Sailing in the wake of the Vikings

Sydney doctor John Vallentine John Vallentine on board Tainui: fascinated by Viking journeys. Photo: Supplied
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An Australian adventurer is preparing for a pioneering trip along the waterways of Russia from the Arctic to the Black Sea, opening up a route that few foreigners have travelled since the days of the Vikings.

Sydney doctor John Vallentine, who spends half his time practising medicine and the other half sailing the world’s oceans, is wading through marshes of bureaucracy to make the trip possible this northern summer.

His boat, the cruising cutter Tainui, is laid up in Tromso, Norway, after an exploratory trip Dr Vallentine made to St Petersburg last year.

He plans to set off from the Arctic port of Murmansk at the time of the summer solstice, when the midnight sun will illuminate his way down waterways long closed to foreigners. His route will take him past the Solovetsky Islands, used as gulags in Communist times, and down the infamous Belomor (White Sea) Canal, built by slave labour under Stalin.

He will travel to the Karelian capital of Petrozavodsk, founded by Peter the Great, and to the River Volga cities of Yaroslavl, Nizhny Novgorod, Kazan and Saratov, before leaving Russia at Azov and entering the Black Sea at Kerch in Ukraine.

All these places were well known to the Vikings, but few foreigners have made the full north-to-south journey by water in modern times.

”I have always been fascinated by the eastward journeys of the Vikings, who explored these inland waterways a thousand years ago,” Dr Vallentine said. ”I would like to write about the less-well-known history of this proud, violent nation of superb seafarers. What better way to research it than on the waterways themselves?”

Dr Vallentine said he was aware of only three other foreign yachtsmen having made the voyage in the past 75 years – one from Britain, one from Northern Ireland and one from Germany.

The sailor from Northern Ireland was Miles Clark who, with grudging permission from the KGB and sponsorship from National Geographic, sailed his family yacht Wild Swan on the 3200-kilometre route in 1992. Sadly, shortly after finishing the voyage, he died and it was left to his father, Wallace Clark, to complete a book, Sailing Round Russia, based on the ship’s logs.

Dr Vallentine said he was learning as much as possible from the experience of his predecessors and hoping to write his own guide for foreigners who might follow him. Cruise ships travel on only part of the route.

The yachtsmen who went before Dr Vallentine made their voyages in the early 1990s, when the then president Boris Yeltsin was opening up Russia after 70 years of Soviet rule.

Now President Vladimir Putin is also keen to attract foreign ventures and visitors – especially in the run-up to next year’s Sochi Winter Olympics, which he hopes will be a showcase for Russia.

Dr Vallentine must apply to the Russian Interior Ministry for permission to make the voyage and anticipated there might be problems with ”Russian regional bureaucracies, as well as pedestrian difficulties such as acquiring fuel and water, negotiating the many locks with a mast strapped on deck, navigation generally and mosquitoes”.

But for a man who has sailed to Patagonia and who began his double career of doctor and sailor as a medical officer on British trawlers off the coast of Iceland in the 1970s, these are problems he can probably take in his stride.

So far the bureaucratic snags have come from Australia.

”Australian bureaucracy can make life difficult in silly little ways,” he said.

”When I applied for recertification of my commercial master’s ticket, I was told I had to have a first aid certificate.”

So even though he is a registered medical practitioner, specialist physician and holder of advanced life support credentials, he had to go off and study first aid.

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Tahs turn arm wrestle their way

Israel Folau Photo: Cameron SpencerAs it happened / match stats
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If former NSW coach Michael Foley came hunting for revenge in Sydney this weekend, he was sent home empty-handed.

But only just. The Waratahs fought off a gritty second-half fightback from Foley’s Force outfit to notch their third win of the season in front of 15,300 fans on Sunday.

Second-half tries to both sides and a furious final 15 minutes enlivened an otherwise stop-start game in which the crowd watched penalty kick after penalty kick while the Waratahs opened up a six-point lead at the break.

A try to Adam Ashley-Cooper early in the second half extended the lead to 14 points before the Force hit back with their own five-pointer, to fullback Alfie Mafi, and a 60th-minute penalty to get within four points of their opponents.

The final 20 minutes were an evenly matched arm wrestle. The Waratahs did most of the running but couldn’t complete, while the Force chipped away at the Tahs’ defence and never made it easy.

For the Waratahs, this was another building block in coach Michael Cheika’s grand design and keeps them in the hunt with the majority of the season still to run.

The Force, in a similar rebuilding phase to their east-coast cousins, continue to chase an elusive second win after beating the Reds last month but struggling to topple good sides since then.

Halfback Brendan McKibbin gave NSW the first-half edge, kicking five in a row as the Force struggled with discipline. The Force notched three of their own, including the first two three-pointers of the match, with a smart pressure game that forced the Waratahs to defend in tight.

There were plenty of opportunities to attack in the first half for NSW but execution was the familiar sticking point, tripping them up every time they revved their engines in attack.

They were able to take points from each opportunity, equalising at 6-6 in the 19th minute and leading 9-6 after an impressive period of phase play in the 22nd minute.

The Force could do little for themselves with 14 men on the field, while prop Salesi Ma’afu sat in the sin bin for a high tackle on replacement hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau.

Fullback Israel Folau combined superbly with his five-eighth, Bernard Foley, both players breaking the line and getting the Waratahs within spitting distance of the try line before, on at least two occasions, the Force gave away penalties and points. The Waratahs made it 12-9 with 11 minutes to go in the half.

Returning Force captain Matt Hodgson boosted his side in attack, at one point getting two touches of the ball in the Waratahs’ half but pushing it too far at the breakdown a minute later to give the Waratahs yet another three points.

Both teams tried to up the pace in the second half and the Waratahs won the early battle, taking a penalty goal and the first try of the match within the first seven minutes. It was again the work of Folau in attack that put Foley in a position to pass to centre Adam Ashley-Cooper in the left corner. This time, unlike their first-half attempts, the Waratahs executed, Ashley-Cooper taking NSW to a 23-9 lead over the visitors.

The Force were next, fullback Alfie Mafi completing in the right corner to put them back in the game. Sias Ebersohn converted to make it 23-16 with 25 minutes to go and kicked them to within four points of the Waratahs three minutes later.

NSW WARATAHS 23 (Adam Ashley-Cooper try Brendan McKibbin 6 pens) bt WESTERN FORCE 19 (Alfie Mafi try Sias Ebersohn con 4 pens) at Allianz Stadium. Referee: Steve R. Walsh. Crowd: 15,348.

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Beguiled fans dressed up and ready to play new Game

L-R Bernadette Staron, Francesco Orsenigo, Ru Owyong, Claudia Bergsdorf, Theresa Winters, Mathieu Perrault, Jessica Farrell and Lucie Ornatova mad fans of the new series ‘Game of Thrones”. Photo: Simon O’Dwyer Most pirated show: Writer George R. R. Martin. Photo: Supplied
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Theresa Winters likes to sign her RSVPs “Winters is Coming”. It’s a reference to one of her favourite TV shows, Game of Thrones, and when season three kicks off on Monday she’ll be there with bells on – and she won’t be alone.

“People are definitely excited about it,” said the 31-year-old who is originally from Chicago. “There will be some fur.”

Ms Winters managed to dragoon quite a lot of fur, a few medieval-style dresses, numerous wigs, a plastic sword or two and about a dozen friends and acquaintances to a dry-run for Monday’s premiere. Her fellow fans were harvested in large part via couchsurfing.org.

“It’s basically a hospitality exchange around the world, sort of a facebook for travellers,” explained Ms Winters, who has lived in Australia for two and half years.

Via the site, she organises regular viewing nights – True Blood is another favourite – where people get together to watch a couple of episodes, drink some wine, eat some cheese and get home by 10pm. “It’s basically inviting strangers to come to your house, but it’s not as scary as it sounds,” she said.

Among Thrones fans in her group is Francesco, a 31-year-old software programmer from Italy. The show attracted a particular type of person, he said. “It catches a more intellectual viewer. It’s very complex, very cerebral.”

The show has become a massive cult hit, spawning wiki sites, complex family trees, cookbooks, and a roaring trade in illegal downloads. As George R. R. Martin, the author on whose doorstop-heavy novels it is based, noted last year, “We are the most pirated show in the world.”

As Martin also noted, much of that downloading is happening in Australia. The website torrentfreak苏州美睫培训 says 10.1 per cent of illegal downloads of season two were from Australia. Sydney alone accounted for 3 per cent of the traffic.

The episode torrentfreak cited was downloaded 4.28 million times (marginally more than its legitimate audience of 4.2 million in the US, where it airs on premium cable channel HBO). That suggests about 430,000 people downloaded it illegally in Australia. To put that in perspective, OzTAM reported that the season two finale was watched here, in its first airing on Foxtel last June, by about 90,000 paying customers (multiple encore screenings and recordings of the episode on Foxtel’s iQ service will have added significantly to that number).

Little wonder Foxtel is rush-releasing the latest series; it will first air the season opener at 4.20pm on Monday, just two hours after it goes to air for the first time in the United States.

The pay TV network is adopting a similar express strategy with a number of other frequently torrented series, too, including Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire and The Walking Dead.

All over the world, people will be huddling around the box to watch Game of Thrones the very first moment it’s available.

Every broadcaster’s dream is of content viewers can’t wait to see. Their collective nightmare is that many people will no longer wait – or pay – to see it.

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MKR serving up conflict on a budget

Congratulations, you have almost made it to “After Easter”, when television executives wipe the chocolate from their faces and decide to drip-feed the big shows back into the system.
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The biggest this season is My Kitchen Rules (Seven, 7.30pm), with an audience that has grown like well-rested pasta dough. Apologies. So big is this franchise now that Seven has decided to run “special episodes” starring guest judge Colin Fassnidge in a bid to undercut the return of Nine’s The Voice. But that’s for next week.

On Monday, MKR gets back into kitchen HQ with a challenge that will set series villains Ashlee and Sophia against . . . well, everybody, really. Most specifically, it seems that since the demise of Angela and Melina, the feuding knife has been passed on to Jenna and Joanna.

Spoiler alert: I’m about to reveal the budget for their team challenge. Each couple has to serve up a meal for four that costs just $10.

“Ten dollars! That’s like $2.50 each,” Elle says helpfully. Yep – or five bucks for two, just to clear it up even further. No matter which way you break down that difficult equation, the answer is television-friendly tension in the supermarket.

While much of Australia will enjoy their hot cross bun hangover in front of MKR, another couple of series returns are equally impressive.

I must confess I came to Game of Thrones (Showtime) for the naked ladies, but I’ve stayed for the glorious political intrigue. And the naked ladies.

If you haven’t seen the first two series of this multi-layered drama set in the bleak imagined landscape of Westeros and Essos, you may struggle to catch up with the arrival of series three “express from the US”. It may be a little like meeting up with the party in the pub after you’ve come from the office and they’ve been at a long lunch. They’ll appear to be speaking a different language, there will be the chance of conflict. And you might see naked ladies.

Peter Dinklage as the dwarf Tyrion Lannister is a personal favourite, despite his role said to be slightly less dominant this time around. He is evil, but he also has comic one-liners – a great combination.

Let’s get this straight: yes, there are naked ladies. But the women in this series tend to hold the positions of power. Terrific stuff.

Keeping clothes on is more important in Mad Men (SBS, 9.30pm), given that it’s pretty much suit porn. The look of this show remains delicious. It’s probably unfortunate that Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and his cohorts look so good smoking cigarettes like there’s no tomorrow. Or fewer tomorrows, anyway.

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