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.