Sunday, 30 October 2011

Tristan 3 - HMS Clyde 2

Sorry for the hiatus. I've now got the key the internet cafe and can get online out of hours when it is a little faster. Well, less slow. I've got so much to tell you I hardly know where to begin. Anyway here goes. I'll fill some of the other gaps in future posts.

We don’t get many visitors! So Friday was a particularly momentous day for Tristan. The Royal Navy ship HMS Clyde visited and spent the day here. She is en route between the Falkland Islands and Cape Town. The Administrator, the UK Government rep, took the opportunity of an audience to unveil a plaque - on the summit of the Volcano whose eruption lead to the complete evacuation of the island 50 years ago to the month. And while the Administrator and his wife entertained the ship’s captain to lunch at the Residency, the Tristan football team entertained a team from the ship on the adjacent pitch, with a large audience of sheep and cattle and a few islanders watching. The island team won 3-2, maintaining its run of four consecutive wins. It was a beautiful day and only a few islanders turned out to watch as there was important work to do in the potato patches (allotments). Ensuring the continuity of food supply and ultimately survival on one of the world’s most remote islands is a deeply ingrained island instinct. 

In any website on Tristan you always see this welcome sign. But when I arrived I was puzzled because I couldn't find it anywhere. Apparently it is so windy on the island that unless there are visitors and it's calm they take all signs down - including the welcome sign, road signs and one telling you we are 5,386 miles from London! So it suddenly appeared again when the HMS Clyde was in port.

It’s been a busy week for island fishermen and the fish processing factory, with three ‘fishing days’. Let me explain. There are only two employers on the island. The Tristan da Cunha government itself is by far the biggest. It runs an administration office and a treasury including bank, and a number of departments, like agriculture, mechanical, electrical, carpentry, communications, shop, post office, health and education. The other is the lobster processing factory. But many of the government staff are fishermen and on one of the few days which are good enough to launch the boats and get in and out of the harbour safely, a bell is donged at 4.45am and normal island life is suspended for the day. Generally there are 60 fishing days a year. The number is variable and depends on catches and quotas as it is critical that the fishing is sustainable. Once offloaded the factory works flat out to process and freeze the fish catch as soon as possible to ensure freshness. 

It’s been a momentous day in my kitchen too - preparing food for the week ahead. There is no fast or prepared food in the shop. I’ve made a loaf of brown bread, two mixed fruit tea cakes; butternut squash soup and a sausage and carrot casserole. But the really momentous bit is that I’ve used my last cabbage and carrot. There are none left in the island store and won’t be for at least another two weeks when the next supply ship unloads. The only fresh vegetables available in the 'canteen', as the supermarket is called, are onions and butternut squash. There are frozen vegetables but apart from peas they aren’t great - like tomatoes. I suppose that's one of the reasons every islander has an allotment. However the islanders are very kind and generous and I’ve been given potatoes, eggs, lobsters and a huge amount of beef and lamb – all delicious and produced on Tristan. I also get a bottle of milk delivered every other morning from Sylvia Green, straight from her cow, unpasteurised and still slightly warm. Its very creamy and great with coffee and frosties (when chilled).

The weather seems to have settled down here after last week’s deluge. We’ve had several dry and sunny days, and we’ve been up on the plateau at 2,500 feet called the Base, three times in the last week. We should probably be up there again today but it is pretty exhausting and we need some time to recharge batteries (literally and metaphorically!) The ascent is as steep as anything I’ve done in the Alps and even once you get up there the going doesn’t get much easier with deep ravines (gulches) to cross every few hundred yards. The plants are pretty difficult to identify – just to add to the challenge – with a high proportion of grass and sedge species amongst the 90 native and 130 non-native plant species. Because the season is late these grasses and sedges are almost impossible to identify with only last year’s remnants of flowers to go on - which are now frayed, battered or missing after a winter of South Atlantic storms. However it should get easier with perseverance and the advancing season

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Island Life – Friday 7th October

Tristans speak English, but the local accent is pretty difficult to understand. Judging by the blank faces, I guess some of the islanders find my Scottish accent equally hard. Tristan vowels are very clipped, they use different verb endings (like I goes and he go) and speak very fast. I guess I’ll pick it up in time. 
On that theme of communication; one of the best things about Tristan is that calls to the UK are very cheap and clear. Amazingly you just dial a London code (0203) from the UK to get through to the island. It has been great to be able to make long calls home. 
What is not so good is internet access. It’s so slow that the other end gives up waiting. The fastest I’ve seen is 400 bytes/sec. So I’ve not been able to transfer money to the island by internet banking or access some e-mail accounts. Fortunately my Kew e-mail address does work if slowly but I’m really struggling to upload blogs. It took an hour to get my anti-virus updates the other day. So most folk don’t have up to date anti-virus protection and consequently viruses are rife on the island. 
The working day for all Tristans starts early at 6.30am and finishes at 2.30pm and those early starts have been hard for me after nine disturbed nights on the Baltic Trader. All work departments, offices and the shop are open during these times only. Incidentally this compounds the internet problem as you can only access e-mail at work or at the internet cafe during working hours – there is no internet access from private houses. 
There is an air of excitement on the island just now with all these ships visiting within two weeks. As well as the Baltic Trader, the SA Agulhas has now returned to pick up the passengers who have been visiting Tristan over the last three weeks whilst the ship went down to Gough with the annual Met station relief. They are due to go off this morning by helicopter so weather and swell are less important considerations. The Agulhas can carry a lot of passengers and every available B&B and self catering cottage is occupied by visiting tourists, diplomats, scientists and engineers. Because of this there have been a lot of farewell parties and drinks this week and I’ve been out most nights.
And finally the MV Edinburgh is due to arrive this weekend variously collecting or delivering more passengers, mail and diesel fuel.  

The Baltic Trader is still sheltering in the lea of the island waiting for the swell to go down. It’s never been less than 3 metres since I arrived and we’ve had some amazing storms already. But I think that’s just normal. Thankfully I took a huge bag on as cabin luggage so I’m not too stuck for the essentials but it will be nice to be re-united with all my stuff. The folk who were due to return on it will probably miss their connecting flights out of Cape Town because the delay in departing. Interestingly one of the passengers on board the Baltic Trader, a BBC journalist and manager of BBC Radio Solent, Chris Carnegie has just done a piece for “From Our Own Correspondent” on Radio 4 which you can listen again to (but sadly which we can’t).

First Day on Tristan da Cunha - Monday 3rd October

It is great to have my feet on dry land after nine days on the South Atlantic. We were really lucky to get ashore. However we are still waiting for the Baltic Trader’s hold to be unloaded. Fortunately I took a huge bag on as hand luggage. But I’ll be pleased to be reunited with my belongings. The other impact is that the settlement’s store is looking sadly depleted. But I’ll tell you about the store in another time.
I’m in the Rectory, which is where the Anglican priest would stay. Except that the last priest left a year ago and there is still no sign of a replacement. The house is a bit dark, cold and fusty smelling having been unoccupied for so long but it is spacious and does have amazing sea views to the north. Like all other Tristan houses there is no central heating. I’m only there temporarily - until visitors vacate other visitors leave on one of the three ships due to depart over the next week.

People are very kind and friendly, if a bit shy of strangers. Apparently some of the older folk won’t even go out when there are visitors on the island for fear of catching flu or some other bug they have no immunity to. As an example of kindness my new boss came round with a massive two course roast beef dinner his wife had made for me.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Arrival on Tristan: 2nd October

Tristan da Cunhna - first sighting.

Our arrival on Tristan was very exciting, if a little bit scary. There was too much swell for passengers to transfer to the island RIBs. So the Baltic Trader was sent 10km around to the east of the island and we transferred there in the relative calm of the lee of the island.  We then had a very fast and bumpy trip round to the harbour doing over 25 knots. But the most exciting bit was charging into the harbour on the crest of the swell at the same speed and then braking very sharply.
Transferring to RIBs for trip ashore

Monday, 3 October 2011

Nearly There: Saturday 1st October

The day after my last posting the weather took an unexpected turn for the worse and we spent a couple days labouring in a Force 6 in very rough and confused seas doing only 1 or 2 knots over the ground. We are way behind schedule. The big swell makes it very unpleasant and I’ve spent a lot of time in bed and even missed a couple meals (not like me!) Conditions have only very slowly improved over the days but now we have just 175 Nm to go, and at 7.5 knots, I calculate we should arrive in 24 hours time – on Sunday morning.

This is the third consecutive day that no ships have been seen or detected on the ship’s instruments within 25 miles. All you can see is sky and sea. But there are a few signs that we might be approaching land. For one an Antarctic Tern - the first tern we’ve seen in 9 days - landed on the ship’s prow for a rest I think. And this morning a pair of Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatrosses in splendid breeding plumage have been spotted following the ship. They breed on Tristan. But even before these developments, the bird species we have been seeing had subtly changed and here is an updated list:
  • Wandering Albatross
  • Pintado Petrel
  • Spectacled Petrel – predominantly dark brown petrel with white circles around eyes.
  • Soft-plumaged Petrel – dark wings with white undercarriage and a greyish breast band and dark cap.
  • Leach’s Storm Petrel’s – small black petrel with a white rump and a V shaped noted tail.
Ship’s time was put back another hour last night. We are now on GMT – like Tristan da Cunha. I’ve just done a wash in ship’s washing machine so I’ll have fresh clothes to wear on arrival. Which will be tomorrow if all goes to plan.

Mid Voyage: Monday 26 September

We have just had four of the most beautifully sunny and warm days. Today in particular is quite magical – it is almost calm and the sea is like Mediterranean in summer. We are making good progress with speeds up to 9.5 knots today. After some initial sea sickness I seem to have found my sea legs. We are settling into a routine of eating, chatting, strolling around on deck and watching films on DVD in the evening. There is even an exercise bike and I’ve been doing about 15 minutes a day on it.
Captain of the Batlic Trader at the helm

Gert the Engineer gave us a guided tour of the engine room today – which is immaculately clean and well polished. The engine is a 6 cylinder water cooled 96 litre turbo diesel. The radiator is cooled by sea water and amazingly not much bigger than the one in my car (and runs a lot cooler). It starts using a compressed air turbine. There are also 4 electricity generators for the engine auxiliaries, the ships crane, instruments, communications, cooking, and refrigeration in the galley and lighting. Also for the ship’s desalination plant which supplies us with water. Top speed is about 10.5 knots but they run it slower to avoid stressing it out.
Ok I think I’ve figured out what bird species I’ve been seeing. I’ve been using Ryan’s Field Guide to the Animals and Plants of Tristan da Cunha and a borrowed Birds of Southern Africa by Sinclair. The tentative list so far is:
Wandering Albatross – really big with a rather ugly big pink bill, white underwing with black trailing edge and the grey wings. There are a lot of confusing variations in plumage depending on whether the bird is juvenile, immature, sub-adult or adult. But I did wonder if we also had another entirely different species – the Southern Royal Albatross – a massive bird with 3.5 metre wingspan. Albatrosses are amazing to watch they never seem to flap their wings and seem to spend all day effortlessly gliding along often just inches above the waves.
Pintado Petrel – this is the most distinctive of all the birds with beautiful black and white mottled wings – and also one of the most common. They seem to love following the ship in ones and twos.
Blue Petrel – I only saw a few of these yesterday, I think. They have a distinctive dark M shape across their wings. Quite similar to Prions, but I think I’ve understood the difference.
Great-winged Petrel – we’ve been followed most of the morning by a group of five or six and that has given me a chance to have a good look at these birds, which I initially thought were Skuas. Like Skuas they are mostly brown with triangular tail fin outline. But these are petrels and have silvery highlights on both upper and lower wings.
Wilson’s Storm Petrel – Nice to see this old friend recognisable from the North Atlantic. The smallest bird species to be seen with that very distinctive white rump.

Sub-antarctic Skua – only the odd single bird seen yesterday. Very similar to the Great Skua or Bonxie we see around the British Isles.
If you’d like a copy of Ryan’s book, which I can thoroughly recommend, Summerfield (BSBI) Books sell it for £12. Interestingly it's on Amazon for £77.
We had a brilliant sighting of a pod of six dolpins swimming alongside and just in front of the ship yesterday . They are amazing swimmers – so fast and yet so effortless. They seemed to really enjoy swimming with each other and the Baltic Trader - regularly leaping completely out of the water. Although we’ve seen no whales breaching the surface we have seen the occasional distant whale blows!