Friday, 17 May 2013

Fork Handles

There's a classic BBC TV comedy sketch by "the Two Ronnies" in which a customer (Ronnie Barker) goes into a hardware (ironmongery - ferragens) shop and asks for four candles.

The bloke behind the counter (Ronnie Corbett) goes off, up a ladder, and eventually returns and says "There you are - four candles."

To which the customer replies "Nah, fork handles"

That sort of thing caused ratings busting gales of mirth in the early 1970s but is dated nowadays. I only mention it because I had a fork handles moment with Victor the plumber yesterday.

Victor was installing a new autoclismo - which sounds like a Woody Allen orgasmotron but is nothing so banal as a toilet cistern - in a house that doesn't belong to us but we manage for its owners. But Victor ran into problems when he discovered the seal supplied with the cistern wouldn't fit the sanita - that's the bit you sit on (or stand in front of according to gender and function to be performed). What was needed, said Victor, was an abraçadeira but he didn't have any of the right size with him.

Worry not, said I, I have an abraçadeira of the right dimensions in the house, I'll go and fetch it. Off I went in the car, returned 15 minutes later, brandished it triumphantly and Victor said, in true Ronnie Barker style:-

"Não, abraçadeira"

What I had thought was required and had brought was a jubilee clip:-

But what Victor actually meant was a cable tie:-

For once, however, this was not me being a nincompoop - Portuguese appears to have only one word - abraçadeira - for items as diverse as jubilee clips and cable ties: "Well if you'd meant an abraçadeira why didn't you say abraçadeira!"

The point was reinforced when today I went into Avila, Fraga & Filhos - the best hardware shop in the whole world and which just happens to be in Sta Cruz das Flores - to get some cable clips:-

I asked Edgar in AF&F - who speaks immaculate English - what's the Portuguese word for these? He replied:- abraçadeiras.

As it happens, AF&F is self service but if it wasn't, I'd been that close to a multiple fork handle moment, sending Edgar back and forth, Ronnie Corbett style, potentially three times until he eventually brought me the exact type of abraçadeira I was looking for!

In fact Edgar had the last laugh when I asked him what the Portuguese for these was:-

He said he didn't know but reckoned it would be a bucha. Except bucha is to buchas what abraçadeira is to abraçadeiras so I wasn't going to let him off with that. But I didn't know what the English for one of these is either except for "that thing for attaching things to plasterboard that you didn't realise you'd need until you've drilled a hole the size of a South African diamond mine and covered yourself in dust ..."

Edgar checked the computer and discovered it's called a bucha molly. I still don't know the English word for them. It could be fork handle for all I know. It would be about as useful for hanging that blind from plasterboard ...

South African diamond mine

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Tomato sandwich (another nautical tale from Flores)

Last Sunday (28 April) was another driech day with strong east winds. Being on the west coast of the island should mean you're sheltered from easterlies but, in practice, what happens is vicious gusts scream down off the cliffs, whipping the surface off the sea. At one point, I glanced out the window and saw a white spot which I initially took to be spindrift but, on closer examination, turned out to be a yacht.

Having been a minor league yottie on the west coast of Scotland in a previous life (though only a coastal day sailor which is a totally different kettle of rabbits from cruising the oceans), I immediately reached for the binoculars and followed its progress, smashing through the heavy seas, beating to windward close hauled (that's yot-speak for something it would be too tedious to explain to non-yotties) southwards (right to left) until it disappeared from view.

About an hour later, however, the yacht re-appeared much closer inshore, coming from left to right now ...

Makes sense, I thought: harbour at Lajes totally untenable in easterly, probably better off in comparative shelter of west coast at Faja Grande even with these gusts off the cliffs (although by now, the wind had moderated somewhat). The fact the yacht had approached FG by first disappearing out of sight to the left (south) and then reappearing inshore going in the opposite direction (instead of heading straight in from the position in the first photo) also made perfect sense to me as a nautical cove for reasons which, once again, I'll spare you. What did appear odd, however, was that the yacht was now closing the coast with only its foresails (the ones in front of the mast) set. To my coastal sailor's mind that breaks every rule in the book and I ascribed it to some mystery of oceanic sailing I was uninitiated in. Curious, however, I went down to the seafront for a closer look.

If there is one rule in the yottie's book (be he coastal or offshore), it's that, whenever you attempt an unorthodox manoeuvre within sight of land, there will be someone on shore peering through binoculars making adverse comments ("What the hell's he doing that for?") Subsection (1) of that rule is that, once close enough in, the same person will drop the binoculars and begin to communicate with you by ambiguous hand gestures. One of these involves cupping his hands round his mouth with no apparent result. Subsection (2) involves a second person joining the first and making gestures which appear to contradict the first person's.

Having proverbially "been there, done that", I forebore from any attempt at communication with the yacht ("I say! Once you've dropped the hook - over THERE would be better! - do row ashore and pop up for pre-prandials!") Anyway, it was one of these days, weatherwise, getting dark soon as well, when I was pretty glad to be able to step back into a car and drive home rather than being on a yacht, keeping watch in the rain taking transits fretting about whether the anchor was going to hold.

The following morning (Monday, 29 April), I happened to glance out the window and see the Lajes pilot cutter apparently attempting to rendezvous with the yacht and take it under tow. Very difficult in a big sea but after much to-ing and fro-ing a line was secured and off they went.

I asked José António at the shop if he'd heard what the story was but he hadn't and, beyond looking at the Lajes webcam to checking that the yacht had duly arrived there (it had) ...

... I didn't think about it again until Friday (3 May) when I got a tip that there was a blog by a solo yachtsman who'd fetched up in Flores in slightly fraught circumstances and did I know anything about this?

Turns out the yacht is called Wild Song and belongs to one Paul Heiney (British readers may recognise the name of the BBC radio presenter.) You can read the blog here - for the approach to Flores, scroll down to the entry titled "Low in every sense" on 24 April and read up.

The long and short is, after cruising in Patagonia for the winter (our winter - summer in the Southern Hemisphere of course), Wild Song left Uruguay on 25 February bound for her home port of Falmouth, UK via a planned stop at Horta on Faial in the Azores (a popular yachtsman's harbour). After nearly two months at sea, Wild Song was within 140 mile of Horta when contrary winds drove her west. Moreover, the yacht's engine wouldn't start due to dirt in the dregs of the fuel tank. The main problem that caused was no power for the water maker. Hence Paul decided to make for Flores instead.

In the unseasonably awful weather we've been having this spring, he described the 48 hours around his arrival at this island as the worst in his yachting experience.

To add to the lack of an engine, Wild Song's mainsail tore catastrophically during the approach to the dubious shelter of Fajã Grande. That explains the unusual set of sails I observed. In anything but the most benign of conditions, a yacht is very difficult to manouevre without a mainsail. And having lobbed out 60 metres of chain to anchor at FG, which would be almost impossible to get back up by hand without the engine to power an electric windlass (machine to pull chain up), all these factors combined to make Paul (reluctantly as a very last resort, I should imagine from my own experience) call for help. This was achieved by phoning the UK coastguard on his mobile who contacted their opposite numbers in Portugal and the net upshot was the pilot cutter (boat) came round the next morning to tow Wild Song to Lajes - a distance of about 12 miles (19km). Note also that the pilot cutter is kept out of the water and have had to be launched by crane to meet this exigency.

12 miles (19km) from FG to Lajes
Four members of the pilot cutter's crew boarded Wild Song to assist with pulling up the anchor, a process which took 45 minutes (for any non-nautical coves still reading, it normally takes about 5 minutes, max).

But the troubles were only just beginning. With the yacht now free of her anchor, the tow rope to the pilot cutter broke five times before they got under way. On one occasion, Paul describes this as happening so close to the rocks of the shore, he could barely look. That must have been the lowest point of the worst 48 hours.

I watched this entire performance through the binoculars from my kitchen window and feel rather guilty now I was rubber-necking an event which must have been traumatic in the extreme for the participants.

Library picture of Lajes das Flores marina earlier this year
Anyway, a happy ending. They duly arrived at Lajes. An engineer came and fixed the engine and attempted to only charge 6 Euros! The tow round from Faja Grande cost only 100 Euros which seems pretty blooming reasonable to me. All in all, I think Paul Heiney will have some good memories of my island despite his inauspicious arrival thereat.

As I type this, Wild Song is en route to Horta on Faial, 120 miles east, powered by a combination of light following winds and her engine as necessary. At Horta, she can get her main sail repaired (essential to face the long haul back to Britain).

I shall be following the blog with interest from hereon in. I was amused by the fact that, despite the trauma of his arrival in the Azores, Paul managed to pen the very shrewd observation that, in centuries gone by, sailors judged their proximity to land by smell, colour of the sea, seabirds, stuff floating in the water etc. etc. Nowadays, it's by a text message from Vodafone as your mobile phone acquires a signal saying "Welcome to Portugal! Calls to the UK cost ..."

How true!

And a post-script on reading the blog was Linda at the shop who said "A tomato sandwich? Where'd he get from the tomato from?" It's a not entirely tongue in cheek allusion to the scarcity of fresh veg on such a verdant island (and how the vast majority of such of it as we do get is imported from other Azores or even further afield).    

Friday, 3 May 2013

Corvo - end of an era

Last month saw the end of an era for Corvo, Flores' satellite island 12 miles (19km) to the north with a population of 400.

Effective 7 April 2013, Corvo's cargo service ceases to be maintained by local Flores company, Maré Ocidental (literally "Western Tide"), and is replaced by a rival firm from the island of Pico, Amaral Felicianos e Faria, Lda. (AFF). Maré Ocidental has undertaken the Corvo sailings through three generations of the Lopes family: the first of these, the late José Augusto Lopes, was awarded the Portuguese equivalent of an OBE in 1994 for services to his community:-

This may need some explaining for British readers. If Corvo were an island off the coast of Britain (typically Scotland), then cargo - i.e. stuff you take for granted that you can buy in shops and petrol and things like that - would go on a lorry which drives on to a ro-ro ferry at a place like Oban or Ullapool, drives off and delivers its stuff to the island shops, then drives back on to the ferry the following day and returns to the mainland. On Corvo, there is no lorry and the stuff (having arrived on Flores in containers in a container ship) gets loaded by a crane individually (on pallets or smaller containers) onto a little cargo ship. Apart from the very smallest of islands (Fair Isle, Foula and North Ronaldsay in Orkney and Shetland with an average population of about 50 are the only ones I can think of), that doesn't happen in Britain. Below is a picture of stuff for Corvo in a small container being loaded on to Maré Ocidental's ship, the Santa Iria at Lajes on Flores:-

What that picture doesn't capture is that the Santa Iria was heaving about at the pier in the swell making it an extremely skillful job for the crane operator to drop the container into the hold - note the dimesions of the aperture in the ship's deck relative to the size of the container. Not easy. Below is a picture of the Santa Iria unloading at Corvo:-

Note the strong similarity between the Santa Iria and the Good Shepherd IV which serves Fair Isle, an island (pop. 69) 25 miles (40km) from Shetland in Scotland:-

Photo credit Ian Leask
But carrying cargo to Corvo is not a profitable occupation. It depends on being subsidised by the Azorean Government and under EU regulations such subsidies must be put out to tender (concurso público). And in the most recent tender Maré Ocidental (MO) have been beaten to it by AFF. Below is AFF's vessel, the similar but surely inauspiciously named Lusitania, at Lajes with the now redundant Santa Iria at her mooring behind.

MO also ran pleasure sailings to Corvo and around the coast of Flores (in a different boat) during the summer. They also have premises in Fajã Grande where you can hire bikes, scooters and kayaks etc. in summer. But without their core contract of carrying the cargo to Corvo, it's been announced the firm is to close with loss of eleven jobs. I don't know what's going to happen to the Santa Iria (or the scooters and kayaks). Given that Fair Isle is already taken care of, I expect there must be quite a restricted market for such vessels.

En route to Corvo on the Santa Iria in 2009
The other thing is, I don't understand is why the MO people have to lose their jobs. There's a principle of European Union law called TUPE - English speaking lawyers pronounce that "Choopy" and it's an acronym for "Transfer of Undertakings Protection of Employment". The basic principle is that, in a situation like the change of Corvo contract, the incoming company can't just sack the outgoing company's people and replace them with their own instead - they have to keep the outgoing company's people on unless there's some very good reason not to. I can imagine American Republican voters deriding this as socialist statism. And British UKIP (a political party opposed to memebership of the EU) voters likewise. But in the meantime, I'm not aware of the "good reason" why the change from MO on the Corvo run means their employees are out of a job.

Photo credit ferrymanjgb

I totally get why public subsidy has to be put out to tender and that this may inevitably involve a loser. But two things from similar situations in Scotland where I come from. First, the subsidised shipping services to the Scottish islands (pictured above) are periodically put out to tender. But it's always made a condition that the winning bidder must employ the outgoing contractor's people. To put that another way, any company submitting a bid must demonstrate that there is no "good reason" why the normal consequences of TUPE won't apply or their bid won't be considered.

Second, there was an awful hoo-hah recently when the hunting rights on a Scottish island called Raasay (above) which belongs to the government were auctioned. The lease was awarded to a company from elsewhere in Scotland which had bid only £2k (=2.2k€) higher than a syndicate of local crofters (small farmers) which had held the lease for a number of years. There was no question of anyone losing their jobs here and, on one view, the govt. had done the right thing by awarding the lease to highest bidder. But as the Scottish soi disant Government also espouses localism, shouldn't it have a policy of weighing in the balance the benefits of keeping contracts within local communities even if that's at the expense of a few thousand pounds a year?

I'm not aware there's been a similar hoo-hah in the Azores over the Corvo shipping contract. If it had happened in Scotland, it would have been be headline news. Maybe I just don't read the right websites. Maybe Azoreans have a more amanhã attitude than we uptight Brits do.