Out, damned spot
20 April 2020 | I've never washed my hands so much in my life
We are currently banged up in Portugal twiddling our collective thumbs and waiting for that nasty little corona virus to do the decent thing and bugger off. It doesn't seem keen on this and continues to defy even the titanic combined intellects of Messrs Trump & Johnson. As a result, we are cowering in the apartment scaring ourselves shitless listening to the news and searching the internet for the expected course and consequences of covid -19 infection.
It doesn't look good so far.
Especially for me.
If you do the maths it becomes glaringly obvious that, should I become infected and hospitalised, then the smart money would be on my coming out in a box.
The problem lies in the sheer number of cases and the shortages of beds, staff and equipment. Especially ventilators. These are needed to treat the more seriously compromised patients where the virus goes deep into the lungs and causes viral pneumonia. If it fails to kill you off from hypoxia it has one more trick up its sleeve. It makes the body's immune response go into overdrive with what's called a cytokine storm which leads to multiple organ failure. That's usually game, set and match to the virus.
I don't know about you, but this scares the bejaysus out of me.
We are unlikely to score very highly on the priority list for ventilators, or anything else that's in short supply for that matter. We would miss the cut on grounds of both age and pre-existing conditions. We are placed in the category called vulnerable. Sounds quite sympathetic and caring doesn't it. Don't be fooled. What it actually translates into is 'doddering and decrepit - Waste of resources - he's likely to pop his clogs whatever we do.' If it comes down to the wire and there's a stand-off over the last available ventilator then the vulnerable will lose out to the younger, fitter, healthier candidate who's more likely to survive and recover. The exception to this protocol is, of course, if you happen to be prime minister. If you meet this criterion you are fast tracked up to ITU before you can say 'just in case'.
Actually.I'm rather pleased that Boris is out of hospital. Now I can carry on slagging him off without any twinges of conscience.
Our plan of campaign, therefore, is to avoid catching the bug in the first place. Our strategy is to hide away and skulk in the apartment with our fingers in our ears and shouting la la la until it goes away.
Sounds good in theory.
Our cunning plan does have an Achilles heel, however. We still need to eat. (and drink, of course), and this necessitates a visit to the local supermarket and resulting potential exposure to asymptomatic carriers.
The Portuguese government regulations state that individuals should keep a minimum of two metres away from others. Of course, this is impossible in a crowded supermarket. The supermarkets do their best, bless 'em. Lines of red and green adhesive tape are bestrewn over the floor, the green marking the routes shoppers must follow and the red marks the stopping points which are inserted to maintain a (supposedly) safe distance between customers and between customers and staff. The same precautions are found in pharmacies.
On top of this they regulate the number in the shop. Entrances are supervised by blokes wearing surgical masks. Customers meekly line up outside, keeping the officially imposed social distancing gap of 2 metres. Punters are beckoned in on the 'One out - One in' principle.
Despite these precautions, we still get nervous. Viruses in general, and this one in particular, are tenacious little bastards and sneaky with it. Covid 19 can last up to 72 hours outside a host and you need a scanning electron microscope to even see the little sods. Just to top things off, it appears to be transmissible for two or so days before symptoms manifest themselves, which is an evolutionary master stroke for the virus and a pain in the arse for epidemiologists. As a result, our trips to the supermarket are carried out in a state of swivel-eyed paranoia that is normally associated with members of the green-ink brigade who insist on sitting next to me on the bus and proceed to explain, in full tedious detail, how they line their hats with aluminium foil to prevent their being mind-controlled by the CIA.
On our part, this paranoia is not without justification. I agree with Jean-Paul Sartre, Hell is other people. Here are we, a couple of average Joes, doing our best not to die a drawn out and agonising death when along come other bloody people. Yup, other bloody people, with their blank eyed, slack-jawed bovine expressions and their arrogant egocentrism. Where do these bastards come from? Are they on day-release from St Winifred's home for the terminally hard of thinking? How difficult can it be to keep two metres away from other people? Now, I accept that this could pose a bit of a problem within the confines of a crowded underground or bus, but we're talking about a whole supermarket here. What's more, a whole supermarket with no more than about ten people allowed in at any one time.
In theory, it should be a piece of cake doing shopping while maintaining the recommended two metre separation. All you have to do is watch out for others. If someone is where you want to be, hold back or go to a different aisle and come back to it later.
In practice, other bloody people do the opposite. Either that or I've suddenly developed some strange form of animal magnetism that inexplicably attracts the gormless and the Godforsaken like moths round a candle. They cluster round, breathing their foetid air all over me and cranking up the paranoia to level 10. It is impossible to tell which of them are carrying hidden assassins and which are just inflicting their appalling halitosis on me.
In my panic I completely depersonalise them. They are no longer sentient beings to me. They are a bunch of unguided missiles, intent only on randomly delivering their lethal payload of infective droplets over as large an area as possible with me in the centre. This depersonalisation justifies retaliation. It enables me to entertain dark fantasies in which I savour the look on their faces at the checkout as they try to explain the eight packs of Trojan Ultra Ribbed Ecstasy condoms along with five tubes of KY jelly, a large family pack of Anusol and an economy pack of adult incontinence pads all of which I had secreted in their trolley when they left it blocking the aisle while they went back for something they'd forgotten.
Well, I can dream.
It's not all doom and gloom on the vulnerability front, though. If we're not actively dying or cluttering up an ITU bed, then being classified as vulnerable has its benefits. You get priority seats on the bus. You have priority in pharmacies and are expected to jump the queue.
So that makes up for coming second on the ventilator stakes.
That Was The Heat That Was
12 August 2019 | or The Rime Re-written
Moving from sea-going to inland waterways cruising involves a number of psychological adjustments, some of which we had anticipated, and others came as a bit of a surprise. Prime amongst the latter was our sensitivity to and awareness of the weather.
You can't get away from the weather as a sea-cruising yottie, it impacts on everything you do. It determines where you can stay, where you can go, if you can get there, how fast and unpleasant the trip can be and, in extremis, whether you get there in one piece.
Or get there at all for that matter.
As a result of its overwhelming influence on his life and well-being, the weather occupies a special place in the sea-going yottie's consciousness - it's always there. The only variable is its degree of prominence. On a good day it's just nagging away at the back of the mind. At the other end of the spectrum it hi-jacks the entire pre-frontal cortex and ropes in most of the limbic system while it's at it. This usually happens when he has a long trip in the offing, is in a potentially exposed anchorage, or has the threat of a particularly vindictive frontal system sweeping in to give him a good kicking.
In a scenario such as this our yottie becomes obsessed. Weather forecasts are checked every 20 minutes, despite his knowing full well that they are only updated every eight hours. He can't go into the cockpit without executing a nervous 360-degree scan of the horizon for any ominous cloud formations or threatening changes in sea state. He is hypersensitive to any zephyr of wind felt on his face and continuously turns his head to and fro trying to home in on changing wind direction. Trying to engage him in conversation is pointless. He will be so distracted that he'd have trouble following the plot of a Clive Cussler novel and if you do, by some miracle, draw him into a discussion on the relative artistic merits of The Archers and Love Island, he will last about three minutes before steering the subject round to the weather.
Such obsession can become a tad tedious after a while (like about ten years, say), and the inland waterways beckoned with the promise of a less weather-centric lifestyle.
We should have known better.
Weather still plays a prominent part in cruising, even when one decamps to the canals and rivers of Europe. It's not so much wind and rain that pose the greatest problem. Ironically enough, the weather that has the greatest effect on the inland yottie is what is generally referred to as good weather. You know - clear blue skies, light winds, sun - the full holiday-brochure photoshopped fantasy, and that's what we've been getting.
I thought we'd got used to hot weather, after ten years in the Med. I anticipated milder, less enervating temperatures than we had experienced in Mediterranean summers. This anticipation was a result of a common feature of human psychology. As a species, we tend to believe that what we have personally seen and experienced is representative of things as a whole. It's called availability bias. Our experience of France had mainly been the west and northwest. These areas have a temperate, maritime climate and in our minds we equated this with France in its entirety.
Much of the French river and canal network, however, is in the east and northeast of the country. France is a sod of a big country, so being in its eastern reaches puts us slap bang in the middle of a bloody great landmass. This, as any fule kno, gives it a continental climate, and continental climates are bi-polar beasts. Far from temperate moderation, this is a climate of extremes. In the winter temperatures can drop to -20 or lower, and remain below freezing for weeks or even months, while in summer it can climb into the forties. Correspondingly, precipitation is many times greater in the winter than it is in the summer.
From our purely selfish viewpoint, this disparity is sustainable. Rivers and canals need inconceivable quantities of water. The Saone, for example, has an average flow rate of 500 tonnes of water per second, peaking at 1000 tonnes per second in February. In August it reduces to a dribble of a mere 150 tonnes per second. Nature has, historically, managed to provide for this and even out supply and demand. The secret ingredient in this balancing act is snow.
Until recently, winter snowfall locked up unimaginable quantities of water in snowfields, which was then progressively released as meltwater when things warmed up. This, augmented by the occasional summer thunderstorm, ensured sufficient depth throughout the parched peak season.
Note I said, 'until recently'. The last few years seem to have broken the pattern. Over the last four years, both winter snow and summer rain have been uncharacteristically low whilst summers have lurched from one extreme heatwave to the next. This year broke all the records. There was very little snow over the winter and in the summer temperatures in the forties left us panting listlessly like beached whales while our numerous rotary fans knocked the stuffing out of the batteries.
This inconvenience, though, was as nothing compared to the effect these phenomena had on the water levels. Canals aren't deep at the best of times. In inland waterways a depth of 1.8 metres is the equivalent of a sea boat crossing the Marianas Trench. We draw 1.2 metres and most of the time we're sniffing around with well under a metre below the keel. In the Med, we'd be nervously hovering around on tippy-toe if we were in that sort of depth. In the current water shortage, we're blundering around in considerably less than that. We've already run aground twice.
Responsibility for managing the network lies with Voies Navigable de France. They do their best, bless'em (when they're not on strike) but their options are considerably circumscribed, and it's not just us boaties they have to factor into the equation. Traditionally the VNF sells water to farmers for irrigation. If that is limited or stops it wreaks havoc with food supplies and livelihoods. Mind you, the farmers, being French, just rig up heavy duty pumps and take the water anyway.
Modern life is fiendishly complex and interconnected, as is demonstrated by another implication of the higher ambient temperature and reduced water levels. Threequarters of France's electrical generation is nuclear, and these power stations can get a tad warm, so some sort of cooling system is generally agreed to be a good thing. Nuclear reactors are all water cooled - there's no VW Beetle version of a nuclear power station. Fifteen of France's nineteen nuclear reactors are situated inland and so depend on river water for cooling. A restricted flow of already warm water doesn't make for the most efficient cooling system, so it's beginning to look as though EDF may have to close down some of the reactors and therefore significantly reduce generating capacity, just as demand from air-con peaks.
All of this puts us boaties in our place. All reservoirs for the canals are low, with some having been down to 11% before the summer even started.
The VNF has a hierarchy of responses to water restriction. The first tactic is to reduce guaranteed depths by around forty centimetres. If that doesn't do the trick, they tackle water loss at the locks. There are two sources of water wastage here. A boat going through a lock on its own uses shedloads of water. A standard Freycinet lock uses just under a thousand tonnes of water to move one boat up or down five metres. It uses the same amount of water to move a lock full of four or five boats. double that if the lock has to be filled or emptied to allow the boat in, a situation known as 'the lock being against you'.
The VNF reduce this loss by aggregating the boats through the locks. A single boat approaching a lock has to wait until he has accumulated a lock-full of boats behind him. All the boats can then lock through.
Unless the lock is against them.
In which case, they have to wait until a lock-full of boats coming in the other direction lock through before they can use the lock.
This is admirable at saving water and very ecologically sound, but by 'eck it's inconvenient. If the traffic is light you can wait up to three hours before the lockkeeper lets you through. This plays havoc with passage planning.
If all this fails, they go for the nuclear option and start closing sections of canals, or entire canals if things really go tits-up. And that's where things are at the moment. Great swathes of the network are either closed or due to close in the next couple of weeks.
This state of affairs is causing serious inconvenience to, and consternation amongst inland yotties and the full, ghastly implications will be explained in the next, unedifying, instalment of 'That Was The Heat That Was'.
14 July 2019 | or Antipodean Antics
Hello again. It's been a while, hasn't it?
Sorry about that. Perhaps an explanation is in order.
I appreciate that this may be a tad difficult for most of you to believe, especially those of you unfortunate enough to still be having to hold down full-time jobs, but I've been a bit busy lately. A lot of the winter has been taken up by writing and publishing book two of the 'Utterly Useless Guide to Mediterranean Sailing' series. *
Any time unaccountably left over has been devoted to pondering on, and trying to second-guess, the implications that Brexit is likely to have on our peripatetic lifestyle. This has proven to be inordinately difficult. In desperation I was even driven to resorting to management twaddle.
Back in the 80s and 90s I was subjected to a constant stream of management-speak; an endless barrage of acronyms and bullshit leavened with a sprinkling of the bleedin' obvious dressed up as profundity by the use of pseudo-scientific and light engineering terms which were, in reality, just heavily disguised abject bollocks.
I thought I'd left all that crap behind, given that most of it had the durability and life-expectancy of a mayfly with a serious crystal meth habit. One of the more tenacious of these management fads is known as a SWOT analysis. This has managed to outlast such apparent immortals as Management By Objectives, Total Quality Management and SMART goals.
SWOT, like most management and PR crap, is an acronym. It stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. I'm sure the tossers who think this dross up spend more time working on the acronym than they do on the content. In fact, I'd go further; they mould the underlying content (such as there may be) to fit the acronym rather than vice versa.
Nevertheless, I persevered and started to apply a SWOT analysis to our Brexit conundrum.
Indeed, despite SWOTting 'til my brain hurt, the only real conclusion I could come to regarding the potential consequences of brexit was 'Nobody knows'. Especially the politicians. Or if they do know, they're certainly not telling anybody, especially the likes of you and me. In fact, the more I SWOTted, the more convinced I became that no-one could, or would, ever know.
Until it actually happens.
Or doesn't, as the case may be.
You may have noticed that I have studiously avoided nailing my colours to the mast and proclaiming to which Brexit tribe I belong. The reasons for this cowardice are manifold, but the reticence is ultimately pointless. Those who know me will undoubtedly be well aware of my characteristically trenchant views on the subject and those who don't know me could probably work out my allegiance in microseconds. Nevertheless, it's a desperately divisive subject and one which, I suspect, will leave scars on British society for decades, whichever way it goes. So I'll try to keep this blog a haven of tolerance and co-operation, a neutral zone in the, thankfully mainly verbal, civil war that passes for current British social discourse.**
And that moi, in addition to being a tribute to Miss Piggy, leads us effortlessly into the third feeble excuse for my inaction on the blog front. We are currently in France, making our way along the Canal du Rhône au Rhin, from St. Jean de Losne to Mulhouse. Over the winter we reverted to land-based transport, doing a circuit taking in Jersey, Spain, Portugal and back to France. Such a lifestyle entails a constant battle to master the basics of whatever language happens to be most prevalent in the area in which we find ourselves at any particular time. This is not usually over-successful as our mental processes seem have a built in time-delay, which results in our addressing Spaniards in French, the Portuguese in Spanish and the French in Portuguese.
So, at the moment, present circumstances dictate that we spend hours every day trying to reclaim what's left of our, already risible, 'O' level French. The problem here is that the French don't speak 'O' level French. They speak a form of fractured, post-graduate French with every third word missed out. The difficulties are exacerbated by the fact that the Jurassien accent is so thick that it qualifies as a proper dialect. Learning Standard French and then encountering a native of the Jura is on a par with learning BBC English and trying to hold a conversation with a Geordie. He can make a reasonable fist of understanding what you're trying to say, but you haven't the slightest idea what the Hell he's on about. You can see that we're on to a hiding to nothing here.
However, matters are eased somewhat by the presence of a considerable number of anglophones. In the main, these are not French. I have a strong suspicion that virtually every French national is secretly fluent in at least four languages, invariably including English, but that they have all made a clandestine mutual pact to only speak auctioneer-speed French to any upstart foreigner who has the temerity to attempt to engage them in conversation. In extremis they can usually be persuaded to take pity on the poor helpless foreigner and will break into near perfect RP English after an apologetic shrug and an embarrassed disclaimer for their supposedly abysmal language skills. This puts them streets ahead of most Brits, whose grasp of languages other than English is so dismal that their primary tactic when confronted with a foreigner who appears to have had the effrontery not to have learned English is to shout English at them slowly or, if in Spain, Portugal or Italy, to tag an 'o' on the end of each word.
In this area of the inland waterways, the majority of anglophones are neither French, nor English, but antipodean. The place is overrun with Aussies and Kiwis. For three to six months in the summer the place is swarming with them. Hardly a Brit to be seen. And so it came to pass that we have been doing most of our socialising with our antipodean brethren.
George Bernard Shaw was referring to England and the United States when he coined his famous aphorism about two countries divided by a common language, but he could equally have been referring to Britain (especially England) and the antipodes. One would have thought that the shared language and the considerable overlap in cultural heritage would have led to a marked similarity in customs and social mores. Of course, this is true to a degree, but to far less of a degree than one would have expected. Well, than I would have expected.
A good example of this occurs when invitations are made to 'just pop round for a couple of drinks'. When invited round for a few drinks, the archetypal Brit will open the fridge, absent-mindedly pull out the first bottle of plonk his hand alights on, stroll down the pontoon and clamber on board his host's boat, casually handing the plonk over as he does so. He then takes the proffered seat and proceeds to hoover his way through the table-full of assorted nibbles while simultaneously decimating the host boat's beer supply.
Should he have the good fortune to be accompanied by Mrs Yottie, she will attempt to elevate things to a more civilised and refined level by bringing along a delicate posy of lovingly hand-arranged flowers, or a tasteful little packet of After Eight mints. She will hand these over to a soft cooing of appreciation from the hostess, before the host asks what she would like to drink.
"Oh, I shouldn't really", she will simper coyly, "but perhaps just a small glass of white wine would be lovely." Two bottles of Chardonnay later she switches to G&T and when the gin's gone makes heroic inroads into the Baileys. A few nights like this and the host boat will be reduced to Dickensian penury.
Contrast this, with inviting a bunch of Aussies and/or Kiwis round. You are fully prepared for the expected onslaught of yottie locusts. The table groans under the accumulated weight of Lidl's entire stock of party food, augmented by bowls of crisps, olives and pistachios. The fridge is jam-packed with enough beer to necessitate the raising of the waterline by 20 cm and you've got enough G&T to keep a yacht club commodore happy for a fortnight.
Then your guests arrive. The men are in the vanguard, staggering under the combined load of two crates of beer each. They are closely followed by the ladies, gliding down the pontoon, single file, in stately procession. Their heads held high, they carry in front of them trays laden with exotic, lovingly hand-crafted titbits; seafood delicacies, light fluffy mushroom timbales - I wouldn't be surprised to come across baby voles in aspic stuffed with hummingbird tongues. Looking upon the spectacle you could almost swear you could hear the accompanying strains of Handel's Arrival of the Queen of Sheba.
If hosting a drinks soirée for a bunch of Brits threatens penury, then hosting one for the antipodean contingent poses the opposite problem, one is left with an embarrassment of riches, but a desperate shortage of stowage.
Cupboards creak from the strain of trying to accommodate the many newly acquired bottles of obscure spirits, while floorboards erupt upwards as the bilges struggle to contain the seemingly endless crates of assorted beers. Fridge doors have to be buttressed shut with boathooks. Host boats are frequently driven to setting up food banks for the local disadvantaged, just to free up some cupboard space.
Of course, whichever norm you follow, these things all even out as people take their turns to be host, but when different cultural expectations mix, it can lead to little misunderstandings at first. What we need is a sort of cultural babelfish.
*It's called 'Finding Einstein' and is available on Amazon at the knock-down, unbelievable, never to be repeated, price of £2.99 (e-book) or £6.99 (paperback). Get it today, folks, while stocks last.
**Well, mainly verbal. So far, at least.