Posted by: bkivey | 28 September 2013

Vacation Pt.1

I try to schedule my annual vacation during my birthday. Last year I went to Glacier National Park, but this year was a little different. I had a landmark birthday coming up, and I wanted to do something unusual. My businesses have done OK this year, so I could afford to go anywhere, at least for a few days. I spent a fair amount of time this year thinking about where to take my vacation.

My first inclination was to visit my birthplace in Nuremberg, Germany. I quickly found out that the my birthplace no longer exists. The US military hospital in which I was born was closed in 1996, and the Germans replaced it with a housing development. I couldn’t see traveling 5000 miles to look at some apartments, so that was out. I considered Australia, but the thought of spending three days traveling was unattractive. Visiting the antipodes is more of a two-week deal, and I didn’t have that kind of time or money. I spent some time looking at visiting Vancouver, BC, and then heading east to Banff National Park. This looked like a winner until I considered something.

I’m my Mom’s eldest child, and to my knowledge she’s never had a child turn 50. I thought it would be nice if I visited with her for my birthday. North Carolina isn’t going to make anyone’s list of exotic destinations, but that’s where she lives. I figured a couple of days in NC, then Florida for a few days of beach therapy. North Carolina has some very nice beaches, but there’s a reason people come from all over the world to visit the Florida Gulf Coast. Plus, no one does seafood like the Gulf Coast. I lived in St. Petersburg for 10 years, so there is some familiarity.

21 September

If you’re traveling from the West Coast back East, you’re usually going to be leaving on a 6 AM flight if you want to get to the East Coast at a decent hour. I’ve done this a number of times, and it’s a grind. The only other alternative is to take the red-eye for a next-morning arrival, and that’s not overly attractive. I did find a flight with connections leaving at 8 AM that would eventually get me to North Carolina around 8 PM. That was OK. I could sleep a little later.

Except you can’t sleep too much later. I didn’t finish work until 8 PM on Friday, and by the time I’d taken care of things, it was late. The 0500 alarm bleated in vain, and I got up about the time my flight was leaving. So I started my vacation by missing the plane.

In the days of yore (about 20 years ago), missing a flight wasn’t that big a deal. Inconvenient, but unless you had an appointment, not a disaster. You called the airline, and they’d re-book you, usually without a fee, and all you’d lost was a few hours. Even as recently as 10 years ago, you could usually get re-booked with a fee. Things are a little different today.

Apparently fares are so differentiated that if there isn’t a fare matching the specific code of the one you paid, you’re going to pay more. A lot more. The airline wanted to charge me the difference between my fare code and the same-day round trip fare, or about $750. No. I found that I could get a same-day one-way ticket on another carrier for significantly less. Still expensive, but not $750 worth of expensive. I’d end up on the red-eye, but my choices were limited. The flight out of PDX was scheduled to leave at 6 PM. I’d only end up losing a few hours, most of which I would have spent sleeping anyway.

I left early, caught the bus and then the train to Portland. I stopped at my favorite Portland bar to eat and watch some football. I was keeping an eye on the clock, because I did not want to miss this plane. I got to the airport in plenty of time, and discovered that Saturday afternoon isn’t a big travel day in Portland. The terminal was pretty much deserted, which felt odd. I’m used to seeing the ticket counters and security jammed with people at 5 AM.

I’d done my part; I’d delivered myself to the airport. Now it was time for the airline to do their part, and whisk me away. I walked up to the gate and found . . .  the airplane surrounded by emergency vehicles. It didn’t look like it would be doing any whisking now, or in the foreseeable future. I’ve traveled enough to know a bad situation when I see it, so my first action was to go to the gate counter and see about alternative arrangements. There was another gentleman in front of me who was evidently higher on the airlines reward program than me, and the agent completely re-booked his trip so he wouldn’t miss too much time. I told the agent that my sole mission in life was to get to LAX by 9:30 (my connecting flight was supposed to leave just after 10) and what could we do about that? She put me on a competitor’s flight leaving at 7:30, and it’s about a two-hour flight to LA, so that was reasonable. It was now 6 PM, the original scheduled departure time. I was told to check back around 7 as they expected to have the plane fixed by then.

Lo and behold, at 7 the flight started boarding. I took this to mean that the plane was repaired, and canceled my other reservation. Everyone was aboard by 7:15, and I had hope. Until the pilots shut the engines down and turned off the power. The power cycled back on, and I recognized this as the mechanical equivalent of CTRL-ALT-DEL. Apparently the aircraft wasn’t as fixed as they’d thought. I’m all for making sure the machine I’m trusting with my life is fully functional, but couldn’t the airline have made sure the thing was working before boarding? Now we were sitting on a broken bird with no options. The mechanics worked their magic, and we did leave. At 8 PM.

I was hoping the pilot would throw corporate policy to the wind and firewall the thing all the way to LA, but the trip took the usual two hours. On the ground, the pilot missed the gate, and had to reverse course to find the right one. The flight attendant requested that connecting passengers be allowed off first, and people were pretty good about that. I entered the terminal a few minutes after my connecting flights scheduled departure. I figured that if the departure was in the same terminal, there was a chance. I asked the gate agent where my flight was, and she handed me a couple of boarding passes for my (unknown to me) re-booked flights.

The airline I was traveling on has one terminal at LAX all to itself. But for some reason my connecting flight was in an adjacent terminal. For those unfamiliar with LAX, the terminals are over 1000 feet apart, and there aren’t any people movers. Having nothing to lose, I hustled down to the connecting corridor and hoofed it to the next terminal. I got to the gate 12 minutes after the scheduled departure time, and unsurprisingly, there wasn’t a plane in sight. A pilot sitting in the lounge informed me that the plane had left five minutes earlier. Are you freakin’ kidding me?

I found that I was booked on a 12:30 flight to Memphis, and then an 8:30 flight to Raleigh. I made those flights, and there weren’t anymore equipment problems, but it felt like every mile east was hard-won. Sure, I could have avoided the whole mess by showing up on time for my original flight, but my goodness.

America’s Cup

A tip of the yachting hat to Oracle Team USA USA 17 for their amazing defense of the Auld Mug in one of the greatest sports comebacks no one knows about. Down 8 – 1 in a first-to-nine-win match format, the American boat defeated Emirates Team New Zealand Aotearoa in eight straight races, including the final ‘winner take all’ contest.

Oracle Team USA modified their boat and crew technique after every race, to the point that in the later races that their boat was a  minute and a half faster on the upwind leg than when they’d started. More than the technical aspects of the boat, most of the credit has to go to the mental toughness of the skipper and crew. In this rarefied world, a small mistake can mean defeat, and defeat when you’re one race from elimination isn’t an option.

So congratulations to everyone at the Oracle syndicate for keeping the ‘America’ in ‘America’s Cup’. But next time, can’t we have a better name for the boat?

The boats

I hadn’t watched an America’s Cup contest since the 12 meter class was the boat of choice, and Holy Cow! the AC72 class is the Formula 1 of sailing. Multi-hull, rigid winged sails, hydrofoils; these boats are amazing to watch. There’s something a little scary, but tremendously exciting, about watching a sailboat skim the water at 45+ knots.

The racing

My favorite part of the America’s Cup racing was watching the pre-start maneuvering. Sailing races don’t start with the boats dead in the water and someone announcing ‘Gentlemen, hoist your sails.’ The only stipulation is that a boat cannot cross the start line before the specified time: prior to that, almost anything goes. The pre-race is probably the most dangerous part of the race, as there are two large, fast machines maneuvering in close proximity to each other. You can’t win the race prior to the start, but you can certainly lose it.

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