Arwen's meanderings

Hi everyone and welcome to my new blog. My name is Steve and i am the lucky owner of a John Welsford designed 'navigator' named Arwen. I built her over three years with the help of my father, father-in-law and two children. She was launched in August 2007 at Queen Anne's battery marina in the barbican area of Plymouth. This blog is a record of our voyages together around SW England.
Arwen has a YouTube channel of her own. Search "plymouthwelshboy".






Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Truly inspiring and spectacular

We have just witnessed the northern lights. Christmas Eve 2014 will always be remembered as the best family holiday moment ever. The lights were directly above us and stretched as far as the horizon across the vast forested lowland plains.



At first mistaken as a thin band of cloud, it developed into ribbons of pulsating light; greens, blues, reds and magenta. The ribbons continuously morphed shape as they snaked across the black cloudless, star studded skies above. The fact that we had dashed out of the hotel without any thermal layers on, was in an instance forgotten.


A Christmas Eve to remember......the hotel restaurant filled with Finns celebrating Christmas. Tradition here has it that they cook their big meal and have their family get together on Christmas Eve. The buffet queue stretched for ever with a range of mouth watering goodies, none of which we could recognise. The menu was in Finnish and so it was that my family took pot luck, got stuck in and just tried everything in front of them. The missus, a vegetarian, was bemused by the proffered beet root risotto that came smothered in reindeer meat and sauce!



Just as impressive was the fact that my new Sony Xperia Z1 compact managed to take photos in minus 27 Celsius without blurring especially when I was shaking so much from the cold!
 
I woke again at midnight and dashed outside to see if the lights were continuing. The aurora borealis was still above, less resplendent than earlier in the evening. The wind was up and the windchill bitingly cold. When the outside digital thermometer hit minus 28 Celsius, I gave up and sneaked back in to a warm bedroom.

 
What a night to remember. Stunning, perfectly stunning.

For those who want to know, the northern lights are enshrined in Finnish folklore, whether it be the great arctic fox swishing its tail to create the mesmerising lightshow of sparks as its tail struck snow; or Sami folklore where the lights are the energies of their ancestors souls flying across the northern heavens. The scientific explanation is of solar charged particles ejected from the sun as a solar wind during solar flares. on reaching earth these particles are deflected around our magnetic field. here at the polar regions the particles collide with upper atmosphere atoms and molecules which absorb some of the energy from the solar particles. These excited atoms then emit photons of light....the aurora borealis!

For my family, this was the highlight of a busy fun year for the family.
Wherever you are, whatever your faith, I hope you have been able to find the love, friendship and joy we have had this year and on this new year's eve, I wish you all a happy new year for 2015.
My sincerest best wishes to you all

Steve

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Chance encounters

I managed to meet up with Santa twice today. All those years I never saw him and then like buses, he comes along twice in the space of an hour!


My first encounter was in the base ski slope cafe. It has become our favourite watering hole......hot chocolates, French fries to die for and donuts which, frankly, are probably the best in the world! Crisp, sugary and just dissolving in your mouth....scrumpdidlydelicious is all I can say. The cafe is homely, typically pine clad ceilings, small sash windows with checkered cloth curtains tied back. Tables have large red candles on them. Service comes with a smile. A roaring fire at one end and a warmth that is just right, not too hot, not too cold. You can strip off a couple of layers and then be fine. Well there I was peering out of the window and lo and behold Santa magically appeared at my elbow, silently but with a beaming smile. Sweeties were proffered and gladly accepted and yes, I think they were probably the best tasting sweeties in the world!


 
And yes, layers are definitely needed,  for today reached minus 27celsius. Bitterly cold, I wore two thermals, a jacket, a fleece and then my outer mountain coat. Two thermal hats and a helmet and goggles. Inner gloves, two pairs and then the outer. The key, not to over heat but to stay warm. No chance of overheating today....oh my it was cold. My eyelashes froze again. My daughter, her escaping strands of ginger hair turned white with hoare frost....an interesting new hairstyle! But at 10.00am the sunrise high up from our mountain top was to die for.......the sun so low on the horizon....the skies a mixture of pinks and oranges whilst above the deep dark blue of space with twinkling stars. Only three hours of daylight today, the ski lifts close at 2 pm. Most Finnish people have their Christmas meal on Christmas Eve and that is why the lifts won't open until midday tomorrow......some headaches I suspect.

 
This morning I had the slopes, views and sunrises to myself. I have never been the first to leave trail marks on a fresh piste before. To my shame they were pretty appalling ski tracks.....a sort of sliding down wiggle. I ruined it for whoever followed....sorry!
The sky was a luminous deep blue and not a cloud in sight......I bet the northern lights were fantastic early this morning when we were all tucked up in bed!

 
Back at the hotel after three hours of skiing during which time I lost contact with any facial features, I sat in the bar with 'her indoors' on comfy sofas watching Finns come off the slopes to have celebratory drinks before heading home to their family festivities. A riot of colourful ski apparel from fluorescent greens and yellows to bright pinks; lots of laughter; hats, helmets and gloves scattered across tables and chairs. Some form of hot gluvine in glasses seemed very popular.

 

And then they were all gone. Just us left, the soft music playing, the large picture windows showing the steep forested slopes down to Pyha village below us. Away across to the horizon, the flat northern plains, forested and interspersed with lakes. Snow was beginning to fall obscuring the horizon......and then magically again, Santa appeared at my elbow. No warning, no sound. I blinked and there he was! He really is a magical fellow that Santa!
 


Saturday, 27 December 2014

The toothpick apprentices of northern Scandinavia

'To be a toothpick carver is a noble and much respected craft in northern Scandinavia. Here in the northern boreal forest lands aspiring toothpick carvers serve a seven year apprenticeship. This is a vocation, taken very seriously and with due diligence and gravitas.

The first two years of any apprenticeship are spent roaming the pinewoods learning about Timber.  The search for that one single perfect tree from which will be honed the single perfectly straight and sharp toothpick is of course, a skilled affair. This is the tallest tree with the straightest growth; with downward sloping branches at the perfect 120 degree angle; not too many branches but enough. A bark some 2  - 4 cms thick, gnarled and creased with a little resin extruding from various cracks and  a trunk circumference of around 120 cm completes the specification. Toothpick carvers can spend a lifetime searching for that one perfect specimen. So many "almost so" trees are felled in the search for the king of pine trees; each apprentice increasingly frustrated in the self knowledge that every toothpick they carve isn't quite the one lifetime ultimate specimen.

 For many wannabe toothpick carvers the skills required are past down from father to son. Each family has its own traditions and approaches but all agree that the strength of a superior toothpick comes from from a lengthy but delicate process. Each hand carved pick is soaked for five years in the spring waters emanating from beneath Pyha mountain. Then after this tempering process is complete, the pick is soaked in the lanolin oils hand collected from the hair of the master tooth picker craftsmen within each family;  for once the seven year apprenticeship is complete, a  craftsman undertakes never to wash his hair again. Such frivolities are distractions from the toothpick carvers art. 

After two years of lonely semi nomadic existence with only sleigh and reindeer for company, would be apprentices are ready to come in from the cold. Here at Pyha, they hold the 'once in a decade' apprentice toothpicker selection process.  Here potential apprentices demonstrate their skills. family pride and honour is at stake; along with the chance of finding a lifetime spouse, for here in the lands surrounding Pyha, it is the wooden toothpick carvers who are the real heros; treated like premier league football players, the chance to be the wife of a master toothpick carver, attracts fair maidens from across the northern lands.  

Yet from this festival and the thousands who attend dreaming of fame and fortune, only two will be chosen.  These lucky two become that decades master tooth picker apprentices. The rest will return to their reindeer farms, disappointment etched on their faces, their shoulders drooped. Of course,  there will always be another chance next decade!

For the following three years the two newly appointed apprentices learn to fell trees, saw off branches and whittle trunks down to toothpick sized splinters with only an axe, a Swiss Army knife and the stubble on their chins for sand paper. At least one of the apprentices fall by the wayside, seduced by the easy money to be obtained mass producing toothpicks for hotel tables across Scandinavia. In some decades both are seduced by the darkside. The dedicated few, those silent, strong, Scandinavians with steely blue eyed glacial stares will persevere. For them quick money is not the goal;  it is the desire to perfect such a straight sharp tipped toothpick, one that could grace the tables of The Dorchester, Claridges, The Savoy in London, or Pizza Express in Plymouth. Perfectionism takes time; it takes a year just to judge by eye the direction of the grain in the whittled down trunk. One mistake and a tree is tossed; nothing more than firewood to be used to amuse wimpish southern softy tourists from the UK, a people unable to cope with extremes of temperature below minus 1C. It has been said that some apprentices have gone without sleep for six months at a time in pursuit of creating the perfect octagonal gauge needed to create the eight sided splinter from which the toothpick will finally emerge. Such dedication and passion to one's art is to be deeply admired. 

Of course, the discerning among you will know that none of the above is true; nor is it April fool's day. These were the musings that past between father and son as they swung stuck on a ski lift in the pinewoods. At minus 27C your mind wanders and your teeth chatter. Ridiculous stories stop your brain from freezing!


Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Reindeer are daft but so cute!

A 30km snowmobile safari; at night; in search of the elusive northern lights. A Russian guide who is an ex national park ranger with a wonderful gentle manner and dry sense of humour; who endeared himself to us immediately because of his wonderful mockery of Brussels and EU Eurocrats. 

Snowmobiles are like wild horses, they have a mind of their own and need to be ridden firmly. Simple machines, they have a throttle and a brake......don't forget which is which.........unless you want to shoot off track.....and  they require some firm steering and control. Heat vents keep engine heat directed at your hands; the windscreen deflects windchill but is often useless to see through as it completely ices over and thermally lined jumpsuits and boots are a must. 

The tracks were bumpy and rutted, narrow and hemmed in by large pine trees laden with snow. The headlights cast a warm orange glow across an unforgiving landscape. You had better understand winter snow survival skills out here. An accident could spell disaster in minus twenty degrees at night!   When it becomes so bumpy, standing and absorbing the shock through your bended legs is advisable. 

Occasionally we came to junctions with indecipherable wooden signposts. Snowmobile tracks look very much like railway tracks......they remind me of the simple wooden toy train tracks my son had as a three year old.  We whizzed through the forests, well crawled in places. Periodically forest tracks would appear at right angles to ours, long straight lines disappearing towards the horizon. At such junctions would be found tall rickety wooden towers, reminiscent of the watch towers around WW 2 prison camps you'd see in films like 'the great escape'. There for elk hunting, hunters use them to shoot downwards onto the elk. If you point your rifle at the elk from a horizontal position and miss.....the bullet will travel some two miles. This way, if you miss the bullet buries itself into the ground. Thy say travel broadens the mind; it always fascinates me what trivia I learn when I travel. I'm sure knowing this snippet will come in handy one day.......or maybe not.

Every so often the trees would thin and disappear and we would shoot out across frozen lakes, windswept expanses of white punctuated by snowdrifts. It is surprising even at night how much light is reflected off such areas. Your eyes adjust quickly after engines are switched off and the warm headlights fade. A tip.....avoid snow drifts. Snowmobiles don't like snowdrifts!

 I don't think the other party with us were too happy to hear tales of wolves and bears eating the local reindeer but we enjoyed the tales. Our midway stop was at a traditional reindeer herder teepee. The Finnish name for them is unpronounceable and frankly unspellable too but they are basically same as native North American Indian tepees but with reindeer skin instead of buffalo. A metal fire cooking pit with swingable levels so that kettles and pots could be swung over the fire as and when, some wooden storage boxes, exterior seats carved from snow and covered with reindeer hides and some small wooden tables completed the scene.  Surrounded by small pines the air was dry, crisp, freezing and utterly silent. 

Utter silence is a strange phenomenon. We so rarely ever encounter it in our busy lives. For some, it is un-nerving. For me, it is enchanting.  This silence became punctuated by the crackle and hiss of dry pine kindling as it burst into flame. At minus twenty, little heat is given off but the roar of a fire, the steam rising from an old blackened kettle and the rattling of its lid as boiling point is reached are welcome distractions from your eye lashes freezing together! The hot syrupy juice was devine and the ginger cookies had just the right level of snap, crunch and tang. 

Our guide shared his thoughts about European bureaucrats and how it seemed amazing that Brussels had Eurocrats who lived there and imimately understood reindeer herding and the need to avoid shooting wolves that killed 50% of new reindeer calves each year in Finland. Russian sarcasm, so funny! My daughter, a conservationist did laugh but I also knew she was biting her tongue.....itching to get in there but I think frozen eyelashes, sore throat and brightly red burning cheeks from windchill silenced her. She certainly made her views known back in our hotel; conservationist sarcasm, equally as funny as the Russian variety. I am sorely tempted to invite the guide to dinner in a local cafe and let the two of them loose on each other. It would be a brilliant encounter!!! I'm not sure who would win. 

We  also enjoyed the sudden stop, mid narrow track, because reindeer refused to budge off the snowmobile track. Very funny animals, rather like sheep in their behaviour! Our guide got off shooed it out of the way, climbed onto his snowmobile and turned to find said reindeer back in front of the vehicle, and mysteriously joined by another. Ten minutes this game of shoo and return played out. I came to realise that  reindeer are kept in herds and modern day herders use quad bikes  and snowmobiles to deliver hay and food. So at 10 pm in the dark, some friendly, caring herder would of course be doing a food drop....daft animals, cute but clearly daft! On the other hand, how more Christmassy can it get.......deep in the enchanted forest, snow laden pine trees and reindeer stuck in deep snow surrounding you, expecting food and a present laden sleigh to arrive at any moment!



Monday, 22 December 2014

So cold.....

Well it is minus 20 Celsius and the inside of my nose is freezing as I breath in. I'm north of the arctic circle skiing in Finland. My last time skiing....the knees suffer badly now. I've just done a couple of blue runs and I'm watching my offspring having lessons with a guide. They have made substantial progress in only an hour and a half. He told me I was the worst skier he'd seen in a long time....my balance and technique are non existent. He is of course absolutely right. I taught myself to ski!! He did say it with a smile. He is also a sailor of very big boats 40 m plus! Just rubbing salt into a festering open wound; made worse by the fact that he has just retired, is as fit as a fiddle and makes me feel positively ancient.



The views are spectacular. I'm on a mountain of 514 m above sea level. Russia lies 60 km to the east. Before me is nothing but lakes and forests. A flat plain with a distant set of smaller hills some 30 km away.




The pine trees around me are thickly covered with snow, their boughs almost bending vertical with its weight. Up top the wind has blown snow up against trunks so it has crystallised as a thick ice layer on the downwind side. The side of the small cabin restaurant is barely visible beneath this solid wind blitzed snow layer.


 
The pistes are well groomed; the snow machines operate 24 hrs a day. There is five hours of sunlight....and that is pretty weak. You don't need tinted goggles and sunglasses make you blind!! Reindeer amble across the pistes... A serious health hazard! They plod and amble with no sense of danger from skiers. The pistes are uncrowded. Often you get entire stretches to yourself! Wonderful. 
No lift queues, seats at piste side cafes readily available......the alps look less appealing every time I visit winter Scandinavia.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Becoming a techy geek

When 'her indoors' allowed me to have a new Xperia Z1 compact, I thought 'ah ha!' Time for some new sailing apps. Now the big advantage of the phone is that it is waterproof. Some charts would be useful.......so I downloaded 'marine navigator' and then visited 'visitmyharbour' 

Here, I purchased a complete set of UK charts for under £15. Their clarity, level of detail and accuracy are outstanding. The app/charts allow COG, SOG, compass direction, waypoint marking, route planning and more. I haven't yet had a chance to test in Arwen out in the sound yet but I'm looking forward to doing so. 

Another fun app with a serious use is 'marine traffic'. This uses google maps and tracks every vessel offshore. Click on the boat icon and up comes its course, speed, track, a photo of it and vessel details. So cool! As I write now, nine fishing vessels, line astern are passing down the eastern side of he sound, heading for the Cattedown. The sailing vessel 'one sail' is heading across from Weymouth and is just passing through Wembury Bay, closing on the sound. 

With an anchor watch app as well I think I have enough to be getting for the time being!