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Northern Lights

Northern Lights

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  • The memories will live forever, and I would gladly repeat it anytime.
  • We had a few situations where the waves were breaking into the boat and it filled up with a lot of water.
  • The more I replayed the situation in my head, the more it became clear to me that my good friend Dr Johan Ullman had probably saved our lives that day.
  • I wouldn’t even think about taking on waves like those again without suspension seating.

Northern Lights

John Åge Handberg is a man with a mission – to find the perfect boat! In what follows, we learn about his epic search and the extraordinary journey it took him on as John shares his memorable, and at times nerve-wracking, story …

The owner of Nordskot Brygge Sea Sport Centre, John Åge Handberg, spent a long time, several years in fact, searching for the perfect boat to meet all his needs and specifications. His project is called RIB Steigen, after the municipality of Steigen in Norway where he lives, and in his searching for the perfect craft he has considered several brands and builds, sometimes wondering whether the high standards he has set have made the task a virtually impossible one. Some boats fulfilled many of his criteria, but he could not find a single boat to match them all. So were his demands too tough? And did he have unrealistic expectations for the perfect boat?

John had, for about 10 years, monitored RIBs in various media outlets. One season he tested out the Sea Hawk 295/Yamaha 350hp – in many ways an ideal boat for the rough seas around the mighty Vestfjord between Bodø/Steigen and the Lofoten Islands. The boat performed well, but its size of 29 feet was too small to fit more than nine persons in jockey seats, which failed to meet one of John’s criteria. So a new criterion emerged – a minimum of 32 feet felt right.


The criteria

As you can see from the demanding list below, John’s criteria for the perfect boat were never going to be easy to fully match.

  • Minimum 32 feet long
  • Deck space for 14 single jockey seats (12 passengers + driver & navigator)
  • Double-installation inboard/outboard diesel or petrol
  • Minimum 500hp
  • Modest fuel consumption
  • Heavy-duty quality
  • Finish like a pleasure boat
  • Excellent handling in rough seas
  • Speed min. 60 knots (69mph)
  • Cabin for 2 persons sleeping
  • Inside storage for passengers’ luggage
  • Fuel capacity min. 800 litres
  • Double 16″ chartplotters, radar and strong lights in stern for winter use
  • CE category B
  • Windscreen that actually does what it’s meant to do
  • A bad-ass look
  • Affordability

In search of perfection

John explored several options from his base in Norway, including Goldfish Boats, who had plans in the pipeline to build a charter boat, but for various reasons none came up trumps. John could only remember ever having seen one boat that really matched his needs. A few years ago it was even listed for sale, and at that time John made contact with its Swedish owner, Roger Andersson, in Stockholm. A plan was soon hatched to travel to Sweden to check out the boat, but as emails and phone calls crossed, the boat was sold to somebody else before he even got on a plane. The boat was the legendary Dahl 36 RIB Vilda, an early build by Dahl in 2005, which broke several records and took third place in the Round Britain Race.

As time went by and John’s frustration grew, he decided to check out the RIB Vilda once again, and the previous owner put him in contact with the current one, who was still based in Stockholm. The owner was happy to let John visit and a trip was arranged with John, his brother-in-law Espen, and the previous and current owners. Although the boat was old, it still performed very well, with John recalling in particular the impressive race steering system. He understood that the boat, because of its age and condition, would inevitably require some mechanical work in the years to come, but the boat fulfilled all his requirements … He had finally found what he was looking for. But despite his most persuasive efforts and several extremely good offers to the owner, it just wasn’t enough. The latter was simply not in the market to sell the RIB Vilda.


Time to move on
Back home in Norway, John made contact with Dahl Naval to ask whether they would be able to build a new boat like the old Dahl 36. Janis Petrov at Dahl was happy to listen, and with his vast experience of RIBs and his ability to understand the client’s individual needs, he grasped what John was searching for and was delighted to take up the challenge of building a craft to John’s demanding specifications.

Janis and Dahl Naval came up with the idea of using the mighty Ring 1080 hull from England as the base on which to build a brand-new modern boat with the well-known Dahl quality in terms of finish and heavy-duty standard fit-out. The process had finally started. John and Janis complemented each other perfectly during the build. There was no doubt that Janis had vast knowledge of the RIB world, but he went out of his way to meet John’s demands regarding the look of the boat and the criteria for speed, space and handling. During the building of this new craft, Janis always kept John informed and answered all his questions patiently and in full. Nothing was too much trouble.

In February 2015, the contract for a brand-new Dahl 36 RIB was signed. The boat was originally planned to carry twin-installation Suzuki 300s and was expected to reach speeds of around 60 knots. But during the build, Mercury launched a brand-new version of their Verados, and with fuel economy being important for John as well as performance, the choice seemed easy. The new Verado could provide more power and achieve lower fuel consumption at the same time. It seemed like the perfect match, but there was a catch – the waiting time! The engines were ordered but a number of other customers also wanted these new engines, and it soon became clear that late summer delivery of the boat would not be possible. The original plan was to drive the boat all the way back to Nordskot in Norway and combine the journey with a nice summer vacation/recreation trip for John, his wife and children. Now it looked more like an autumn trip. And John had no idea that the fates were to decide that it would end up as a tough winter voyage instead …


Winter adventure

October/November would not normally be the moment of choice for driving a boat 1250nm all the way from Sweden to the home base of RIB Steigen at Nordskot Brygge above the Arctic Circle. Added to the fact that the boat is open, the very idea would make most people blanch at the thought. For John Åge Handberg, however, this just added a frisson of anticipation to the impending challenge. Indeed, he was looking forward to facing the elements and the adrenalin rush of handling a powerful boat in rough conditions.

At long last, the boat, including the new 350 Verados, was ready at the Dahl Naval factory in Stockholm. After checking the boat, completing all the practical paperwork and finalising payment, John went to Gothenburg to spend a few days with the Ullmans as their private guest. The stay also gave Janis and Dahl a few more days to finish some final detailing on the boat, and the stay at the Ullmans led to a key change to the driver’s/navigator’s seat. After testing at Ullman Dynamics’ head office, the Biscaya was changed for the Ullman Patrol version for both the driver and navigator. This would mean extra comfort during long journeys – critical for the epic voyage that lay in wait. John’s brother-in-law, Espen, also joined him in Gothenburg ready to take part in the journey home, and Janis from Dahl appeared too, with his son, to see that everything went well with the launch and take-off.


Ready to go
On Sunday 25th October the boat arrived at the marina in Gothenburg looking superb after the last day and night’s work at Dahl Naval. In the water the boat looked even better, and it was time for a quick test together with Janis. Because of the time constraints they had not been able to test different propellers in Stockholm, so it was decided to keep two on board, a Revolution 4 and a Bravo 1, to enable engine flexibility. Finally, all the gear was packed and the boat made ready to leave the next day.

 


John’s Story:

In what follows, John shares the story of his voyage with PBR readers from his own perspective.


Gothenburg–Strömstad
26th October. We finally set off at 11:00. With the brand-new engines, a calm start was needed for the first few hours of driving. We made a short stop at the nearest fuel station, and the 570 litres added meant we now had both tanks full with a total of 800 litres of fuel. The slow start and modest speed meant it was not possible to test the boat’s performance, but it provided an excellent opportunity to become familiar with the brand-new double Garmin 2016 chartplotters and other gear on board.

We passed lovely places like Marstrand and later the fantastic area of Hamburgsund. I had seen pictures before, but the magical charm of this narrow area with delightful houses on both sides was special. Night-time arrived before we reached the town of Strömstad and we had to spend the last hour at sea in the dark. We were fortunate to find a good spot in Strömstad Marina for the night, and then we were off to find a hotel. Even though we had a cabin for two in the boat, it was fully packed with gear and the enticing thought of comfortable hotel beds was too much to resist. Good food and a few beers at a local restaurant ensued, and our heads barely touched the pillows …


Strömstad–Oslo
At 09.30 the next morning we set off for Oslo. A meeting with our sponsor Garmin in Moss was our only plan for the day apart from getting to Oslo. The trip from Strömstad was great except that the hummer season had just started. This meant the sea was packed with hummer pots. In fact, there were so many that we more or less spent the entire day slaloming between the pots, which were often not very visible and we were fortunate not to hit any of the ropes with our propellers.


On our way we visited the islands of Hvaler and Hankø – a popular and exclusive area, and also the summer home for the Norwegian royal family. But our mission was not royal today. We had a meeting with Garmin at Rygge near Moss at 13.00 and we reached Rygge 15 minutes early. On our way from Strömstad we had the chance to throttle up a bit and feel the power of the twin 350 Verados – 60 knots was no problem without overreving the engines. As we arrived at Rygge Marina we met two of the Norwegian navy’s Goldfish boats – both the 28- and 36-foot version. Espen and I pondered what would happen if we were to take them on in a race, but with our meeting with Garmin just a few minutes away, we shelved the idea … for the time being at least.


Garmin’s marine manager Christer Skaug and three of his people met us as planned. We talked about all the new gear and they gave us some good hints and tips regarding their on-board gear such as plotters, radar, AIS, VHF, meteor stereo and of course our five brand-new Garmin VIRB action cameras before helping us to set up a network and display the cameras on the plotter screen.

Then off we went with the Garmin people on board for a few hours around the Moss area. They clearly had a good time and managed to break 70mph as they were hoping for. Playing around felt good and it was a good test to have some weight in the front of the boat. They also had the chance to test the boat with their own hands on the wheel. After returning the Garmin guys to shore, we set off for Oslo. We made a quick stop at my friend Børge Ousland’s home in Lysaker before we ended up in Aker Brygge in the centre of the city, after dark as usual.

The plan for the first half of the day was to decorate the boat with all our sponsors’ logos and then meet our friend and photographer Lillian Molstad Andresen for a photo session in front of the Oslo Opera House. All the logos from Bokstavfabrikken back home had been sent by plane to Oslo. I thought the decorating of the boat would take a few hours – it actually took until 16.00. During the day I also had the pleasure of meeting some of Oslo’s RIB charter owners – nice people and they thought our boat looked great. They just wondered if it would be possible to do good business with a boat as expensive and packed with hi-tech features. I have asked myself the same question many times, but my passion for the perfect boat has always won out.

Late in the day Lillian took some night photos, and then it was time for dinner and some beers at Aker Brygge and Tjuvholmen – a superb area for eating and drinking in maritime and modern surroundings – and it was well into the wee hours before we managed to get to sleep.


Disaster strikes
The next morning we had an appointment with Mercury Norway (Brunswick). We were supposed to meet them in Sandvika, only about 15 minutes by boat from Aker Brygge, where we met Lillian, who had decided to join us for the ride. It was a beautiful day with no wind, and as we were in a hurry and the trip to Sandvika was just a few minutes away, we did not bother to put our Regatta suits on … Big mistake.

I drove the boat while Lillian was in the navigator’s seat next to me. My co-pilot Espen was in the seat behind the navigator. We were about halfway to Sandvika, and I had one hand on the wheel and the other one on the throttle as I was used to doing. Our speed was about 50 knots and there were no other boats to see on the water. The light was flat. Suddenly I could feel the front moving rapidly up and down. I instantly throttled down and a split second later we were airborne … But this was no normal take-off as we flew several metres into the air. And then down we went, plummeting like a stone, only to get airborne again, this time at a sideways 45-degree angle port side but still going straight forward. The second time we hit the water even harder, probably because of the angle. During the first take-off I left the seat completely and hit the top port side of the windscreen with my left arm, only to fall down on the Ullman seat again. Lillian also flew high and came down on her original seat position again, luckily without hitting anything with her body or head.

After hitting the water for the second time I looked back to see how Espen was doing. But I couldn’t see him. I started yelling for him and looking around in the sea, but saw nothing. My kill cord had snapped loose during my time in the air from the seat and the boat came to a stop. I moved back down the boat and found Espen on the floor between the seats and the tube on the starboard side, face down. I shook him but he didn’t respond. I then shouted and turned him on his side. Still nothing. After a short while he started making strange noises akin to an injured animal but was not able to talk. He must have hit the floor hard and passed out. After some time Lillian and I managed to get him into the seat and we continued the last five minutes to Sandvika harbour. As a precaution, Lillian took him to the hospital for a full check, and he ended up spending the night there. Espen had taken a pretty hard beating and he thought it was because he had been standing instead of sitting at the moment of impact, which is why he ended up on the floor instead of back in the seat like Lillian and me.

It turned out that a big Color Line cruise ship had passed 10 minutes before we came cruising in at 50+ knots. The ship was long gone behind some islands and out of sight, but the waves from this massive liner that met us were completely unexpected and we were totally unprepared. I still don’t know exactly at what angle we hit the waves. This was a wake-up call for sure, and I felt really bad for both Espen and Lillian, wondering what could have happened if we had flipped or if one or more of us had been thrown overboard. We can certainly thank Dr Ullman and his fantastic suspension seats for not being hit by the full G-force. I wouldn’t even think about taking on waves like those again without suspension seating.

While Lillian went to the hospital with Espen I managed to meet Mercury/Brunswick represented by Per Jørgen Røgeberg, Nils Helge Engedahl and one more. Their racing experience came in handy. We went off for some testing and checking regarding the height of the engines, which seemed a little low in their opinion. I also got some good feedback regarding propeller choice – we were still using the Revolution 4 and they are not the perfect choice for the boat and set-up. We agreed to test the three-blade Enertia ECO propellers when we got home and lift the engines higher.

We also agreed to change the 350s as soon as the 400R was ready for the Norwegian market. The 400Rs are already booked and hopefully we can have them on the boat by the spring. The current 350s work really well on the boat and I have no real need to change to the 400R – it’s just that I know they are available and they are the biggest! The fact that I have the ‘baddest’ charter boat on the market should also means it deserves the ‘baddest’ engines! Nils Helge also told me it was possible to get another steering pump that would make the steering more race-like.


After finishing up with Mercury I went to the hospital to see how Espen was doing. After some medical tests it was clear he had no serious damage but had taken a hard beating when he hit the floor. Breathing and walking both hurt, so we decided to put him on a plane and send him home to Bergen at the earliest possible opportunity.


Back at the hotel in Oslo that night, I had the time to reflect on the whole terrifying episode. The more I replayed the situation in my head, the more it became clear to me that my good friend Dr Johan Ullman had probably saved our lives that day. Without his innovative Ullman seats I don’t think we would have made it. Their slogan, ‘Ullman protecting people’, is fully justified. I phoned Dr Johan late that night to try to thank him as best I could.


Oslo–Kristiansand

Leaving Oslo completely alone in the boat felt very strange. I was hoping for my co-pilot Espen to catch up with me in Bergen to join the rest of the trip. My plan for the day was to stop at Svela Trailer AS in Fredrikstad for a meeting with the owner Sverre Larsen and his wife. Svela make high-quality boat trailers and Sverre wanted to see the boat to find the best possible trailering solution for it. It was a pleasant meeting – it’s always nice to check out a manufacturer’s home base.

I headed on to my next stop, Arendal, to check out a company called NorSafe. They make escape and rescue boats for the offshore industry plus boats for the coastguard/navy etc. Johan Ullman wanted me to pay them a visit and had already set up a meeting with Bjarte Skåla at NorSafe AS. They also had a boat with Ullman’s innovative new steering system – jet ski/motorcycle-type handlebars instead of a steering wheel.

After an enjoyable stay at NorSafe I drove to Kristiansand and reached there just as it was turning dark. The Radisson Hotel was within walking distance from the harbour. I also found a good place for the boat at the marina close to a fuel station – the next morning I would need to fill up with about 750 litres of gasoline.


Kristiansand–Bergen
Replete with fuel I set off to meet Rigid Industries/Ekstralys for a photo shoot at Lindesnes. Rigid Industries/Ekstralys are one of our sponsors and supplied the boat with lots of LED lighting. The guys from Ekstralys met me with a mountain of photo/video gear, including a drone, and took lots of great shots and film. This took up most of the day and I realised I would not be able to reach Bergen before nightfall, and when dark returned I had to stop in a small harbour called Vestbygd close to Farsund – a small village with not much to do other than get a room for the night and some food.

The next morning my only focus was to get to Bergen. I ended up driving all the way without any stops. For the first time I was able to reach a harbour before dark – but not without a little bit of drama. A friend of mine is the head of Oseana in Os near Bergen. I had plenty of time to visit him and fuel up, but the problem was I had completely missed the fjord to Os and continued too far. I ended up low on fuel and had no chance of reaching Bergen. Both fuel meters showed empty and had done so for 30 minutes. I felt like it was just a matter of time before the tanks were completely empty and the engines stopped. I tried to explain to my friend on the phone where I was and it turned out to be quite a distance to drive to meet me. I found a small fjord and something looking like a little marina. On my way in, the first engine stopped. Knowing the other tank would just contain a few litres, or even decilitres, I managed to find a place in the marina. My tanks were empty and there was no fuel station in sight. My friend met me and we had to drive by car to get two 20-litre gasoline tanks. That gave me the chance to reach a big marina to fill the tanks again, before finishing the last little bit to the centre of Bergen. I still had plenty of time for a good dinner at Bryggen. What a fantastic city!


Bergen–Ålesund
Another beautiful morning and what a city to start from. I would have loved to have spent some more time in Bergen, but I had agreed to meet a new friend, photographer Arild Solberg. He wanted to join me on the stage from Måløy to Ålesund. This included the most challenging and daunting part of the Norwegian coast – Stadt! Lots of big ships have found themselves in serious trouble here. Often traffic has to wait for days to pass. According to the weather forecast, the conditions were set to be not great, but hopefully within the limits for crossing. I called the coastguard to check whether passing was safe. They said it was close to the limit and told me I should only go if I felt comfortable and was prepared to turn back if the weather changed for the worse.

When we’re talking about Stadt, ‘within the limits’ can easily mean 6-metre waves and 10 metres/second winds. And 6-metre waves there were! They came from all sides and looked like mountain peaks. Add in the 10–12-metres/second wind and ‘within the limits’ took on a whole new meaning. We had a few situations where the waves were breaking into the boat and it filled up with a lot of water. Luckily this did not happen several times in a row, so the water had time to escape out the back.

During the crossing we considered turning back a few times, but Arild did not show any signs of being afraid, so I chose to keep on going and finish the stage.

We finally reached the westernmost point of Norway, where the sea calmed down a bit. Until then it had been impossible to take any action photos, but now, in better conditions, we managed to get a few shots without getting thrown all over the boat.
I was glad to finish and leave the Stadt area behind.

Until now I had not experienced any rain at all since leaving Gothenburg, but there were a few raindrops in the air. With gusty wind and heavy weather about we decided to take the inside route on our way to Ålesund. That meant using the fjord inside the Ulsteinvik area. We hoped for calm and pleasant conditions after our struggles in the Stadt area, but it turned out to be bad in the fjords too. We had some serious fall winds from the mountainsides on both flanks – more than 25 metres/second at a guess when it came pulsing down the fjord, and we had some nasty waves as well. For a smaller craft it would not have been safe, and a boat under, say, 20 feet could easily have been turned upside down that day. All the way to Ålesund we met only a few big ships – no small boats had ventured out in this weather.

The city of Ålesund is a fine harbour with its great shelter and small canals. We managed to get all the way to our hotel and park just outside. It was soon time to meet Arild’s wife and we enjoyed a sumptuous dinner together.

The next morning it was time to meet Regatta of Norway, our supplier and sponsor for safety gear such as suits and vests. The Regatta crew were treated to a nice ride around the Ålesund area and we spent some time at their headquarters discussing some products. Johan Ullman had arranged for a good friend of his from Denmark to join me from Ålesund home to Nordskot Brygge in Steigen. This was Jan Jørgensen, a high-speed race boat expert who could give me lots of good high-speed training. Jan also wanted to experience the coast of northern Norway. He had now come to Ålesund and l looked forward to meeting him for dinner and getting him on board the following day.


Ålesund–Hitra

I was glad to have Jan as company for the rest of my journey. He is a really nice guy and runs his own business, Actionboat.dk. He also holds the current record time from Copenhagen to Oslo with his Ribcat. This was the opportunity to learn some new skills, and Jan turned out to be just as experienced as I had hoped and expected. It also felt safer travelling the two of us together instead of being alone for the rest of the trip, and of course we were also ready for some serious speed on our way home.

Jan also turned out to be a dealer and expert on Mercury products in Denmark through his other company, JJ Racing. He had already installed twin Verado 400Rs on one of his RIBs and several 350s, both the old and the new version. This was just perfect as it gave me the chance to get some first-hand information based on his experience with the different engines – especially since I had already decided to change my new 3500s for 400Rs.

We set off from Ålesund in reasonable conditions. There were still some waves on part of the journey but nothing more than 2–3 metres high. We had the chance to test the boat both at speed on the water and flying on top of the waves. For this kind of driving I certainly had a lot to learn from Jan as he knew exactly how to get around the waves in the most effective way, and his skilful driving and active use of the steering wheel meant we hit the waves just right to make it as fast but soft a ride as possible.

Cruising along one of the fjords I suddenly noticed some strange-looking movements in the water in front of us. I throttled down and Jan and I both wondered what we were heading for. As we got closer it looked just like currents in the water, but when we were just a few metres away I could see it was something floating – and about 500 metres long! We came to a full emergency stop just 1 metre away from this bizarre-looking object. It turned out to be a sea farm boat towing a sort of big plastic hose/tube at least 500 metres long and with no signal or marking at all. This was really dangerous behaviour on the part of the sea farm boat – if we had hit the hose going fast our engines would have been badly damaged for sure and we could have been seriously injured. We resisted venting our wrath and continued on to Hitra instead.

The island of Hitra is home to rental boat supplier, Kaasbøll Boats. They are also a Mercury dealer. When we reached their harbour the crane was ready to lift us to shore. As soon as the boat was lifted onto land a mechanic started to service our two 350 Verados. Our plan was to continue further north the same day, but Kaasbøll Boats’ By Bjørn Inge and his father Helge had other plans, including food, drinks and a small party. It turned out to be a happy night for us all, but until now the shortest distance in one day. That was about to change …


Hitra–Bodø/Nordskot Brygge Steigen
We started the morning by filling up our tanks at Ansnes Brygger, where we had also spent the night after the party with the owner Ola, and of course the Kaasbøll family.
Dr Johan Ullman had kept in contact with me every night since leaving the harbour in Gothenburg, and he informed me that the distance from Hitra, near Trondheim, back home to Nordskot, near Bodø, was 305nm. Since it was early November we had about eight hours of daylight. To reach home in good speed we needed two stops for fuel and at least one stop for some food. But the weather conditions were looking good and Kaasbøll had serviced the engines, so we were ready to enter race mode and go for the whole distance in one day!

There was no time to waste, and as soon as the engines had reached working temperature we throttled fast forward. Jan and I alternated between driver and navigator and helped each other by making waypoints for turns and giving clear instructions regarding choice of route, using our excellent Garmin plotters. We both
like to drive inshore instead of outside the small islands, which made for a far more exciting trip. We were able to enjoy the nature and wildlife at close hand instead of just open sea, and also had the advantage of fewer waves. Taking this approach can make trips somewhat longer, but on this occasion we were able to maintain a high speed – and that was what was needed for this last day at sea. Cruising speed was set at just below full throttle, and for most of the day the GPS showed more than 55 knots, with a recorded top speed of 62.3 knots. Even in narrow areas we hardly dipped under 40. By 11 o’clock we had already reached the harbour of Rørvik. We fuelled up and found a good place for a hamburger and a chance to feel land under our feet.


Our next point of arrival was the small town of Sandnessjøen. We reached there at 2pm and lost an hour searching for fuel. It turned out to be maximum low tide and there was hardly enough water to get alongside the floating pier by the fuel pump, but eventually we were successful with the use of a little rope and a lot of ingenuity.

There was no time to rest and we headed off at full throttle for Bodø, my hometown, hoping to arrive before dark. The area ahead was familiar and I enjoyed the feeling of getting close to home. We reached the area of Rødøy/Meløy. Jan was becoming increasingly impressed by the mighty mountains and fjords. I think the most beautiful part of the Norwegian coast is from Meløy to the Lofoten Islands, and it was in the middle of this area that I was born and grew up.


Home at last
Friends and family had heard about us getting close to Bodø, some by following us using the AIS-based marine traffic app. We even received an invitation from the owner of Bryggerikaia Restaurant to come and celebrate our arrival with dinner and drinks on the house. We could hardly wait to get there and unsurprisingly we were hungry and tired after driving at high speed for effectively six hours, plus the two hours spent refuelling and eating.

The night was spent at the restaurant in Bodø with our friends and family, and what a night it was! The next day we finished our last 35nm home to Nordskot Brygge in just 45 minutes. Sadly, but with no regrets, our trip had come to an end. But the memories will live forever, and I would gladly repeat it anytime.

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