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On the road with Brian Cushing (3)


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On the road with Brian Cushing (3)

Posted on 17th March, 2018

In the third of his occasional articles, we visit a place not so far afield - Germany in mid-winter.








            Most of my travels in marine surveying have taken place in warm climates – mainly on ships in ports located in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Central America. So it made a change to get an instruction to get to the depths of Germany, Saarbrücken in the Saarland (southwest of Frankfurt) in mid-winter, to attend the loading of a large piece of offshore oilfield equipment on to an aircraft which would then proceed to Singapore.


            This was 2007, and looking now at the contemporary weather charts for Germany I can quite see why it felt so perishingly cold, particularly standing on airfield runway at Zweibrücken, near Saarbrücken, waiting for our plane to come in on the evening of 21 December. There was high pressure stuck over Germany which meant clear skies and easterly winds, which together with an air temperature of about -5°C delivered a ‘feels-like’ of about 10° less than that. It certainly made me wonder what I was doing here and if it was all worth it. In short:-


            The piece of equipment in question had been manufactured in Saarbrücken for installation in an offshore oilfield development. The flight from Germany to Singapore was insured by London underwriters who had appointed us to check out and approve (or otherwise) the carriage logistics and hence safe delivery of the unit. I had drawn the short straw to attend the loadout in Germany, while our technical folks cheered me on from a warm remote office.


            The plan was to deliver the unit from its manufacturer’s premises in Saarbrücken to the airfield at Zweibrücken, where it would be loaded on to a chartered cargo aircraft, safely secured and then flown in a couple of extended hops, via Russia and India, to Singapore. The aircraft in question was an Antonov AN-124-100, chartered from Ukrainian operators, operated by a crew of 8 and capable of lifting a 150 tonnes cargo payload. With a length of 69m, a wingspan of 73m, and a height of 21m, it was slightly larger than the 747-400’s around at that time.  Here are a couple of stock photos:-
















Antonov 124-100                                        Cargo access nose cone raised


            The cargo which was so urgently required on site at the offshore oilfield that this aircraft could be exclusively chartered for the trip, was what they call a ‘Swivel Head’, a piece of precision engineering weighing just over 50 tonnes, which would be fitted  inside the turret mooring system of a Floating Production Storage and Offloading (FPSO) installation.  An FPSO is usually based on a converted oil tanker hull, fitted with processing equipment for separation and treatment of crude oil, water and gases, arriving on board from sub-sea oil wells via flexible pipelines.  The turret is moored to the seabed with chains, wires and anchors and has a bearing (the swivel head) which allows 360° rotation of the FPSO around the turret, to the prevailing wind, sea and swell conditions.


            The FPSO has storage capacity and is equipped with an offloading system to transfer the crude oil to shuttle tankers for shipment to refineries.




















FPSO – how it works


















“Raroa”, FPSO based in the Maari Field, New Zealand, where the swivel head was ultimately bound.


            The insured value of this particular piece of kit was about US$2.5M, so its safe transportation from the manufacturer had to be organised in minute detail by the appointed freight forwarders. I was there as the London insurance warranty surveyor, meaning I had to approve and sign off each of three legs: at the manufacturer’s premises, loading and securing onto a truck and trailer; transporting the unit safely to the airfield; and loading to and securing on the aircraft.


            A couple of days before the aircraft arrived, the swivel head was lifted into a bespoke steel cradle, and then craned on to the trailer. My role, together with reps of the freight forwarders, was to check the cradle, the truck and its trailer, and to inspect all the lashing chains for correct size and tensioning, and the suitability and certified strength of shackles and rigging screws. The truck then proceeded to the airfield, about 40 kms distant, arriving there in the afternoon of the day the Antonov was scheduled to arrive. A heavy-lift crane of 160 tonnes safe working load was standing by to lift the unit from the trailer and on to the aircraft loading ramp when the plane arrived. My job here was to inspect the crane and its condition and certification. (This being Germany, all the transport and lifting equipment thus far was spot on.)



















Loading and securing of the swivel head on the truck



            Everything being in place on the airfield, we now had to await the arrival of the Antonov, the estimated time of that being 8:00 pm. The sun set at about 4:40 and it got rapidly darker and colder. And colder. Since the aircraft was flying in from Ukraine, I was prepared for a lengthy delay beyond its ETA; so it was a pleasant surprise, insofar as that could be registered through the general numbness, when landing lights appeared beyond the horizon pretty well smack on time. With a thunderous roar, the huge plane was on the ground and taxiing in by about twenty past the hour. The next step was to load the swivel head and its cradle on board.


            Now here’s a thing. In over forty years of seafaring and then surveying, I’d loaded and secured cargo on many ships, but I’d never had to go through the exercise with an aircraft. Thinking about it, I supposed that a huge cargo plane would hardly be manoeuvring like a fighter, and the largest accelerations would, or should, be on takeoff and landing – but there could always be atmospheric turbulence en route. In fact, ships in severely adverse weather conditions would probably experience greater accelerations in terms of pitching and rolling, for which their cargo has to be adequately lashed down and secured.


            It’s one thing to figure this all to yourself, and another to confidently sign off the securing of a piece of kit valued at two and a half million dollars. So I thought I’d leave this to our technical people, who spent their sad lives number crunching. Guess what – they’d never worked out the securing requirements on an aircraft either, so there was a certain sucking of teeth. In the end, they calculated the securing (number and size of chains, hooks, shackles, rigging screws and so on) as though the swivel head was going to be loaded and lashed down on a ship, and then multiplied the number of chains by three, which seemed a nice round number if not exactly scientifically come by. It certainly afforded a good margin of error, and probably meant that under unforeseen stress, the aircraft would fall apart before the cargo was dislodged. 


            Certainly, when I got to talk with the Ukrainian Antonov crew, and told them what was required by way of the quantity of securing chains, they looked at me as though I was completely mad. I don’t think they’d ever been asked to go to these lengths before. I gave up on getting the phrase “belt and braces” through, too.


            The professionalism of the crew, under the command of a load master and flight manager, was most impressive. First, the nose cone was raised up to the open position, then the forward landing gear of the plane was hydraulically shortened so that the loading access sank to within a couple of metres from the ground.




















Nose cone raised and forward fuselage lowered



            A sloping loading ramp with fixed rails was then run out in sections and locked in place, down which a flat steel skid was electrically winched from the cargo hold interior. All the certification for this equipment had to be inspected and approved, as the ramp and skid would have to bear the weight of the 50-tonne cargo.


            When this was completed, the mobile crane moved into position and lifted the swivel head from the trailer on to the skid, which was then winched back into the aircraft’s cargo hold to a position calculated by the load master to suit the plane’s stability and trim.


















Ready to lift the swivel head from the truck to the loading ramp



            Once in place, the crew started the securing process, in which the size, angle and placement of each chain had, in theory, been calculated by our technical people. In truth, there were so many chains involved that it was impossible to achieve the theoretical plan – there were simply insufficient fixing points, so a compromise had to be reached, with chains being placed and tensioned wherever possible.


















Placing and tensioning the securing chains



            The final result resembled a cat’s cradle; but I was happy that it wouldn’t move in a hurry. In the words of my loadout report prepared for the insurers:-


          Lashing and securing of the swivel and its cradle comprised a total of 60 doubled chain lashings of 7 mm diameter affixed to 25 mm diameter patent rigging screws hooked onto ‘D’ rings secured to female connectors set in the aircraft deck. The chains were set through the padeye lashing points on the swivel cradle or other strong points such as the cradle chassis transverse or longitudinal girders. The chains were tensioned by means of the patent rigging screws. This arrangement gave at minimum an approximate 150 tonnes restraint transversely, 150 tonnes longitudinally, and 150 tonnes vertically.


            Yes, that’s sixty chains!





















Secured in place on the aircraft



            The actual loadout and securing was completed remarkably quickly – by just after 2 a.m., so the operation from start to finish took less than six hours. The various certificates which I had to prepare and print out, and the necessary export paperwork - freight forwarders’ responsibility - took another couple of hours and then, in accordance with its flight plan, the Antonov taxied out and took off with an ear-busting roar, at 8:00 a.m., just before sunrise.


            As far as I was concerned, that was that, apart from the usual report writing – although I was relieved to be told a day or so later that the swivel head had arrived safely and without incident in Singapore. I would have hated to think that such a valuable piece of kit had got bent in transit. And the bonus was, I got home in time for Christmas.




Brian Cushing

West Farleigh, 17 March 2018

On the road with Brian Cushing (2)

Posted on 13th November, 2017

In the second of his occasional articles, Brian takes us back to 1990 in the Middle East - Yemen:-








“Welcome aboard, wack”, said Captain Billy, skipper of the tug “Fast Fox”, who clearly hailed from Liverpool. I’ve forgotten his surname, if indeed I ever knew it. Everyone seemed to know him as Billy. This was 1990, and my dealings over the past few days up to arrival in Hodeidah, Yemen, had been pretty exclusively with Yemeni officialdom, so Billy was a real breath of fresh air. His tug, in the ownership of Cory Towage, a UK firm, was on charter to the Hodeidah Port Authority, whose director had instructed him to take me out to the position of the bulk carrier “Nirja” which, laden with bagged rice, had gone aground some days previously when making a nighttime passage into Hodeidah Port via the entrance channel. The ship was stuck there and various attempts to refloat her using the main engine had failed. I was there on behalf of the ship’s insurers and owners to see what could be done.














“Fast Fox” – Built 1974; 264 tonnes deadweight; 41.66 m length overall


The tug’s mooring lines were let go and Billy conned her clear of the wharf and set off up the channel toward the “Nirja”, which at this stage was just visible some miles distant. The tug was crowded – apart from Billy and his crew, there was the inevitable assortment of harbour officials and sundry hangers-on out for the ride. Some military personnel were there too, since at this time unification of the two constituent states of the Republic of Yemen had just taken place and the general atmosphere was a tad febrile. It had, for instance, been suggested that the grounding of the “Nirja” was a deliberate act by a hostile foreign power, since the ship was now partially blocking the entrance channel and disrupting shipping movements to some extent. It was all a bit political.























Al-Hudaydah [Hodeidah] at centre left


Before unification in 1990, the country was split into two states: the Yemen Arab Republic in the west and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south and east. There was ever tension between the two but the general idea was that after 1990 they would work toward integration, a goal not helped by ideological differences and the complex involvement of America in the (nominally) democratic YAR, and Soviet Russia in the marxist PDRY, together with their respective allies.


In the 1990’s, Yemen was a rather different place to the extensively war-ravaged country that we see in the media today. Not that it was ever stable: in my own lifetime, between 1948 and 1994 there were no less than eight attempted coups, civil wars and emergencies. Since 1998, al-Queda and Houthi insurgencies led in their different ways to the total warfare which has lasted to this very day, with the involvement of other countries, which visits much misery and suffering, and death, on the civilian population as well as the combatants.



Travel between the two unified states in 1990 was feasible, but not particularly simple nor was it 100% safe. However, I just had to get from Sana’a, the capital, where I had arrived a couple of days previously, to the port of Hodeidah – both cities being in the Yemen Arab Republic. There were two ways to do it – a flight, or by driving.


In the event the Hodeidah flight had been cancelled, which at least gave me a chance to see something of the country on the road from Sana’a. Our local agent arranged a car (a Nissan Patrol, which was reassuring) and driver, and we departed the town early in the morning. The distance by road was about 250 kms,by the highway which wound through the Sarawat mountain range, with numerous hairpin bends and precipitous passes.

The outskirts of Sana’a featured an amazing phenomenom -  ancient skyscrapers built of mud bricks and intricately decorated. Tragically, it seems they have now been reduced largely to rubble.





























The mountain road was as rugged as predicted, with the odd accident to remind one that sometimes the drivers’ enthusiasm overtook their skill.



























After the descent from the mountains, the final stretch was about 100 kms over the coastal plain into Hodeidah. Everywhere in the mountains where there was a level patch, and significantly in the plain beyond, there was evidence of coffee plantations (Mocha coffee!) which well before 1990 were being rapidly swallowed by a more profitable cash crop – khat [gat, qat] which is ubiquitous throughout Yemen. Most of the men (and no doubt the women, although you don’t usually see that) stuff their cheeks with the leaves, until they resemble a hamster, and chew it to a green sludge. 
























Yemeni man chewing khat


It’s supposed to be a stimulant, and in the south, which is rather less Islamic, they take whisky with it which does seem to enhance the effect. I have tried some, and cannot report much if any stimulation; just a lasting aftertaste of what I imagine privet hedge to be like.





Back in Hodeidah, the good tug “Fast Fox” bustled up the entrance channel and closed on the grounded vessel “Nirja”, which was indeed stuck fast with her stern projecting into the channel.















m.v. “Nirja”: a shot taken in Germany. Built 1972; 30,255 tonnes deadweight; 190.02 m length overall


Having got on board, I interviewed the Master on the circumstances of the grounding. It seemed that when entering the channel, which was marked with lighted buoys, he had mistaken his position and exited the channel on its east side, where the ship had grounded. It seemed one of more of the buoys had not been lit, which had misled him. He briefed me on the failed refloating efforts to date, and then the next task was to figure out how to get the ship out of its current situation.


She had gone aground on a spring tide at high water, following which of course the water depth fell with the ebb tide, and she was well and truly stuck. In the few days since, the tidal range, which is never that big anyway in Red Sea ports, had steadily diminished from its spring tide maximum. In other words, the ship had gone aground on a highest high tide of the monthly cycle between spring and neap tides. Consequently, in her present condition, loaded with cargo, was no chance that high water would refloat her until the next spring tide in about two weeks’ time. This was too long for the ship to be partially blocking the channel and interfering with navigation in the port. The only feasible option was to lighten the ship by discharging some of her cargo of bagged rice, so that her draft (depth in the water) decreased. This had to be attempted, and speedily.


Refloating efforts like this are frequently undertaken by professional salvors who are rewarded by a percentage of the value of the ship and cargo saved, which varies according to the degree of peril that the vessel is in and the extent of effort put in. The big international salvors such as Smit typically operate large ocean-going tugs and can command extensive logistical support and the speedy provision by air freight of equipment such as pumps, air compressors, and so on. If, as was the situation here, the grounded vessel is within a nation’s port limits, then the permission and agreement of the government and port authorities has to be sought before the salvors can enter and attend. The “Nirja” was not realistically in immediate danger, having grounded on soft mud and in ongoing clement weather, but as was their right the Hodeidah Port Authorities had demanded of the ship’s owners (i.e., their insurance underwriters) that she must be removed due to the hinderance to navigation within the port, and the possibility of damage and pollution if she broke up in future adverse weather.


The Port Authorities had decided to do the job themselves, with an eye to the financial reward, and had forbidden entry to the international salvors prowling outside the port limits. My role as the representative of the ship’s insurance underwriters and owners was to liaise and assist, and generally ensure that the reward that the Port had negotiated was justified and fairly earned. The figure was US$ 250,000, which sounds a lot but bearing in mind that professional salvors could in the event of a successful refloating have been awarded around 15% of the combined value of ship and cargo (around US$11M), the insurers would have had to cough up about US$1.5M. So the Port Authorities’ price looked relatively cheap.


The first thing was to do some figuring on the weights that needed to be discharged, so I got together with the Master and Chief Officer, to go through the ship’s stability data and do some sums. Soundings around the outside of the ship showed that she was aground on soft mud from the forward end back to about a third of her length; so cargo would have to be discharged from the foremost holds so that the bow rose in the water until the suction of the mud was decreased sufficiently that tugs would be able to pull her free. Soundings inside the ship confirmed that she was dry, so we could assume that that was no damage to the hull plating and therefore that it was safe to pull her off into deeper water.

The calculations suggested (it was difficult to be precise) that about 1,500 tonnes, or 60,000 bags, of rice would have to be shifted from the two forward cargo holds, which would require the hiring of another ship, or barge, to be placed alongside to receive the cargo, and a lot of labour to man each vessel. We had to be careful too that shifting this amount of weight locally would not overload the ship’s structure.


I returned ashore that night on the faithful “Fast Fox” and through our agents arranged to meet with the Port Authorities’ director Captain Ali Noor. No harm in going straight to the top. We met up the next morning and over the course of several discussions got to be, if not quite friendly, at least on good terms. Ali was a short, pugnacious and ambitious man, who subsequently rose to be a shipping minister in the Sana’a government. I wonder where he is now, if indeed he’s alive, after all the internecine warfare.


I explained to Captain Ali that we would need to charter a suitable ship or barge to receive about 1,500 tonnes of cargo. Without much hesitation he told me that he had the perfect candidate, an Iraqi ship called the “Basrah Sun” (previously named “14 Ramadhan” under different ownership) which was in detention in the port, having been arrested by the Authorities for some transgression. The Iraqi owner was in town it seemed, endeavouring to get her released, so could be counted on to cooperate and hence gain some favour with the powers that were.














“Basrah Sun” under her previous name “14 Ramadhan” – Built 1962;

7,964 tonnes deadweight; 126m length


The only significant problem with this seemingly elegant solution to our needs was that she was in Iraqi ownership. At this time, 1990, the United Nations had placed extensive sanctions on Iraq following its invasion in August of Kuwait; and if I was found to be a party to doing business with an Iraqi citizen, i.e., arranging to charter his ship, I would be in deep trouble with my own government. Thoughts of being sent down flashed through my head.


“No problem”, said the ever-resourceful Ali. “Come and see me this afternoon”.


I did so, and he took me to his office window overlooking the quayside, where the ship was moored and a gang of workmen was busy painting out “Basrah Sun” and substituting “Hodeidah Sun”.


“I have confiscated the vessel!” exclaimed Ali, his beady eyes gleaming. “Now she belongs to Yemen, not Iraq!”.


I felt sorry for the ill-used owner, but on the other hand it overcame our immediate problem. I was able to sign up to the hire of the ship without contemplating the inside of Pentonville, and later that day the “Hodeidah Sun” departed the quay and made her way to berth alongside the “Nirja”. Efficiently arranged by Ali and his staff, labourers and tally clerks boarded the two ships and discharge of the bagged rice from one to the other started with commendable speed using the “Nirja” cargo derricks. My favourite tug “Fast Fox” was instructed by Ali to make fast its towline to the stern of “Nirja” early on in the exercise, ready to pull the ship off the mud as soon as any movement was felt.


Obviously we did not have priority on labour in the port, as other ships needed workers too. Most of our discharge took place on day shifts, and I figured about three or four days to completion. I was therefore pleasantly surprised when, at yet another meeting with Ali ashore in his office early on day three, we were interrupted to be told that the resourceful Captain Billy on “Fast Fox” had elected to give it a try and pulled the “Nirja”, still hitched to the “Hodeidah Sun” alongside, off the mud and into the deep water of the approach channel. The Master of “Nirja” had dropped anchor, Billy had let go and cleared the ship, and “Hodeidah Sun” was in the process of letting go to return to the port with its portion of the cargo.


Later that day, once the usual customs procedures had been completed and all the paperwork triple- and quadrupal signed and stamped, I boarded the “Nirja” for the passage into the port up the channel. We took careful soundings round the ship, but she was dry so it seemed no damage had been done. It was however not 100% certain that no damage had occurred to the main engine or propeller during the original efforts to manoeuvre the ship off the mud, so as had previously been arranged, the vessel was towed in by “Fast Fox” and two other port tugs “dead ship”, i.e. without the use of the engine.


Captain Ali had amongst his many attributes a keen sense of humour. Now when, as we had done here, you discharge weights from the front end of a ship, it rotates or trims around its centre of gravity; the bow rises and the stern sinks. This decreases the forward draft and increases the stern draft. At Hodeidah, there was a draft limitation due to restricted water depths, so that the maximum draft ships were allowed to enter with was 32 feet. For every inch over that, the miscreant ship would be fined US$3,000. We had discharged sufficient cargo from the forward end so that the after draft on arrival alongside had increased to 32 ft 6 ins. In other words the Port Authorities, for which read Captain Ali, who was probably laughing his socks off, fined the ship US$18,000 for the six inches over maximum permitted draft. This on top of the $250,000 they had made from refloating the vessel.



The London insurance underwriters who controlled my destiny, at least in the short term, decreed that I should stay on for the next couple of weeks while the rice cargo was discharged in full from both the renamed “Hodeidah Sun” and “Nirja”, to check whether there was any damage to it. This was a fairly tedious exercise but eventually the task was through and no deficiencies attributable to the grounding were found.


Once the financial arrangements (the Port Authorities’ reward for refloating the ship, and so on) had been completed, the “Nirja” was free to leave. It had been decided that she would proceed to the French ex-colony of Djibouti, just across the Bab-el Mandeb strait from Hodeidah, in order to undergo a divers’ survey of her underwater section and check for any physical damage due to the grounding. I was instructed to go along, and very pleasant short voyage it was in fresh sea air after the heat and dust of Hodeidah.


The diving survey was completed pretty rapidly, with no damage to the ship’s hull having been found. I said my fond farewells to the Master and ship’s staff, the ship sailed and I was free to return to the UK, the job complete except for the tedious task of writing it all up in a report for the insurers. All in all I’d been in Yemen for about a month.




Brian Cushing

West Farleigh

November 2017

White Walkers stalk the Farleighs...

Posted on 5th November, 2017

Halloween Photography


With Halloween upon us, I was asked to take a few ghoulish photographs in and around the village. The snaps were taken using a technique known as Light Painting whereby the shutter of the camera is held open for an extended period of time and an image is created by drawing, or Painting using a light source.


These include torches, LED keyring lights, battery operated festive lights, glow sticks and wire wool. The basic photographic equipment is very simple: a camera with manual focus and manual shutter speed settings, a tripod, or other firm support such a wall, fence, gate post etc. and plenty of patience as there’s a lot of trial error.

T-Rex night hunting

As all the photographs are taken in the dark the basic is setup is the same of all of the photos, with only the exposure times altering from anything from a few seconds to 560 seconds in the case of the Dinosaur. I use an aperture of between F8 to F11 with the lowest ISO your camera has, typically 100 and any noise reduction features turned off. To focus the camera I illuminate the area of interest with a torch and use the Auto Focus to focus the shot then switch over to manual.

Upright Mummy

The various figures and creatures within the photos were created using a number of different methods. The  Mummy type figures were created with a translucent plastic deodorant bottle top placed over a torch to create an illuminated globe in lieu of the normal directional beam of light. The colour was achieved by placing a balloon over the end of the torch, but sweet wrappers work equally well. The torch is them traced over your own body using a side to side motion. By wearing dark and tight fitting clothing insufficient light reflects from you so you don’t appear in the final image. Once the figure has been traced the area is lit using a torch or flash, which reveals whatever is behind allowing the viewer to see through the figure.
















The Dinosaur, Skeleton and Knight Watchman were simply drawn using a LED keyring light facing the camera then the area was lit up using a torch. Finally, the bats flying over the winged figure at the top of the page were formed using a simple stencil placed in front of an off-camera flash.




The large ball of string in front of the cricket pavilion was created issuing a string of battery festive lights tapped together so all the bulbs form one large light with the battery pack at the other end of the wire. The lights are then spun in a vertical circle while the person spinning the lights slowly rotates on the spot.


None of the photographs have been Photoshopped or manipulated, however, they have been straightened and cropped where necessary. 


I hope this gives you a small insight into light painting, but if anyone has any questions or tips and tricks of their own to pass on please do not hesitate to contact me at Cliff@Kirk-Brown-Ltd.co.uk.



On the road with Brian Cushing

Posted on 1st August, 2017



In the first of an occasional series, Brian Cushing recalls some of the high (and low) spots in thirty years of international marine casualty investigation. In this first article, Brian takes us far away and long ago.  To be precise, Ethiopia in 1984.  Here it is:




When McDonnell Douglas designed the DC-3, known to most of us as the Dakota, they got it just right. Purposeful and businesslike, with chunky radial piston engines, a big tail fin and balloon tyres, its all-metal riveted construction radiated an aggressive utility.


The Ethiopian Airlines’ machine parked on Bole airfield at Addis Ababa was a good example, with a rampant lion painted on the fuselage and national colour flashes on the tail. You could have confidence in this aircraft, which was a comfort since I was due to fly in it from Addis to Assab, nearly 400 miles away across mountainous territory, on the Red Sea coast.



This was February 1984, and I’d been appointed by London marine insurance interests to get to Assab [Aseb] and investigate damaged cargo there which had been carried on a ship from the UK to Ethiopia. Interestingly, the cargo consisted of a large shipment of whisky, which had sustained breakages when the ship encountered heavy weather en route. It was now stored in a warehouse in Assab and a large claim had been lodged with the insurance underwriters. The consignees were the State Trading Company of the Ethiopian Marxist government (the Derg).



 Ethiopia in 1984


The Derg had been in power since 1974, when led by the current President Mengistu they had overthrown Emperor Haile Selassie. As well as this coup, by 1984 a state of war between Ethiopia and Eritrea had existed for more than twenty years, with Eritrea claiming independence.


Because of the internal security situation, I had to obtain a government pass to get from Addis to Assab. Inevitably it took time, and I had been awaiting this precious document for about a week, during which I had little to do except explore the town insofar as it was permitted. I fell in with a bunch of expatriates, mostly single male Brits working with Shell, who used to socialise in the bar of the hotel I was staying in, and when I got the pass they gave me a very good send-off the evening before I flew.


Hence, standing on the tarmac contemplating the plane, it has to be admitted I felt a bit queasy. On boarding the aircraft, I saw that the after section of the cabin had been caged off and contained a substantial number of animals; sheep, goats and the like. I got myself strapped in and after a short delay the engines fired up with reassuring readiness. The plane bustled down the runway and bounced into the air, at which point all the animals simultaneously defecated, which made me feel a trifle worse.


Addis sits on a plain about 2500 metres up, and the pilot seemed determined to fly at no more than 3000 metres, which meant that there was a good deal of turbulence so the animals and yours truly, and evidently some of my fellow passengers, were not one hundred per cent happy. Nevertheless, at last I was on my way to my immediate destination after the lengthy delay.


I had assumed that this would be a direct flight – but as it turned out, there was an intermediate stop at a small airfield adjacent to a village on one of the many highland hilltops on the route. Many of these hills are steep sided, with limited peak areas, and this grass runway was set in one of those. After a bumpy landing, everyone disembarked and trading of animals, vegetables, eggs and so on started between the villagers on the one hand and the crew and passengers on the other.


I got chatting to the pilot, who assured me that despite the difficulties of operating in this terrain, there had never been an accident. Interestingly though, when I wandered off to the airfield perimeter, the fence on closer inspection seemed to be formed of curved metal sections which could once have been an aircraft’s frame assemblies. How they got there was anyone’s guess but it seemed clear the aircraft would not still have been in one piece.

After we took off again, and I resumed breathing, the motion improved as we crossed the foothills of the highlands and commenced descending into the coastal plain. The landing at Assab was uneventful and I looked forward to getting to the warehouse and starting work on the cargo survey. Inevitably, though, a pass was required to access this government building, so once again I had time on my hands and at least one night’s stopover while the necessary documentation was prepared.


I got a cab down to one of the beaches which lies outside the port, and wandering round fell in with a bunch of Germans there on some sort of project work, together with their Ethiopian colleagues, who were setting up a picnic dinner and invited me to join them. (Ethiopians are incredibly hospitable.) The food was typically Ethiopian, it was explained to me. You sit on the ground around a mat on which is placed a large disc of injera, a spongy fermented flour-based dough, with dollops of spicy meat- and veggie based stews, in this case washed down with tella, locally brewed beer.



As the evening progressed, and more tella was drunk, we all got quite friendly. There is a tradition called gursha, an act of friendship in which an eater wraps a piece of injera around some stew and pops it into his or her neighbour’s mouth. This happened more frequently as the evening wore on.


The next morning I was able to access the warehouse and start my work. In 1984, containerisation was not as ubiquitous as it is now, and there were then many general cargo ships still floating around. This cargo, comprising several thousand cartons of whisky, imported by the government it was rumoured for consumption to celebrate their decade in power, had been stowed on the ship “break-bulk”, which meant in blocks of individual cases rather than in shipping containers. The ship had hit heavy weather on the way from Newcastle in the UK to Assab, and some of the stows had collapsed, resulting in substantial breakages.


Most of the cardboard cases had got soaked in leaking alcohol and disintegrated, and there was broken glass everywhere in the warehouse. The smell of alcoholic fumes was overpowering; and with little ventilation, and an ambient temperature of over 30°C, you found yourself getting quite squiffy in a short time. Pleasant though that might have been in other circumstances, I and the warehouse guys helping me had to bail out to the fresh air frequently.


These sorts of survey, of damage to cargo of differing types, don’t vary much generically. The surveyor has to establish where possible the cause and extent of loss or damage and the cost of restitution, and report on same to the insurance underwriters who will, with the report as an input, settle the assured’s claim (or not as the case may be). This particular survey was pretty straightforward, apart from the large quantities involved – a bottle was either smashed or it wasn’t – so it was wrapped up in three or four days and I was on my way back to Addis Ababa, once more in the faithful old Dakota, and then home to the UK.

The report to my insurance principals included a strong recommendation that any future shipments of this high-value nature should be undertaken only in shipping containers rather than break-bulk. As far as I was concerned that was the end of the matter.


Later that year, on 23 October 1984, a BBC team consisting of Michael Buerk and his cameraman famously reported on a devastating famine in the north of Ethiopia, which at its worst had lasted for two years. The country had suffered from famine both before and has done since, but this was the first time that the world at large learned about it in graphic detail, although international governments must have known the facts if their diplomatic staffs were reporting back. The coverage was picked up and directly resulted in December 1984 in the hit “Do they know it’s Christmas”, and in 1985 Bob Geldorf’s Band Aid concert, earnings from each of which went to alleviate distress in the country.


It has been said that the effects of the famine were exacerbated by the Derg government’s requirement to fund its expensive internal war effort, and its mishandling of famine relief which included forced relocation of populations. The attributable death toll is debatable but the hundreds of thousands who perished would have included many who suffered from the disruptive effects of the ongoing war between Ethiopia and Eritrea.


In retrospect, the small insurance matter that I was involved in during February 1984 seems a petty affair in the context of those troubled times. However, there was an interesting corollary. On or about 27 October 1984, just after the BBC television broadcast of 23 October, questions were asked in the House of Commons about a shipment of whisky comprising 40,000 cases (480,000 bottles) which had left for Ethiopia in September. The British public, which was by now well aware of the famine, was outraged that the Ethiopian government was appealing for international funds to feed its starving populations and at the same time shipping half a million bottles of whisky to its shores.


A spokesman for the Ethiopian embassy in London claimed that this shipment (and one presumes there may have been others, including the one I surveyed in February of that year) had been ordered so as to alleviate skyrocketing black market prices for such goods in the country. The principle, said the spokesman, was that the Marxist government, which had hitherto banned the import of luxury items such as this, would now allow it so that the goods could be sold at controlled prices. (As he put it: “....to fight the black market and spare the people....”)


Whether that is true, or whether in fact the stuff was imported for consumption in celebrating 10 years of Marxist rule, I cannot tell. I’m pretty sure “the people” would not have been invited to share in such a celebration, though.



Brian Cushing

West Farleigh, July 2017


Fish passes: a r-eel-y good idea

Posted on 23rd March, 2017

In 2013, we published a special report called "What's happening at the lock?" about the renewal of Teston Lock.  It explained the importance (especially to eels) of the fish passes  that had been installed at Teston as part of the works, but also mentioned that until East Farleigh lock had a fish pass as well, the fish would still be unable to migrate freely up or downstream. Now that work is complete!  We asked our local fisheries expert Dr Bernice Brewster why these passes are so important in the battle to save the European eel. 

Here is her fascinating and informative reply: 

Fish passes – a r’eel’y good idea

Freshwater fish migrate up and downstream constantly, for avoiding predators, feeding and spawning but locks and weirs are a barrier to these movements.  The recent construction of a fish pass at Teston Lock and the current construction of another at East Farleigh will allow many different species of fish to move freely up and down the Medway, most importantly it will allow the free passage of the European eel to complete its’ life cycle.


Between 1904 and 1922, the Danish Oceanographer, Johann Schmidt tracked migrating European eels across the Atlantic to the Sargasso Sea, just west of the Caribbean, which he presumed to be the spawning site.  To this date scientists are not entirely certain the Saragasso is the spawning destination for sexually mature eels, none the less, these fish undertake a migration exceeding 7000km (4,300 miles).  Spawning of eels in the wild remains undocumented but the larvae, known as ‘leptocephali’ (small head) and originally described as a separate species of fish, undertake the return migration to Europe.  What is so remarkable is the tiny leptocephali are still no more than a few centimetres (less than an inch) when they arrive at the English river estuaries between February and March to begin their upstream migration as ‘glass eels’ (see pic below).

Glass eels


The glass eels feed and grow to become small eels known as ‘bootlaces’, then as they get bigger the underneath becomes a yellow or bronze colour and they are termed ‘yellow eels’.  The yellow eels spend between 15 – 30 years feeding and growing in the rivers before the final transformation into ‘silver eels’. 









Silver eels begin the downstream migration towards the sea but once they have become silvered, they no longer feed.  The riverine silver eels are pre-sexually mature, sexual maturity taking place once the fish have begun their oceanic migration.


Silver eel

For hundreds of years the eel formed the staple diet for many people in England and the trade in eels with our European neighbours was extremely lucrative, with Ely Cathedral being built from the proceeds. 


Since the turn of the 20th Century, the popularity of eels as a food source has declined, although glass eels are still caught on the Rivers Severn and Parrot but most are destined to be sold to China, where they are regarded as a delicacy.


[Editor’s note: The value of these tiny eels is enormous.  Athough their collection is regulated by licence,  their value encourages criminality.  A man was recently arrested for attempting to smuggle 200kgs of glass eels through Heathrow, which were valued at £1.2m!].  


Over the last 40 years, the numbers of glass eels returning to our shores has spiralled into serious decline.  The European eel is now listed on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red Data list as ‘critically endangered’, which means the eel is in danger of extinction. 


But what has led us to this parlous state, where such an enigmatic animal has declined in numbers to the point of extinction?  Our oceans are now heavily polluted with polyaromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls, pesticides, fertilizers, untreated sewage and microplastics to name just a few and through which the tiny leptocephali must make their way to our rivers, absorbing these noxious chemicals en route. 


In the 1980’s someone had the good idea of importing into Europe Japanese eels, a completely different species of eel, native to the Far east.  The phrase ‘as slippery as an eel’ is no understatement and of course, some of the Japanese eels escaped but they were infected with a round worm parasite (see below) which feeds on the swimbladder (a buoyancy organ which helps fish to float at any water depth without expending any energy).  The Japanese eel and the worm have evolved together and it causes little pathology to the native host.  

Round worms in the eel swimbladder

But the European eel has no resistance to this non-native parasite and it has spread like wild-fire through our eel populations.  In the European eel the parasite destroys the swimbladder and the fish is unable to swim efficiently meaning the infected eels cannot undertake their spawning migration. Infected eels have become susceptible to other diseases, including viruses which may result in mass mortalities.


So how will the fish passes help in our bid to save the eel from extinction?  Since the industrial revolution we have been barricading and impounding rivers which become a barrier to migration for the eels.  The tiny glass eels may have been able to negotiate some of the barriers but then the growing eels become landlocked and once silvered have been unable to migrate and therefore die.  The introduction of fish passes will enable the eels free passage along the rivers and hopefully help to save the eel before we reach the point of no return.  So, three cheers for the work currently being undertaken to create a fish pass at East Farleigh, following the one at Teston.


Bernice Brewster BSc, PhD


PS There is currently a project underway to spawn eels using aquaculture techniques, it hasn’t been especially successfully, larvae only living to 20 days but www.pro-eel.eu has a super video of an eel larva swimming.



Doomed...new pest appears

Posted on 5th February, 2017



The Moth of Death...

The so-called conker moth continues to wreak widespread damage in the UK, causing great concern about the survivability of horse chestnut trees.


Click here for the story.


Posted on 17th January, 2017

From Monkey’s Hole to The Hollow!


A hundred years ago the area of West Farleigh, off Charlton Lane was known as the Monkey’s Hole, or more likely Monkey’s  ’ole! It was then part of Hall Farm. The Hall being Smiths Hall.




When Hall Farm was auctioned in 1911, it had 11 acres of hops, 12 acres of fruit, 11 acres of pasture, 12 acres of arable and 5 acres of wood. No space for football in those days.

At Monkey’s Hole there were 2 timber and tiled cottages, a brick and tiled oast, with three kilns. A timber tiled Barn with yard and bullock lodges, a range of 10 brick built hoppers huts with cookhouse etc. There was a leanto cottage at the rear of the oast. And a good Well of water.

The area has changed dramatically, or has it?













The well is probably still there, however, hopefully covered over now.

There is not a barn there any more, but the two timber cottages are still there as is the oast. Yes really!


However you would not recognise it today as it has been turned into a terrace of three houses. The leanto cottage is long gone.

Park Cottage, further down Charlton Lane, was the farm dairy and some older villagers can remember going round the back with their cans to collect the days milk for the family.


As the area is now posh, the name has been changed to The Hollow!

From Monkey’s Hole to The Hollow!



The great potato quiz! by Chris Stockwell

Posted on 9th September, 2016

I was browsing Amazon, as you do, when I spotted a book on the humble spud for 1p. It seemed rude not to take advantage of that so I bought it. I turned out to be an ex Neath Port Talbot Library book.

Unfortunately the first five pages covering the potato’s history were missing, so I can’t enlighten you on their development. You would be interested in the wonderful and expressive names of some varieties - which I have used in the list below, with some following the convention of naming them after the breeder; hence Mr Bresee, Lord Rosebery and Sharpe’s Express among others.

As usual, one name is missing from the puzzle. Email your answer to hollyvillas@hotmail.co.uk. First correct answer gets a pint or a G&T at the Good Intent.




























Posted on 24th August, 2016



Brian Cushing writes about the scourge of litter in our village. To read the article, connect here: LITTER IN THE FARLEIGHS.pdf. Readers' comments most welcome!

5 minute guide to Broadband

Posted on 28th July, 2016

 Bits and bytes

 All the information that you download from the internet arrives as a stream of bits i.e. zeroes and ones.  That's all.  So how does it mean anything?  How does it become photos or emails or computer programs?

 When we humans read and write, we make words out of letters.  In the English alphabet, there are 26 letters.  Everything we read and write is a sequence of those 26 letters plus punctuation.  And when we work with numbers, we work with ten digits, 0 to 9.  Using sequences of those digits, we can write down and work with bigger numbers like 65,131,944 (the estimated population of the UK right now!)

 Computers use just two numbers: 0 and 1, and no letters.  Two = binary.  To a computer, all data whether it be a number or a document or a picture or even a computer program is just a sequence of zeroes and ones.  An individual 0 or a 1 is called a bit.  So 0101 for example is a string of four bits.

 A string of 8 bits is called a byte.  How come 8 bits are so important that they got their own name (and a confusing one at that!)?  Because each byte corresponds to an alphabetical letter...

 How many different flavours of byte are there?  In other words, how many different sequences of eight bits?  The answer is 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 = 256.  Which is enough to give each letter of the alphabet (including all the foreign (!) ones, the numerals and the punctuation marks) its own sequence of 8 bits to represent it.

 There's a standard for mapping bytes into alphabetical letters which goes back to the dawn of modern IT.  It's called ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange).   So for example the sentence “the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” is represented in a computer as a sequence of 44 bytes or 8 x 44 = 352 bits (yes, the ‘space’ is just another character).

Note.  A capital B represents a byte and a lower case b represents a bit.  A thousand bytes (don’t write in, pedants, I know, I know) is 1KB and a thousand bits is 1 Kb, and a million bytes are 1 Mb and a million bytes are 1MB.

Measuring transmission speed

Transmission speed is measured in bits per second, whereas file size is measured in bytes.  Good to remember it, because otherwise you will be disappointed by your new broadband.  You may be anyway, if you believe the comparison websites:


Suppose you want to download a picture which is 10MB and your download speed is 10Mb.  Will it take one second?  No!  10MB (megabytes) is 80Mb (megabits)…so it will take 8 seconds.  Unless your supplier exaggerated the speed you can expect.

 It is a surprising fact that the new and tougher (!) guidelines introduced by the  Advertising Standards Authority and the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) in 2012 require advertised ‘up to’ speeds to be consistently available to at least 10% of the users of that service!!!

Imagine if supermarkets were only required to put an actual kilo of sugar in 10% of the bags labelled “1 Kg”!



This is a real picture taken last week !



PS.  My broadband supplier says I'm fine.









 To be fair to the industry, Version 3 of Ofcom’s Voluntary Code of Practice (June 2015) does require internet providers to tell you what most subscribers to their service actually receive, prior to your actually signing the contract.

 The confusion between bits per second and bytes per second, and the low standard of veracity set by the regulators ensures that most of us are going to be disappointed with our broadband.


How the internet gets to you

 So, how do the bits and bytes actually arrive or depart from your home?

 For us out in the wilds of Kent, the answer is DOWN YOUR PHONE LINE.  Strings of zeroes and ones are sent down your phone line using a coding protocol called ADSL or Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (it’s ‘asymmetric’ because it sacrifices upload speed to send data faster down to your home than it retrieves data out of your home, which is smart because that’s what you want most of the time.)

 It’s not the only answer.  For the past decade, BT Openreach has been rolling out FTTC or Fibre to the Cabinet technology.  The cabinets in this case are new, green cabinets which are connected to the exchange by high speed fibre cables.  The ‘last mile’ to your home is still by that old, copper wire but using a new encoding protocol called VDSL or Very High Speed Digital Subscriber Line.  Using this protocol, speeds of up to 76Mb/second are theoretically possible, but get rapidly slower as you get away from the cabinet, dropping to 20Mb/sec when you are a mile away.


FTTC comes to Teston Bridge

 Good news is on the horizon!  Kent Country Council has a program to upgrade cabinets in the area to fibre, thus accelerating the FTTC delivery in the area.  Essentially, KCC are funding Openreach to accelerate fibre delivery to selected cabinets in Kent.

 According to the very helpful broadband team at KCC, detailed planning is underway to upgrade Cabinet 8 outside the Teston Country Park before the end of the year.  Which means that we will be able to buy fibre solutions from anyone who uses BT OpenReach’s infrastructure (BT Infinity, TalkTalk fibre, EE, pretty much everyone except Virgin Media).  But the last mile from Cabinet 8 is still over that phone line!  Delivery speeds will drop off rapidly the further away from Cabinet 8 you are.  At the top of the village, perhaps 12Mb/sec.  Better, but not a revolution.


This is Cabinet 8 at Teston Bridge
















You may be surprised by this – this would not be “superfast” broadband (defined as greater than 24Mb/sec).

 Two of the technical challenges of rolling out BT’s FTTC strategy have gradually become apparent over the past 4 years:  (1) speeds over VDSL drop very rapidly over distance from the cabinet (much more rapidly than ADSL), and (2) there are issues with “crosstalk” or interference between users which can rapidly degrade the new service as more and more people sign up for it.

Your other options

True FTTP (fibre all the way into your home, avoiding the phone line) is not going to be available any time soon this side of the river.  Virgin Media’s high speed offering is available in Maidstone but not here.

For people who want small amounts of data but at high speed – i.e. office users, not game players or households who watch a lot of TV over the internet – you could look at 4G mobile broadband services.  Vodafone, for example, are offering wireless dongles at the moment which provide 20GB of data monthly for a monthly cost of £20.

 Alternatively, you can try Vfast (www.vfast.co.uk/) or Callflow Solutions Ltd (www.callflow.co.uk/).  Both of these company avoid the copper wire entirely – they connect your home via radio to one of their antennae.  The issue here is that your home has to be in line of sight from their masts.  There is a mast at the top of Charlton Lane, and another at the top of Yalding Hill.  Neither vendor was able to connect to any of their masts from the roof of Smiths Hall (June 2016) so this is not a silver bullet.

 And of course, you can go with satellite broadband through companies like europasat (www.europasat.com).  We don’t know anyone in West Farleigh who has tried this but it is certainly available.  The traditional issue with satellite is latency i.e. the time it takes for a packet to get from the public internet to you or back.  This latency means that while upload and download speeds may be comparable with FTTC, real time games and voice phone calls will suffer from delays in the other party responding.

 Let’s hope that Cabinet 8 brings us some relief.