FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Soaked on the Solent

Posted in England, Portsmouth by folkestonejack on August 1, 2017

The news that the US Navy’s Nimitz-class aircraft carrier George H W Bush was due to arrive in Portsmouth at the end of the week generated a ripple of excitement in the local and online communities. Although warships are a familiar sight here it’s not that often that the opportunity arises to see one of the world’s largest aircraft carriers around these shores.

I thought I would come down for a daytrip and see if I could improve on the photo I took of the same ship on a rather grey day on the Isle of Wight in 2011. Tickets for the two hour cruises offered by the Gosport Ferry company to see the carrier, moored in Stokes Bay, sold out very quickly.

USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) moored at Stokes Bay, as seen during a short-lived break from the rain in late afternoon

The slot I picked had just about the worst weather of the weekend with heavy rain for most of the time and only occasional breaks. We must have looked like a sightseeing boat destined for the Niagara Falls rather than Stokes Bay with everyone wrapped up in plastic and waterproof layers (still knowing that this would be insuffient, as the soggy remains of my rucksack all too sadly prove!).

Needless to say, my photographs were pretty terrible (far worse than last time) but it was still good to see around the warship from close up (at least, as near as you could get with a strictly enforced exclusion zone). From the water it looked like a floating car park with so many of its fixed wing jets and helicopters on deck. Such a pity the forecast was so accurate this time!

The ferry trip may not have been the success that I had hoped for but I did have a good day, catching the arrival of the destroyer USS Donald Cook (DDG-75) and getting to visit the submarine museum at Gosport.

USS Donald Cook (DDG-75) enters Portsmouth Harbour in mid-morning

I did not know anything about the attractions at the submarine museum and was quite simply astonished to see and be able to go inside the first submarine commissioned by the Royal Navy (HMS Holland 1 – commissioned in 1900, lost in 1913 and raised in 1982). The other exhibits (including HMS X24 and HMS Alliance) and display galleries were pretty terrific too. It’s a pretty marvelous museum all round and well worth visiting.

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Honours even

Posted in England, Portsmouth by folkestonejack on July 25, 2015

The America’s Cup World Series is one part of the rather long winded process of selection for a challenger to face Oracle Team USA in the next America’s Cup, scheduled for Bermuda in 2017. Luckily for us, the series began this weekend in Portsmouth (later rounds will take in Gothenburg and Bermuda) and I went along to watch the first two races out of four scheduled for the weekend.

Team Oracle USA flies past Sandbank Fort during the first race of the day

Team Oracle USA flies past Sandbank Fort during the first race of the day

Six teams are competing in the series, with Ben Ainslie’s Land Rover BAR team clearly winning the favour of the crowds on the strength of the huge cheers that accompanied any mention of their name. The oft used label of ‘local support’ was absolutely appropriate today as the team’s new headquarters opened in Old Portsmouth a month ago (it is pretty hard to miss with a giant Union Jack decorating its doors!).

The view from the water was quite spectacular, with a line of boats of all sizes stretching out on either side of us and the distinctive shape of Spitbank Fort ahead. We might have been a little more distant than the crowds on the shoreline but the racing was still surprisingly easy to follow from our position, assisted by the tactical explanations provided by the race commentary (broadcast over FM radio). Adding to the excitement, the continual movement of our ship meant that we had to keep swapping from one side to another to keep track of the six catamarans!

The jostling for race position and unceasing thrill of watching the boats lift out of the water made for a compelling spectacle that I couldn’t take my eyes off. It was about this point that I began to understand why the dedicated fans amongst my fellow passengers were so enthralled, though I’m sure I still missed plenty of the nuances in the tactical decisions being made by the teams. Any first-timer doubts that I had about sailing as a spectator sport had been completely banished in the process, though I think perhaps it is another of those sports that really benefits from being there (like track cycling) to get a complete perspective of what is going on at any given moment in the race.

Ben Ainslie's Land Rover BAR team were clear crowd favourites (seen here between races)

Ben Ainslie’s Land Rover BAR team were clear crowd favourites (seen here between races)

The long build up to the first race of the day finally gave way to excited chatter as the catamarans got the signal to start racing, but this quickly turned to dismay as it became clear that Land Rover BAR languished in last place. No-one had much time to dwell on this as the team’s smart deployment of the Code Zero sail soon helped set the team on the path that would take them from last to first. A chorus of groans on board our ship turned into cheers.

Land Rover BAR grabbed the lead from Emirates Team New Zealand on the fourth leg and didn’t look back, flying on their foils to put an increasing distance between them and their nearest rivals. Meanwhile, Oracle Team USA found their way past Emirates Team New Zealand at the close of the race to grab second. Absolutely thrilling to witness and a great result to boot.

The teams gather for the start of the second race

The teams gather for the start of the second race

The tables were turned in the second race, which saw Emirates Team New Zealand take a dominant lead after picking up the shifting winds after the first mark. A strong start from Land Rover BAR came quickly unstuck with a tactical error that saw the team drop back to fifth, setting up an exciting charge back through the field to second place.

The day’s racing saw honours evenly split between Land Rover BAR and Emirates Team New Zealand, with a win apiece, but the final points ranking gave Land Rover BAR a slender single point lead over their rivals going into the next day’s racing.

1st Land Rover BAR 19 points
2nd Emirates Team New Zealand 18 points
3rd Oracle Team USA 16 points
4th Groupama Team France 13 points
5th Softbank Team Japan 13 points
6th Artemis Racing 11 points

At the end of the afternoon the small boats that had gathered quickly dissipated – a large flotilla of small boats headed off towards the Isle of Wight whilst another line of boats headed back in to Portsmouth Harbour.

Back to Portsmouth in 2016...

The perfect setting for an afternoon of racing

We made our way slowly back into port, following the high speed catamaran ‘Normandie Express’ (a veteran of the Cook Strait in New Zealand where she operated under the name ‘The Lynx’) on her way in from a channel crossing and disembarked as HMS St Albans (guardship for the event) returned to her berth at the naval base.

After the weekend the series moves on to Gothenburg (27-30th August 2015) and Bermuda (16-18th October 2015), followed by a further four to six races in 2016. I thoroughly enjoyed my day watching the races from the water and would happily come back in a year’s time to see the series on its return to the UK.

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Skimming the Solent

Posted in England, Portsmouth by folkestonejack on July 25, 2015

The origins of the America’s Cup lie with a race around the Isle of Wight in August 1851, when a crew from the New York Yacht Club entered their schooner ‘America’ in the Royal Yacht Sqaudron’s 100 Guineas Cup. The club held on to their trophy for an astonishing 132 year spell, surrendering the cup to the Royal Perth Yacht Club after the victory for their yacht ‘Australia II’ in 1983.

Oracle Team America's AC45 is lifted out from the technical base at No 1 Basin.

Oracle Team America’s AC45 is lifted out from the technical base at No 1 Basin.

Surprisingly, America’s Cup racing has not been back to the Solent in all the years since the establishment of the most prestigious sailing event in the world. I thought it was too interesting an opportunity to pass up, despite having never watched yacht racing before, and this sentiment was echoed by many of the visitors I spoke to on my visit to Portsmouth.

I was a little skeptical of the claims that the twin hulled catamarans we would see on the Solent were the equivalent of Formula One cars and as thrilling, but at the morning lift-out my eyes widened at the first sight of the hydrofoil daggerboards that help lift these racers out of the water at high speed. I had a feeling that I was about to be converted…

My decision to come down for the series was made rather late in the day, far too late to apply for tickets to watch the racing from Southsea Common, but just when I had given up hope of attending I discovered that Solent & Wightline Cruises were offering the chance to view the racing from the water. Our vessel for the day, Wight Scene, set off at 12.20pm, giving us a wonderful view of the AC45 catamarans leaving the Royal Navy base. After the competitors had passed we followed them out into the Solent, joining an incredible gathering of 2,200 boats that lined the race course (there were estimated to be 15,000 spectators on the water, on top of the 50,000 watching from the shore).

The AC45s of Landrover BAR, Artemis Racing and Oracle Team USA head out of the harbour en route to the race course

The AC45s of Landrover BAR, Artemis Racing and Oracle Team USA head out of the harbour en route to the race course

Once we reached our position, near HMS St Albans, we were able to watch the crews getting their measure of the conditions on the water. Already I could see just how graceful the catamarans looked in the water and just how fast they could move once their hydrofoils helped lift their hulls of the surface of the water. I was already hooked and the racing had not even started!

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Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

Posted in England, Portsmouth by folkestonejack on October 13, 2012

After watching the two US warships arrive we took a walk around Old Portsmouth in search of a suitable watering hole, ending up at the Still and West for some terrific sea food washed down with Fuller’s autumnal Red Fox ale. In the nineteenth century the area was notorious for prostitutes and pressgangs but thankfully today it is mostly just tourists like us wandering the streets!

Suitably refreshed we headed down to the Historic Dockyard at Portsmouth to see HMS Warrior, take a harbour tour and check out the Trafalgar Sail (before it is removed from display in October 2012 for further conservation).

It was particularly fascinating to see a vessel of HMS Warrior’s vintage as one of my distant relatives, Ernest Lionel Carpenter (1847-1887), served in the Royal Navy through the 1860s, the decade in which this ironclad warship thrived as “the largest, fastest and most powerful warship in the world”. You really sense the changing technology as you walk past the boilers and furnaces deep in the ship.

I can’t begin to imagine how tough life was on board a ship like this for an able seaman such as Ernest, let alone a stoker working down in the boiler room in temperatures of 120 degrees fahrenheit. I don’t think I would have lasted long in any capacity!

There was no pressure to race round the site as the tickets are valid for 12 months. I have no doubt that we will be back next year to see the remaining attractions, including the new Mary Rose museum which is due to open in early 2013.

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USS Gettysburg and Mitscher visit Portsmouth

Posted in England, Portsmouth by folkestonejack on October 13, 2012

In the last year or two I have had reason to pass through Portsmouth multiple times to catch trains, ferries and hovercraft whilst on the way to other destinations. On each occasion the sight of HMS Warrior sitting in the historic dockyard reminded me that I really needed to come back to take a good look around. Finally, I got around to that visit today.

US navy destroyer USS Mitscher arrives in Portsmouth

Two other visitors to Portsmouth this morning were the US Navy warships USS Gettysburg and USS Mitscher, arriving in mid morning after a spell in Scottish waters. The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Mitscher (DDG 57) and the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Gettysburg (CG 64) had been participating in the multi-national Exercise Joint Warrior from 1st-11th October (having originally set sail from the US on 17th September).

USS Gettysburg and tug SD Bountiful

A small crowd had gathered at the fifteenth century Round Tower which overlooks the entrance to Portsmouth Harbour and provides a fantastic view to watch marine traffic. The first ship to arrive was USS Gettysburg, led into harbour by tug SD Bountiful, around 11am. USS Mitscher was already visible in the distance and made her way in just half an hour later.

USS Mitscher approaches the entrance to Portsmouth Harbour

Later in the day we saw the two heavily armoured ships berthed alongside each other in the naval dockyard during a boat tour around the harbour. The Semaphore Tower at HMNB Portsmouth had been dressed with the stars and stripes to honour the visitors.

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The quirky world of the Isle of Wight

Posted in England, Isle of Wight, Portsmouth by folkestonejack on May 28, 2011

After taking an early morning train south I found myself with Brett at the Southsea hoverport today ready to take my first trip on a hovercraft. I’m not sure how long these incredible machines will be around but I felt I had to give it a go – at least once.

At present, the route between Southsea and Ryde is the only place you can sample a daily timetabled public hovercraft service in operation within the UK today. I got more of a preview than I anticipated as I watched an earlier service depart – getting a soaking from the departing hovercraft as the propellers blasted spray in our direction. I obviously didn’t learn anything from this encounter as I repeated the experience at Ryde later in the day (with added sand!).

I stand in utter amazement at these vehicles and the sheer speed at which they operate. I still can’t quite get over how quickly the skirts inflate and the vehicles manoeuvre themselves off the slipway and into the sea. A mere 10 minutes later and they have arrived at their destination. Incredible! Throughout the weekend I found them utterly spellbinding and could have watched them endlessly, which probably accounts for the sheer number of photographs I took…

Hovertravel's AP1-88 "Island Express" makes the crossing between Southsea and Ryde

Hovertravel's AP1-88 "Island Express" makes the crossing between Southsea and Ryde

The quirkiness of the Isle of Wight experience doesn’t stop there… the trains on the island are refurbished London Underground trains from 1938! Over the years the island seems to have had a history of taking on old locomotives and rolling stock from the mainland and this is not the first. Indeed, it may not be the last time that old stock is passed on as there has been some suggestion that the recent programme of rolling stock replacement on the London underground system may yet lead to ‘newer’ stock transferring to the Isle of Wight. The heritage of the existing units has been acknowledged with a re-paint into the traditional London Transport red livery. For now, the 1938 stock provides the strange sensation of underground trains out of context – close your eyes for a second and you can almost imagine that the train will rattle into Bank rather than Ryde.

One of the Island Line multiple units on the run from Ryde Pier Head to Ryde Esplanade

One of the Island Line multiple units on the run from Ryde Pier Head to Ryde Esplanade

An Island Line train approaches Ryde tunnel

We took a train south to check out Shanklin and Sandown which further confirmed our initial impressions of the quirkiness of island life – one of the stations on the route has a disused platform with dummies reading a newspaper on a bench and looking out of a waiting room window! Then, on the road down to the seafront at Shanklin we came across a sequence of B&B signs trumpeting the availability of colour TVs (can there really be hotels still offering black and white tv these days!?) and finally at the beach itself there were baffling array of signs warning of the perils of weaver fish, but no clues on what to look for or what the danger was! Needless to say, a quick google has unveiled the danger (see: Beware the weever fish!) but now that I am back in the comfort of my room I’m hoping that I am safe enough…

All in all, it was a fascinating day back on the Isle of Wight and good fun along the way. The weather might have been blustery and a little wet but there was no chance of dampening our sense of fun. A good meal at the Ryde Castle was a perfect way to round off the day ahead of another two days on the island.

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