Wednesday, September 12, 2012

My 9/11 Story (Re-post)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then I told them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Engineering 101: Steam Engines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, August 4, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Andrea Doria

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, July 21, 2012

Capt. Cook & The Transit of Venus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, June 16, 2012

Misunderstood Mariners: Joseph Hazelwood (Re-post)

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

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Misunderstood Mariners: William Bligh (Re-post)

William Bligh. 1814 portrait by Alexander Huey.

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Merchant Mariners at D-Day

The Liberty ship Jeremiah O'Brien is the only surviving merchant ship from the D-Day armada.Photo by Mike Hofmann
Every man in this Allied command is quick to express his admiration for the loyalty, courage and fortitude of the officers and men of the Merchant Marine. When final victory is ours, there is no organization that will share its credit more deservedly than the Merchant Marine.-- Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower

From the hot deserts of Africa to the icy waters north of Russia, American merchant mariners saw some of the most hazardous duty of World War II. When the long-awaited Allied invasion called D-Day finally came on June 6, 1944, merchant mariners were there, too.

Ships Without Ports. Some merchant ships began their preparations weeks before the actual invasion. Pulled off their regular runs, these ships cruised the waters around Britain waiting for a pre-arranged rendezvous to pick up cargo and men before heading to the French coast. These “ships without ports” were intentionally kept away from land to avoid enemy planes and ships spotting any concentration of vessels. Many of these vessels continued to shuttle between Britain and the European mainland up until the end of the war. In the first week alone, merchant hulls carried a large portion of the 326,000 troops and hundreds of thousands of tons of equipment and supplies necessary for the invasion.

Operation Mulberry. The night before the Normandy invasion, a force of civilian-crewed US Army tugs lead a fleet of concrete-hulled ships from the Isle of Wight and out into the English Channel. On the night of June 5, 1944, about the time that Allied paratroopers were landing behind German lines in Normandy and several hours after the largest invasion force in history had set out across the English Channel, a fleet of civilian-operated U.S. Army tugs pulled away from the Isle of Wight off the south coast of England. As they approached the French coast, the ships were intentionally sunk; creating breakwaters for huge artificial harbors that would serve as disembarkation points until a natural harbor could be liberated from the Germans. More than 1,800 merchant mariners manned the tugs and “blockships”.

High Merchant Marine Casualties. One in 26 American merchant mariners in World War II was killed in the line of duty, a ratio higher than any other branch of the military. Fourteen of those mariners died near Normandy, and are buried there alongside their comrades from the other services. But because they were not in the armed services, and despite Eisenhower’s praise, none were recognized as “veterans” for more than 40 years. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the WWII Merchant Marine Service Act, providing merchant marine veterans with veterans’ benefits.

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Saturday, May 26, 2012

Sinking The Bismarck

Courtesy German Federal Archive

When the battleship Bismarck was launched in August 1940 she was – along with her sister ship Tirpitz – the largest battleship ever built by Germany, and one of the largest anywhere. Her short (eight month) career was cut short in an unnamed battle after an all-out effort by the Royal Navy to find and “Sink the Bismarck!”

The 41,000-ton, 823-ft long Bismarck was indeed formidable, with eight 15-inch guns, dozens of smaller weapons, and armor more than a foot thick in some places. In sea trials, she had reached speeds of 30 knots. Her crew of more than 2,000 was commanded by Otto Ernst Lindemann, one of a relatively few officers who had been serving continuously in the German navy since World War I.

Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen were assigned to attack Allied merchant shipping in the North Atlantic. After being spotted by a Swedish vessel while en route to her new assignment, Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were intercepted by British ships in what would come to be known as the Battle of Denmark Strait. Bismarck was damaged in this battle, but forced the British battleship Prince of Wales to retreat with heavy damage, and sank the HMS Hood, a battlecruiser called the “pride of the Royal Navy.”

The sinking of the Hood was a blow not only to the fighting power, but the pride of the British Navy, and an all-out search and pursuit of the German battleship began by more than three dozen British warships. Lindemann made for occupied France and the protection of german aircraft and U-boats while engaging in a running artillery duel with his pursuers. The British eventually lost track of Bismarck, but on May 26, 1941 she was spotted by a (supposedly still neutral) American pilot, and intercepted by a nearby British force. Damaged heavily in attacks by torpedo bombers that day, the Bismarck sank the next day. The British claimed the coup de grace was delivered by an attack by the heavy cruiser Dorsetshire, while many of the 114 survivors of the Bismarck’s crew claim the ship was scuttled to avoid capture.

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Saturday, April 14, 2012

Understanding Titanic

It’s human nature to try to make sense of a tragedy, and the sinking of the RMS Titanic 100 years ago this weekend certainly qualifies. Eight hundred fifteen passengers and 668 crew died in the icy waters of the north Atlantic on that “Night to Remember,” and since then many have tried to make sense of the events of that night. But it’s possible to read too much into the Titanic disaster and lose the real lessons of the liner’s loss.

Conspiracy Theories. One way to find meaning in a big, public disaster is to make the event seem more significant than it is. Almost from the time the first SOS signals were received, conspiracy theories have sprung up in an attempt to explain Titanic’s sinking. In one theory, the ship was sunk intentionally in an attempt by the Jesuits to kill wealthy opponents of a centralized world banking system. In another, it was a massive insurance fraud perpetuated by Titanic’s owners. In yet another, Titanic’s sinking was the secret, opening salvo of World War I.  Along the way, many of the usual conspiracy suspects have been blamed: communists, Jews, war profiteers, even the Irish. Conspiracy theories add a level of significance that helps us deal with great events. How could Titanic have been just another shipwreck? The ship was too big, her passengers too glamorous, the voyage itself too celebrated. It’s the same impulse that makes some unable to accept that President Kennedy was killed by a lone, confused gunman, or that Princess Diana died in an ordinary car accident like the kind that occur in every city of the world every day.

Special Explanations. Even people who don’t accept a full-blown conspiracy theory explanation for Titanic’s demise look for that one thing to explain the sinking. This year alone, the media reported claims that her captain was drunk at the time of the collision and that a “supermoon” tidal event caused more ice to be in the ship’s path than would normally be expected. Other explanations range from a fire in the boiler room to a mummy’s curse.

An Ordinary Shipwreck. The fact is there was nothing special about the Titanic sinking. The conclusions reached by official inquiries immediately after the disaster sound similar those reached by any maritime incident inquiry in modern times: failure to proceed at safe speed, inadequate or improperly-used safety equipment, proceeding despite weather and other warnings. But Titanic was famous even before it sailed, and that fame – soon to become notoriety – called attention to those conclusions that led to reforms of equipment requirements, manning, and watch keeping, many of which are still in force today. If a lonely fishing boat or a beat up old tramp steamer had suffered that same fate that night, there would have been no headlines, no inquiries with far-reaching consequences. Titanic’s legacy is not that she’s famous because she’s special; it’s that she's special because she’s famous.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Ghost Ships

US Coast Guard photo.

When the Ryō Un Maru was sunk off the coast of Alaska last week, many news reports referred to her as a “ghost ship.” The 150-ton squid-fishing vessel was bound for the scrap yard when the March 2011 earthquake hit Japan, resulting in a tsunami that swept the Ryō Un Maru and millions of tons of other ships and debris into the Pacific. But was Ryō Un Maru really a “ghost ship,” or is that just a colorful term the media glommed on to?

Ghost ship has three different but related meanings:
  • A vessel that is haunted or is itself ghostly. The most famous example of this is the legendary Flying Dutchman.
  • A vessel drifting but with no crew. The most famous example of this is the Mary Celeste, an American brigantine found under sail off Portugal in December 1872 with all her crew and passengers and one life boat missing, but otherwise completely intact. More recently, the Tai Ching 21, a Taiwanese fishing vessel with a crew of 29, was found floating off Kiribati in November 2008. There had been a fire, and several lifeboats and rafts were missing, but there was no sign of the crew.
  • A vessel decommissioned but not yet scrapped. The most notorious example of this may be the French aircraft carrier Georges Clemenceau, decommissioned in 1997 but not dismantled until 2010 due to environmental concerns.

The Ryō Un Maru probably falls into this last category. She might also be referred to as a derelict, which the Dictionary of Maritime and Transportation Terms defines as “an abandoned vessel at sea.” Ryō Un Maru might also be referred to as flotsam, the floating wreckage of a ship or its cargo (distinguished from jetsam, which is intentionally abandoned or discharged equipment or cargo).

The Ryō Un Maru’s origins and history are known, but this is not always true for “ghost ships.” In 2006, the Jian Seng, a tanker of unknown origin, drifted into Australia’s Gulf of Carpentaria. Except for a cargo hold full of rice, the vessel had been stripped of anything valuable, Some broken towing lines indicated the Jian Seng may have been under tow at the time she was lost, but no one ever stepped forward to claim her. The Australian government sank her later that year.

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Saturday, April 7, 2012

Passover & Easter

Protect me, my Lord, my boat is so small; your sea is so big.
-- Breton Fisherman's Prayer

Heathen that I am, I almost missed that it's Passover and Easter this weekend. Nautical superstition says that to begin a sea voyage on a Friday is bad luck, as Christ was said to have been crucified on a Friday. On the other hand, Sunday is a good day to ship out, reflecting the "good news" of Christ's resurrection. In today's maritime community, the beginning of spring marks the beginning of boating or yachting season and, in my part of the world at least, the first cruise ships heading to Alaska in the wake of the commercial cod fleet. Fair winds and following seas to all, and here's a collection of prayers holy and profane from many faiths to send you on your way.

They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; These see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep. For he commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind, which lifteth up the waves thereof. They mount up to the heaven, they go down again to the depths: their soul is melted because of trouble. They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wits' end. Then they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and he bringeth them out of their distresses. He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still. Then are they glad because they be quiet; so he bringeth them unto their desired haven.
-- Psalms, 107:23-30, The Bible
It is He who enables you to travel on land and sea until, when you are in ships and they sail with them by a good wind and they rejoice therein, there comes a storm wind and the waves come upon them from everywhere and they assume that they are surrounded, supplicating Allah , sincere to Him in religion, "If You should save us from this, we will surely be among the thankful."
-- Verse (10:22) of chapter (10) sūrat yūnus (Jonah), The Koran
 "Gods, who delight in preserving bold ships and turning from them the perils of windy seas, make smooth and placid these waters, and attend with good council my vows, let not my words be drowned out by roaring waves as I pray:
"O Neptune, grand and rare is the pledge we make to You, and in what we commend into the depths of the sea. Young Maecius it is whose body we commit to the sea, far from the sight of land, that he, the better part of our souls, traverses the sea’s length and depth (to the Western Lands).
"Bring forth the benign stars, the Spartan brothers, Castor and Pollux, to sit upon the horns of the yard arm. Let your light illuminate sea and sky. Drive off your sister Helen’s stormy star, I pray, and expel it from all the heavens.
"And you azure Nereids of the seas, whose good fortune it was to attain mastery of the oceans – may it be allowed to name you stars of the seas – rise up from your glassy caverns near the foaming waves that encircle Doris, and tranquilly swim circles around the shores of Baiae where the hot springs abound. Seek after the lofty ship on which a noble descendant of Ausonians, Celer, mighty at arms, is glad to embark. Not long will you need to look, for she lately came across the sea, leading a convoy laden with Egyptian wheat and bound for Dicarcheis. First was she to salute Capreae and from her starboard side offer a libation of Mareotic wine to Tyrrhenian Minerva. Near to her, on either side, circle gracefully around her. Divide your labors, some to tighten fast the rigging from masts to deck, while others high above spread forth canvass sails to the westerly Zephyrs. Still others replace some benches, others send into the water the rudder by whose curved blade steers the ship. Another plumbs the depths with leaden weights while others to fasten the skiff that follows astern, and to dive down and drag the hooked anchor from the depths, and one to control the tides and make the sea flow eastward. Let none of the sea green sisterhood be without her task.
"Then let Proteus of manifold shape and triformed Triton swim before, and Glaucus whose loins vanished by sudden enchantment, and who, so oft as he glides up to his native shores, wistfully beats his fish tail on Anthedon’s strand.
"And may the father whose Aeolian prison constrains the winds, whom the various blasts obey, and every air that stirs on the world’s seas, and storms and cloudy tempests, keep the North wind and South and East in closer custody behind his wall of mountain, but may Zephyr alone have the freedom of the sky, alone drive vessels onward and skim unceasingly over the crests of billows, until he brings without a storm your glad sails safe to the Paraetonian haven."
-- Roman poet Publius Papinius Statius (1st Century AD), Silvae 3.2.1-49
O, MIGHTY NEPTUNE! Hear an honest British Tar -- thou knowest I trouble not thy Godship every day, I therefore pray thee to grant my prayer, for I love not long palavering and that there, d'ye see.
-- Sailor's Prayer

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

That Romantic Age Of Sail

Punishment on board ship, from the Journal of a Cruise on the USSCyane, 1842-43, by William H. Myers, Gunner

Yet a sailor’s life is at best, but a mixture of a little good with much evil, and a little pleasure with much pain. The beautiful is linked with the revolting, the sublime with the commonplace, and the solemn with the ludicrous.
-- Richard Henry Dana, Two Years Before The Mast
No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.
-- James Boswell, Life of Johnson
In movies, on television, and in novels, shipboard life in the Age of Sail is often portrayed as very romantic. Swashbuckling action, hard drinking and shanty singing, tropical islands with exotic women; these are the images often brought to mind by popular media. The truth is, life on board sailing ships could be very harsh but, as some have pointed out, this was a time when life ashore could be very harsh as well.

Impressment. Writer Rupert Taylor notes in understated fashion that “[because] of the possibility of drowning, dying of disease, or being shot through with a cannonball, England’s Royal Navy often found itself short staffed.” The answer was the press gang, in which men from the Navy would search taverns and other gathering places ashore in what amounted to an on-the-spot draft. Sometimes a Navy vessel would stop a merchant vessel at sea and impress men from that vessel into Navy service. The impressment of American seamen by British ships was one of the causes of the War of 1812.

Cramped Quarters. Once on board, sailors lived in very cramped quarters. There was no privacy, even for officers. Although many berthed in the forecastle, others just slept where they could. Richard Henry Dana describes his first night as a merchant seaman on the Pilgrim in Two Years Before The Mast:
The steerage in which I lived was filled with coils of rigging, spare sails, old junk and ship stores, which had not been stowed away. Moreover, there had been no berths built for us to sleep in, and we were not allowed to drive nails to hang our clothes upon. The sea, too, had risen, the vessel was rolling heavily, and everything was pitched about in grand confusion. There was a complete “hurrah’s nest,” as the sailors say, “everything on top and nothing at hand.” A large hawser had been coiled away upon my chest; my hats, boots, mattress and blankets had all fetched away and gone over to leeward, and were jammed and broken under the boxes and coils of rigging. To crown all, we were allowed no light to find anything with, and I was just beginning to feel strong symptoms of sea-sickness, and that listlessness and inactivity which accompany it.
Bad Food. On long voyages only a few days supply of fresh food could be carried, the rest of the time the crew ate salted beef, pork, or horse meat, and “sea biscuits,” or hardtack. It was not uncommon for unscrupulous vendors ashore to sell ships supplies that were already spoilt or infested with pests, and reduced rations and malnutrition were common. As common was theft of food. Stores were kept locked, and a crew member caught stealing food could be punished severely, including having his hand cut off.

Discipline. Discipline could be harsh as well. The most common form of punishment was flogging, consisting of several dozen lashes with the end of a rope or a “cat o’ nine tails,” a form of whip. More severe offenses were punished by keelhauling, in which the offender was pulled across the underside of the ship by rope, often dying in the process. The most severe crimes, mutiny and murder, were punished by hanging.

A Contrary View. Naval historian Andrew Lambert says that, while maybe not exactly romantic, shipboard life in the Age of Sail was not the “concentration camp” that some have made it out to be. Lambert was part of a recreation of one of Captain James Cook’s voyages. According to him, food on board was superior to what was available to many on shore at the times. “For them such regular, hot, protein-rich meals, together with a nearly limitless supply of beer, would have been a luxury,” Lambert says.

Lambert also notes that discipline, while harsh, was consistent with society-wide norms of the time: “If anything, naval punishment was less severe, for sailors were a scarce and valuable resource that no captain would waste; also, flogging meant that the punishment was quickly completed, and the man could return to duty.”

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Military History at Suite 101: Harsh Life Aboard Navy Sailing Ships.
Authorama: Richard Henry Dana, Two Years Before The Mast.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Life Jackets

The crew are wearing Type V PFDs, also called "work vests." The coxswain
(driver) is wearing a Type III "float coat."
Some people just don't like life jackets. One morning I was helping passengers board an inflatable launch; in a few minutes they would all be on a sunny, isolated Mexican beach. But one guy just couldn't go along with our safety requirement to wear a PFD (personal flotation device) while in the boat.

"I've crossed the North Atlantic three times on a 40-foot boat without wearing a life jacket," he barked. "I don't see why I should have to wear one now."

We all waited while he grudgingly donned his life jacket, then we headed for the beach. All I had said was "I'm not allowed to get underway until everyone is wearing a life jacket." What I wanted to say was "You'd think you'd have learned by now."

But many people only learn the hard way. Earlier this month, Sheldon Olsen and his two-year-old son Jace disappeared while canoeing on Lake Limerick, Washington. The older Olsen's body was eventually found, but the toddler is still missing. Also found: the canoe, with two life jackets in it.

Type I PFDs, also called "offshore life
Aversion to life jackets is not limited to recreational boaters. Seeing a preview of the TV show Deadliest Catch once, I commented to a fellow crew member, and former commercial fisherman, that maybe the job wouldn't be so "deadly" if the crew working on deck were wearing life jackets. He replied that, in the cold Alaska waters where the Deadliest Catch boats work, you're going to die from hypothermia before you're going to drown. He was wrong, though. A crew member wearing a Type I PFD, the kind that keeps the wearer's head above water even when he or she is unconscious, will hold off hypothermia several times longer than someone without a PFD.

Keith Colburn, captain of one of the Deadliest Catch boats, insists that much of the footage show does not accurately portray conditions on the vessels most of time. As he told Chris Landry of the website Soundings
The most dramatic action, of course, usually makes it on the show. The “Deadliest Catch” often portrays the fishermen as “working in unsafe conditions, working unsafely and on the edge of capsizing at any given moment,” says Colburn. That’s simply not accurate, he maintains.
     “The mariners who work in the Bering Sea are prudent and professional and constantly working to minimize risk and maximize safety,” says Colburn, who has participated in the show for four years.
Colburn was selected to be the spokesman for the US Coast Guard's "Boat Responsibly" program in 2009, in part because he requires his crew to wear PFDs when on deck, even in calm water.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Misunderstood Mariners: Edward J. Smith (Re-post)

With the death of Millvina Dean on May 31, 2009 the last survivor of the Titanic disaster has passed on. A whole industry has grown up around the story of the Titanic and its captain, Edward J. Smith, an industry fueled by speculation, conspiracy theory, and outright falsehood.

Smith was born in England in 1850, and left school at age 13 to go to sea. He joined the the White Star Line, the line that would one day build the Titanic, in 1880 as Fourth Officer and seven years later was given his first command. He commanded larger and more prestigious ships as the years went on, along the way earning decorations, a rank of Commander in the Royal Navy reserve, and a reputation as the best and safest passenger liner captain in the world. The only major blemish on Smith’s career prior to Titanic was a September 1911 collision between the White Star Liner Olympic, which he commanded, and the British cruiser HMS Hawke.

Smith took command of the Titanic in 1912 and no sooner had the ship sailed on April 10 when quick action on his part helped avert a collision with the SS City of New York, which broke free of its mooring lines due to the surge caused by the Titanic’s passing. He was not so fortunate four days later: he was one of the roughly 1500 people who died when Titanic sank after striking an iceberg.

The popular image today is that of Smith going down with his ship, standing stoically on the bridge as the waters rose over his head, an image portrayed in the 1997 James Cameron film. One legend has him diving into the water with an infant in his arms, which he places on a lifeboat before swimming off to either die or look for more survivors. The last person know to have seen Smith alive was junior radio officer who says he saw the captain dive into the water from the bridge wing a few minutes before Titanic’s final plunge.

In terms of loss of life, Titanic was not the worst passenger ship disaster in history. More than 7,700 refugees, crew, and military personnel were killed on the German liner Wilhelm Gustloff when she was torpedoed by a Russian submarine in January 1945. Eighteen other liner disasters have higher casualty figures than Titanic’s. But the attention given this sinking was unequalled, and led to major reforms in maritime safety and eventually to the International Convention for the Safety of Life At Sea (SOLAS) that we operate under today.

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The Daily Telegraph: Titanic's Captain Edward Smith In Bed When Drunk When Shop Struck Iceberg.

Economic Times (India): Titanic Has No Survivors Left.