Saturday, October 22, 2016

A Farewell...And A Promise

Well, the day had to come...

Exit Scotland. After three enjoyable weeks of NATO war-games in the waters off the rugged west coast of this beautiful country, and two amazing trips ashore, 'Leroy Grumman' has turned her bows southward and rumbles down the Firth of Clyde. The journey continues.

I met a lot of terrific people during my time(s) here, and was able to indulge my astronomical interests to an extent not experienced in any other port-visits in my long career @ sea. I attended a public observing session at Coats Observatory in Paisley two weeks ago, and last night I was thrilled to join some serious local amateur astronomers at their dark sky site of Loudon Hill.

And now we're leaving port, as ships and sailors are wont to do. I mentioned the other day the mysterious affinity I feel for this country; green hills and deep, deep lochs; fog-wreathed castles and multitudes of grouse in the high grass. Maybe it has to do with my ancestors who left these valleys for the wilds of Virginia so many years ago, I don't know. But now I feel even more strongly this connection--there is something here that calls to me.

To Shand and Allistair, Wullie and Amid and Heather and George, and to all the others who welcomed me to their shores, Thank You for the pleasure of good times shared and open discourse enjoyed. I've had a remarkable visit and made many great friends, and I don't intend for this sailing to be an ending...not if I can help it.

I'll be back.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

A Visit To Coats Observatory (Paisley, Scotland)

"Of all tools, the telescope is the most sublime"--Ralph Waldo Emerson
There I was, on the first full day of 'Leroy Grumman's much-anticipated weekend visit to Scotland.  In over three decades of sea-faring I had never before been to the land of my ancestors, and given that record it was a very good probability that I would never again have the chance to see the land of Robert the Bruce, William Wallace, and Peter Capaldi !  'Grumman' is a working ship, and I a Mariner not a tourist...the upshot of this is that I was to have one full day--Saturday--free to explore.

Naturally I decided to spend this time wisely and visit one of the three historic public observatories in Scotland.  The fact that this evening the astronomical world would be celebrating International Observe The Moon Night and that Coats was scheduled to be open for this event...well, that just sweetened the deal.

The north side of the Observatory
I caught a morning bus from 'Grumman's mooring at Loch Striven to the pretty town of Dunoon; from there a passenger ferry carried me across the Clyde to Gourock. Within minutes I was aboard a train heading into Glasgow--the trains are precisely timed to arrive and depart Gourock Station within ten minutes of  ferry arrivals and departures!--and less than an hour after leaving the pier in Dunoon I stood before my destination.

The weather was mostly clear, cool and crisp; I had noted that leaves were turning during my bus and train journeys and I was glad I had dressed for chilly weather in my green coat and watch-cap.  Ever hopeful of star-gazing opportunities I had also packed gloves, scarf  and a pair of chemical hand-warmers (the amateur astronomers' version of the "condom-in-the-wallet", if you will!). The clearing skies made me optimistic of at least the chance of being able to observe through the Observatory's instruments!

The main building of Coats Observatory stands behind the Paisley Museum and Library, rising above houses and apartment buildings in solid Victorian style, its copper dome a clear landmark for the astronomical tourist (though it IS sometimes confused with a similarly-shaped structure a few hundred yards away known as the "punchbowl"...a fellow passenger on the train had pointed that building out as Coats only a few minutes before I arrived!).

On the roof!
First entering the museum, I learned that tours of the observatory were being conducted throughout the day and that should the weather hold the dome would be opened for the public between 1900 and 2100 that night.  Of course I joined the very next tour, which was rather lightly-attended; only I and a young business student from the local university met the lady who was to be our guide.  (I privately hoped that there would be more attendees for the Lunar festivities in the evening...I needn't have worried on that score!)

The 10" and 5" Refractors on a (former) Equatorial Mount
My first impression upon entering the Observatory building was--light!  The entire interior of the structure was aglow with warm, directed sunlight--cleverly accomplished through the use of conical "portholes" in the structure's upper reaches and great stained-glass windows in the eastern rooms on the lower floors.  The effect was both practical and charming--somehow the architects who'd designed this building--from the ground-floor entranceway, up the spiral staircase and ramps (intended to facilitate the movement of equipment within the observatory), and even the interior of the dome itself, not a single electric light was burning while all was perfectly illuminated!

No-where was this effect more dramatic than in the dome itself. Here, the massive mounting supports not one but two massive telescopes--plus two small finder 'scopes--in an arrangement out of the age of iron and steam.

I stood beneath them in a state of awe--unlike most vintage instruments you find in observatories these days, the two large refractors seemed unchanged, unaltered or from their original configuration. Original brass and iron soldier on in an age dominated by electronics and digital technology; except for a few wires and connections visible on the mounting these telescopes stand as monuments to their time of glory, when the giant refractor ruled and the giant mirror-based telescopes of today were inconceivable ghosts of a distant future.

5", 10" and Finder Scopes (Note the use of the mounting in Alt/Az mode)
The huge equatorial mount is being used in "Alt/Az" mode today; the polar axis has been locked and observers must move the huge instruments by hand using the bracket extending below the tube.  Their balance is excellent so it takes little effort to do this, but it means that the 'scopes must be continually adjusted to counter Earth's rotation; a real bother during public sessions as I know from long experience!

According to our guide the clock drive was replaced by a motor many years ago, but that too has fallen into disrepair; she seemed resigned to the fact that the great telescopes were fated to be "hand-driven" for a long time.  I'm hoping that she is wrong; there is nothing like a steady, "hands-off" image of the Moon or a planet..

Our guide demonstrates the adjustable observing seat and ladder
Again, the dome was entirely illuminated by sunlight coming in via the "portholes" visible in the exterior photos--I didn't even use a flash for any of these photos!  You can see the multiple shadows and reflections on the instruments and varnished wall in the observatory.

After the tour I went out to dinner and a walk down the high street, but I stayed close as I wanted to be early in-line for the night's lunar session. I also visited the Paisley Abbey, home of the famous "Alien" gargoyle, and wondered (as I'm sure many have...) whether the Abbey's directors were aware of the Giger-esque nature of this Guardian Monster when they contracted it from a Belgian artist...
Call the Colonial Marines...Quick!
Returning to the Observatory at the appointed time I was surprised and pleased to find a considerable line forming; apparently International Observe the Moon night is a big draw in these parts! It's hard to estimate numbers but I suspect that at least one hundred-and-fifty or even two hundred people of every age came to Coats to view the first-quarter Moon which hung low in the south.
Snapshot of the Moon--hand-held!
After a half-hour in line I was finally back in the dome, and had my all-too-brief glimpse at Luna through the 10" refractor.  As our guides had no time to adjust the viewing seat I had to twist uncomfortably to place my eye at the occular.  My appreciation of the view?  Fantastic! Fine detail of the lunar highlands was sliding rapidly past--the effect of Earth's uncorrected rotation--and I was staring into the inky shadows cast by crater walls and central peaks as if looking down from a speeding spacecraft in low orbit.  Just a beautiful, near-perfect image...I could have crouched there for hours, studying the passing lunar scenery!

But there were quite a few people crowded into the dome, awaiting their turns...I said goodbye to the splendid image and climbed down, disappointed to have so little time but also enthused to have been able to see our natural satellite in extreme close-up through this magnificent instrument.

Climbing back down the spiral staircase and leaving the building through the back door I found the Astronomy Curator of the Museum, John, running a somewhat more modern telescope.  He was keeping busy with "overflow" guests, giving them a look at Luna (by now falling rapidly toward the treeline) through an 8" Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope. I took a brief look through this instrument but soon fell into my old habits of answering questions posed by guests; I guess you can take the Volunteer out of his home country but you can't stop him talking about his favorite topic!

Astronomer John looks on as a guest enjoys the view of Luna
Finally, as the public evening at Coats Observatory drew to a close, I made my farewells to John and his enthusiastic staff and then set off on foot for the railway station.  It had been a great day, full of interesting conversation with people well-met, explorations of the Victorian-era universe, and an enjoyable (if brief) visit to the delightful city of Paisley.  Boarding the train back to Gourock where the punctual ferry waited, I glanced at the setting Moon and reflected on my single free day in Scotland; a day very well spent!

The beautiful 'Hershel' stained-glass window!
Follow the signs...

Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Elephant in the Room, Part II

The Pens seen from the Harbor Mole

Yesterday's tour of the old German U-Boat pens in Brest was an amazing success! Our guide, a French Navy Commander, walked a dozen crew-members (including Captain Gray, Master of 'Leroy Grumman') through the complex, describing the fortresses' defenses and capabilities as we went. Wearing hard-hats to protect against any falling pieces of the ceiling, we heard the story of the first of Hitler's Western Wall sub pens, its construction which began in 1940 and took 500 days to complete using French labor, its support of two U-Boat flotillas during the Battle of the Atlantic, and the near-total destruction of the city of Brest by allied bombers attempting to neutralize this ugly structure and the submarines it maintained.
Our guide explains the problem of WWII ordnance disposal

I was professionally impressed by the workshop spaces, now used by French Navy EOD teams who spend most of their time locating and destroying ordnance left-over from World War II (and even WWI!), and drydocks currently in use maintaining minesweepers. The old monster which looms over Navbase Brest no longer repairs and re-arms Admiral Doenitz' U-Boats but still serves a purpose, supporting the ships and divers who locate and destroy the old ordnance in coastal French waters.
The main concourse, connecting workshops (right) with sub pens
One disturbing note (if walking through a decaying Nazi relic that supported the effort to destroy Britain by strangling the vital sea-links in the Atlantic isn't disturbing enough) was our guide's apparent pride in the base and even (if my read on his exposition and expression while describing the Battle of the Atlantic was anywhere near correct) in the accomplishments of the U-Boats based here.  I wish I could write here that I was the only one who left his presence with a queasy feeling inside, but later discussions with Shipmates who came on the tour confirmed that my impressions were shared ones.  Could it be that we spent the afternoon in the presence of a Third Reich apologist?
Damage caused by a British "Tallboy" bomb
In spite of our host's seemingly odd approach to his subject matter, I thoroughly enjoyed this rare opportunity to explore a relic of the German occupation, and to see for myself a major facility of Admiral Donitz's U-Boat force.  I have more photographs that I plan to post later, but want to get these impressions online before I get too busy with 'Leroy Grumman's upcoming operations.  I hope these images will give you some impression of the colossal and practical engineering achievement (with just a tinge of true and abiding evil) we were able to experience first-hand.
Exploring a U-Boat Drydock
It takes a village...the orange and green objects are training mines

The meter-thick walls--pocked by strafing aircraft fire
'Grumman's Captain Richard Gray (right) and our guide