Arwen's meanderings

Hi everyone and welcome to my dinghy cruising blog about my John Welsford designed 'navigator' named Arwen. Built over three years, Arwen was launched in August 2007. She is a standing lug yawl 14' 6" in length. This blog records our dinghy cruising voyages together around the coastal waters of SW England.
Arwen has an associated YouTube channel so visit to find our most recent cruises and click subscribe.
On this blog you will find posts about dinghy cruising locations, accounts of our voyages, maintenance tips and 'How to's' ranging from rigging standing lug sails and building galley boxes to using 'anchor buddies' and creating 'pilotage notes'. I hope you find something that inspires you to get out on the water in your boat. Drop us a comment and happy sailing.
Steve and Arwen

Monday 29 January 2018

Dinghy cruising: building a sleeping platform for my Welsford navigator dinghy

Thanks to Joel Bergen for this design which he did for his navigator 'Ellie'.

I now have a semi completed sleeping platform for my aft port cockpit side. The sleeping platform slips under the thwart 3cm coaming overhang and then rests on the slotted uprights. The whole lot can be taken part and collapsed into the floor well where flat straps hold them secure.

So a bit more sanding and then several layers of varnish. finally some thin neoprene strip will be stuck to edges to act as 'cushioning'.

I look forward to testing it come Easter!

Sunday 28 January 2018

Boat maintenance continues

It was nice to get into the garage yesterday, The weather was too foul for gardening. The upper garden slopes need some forestry work, some trees need felling and the bramble undergrowth needs clearing before it starts to grow again. Some large hazel trees need pruning as well.

Anyway, most of the day was spent in the garage. Holes were drilled in the plastic anchor bucket floors to aid drainage; floor rails were attached to each to stop them scarring the forward cockpit floors. I bought some of those foam jigsaw mats you see in DIY stores for a fiver and these have been cut and shaped to fit into the forward cockpit floor wells. The anchor buckets will sit on top of these.

Cardboard templates were cut for the new sleeping platform on the port side of the aft cockpit well and it was then transferred to some 9mm ply. Twenty minutes at the band saw and one sleeping platform and 3 vertical support uprights have appeared. I now need to cut three more uprights and then cut slots in to each one so that they will fit together.

Cut some of the fender warps to a better length and whipped the ends of these. Finished some whipping on a few frayed halyards. And finally varnished first coat on the anchor bucket runners.

Radio 4 in the background; a steady supply of tea and biscuits.

It is amazing how four hours can fly by.

Sometime this week, the remaining uprights will be cut; everything will get several coasts of varnish and then I will start on the new hull mast supports. I want to rest the masts on some 1" thick plywood with curved cut outs that will fit on the front and rear decks. It will make the mast and spar transport far easier and smoother.

Busy, busy, busy. Now if only we can get some really sunny, warm weather at Easter, then I can get the hull interior sanded and painted. 

Saturday 27 January 2018

Taurito, a tiny but friendly resort

An empty plane; room to stretch, happy cabin crew and pilots. 41,000 feet. Laptop, papers, Levinson Wood and his adventures across the Himalaya (good book by the way Levinson – thanks), snacks. A thoroughly enjoyable four-hour flight. One of the best I have been on. Well done TUI.
Taurito, small but bold almost brash but in a good way. A valley ravine lined by four towering tiered hotels that contour into the hillsides themselves. The narrow central section down to the sea lined by a garden, play area and aquapark.  Palm lined sidewalks with lovely blue and white mosaic pavement slabs covered by the black blobs of the fallen dried out dates.

The valley sides are near vertical, upper slopes multi banded colours of volcanic rocks. Everywhere is dry, barren and stark. There is no vegetation on these slopes; nothing to hold back rockfalls. Coastal roads out of the valley are sinuous with multiple hairpin bends at their starts.
surprisingly at no time did we find the hotel crowded

Taurito is something out of the Flintstones, a modern version of Bedrock but it has charm. Lots of charm and we really liked it. This is only the second package holiday we have ever been on so we weren’t sure what to expect. The thirteen floors of the Taurito Princess are anchored to the rockface. It is a typical modern all-inclusive resort hotel, clean, bright, efficient and friendly. External glass elevators whisk people to and from upper floors in silence, giving fantastic views across this small resort. Resplendent marble floors give old geologists like me plenty to browse. The beach below is black sand and clean. It’s lined by a promenade below which are cafes, water sports cabins and shops. The beach has the obligatory sun loungers and umbrellas, an area cordoned off for departing jet skis.
Having saved £600 by taking this last-minute package deal, we used the hotel as a base to tour the island and this worked out really, really well. It isn’t our normal way of travelling but Airbnb, B and B and agritourism approaches were all costing much more and now we are pensioners, we have to take the savings where we get them.
a fantastic garden terrace with sublime sunsets every evening.
Glass of wine, comfy chairs, sit back and watch the sun set after a busy day

  • If  you have a hire car, parking outside the hotel is very limited; however, there is a large gravel area about 500m back up the road, which is free to park on
  • Any road pavement which has yellow paint on it is an illegal parking area and you will get a ticket
  • Any road with blue markings - is a pay and display area
  • The road to Puerto Mogan is closed due to a landslide. The road is closed off and monitored by local police. The best way to get to Puerto Mogan is by local bus at the top of the hotel road. However, due to the road system, it is around a 30 minute bus ride and you will need to change buses at Playa del Cura.
  • Shops close in Taurito at 9pm
  • There is one small supermarket in the resort; most other shops sell tourist souvenirs and beach gear

Friday 26 January 2018

The Gran Canaria diaries; Buggy Pirates In Gran Canaria

Buggy Pirates

Bone shaking, finger aching, dust coating, terror inducing, eye popping,  teeth rattling,  body slamming,  wheel spinning, buggy driving. Open buggies with strut suspension, thick knobbly tires and bucket seats with seatbelt chest and wait harnesses. Automatic with no gears, they go like a bomb. Ours was the 2.5 hr tour with Buggy Pirates in Maspalomas.

I’m not sure what I was expecting. The welcome was warm, the pre-tour instructions from Sasha clear. We filled in the paper work, took on board what he said about driving on roads, obeying the law and not trying sliding or hand brake turning.

And then we were off in buggy 12, tail end Charlie with a large Spanish flag attached to the rear roll cage struts. Easy to see by the leader apparently!  There are advantages and disadvantages to being tail end Charlie. The advantages are simple, you get to see what’s coming and therefore have a few seconds more preparation time than the front leaders. The disadvantage is you get everyone’s dirt and dust!

We set off up the road that we had grown so familiar with, route GC-504, stopping off at a viewpoint to admire the valleys below. Sunnies on, and top speeds for around 50kph it was exhilarating. Down switch backs and hairpin bends, through small towns and villages we roared. The first 50 minutes were on normal tarmac roads. The last 30 minutes was off-road. And this is where we have to say we were slightly disappointed. Yes, it was off road, bumpy, dusty stony tracks. But they were the approach roads/tracks to an old quarry. We honestly thought we would be going up old gravel tracks up the sides of valleys and into the island interior. This was an assumption on our part based on a video we had seen on YouTube. Anyway, we raced up the track, we came down the track. We had a 40m diversion over some humps and thick dust and that was it. Disappointing that off road section. Sorry, but it was.

We were of course caked in dust. Thank heavens we’d been supplied with goggles and we had bought scarves with us. Our hair was thick and matted; fleeces turned from whatever original colour they were to a drab khaki colour. 
Would we recommend Buggy Pirates? Yes, but with that one proviso about expectations on the off-road bit.

Thursday 25 January 2018

The Gran Canaria diaries January 2018: Visiting Puerto Mogan, Gran canaria

Puerto Rico to Puerto Mogan

 The plan for the day lay in the hands of ‘Her-indoors’. No driving today. I think she was feeling traumatized after yesterday. That isn’t to say I am a bad driver. I’m not according to her but steep drops, hairpin bends, meeting buses on the bends; well there is only so much a girl can take on one journey. I mean we did nearly die when a red Volkswagen convertible beetle came around a blind bend on a narrow mountain road at about 60mph on our side of the road, which I have to say was rather terrifying given we had a crash barrier and then a 1000’ drop on our side and no room to move into!
So today we caught the bus from Taurito at 8.40am; changed buses 5 kilometres up the coast road at Playa Del Cura and then caught the next bus into Puerto Rico; which proved to be a major disappointment. Don’t get me wrong, it is pretty enough and clean, with a great sandy beach protected by two harbour breakwaters and with a west and east marina. However, it is also hotel and apartment central. The hillsides are just covered with white buildings and it made us appreciate how tiny a resort Taurito really is. Not our cup of the at all so we caught the glass bottomed boat ferry to Port Mogan, a pleasant 30-minute voyage along the coastline hugging the cliffs. 
Glass bottomed is a bit of a misnomer. It is a 10’ x 4’ rectangular hole in the bottom of the boat lined at the bottom with plexiglass through which bog all can be seen. So, if you visit, don’t get conned. It is basically a water taxi ferry and pleasant enough if you accept this. 
The ‘Global’ bus system on the island is pretty efficient but note not so much at a weekend. The normal adherence to published timetables seen throughout weekdays goes out of the window, based on our experiences today. Even one of the bus drivers admitted that it operated ’Spanish timekeeping’ at the weekend. What that means is buses don’t run according to the timetable as accurately as one might hope, so expect lengthy waits
Puerto Mogan is a pleasant, pretty small port. A small protected harbour for tourist boats, visiting yachts and a small fishing fleet, it has a sandy beach between two protective breakwater arms, a promenade with cafes, restaurants and typical seaside tourist shops selling Spanish souvenirs. There is a small shopping centre and then a very and I do mean very pretty marina village.
Whoever designed this should have won some serious architectural awards. Small apartments separated by narrows streets linked with brightly coloured bougainvillea flowers. Simply stunning. Known as ‘little Venice’ because of the canals that link the marina to the fishing port, I’d say this name was stretching it a little. There are two canals basically, which you can’t walk along; nor pass boats through. But that isn’t to detract from what is a tastefully designed, beautiful marina development with palms and old-style canary island architecture.
Above this development on the western slopes of the Barranco lies the old original port village. Think like the steep hillside communities of Rio De Janeiro but smaller, neater and better maintained. White washed houses are built haphazardly up the slope separated by narrow alleyways and steep sets of steps. Behind one community at the very top is an excellent ‘mirador’ or viewpoint affording astounding views across the whole port marina and town.  On the eastern flanks are archaeological sites of the original ancient settlers who first farmed and settled the Barranco. 
Puerto Mogan is a ‘stroll around’ town; easy going without the hassle of trades people and street hawkers although ironically, we saw two street con artists working the three-card trick ruse under a sign which warned tourists to be aware of pick pockets and con artists. All too aware of the sign and the irony, the two con artists made the most of the incongruous situation much to the amusement of all!
Down at the marina berths, sailors set about their chores. The stern to sea wall berthing seen across the Mediterranean, is also seen here and it gives passing tourists a great insight into a working large yacht. On some boats crews were packing up and shipping out, huge duffle bags being packed in the cockpits. On another boat, a crew were winching a fellow crew member up the mast to affect some repairs. Crew were having a brunch with copious amounts of wine in one cockpit, which at 10.30 in the morning seemed a tad early to me; but hey what do I know. I’m a lifelong tea totaller, unlike her indoors, so based on no experience, I am unable to pass comment or judgement. Her indoors seemed to approve so I guess it was an OK time! 
Sat at a corner café, we drank Café con Leche and watched the world go by; people came and went towards the ferry departure point; a man spent time hand feeding the birds; others watched the mullet cruising the crystal-clear waters of the marina.
All in all, it was a pleasant day and if you have the chance, visit Puerto Mogan. You won’t regret it. Picturesque, quaint, charming, all are appropriate adjectives to describe this little town.
Some tips:

It has a pleasant street market every Friday.

Go get a freshly made mojito on a Friday. Watch it be made with freshly pressed sugar cane. It is quite an art and street performance!

The GC-500 between Puerto Mogan and Taurito is out of action – Cerrada – ‘closed’ due to a landslip. This situation has already been running three months, necessitating a longer car or taxi journey up onto the GC1 motorway, eastwards to the next exit where you shoot off down to the roundabout to shoot back onto the GC1 but this time heading west to get to Puerto Mogan! It is a real pain and necessitates a longer bus journey involving a change of buses at Playa del Cura, so make allowances of this. 

Sunday 21 January 2018

The Gran Canaria diaries January 2018: The track above Soria and the missing reservoir

The plan was simple enough but as is the case the execution of it proved tricky. The aim to go high into the interior hinterlands and do a walk. We had picked the spot, Soria and a walk around Presa de Soria (Lake Soria). An altitude of 1500m and a 4.5 hr circuit of some 16km.

Getting out of the resort proved the first hurdle. A recent landslide closing the road west to Puerto Mogan means you have to head east to Tauro to pick up the motorway; a 20-minute diversion. The GC 200 after Mogan climbed and climbed up through the ravine, switch back after switch back. The Citroen Cactus never came out of first or second gear. Towering cliffs above with caves scattered across their vertical faces, the old dwellings of shepherds and possibly even the original gaucho inhabitants from centuries ago.
Up through cypress pine forests, the narrowing road twisted and turned. Some hairpin bends so sharp that the road above was practically on top of the road beneath. The drops, breath taking. Literally. Down below in the valleys, terraces built by hand. But none of the greenery one would expect. For the November rains this year did not appear and the landscape vegetation has a dry brown wispy wheat hue to it. On the inside bends of roads that clung to cliffsides, rock falls and scattered stones across tarmac. Every corner approached at 10mph in case some locals from the highest villages came whizzing around corners. As a light mountain mist drizzle appeared, rainbows broke out across gorges, their tops not even reaching the summit of the highest cliffs. Breath taking views.  
The highest road the GC 505 nearly broke us both. Barely the width of the car, uneven and cracked tarmac with slumping on outer corners, it wound across the cliffsides, multiple hairpin bends built one on top of the other. ‘Her indoors’, who on many occasions has displayed nerves of steel (best demonstrated on the occasion when walking home one night to our Namibian hut, we got caught between wild elephants on the one side of the dusty track and hunting lions on the other and she displayed her  grit and courage by singing ‘Nellie the elephant’ at the top of her voice to scare everything away. It worked by the way), anyway she refused to film any part of this particular road section because both hands were gripping anything they could on the car! Occasionally where there was space, thin grey metal pipes ran alongside the fragmented tarmac and in places hand built narrow concrete leats, long since dried up, crossed underneath.  
The descent in to Soria was positively spine tingling and not in a good way. Her indoors nerves were by now, severely frayed and that is very rare. Very rare indeed. The cafe at Soria was so welcome.
Beneath a tree, hikers sought shade from the rising sun, their heavy packs dumped on the ground around them. Here the walking route s60 brings walkers respite and toilets before it continues it winding way across the mountains and ravines. For us it bought tranquillity and time to repair damaged nerves. Suffice to say it took several cappuccinos with lashings of fresh cream on top and several sugars, and I mean several, before composure was restored. Mine that is. Her indoors? She just sucked her breath in a couple of times and commented ‘Interesting drive darling, well done’. Despite thirty three years of marriage, I wasn’t quite sure whether she was being sarcastic or not! 
Across from our café, a small village of white washed and yellow houses with red roofs clung to the hillside terraces. Each one had its own small fenced off garden. Dates, bananas, tangerines and oranges. Some outhouses had small stable blocks with goats and chickens. A rural economy high in the mountains. 
And the lake? Completely gone. A 4km long, 60m deep lake just not there. A dam sitting forlornly, mourning past times when it held back the November deluges. The incongruous site of three rowing boats sat high and dry up a steep slope summed up the drought!

Fortified, we set up off the road to the car park. And what a car park. In an amphitheatre of towering cliffs. I realised, with no disrespect to northern colleagues, how small Malham Cove is! Vertical, wind sculpted volcanic cliffs, stood proud, shades of varying colour against a bright blue sky. And, hugging the steep narrow ravine, a stony track barely a car’s width, contouring its way upwards at a gradual incline. Our path!

With a chill in the air, thin clouds hugging towering buttresses and a very faint but perceptible misty drizzle, we donned fleeces and put best feet forward. Through the pine trees with their huge pine cones littering the stony floor and their periodic stunning vistas across small farms, abandoned huts and ancient stone wall terraces, far below us, we trudged forward purposefully. Through the bamboo thickets, along walls of volcanic rock, multi coloured with huge volcanic bombs lodged within walls of rock hard ash.  Between volcanic boulders, grew tufts of thin spikey grasses and small bushes with tiny leaves to protect against evapotranspiration losses. Plant environmental adaptation at its best. Scattered and in small groves, date palm trees; and punctuating the skylines on the cliff tops far above, random pines. Periodically 20m above us, a cave, protected by a rough hand built stone wall. We’ve yet to work out how anyone scaled the cliff to actually reside in these caves in the first place. I used to climb but it was beyond my comprehension how people managed to reach some of these ancient dwellings.

In front of us a steep gorge ravine a kilometre across slowly revealed itself; its right hand near vertical flank towering another 900m above us. Thick layers of hardened dolerite gave a differentially weathered, banded appearance to the cliffs which were periodically  bisected by narrow but towering prehistoric column lava flows. Occasionally, a small passing place would afford an opportunity to stop and marvel at the unfolding vistas below. Serrated mountain ridges descended to the sea silhouetted against the bright blue skies, like a dragons scaly, spiky backbone. In the faint misty drizzle more rainbows, their colours lurid against the dull blacks and browns of the banded cliffsides. One felt so small in such an impressive, rugged and wild landscape.

A few kilometres up, the view behind afforded us the opportunity to watch an ancient open topped Suzuki jeep begin its way up the very track we walked. Incredulous does not sufficiently sum up our feelings as we watched it inch and crawl its way up the track. At times the passenger side wheels were barely on the track and stones were sliding beneath and rolling hundreds of metres down slope. But, with consummate skill, the driver drew closer, his speed measured and constant, the little white jeep rocking from side to side as tyres crossed rocks and dips.  A wave, the glimpse of a young weathered brown face with alert eyes and welcoming smile and the jeep with its astonishing driver disappeared around the bend.  We watched it climb steadily into the distance clinging to the vertical wall rockface until eventually it reached a summit and disappeared from view. 
As we steadily climbed, above us on the steep rock-strewn slopes with its low Mediterranean scrub, goat bells could be heard. Somewhere goats were traversing the slopes and it took time to spot them, their brown and black coats camouflaged against the ground. Higher still, the barks of dogs reverberated around the mountain peaks, the bark echo lasting several seconds and bouncing off the towering buttresses and ravine walls. It sounded impressive and slightly scary. Maybe it was a pack of dogs and not just the two that barked first!!

Towards the highest col, the weather began to change. A stiff breeze, the north-east trade winds, began to build and clouds thickened on summit peaks above. Fine drizzle turned to something slightly heavier and dampness pervaded the dry, clean mountain air. Dusty dry rocks took on a glistening sheen and the sun became hidden, its warm glow struggling to burn off greying clouds.  We discussed options and decided on going a little further, for ahead, intriguingly, lay a low white washed building, almost carved into the vertical cliff above it; and in front of it, the white Suzuki jeep.  Turning the steep corner by a single tall eucalyptus tree, there in the shade of a stunted pine, a café! Well, the wooden hand painted sign said café. Three plastic wicker stools surrounding a wooden keg with a flat circular board nailed on top sat under a roadside tree. In the table’s centre a small display built in a pyramid fashion. Some small bottles of water, some non-alcoholic beers, jars of picked cheese and small jars of golden brown syrupy honey surrounded a vase with herbs and grasses in. A crate of oranges lay resting against the lower portion of the barrel; behind an icebox and a pile of papaya. Two small machete knives with coarse twine handles were stuck in a strap surrounding the lower barrel portion. 
From beneath the tree and its shade rose a lean figure. White cowboy hat, blue shirt and faded jeans, blond hair and beard, bright blue eyes and the young weather beaten brown face. Instantly recognisable as Suzuki jeep driver, he beckoned us up the short steep track and in clear accented English welcomed us to his ‘check’ point café. The smile was broad and welcoming, the handshake firm. Strong, nut brown hands, blistered in places. Hands that toiled the land. 
Water was proffered for free along with two fresh oranges. Money for this sustenance was refused but ‘perhaps we could buy some honey and cheese’. Price, whatever we felt acceptable. Two dogs, obedient to their young master with the shy smile, lolled at our feet; always alert to the slightest sound. Clearly very good guard dogs! 
Dom, it turned out was Czech, hence the ‘czech point café! He lived and worked in Blackpool for five years, rescuing and then taking over the running of a local skip business from its disorganised and perhaps less than honest owner.  Now, here high in the mountains and far from the crowded coastal strip, he looked after a second home cottage for a German lady who visited twice a year. We discussed mountain life and its difficulties; we swapped stories of how global warming was affecting our respective environments. How few British tourist walked the trails. Fresh papaya and tangerines picked from the tree behind were offered and payment refused. Both were the freshest, juiciest fruits we have ever tasted (well perhaps the fresh dates were in Messini, Greece and the freshest mangos on a Costa Rican beach, might just win, but only by the very narrowest of margins. They certainly didn’t have the welcome and generous spirit attached though).

The dogs shuffled stones towards our feet with their noses, ready for some fun; instantly earning a gentle but firm rebuke from their young master.  Stones were bad for their teeth.  We discussed the advantages of solar panels, how he had internet and TV even in this remote area and how he loved the simple life tending chickens, looking after his goats, dogs and donkey. He explained the benefits of organic farming, so necessary to make things grow when water was short. Did we not think ‘the papaya was fresh and juicy’? Well of course, genuinely so. The trick, would we like to know? ‘Most definitely!’ Well its copious amounts of donkey shit! Suddenly, they didn’t taste so flavoursome but his earnest honesty and quiet gentle humour gained our instant forgiveness. Such generosity of spirit was to be admired and learned from.  Thirty minutes passed under that small tree, our hands sticky with fruit juices and then the weather closed. The mists drew in, the drizzle started again; blue skies and warm sun disappeared. It was time to retreat back downhill. Firm handshakes, smiles, slap on the back. Please, we should not forget him. Remember our time together at the ‘czech point’. 
Well Dom, we certainly will. You made our day special, a treasured memory. Thank you for the delicious fruit, the wonderful discussions and the generosity. We departed with honey, two more freshly picked tangerines and good memories. It was a privilege meeting you. Thank you for sharing part of your day with us. 
The journey down was less eventful than the route up. We went a different way, not without its hairpin bends! It comes to something when cyclists overtake you downhill on hairpin bends. I can’t quite decide whether that is humiliating or a testimony to my safe, cautious driving!
  • Don't rely completely on your Sat Nav
  • For car hire we used AutoReisen at the airport and they were outstanding with no hidden surcharges or costs. Make sure before you leave with the hire car that it has two emergency triangles and two fluro jackets. 
  • Petrol stations are closed Sunday's in the island interior
  • On the twisty roads, locals come around the bends as if they own them; you've been warned!
  • Roundabouts - if you are British be warned. They drive around roundabouts on the outside lane at all times for any exit; DO NOT go to the inside lane and then pull across for the third exit. You will cause chaos!!
  • We used the map below and it was outstanding. Very accurate and had all the walking trails marked on. This map was used constantly every day and we didn't find any inaccuracies. It is waterproof and tear proof. An excellent buy.

Saturday 20 January 2018

AstroGC: star gazing on Gran Canaria

Collected promptly at 5pm from our hotel, Jose drove us up the GC503 much to the alarm of ‘Her Indoors’ who had already experienced this road twice before!  We stopped off at a restaurant where we were offered free drinks and an explanation of the night was given. We were on the AstroGC telescope tour and the aim of the night was to do stargazing using 16” telescopes and learn something about the night skies. The group size was a maximum of twelve with two telescopes between them. 
Regular readers of this blog will know I normally refrain from making recommendations on companies, tours, products etc but not this time. If you visit Gran Canaria, this tour is worth every euro! Nearly 600 5 star reviews on Trip Advisor can’t be wrong can they; and frankly, based on our experiences they weren’t. Carmelo and Jose were outstanding in what proved to be exceptionally difficult conditions, when thick cloud built and high winds whipped the clouds across the skies. Despite these challenging circumstances we saw constellations, binary stars, distant galaxies, shooting stars, passing satellites and the actual milky way. Having your own personal astronomers on tap to answer questions and pass on their enthusiasm was just icing on the cake. There were quizzes and prizes and no I won’t share the answers. Meteorite fragments to observe, after all Jose has a meteorite collection of some 700 specimens and has collected them from all over the world. 
There were extra warm clothes available; seating, mint tea and best of all and boy how I wish I’d had one of these on all my fieldwork trips, a projector screen in the black of the mini people carrier van and a digital projector attached to the lift up boot door. Awesome, a brilliant orientation of the night sky lecture so you could get your eye in. 

High above Mogan, we craned our necks for two hours looking at the stars in the windows that appeared between thick cloud. Unusual and testing conditions for our astronomers and they coped and adapted well. I know, I’m a teacher trainer and assessor. They were brilliant! Both intuitive, they understood their audience’s needs. They fussed over every comfort, made sure all could see the various stars through the scopes and answered all questions. Passion and enthusiasm all night despite the testing conditions. 
Laser pointers helped pinpoint nebulae, distant neighbouring galaxies and constellations. M54, the binary stars that form the eyes of the swan or Cygnus constellation; the Orion nebula. The great plough, little plough, the Polaris star. Cassiopeia. 
In the pitch black with just the twinkly lights from valley villages below, our stargazing spot was an old undeveloped car park area attached to a closed-up restaurant in its own grounds. No car lights, no disturbances. Perfect. 
You can really reflect on your place in the universe up there high in the peaks above Mogan. Far from feeling insignificant, I felt really special. Here we were on a planet that sustains advanced life forms. Conditions just right at this particular point in time and space for life to flourish on this planet in this solar system in this small corner of the Milky Way galaxy. And were there advanced lifeforms looking at us watching them? Of course there were! I did wave at them but whether they saw me or not, who knows. 
AstroGC have their own website. They don’t take advanced payment because they are never sure whether an evening will go ahead or not due to changing weather conditions. They make this clear on their site. You sign up, they confirm with you and then they will text you when a viable evening is a goer. Try to give them several nights, it increases your chances of getting a successful trip. If you don’t know how to take a good sunset picture with your camera, learn to do so before you go as they stop off at a point where the sunsets are simply stunning. Take a camera and tripod and learn how to do some basic star time lapse photos or videos on the camera. I gave it a go. My very first attempts ever are below along with some tips. I learned the hard way!!
This team have planning down to a fine art form. You won’t regret it. And by the way, no money is taken until the tour is going ahead and expect it to be postponed if conditions aren’t optimal.

My very first attempts ever at time lapse photograph, so go easy on me!!

Tips for sunset and starry sky time lapses using GoPro Hero 5 black
for night time:
1. select night lapse photo mode
2. select shutter speed of 30 seconds
3. continuous shooting node
4. 12 mp
5. spot meter off
6. 3000k white balance selected in protunes
7. ISO 800 selected
8. sharpness set at medium
9. EV - N/A
10. make sure you have something in the foreground that is static; and some distant light source sometimes help
11. shoot for at least a couple of hours to get a really lengthy film clip at end. Don't worry if you have to quickly change batteries just try to set the GoPro back up in its original position. 
12. goes without saying - use a tripod!
13. some internet sites recommend 10 sec shutter speed and white balance at 5500K - so experiment!
For sunsets: set to time lapse; photo every 5 seconds; medium view; 12 mp for camera and 30fps if doing video; and try to set your scene remembering the photographic rule of thirds.
Good luck, have fun!

Friday 19 January 2018

The Gran Canaria diaries: departure lounges

The shrill, brain searing alarm at 0450. The fumble for the light switch in an unfamiliar hotel room. The phone hitting the floor from the bedside table. 
Possessions are gathered, tickets checked. Cabin bags repacked for the umpteenth time. Passports. PASSPORTS!! Where did those get left last night? How is there so much? Its only ten days! What happened to our ‘pack in three’ rules?
Exit the hotel room, the rumble of luggage wheels across the floor, the quiet hiss of the closing bedroom and corridor fire doors. Cold damp air hits the face as hotel foyer doors slide open. A frantic dash across a rain swept carpark; and the futile attempts to keep luggage and feet out of deepening puddles. 
Wipers and raindrops distort the bright lights of airport buildings. Dimly lit signboards lead to a missed turning for Long stay and another ‘What lane am I in circuit of terminal buildings?’ ensues. ‘Will Mr Local moron on my rear tail with his angrily flashing lights back off?’ Yes, 20 in a 30 limit is irritating. Suck it up! Chill a little!
Drafty bus shelters with interminable waits that in reality are merely minutes. The hiss of released brakes. Bendy swaying buses with their numerous stops and voice announcements about security measures set you down a hundred metres short of the terminal entrance. Of course they do, after all its raining!
Bright lights, high ceilings, white marble tiled floors. Space, organisation and bright signage. A cavern dedicated to air transportation. Departures, floor 2; grab the lift with a cheery airport worker. Pleasantries exchanged and lift doors open revealing TUI check-in desks and their long lines of waiting staff behind the inevitable but necessary snaking cordon corridors. The zig-zag herding begins, a 70m to the desk which in reality is a mere 10. The clatter of luggage wheels and giggling lost tourists, who turn against the tide, duck under the ribbons. Some say that some tourists didn’t appear for several days after entering one cordoned routeway!
Cheery greetings, bags thump onto luggage conveyors; passports and tickets returned; bags disappear into the great labyrinth below.
Departures! Like the entrance to a very active beehive.  Swarming people guzzle their last remaining water; the ill-prepared binning plastic bottles and putting liquids into plastic bags. Orange vested customs personnel direct this humanity into meandering but ordered rows. “Step forward, take a tray”. “Unpack your cabin bag please”. “Laptops and tablets in separate trays please”. “Come through please”.   Magic wand scanners with high pitched bleeps for the selected few. The rattle of rollers, clatter of deep plastic trays. Trays are retrieved, humanity moves left to the repacking areas. Belt, shoes, keys, money, tablets and passports all find their previous homes. Order is restored. 
Departures and security, a feat of meticulous, well-practised reorganisation and scrutiny.

And then it hits you. The unavoidable. The blatant, shameless, in your face walk through the consumerism alley. The big scent brands, racks of glossy lippies; watches, chocolates in a hundred variations. Alcohol of all brands and types. The sinuous, garishly lit walkway herds the unwary towards the lure of that ‘bargain’ which in reality isn’t. But pre-holiday inhibitions are weakened; temptation may prove too great. The smile of the bronzed, polished, snappily dressed, 20 something sales assistants as they step in for the kill. Resistance is futile my friend. You may try but they are practised, they know your weak spot, that little chink in your armour. 
Consumerism. Encircled by big brands, you are trapped in central seating rows; the brightly lit, shiny displays tempting those with enforced time on their hands. Airport departure lounges, the miniature shopping malls, with their high street names, carefully selected to appeal to the passenger types passing through them. Upmarket fashion labels to tempt passengers like you and me. 
Harrods and Hamleys, Malones and SK NNY Dip. The popular high street brands: Superdry, Sunglasses Hut; Dixons, Boots and Accessorize. Ted Baker, Jack Wills, JD Trainers, North Face. Dixons, FatFace and Cath Kidson. There is no escape. Here at Gatwick north terminal, the charter end of aviation these brands reflect peoples holiday needs. Cold weather gear for walking? Beach and evening wear to chill in? And target audience? Well not the mid 50’s that’s for sure; try the 20 – 30 young, fit bronzed with cash to splash. And of course, those weakening pre-holiday inhibitions. Did I say ‘resistance is futile’ my friend? 
Handbags, watches, clothes, rucksacs, cameras, magazines, books, toys, electronics of every conceivable type and colour. For retailers, a captive clientele, with nowhere to go, with time to kill and already sliding into holiday mode thus losing their normal penny pinching savvy. Those discounts look so more attractive when you are heading out on holiday don’t they? And don’t fret! If you do fall for the 7’ teddy bear in Harrods livery, Gatwick offer a buy now-collect when you return service!
The ‘resigned seat slumpers’; the ‘I need your shoulder’ sleepers; newspaper readers and music listeners. The strutting urban chic in fashionable threads; the aimless wanderers in comfy clothes. Non-buying browsers disappoint the eternally hopeful shop assistants. High speed texters, surreptitious departure board watchers. The ‘pleased with my bargain’ laden shoppers; coffee drinkers, make up fixers, the ‘I’m late, get out of my way’ boarders. Bleeping carts, bright neon signs. Thousands of voices, a chattering hum. 
Don’t you just love airport departure lounges?

Wednesday 17 January 2018

Blue M Puerto Mogan: The Gran Canaria diaries Part 1

The Blue M, Puerto Morgan, Gran Canaria

This time last week we were coming to the end of what was our best and most favourite day on our Gran Canaria trip. The Blue M is a modern, well designed and safe motorboat with plenty of side deck, a sunbathing foredeck and upper fly deck that affords excellent views.

being a big kid. I never tire of watching out for dolphin and whales. 

Manolo the owner is a cheerful Gran Canarian and clearly an excellent, experienced skipper. Born in Puerto Mogan he has spent all this life there and is clearly well known, well liked and respected based on the number of locals who waved us off, called out to him or bought their jet skis alongside to trade some banter.  Together with his wife Minerva, they make an excellent, hospitable, easy going team on board a boat they love and care for.

Collected promptly from the hotel at 0915, we arrived in the sleepy, stunning village port of  Puerto Mogan 15 minutes later. Welcomed aboard Blue M, our shoes were deposited in a basket and the rest of the day was spent in barefoot bliss on scrubbed teak strip decks. With only seven on board, the day was intimate, allowing you to get to know your fellow guests.
This is my 'I'm so excited' look even though I am sinning and stepping on board a motorboat instead of a yacht or dinghy

The plan for the day was simple, motor out at a steady 10kts, look for dolphin, porpoise and whales in the morning; around lunch time anchor in a secluded rocky bay, have a simple BBQ and do snorkelling across the boulders. Back in port for 15.00 with the rest of the afternoon at your leisure to wander around picturesque Puerto Mogan.

As we slowly motored out of the port, past the refuel bunker and protective breakwater, anticipation was high. The Blue M has a reputation for finding whales and dolphin, for environmentally respecting their privacy and for keeping a sensible distance from the whales. Dolphins on the other hand, well they just like to play, curious creatures that they are. Any dolphin experience was going to be up close and personal!

With both Manolo and Minerva using binoculars to scan port and starboard quarters off the bow it wasn’t long before a call from Manolo had us on our feet. Well most of us. From the moment we left port I’d been at the bow or on the flybridge scanning the waters for life. I’m such a kid!  Ahead off the starboard bow quarter, two dorsal fins slowly broke the mirror calm sea, gracefully rising in an arc before disappearing below.

Bright whales, mother and calf.  It is a testimony to Manolo’s skill and environmental sensitivity that he managed to get close but not so close as to disturb the mother and calf. He also limited the time alongside. Sharing information with other boats on the water, he moved away to allow another ketch coming up astern to take its turn 30m off the port side of the whales. Only one boat went alongside at any one point in time and after a strictly allotted time, that boat moved away giving the whales time to drift along undisturbed. This environmental sustainable approach was extremely impressive to watch in action and speaks volumes about Gran Canarias’s approach to tourism in general.

Motoring out to sea, its dappled surface ruffled by tiny breezes, we viewed Mt Teide rising above the clouds on Tenerife, the summit seemingly floating above the clouds. Binoculars were lifted to the horizon again and the scanning arcs began once more. 20 minutes later and a large pod of dolphin were spotted coming towards the boat.

The quietly intense excitement on board the Blue M cannot be adequately described in words. Manolo and Minerva never tire of seeing the pods. And yes, the waters were clear, deep azure blue; and yes, the dolphin surfed the bow wave; and yes, you could see them clearly; and yes, they came to us. Such inquisitively playful creatures. There are insufficient superlatives to describe this encounter and it surpassed our expectations. Manolo’s only comment, albeit said with a big grin, was that ‘this was normal’.

 With plenty of room for all of us to line the bow rails, the Atlantic Spotted Dolphin swam alongside, beneath and in front of the Blue M. Bubble trails, the equivalent of airplane trails in the sky, steamed behind some dolphin as they twisted and turned beneath the bow. Some swam sideways, an eye keenly scrutinising us. Do dolphins smile? Based on this encounter, an emphatic yes. I swear blind some were laughing at us.  

20 minutes later and Manolo called time on our encounter, the pod drifted off to find some respite and later some new playmates. We turned inshore and headed for a small indentation in the tall vertical lava cliffs west of Puerto Mogan.

The small bay was already occupied by two other boats with larger parties on board but in typical low-key Gran Canaria style, neither proved to be obtrusive. We swam in clear blue seas, the bay floor littered with large rocky boulders from long ago collapsed cliffs. Black spiked sea urchins hid in crevices between the boulders and ribbon fish swam lazily by.

Well what do you know. Those Atlantic currents are so powerful. I went snorkelling in Wembury Bay, south Devon and next thing I know........I'm stepping aboard some boat in Gran Canaria!!

In 8m or so of water, shoals of fish suddenly appeared from hiding places, attracted by the bread thrown in by Minerva. A free meal, the water teemed with fish shoals. Most sheltered under the Blue M. Snorkelling in water with a temperature of 19C or so is such a pleasure. This is a different Atlantic to the one off Plymouth Sound. Warm, translucently clear and no wet suits and thermals needed here.

The stony, bouldery beach lay at the end of a very narrow deep ravine valley. Someone had built a driftwood bar, long ago abandoned but it gave a wonderful Robinson Crusoe air to proceedings.

With a tasty BBQ comprising chicken kebabs, fresh bread rolls and a sumptuously tasty mixed chipped salad provided by Manolo and Minerva, we all sat on the bow enjoying the sun. Pure relaxation. Free drinks came from the stern locker cooler as and when you needed them. Manolo and Minerva took a dip when we were all fed and plates cleared. Both were clearly water babies!

Back on board and last to depart the bay, we motored along the stunning volcanic cliffs with their different coloured bands of ancient lava flows as far as Amados beach to the east, before turning bow back to port.

Manolo reversed that boat back into its berth stern first. He had a foot clearance either side. The fenders didn’t even graze neighbouring boats. Minerva jumped off the rear bathing platform with a light step and had stern lines tied and tensioned before you could blink. What slick teamwork. When I complimented Manolo on his superb boatmanship, I got the toothy grin and a Spanish accented english retort ‘not my first time eh’?

I recommend the Blue M without reservation. The professionalism, care, attention to detail and laid back gentle humour and welcome of Manolo and Minerva made this such a special day. Thank you goes to our fellow guests, from Italy, The Ukraine, and Ireland for interesting conversation and good humour all day.

You can contact Manolo about a voyage on the Blue M via their FaceBook page or trip advisor reviews.  I cannot comment on the larger tour outfits but this I can say, the Blue M was reasonably priced by comparison and was worth every single euro. Outside of Arwen my own boat, probably the best day I have ever had out on the water!

Manolo, Minerva, Gracias!

Blue M has its own Facebook page: search Blue M Puerto Mogan.