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

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