Friday, 10 April 2015

This Thing of Darkness

Robert Fitzroy

I found the book of this title by Harry Thompson (2005) captivating. Until now I'd been familiar with the history of Fitzroy's voyages from many sources including Alan Moorehead's Darwin and the Beagle. This had given a clear account of the second voyage, with Darwin, and good pictorial evidence, but its text and characters remained somewhat dry and fixed in the past, as I suppose befits a serious work of non-fiction. Thompson's is a historical novel and the frontispiece reads, 'This novel is closely based upon real events that took place between 1828 and 1865.' A warning that he is affording himself some artistic license.

Darwin
The result, however, has brought me closer to Darwin and Fitzroy than anything I have read. Thompson is a fine storyteller and weaves a page-turner of a yarn. It's not Patrick O'Brian but at times it comes pretty close, particularly through the dialogue and the naval routines. Anyone versed in O'Brian will find them gratifyingly familiar. Just as with Aubrey and Maturin, the brilliantly depicted relationship between Fitzroy and Darwin provides much of the pleasure. Their shared passions and unquenchable appetites for discovery are common ground for a deep affection, though the conclusions that each draws from the discoveries made during the Beagle's five year circumnavigation eventually decimate their friendship. But this is only part of the tragedy.

Fitzroy is the hero of Thompson's novel and he is painted as great man and a product of his age. Darwin's character could conceivably be extrapolated to the present, a passionate amateur naturalist on the brink of a cohesive theory. But Fitzroy, chivalrous to a fault, driven by high morals, unswerving Christian faith and duty to his king and country surely belongs to the 19th century. Though historically his values found their most horrendous expression in WWI.

Although Fitzroy is treated dreadfully by his country his intent is always to serve and when his orders contravene his faith he strives to maintain his Christian integrity, thus leading to disfavour with those in power. His is a crummy lot. Fitzroy was a manic depressive, though the condition was yet to be described and recognised, which must have made facing his dilemmas all the more difficult. It is no surprise that he ended his own life, that he survived until he was 59 is testament to his determination in the face of continual let down.

Many of the questions raised in the book feel contemporary. Darwin travels with the gauchos in Argentina. When he meets General Rosas—who is engaged in a genocidal war with the native indians—Darwin finds that despite the brutal reality of the war the General's discourse is convincing. Thompson based Rosas' arguments on speeches made by Tony Blair and G.W Bush to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Themes of western expansionism are just as valid today as they were in the 1830's.

Fitzroy actions helped to further understanding and knowledge of the world but he considered that what he and Darwin had set in motion brought civilization not only forward but beyond him, to a godless society where men questioned God's works without having witnessed their full might as he had around the Horn and in Tierra del Fuego.

Does the world improve through progress? Fitzroy asks. A question that we could well pose today. More people are better fed than ever before, we have hot water, flushing toilets, the Wikipedia, I myself have been successfully treated for a life threatening disease. But we also have extreme inequality, horrendous poverty and exploitation, slavery even. Technologically we advance but the human condition, the greed, the short-sightedness and the corrupt system that so distressed Fitzroy, exist just as they did 180 years ago.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Eggs Benjamin


Not a shipboard meal and a treat even on Fiddler's Green, eggs Benjamin is my version of eggs Benedict. The name change may smack of narcissism but honestly, in the world of food nomenclature can get you into hot water. Just to clarify the territory on which I'm about to tread, eggs Benedict feature a toasted English muffin topped with a thick slice of warm ham, a poached egg and hollandaise sauce. Eggs Florentine exchange the ham for spinach, and eggs Royale use smoked salmon in lieu of ham.

Eggs Benjamin takes a few local ingredients (there are no English muffins in these parts) and marries them with the classic combination of poached egg and hollandaise sauce. I'm helped in this recipe by two important aspects garnered from my sailing experience. The first is energy and enthusiasm, there's no point embarking on eggs Benjamin if you are fuddled and hungover—though if someone else makes it for you and serves it with a Bloody Mary you'll probably find that it's an excellent cure. Energy, enthusiasm and a clear head, the sort of organisational attitude that you need at a busy boat ramp, when you're launching the boat while you mentally tick off all the gear. You don't want to shove off from the shore and discover you've forgotten the centreboard as I once did.

The second concerns the hollandaise. This sauce scares off a few home cooks but all that's required, apart from the correct ingredients, is an air of mild confidence and authority. The same that you might assume when you take your boat right up to the quay or breakwater—onlookers expecting a nasty crash—before smartly tacking, because you know that your boat turns on a penny and are absolutely confident that you won't fluff the manoeuver.

Eggs Benjamin is, or are, (tricky grammar here) warm Catalan tomato bread, (pa amb tomaquet) smoked streaky bacon, spinach, poached egg and hollandaise sauce.


For want of sailing stories I will give the recipe. 

Take a ripe tomato and remove the root of the stalk with a conical cut then draw a sharp knife around the skin. Slice the tomato in half and place in a moderately hot frying pan skin sides down with a few drops of olive oil. Put a small pan of water over a flame, this is the same pan and water in which you will eventually poach the egg but first place a bowl on top of the pan containing 75 grams of unsalted butter. Let it melt.

Cut the bacon into small pieces and add to the frying pan with the tomato halves. Start the hollandaise by separating an egg and putting the yolk in a clean bowl with a couple of spoonfuls of cold water and a pinch of salt, combine with a whisk. (I forego the vinegar that is often used at this point as it brings the flavour too close to béarnaise for my taste.) Remove the melted butter from over the pan of water.



Add the spinach to the bacon with some salt and pepper, turn the tomatoes and cover with the plate that you will be using to serve the meal. Turn the heat right down. Put the bread in the toaster, while it toasts take a minute to assume an air of mild confidence. Put the toasted bread on the plate over the spinach to keep it warm.



Place the bowl containing the egg yolk over the pan of simmering water and continue to whisk. When the bowl is hot to the touch but before the yolk begins to cook add the melted butter little by little, whisking as you go. Keep going until the sauce starts to thicken, it should only be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, add a good squeeze of lemon juice, whisk vigorously and remove from the heat. Leave by the hob to keep warm.

Crack the other egg (as fresh possible and at room temperature) into a glass. Stir the simmering water with a wooden spoon to create a vortex and gently tip the egg into the centre. Ensure that the water doesn't come to a rapid boil.



While the egg poaches, remove the plate from over the frying pan, place the tomato halves on the toast and remove the skins—they should come away easily due to the cuts. Using a fork crush and spread the tomato on the toast, salt to taste. Place the bacon and spinach mixture on the toast (all the moisture will have evaporated, if not whack up the heat until it has). Now check your egg, it should have centred itself in the pan and cohered. Lift it gently with a slotted spoon or similar. Let your egg drain. Sloppy, wet eggs are the dearth of this sort of breakfast. Place the egg on the spinach and, with a generous hand, spoon hollandaise over the whole.



Best accompanied with hot, black coffee, the Bloody Mary can wait till cocktail hour, though mine's a Dry Martini.

NB. One egg yolk and 75 grams of butter will make enough hollandaise for two or three people. Put left over sauce in a glass, cover with cling film and store in the fridge. When you've used up the calories accrued at breakfast slowly reheat the hollandaise in a bain-marie and spoon it over a seared fillet of fish and some steamed asparagus. Now you can be sure you've had your ration of butter for day.  

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

O B's solo adventure



I'd been in bed for two days, my teeth chattering, under a sweaty bedsheet topped with a pile of heavy blankets. The wind had moaned incessantly round the eaves and whistled in the phone lines. The power had been out and the rain had come in evil horizontal flurries. The crash of waves had reached my bed night and day. I wouldn't usually let weather like this hammer down without closer observation. On day three I hauled myself out of bed and went to the beach, maybe another glut of driftwood had arrived, some interesting jetsam, ambergris!

On looking towards OB's snug berth between the dunes I could kid myself that I'd been in bed so long that my bearings were off or that the sand had piled up obscuring her from view. But as I neared a hole seemed to open up in me, corresponding in size almost exactly to the gap in the dunes where my boat wasn't.

Onawind Blue, gone? I couldn't comprehend.

Before clear thought returned my feet were taking me off at quite a pace along the beach downwind and downsea of the weather. Had she been stolen? The local boat club had suffered several robberies over the winter—even the Admiralty Pattern anchor had been ripped from its pedestal at the entrance, but why would anybody steal OB, no sailor surely, and what worth was she but to a sailor? I began to consider that she'd been taken by the sea. A fearful hypothesis, I knew well what would happen to her in the surf—she'd be rolled, filled, rolled and filled, sunk and dragged along the bottom by the strong current until she jammed on underwater rocks or came upon the sharp breakwater further down the beach. But mine had been the highest boat on the beach, how could she have gone when others stayed? Was she pushed?

All further conjecture was arrested by a shape, 500 metres away in the dunes. It was her, I was sure. But now I was crowded by fears that all I was seeing was the boat cover crowning a pile of matchwood.

Should I keep my head up as I neared and let the details reveal themselves to my myopic eyes, or stare at the sand and so receive the full impact. I looked down at the dog, still bouncing around my heels—he'd known something was afoot since we'd arrived at the beach—and boldly crossed the sand to the dunes.


The boat cover gave her a vaguely collapsed form but I could make out her fine unbroken line below. If she'd rolled she would certainly have lost the cover, why hadn't she gone into the sea, I wondered as I peeled back the heavy tarp to reveal a couple of wheelbarrow loads of sand. I dug about a bit. All the kit was intact and in place, she hadn't rolled or even tipped on her side. She'd had a sedate journey from one place in the dunes to another.

As I've learned, watching heavy weather over the years, waves push bigger boats with deeper draught up the beach into messy pile-ups while lighter, shallow draught boats float off on the backwash and go through an invariably fatal rinse cycle. Why had OB behaved like a heavy boat?

The evidence was under the sand. The drain plugs were open. She had virtually no buoyancy, a large amount of sea would have lifted her but water would have surged in through the drain plugs and she would have sunk back down again before she could travel too far on the backwash. The next gush of water would float her up the beach and again she'd ground out on the backwash. As she filled with sand she'd need bigger waves to lift her. Maybe she'd taken all of 24 hours to move those 500 metres, the big seas didn't last longer.

There was still some detective work to be done, how had she left her original place on the beach? Several people had commented how safely she was stored, at least 1.50 metres above mean sea level. She'd weathered several winter storms in exactly this spot. Storms that had denuded the beach and uprooted the shower installations. I was sure she was safe here. But the alternative? I've seen abandoned boats used as trampolines and trashed by children, even burnt on bonfires, but I still couldn't help thinking that it was far fetched to think that someone might come down to this deserted corner in a howling gale and give OB a shove.


Back at OB's spot the situation rapidly became clear. The wind, that had blown for two days before the rain arrived and the sea rose had excavated the sand from under OB's keel, lowering her considerably with respect to the water level. And there on the summit of the dune was a pile of seaweed. The wash from that one wave would have been higher than OB's entire freeboard, no wonder it sucked her from her den and filled the streets with spume.

I had a boat again. The mystery was cleared up. The lesson learned—tie the boat to something. Now all I had to do was retrieve her.

The long roll home.


Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Old saws and chestnuts


The tenon saw is a right handy tool when it's sharp, and fairly useless when dull. The ways of the world are such that it's easier, less time consuming and relatively cheaper, simply to purchase a new saw when the old one becomes blunt, than to learn how to sharpen the teeth and buy the necessary honing tools—at least that's what they tell me at the local hardware outlet.

It's not parsimony, though I live frugally, but a desire to keep the tools I already have that has lead me to embark on this restoration of The Invisible Workshop. And saw sharpening looks easy in the youtube video, though my saw became still duller after the first attempt. However, with practice and patience I might sometime achieve a solid work surface and sharp tools. Yes, we've heard it all before.

I look at these Swedes, from long before someone thought to flatpack furniture, and am struck with wonder.



I got the rebate plane working and made a lap joint out of some cruddy pallet pine.



Sunday, 1 March 2015

I saw a plane


Walking from the car to feed a parking meter I was lured by a siren song issuing from the gloom behind a half open door. I should have tied myself to the meter but I was already lost to the prospect of treasure and soon I was standing in a dark room piled high with promising pieces of interesting old tat. There was no one about and so I began to rummage. Passing over a dutch oven, a Tilly lamp and a varnished case of cutlery I found, under a table in a shadowy corner, a wooden box of assorted tools. A quick delve and my hand alighted on a rebate plane. I felt the heavy, smooth wood and the cold steel blade. Although I could barely see it I could make out glue marks on the back. Then, “As if by magic, the shopkeeper appeared.”



'What's this glue?' I inquired.

'That'll be where the carpenter glued on a piece to act as a fence.' He said with confidence. It seemed a reasonable, if slight odd, explanation.

'How much?'

You're supposed to haggle in these situations but for non confrontational people like myself it's easier to assume that sellers have given their wares an honest evaluation and are not trying to extract an extra buck. I coughed at his price, handed over the cash and resolved to watch a few old episodes of Lovejoy.



The next day in the bright light of The Invisible Workshop I gave the plane a perusal and immediately realised that I'd been a sucker. A carpenter hadn't touched this plane for many years. The blade was wrongly set and it was immovable, as was the wedge. And what was all the white gunk? The working parts were welded in place with glue, and that explained the adhesive marks on the back. This plane had spent years as a decoration, probably glue to a restaurant wall, adding a rustic touch.

A few days later I was up country with a friend pollarding olive trees with my dependable bow saw when I was overcome with exhaustion and stumbled to the car for a rest. My friend tidied up our tools and drove me home. The fatigue developed into a condition that required hospitalisation and when I next found myself in the workshop I discovered my bow saw was absent. Doubtless rusting in the long grass under the olive tree where I'd let it fall.


Quick research revealed that the cost of a round trip to recover the saw would total more than a new saw. And the spondolicks I'd coughed up for that 'objet d'art' plane still hurt. I was punishing myself—You had a saw, you lost it. What do you expect? A new one?—Quite why I'm so harsh on myself I don't know... Maybe because I'm so lenient on my children...

Some time ago an astute business acquaintance of mine bought a cut price lot of 100 folding chairs from that Swedish furniture store. Nice ones in beech, stained black. The problem was that every time he sat down he ended up on the floor amid a pile of kindling. I've been using the kindling produced by him, and the members of the association he sold the chairs to, in my wood stove for years.

I'd been looking at traditional hand tools for some time and realised that with half a chair, a new saw blade (aquired for a piffling amount) and some string, I could make a bow saw.


I still had a heap of driftwood— brought to the beach by a winter storm—to cut, and found that my new saw was perfectly adequate for chomping through the uniformly bleached wood.  


Thursday, 26 February 2015

I saw a horse


Sanded spars are not photogenic. All the old layers of varnish are gone and the masts are somewhat thinner for it, they may well rattle in the decks. Any weight I may have removed has been added to the boom, to which I've scarfed an 8cm extension. It was always a short boom, thin too, and made from a scuzzy length of baton that once belonged to a stage set. I've glued clean trim to the bottom and sides and set a sheave into the clew end to redirect the reefing lines and make shortening sail quicker.  



But the work has been hampered by the usual problems of having an invisible workshop and exacerbated by the state of my tools. I've spent a lot of time traveling back to square one—rediscovering what constitutes a functioning arrangement in which to manufacture and repair items of wood and metal. Working in poor conditions—the bench wobbling wildly with every stroke of a dull plane, tools, pencils, rulers, shaken to the ground, loose screws becoming lost in the grass until, barefoot in the summer, I find them with my heel—I can only hope to produce shoddy work.

I started by making a solid working surface. Solid but not flat. The piece, laminated from MDF and chipboard, warped as the glue dried in the sunshine. I followed up by going over the rotting pair of trestles with a set square and then refastening them with glue and dowels. Where ever I set up this surprisingly heavy contraption one or two trestle legs fail to rest on the ground but this is resolved with a pair of wedges.

Nowadays the attitude in The Invisible Workshop has shifted away from results to focus on process, the satisfaction being in the accurate stroke of a properly functioning plane.

On this little journey I've learned to get the most out of a worn, parted whetstone and have restored my chisels and plane as well as an old screwdriver my grandfather once lent me to adjust the air/fuel mixture on my Morris Minor van. In the way of many that borrow tools I failed to return it and through some whimsy of happenstance it has stayed with me. Though paint-stained and much pitted with rust, the handle split and scuffed, the shaft loose in it's socket it was evidently an object that deserved restoration—for the memory of my grandfather, my unreliable Morris van and the 30 intervening years. I removed the rust with wet and dry sandpaper, reshaped the handle with a file and sanded with progressively finer grits until the wood was smooth as skin. Then I left it to soak in teak oil for a few days, and reassembled with wood glue.

I soon put it to use extracting some brass screws from a rebate plane that I bought from a junk shop for 8 euros. It was then that I discovered that the antique dealer had ripped me off.  
Chisels, knives, screwdriver, restored blocks, parted whetstone and Morris van.


Tuesday, 3 February 2015

All tied up


'You can never have enough of them,' boatbuilders like to say. I wouldn't disagree, I'd love to have plenty of clamps but if ever I've had a spare 20 euros it seems to end up on a haul of household basics. No, I've never prioritized clamp buying.

Any workshop will only have as many clamps as it can store, I have a small cupboard, if I tried to imitate some of the projects I see where the gunnels are gripped as if by legions of leaches, I would quickly reach peak clamp.

Lime Regis' St. Ayles Skiff gunnel glue up

I've got on alright with four reasonably sized clamps and four small ones (no idea where they came from). Anything beyond what these could manage I've sorted out with a length of cord. You know, bowline in one end, figure of eight with a bight 20 or 30cm back from that. The working end goes round the piece to be clamped, through the bowline and back through the loop. You've then got a 2:1 reduction to get some good tension on the line and it can be tied off with a clove hitch round the standing part. I built a lot of Onawind Blue using that method and still use it to lash kit within the boat.



But while glueing up a crate built from some scrap, I thought it was time to look more closely at the clamp situation. And it appeared that I had enough wood left over to make one. I was keen to move on to another project to take my mind off the failure of the crate, which was simply too heavy to do the jobs I'd had in mind for it. Put an aubergine in it and it became cumbersome.

I discovered some truly talented and inspirational woodworkers on youtube, soaked up as much information as I felt I needed and began. I work rather like I cook, seeing what I've got and taking it from there rather than going out for a bag of ingredients. So this clamp had to come from the cupboard. The blocks that I'd just made hadn't cost me a cent and there was even less reason why a clamp should.

Since the cordless screwdriver/drill packed up I've stopped using screws. The upside of this is that I am becoming familiar with the dowel joint. So making a strong, right angled clamp head was not a problem. The rest of the system is rather more clumsy and not quick but it is strong and for glueing up it will work fine.



Having finished the clamp and being confined to the house for days I couldn't help spending some time on the finish. I enjoyed the irony of trying to achieve a good finish on something as humble as a clamp that spends a lot of time at the bottom of the tool box scuffing against all and sundry.


Following my boating doctrine that kit should have more than one function I inscribed the clamp with an exhortation not to lose my cool. I now need two more with slogans, one to encourage me to make decisions and another to discourage me from rushing in headlong.