Tuesday, September 24, 2013

OMG - The Tension – The America’s Cup

I am not sure I can stand much more of this, it is not just every sail and line on the futuristic America’s Cup catamarans careening down San Francisco Bay that are stretched to breaking point, my nerves are also twanging in sympathy and my finger nails are a dim and distant memory as the 34th America’s Cup moves into a cliffhanger finish after 18 races.  The alarm has gone off at 5.30am every morning for the last week and the entire family has assembled on the sofa to watch the increasingly tense, we've gone beyond exciting as an adjective here, America's Cup sailing competition.

New Zealand, population 4.4m has been battling it out on the water with the USA, population 314m.  I say battling but in fact New Zealand had them on the run initially, particularly as the Americans had been given a 2 race penalty for altering the design of the boat – not quite clear what they actually did, as it seems incredible anyone could make these boats go any faster, they already blast round the course at over 40 knots at times, with the boats coming up onto what are called foils to slice across the water.  I would say they skim across the waves like hovercraft, except these are slim line, blade like machines from the space age that bear no resemblance to the wallowing hippo-like lines of a traditional hovercraft.

By last Thursday, New Zealand had won 8 races to America’s 1.   To win the series New Zealand just had to win a final race – and they did, but they ran out of time – so it didn’t count – I think it was at that point the finger nails met their end.  But never mind we all thought – or all of us down in the Southern Hemisphere Kiwi supporting part of the world, all they have to do is just win that last race and they’ve got 7 races in hand to do it – no problem was the mantra.  Well don’t we look foolish now, America has now won 7 races in succession, and much though it pains me to admit in great style, and so as of this morning New Zealand and America are now head to head at 8 races each, and whoever wins the next race takes home the cup.  There has been a certain sick feeling akin to watching Tim Henman at Wimbledon beginning to creep over me during the last few races, but I am keeping a firm grip on myself and just reminding myself good things come to those who wait, watching the action between their fingers as the tension mounts, Andy Murray’s Wimbledon victory being a prime example.

You couldn’t get a more exciting final, and more of a Sponsor’s dream.  There is a very nasty cynical side of me that says that the American boat is primarily a Sponsor’s boat – Team Oracle rather than a truly American national team.  The American commentary team are not unnaturally enthusiastic about the three man group of skipper and helmsman Jimmy Spithill and strategists and tacticians, Tom Slingsby and Ben Ainslie who are storming the American boat towards the winner’s podium, but during the deservedly rapturous assessment of the partnership and their results, the commentators carefully avoid mentioning the fact that both Jimmy Spithill and Tom Slingsby, the Gold Medallist Laser sailor are Australians and Ben Ainslie is of course Sir Ben Ainslie, the British quadruple Gold and Silver Olympic medallist.

In contrast Team Emirates New Zealand might have the odd Australian aboard, those Aussies get everywhere, but the main men on the boat, skipper Dean Barker, tactician Ray Davies and Managing Director Grant Dalton are all undeniably Kiwis through and through and when you throw in people like Rob Waddell who won a rowing Olympic Gold medal for New Zealand in single sculls in the 2000 Olympics before he tried his hand at sailing, it just looks like a different kind of team. 

Difficult one to call this one as a fairy tale ending – do you want the Americans, or rather the British and Australians sailing for the American team to claw their way back against overwhelming odds and it is hard not to cheer for Jimmy Spithill who has done such an stellar job of staring down what looked like certain defeat, or do you go for New Zealand, the underdog team in terms of population and funding who have fronted up and done an amazing job finding a truly representative national team despite the fact their population is
78 times smaller than their competitors.

So as a point of principle, and to support small nations everywhere and the Down Under neighbours I am cheering New Zealand all the way across the finish line.   A certain selfishness also comes into the equation given I have lots of Kiwi friends and am thus guaranteed a bed in Auckland to watch the next America’s Cup if they win, so cross your fingers for favourable winds, and cunning tacks and jibes to see off the opposition tomorrow.  


The Ladies' Thinking Club

Australia has a new Prime Minister, Tony Abbott (NB this is not meant as a breaking news flash as the election was 7th September).  Whilst his victory was not unexpected, the line up of his new cabinet aroused considerable comment as there is only one woman, Julie Bishop the new Foreign Minister, amongst the nineteen members.  As you can imagine this has given rise to lots of comments and discussion about quotas and female representation.  Almost every female of note in Australia seems to have been asked for their opinion, though strangely no one has come knocking on my door, whilst there are emotive statistics flying around about the fact that Afghanistan now has more female representation at a senior parliamentarian level than Australia.   However it is worth noting only a year ago Australia had a female Prime Minister, female Governor General and female Head of State (Queen Elizabeth).

I think I fall on the side of encouraging good women rather than imposing quotas that could lead to mediocre women to match the numerous mediocre men in government.  One of the arguments out there is there aren’t enough good women – but one only has to look around to see that isn’t true, the correct response is there aren’t enough good women prepared to consider politics as a career, and the reason for that lies with the nature of politics and politicians rather than the potential calibre of women as a race.

Whilst considering the women in politics question I listened to the following interview with Agnieszka Fryckowska the Base Commander at the British Halley VI base station in Antarctica.  She is in charge of a 13 man team, with most team members doing 18 months on the base, 9 months of which are spent as a small group isolated from the outside world with the added bonus that for a couple of those months the sun fails to make it over the horizon. 

Agnieszka sounds a fabulous woman in a fascinating job, and what had me cheering was when she was asked about being the only woman, not to mention the boss, her response was that as members of the team “We are hired for our ability to do the job, not whether we are male or female.”  And in the end I think whether you are running the equivalent of Ice Station Zebra or the Australian Liberal Party that has to be the right answer, notwithstanding there are lots of things you can do to make life easier for talented women to apply.

When I was back in the UK earlier on in the Northern Hemisphere summer I came across some sample questions from the General Paper for the Fellowship Exam at All Souls College at Oxford.  The questions were in one of the Sunday papers and the Drama Queens and I whiled away a train journey whilst considering issues such as “Does the moral character of an orgy change when the participants wear Nazi uniforms?” and “Is it an extremely unnatural condition for a male and female to live continuously together?” and one of my particular favourites; “It has been said architecture is frozen music.  Does this make any sense?”

I got back to Sydney and stuck up a copy of some of the questions above the cooker – always useful to have something to read whilst supper chars, before deciding that I don’t see enough of my female friends and I should have an evening where I made them talk about some of these questions – a kind of Ladies Thinking (and obviously Drinking) outing. 

I know it sounds incredibly pretentious but I love my book club both for the books we read and the discussions we have about them, but also for the fact it gives us all an excuse to get together, and I thought having a think about some of these questions would give us a focus.

I was a complete bundle of nerves before the 14 women turned up and in fact was in the running to invent a question of my own along the lines of  “How advisable is it for the hostess to have a couple of quick drinks before guests arrive?” but I have to say it was the most fantastic success and people really seemed to enjoy the chance to talk about all kinds of issues and really welcomed the chance to be forced to move off the children/husband/dog/holiday conversation roundabout we sometimes all get caught on – generally enjoyably I should add as if you want mindless banter at the school drinks party then I am your woman.  However I certainly came away from the evening feeling completely buoyed by what a fantastic, thought provoking, interesting, risk taking group of female friends I have, who lift me up emotionally, and intellectually and make me laugh big time, and if I was Tony Abbott I’d be giving them a call quick smart as they are just the kind of people to run the country.

Tony Abbott was a Rhodes scholar so will be familiar with All Souls College, but I can’t help feeling that had he had a go at this question in the run up to the election he might have at least had some answers for his critics!

“If you were Prime Minister, what considerations would you take into account in deciding the size and composition of your Cabinet?”

Monday, September 16, 2013

Row, Row your boat

It’s raining in Sydney.  Raining in a remorseless dirge like fashion that makes nonsense out of words like drizzle.  Before it got dark I kept glancing behind me in the manner of one starring in a low budget horror movie to a darkened horizon with clouds bulging up behind each other in a way that made the continuing downpour a certainty. 

You get out of the way of rain.  We’ve have had weeks of dry weather, with sun and warmth on tap and I have begun to take an early summer for granted and so consequently I now feel aggrieved that having shaved my legs ready to burst upon the world in my shorts, the weather takes a turn for the nasty and not only am I back in my jeans, but I am also wondering where my head to toe waterproofs are.

I row in a social Ladies’ four every couple of weeks or so.  The other three and the long-suffering coach go out every week and another lady and I act as part time subs. The time interval between my outings means that there is no muscle memory involved and each hour and a half outing hits my protesting body like, well like an hour and a half on a rowing machine, and I have to be practically craned out of the flimsy shell when we return to dry land.  Muscle moaning apart, Middle Harbour which is one of the arms of Sydney Harbour, has to be one of the most beautiful places in the world to have a Monday morning row with a bunch of friends.  Normally we row through harbour mansions and on into secluded creeks fringed by gums and sandstone escarpments dropping down to the water.   Most of the upper reaches of Middle Harbour are within Garigal National Park so it comes as almost a shock when the arches of Roseville Bridge, a major throughway between Central Sydney and the Northern Beaches hoves into view.  Middle Harbour is reputed to be a shark breeding ground and is undeniably the site of the last shark fatality in the harbour, as a result I tend not to trail my hand through the water – not that there is much opportunity for hand trailing as I row with a crew that likes to push itself (and half kill their weaker brethren e.g. me) and thus rather than lounging around on the water in the Three Men in a Boat mode, we are more likely to be doing pyramids – 5 firm, 5 light, 10 firm, 10 light – I am sure you are getting the picture and also hopefully the general sense of why I return from these outings puce in the face and bent over like a banana.

It was looking grey this morning as we set out, but as I say these are Everest climbing type ladies – they don’t do wimpy so off we went and of course as soon as we got to the point of no return, the heavens opened.  It is interesting to note that this point of no return rule applies to rowing outing as well as my childhood Scottish walks.  We got back to the dock with water gushing off us, dripping would be inaccurate, as a description, though I did note that my bra that was obviously inside my clothes was dripping.  I didn’t think it was possible to get any wetter until we turned the boat upside down to carry it up to the boatshed and promptly emptied a couple of buckets of water over ourselves.  I got in a hot shower, noting with interest that my fingers had that wrinkled washerwoman look I associate with Beatrix Potter’s Mrs Tiggywinkle, but as I stood under the glorious hot water I did get a grip on reality and thank my lucky stars that a wet Spring day in Sydney rowing in a Fab Four still knocks the spots off a cold wet day in most of the rest of the world.