26 September 2019

Food Recollections of a Hungry Youth in Antarctica (1959-60 Summer)

Every day for about ten weeks over the summer of 1959/60 we man-hauled sleds, climbed mountains, collected lichens and insects and rocks and surveyed all we could see to the east of the Beardmore Glacier – and we ate pemmican.  We were part of a New Zealand Alpine Club (NZAC) expedition to the Ross Dependency.

Pemmican is a high energy preserved meat and fat based food used by explorers in polar regions. Lean meat is dried and pounded into a powder and then mixed with equal quantities of fat.  If sealed from the air it keeps well and was a staple diet of polar explorers. We simply added water and boiled it into a thick gruel.  We would eat it with mashed potato powder to which butter and other high-energy items would be added.  Sometimes for variety we would add curry or other Indian spices.  The gruel was always very acceptable and there was always a competition to finish first and scrape the pot. Here are our rations for 20 man days.

During our man-hauling we would expend about 6500 calories each day.  At the end of our field trip we had lost weight despite all the pemmican. At the end of the field trip I was stranded at an American weather station depot near the Beardmore Glacier for about 27 days because of an aeroplane crash  - there was a change of food here as the Americans were very well supplied and generous towards this hungry youth - I particularly remember the chicken gumbo soup and the coffee and pream - by the time I got back to Scott Base all but one of the NZAC team had returned to New Zealand.

Working up an Appetite on the Ross Ice Shelf

Robin Oliver and the Wayward Cook at Scott Base

At Scott Base I found that the cook had been misbehaving.  For one, he had threatened the American McMurdo Commander and an American Senator when they visited Scott Base. The Scott Base leader and some others threw him out in the snow for his trouble.

When he found that a new cook was being advertised for in New Zealand (it had been decided that he was not going to last over the winter) he disappeared to the McMurdo rubbish dump with the remains of his problem, whisky, where he lived in a packing case and conducted a lively trade in whisky for food with the local Americans.  I was asked if I’d like a temporary job cooking for the Base until a new cook arrived.  Being a poor student I jumped at the chance to earn a few dollars.  There was another cook who was waiting to depart but he had completed his contract and overwintered, and was not going to give up the opportunity to spend some time looking at the wildlife and the historical huts before he left.  He did however give me lessons on the two essentials, gravy and bread making. The rest was up to my imagination!

It was hard work.  There was no room for me in Scott Base so I had to sleep out in a tent on my own each night.  I'd had a bath when I returned from the field - maybe I'd been the last of six or so in the one bath! But surely I didn't smell that bad.

I would rise at 4am, go across the ice to the kitchen and start the ovens.  Then I’d start making the bread for the 55 odd personnel and prepare breakfast.  After breakfast there would be more bread making activity and lunch to prepare.  On one occasion beetroot juice became accidentally mixed with the dough – novelty bread! I would get a couple of hours off in the afternoon before preparing dinner and finally I’d collapse asleep onto the floor of my polar tent about eight at night, totally exhausted.  In amongst all of the foregoing I’d have to prepare ahead for the next few days.  This would involve a trip out to the snow cave where all the food was stored.  It had to be given a couple of days to thaw so forward planning was essential. 

Staff at Scott Base (1960) and Barry the Cook (2nd from right)

One night an American scientist and his mate from McMurdo woke me in my tent.  Somehow he had fished an Antarctic Cod from a hole in the ice.  Would I cook it for him and his friend and have a third of it with them?  I staggered over to the kitchen and inspected the fish.  It was a good size and a large pan, a little butter, some salt and pepper turned it into a superb meal, one of the best fish I’ve ever had.  You shouldn't go wrong with a fresh fish unless you fail to cook and eat it immediately! Don't overcook it though.

One day someone came into the base and said that the Americans had lost a sledge and container into a crevasse while bringing it in from the Ross Ice Shelf airfield to McMurdo.  They had looked down the crevasse and abandoned the whole lot.  So we found a dog handler, hitched the dogs to a sled and raced out armed with crowbar and hammer.  We climbed onto the box, which was still jammed half out of the crevasse and was the size of a car packing case. We jemmied it open.  To our dismay it contained nothing but tins of green peas!  Undeterred, we emptied the container.  It took several trips back to Scott Base with the dogs but we ate well on green peas and I heard that the Base was still eating them a couple of years later.

21 July 2019

Matariki 2019

Matariki is the 'te reo' term for Pleiades the constellation which (down in the South Pacific) rises in the north-eastern horizon late in June and, for Maori, marks the end of one year and the beginning of the next.

It is a time for reflection on those who have gone before and for planning the year ahead - in particular ensuring crops are planted and grown. In New Zealand it is increasingly becoming a time for celebration - there is even talk of making it a national day. The season of Matariki is marked with a pre-dawn ceremony usually started at 0530 in the morning - brrrr.


Catherine and I have been going to this over the last three years. It is celebrated in Hamilton in the local botanical gardens - these are Hamilton's pride and joy, having been recently awarded the prize as International Tourist Garden of the Year. Catherine was guest speaker this year (talking about the nursery production of native plants for a 500 year (!) restoration project) and I penned my response (below) as a pakeha for the local newsletter of the Friends of Hamilton Gardens.

Kumara Being Cultivated

Pataka (food storehouse)

A Personal (and Pakeha) Response to the Dawn of Matariki - 2019

Surrounded by mountains, Taupiri, Pirongia, Kakepuku and Maungatautari we gather. Car doors close and we move under a misty darkness, guided by smiles and torchlight, to a circular piazza, our gathering place. Significantly for the occasion of Matariki the piazza represents the birthplace of Galileo who confirmed that we circle about our star – our four seasons. He was also the first to observe Matariki through a telescope.
At the piazza there is time to connect - to greet – and think …
The haunting karanga, like the stars of Matariki, seems to call from light years away. Announced by the conch shell our hikoi moves forward and we circle about a garden of kumara - and pataka. We recall the past year and welcome the year ahead – planning, planting, nurturing, harvesting and storing. And in a beautiful language and translation we are welcomed and reminded of the occasion. Isn’t rangihaeata (the first light of dawn) a beautiful and, for Matariki, a meaningful word?
Back through the piazza we gather again. Another karanga calls us to the Matariki breakfast. It has been cold outside and now we are inside. Music and warmth surround us. Song and poi delight us. We recognize familiar faces - smile or hongi or shake hands. The food is good. People speak. We are welcomed again – informed of voluntary social and environmental work – given the gift of a plant for the planet – something for the birds – berries for birdsong.
Somewhere outside, out there, the eyes of Matariki look down. We have greeted the dawn, honored the new year.
karanga calls us
from pre-dawn suns
hikoi in the dark
matariki light years away
seven eyes see us

This is a Tanka, a Japanese poetry form.


Nursery for Native Plants - Hamilton

04 March 2019

Growing Old and Pacing Yourself - of Mountains and Valleys.

This February marked the opening of a print exhibition I shared with two other artists (potter and a painter) at Darfield. It was stressful because I worried excessively about how the glassed and framed works would survive the air trip from Hamilton - they did.
Paradise - the Upper Waimakariri

After the opening and catching up with friends I made the most of my presence in the South Island and took off for the hills about Arthur's Pass for a few days with Mike White and Jim Wilson, 'old' climbing friends for more than sixty-five years. Sadly, Dave Elphick, the other of our climbing 'quartet', passed away a little while ago.

We spent much of the time based at Rough Creek Shambles, the Wilson family batch at the 'Pass'. From there we did day trips to the Upper Otira Valley, to the top of Avalanche Peak and had a three day excursion to the Pfieffer Bivi to the west of Arthur's Pass. There were heaps of stories from the past and we managed to even repeat a few of them during our trip! And the others would politely wait until you'd finished before telling you you'd told it two days ago!!

Mike and Jim

The Rocky Knoll

One of the Pfieffer Basins

Pfieffer Bivi

The highlight was probably our trip to Pfieffer. Apart from the return day the weather was magnificent and we spent the middle day resting and taking photos of the surrounds. The big lesson for us was finding that our times were more than double the guide book times. The suggested 4-6hrs in to Pfieffer took us close to 11hrs. This was a wake-up for us who (it seemed only a few years ago) prided ourselves on doing trips well under suggested times.

Our trip up the Otira Valley was full of memories - joint memories of both joy and sadness. It is still one of our favourite valleys.

In the Upper Otira Valley

And then there was a great lunch with John (Jim's brother) and Ash - full of good stories from Ash - and us. Isn't it great when folk who know one another well, get together - there is never a lost word.
And everywhere about Arthur's Pass was the hyperactivity of the Coast to Coast - in full swing as we climbed Avalanche - more memories.

We nearly didn't make it to the summit of Avalanche Peak - managed it by having a good rest and adjusting our pace downwards. On top it was like the United Nations - young back packers from Israel, France, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Holland, Germany, America, United Kingdom, several from Asia and a few Kiwis. And they were just the ones we found out about. All good company - as is usual when you meet like-minded folk in the mountains.

Slowly Upwards Towards Avalanche Peak


Little Leafed Celmisia

A Kea scans our lunch with a wicked eye.

Mt Rolleston and Crow Neve from Avalanche Peak

We didn't seem to be going slowly - the others were just faster and the clock wasn't fibbing. I guess that out average age of over 82 had something to do with it. But we enjoyed ourselves and felt pleased with our achievements. Still planning more get-togethers in the mountains.

Here is a quote from something I read about 65 years ago :

… he who loves the mountains for themselves and for their eternal beauty will never grudge them their everlasting youth. He will turn to them again and again, knowing they will never fail him. And when he can no longer do more than lift his eyes to the hills he will still find that the promised strength is unfailing – not strength of body but of spirit, garnered from long days in nature’s tranquillity and peace.

Andre Roche “On Rock and Ice”

25 December 2018

Radiation Explosion in Russia in 1957 - Interesting 'Exposure'

During the late 1960s I developed a keen interest in a disease of (mainly) cattle associated with the consumption of bracken fern. The acute form of the disease commonly was seen as severe haemorrages throughout the animals' tissues. Longterm exposure to bracken caused cancers of the urinary bladder. The disease syndrome of bracken toxicity was often described as 'radiomimetic', an acknowledgement of its likeness to radiation sickness. Eventually the cause of the disease (a plant carcinogen, ptaquiloside) was discovered almost simultaneously by Japanese and Dutch scientists. I eventually did some work on the disease myself and wrote a few reviews on the subject. It was a very interesting story.

But back in about 1965 I came across a curious paper in Russian describing some work on the subject. I had it translated. The author, Moroshkin, in 1959 described the condition and its radiomimetic nature and showed the results of their investigation. They had taken bracken from the area where they had seen the disease, ashed the bracken in situ and exposed the undisturbed bracken ashes on a photographic plate in total darkness. This was the then method of doing an autoradiograph. The photographic plate showed the image of the fern ash, indicating that the fern emitted ionising radiation. They did the same with the animal bones! No other details of the nature of these radioactive substances was given. Subsequent science has clearly indicated that the carcinogen is ptaquiloside (and some similar minor molecules) and, although nothing to do with radiation, that the 'radiomimetic' effect is due to ptaquiloside's action on the DNA of rapidly dividing cells (mainly gut epithelium and bone marrow cells) - something radioactive substances also do. But what had caused these autoradiographic images?

Eventually it transpired that back in 1957 a major explosion of nuclear materials had occurred in Kyshtym, in the eastern Urals area. The whole event had been hushed up at the time but eventually exposed publicly by a Soviet scientist, Zhores A Medvedev, in his book, "Nuclear Disaster in the Urals", in 1979. The radiation had spread over about 50 000 square kilometres. Medvedev called it at the time 'biggest nuclear tragedy in peacetime the world has known'. The explosion at Kyshtym has since been confirmed.

Zhores Medvedev

Not only had the Soviet Union denied and disguised the event at the time - but, fearing public reaction against nuclear energy, the CIA, who had knowledge of the disaster, also did the same. Even the chairman of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, Sir John Hill, dismissed Medvedev's claims as 'rubbish' and 'a figment of the imagination'. Medvedev became a Soviet dissident and was sacked from his post as head of a department of molecular biology near Moscow. He was detained in 1970 and taken to a psychiatric hospital where he was diagnosed as having 'creeping schizophrenia' and 'paranoid delusions of reforming society'. Although exiled in the UK (his Russian citizenship was revoked while he was working legitimately in the UK) he eventually regained his citizenship but chose to remain working in the National Institute for Medical Research in London until he retired in 1991. He died recently on 15th November 2018.

But I still wonder if the Russian publication of this interesting investigation of the cattle disease caused by bracken was not a cryptic attempt to let the rest of the world know that this nuclear accident had occurred.

I searched assiduously for the original paper recently but could find no evidence of its existence. But I still have the translation.

24 November 2018

Speakers Who Extend Their Time - Amazing

A journalist friend recently wrote an interesting story about a speaker at a wedding who didn't know when to stop. I now forget the details of her story but it reminded me of a couple of occasions when I've witnessed similar excesses.

The first was at the funeral of a friend with whom I'd worked - he died quite soon after his retirement and some of his workmates and I turned up to pay our respects. I had been asked to speak and did my best to keep to the time allotted and to give due honour. His son also spoke, and then the officiating minister started. I'd worked with my friend for about 30 years and thought I knew something about his attitudes and beliefs. So I was somewhat surprised at the fervent content of the religious tribute. I threatened to walk out mid-speech but Catherine wasn't having any of that from me. Some did walk out. On and on it went.

Finally my workmate's son who was there supporting his mother, who was showing signs of distress, went up to the Minister and asked him to stop. No - on and on he went and the fire and damnation and soul saving became more inflamed. The son, after more time had passed, stood up again and asked him to stop. Finally after another round of religious fervour he stopped and eventually we all filed out of the church. The unfortunate minister was then verbally set upon by the widow, the son too. I went and had my say as well. The minister departed and never attended the function afterwards. I met my deceased friend's brother there and we shared a few laughs about the past.

The other story goes back a lot further to 1974 when I attended my first big international conference in Sydney. It was one of those special interest meetings that takes place every four years. I was stunned at the numbers present and in particular by the presence of opposing teams from the USA who seemed to take great delight in savaging one another's work. Quite intimidating for someone about to give his first overseas paper, albeit a very minor 'also ran' one on the last afternoon of the last day. But before that there was the German Professor. He was giving a leading paper on some aspect of ruminant dreaming (!) involving REM (rapid eye movement) and brain scans.

A friend from New Zealand was sitting next to me and he knew most of the main players at the conference. "See that scar" he said, directing his gaze at the German Professors face. "Sabre duelling scar" he informed me. I was duely (please excuse the pun) impressed. The professor spoke on and on, reviewed the subject, described the methodology, the results, discussed the findings and drew conclusions. But he went on beyond his allotted time. The bell was sounded. Then the Chairman rose and coughed politely. On the Professor went. After a few more minutes the Chairman moved across the stage to try and 'wrestle' back some control of the situation, The professor saw him coming. He paused and lowered his billiard cue pointer and adopted a fencer's pose. Leaping forward towards the Chairman and crying "Advance Mr Chairman - - - at your peril," He then proceeded to poke the Chairman back off the stage. The Chairman dutifully retreated to his chair, sat down stunned (as were the conference attendees), and the Professor continued for several more minutes wrapping up his lecture.

There was no time for questions and the rest of the session ran behind by some time. And morning tea was shortened to get the whole show back on time. Horrors.

25 October 2018

Epic Yachting from Auckland to Tahiti - Part Three "No Motor - No Power - No Steering - No Wind and the Reef"

Today was hopeless.  We just drifted all day.  Our progress was 5 nautical miles east all day!  Another swim – great.  About now Dave, who had been having trouble with disrupted sleep because his head poked out of his quarter berth into the main cabin, decided to sleep with his head up in the stern.  This was better for all of us, more sleep for Dave and less nightmares for the rest of us – we figured that  Dave’s feet were much more attractive than his other end.

Next day we got our first sight of human existence for 19 days.  A largish fishing boat appeared on the horizon and passed just astern of us.  As it approached I suggested turning on the VHF and onto the emergency channel, sure enough, we hear,  “Amigo, amigo” repeated a couple of times.  Must be South American we say to one another.  We reply.  They seem to have problems understanding us.  And they sound Oriental and confirm it with “we Chinese”.  Simone offers some mandarin phrases for “how are you” and “thanks”.  This invokes some laughter from the Chinese so we offer goodbye in Mandarin (they are now moving away behind us).  More laughter and finally “Bye,Bye – and laughter” and then silence, as should be the case on emergency channels.  But the VHF range is about 40km so we had no concerns about us blocking emergency calls out there!!

Chinese Ship Passes Astern

BLS dons his Vietnamese Army Cap to Deter the Chinese

The thirteenth of June was Simone’s 30th birthday and she seemed down.  We made her a birthday cake with three candles and sang ‘Happy Birthday’ out of tune.  We even added a tin of fruit salad but it doesn’t seem to buck her up much.  We found later that she’d been feeling lonely and was missing her family and friends.  Her attempt to call them on John’s satellite phone had failed and that hadn’t helped either.

We poled out the jib for today.  With the wind behind us though, and with the sails shielding the solar panels from the sun, power generation was a problem.

Today was the same as yesterday but today at dawn Simone was all smiles.  She had been the first to see land.  Up ahead off the starboard bow was the first of the Australe Islands, Rurutu.  It is all we could do to stop her from steering towards them.  Several reasons we told her, the main one being that we had no motor and wanted to keep our exposure to lee shores to a minimum.  The gannet like birds we had been seeing for a day were seen diving after fish and we saw a few flying fish scarpering between the waves.  More tropic birds too.

Yet another day of no progress and a flat ocean so all we did was have another swim.  Dave made a fish pie.

No Motor - No Power - No Steering - No Wind and the Reef

The wind picked up on the 17th June and we made good progress northwards.  The inactivity lead to a bout of cabin fever but after a little discussion it all calmed down.

Throughout the night the wind came and went in a frustrating manner but by the afternoon we are sailing among tropical downpours.  At this rate we expected to get to Papeete in a couple of days.  We only had about 160 nautical miles to go!!  More tropic birds were seen in the morning.  They were much more attractive that I remember from previous visits to the tropics.  They seemed attracted to and were interested in the yacht.  We could now see Tahiti – very impressive with its jagged skyline.

The nineteenth was John’s birthday.  I got up with the birds to bake the bread and we flew  along at about 6.3 knots on the auto helm, which was much easier and gave us more chance to talk together.  Our spirits were up now as our journeys end was near.  At 7.30pm we had only 60 miles to go but chose to head to the west of Moorea to avoid tacking up the channel to Papeete, which, with the present wind direction we would have had to do.  Throughout the night we keep well out from the coast  - not a lee shore then but we had no intention of allowing it to become a near one after a wind shift.  In the morning I become aware of John and Dave were having problems going about and getting going again.  Something seemed wrong.  We skirted along the north of Moorea and tried heading up the channel.  To no avail.  We just seemed to reach backwards and forwards across the north of the channel – almost seemed to go backwards rather than forwards.  It is almost as if a strong northern current from the channel was keeping us from making progress.  We tried all ideas, tacking on the Moorea side and tacking to and fro on the Tahiti side of the channel.  Finally I had a fiddle with the ‘non-functional’ self-steering rudder and lo, the sails begin to luff.  I tried centring the smaller rudder by lashing it in position.  On our next tack my adjustment was proved right as Tetega suddenly surged straight up the channel towards Papeete and we are on our last run.  A minor tack to get ourselves on course and we were soon in line with the Papeete markers and flew in with all colours flying – literally, the yellow Q flag, the French flag and the NZ flag all flying from the starboard spreaders.  

About a kilometre from the harbour markers, and without any warning the wind just suddenly stopped.  Stopped dead – from about eighteen knots to zero in about five seconds.  We gaped; we swore; and we were dumbfounded.  After about five minutes the most gentle of breezes started to blow from the other direction and we started to make pitiful progress towards the gap in the reef.  About half to one knot!  Finally it too gave up the ghost when we were about 200m from the reef. 

Darkness wasn’t far away and we were just sitting there.  Most of the last of the ferries from Moorea had gone past and a speedboat, but nothing that we thought could help.  We looked ashore for signs of smoke moving.  The only smoke we could see was going nowhere so with the breakers of the reef not far away we had to call up the harbour authorities and ask for help.  After some confusion the tug came out and towed us in at great speed.  I nearly fell overboard – that would have been the final ignominy.  I thought no one had noticed but later Dave had great delight in reminding me, and everyone else how close I’d been to going overboard.  Nothing gets unnoticed on a yacht.  A great vignette for me was in the gathering darkness when a group of three va’a (Tahitian wakas) powered past us as we were towed in.

The tug did a great job and tied us up on the main frontage with four lanes of traffic heading past at what seemed incredible speed.  After 27 days at sea  we staggered about on the roadside like drunks.  We were illegal immigrants but, undeterred, we zig-zagged across the road to a cold beer that was beckoning.  We compounded our sins even more by escaping into the back blocks of Papeete to have a slap-up meal.  This was all in our dirty smelly cloths but the restaurant turned out to be the best in Papeete.  The staff coped with us well but the clientele were seen to be averting their eyes.  Finally we behaved in an even more anti-social manner when we found a fresh water tap and hosed ourselves down within a couple of metres of the roaring traffic.  That night we slept like lambs in the stillness of the harbour; John asleep with a permanent grin on his face.

Next morning we were processed through customs and immigration and taxied out to the Royal Tahitian where Catherine was waiting with the starter motor and a big hug.

About this time John discovered that the jumper lead thickness wire that had been used to put the batteries in parallel was now a bare wire, the plastic covering having been melted off.  We assumed that this had happened during the starter motor melt down and felt rather lucky that this hadn’t shorted the bank of batteries and caused another fire. For a first long distance ocean voyage John had experienced more than the normal share of problems.  With a little help from us (Dave mainly) he’d battled through his baptism by fire and come out the other end with flying colours.  Two of the crew had a meltdown before we started and you might wonder how we had fared together.  Well, for such a shaky start we survived very well.  We had our moments as might be expected if you took four human beings and shook them all up in a small wet cabin (reality shows - there’s an idea) for 27 days.  However the very few little spats that occurred were quickly resolved by mature discussion.   Simone eventually opted to leave the yacht at Papeete – but after they had been to Pitcairn Island and John had broken his leg there! - her father in Holland was ill.  They eventually made it to Bristol in UK - and finally back to New Zealand.

04 October 2018

Epic Yachting from Auckland to Tahiti - Part Two "The Fire and a Gale"

In the evening a guardian angel dolphin leapt from the water besides the cockpit and a number of them played about the boat for some time.  We were surprised to find them so far from land, about 400km.

The next day we sailed in fair weather and diminishing wind and used the motor for a while to charge the batteries.  The light-mantled sooty albatrosses were still passing now and then.  Great sailing!

The wind diminished to below a sailing breeze the following day and we motored most of the day.  I took the opportunity to have a thorough bucket wash in the cockpit – great for the spirit.  At night a frustrating mixture of light sailing wind and motoring.

Fair Weather Sailing is Good for the Spirits

Day started by having breakfast with John in the cockpit with him on the Iridium phone discussing FoRST (Science) funding with one of his collaborators, who happened to be in Toronto.  More bread-making today – I’m developing a routine which doesn’t involve hunting for ingredients for about half an hour.  And the results aren’t too bad either.  Today we watched Blue Planet on Dave’s computer and Simone was embarrassed to find that she had chucked all our forks and most of our spoons overboard with the washing water.  We calculate that they will take at least 20 minutes to reach the bottom, which is about 4.5 km away!!  We make a note to get Catherine to bring some more when she meets us in Tahiti.  John reports our position on the satellite phone and we all send Emails to our friends.  There is never a dull moment with this modern sailing.

The Fire and the Gale

We are getting sick of the incessant noise of the diesel – if only we knew!!  I’d made a comment that I thought I could hear a sound in the motor – maybe a leak in the exhaust system?  Just as we were turning in John announced that he would have a quick look at the motor.  Dave shone a torch in and thought he could see a slight haze.  I didn’t take much notice and started to climb into my bunk.  Just as I was settling down Dave tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Have a look at this”.  I climbed out and looked.  Coming from the back of the motor was a definite trail of smoke that, as we watched, rapidly turned into a major smoke hazard.  Within moments the cabin was filled with smoke and breathing became difficult. Fire extinguishers were grabbed, but without a source point were not deployed.  I remember saying as the next breath promised to produce a coughing fit– “I’m getting out of here” and that seemed to start the general evacuation.  The motor was switched off, the life raft grabbed, Simone was rescued from the forward compartment by John and the grab-bag containing flares, handheld GPS, EPERB rescue beacon, satellite phone (images of Rob Hall), water – everything in fact except our life vests!!  Within moments we were all sitting on the transom readying the life raft and other things for deployment and watching the smoke billowing from the cabin.  In the depths of the cabin was an ominous dull orange glow.  We sat and shivered a little in the cold thanking ourselves that the sea was calm and getting into the life raft was not going to be a fraught affair.   We waited wondering what would eventuate and whether or not flames would appear through the smoke.  Over a period of about half an hour the smoke slowly lessened and dissipated and the dull glow turned out to be a torch that had been left behind and on.

When it was OK to put our heads back in the cabin, Dave and John wriggled in to the back of the motor and investigated the source of the smoke.  Here they discovered the burned out starter motor with molten leads attached.  Very close were plastic fuel containers with 50 litres of fuel.  We cast our agnostic eyes heavenwards.

Then came the discovery that a switch had been accidentally turned on in the cabin.  Just after the storm we had found that the cockpit starter switch for the motor wouldn’t work.  The only way we could start the motor was to hot wire it and we did this by wiring in a switch and circuit.  Somehow this had been turned on by accident – it could have been any of us so we didn’t go there.  The damage was done and we had to make the best of our situation.

We now had no reliable power source, as the motor was the main source of power.  We had a wind generator which was new and in good condition, and also a solar array (over a square metre), new and also in good condition.  But at night and in a calm these were not going to work – but hey, comes the dawn.  In the light of day we did our assessment – or rather John did – things were not so bad.  We wouldn’t need power for starting the motor again!  We could save battery power by eliminating all the non-essentials such as SSB radio, electronic steering and lights at night.  More energy could be created using the wind generator and the solar panels although the output of these was variable.  In the fine weather the sails tended to shade the solar panels.  The main problem was that our water consumption was much greater than it should have been from our calculations.  We wondered if we had a leak.  However John had a new desalination plant on board and, after an air lock problem at the start of the trip, this was now working; but it required power and its power demands over the next couple of weeks meant that when water needed to be topped up the desalinator had precedence over the self steering.  Hence we were in for a lot of hand steering for the rest of the journey.  We also had no idea of how long the journey would take, as we were totally dependent on wind.

Another minor problem was the compass light failing.  We managed this by strapping my headlamp back to front on the compass rose but at night I preferred to keep on course by the stars and found this very satisfying.

Anyway, after the fire we let our contacts know what had happened and to expect that no news or messages (due to loss of power) was good news.  On satellite phone we contacted Dave Giddens, a sail maker friend in Auckland and he arranged for a replacement starter motor to be couriered to Hamilton where Catherine would bring it to Tahiti.  It made the journey OK but somewhere along the way the wrong number or motor was sent and another had to be sent out.

A couple of nights later Simone reported that, on her watch, more dolphins had been alongside to check on our safety.  One had jumped just before they all left.  Late in the morning a group of whales passed us on our starboard side, their spouts being visible for some time almost right out to the horizon.  They were heading in a SW direction.

On the 8th June a very strong gale from the NW hit us.  We had to hand helm even though the battery situation was healthy.  We had been hand helming for three days, and throughout the gale, because the electronic steering seemed to have given up the ghost.  After the gale we found that the cut out switch in the cockpit (the switch which enables the helmsman in the cockpit to take over the steering) had been accidentally switched on.  We had been hand steering for three days for nothing!!  Ho ho, we have steering!

Anyway, although the final gale was not accompanied by a huge swell, we were just as discomforted by it as the first storm.  Its wind velocity was into the high forties (knots) but it didn’t last as long.  During its last blow we all clung on in the cabin, wincing as the boat shuddered with each gust and watching the blue water rush past our submarine windows!  We ate more chocolate.  

While we were reefing the sails during the build-up to the gale, Simone saw a whale sound just in front of the yacht.  She kept quite about it not wanting to distract us from the job in hand.

We discovered after the gale that the connection between the wind vane and the server had been broken and this seemed unrepairable at sea.  In addition the locking screw, which enabled us to centre the wind vane rudder, was stripped.  This was to cause problems later.  The next morning we were all ravenously hungry having hardly eaten the previous day.  In the morning we discovered that a hole in the sail, caused by a flogging strip from a now empty sail batten pocket, was enlarged so we lowered the sail and applied a patch.  Later on we spotted another dolphin pod head past at speed.  They took no notice of us.

Our next problem was a blocked toilet.  And it took considerable time and effort to clean it out.  The following day was calm and after we had drifted far enough away from the site of the blocked toilet in the now calm and motionless conditions we all went for a swim.  The ocean was glass calm and clear as spring water.  We kept a fender tied to a length of rope as we did not fancy the prospect of the boat drifting away from us with about 5 km of water underneath us and the nearest land about 300 km away.  We saw two tropic birds today – a sign of progress northwards.

So clear we wondered if we would see the bottom - 5 km away

26 September 2018

Epic Yachting from Auckland to Tahiti - Part One "The Storm"

We had a shakedown cruise about the Hauraki Gulf to become familiar with the yacht and with one another. The only near tragedy was when we made a dingy visit to the mussel harvesting crew and almost swamped our small boat when the mussel workers overdid their generosity when giving us some mussels to have a feed - and more.

But a few weeks later when I arrived from Hamilton to join ‘Tetega’ in Auckland the other two crew had already had a domestic, in, of all places, the local supermarket.  After the spat they settled for separate trolleys and stocks of food.  What sort of couple is this, the other shoppers must have wondered!  The other problems with leaving Auckland were all the well-wishers, bless them.  Each time we tried to get last minute things done the cell phones would ring or an alcoholic pudding would arrive.  We prevailed through their greetings and an invitation to dinner, which we wouldn’t have missed for anything, finally getting the last of our list crossed off.

Finally we sighed at the now empty marina finger, threw ashore the last of our mooring lines and motored over to customs.  Two other yachts were in front of us but neither of them took as long to clear as we did.  John, our skipper, had filled in his name as John when his passport showed him as James Jonathon – just the sort of thing terrorist conscientious government officials love to get their teeth into.  The crew grinned while the skipper squirmed.

We were cleared now and in answer to yet more phone calls from fans we motored a few ‘wave-pasts’ of the pre-advised pier and turned our faces towards the top of the Coromandel Peninsula.

Darkness fell as we entered the Colville Channel and headed to the right of the Cuvier light.  By dawn the land had gone and one of the watches reported us striking something in the night, a log we thought.  We headed east, the proposed route being to head east towards longitude 155W and then head northwards towards Tahiti.

After the first couple of days we discovered that the ‘house’ battery was not charging – we couldn’t determine why although there was much searching among the maze of wiring.  A good use was found for the satellite phone and John phoned a marine electrician in Auckland.  The result of this was that we wired all three batteries in parallel.  The downside of this was that we wouldn’t have a reserve battery for starting the motor and would have to constantly check that the batteries were being kept charged.

The watches were arranged so that we each rotated through three two- hour watches each day.  I did midnight to 2am; John (the skipper, scientist, mountaineer) did 2 – 4am, Dave (crew, from UK chef, diver and entrepreneur) 4 – 6am and Simone (crew, free lance documentary maker and amateur anthropologist) 6 – 8am and so on.  During the day the watches were somewhat informal but during darkness we strictly adhered to them.  At night and when alone in the cockpit we always kept attached by our harnesses to either a cockpit U-bolt or to a lifeline which ran from the bow to the transom.  No one fancied the idea of climbing up into the cockpit at night and finding one of us gone so we all disciplined one another on this score.

The Crew, Dave and Simone and the Skipper, John. (right)

Early in the trip a very annoying creak developed in the forward area of the boat.  It annoyed hell out of Simone who slept (or tried to) in the forward compartment and the noise eventually got under all our skins.  After us initially trying to pass it off as just another yacht noise John tracked it down to movement in a bulkhead ply sheet and after considerable effort with chisel and spanner managed to eliminate the beast.

The Storm

A swell from the south was building up and the signs were ominous.  That night we reefed the main.  I was still a little unsteady on the boat and this resulted in me taking a plunge across the cockpit, ending up spread-eagled with my head between (luckily) two winches and an arm with a large haematoma.  Luckily I was otherwise intact and able, except when I tried to rest the offending arm on something.  The wind and swell died and we did some motoring the next day.  When the wind returned from the SE we got in some good sailing but it strengthened throughout the night with us flying at 7.5 knots and having to ease the main and put away the headsail.

The next day the wind increased through 30 knots and into the 40s and we had wind gusts into the 50’s.  The swell reached large proportions with some tops breaking and spume spreading about the sea.  We estimated the swell to be about nine metres.  It was time to put out the drogue – the item I’d made and cluttered about our house prior to the trip.  It went out OK but with us experiencing some difficulty in arranging the yoke.  Once out it had a good slowing effect.  That night we just drifted and sheltered below.  We could tell by the sounds what was happening, and occasionally by the showers of water squirting through the hatchway boards.  In the middle of it Simone expressed some concern for our safety.  We did our best to reassure her with words of confidence and comfort food in the form of chocolate bars.  We hoped our nonchalant munching of chocolate would reassure her but the truth was that none of the males was going to leave any chocolate uneaten as we descended to join Davey Jones.

The morning revealed massive swells and some damage to the yacht.  One of the stanchions alongside the cockpit had been bent in.  The huge effort required to bend it back so we had access to the fore deck gave us some idea of the clout the yacht had received when the damage was done.  Later in the day we pulled in the drogue (with some difficulty, involving the winch) and started the drying process.  Throughout the storm everything inside the cabin had become wet to some degree and soon the boat looked like some sort of Chinese laundry on half price day.  As the wind decreased we eased out the genoa over the storm jib, which was on the inner forestay and eventually replaced the tri-sail with the main.  The clouds dissipated and the full moon rose in the early evening.

Starting with this storm, the radar reflector that had been hanging from the port spreaders gradually disintegrated.  The plastic protective corners on it began to work loose and after several attempts to stabilize it, and prevent it shredding the sails, it finally fell apart towards the end of the voyage.

Repairing a Sail

The wind eased throughout the next day and we made good sailing progress.  One of the benefits of this southerly storm was the appearance of albatrosses, in particular sooty and light-mantled sooty albatrosses – my favourites.  They resemble, but on a larger scale, the plentiful sooty shearwaters, which cannot be excelled for their amazing skills over and with the waves.  But nothing beats the albatrosses for sheer majesty.  Worth every second of the storm!

Next Episode  "The Fire and the Gale"

05 August 2018

Bottling the Wine - When things go wrong!

There was an occasion (back in the 1970s) when the wine section of the NZ Dept of Agriculture decided to dispose of some of its experimental wines by public tender. I thought it a great idea to form a syndicate and submit a tender. First, of a couple of us visited the winery at Te Kauwhata, and sampled the wine, it was good we thought - fruity and dry. So a group of us (about 12, I recall) formed a syndicate, submitted a tender and crossed our fingers. Some time later a letter arrived - our tender had been successful - we paid up - arranged a bottling party and collected the bulk wine.

The day arrived, everyone turned up with their cleaned bottles, siphons were organised, a corking station was established and the work streamlined. An appropriate couple of glasses each were consumed - everyone was happy and all departed homewards, each with a few dozen bottles containing a delicious white wine. All was well.

No - Not That Sort of Party

A few weeks late my phone started ringing. Several members of the syndicate reported that their bottles had started blowing their corks. Their wives were very unhappy at the free flowing wine in their cupboards. One even had their bottles exploding in the linen cupboard! It was soon established that there was something seriously wrong with the wine. I made inquiries and was told that we'd probably not sterilised our bottles properly. This information was relayed to the syndicate members but was not well received. Most of the syndicate were in the science industry and one had even sterilised his bottles in the institutions autoclaves. It was time for serious investigation. Some inquiry established the real cause of the problem. After our initial sampling had established the quality of the wine, some staff member had blended our wine with a sweet wine and established a secondary fermentation. So unbeknown to us we had been dealing with an early champagne - with ordinary bottles and corks. No wonder the bottles were exploding!

By good fortune one of our members wives had been a legal executive in Auckland during a previous incarnation and offered her skills. Over a glass of better wine we constructed (I thought) a very good letter. Made it look very legal too with the appropriate professional phraseology. It included the relevant facts regarding cause and effects, the effects on those who had sampled it - who it was said - suffered from 'borborygami' and concluded with a hardly veiled threat 'to take the matter further'.  We decided that recompense for damage done in the homes and damage done to the reputation of the syndicate factotum was taking it a bit far. It was later reported that the responsible Director, instructed his 'Mr Fixit' to deal with and resolve the issue in our favour. We were to return any unopened bottles and our payment would be returned.

I parked my trailer on the front lawn and asked the syndicate members to return their bottles into it at their convenience. A week or two later the trailer was half full of half-empty bottles, the lawn covered with wine corks and the neighbourhood smelled like an ill-kept winery. Our money was returned but I did wonder if the incident ever had any effect on my future chances of promotion. However the whole event was a great learning experience - and very memorable.

06 June 2018

Frugality 3

Yet a few more contributions on frugality from friends. As before I've cut out names to give the comments anonymity. And each contribution is a different colour - keep them coming - we will end up with a book!

Couple of memories of being ‘frugal or needs must’….G’s mum bought second hand jerseys, my mum too, and unravelled and washed the wool and re-knit one for their children.

We ate a lot of rice meals and if there was some rice left over, it was spread out on a tray and put outside in the sun, then baked in the oven. Sprinkle some salt on and was a tasty treat. My parents were in concentration camps for 3 and a half years so food was never wasted and we had to eat everything on our plate before we left the table. An orange was a luxury as was an egg ! Bought warm coats from ‘Op shop’ and made coats for the kids.

G’s mum was a twin and one of 11 in a 3 bedroom house on the farm. She slept all her life, until she was married, on the verandah with her twin. In winter they put down a canvas blind and in summer there was a creeper on the verandah which provided a bit of shade. At one time there were 3 in the bed. Didn’t feel deprived as there were many in the same boat.

Also made soap for many years.

I read your latest blog. I'm slightly older than Barry - I was 80 last year - and can remember some things from 1939, including clearly my father's enlistment in August 1940. He had Huguenot French ancestors and (my mother later said) was disgusted by the 'Fall of France' in June, so the Aussies (and Kiwis and Canadians) set off to stiffen the opposition to the Nazis.

   The thing about adversity (including economic stricture and consequent frugality) is that if everyone is in the same boat, nobody minds much. Being 'middle class' (in economic terms) is comfortable - we were all in it together. I've long held that you only need enough (money) - too little or too much makes you unhappy.

   Both my parents worked in banks (rival banks) during the Great Depression and both stressed on us the dangers of debt. Dad used to say "Don't let the wool firms get their hooks into you; don't let them get a lien over your livestock. Neither of my parents would borrow money, hence in 1948 when everyone was buying new Holdens, they bought a 1937 Plymouth.

   During the war, I remember stick-on soles for shoes and toe- and heel clips. Later I had hand-me-down uniforms for boarding school. We lived in a town from  1945 until 1950 and In 1947 my brother (older) got a paper round.  Father said he would pay half if my brother paid off the other half from his earnings, which he did. The newsagent was also the bike shop. I never had a new bike until my current family gave me one so I could ride with my teenage children. 
Comment from BarryS - I never had a new bike until I was 80 and purchased it myself so that I could keep up with a great-gandmother in my bike group.

I enjoyed reading about your experiences. D also had me turning collars and resewing sheets. I admit I no longer do either.

What your blog does remind me off is the housing shortage in Sydney after the war. Mum and Dad had a flat in Bondi Junction when I was born. The landlady did not like babies and, when I was about six weeks old, she relet the flat when Mum was out shopping. She put our belongings on the landing. Mum spent the day in the park waiting for Dad to come home from work. She had the cat in a string bag. We did not find a home for about a year. Instead we did what today they call surfcouching. At one friend’s home, I slept in a bottom drawer placed on the floor. Finally, a friend of Dad’s family rented them a sub

Comment from BarryS - I had a friend during my late teens. He and his wife were struggling financially and had their first baby sleeping in the bottom drawer - the family joke was that when the baby cried they shut the drawer!

Enjoy your blogs immensely and yes I too have a frugality story. My Grandfather was an engineer at the Manawatu Knitting Mills and maybe that is where I got my inventiveness. I still miss him and would love to have a chat now that I have been through life.

But during the depression as a Xmas gift my Grandfather received from his work a roll of navy coloured cloth. With this my Grandmother was able to sew an entire outfit for each of their 5 children at the time. Same pattern with variations for gender and of course to fit the 3 to 16 year olds.

Needless to say that clothing myself and siblings was always done by Mum to make us different. Mum (smallest) hated those ‘same same’ clothes.

This would have been taken about 1929 at a guess. Sadly now all gone – and all but one of the next five too.

I get the impression that some of the frugal habits of our forebears are still alive and well today. And I also wonder if the children of today could benefit from reading this series of blogs on making do. bls

13 May 2018

Music Critic Comments on Nudity at the Chamber Music Concert - a Vignette from the 80s


It was not often that we sat in the first few rows at the Founders Theatre in Hamilton, NZ.. That night back in the late 1980s a visiting Trio from the South Island was playing, three males, two young and the leader not so young, playing, and it seemed right to sit closer and our friends thought so too. So we all stretched out along a row about five back from the front.

The first item after the intermission was a melodious Schubert trio; we sat relaxed and in wonder. Until, for me that is, the leader turned a page of his music score during the second movement. Positioned slightly to the left of the leader it was possible to see the face of his score. I started slightly as he turned the page. A nude! Was I seeing correctly?

When the concert and the applause concluded at the end of the evening I leaned across towards Pat, a friend a couple of seats to my right. Had he seen the page in question? No, he hadn’t and what was it I was talking about. I told him. He snorted his derision. Had I been asleep dreaming or was I just obsessed with sex? This was all said within hearing of the surrounding people who were, by now, filing out of the concert. This was getting awkward and repeating my assertion was only going to make it worse. Catherine was looking daggers. Did I have to be embarrassing her too?

Just then I noticed the local music critic, Geoff Fairburn, making his way forward to the stage where the music stands still stood. “Come on,” I asserted, “Geoff Fairburn is going to look at the music.” There was no turning back now. Maybe I had been dreaming. What if I was to be proved wrong?

Geoff was a tall man and needed a walking stick to get about. He leaned across the orchestra pit and, with his walking stick, hooked the violinist's music stand towards the edge of the stage where he could reach the music scores. He turned to me. Was I interested in a particular score? What the hell was it? I made a stab for Schubert and he passed it to me. By now I was surrounded by several of my friends and others who similarly were interested. Like a well-thumbed bodice ripper the score fell open on the page in question. One side of the page had stuck to it a very alluring and full-frontal nude from some magazine. A schoolgirl in the surrounding group shrieked and I snapped it shut and passed it to Geoff to replace on the stand. By now, of course, he was examining the Beethoven score.

We all dispersed. Pat was in the crowd and I made sure that he knew that I hadn’t been dreaming. We discussed the purposes of these supplements to the musical score over coffee and headed to our respective homes and dreams.

A day or two later, Geoff reviewed the concert in the Waikato Times. I paraphrase him. It had been a good concert he maintained; good programme too. The high spot, he said, had been the sweet little bit in the second movement of the Schubert. Only in Hamilton.

05 April 2018

Easter Resurrection for Ancient Kayaker - Waikato River

On and off, we'd been discussing this project - kayaking from Hamilton to Port Waikato a journey down the Waikato River of some 110 kilometres. So this Easter two of my sons and I decided that it was all on. Dad's cunning plan was to use his downriver racer a fast but unstable kayak that he hadn't been in for about five years. It was a way of being able to keep up with the young ones - something that amused them, now in their fifties. I even tried to get used to balancing the craft a few times before Easter. The day before we started David and I located his car and my trailer at the mouth of the river in optimistic anticipation of getting that far!

From left David, Grandad and Warren readying to leave Hamilton (Photo: CatherineS)

Heading Off Downstream on the Waikato River (Photo: CatherineS)

On the morning of Good Friday we set off. Progress was good and within a few hours we were past Huntly having averaged about 8.5 kph and a maximum of over 12 kph on the faster parts of the river. I thought I was going well until I asked David if I could raft up beside him for a bite to eat and a rest - the signs were starting to show. But when we separated I wasn't a paddle width away from him when I turned upside down. Warren picked up my floating gear while David towed me and my kayak to shore - at least I'd done the kayaker thing and retained my paddle! Away we went again but somewhere just beyond Meremere I upended again. This time the rescue and landing was more difficult - willows everywhere. However we managed and afterwards David had a look into the Whangamarino wetland entrance while Warren and I made it to Mercer where we were well looked after in the local hotel/motel. They even made us a very welcome cuppa tea. And the woman there was soooo impressed when I told her I was ninety five. I did fess up to my real four score years but admitted that I was feeling more like ninety five that evening.

Next morning we set off again at about 0830 with me a bit nervously probing the water downstream. Progress was a little slower as the river was now slowing a bit.  Later we explored some of the delta islands and were fascinated by the array of structures that comprised whitebait stands, duck shooting maimai and residences - a hundred or more would not be an exaggeration. Some of the many channels were a bit narrow and some contained faster water as the tide was running out.  A combination of wind against tide made for some (smallish) waves. It was here that grandads problems began.The problem was that we had to cross several channels of the river and the waves and current had me doing more slap-support paddling than progressive paddling.

I managed to tip upside down five more times. So my cunning plan of the fast kayak failed me (or I failed it) but after the several rescues of grandad and his gear we eventually we made it across to the true left of the river and down to Port Waikato - and from there to home and the anxious Catherine who seemed pleased to see us safely home. I was pleased to have finished the job - not without some embarrassment though. The weather for the whole trip could not have been better. I couldn't blame the conditions for my tipping problems at all, just the loss of skill over the years. And the guys reckoned that I didn't have enough for breakfast either. It was a great expedition and great company. We saw lots of wildlife including many very large carp - fortunately none of them big enough to be man-eaters! The big tuna knew better than to try.