23 April 2012

Polar Star and Pico Ruívo

The Polar Star has been a faithful companion for generations of mariners. In a world dominated nowadays by the omnipresent high-tech of the modern equipments of electronic navigation, it's easy to forget the roots, the basics and the basis of our seamanship. To me, every time I look at her, she represents a voyage to the past. To my own. And also to our common one.
Since I was a student, in the Nautical School, during the early nineties, I've always felt that I was part of a tradition, of a science and a brotherhood that started thousands of years ago with the first navigators. This knowledge never knew any borders. We were already global before globalization was cool.
When I went to the sea for the first time (it was not long ago, but things changed quite a bit in almost twenty years) the satellite navigation equipments were giving their first steps in the Merchant Marine. My first vessel had the Transit. It was, so to speak, a primitive version of the GPS. It would give us a fix every thirty or forty-five minutes, meaning that it would be useless for restricted waters navigation but would be OK for the high seas. Later came the GPS. The system evolved so much that today the positioning is continuous and with errors of a couple of meters. Not affected by atmospheric conditions, this system is almost perfect. Nevertheless, and regardless the fact that the vessel where I served as a Cadet had already the system installed, I dedicated myself to put in practice the astronomy navigation that I've learn in theory at the school.
I was lucky. I had a somehow traditional Captain that considered it as important. And he taught me. So everyday, in high seas, you'd see me, at dawn, noon and dusk, in the bridge wings, sextant in one hand and seconds counter on the other, shooting at the stars and the Sun. The Polar Star was, therefore, a faithful companion that more often than not was an active participant in my nautical calculations.
So, once started that relationship never ends. And even that we come to work ashore, our beloved Polar Star is always there to lead us the way.
So one night I've decided to meet her again and since I wanted to be closer to her, I had to spend the night in Madeira highest peak: the Pico Ruívo. Backpack on the shoulders, a few snacks for the dinner time, camping mattress and sleeping bag for the night and there I was at 2100 mounting the photo equipment and aligning it to the North at 1862 mts.
After that, it was easy. I stayed awake a couple of hours more, appreciating my old cosmic friend and afterwards hit the sac. This was the timid attempt of that night. But I guess I can do better. So I'm planning already a new night in the mountains.
Star trails and Polar Star between the geodesic marks of Pico Ruívo at night time.
Photo taken with Nikon FM3A and Sigma 24mm f:1.8D EX DG Macro
Manfrotto tripod and ball-head
Exposure: 8 hours
Aperture: f8
Film: Fujichrome Velvia ASA 50
Scanned in Nikon Coolscan V ED
Post-processing in Adobe Photoshop CS3

22 April 2012

From Pico das Pedras to Queimadas

A "levada walk for everybody". That's what it says in the sign, in the beginning of the path, close to the Rancho Madeirense bungalows, in Pico das Pedras.
And, in fact, it is. After leaving your car in the small parking area close to the hotel, you'll see in front of you the long levada that starts in Caldeirão do Inferno and goes as far away as Faial. However, if you are not feeling to athletic, if you are a newcomer to levadas, or if you are in those days in witch a short and peaceful walk might just be fine... then this short walk is the answer to your doubts.
The path along the levada is always wide enough and free from dangers. Just be careful with the muddy ground. Lots of people passing by together with the moist environment of the North coast makes the trail very slippery, to say the least. So, walk always looking to your feet, hence avoiding the typical levada walker pose (myself included!), which is walking around with your eyes looking at the air, trying to see the birds and the pretty flowers. That can cost you, at least, a sore arse. In extremes it can cost you your own life.

A Small Remark On Safety

Every year we face a few of these dramas in Madeira. A few persons that come to Madeira to enjoy this beautiful island end up by returning home in a coffin. It's a waste of life in a moment of it that should be all about enjoyment, fun and good memories to take home.
So, make no mistake. Madeira has a very steep orography. Which means that the levadas are, most of the times, carved in steep (sometimes plain vertical) rock walls. But this doesn't mean that they are dangerous. The danger is within us. You ever heard the saying "when in Rome, be roman"? That's exactly how you should behave in the levadas.
I'm living in Madeira for seven years. Not once I ever heard a story about a "levadeiro" (that's the name of the government professionals that take care of the levadas) killed from a fall in these water channels. Why? Easy: because they know what they are doing. Granted, probably during the construction of this magnificent engineering work of art there were a few fatalities. Those were different times, difficult ones. Safety procedures were not the most important things at that times. People just had to work... better... to sacrifice themselves to have a decent living. Nowadays things changed, thank God. And human life is very important. At least among us. So, why do people die in the levadas?
Easy: because they are not careful. You have only two main dangers in the levadas. Let's put this in mountaineering terms: one is objective (means that its generated by the surrounding environment), the other is subjective (meaning that is generated by you). The first one is the rock falls. And the second one is your fall. Rock falls are very uncommon in Madeira levadas. They normally happen in the Winter period. And during that season, if you are smart, you avoid the most dangerous and exposed ones. That leaves us with the subjective dangers.
And these are the ones that kill most people. You may be over-confident in your capabilities, you may lack the necessary technique to tackle a more difficult path, you may forgot the check the weather report before heading to the wilds, etc, etc, etc. Let's recognize one thing: people die in the mountains of Madeira mostly due to their faults. How to avoid this sad ending?
Easy! Watch your steps. Don't forget, levadas, by definition, are slippery. They pass by very wet areas and the paths along the water channels are, sometimes, very narrow and dangerous. Most of them don't have safety lines. So always look to where you are going to place you feet. If you want to take pictures of the birds keep on walking until you can find a place that is safe enough for you to rest a while, stop and then make your pictures.
Don't just walk around with your head on the air. If, by any chance, your are surprised along the way with a section of the levada that seems to much exposed for you, you'll have always two choices: give up and return back (sometimes, and more than once, this might just be the smartest move!) or prepare yourself to a wet pair of feet. That's right: jump on to the water channel... hiking boots and everything.
Why? Easy: in the Madeira levadas the water channels are almost always carved in the rock wall and the ground path that runs along with them (where you walk on) is always on the opposite side (the exposed one, facing the abyss). So, by walking in the water channel, with water in you knees, you are relatively secure by the protection of the nearby rock wall, instead of behaving like a rope-walker on the opposite side. Witch do you prefer? A wet pair of feet (they will dry out after an additional half'n hour of walking, anyway) and safety or an introduction to funambulism? Your answer. Just be safe. And never leave your mobile phone at home.
Contrary to many levadas in Madeira, this short walk between Pico das Pedras and Queimadas supposes no danger whatsoever, since the path is clear and wide. Just be careful with the muddy ground to avoid falling on your "arse".
Picture taken with Nikon D300 and Sigma EX 10-20mm f:4-5.6 DC HSM
Manfrotto tripod and geared 410 Junior head
Panoramic shot stitched together with Photoshop CS3

Anyway, this short walk, like I've said in the beginning, is quite safe. A pleasurable Sunday walk that you can do with everybody, from seven to seventy-seven years old.
And after a couple of kilometres and thirty minutes of walking you will find yourself in the Queimadas forest park, where you can relax by laying on the grass or just wandering around the several small forest roads that surrounds this park and leads you in an enchanted visit to the Laurissilva forest.
Before returning to the parking place of Pico das Pedras, by the same route, I advise you to stay awhile in the Queimadas forest park. Spend one hour there, walking around within the nearby forest paths. You'll be amazed with the enchanted forest within you are.
The wild flowers are always a constant presence in Madeira's many trails. This short one is no exception. Take your time. Stop and enjoy the views.
Photo taken with Nikon D300 and Sigma EX 18-50mm f:2.8 Macro DC HSM in macro mode.
Manfrotto tripod and 410 Junior geared head.

21 April 2012

Funchal and the flower power

Every year, by this date, Madeira is invaded by tourists. Together with the New Year's Eve, the Carnival and the Madeira Wine Rally; the Madeira Flower Festival (or Madeira Flower Party, in a literal translation) is one of the most famous events that takes place in this small Atlantic island. Taking advantage of the richness of the island's flora, this festival is, among this group of four, the only truly representative of the island's most important and unique asset: its perfect and pristine natural world.
This, in fact, is the only reason why so many thousands of tourists search for Madeira, year-round, for their vacations.
Its natural world, preserved and well kept, together with a benevolent climate and a net of well designed mountain trails and paths makes this island a must for any nature-lover worldwide.
The Madeira Flower Festival is, therefore, the vehicle to divulge this unique characteristic. It's no surprise also that it takes place in the middle of the Spring. After the end of Winter, the colors start to return once again to the mountain peaks, to the valleys, to the agricultural fields, to the grass-lands, to the gardens.
This is simply the appetizer. Located in Funchal, the capital city of the island, the festival only shows to foreigners what they can expect to see everywhere in the island if they dare to stay until the end of the session, instead of leaving the room before the intermission.
Granted, the festival is lovely. The exhibition of flowers in the city, everywhere, is amazing. The colors, the perfumes invade the downtown of Funchal during these days.
However this is only a sample. An example of what you can see if you dare to leave the comfort of you hotel in the city, put on some walking shoes, and hike around amidst nature.
You can take my word for it.
The Avenida Arriaga, here seen from a sentry tower in the S. Lourenço fortress, is the epicentre of many cultural activities in Funchal. The Madeira Flower Festival is no exception.
In the Madeira Flower Festival you can have an overdose of perfumes...
... and colours.

You will see also lots of photography fanatics, like you and me. However, all the beauty present here is nothing compared to what you can see if you dare to immerse yourself in the natural Madeira...
...after buying a cheap Easy-Jet ticket, reserving a few nights in a middle-category hotel (it doesn't have to be the Reid's - unless you like it!) and don't forget your hiking boots at home.
Picture taken in Queimadas, North coast, with Nikon D300, Sigma EX 10-20mm f:4-5.6 DC HSM, Manfrotto tripod and head.

18 April 2012

NRP Baptista de Andrade in Caniçal

Another working day in Caniçal port. The departures of the M/V's "Monte da Guia" and "Funchalense 5" were the only operations scheduled for the entire day. However, we have received a visit of a naval unit. The "NRP Baptista de Andrade" visited us in a routine call, for provisions and fresh water, before heading South, to the waters of Guiné-Bissau.
Things are not good in those latitudes, with a new military "coup d'etat" on the streets. Although the situation seems to be calming down over there, at least according to what we can see in the news, the Portuguese government decided for the deployment of a naval task force to the proximity of that African country, to help the evacuation of the Portuguese citizens living there in the case that things go rough.
This force, called Força de Reacção Imediata (Immediate Reaction Force), is composed by a Meko 200 frigate (the NRP Vasco da Gama), a logistic vessel (the NRP Bérrio) and the corvette NRP Baptista de Andrade. Besides the naval units, the task force counts also with the air support of a Lockheed P-3 Orion, a Lockheed C-130 Hercules and the organic Lynx helicopter of the NRP Vasco da Gama. From all the vessels, the NRP Baptista de Andrade was the only one to touch land, in a routine call, on the voyage to the South.
The NRP Baptista de Andrade is a Spanish-built vessel (under portuguese design and specifications), by the Bazan shipyards. She was launched in 1973 and she gives her name to a class of four very similar vessels. Besides the Baptista de Andrade, the class comprises also the NRP João Roby, the NRP Afonso Cerqueira and the NRP Oliveira e Carmo.
They were built with the conflicts of the Portuguese ex-colonies in mind (the Portuguese Colonial War), so they were made pretty much with specifications for the African waters. However, with the Portuguese African Empire collapsing in 1974-75, these vessels had to adapt themselves to marine patrols in more rough waters: the Portuguese North-Atlantic. Looking for their almost forty years of service, it seems that they adapted quite well.

Vessel specifications:
Name: NRP Baptista de Andrade
Pennant number: F486
Type: Corvette
Class: Baptista de Andrade
LOA: 84.60mts
Breath: 10.30mts
Draught: 3.10mts
Propulsion: Two diesel Pielstick engines, two shafts, two fixed propellers, 10000 HP total.
Max speed: 23 Kts
Autonomy: 10600 Kms at 18 Kts speed
Armament: 1 x 100mm piece, 2 x AA 40mm Bofors gun, 2 triple launchers for 324mm topedos
Crew: max 122 persons
The NRP Baptista de Andrade and the NRP Schultz Xavier, side-by-side, berthed in the South breakwater of the Caniçal port. In the foreground, on manoeuvre, the tug "Boqueirão", from the port administration.
The NRP Baptista de Andrade alongside the Caniçal South breakwater. Photo taken from the North terminal.
At 1900, the NRP Baptista de Andrade left the port of Caniçal and headed to the waters of Guiné-Bissau. Godspeed gents.

15 April 2012

Porto Santo in the low season

I love Porto Santo in the low season. For me, April, May and the beginning of June is the best period to enjoy the island. The Winter season is normally cold and grey and the island is somehow desert. Nevertheless there are always a few hardcore tourists that enjoy it during those colder months.
It's only a question of relativity. For me fifteen degrees in Porto Santo on the peak of Winter might mean just that. For a German tourist coming from Bavaria, that  air temperature is Spring time. Be that as it may, I try to run away from Porto Santo during the Summer months. The island gets to crowded for my taste and it's only enjoyable if you are on vacations, whitch is never the case when I'm visiting.
So, if you enjoy the Algarve or South of Spain-alike Summer environment in the middle of the Atlantic, by all means, go for it. If you prefer more peacefulness and relaxation together with nice weather, avoid the peak of Summer months. Go for the Spring time and early Autumn.
And a beautiful Spring day is what I've found on arrival to the island, early four days ago. With only two flights during the day connecting Madeira to Porto Santo (one in early morning, at 0800, and the other later in the evening, around 2000), besides the, also twice-per-day maritime ferry connection, and with the berthing manoeuvre of the M/V Funchalense 5 scheduled for 1700, we cannot say I had plenty of flights to choose from. So I woke up at 0600, arrived at the Santa Catarina airport at 0700 and after a calm flight with SATA we  landed in Porto Santo at 0820.
At 1000 in the morning I was already at the hotel, waiting for the afternoon manoeuvre. And, with nothing more to do, I went to the city to make a few pictures in a particularly calm morning.
On the old pier we have the best view of the seven kilometre golden-sand beach.
There are years in witch all the sand of the beach almost disappears. Those years form part of the natural cycle of nature, according to the local seamen. The sand sometimes goes away, only to driven back one year later. So, for this present year, King Neptune blessed us with a perfect sandy beach.
A perfect Spring weather was what I've found on my last trip to Porto Santo. Clear blue skies, sunny weather and peaceful sea are normal conditions in Porto Santo during this time of the year. Normally, with the advance of Summer, the beach becomes more windy, since it is, due to the flatness of the island, exposed to the fresh predominant NE winds, typical of the hot season.
On the picture, you can see the old pier and , behind it, the Ilhéu da Cal. Reminder of a time when there was no harbour in Porto Santo, and when the movements of cargo and passengers were, therefore, more difficult, the old pier is nowadays a pleasant walk that everybody takes at evening time, during the many calm nights of Porto Santo.

07 April 2012

Costa Magica and Independence of the Seas

After several weeks of Summer weather, this Saturday saluted us in Funchal bay with a grey dawn and rainy conditions. Better than nothing, at least we had no wind for the morning manoeuvres. I started the day with the entrance of the Costa Magica, at 0730 (LT) in the morning, immediately followed by the Independence of the Seas arrival manoeuvre, piloted by my fellow colleague Orlando Figueiredo.
The Costa Magica alongside pier nº2, in Pontinha breakwater, after her morning berthing manoeuvre. Photo by Panasonic Lumix DMC-FT3.

Pilot Card:
Ships name: Costa Magica
IMO number: 9239795
Type: Cruise vessel
LOA: 272.19 mts
Beam: 35.50 mts
Summer displacement: 51387.3 t
Max draft on manoeuvre: 8.11 mts
Propulsion: Diesel-electric - Two propeller shafts - two fixed pitch propellers - 40 Mw total propulsion power
Pitch: N/A
Rudder: 2
Bow thruster: 3 (total power: 5160 Kw)
Stern Thruster: 3 (total power: 5160 Kw)

The Independence of the Seas approaching the  nº3 berth of Pontinha in a rainy Saturday morning. Photo by Panasonic Lumix DMC-FT3.

05 April 2012

Seabourn Spirit

On the past 2 of April, we received in Funchal the Seabourn Spirit. Coming from Fort Lauderdale and heading to Gibraltar, the Seabourn Spirit is a luxury small cruise ship where the passengers can certainly have a more relaxed experience of a voyage by sea. As in shore tourism, the cruise tourist is divided in two main categories: the ones that enjoy the crowds and the ones that hate it. My feeling is that the passenger that searches for a cruise in the Seabourn Spirit belongs to the later one. On my short walk from the Pilot ladder to the bridge, you could almost hear a pine needle hit the deck. All was quiet and peaceful and I'm almost certain that you have as much crew members as passengers on board. And that fact, normally, in this industry, is a statement of quality.
Anyway, we seamen are a big family worldwide and after a few years in the Pilotage service, particularly in a such a cosmopolitan port as Funchal, we get to know the ships and the crews quite well. So it was a pleasure to meet once again Captain David Bathgate and his crew on this short transit call, while heading to the Mediterranean.
Our new Pilot boat "Ilhéu do Lido" approaching the Seabourn Spirit by her Starboard side, for Pilot boarding, on her arrival to Funchal, in a calm April noon.

Pilot Card:
Ships name: Seabourn Spirit
IMO number: 8807997
Type: Cruise vessel
LOA: 133.40 mts
Beam: 19.00 mts
Summer displacement: 6820 t
Max draft on manoeuvre: 5.42 mts
Propulsion: Two engines - two variable pitch propellers - 10000 HP total
Pitch: N/A
Rudder: 2 - Schilling Semi-balanced
Bow thruster: 588 Kw
Stern Thruster: N/A

The Seabourn Spirit mascot, here over the gyro repeater, standing on watch on the ships bridge, while the vessel is in port.

01 April 2012

Our new toy

The two new Pilot boats we were expecting finally arrived. They should replace both existing Pilot boats, Cte Valério de Andrade and Cte Cristiano de Sousa, on service in Funchal and Caniçal. These new buildings are Portuguese constructions from Peniche and, so far, are surprising all of us by the positive side. During the present Sunday, I've been using one of them (the "Ilhéu do Lido") for our daily manoeuvres, in a day that started around 0800 with the berthing of the cruise ship Kristina Katarina and finished with the departure of the same one and the arrival of the Aida Sol.
The Kristina Katarina alongside in Pontinha, Funchal. A former Russian ferry, the ship now operates under Finnish flag and is a living example of the soviet merchant marine constructions of the Cold War Era, during witch the vessels had to serve a dual purpose: working in peace time and at war. For that matter, the vessel is spartan in terms of operation and the bridge is very simple, relying mostly on outdated technical systems that are, nevertheless, fully reliable when facing magnetic or electrical anomalies, consequence of nuclear explosions.

Pilot Card:
Ships name: Kristina Katarina
IMO number: 7625811
Type: Cruise vessel
LOA: 137.10 mts
Beam: 21.00 mts
Summer displacement: 9901 t
Max draft on manoeuvre: 5.90 mts
Propulsion: Two engines - two fixed propellers - Gearbox
Pitch: N/A
Rudder: 2 - Semi-balanced
Bow thruster: 600 Kw
Stern Thruster: 300 Kw

Our new Pilot boat, the "Ilhéu do Lido":

And another photo of her:

General characteristics:
Name: Ilhéu do Lido
LOA: 12.52 mts
Breath: 4.10 mts
Draft: 0.85 mts
Propulsion: 2 IVECO N67 350 HP 3000rpm, 2 fixed propellers
Max. speed: 24 kts
Service speed: 20 kts
Crew: 2 (Pilot boat master and motorman)
Passengers: 4