Saturday, February 24, 2018

The “lady” has new shoes …

Margo and her shoes – no question about it, Margo really does like her shoes and with her handbags to match she has put together quite the collection of fashion accessories. Now fully ensconced in our new Windsor home, we are still working on just how best to store them both as our walk-in wardrobe lacks adequate display space for her growing collection. On our recent “bizcation” aboard Star Princess, Margo had plenty of opportunity to wander the decks, all decked-out herself!  On a more somber occasion, a few years back, when we both attended a memorial service for my father down in Sydney, it was only “the nieces” that picked up on the shoes Margo wore for the occasion and all I can recall is them forming an entirely new opinion about their auntie!

But in our family, it is shoes of a different type that frequently generate the same level of excitement and enthusiasm. And 2017 proved to be a year when we spent more on these different types of shoes than Margo budgets for in any given decade. Ouch! We are talking about tires for our cars and for as long as I can recall, we have called them shoes. Perhaps it is the reference to wheels being shod with new rubber that creates the association with real shoes or perhaps it is simply a matter of not being able to take a car out on the road because it isn’t adequately shod, but all the same, in our family buying new shoes for the car, as much-anticipated as they often are, just doesn’t generate the same degree of enthusiasm from all of us.

Just this week, it was another lady, our pretty red with black trim track-oriented Corvette Z06 received its latest pairs of shoes and they certainly brought a smile to my face at least. What is it with red and black? Last time on track it was almost impossible to “romp on the gas” as the rear end would simply break away from lack of grip. Many of our friends who track Corvettes are puzzled by our ongoing preference for these Bridgestone Potenza RE760 Sport as the Treadware number stamped on the tires is pretty high (i.e. at 300 you would expect these tires to be hard) and yet, after a lap or two, they get really sticky and do the trick. I often come off track and return to the pits and scratch my head and yet, the confidence I have with these tires remains very high!

We are looking forward to spring this year and while we will not be pursuing an ambitious program we are still planning on doing three or four outings, mostly at our local track here in Colorado that is just beyond Byers – the High Plains Raceway (HPR). We have lost count how many laps Margo and I have done on this track but we have to be close to 1,000 by now and it takes little time for us to sort out the flow of the track and begin to exploit the many turns included in the circuit. And of course, we are always circulating on the full course, which is 2.55 miles start to finish. Recording times below two minutes is the goal for most of us, weekend track enthusiasts, and for both of us this remains a goal that is out there that hopefully, we will be able to get close to recording.

As an introduction of what a day at the track looks like, the last time we were camped at the track with our good friends from Southern California, Brian and Jan Kenny, we were able to take a few photos – all of them when it was Margo’s turn to get behind the wheel and as we now are about to put the new shoes on the Corvette, it seemed only appropriate to look back at how the Corvette looked with new shoes.

Safety has always been a priority for us so we added the harness bar and the six point harness only a short time before this outing and to make it conform to the standards our good friends at our club, the National Auto Sports Association (NASA) – and no, not THAT NASA – we had the Corvette seats modified so the anti-submarining straps came up through the seat
  and not over the front lip of the seat as this allows the harness to work properly should it ever be called upon to restrain you in any shunt you may be involved in. 

Once strapped in the car, on this occasion Margo had agreed for me to come along for the ride. I really like to do this as I get a real kick from the way Margo approaches this track. It always takes Margo two or three laps to line the car up close to perfectly and thereafter she is quite capable of holding her own with the other drivers on track in her category. 

Margo is now in NASA’s HPDE 2 group which means she runs with Group 1 and 2 drivers, the difference being Group 1 must have instructors whereas Group 2 you are on your own. And while both groups don’t allow passengers when on track with NASA, weekends often start with Friday open-track days where the opportunity to take a passenger is something track management monitors and with all the laps we have both done, there is never any issue with Margo taking me along for the ride as she has done with business clients on occasion.

We have tow hooks permanently affixed to the chassis so that should the worse happen, we wont add any further damage to the bodywork and since we have had them installed, we haven’t had “an off” that required attendance by the tow trucks. What we have done to turn our lovely Corvette into a track car is pretty basic. The fluids are all changed at the start of each year and we monitor them as the year progresses but typically, they stay true all year. The specs of a number of the fluids – brake fluids in particular – are upgraded in order to tolerate higher temperatures and we have upgraded the brakes, both rotors and pads, with a more track-oriented focus that in our case includes drilled StopTech rotors and Hawk High Performance Plus. And then we have had a more aggressive alignment performed resulting in a little more toe-in, more aggressive negative camber and a pretty well maxed-out castor. All to help us be able to turn-in a little more aggressively! 

But having the right shoes definitely helps as well and this is where we inspect the Bridgestones before and after each outing. The primary goal is to return to the pit with all four tires having the same pressure, which in our case is about 36psi coming off track. Which means going out with slightly different pressures left to right and I remember that “left is light” and when you look back at the track map, you will see why – so going out, it’s 32psi right and 30psi left! And of course, there are very few occasions where you don’t find Margo also inspecting her shoes which on this occasion meant a trip to Jimmy Choo on our last trip to Las Vegas. “No, I don’t have any good sandals but these will do the trick,” I seem to recall …

One aspect of HPR that we really like is that there is almost nothing to hit should you ever get to experience an “agricultural excursion.” At the very bottom of the track, depicted on the track map at turns 6 (Danny’s Lesson) and then the complex of turns 9(a), 9(b) and 10 (To Hell on a Bobsled) – all the turns have great names, by the way –there is nothing but deep, oozing mud and encountering any of that stuff can put an end to your day pretty quickly. 

For us, most of the fun takes place on the tight hairpin at turn 8 which requires some serious braking and a really good look over your left shoulder and on more than one occasion, I have dropped a tire or two – once spinning out completely! But no harm was done other than having to pull a whole lot of muck and grass from the radiator opening. For Margo, it continues to be very much a rhythm track and sitting alongside her this outing, she quickly became one with the track and the amount of energy she exerted was minimal even as her speed continued to climb with each lap!

 Depending on the club we happen to be spending the weekend with, our time on the track is usually limited to either twenty or thirty minutes and if you think for one moment that isn’t all that long, just try staying completely focused on your car for that long. There are two really good reasons why you take a performance car to the track and that is that everyone is going the same way (hopefully) and yes, you can go as fast as you like! We often talk to drivers who are new to the track and they talk about how quickly they can drive the front range “Peak to Peak” highway but in all reality, they have no idea what it really is like on track. 

Oftentimes joining more experienced drivers on track, in no time at all a train of cars forms behind these first-timers and it takes a couple of outings if not weekends before you come to understand your car and then the track. Margo and I vividly recall our first weekend on track at California’s Big Willow – the infamous fastest track in the west at Willow Springs – and as we departed for home we both were visibly shaken by how much we had to learn. But time and laps are good teachers and now Big Willow is one of our favorite tracks.

There is always one more lap to go once you pass the final start / finish line and it’s the cool down lap that at HPR takes us all the way around the track before we find the exit to the pits. It never ceases to amaze us just how competitive some drivers on track can be as it has been on our cool down lap that some of them elect to pass us – as they all have on-board video recorders I guess it is that one opportunity to pass Margo. As you may also recall, the license plate surround on our Corvette points out in jest, “You have just been passed by a Grandparent!”

But the cool down lap is when you take a good look at all your instruments – the Corvette has a heads-up display that shows revs, speed and transmission temp which we watch like hawks. Before we upgraded to the Tick Performance Adjustable Clutch Master Cylinder Kit on hot days we would find the clutch pedal going all the way to the floor leaving us with no options to change gear but with that simple upgrade, we haven’t experienced any further trouble no matter how hot HPR temperatures climb to. 

 Climbing out of the car and coming back down to earth all the while chatting away with those who have come to check you out and to make sure you stay hydrated, is always a time to reflect. Margo and I talk over every session on track and when we go out together, whether it is Margo behind the wheel or me, we always see adjustments we can make to either our lines or our speed. We are always asked “how fast did you go” and we have to admit, we are never sure but that really isn’t the point.

All through the times we have spent on tracks around the country, what the real point has become is that we get to relax. Surprised? Well, what we mean as time on track requires our complete attention, so much so that what may have been worrying us all week is no longer a concern. Work-related issues simply fall by the wayside and for Margo and me it’s a real treat to be able to put that all behind us. And of course, when it comes to putting things behind us, then there is one thing Margo likes doing more than being on track - sling over her shoulder one of her favorite bags and her most recent purchase is one that she cares a lot about. Yet one more impulse-buy on our last trip to Vegas; I guess what you buy in Vegas ends up never staying in Vegas!

And now, its back to thoughts of accessories and those all-important shoes for the Corvette – watch for posts later this year as once again, we relax behind the wheel, keep an eye on our lap times, enjoy the company of friend and oh yes, continue to end each day with our traditional martinis, no matter how hot it might be on track.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Oh, restless spirit …

January is always a time to reevaluate priorities and to put into place plans for the coming year. When it comes to the business of Pyalla Technologies, LLC, we are both fully engaged now with Margo working hard to establish her latest venture, the monthly digital publication, NonStop Insider. As a result of working the way we do, we are discovering just how flexible we can be with our time; yes, we can work at any time, almost anywhere and this month we put this into practice. Call them BizCations, as we are want to do, but the bottom line remains the same - we fill our waking hours with work even as the scenery keeps on changing and for that, we have no complaints!

As for our plans, it all happened rather quickly. The need to meet with clients in Los Angeles mid-January and then late-January left two weeks of “calendar free space” and, with no appointments we decided to, once again, take to the seas and see how well we could work far from shore. We had done it once before, but only for a week and you can read about that in the November 5, 2014, post,
The A, B, Zs of Fall! This time we would double the time at sea and it would be a test of how disciplined we would be not to mention how practical it was to depend on the vessel’s Internet capabilities for an extended period of time.

We have been sailing with Princess cruise lines for a very long time and our status gave us a combined 500 minutes of free internet access, but with so many passengers on board, it turned out that early mornings worked best. Princess has an International Café that serves Lattes and pastries around the clock so from 4:00am onwards, you would find me working from my new, impromptu desk. And yes, it all worked out and a number of our clients, until I updated them on our return, were unaware of our newly equipped remote office!

By chance I came across the poetry of Tyler Knott Gregson, whose poems can be found on the web and among her short verses, this one struck a chord:

Oh restless soul, oh wandering spirit, come, and breathe a spell.
Come, and gently fall into peace.
This is what you were seeking, this, is home.

I have always been fascinated by ports and terminals handling container ships. This fascination dates back to when I worked for Overseas Containers Limited (OCL) as they first entered the container shipping business back in the late 1960s.

My time with OCL was way back in the early 1970s, when container shipping was still a novelty. Long before the construction of the very large Botany Bay facility you will fly over on your final approach to Sydney International Airport these ships would sail under the Sydney Harbor Bridge and dock at a small facility in White Bay. As a sailor, I just couldn’t wait to get onboard to take a look and when the opportunity presented itself, I was hooked and asked for a transfer to the London head office – an approach that turned into reality and laid the foundation for the wandering that to this day simply hasn’t stopped!

This January, as we sailed out of the harbor at San Pedro, we were passing a complex made up of two ports – the port of Los Angeles and the port of Long Beach that are the two biggest container terminals in the US. Combined, they would be in the top 10 worldwide and the perpetual movement in and out of the facility meant that cruise ships as big as the Princess Star had to do some pretty tricky backing in order to safely leave the port, but as the sun was setting and the lights came on, Margo and I felt right at home on the ship – yes, this is what we had been seeking; this is home! Or, so we thought at the time.

 As it turned out, the two weeks kicked off with us celebrating our wedding anniversary and ended with Margo celebrating her birthday. Having advised Princess of these dates we ended up eating a lot more cake than we have in years but it was a fun time. Each bar we stopped by over the course of the evening was only too happy to pull out from the counter yet another treat. In the picture above we were seated by the Crooners Bar that became our late night retreat. 

Before going any further, we did manage to burn through all 500 minutes of free Internet access across the two weeks so if we plan on doing anything longer it may be a bit of a challenge, although, as Margo noted on more than one occasion, the discipline we would maintain meant that we didn’t have to be checking our email every hour or so. Well, I tried! Bottom line, in this respect, I only stepped away from the laptops and phones on weekends which I rarely do back on shore. As for Margo then there was plenty of time for reading.

Our destination would be the major islands of Hawaii and given that it is the middle of winter in the northern hemisphere, breaking away from the clutches of winter seemed more than appropriate. As we drove away from our Windsor home, it was 8 degrees, Fahrenheit. By the time we arrived in San Pedro, it was a balmy 70 degrees, with the forecast for the voyage suggesting that we would be enjoying even more balmy days of 70+ degrees. While the sun managed to break through the clouds on occasion, the first two days at sea were cloudy with the wind whipping around the deck all the time.

As for the seas, well we were sailing through 20 foot swells and it was fun to listen to passengers complaining about how rough the seas were and of whether or not the ship’s master could do something about that. At one point, he did come over the ships coms channel to note that well, this is the Pacific (and not the Caribbean or the Mediterranean) and it was winter so yes, the movement onboard wasn’t entirely unexpected. As for Margo and me, we barely noticed it, but it was a reminder that on deep water voyages the sea can be very restless!  

Another short verse from the same poet seemed more than appropriate for the times:

A time for movement,
and a time for sitting still.
We need both of these.

Once we had arrived in the Hawaiian Islands, the seas abated considerably so we were able to enjoy an extended long weekend cruising among them. Our first stop was Oahu, where we took advantage of the ports close proximity to Waikiki and walked along the foreshore to take in the view of the former volcano that is now Diamond Head. With wall-to-wall hotels lining the beach, it proved difficult to walk along the sandy beach without having to step onto the beach.

For me, the destination was always going to be Duke’s – romanticized in songs and, to my way of thinking, symbolic of a laid-back lifestyle - I hoped to enjoy a quiet drink alongside the sandy shoreline. Having enjoyed lunch a couple of times at Dukes in Malibu (and seeing another Dukes on Kauai), for me this was a must. Despite the overcrowding evident everywhere you turned in Waikiki, we managed to get inside of Dukes and found seats that let the day ebb away. Finding a time for sitting still was priceless!

By contrast, even with the number of passengers onboard the Princess Star, there was plenty of open space. Dining was casual even as it was what it was – large scale catering with meals dumbed down to the point where eventually, we gravitated to the specialty restaurants where there was more spice and yes, way less noise. Having spent a lot of time on much smaller vessels, it takes a little getting used to and so much has changed from when we first stepped onboard a big ship. But again, that is what it is all about – for the price you get a little more than what you expect and it is that little more that brings you back to these big ships on those occasions when you want to do a little more than zip around a few ports in seven days!

Cruise lines such as Princess still hold formal nights, but to be honest, it is still very casual and marginal when it comes to dressing up, so as to speak. Having said this, it matters little what others may be doing as whenever Margo dresses for the occasion, she steals the show. And this voyage proved to be no exception. When the camera caught up with her, those behind her complained that it wasn’t fair, as obviously, Margo had experience when it came to posing and I was asked more than once, how many times has she posed for fashion shots!

All good fun of course and none of those around us ever asked her similar questions about me but that is neither here or there – and I have to admit, I didn’t see another passenger decked out in Prada the way Margo was on formal nights. The disappointment for me was that the formal nights proved to be just a little too casual so Margo left the “red-sole shoes” in the wardrobe! We ended up not liking any of the ship’s photos, so here is a snapshot I took of Margo on our first formal night.

Each day we docked in an island saw us hanging back until late in the day. We have spent time on all the islands so for us it was more a case of checking out the area around the dock. Hilo, on the Big Island for instance, saw us walking for miles which could have been a good thing, I suppose, but there were surprises, too. On the island of Kauai, we docked in the port of Nawiliwili where we found the sprawling Marriott hotel just around the corner. On first sight, it didn’t look all that impressive but up close, and looking out over the port, it proved more opulent than we had initially thought. And did I mention that is where you will find Duke’s on Kauai, but unfortunately, we had arrived well before it opened for patrons. Then again, anchored offshore of Lahaina, Maui, with whales clearly visible nearby, we had to take the tender to shore and this time we found ourselves rooftop atop Mick Fleetwod's restaurant, Fleetwood's on Front Street! 

Hawaii Islands are mountainous having all formed from volcanic eruptions. And it shouldn’t surprise any visitors to these islands that in winter, it’s not the seas that are restless but the skies as well. Each day we were ashore we encountered rain but these downpours were nothing more than passing squalls. However, they did make the sky look moody and from the shore, looking out across the sea to adjacent headlands or even nearby islands, it looked as if at any time a major storm would develop. They never did and even when we were caught out in the rain, we never stayed wet for too long as the temperatures, often nearing 80 degrees, ensure it all vaporized quickly. However, walking along the shore, keeping an eye out for changes to the weather, gave us opportunities to take a picture or two of our ship.  

Returning to dry land just a few days later and picking up where we left off, it was yet another line of verse from the same poet that really hit a nerve:

We may head back home,
but we’re leaving one behind.
Pieces of us stay.

Yes, there is a ring of truth to that – even as Margo and I talk about the two weeks break to our schedule – pieces of us do stay wherever we set foot. Not sure I can properly explain this, but I do feel that home for us will always be just over the horizon. And as we found the time to work and to read and to just unwind as we whiled away the hours, I guess the only thing I can now say is that yes, everyone needs to find the opportunities as we have been doing and to acknowledge that truly:

Oh restless soul, oh wandering spirit, come, and breathe a spell.