Wednesday, September 12, 2012

My 9/11 Story (Re-post)

This post originally ran as a Monday Morning Mariner post on September 12, 2011.

On September 11, 2001, I was captain of the small cruise ship Spirit of Alaska cruising through southeast Alaska. Normally, I was the chief mate aboard this ship, but the captain was on a scheduled time off, visiting his brother in Manhattan. This was our last Alaska cruise of the season; we were on Day 5 of a meandering 10 day passage from Juneau to Seattle, which included stops in Glacier Bay and, just the day before, Sitka. The 11th was a "captain's choice" day, a day to look for wildlife and maybe get a last glimpse of a glacier.

Very early on the morning watch, the Chief Mate called me to say he was hearing some unusual chatter on the VHF radio. The local commercial fishermen were chatting about reports that airliners had been flown into the Capitol Building in Washington DC, the Pentagon, and other landmarks. We weren't sure what to make of this; I instructed the Chief Mate and the deckhands on watch to keep this to themselves until we had some hard information. We then headed into Red Bluff Bay, an inlet on the east coast of Baranof Island, to look for bears and check out a spectacular waterfall before breakfast.

Breakfast was served and we slowly made our way out of Red Bluff Bay. A few hundred yards outside the entrance the cell phone lit up, telling me we'd missed nine messages. It was a little after 8:00 A.M. Alaska time. It was at that moment I knew that the fishermen's chatter had a nugget of truth in it.

I called the company Port Captain in Seattle. The company and the country were in chaos. The two attacks on the World Trade Center and the one on the Pentagon were known at that point, but there were rumors of other planes unaccounted for, including one out of Anchorage. The death toll was thought to be as high as 15,000 people. All aircraft were grounded and the borders were closed. All the company's ships were put on a higher security footing. And it was up to me to tell the passengers and crew.

I called a general meeting in the dining room, which was in the last stages of breakfast service. The deckhands woke the off-watch crew: I only wanted to have to say this once. Before I started to speak, one woman ran out of the dining room toward her cabin, she just couldn't wait. I remember thinking she was going to remember that trip to the bathroom for the rest of her life.

Then I told them.

Many were in disbelief. Three asked me if I was joking. "Is this like the pink flamingos?" one man asked, referring to the "wildlife sighting" the day before of pink plastic lawn flamingos that someone had put in a tree outside of Sitka. I assured him it wasn't.

I then moved on to the new security arrangements, told them the vessel's satellite phone would be available if anyone needed to use it, and that the trip would continue as planned, at least for now.

Many ran right up to the sun deck and turned on their cell phones. Crew members were in tears. I was hammered with a hundred questions, none of which I knew the answer to. Then the lookout spotted whales.

Soon we were drifting in the tide rips off Yasha Island, with twenty-some humpback whales all around us. The passengers lined the rails, cameras clicking and video cameras whirring, but there was only one topic of conversation. The same phrases kept coming up: "Pearl Harbor" and "this changes everything." At lunch I had a deputation from some of the passengers: why wasn't the vessel's flag at half mast? I told them that a country at war doesn't lower its flag, but the truth is I just hadn't thought of it. The next morning the Spirit of Alaska's ensign was a half mast.

That night we anchored in Thomas Bay near Petersburg. One of the passengers had asked me to lead a prayer at dinner, but I declined. I listened to the radio station out of Petersburg while on anchor watch, but could only get a broadcast of the local school board meeting. Life went on. Late that night I got a call to come to the lounge. A passenger -- at 30-ish one of the younger ones -- was inconsolable, drunkenly weeping. I talked him into bed, thinking how much better the older folks were handling this.

The next morning at breakfast the assistant chef said "I can't wait to see a newspaper!" But all newspapers come into southeast Alaska by plane, and all the planes were still grounded.

When we docked at Petersburg, I got another surprise: me, the second mate, and the hotel manager had all been selected by the computer for random drug testing. It was in the clinic's waiting room that I first saw images of the attacks. I watched for a few minutes, then my turn came. I left my government-mandated urine sample with the technician and returned to the ship.

The head of our local office in Petersburg has recorded on videotape some of the network coverage of the attacks, which we played on the lounge TV for awhile. By mid-afternoon, one of the passengers asked, "Can we turn this off?" There were no objections.

The next day we called at Ketchikan, and it was a mess. People who were supposed to have flown out by then were roaming the docks looking for a berth on a southbound cruise ship. "Where are you going?" one guy asked me.

"Seattle," I said. "Assuming we can get across the border." I told him I had no extra room, however. There were several large cruise ships in port, and those "will get at least as far as Vancouver," I told him.
At least he was in civilization. Hunting and fishing parties all over Alaska were stranded because the planes they relied on to get them in and out were grounded.

When we left Ketchikan I had no idea if I would be able to cross back into US waters or not. Forty-eight hours later we did cross back into US waters and eventually docked in downtown Seattle. It wasn't over for me, however. The regular captain was stilled trapped in Manhattan, so I was not to be relieved as scheduled. We had received a photo of the captain and his brother with one of the World Trade Center towers burning in the background. It was chilling: the other tower hadn't been struck yet at the time the picture was taken.

At Seattle's Pier 69, I told the engineer to keep the engines running. As soon as the passengers and their luggage were off the boat, I wanted to leave for the dock where we'd prepare for our positioning trip to Portland. It occurred to me these passengers were disembarking into another world, different from the one they lived in when they'd boarded the Spirit of Alaska in Juneau ten days before. It had been a tough few days for me, the toughest of my career, but for the first time in a long time, I didn't envy the people going ashore.

Following the September 11 attacks, more than 300,000 people were evacuated from lower Manhattan by US merchant mariners. To honor the efforts of these mariners, the Maritime administration released this video for the tenth anniversary of the attacks.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Engineering 101: Steam Engines

Note: the model in the above video is actually of the CSS Virginia, formerly the Union ship Merrimac.

The earliest ships were powered by human muscle or wind, but early in the nineteenth century the Industrial Revolution brought steam power to the world's waterways. Steam has been superseded only within the last century by other types of power. There are still ships at work today that are powered by steam, from small replica paddlewheel riverboats to large cargo ships.

Paddlewheeler steam engine. Image from Twaintimes.
Steam engine systems, or "plants," have many advantages over other types of propulsion. They have relatively low vibration and noise, low weight, can be fit into small engine room spaces, and, despite their sometimes complicated looking appearance, are simple to operate and repair. On the other hand, steam engines tend to burn fuel at a higher rate than other engines. It was this drawback that forced the British Navy to set up coaling stations all over the world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The need to maintain and protect these coaling stations was one of the reasons the Britain needed its empire in the first place, for better or worse.

In a basic steam engine, water is heated by burning coal or something else to create steam in a boiler. Sometimes the "something else" is nuclear energy. In modern steam engines the steam is heated up even more, or superheated, to give it even more energy.

A "Parsons"-type steam turbine.
Image from The Leander Project.
The steam is then directed through nozzles to concentrate it, and is then applied to a turbine, a disc or wheel with blades or paddles mounted on its edge. There are usually two turbines, one for both forward propulsion and astern.

The exact arrangement of pistons, arms, and gears varies after that, but eventually the steam's energy is used to turn the propeller shafts and thus the propellers themselves. Because modern steam turbines work best at speeds between 4000 and 7000 revolutions per minute, reduction gear must be used to reduced the speed of the shaft and propeller to more practical speeds

The steam is then cooled. Inevitably, some steam escapes the system during all this, so it is replaced with fresh liquid.

Steam engines require more planning and attention than diesel engines. The high temperatures involved (approaching 400 degrees Fahrenheit) and constant presence of water can dangerously stress materials of not handled correctly. It can take four hours or more between the time the order is given to get underway and the time the boiler is up to the needed temperature. The engine itself must be warmed up as well. Similar attention to detail must be observed when cooling down an engine.

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Saturday, August 4, 2012

Mariner's In Review: The Skeptic's Guide To The Universe

One of my favorite podcasts is The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe (SGU). The podcast is produced by members of the New England Skeptical Society and hosted by Society president Steven Novella, a neurologist. Each week the show's panel of "rogues" addresses controversial claims, pseudoscience, and the paranormal, often focusing on the latest scientific discoveries or advances, fraud or just plain nonsense from the world of medicine. The SGU was one of the inspirations for this blog.

This year the SGU took on a couple of nautical issues, with varying success. An excellent report on the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic talked about some myths surrounding the lost liner:

  • Although the Titanic struck an iceberg on April 14th, 1912, she did not actually sink until the 15th.
  • The ship only had enough life boats for the current passengers; it had only a third of the number required for her total capacity
  • Most of the deaths were from hypothermia, not drowning
  • Much of the video we see of Titanic may actually be of her sister ship Olympic, which was launched the previous year
  • The ship's owner, White Star Lines, didn't promote the idea that the vessel was "unsinkable," this was something that came up more after the sinking.

This last item turns out to be a myth about a myth. The SGU, to its credit, published an email from a listener the following week pointing out that, despite the claim that the "unsinkable" claim was untrue (as reported at, among other places, the myth-busting website, White Star had claimed in some promotional material that  "as far as it is possible to do, these two wonderful vessels [Titanic and Olympic] are designed to be unsinkable."

On the other hand, another podcast on the anniversary of the Exxon Valdez sinking led with one "rogue" commenting that "one drunk sea captain drives the boat into the shoals..." Another panelist interrupted, pointing out that this was a myth, but then saying "the captain was drunk but not at the helm." Captain Joseph Hazelwood was found not guilty of being under the influence at trial. Also, investigative journalist Greg Pallast, quoted in the very Wikipedia article the SGU uses as its source for its report, says "Forget the drunken skipper fable."

To be fair, such slip-ups are rare on the SGU. It's a worthwhile, entertaining podcast for anyone interested in honing their critical thinking skills.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Andrea Doria

On July 25, 1956 the ocean liners Andrea Doria and Stockholm collided near Nantucket. Fifty-two passengers and crew members on the two vessels died and hundreds were injured. Eleven hours after the collision, the Andrea Doria sank to the bottom, where she remains today.

More than forty years after the Titanic sinking, the lessons learned in that earlier disaster were incorporated both into the design of the Andrea Doria, and in the response of her crew when the collision occurred. The collision made half the lifeboats on the Andrea Dorea unusable or inaccessible, but more than 1600 passengers and crew members were rescued and survived. Watertight compartments were properly secured, unlike in the Titanic incident, giving rescuers time to get most people to safety. Of the 52 dead, most had died in the initial collision.

There was no formal finding of fault. The two shipping companies that owned the Andrea Doria and Stockholm reached out of court settlements with each other and survivors, so no legal determination was ever made. An initial inquiry placed most of the blame on the officers of the Andrea Doria for improperly maneuvering their vessel in the minutes before the collision. Later investigations point to the Third Officer of the Stockholm and his misuse of a new technology called radar.

In the study of human error, fixation is the tendency to focus on one or two inputs when things get stressful. Fixation has been a factor in industrial accidents like the one at Three-Mile Island nuclear plant, in aircraft crashes, and in maritime accidents. In the Andrea Doria incident, many believe the Stockholm’s Third Officer was so focused on his radar that he not only ignored other sources of information, he didn’t even notice the radar was set at a different scale then he believed it to be: the Andrea Doria was only five miles away; he thought she was twelve.

Following the collision, radar set designed was improved to make such mistakes less likely, and radar training requirements for bridge officers put into place.

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Saturday, July 21, 2012

Capt. Cook & The Transit of Venus

Photo of the 1882 transit, which revealed a precise distance for Venus's orbit.

Last month’s transit of Venus across the face of the sun was largely an astronomical curiosity, but a similar transit in 1769 held great potential for expanding our knowledge of the universe. By comparing observations made from several points throughout the world, scientists hoped to measure the true size of the orbit of Venus, and thus the orbits of the other planets, and thus the size of the Solar System. Playing a key role was a captain named James Cook.

Statue of Cook
in Greenwich
In 1716, Edmond Halley (he of comet fame) published a paper explaining how a transit of Venus could be used to make the necessary calculations. Halley was more than the scientific father of the 1769 expedition, though. He also commanded an expedition in 1689 to measure compass variations. Halley was so bad a commander that the Royal Navy refused to allow a scientist to command one of its ships ever again. Thus Cook, a gifted mathematician and cartographer as well as a naval officer, was selected to lead the expedition.

A civilian collier, the Earl of Pembroke, was selected as the vessel for the expedition. Its shallow bottom and sturdy construction made it ideal for the voyage in ways a traditional warship would not be. The ship was overhauled, armed, and commissioned Endeavour. In August 1768 the expedition set out for Tahiti, where Cook and two scientists on board would make independent observations. It arrived the following April, and Cook made good use of the weeks leading up to the June 3 transit to build an observatory.

The results were disappointing,. The three sets of measurements taken at Tahiti did not match up within the margin of error, due to an optical phenomenon called the “black drop effect.”  Combined with measurements from more than a dozen other sites around the world, scientists were able to refine the estimates for the size of Venus’s orbit, but not with the degree of precision they had hoped for.

Cook’s voyage of exploration was not over yet. After the transit, he opened sealed orders instructing him to find and claim Terra Australis Incognita, a large southern continent of supposed great riches. He never found it and, indeed, did not believe it existed in the first place. The Endeavour did visit New Zealand and Australia and Cook was able to determine that the latter was a separate continent (it was previously believed to be part of New Guinea).

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Saturday, June 16, 2012

Misunderstood Mariners: Joseph Hazelwood (Re-post)

When the twentieth anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill came around [in 2009], a lot of the mythology surrounding the incident came around again, too. Everybody knows, for instance, that Capt. Joseph Hazelwood, captain of the tanker, was drunk at the time of the incident. Except, this was never proved. In his trial following the incident in Prince William Sound, Hazelwood was acquitted of being under the influence of alcohol at the time of the oil spill. In fact, he was acquitted of all felony charges, though he was convicted of a misdemeanor charge (negligent discharge of oil) and his master’s license was suspended under Coast Guard administrative rules.
Also untrue is the story that Hazelwood left the bridge under the supervision of an unlicensed mate. Third Mate Gregory Cousins was a licensed mate, what he lacked was the endorsement required by oil tanker watch officers to operate in Prince William Sound. Cousins was cleared of any charges related to the incident.
The Exxon Valdez may be the most famous oil spill, but it’s not even close to being the largest. Ten years before the incident in Alaska, the Atlantic Empress collided with the Aegean Captain off Trinidad and Tobago in the eastern Caribbean. The resulting spill dumped 287,000 metric tons (about 84 million gallons) into the sea, compared with the Exxon Valdez’s 37,000 metric tons (about 10.8 million gallons). The Exxon Valdez doesn’t even make the top ten in terms of size of spill.
On the other hand, none of the oil from the Atlantic Empress/Aegean Captain incident came ashore. The crude from the Exxon Valdez’s tanks is still being dug out of the beaches in Prince William Sound. The resulting damage to shore life, fisheries, tourism, and recreation has been an economic disaster for the Prince William Sound region, even leading to the bankruptcy of the Chugach native corporation.
The legal wrangling following the case is still in the courts. Less than a year ago the US Supreme Court threw out a $2.5 billion punitive damage award against Exxon. It had been whittled down from an initial $5 billion figure, in addition to nearly $300 million in actual damages, awarded in 1994.
As for Hazelwood, he paid a fine, did community service, and spent two decades as the butt of drunken captain jokes. Last month [March 2009] he apologized to the people of Alaska for the incident.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Misunderstood Mariners: William Bligh (Re-post)

William Bligh. 1814 portrait by Alexander Huey.

April 28 [2009] marked the 220th anniversary of the famous mutiny on the HMS Bounty. William Bligh, commander of that ill-fated expedition, has become synonymous with the image of a cruel captain, an image reinforced by popular fiction, especially movies.

Bligh was an officer under Capt. James Cook on that explorer’s third and final voyage, and served aboard vessels engaged in some of the most important naval battles of the Napoleonic Wars. Before taking command of the Bounty, he left the navy for a brief period to work in the merchant service. The Bounty’s log showed him to be, if anything, more sparing of cruel punishment than a lot of his fellow captain’s of the day. He also took from Cook a concern for the health of his crew, including making sure the food onboard exceeded the standards of the day and that the crew got daily exercise.

Bligh was also an early reformer of watch standing systems to combat crew fatigue, splitting his crew into three instead of two watches. It was this third watch that required an extra officer to be in charge of it, which led to Bligh recruiting Fletcher Christian for the 1789 voyage during which the mutiny occurred.

Bligh gets little credit for his forward thinking, although even popular accounts of the mutiny acknowledge Bligh’s skill in bringing a small boatload of loyalists 3600 nautical miles to safety with only one casualty. It’s probably inevitable that today Bligh is considered the bad guy in the mutiny, what with Christian being portrayed on film by heroic leading men Erroll Flynn, Clark Gable, and Marlon Brando. The fact is, the 1984 film The Bounty, with Mel Gibson as Christian and Anthony Hopkins as Bligh, is probably the most accurate, with many scenes lifted right from the Bounty’s log.