Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Haiti Update

A year ago this week, a 7.0 earthquake struck the nation of Haiti, killing 230,000 people, injuring 300,000 more, and leaving more than a million homeless. American and other mariners rushed in with relief. According to US transportation secretary Ray LaHood

It is another example of why our country’s merchant marine is so important. Sending these ships will help those on the front line of this effort save as many lives in Haiti as possible. These ships will add crucial capabilities by supporting operations to move large volumes of people and cargo.

The newspaper Independent published an assessment earlier this week on the current state of relief efforts in Haiti. It is not hopeful reading. Click here.

The American Journal of Westbrook, Maine ran a story last April about the efforts of treasure hunter Greg Brooks to bring relief to Haiti and the problems he ran into along the way. Click here.

For a short article detailing the missions of the high-speed vessel Swift to both Haiti and the Chilean earthquake zone, click here. It appeared in the American Maritime Officers union newsletter Currents.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Monday Morning Mariner: A Letter On Fatigue

Maritime engineer David Fiddler posted a letter last week on the gCaptain forum addressing the fatigue issues that lie at the heart of so many maritime casualties. Things have changed a lot since my first year in the maritime industry, when I was made to stand a 10-hours on/10 hours-off watch schedule that left me exhausted at least one day out of three. Even today, though, many captains I've worked with require watch standers to work a 4-hour "work period" in addition to their watches, often just to meet the requirements of a company job description. Fiddler looks at how an increase in inspections and paperwork, often with the supposed purpose of reducing marine casualties, may simply add to the problem. Read Fiddler's letter here.

I'm not sure which "article" Fiddler is referring to in his letter, but I suspect it's this one here from Hellenic Shipping News. For those on LinkedIn, there's an interesting discussion of this article in the Nautical Institute group.

The US National Transportation Safety Board has outstanding recommendations on mariner fatigue that the Coast Guard has not yet adopted. These recommendations have been added to the the Board's "Most Wanted" list. Click here to read the recommendations.

Maritime New Zealand had a very helpful site addressing mariner fatigue, including the poster above and many like it. Click here.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Repost: Who's driving the boat? A Nautical Primer for Journalists

Apologies to regular readers for lack of a post yesterday and here's a revised edition of my very first post for those of you who have only recently started reading. I'll be re-posting some of my older articles as the topics come up in conversation or in the news: I find there's still a lot of misunderstanding out there about the maritime world, and some things are worth reviewing.

Some of the reporters covering the Maersk Alabama drama seemed to have learned everything they know about nautical affairs from watching Master and Commander and Titanic. Here, then, a short primer addressing some of the biggest whoppers I’ve seen, from a former journalist turned professional ship captain.

Who’s driving the boat? Captain is commonly used to refer to the person in charge of any vessel, but the term is inexact. It can be very confusing when dealing with the military, where “captain” is a specific rank (and even then, a captain in the Navy is equivalent to an Army or Air Force Colonel, while a captain in those two services is equal to a Navy lieutenant). The captain of a military vessel can be almost any rank, depending on the size of the vessel, it mission, etc. The Coast Guard uses the word master to refer to the person in command of any civilian vessel. To some people, especially in the yachting world, master is only used when the owner and the captain are the same person. Sail boaters often use the term skipper to refer to the captain. Although many of these folks are licensed and working mariners – often as professional sailing instructors – this term may be considered derisive outside the recreational boating community (‘Nice docking there, skipper!” said in a sarcastic tone).

Mate is an even more inexact term. It can be anyone from the only other crew member on a family’s recreational boat to the Chief Mate on a large tanker or container ship. As vessels get larger, the mate becomes less of a glorified deckhand and more of an officer in charge of the vessel when the captain’s not on the bridge. Larger commercial vessels will carry more than one mate, each of who may take charge of the vessel’s operation for a period of time called a watch. The larger a vessel is, the less likely the captain will actually be assigned a watch, only taking charge in particularly difficult circumstances. Also, as vessels get larger, the less likely it is that even the mates will actually steer. Steering is usually done by a deckhand, called an able seaman or AB on commercial vessels (not a lot of gender inclusive terms in this industry) under the direction of the mate on watch. The person actually in charge of the watch is said to be conning the vessel, as in “You have the conn, Mr. Sulu.”

Boats, ships, and names. It’s not easy telling a boat from a ship. One definition says a boat can be carried on a ship but not vice versa, but this doesn’t necessarily work. Mark Twain said anything that works on a river, regardless of size, is a boat. Also, the Navy refers to large nuclear submarines as boats. In general, a boat will be smaller than a ship. The Coast Guard doesn’t even use these terms in its regulations, preferring “vessel.” Crews on even large vessels may refer to their vessel as a “boat” as a diminutive, fond or otherwise.

The old tradition, in which ships are referred to as “she,” is fading away. Even Lloyds of London refers to ships as “it” these days. As ship is never “he”, even when named after a man (“The Edmund Fitzgerald took a wave over her bow.”). In a lot of the coverage of the Maersk Alabama I saw the ship referred to as “the Maersk.” This is incorrect. Maersk is a shipping line and like many such lines puts the name of the company before the name of the specific vessel. If shortened at all, the vessel should have been referred to as “the Alabama”, although this is an informal usage, the equivalent of referring to Barack Obama as “Barack” in a news story.

Most vessels have a prefix before the name. These days they usually refer to the vessel’s function, although one of the most common is M/V, which simply means “motor vessel.” Other common prefixes are S/V (sailing vessel), F/V (fishing vessel), R/V (research vessel), and M/Y (motor yacht). You get the idea. Military vessels have a whole designation method I won’t get into here.

Knot. A knot is a unit of speed equal to one nautical mile per hour. Thus it is never correct to say, “knot per hour.” A nautical mile is equal to 6082 feet plus change, the same as a minute of latitude. Knot is commonly used to express both ship speed and wind speed, even in many places that have adopted the metric system.

Seizing a vessel. If the crew illegally takes control of a vessel, its cargo, etc. it’s called mutiny. If an outside person or persons do so it’s called piracy. If the captain does so it’s called barratry. Note that the captain has a separate legal status from the crew, thus the common usage “captain and crew.”

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Cities Beneath The Sea: Venice

It was when we noticed that everyone else at Christmas Midnight Mass was wearing waterproof boots that we realized we were in trouble. The sirens for acqua alta hadn’t sounded yet. But obviously, word had gone forth from Venice’s weather service that this Christmas Eve, high tide was also bringing high water. And now the water was coming. --James G. Wiles, "Christmas, As The Water Rises, " The Bulletin, December 24, 2010

Acqua Alta is the term Venetians use to describe the high water that floods parts of the city under certain conditions. During the high tides in autumn and winter, the Piazza San Marco, the lowest area of the island, becomes totally flooded with water. Debate continues about whether Venice is sinking into the Adriatic Sea or not, but without a doubt the flooding occurs and locals continue looking for ways to deal with it.

The acqua alta has always been a part of life in Venice. Winds over the Adriatic affect the normal rise and fall of the tide in the area, usually in the spring and autumn. Other cities in the region, such as Trieste, also experience the effect to a lesser degree than Venice.

The weight of the city itself, built on pilings driven into the lagoon beginning in the fifth century AD has caused Venice is sink up to seven centimeters per century. In the meantime, Venetians dredged out the surrounding lagoon, reducing horizontal support for the city and exposing it more directly to high tides. A November 1686 acqua alta may have reached 254 centimeters above normal sea level. All this has caused Venice to sink up to seven centimeters per century.

In more recent times, digging deep wells for industry and construction of infrastructure may have contributed to the sinking of Venice. The number of high acqua altas has also increased in recent decades, leading some to believe rising sea levels account for a large part of the apparent sinking. Venice’s Tide Monitoring and Forecast Center estimates about half the 24 centimeters of sinking in the past century is caused by human activity.

During an acqua alta, tourists at the Doge’s Palace stand in line at the Doge’s Palace on wooden platforms set end-to-end across the plaza (pictured above). Meanwhile, civil engineers work on the MOSE project, a series of gates that can be raised during exceptionally high acqua alta. Many have balked at the cost – more than $3 billion dollars – but the only alternative may be to abandon Venice in as little as 100 years.

For James Wiles's complete article in The (Philadephia) Bulletin, click here.

For a look at how the MOSE system will work, click here.

See my post on Venice's history as a maritime power here.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Legend Of The Wren

The wren, the wren the king of all birds

St. Stephen's Day he was caught in the furze

Up with the kettle down with the pan

Give us a penny to bury the wren.

If a mariner wears the feather of a wren killed on New Year’s Day, he will not drown at sea, claims an old superstition. According to the legend, a mermaid who enjoyed luring sailors to their death transformed herself into a wren when pursued. Eventually, the gods took notice of the mermaid’s misbehavior, and condemned her to appear every New Year’s Day as a wren, hunted by the sailors once lured to shipwreck and death by her songs.

In pagan times, the wren was considered a sacred bird. The Irish noun for wren, Dreoilín, is derived from drui-éan, meaning “Druid bird.” The Celtic goddess of love, Clíona, frequently took the form of a wren, and the birds themselves were considered messengers of the gods. The Oak King, who is sacrificed to the sun god Bel on the summer solstice, also takes the form a wren.

Christians consider the wren a bad omen, perhaps because it was held sacred by the pagans. A wren is supposed to have led the Romans to Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane; another is said to have betrayed the martyr St. Stephen to the mob that stoned him to death. More recently, a wren was supposedly beat a drum betraying the location of an Irish army subsequently massacred by Oliver Cromwell’s troops. A French folk belief holds that touching a wren’s nest will cause pimples.

These latter beliefs led to the hunting of wrens, the main day for which was December 26, or St. Stephen’s feast day. Boys who caught and killed wrens would take them from house to house and receive money from the families living there. If a household refused to pay up, the boys would bury the wren in front of the house, causing the family disgrace.

Wrens are not the only birds to figure in sailors’ superstitions. Perhaps best known is the albatross, which are supposed to carry the souls of dead sailors. Killing an albatross is considered bad luck for the entire ship, thus the phrase “an albatross around his neck.” Other common mariners’ superstitions involving birds:

  • Sighting a cormorant or a curlew at sea is considered bad luck
  • Sighting a swallow, robin, or dove is considered good luck
  • If a robin flies over a woman on St. Valentine’s Day, she will marry a sailor.
  • Three seagulls flying together, directly overhead, signify impending doom.