Wednesday, 29 December 2010

I have been to …. Madeira and the Canary Islands

There may be some of my regular blog readers who are wondering why my wife and I have been on a cruise whilst my father is still in hospital after the recent decline in his health. The decision to go was not an easy one to make, but after discussing it at some length with my family, we all felt that it was pointless not to go.

Firstly, if we cancelled this late, we would lose all the money we had paid as our insurance policy does not cover us for cancellation due to the serious illness of a relative. Secondly, my father’s condition means that for a significant part of the time he has little or no memory of the people who visit him, and the rest of the family felt that my not visiting for a couple of weeks would not distress him. Finally, the process of moving him from hospital to some form of residential care was already well underway. During the week before we left, my brother and I – and our wives – had already made a short-list of suitable residential care homes. The top two on the list had been visited, and a decision as to which we would select had been made. When we left for the cruise, it was very likely that my father would be placed in his new ‘home’ by Christmas, and that being there – in a calm and caring environment where his carers were specialists in dealing with people suffering from dementia – his condition might stabilise rather than continue to deteriorate.

Thanks to the miracle of modern electronic communications, it was possible for me to be involved with what was happening almost as well as if I had remained at home. In addition, the cruise has enabled my wife and me to ‘recharge our batteries’ after what has been a very testing and exhausting few weeks.

Friday 17th December: Southampton
With the threat of bad weather hanging over us, we set off for Southampton at 9.00am. The car already had a dusting of snow on the roof and bonnet (hood if you are reading this in the USA), and there had been predictions of snowfall affecting part of the route we had to take during the day. As it turned out, we saw a few flurries of snow as we drove into the dock area of Southampton, but this melted almost as soon as it touched the ground.

The procedure for booking our car into the valet car park only took a few minutes, and our luggage was whisked away by a porter as this was happening. We went straight to the embarkation check-in, and were safe aboard ship – MV Oriana – within twenty minutes of driving into the cruise terminal.

After unpacking and taking part in the obligatory safety drill, we went on deck for ‘sail away’. Usually this involves drinking a glass or two of champagne as well sail away from the quayside to the sound of a brass band. On this occasion we drank mulled wine and listened to a local children’s choir singing Christmas carols. Because it was dark – we sailed at just after 5.00pm – there was not a lot to see … which was just as well as it was getting very cold and the mulled wine was only just keeping us from freezing. We went below to get warm, and after a hot shower, a couple of drinks, and a very pleasant evening meal, we had an early night.

Saturday 18th December: At sea
During the night the seas had got up, and by morning we had rounded Ushant and were on our way across the Bay of Biscay. As one would expect at this time of year, the seas were a little ‘lively’ and my wife and I spent the morning sitting, reading, and writing our respective cruise log/blog. I also spent some time comparing Richard Borg’s games designs with those of Joseph Morschauser … and noticed some very interesting similarities.

At about midday, the weather began to improve slightly and although there was still some movement, it was less pronounced than during the morning. In addition, it was noticeably warmer, and it was quite pleasant to be able to sit in a sheltered position in the open air on deck. This gave me the opportunity to start reading the copy of FUNNY LITTLE WARS that had been lent to me by Tim Gow, and it soon struck me how much fun the people who wargame using these rules seem to have … and how appealing such games are.

As it was the first full day at sea, the evening was dominated by the first formal occasion of the cruise, the Captain’s Cocktail Party. Suitably ‘suited and booted’ passengers congregated in one or other of the main lounges before dinner, where free drinks and canapés were available. The Captain – in this case Captain Ian Hutley – made the usual speech of welcome. According to tradition, this included a comment about the passengers being responsible for the weather whilst the Captain was responsible for getting the ship to the right ports in the right order. Having sailed with Captain Hutley before, I knew that the latter is not always as easy as it sounds. He reinforced this view when he announced that the winds at Funchal, Madeira – our first port of call – were currently too high for the ship to enter the harbour safely, and that he would let us know more about the situation tomorrow.

Sunday 19th December: At sea
The weather became somewhat calmer and warmer as the morning went on, and the news of the amount of disruption caused by snow and ice in the UK made us realise how lucky we were to sail when we did. If we had been trying to get to Southampton on Saturday rather than Friday, we would probably not have made it.

During the morning I spent some more time comparing the wargames designs of Richard Borg and Joseph Morschauser, and I came to the conclusion that either Richard Borg had read – and possibly even used – some of Morschauser’s wargames rules in the past, and that they had influenced his design philosophy or both men developed similar design philosophies and arrived at similar conclusions as to how to solve certain design problems. Whichever was the case, I found that the wargames rules designed by both to be very much to my liking, and I began to develop a new set of ‘modern’ rules that was based on what I considered to be the best elements of the work of both designers.

I managed to make significant progress on the new set of ‘modern’ wargames rules during the afternoon, as well as finishing FUNNY LITTLE WARS. As a result I was convinced that my decision to involve myself in large figure wargaming was a good one, and I looked forward to getting back home and starting to collect the figures I needed.

Monday 20th December: Madeira
We awoke at about 8.00am to find ourselves sailing past one of Madeira’s smaller outlying islands. The weather had become warmer, but the winds were still high, and at 10.45am the Captain announced that there was still a strong chance that we would not be able to land.

When the ship approached Madeira, it was very obvious that getting into the harbour at Funchal was going to be very difficult. The MV Thomson Spirit had sailed in ahead of us, and she had broken the towing line to the tug that was assisting her during docking. At about 11.00am, Captain Hutley attempted to steer the ship into the harbour, but just a few hundred yards short of the entrance he was forced to veer off to port and turn around for a second attempt. This attempt also failed, and a third attempt was made. The wind dropped just enough to make it safe for the ship to enter the harbour and moor alongside the cruise terminal, just behind the MV Thomson Spirit and across the harbour from the MV Aida Blu.

Waves breaking on the Funchal seafront.
This picture shows how high some of the waves were when they broke against the Funchal seafront.
The MV Aida Blue moored alongside the quayside at Funchal.
We disembarked soon after we were alongside, and spent a very pleasant few hours wandering around the streets of Funchal. After a meal in a local restaurant – which was opposite a bust of Józef Pilsuski, the Polish patriot – we continued our walk around the town, and my wife managed to buy a few souvenirs and postcards before we returned aboard in time for afternoon tea.

The bust of Józef Pilsuski. He was a Marshal of the Polish Army as well as being President and Head of State. He lived in Madeira from December 1930 to March 1931.
MV Oriana as seen from the Funchal seafront.
We watched the MV Aida Blu leave at about 5.00pm, and her departure showed that the effect of the heavy seas and strong winds had abated somewhat.

MV Aida Blu leaving Funchal harbour. Her bows are digging in to the waves as she moves towards the open sea.
MV Oriana let go her mooring lines at approximately 6.00pm, and within thirty minutes we were well on our way out to sea. The sea remained quite rough for most of the night, and at times there was considerable movement as a result of the wind and the waves.

During the evening I received a text from my brother that informed me that my father was going to be assessed for a place in a residential care home on Wednesday, and that my father had indicated that he was looking forward to leaving hospital and going somewhere where he could be more comfortable.

Tuesday 21st December: La Palma
The weather only seemed to abate as we arrived in Santa Cruz de La Palma, the main town and port of the island of La Palma. We were alongside and moored by just after 8.00am, and by 8.30am it was possible to go ashore.

For once we did not bother with the free shuttle bus to the centre of town as it was only 800m from where the ship was moored, to the dock gates. On our way along the dock we had to walk past the MV Aida Blu, which had followed us into port even though they had left Funchal, Madeira before us.

We had a pleasant wander through the town, but this did not take very long as it is quite a small place. A little ‘retail therapy’ took place, and my wife bought me two ‘Palestinians’. These are what the locals call the type of scarves that were worn as a headdress by people like Yasser Arafat, and she thought that I would find them useful if the weather in the UK continued to be cold for the foreseeable future.

During the afternoon I carried on working on the first draft of MEMOIR OF MODERN BATTLE (the working title for my latest set of ‘modern’ wargames rules). Although the process of melding the work of Richard Borg and Joseph Morschauser together was time consuming, it was not a tedious task.

We sailed for Tenerife at 6.00pm, and passed through some rough weather during the night. Despite this, it was warm enough for use to be able to sit on deck after our evening meal. That evening I also restarted reading ANDEAN TRAGEDY, William F Slater’s book about the War of the Pacific. I began reading this book before leaving the UK, and packed it with the intention of finishing it during the cruise.

Wednesday 22nd December: Tenerife
We docked in the harbour of Santa Cruz de Tenerife – the capital of the island of Tenerife – at 8.00am, and after a leisurely breakfast my wife and I went ashore for a walk. The pedestrian exit from the port is in one corner of the Plaza d’España, and the square is dominated by a monument to the fallen of the Spanish Civil War.

The monument to the fallen of the Spanish Civil War in the Plaza d’España, Santa Cruz de Tenerife.
One of the panels on the plinth of the monument to the fallen of the Spanish Civil War in the Plaza d’España, Santa Cruz de Tenerife. The panel depicts several different types of Spanish Civil War combatants.
From the Plaza d’España, we made our way to the central market, and thence on to the main shopping area in the centre of Santa Cruz. After a much needed drink in a café, we continued our walk through the city and, by chance, we came upon a shop – Armasport SA – selling various items of militaria as well as Airsoft equipment. I resisted the temptation to buy a very reasonably priced AEG Airsoft pistol (the problems of getting it back aboard ship and through customs in the UK would have been almost insurmountable) and some beautifully painted – but expensive – 54mm figures, but I did buy a very nice lapel badge that depicted a Heckler and Koch MP5.

After a light lunch in yet another café, we returned to MV Oriana during the afternoon, and this gave me the opportunity to photograph an old ship that was moored nearby. The ship was named La Palma, and was formerly used as an inter-island passenger/cargo ship.

The inter-island passenger/cargo ship, La Palma. Ships of this type were used all over the world during the first half of the twentieth century to carry mixed cargos of passengers and goods over relatively short distances.
During the afternoon I continued work on my latest Borg/Morschauser hybrid ‘modern’ wargames rules, and I was pleased with the progress I had made. With luck, I will have finished the first draft of these rules by the time we return to the UK.

At 6.00pm Captain Hutley announced that there was an outbreak of Norovirus aboard, and that an even more stringent hygiene regime would be in place in order to contain the outbreak. This required us to wash our hands every time we touched anything that might be contaminated, and to use hand sanitizer gels and sprays when entering areas where food and drink were served. Having suffered from this virus some years ago, I know how distressing and unpleasant it can be if it one catches it, and so my wife and I follow this sort of hygiene regime anyway every time we are on a cruise in the hope that it might just prevent us from becoming infected.

I also received a text from my brother regarding my father’s assessment for a place in a residential care home. The care home has agreed to take him, and he will be taken there directly from hospital tomorrow. We were advised that we should not visit him until after Christmas to allow him time to settle in … which I suppose, in some small way, vindicates our decision to go on the cruise.

Because the distance from Tenerife to Gran Canaria is relatively short, we did not sail from Santa Cruz until 10.30pm. The seas were not as rough as they had been on previous nights, and the passage to Gran Canaria was a reasonably gentle one.

Thursday 23rd December: Gran Canaria
We arrived in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria – the capital and main port of the island of Gran Canaria – on time and tied up alongside at almost exactly 8.00pm. The quay MV Oriana was moored at was in the middle of the harbour and next to the island’s naval base.

The Spanish Navy’s base on Gran Canaria. There were several patrol vessels moored alongside.
There were three different classes of patrol vessel. These included the SPS Centinela of the Serviola class …

The patrol vessel SPS Centinela (P72).
Another view of the SPS Centinela (P72).
… three vessels of the Anaga class …

The SPS Grosa (P25).
The SPS Tagomago (P22) [on the left] and SPS Medas (P26) [on the right].
… and two former frigates of the Descubierta class.

The SPS Vencedora (P79).
The SPS Cazadora (P78).
We went ashore just before 10.00am, and spent several hours just wandering around the centre of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. Besides the usual ‘retail therapy’ that forms an essential part of our visits to foreign ports, we had a light lunch and drink in a local restaurant.

On our return to the ship, I spent an hour finishing the first draft of my new Borg/Morschauser hybrid ‘modern’ wargames rules. I thought that the way I had laid out this draft was an improvement on that I had used for MEMOIR OF BATTLE, and I decided to revise the latter so that it used this improved layout.

At 5.30pm Captain Hutley announced that we were ready to sail the 120 miles to Arrecife in Lanzarote, and we cast off soon afterwards.

Friday 24th December: Lanzarote
The passage from Tenerife to Lanzarote was marked by some rough weather, but this did not delay the ship and she was moored alongside in Arrecife – the main town and port of Lanzarote – before 8.00am.

As usual, we went ashore after breakfast, and the shuttle bus took us from the ship to the edge of the town. On our way we passed the Castillo San Gabriel, one of the two forts that were built to defend Arrecife from attack.

The Castillo San Gabriel.
A short walk from the bus drop-off point took us to the other of Arrecife’s forts, the Castillo San José.

The Castillo San José.
The entrance to the Castillo San José. It is ‘guarded’ by two large Spanish nineteenth century heavy howitzers.
The Castillo San José has been restored, and is now used as a museum of contemporary art. It was not open when we arrived – its opening hours are 11.00am to 9.00pm every day except Sundays and Bank Holidays – and we moved on the centre of Arrecife, after first looking at the two Spanish-built nineteenth century heavy howitzers that ‘guard’ the entrance to the Castillo.

A close up of the two Spanish nineteenth century heavy howitzers that ‘guard’ the entrance to the Castillo San José.
After some of our habitual ‘retail therapy’, we stopped for a drink and a snack at one of the many cafés in Arrecife. The one we chose was the Café Gernika, and I indulged myself with a typical Spanish morning snack of churros (a type of thin, sugar-covered, twisted doughnut) and hot chocolate. We then did some more shopping before returning to the ship.

After lunch we went on deck to have a long, lingering drink in the sun before the much-trumpeted arrival of Santa Claus. As is the custom, he appeared at the top of the ship’s funnel before descending to the deck for a quick chat with the Cruise Director. A short carol concert followed, and we then went below to prepare for the evening’s entertainment.

After dinner we went to that evening’s show in the theatre. As you would expect, it had a seasonal flavour and began with a sing-along that featured traditional songs, including ‘Tipperary’, ‘Pack up my troubles’, ‘The Lambeth Walk’, ‘Bubbles’, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, and ‘Rule Britannia’.

Saturday 25th December: At sea
The day began just like any other on the cruise. Breakfast was a combination of fruit juices, cereals, yoghurts, fruit, various cooked dishes, and toast, all washed down with tea or coffee.

After we had opened our Christmas presents (small ones, as we were somewhat restricted as to what we could take on board), we spent the morning relaxing in one of the larger lounges. I read A SIMPLES LIFE: MY LIFE AND TIMES by Aleksandr Orlov (this was a surprise present from my wife, who knows how much I like the adverts for that use this character). I also did some work on the revised layout for MEMOIR OF BATTLE.

Lunch was not particularly festive, and the afternoon was taken up with more reading and word processing before we prepared for the day’s main event … the formal Christmas Dinner. We had a pre-dinner glass of champagne before going in to the restaurant for what was by far the best meal we have had this cruise. I had the traditional turkey with all the trimmings for my main course whilst my wife had lemon sole, and this was washed down with a very nice bottle of Chablis.

After dinner we went to the special show by ‘The Drifters’ that was put on in the ship’s theatre. They were supposed to do a 45 minute-long ‘set’, but stayed on stage for nearly twice that long, performing all their famous hits as well as cover versions of some well-known Motown numbers. We finally made it to bed just after midnight, after hearing that the Australians had been put into bat first on the first day of the Fourth Ashes Test Match.

Sunday 26th December: At sea
The news that the Australians had been bowled out for 98, and that England had so far scored 157 in their first innings meant that the day started on a high. As the morning progressed, we spent our time relaxing reading and generally doing as little as possible. The weather had become noticeably colder – and slightly rougher – over the past twenty four hours, and we only spent a fairly short time on deck before repairing to one of the ship’s lounges.

We then attended a special luncheon for Gold tier members of the Portunous Club. This is P & O’s loyalty scheme for repeat travellers, and besides special cruise offers, a 10% discount on all onboard purchases, and regular updates, we receive a present every time we cruise with P & O and have the opportunity to have a special lunch with the ship’s officers during the cruise.

Before our third formal dinner of the cruise, we also attended the Portunous Club party. This is hosted by the Club’s Loyalty Manager, and besides free drinks and canapés, every member’s name is put into a draw for a special prize. This is usually a bottle of vintage champagne and four champagne glasses, but this time the prize was a Dartington Crystal wine decanter. Needless to say, we did not win it!

After dinner the weather began to worsen, the temperature began to drop, the wind speed increased, and the seas became rougher. The forecast on the ship’s internal television service indicated that this worsening weather was very likely to continue tomorrow.

Monday 27th December: At sea
This was our last full day at sea … and yesterday’s forecast that the weather would get worse was right. We spent most of the day sailing though fog and rain, with Force 7 winds (which occasionally gusted up to Force 8) whipping up the waves so that the troughs were an average of 3.5m. As a result the ship was both rolling and pitching at the same time, and many passengers sought refuge in their cabins. As a result, some of the public areas were very empty and quiet.

I attended a get together for members of the international charitable organisation of which I am an active participant, and besides having a very interesting chat we raised over £100 for the ‘Help for Heroes’ campaign.

After a light lunch, we began the rather irksome task of packing our luggage. This is always a part of the holiday that neither of us likes, as it is a physical indication that our holiday is almost over. Most of the suitcases and bags were full and placed outside our cabin for collection by teatime, and after tea I found enough time to finish reading ANDEAN TRAGEDY.

I am firmly convinced that the War of the Pacific is eminently wargameable. None of the battles were huge, and therefore could be fought out on a reasonably sized wargames table. Likewise, the armies were mainly uniformed in the prevailing styles of the period – French and German (with a touch of Spanish, United States Civil War, and Andean Indian) – and would be fairly easy to reproduce … even in 54mm for FUNNY LITTLE WARS.

I also spent some time making a few revisions to my Borg/Morschauser hybrid MEMOIR OF MODERN BATTLE wargames rules. Because I had not looked at them for a few days, revisiting these rules today made me realise that I had made several minor errors (mainly things that were apparent contradictions or were in need of clarification).

After dinner we made our farewells to the excellent restaurant waiters who had served us during our cruise and to our very helpful and attentive cabin steward. The weather had abated slightly by the time we went to bed, and the forecast for the UK indicated that our journey home was not likely to be disrupted by too much poor weather.

Tuesday 28th December: Southampton
By the time we awoke at 6.30am, it was obvious that the ship had been moored alongside for some time. After packing our hand luggage, we went to breakfast, after which we picked up our bits and pieces from our cabin and said a final farewell to our cabin steward.

By 9.00am we were ashore, had picked up our luggage, packed it into the car, and were driving out of the car park. Despite some fog on the roads, we were home in less than three hours.

Almost as soon as I had unpacked the car, I telephoned my brother. He was actually on his way to see my father for the first time since the latter had taken up residence in his new ‘home’. On the advice of the residential home, my father had had no visitors over Christmas in order to help him settle in, and this was the first time anyone would have had a chance to see him.

My brother and his wife spent over two hours with my father, and it appears that the move has had a positive impact upon him. He is still confused for a lot of the time, and keeps asking when he can go home, but he is much less anxious and is sleeping better. He also seems to be responding to the more stimulating environment of being with other people.

I hope to visit him in the very near future, but will be advised by my father’s carers as to when such a visit would be appropriate as my wife and I do not want to disrupt the settling-in process.

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