Monday, 31 March 2014

The Conclusion of things

Imagine a basin of water, one kilometer wide, one kilometer long, and one thousand meters deep. It is a giant cube, an incredible amount, more water than you, your family, and your friends all together will be capable of using and consuming throughout your whole lives. By far.
Our oceans contain 1.348.000000 of those cubes, a truly staggering number. And yet - they are just drops, all interconnected, traveling incessantly, changing from surface to the deepest abyss and back - maybe with a little interlude in the sky as a raincloud - hosting life and shaping our world.
Some of these drops have carried our ship across the mighty ocean and then disappeared again into the anonymous void.
Everything moves from beginning to end and to beginning again.
Our voyage is nearly over. After a last highlight, the guided tour into the belly of the ship and the crew show performances, it is now time to pack the suitcases, find the flight ticket (or the hotel voucher), take out the warm sweater for home, and exchange addresses with new friends. At least the jigsaw puzzle is done...

A fine journey it was, touching five countries and some rocks in-between, colorful, peaceful, full of culinary delights, with just the right amount of activity during the ride.
Despite of what people at home may have suspected beforehand, there is one thing it was certainly not - boring. Just the opposite. So there is a warm hand at the Captain's Farewell for all who made this journey possible, in front or behind the scenes.
The evening is balmingly mild, and on a long old Atlantic swell that heaves the ship up and down in a calm heartbeat we glide smoothly towards the Canary Islands. 
And then the sun sets for the last time.
On this voyage...

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Pirates, Slaves and lots of coal

Where Senegal on the West African coast has that little knob pointing due West lies Dakar, and as the little promontory is nice and green it is called "Cap Vert", the green Cape. Now guess how the islands are called that are to be found 450 km off that coast...

After three more days at sea we spot land on a clear blue, but very windy day. The steep silhouette of Saõ Vicente lies ahead of us. We reach our second last destination of this voyage, way over 500 years after its discovery (on January 22, St. Vincent's day, hence the name).
So convenient was the position of the islands that it quickly became the stopover place for the booming slave trade of the period, and the otherwise barren and inhospitable archipelago accumulated legendary wealth. Which can cause a bit of trouble in an era where pirates, corsairs and privateers where commanding the seas more often than the fleets of His/Her Majesty. Many raids are reported, and none other than the infamous Francis Drake sacked Ribeira Grande twice in one year.
After centuries of slave trade this lucrative "business" went down, and so did the economy of the - still barren - place. Only exception was Saõ Vicente with its well-protected and deep natural harbor. The British East India Company established a large coal port there for trans-Atlantic ships. A little later, the immense Atlantic Cable Project had a base for most of its infrastructure right in the same place, Mindelo. So, things went well for this island; for others, not so much.
But after coal was replaced by oil, after the big recession in the first half of the 20th century, also Mindelo was on the decline, forcing many Capverdeans to emigrate to different countries.
The relationship to the former colonial masters from Portugal got tense in the middle of the last century, and a strong but peaceful independence movement was forming, finally leading to the formal separation from Portugal only in 1975. Today the flag of Cape Verde reminds of these times: Blue at bottom and top for sea and sky, white for hope - and red for the blood that was shed during the fight for independence. (The ten stars stand for the nine inhabited islands, Nr. 10 for the Capverdeans abroad.)
Mindelo is vibrating and relaxed at the same time, Mindelo is African and Caribean and European, too. Mindelo is the color of houses, of people's garments, of fruit at the market, boats. Mindelo is the chatter of the fishermen at card games, it is the wrinkles in the old people's faces and the smile of the boys. It is - Mindelo, hard to compare with anything we went before.
And we do have an overnight, so we can go, explore this very friendly place until after nightfall and well into the next day when we have a guided tour along the waterfront and in the city's neat center.
And now we have cast the lines one more time; Canary Islands, here we come!

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Explorer Whiskey & Jigsaw

 Seems things are getting nearer to completion.
Only 350 miles separate us from the other side of the Atlantic, we are already far beyond the Equator. Temperatures are dropping to freezing 24 degrees centigrade, and on the screen that shows our progress you can already see Europe...
Although it is definitely way too early to start packing the suitcases there is a certain feeling in the crowd of already having traveled. Addresses are exchanged, and the jigsaw puzzles are now tackled in small groups - so you get it done before, well, before...
But many things still deserve our attention.
Remember the last entry, the Baptism? Seems long ago already, although it is been only two days.
In the shadow of the Big Event there took place a ceremony of a very special kind. Captain, King Neptune and Queen and Chief Mate gathered on the uppermost deck of FRAM around a well-secured strong box to proceed to - the Baptism of the Whiskeys. No, I am not out of my mind, nor overly deprived of tasty goods to fantasize about a good drink: We do have a brew that is unique, world-wide, and worthy of the most seasoned explorer - a single malt Scottish Highland whiskey.
Now what...? You may ask. Let me tell you:
This whiskey was casked 25 years ago - on the very day we crossed the Equator. The captain had to speed up a little to make it possible. (You will remember we made it on the 24th, juuuuust before midnight.)
So, 25 years ago exactly the cask was filled (This one, we have a second one that is "only" 21 years old). Then it sat in Scotland for a long time before FRAM acquired it last year.  And in order to make it a real Explorer Whiskey it has to travel across all the lines on this planet: The two Polar Circles and the Equator. To make ours a little more special we decided to take the cask also north of 80 degree northern latitude.
Then, and only then it will be bottled, here on board. And sold only here, too. Already we have requests from many places in the world, but we will not change our minds: FRAM is the only place in the world where you can buy it. Period.
That deserves a little extra ceremony, doesn't it...??
Another thing that got done was the taking of the shop's inventory; a nasty task as item for item has to be counted and listed. This is more important on a ship than ashore, because we can't just place an order next door when we need something or just stash surplus away in some storage. It requires really good planning.
But now it's done, with a very happy smile Hotel Manager Else and shopkeeper Clarice cut the banderole and the crowds could storm in. Maybe it was because of the little fashion show we presented beforehand, maybe the killer offers - but they bought a lot...

After dinner the ship is in uproar for the yearly "Amazing Race". Mixed teams of crew and guests are tied together with a rope and then have to run throughout the ship in order to fulfill tasks of all kinds. A big hoot!

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Latitude Zero

Our planet is spinning. Once around its own axis every 24 hours. As it is a spherical body, Earth's rotation provides us with two poles and a girdle in-between, which we call the equator. Here lies the longest parallel, here we are the fastest passengers on the globe: Whereas our movement at the poles is close to zero, we are turning with incredible 1660 kilometers per hour at our planets belly.
Latitude Zero - The Line.

Myths and stories have formed a tightly woven net since the old days, and the traditions and superstitions are carried forth into our time. If we refer to this voyage as to "The Crossing", this is what most have in mind. We are not only going from one shore of the Atlantic to the other - we are changing hemispheres...
Sure this calls for celebration.

After yesterdays bridge visits Captain Arild Hårvik meets everyone out on deck to officially apply for the Neptunian permit to cross the line. The ship's data and the names of the ones traveling with it are carefully placed in a bottle which is then entrusted to the Deep Blue of the ocean.

In times of slow internet it may come as a surprise that the answer was there within the hour...Crossing the Equator is a GO!
And shortly before midnight the instruments did the epic jump from South to North. It's like the new season begins here and nowhere else...
The next sunrise finds FRAM unusually busy - people milling about, delicious pastries steaming next to pots of coffee, cameras checked. It seems that nobody is sleeping, at a quarter to six!
The reason appears at our bow a few minutes later. Gaining contours in the rainclouds are the islets of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, tiny barren rocks in the middle of the sea.
Their wonder is purely of a geological nature - we are looking at the world's only "Oceanic Core Complex" that emerges from the sea. There is no second place like this on the planet. Although it is still a really tough nut to crack for science, the gist of it is as follows: We are now at the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the divergent seam that produces fresh Earth's crust every day and drives Africa and South America gently apart. Here the spreading is extremely slow, with rather cool temperatures (well, at least for a volcano). Cool means brittle, and so the spreading causes giant cracks to form, called faults. The result is a stack of huge slices of crust, like books in a shelf that fall over. Only a few of these "megamullions" are known, but there are all deep under water. Not this one - a significant place on Earth.
As if this weren't enough we got company in form of a group of common dolphins that played a while with us. What a morning!
Everybody got time for a little breather in the mild temperatures of this cloudy day, before the afternoon should bring a long awaited event - the baptism of the "Pollywogs", of people who have not crossed the Line before.
While this was a rather barbaric procedure in the past (there was beating with ropes involved, sometimes to such extent that people died from this "happy" tradition - makes you think about human nature. Again.), it is a fun thing today. The galley crew has concocted their special recipes for a long time. It has to be slimy, it has to be smelly. Don't wear your best shirt!
After King Neptune has verified the position, the uninitiated get tied to a chair and then the crew does their worst. However, there are differences - as an occasional traveler of the lowest latitude you are done with a strong cookie and quite some ice water down the neck. Not so the crew: Here it is stinky fish broth, loads of cream, nasty stuff injected in the mouth and unspecified items down the shirt (if you wear one). All with a lot of laughter and of course the cleaning hose afterwards.
Five new souls were baptized today; plus a few who had to undergo the procedure again, for reasons of not having brought the certificate. One was so happy about the honor that he gave the captain a thankful hug...
Neptune and his Queen were utterly satisfied, and so was everybody else.
The rest of the day was spent with cleaning, tea, and eating.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Counting down

May a ship not be the fastest of all vehicles, the constant speed of about 13 knots is sufficient to bring us closer and closer to the Equator now. We are eating latitudes every day, very soon we will have to ask permission from Neptune to cross the magic line.
But until it comes to this, the daily life on board continues. The old explorers report that the surplus of time on their hands led to emphasize the little events and make them count. So everybody finds something to do (or to despair about, like with the jigsaw puzzle with a lot of sky and water of just the same color in it...)
The friendly heat that is around us helps to take things as they come, nobody has an interest in moving overly fast.

And there is the meals of course - punctuating the day from breakfast to barbecue, with a bit of a treat here and there, like the waffles.
But you can also learn something useful. Our famous sailor Henryk finds a lot of pleasure in showing us the works of the sextant, basic instrument of navigators since centuries (and still in use on FRAM, every officer knows how to use it).
It's all about bringing the sun down onto the horizon; simple as it may sound, it takes quite some practice.
Well, a little later the sun comes down to the horizon totally by itself, and in the evening we see the continuation of the Atlantic Games, here with one happy team and one politely smiling team...
So, now we are really heading out into the open.
Pointing the bow towards home...a