Madeira

We are back in Europe!  Madeira was sunny but a bit nippy when we tied up at 0800.  Last time we were here it rained heavily all day and we were unable to leave the ship.  There were mud slides, massive flooding and houses and dogs were washed into the sea.

This time the Atlantic crossing was gentle with no big seas or winds. An uneventful passage but there was plenty happening on the ship.  Jane took control again in the jig saw department. We had some new table companions for dinner – John and Pat Thompson stayed – but as Jim and Liz Burnett left in Fort Lauderdale we were joined by Bernd (Bernie) Hochstadt and his wife Leah Smith Hochstadt who spend their time between Berlin and New Jersey.

So Funchal was our final port. Cunard had organised a wheelchair friendly tour so we took it with 2 other couples. Scenes of Madeira it was called. A small coach with a lift and a guide and a driver proved to be just what was needed. We set off from the ship at 0930 and started to wend our way up the mountain. It was very steep.  After Monte, we pressed on and up to Poiso at 1400m and then turned right to Santo de Serra.

The journey took us through an area of forest that had been ripped apart by fire last year.  We had a number of stops for photos and at Santo we had a comfort break and coffee at the Golf Hotel overlooking the course that hosts the Madeira Open each year.  It appeared to be in excellent condition but there were very few people playing.

From Santo we wended our way down slowly to Machico on the east coast and then to Santa Cruz and the airport.  We probably all know about the Funchal airport and its reputation as one of the most dangerous in the world.  We drove under the runway, which has been constructed on stilts, and despite the runway being 2780 m it looks very short.

When the new runway was opened in 2002 a jumbo apparently landed on it and didn’t fall off the end.

Our group returned to the ship for lunch. They had proved to be very good company Marg and John Moxon from Parramatta, Sydney and Jenny and Fred from Brisbane. Marg and John are travelling round the UK starting in Eastleigh, Hampshire.  Her father grew up in Southampton and she has plenty of relatives in the area.
Baron Finkelstein – Danny Finkelstein of the Times – has arrived on the ship to give a lecture or 2 so that should be good and Tom O’Connor is also aboard and due to perform tonight.  Jane and I have an invitation to sit at the Commodore’s table for dinner, after the Senior Officers Cocktail Party tonight so it will be a fairly hectic evening!
Share:

The Last Leg

On Wednesday in Fort Lauderdale, there was a large disembarkation, including all those who had boarded on 12 January in Ft Lauderdale.  Theirs was a 94 day voyage that qualified as a Full World Voyage!  In the main they were US citizens.

There was the usual horrible delay in getting through the US immigration formalities to get ashore.  The delays led to various degrees of unpleasantness by a few Brits. Some questioned why there was a separate lane for wheelchairs when that line moved more quickly than theirs!  Horrible people.  

We made a quick visit to Macy’s and Jane picked up some amazing bargains – 75% off and then another 10% for being a foreigner!
We now have 7 days at sea, a visit to Madeira and then 3 more days at sea before we are home.

Share:

Astronauts

It is not often that you get to shake hands with two astronauts in one day.  Well I did it yesterday and today in the Lido Restaurant.

Captain Robert “Hoot” Gibson and Dr Rhea Seddon were guest speakers on the ship on the segment from San Francisco to Fort Lauderdale.  When the list of speakers was circulated I thought it odd that 2 of the 5 speakers were former astronauts. I then found out that they are married to each other!

They met when they were both selected for the first Space Shuttle Astronaut program in 1978. A class of 35.  They married in 1981 and between them flew in 8 space flights. Hoot Gibson flew 5 and was Mission Commander on 4 of those flights. Dr Rhea flew on 3 space flights and was one of the first 6 women to be selected for the Astronaut Program.  She was with NASA for 19 years.

Hoot Gibson had been a fighter pilot, attended the Navy Fighter Weapons School “Topgun” and the Navy Test Pilot School before being selected as an astronaut. 

It was not surprising that he became a fighter pilot.  He revealed that both his parents were pilots and that his mother had decided, when at University, that she wanted to learn to fly, so she and 2 girlfriends clubbed together and bought a plane!
Hoot’s final space flight was the first mission to rendezvous and dock with the Russian Space Station Mir.  He went on to even greater things with NASA and was Chief of the Astronaut Office.
After 19 years with NASA, Dr Rhea became a Medical Officer in Nashville, Tennessee and then a Professor at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

They have 4 children, two of whom were born during the time that they were both astronauts.
They spoke in the Royal Court Theatre separately on different days and were both inspirational. They both spoke without a note and had exceptional powerpoint presentations. Plenty of film and brilliant photos they had taken from space. They were very modest and humourous and today, together, they spoke to a packed theatre, in a Q & A session.

Share:

Grand Cayman

“Attorneys at Law” the sign said.  I thought It was another jewellery store in the shopping mall but I was wrong. It was a very impressive office, but this is Grand Cayman.  Packed with 554 Banks plus Trust Companies, Insurance Companies and all sorts of financial institutions.  I decided to leave the lawyers to their own devices.

This is a smart place and very much geared up to the cruise industry as well as being a tax haven. We knew that other cruise ships would be in port and as we sailed into George Town, Grand Cayman, the Ruby Princess and Brilliance of the Seas were already at anchor.

 Queen Victoria
We anchored and the tenders were made ready.  It was a beautiful day and passengers were quickly making their way ashore when yet another cruise ship appeared, the Disney Fantasia. So four ships were at anchor, all fairly close to the shore.

 Disney Fantasia
You can walk around the town in an hour. Apart from a small chuch and small museum, both overlooking the water, the rest of the waterfront at ground level consists of jewellery outlets and touristy stores. It is great fun and when 4 ships are in port there is plenty of bustle.

Prices for watches and gold and silver all appear to be really competitive with 25% savings on UK prices.

Share:

Aruba

Aruba is about 18 miles north of Venezuela and is now part of the ABC group of islands – Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao.  Formerly a part of the Netherlands Antilles, it is now a separate entity within the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Aruba is small – 19 x 6 miles – with only 20 inches of rain a year, so it is not a lush paradise but rather a dry, desert like land packed with cacti and aloes.

The island flourished in the 1820’s with the discovery of gold.  When mining gold became uneconemical in the 1920’s, two oil refineries were built on the island.  In the early days, one of the refineries was the largest in the world and was producing more than 400,000 barrels a day.  Refining oil has declined on Aruba but tourism has taken its place and is an expanding industry.

This area is Eagle Beach and is packed with 5 star hotels and a beautiful beach.


It was a hot and humid day, but we found an air conditioned taxi at the terminal building and set off on a tour of the island.

Cloes was the driver.  We were told that he was a good driver. He was, when he looked where he was going, but he often turned round to talk to us, and he often took both hands off the wheel to help his explanations!


Aruba is short of places of real interest.  Stop 1 was for a collection of odd shaped rocks.

I climbed them, but the view from the top was not sensational.  We then drove to the northern Atlantic coast.  An impressive rocky coastline with large waves breaking heavily.

It was Stop 2. The Natural Bridge. Sadly it collapsed in 2005 as you can see, but a new mini natural bridge is there with the appropriate warning!

 Stop 3 was the Chapel of Alto Vista. The road to it was blessed with white crosses and extracts from the Lord’s Prayer and other biblical quotes.

 Also known as the Little Chapel, the pews outside are apparently always packed with worshippers.

 
Stop 4 was the California lighthouse named after a vessel of that name that had been wrecked on the rocks at the northern point of the island.

Stop 5 was Palm Beach and Eagle Beach. Both are magnificent public beaches serving the superb hotels that sit alongside.

In the sand there are numerous divi divi or Watapana trees whose branches are bent at right angles to the trunk by the ever present trade winds.

Aruba impressed us. It is the sort of place you could come to for a week of sunshine in a luxury hotel. That said the island does not offer a great deal more although it is clean and friendly. A pleasant surprise for us.

Share:

The Panama Canal

In 2012 we transited the Canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific in Queen Elizabeth. Today we went in the other direction.  We had an amazing, exhausting day.

A little history first.  In 1881 the French began work on a canal that would join the two major oceans.  Massive numbers of workers died from fever related diseases and there were engineering and financial problems.  In 1903 the US took over.  They wanted a canal to enable them to get their warships from the Atlantic to the Pacific. They had the canal ready for its opening in August 1914 – one hundred years ago. In total it is believed that 25,000 people died during the construction.
The clever part of the plan was to establish a massive lake in the middle of the isthmus and then dig canals either side.  The artificial Gatun Lake was created by building the Gatun Dam and then flooding the area.  The lake would be 85 feet above sea level and a series of locks was needed to get vessels up and down.

Our day started early, with a series of pilot boats arriving just below our balcony from 0615.  

It was a beautiful morning and Panama City glistened in the distance as the sun rose.

We passed under The Bridge of the Americas at about 0800 and headed for the first series of locks – the Miraflores Locks.  

On our left, vast construction works were taking place, creating the new wider additional Panama Canal which will take bigger ships that cannot get through the existing Canal.  Queen Mary 2, for instance, is too wide to get through the existing Canal, but will be able to transit the new one.

When we arrived at the Miraflores Locks eight locomotives were ready to guide us through, two on either side forward and two either side at the stern.  

Each locomotive costs between $2 million and $5 million depending on who you speak to!  The locomotives do not, usually, pull the ship through, but by means of 2 hawsers and pulleys on each locomotive they keep the ship away from the edge of the canal.  The ship is propelled through under its own power.

The QV is a Panamax ship designed to fit into the Canal, but it is very tight, with about two feet on either side spare. You can see from the photos how close the ship is to the wall of the Canal.

I was unable to find out from the experts how the ship was kept in position. Were computers involved? No I was told.  A marine lecturer on the ship told me that the senior pilot had some kit in the centre of the bridge which he used to control the eight locomotives. That seemed unlikely unless he had cameras stategically placed around the ship, because the pilot would not be able to see anything from the centre of the bridge!

During my travels around the ship I found the answer. The Canal transit is tiring because you need to move to different viewing points to get the best photos.

Decks 5 and 6 forward, usually reserved for the crew, were opened for passengers, and that gave brilliant views of the lock gates and the water levels, but there was no cover and it was hot and humid. My “private” deck on 9 in front of the gym gives a better overall view but Deck 3 astern proved to be the best for Panama.

There I was able to reach and touch the Canal wall, shake hands with one of the locomotive drivers and, most importantly talk to one of the pilots, who revealed all, about keeping the ship in the centre of the canal.  

His job was to keep the stern of the ship in the centre and a colleague up forward did the same thing. They were each responsible for 4 locomotives. My man spent his time ensuring that there was always a minimum of 12 inches between the wall and the hull, knowing that that would leave 3 feet on the other side. He achieved that by talking all the time on a walkie talkie to his 4 loco drivers getting them to tighten or slacken their hawsers. I tried to get his cap but I failed!


It was then on to the Miguel Locks, through the Culebra Cut, a narrow channel carved though the hills and into the wonderful Gatun Lake.  Finally we arrived at the last set of locks – the Gatun Locks and once through them we were into the Caribbean!  By then it was 1730 and time for tea.

Share:

Amazing

A couple of days ago I pointed out that my late father was born on 6 April 1914 and would have been 100 on Sunday.  When I mentioned this at dinner on Sunday evening one of our dinner companions, John Thompson from Sheffield, said that his father was born on the same day in the same year.  An amazing coincidence.  Three men at the table, two of whom have fathers born on the same day. Could someone please tell me what the odds are of that happening?

We will be transiting the Panama Canal tomorrow, Thursday.  In 2012 Jane and I did the transit on Queen Elizabeth in the other direction.  My blog for Cunard can either be located at the beginning of this blog or on www.wearecunard.com – you then need to search under Queen Elizabeth Panama or under Richard Smith or under Special Guests (Yes that’s me!)
We are 7 hours behind the UK at the moment but if the ships webcam is working you should be able to get some decent views of the Canal.  The transit will take about 10 hours but I am not sure what time we will start – probably 0800ish.
There are also webcams by the Canal which can be found on www.pancanal.com – we will be waving continuously.
Don’t forget that although we will be transiting from the Pacific to the Atlantic (Caribbean) we will be travelling from the East to the West (Geddit?).

 Not many people know that!
Share:

Puntarenas, Costa Rica

We arrived in Puntarenas in the middle of the night.  Those taking tours were leaving the ship before it was too hot.  When I walked out onto the balcony at 0630 the temperature was 84 F and some tours were just leaving.

I realised we had been here before.  Puntarenas used to be Costa Rica’s major port but Limon and Puerto Caldera developed and expanded whilst Puntarenas did not.  The end result is a lovely expanse of beach with grubby bars and a frontage of run down and delapidated buildings that have all seen better days.  

Cunard were unable to locate any wheelchair friendly coaches, so we had planned to take a taxi.  The nearest attraction was 30 miles away. Air conditioning was limited – an open taxi window was the best anyone could offer – so Jane decided that, as it was by then over 90 F, the best plan would be a walk round the extensive market.  We came across plenty of Costa Rican coffee and the usual array of wooden carvings, jewellery and tourist tat
The Island Princess was tied up on the other side of the pier so there was much activity around the ships all day.  “All Aboard” was 1630 and as the gangways were being taken down it was apparent that some people were late back. It rarely happens but when the three of them arrived at the gangway 25 minutes late all hot and bothered we realised that we knew all three of them. Interviews with the Commodore in the morning!

Before departure it was announced by the bridge that two tugs would be on hand to assist us in pulling away from the quay.  Usually the azipods can do the job and outside assistance is not required, but it seems that the tide was particularly strong and pushing us onto the quay.  In the event our departure went very smoothly and the tugs quickly detached themselves. We then turned into the channel and set off for the Panama Canal.
Share:

100 today 6 April 2014

If our late father, Captain George E Smith, who was one of only three men who were Captain of both the old Queen Elizabeth and the QE2, had been alive today, my sister Elizabeth and I would have been celebrating his 100th birthday with him!

Born today, 100 years ago!
Share:

San Francisco to Puntarenas

It’s a long way – 2800 nautical miles and we are taking 6 days to get there.  The weather has improved dramatically so that the last 3 days have been perfect with temperatures in the mid to high eighties and the only wind being that created by the ship. Today there is no swell at all.

We have tracked courses parallel to the coast, initially down past Salinas and Monterey and then LA. We were some way away but thought of Nick Brewer’s son Tim and family in LA and the old Queen Mary in Long Beach where Nick was last year. 

We are usually between 10 and 20 miles from the coast.  San Diego was next, which reminds me that we have just bumped into Tom and Kathy Whelan who boarded the ship in SF.  We first met them on the Maiden Voyage of Queen Mary 2 in 2004. Tom is the Federal Judge in San Diego – he used to specialise in dealing with divorce cases.  But he moved on to more important things!
Now that I have looked at the map I can see why we are having so many sea days.  There is that long sliver of land, the peninsular of Baja California.  Right at the bottom of the finger is Cabo Son Lucas.  We are not visiting it but we did last year.  The peninsular is Mexican and Cabo is a favourite for American students for partying and holidays. It’s a great place to visit, packed with bars and beautiful marinas.

This is the Caribbean band who play on deck 9 by the pool at lunchtime and during balmy evenings.

As I write this an item has just come up on the TV news.  A young couple with kids of 3 years and 18 months have just been rescued by helicopter and a US naval ship. They were on a world voyage in their small yacht – the baby was ill and the engine broke down. They were 1000 miles off Cabo. Sheer madness crossing the Pacific with an 18 month old child.
On Saturday night we passed Acapulco, some 20 miles away and throughout Sunday we have transited the Gulf of Tehuantepec – well known for hurricanes that originate here. No sign of one today.

Sunday was billed as the day of the Country Fayre. For weeks the entertainment staff have been persuading departing passengers to donate items for charity. Clothes that no longer fit or which won’t fit into the suitcases. 
Just like a Church Fete. Actually more like a jumble sale!  All sorts of rubbish that people then bought because its cheap – not because they will wear it. Well the Fayre took place today and will have raised a few thousand dollars.  The pretty dancer on the right was selling raffle tickets.  I bought lots.

She charged a dollar a time (for a photo) which I thought was fair.

Before we get to Costa Rica we pass Guatamala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua but sadly we won’t see them. Then on Tuesday it’s Puntarenas. Not to be muddled with Punta Arenas in Chile where we were on 3 February!

Share: