Sunday, 31 July 2011

Reasons for not using Condor Ferries...

We are, as is well known, an island race with a strong maritime history.  It is no surprise, therefore, that even now that cheap flights and fast Eurostar trains are available, there are still a wide range of ferry services available to let us cross the Channel and visit our nearest neighbour.

We just did exactly that - the (extended) Patently family crossed from Poole to Cherbourg and back in order to spend a week in Normandy (before you ask, yes, the tapestry is worth visiting).  We booked a ferry crossing simply because the detour to Folkestone and Calais would have meant that driving via the Tunnel would have taken just as long; with no real difference in the total journey time, we reasoned that it was better to sit on the ferry and relax than have to drive all that way.  We booked the crossings simply on the basis of what was available at what time, so that we could choose a convenient crossing time.  There were, after all, four children in the party so convenience scored highly.

Without really realising, therefore, I ended up with a very good comparison between the three ways of crossing the Channel.  I have used the Tunnel several times before, and am a definite fan provided it fits the intended route well enough.  Our trip out (Poole to Cherbourg) was via a traditional roll-on-roll-off ferry, the Barfleur (operated by Brittany Ferries):

Our return was via a different ship, the Normandie Vitesse, operated by Condor Ferries but bookable via Brittany Ferries:

As the name suggests, the Normandie Vitesse is seriously quick - 40mph was quoted to me.  Unlike the Barfleur, it is a fast catamaran built to go quickly, at the price of carrying a smaller number of passengers and cars.  The reasoning, presumably, is that we will pay more to get across the Channel in two and a half hours than we will to cross in four and a half.  All other things being equal, I would say that is right.

All other things are very definitely not equal, however.  You see, there are ways in which Newton's third law applies to all things.  For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  You have to spend longer on the Barfleur, so they make the accommodation much nicer.  Comfier seats, more room to walk around, a nicer restaurant, more to do on board.  The Normandie Vitesse, suffering from the design compromises inherent in the catamaran style of hull that allow its speed, has only a small cabin which is busy, noisy, and somewhat cramped.  There is no deck to walk on, only two small viewing platforms directly above the engines.  But all of that is ok, because it is so quick, right?

Wrong.  Take a close look at the picture above.  Tell me where, on that hull, there is an exit for vehicles at the front as there is on the Barfleur.

If you're having difficulty finding it, that's because there isn't one.  There can't be; the hull shape dictates this.  The only entrances for vehicles are at the back.  This means that cars have to drive in via the same exits that they will use in order to leave at the end of the journey.

Also, look at the shape of the hull.  Deep gashes on the underside define the catamaran shape, and eliminate most of the interior space.  The car deck is therefore in the style of a multi-storey carpark.  You drive in, you are guided by staff into a space, and at the end of the trip they guide you out of your space and off the ferry.  In theory.

In practice, our experience was a little different.  The ferry arrived at the port half an hour late, by which time the staff were obviously under pressure to turn the ship round quickly, and a bit stressed as a result.  It then took an inordinately long time to unload the cars, for reasons we could not understand (but soon would).  Then, loading started with the taller vehicles first.  My 5-series was left until later, being of only normal height.  When we were called, the lower deck was full on one side, leaving the other side as a route through to the ramps leading to the upper decks.  With tight clearances, I had to reverse back and forth in order to get round the corners demanded of me in order to spiral up through what I can only describe as the multi-storey carpark from hell - until at the top of the last ramp, we met a solid bulkhead.  Here, we were guided into spaces marginally larger than the car itself, and asked to leave the car deck for the cabin.  All around us, cars were still being guided into equally small spaces.  Our children are old enough to be sensible, but I noticed many stressed parents trying to prevent their children from being squished.  One parent was evidently saved that concern, albeit by having a car parked so close to hers that it was physically impossible to remove the infant from its seat via the door.  I don't know how that one was solved.

Walking to exit, I noticed that there were no markers as to where in the car deck we were.  No sign explained what level we were on, or which zone we were in - standard practice in pretty well every other ferry and every large car park that I have visited.

We settled down into our reserved seats for the journey.  That turned out to have been a waste of money; there were enough seats for everyone (despite the car deck being at capacity), and the non-reserved seats were actually cleaner and more comfortable than the reserved seats.  However, I had the advantage of a seat at the very rear, from which I could see the remaining cars being loaded.  An increasingly stressed member of staff was guiding the last few cars onto the ship in reverse, along a ramp that had a bend in the middle, into the cramped car deck.  Now, I am a pretty confident driver but that gave me the heebie-jeebies, partly because of the sheer challenge involved and partly because the over-stressed "guide" in a high-vis vest was shouting at the driver, banging on his bonnet, and generally distracting the driver so as to make it even harder.

Nor had our relatives (with whom we had been holidaying) fared any better.  My mother-in-law was shouted at because she ignored the instruction to get out of the car so that her husband could park it sufficiently close to the bulkhead.  This upset her a little, not least because the initial request had been utterly drowned out by the noise within the cardeck of the marine engines, air-conditioning, and 199 other cars being driven past into their inch-tight spaces.  The first she knew of the need to get out was Mr Irritable and his shouting.

Anyway, the journey across the Channel was uneventful, and as Poole approached we were asked to return to our cars.  This proved a challenge; with many other families trying to find their cars in the unmarked decks, a full search of all the (unmarked) levels proved harder than expected.  However, eventually we found ours and I helped the children and Mrs P into their seats.  I walked round to my door, to find this:

I had indeed lost some weight while on holiday (despite the French food), mainly due to the extra activity as compared to office life.  However, much as I appreciate the implicit compliment offered by the ferry staff, I am in fact still incapable of passing through a door that cannot open more that about an inch.  Nor could the passengers trying to get into the car next to me; at least I could ask Mrs P to get out to allow me in via the nearside.  Recent practice in the art of in-car gymnastics enabled me to get to the driver's seat without injury.  No such luck for those hoping to get into the other car, they had to wait until others had been moved.

Staff turned up to help us reverse out back to the ramps so that we could leave.  Mr Stressy was there; I thank my lucky stars that I was helped out by a colleague of his, as I watched him shout, gesticulate, and generally do his best to unsettle and distract the driver who was evidently (and sensibly) ignoring him.  Given the time needed to find cars, the packed state of the cardeck, the tight tolerances involved, the need to wait until people could actually get into their cars to move them, the complex route required, and the many tight turns involved, this took a long time.  We realised why unloading had been so slow when the ship first arrived.

As we left, we passed two cars being photographed by ship staff to evidence the damage done to them while on board.  I don't know how common that is, but I have not seen it happen on any other ferry.

Overall, then, the selling point of a Condor ferry is speed - about two hours faster than the Barfleur.  However, we were an hour late by the time we arrived at Poole, and took a further long period of time to disembark.  By the time you add in the stress involved in loading and unloading, and the very obvious risk of damage, it is not worth it.  And worse, these delays meant the kennel had closed by the time we arrived home, so we had to spend an extra night without Shadow:

Sad dog is missing you

My advice?  If you want a fast crossing, use the Tunnel.  If you need to go by sea, relax and take your time.  Don't use a "high speed" ferry.

Note: this post is based purely on my experience yesterday, and may not be representative.  I will not be using a Condor ferry again, but if you are a foot passenger, driving a tall vehicle (which will be first on, first off, and on the lower deck), or on a pushbike or motorbike then you may find that it suits you better than it did me.  If Brittany Ferries or Condor Ferries would like to respond to this post then they can email me at the address in the sidebar and I will be more than happy to print their response.

Update: @AlJahom has had better experiences on Condor Ferries, but Hugh Miller  had a similar one on the Stranraer to Belfast catamaran...

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Caterham build - time lapse

I'm very much liking this video at the moment, sadly one that does not allow embedding.  The reasons will be obvious, I imagine...

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

A Spartan Weekend

Last Sunday, Mr Clarkson gave us his thoughts on the new 2011-model Nissan GTR. It is loaded with every bit of technology available to sport-cars manufacturers, built to the finest level of precision that is currently possible, and the result is a car which comprehensively outperforms supercars that are two to three times the price. Clarkson loved it. He loved its ability to produce stupendous performance, enough to drag his (albeit somewhat flabby) features off to one side of his face as it drove him round corners and impossible speeds, inflicting impossible levels of g-force, faithfully monitored by the on-board g-trace screen.

I would hate it. OK, if you offer me a test drive, I'll gladly take it and I'll have fun for a few hours. But there's no way I'll buy one.  There's no way I'll want one for keeps.

Why? The hint is in my first paragraph. The GTR drove Clarkson round the corners. Not the other way round. Now, Clarkson is a skilled driver (whatever you think of him), and so he should be - he's had enough practice by now. But he didn't need that skill. He just needed to turn the wheel and the car did it for him. Then the car produced a wiggly line on a computer monitor for him, so that he could see how well the car was doing.

But, it strikes me that if you're really concentrating on driving a car to its limit, you won't have time to look at a monitor on the dashboard. So if there is a monitor to tell you your g-trace, that tells you that you're not the one doing the work. You weren't the one with the skill. You aren't the one that should be proud of a lap-time. If I may be crude and Clarksonian for a moment, it would be like being proud that your wife is satisfied because you were the one that bought the massive vibrator and held it there for her.

I know this because last weekend I borrowed a proper sports car.  One that is not provided with electronickery to do all the work for you.  One that just has what it needs - a chassis, an engine, steering, and brakes.  There you go, say its makers, now get on with driving it.  What was it?  Well, it was a Caterham:

I know Caterham don't have many models, but let's be specific and say that it is a 7:

In particular, a Caterham 7 Roadsport:

No, not the SV, I may be middle-aged but I can still fit in a standard 7, thank you.  That is, of course, the first line of thought that strikes you when you first encounter a 7 - isn't it tiny! Will I fit in?  And if I do fit in, how exactly am I going to get into it?  (Only later do you start to wonder how you are going to get out.)

But that is the 7's hidden advantage.  It is tiny, therefore it is light, therefore it is fantastic to drive.  Also, that is the one way in which it is practical - it could (for example) be squeezed into a garage that already had one proper car and the garage-clutter of a family of four:

Who are you looking at?

Just squeeze into this half-space, here...

To illustrate my point about the equipment levels, this 7 was fully loaded with all the options.  Yes, this one had a roof!  In its own bag - look:

The interior is spartan, bereft of fripperies.  But there is nothing that you really, really need in order to drive the car that is absent:

The interior is, err, snug:

but has all it needs to keep you there:

BMW would call this interior "Piano Black", and they would hide the rivets.  But that would just make it pretentious and slower.  And why do you need anything more secure for the door than a leather strap with a popper?  After all, it's not as if there's any room in there to leave anything valuable behind...

Yet I loved it, and I loved the aesthetics.

and, joy of joys, it has a big red button which you press to start it:

Who could fail to love a machine with a big red starter button?

Monday, 11 July 2011

Orwell would be proud.

Public spending is rising, but the BBC news tells us about the Tory Cuts.

I'll say that again.  Public spending is rising, but the discussion is about the awful awful nasty "cuts" that the nasty Tories are forcing on us.

Presumably, to "cut" is now defined as "to not increase an amount by as much as someone would like you to".  In which case, I shall advertise far and wide to potential clients of the cuts I am making to my charging rates.

Appearances can be deceptive

An excellent post here by OscarIndia.  Do go and read it.

It struck me as a poignant tale.  Bill is a retired RAF veteran, and took great care to manipulate his superficial appearance after being shot down.   This was successful in ensuring that the right assumptions were made about him, enabling him to avoid capture after being shot down.  Now., though, he is suffering from assumptions being made about him... as a result of his current superficial appearance.

Friday, 8 July 2011

With apologies to my readers in France...

...but this is too good not to post:

A U.S. Navy Admiral was attending a naval conference that included Admirals from the US, British, Canadian, Australian and French Navies. At a cocktail reception, he found himself standing with a large group of officers that included personnel from most of those countries. Everyone was chatting away in English as they sipped their drinks, but a French admiral suddenly complained that, whereas Europeans learn many languages, Americans learn only English. He then asked, 'Why is it that we always have to speak English in these conferences rather than speaking French?'

Without hesitating, the American Admiral replied, 'Maybe it's because the Brits, Canadians, Aussies and Americans arranged it so you wouldn't have to speak German.'

You could have heard a pin drop.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Compare and Contrast

First, let's look at this article.
Freedom of information laws are being misused to harass scientists and should be re-examined by the government, according to the president of the Royal Society.

Nobel laureate Sir Paul Nurse told the Guardian that some climate scientists were being targeted by organised campaigns of requests for data and other research materials, aimed at intimidating them and slowing down research. He said the behaviour was turning freedom of information laws into a way to intimidate some scientists.
A clear message; the climate scientists do not like FOI requests, and see them as an unwarranted intrusion into their affairs; one that should be limited.  That caught my eye immediately, in a scientific context.

At first sight, this seems a reasonable request by them.  They have work to do, and they are being held up in that work by a torrent of incoming demands that they catalogue and release their information - worse, they need to release the information to bodies that are obviously critical of them and wish to use the information to pick their work apart.  Surely this is wrong?  Surely this is a waste, a diversion of scientific effort?

Well, let's see the contrary view, amusingly enough courtesy of exactly the same media organisation:
An Oxford academic has won the right to read previously secret data on climate change held by the University of East Anglia (UEA). The decision, by the government's information commissioner, Christopher Graham, is being hailed as a landmark ruling that will mean that thousands of British researchers are required to share their data with the public.
Why is this a landmark?
Critics of the UEA's scientists say an independent analysis of the temperature data may reveal that Phil Jones and his colleagues have misinterpreted the evidence of global warming. They may have failed to allow for local temperature influences, such as the growth of cities close to many of the thermometers.
And there, in a nutshell, is the basic point of science.  You don't just publish your findings, your conclusions, your recommendations for policy. You publish your data.  All of it.  All the data that you relied on in reaching your conclusions, and (in fact) all of the data that you discarded or disregarded because you thought it was flawed, false or irrelevant.  You do it for one, simple, reason.  There might be someone else out there who knows better than you.  Someone who spots something you didn't.

That is how science works.  The climate scientists at UEA don't understand that.  They don't understand how science works.  Their view is that a basic scientific norm should not apply to them.

Remember that.


I hear that there is an impending famine in the Horn of Africa.  Again.

Now, this has been happening on a regular basis for about as long as I can remember.  One of my earliest memories in the field of international affairs was the 1984 famine in Ethiopia, and the resulting outcry that gave us Band Aid, Live Aid, Comic Relief, and the general trend for singers to become humanitarian emblems.

Given the regularity of these events, and their appalling effects in terms of both human life and social impact, are we not better to try and deal with the underlying problem, rather than the symptom?

(Note: this is a subject that I genuinely know virtually nothing about.  Hence, the question is of enquiring in nature, not a rhetorical)