28 November 2012

Early rising

Returning to work, after a couple of weeks on holidays, I had my first manoeuvre (the M/V Seabourn Quest) at 0600 in the morning.
Since the next vessel (the M/V Aida Bella) would only arrive at 0900, I used the space in-between to take a chance photographing the dawn of the day.
Our signal mast, at the end of the Pontinha breakwater, early in the morning. A reminiscence of older days, when the communications from shore to ship were basically done by visual means, it's now, somehow redundant (to say the least). However, as a former Captain of mine used to say, in my seafaring days, we may loose the ships but let's not loose the traditions.

A vision of Funchal, taken from the Pontinha breakwater, at dawn. More precisely the East part of the town, comprising the Old Town, the Santa Maria Maior church and the S.Tiago fortress, a fortification constructed on the early XVII century.
Both images taken with Nikon D40X and Sigma 18-50mm F/2.8 DC EX HSM lens.
Manfrotto tripod and ball-head. Post-processing in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, version 2.3.

27 November 2012

Portuguese Merchant Marine

Vasco da Gama must be turning over in his tomb, in Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, if he's following what happened to the Merchant Fleet of this so-called "Nation of Seafarers" during the past thirty-five years.
From one of the biggest merchant marines in Europe, during the forties, fifties and sixties, we ended up with a miserable cabotage fleet, comprising a handful of vessels, almost totally dedicated to the public service of supplying the Autonomous Regions of Madeira and Açores.
And I'm sad to see how things also changed so fast (for the worst) during the past two decades. When I entered in the Portuguese Nautical School (Escola Náutica Infante D. Henrique), in 1990, I remember that things were already in a fast decline. I recall that, most of the times, we were discussing among each other the sadness of arriving to a professional market that was already, by the time and in Portugal, anachronic and heading towards collapse.
During those days (and I say again: only twenty-two years ago), I remember that we still had about thirty shipowners and, roughly, seventy ships, most of them still under Portuguese traditional register and flag.
Almost five years later, when I boarded a merchant vessel to start my career at sea, the vast majority of that fleet was gone forever.
It's sad to see that we should, particularly now, be looking once again to our vast Atlantic border as a form of escaping to the economical dramas faced by the continental Europe. Just like we did almost six hundred years ago, when we first noticed that this little parcel of land was to small for our ambition and our entrepreneurial vision.
And the solutions for this are already around us. We just have to look for them, learn with them and adapt them to our particular needs. Like a former Captain of mine used to say, we were not aboard to invent anything. Everything was already invented.
But not in this country. Here, we don't have the humility to learn from those who know better. And some of them, paradoxically, were not even maritime nations two hundred years ago. But they are now. And powerful ones.
The weak government we have nowadays and the corrupt political "nomenklatura" that supports it doesn't have the slightest idea where to lead the nation. Which course to steer.
And I'm starting to get tired of listening, year after year, the empty, ignorant and incongruent speeches of both politicians and academic "summities" praising the benefits of returning to the sea and thus fulfilling our destiny as a nation. Empty words of ignorants that don't have the slightest idea of what kind of sea strategy they are talking about, since, most of the times, they don't even waste their precious time to write their own speeches.
We have a saying in Portugal: a weak King weakens a strong people. Poor people and poor country. Are we really to blame for the incompetents that rule us?
The cabotage boat "Rival", navigating in the waters of Faial, Açores, almost twenty years ago. A sad visual metaphor of the present day's Portuguese Merchant Fleet. A nation whose destiny was, once, the sea.
Picture taken with Pentax SF1 and Pentax - A SMC 70-200 f/4 lens.
Agfachrome 100 RS scanned in Nikon Coolscan V ED and post-processed in Adobe Photoshop LIghtroom.

26 November 2012

Invicta Grand Diver Automatic - An Omega Seamaster look-alike for twenty times less

Searching for some time for an affordable automatic diving watch, I looked over the Internet for cheaper alternatives to the ridiculously expensive Swiss makers and also to the not-exactly-cheap Japanese alternatives (Citizen and Seiko).
Over the past months, while searching on the net for alternatives, there was a company where I've always stepped over: Invicta.
However, many of the negative reviews frightened me to buy one of their products. The fact is Invicta history is a bit nebulous.
Searching the web for information and we can be even more lost: the company is supposed to be an old Swiss watchmaker, founded in La Chaux-de-Founds, in 1837. Over the decades the company lived though several processes of merges and acquisitions and is presently in American hands an now known as Invicta Watch Group, headquartered in Hollywood, Florida.
There is no information on the web that allow us to believe that there is still a manufacturing unit of the company, producing their own timepieces, either in Switzerland or in the United States.
The web, always prolific in information, doesn´t even give us a glimpse of a concrete information about the physical location of this corporation.
Soon I discovered that more than an industry, Invicta is now only a brand. They might idealize the watches, however their manufacture is made somewhere else. The collection is large, with models raging from a few dozen Euros to more than a thousand Dollars. And, within it, we can find all the types of possible configurations: Swiss-made, Swiss movement, japan movement and... probably... Chinese made.
Even within each model there are changes over time. Some batches can come with a non-identifiable machine and others can arrive in the market with a well-known movement. I don't doubt that these changes have the client satisfaction and the technical evolution in mind. However, and due in part to the lack of information coming from the company (their web page is really poor), the consumers don't have time to adjust themselves to the upgrades taking place. Meaning that, sometimes, you might not be buying exactly what you thought in the beginning (more on this later!).
Regardless of those details, the brand is generally assumed as a  collector's starting point to the many watch fans worldwide.
Supported by this assumption, I decided to take a leap of faith on one of their timepieces. The idea was, basically, to buy a simple diving watch. Simple stainless steel design and without any additional complications. Basically, I was looking for a cheap "expensive Swiss look-alike time piece", similar in shape and style to the classic Rolex Submariner or Omega Seamaster, without the disadvantageous prices of these last ones.
I was looking for a big watch, but in the 150 to 200 Euros interval. Invicta has a few models in the collection, with these mentioned characteristics, particularly their "Reserve" collection that go well above the 500 Euros. However, for that price, we have already a few attractive choices along the traditional Swiss watchmakers. This reality already presupposes a difficult dilemma: to buy, for that amount of money, a true Swiss watch (if you are really into it) or, instead, just one trying to resemble one. I guess for most people (myself included) there's no place for conflict in this decision.
Avoiding this trap, my choices in Invicta were reduced to a few models.
Among them, the Invicta Grand Diver Automatic (model 3045) immediately caught my eye. And, frankly, one month after buying it I honestly can say that it's now my favorite watch.
The Invicta Grand Diver Automatic quickly became my favorite watch in my small collection. Powered by a Seiko movement (the NH35A), it's, however a big watch. And heavy one also. So be prepared for it, when you wear it on your wrist. You will notice it. The construction is in stainless steel (case and band) and the watch band has an excellent, machined and solid fold-over clasp with safety lock, quite uncommon for a watch in this price tag (compare it to the lame clasp of the Rolex Submariner, costing forty times more, and you will understand what I mean).
The case has two engravings: on the opposite side  to the screw-down crown the word "Invicta" and on the crown side, in smaller letters, the words "Grand" and "Diver". The clasp has also engraved the Invicta logo and the word "Invicta".
The band is a two-tone stainless steel one, easily adjusted at home with a simple tool kit that you can buy at E-Bay for a few bucks. I've read some remarks on the web regarding loose pins, dropping from the band. I've never (until now) had this problem. The band remains solid. On either side of the case, both band links have a diving helmet engraved in relief. The symbol is similar to the one found on the blue dial and also in the crown. Although I'd much prefer a "cleaner" look, I don't find these engravings conspicuous enough to be un-elegant.
Contrary to the higher-end Invictas (namely their "Reserve" collection), the Grand Diver doesn't look  to be equipped with a Flame-Fusion crystal. It's probably a conventional mineral crystal (it's a flat crystal, not a dome one) with the practical loupe (or magnifier) above the date window.
The heart of this timepiece is a reliable Seiko NH35A twenty-four jewels automatic movement (however I read in the web that previous batches were coming with the Miyota 8215 movement, from Citizen). A skeleton see-through case back allows us to see the interesting mechanism at work.
I've set the watch according to Greenwich Mean Time on the past 04 of November, around 2100. At 2400 of 25 of November (507 hours later - or 21.125 days) I checked once again both times. And noticed that the watch was advanced in relation to GMT a small amount of 7 minutes and 51 seconds (7'51''). This gives a time advance for the machine of roughly 22.295 seconds per day in relation to the atomic time. This is well within the margin defined by the movement maker: -25 to +35 seconds per day (23ºC/+or-2ºC). A friend of mine had bigger accuracy problems with an Omega Seamaster, and it was a 4000 Euros watch. He had to send the watch back for calibration and, after the service done, it remained nowhere near as accurate as this cheap Japanese movement. My Invicta Grand Diver is still on factory calibration.
The watch, presented in its box and bought directly from the Amazon.Co.UK. It's, to me, a mystery how can a watch have a retail price of 545 USD and be sold on the web by a mere 125 UK Pounds. It's probably not for us, humble consumers, to understand.
Meanwhile, I'm keeping on enjoying it. It's the most fun piece of time measuring that I've bought so far.

19 November 2012

Covão da Ametade in Winter time

About twenty years ago, by this time, the highest mountain in Portugal was already covered in white. The first snowfalls were arriving in late October and the temperatures would drop below freezing, only to recover a little Spring warmth late in March.
Those were nice times in Serra da Estrela. We had, basically, a snow covered 2000 Mt's mountain for almost five months per year. And that mountain was our playground. Although with some stormy days every year (it's a mountain, right?), the Serra da Estrela had, generally, a gentle climate, even during the cold season.
So, when the first snows started to paint the mountain in white, we all started to program our weekend "expeditions" to the massif. Suffering in anticipation with the vision of a peaceful white mountain under a blue sky canopy.
And we would spend a few days, sometimes a full week, camped in Covão da Ametade, our small Throne Room of our small Mountain Gods, enjoying mutual camaraderie and making our first attempts in ice climbing.
Those days of youth linked for life a few dozens of persons, commonly bonded by the love for the mountains and for the mountain activities.
The Covão da Ametade, our noble room in Serra da Estrela, was the place where it all happened during those years of curious discovery of the mountain activities for our generation. There we would meet friends that we haven't seen, sometimes, for more than a year. And we would program our daily activities in the massif. At the end of the day, the usual campfires would warm both our camping place and our souls.
The Covão da Ametade and a frozen Zêzere river in the beginning of Winter, nearly twelve years ago.
Picture taken with Nikon F100 and Nikkor 28-105 f/3.5-4.5 AF-D.
Fujichrome Velvia ASA 50 scanned in Nikon Coolscan V ED and post-processed in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.

07 November 2012

Cane sugar mill

Madeira has a secular tradition in the plantation of sugar cane for the purpose of producing white and raw sugar, and also sugar derivatives as bagasse and the famous sugar cane honey used profusely on the island's cuisine.
One of the oldest factories still laboring is located in the village of Calheta, on the South coast. With half-a-century of activity, the Sociedade dos Engenhos da Calheta is, today, a mixture of industrial unit and live museum, with daily visits by the tourists.
Sadly the sugar cane presses no longer operate with steam engines, having being replaced by electric ones a couple of years ago.
Funnels on the cane sugar mill of Calheta, on the South coat of Madeira.
Photo taken with Nikon D40X and cheap Nikkor AF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 G DX VR kit lens.
Post-processing in Adobe Photoshop CS3 and Lightroom.

04 November 2012

Why I want to be a Captain

I found this Xerox copy on the bridge of the M/S Bremen, during her last call in Funchal, about one week ago. I've found it so funny that I've requested a copy to the Staff Captain. I particularly enjoy the part "...and when the propeller falls off they have to know what to do about it.". Hilarious.
Xerox copy scanned in Cannon Canoscan N676U flat scanner and converted to jpeg. Post-processing and resizing in Adobe Photoshop CS3.

03 November 2012

Mafra. A baroque extravaganza.

It's, sometimes, for me hard to understand why do we devote so much time building monuments to our own vanity. But, anyway, the thing that scares us the most (like my fellow colleague :-) Joseph Conrad wisely wrote in Lord Jim) is oblivion. We are scared to death that everybody forgets our microscopic passage through this world as soon as we close our eyes. To avoid that, men built pyramids and palaces. Sometimes we also made wars and created a lot of pain and misery. Very few ascended to the immortality condition with anything related to the mankind well-being.
After visiting the Mafra monastery I'm still in doubt about the group where we should include the King João V, the monarch of the time and the idealist of this barroque extravaganza. Built in a time when the gold from Brasil was arriving to Lisboa in buckets, this was, probably, his signature for posterity.
Strangely, and according to the late great historian José Herman Saraiva, this massive palace (still one of the biggest in the world) was built for nothing, since nobody from the royalty ever lived there. Probably turned down by the sheer size of the palace and its cold emptiness, the royals only visited Mafra for hunting games in the nearby "Tapada".
The palace, also a monastery, remained occupied by the monks until 1834, year when the religious orders were extinct in Portugal.
Nowadays, it's a national monument and also houses the Infantry School of the Portuguese Army.
Probably the most breathtaking division in the monastery, the fabulous library, housing 35000 books, rivals in sheer size and opulence with others built during the Renaissance years all over Europe. According to the Wikipedia, the tv miniseries Gulliver's Travels, from NBC, was shot partially in this amazing Rococo division. You'd have to visit it to understand why.
Handheld photo taken with Nikon D40X and Sigma 10-20mm EX DC HSM f/4-5.6.
Post-processing in Adobe Photoshop CS3.

The Madeira bread soup

Most of the times there is nothing more rewarding, after finishing a levada walk or a hike through the high peaks of Madeira, than a hot meal and a warm bath. However, if you are still away from home and it's already late in the evening, just the hot meal will do. At least it will warm up your stomach and give back some of the energy lost during the day.
This is especially true during the Winter months, when the inclement weather becomes a constant on the mountains and hypothermia is a risk not to be taken lightly.
Most of the times, under these circumstances, dry, solid food is not really something that you are craving for. What we wish, normally, is an easily digested food with lots of nutrients to compensate our day losses. And warm. Hence... liquids. A tea is very good for this, escorted with a few crackers or a toast. However, if you are feeling homy, there is nothing better than a soup to feed and relax you at the same time. So, while you wait, late in the afternoon, for your connecting bus to Funchal, just enter in the nearest restaurant and ask for the Madeira bread soup.
This typical meal of Madeira is, somehow, a sub specie in a vast family of Portuguese bread soups (açordas, in Portuguese). They all have in common the fact that they are, in a certain way, cheap to be made. They surely were invented in a time when people were poor and didn't had the resources to buy all the culinary items that, today, we take for granted. Therefore their base is quite simple: it consists of bread cubes and boiled water over it. Without forgetting the Portuguese olive oil. The subsequent diversity just depends of how rich you store room is. You just add the ingredients and culinary herbs that you have at hand, at your heart's content. Depending of your technical expertise you can go from a simple Madeira garlic bread soup to a high-tech (and delicious, by the way) Açorda de Camarão (a shrimp bread soup, but more consistent... more solid).
Just try the simpler one, while in vacations among us. After a day's walk, I'll promise you it will taste like Heaven.
The Madeira bread soup, as served in Casa de Chá da Ponta do Pargo (Ponta do Pargo tea house), on the West coast of the island, some weeks ago. To the best of my knowledge, this soup consists of bread, in slices or in cubes, olive oil, salt, pepper, a boiled egg, segurelha (satureja montana), garlic, hortelã (mentha spicata), chili pepper and... hot water.

02 November 2012

An endless week

My God. It's finally Friday night. We are fully in the cruise season and this week was, to say the least, frantic. Cruise ships all over the port. Waking up between four and five A.M. and never ending the day before twenty-two hundred. And the weather was not helping. Under the effects of a low pressure for almost a full week, we were having, during the same period, the usual Southwesterlies so common in Madeira, during Winter time.
Spoiled by the past two years of impeccable weather, I'm finding myself with difficulties in adapting the body to work under these more rough circumstances. Particularly funny are the boarding and disembarking moments, with five meter swell and forty-five knots winds.
Oh well... like we, cynically, say, if this life was always sunshine and roses it definitely wouldn't be for us.
The Finnish cruise vessel Kristina Katarina leaving the port of Funchal and heading to La Palma during the present day's rainy afternoon.