Wednesday, 9 May 2018

London Marathon 2018

While driving up the M3 the other week, I thought I would clock 26 miles on the hire car's odometer, just to see how far I would soon be running.  I thought it would flash past, but it didn't.  I kept saying to Kate "It's still going.  I can't believe it's still going"!  Well, if it seemed like a long way from the comfort of a climate-controlled car seat, having run the hottest ever London Marathon, I am now in a position to state, with a great deal of confidence, that 26.2 miles is indeed a long way.  In case you hadn't guessed, this was the first marathon that I had run, although I have done a few half marathons over the years.  I was running to raise money for the RNLI (lifeboats).


Kate & Beth practising their role ahead of the big day

I seem to have gotten ahead of myself and jumped to the end already.  There was a fair amount of running that came before that point, so I better back it up a bit.  Did I mention that 26 miles is a long way?

I got to the red start area with about 50 minutes to spare.  It's this time of a race that I don't really like, because I start agonising over every little detail that I wouldn't otherwise think twice about.  Let's take, for example, shoelaces.  I have been successfully tying my shoelaces for decades.  Before every training run, I simply slip my trainers on, lace them up, and off I go.  Never once has a lace come undone.  Never once has a trainer felt too tight.  Never once has a trainer felt too loose.


On race day, however...boy oh boy, on race day...I'll do my laces up, take one step and it feels as though Zeus himself has descended from Mount Olympus to tie my laces.  They're cripplingly tight.  I'm definitely going to damage my feet if I leave them done up this tight, so I stop again, untie my meticulous bow and let a fraction of a millimetre of lace out.  I don't want to overdo it, because I know what's going to happen next.  I stand up, take another step and damnit, just as I knew, I've overdone it and now my trainers feel like they're so loose that they'll be blown off my feet from the faintest puff of air caused by a pigeon flying overhead.  This just won't do, I'll have to tighten them again, so I get back down on my knees and pull a micrometre of lace through.  This time is the one.  They feel great.  This lace tightness is going to win the race for me, so it's time to double knot these bad boys.  The last thing I want is for a lace to come undone while I'm running, so I loop the laces back round and pull as hard as I can.  Then I give them another solid tug, just to make sure that the previous tightening was definitely the tightest I could manage.  Right, I'm all done with my laces.  Again.  Except, when I start walking, the left one feels slightly tighter than the right one, which is really annoying and is definitely going to make it hard to keep up with Mo, so I have to stop to make them even.  The problem now is that the flipping double knot that I've tied takes ages to undo because I've pulled it so tight that it resembles a small raisin.


You get the idea.  Then there's eating and drinking to think about, when to join my start pen, how much warming up and stretching I should do, and, of course, going to the toilet.



The smiles were all for show.  I didn't feel like that on the inside!

Thankfully, the organisers had put a couple of urinal zones into the start area so I could skip the huge queues for the portaloos.  I mean, wow, that was definitely not a good time to drop anchor.  The urinals weren't exactly plain sailing, though.  In order to get as many units in as possible, they had put them in back to back.  I'm all for having as many urinals as they could fit in, and it meant that there was no queuing whatsoever when visiting the urination station, but what it did mean was that you were almost nose to nose with the chap relieving himself opposite you.  With people crammed in on both sides as well, there was nowhere neutral to look, apart from straight up into space, but that would have looked weird.  In an attempt to appear nonchalant at the unusual circumstances, it was tempting to whistle a tune, but then I would have just been whistling at the guy opposite, which would have been even weirder, so instead I just marvelled at how much urine was simultaneously gushing into the tank in front of me (it could clearly be heard flooding in.  There was no flush - this torrent was 100% man-made).


With the pre-start over and done with, I joined my start pen.  Actually, I didn't.  I had been assigned to pen 1, which is to say, the pen where the fastest runners would go.  This is almost certainly because I put an optimistic finish time down when I filled in my entry form.  I can't remember exactly what I had been hoping for but, unfortunately, I was forced to miss a fair number of sessions throughout my training due to injury.


Anyway, given that I wasn't going to finish in anywhere near 3 hours or under, I didn't want to join pen 1 and get in the way of faster runners, so I dropped back to pen 3.  You're allowed to move back to a slower pen, but not to move up to a faster one than you have been allocated.  I chose pen 3 because, according to their website, the Runner's World Pace Team for a 3:30 finish was supposed to be joining that pen.  I nervously waited around, looking out for them.  In a pen or two further back, I could see the flags of the 3:45 pacers above the heads of the crowds lined up and ready to go, but there was still no sign of the 3:30 guys.  Then, with about 10 minutes to go before the start, the two 3:30 pacers turned up and joined pen 2!  They really screwed me over with that move because, by now, the pens were pretty full.  I had to fight my way back out of pen 3 and join the large queue of last-minute people joining pen 2 (probably the same people who had been waiting to drop the kids off at the pool while I had been contemplating the miracle of the torrent flowing into the urinals).

I was only about 10.5 miles behind Mo!

When all was said and done, I was, finally, in the right place and ready to go.  A video of Mo Farah training in Kenya was playing on the big screen and I was feeling excited.  Nervous and excited.  I decided to check my heart rate (on my GPS watch) because I had sat through a presentation where the marathon mentor recommended staying calm before the start, or else you'll just be burning up energy needlessly.  As I watched my heart rate, it was slowly climbing as the start of the race drew nearer.  It rose from a steady 60 bpm up to an absurd 90 bpm.  My heart was running at 150% of normal and all I was doing was standing still!

The Queen pressed her big red button and off we all went.  It was, obviously, very crowded.  I kind of expected the situation to calm down somewhat as people's different paces caused the throng to separate, but that never happened.  It was busy, with slower people to be avoided and skirted around, and faster people doing the same to me, for the next 26.2 miles.  What did ease off was the strong smell of Deep Heat that permeated the air for the first mile (other heat therapy pain relief brands are available).  I guess that, like me, a lot of other people were carrying niggles and injuries into the race.


I had been agonising the night before as to whether to follow the 3:30 or the 3:45 pacers.  I felt that I could possibly manage 3:30 even though it would be a real challenge.  I figured that, barring any catastrophes,  a 3:45 finish should be reasonably assured, but I didn't know how the heat was going to affect me.  We had received at least a couple of emails from the race organisers saying that we should revise our target finish times in the hot weather.  In the end, I had settled on going for 3:30 because I would rather challenge myself and take the harder option, even if that ultimately meant crashing and burning and ending up with a worse time, than taking the easier option, managing it OK and forevermore wishing that I had gone for 3:30.


The 3:30 pace felt fast but manageable at the beginning.  It was hot, though and I was immediately struck by how much more water I was drinking that I had ever done in training.  I was worried that my bottle wouldn't even last me until the first water station at 2.5 miles.



This is how to 'do' the London Marathon.  We were following my sister run the 2014 London Marathon from the
comfort of a cafe on Lanzarote

After around 5 miles, the pacer that I was following nipped off for a wee at the portaloos by the side of the course.  He couldn't actually fit inside the toilet, because the flag on his back was too high, so he had to go by the side!  I wasn't sure whether this wee stop was a tactical part of the 3:30 pace strategy and we were all expected to join him, but I thought better of it, which was just as well because he had to work hard to catch up, which he eventually did.

At around mile 7, I saw the first person go down.  She was not far in front of me and one second she was running, the next she was headed for the floor as though someone had turned her off.  I guess that spectators could tell what a state she was in from in front and could tell what was about to happen because I'm fairly sure she was caught before she actually hit the deck.  Luckily for her, she was running at the edge of the road.  She was one of a fair number of people who I saw scattered throughout the course, being treated or waiting for treatment.  In fact, it was quite shocking to see so many people in that state.  I didn't bother to stop for any of them because there were always others on hand and I figured that another non-medically trained person crowding round was not what was required.  In any case, the "motto" of this year's race, so to speak, was #SpiritOfLondon and if there's one thing I know about the spirit of London, having grown up here and spent many years commuting in the city, it's that you've gotta be pretty lucky to have someone stop to help you if you fall over.


After the shock of seeing that lady collapse, and considering that I was already struggling to keep up with the 3:30 pacers, I decided to ease off a bit.  I was worried that if I had have carried on at that speed, I would have been joining those poor people lying on the floor getting a visit from St John Ambulance.



My true race face! I think I looked like this for about 20 miles!
My plan was to slow down from 7.5mph to 7.0mph, which should have seen me finish somewhere between 3:30 and 3:45.  As the miles wore on though, I found that I couldn't even maintain that pace, so I slowed down further and I told myself that if I got overtaken by the 3:45 pacers, I would make sure that I kept up with them.

Along the way, I saw several people in fancy dress.  Of the ones that stood out, one guy was dressed as the Gingerbread Man.  On his back, it said "Run, run, run as fast as you can. You’ll never catch me, I’m the gingerbread man.". Thankfully, I did catch him. Relatively easily. I think his back should have read "Run, run, run as fast as you can. You'll catch me because it's 24.1°C and I decided to run the hottest London Marathon in a fluffy all-in-one suit". Maybe he couldn't quite fit that message in! As I passed the Gingerbread Man, another runner was pouring their water bottle over his head!


Then there was the tree. This joker was making an official attempt at the world record (presumably for the fastest tree to run a marathon). I reckoned that tree man would also be an easy target, but he was surprisingly nimble. He even stopped to interact with some of his supporters, before sprinting off again. I'm ashamed to say that I didn't beat the tree, but I did see him receiving a certificate after I had crossed the finish line, so I guess he got his record and at least I can say that I was beaten by the fastest tree on the planet.

Talking of supporters, I had a merry band of supporters of my own.  My mum, dad, sister, sister's girlfriend, Kate and Beth were all there and popped up at several pre-planned points along the route, and a couple of unexpected ones as well, which made for a great surprise.  The crowd, in general, was amazing, but there's something extra motivational about having loved ones to cheer you on.  We even managed a few high-fives as I passed.  On top of that, I was spotted by an old uni friend who happened to be spectating and I also saw friends who we met and very much enjoyed spending time with on Lanzarote.  I think they may also be The Great Adventure's biggest fans!  It seemed like most of London was out!  I also had the nice surprise of seeing my brother-in-law at the finish.  He had tried to cheer me over the line, but spectators aren't actually allowed anywhere near the finish line so he had to meet me as I left the controlled-access area.



It was finally over!
I enjoyed looking at some of the wacky signs and props that people had in the crowd.  I squeezed an old hooter ("Free honks", the sign said), hit a few signs that said "Hit for a power-up", and almost laughed out loud when I was feeling ridiculously tired and saw a sign that said "Remember: You paid to do this".  Amongst the unhelpful signs was: "Only 5.5 Park Runs to go".  Feeling as exhausted as I did at that point, the thought of running 5.5 back-to-back Park Runs (at 5km each) was exactly the opposite of what I needed!  Also, the buffoon standing at about mile 9 who had a sign saying "The last mile is all in your head" was not at all helpful.  It wasn't the last mile that I was worried about, it was the 16 that I had to do before then that were weighing heavy!

By the time I reached the finish, I was totally destroyed.  The last kilometre seemed to really drag.  There were countdown signs every 200m from that point and each one lingered in the distance, refusing to get nearer as I ran towards it.  I passed two more fallen comrades right on the final corner with the finish line clearly in sight.  I couldn't believe that they had gone down so close to the end, but I felt like I could easily be joining them, so just focused on keeping going.


I wasn't completely sure where the finish line was, but I was immensely relieved when I figured that I had finally crossed it!  The problem was that there was a big sign saying "CONGRATULATIONS", which I presumed would be it, but I couldn't see the word "finish" anywhere and there was another gantry after the first, so I kept running until someone tried to put a medal round my neck.



My merry band of supporters
After that point, I was completely euphoric.  The last time I have been that glad to finish doing something was after our 16-day epic sail from Lanzarote to Portugal.  The funny thing was that it kind of seemed like the zombie apocalypse had happened while I had been running the marathon because I suddenly found myself amongst a load of dazed-looking people all walking slowly around with weird limps.  It could easily have been a scene out of a zombie movie!

I slowly made my way to the designated "M" meeting point and sat on the floor while I waited for my supporters to turn up because I didn't have the energy for any more standing.  Once everyone had assembled, we (slowly) made our way to Five Guys for a celebratory meal.  I chose Five Guys because that's what Radio 1 DJ Adele Roberts said that she had done last year when I heard her talking about running her first marathon, and it had stuck in my mind as a good idea!

So, how did I do?  Well, the 3:45 pacers never did overtake me, so I thought that I had made a sub 3:45 time, but it turned out that both of the 3:45 pacers had dropped out behind me, as had the 3:30 pacers in front of me.  My only guess is that the heat hit them hard and they weren't able to maintain their designated pace.  My time was 3:48:41 in the end, which I was happy with, given the conditions.  I'm also happy that I punished myself to try and get 3:30 because I felt that I owed it to all my sponsors to give it my all.  If you did sponsor me, thank you so much.  I was really bowled over by how generous you all were (if you now feel inspired to do so, you can here:

https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/AlexMitchellMarathon).


I was a broken man at this point, but so, so glad to be done!

While I was sitting on the floor at the finish, my sister asked if I would do another marathon.  I told her that she must be joking, but since then, I have entered the ballot for next year!  Considering that I have been trying to get a ballot place for 9 years (as opposed to a charity place which seems easier to obtain, but for which you have to raise a lot of sponsorship money), I'm not holding my breath on getting a place.  I'll leave it in fate's hands, but I do feel that I have a score to settle with London.  I'm coming for that 3:30!


Addendum:

I beat the tree!  I drafted this post up a week or so ago and since then, I receive an email from the marathon organisers with a link to all the records that were set.  Tree Man (Tim Perkins) did it in 3:52:35.  In my exhausted state, I must not have noticed overtaking him.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

New Year, New Plan

Alex decided recently that we shouldn't use the word 'plan' to describe what we hope to do next, as it always changes. Instead, we should use the term 'idea' in order to convey the fact that it may not happen. I think he may be onto something there, as already our idea for how 2017 might pan out has changed dramatically.

Beth''s first Christmas was spent in Normandy with the Mitchells,
in an Airbnb as opposed to on our boat.

2016 came to an end with us not completing the rudder in time to cross the Channel, so we left the partially constructed frame in Somerset and hopped on a ferry to Dieppe. We enjoyed a much needed Christmas break, staying in various Airbnbs around Normandy with Alex's family and friends, before returning to Bursledon in the New Year. After a couple of days back home on the cold, damp boat, we were feeling pretty deflated, to say the least. It was such a depressing feeling, because we have always loved living on boats, and every previous boat has really felt like home and been perfectly habitable, even during winter. Neither of us liked the fact that we now dreaded coming back home, as the living conditions were so dismal.

We spent three nights in this little caravan insulated with straw bales,
which was perfect for us. A nice small space with no leaks!

We planned to go back to Somerset mid-January to complete the rudder, and in the meantime tried to gather the motivation to get some work done on the boat. It took me all of two days to formulate a new idea, which was very well received by Alex, and we set about putting this new idea in motion. The idea was based upon the fact that our aim in life is to enjoy ourselves, and we were definitely not doing so in our current situation. I put it to Alex that we might as well cover the boat up and leave her for a few months, heading to London to work and earn some much-needed cash. This way, we would be able to avoid spending the rest of winter aboard our unfinished vessel and, instead, could return to her later in the year, when the days would be longer, the weather warmer and our bank accounts replenished. The new idea was a big hit, and so we got to work making the boat weathertight, before packing up and getting out of there as fast as possible!

New Year's was spent with a load of Alex's friends, in a big old farmhouse with an open fire.
We ate like kings and had a wonderful time, which made returning to the boat even harder.

We stuck to our plan to head to Somerset, as Alex was looking forward to continuing work on the rudder and we were also looking forward to seeing my parents. Sadly, my Nan passed away unexpectedly just a few days before we arrived, peacefully at the good old age of 93, but it was still a reminder that you never know when your time is up, which is why it's important to make the most of life. We were glad to be with my parents at this difficult time, supporting them as much as possible and, of course, having Beth around was a welcome distraction. We also celebrated "Fake Christmas" whilst in Somerset, having not seen my parents over the real Christmas period. Having committed to a plant-based diet as our New Year's resolution, Alex and I made a delicious nut roast for Fake Christmas lunch, which everyone enjoyed.

"Fake Christmas" lunch with the Shepherds and my Aunt Susan.
I hope Beth doesn't start to think that Christmas is a monthly occurrence...

Following the festivities, Alex got cracking with the rudder and did a sterling job of finishing the stainless steel frame. Sadly, we weren't able to progress to the next stage of gluing and fibreglassing the rudder, due to the weather. With temperatures hovering around zero, and a minimum working temperature of 5°C for the epoxy resin, we weren't keen to repeat our experiences from the aft cabin work. Working with cold epoxy seems to be much more difficult due to its decreased viscosity, which results in larger quantities being used and lots of stress when trying to get a good finish. We decided that, given we wouldn't be fitting the rudder again until at least May, we might as well wait another couple of months and finish the construction when the weather is warmer.

Alex with the finished rudder frame. Now we just need to cover the
metal 'tangs' in marine ply, fibreglass and paint it. 

The day after my Nan's funeral, we drove to London via the boat, to collect our living essentials ready for the few months we'd be away. I find it quite frustrating that we can easily get by with so few belongings that we can fit in a Fiat 500 hire car, yet for some reason we own enough to fill a 45 foot boat. I wonder if it's due to our consumerist society that we feel the need to fill the space we live in, or whether it's just human nature. Did our ancestors fill their caves with a plethora of rocks, bones, sticks and stones or anything else they found that might be visually appealing or potentiality useful, or did they enjoy a clutter-free existence, knowing that they would have to lug a load of replaceable crap to the next cave if they needed to move on?

My nan and Beth. She would not be pleased to see this photo that Alex
secretly took of her in December, as she had a phobia of being photographed.
Still, I think she looks pretty great for 93 and I'm so glad to have this picture.

Now, back in London, we have started preparing for the job hunt. LinkedIn profiles and CVs updated, we have decided that whoever gets the best contract can work and the other will stay at home and look after Beth. To be perfectly honest, I'd be happy doing either. I love writing code and would relish the chance to get back at it in a full time role, but I'm equally happy spending time with this fascinating little person we've created, who is changing so much day by day. Thankfully, Alex feels exactly the same and so it's really nice to know that, for the next few months, we will both be enjoying ourselves whichever way it goes. The plan has changed, as usual, but the aim is the same: enjoy life and be happy.

Back in London with the Mitchells...
 Uh oh, watch out Bertie - there's a new beast in town!

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Up The Hamble Without A Rudder

Last time we wrote anything about our boat, we were out in Portugal with Seahorse, starting work on the refit before going back to London for the birth of our first child. The bulk of the work we did was in the engine bay, in preparation for installing our brand new engine. It was filthy work, grinding the rusted steel back to bare metal, welding up any holes and then painting on primer. We were very happy with the quality of the work we had done, but realised that we had months (if not years) of work ahead of us, given our perfectionist tendencies and work rate. Having not even completed the engine bay or installed the new engine, we drove Reg (our Rover 75) back to London.

Work on Seahorse's engine bay was slow and filthy, and was only the tip of the iceberg.

A couple of weeks into life with our daughter Beth around, we came to the realisation that most people around us had probably already known for months; it was going to be completely impractical to attempt the major refit on Seahorse in a boatyard with a baby. Sure, it would be possible, if we took it in turns to work on our own down the yard whilst the other person looked after Beth elsewhere, but that didn't appeal to us at all. Neither of us wanted to miss out on any of this precious time with our new daughter, and we certainly didn't want to be without a proper home for all that time. We wanted Beth to grow up on a boat right from the word go, and a functional one at that. I began my search for a replacement for Seahorse, and we resigned ourselves to losing money in this exchange, as it would be difficult to find a buyer willing to undertake such a large project, let alone one willing to pay good money for the challenge.

We were determined that Beth should grow up on a boat,
hence us renting the yacht Anna-Maria whilst back in London for her birth.

With Beth one month old, and my new boat research in full swing, we went down to the south coast for the weekend to visit a few groups of good friends down there. One couple happened to be with their boat in a yard in Bursledon on the River Hamble, doing a refit themselves, so we were pleased to get the chance to pop in on them for a few hours. Whilst Alex was arranging this visit, he mentioned the fact that we were now looking for a new boat and our friend Warren excitedly mentioned that he thought that the perfect boat for us was moored astern of them at the yard. It was, apparently, a 40ft ferro-cement ketch ready for sea with just a bit of sprucing up to do beforehand. Now, 40ft was much larger than we were planning on getting - my searches were for up to 37ft, and we were also looking for steel. We had found plenty available in the Netherlands, but hadn't organised any viewings at that stage. So, with nothing to lose, we agreed to view this yacht out of interest, whilst we were in the area.

We were pleased to have found such a sturdy yacht that we could move
straight onto and was "ready to go" sailing - it felt like fate!

Over the next couple of days prior to our visit, this yacht grew from 40ft to 42ft in email communications, then upon arrival we discovered she was actually 45ft. Warren had not wanted to disclose this fact beforehand, as he knew that we would not be willing to view a boat so big. We laughed at how well he knew us, as this was definitely the case - we would never have considered such a large vessel. Anyhow, now we were there, she looked very nice from the pontoon and so Warren arranged for the owner to come and show us around below decks. She was very well equipped, incredibly spacious and Alex was immediately taken with her stowage capacity, especially her 1000 litre water tank and 300 gallon diesel tank. We liked her, and although we were unsure of owning a ferro-cement hull, she had been built by an employee of Camper and Nicholsons (a well-respected boat builders) to a very high standard. We negotiated what we thought was a fair price with the owner, on the one condition that he got the engine working prior to sale. He had tried to start it for us, boasting that it started first time, every time, which of course it then didn't. We didn't really mind, as Alex suspected the solenoid contacts had corroded (the boat hadn't moved since at least last year) and would just need a clean. We could tell that the owner was a real gentleman and would be true to his word and, of course, we had Warren's recommendation that the boat was sound. The deal was done, and we left Bursledon rather excited about our spur-of-the-moment purchase.

Alex's birthday meal on the new boat, with his family. At this point,
we were blissfully unaware of the work that lay ahead of us!

We had plans over the following few weeks to visit friends and family with Beth, so it was almost a month before we returned to our new home. We loaded a hire car with our worldly belongings (well, the small amount that existed with us in the UK, that is) and headed excitedly down to Bursledon, via the owner's house near Andover, where we had a spot of lunch, transferred the remaining funds for the boat and collected bits and bobs that had been in his garage (such as varnished grab rails, sails, cushions, etc). Now in mid-August, the weather was warm and we were keen to remove the tarpaulins that had been covering the cabin tops, to open the hatches and let in the summer sunshine. Everything was peachy. Until the next night, when it rained. It soon became apparent that this boat was not at all watertight, and so I used every available rag, teatowel and bowl to catch drips and soak up puddles. I covered our duvet with a bin bag and a towel, to prevent the leaking hatch above our bunk from completely soaking our bedding. As you can imagine, this put a bit of a damper on our high spirits.

As much as I like mushrooms, I didn't fancy cultivating them in our aft cabin.
The sides were so rotten in some places that Alex was easily able to poke a screwdriver through 30mm of marine ply!

The next morning we wrung out towels, emptied bowls and properly inspected the cabin tops and hatches. We weren't so concerned with leaks from around hatches and portholes - this can be expected over time, and is usually fairly easily rectified by removing, resealing and reseating the leaking object. When we first moved onto Firebird, she had plenty of leaks from poorly sealed portholes and deck fittings, but once fixed we had a dry boat for the remaining years that we owned her. What concerned us more was the realisation that we had large sections of rot in parts of the cabin tops. Whilst the hull and decks were made of ferro-cement, the cabin tops were made from marine ply and these, on closer inspection, were in a bad way. This was a big blow for us, as we began to realise that we did not, in fact, have a boat that was ready to put to sea, but rather one that needed a fairly hefty amount of work in order to even be habitable.

All our possessions, boxed up and removed from Seahorse, ready for shipping
back to the UK. Sadly, this is all now in storage, costing us £65 a month!

By now, we had already booked flights to Portugal to pack up our belongings from Seahorse to ship back to the UK and attempt to sell the old girl, so there was little more we could do than put the tarpaulins back up and hope that they held the worst of the weather out for the month we were to be away. Packing up Seahorse was not an easy task, especially in the stifling Algarvian heat, but I enjoyed that month immensely. I think this was partly due to knowing that difficult times lay ahead on our return to our new boat, which made every worry-free second away from it even sweeter. We successfully loaded all our possessions onto a single pallet, and then tidied Seahorse as best we could in order to sell. We advertised her at the price of her brand new Beta engine, and hoped that someone would be happy to pay for an engine and get a boat for free. We had lots of interest and viewings from Portuguese buyers whilst we were there in Lagos, but eventually it was a lovely English chap who took her off our hands shortly after our return to London. It was a relief to have found a new owner for Seahorse, especially one who was planning to restore her and make her his home. Although, I have since found myself wondering on many an occasion whether we should have just kept her, saved ourselves the best part of 20 grand and at least had the pleasure of a refit in the warm Portuguese climate.

Beth and I were always on hand, to provide cups of tea, crisps, and ensure materials arrived on time.
Mike and Alex did the bulk of the hard work, starting early and finishing late in a race against the weather.

Early October, we found ourselves heading back down to Bursledon, ready to start work on the new boat. We asked our friend Mike (from Rescue My House Ltd) if he fancied expanding his business and opening a marine division to help us with the aft cabin top. Thank goodness he agreed, as without his help I think we'd still be trying to remove the old cabin top. Mike came down for a week and worked with Alex on removing the entire aft cabin top, replacing it with sheets of brand new marine plywood. Beth and I took on the project management, ordering materials just in time for the boys to use them, and ensured they were well watered and fed. To be honest, I think Beth could have pulled her weight a bit more in all this... I often felt like I was carrying her, but luckily she is super cute so can get away with being pretty much useless at helping out. One week turned into four, as we were hit with delays due to bad weather (not so much rain but cold weather preventing materials from curing and drying properly) and we were eternally grateful to Mike and his family that he was able to spend the time away from home, helping us out.

I managed to take a break from project management to help install the new portholes.
The finished aft cabin top looks brilliant and, most importantly, doesn't leak.

During that period, we had to take the boat out of the water to clean and repaint the hull ready for our trip to France. Oh, sorry, did I forget to mention that we had invited Alex's family to spend Christmas on the boat with us in France? Ah, how blissfully unaware we were of our situation back in the summer... Now in mid-November, we still felt like we had a fighting chance of getting over there in time - we just needed to antifoul, finish the aft cabin, restep the mizzen mast (which was removed to facilitate the aft cabin refit) and get the rigging and sails ready. Simples. Until, that is, we found more issues with the boat. The first was the gearbox. It turned out that, whilst the previous owner had been true to his word and got the engine running prior to our purchase, nobody had thought to see if it would go in and out of gear, and it wouldn't. Never mind, we thought - hopefully a simple problem to fix when we get chance... Perhaps a seal or something. We paid the yard to tow us to the cradle, and came out of the water to discover another problem. The existing paint system had completely failed and was now trapping water against the hull. Rather than just a new coat of antifouling, we now needed to strip all the paint back to the concrete, which meant an extra week out of the water and a large bill for expensive marine paint. After a few gruelling days cleaning the hull, Alex stumbles upon the next big issue - the rudder is broken and useless. The metal stock had corroded right through, and turning the wheel no longer equated to moving the rudder. The Channel crossing was starting to slip away from us. A quote from the boatyard of £4000 to fix the rudder and a probable lead time of two months left us no option but to attempt to build one for ourselves. We removed the old one prior to putting the boat back in the water, and took it to my parents' garage in Somerset, which they kindly agreed to let us use as a workshop in which to build our replacement rudder.

Mike and Alex continued working hard on the boat whilst she was out of the water.
Alex had to cut the old rudder off before she went back into the water, to use as a template for making a new one.

And so, as it stands, we are stuck on a leaky (we have yet to fix the leaks in the forward cabin), oversized boat on the most expensive stretch of water in the UK, unable to move to a cheaper mooring due to the fact that, amongst other things, we have no rudder. Note to self: never buy a boat without taking it out for a sail, prior to parting with any hard-earned cash.

Alex enjoys the luxury of a makeshift workshop in my parents' garage,
whilst welding the stainless frame for our new rudder

Thursday, 22 December 2016

The Danger of Priority Lanes

This post is intended to fill the gaping hole in the travel advice issued by the UK government to those citizens visiting Portugal:

People of Britain, avoid the priority lane in Portuguese supermarkets.
At all costs.

A recent change in law makes it compulsory for Portuguese supermarkets to designate one of their checkout lanes as priority.  Elderly, disabled, pregnant or people with young children can cruise straight to the front of this queue, ahead of any other shoppers, to be on their way with the minimum amount of inconvenience.

I didn't take a photo in Portugal, but it turns out they have these lanes in France as well

"Great", I hear you say.  "Well done Portugal for pushing forwards to help those less able".  Well just hold your horses there, sir or madam, because until you've tried it, you don't realise what a truly horrible system this is for those poor Brits who find themselves entangled within its sticky web.

In-arms, on a walk
Our involvement with this system comes from having baby Beth, who we take everywhere with us in our arms or, more usually, worn in a baby carrier.  We won't touch on the pros and cons of this approach, but it does mean that we don't have a buggy to get in the way and are just as mobile as ever when wearing her.

We didn't realise that the priority system existed to begin with, but inadvertently joined the priority queue, which can be used by anyone.  It's not like a 'basket only' queue, it's just that if a 'priority' person turns up, they get to join right at the front.

When we joined the priority queue, not knowing anything about the system, we joined the back of the queue as usual.  I was carrying Beth in my arms and she was squirming about a bit as she was getting tired and hungry.  Anyway, it was business as usual for us until a Portuguese gentleman came to join the queue with his two kids.  He told us that we could move to the front of the queue, except that we didn't initially understand what he was saying.  After a bit of gesticulating at the priority sign hanging from the ceiling and pointing at Beth, we understood what he meant.  He kept telling us that we must go to the front.  We were somewhat taken aback and, not being accustomed to queue jumping, told him that we were OK to wait and that he could go ahead, which is what he did with his youngsters in tow.

That experience was all a
Writing a blog post while Beth sleeps
bit awkward, so the next time we visited the supermarket, we made sure to join one of the normal, non-priority queues.  We didn't mind queuing, especially as Beth was in a carrier on my front this time, fast asleep, so with 4 free hands between us we considered ourselves less of a priority than even able bodied shoppers doing the weekly shop on their own.  Moreover, as upstanding British citizens abroad, we were acting as ambassadors to the Empire.  As such, we felt obliged to queue to the best of our ability at every opportunity offered, in an attempt to educate, by example, our European brothers and sisters on the finer points of queuing etiquette.  Despite what I'm sure are their best intentions, they just don't quite manage to always get it right.

The priority system wouldn't let us slip through the checkout process this easily, however.  The sharp-eyed, diligent cashier saw us join the back of his queue so he stopped serving the current customer and stood up so that he could call to us to leave his queue and go and use the priority lane.

This took us totally by surprise.  We thought we had got it all figured out this time so with only a short walk to the priority checkout in which to think, I panicked and, dumping my share of the shopping in Kate's arms, told her that I would just walk round the front with Beth and she could join the queue as a non-priority customer.

Playing crazy golf together.  She loved this


Having a cosy sleep on Mummy
For our next trip to the supermarket, we knew that we didn't have any choice but to embrace the priority system, if for no other reason than as a cultural experience.  When in Rome and all that.

This time, we were able to mentally prepare for the queue jump ahead of us and to look up what to say when we pushed in at the front like heathen barbarians, I mean, as the law stipulated that we should.

I've got to say that what happened next was one of the most cringe-worthy experiences of our lives.  We were loaded up with a ton of shopping this time.  Beth was again sleeping soundly in a carrier, not causing us any bother whatsoever, the supermarket was heaving with the after-work crowd with everyone busy and grumpy, just trying to get home after a hard day at work.  All checkout lanes had long queues.

Undeterred, as I had rehearsed in my head, we shoved our way confidently to the front, which wasn't easy as the lane was quite narrow, I uttered my memorised "Can we go in front because we have a baby" line in my best Portuguese and then we started to put items from our bulging basket onto the conveyor.

Going sailing, but missing it while sleeping
This is where we found the first logistical issue with the system.  Of course, by the time you get to the front of the checkout, the conveyor belt is already full of everyone else's shopping.  As we deposited our shopping down, the people who already had stuff on the belt had to start shuffling theirs backwards to make room as we shoved more and more on at the front.  Once we had emptied our over-sized basket (one of the deep ones with wheels and a long plastic handle, which can hold as much as a small trolley), I was then faced with the second logistical issue with the priority queue: I had to get my basket back to the stacking location at the start of the conveyor belt.  I imagine that had I have been a doddery senior citizen in true need of prioritisation, people might have offered to pass the basket back for me, but being the annoying-guy-that-just-delayed-everyone-from-going-home-after-work, who clearly didn't need any help shopping, everyone averted their gaze and I had to push back through the narrow queue to put it back myself.

Had this have been happening somewhere in the UK, I think this would have been the point when resigned annoyance would have given way to outright fury and the bravest amongst the crowd would have been forced to quietly tut in order to let me know how discontented everyone had become.  However, it seems that even this part of queueing etiquette hasn't made it all the way down to the south-west corner of Europe yet and so the waiting customers held their tongues and just looked on with steely gazes.  I felt that I should at least teach them the tut, seeing as I had given them ample reason to use it, but I didn't feel that I could tut myself as that might have delivered a confused message.  In my line of work, clarity is king, so I decided to forgo the self-tut and focus instead on pushing my way past the queue for the third time, to rejoin Kate at the front.

Once there, we just had to wait for the customer that was halfway through being served when we started this ordeal to pay and pack and then we could be on our way.

Facing forwards on a walk in London

Our queue jumping complete, I could start to relax a bit.  Looking around, I noticed that the man directly behind us was returning my friendly smile with a much more annoyed expression that the rest of the mildly annoyed people in the line.  A glance down at the conveyor belt helped me understand why.  He only had a couple of measly items that he needed to pay for and was now held up behind our mountain of food.  Had I not been such a novice at using the priority system, I would have noticed this when we turned up and pushed in behind him, but I feel that this is only partly my fault.  You can't just go ahead and legalise queue jumping, without supplying leaflets explaining how to do so courteously, without expecting people to get it wrong, so I think that the angry man should have directed his inner rage towards the Portuguese government instead of me.

This cautionary tale will hopefully help others out there to avoid, at all costs, the priority checkout lane in Portuguese supermarkets.  Use them at your peril.

Just because it's nearly Christmas, here is a Christmas baby

Sunday, 25 September 2016

How not to recover a dropped spanner

About a year ago, I dropped a spanner down a little gap in the engine bay that I couldn't fit my hands into.  Kate and I spent some time trying to find a solution to retrieve it, but in the end decided that the only way it could be done would be with a very small hand and a thin arm.  Around the same time, we had been thinking that life would be better if we had to do fewer night watches.  We looked at each other and a lightbulb came on between us.  What we needed was a very small crew member.

When we want something, it can usually be found by trawling eBay, Gumtree or Amazon.  No small crew members were to be found there, however, so we turned to researching on Google.  This is where we found our true answer: we needed a baby.

Kate and my 6 month photos.  Kate was clearly going to win this race
After ordering, I checked the estimated delivery date for the baby and discovered that it was atrociously far in the future (like, 9 months wtf?).  If it had have been coming from Amazon, I would have signed up for Prime membership to speed things up, but Kate explained that you can't do that with babies so I stuck it out because they don't make spanners like that anymore and I really wanted to get mine back.

Alien visitors slowed our work on Seahorse for the day 
After sailing from Lanzarote to the boatyard in Portugal, we were working on getting Seahorse ready to be our family home.  While we did that, Kate was also working on making the family.  Just before the point beyond which airlines won’t let pregnant women fly, we returned to the UK and moved onto a nice ketch in South Dock marina that Kate found for us to rent on Gumtree.  At this point, our pregnant friends at work were just about to take their maternity leave.  I had other plans for Kate, though, so she started her “maternity work”.  My old manager had need for Kate’s skills for a month and seeing as we were back in London anyway, it seemed silly not to take the opportunity.  During this time I didn’t rest on my laurels, I trained hard for my role as stay at home dad by, well, staying at home.

"You can't do that in your condition"
Kate ripping out the old galley on Seahorse.
She was active throughout pregnancy
Fast forward to now and we've had the baby, Beth, for three months and she's completely useless.  I showed her the spanner that she needs to retrieve and all she did was dribble down the hole, so it will probably go rusty now.  On top of this, she didn't come with an instruction manual.  I mean, not even a PDF one written in dodgy English.  I solved that problem through observation.  It turns out that Beth is just like me: if she gets hungry or tired, she gets grumpy.  Once I realised that, things weren’t so hard.  Considering how adorable she is, I don't mind that she's actually the worst crew member that I've ever seen.  Even though she’s more interested in sucking stuff than tying bowlines right now, I'm sure that one day I will have trained her enough to take a night watch.

The purpose of this blog post is twofold, the first being to introduce Beth to the Great Adventure.  Job done.  The second was to say how well the birth went.  That will probably sound arrogant, but it’s not intended to be.  Our plan was to have as natural a birth as possible and we had already started reading around this subject when we were lucky enough to meet one of the best midwives ever!  She’s called Nicole and you’ll know if you meet her from her accent which is hard to place.  English people think she sounds Australian and Australian people think she sounds English.  She was completely on our wavelength and helped guide us down the path to the birth that we wanted.

Kate listening to her hypnobirthing CD.  I had been exercising next to her
Amongst other things, Nicole recommended a film called Orgasmic Birth: The Best-Kept Secret.  One of the people in this film urged us to share our positive birth story.  This is to try and counter the negativity surrounding birth and to let people know that it doesn’t need to be as bad as you probably think it will be.  All you seem to hear when you’re pregnant (or are with your partner who is) are people’s horror stories of how terrible giving birth is.  Every birth I see on screen involves a woman screaming out in pain as though she’s having her leg amputated without anaesthesia.  This doesn’t reflect the whole truth and nothing like that happened while Kate was in labour.  I wonder if people are less inclined to share their positive stories for fear of belittling others’ experiences, or because it does kind of feel like boasting, but it isn’t, it’s just recognising that a different outcome is indeed possible and which, with the right preparation, can be yours too.

In for a checkup
There's a joke to be made here about stool samples
Kate started having tiny contractions around 13:00, which we kept between us - there didn’t seem any point getting people excited in case it was a false start.  We were out and about and on our way to my parents’ for lunch, where we ended up spending most of the afternoon.  We returned to the boat via the fish and chip shop and ate while watching something on the laptop.  After dinner, we went for a leisurely walk along the Thames.  By now the contractions had grown considerably in intensity and it was easier for Kate to manage them while standing.  We went back to the boat to get our labour bags which we had packed from lists from the NHS and elsewhere.  Whoever compiled those lists was something of a joker.  We ended up with three bags - one for me, one for Kate and one for the baby.  We could have easily made do with just one bag which would have made our lives after the birth much easier.  Actually, it would have made just my life easier because I was the muggins who had to carry all three bags like a packhorse.  Maybe this was my comeuppance for sending Kate off on her maternity work.  Who, for example, thought that I would need to take a book?  Does that person even know what labour is?  I diligently packed my Kindle with thoughts of lounging around in a comfy chair while we leisurely waited for the baby to come out.  Let’s just say that it didn’t happen like that and amongst other things, you do not need to take a book in your labour bag!

Time to turn that bump inside out
This was taken on our way out to get the taxi

We requested an Uber (taxi) just after midnight and had been assessed and put in the midwifery led suite by 01:00.  Just after 06:00, we got to meet our little girl.  Kate had done the whole thing using just her mind and her body.  She didn’t take any form of medication whatsoever.  She was exhausted and it was definitely not an easy thing to do, but neither was it that terrible.  Kate knew that she could do it and had trained herself to truly believe this.  Her body took care of the rest, including her pain management.  Because she was relaxed, confident, in the right environment and most importantly, not scared, all the right hormones could control the process as they are meant to do.

Fresh out of the oven.  Beth was actually born on the floor (on a mat) but we soon moved onto this comfy bed

I don’t deny that the fact that a man writing about how “easy” giving birth can be is ludicrous, but I do promise you that Kate has read, edited and given this post her full endorsement.  I was there with her throughout the experience and we have talked about it from each others’ points of views afterwards so although I didn’t actually push a watermelon through the eye of a needle myself, I’m not making things up.

This is where the magic happened.  The bed was folded up
until after the birth
We got delayed leaving hospital because there was a change of shift at 08:00 and our paperwork took ages to come through.  The papers we did get were muddled up but we didn’t realise this until we went to register Beth a few weeks later.  Luckily the registrar noticed that we were about to register someone else’s baby!  We didn’t mind staying in hospital while we waited, though, because we had our amazing new baby and we spent the time lounging on a nice big bed together enjoying being a family.

A very proud father
This tranquility didn't last and that towel
has never been the same since

I felt honoured during this time when Beth chose me as the canvas for her first work of art.  She covered me and an NHS towel in meconium (a baby’s first type of poo).  Man, that stuff is sticky!  It felt like I had been involved in an industrial accident at a treacle factory.  Trying to get it off both me and Beth was something of a struggle.  More unnecessary items came out of the labour bag in the form of olive oil and cotton wool, which is supposedly good for removing meconium.  It wasn’t.  After attempting a cleanup using those items, neither Beth nor I were any closer to being clean but now she was oiled up and as slippery as a wet bar of soap, which hindered further cleaning operations.  The only thing for it was to run her under the tap and make an even bigger mess of the NHS towel to rub it all off.  Luckily I didn't have to get either of our two towels dirty, which remained untouched in our bags thanks to that blasted packing list.

Pineapples don't
induce labour but fish
and chips does
By the time that was done and we had eaten a spot of hard-won breakfast, our paperwork was back and we were allowed to leave.  The problem with the breakfast was that when I enquired if we were going to get any food, it turned out that we had been forgotten from the breakfast round.  Unbelievably, the midwifery-led suite doesn’t get much use as most ladies elect to go on the ward to give birth, so the caterers weren’t used to checking in on that room.  The midwife cheerily told me to go to the kitchen myself and tell them what we would like.  So off I trotted, which involved leaving the midwifery-led suite, walking to the other side of the floor and going into the labour ward.  I strolled in and casually asked where the kitchen was.  It was at this point that I was subjected to an interrogation that the KGB would probably have felt was harsh.  The staff on the ward had mistaken me for a baby snatcher.  It took me a while to explain that stealing a baby would be a really bad idea for me because I already had my hands full with our own one and I didn’t want to have to deal with any more meconium than was necessary.

Wrapped up and ready to go
This was the departing shot as we left
the hospital
It was 10:45 by the time we could leave and we headed out to catch the train home.  For some reason, Kate had chosen that day to practise her John Wayne walk.  Although a bit slower than usual, she managed just fine.  She was clearly in discomfort, but she’s not one to make a fuss.  I didn’t mind the slower pace because I was struggling to carry the labour bags.  I took less stuff with me when I went to live in Canada for a year!  Once off the train, a short bus ride got us back to the marina where we could begin the rest of our lives.

My lovely ladies back home and resting up after their big night

I won’t go into details of how you can prepare for a swift, natural birth with a fast recovery because I imagine that everyone’s journey will be different, but I will list some of the resources that got us there at the end of this post.  I fully understand that in some situations, medical intervention is absolutely necessary and a life saver.  However, I firmly believe that in the current scheme of things, the vast majority of women are able to give birth without it.  Not only that, but the way labour is currently managed in hospitals actually makes the experience slower, more painful and stressful and is usually the reason that intervention is required in the first place.  Clearly, medical staff are doing the best they think they can and are giving their utmost to help women through childbirth.  The problem is in the way they have been trained to do so in Western society.  If we could change to a more natural method of birthing, which is in keeping with what our species has evolved to do over the last 65 million years or so, I think the NHS could save a stack of money and more importantly, women could look forward to experiencing the miracle that is birth rather than fearing it.

Our temporary home, Anna-Maria, in South Dock Marina
Those semaphone flags we're flying in the picture on the right read "Baby onboard"
You can take my opinion or leave it.  These are some of the resources, along with our own experience, that shaped it into what it is:
  • Bump: How To Make, Grow and Birth A Baby - Kate Evans
  • Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth - Ina May Gaskin
  • Childbirth and the Evolution of Homo Sapiens - Michel Odent
  • Orgasmic Birth (http://www.orgasmicbirth.com) We paid to rent this film from a link on that site - not sure if it's on Netfilx or anything
  • Natal Hypnotherapy CDs, by Maggie Howell (http://www.natalhypnotherapy.co.uk/)