Sunday, December 23, 2018

Big boys’ toys that are hard to ignore – Sydney has them all!

There really is something to be said about big boys and their big toys. While spending time with my brother Greg I have become acquainted with his friend, Glenn, who has a real ripper of a collection of HSV’s finest models. He seems to favor red cars and there’s nothing wrong with that in my books. This week, I was able to get behind the wheel of a HSV interpretation of the Holden Monaro. Sold in the U.S. for only a short time as the Pontiac GTO, this Aussie-only HSV interpretation is the real deal and it is a shame these HSV updates never made it to the other side of the Pacific. 

Glenn took Margo and me for a drive around some of the backroads of leafy areas of Sydney’s North Shore and much to my surprise, after a short while, offered me the keys. I jumped at the opportunity and pointing the GTO back towards Sydney’s famous Comenarra Parkway that is a favorite drive for the locals. Back in the early 1970s this was my favorite parkway, or should I more accurately say, raceway, whenever I wanted to go for a bit of a sprint on my Honda 250cc “café racer.”

For the short time I was behind the wheel of this glorious red GTO, all of these memories came flooding back even as I was left with some wonderful new memories. Yes, with the seat set just so where I could see the fenders, this manual-equipped coupe was a delight to toss around. I wonder what a good used GTO would set me back in the U.S. and could Margo and I get our hands on any of the HSV upgrades. Ah but it’s summertime in Sydney now and it’s a time for big events and wide open vistas splashed by brilliant sunshine.

HSV is the Holden Special Vehicles organization that has been taking road going Commodores, Utes and even the long wheelbase Statesman sedans and bringing them up to almost V8 Supercar specification. Sometimes, their output exceeds that of the track versions and the HSV GTS Glenn showed up to first time we met, is based loosely on the latest Corvette Series 7, Z0g. As HSV tells it, this is the car that when you “fire up the GTS’ 6.2 litre, supercharged LSA Generation IV alloy V8, and the roar from the newly calibrated bi-modal twin exhaust system with quad outlets will let everyone know you’re coming. A warning they’ll appreciate, because with 430kW of power and 740Nm of torque at your disposal, you’ll be an imposing force to behold.”

Yes, the full monty, with all 650 hp on tap, this truly is the four door family car version of the fire-breathing track oriented Corvette. Seeing it parked alongside other family cars it really didn’t project the image of the ultimate boy-racer vehicle but once the ignition was turned, the fuel pumps activated and the exhaust valves opened, it provided the unmistakable sound of a serious Aussie V8 Supercar. Loved it – but no, didn’t get to drive this particular pride and joy of Glenn. Perhaps another time! Then again, I wonder if you could go out and buy a former Chevy SS and order all the HSV parts. Again, just saying!

At this time of year, any trip out on Sydney’s harbor will be a time to scan the waters to see some of the biggest racing yachts on the planet. With overall lengths looking to be a hundred feet or more, they dominate the yachting scene and for the past couple of weeks, there have been numerous warm-up races pitting these big boats against each other as Boxing Day looms and the start of the annual blue-water classic, the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race commences.

One of the classic events that pit man and machine against mother nature there’s always plenty of surprises arising and no matter the size of the budget there is always plenty that can go wrong once the race begins. Through much of this century, the maxi yacht Wild Oats has dominated winning a half dozen times (or more), but in each instance faced determined competition.

Last year a mess-up happened along the way where Wild Oates fouled competitor Comanche (picture above returning to its mooring) such that, with the penalty applied after crossing the line first, it had to be happy with second place. But not this year – it’s all on and as the fleet leaves Sydney Harbor on Boxing Day, it will once again be witnessed by a flotilla that stretches from one shoreline to the next.

This race is taking place twenty years after the wildest race in history, where half the fleet had to retire as a hurricane bore down on the fleet. Sad to say, six lives were lost and it proved to be the last blue water race of any magnitude for Larry Ellison, the Oracle billionaire who aboard his maxi yacht, Sayonara thought he wouldn’t make it. When he crossed the finishing line he admitted he was just the first survivor and even if he lived to being 1,000 years old, he would never do the race again. Also aboard Sayonara was Lachlan Murdoch and who knows what might have happened if Sayonara had been lost! But there is no accounting for where the big boys will spend their money or what challenges they want to face with the toys they buy!

Of course there are reminders too of former times when the toys got very serious and when all eyes in Australia tuned into the television coverage of the 1983 America’s Cup. Even though it was well before 6:00 am a rapt nation watched in amazement when it was an Australian 12 meter yacht, Australia II that took the cup from the New York Yacht Club. Every couple of years this very same public suffered from one embarrassment after another as its 12 meter yachts were well beaten by their American counterparts, but that initial challenge by the Packer family with Gretel, came amid controversy and a bitter exchange between England and Australia as to who had the right to challenge.

As the record shows, when big boys get together especially when it’s over a few drinks, expect the unexpected.  According to one report, “Knowing that he loved a challenge, two fellow members of the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron (RSYS) lured (media mogul, Sir Frank) Packer into a convivial luncheon. As the afternoon wore on, the pair urged their guest to build a twelve-meter yacht to contest the prized America’s Cup. William H. Northam, an Olympic gold medalist and head of the Australian branch of the American firm Johnson & Johnson, was one of the hosts. “We kept the grog flowing pretty fast”, he recalls, “and Frank soon got excited about having a go at the Yanks.”

If you want to sail on a former 12 meter racing yacht you can still do so as both Kookaburra (KA-11, but now AUS-40) and Spirit of Australia (AUS-21) are both still sailing on Sydney Harbor and are available for commercial hire from Sailing Sydney. On our Manly Ferry ride we passed AUS-40 and again, the memories came flooding back from my own days racing yachts on Sydney Harbor.  Ah – the more time we spend on Sydney’s harbor the more we come to appreciate how little prodding is required of many to go build a bigger boat!

But it isn’t just solely about the harbor or its supersized yachts or even about the wicked cars to be seen driving along the foreshore. The very nature of the city abutting the harbor is about to undergo change as the city’s biggest and yes, tallest building continues to reach for the skies. Under construction right now and part of a much bigger complex that’s already complete and on land many Sydney-siders never knew existed, James Packer is erecting a new home for his Crown casino. 

Yes, that Packer! The grandson of Sir Frank who first challenged America for that cup! While it had been Sir Frank’s son, Kerry who complemented his father’s media holdings with casinos, it has been his son James who has concentrated the bulk of the Packer family holdings on casinos.

In Barangaroo, as the area along the foreshore is known, the center piece of this complex – a 75 floor casino and hotel – will forever change the appearance of this part of Sydney Harbor. Having said this however, the work completed a little to the north of this development has meant that you can now walk from Circular Quay, under the Harbor Bridge, past Walsh Bay and then around a grassy open knoll that is attracting a lot of walkers while providing a different view of the Harbor Bridge and North Sydney.

When Barangaroo is complete you will be able to continue this walk all the way into Darling Harbor. It’s a big ambitions plan that ultimately will let you walk from Woolloomooloo to Cockle Bay and perhaps beyond. For me, any city that ensures it’s citizens and tourists alike as much access to its harbor foreshore is doing them all a big favor – it would have been very tempting to sell off property that included direct harbor foreshore access but Sydney resisted any such temptation.

It is not all steel and glass modern urban structures as many of the very first buildings erected in convict times have been kept and restored in a way that lends even more character to the place. When in the 70s I first started work in the city I was able to find free all day parking right on top of Walsh Bay, but no longer. As roads have been redone and more public parking added there is even room for art and to find a car, crushed by a rock, in the center of this development I found quite amusing!

But it is now summer and before I wrap up this post I am reminded too that it is a time for a lot of big sporting events. Not just the sailing or the golf or the tennis – it will be time soon enough for the Australian Open – but cricket as well. And for Australians everywhere Boxing Day isn’t so much about the start of the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race as it is about the opening day of a cricket test match at one of the world’s biggest cricket grounds, the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). Cricket’s Big Bash League (BBL) of limited-over cricket has just gotten under way and it’s not the cricket I grew up with, that’s for sure. But it’s still cricket and it’s yet another reminder of all that is big about Australia. As those around me constantly remind me, this is as big as it gets and yes, it wouldn’t be summer without cricket!

We are now aware that our time in Sydney is rapidly drawing to a close. It seems just a matter of weeks before we head to the airport for the return trip to Windsor, Colorado. It has been a very illuminating period away from home for me. I have always felt that I am Australian first but with twenty years spent in America I am seeing that having less meaning. I am not an American just as I am not an Australian. I am both of these and yet I am neither of them. The more time I spend in one country the more I long to be in the other and now the pull of America is very much apparent.

I have written previously how the countries are very similar even as they are so different. The contradictions are easy to explain. Whenever we board the plane for a flight between the countries, no matter which direction that happens to be, we are always excited by what lies ahead. And yet, with some fifty plus crossings of the Pacific Ocean, we still haven’t truly resolved the issue – but one thing has become a lot clearer. Say it’s the cars, or say it’s the price of homes or, more likely, Margo’s family and her grandkids in the US but, whatever it is, America has become our home even as Sydney as big and as bold as it continues to be, will always be a nice place to visit!

On the other hand my brother Greg has informed me that Glenn's HSV GTO is open for offers around AUS$40,000 so ummm ... maybe that might tilt the scales ever so gently!

Saturday, December 1, 2018

'Cross the sea; I am sailing!

After spending weeks ashore with family, friends and business associates we have been all at sea. Business hasn’t stopped, but it’s been a lot easier with so much fresh input to work with – Sydney provides such a rich backdrop to any conversation about technology and Margo and I have taken full advantage of every opportunity that has presented itself for us to see different sides of a very much changed city of Sydney. It has been five years since we walked the streets of Sydney’s Central Business District (CBD) and it’s hard to compare what were once familiar landmarks with the soaring skyscrapers that have essentially popped up everywhere we turn. 

Talk to Sydneysiders and it’s clear that it generates mixed reactions; cities are never finished, just ask your average Parisian. Then again, cities can leverage any natural beauty that they have inherited to present a fresh and sometimes even rejuvenated appearance. Sydney still has its Opera House and its Harbor Bridge, but as for everything else, well, the best that I can say is that it’s evolved. On the other hand, much of the charm that was Sydney in the 1980s is disappearing behind glass and concrete.

If London is undergoing a rapid transformation with multiple skyscrapers looking more like household appliances, Sydney’s reach for the sky is a little more organic. There is a certain symmetry developing even as the heights of these buildings continue to spread north of Sydney’s Centrepoint Tower, but what impresses most is that color is returning to the skyline. Not just sandstone facades but real colors and the impact recent changes in architecture are having is inescapable. 

Like a once great performer with a whole lot of new makeup liberally applied, Sydney always makes a stunning entry whenever it comes into view. All the structures that makes Sydney great can still be seen but the overall presentation is now a mix of traditional with modern and for all its quirks, to someone who has been absent from the city as long as I have, it’s still magical. And it all seems to work! As for the now pristine harbor, a deep blue under clear skies, there is no escaping its ability to contribute yet another color to the saturated canvass unfolding before you as you begin taking in the full vista that is Sydney. 

Of course, hanging out with my brother, Greg, and then with my high school buddy, Dave, cars have held center stage. As much as I like the architecture, when it comes to car talk then I am a sucker. Greg had the opportunity to spend track time out at the Sydney Motorsports Park, formerly Eastern Creek, behind the wheel of a very hot Holden V8 Supercar. Greg adapted to the car’s set up and before long, he was producing some serious speeds as he watched his lap times come down. “They told us not to try fifth gear,” Greg told me. “But after a couple of laps and with the encouragement of my instructor, I was given the OK to charge even harder and fifth gear was quickly selected.” 

It’s now only a matter of time before I can entice Greg to come to Colorado to drive Margo and my favorite circuit to the east of Denver – High Plains Raceway (HPR)! As for Dave, his hobby has been covered previously in posts to this blog as he has been racing in historical events for some time. Initially it was a Hillman Imp as I recall, but more recently he has upgraded to a 1960s era Mini. Apart from having a glorious home on top of Bilgola Plateau, Dave maintains an offsite garage complete with a lift of which I am most envious. A quick look around his facility and it’s easy to tell that Dave can pretty much fabricate anything he needs for his race car. Dave has been a passenger in our Dodge Viper SRT/10 roadster as we did a couple of more or less parade laps around HPR.   

Prior to departing for New Zealand we had ample time for breakfast alongside Circular Quay with no fear that our ship would sail without us. For this cruise, we had a balcony cabin on the Lido deck, 16 levels above the water line, with no other cabins above us. Knowing full well we would be sailing out into the Tasman Sea at a time when the weather can be very unpredictable, I have to admit, I was a little curious about how this vessel would fair. With something like 19 stories above the water but only 8 meters down to the keel, it was a modern-day, flat-bottomed, floating hotel. Ouch!   

Turned out it managed the medium swell we encountered with little fuss and it was more or less smooth sailing for the entire voyage. Even though summer is about to arrive, all too often we forget the southern latitudes New Zealand occupies and the weather is not only unsettled at times, but plain cold. As of this sailing, our ship, the Majestic Princess, is the biggest cruise ship in the Princess fleet but leaving Sydney Harbor, we caught sight of another ship that looked familiar and it turned out to be the former Princess cruise line’s biggest ship, the Sea Princess.

Times have changed and after two days at sea, we passed the Sea Princess, that is now part of P&O and based in Australia, but with the itinerary we had in New Zealand, we passed it a couple more times before we returned to Sydney. While Sea Princess was about 800 feet long carrying 2,000 passengers and with a gross tonnage of 77,000 tons, by way of comparison, Majestic Princess was over 1,000 feet long, carried 3,500 passengers (with another 1,500 as crew) and has a gross tonnage almost twice as much, 145,000 tons.

WiFi connections were good even with as many passengers and crew as there were on board. However, Princess changed the protocol from previous cruises to a more complex sign-off process catching many folks unaware, including me. Although Princess gives returning passengers a reasonable amount of free WiFi access, it is instantly chewed up if you don’t follow the sign-off protocol. One of the longest lines we encountered on the ship was the line winding its way to the Internet Café to complain bitterly of all the free minutes lost by nearly everyone onboard. Sure hope that Princess addresses this proactively, but if your plans call for a Princess cruise any time soon, be warned ahead of time. Read the instructions!

On the other hand, one of the more pleasant offerings Princess provides, where there are no lines involved, is the private dining opportunity you can reserve for a five course dinner – with cocktails and champagne – on your suite’s balcony. Being 16 decks above the waterline, our dining experience was spectacular and something Margo and I strongly recommend to anyone planning a voyage on these new “Royal-Class” of Princess Ships – Royal Princess, Regal Princess, and now, Majestic Princess. As it was, not only did we pick the right day when seas were calm and the skies clear of rain squalls but the soft, late afternoon light, provided all the ambiance we needed!

As for being inside the ship, the major drawcard continues to be the three level piazza, where numerous bars and casual dining areas are easily accessed. As is the International Café that I frequent, in the wee hours of the morning, to catch up on work over a cappuccino and a fresh croissant! I am often asked about the difficulties of working from the ship and after a couple of trips out to sea this year I can honestly  report that in today’s “everything connected, everything computes” world we live in, it’s now just another remote location with very few downsides when compared to my other remote location in Windsor, Colorado.

On the other hand, I am much closer to a variety of restaurants and when the ship pulls into port, there are even more restaurants to choose from – while in Wellington, after chatting with folks we know, it was time to head to a Belgium restaurant for fresh New Zealand muscles and good Belgium beer. I have to say, I am a fan of Sydney rock oysters but at a couple of stops, we have tried the local fare and they are acceptable. Just as good? Not to my palate, mind you, but very close. On the other hand, it’s hard to turn away any dairy products, be it butter or cream, as they are simply unsurpassed by anything else we have tasted. Ever!

The one item that did surprise us was that while in Tauranga, reunited with a business colleague we have known for more than a decade, we were driven into a forest of Redwoods that had been brought to New Zealand in the early 1900s, now a tribute to the Forestry men and women who perished in both world wars.  These redwoods have thrived. Even though only a hundred years old and centuries in front of them, they looked spectacular and as we walked a trail, I was half expecting to encounter a bear or an elk. What was a little different from those forests in California we know so well were the sulfur hot springs that bubbled to the surface to feed small streams. But then again, we were walking in the shaky isles where the landscape continues to be redefined on a regular basis.

For a very long time I was a sailor. My first career change took me from Wollongong to Sydney to work for the container shipping division of P&O – Overseas Containers Limited (OCL). At the same time, I was crewing on a Peter Cole 40 foot fractional-rigged sloop as its sole for’ard hand. Sailing out of Middle Harbor Yacht Club we managed to put in enough races over the course of a long season to win the division one title a couple of years in a row.

I was reminded of this when spending time with my brother, Greg. At one point prior to my departure to the US, I gave serious consideration to buying a famous yacht, Inch by Winch. I was working for Nixdorf Computers and was a friend of a  mate of Joe Goddard Jr., who thought I would be the perfect “next owner” of this yacht as, you see, in a previous Sydney to Hobart yacht race, it suffered serious internal structural damage. For just Aus$100,000 it could be all yours! What a deal – so I took it out for a test sail and took with me, my brother who I put to work on a coffee-grinder winch. Ouch – he threw his shoulder out in a big way and to this day, he still winces and casts an eye in my direction. Thanks, brother! And no, I elected not to buy the yacht and that is perhaps one decision I regret to this day.

That was so long ago. Another lifetime, really! But as we headed for dinner the other night and I caught a glimpse of the harbor we would be leaving behind, it all came back. Margo’s and my reluctance to fly anywhere when we can help it is now very well documented and it will not be the last time we catch a ship instead of a plane. But to date, the most pleasurable aspect of this working BizCation has been reconnecting with so many of my former business colleagues, and in a way, Margo has been given an “education” into much of my life back here in Sydney during the turbulent days that were the crazy 1980s.

The world of IT is definitely not as much fun as it once was but then again, I still recall the last line of code I wrote back in 1979. It was June of that year and I was installing software at the Reserve Bank of Australia in Martin Place and I was adding function to VTAM (or was that BTAM?), a networking protocol typical of mainframes of the day. But just as with sailing, writing code is something I left behind a long time ago. Perhaps it’s time too to think about how much longer I throw cars around a race track? Maybe not yet – but as that time approaches, look for another post. For now, all I can hear are the lines from that Rod Stewart song from the 1980s:

    I am sailing
    I am sailing
    Home again
    'Cross the sea