*Blissful, Briny, Blue Seas

Cargo containers  were a disruptive technology in the 1960’s. They transformed shipping as much as the conversion of sail to steam did in the previous century.

80% of the goods we now consume come to us on cargo ships from one point in the globe or another. Yet, not many of us appreciate our reliance on these ships. An even smaller number earn a living on them as seafarers.

I sailed on a cargo freighter, the “Vera D” as a passenger. The ship and crew of 20 delivers containers between Europe, Canada and Cuba.

A container is being loaded onto a container ship
Loading containers onto the freighter, “Vera D”. The view from my porthole window.

I wanted to take a freighter to reduce my trip’s contribution to climate change. When I flew to Europe, my portion of the flight was responsible for 1.3T of C0₂ emissions: https://co2.myclimate.org/en/offset_further_emissions.

By contrast, in returning to Canada on the Vera D, my portion generated only 0.042T of C0₂ emissions – a reduction of nearly 97%.

The Vera D left Barcelona late in the evening of July 23.

Container ship leaves the dock at Barcelona Harbour
Leaving the dock at Barcelona Harbour

We stopped to take on fuel at Algeciras, Spain in the shadow of the Rock of Gibraltar.

A fuel supply ship comes alongside in preparation for refueling the Vera D at sea.
A fuel supply ship comes alongside in preparation for refueling a freighter at sea.
Rock of Gibraltar
The Rock of Gibraltar
Dolphins
The Algeciras welcoming committee – dolphins!

Two days later, we passed through the Azores Islands midway across the Atlantic Ocean.

Azores Island
Passing through the Azores Islands

5400 nautical miles, and 10 days after embarking, we arrived at Halifax harbour to a glorious sunrise.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Frequently Asked Questions

“Did you get seasick?”

No. There was a day and a half of rough sailing. I had to hold onto the sink with one hand while I washed my face with the other. My reading glasses rolled to the floor from a table. That was about the worst of it.

“What was your room like?”

My room was certainly adequate. It was the size of a very small hotel room and had an ensuite bathroom attached.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

“How about the food?”

The meals were tasty. Because it was a working ship, they had taken on sufficient provisions for a round trip voyage of 45 days. This dictated a set menu for each meal. We had a choice of rice or potatoes as well as a choice of how our eggs were prepared for breakfast. Fruits and salads were available each day.

Ship’s menu

“What did you do?”

The pattern of each day was dictated by the ship’s work day requirements. I ate when the crew ate. Other than that constraint, I had great flexibility to do as I wished. Time passed quickly. I explored the ship, watched videos, attended karaoke nights and read three books.

I also spent a morning getting an orientation on safety and rescue procedures.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The ship’s crew had a fire drill as part of their mandatory safety training and preparedness.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

“What was the ship’s routine?”

Working hours were 8:00 to 17:00, Monday to Friday. The Officers shared a 24 hour/day watch on the bridge. Like any workplace, once their shifts were over, the crew were free to “go home” – which on a ship, is to their cabin. They also had a lounge for socializing and hanging out.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

On the Saturday of our voyage, the captain hosted a BBQ for the crew.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

“How much did it cost you?”

The fare was 120€/day, or approximately $180 CAD/day. The fare included all meals, transport and accommodations.

 

Is Freighter Travel for You?

First the disclaimer. I’m no expert. A novice really. I’ve only had this one experience. To help you decide if freighter travel is for you, I’m happy to share some observations and reflections:

  1. Freighter travel requires patience. Significant delays and changes can happen. Impatient people need not apply. If that describes you, read no further.
  2. This is slow travel. Freighter travel requires flexibility and the luxury of time. You have deadlines? Set dates to return from your travels? Nix to that, too then.
  3. Do you need constant stimulation or to be entertained? Nope. Not for you.
  4. Anxious of your social media status if you are without an internet connection for a few days? Stay away
  5. Wary of institutional living arrangements? Uncomfortable or unable to eat whatever is placed in front of you? Take a road trip, not a seafaring voyage.

On the other hand, for the patient, flexible, and relaxed traveler there are rewards and benefits.

The Vera D at sunset, the view from my porthole window
  • Freighter travel is an adventure. Oceans cover three quarters of our planet. There is no other way to appreciate the vast expanses of our watery world than to venture out onto them.
  • It’s a unique experience. A freighter passenger becomes a member of a tiny village that works, eats and lives together on a floating platform at great distances from other human beings.
Members of the Ship’s Crew
  • You will chill and unwind. Want to temporarily disconnect? The world’s concerns literally disappear when the freighter sails off beyond Wifi or cell tower connections.
Sunset from my cabin porthole
  • It’s your time for your priorities. Write your book. Compose music. Create poetry. Read to your heart’s content. Binge watch – guilt free – all those movies or videos you’ve downloaded and haven’t had time for. Work out in the fitness room as much as you want.
Sunset from the bridge of the Vera D
  • A freighter trip is to take a retreat. Be dazzled by the beauty and awesome power of the sea. Let the size and space of God’s creation seep into your soul. Contemplate. Mediate. Reflect. Re-calibrate.
Sunset from the bridge of the Vera D
  • Meet people and gain insights from around the world. The four others at my dining table had families in the Philippines, Israel, Ukraine and Germany. Other crew members came from Sri Lanka and Romania. Their stories were fascinating. Many were familiar, perhaps common. Other life experiences were unusual and distinct.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

My Plan B* includes *Bliss. Freighter travel on the broad, blue briny Atlantic was relaxing, unique, fun, and memorable. It was also very possibly addictive. I would happily and willingly travel as a seafarer anytime. The question now is, “How soon can I do it again?”

Vera D leaving Halifax Harbour

 

B* is for Bidding a Sad Farewell

The Czech Republic had two national holidays the same week that Canada celebrated its 150th birthday of Confederation.

Ivan and Maria were my hosts in Telč. We toasted Canada Day before I hit the road.

The first of the Czech holidays was July 5. It celebrated the missionaries that brought Christianity to the Slavs in the 9th century. One of the two, St. Cyril, invented the Cyrillic alphabet which for the first time enabled a written Slavic language. Today, over 300 million people use some variation of that script. http://www.officeholidays.com/countries/europe/cyril_and_methodius_day.php

The second holiday followed on the next day. It commemorated the martyrdom of Jan Hus, who was burned at the stake on July 6, 1415. Hus had been influenced by Wycliffe, and believed common people had every right to be able to read the bible in their own language. Hus also preached in the Czech language, when preaching in Latin was the general practice.

Jan Hus memorial statue in Old Town Square, Prague, Czech Republic
Jan Hus memorial statue in the middle of Old Town Square, Prague, Czech Republic

70 years before Luther, Hus condemned the commercialization and corruption of the Christian Church. At the time, the selling of indulgences was a significant source of revenue. His views got him in trouble with the authorities to the point that it cost him his life. http://www.officeholidays.com/countries/czech_republic/jan_hus_day.php

 

It feels like the Czech national identity incorporates two competing narratives. The founders are celebrated on the first day and the rebel celebrated on the next.

Perhaps it appealed to the “Canadian” in me. In our national identity, we have had to manage the tension of competing stories between settlers of French and English origins. This accommodation has had its rough patches over the decades. But by and large, Canada has made the tension a positive, creative and inclusive force.

Czechia is another country with two competing stories. And they celebrate them both – in back to back national Czech holidays.

What impact has this had on Czechs? It’s impossible for me to say with any confidence. Has it provided them with skills and ways of thinking that will prove valuable in the world of the 21st Century? Possibly.

For whatever reasons, the Czechs maintained their unique national identity within the Hapsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire for more than 300 years.

Their national identity was also sorely tested during two occupations of the 20th Century – first by the German Nazis and then by the Russian Communists.

Their first freely elected President at the end of the cold war, was a jailed poet.

Despite not knowing the language, I felt a strong affinity with the Czechs I met. Their interactions with me were, without exception, respectful, authentic, helpful and kind.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Honza Galla and Patrik Ištok at AZUB Recumbents http://azub.eu/ were good examples. They took time to give me invaluable advice. The two helped me extensively to chose a route and to prepare for my unusual tour. They didn’t have to, but they did it anyway.

Patrik Ištok, Sales Manager, Azub Recumbent

There was a “down to earth” quality in the Czechs I met that made me feel at home. At no time when I was in the Czech Republic, did I have an unpleasant encounter. I would have a hard time saying that after spending a month in my own country!

In other words, all the Czechs I met, acted like Canadians when we are on our best behaviour.

 

The Czech Republic has so much going for it. It’s capital city, Prague, is one of the most beautiful in Europe.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Czechia has been at the heart of European history from earliest ages. Their UNESCO World Heritage sites are merited and protected for good reason. The countryside is picture postcard perfect.

Here is a gallery of some favourite sights:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Plan B* is about creating and embracing new possibilities. What happens when those possibilities greatly exceed expectations?

My experiences in the Czech Republic greatly exceeded my expectations. I was not prepared for how sad I would feel once my visit there came to an end.

I hadn’t thought of sadness as a measure for enjoyment. But in a way, it makes sense. We are usually made sad by what we have lost.

For me, bidding a sad farewell to the Czech Republic is the measure of the meaning, pleasure and enjoyment I experienced there.

What’s the Czech secret? I can’t honestly say. I’ll only suggest that a country that celebrates founders and rebels at the same time has to have something unique going for it.

 

 

The World At Three Feet

When did you last travel through the world at a height of 3 feet?

I’m guessing you were 6 years old.

One of the surprising delights of riding a recumbent tricycle is that the seat is only about a foot off the ground. That means little kids of about 6 or 7 look me in the eye when I’m seated in it. Anyone older than that is looking down on me.

Cyclists standing n a city street waiting for a light
Cyclists waiting for a light, Uherske Hradiste, Czech Republic

Adults on bikes? They’re giants. I reach up to shake hands. They lean over and down. Just like when I was 6.

The sensation of travelling through the world with eyes at the 3 foot level triggers some deep, childish delight.

Everything on the ground is so much closer, so much more accessible. I’m easily distracted by the variety of flowers, the diversity of colours, the flitting of insects and the darting of butterflies.

Poppies with wheat field behind

Perhaps it’s because at 3 feet, you are so much closer to the world inhabited by flowers and insects.

Sunflowers

 

Travel by trike with trailer is slow travel. Especially crawling up long hills. Even the butterflies make faster progress.

This is travel that breaks the sound barrier, though. Or perhaps more accurately, it is slow travel that breaks the silence barrier.

There’s nothing between you and the world. No windshield. No radio. No hermetically sealed cabin. No thick shell to suppress against road noise.

There is no road noise. Just the swish, swish, swish of a pant leg with each pedal I push. And the barely audible, rolling thunder sound of the trailer dutifully following along in my wake.

Sounds take on a different dimension. Cyclists and hikers know this phenomenon. The birdsong, the buzz, the chirps, the hum, the croaks that comprise nature’s chorus. Moving at three feet from the ground, you can’t help but catch snatches of creation’s hymn.

Dragonfly

Plan B* has been re-discovering the world from a new perspective – like the perspective of those who are 6 and those who are lucky to be 6 a second time.

 

 

There Is Magic

“Magic” is the word that captures the unexpected delights and surprises of this trip.

Each day, as I start my travel, I have a general direction. (West, through southern Moravia, following the border with Austria.)

Beyond that, I know very little about what to expect, what I will see or what I will encounter. I have no certainty where my day will end. I don’t know where I will spend the night.

This is Plan B*, after all.

Yesterday, I started pedaling. A hill rose in front of me. I crawled and strained. Then the hill fell away. I picked up speed and raced in exhilaration to the bottom.

Near Znojmo, Czech Republic

I slowed as the next hill rose in front of me. I repeated the process again. Crawl up. Race down.

And again. Crawl. Race.

There is a form of magic in that. Hard work and then fun. It may be why many people get so attached to cycling.

But then, other magic happened.

I pulled off the road to stop for a lunchtime snack.

Side road, near Lukov, Czech Republic

Why there? Why then? 10 meters down a side road was a tree loaded with black cherries. Abundant with cherries. More cherries within reach than could be eaten in a week. (Hint: You have to know how much I love cherries!)

Each day I pray, “Give us this day, our daily bread”. Yesterday, I never expected it would mean fresh, ripe cherries directly from the tree!

A person holding black cherries in their hand
The black cherries I’ve found here, look like Kalamata olives and are about the same size

“Thank you, God for answering my prayer.”

(And thank you for the magic of exceeding expectations!)

Energized and rested, I was back on the road.

Still the hills kept rising and falling. My legs began to flag. Where should I be looking to stay for the night?

I consulted the map. At my current pace, in less than an hour, was “Vranov nad Dyji”. I’d never heard of it. I wondered what was there. What would I find?

I was at least confident of finding a room. There would likely be at least one “penzion” (guesthouse), perhaps two. Every small Czech town or village I’d passed had had a least one, “penzion”.

Decision made: “Vranov nad Dyji”, here I come!

Then that magic happened again.

I came around a bend in the road. All of a sudden, Vranov nad Dyji was spread out in front of me. It was more than some non-descript name on a map. It was a place of real and unexpected beauty.

Vranov nad Dyji, Czech Republic

Here was a delightful, fairy tale beautiful, picturesque village hugging the river below a castle.

Like magic.

A view of Vranov nad Dyji from Vranov Chateau
A view of Vranov nad Dyji from Vranov Chateau

Vranov can take your breath away.

Vranov Chateau from the village of Vanov nad Dyji, Czech Republic
Vranov Chateau, Vranov nad Dyji, Czech Republic

And exploring Vranov revealed many other visual delights and treasures.

Many towns wish they had the natural beauty and historic legacies of Vranov.

Yet Vranov does not get any special promotion. It remains anonymous. Probably, it is because the Czech Republic is filled with towns that share some of Vranov’s magic. I’ve been delighted and awed at nearly every turn in the road as I’ve travelled here.

When beautiful, picture perfect places are the norm, then you know the country where they are found is exceptional.

A suitable description of the Czech Republic might be: “Small, but mighty (magical)”.

Did magic uncork Plan B*? Or did Plan B* uncork the magic?

Perhaps it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that there is magic in Plan B*.

And so far, Plan B* in the Czech Republic have made magic happen for me.

Easy Rider

Easy Does it

Nope, I’m not Wyatt. Nor Billy.

Bob’s Excellent Adventure is not about some counterculture dude on a road trip.

Wait a minute.

Maybe it is – at least a wee bit. It is a Plan B* road trip after all!

Bob Hawkesworth sitting in recumbent tricycle
Definitely not Peter Fonda or Dennis Hopper

What I want to mean by “Easy Rider” is that everyone, and I mean Everyone on wheels is faster than me.  Little kids and octogenarians alike. They all whiz past me. I have yet to overtake a single biker.

And the guys on bikes wearing the spandex?

I can hardly say “Dobrý den”, before they are half a kilometre down the road.

Two cyclists riding through a forest

Just call me your turtle traveler. Your plodder blogger. Your slacker tracker.

Motorist speed display monitor
Independent verification, if needed. No excessive speeding laws were broken in the making of this adventure (so far)

For the record, I travelled a distance of 80+ kms in the first three days. That’s an average of about 4 times faster than walking. I’m certainly not breaking any land speed records.

Pedaling a recumbent tricycle uses different muscles from walking. So, I’m taking it easy. Getting into a routine, into shape and setting a manageable pace.

View over Moravian Hills in Czech Republic
At the top of the first hill. Whew! And a view worth the effort.

Most importantly (for me) I’m taking the time to enjoy the journey. I’m learning the joys of slow travel.

Slow travel has its own rewards, something our culture has lost.

Small motor boats travelling through a lock in a canal in Moravia, Czech Republic
Another form of slow travel. Small motor boats navigate through a lock in a canal near Uhersky Ostroh, Czech Republic

It takes time to notice all the gifts hidden in plain view.

Easy does it. But easy doesn’t come easily.

 

I’ve discovered a few of those gifts by being mindful of the present without a deadline to meet or even a destination to keep. Here are a few from just one day to share with you.

 

Cherry tree
Cherries! Free! For the taking. Who in their right mind would race past an opportunity like this?

 

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

B* is for *By-passing *Boundaries

As in: I’ve never done this before!

Over the years, numerous friends have raved about how much fun they had cycling in Europe: “We had the time of our life”; “It was awesome”; “It’s a great way to see the countryside”; “We’re going again this next summer”…etc., they would say.

So, I know how the seed was planted.

Bob Hawkesworth sitting in a recumbent tricycle

But cycling in Europe on a recumbent tricycle? Where did that idea come from?

Until last week, I had never in my life even ridden a recumbent trike. Why I was in Uhersky Brod, Czech Republic to take delivery of one?

AZUB made Ti-Fly recumbent tricycle

If you ask me why I did it, I’m not sure I have an easy answer. It could be just one of life’s impenetrable mysteries.

Or. The answer could simply be, “Well, why not?” Propelling myself through the landscape in a lawn chair just struck me as the coolest thing imaginable. If you want to keep open the door to possibilities, you sometimes just have to bypass convention.

Anyway, let’s see if I can shed any further light on this question over the next little while.

First, the basics: My tricycle was made by AZUB in the Czech Republic: http://azub.eu/. This is still a niche market, and so far as I can tell, the numerous recumbent trike manufacturers tend to do small scale fabrication as opposed to assembly line production. But AZUB has established an excellent reputation for quality, value and good engineering.

I purchased the trike through the AZUB dealership in Calgary, Funwest Sports: http://www.funwestsports.ca/.

Re: Cycling

I’ll keep at this until it’s not fun anymore or until I have to return home – whichever comes first. I’ll share photos with you from along the way so you can catch a flavour of what I’ve seen.

Now it begins. This cycle of Bob’s Excellent Adventure starts with Nivnice:

Czech Republic Cycle Route sign to Nivnice
Czech Republic Cycle Route sign to Nivnice

European Energy Systems – Plan B* Trainspotting

Wind turbine in a field
Wind turbines from the train window. Trainspotting of a different kind.
Solar arrays in a UK field
Solar arrays can be spotted in numerous rural UK locations.
Smokestacks in the UK countryside
At first, these appeared to be smokestacks. The UK is committed to phasing out coal generated electricity. I thought this might be a coal powered plant. But closer inspection suggests the “smoke” could be water vapour from the cooling towers of a nuclear power plant.

Scotland The Brave

Scots have a reputation for thrift and shrewdness. Like any stereotype though, real people defy categorization. Exceptions are usually the rule.

 One aspect is evident, though. For centuries, Scots have managed to maintain a distinct identity that distinguishes them from the much larger English population to the south. I can’t help but think in this regard, Scots and Canadians have a great deal in common. I wonder if Canada’s enduring desire to remain distinct from the much larger America to our south has been in part, gifted us from the Scots who played such a formative role in our early history.

 At the heart of that Scottish identity lays Stirling. It is home of Stirling Castle, the aerie of Scotland’s kings and of Mary Queen of Scots. The castle stands high above a once marshy plain on a hill of lava left by some long extinct volcano. It has a commanding view of all directions and stands sentinel over the widened channel of the Forth River where it was at one time a port at tide water.

 It was at Stirling where horses (armies) could most easily cross south and north. They who held Stirling held the strategic entry way between the highlands and the lowlands and hence could command all of Scotland. Of fond memory in Stirling still, is the Battle of Stirling Bridge (1297), Battle of Bannockburn (1314), William Wallace (think Mel Gibson in “Braveheart”. Then again, please don’t.) and Robert Bruce.

Stirling Castle, Stirling Scotland
Stirling Castle has a commanding view of the Scottish countryside

 My intention in going to Stirling was not to discover any Calgary/Scotland connection or relive ancient battles. My purpose was to meet with “The Surefoot Effect”, a not-for-profit social enterprise. They earn their income consulting on a broad range of all things “sustainability” related.

 Scotland has bravely adopted one of the most ambitious carbon dioxide (C0₂) reduction targets of any jurisdiction in the world. The Surefoot Effect has been one of their civil society partners, working with citizens, organizations and businesses to bring those targets to life. I came to Stirling to learn what they are doing.

The Shift

The amount of carbon dioxide (C0₂) in our atmosphere now exceeds 400 parts/million (ppm). At one time, before the industrial revolution began – not so long ago – it was under 300 ppm.

The miracle and gift of C0₂ is that it makes life on earth possible. C0₂ embraces our planet like a warm blanket, trapping heat. We’ve all been in a greenhouse and know how warm it can be, even on a cloudy day. Light from the sun comes through the glass and warms the space. The same glass that lets the light in, keeps the heat from escaping. It captures the heat and warms the greenhouse.

Carbon dioxide works the same way. Sunlight hits earth. Instead of radiating back into space, some of that energy is taken ransom by the C0₂ and used to warm up our planet. (Just don’t ask me to explain the physics of it.) Too little C0₂, and earth turns into a frozen wasteland (think ice ages and Game of Thrones). Too much C0₂, and….well, we can’t be entirely sure what earth turns into.

What’s the worse that can happen? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zORv8wwiadQ

James Lovelock is the granddaddy of the environmental movement. He has written elegantly about how the global atmosphere regulates the distribution of heat around our planet: http://www.jameslovelock.org/

The amount of C0₂ in the atmosphere has been “just right” for many millennia – it has kept earth not too hot and not too cold. The world we humans inhabit is a product of just the right amount of C0₂ that has kept temperatures fluctuating within a narrow range over long periods of time.

What does all this extra C0₂ in the atmosphere mean?

You would think more of a good thing would make it really good. But too much of a good thing is not always better. If a sweater is all you need, you won’t put on a down parka. And you’d never put on a parka if you could never take it off.

How does all that C0₂ get into the air in the first place?

Since the industrial revolution, humans have been extracting coal and harnessing all that energy on a massive scale. Burning coal releases C0₂ as a by-product. Burning oil and natural gas has the same effect.

It seems humans are contributing to this shift since there are so many of us consuming the products made harnessing fossil fuels.

Here’s the crux of the issue: How can harnessing fossil fuels be a bad thing?

Exploiting fossil fuels has raised the standard of living for countless numbers of us. The benefits have been enormous. Many find it very difficult to accept that the impact on our climate brings high risk. Even if the consequences are serious, what can one person do anyway?

Who wants to make a Plan B if they don’t have to?

The Surefoot Effect has engaged thousands of people in a crucial conversation that tackles these questions. They help people explore what climate change means, how to make sense of it and what can they as individuals do about it.

They are helping people create their Plan B.

I’ll tell you more about The Surefoot Effect in my next post.

The South Downs

The South Downs in West Sussex

The South Downs dominate the skyline in small villages and towns in West Sussex. Here, I visited two dear friends – Barb and Ange. Through a happy series of circumstances, we walked the South Downs Way together many years ago. Now in their 80’s the two sisters are no longer walking the Downs. But we relived the gift of warm and happy memories of a distant, special holiday.

The Shift 

Barb lost her husband Bern a couple years ago. They were married for 57 years. He was a prince of a man. I know. And Barb misses him every day.

Plan B* (for Barb) 

Barb sold her home in a town near Gatwick and moved many miles to West Sussex to be closer to her daughter and sisters. As she said, “The older you get, the more important family becomes to you.” 

Yes indeed. Our support networks can sustain us when changes call us to adapt. Let us always be mindful of those whose families are not capable of support. When shifts happen, many Plan B*s flounder because people do not have family and friends to help.