Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Dreaded Cruise Ship Disease Redux

Nervous About Noro asks about my post last May, The Dreaded Cruise Ship Disease : "What other diseases should I watch out for on my upcoming cruise, and what really are my chances of getting sick on a cruise?"

Dealing with the second part of Nervous's question first, the answer is "not very high." The Centers for Disease Control, whose Vessel Sanitation Program tracks these things, reported 1,737 cases of gastrointestinal illness among cruise ship passengers (on vessels calling at US ports) in 2008. That may seem like a lot, but when you consider more than 9 million passengers travelled on ships within the CDC's jurisdiction during the same period, you get about a 1 in 5200 chance of being one of the sick ones.

The cases mentioned above were all contained within 15 separate outbreaks, and all but two of those were norovirus. Those other two were so-called "Traveler's Diarrhea," caused by the E coli bacterium. The other disease most commonly associated with cruise ships is Legionella, or Legionnaire's Disease. It is not nearly as prevalent as norovirus; yearly cases reported tend to be in the single digits, which make your odds of catching it literally one in a million.

Concern over the H1N1 "Swine Flu" virus has led to increased vigilance by both the CDC and the cruise lines, several of which cancelled stops in Mexico -- where the disease first appeared -- this year. As the Caribbean cruising season gets into full swing, it's worth noting there has been no major outbreak in the region, only a few dozen cases spread among the major islands. That and the slowdown of cases in the US has officials in the Caribbean hopeful that cruise ship outbreaks like those seen in Europe last summer can be avoided.

If you're traveling on a cruise ship, the CDC has some advice:
  1. Wash your hands!
    • Before and after
      • eating,
      • smoking,
    • After
      • touching your face,
      • going to the bathroom
    • When your hands are dirty.
  2. Leave the area if you see someone get sick (vomiting or diarrhea).

    Report to cruise staff, if not already notified.
    You could become sick if you ingest contaminated particles that travel through the air.
  3. Take care of yourself.

    Get plenty of rest, drink lots of water. Resting helps rebuild your immune system. Drinking water helps prevents dehydration.
  4. Be considerate of other people’s health.
  5. If you’re ill before taking a cruise, call the cruise line to determine if there are alternative cruising options.



Saturday, December 26, 2009

Misunderstood Mariners: Hugh Malzac


Ever since 15-year-old powder boy James Forten fought aboard the privateer Royal Louis in the American Revolution, African Americans have served in the country's merchant marine. But it was not until 150 years later that an African American -- Hugh Malzac --rose to the rank of Master.

Malzac was born in St. Vincent and the Grenadines in 1886 and went to sea immediately after high school, eventually earning his mate's license. He immigrated to the United States in 1916, and within two years had passed the exams for his master's license, the first African American ever to do so. Having his license was one thing, finding a shipowner that would hire him as captain was another. Malzac spent the next two decades working mainly in the steward's department. He was also active in the labor movement in the 1930s, an activity that would come to haunt him in the two decades later.

With the outbreak of World War Two, Malzac lobbied hard on behalf of Negro mariners, and was eventually rewarded with command of the Liberty ship Booker T. Washington in 1942. It was something Malzac had worked for for two decades, but he almost turned it down because the crew was to be all black. Eventually, the ship's operators gave in and agreed to integrate the crew. Malzac took command, recalling later:
Everything I ever was, stood for, fought for, dreamed of, came into focus that day... The concrete evidence of the achievement gives one's strivings legitimacy, proves that the ambitions were valid, the struggle worthwhile. Being prevented for those twenty-four years from doing the work for which I was trained had robbed life of its most essential meaning. Now at last I could use my training and capabilities fully. It was like being born anew.
For the next five years he delivered troops and supplies to both theaters of the war and the occupation. In 22 trips, the Booker T. Washington transported 18,000 troops.

After the war, the ship's operators had their revenge and Malzac again couldn't get command of a ship. Things got worse in the next few years, as he lost both his seaman's papers due to the Red Scare of the 1950s and a run for public office. Eventually, a judge restored his papers, but Malzac never commanded a ship again, instead settling for night mate work until the end of his career. He died in 1971.

Time magazine's October 1942 account of Malzac taking command of the Booker T. Washington can be found on it's website here.

Malzac wrote a book about his experiences, A Star To Steer By, published in 1963.

For more on African Americans in the World War II-era Merchant Marine, click here.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Locks and Canals


One of the reasons you didn't see more posts from me back in September was I was trapped. The vessel I was commanding was caught upstream of The Dalles Lock on the Columbia River when the lock had a mechanical problem. The lock was shut down for a week and a half, leaving me, my passengers (and those on a few other passenger vessels), and many tugs and barges with wheat, fuel, and garbage trapped on the wrong side of the dam. Navigation locks of many sizes are key components in the infrastructure that smoooths international trade.

Leonardo Da Vinci is given credit for imagining the first modern navigational lock, although the concept dates to ancient times. Simply put, a lock is a chamber that can be filled or emptied with water to allow vessels in it to sail between water lying at different altitudes. They are often built to help vessels get around or through some obstruction, whether its a hydroelectic dam (like The Dalles) or the Isthmus of Panama (like the Panama canal locks).

Some locks have rises or falls of only a few feet; many in Europe are operated by hand by boat skippers as needed. The locks at China's Three Gorges Dam will, when completed, move vessels up or down 350 feet. The John Day lock, not far from The Dalles lock, is the largest in the United States, with a vertical lift of 110 feet. It and The Dalles are part of the eight-lock Columbia and Snake River system, which allows vessels to transit from the mouth of the Columbia at sea level, to Lewiston, Idaho, 465 river miles from the sea and 745 feet above sea level.

Other famous locks and canals:

Erie Canal. The 524-mile canal, now called the New York State Canal System, connects Lake Erie with the Hudson River. Originally opened in 1824, this canal and its 34 locks now serve mainly recreational traffic.

Kiel Canal. The 61-mile long canal, opened in 1895, connects the Baltic Sea to the North Sea, allowing vessels to cut through the Jutland Peninsula. There are locks at each end. The Kiel Canal claims to be the busiest artificial waterway in Europe.

Oldest operating locks. Six locks on the Great Britain's river Avon between Bath and Bristol may be the oldest operating navigational locks, dating to 1728.

Panama Canal. The 48-mile long canal has three sets of locks and connects the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean. When it was completed in 1914, it cut travel time from New York to San Francisco by more than half. The Canal's Gatun Locks are pictured above.

Suez Canal. The 119-mile waterway between the Red and Mediterranean Seas is entirely at sea level and contains no locks. It opened in 1869. Transiting the Suez Canal used to save shipowners significant time and money over a trip around Africa, but faster ships and recent piracy in the area have led some shipping companies to re-route some ships all the way around Africa.

Upper Mississippi. Twenty-six locks regulate the channel of the Mississippi from Minnesota's Lake Itasca to the mouth of the Ohio River near Cairo, Illinois. The Ohio itself has twenty-one locks below Pittsburgh.

Welland Canal. Seven locks over 27 miles allow vessels to bypass Niagara Falls between Lake Erie and Lake Huron.


The US Army Corps of Engineers has an informative short animated demonstration of how the Soo Locks between Lakes Superior and Huron work here.

See an interesting time-lapse video of the Queen Elizabeth II's final transit of the Panama Canal and all its locks on YouTube here.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Union Label

It was 1803 and some sailors in New York were upset. They had been living off $10 a month for some time. Ship owners and captains refused any request for more money, and any protests were met with stern measures, sometimes even violence. The fed-up sailors got together, staged a strike and, with the strength of numbers, eventually got their raise -- to $17 a month.

It was an amazing thing, considering the times. This was the Age of Sail, the time of Bligh and Master and Commander and Horatio Hornblower. There was no organized labor movement of any kind -- the Industrial Revolution was just getting started -- let alone among mariners who most times just counted themselves lucky to be alive. Mariners could be forced to work in any conditions, and if they left the ship early could be dragged back in chains and flogged. If not caught, they forfeited all wages and personal property left on board. And these were not Navy seamen, but commercial seamen on privately-owned vessels.

It was more than half a century before any kind of labor movement among mariners was heard from again. In 1866, a group of mariners formed the short-lived Seaman's Friendly Union & Protective Society in San Francisco. It was another twenty years before a truly viable union was formed, again in San Francisco. In 1885 mariners on the US west coast organized to protest wages that continued to be rock bottom: only $25 a month more than 80 years after the New York strike. The union they formed would go on the be called the Sailor's Union of the Pacific (SUP), a union that continues to be active today.

Reforms were hard-won. The unions eventually won passage of the Seaman's Act of 1915, which regulated working hours, food, berthing, and safety requirements on US-flagged merchant vessels. As union leader Andrew Furuseth said when fighting for passage of the Act
You can put me in jail, but you cannot give me narrower quarters than as a seaman I have always had. You cannot make me lonelier than I have always been.
Like much of American organized labor, the maritime unions have seen a decline in membership in recent decades, but several are still active. Many of the maritime unions continue to hire out of hiring halls, where union members gather once or twice a day for job calls, and the person with the most seniority or who has been out of work longest gets first chance at each job.

The largest US maritime union is the Seafarer's International Union (SIU) which, like the SUP, represents unlicensed crew members on union-staffed vessels. Licensed officers are represented by the American Maritime Officers union or the International Brotherhood of Masters, Mates & Pilots. Some engineers are represented by the Marine Fireman's Union. Some smaller maritime unions are branches of large shoreside unions (like the International Longshore & Warehouse Union), while some government-employed mariners are represented by government employees' unions. About 16 percent of America's 84,000 mariners are members of unions.

For a vivid account of mariner life before the unions (and a sure cure for any romantic notions you might have about the Age of Sail), read Richard Henry Dana's classic Two Years Before The Mast. A free download is available here from Project Gutenberg.

An interesting history of the maritime labor movement can be found on the SIU's website here.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Revenge Of The Battleships



On December 8, 1941, the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, was a flurry of activity. The previous day’s attack by the Japanese had left more than 2400 dead, and nearly 1300 wounded. Eight battleships had been damaged in the attack, four of them resting on Pearl Harbor’s shallow bottom. Seven smaller warships were sunk or damaged and nearly 200 aircraft were destroyed. But still up and running was the naval base’s shipyard, power station, and maintenance sheds. These last had not even been on the attacking plane’s target lists, a mistake the Japanese would have cause to regret later. Despite the (even today) oft-repeated claim that the attack crippled the US fleet, all but two of the battleships would get a chance to shoot back later in the war.

The battleship USS Pennsylvania was in dry dock during the attack, but suffered relatively minor damage. After repairs, she helped re-take the Alaskan islands of Kiska and Attu from the Japanese, and then moved to the South Pacific campaign. Hit by a Japanese bomb on August 12, 1945, she was the last major US warship damaged in World War II. She was decommissioned in 1948 following her role in the Bikini Atoll atomic test in 1946.

The USS Maryland was also quickly repaired and fought in the South Pacific. She was damaged at Okinawa in April 1945, and was being repaired when the war ended. She was decommissioned in 1947.

The more heavily damaged USS Tennessee followed the Pennsylvania to Alaska, then the South Pacific, and was part of the US occupation forces in Japan following the war. She was decommissioned in 1947.

The USS Nevada was heavily damaged in the attack and intentionally beached. Following extensive repairs, she supported the 1944 Normandy invasion, and then returned to the Pacific, where she finished the war. She was decommissioned following the Bikini test.

The heavily damaged USS California required extensive repairs, but was back in action for the last year of the South Pacific campaign, then the occupation. She was decommissioned in 1947.

Also heavily damaged, USS West Virginia was repaired and sent back into action. She took part in the Battle of Surigao Strait, the last gun battle between battleships in world history, and Operation Magic Carpet, transporting wounded and discharged servicemen home to the US. She was decommissioned in 1947.

The USS Oklahoma took one of the worst beatings at Pearl Harbor; nearly 400 of her crew died and others were rescued only because shipyard personnel cut escape holes on her upturned bottom. She was subsequently righted (see photo above), but was judged too badly damaged to return to service. She was decommissioned in 1944.

Two battleships never left Pearl Harbor: the USS Utah and the USS Arizona. Both remain there to this day, both with memorial facilities nearby. Although it is commonly believed that one or both are still US Navy-commissioned vessels, both were decommissioned during the war.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Shackleton And South Georgia


On this date in 1914, explorer Ernest Shackleton left South Georgia Island on his ship, the Endurance. It was Shackleton's third trip to Antarctica, and the goal of this "Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition" was an ambitious one: to cross the continent from coast to coast while passing through the South Pole. The expedition would not succeed, but what happened instead is considered by many to be even more remarkable.

Endurance sailed from South Georgia -- which lies about a third of the way from the tip of South America toward Africa -- toward the point from which the expedition would proceed over land. Heavy ice in the Weddell Sea caught the ship, and after being stuck for a few weeks Shackleton ordered the ship abandoned and a temporary station set up. The men remained trapped on the ice until April. The Endurance long since lost, they were forced into three remaining lifeboats when the ice they were floating on began to break up. After a rough crossing, they ended up on Elephant Island, off the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Two weeks later Shackleton and a few other men took one of the lifeboats on a 16-day journey back to South Georgia, then another day and a half trek over the island to a whaling station there.

It took Shackleton nearly three months to get the rest of the crew off Elephant Island. Although the other ship in the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition had suffered three casualties, all the men from Endurance survived.

After serving in World War I, Shackleton began preparations for yet another Antarctic expedition. It was not to be, though: Shackleton died en route, on South Georgia Island, where he was eventually buried, on January 5, 1922. He was 47 years old.

The original New York Times account of the expedition can he found here.

Shackleton's own first-hand account of the expedition is South: The Endurance Expedition, which includes images by expedition photographer Frank Hurley.

Shackleton's reputation was overshadowed for years by that of the commander of his first Antarctic expedition, Robert F. Scott. With changing times, the Victorian Scott fell from favor and the more modern Shackleton's reputation grew, culminating in the 1959 publication of Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing. A more recent work, which includes many of Hurley's photos, is Caroline Alexander's The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition. Liam Neeson and Kenneth Branagh have both starred in movies dramatizing the expedition, and there have been several documentaries.

The current issue of National Geographic has an article about South Georgia Island by Kenneth Brower, with photos by Paul Nicklen. Find it here.

At least two books have taken Shackleton's leadership style as a model for modern managers: Shackleton's Way: Leadership Lesson From The Great Antarctic Explorer by Margot Morell and others, and Leading From The Edge: Leadership Lessons From The Extraordinary Saga Of Shackleton's Antarctic Expedition by Dennis N.T. Perkins and others.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Holidays At Sea


When you consider how many traditions and superstitions mariners have about almost everything, it's surprising how few Christmas traditions there are at sea. At least one in seven people on earth are Christians, and twice that many will celebrate Christmas in one form or other. Add to that those who recognize the Jewish Hanukkah, the African Kwanzaa, and the Pagan Yule, and you have a good share of the world's people, yet holiday traditions at sea are mainly just those brought from land.

Many seafaring traditions are based in the Christian faith. Christians believe that Jesus was crucified on a Friday and resurrected on a Sunday, so it is bad luck to begin a sea voyage on Friday, and good luck to begin one on Sunday. It's also bad luck to begin a voyage on the first Monday in April (the day Cain killed Abel), the second Monday in August (the day God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah), or December 31 (the day Judas Iscariot hanged himself). Such superstitions predate the Christians by centuries, of course; Roman seafarers believed it bad luck to cut your nails or hair on board ship (it offended Neptune), and that it was good luck to offer the gods wine by pouring onto the deck of a ship.

Three chapters of From The Bridge: Authentic Modern Sea Stories, by mariner and writer Kelly Sweeney, are devoted to the topic of the holidays at sea. In addition to recounting some of his holiday experiences on board various vessels, Sweeney looks at various gifts for the mariner. The biggest, if you are another mariner, is holiday relief:
It is no easy task locating reliefs during the holidays, because no one wants to miss the time with the family. Sailors scheduled to go back to work may avoid answering the phone, or perhaps they'll travel somewhere they can't be reached until after the New Year. Those currently onboard, who are supposed to have the holidays off, call and harass the office to find a relief so they can make it back in time for the festivities.
If you're not a mariner, but just love one, Sweeney suggests a good set of rain gear, a pocket knife, a set of channel locks for those working on tankers, a flashlight, or a laminated family photo.

Some other nautical holiday traditions:

New York's Seaman's Church Institute has run a Christmas At Sea volunteer knitting program for more than a century. Knitting groups around the country makes scarves and other items, which are distributed free of charge to seamen. For more information click here.

The Charleston Port and Seafarers Society delivers care packages at ships calling in Charleston during the holidays. More information here.

The Seafarers & International Home in New York has a similar program. See more here.

The Patrick O'Brian website re-creates some Christmas dishes from the Age of Sail here.

The schooner Rouse Simmons, the legendary "Christmas Tree Ship," was lost with all aboard while delivering Christmas trees to Chicago in 1912. For more see The Maritime History Of The Great Lakes website.

If you work at sea, check out Kelly Sweeney's New Years resolutions for mariners in the latest issue of Professional Mariner. I'll post a link as soon as it becomes available online.

Many seaside communities have Christmas ship or boat parades, or boat lightings, like those pictured above. For info about this year's festivities, check out the following links to a port near you

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Misunderstood Mariners: Robert FitzRoy


This week marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s On The Origin Of Species, one of the most important works in the history of science and a book that may never have been written were it not for a Royal Navy captain named Robert Fitzroy (pictured at left above. At right is Darwin).

Born into the British aristocracy in 1805, Fitzroy was also very intelligent; he was the first man ever to achieve 100 percent on the Royal Navy's lieutenant’s exam. He spent most of his early career in South America, earning a reputation as a surveyor and, after taking command of the HMS Beagle in 1828 following the suicide of its captain, as a commander.

While working in the area of Tierra del Fuego, Fitzroy and the Beagle crew got into a scuffle with some of the locals, and ended up taking some of them back to England for “civilising.” Eventually it was decided that they had to be returned, so Fitzroy planned another voyage to South America. This time he decided to take a naturalist “companion” along in an effort to stave off boredom and depression like that that had taken the life of Beagle’s previous captain. The candidate that ended up accepting the position was Charles Darwin.

Fitzroy and Darwin got along well, except for the times when the captain, nicknamed “Hot Coffee” by his crew, lost his temper. Fitzroy also followed Darwin’s investigations into geology and biology carefully. What he saw led to one of the central conflicts of his life, as he tried to reconcile the evidence before his eyes with his religious belief in the biblical account of the world’s history. In an 1839 account of the Beagle’s voyages, Fitzroy wrote

When one thinks of the Deluge, questions arise, such as "where did the water come from to make the flood; and where did it go to after the many months it is said to have covered the earth?" To the first the simplest answer is "from the place whence the earth and its oceans came:"—the whole being greater than its part, it may be inferred that the source which supplied the whole could easily supply an inferior part:—and, to the second question,—"part turned into earth, by combination with metallic bases; part absorbed by, and now held in the earth; and part evaporated." We know nothing of the state of the earth, or atmosphere surrounding it, before the Flood; therefore it is idle and unphilosophical to reason on it, without a fact to rely on. We do not know whether it moved in the same orbit; or turned on its axis in a precisely similar manner;—whether it had then huge masses of ice near the poles;—or whether the moon was nearer to it, or farther off. Believers in the Bible know, however, that the life of man was very much longer than it now is, a singular fact, which seems to indicate some difference in atmosphere, or food, or in some other physical influence. It is not so probable that the constitution of man was very different (because we see that human peculiarities are transmitted from father to son), as it is to suppose that there was a difference in the region where he existed.

This was for public consumption, however, as he privately told a friend at the time that he didn’t see how a “forty days flood” could possibly have caused the geological processes he’d seen. He would have a change of heart in later life.

After a few years serving as governor of New Zealand, Fitzroy returned to England and eventually founded what was to become the modern Meteorological Office. He invented several types of barometers and was the first to systematically collect weather data and to publish charts to aid in weather prediction. Fitzroy invented the term “weather forecast” and his 1863 Weather Book was decades ahead of its time.

The publication of On The Origin Of Species led to a final crisis of spirit for Fitzroy. He denounced the implications of Darwin’s theory, going so far as to show up at an 1863 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science brandishing a bible and shouting at the audience to “believe in God rather than man.”

Fitzroy had been suffering depression and committed suicide in his washroom later that year.

Two excellent biographies of Fitzroy exist, each concentrating on different aspects of his life: Evolution's Captain: The Story of the Kidnapping That Led To Charles Darwin's Voyage Aboard The Beagle by Peter Nichols and Fitzroy: The Remarkable Story of Darwin's Captain And The Invention of The Weather Forecast by John and Mary Gribbin.

Fitzroy's own Narrative of the surveying voyages of His Majesty's Ships Adventure and Beagle between the years 1826 and 1836, describing their examination of the southern shores of South America, and the Beagle's circumnavigation of the globe can be found at Google Books here.

Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle, also at Google Books here, is his account of the trip and the foundation for later works On The Origin Of Species and The Descent Of Man.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Lines In The Sea


Who says you can't draw a line in the water? Nations and private property owners have been doing it for hundreds of years, to define their property rights and defend their seaward borders. Today a whole series of overlapping and sometimes conflicting laws, decrees, and treaties exist that draw just such lines in the sea. Because you can't actually draw such a line, they are usually drawn with reference to something on land. In the United States, the following lines are drawn:

Mean higher high water. In areas with two high and low tides a day, this line marks the average of the higher of the two high tides over a period of several (usually 19) years. The State of Texas uses this line as the seaward boundary of private property; you may not build a fence below it, for instance.

Mean high water or shoreline. This is the average of all high waters over the 19-year period. Fourteen US states use this as the seaward property line; areas above this are called privately owned uplands.

Mean low water or coastline. The average of all low waters over the datum epoch period. Seven states use this as the private property line. Areas above it are called state owned tidelands or inland waters.

Mean lower low water. The average of each daily lowest of the two low tides. This is the baseline from which US territorial waters are measured seaward. Areas above this line are called state submerged lands.

Three-mile limit. This distance is the range of a shore-based cannon in the early 1700s, and thus served as a practical definition of a nation's seaward boundary. Although now largely obsolete, it still has some applications. Check out an online chart of southeast Alaska here and you can still see the "doughnut holes" created by the three-mile boundary.

Twelve-mile limit. This is the generally accepted seaward limit of a nation's laws, established by international convention. Waters landward of this line are called the territorial sea; waters seaward are called the high seas. Some nations claim an exclusive economic zone extending up to 200 miles off their baseline. Although marked on some nautical charts with a fish symbol, these zones include not only fishing but oil and natural gas extraction rights, as well as environmental law enforcement. The image above shows both the United Kingdom's twelve-mile limit and areas further offshore it has claimed.

Disputes in these boundaries still exist. The US refusal to recognize North Vietnam, and thus its twelve-mile limit, was cited (at the time) as a cause of the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Libya's attempt to claim the entire Gulf of Sidra as territorial waters led to conflict with the US twenty years later. Even today, both the US and Canada claim jurisdiction over potentially oil-rich areas of the Beaufort Sea.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

In The News: Coast Guard Crew Tends Buoy

Howling winds, high seas and 18,500-pound buoys all in a day’s work. Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Tara Molle writes about the hazards of keeping navigational buoys operational on the Three Sheets Northwest blog here.


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Oil Rigs


Offshore oil rigs have been around since the 1890s, and today a variety of structures harvest both oil and natural gas from the world's continental shelves. There are two basic types of oil rig, or platform:

Fixed. The Hibernia platform, off St. John's, Newfoundland, is the largest oil rig in the world. It is an example of a fixed platform which, as the name suggests, is permanently attached to the ocean floor. Fixed platforms can be built in nearly 2,000 feet of water, but a type of fixed platform called a compliant tower can operate in 3,000 feet of water. The Petronius Platform, in the Gulf of Mexico, stands 2,000 feet above the ocean floor, making it one of the tallest structures in the world. Fixed platforms also include include jack-up rigs (a misnomer, since the legs are actually jacked down to the sea bottom).

Floating. Semi-submersible platforms or MODUs (mobile offshore drilling units) like the Thunderhawk rig pictured above (here being towed into Aransas Pass last spring. Thanks to Jeanie and Gary Hartman for the photo) are the most common floating type of oil rig. They are generally towed into position by tugboats and anchored in a specific spot for a time. Rigs like this will also have their own small azipod propellers that hold position, but aren't strong enough to move the rig long distances. This isn't the case for a drillship, which is just what it sounds like: a ship that drills for oil. Using dynamic positioning, a way to hold the vessel in place using a souped-up GPS which directly controls the ships engines and thrusters, these ships can drill in waters up to 12,000 feet deep.

Whatever the type, most rigs will have several (sometimes dozens) or "wellheads" from pipelines and drills at various depths and up to five miles from the rig itself.

Oil Rig Crew. Oil rig crews have their own colorful jargon for themselves. A roustabout is an unskilled laborer on an oil rig. If you stick around and become semi-skilled, you can become a roughneck. A tool pusher is a department head, or even the person in charge of the whole operation. A mud man, or mud engineer, is in charge of the liquid mud used in drilling operations to cool, lubricate, and otherwise control production. Other jobs include derrickhands, drillers, and a variety of positions necessary to the operation of the rig itself.

Find more about the specifics of oil drilling at the How Stuff Works website.

The US government's Minerals Management Service has a bizarre, basic, but informative twist on the "Take Your Daughter To Work Day" craze with Stacey Visits An Oil Rig.

For a hilarious and occasionally terrifying look at life on a oil rig, see Paul Carters book Don't Tell Mom I Work On The Rigs: She Thinks I'm A Piano Player In A Whorehouse.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

In The News: Ill-prepared mariners edition

Couple, Dogs Rescued At Sea. This video from the Today Show is an interview with the fishing boat owners rescued by a cruise ship. There are many lessons here.

Sailing The Caribbean, The Frugal Way. Frugal Traveler blogger Matt Gross never really did pick up the lingo of sailing in this story from the New York Times.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Tug Boats, Part 3: Tug Boat Tidbits


Tug Drivers. A small assistance tug, like one of the Sea Tow vessels, requires an operator with a "Commercial Assistance Towing" endorsement on his or her license. Licenses 500 tons and over do not require this endorsement. Large commercial tug captains generally need three years service on tugs before they can run as operator.

Tugboat Crew. The size and mission of the boat determine the crew size, which can be as small as one for very small boats wrangling log tows, to twelve or more in large multi-purpose tugs designed to move and anchor large floating oil rigs.

Largest Towboat. The M/V Mississippi (pictured above in a Morris Daily Herald photo), the flagship of the US Army Corps of Engineers, it the largest US-built towboat in service. It weighs in a more than 2100 tons, is more than 240 feet long and nearly 60 wide. Unusual for a tug, it can carry up to 150 passengers.

First Tugboat. Although the idea for tugboats was first patented in England in 1736, the first working tug was the Charlotte Dundas, a 56-ft long paddlewheeler serving Scotland's Forth and Clyde Canal. She was commissioned in 1802.

Tugboat Power. A typical tugboat uses a diesel engine nearly identical to that of a train locomotive, producing 700 to 3500 horsepower, although some ocean-going vessels have several times that power available. A tug is rated by both its horsepower and its bollard pull, a measurement of the amount of force it can exert on another object, like a barge or ship.

Tugboat Races. Seattle's Elliott Bay lays claim to the largest annual tugboat race. Other events occur each year on the Detroit River, the Hudson River, and the St. Mary's River.

To follow events in the world of tugboats, see the Tugboatlife blog here.

The entertaining and opinionated Capt. Richard Rodriguez blogs about all things tug and maritime at BitterEnd.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

In The News: Fishing Boat Crew Missing

Three Missing After Fishing Boat Sinks Off NJ Coast. This from msnbc.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

In The News: Korean warships clash, Pacific Garbage Patch, marine VHF channel 16.

N. Korea, Neighbor Clash On High Seas. The headline for this story from msnbc is very dramatic, but inaccurate. The whole point of the clash was a border dispute; the "high seas" are, by definition, international waters.

Afloat In The Ocean, Expanding Islands Of Trash. A New York Times story about one of the first serious efforts to study the Pacific Garbage Patch.

Guarding One-Six. A fun and informative post on using marine VHF radios, from the Three Sheets Northwest blog in the Seattle PostGlobe.

Tug Boats, Part 2: The Economics of Tugs

American tugs and towboats move a huge amount of freight every day, both on the inland and coastal waterways, and to Alaska and Hawaii.

Rivers are a major highway for transporting goods. The American Waterways Operators estimates that the nearly 4,000 tug and towboats on the inland waterways transports 20-percent of the nation's coal and 60-percent of its grain each year in the more than 28,000 barges in active service. New England gets most of its heating oil, and the inland Pacific Northwest most of its diesel fuel by barge. The AWO says all this traffic contributes $5 billion a year to the US economy.

Virtually all goods not flown into southeast Alaska come by barge, and a large percentage of goods bound for south central Alaska (the Anchorage area) and the Aleutians go the same way (just try finding some of your favorite items in the grocery store in Juneau if the barge is running a day or two late). Hawaii and many smaller Pacific islands rely on tugs and barges dispatched from the the US mainland.

Tug and barge operators compete directly with trucking companies and railroads. A typical barge can carry 3500 tons of cargo, or about one million gallons of fuel. The same amount of cargo requires 35 rail cars or 120 semitrailers. In other words, a towboat and four barges transports enough goods to replace semis stretched over 20 miles of highway. Tidewater Barge Lines says they can move one ton of cargo 514 miles on one gallon of fuel, compared to 202 miles for a rail car or 59 miles for a semi truck. They claim the reduced fuel usage results in lower greenhouse gas emissions as well when compared to other modes of transport.

See the American Waterways Operators site for more on the economic impact of the tug and towboat industry.

For more comparing barge transport versus other modes, see the National Waterways Foundation study here.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

In The News: Northwest Passage Transit

Crew Arrives In Seattle After Journey Through Northwest Passage. This story from the Three Sheets Northwest blog, as it appears in the Seattle PostGlobe.

Tug Boats, Part 1: Types of Tugs












Some of the hardest-working boats in the world are tugboats and towboats (I'll call them "tugs" here for convenience sake, with apologies to the many towboat crew who hate to be lumped in this category). A tug is any vessel that assists another in maneuvering. The other vessel may be unable to maneuver at all, like a barge or a vessel with mechanical problems, or just need assistance in a narrow channel or alongside a berth, like a large container ship coming into port. There are several different types of tugs:

Commercial assistance towboats. These tend to be small craft designed to help out other small craft with mechanical problems or that have just run out of fuel. They are the sea-going equivalent of Triple A. Although they may be available on a call-out basis in some harbors, many also offer a membership, again like Triple A. The Sea Tow franchise is the most visible and well known of these outfits.

Harbor tugs. Any vessel who's job it is to help a large ship get into out of an anchorage or berth in a harbor. This is the kind of vessel most people think of when they think, "tug boat." These tugs are very powerful for their size to, in effect, provide an additional engine for the large ship they are assisting. Harbor tugs tend to have lots of cushioning, especially on the bow, so thy can get right up against other vessels. They pull by attaching themselves to the vessel using wire cable or strong fiber line. Pictured above on the left is the just-launched Seaspan Resolution, which serves the harbor in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Seagoing tugs. These tugs meant for ocean service may be seen hauling a barge of supplies to Alaska or islands in the Pacific, or towing a large ship from one port to another. The picture in the center above is a seagoing tug towing a ship through the Panama Canal.

ITBs or "integrated tug and barge units." This type of tug is designed to fit into a notch at the stern of a barge, in effect making the whole tug/barge combination a single vessel.

River towboats. Flat on the bow, these boats push barges ahead. Their design makes them unsuitable for sea-going duty, but perfect for the complicated navigation and close-quarters maneuvering required on rivers. Pictured on the right above is a river towboat pushing several barges ahead on the Columbia River.

Specialized tugs. Some tugs are designed for specific jobs, such as firefighting, escorting oil tankers, or towing MODUs (floating oil rigs).

Thursday, November 5, 2009

In The News: Israel Seizes Ship Smuggling Weapons


Francop Second German Ship Caught With Hizbullah-bound Weapons. The ship is German owned, but sails under the flag of Antigua and Barbuda. The crew was unaware they were carrying weapons, which were hidden under layers of normal commercial goods. This story from the Jerusalem Post.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Mariners In Review: Looking For A Ship

Looking For A Ship is John McPhee's 1990 slice-of-life look at the American merchant marine of that time and has become a classic of the genre. McPhee begins by following second mate Andy Chase from union hall to union hall "looking for a ship," that is trying to find work at sea. When Andy finally finds a berth on the freighter Stella Lykes, bound for South America, McPhee switches the spotlight to the ship's captain, Paul McHenry Washburn, following him and the ship to various ports in South America.

Looking For A Ship is in many ways a sea story about sea stories. After quoting a crewman who complains about guys telling sea stories (opining that some of them would have to be 200 years old for all their stories to be true), McPhee then goes on to tell sea story after sea story, by and about the crew members on the Stella Lykes. Mariners will recognize the type, if not the particulars of each story: the salty old characters, the gruesome accidents, the hilarious misadventures.

The book is at its strongest, though, when it recounts the facts of life in the modern merchant marine and the effects of those facts on the crew. Large ships with 50+ crew not so long ago are now manned by 20 or so senior citizens; you can almost hear the lonely foot-treads on the deck as the American merchant marine shrinks and American merchant mariners fade away. If anything it's more true today then twenty years ago when Looking For A Ship was first published. This sense of nostalgia is the book's most poignant aspect. As McPhee quotes Washburn
A lot of us who have put our lives into this thing don't want to see the Merchant Marine die. It is not only worthwhile but necessary. Every hundred million the government has pulled out of Merchant Marine subsidies has probably cost billions in mounting trade deficits. We pay other flags, including Russia [the Soviet Union at the time Looking For A Ship was published], millions of dollars to deliver our foreign aid: rice, flour, vegetable oil, powdered milk, tanks, jeeps. By law, fifty per cent is supposed to go on American ships, but we don't have the bottoms. Some years, we carry five per cent. Even so, our shipping companies are more dependent on foreign aid than the foreigners we aid. We have not only one of the smallest but also one of the most aged merchant marines. Most of our ships are beyond their normal life expectancy. American shipyards have been folding, and their skills with them. The shipyards that remain are essentially repair yards -- Bath, Newport News, Chester, Pascagoula. That's it. That's all she wrote, hoss.
The book is at its weakest when McPhee shows us the landlubber he really is. He is obsessed with "how deep is it here?" and with satellite navigation. He falls back heavily on his nature writing style (look for this book in the Nature section of the bookstore with McPhee's other works) to describe the landscape and quotes Charles Darwin at length. Nothing wrong with Charles Darwin; it's just that merchant seamen are engaged in trade and little concern themselves with the history, natural or human, of the areas they sail in. McPhee is downright credulous when it comes to many of the sea stories he hears: the second mate is a descendent of and owns the sextant owned by Nathaniel Bowditch; the captain is a descendent of former Chief Justice John Marshall and Ulysses S. Grant's secretary of state. And both these guys just happen to be on the ship John McPhee is on? Come on.

McPhee also looks at other working mariners, among others, in his 2006 book, Uncommon Carriers. More on McPhee at his website here.

See also my recommendations for additional reading at my post reviewing Steaming to Bamboola.


Monday, November 2, 2009

In The News: Navy Ship A 9/11 Legacy; Australian rescue; cruise ship clears Danish bridge


Navy Ship A 9/11 Legacy. The USS New York (pictured above) was partially built with steel salvaged from the World Trade Center, according to this video from CNN.

Rescue Under Way After Boat Sinks Off Australia. This story from msnbc. Two merchant ships, including an LNG tanker, are part of the rescue effort. Law and tradition of the sea require ships in the area to help a vessel in distress; cargo contracts and passenger tickets all exempt ship owners and captains if your cargo or you get held up by rescue operations.

Oasis Of The Seas Clears Crucial Obstacle. An update on the progress of the world's largest cruise ship from msnbc.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

An "Alternative" Look at Somali Pirates

One of the purposes of this blog is to set the record straight on maritime topics as they are reported in the media, and I freely admit that most of my sources are what you would call "mainstream media." I just happened to pick up the collection called Censored 2010: The Top 25 Censored Stories of 2008-09 edited by Peter Phillips and Mickey Huff and found the #2 most underreported story of the year -- in the editors' view, anyway -- is "Toxic Waste Behind Somali Pirates." The article paints an interesting picture of the origins of the pirates: that they started out as local fisherman defending their home waters from toxic waste dumpers and illegal fishermen from other countries that moved in when the Somali government collapsed, thus leaving the country's waters undefended.

The annual Censored collection has a definite point of view. The introduction to this year's volume, by freelance journalist Dahr Jamail, is largely a condemnation of Israeli actions in Gaza. The editors openly declare
In the thirty-three years of Project Censored, the absence of real news from corporate media has never been more complete. Lies, deception, propaganda, superficial coverage, and overt censorship are on the rise. We cannot be polite about this anymore. Corporate media is irrelevant to working people and destructive to democracy. Look elsewhere for real news, as you won't find it in the mainstream press.
A definite point a view indeed, one I don't completely agree with. "Alternative" news outlets definitely play an important role, though, and I don't want to disregard that on this blog.

In terms of the Somali pirates story, I would say at least two of the three sources cited by the Censored editors -- Al Jazeera and The Huffington Post -- are "mainstream," if not traditional, news outlets. The three sources Project Censored cites are

"Toxic Waste" Behind Somali Piracy by Najad Abdullahi of Al Jazeera English.

You Are Being Lied To About Pirates by London Independent columnist Johann Hari in The Huffington Post.

The Two Piracies In Somalia: Why The World Ignores The Other? by Mohamed Abshir Waldo on the Somali news website Wardheer News.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Ocean Liners vs. Cruise Ships


They may look alike to the casual observer, but cruise ships and ocean liners are really two very different types of vessel. The large cruise ships you see sailing out of Miami, Alaska, and other cruising destinations are related to Titanic, United States, and Queen Elizabeth II, but have very different missions, construction, and even crews.

Ocean liners came first. In technical jargon, any ship that runs a regular schedule on an ocean-going route is a liner, even if that ship doesn't carry passengers. In everyday usage, though, we think of an ocean liner as a passenger-carrying ship in the mode of the QEII. It is this difference in mission that distinguishes ocean liners from cruise ships: liners go from point to point; cruise ships don't have a final destination.

Ocean liners are also built for the open ocean routes their schedules require. They have storage for more food, water, and fuel than their cruise ship counterparts, and are built for the rougher waters of the open ocean. They typically have more freeboard than cruise ships, which simply means their highest open-air deck is higher off the water than that on a cruise ship. This makes an ocean liner a lot more expensive to build than a cruise ship. The Queen Mary II (pictured above), when she was completed in 2003, used 40-percent more steel than an similar-sized cruise ship would, and cost twice as much per passenger berth to build than a cruise ship. The builders also had to settle for fewer premium "balcony staterooms" than a cruise ship would to allow for the increased freeboard.

Cruise ships have become destinations in and of themselves; it's been said it doesn't matter where they sail as long as the scenery is pretty and the weather is decent. More than a third of all cruise ship sailings are out of and back to Miami via various Caribbean destinations. The cruise industry continues to be a huge part of the travel industry and the major cruise lines are building more ships (nearly ten a year since 2001) all the time. On the other hand, demand for ocean liners decreased as commercial passenger air travel became accessible. The Queen Mary II was the first true ocean liner built in more than 30 years and, with the retirement of the Queen Elizabeth II in 2008, remains the only true liner in passenger service in the world.

The Queen Mary II is the longest passenger ship in the world at 1,132 feet. It grosses more than 148,000 tons, carries more than 2,600 passengers, and has a crew of more than 1,200. The largest standard cruise ship in the world is Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas. It is 1,119 feet long, but surpasses the QMII in gross tonnage, at more than 154,000. It can carry more than 3,600 passengers and 1,300 crew.

Friday, October 30, 2009

News Updates: Japan ship collision; UK yachtsmen ransom demand; and other news.


Tuesday's collision between the Japanese destroyer JS Kurama and the South Korean container ship Carina Star left three injured and both vessels damaged. As this image from Mainichi Shinbum/Reuters shows, the fire on the warship took several hours to put out. The fire on the container ship was put out sooner after the collision. See the whole story at msnbc.com

Somali Pirates Demand $7M To Release British Hostages. Here's The Guardian's latest on this developing story. Note how much of a business this has become for the pirates: they are even placing the Chandlers with other hostages on another ship!

Navy Ship Accidentally Fires On Polish Port. "If it's grey, stay away." This item from CNN.com.

World's Largest Cruise Ship Sails For US Port. I just completed an upcoming post on the differences between cruise ships and true ocean liners, so this story from the New York Times caught my eye.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

News Updates: Missing UK Yachtsman; Russian Mystery Ship

Missing Yachtsman: Somali Pirates Are Holding Us Hostage. An update from The Guardian on this story I've been following the last couple of days.

Russia Hands Over Arctic Sea Ship to Malta: Investigators. Remember the Cold War days when "Russian trawler" was code for "spy ship?" Here's the latest from Agence France-Presse on this somewhat bizarre story.