Rocket Launch At The End Of The Amazonian Cruise
Position: Kourou, French Guiana
Date: 22 December 2012
Rocket Launch At The End Of The Amazonian Cruise
Shortly after anchoring in the River Kourou in French Guiana, we went ashore to the rickety fishermens’ pontoon to be greeted by friends of friends, Beth and John Melina. Both Sally and I had met them briefly when they were crewing Phil and Norma’s Minnie B across the Atlantic with us in the Rallye in 2009. John and Beth sailed here from the UK and decided to stay. They have been living here for the last 10 years, John working at the Space Centre, and Beth teaching English to the French. As our fresh water pump had packed up more than a week before, so no showers on board, Beth immediately drove us (windows wide open) to their house where we took it in turns to luxuriate under their powerful shower. I can’t tell you how good it felt.
We had been chased out of the exclusion zone in the Iles du Salut because of the Ariane rocket launch and, as dusk approached, Beth drove us to the beach which is the favoured viewing point for the launches. There was a party atmosphere as, in the last of the light, children played on the beach whilst the adults sat on the rocks quaffing bottles of French wine. Suddenly there was a collective gasp as on the far side of the wide bay a brilliant light filled the horizon. Seconds later a long tongue of flame shot into the sky and arced towards us, passing overhead with a low pitched thundering roar that seemed to shake the ground on which we sat. We followed the candle-like flame streaming a spectacular vapour trail through our binoculars until we saw at the edge of space the two booster rockets that are strapped to the sides of the main rocket separating from the main rocket and falling away whilst the main rocket continued on its way into deep space to deploy its cargo of satellites (including on this occasion a British MOD satellite).
The rocket launch was absolutely spectacular, and quizzing John over dinner after the event, some remarkable facts emerged. The booster rockets that power the main rocket through the atmosphere to the edge of space are separated from the main rocket by explosive devices once they have done their job and they simply fall back into the sea. “And if there’s a ship underneath?” I asked, thinking that several hundred tons of metal falling on Mina2 as she sailed peacefully up the coast would have been the ultimate catastrophe in an already catastrophic cruise. “Well, I don’t think any have landed on a ship yet” John replied, “but if they have, then the authorities have kept it very quiet.” “I assume the boosters are recovered?” I asked. “Well, actually not” came the reply. This was ironic. Playing our part in saving the world, we had scrupulously been keeping since Salvador, at some inconvenience, all our non-biodegradable waste, including numerous food tins and beer cans, rather than throwing them overboard and polluting the sea, and that morning we had carted about five large bags ashore for ecological disposal. I had now found that our European governments were wilfully tossing hundreds of tons of scrap metal into the sea every month with no attempt to recover them. From now on I think I might just adapt my stringent policy on waste disposal at sea.
The other most striking fact to emerge was the duration of the entire operation. I had thought that the rocket would be powering away for a day or so to get to the right orbit level to deploy its cargo of satellites. Not a bit of it. Within 17 minutes of take-off the rocket has reached its orbit level, opened its cargo holds and deployed its satellites. Job done. After about 20 minutes from launch at the Space Centre, they turn the lights off and go home.
John and Beth have been unbelievable. Advised of our arrival only a couple of weeks before Christmas, they have thrown their hospitable doors wide open. Prior to our arrival, hair dressing and manicure appointments had been made for Sally, who would be leaving the brutish insanitary conditions on board Mina2 for Christmas in Florida, guests of properly posh Oyster owning friends. Not only have Beth and John provided showers and internet wifi (with which I hope soon to post some photos), but one of John’s passions is cooking and we have enjoyed a couple of sensational meals at their home. They are acting as poste restante for a parcel of urgent spares being couriered out to French Guiana. And more than that, in a town that has neither buses nor taxis, they have over-generously loaned us one of their cars, without which trips to laundries, supermarkets, and numerous trips to petrol stations to refuel the boat with several hundred litres of diesel in jerries would have been well-nigh impossible.
Beth and John have also been kind enough to invite me to join them for their very traditional Christmas dinner. So I won’t after all be all alone over Christmas with a can of corned beef and surrounded by tins of varnish. Oh, joy.
I hope John and Beth won’t be insulted if I were to say that the town of Kourou hasn’t exactly been selected by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site. It is a recently built dormitory town for the many people who work at the European Space Centre and it’s not what you would call pretty. But it does have all the facilities of a small French town and that includes bakers and supermarkets the quality of which I haven’t seen this side of the Atlantic. What joy to be able to buy ham that was actually sliced from an animal rather than being mechanically recovered and reconstituted into a flavourless brick. An enormous array of cheeses that actually taste of something, jars of foie gras, and slabs of mouth-watering pates. All plastered on a crispy French baguette and washed down with a bottle of good claret. Thank God I’ve recovered my appetite.
In between the numerous trips ashore we return to Mina2 on the dinghy which we tie up on the fishermens’ jetty. The fishing boats are all small open boats that they take into the stretch of water between the river and the Iles du Salut. The catch is gutted on the pontoon before being carried to the fish market. So we negotiate our way down the rickety pontoon dodging the fishing nets and side stepping as best we can the gore of fish blood and guts which often just get left there, so we also have to kick out of the way the flocks of vultures that swarm over the pontoon picking at the carrion. Quite feral.
A couple of days ago we had an even bigger obstacle to negotiate. One of the fishing boats had clearly had a good day. The boat was laden with the most enormous fish I have seen. At least five or six feet long and probably five feet in girth with enormous ugly heads, we understood they were groupers. It took three men to lift each one out of the fishing boat to be hacked apart with a machete on the pontoon. Apparently they make good eating and fetch a good price. For the fisherman it must have been like a lottery win.
Yesterday, Sally and I went on a tour of the Space Centre that John had booked for us. It was fascinating but would have been more so had the entire 3 ½ hour commentary not been in rapid fire French alone, of which several of the visitors, including Sally and me, sadly didn’t catch a word.
Lawrence couldn’t join us for the tour as he had a plane to catch to wing him back home to his loving family for Christmas. Dear Larry. We just get on so well together. A veteran of so many Mina2 cruises, this year alone he has sailed with me from a few miles north of Cape Horn up the entire coast of South America and over the equator. 5,500 miles of the enjoyment of each other’s company. Notwithstanding the considerable trials and tribulations of this cruise, his eternal optimism has lifted our spirits and his knowledge of things mechanical have proved invaluable. I couldn’t ask for a better shipmate. I owe a debt to Carrie, his wife, for being so generous in allowing Larry the time off.
And today, I drove Sally, beautifully coiffed and manicured, to the airport for her flight to Florida for her Christmas in much more hygienic surroundings than she suffered aboard Mina2. I can’t tell you what a pleasure it was having such an immensely experienced sailor on board. She kicked off, as Honorary Quartermaster, by taking charge of all the provisioning which was an enormous relief to all of us. But far more than that was the comfort I got from having someone on board who not only knew all there was about sailing boats, but this boat in particular, she having professionally skippered a number of Oyster 485’s in the past. It meant that the pressure was off, I could completely relax and get on with fixing the numerous problems that emerged. But the greatest debt I owe her was when she simply took control when I was ill, weak and getting weaker by the hour. I wouldn’t have allowed many people to do that, and I can’t tell you the relief I felt.
I was very sad to see both Sally and Lawrence go after our six weeks together, but sometimes on a long cruise, particularly one as challenging as this, it’s good to take some time out alone. OK, I won’t exactly be relaxing: I’ve got a maintenance list a month long to complete in the next week. But I will be regrouping and refreshing ready for the arrival of the Downstairs Skipper, and Linda my sister and John my brother-in-law for the next adventure up the coast of the Guyanas – to Suriname and Guyana before crossing over to Tobago, Trinidad and Grenada in the Caribbean.
Assuming you won’t be interested in each layer of varnish that I lay down on my now well-worn sole boards, this is likely to be the last you hear from me until the New Year (although I hope to be posting some photos of the spectacular islands we have visited). So can I take this opportunity of wishing all you faithful Mina2 blog followers a Happy and Peaceful Christmas