Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Helio Castroneves in Question-and-Answer with Fans

Helio Castroneves, the 34-year-old Brazilian racing driver is on a media tour in the Bay Area and met fans for a relaxed question-and-answer session this morning at the Infineon Speedway,

Sonoma...see previous blog

Helio is one of an elite corps of three-time winners of the Indianapolos 500 and a champion for many fans and racing drivers. But for him, fellow Brazilian driver, Ayrton Senna, is his hero.

'Senna is my hero. I was

looking to him....I wanted to be like this driver,' he said of Brazil's national hero who was from the same home city of Sao Paolo. Helio was days away from his 19th birthday when Senna died tragically on the track at the San Marino Grand Prix in Italy in 1994 at the same age as Helio is now, 34 years.

Another driver that has Helio's respect is the highest-ever ranking female driver in Indy racing, Danicka Patrick. In answer to a question about his favourite Indy driver, he replied, 'I like Danicka Patrick!' and added quickly, 'My girl friend's over there. I'm talking about race car drivers!!!' But mention of Danicka drew huge claps and cheers from his audience.

It's not fair to pick one, as they are all talented, he said, but continued with, 'Rick Mears is a phenomenal person first of all, and an incredible driver in the past. And now he work with us...he has some great sayings, for example...'if you want to finish first, first you have to finish. Those things you keep in your mind....if you think you're going to pass somebody, don't pass because you're going to crash!'

Returning to Danicka, he said he respected her a lot for coming into a male sport. 'You've got to have a tough skin to hear a lot of jokes and things like that. She's amazing, she's definitely a very good driver.'

Would he let her pass him?

'No!' he said. 'I will be a gentleman off the track, not on the track!'

'You're so friendly and affable pre-race, always smiling, answering questions,' began Ed of Petaluma. 'What do you do to change your mindset when you step in the car, strap in, put the helmet on....'

'My mum always says, "you've got to be yourself" if you're happy, you're happy, if you're sad, you're sad and you've got to respect to have a respect back. The way I am is just because I love what I do...but once I put my helmet on that's the time, like, okay, game is on. It's showtime. I close my visor on and I'm thinking exactly what I need to do.....'

That's the point, he said, that separates the energetic, fun guy from the serious and ready-to-race guy.

'When I'm there, I think I'm in my own my territory and I feel safe there. I can do whatever I want inside that race car....'

Helio started go-kart racing at the age of 11, with his 'legs shaking.' Today, children are tending to start at six or seven-years-old, he said. 'I think it's too young, to be honest.'

His view is that 'Sometimes the dads are the ones that want to race and they want to try to realize their dream in their kid.'

A dad in the audience asked what is the next step for kids in go-karts who are keen to get into Indy racing.

Go-karts are the best place to start for anyone interested in open-wheel racing, said Helio, as karts are very similar to the cars. And after that, he recommended small Series cars like Formula BMW, and training with Skip Barber Racing Schools or Infineon's Jim Russell Racing Drivers School.

But graduating from a go-kart to a car is also 'the biggest difference,' he said. People don't realize that the reaction time of go-karts is so fast. Cars are slower, you have time to down-shift, time to break, time to turn.

'I remember turning too early, breaking too late. It took time for me to adapt,' he said.

'What breakfast do you have every race day?' asked a young lad. 'Good question!' he said as laughter rippled. 'The breakfast of a champion I tell you!' It depends, look, I like Cocoa Pebble. No? Okay, sorry!' he said, looking at his questioner. 'Let me try another one, I like Cheerios? Is that okay?!... And I like Granola.'

Another popular question related to his 2007 win in the TV show, Dancing with the Stars, in which he partnered Julianne Hough. What was his favourite dance?

The Mambo, and the Quickstep for which he wore the yellow suit. After watching Julianne demonstrate the Mambo, he told the audience he had said, "Julianne, if I do that we're going to win this competition!"

Win they did. 'We never stopped jumping, I guess that's why, they couldn't see the mistakes!'

Julianne, he added, was 'just awesome, she was a great teacher,' and people didn't realize she was leading most of the time.

A race other than the Indy 500 he would like to enter? He would like to win the 24-hour Daytona 500, having finished third in it, and also participate in NASCAR. The Le Mans 24 Hour is different, 'but I would keep around here, not over there!'

His favourite factory car? The exotic cars, he answered. 'I used to have a Lamborghini, I sold to pay the attorneys'. As the crowd roared, he said, 'I'm serious. Unfortunately, I really liked that car. Darn it! The Lamborghini was a Gallardo, and it was a nice car!'

'But, you know, Ferraris, you can't beat the sound. It is just an incredible machine'.

A flurry of Ferrari fans pressed him on which model. The 430, the Enzo, the FXX - 'man, that car is super. I don't know how much money you have?! So if you have it...I strongly suggest that one! But you've got to be here on the race track as well to try because it's a fast car.'

'My dream car is the Bugatti Veyron but it's too much money!' he said with a laugh. For those who don't know, that's somewhere over $1.5 million.

What he misses, he said, from the earlier days of Champ Cars, is the turbo speed. 'I remember going on the California Speedway about 250 mph, it was the fastest I had actually ever gone. I remember the next lap, crashing too, it was 247. ...I remember it hurts my kidneys. But I miss that speed.'

As the session came to an end, Steve Page thanked Helio, describing him as a great ambassador for the sport and such a nice person.

And as if to prove it, while it had been said that he would not sign autographs or pose for personal pics, a few of his audience who were at the front and able to mob Helio as he rose to go, got exactly autograph and a pic of themselves with the champ.

Discussing the question of who is the greatest racing driver as we stepped down from the stand, Humberto said, 'I thought he might pick Jim Clark, or Graham Hill, but that's old school.'

Humberto is no ordinary mortal but a man of racing distinction: he shares Ayrton Senna's birthday of March 21.

pics show: Steve Page, President and General Manager of Infineon Raceway, and Helio; Humberto; the open-wheel race car for people to try out!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Helio Castroneves in Conversation in Sonoma

Indianapolos 500 racing champion, Helio Castroneves, is back in circulation with a winning streak and his famous good-natured personality!

The 34-year-old Brazilian racing driver is on a media tour in the Bay Area and met fans for a relaxed question-and-answer session this morning.

Hangin' with Helio was a ticketed 20-minute question-and-answer session at the Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, half-an-hour's drive from the Golden Gate Bridge. His famous humour and personality bubbling through, Helio chatted in the sun with his back to the track.

Alongside him was Steve Page, President and General Manager of the raceway, who led the session with a few questions and comments before opening it to the audience.

Helio won his third Indianapolos 500 championship last month, two days after emerging in the clear of all charges in a tax evasion case.

'With everything you've been through in the last couple of years, it's just amazing, you have such a great warmth and such a great fan base,' said Steve. 'How meaningful is that?'

'I have to say I'm very honoured and blessed to have fans like that,' Helio said. Confessing to not being tech savvy, he had been set up on Spacebook and Twitter by his brother-in-law and was surprised by what he discovered.

'Once I start checking it out and see the message that everybody was giving guys, sometimes you don't realize that (a) small message just like "Hey, man, we're praying for you!" or "hey man, we're looking for you back in the race car," stuff like that, it was just awesome,' he said.

'For all those years of running out here and racing and winning and having fun, for one of the first times I saw you guys give me back something. Sometimes you forget, I'm a human guys kept me strong...and we're back winning, which is cool!'

Helio was filmed crying in the cockpit at the end of the Indy 500 race in May. Why had there been 'so much emotion,' he was asked. 'I was out on a boat on the delta crying my eyes out!' said his fan, Jan, from Stockton.

'Sorry! I didn't mean to make you cry!' said Helio. 'I just couldn't control my emotion either,' he said.

'As soon as I crossed the finishing line, my prayers were answered in that one,' he said. But he had been asking himself, 'Why did this happen to me? What did I do? I thought I was a good person.' On his victory lap 'somehow between me and God, we were having a private conversation, and I'm like, thank you....' he told his audience.

Also, seeing his family who are closely involved with him in his racing, and knowing what they had been through, was emotional, but 'trust me, it was tears of joy.'

Helio arrived at the raceway about a quarter of an hour late after an interview with KGO, the San Franciscan based radio station, and prior to that had travelled yesterday afternoon from Canada.

In the waiting time, a trivia quiz on Helio and the Infineon Raceway was held with a sprinkling of prizes. Grand prize was a ride in a two-seater racer before the Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma on August 23, which is the second part of the Hangin' with Helio event and a race in which Helio is the defending champion.

What's more exhausting, asked Steve as Helio arrived, the Indy 500 or a 24-hour media tour!

'Man, to be here, what a beautiful place,' the champion replied, settling down in front of an audience of about 100 enthusiastic fans.

'I thought you might recognize the spot!' said Steve, reminding him of last year's win and his signature victory fence climbing, for which he is nicknamed Spiderman.

'I just remember actually,' laughed Helio, 'I got to the point when I had somebody grab my butt!... I thought this is time to get out of here!'

That race that made Helio the 2008 champion of the Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma had been memorable, Steve recalled. Helio had had a run of 29 races without a victory and a new car had had to be brought in at the last moment. The truck drivers were driving for so long, said Helio, paying tribute to them.

Steve then referred to the dust-up of Helio and Canadian racer, Paul Tracy, in an IndyCar race in Toronto two weeks ago. 'Anyone throwing ice-pucks at you?!'

'I was scared. First time I heard so many boos!' was the reply.

Helio defended himself lightheartedly. 'He's a very talent (ed) driver. If he sees a small hole that does not fit even a tyre, he will go there!' he said. 'And because I know that, I thought I gave him enough room...It's one of those situations, it just happens.'

To be on the safe side, returning to Edmonton this week, he wore an "I love Canada" tee-shirt. 'Peace and love!' he said.

Tongue-in-cheek, Steve pointed out that the new season starts on home territory in Brazil. 'He'd better wear a shirt like "I love Helio!" And "Brazil!"' said Helio.

Much as he is looking forward to racing in his own country, he also stressed how much he loves America and the IndyCar Series, and more than once said how fortunate he was to be able to do something that he loves.

Steve commented that he was struck by the 'incredible' number of different types of tracks that the drivers had to cope with in the IndyCar Series.

Helio agreed about the challenge the race presents. Converting a car for the different races takes 12 hours, he said, but the interesting thing is that the races give opportunity to different teams and drivers, and which is why the champion of the Series has to be good on all types of track, he said.

But the skills set and the different levels of concentration - 'dancing!' added Helio - the thing that's always impressed me is the level of sustained concentration, pressed Steve.

The races were 'very, very diffcult to predict,' explained Helio, as the car reacts differently and drivers are dealing with things like new tyres and lots of things happening at the same time. 'You can't start waving around! Hey, what you doing over there!!!'

How does he train for that?

'I mentalize,' he started to say, and then queried if that was the right word in English!

'Visualize?' tried Steve. The trial had given him new vocabularly, 'I learn a lot about the "objection sustained and overruled!"' Helio quipped.

'You've got to be prepared,' he said, returning to the subject. 'But at the same time you've got to understand the car, feel comfortable with the car.'

More of Helio in the next blog..and for a video by Chris...

Watch the YouTube hosted video

pics show: Helio; Steve Page and Helio; the audience beginning to gather

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Premier of Mavericks Big Wave Surfing TV Show

A TV show featuring some of the world's best big wave surfers and their rides at Mavericks is being premiered on FUEL TV in August.

Titled 'The Very Best of Mavericks', the show will be a thrilling spectacle of surfing one of the most dangerous waves in the world.

Mavericks is at Half Moon Bay, about an hour from San Francisco, where waves can swell to as high as 50 ft with strong currents, dangerous rocks and very cold temperatures.

The TV premier is on August 27 at 5 pm Pacific Time. It will be screened throughout the rest of August and into the first two weeks of September.

'Program your VCR, set your Tivo, ask your grandmother to call you, write it down on a sticky note - do whatever you gotta do....But don't miss "The Very Best of Mavericks"...'! say the Mavericks team.

For the TV schedule:

For the first time, the Mavericks Surf Contest season is to open in November. From November 1, 24 of the world's top big wave surfers who have been specially selected will remain on 24-hour alert waiting for mega waves to roll in from the Pacific. The contest season lasts until the end of March.

Last season there was no contest due to the lack of waves. The 2008 Mavericks champion is Greg Long of San Clemente.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

SF Circus at Giants County Fair

The Giants County Fair came tumbling to an acrobatic end today with performers from the San Francisco Youth Circus.

First they did circus games with children. Eight-year-old Kayla was 'doing my best' to spin a plate on the end of a stick.

'It's really nice being here and it's really hard to do the plate,' she said, accepting a little help from mum, Sheena.

Other children were grappling with balls on strings and arm-sized hula hoops by the stage. Behind them were the swinging, circling rides and blaring fair music on a hot, sunny afternoon. It was all great fun before the circus troupe limbered up for their performance.

They say the circus is a family, and the San Francisco Circus Center clearly juggles, tumbles and balances in that tradition.

In the troupe were 18-year-old twins, Molly and Aviva, sisters, 19-year-old Oriana and 15-year-old Sofia, and 19-year-old Maya, there with dad, Mike Kesselmen, Executive Director of of the circus, and mum, Rachel.

The twins do acrobatics, Chinese pole - 'handstands on it, it's cool! said Molly - and juggle as a duo.

They enjoy the hard work of training three times a week.

'It's fun to work out. In the youth circus, our trainer has us do things that at first seem impossible, but we're able to motivate each other and we use each others strengths to make it work,' she said.

'I love acrobatics,' said Aviva. 'Juggling is frustrating, because it's like 99 per cent failure and one per cent success!'

'It's all or nothing!' added Molly. 'Either you do it and you catch it, or you drop.'

Both girls, who live in the Bay Area, did recreation circus when they were in their early teens and later had some training with Master Trainer Lu Yi who saw their potential and invited them to join the Youth Circus.

Molly isn't yet sure where her training will take her but Aviva has set her sights on the National Circus School in Montreal, which is the only school in North America for advanced circus arts training.

'I honestly don't know where I want to go with this, but it's the one thing in life that makes me happy,' Aviva said. 'I'm aiming to go to international school but I don't know where it will lead.'

Someone who is just stepping onto the path of professional training is Maya. She has recently been accepted for the Ecole Superieure des Arts du Cirque in Brussels, where she will study for three years for a degree in stage arts and communication techniques, and a major in circus arts.

'I'm moving there next September, so I'm pretty excited about it,' she said, before warming up for an acrobatic chair duo.

Oriana and Sofia, who are also from the Bay Area, do tumbling, Chinese acrobatics and hoop diving, and perform together in a rolla bolla - a balancing board - and kickballs act. For the sisters, the thrill of the circus is in performing.

For Oriana it's 'performing on stage and being able to show off what you've been training really hard to do,' while for Sofia it's 'just the adrenaline rush you get from being on stage, and I just like being able to show what you can really do in a circus.'

The circus has truly got into their blood. Sofia would love to be accepted by the Montreal school, 'that's my circus dream,' she said, while Oriana, who is currently working for a Bachelor's degree, said, 'When I'm finished, I'd like to audition for any circus group and keep performing until I can't do it any more. And then I'd like to teach circus.'

How do their parents feel about having two circus performers in the family?!

'They love it, they are always bragging about it,' beamed Oriana. 'They really like to support us at every show.'

This is the first year for the Giants County Fair which opened, with its 19 rides including the Zipper from Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch, food stalls, live music and events program, on July 8.

pics show: Molly and Aviva practising their juggling act; a bustling fair; mum Sheena and Kayla; Sofia and Oriana; Oriana, Sofia, Maya, Molly, Aviva

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Kenny Chesney Sings Again

Kenny Chesney, award-winning country music artist, is back in the Giants' ballpark for the second summer in a row performing as part of his Sun City Carnival Stadium Tour.

His long-awaited concert kicked off at 5.30 pm this evening with excited fans pouring into the ballpark.

Supporting acts are Sugarland, the 2009 Grammy Award winning duo of Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush, ACM Album of the Year winner, Miranda Lambert, and ACM Group Award winner, Lady Antebellum.

Outside of the ballpark, the Giants' County Fair has been open all day and will remain open until the concert ends at 11 pm.

Tomorrow, the final day of the County Fair, will see the San Francisco Circus Center performing circus games, juggling acts and Kazoo playing, and there will be music entertainment from Groove Layers, DJ Day and DJ Precise. The fair will be open from 11 am to 8 pm.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

K-9 Police Dogs Fundraiser

Rooting out burglars and killers in hiding, searching for explosives and narcotics, catching thieves on the run and accompanying SWAT team invasions are just some of the daily life-threatening situations that police dog handlers and their canine partners face.

But now police dog handlers around the Bay Area are also facing an increased risk of losing their canine partners because of a shortage of bullet-proof vests for their dogs.

The loss of a four-legged partner to an officer is traumatic.

'I'd be devastated. He's like one of my kids,' said Michelle, Police Officer and dog handler of Draco, a three-year-old Belgian Shepherd dog.

Draco has been her partner for one-and-a-half years. They, along with fellow officer and dog handler, Andrew, and his canine partner, Maggi, were in the Pet Food Express store in Market Street this afternoon as part of a desperate fundraising exercise.

At the moment, San Francisco has funded a vest for every one of its dogs but in the Bay Area overall only between 40 and 50 per cent of working dogs have one.

The fundraising effort is in partnership with the police charity, K-9 Armor. Their goal is to raise 50k-100k to ensure every dog has a vest and to give financial help to retired officers who continue to care for their dogs.

Today Pet Food Express were donating all of the money from customers in their 34 stores who purchased dog-washing tokens. Only in four specially selected stores were police officers and dogs there to meet customers.

'I think the vests are awesome. I think he would be at greater risk without one,' said Michelle.

'The vests,' she explained, 'cover about three-quarters of their body and they can't wear them 24 hours a day. On a ten-hour shift they're mostly used for high-risk situations. If we left the dogs in their vest for the whole time, they get hot, the vests are bulky.'

The officers therefore try to determine the type of call to limit the use of vests.

'If we know that we're going to a high-risk call with a gun or a knife, or any other kind of impact weapon, we'll put the vest on beforehand. Most of the time we're on the street and we don't know what we're getting into,' she said.

Draco has been in quite a few dangerous situations.

'We had a guy in a stolen vehicle run from us, and we were able to take him into custody with a bite. We had a burglar in a commercial building that Draco was able to find and arrest, and we also do high-risk building entries with the SWAT team,' Michelle said.

Similarly, Andrew, handler of Maggi, a Belgian Malinois who is just over five-years-old, said if anything happened to her, 'It would be upsetting. It's like losing a really close member of the family. These dogs go home with us.'

Maggi's most dangerous moments, he said, were when 'she's searched on occasion for a robber, armed suspects. She cleared a house just last night for a homicide suspect and routinely looks for burglary suspects on a daily and weekly basis.'

Vests, according to a press release put out by Pet Food Express, cost $1,200. But this is far less than the cost of replacing a dog. The cost of a dog varies, said Michelle, depending on how much training it has had before it is bought.

A dog like Maggi, who was already trained in bomb disposal and explosives would cost between $7,000 and £10,000. Dogs like Draco, who did her obedience and specialist narcotic training with her unit, cost around $4,000 to $5,000.

Protecting their life means everything to Michelle and Andrew and fellow dog handlers. It's not simply a question of cost and retraining, it's the emotional side of rebonding.

'They're lifelong partners, they're like members of your family,' Michelle reiterated. To lose your dog, 'it's devastating.'


K9 ARMOR - Fundraising by Suzanne Saunders

Fundraising has been coorganized by Suzanne Saunders, one of the voluntary founders of K-9 Armor. Suzanne has been working for five years to help support police dogs and was upbeat about the day.

'We're sure going to make a lot of progress today,' she said. Although the Pet Food Express press release gives the cost of a vest as $1,200, one of the achievements of Suzanne's work has been to link with a company and secure them at a reduced cost of $750.

She pointed out that even if they supplied every dog today with a vest, the need will still be there for dogs in the future. The good news, however, is that Pet Food Express are starting to make this an annual fundraising event.

An interview with Suzanne, whose charity partner and president is Deputy Daniel Marrett of Marin County Sheriff's Department, is in the video.

For info and to be able to donate:

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Bastille Day at Chouchou - San Francisco!

If this movie does not play well in your browser, go to -

It was Bastille Day yesterday, the day when Frenchmen unfurl their red, white and blue and celebrate the birthday of 'la belle France', the modern Republic of France.

Just like Americans celebrate the birthday of America on Independence Day.

With the storming of the Bastille fort and the start of the revolution over by 220 years, the call to arms is not for the raising of a musket but for glasses filled with the red and white of le bon vin. a corner of San Francisco, a guillotine was poised on a straw-strewn floor surrounded by les hommes francaises et une femme donned in wigs and 18th century garb.

Chouchou, the French restaurant in Forest Hill that has carved out a niche dans les coeurs de San Franciscans celebrated with gusto le grand anniversaire de la France avec le rouge, blanc et bleu.

Balloons of red, white and blue bobbed against the walls, the strains of la musique francais floated down from an accordion and guitar in the gallery above. Nick, un francais et le chef-owner celebre, brocaded in blue and gold coat and trousers, greeted his guests in his customary effusive style: a warm hand here, an arm around the shoulders there, un mot gentil, how is the food? or a cheery bon appetit!

'It's Nick that makes the place. He greets you with love, and its like he's always known you,' said Julia spontaneously, a regular member of the Chouchou clientele who was sitting at the next table with her husband. 'He makes you feel so welcome.'

And le repas pour le soir? C'etait magnifique! Nick had not let his beau pays down.

Cinque courses served avec l'amour. A complimentary Kir Royal with amuse-bouches.

Appetizers that offered Medjool dates and blood-orange vinaigrette, potato wrapped scallops with fennel, white wine and beurre blanc sauce, oysters, caviar and tome de savoie, a trilogy of tuna, salmon and halibut with pong-zu, Annette and chive-lime dressings, just some of the accoutrements.

And then la petite gourmandize of eggplant caviar, sauteed coppa....three miniature verrines, each subtle and distinct. As Monet painted in myriad dabs of shades, an artistic chef-ing that sprinkles tastes and flavours.

My duck with celery root veloute and white port apple Calvados sauce, served tender and hot, enticing creme brulee trilogy with rosemary, Tahitian vanilla bean and bourbon, and lemon - or as Nick would say, citron. Parfait!

The storming of the Bastille was worth every sweat and grunt and shout for this. It was a feast that would stir even the most lukewarm Francophile to raise a toast.

Vive la France! Vive Chouchou!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Fireworks at Giants County Fair

It could have been Christmas in the Sky last night around the Giants' AT & T Park.

The skies were lit in a dazzling display of colourful fireworks, and with the sparkles reflecting in the waters of Mission Creek and the changing colours of the ferris wheel flickering in the background, the area has probably never been so aglow.

The fireworks were part of the Giants County Fair, a first-ever summer celebration with fairground rides, including the Zipper from Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch, competitions, live music and events -

Yesterday was the day for karaoke and fireworks. Today, it is local DJ music, Bubgum, Seed Spit, Pie Eat, Pitching and Dunk Tank, Radio, Disney Road Crew on stage from 5-7 p.m.

And Little League Day.

The fair is running through to this Sunday, July 19, with the highspot being the Kenny Chesney concert in the ballpark on Saturday, with supporting act Sugarland. The fair will be open all day for this event.

Admission to the fair is $5 for adults, and kids 12 and under are free. Unlimited ride tickets are also available at $20 for adults and $15 for kids. For tickets and a full Giants County Fair schedule visit or call 1-800-225-2277.

San Francisco Pastor and his wife to become Chaplains on Africa Mercy Ship

A San Franciscan pastor and his wife, Marty and Catherine Schwebel, are leaving the city streets for life in Africa on the decks of the world's largest non-governmental hospital ship - see previous blog

'Okay, I'll go, but only if we can get a monkey!' said one of their three boys on hearing the news that his parents wanted to transport them half-way around the world to live on a ship in Africa.

He didn't just mean a pet monkey on board, but one that he could eventually bring back to San Francisco!

It was a tricky bartering situation but much to Catherine's relief, google provided her with a simple solution: it is illegal to import monkeys!

With that minor hurdle out of the way, the family settled down to the serious business of leaving family and friends and preparing for the biggest adventure of their lives, to spend an initial two years on board the Africa Mercy.

The Africa Mercy is the flagship of the Mercy Ships fleet, equipped with six operating theatres, a 78-bed ward, and satellite communications to enable digital images, including CT and X-rays, to be transmitted and diagnosed remotely.

One of the common operations they perform is for obstetric fistula, a disabling and distressing result of prolonged labour where the baby usually dies and the woman is left incontinent. Often this leads to a wife being deserted by her husband and shunned in the community.

On the ship, though, women are healed and then presented with a new dress in a 'dress ceremony' to return home in style. Mercy Ships are also involved in community and healthcare programmes, so that Marty and Catherine will be supporting a wide scope of work through their chaplaincy care.

During the fund-raising afternoon at San Francisco airport's Aviation Museum they showed a video of the work of the Africa Mercy and answered questions.

'How are you going to get your hair done?' someone had lightheartedly asked Catherine.

'There's a hair salon on board!' she said. With a lot of short-term roles on the ship, it turned out that Marty had already recruited a hair-stylist! Pointing out that the chaplains review all work applications, he added, ' goal is to stock the ship with all the people I know and love so I won't be homesick!'

Of course another of his aims, as a trained opera singer, is to start a choir, so no doubt patients will find themselves recuperating to the sound of heavenly singing.

Apart from hairdressing, another perk on board will be Starbucks coffee, he said. The chairman of the board of directors of Mercy Ships happens to be the CEO of the large department store chain, JC Penney, and a board member of Starbucks. So the coffee company has made a generous donation of ten years of free coffee.

'I will be a well-caffeinated chaplain!' joked Marty.

What is the childrens' biggest fear? someone asked. 'Missing their friends and our dog,' was the answer.

Shadow, their black poodle, is to live with Catherine's parents. However, Marty consoles himself with this thought: every time he thinks of Shadow, he visualizes him drinking Chardonnay by the pool! Wine-sipping pooch or not, they are comforted by the fact that he will be loved and cared for.

After Togo, they sail in August to South Africa, travelling around the Cape of Good Hope to the city of East London. Where they will spend their second year is not yet known. It could be one of several countries including Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Congo, Angola or Sierra Leone.

Another question was about security, regarding both pirates and political instability. The ships, reassured Catherine, are very safety conscious. They don't sail where pirates operate and they only enter countries where they are welcomed. Once in port, there is security on board, added Marty.

Other questions were about their finances, as all work on the ship is voluntary and they need funding as a family, and what they will do when their initial two-year stint is over. The answer about the future is that it will depend on family circumstances whether they stay on the ship or return to San Francisco.

In the meantime the family aim to keep in touch via satellite phone, email, Facebook, blogs and Twitter. Afterwards, Catherine posted on Facebook:

'I'm very blessed and touched by all our friends who came to our Mercy Ships fundraiser last guys are awesome and so supportive! We'll miss you!!'

For Marty and Catherine's blog:

pics show: Marty and Catherine speaking; a screen grab from the video showing a child with a cleft palate

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Pastor Leaves San Francisco for Hospital Ship in Africa

A San Franciscan pastor and his wife are leaving the city streets for life in Africa on the decks of the world's largest non-governmental hospital ship.

Marty and Catherine Schwebel are to become chaplains on board the Africa Mercy, a ship nearly twice the size of a football field and on which 7,000 FREE operations a year are performed on some of the poorest people of Africa.

With them on their adventure will be their sons, 12-year-old Nathaniel, ten-year-old Ethan and six-year-old Theo.

'It's not an easy thing, to leave,' said Marty, who with Catherine has been involved in Cornerstone Church in the Mission District for 13 years, the last eight as one of their pastors.

He and Catherine were speaking yesterday afternoon at a fund-raising event for them at San Francisco airport's Aviation Museum, organized by members of the church.

In two weeks' time the family leave the city to travel to Valley Garden, Texas, until December for further training with the Mercy Ships organization. Then in January they will pack a few belongings to fill seven rolling duffel bags and a backpack each, and fly to Gran Canaria, Canary Islands, to meet up with the Africa Mercy.

On board they will begin to settle into their new life in a small three-bedroomed apartment as they sail across the Atlantic to their first port of call, the impoverished country of Togo, West Africa. There, the ship will be berthed and will provide free medical care until August.

Working overseas has been a long-held dream for the couple, who also want to give their children experience of life in another culture. And for Marty, he doesn't think that it will be very different from life in San Francisco.

'That's what Cornerstone has been about, ministering to many different nations,' Marty said.

On the ship are about 450 people from all over the world representing about 100 different denominations. All are voluntary, from the Captain and crew to the medical and support staff, alhough there is no religious prerequisite for people to receive treatment.

'They reach out to everyone,' said Marty.

He will join a team of four chaplains and Catherine will work part-time as an assistant chaplain and perhaps also teach ESL - English as a Second Language.

Both of them have lived abroad before - Catherine, who is from San Francisco, has even spent three months on board the first Mercy Ship, the Anastasis, after leaving college - and relish the prospect of living and working amongst so many different cultures.

With a love of living overseas, Catherine gained a Masters degree in Teaching English as a Foreign Language and has worked in Morocco, Spain and Switzerland. Marty is a trained opera singer from Texas who has had an extensive musical education. They met while they were teaching at summer school in Switzerland.

When they eventually settled in San Francisco, they joined Cornerstone where Catherine started a moms' group and Marty, aside from his pastoral skills, used his musical talents to direct the choir and perform in Easter musicals.

Yesterday, the choir with new and former members, performed an emotional farewell. As compere, Sung, said in his introduction:

'We are giving a tribute to an amazing, beautiful, incredible couple who are going into the repair and restoration business in Africa.'

The Africa Mercy is not only about medical and dental work. Their volunteers are involved with many community programmes. More about the ship, and Marty and Catherine and their family is in the next blog...

Rainbows in San Francisco!

It doesn't often rain in San Francisco! So there are not many occasions for rainbows...

But last night a beautiful double rainbow arched over the Bay front, followed by a glowing, pink sunset.

Not that it really rained. It was more of a sprinkling! But enough to bring the rainclouds over the Bay and produce the rainbows.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Bay Area Sports and Recreation for the Disabled - Be Stoked! Day

A 'Be Stoked!' day to encourage disabled people to join in sports and recreation is being held along the Bay front at South Beach Harbor.

For the first time ever, three organizations have joined together to showcase the wide range of sporting and social opportunities available to disabled adults and youngsters.

'Sometimes people are intimidated to sign up for a trip, so we thought, why not demo what we do,' said Kristi Grotting, a super-ambassador for the groups.

Kristi is President of the Board of Directors for BORP - Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program, an Outreach Coordinator for ETC - Environmental Traveling Companions, and a volunteer with BAADS - Bay Area Association of Disabled Sailors.

We had this super-accessible space so we thought we would use it, she said of the small pier at the end of the grassy area alongside the Giants' AT & T park and behind the Java Coffee House.

Around her, interested people were trialling bikes of different styles and enjoying a taste of a sail in a dinghy.

They were also chatting to volunteers and being given plenty of literature about all the activities including basketball, Goalball, Power Soccer, hiking, whitewater rafting, cross-country skiing, youth programs and adventures and outings.

Wine-tasting, theatres and roller coaster rides were three fun trips that Kristi mentioned. All made possible by BORP who provide the transport for people to attend sports practices and social events.

And it's not only disabled people who are able to benefit from these organizations. For just $40 a year, for example, anyone can enjoy the sailing, either to learn or just to go along for the ride. On Saturdays, the dinghies are out, and on Sundays people meet in the Java House for coffee before setting sail in a keel boat.

Kristi, who works full-time for ETC and volunteers with the other two organizations, is one of the sailing instructors.

How does she fit it all in?

'It's easy! I like to sail, you just come down here and teach other people how to sail. I don't consider it a job!' she says. The reason it is so cheap is because South Beach Harbor donate the docks, volunteers run the activities and people have donated the boats.

'And they're good boats, they're not going to sink! That's important!' she said.

Also there was Elena, a former junior basketball athlete who has devoted the rest of her life so far to coaching, 20 years with BORP and six years with ETC.

'I love it!' she said.

What have these organizations given to her?

'As an athlete, independence, social skills and learning how to play together in a team, and confidence,' she answered.

And she sees this reflected in the people she coaches. She lists independence as the number one asset, followed by social skills 'especially with the kids,' then confidence. 'You can be an amazing basketball player,' is her message.

Ruth, from Texas who has been living in the Bay Area for eleven years and has been associated with BORP through a friend, said, 'BORP is an amazing organization that empowers the young people.'

After today, there is no excuse for anyone not to Be Stoked!

For info:;;, including for BORP's 7th Annual Rev Ride, Sat Sept 26, 2009, Trentadue Winery, Sonoma County

pics showing: dinghy sailing; Kristi; Elena; cycling in tandem

Friday, July 10, 2009

Jackson Neverland Ranch Ride at Giants County Fair - San Francisco

An amusement ride that once belonged to Michael Jackson at his Neverland Ranch is thrilling fans of the San Francisco Giants by the ballpark.

The Zipper, known as a tough ride for G-forces and random spinning, is part of the Giants County Fair at McCovey Cove, which opened yesterday and runs through to July 19 - see previous blog

'I can't believe that this ride would be in Neverland Ranch because it's pretty intense! I thought it was great. There are parts where you definitely don't know what's happening!' said Molly.

She rode the Zipper with friend, Jeff, now cradling his one-month-old baby son,

Casey, while his partner, Erin, and friend Gina took their turn. Casey, well-wrapped in blue jacket and hat and covered in a blanket, was on his first-ever outing - but wasn't about to ride the Zipper!

Minutes later, Erin and Gina, staggered dizzily off the ride.

'It's a crazy ride and it's too harsh. If you were 12 it would be too hard,' gasped new mum, Erin. 'I think it takes a lot of muscle!'

A light-hearted debate started up as to whether 12-year-olds would love or hate the ride, with Gina saying that she thought youngsters would find it exciting. 'But as a 35-year-old woman, it's far too hard for my bones!' she exclaimed.

Jeff, standing on the side with Casey, said, 'I had a blast!'

What did they think of having ridden on something that once belonged to Michael Jackson?

'I don't know if I believe it,' was Gina's understandably cautious remark. 'If it's true - amazing!!!'

My info that the Zipper was from Neverland Ranch came from Evie who was supervising the Giants Guest Services tent at the fair. Jeff, too, had been told by one of the security guys at the gate that it was Jackson's ride.

'He sold it because he needed the money,' was what Jeff was told.

***The Zipper is a complex ride with an oblong bar, known as a boom, that rotates like a ferris wheel with capsules that not only move around the edge but spin randomly.

Described as 'untamed, mechanical chaos in its purest form' - - it was designed in 1968 by Chance Rides Manufacturing, Inc., in Kansas. Earlier models were nearly double today's speeds but have been said to have caused whiplash and back injuries and even heart attacks.

Wikipedia reports four deaths connected with faulty door mechanisms in the early years and a similar accident causing serious injury to two girls in 2006.

The ride was named, it says, because the 'odd, apostrophe-shaped capsules, spaced evenly along the perimeter of the boom, look very much like the rows of interlocking teeth on a zipper.'

Pics show the Zipper; Molly (lt) and Gina (rt)

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Giants County Fair

Almost 20 carnival rides have been set up behind the Giants AT & T Park for the first ever Giants County Fair, which opened today.

By yesterday afternoon the skyline around McCovey Cove had changed dramatically with the arrival of a ferris wheel, tower and other rides and as darkness fell bright glittering lights illuminated the area.

The fair is open until July 19 and has a packed programme of fun competitions and events, games for children, food, a 'Giants Baseball Zone,' and live music.

Among the rides are the Zipper, Cliff Hanger, Sizzler, Dizzy Dragons, Truck Stop, bumper cars and, for children, a Fun House and a Haunted House. Tomorrow there is also a tailgate party, on Saturday, a KNBR Family Day, on Sunday, a salsa and limbo contest and an exhibition of animals from the San Francisco Zoo, and on Monday, fireworks and karaoke.

One of today's features was Crazy Crab Night, Crazy Crab being the original mascot of the Giants. This was celebrated with a food stall serving crab sandwiches and other seafood.

There are also ticket concessions for the start of the fair: free admittance tonight (Thurs) and tomorrow for anyone with a game ticket, and for the same days plus Saturday, a special-priced combined ticket of $25 that will give fans admission to the game - against San Diego Padres - and admission to the fair with unlimited rides.

The Giants top event during this time is the Kenny Chesney concert, with supporting band Sugarland, in the ballpark next Saturday, July 18, when the fair will be open all day from 10 am to 11 pm. Fans without tickets will still be able to hear the music and glimpse the event from across McCovey Cove as it is screened on the raised Giants' jumbotron inside the ballpark.

Admission to the fair is $5 for adults, and kids 12 and under are free. Unlimited ride tickets are also available at $20 for adults and $15 for kids. For tickets and a full Giants County Fair schedule visit or call 1-800-225-2277.

Video by Chris

Saturday, July 4, 2009

July 4 Fireworks - San Francisco 2009

The skies across Fisherman's Wharf and North Beach sparkled and glittered as if filled with fairy lights as the city's firework display brought a magnificent finale to the Independence Day celebrations.

They fizzed, crackled, banged, whooshed and thudded, sending up a profusion of flickering shapes in all colours from balls, flowers, shells, streamers, rings and fountains.

There were smiley faces that made the crowd laugh, pretty emerald and pink fountains and a golden canopy that elicited special appreciation.

From a hill overlooking North Beach, the crowd looked down on the bay seeing the illuminations light up the piers and the tall ship moored nearby.

In the distance across the bay other firework displays could be seen. For once, the fog had stayed away and so the enthralling show, that lasted from 9.30 pm to 9.50 pm, could be seen in glorious detail.

'Happy New Year!' called out a youngster, as the grand finale finally fizzled to an end.

'I enjoyed the fireworks immensely, but my four-year-old thought they were boring,' said dad, Simon, climbing the hill afterwards with Max on his shoulders.

Independence Day Houseboat Party 2009 - 4

Among the houseboat residents at Mission Creek who had generously invited neighbours and friends to share in their July 4 celebrations were Glendora and Bob - see previous blogs

They have been living on a houseboat in the community for 30 years. Surveying the activities from beneath a blue umbrella, Glendora said

happily, ''The party is very well attended.'

Further down the bank, one of her neighbours, Amy, was spending the afternoon in the shade of a tree, spinning and weaving. What did she think of Independence Day?

'Dissent is not unpatriotic,' she said enigmatically, before disappearing to refill her plate.

Someone who didn't voice an opinion at all, but was very much enjoying herself, was Luce, a beautiful one-year-old Bernese Mountain Dog.

Dad and mum, Greg and Courtney, were guests at the party with their baby twins, Jonathan and Sophia.

'It's just been fun, it's a good get-together,' said Greg.

A great summing up of the afternoon's festivities came from Mike. Lounging cheerfully between Carla and Glenn, he said,

'This is what our forefathers meant for Independence Day: good times, good food, a good day!'

Independence Day Houseboat Party 2009 - 3

'I think the holiday has lost its original purpose, it's more about gathering with family and friends. The value has changed, especially in the time of sketchy, low-ball politics,' said Jessica.

She was picnic-ing with sister Bianca and friend, Ruthie, celebrating America's birthday of July 4 amongst the houseboat community at Mission Creek - see previous blogs

It was a comment borne out by most of the other party-goers who spoke of their appreciation of having a day with their friends and neighbours without referring to the history of the occasion, freedom and liberty.

Jessica and Bianca are fifth-generation San Franciscans and all three girls are friends of the houseboaters. Ruthie had a choice of parties to go to, but she chose this one.

'It's just the weather by the creek,' she said, recalling past San Franciscan parties in the fog. 'This one's the most mellow party.'

All around, people were spread out on blankets

on the grass or on seats enjoying the food. Behind her, children were splashing in a paddling pool and at the far end a band were preparing to play.

Sitting under a coloured umbrella was Brigid, six-year-old Camille, and Francoise, with 16-month-old Emile on his knee happily eating an ice-cream.

'It's a chance for the family to get together,' said Brigid, another true San Franciscan whose father owns a boat on the creek.

Ironically, it took a Brit to break the mould of comments about family and friends.

'I treasure my independence and freedom!' said Ruth, in red and white striped skirt and blue swimming costume. In her straw hat, white shasta daisies that she grows in her garden.

Ruth is a Londoner. 'I have been in the city since the early 70s. I emigrated on the Niew Amsterdam,' she said.

pics: Bianca, Jessica, Ruthie; the band entertaining the party; Brigid, Camille, Francois, Emile; Ruth

Independence Day Houseboat Party 2009 - 2

'Here we are in the midst of what is supposedly a very sophisticated city and this is a glimpse of small town Americana,' said Don.

'This is what we are all nostalgic for. But,' he added, 'it probably never existed! We remember things better than they really were!'

Don was standing with his wife, Judy, and friends Jerry

and Jackie, along the sunny banks of Mission Creek among the houseboat community celebrations of Independence Day - see previous blog

His comment spurred an enthusiastic response from Jerry. 'That's a very good word, Americana,' he said, reminiscing. 'It's like a 49-er game, before the games we 'tailgate.'

Both couples live opposite the houseboats and were appreciative guests at the party. 'I'm so thrilled to meet my neighbours here across the creek and share our birthday with them,' said Judy.

While Jerry, holding Wafer, their chihuahua, in his red coat who is four-years-old next month, and Jackie commented: 'It's our first 4th of July party here and we're having a wonderful time. The food's not bad either!'

They were joined by Barbara. 'It's my 4th July outfit!' she said. She gave a twirl in her red, white and blue dangling earrings and tee-shirt of cats in patriotic hats, a feline celebration of Independence Day.

'I collect these shirts. I have some from all over the world,' she said, referring specifically to cat designs.

pics: Judy, Jerry, Wafer, Jackie, Don; picnic-ing in the sun; an unknown guest peeking out from a comfy bed; Barbara in perfect 4th July attire

Independence Day Houseboat Party 2009

July 4 is
Independence Day, the 'birthday' of America, celebrating the date in 1776 when the final Declaration of Independence was signed, freeing the country from British rule.

It's a flag-waving Red, White and Blue day for picnic-ing, barbecues, family and friend get-togethers and fireworks.

In the Mission Bay part of the city, the unique houseboat community at Mission Creek threw a generous party for their friends and neighbours.

Julie, pictured above in the sundress, is the partner of harbour master, Craig. The houseboat community is 30 years old, and this is the first time that their annual summer party has been combined with July 4, she said.

'We invite friends to come down and see a little bit of San Francisco that they don't normally see,' she said. This year, too, they had reached out to the surrounding community of new residents in the condos and apartments that now face them on the opposite side of the creek.

'The thing about living here in this community is that it is such a wonderful community, everyone knows each other and helps each other out.

'So putting it together today everybody pitched in, it was such a group effort. And that's the way things work around here!' she said.

Looking around the laden tables was proof of everyone's hard work and generosity. The tables were laden with a huge variety of delicious dishes and adorned with displays of fresh flowers.

At the end of one of the tables was Linda, in a patriotic red jacket and blue-and-white striped top. One of the new residents from the other side of the creek, she said, 'We love being neighbours of the houseboat people. They're very gracious to include us in their festivities.

'We invaded them in the last two years and now they look at our buildings (instead of having a city view).'

Also patriotically decked in red, white and blue, was Angela. About to tuck into a large slice of water melon and other delectables, she said, 'I think it's nice for everybody to come out and relax, without a computer, under the Californian sun. Neighbours can get together and chat, especially at this tough time of the year.'

More reports and pics in the next blogs...