Thursday, April 17, 2014

Photo walk

Before most of my trips I post to the Leica User Forum to see if any fellow photographers have any advice or want to meet up for a drink. I don't know if it was the fact that this time I shared a language with the locals or if the people of London are just friendlier, but Sunday morning I met up with not one, but four photographers for a walk around Brick Lane.

From wikipedia: Brick Lane is a street in East LondonEngland, in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. It runs from Swanfield Street in the northern part of Bethnal Green, crosses Bethnal Green Road, passes through Spitalfields and is linked to Whitechapel High Street to the south by the short stretch of Osborn Street. Today, it is the heart of the city'sBangladeshi-Sylheti community and is known to some as Banglatown.[1] It is famous for its many curry houses.

I had spent Saturday staring at the Thames with all the other tourists, so it was great to get this guided tour of a part of London I would have never seen if left to my own devices.

I've never been much of a "street photographer," but I did my best to capture the feel of the area -- and to show the fact that you could buy literally anything at this seemingly endless flea market.

The restaurants really overemphasized the fact that they had a license to operate. However, I was warned that a license was no guarantee against food poisoning.

But food poisoning did not seem to be a deterrent to the locals. While the curry shops sat empty with sidewalk salesmen trying to entice you in with the offer of free appetizers and beers, most of the street vendors were selling like crazy.

We came across the Pearly Kings and Queens, which are an established charity group raising money for ... something.

We also ran across this guy riffing through Jimi Hendrix like it was no big thing. I assumed he was collecting money for new guitar strings.

After a break for some authentic Brick Lane Curry (I went with the sweet, mild stuff as I was worried what the spicy stuff might do to my digestive system while spending the afternoon walking), we wandered into an area that had once been government housing with a soup kitchen for the Jewish poor.

The dichotomy and contrast of the old London versus the new, modern London hit you right in the face.

And strangely enough, as it started raining again, our walk had taken us right to the door of Dirty Dicks Pub, so we made our way upstairs, swapped stories, and talked about cameras over a few pints.

A big thanks to Dr. John Cartwright for taking the lead to organize the photo walk, being such a great host, and for snapping this photo of me with the Pearlies.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014


When the adventure is over, it's the most difficult, miserable parts of your journey that you find yourself retelling with a peculiar fondness and recalling with the most joy.
A few days before I left for London I posted to the Leica User Forum "meet and greet" section to see if there were any English photographers who wanted to grab a beer and wander around the city with me. In response I got a private message inviting me to the April meeting of the Globetrotter's Club at Church of Scotland where one of our forum photographers, Dan Bachmann, was giving a presentation on his trip through Georgia -- the country, not the state.

Dan's photos were beautiful, and his presentation was full of history and the culture of the Svanetti region of Georgia. However, his tales of early morning hikes couldn't compare to the raw sense of adventure presented by the other speaker, Leon McCarron.

Leon, who bills himself as a "modern-day adventurer," walked 3,000 miles from Mongolia to Hong Kong, crossing the Gobi Desert in winter, getting arrested by Chinese authorities multiple times, and producing a four-part series for National Geographic.

"Adventure" is a term that's been coming up quite frequently at our house. Working office jobs and living in the suburbs is not what Mary or myself envisioned, but as we made career choices, it just kind of happened. The idea of continuing to work the same jobs for the next 30 years in hopes to have saved enough to retire and travel is daunting. You can't do much adventuring when you only have 80 hours of vacation per year. However, the idea of giving up our good jobs that we actually like to jump into the unknown is equally scary.

There was no "purpose" to Leon's voyage. He'd been biking around the world, and one of his acquaintances invited him along on this adventure, which they were able to sell to National Geographic. They walked across China just for the sake of walking across China.

After the Globetrotter's meeting, we all migrated to a pub just down the road, and I was able to pick Leon's brain for a bit. I told him about our blog, and our hope to sail the Caribbean, but that we really didn't have any funding or following.

After chatting with Leon, I began to realize how close I was to many other "adventurers." In fact, there were two from my company doing things like sailing across the Atlantic for charity or diving under the polar ice for science.

Meanwhile, another one of our offices was sponsoring a man who was going to row across the Atlantic to raise money for mental health.

Here I am, literally surrounded by adventurers, but what have I done? Ridden my bike from Houston to Austin with 14,000 other people every year? Taken planes to Paris, London, Rome and Rio just like thousands of other tourists? Sailed back and forth from Kemah to Redfish Island 25 times?

I haven't put on my backpack or climbed a mountain in almost 15 years!

It probably didn't help things that "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" was playing on the plane when I was flying home.

That just got me further mourning the death of photojournalism and the fact that I didn't grow up to be "Sean O'Connel" or a fellow of any Geographic Society, Royal or National. 

So now the question sits staring at me, how do we resolve this lack of adventure?

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Dreamliner

The trip from Houston to London was my first time aboard one of the new Boeing 787 Dreamliners.

There's nothing quite like flying on a brand new plane.

The dreamliners got some bad press for catching on fire, but I have to say, the designers did a great job. The seats were so much more comfortable than the 747s and 777s.

The new digital entertainment system had on-demand movies and TV shows with much improved screens and USB charging ports and power outlets at every seat.

One of the coolest features of the dreamliner was that there were no window shades. Instead the windows have buttons that electronically adjust the tint from translucent to an opaque blue color. The blue theme is carried throughout with blue LEDs in the walkway and the restrooms.

The new public address system is also a huge improvement. Announcements from the pilot and crew are clear and understandable.

As an economy passenger, my meals were pretty bland, but the crew was very nice, and I ended up getting an entire row to myself.

I saw two other flights as we passed over Ireland but never saw the island through the clouds.

It was just after breakfast was served that I finally got my first glimpse of England through the clouds.

Upon entering the airport I was floored by HSBC ads plastered onto every available surface. Of course, those ads were tame to the big advertisement in my taxi.

Lost the perk-in your gherkin? Welcome to London.

Friday, April 4, 2014

On tour

Well, this is one of those weeks where Mary and I part ways while I venture overseas for work while she holds down the fort in Houston.

I would normally document my travels on my old blog, but as we're working to keep this blog more interesting and up to date, I'll be posting my adventures in London here each day.

The trip began with a morning at the office, an after lunch meeting with my MS 150 volunteers, and then an afternoon in the United Club at IAH while I wait for my flight to Heathrow.

Meanwhile Mary is partying with her relatives who are all going to see her very talented cousin at the Houston Opera tonight. As her aunt and uncle are sailors, they may even take Gimme Shelter for the first sail of the year without me tomorrow.

Hopefully the flight to London will be smooth, and I'll be able to get some sleep. I'm slated to join the Globetrotters Club tomorrow for their monthly meeting for a lecture regarding a photo project in Georgia and a lecture from a photographer who walked 1,000 miles across Asia. 

Sunday I have a friend from the Leica User Forum meeting me at the hotel for a photowalk through Brick Lane and some fish and chips.

Monday, I actually have to report to the London office and do some work.

Photos of the adventures will be forthcoming. We'll see if Mary actually keeps up her end of the blog from the Americas.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Boat Show High

Why do we even own a house when we could be waking up on the water every morning living the dream?

There's nothing like a spring boat show to get you contemplating whether or not to sell it all and move aboard.  Spring has always been a good season for change.  Something about going outside for the first time in ages really gives you wanderlust.  

Of course, the imagination runs wild with the dreams of living aboard one of the brand new Catalina 445s or Jenneau Sun Odysseys we had just toured, and which we absolutely could not afford to purchase.  After looking at older boats on all day it is hard to see the prices on those brand new boats.  They are pretty though! 

Then you've run the numbers and you strike the new boat from the plans and start wondering, couldn't I live aboard the boat that I've got? I mean, it's easy enough on the weekends. Think how much money we'd save and all the improvements we could make!  We could have every boat thing we've ever wanted! 

That's an easy dream as well when it's sunny and 75 outside. When you start thinking about cramming life's necessities into the boat, it gets more complicated. Where do the clothes go? And the food? How long can Mary put up with my guitar noise and the hours of off-key singing it takes to learn a new song each week? Who is going to walk the dog at 5 a.m. when it's cold and raining? Not it! What about the fact that it only takes the two of us four days to fill the holding tank?  Not to mention many other unseen expenses.  

Could we make it happen? I just don't know.  

I've spent decades acquiring things with sentimental value. I've got almost a dozen guitars, basses, and mandolins. I've got so many great power tools and a garage in which to use them. It's going to be hard to give those things up.  It's so easy to think that you won't really miss your stuff...I mean it's just stuff.  But when you sit down to get rid of things, knowing you'll never see them again, it is pretty hard. It's going to be even harder to give up the ability to just read in another room if I want some alone time. It's a complete lifestyle change.

My biggest fear is that we'd overload the boat with junk we couldn't bring ourselves to throwaway, living like hoarders in a tiny cramped space, unable to ever sail the boat again.

Despite the buzz brought on by the boat show, perhaps it is not yet the time to move aboard.  Not just yet anyway.  

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Flagship Marine air-conditioning installation

It took four weekends, but Gimme Shelter now has marine heat and air-conditioning.

We went with a Flagship Marine 12000 BTU unit as we liked both the fact that the units are made in the USA and they use a modular off-the-shelf construction, so should anything go wrong, it's easy to find parts. We ordered both the unit and the deluxe installation kit, so it came with the appropriate through-hulls, ducting, hoses, vents, pump and strainer.

We weren't completely thrilled to be giving up the closet, but getting rid of the space heater and the roll-around air-conditioner that were taking up space in the cabin made it a worthwhile tradeoff. It was also the easiest place to duct. We simply had to run one duct through the bulkhead into the main cabin and one out through the bottom of the closet and back up into the bukhead of the v-berth.

We installed the programmable thermostat in the nav station. 

Of course, to run the air-conditioner we had to install a new 20 amp breaker. Unfortunately the O'day panel only had three breakers: outlets, charger, and water heater. 

We took a trip to West Marine only to find out breaker panels are REALLY expensive. We decided go browse through the Kemah Boaters Resale Shop. 


Yes, we had to install it sideways. And yes, we still had to spend $65 to replace two of the breakers, which ended up different colors. However, the panel was only $8.99, and we didn't have to cut up the bulkhead.

It turned out to be a good thing we pulled the old panel out. The cable going to the outlets was in really bad shape.

The plastic casing of the 30 amp breaker on the panel also shattered when I attempted to unscrew the shore power leads. I guess it's good to inspect your electric lines every 32 years.

After three weekend of drilling holes, running cables, and re-wiring breakers, we came to the one thing we couldn't do ourselves -- drilling the through-hull.

We fired up Gimme Shelter and putted around the corner to South Texas Yacht Services to have them drill a hole in the bottom of our boat.

I had one friend who swore to me that we could drill a hole in the water as long as we had a bunch of rags to shove in the hole while we fished the through-hull through the bottom with a string. I decided it was worth it to pay for a haul out.

Quick hauls generally last one hour, but when they install a through hull they want to give it a little time for the sealant to cure a bit, so you basically get charged for two quick hauls. All in all, our "extended quick haul," pressure wash, zinc change and through-hull installation cost us $650. It added a lot to the cost of our air-conditioner installation, but not sinking at the dock was worth it.

We were back in our slip with the professionally installed through-hull and a clean bottom by 10:30 a.m., so I went to work installing the strainer and pump.

The heavy duty blue silicone hose was a nightmare to get onto the flanges. I finally boiled a pot of water and stuck the ends of the hoses in the water for about 15 minutes to get them flexible enough to install. They are so tight, I'm pretty sure the clamps aren't even necessary. 

The pump had plastic flanges and was much easier to install.

I opened the through-hull, kicked the thermostat over to "Cool", and checked our water flow.

Voila! We have air-conditioning.

No more lifting window units on and off the deck and leaving them on the dock. No more crappy roll-around units dumping condensation all over the floor and having to be lashed up against the wall when we go sailing, No more space heaters in the walkway causing us to worry about starting a fire. 

Will it be worth the investment? I sure hope so, but I guess we'll find out this summer.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Catching up

You probably thought we’d sailed away … which is ironic since we haven’t sailed at all.

Yes, we’ve neglected the blog, but sometimes actual work has to come first. However, with the first quarter coming to a close, and one of two large charity events behind us, our schedule is getting a little more bearable.

Remember when we moved out of Marina Del Sol because we wanted deeper water, and the ability to go sailing all winter? Well, that never happened.

Despite having access to the bay all winter long, Gimme Shelter never left the dock. The few weekends we might have gone sailing, we rode along on Antares for the Icicle Series Regatta or on the Tina Marie for a trip to Redfish Island. We’re actually a week behind the past years as it was always the second weekend in March that we made our first trip out.

To be fair, it has been the coldest winter in Houston that I can remember, and I’ve been here since 1995. In fact, I think we’ve had more freezes since the beginning of 2014 than in the past five years combined. It was also a windy, rainy mess this weekend.

You’d think that there would be a long list of repairs and improvements made to Gimme Shelter since we hadn’t been sailing. Not really.

I did replace the refrigerator lid. I also fixed the leaking mid-ship hatch. Then we pulled down the warped, moldy headliner in the cabin with every intention of making a new one. That project is kind of stalled out at the moment.

Mary got me a really nice insulated French press coffee maker for Valentine’s Day. That solved our coffee with no electricity at anchor situation, so I’ve never bothered to rewire to power inverter. I’ve also still never taken any action to replace the alcohol stove with the propane oven that has now been sitting in the garage for a year and a half.

However, I have spent the past three weekends working on the air-conditioner installation. At the beginning of February we ordered a 12,000 btu unit from Flagship Marine, and I’ve been slowly piecing it together.

I wouldn’t say it’s been a smooth process. Despite multiple measurements and calculations, the unit was too big to go under the starboard couch where we had planned for it to live. That meant giving up the hanging closet. Unfortunately, the closet had no floor, so a floor to support the system and still have the appropriate holes for ducting, wiring, water and drainage had to be constructed and installed. That was one weekend of work.

The next weekend we drilled holes all over the boat. We needed holes for the air-conditioning vents, holes for the wiring, a hole for the thermostat, and a hole to send the raw water overboard. I got the thermostat installed and the wiring run the length of the boat, but not connected. Our AC breaker panel was full, so a trip to boater’s resale found a new breaker panel that would fit the space of the old breaker panel, but with an extra breaker available for the air conditioning. Of course, some of the breakers in this bargain $8.99 panel didn’t actually work, so it took another trip to West Marine to find a working breaker for the air-conditioner. That weekend ended with all the new breakers sitting on the nav station.

This weekend saw the ducts put in place, although one of the drawers in the Vberth now has to be cut in half to shut with the duct behind it. (That’s on the list of future projects.) Then I started tinkering with the wiring. When I pulled the old breaker panel off, I found the power wire to the outlets was frayed and corroded. I had to make a run to West Marine for 12 awg butt connectors, so I could cut it back and splice new wire onto it. Then I attempted to remove the 30 amp main breaker, which I needed to re-use on the new panel, but the brittle plastic casing shattered into pieces. That required trip number two to West Marine for another $65 breaker. At some point in there I also sliced open my index finger, which required some first aid because I was getting blood all over everything, and we also had to stop and re-tie the dock lines because the wind was blowing so hard the boat had started banging into the dock. However, by Sundayafternoon my AC power was restored, and the Flagship Marine unit was blowing heat. Progress!

There’s only one step left to finishing the install, and we have an appointment with South Texas Yacht Services at 8 a.m. this Friday morning to pull the boat out of the water and drill a hole in the hull to install a raw water line.

While the installation of the air-conditioner is definitely a big step forward in terms of comfort at the marina, it’s also a big step forward when it comes to de-cluttering the boat. While we did lose some storage in the closet, it rid us of both the space heater and the large roll-around air-conditioning unit. More livable space is a huge plus. We also got rid of the microwave, which was only getting used once every six or eight weeks and a ratty deck chair that was taking up space.

Less clutter and some serious climate control should make this summer aboard Gimme Shelter much more pleasant.