Saturday, February 27, 2010

Mariners In Review: Working On The Edge

Spike Walker's tale of his adventures in the king crab fishery in Alaska have spawned a number or sequels, imitators, and even the TV show Deadliest Catch. Walker's tale is the original though, following the adventures of young Walker from his first gig in 1978 as a "greenhorn" on the Royal Quarry through the eight-year boom time of the Alaska king crab fishery. If a crewman got on the right boat during those years, he (or occasionally she, as Walker is quick to point out early in the book) could take home $100,000 or more for two months of work. But the work was hard, the hours long (sometimes days at a time with no sleep), and the whole enterprise occasionally deadly.

Walker begins by recounting the 1976 experience of the crew of the Master Carl, as told to him before he even arrives in Kodiak for his first hitch. As the story opens, the ship is in trouble and soon is on its way to the bottom, leaving the crew struggling in a life raft on the surface.
Once inside the raft, the crew members found that they were still tied to the sinking vessel. Each time the ship rolled, the keel flashed past them, the raft line came tight, and the shape of their raft contorted. They were in real danger of being pulled under, but no one could find a knife. Finally, in blind desperation, Magoteaux began chewing on the line in an effort to sever it with his teeth before the boat sank and dragged them all down with it.

"Then Tom [the captain] remembered he had a pocketknife," recalls Magoteaux. "But he had to take his [survival] suit halfway down to get at it. The waves were crashing in on us, and with his suit still half down, we held on to him as he leaned out one end of the raft. Though he got thoroughly drenched, Tom managed to cut the line or that would have been it for us! He got soaked, and with his suit half full of water, he never did get warmed up after that."

No sooner had they cut themselves free of their sinking ship than the typhoon-force winds whipped them off into the spray and darkness. Lifted and tossed by the heaving waves, and with the storm winds roaring constantly across the roof of the dome-covered raft, they could only drift and wait for daylight.
Some of the crew survive the perils of the sea only to be washed up on an Alaska beach, where they have to deal with a grizzly bear and, eventually, finding the bodies of shipmates -- including the heroic captain Tom --nearby. Walker doesn't need academic research on drowning or the effects of hypothermia a la Sebastian Junger for The Perfect Storm; he has firsthand knowledge from people who've been there and nearly lost their own lives. Fourteen people died at sea in the Alaska crab fishery the first year Walker went to sea.

Walker also gets into the strong and quirky personalities running and crewing the crabbing fleet in those days, and the hard drinking and heavy drug use while the crews relaxed in some of the more notorious Alaskan bars. You feel like you're in the middle of one the big booms Alaska is infamous for, like the oil boom a decade before, or the gold rush a century before that.

Walker is in many ways a typical mariner, and even his best sea stories start to sound repetitive after awhile. This is typical of life on any ship, though: routine and repetition of even some of the scarier moments. Even at his dullest moments, Walker puts you on the deck of that ship.

Walker also wrote Nights of Ice, a collection of sea stories about Alaska fishing boats in distress, and Coming Back Alive, about a Coast Guard rescue of a fishing trawler in trouble. Walker's telling other people's stories here, though; Working on the Edge is the best of the three.

There's a whole sub-genre of Alaska fishing boat books. Best bets are Lost At Sea by Patrick Dillon and The Last Run: A True Story of Rescue and Redemption on the Alaska Seas by Todd Lewan. The Deadliest Catch franchise has also produced two books: Deadliest Catch: Desperate Hours by Larry Erickson and Time Bandit: Two Brothers, The Bering Sea, and One of the World's Deadliest Jobs by Andy and Jonathan Hilstrand

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Remember The Maine!

This week marked the anniversary of the sinking of the USS Maine. The 1898 incident was a rallying point around which support for the Spanish-American War coalesced, and thus marked the beginning of a period in which US power would increasingly be projected overseas. But even today, what really happened to the Maine remains a mystery.

The Maine had been sent to Havana to protect American interests at a time when local Cubans were increasingly restive at the hands of the colonial Spanish authorities. The forward third of the ship was destroyed by explosions in the vessel's own powder magazine, killing more than 270 sailors. The Navy's investigation at the time -- and a 1908 follow-up-- faulted a mine, but what really caused the initial explosion remains controversial to this day. Subsequent investigations and theorists have cited both the mine hypothesis (who laid or set off the mine being a whole separate can of worms) and the idea that spontaneous combustion in the vessel's coal storage areas provided the first spark. This latter was the conclusion of a Spanish investigation conducted at the time. It has even been suggested that conspirators -- on or off the ship -- from the US set off the explosion in an attempt to foster support for a war against Spain.

Admiral Hyman Rickover convened another investigation in 1976 that supported the coal bunker explosion hypothesis, while a 1999 National Geographic analysis supported the external explosion theory.

See a short 1898 film by Thomas Edison showing the wreckage of the Maine on YouTube here.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Preparations For Getting Underway

I'm shipping out again, this time to a place where I may or may not have Internet access. So posts to this blog may be a little irregular and infrequent until the end of March or beginning of April. I'm going to put a few posts "in the can" so there will be a least a few regular Saturday posts for the next few weeks. In the meantime, here are some updates based on recent posts.

My Keeping Up With The Jones Act, Part 2 post mentioned foreign-flagged vessel operators in the Gulf of Mexico. The Internal Revenue Service has recently taken an interest in these vessels as reported here by Professional Mariner.

A Boston Globe report about two German merchant ships negotiating the Northwest Passage made real some of the predictions in my Real or not, global warming is a fact of nautical life post. There was also an interesting article in Professional Mariner recently about Arctic trade.

A reader of the Call Me "Captain" post brought my attention to this fun thread on the maritime professionals website gCaptain. Warning: it's for adults only.

Rev. Marjorie Lindstrom writes in response to my Mercy Ships, Mariners & Religion post:
I am a Port Chaplain with Seamen’s Church Institute of New York and New Jersey. We advocate for the personal, professional, and spiritual well-being of merchant mariners around the world, extending hospitality to ALL, regardless of nationality, religion or culture. In this day and age, when many seafarers face little or no shore leave (due to a variety of reasons) and are viewed by many companies as little more than the commodities which they carry, a friendly welcome and attention to their needs is of crucial importance. Perhaps the most important thing that we do is connect the mariner with his/her family at home by providing them with phones, phone and sim cards and the ability to send money transfers. We also advocate for seafarers when rights are violated, or when conditions on board ship may endanger well-being. We provide free transportation service to the local mall and our seafarers’ center so that our mariners can spend that free time ashore in a safe manner. Meanwhile, our chaplains are sensitive to the varying cultures, nationalities and religions which we encounter on a daily basis. If prayer is requested, we gladly respond, and if there seems to be a need, we always ask before praying with an individual or a group. While our identity is deeply rooted in the Christian faith, we do not proselytize, but recognize that we are all children of God, all made in the image of God, and hence we are all sisters and brothers, whose dignity must be respected.

Contact the Institute at 241 Water Street in New York City (212-349-9090) or at

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

From Ship To Space Shuttle

This week's launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavour marks one of the last in the shuttle program. Only four more launches are scheduled before the shuttle program is ended in September. The shuttle missions and the American space program in general have a long connection with the maritime world.

Atlantis. First launched in 1985, Atlantis will finish its career with a mission to the International Space Station in May. It was named for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution's research vessel of the same name, which operated from the 1930s to the 1960s.

Challenger. Named for a British naval ship famous for an oceanographic expedition in the 1870s, Challenger was also the name of the Apollo 17 lunar module. This shuttle was launched in 1983 and was destroyed shortly after a launch three years later.

Columbia. In 1981, this Space Shuttle became the first to travel in space. Columbia was destroyed during re-entry following a mission in 2003. The shuttle was named for the sloop Columbia Rediviva, which, in the 1790s became the first American vessel to circumnavigate the world. It was also the name of the Apollo 11 Command Module.

Discovery. Several British exploration ships have held this name, including one of Captain James Cook's vessels in his 1776-1780 expedition to the Pacific. The RSS Discovery, built in 1901, was the last wooden three-masted ship built in Great Britain. It was the flagship of Robert Scott's Antarctic expedition, which included a young Ernest Shackleton. The Space Shuttle Discovery first flew in 1984, and its September 2010 mission will be the last one of the Shuttle program.

Endeavour. The Endeavour is the newest shuttle, built to replace Challenger and first launched in 1992. It was named for Captain Cook's flagship, which is why its name is spelled British style.

Enterprise. The first Space Shuttle never flew in space: it was constructed without engines or heat shields for atmospheric testing only. Originally scheduled to be named Constitution, the name was changed to Enterprise after a write-in campaign staged by fans of the television show Star Trek. Several actual American ships have borne the name, however, beginning with an armed sloop that patrolled Lake Champlain during the American Revolution. The current Enterprise is an aircraft carrier and the oldest commissioned vessel in the US Navy save for the sailing vessel USS Constitution.

Navy Recovery Vessels. In the years before the Shuttle program, US Navy ships were used to recover astronauts and vessels following splashdown. Most, like the USS Hornet that recovered the Apollo 11 crew, were aircraft carriers, although amphibious assault ("commando") carriers like the USS Iwo Jima that recovered the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission were also utilized. Some early mission were also recovered by destroyers or, in one case, a guided missile cruiser. The aircraft carrier USS Wasp holds the record, with five recoveries during the Gemini program.

Shuttle Recovery Vessels. One of the hallmarks of the Space Shuttle program was the reusability of its components, including the Solid Rocket Boosters, which would fall away when empty and be recovered for later use. Two vessels, the 176-foot Freedom Star (pictured above) and Liberty Star were both built in the early 1980s for that express purpose. Owned by NASA and staffed by civilian merchant mariners, the vessels are also scheduled to participate in the Constellation program. With the Obama Administration recently calling for that program to be cut, the fate of those ships and crews are in doubt.

Navy Astronauts. Three of the Mercury Seven astronauts were from the Navy: Alan Shepard, the first American in space; Scott Carpenter, and Wally Schirra. They were joined during the Gemini program by John Young, who would become one of NASA's most experienced astronauts, Pete Conrad, James Lovell (of Apollo 13 fame), Eugene Cernan and Richard Gordon. Neil Armstrong began his military career in the Navy, but was in the US Air Force when he flew in space. The Navy provided many more astronauts during the Apollo, Skylab, and Space Shuttle programs including Kathryn Sullivan, a Navy reservist and oceanographer (she is also NOAA's first astronaut) who was the first American woman to walk in space.

Coast Guard Astronauts. The Space Shuttle program included two Coast Guardsmen: Bruce Melnick, Daniel Burbank.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Misunderstood Mariners: Pirate Legends

The release of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl a few years ago led to a pirate-mania of sorts, sure to be re-stoked next year when the fourth movie in the series comes out. The Pirates of the Caribbean movies may be fun to watch, but they are based on an amusement park ride, which gets its concept of pirates from Hollywood and comic books. Johnny Depp may be fun to watch, but he bears little resemblance to modern-day pirates. In fact, he bears little resemblance to the actual pirates of the so-called "Golden Age of Piracy."

Blackbeard. Edward Teach, or possibly Edward Thatch, is the archetypical pirate, possibly the inspiration for Long John Silver in Robert Louis Steven's Treasure Island. An alleged treasure burier, the legend was so commonly believed that people used to dig up North Carolina beaches during the American Revolution looking for his loot. Blackbeard used his large beard to intimidate victims; a common (unsubstantiated) legend claims he lit long matches in his beard to add to the fearsome effect.

Anne Bonny. One of the rare "lady pirates," Bonny began her career as an abused wife. Her husband James had married her for her estate, but she was disinherited, and he later had her flogged for her adulterous affair with the pirate "Calico Jack" Rackham. She would eventually bear Rackham two children, and it was in fact her pregnancy that earned her a stay of execution after her capture. Some sources say she died in childbirth or prison, but others claim she lived to her eighties. She never disguised herself as a man and never commanded a ship of her own.

Buried Treasure. "X" rarely marked the spot since most plunder a pirate got his hands on quickly disappeared into the bars and brothels of the nearest port. Rare was the pirate who would live long enough to come back later and dig up a buried treasure and most of them knew it. And despite the fearsome reputation of many pirate captains, most crews would not tolerate squirreling away cash they had just risked life and limb for. "Immediate gratification" was the pirate way.

Calico Jack. Jack Rackham is another pirate given credit for designing the Jolly Roger. In his case it just might be true. Rackham was also one of the few captains to dismiss the superstition about having women on board ship, letting both Anne Bonny and Mary Read serve in his crew. Rackham has been cited as the source for the Capt. Jack Sparrow character in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

Captain Kidd. William Kidd was probably more privateer than pirate, although the definition might depend on which end of his sword you were on. One of the more far-ranging pirates of this era, Kidd may have sailed as far as Japan. While charged with many heinous acts of piracy, Kidd was in fact known for making his crew return ill-gotten loot. He is also a source of many of the "buried treasure" myths surrounding pirates.

The Gentleman Pirate. Stede Bonnet was a somewhat wealthy landowner on Barbados who turned to piracy because of marital and financial problems. In the early 1700s he worked with Blackbeard. He is given credit for designing the skull and crossbones flag and being one of the only pirate captains to force prisoners to walk the plank. Neither claim is true. What is true is that Bonnet claimed at his trial that he did not actually take part in piracy, and in fact he was asleep on some occasions when his vessel attacked another. His crew, he said, simply disobeyed him, preferring to follow the more charismatic Blackbeard or the vessel's quartermaster, Robert Tucker. The court didn't believe him and he was hanged December 10, 1718.

Henry Morgan. Like Kidd, Morgan was more privateer than pirate (although the line between the two was hazy and frequently crossed). A farmer's son, one source says he was an indentured man when he first came to the Caribbean, although he successfully sued a contemporaneous biographer who made that claim. Morgan was one of the few pirates to live to enjoy his retirement, having years before "gone straight," and even serving as Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica.

The Pirates' Code. There is no honor among thieves, and the idea of a chivalrous pirate is a contradiction in terms. There were indeed rules for divvying up loot and following orders on a ship but these were "more what you call 'guidelines' than actual rules" as Captain Barbossa would say. Any pirate who saw a chance to kill his captain or a shipmate and make a profit by doing so would have few ethical qualms about it.

Walking The Plank. Probably a fictional form of execution. A quick stab to the belly from a dagger or cutlass and a shove overboard was all that was needed. For those with time on their hands, or simply a sadistic streak, keel hauling was preferred, in which the prisoner was dragged across the bottom of the ship. This often lead to drowning or being cut to shreds by barnacles attached to the hull.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Mariners In Review: Great Shipwrecks of the Pacific Coast

It was 2:10 AM on October 25, 1918. The steamer Princess Sophia (pictured above) had been three hours late leaving Skagway, Alaska Territory southbound. Visibility was poor in Lynn Canal due to snow swirling around the ship, but Captain Leonard P. Locke kept the speed up, hoping to make up lost time. According to Robert Belyk, author of Great Shipwrecks of the Pacific Coast:
Under unfavorable conditions, it seems likely that either Captain Locke or his first officer, Jerry Shaw, made a navigation error, taking the Princess Sophia on a mid-channel course that ended abruptly on Vanderbilt the center of the channel, more than a mile off course.

A rocky outcropping rising rising about fifteen feet above the water at low tide, Vanderbilt Reef's flat surface is submerged under high tides or heavy swells. The only warning of the hazard then was a buoy placed at the south end of the rock. Many regular travelers along Lynn Canal had petitioned authorities for a lighted buoy, but their requests had been ignored.

The Princess Sophia struck with such a force that some of the passengers were thrown from their berths. Alarmed, women still dressed in their nightclothes rushed on deck. According to a letter written aboard the ship and later found on the body of the victim, the captain ordered the lifeboats readied and swung out over the side in preparation for launch, but it was clear no one would live in the stormy sea.
And no one did. Locke kept everyone on board. The lifeboats could not be swung out far enough to clear the reef, and in the worsening weather it was suicide to jump into the water. Locke told rescuers that Princess Sophia was sitting safely on the reef. But it was only temporary safety. Fifteen hours later wind, waves and tides washed Princess Sophia beneath the waters of Lynn Canal. All 353 people on board were lost, making this shipwreck the deadliest in West Coast history.

The story of the Princess Sophia is one of ten Great Shipwrecks of the Pacific Coast that Belyk chronicles. Using original letters of passengers and crew members, newspaper reports, and official documents, Belyk looks at some -- but certainly not all -- of the major maritime disasters between 1854 and 1929, the so-called "Golden Age" of the West Coast liner trade. The excerpt above typifies many of Bleyk's themes: the financial pressure from shipowners to keep a schedule, failure of the bridge crew to know the vessel's position and operate according to conditions, the failure of local government to address hazardous conditions. Each theme remains, despite the particulars of the incident or the vessels involve: the 227 people killed in the collision between the side-wheeler Pacific and the square-rigger Orpheus all perished before the steel-hulled San Juan, which sank half a century later, was even built.

There was no one cause for any of the wrecks, but each had its "error chain" that eventually led to the loss of lives. Despite the reforms put into place since that era, mariners today will recognize many of the causes of these disasters: incompetence, mismanagement, laziness, corruption and, most of all, greed. Many of the vessels were obsolete, ill-equipped, or both. Many captains were under pressure to maximize the number of passengers or amount of cargo -- in those days there was often not a full manifest for either -- and to make the passage as quickly as possible. Captains were more rewarded for loyalty and profitability than prudence.

The themes are similar and the before and after details can be a little dry; readers might want to consider reading each chapter of Great Shipwrecks on different days to keep it all from running together. The first-hand accounts can be gripping, however, and often reveal that heroism or cowardice have little to do with rank or social standing. So often we think of shipwrecks as romantic and mysterious places being explored by scuba divers, treasure hunters, or Clive Cussler characters. Belyk reminds us that real people suffered and died in those wrecks.