Here’s a 10 minute video I made using the GoPro® HD Motorsports HERO™ Camera mounted on the Ducati Monster M900. Filmed in the south of France.
Please Click here to watch the video and enjoy!
Here’s a special treat. A post about the French canals with mostly pictures and just a few descriptive words. Enjoy. We did! Unless stated, all pictures by the author using a Leica Digilux 2.
Picture above: Blown Away on the Saone taken by Fliss with an old Pentax K1000.
The might Bolene lock. Dropped us almost 100 feet in about ten minutes. Absolutely awesome engineering. Pic by Fliss again.
Typical canal scene. This is the Canal du Midi in early September.
Lovely bridge detail at Narbonne.
Plenty of water in the Midi in 2009.
One mad peniche.
Doolittle traverses the 150 year old Aqueduct over the river Orb at Bezier.
Perfect place to stop for the night. Navigation ceases at 19-00 so you can be assured of calm water.
Might has right! This peniche may be empty but it still commands respect from other canal users.
Some colourful Pointus at Frontignan
Dark clouds at Aigues Mortes a medieval walled town in the Camargue.
Classic Love Hate T shirt from Redbubble
Panasonic Lumix. The Stasha, the world’s lightest nesting dinghy. Weighs as much as a baby bird (wandering albatross chick)
There’s a saying that I like. ‘If you get in a car and don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never get there’. Designing a boat is a bit like this as you need to know a few things before you can begin. Knowing where to start is easier said than done. So many things can influence the design. I have found that a good place to start is to first think about what you don’t want. For example, I didn’t want a heavy dinghy. Nothing spoils the dinghy experience more than a weighty tender that is hard to move about and stow. This was my starting point. No matter what shape or size of dinghy I came up with it wouldn’t be a heavy one!
For years, I’d been intrigued by boats I’d seen in America that were made using materials from light aircraft. Constructed from a framework of wood and covered in cloth, they looked fragile but were obviously quite tough and since I was determined to keep the weight down I would also have to employ a similar system. So deciding what I didn’t want from my dinghy led me to the construction technique I was going to use.
However, there’s no point having a light dinghy if you have no where to put it. My yacht is just 24 feet long and the only place I could think of to stow a dinghy where it wouldn’t be in the way, look ugly or be unseaworthy was on the tiny foredeck. I got my tape measure out and discovered that it was about 4 feet wide at the aft end where the cabin begins and was a bit more than 4 feet from there to the bows. So it would have to be a nesting dinghy. In theory it could be about 7 feet long when assembled and that was a good size for a small yacht. And so was born the idea of making a super lightweight nesting dinghy.
Leica M9, 21mm f2.8 Asph. Stasha dinghy, nested and stowed on the deck of a Pacific Seacraft Dana 24.
There’s not much point worrying about aesthetics when you are designing a dinghy, the most important thing in my opinion is stability. There is nothing worse than a tippy dinghy, except perhaps a heavy tippy dinghy. Light boats are less stable than heavy boats so I would be relying mainly on the shape of the boat to provide stability. This meant that it had to be as square as possible. I now had enough information to design the boat’s shape.
The rest of it would be guesswork based on experience. What would happen if I cut a boat in half to make it nest? Would it be strong enough? What kind of forces would the join be under? How would the stringers attach to the end panels? These and many more questions filled my brain. As far as I could tell, no one had ever built a dinghy like this and I wondered why. Have people tried it but drowned during testing or has no one ever tried? Maybe it was a stupid idea that would never work but one of the great beauties of a lightweight boat is that they are cheap to build. Less materials means less cost. I could afford to simply make a boat and see if it worked.
Normally nesting dinghies are made so that the front section comes off and fits inside the rear section but this does not seem logical to me for many reasons. The shape of the front section always needs to be quite pointed but this reduces stability too much. It also means that the interior volume of the dinghy is much reduced so you might have an eight foot nesting dinghy but it will feel much smaller. Then there’s the rowing position. It’s perfectly logical to put a thwart on or above the join but it leads to a bows down attitude when rowing which makes the dinghy hard to row and just looks wrong. Rowing is easier when the bows are slightly up.
The whole concept seemed flawed to me so I tried a bit of lateral thinking and did some sketches with the rear section fitting into the front section and suddenly everything started to make more sense. The most obvious problem with doing it this way around was that the rear section would be slightly narrower than the front which would mean a step where they join. In fact this is not a problem as the bottom of the dinghy remains flush, it’s just the sides that have a small step. I doubted if it would make an appreciable difference to the finished boat’s performance.
Leica M9, 21mm f2.8 Asph. Sunlight glows through the translucent skin of the Stasha. Note the small step at the join.
This one compromise seemed a small price to pay for the host of advantages that it brought the design. I could have a fairly fine bow, a good interior volume, great stability and a perfect rowing position. Another bonus with this set up is that the rowing position doesn’t have to change when you take a passenger. Not only this but if the passenger sits in the front section back to back with the rower, the combined weight is centred in the boat increasing stability still further and each occupant has a clear, unobstructed view of their surroundings. This is much more pleasant for everyone. Yet another advantage was the fact that the pintles for the rudder are stowed inside the nested boat so ropes can’t get caught on them.
To simplify the building process, I decided to do away with any hint of sheer and make the top of the boat completely straight. Simplifying the wood requirements would also make the boat easier and cheaper to build. Now I had all the information I needed to start to design the boat. I made a few sketches just to see how it would look. Although it was boxy it still had a nice boat like shape which was pleasing.
Next I made a 1 -10 scale cardboard model 220mm long. I wanted a near flat bottom for maximum stability and ease of build but I suspected that the fine framework allied with the pressure of the water on the hull would flex inwards so I incorporated a slight V into the bottom. This would also add more strength to the structure. The sides are almost upright, with only a slight angle outwards. Again, this increases interior volume and stability.
The simplest way to build a boat like this is to make a jig. Panels are cut out and screwed to the jig and then the stringers and ribs are attached to it to create the framework. Happy with my cardboard model I divided it up into 5 sections and used these measurements to make the stations that would dictate it’s shape. I scaled up the measurements by simply adding a zero. Then these measurements were converted into instructions using the simple ‘join the dots’ principal that all Woodenwidget dinghies are built with.
Leica M9, 21m f2.8 Asph. This photo shows the jig for the front section with all panels, stringers and ribs in place.
Deciding how many stringers and ribs to use was decided by guesswork based on experience and finally what ‘looks right’ while trying to minimise weight and keep the build simple. Obviously the more ribs you have the more work there is to make and fit them. Since lack of weight was everything I did err on the light side.
The end panels on the jig stay as part of the boat while the inner stations are only temporary. The end panels have slots cut in them to accommodate the stringers which are then glued in with epoxy resin. The stringers are held in place on the inner stations with cable ties. The following day the ribs are made and glued in place. The ribs are glued everywhere they touch a stringer. This gives over 60 glue joins which makes for a surprisingly strong structure.
The making of the ribs caused me some concern. On the one hand I wanted the dinghy to be easy to build but it had to be light too. I considered a system that had no bent ribs but it meant making nearly 40 mortices which would take a long time and require a certain skill. It would also add weight and complication. So I decided to take a fresh look at bending ribs with heat.
At some point most boat builders will have a go at steaming wood. It’s a lot of fun and it’s amazing what you can put a piece of wood through before it breaks. If you want to really understand wood this is a great way to do it. You will walk away with a new respect for it as a material.
Some woods bend easier than others so I chose ash because it is strong and light as well as easy to bend. The straightness and orientation of the grain plays a big part in how far you can bend wood as does the amount of moisture content. Thin wood bends easier than thick wood but in any case you’ll need heat. Most boat builders will construct a steam box to do this but since there are only 9 ribs to be bent in the Stasha I needed to find a simpler way.
Pre soaking the wood for a couple of days is essential. Once the wood is completely saturated, they are fitted to the jig. The centre is clamped to the keel and each side of the rib is pushed down while applying heat from a hot air gun. The ribs are pushed down in gradual stages until they touch at all the stringers. This is a little time consuming and it helps to have patience but still easier than any other system I could devise. It’s also the lightest way and gives the dinghy a nice rounded boat shape. This also makes it easier to fit the cloth later.
Leica M9, 21mm f2.8 Asph. This shot shows one of the ribs being gradually persuaded into place with heat from a hot air gun.
The ribs are then glued where they touch at all the stringers. A day later the structure can be removed from the jig. It’s still quite floppy but gets much stronger at every stage. (To save wood, the stations are cut down to make the jig for the rear section of the dinghy). Inner gunwales and reinforcing knees are added for strength and that’s basically all there is to the wooden structure. Not one screw in it. It’s thanks to the amazing bonding strength of epoxy that a construction so light is even possible.
Leica M9, 21mm f2.8 Asph. Here’s the framework for the front section complete, just awaiting the kevlar twine and the cloth.
Now all the hard and messy work is done. All that remains is to cover the framework with a special heat shrink Dacron cloth. It’s attached with a product called Heat’n’Bond which is glue on a roll. It is melted with a humble domestic iron. This is cheap, light and very easy to use. It also sticks very well to the cloth and has excellent sheer force qualities. This Heat’n’Bond tape is applied to the keel, gunwales and end panels.
Now Kevlar twine is laid diagonally across the boat and glued to the gunwales. This helps to reduce twist in the structure and also to give more for the cloth to lay against than just the stringers. The cloth is laid on the structure and glued to the gunwales and end panels, then the iron is run over the cloth and all the wrinkles and baggy bits simply disappear leaving a drum tight smooth finish. This is very satisfying to do. The edges of the cloth are protected by small battens of wood and finally coated with a water based varnish but this is just one way to waterproof the fabric.
Leica M9, 21mm f2.8 Asph. Here the Dacron cloth has been glued in place. The remaining creases magically disappear when the iron is run over it.
Having made the two halves it was time to work out a way to join them. There’s no point having a nesting dinghy if it can’t be easily assembled either on land or on the water. Initially I thought about a very minimal bulkhead for the join along with some kind of waterproofing but that hardly seemed easy. Far better to sacrifice a little weight and have fuller, higher bulkheads. This means that each section is a boat in it’s own right so there is no need to waterproof the join at all. Two simple keyhole slots are all that is needed at the bottom of the join and two bolts at the top. Assembly takes less than a minute.
Leica M9, 21mm f2.8 Asph. Here the keyhole slot for joining the two sections can be seen.
What we have here is a basic 7 foot nesting rowing boat which is probably fine for most people especially as it rows so well but I also wanted it to sail. Because the rear section nests in the front section, centreboards and the like are out of the question and in any case fitting something like that would add weight and the potential for leaks. It would also be demanding to do and this doesn’t fit in with the easy build ethos.
The keel is bolted to the side of the boat and can swing up if you run aground. Here the slab sides are a bonus as it gives somewhere to attach the keel lower down. The mast support is made from two thwarts, the upper one bolts to the top of the gunwales and the lower one rests between the ribs below it. Diagonals of string must be added to help spread the load from the mast. Simple, effective and light. The mast and rudder from an Optimist is used with a slightly cut down sail.
If you want an outboard then you’ll have to reinforce and thicken the transom. This adds about half a kilo to the weight of the boat. This option has also been designed to be retro fitted at any time.
I am delighted with how well the boat has turned out. It is pretty, very light, easy to assemble, stows beautifully and fairly unobtrusively on the foredeck. The rowing position is excellent and very comfy. It goes fine with up to a 3.3hp outboard and sails surprisingly well with it’s modified Optimist rig.
Panasonic Lumix. The Stasha under sail using it’s cut down Optimist rig.
To be honest, I have been surprised at how well this boat works. I had no idea if it could take the stresses from a mast and keel or an engine but it has passed all these tests with flying colours and I’m still here to talk about it. Someone said it seems to ‘Dance on the water’ and it really does. It also slips along and carries it’s way amazingly well for such a light dinghy. Any doubts I might have had about the step in the hull are long forgotten, it seems to make no difference whatsoever. This can be confirmed by watching the water through the translucent hull as it passes the step. The boat hardly leaves a mark of it’s passing as it cuts through the water.
So this proves that if you follow sound basic small boat principals and keep faith with your original wants and don’t wants, you end up with a splendid little boat that is easy and fun to build in the smallest of places. It’s cheap to make and surprisingly tough. It stows away in a minute almost anywhere, including the back of an estate car. It rows well, sails well, takes an engine, two people with shopping and it does all this while weighing the same as a Wandering Albatross chick! (about 10 kilos! Very heavy for a baby bird perhaps but extremely light for a 7 foot dinghy)
Panasonic Lumix. The Stasha nested. It can be stowed upright if needed. Note the kevlar twine reinforcements.
To learn more and see some videos of the Stasha in action, please visit Woodenwidget.com
Leica M9, 21mm f2.8 Asph. ISO 250 f11 @ 60 secs
Well, I’m not quite sure what to make of these tyres. They feel so very different to the Michelin Pilot Powers I had before. I like the look of them and I like that the tread doesn’t go right to the edges unlike the Pilot Powers. This just makes sense to have as much rubber on the road at extreme lean angles. There’s no need for getting rid of water as you wouldn’t be leaning to the edge of the tyres in the wet. Well, not unless you were completely mental that is!
The shape of the tyres seems very round with a symmetrical radius and this is noticeable on the road. When in a corner you can choose the angle of the bike whereas with the Pilot Powers the bike would lean over always to the same point. It’s a strange sensation indeed but not unpleasant, just different.
The biggest difference is when weaving through tight S bends. The bike needs quite a lot of input from the rider to get the bike from one side to the other. It’s a fluid motion but quite unlike the Pilot Powers which almost snapped from one side to the other. That suited my small stature as the bike did all of the work. Now I have to make some effort.
The grip from these tyres is extraordinary and they seem to warm up almost straight away unlike the Pilot Powers which took a few miles. After the tyres were scrubbed in I went along one of my favourite roads to give them a proper test. The bike can certainly lean further than the Pilot Powers and frankly the angle I could achieve was ridiculous and had me laughing at the exit of every corner. I tried leaning more and more until I had my boots scraping the road. No big deal you might think but this Monster has rear sets fitted which are much higher than the original pegs and I can’t see how it’s possible that the bike can lean so far as to get my feet touching the road. It’s almost like riding on a wall of death!
Having these levels of grip is very reassuring. It’s good to know that there’s plenty in reserve if ever I need it. It will be interesting to see how long they last! The front tyre has two compounds and the rear has three which is a brilliant and very logical solution. If you look at the picture below you can see the slightly different colour on the last 25mm or so of the tyre where the softest compound is.
Leica M9, 21mm f2.8 Asph. ISO 250 f16 @ 60 secs
On the road the tyres are comfortable and reassuring but somehow my suspension feels too soft now, like it is under damped so this must mean that the tyres are more supple and are absorbing some of the shocks from the road. I put 2.5 bar (36 psi) in the front and 2.8 (40 psi) in the rear. This is what the guy in the tyre shop put in and it was what I used on the Pilot Powers too. The Bridgestone website is pathetic and I was unable to find the recommended settings but a few people said that they were 2.5 front and 2.9 rear so since I’m only small It’s probably about right.
Some mentioned they were running much lower pressures but this caused the tyres to go greasy after a while. I tried dropping the pressure on the Pilot Powers once but I didn’t like it so put them back. If you are going to get these tyres, I would start with higher pressures and see how you go. That said the bike has developed a twitchy front end on bad surfaces and under power and the bars slap about a bit. This never happened with the Pilot Powers. I tried lowering the forks a bit (11mm) and this has made a huge difference. Turn in seems unaffected but a bit more of my weight forward has really helped and the bike seems much more planted.
These are excellent tyres there’s no doubt about it. All that remains to be seen now is how long they last. If I wanted to be critical I would say that it takes a bit longer to get the power on coming out of bends. It feels like there is a lack of grip in the middle compound area, but it’s more probably the shape of the tyres that makes it feel like this. The Pilot Powers were excellent for getting the power on early coming out of bends and these BT016s just seem a bit slower. I would also say that they are slower to turn in and require more rider input to switch from one side to the other through the bends.
I’m nitpicking of course. The bottom line is that I am faster into the bends and faster out of them and I can lean more even though they don’t feel as reassuring as the Pilot Powers. Maybe it feels that way because I am going faster? In any case, if you do buy these tyres because you want to ride fast and have tons of grip then you won’t be disappointed.
They are not the cheapest tyres on the market but considering the technology that has gone into them I think they are a good investment. After all it’s the rubber that keeps you where you should be so not skimping on tyres is a good move.
I can’t comment about wet road riding since I am a fair weather biker but I have no doubt they would work just fine. These tyres don’t grip on the white lines and road markings in France. But then neither did the Pilot Powers. This is due to the crappy teflon coated paint they use, it’s no fault of the tyres.
Marks out of ten? I’d have to give them a 7 which is slightly less than I gave the Pilot Powers. The reason I have only given them a 7 is because of the slower turn in and somehow softer more wallowy ride they give. If nothing else, they have made me realise what excellent tyres the Pilot Powers were. Next time I would like to try the CT2 Michelins which are the dual compound versions of the Pilot Powers but sadly they don’t make them in a 170/60 size so we’ll have to see once the BT016s are worn out.
Update: 2000 miles on…
Leica Digilux 2, The mighty Flicka ‘Caraway’ with a big fat bone in her teeth.
When my good mate Angus asked if I would help him deliver his boat to France, how could I refuse? After all, it was entirely my fault he bought his boat in the first place, so I was duty bound and in any case it would be a laugh and a damn sight better than working! The canals seem intimidating at first, well, most new adventures hold some trepidation, but like most things, once you’ve got over the initial fear you realise that there’s nothing to it. Anyone with even a small level of common sense and half a brain could cope with anything the canals could throw at you. It’s true that potentially there are plenty of dangers but most of them can be avoided with the aforementioned common sense.
Perhaps the most scary of all the hazards are the Peniches, these 100 feet long steel barges transport goods all over Europe. They may only move at a fast walking pace but they weigh tons and are hard to steer and stop. The best advice I could give to anyone contemplating the canals is to remember the adage, Might has Right. What this means in real terms is that no matter what the rules say, the barges are bigger than you, so just get out of their way. In the hundreds of miles of cruising that I did in the canals I only had a couple of close shaves with Peniches. There are some who resent the presence of cruising boats. They are doing a job and we are on holiday. However the majority of them are decent, hardworking people.
We had entered the canals at Calais and were making good steady progress southwards. We were approaching Reims (pronounced RAHNSE) in Champagne country, when we had our first pulse racing moment. We had just entered a big lock and tied up near the front. It is my experience that if possible, it pays to be stationed as far from the lock gates as possible because when the water comes in to fill the lock, there is a lot of turbulence and this makes it harder to hold the boat. Angus was down below making tea and I was on the cabin holding the ropes when a peniche entered the lock behind us. It was unladen and very high out of the water. He seemed to be coming in at quite a pace but I wasn’t worried as an empty peniche can stop very quickly. However, my inbuilt sense of self preservation meant that I kept my eye on him. It soon became apparent that he wasn’t slowing down. Angus appeared in the cockpit and gave me the ‘what the “$%^’ is happening look. It was still possible that the Peniche would stop but we were fast approaching the point of no return. A decision had to be made. Quick as a flash, I yelled ‘Start the engine! Move! NOW! Angus needed no further persuading as the bows of ‘Roger’ the peniche towered over us. I threw the lines off as Angus slammed the engine into gear at full speed. Caraway moved forwards just in time. We didn’t have far to go to the end of the lock but it was enough to avoid a nasty incident. Had we not moved we would have been run into. The Flicka is a tough little boat and I doubt we would have sunk but it would have been most unpleasant indeed.
The peniche driver, a balding, unshaven, sad looking man with his hairy gut hanging out of his stained string vest, walked forwards to see if he had scared us sufficiently. He obviously didn’t like cruising boats and took great pleasure in terrorising them. He stared down at us from his perch 15 feet above us and gave us a sneer. We ignored him. Gus was fuming, he couldn’t believe that someone could be such an arse. Having lived in France for a number of years, sadly I could.
Once the lock doors opened we wasted no time is getting out before ‘Roger’ ran us down. It was quite clear from his attitude that he would not wait for us to leave, and if we were still messing about with our ropes he would run us down, no doubt claiming that he didn’t see us.
As soon as we could, we pulled over to the side to let him past, no way we wanted him behind us. He roared past, never even glancing at us and we pulled back into the centre of the canal in his wake. He must have been doing almost 8 knots already. Good bye and good riddance we thought.
Cup of tea in hand we tried to get into the relaxed mood we had enjoyed ever since we first entered the canals, but ‘Roger’s’ attempt at killing us rankled. While I was studying the map to see where the next lock was, an idea began to take shape. The next lock was just 3 kms away, or about 20 minutes at full speed, if we ‘went for it’ there was just a chance that the lock keeper would wait for us. Every time a lock is operated, water is lost from the canal systems and because water is scarce, I knew that the ‘Eclusier’ would not operate the lock if there was another boat in sight. The French can be notoriously lazy and this also worked in our favour.
I explained my idea to Gus who thought it was worth a try and we opened up Caraway’s little engine until the valves were almost jumping out of the cylinder head. We kept our heads down to reduce drag and cut every corner in order to save a few feet. After 15 minutes of hard motoring we came around a bend and there less than one km away was the lock. We could see Roger inside and the lights that give permission to enter were still green. Would they see us in time? Unfortunately, there was a bridge spanning the canal before the lock and it blocked the lock keeper’s view of the canal where we were.
We kept going flat out anyway but felt deflated when the doors started to close and the lights went red. We slowed down, our efforts in vain. Oh well. Then as the doors had almost closed, they stopped and miraculously started to open again. Could it be that the lock keeper had seen us? Yes, the doors were definitely opening and the green light confirmed our deepest hopes. ‘You can slow right down now mate’, I said to Angus, who, with a cheeky grin backed off the revs until we were crawling along.
It took us a good ten minutes to get to the lock and the fat bloke on ‘Roger’ was red in the face and clearly upset. He was standing there by the wheel house on his barge, arms crossed and staring at us. As soon as we were close enough he started having a go. I didn’t catch all of it, his accent thick with argo, but I did understand that he was miffed with us, that he didn’t have all day to wait for an escargot! We tried to hold back our smiles and smugness. In response to his rantings, I merely suggested he talk to the eclusier about it, not us.
We felt very content. We had wound ‘fat bloke’ up badly and as soon as the lock had filled and the gates opened, he roared off and left us in cloud of black diesel smoke, no doubt his way of getting back at us. We couldn’t care less, we had ‘had’im’ and he knew it. As we chugged out in his wake, I wondered how far the next lock was. I couldn’t believe it, it was just 3 kms away. That meant we might be able to get him again. That would be too good to be true.
Laughing with mischief we opened up caraway’s willing engine again and followed the ever fading Roger. As the next lock approached you could almost sense ‘fat bloke’s’ urgency to get the lock gates closed before we arrived but it was to no avail. The lock keeper was not going to be hurried and once he saw another boat arriving, he simply waited for us. As soon as it was clear to us that we had been seen, we slowed right down again. This time when we entered the lock, ‘fat bloke’ didn’t even look at us. We had him beat and he knew it. Whether he knew how hard we had tried to wind him up is debatable. We didn’t care. It was perhaps the finest example of poetic justice ever seen. It was truly beautiful and a wonderful end to an unforgettable few days in the canals of France”.
Leica Digilux 2, Typical canal scene on the Canal Du Midi in France
All shots: Leica M3, 21mm f3.4 Angulon 400 ISO
One of the problems of developing one’s own films is that there is always the chance you might mess up and lose all your work. Having spent a great weekend celebrating a mate’s 50th birthday at an amazing house in the heart of the French countryside I was looking forward to seeing how my pictures would look. The house was very old and very big. My friends, characters every last one of them (even Sancho the dog) made perfect subjects for photographs. I was hoping to see some really nice shots.
The film was duly developed, rinsed and then fixed. To my horror when I lifted the spool out of the tank I saw that the film was milky and not clear as it should be. The fixer must have died. As soon as I saw that there was a problem I put the spool straight back into the tank. It was only exposed to the light for a very short moment but I suspected it was long enough to ruin it. I was very angry and annoyed at myself. I mixed up some fresh fixer and fixed the film anyway on the assumption that one never knows. Always the eternal optimist.
When I looked at the film it seemed that my worst fears were confirmed. The negs were completely black. I held one up to a strong light and saw that there was actually an image to be seen. Maybe I could get some prints from the film after all. Instead of the usual few second exposure, they required a few minutes but in the end I did get some interesting shots. In fact, I was amazed that they were as good as they were.
The prints all had a lovely grainy old look to them which really suited the subject matter and the only sign that something wasn’t quite right was some mild solarisation in places. Considering how black the negs were I was very pleased with what I got. I even have a feeling that the prints turned out better than they might have done had I not messed up the film.
Leica M9 Summarit f2.5 50mm 160 ISO f2.5 @ 4000 sec
When I first got my M9 I needed a lens for it. Having already spent far too much buying the camera in the first place, I couldn’t really justify a new lens. I couldn’t really justify any lens at all really but a body is useless without one. There wasn’t a great choice of lenses in the shop, either new or secondhand. I wanted a wide angle but he didn’t have one so I chose the new 50mm f2.5 Summarit.
It was quite compact and I was pleased to see that Leica had stopped using that nasty square font and had reverted to a more classical style. I took a lot of pictures with this lens under a wide variety of circumstances and at first it seemed as good as one might expect for a modern Leica lens. It cost about 1000€ which was relatively inexpensive for a Leica lens.
Shooting wide open produced sharp images with a soft bokeh but the bokeh seemed to have a double image which rather spoiled the effect. I also thought it rather odd that the aperture ring started at f2.5 then went to f2.8. It hardly seemed worth it and I found this a bit annoying. Surely it would have been better to start at f2.5 and go straight to f4.
This picture is a 100% crop taken at f2.5 which shows the strange ‘double image’ look to the bokeh. (click to see all images bigger)
Now, one thing about Leica lenses is that they should perform well especially in demanding situations yet I found that this lens did not like shooting into the sun. Since I often do this and quite like the effect of lens flare I was rather disappointed. The lens flare was nice enough but it often created strange pink patches in the image which rendered them unusable, at least in my opinion.
Here there is a red patch top right and it’s not even shooting directly into the sun!
What is this strange blue patch in the bottom left hand corner? Faults like these happened often using this lens.
As far as I am concerned this lens does not live up to Leica’s reputation and is not as good overall as other 50mm Leica lens. It was returned for a refund.
Leica M9, Elmarit 21mm Asph, f5.6 @ 30 sec 160 ISO. (Lightroom preset ‘Nostalgialicious’)
The thing I noticed most when I first saw Ducati’s new Monster M900 was that incredibly wide back tyre. Of course I also noticed the massive twin discs and upside down forks. It even had trick little carbon side panels. Even when it was stationary it looked like it was going fast. It looked pretty bloody good back in 1995. It still looks pretty good today too.
My first impressions on riding it was that it was totally planted. It went around corners as if on rails soaking up bumps and completely ignoring irregularities in the road. Even when I opened the taps a bit I soon realised that this bike had very high limits and I wasn’t anywhere near them. I doubted I could even get close to them. This kind of realisation makes riding a Ducati special.
The power was fabulous, even though there wasn’t really that much of it. 85 hp is not very much by today’s standards and the engine doesn’t rev very high. There isn’t even a rev counter. But it’s got grunt, an immediate rush of power no matter what gear you’re in. It’s quite possible to ride a Monster very fast without even having to change gear very often.
Then there are those brakes. Awesome is the only word for it. Just the pressure from one digit will pull you up fast and true from any speed. The brakes hiss when applied. I have never heard that before.
Being a short bloke who only weighs about 60 kilos has a large bearing on the kind of motorbike I can ride. One of the good things about the Monster is the low seat height but it’s also very light at only 180 kilos so that low hp figure is somewhat misleading. My old 400/4 Honda weighed as much and had only half the hp. A mate has a Bandit 650 which has the same hp but that weighs 50 kilos more than the 900cc Ducati!
OK, so it’s not really a bike to ride long distance, with no fairing it’s just too tiring, but if you want to ride far buy a Honda Goldwing or a BMW. The Monster is about enjoying yourself. It has no redeeming practical features at all. The pillion position is terrible and neither comfy for the rider or pillion. The grunty nature of the motor and the amazing brakes means you’re constantly being nutted by your passenger. There isn’t room for a spare change of pants even.
It has a lousy turning circle, thanks to the shape of the frame and this can be annoying in town but here’s a clever way of turning the bike around. Out on the open road it’s never an issue and this is where this bike was designed to be, not in a car park. It’s quite economical and the quoted 17 kms per litre is about right. This means about 100 – 120 miles on a tank. Not a huge range but like I said if you want that kind of stuff you need a different kind of bike.
The funny thing is, I was always a Japanese bike man. I liked high revving, small multi cylinder bikes. I had ridden plenty of other bikes of course but all the big twins that I rode vibrated and made my vision blur and I didn’t like the way the engine snatched at low speeds. I didn’t even particularly like the sound they made. They were also pretty heavy and that’s no good for a little bloke so I was always happy with a 400 or 500 cc bike. Anything bigger would be too much for me in every sense.
A year with the Monster has changed this attitude completely. I never knew that a big twin could be so light and agile. I have to remind my self that I am riding a 900cc bike. That’s a big capacity engine. Bike insurance might be expensive but I’m now of an age that makes a real difference. A clean licence and plenty of no claims bonus helps too.
I really do feel at home on the Monster. It might be a 900cc bike and capable of going like one but it feels much smaller when you’re riding it. You don’t have to ride it like a nutter to get satisfaction from it unlike the Monster 696 I tried. Far better to have a quick bike that you can ride slower and still enjoy. If you want to ride fast you can, the Monster is a very capable bike in the right hands.
It’s always a treat to be able to keep up with the serious boys on their new road rockets. They always seem surprised that such an old bike can do so well against their modern high tech ones. They are even more surprised when they get overtaken coming out of a bend. That instant power delivery from the Monster’s twin means that while their motor is just winding up towards the power band, you’re already in it and it can make a big difference.
On paper the Monster M900 doesn’t appear to be any kind of threat to any of the latest bikes of a similar capacity but in the real world it does very well thank you. There are some who say that Ducatis are too expensive or unreliable. The bike I am riding is 15 years old and it has been reliable for the year I have had it. Everything still works. There is no play anywhere and the chassis and running gear still feels very tight.
The Monster is an iconic bike. It has influenced the look of many of the bikes on the road today. It has it’s faults but when it comes to smiles per miles you can’t do better. If you want a bike purely for the pleasure of riding and don’t need any practical aspects why not try an original Monster? Low mileage old ones can be bought for a fraction of what they cost new. These were very expensive bikes when they were first sold.
Recently I hired a Ducati 696 for a weekend and although it was a very competent bike, I felt it was trying to be everything to everybody and had lost some vital element. Given a choice between a brand new 696 or my 15 year old M900. There’s no contest. I would take the original without question. It’s a great bike and a true design classic.
Here’s a helpful trick that all Ducati Monster owners need to know. The Ducati’s have a very poor lock so turning them around so they are facing the right direction can be a right pain, especially if you only have little legs! Here’s a simple way that requires very little effort and is very quick.