the floor with your foot as you continue to twist; 
  • hold that for about 20 seconds and then unroll;
  • straighten out the shirt on a hanger and hang it to dry;
  • Hang the towel, unfolded, on the shower rail. 
Both towel and shirt put moisture into the air during the night as they dry. I rarely get up the next day to find either towels or shirts still damp. (On the other hand, I still feel dry in some hotels, so this is not a cure-all.)

Sometimes there are no convenient places to hang clothes to dry. One spot that can work is the swing out door on the TV cabinet. I found this works better if you put a dry washcloth between the shirt and the wood finish on the door.

Also, I normally travel with an S-shaped piece of coat hanger wire in my bag that works will to adapt hotel hangers when they have the small hooks on them.

But please, do not hang stuff on sprinklers, it is not worth the risk. Last year I stayed at a hotel where some kids had hung wet clothes on a sprinkler head and caused it to, well, sprinkle. Thousands of dollars of damage resulted in their room and on each of the floors below their room, all the way to the lobby where contractors were still peeling back wall paper and inspecting walls to find damage several days after the event.