Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Britannic & Olympic

This week marks the 98th anniversary of the launch of the HMHS Britannic, sister ship to the Titanic. The third and largest of the Olympic-class liners built for White Star Line, she too suffered and early and disastrous end. He sister ship Olympic had a longer, but no less distinguished career.

Britannic. Britannic, like Titanic and Olympic, was originally intended for trans-Atlantic passenger service. After Titanic’s sinking, design changes were made to Britannic that would end with her being the largest passenger liner built to that date.

HMHS Britannic. Allan Green photo
State Library of Victoria. More photos
The outbreak of World War I delayed her launch. But in November 1915, she was called into service as a hospital ship. Britannic made several runs between the Middle East and the United Kingdom, transporting sick and wounded troops.

It was to be a short-lived career, though. In November 1916, Britannic hit a mine off the coast of Greece and sank, with the loss of 30 lives.

Olympic. Built and launched before the Titanic, Olympic got off to a less-than-auspicious start. In September 1911, only two months after launching, Olympic collided with the British warship Hawke, an incident laid at the feet of Olympic’s captain, Edward Smith, who would later perish with Titanic. Titanic’s sinking in 1912 caused White Star Lines to bring Olympic in for refits and upgrades based on lessons learned from her sister ship’s loss.

During World War I, Olympic served as a troop ship under charter to the Canadian government. Over the course of the war, she would carry more than 200,000 Canadian and US soldiers to Britain. She also had the distinction of being the only merchant ship in the war known to have sunk a German U-boat, after she rammed the U-103 in May 1918.

After the war, Olympic was converted back to passenger service. Among her attractions was her near-identical layout and appearance to Titanic; even in the 1920s and ‘30s there were Titanic buffs eager for a taste of that ill-fated passage.

In 1934, Olympic was engaged in a second collision, this time with a US Coast Guard lightship off Nantucket. Seven of the lightship’s crew of 11 died as a result of the collision.

In 1935, the ship was taken out of service due to increased competition from larger, more modern ships. She was eventually demolished although parts of her are still at sea: the wood paneling from one her restaurants now graces a restaurant onboard the Celebrity Cruises ship, Millenium.

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Misunderstood Mariners: Edward J. Smith

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Mark Chirnside's Reception Room: Interview for Der Navigator
Chris' Cunard Page: Olympic

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Deck Hardware

Panama Canal line handlers work with deck fittings on the R/Y Alucia.

A cleat (top), open chocks,
and bitts. From The American
Merchant Seaman's Manual
I was new to the maritime industry, working as a bartender on a small cruise ship. We were in port that morning, most of the passengers off on tours ashore, most of the crew rushing through their morning duties in hopes of grabbing a few precious minutes off the boat. I stood on deck with a cup of coffee a few minutes before I had to report for work, just taking in the scenery and enjoying some peace and quiet. Suddenly, a passenger popped her head out of the door of her stateroom behind me. "Excuse me," she said. "I have a question. What do you call that?" She was pointing at two metal cylinders, each about knee-high and eight inched in diameter, sticking up from the deck on a common base. "I dunno, " I said. "A trip hazard?"

Working with an H-bitt on Belle of
The cylinders were called bitts, and they were part of the ship's deck hardware, or deck fittings. Deck hardware is used to secure or change the direction of a ship's mooring or other lines. Bitts may have more specific names, such as an H-bitt which is used to during towing operations. To secure a mooring line to a bitt, the line handler would turn the line once around each of the two bitts, then make figure-eight turns around both bitts to secure the line. The number of turns required varies: the American Merchant Seaman's Manual recommends at least three for synthetic line, at least one for natural fiber line.

Panama Canal chock
A cleat is a t-shaped fitting that can be very small (a form of cleat is used in some homes to tie-off the cord controlling venetian blinds) to two or three feet long. Cleats are common on vessels ranging from small sailing boats to large commercial ships. To tie a line to a cleat, make at least three figure eights with the loops below the horns of the cleat and the cross-over point above. Sometimes, the line is "locked down" by passing the end of it under the last loop.

Open chocks (with or without rollers) and Panama Canal chocks are used to change the direction of a line, making it easier to use a more conveniently-placed bitt, cleat or capstan (part of a powered winch). Similar to chocks are staples, closed loops most often seen on a ship's bulwarks. A staple is also sometimes called a bull nose, donut, or D-ring.

Confusion on Deck. Even to experienced mariners, deck hardware terminology can be inconsistent. One frequent misuse is replacing bitt with bollard, which more properly refers a similar object on land, or a pier or wharf. This confusion may stem from the use of the phrase bollard pull to refer to the pulling force a given tug or other vessel is able to exert.

There are even regional differences. According to an article in the May 2011 Professional Mariner, crews on and East and West coasts of the US sometimes use different terms to define the same piece of equipment. That's one of the reason that representatives from the towing industry and the various maritime academies recently met in an attempt to standardize the nomenclature.

Good luck. Mariners are notoriously resistant to change. And even individual ships own may have their own terms for various fixtures. One ship I worked on, which had small, single bitts at various places along its rub rail, called them "R2 units," after the little robots from the Star Wars movies. Imagine my surprise the first time I was told to tie a tender's line "off on that R2 unit."

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Tug Boats, Part 3: Tug Boat Tidbits
Avast! Ahoy!
"Heave! Ho!" To Misused Nautical Terms

Related Articles Equipment on the forecastle deck of a ship.
Travel & Leisure: Does Your Boat Have Bitts or Bollards?
Professional Mariner: Side bitt or shoulder bitt? Mariners invited to standardize towing terms.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Misunderstood Mariners: The Roosevelts

Theodore Roosevelt.
Although he never served in the US Navy, TR was intimately connected to it. While a student at Harvard (1876-1881), he began research into the early history of the US Navy, which would eventually lead to the publication of his book The Naval War of 1812.  The book is a highly detailed study of the tactics, ordnance, and leadership that was still being used decades later. TR's interest was instrumental in getting him Assistant Secretary of the Navy for just more than a year in 1897-98, under president William McKinley. It was an active year, though: the battleship Maine exploded in Havana harbor during this period. TR, who was effectively running the Navy department at this time, was the force behind the increased requisitioning, recruitment, and shipbuilding that would prepare the US for its imminent war with Spain. When war actually broke out, however, TR resigned his post to join the fighting Cuba; this was his famous Rough Rider period.

The Great White Fleet, 1909
As president (1901-1908), TR increased the size of the US Navy until it was the third largest in the world. He dispatched the famous Great White Fleet on a round-the-world tour; 18 battleships, six destroyers, and a variety of auxiliary vessels visited ports on every inhabited continent in 1907-09. TR is also famous for pushing the Panamanian revolution that cleared the way for the building of the Panama Canal.

Franklin D. Roosevelt. Fifth cousin to TR, FDR served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy during World War I under president Woodrow Wilson. He founded the US Naval Reserve and pushed Wilson and others to increase American submarine capacity in response to Germany's U-boat warfare. FDR also pushed for, and got, approval to arm US merchant mariners to defend themselves against German attack.

FDR's presidency (1933-1945) corresponded with World War II and a massive shipbuilding and mobilization effort. By the end of the war, the US had built more than 2,700 Liberty ships and boasted a Navy of more than 6,000 vessels.

FDR was also the force behind the founding of the US Merchant Marine Academy at King's Point, NY in 1942.

Ted Roosevelt
Theodore "Ted" Roosevelt, Jr. Ted, son of TR, was one of the the rare generation to see combat in both World Wars. Following his Army service in World War I, he was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy by president Warren Harding. His transfer of oil leases from the Navy to private companies, and his brother's connection to an oil company, connected his name with the Teapot Dome scandal of 1922-23, which led to his resignation.

Ted was the only general officer in the first wave of the D-Day invasion in 1944. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during the Battle of Normandy He died of a heart attack a month after the invasion. He was portrayed by Henry Fonda in the film The Longest Day, based on Cornelius Ryan's book of the same name.

This is the first in a series of posts about presidents and near-presidents who had a nautical background, in honor of the US election this year.

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Project Gutenberg: The Naval War of 1812
Department of the Navy, Naval History and Heritage Command: The Cruise of the Great White Fleet.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Tsunami Debris

KITV-TV Honolulu.
Late last September the sailing vessel Pallada was headed home. The 354-foot, steel-hulled training vessel was returning from a good-will tour of several ports in the western US and Canada. En route to her home port of Vladivostok, the vessel suddenly encountered a large field of debris. The field included not only items you might commonly expect to come from a ship or dock -- boards, plastic bottles, fish net buoys, drums, boots -- but large items like refrigerators, TVs, and even fiberglass fishing boats. The Pallada spent nearly a week working her way west against the debris field, finally leaving it behind as she made way for Russia while the currents carried the debris toward North America.

Twenty-five million tons of debris were washed into the sea by the tsunami following the March 2011 earthquake in Japan. Researchers at the University of Hawaii estimate that the debris will first come ashore in the Midway Islands sometime this year, eventually reaching Hawaii in a couple of years, then the West Coast mainland a year after that. But there have already been reports of fish net buoys on the beaches of Washington, and the Hawaii researchers note that fishing vessels ripped off their moorings by the tsunami will reach the coast faster than less hydro-dynamic debris.

The ocean currents. Original map by
Michael Pidwirny
The Kuroshio and North Pacific Currents. The world's oceans are full of currents driven by the rotation of the earth, as well as differences of salinity and temperature in various parts of the oceans. The most famous of these is the Gulf Stream, which flows north along the east coast of North America, but the Pacific has its currents as well. The tsunami debris, once washed into the Pacific off the east coast of Japan, was picked up by the Kuroshio Current, which carried it north and east until it encountered the North Pacific Current, which carried the debris into the path of the Pallada and will eventually bring it into North America.

These currents are often cited as evidence that Japanese or Chinese mariners could have visited American shores before Columbus. What is known for sure is

  • Glass fishing net floats made in the 1920s and 1930s in Japan have become collectors items for West Coast beach combers and popular items in American antique shops, often selling for $50 or more.
  • In 1990, the container ship Hansa Carrier lost a container full of 80,000 Nike tennis shoes in the North Pacific. Scientists have used recovered shoes to more accurately map the Pacific's oceans currents.
  • In 1997, a racing sailor discovered what has come to be known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area north of Hawaii where currents have brought a large amount of floating plastic and other trash. The trash is trapped in an area where currents rotate around it, called a gyre.

Current Issues. The earthquake and tsunami also famously caused an emergency at the Fukushima nuclear plant, leading to concerns that some of the debris could be radioactive. When officers on the Pallada tested some of the debris they encountered, though, they found only normal levels of radiation.
But, the debris will still present several problems, including hazards to navigation and fishing, dangerous litter on beaches, and threats to animal life.

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Ships, Toxic Wastes, and the Mob

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University of Hawaii: Clearing Up Misunderstandings about Tsunami Debris on Course to the North American West Coast
Fox News: 25 Million Tons of Tsunami Debris Floating Toward US Shores
NASA Using Flotsam To Study Ocean Currents Across the Pacific Ocean, Plastics, Plastics Everywhere

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Remember The Maine! (Re-post)

The explosion aboard and sinking of the USS Maine on this date in 1898 continues to reverberate in the minds of Americans. Back in December, I came across this item, originally published in Navy News:
Navy Passes "Old Salt" Award: NORFOLK -- The "Old Salt" designation, honoring the Navy's Surface Warfare Officer serving on active duty with the earliest Officer of the Deck (OOD) fleet qualification, changed hands during a ceremony aboard USS San Antonio (LPD 17) at Naval Station Norfolk, Dec. 16. The qualification passed from retired Adm. Mike Mullen to Adm. John C. Harvey, Jr., commander, U.S. Fleet Forces Command. The "Old Salt" award was initiated in 1988, by the Surface Navy Association (SNA) and is accompanied by a bronze statue depicting a World War II naval officer on the pitching deck of a ship. The statue is cast from metal salvaged from historic U.S. naval ships, most notably the battleship USS Maine, which exploded and sank in Havana Harbor in 1898, precipitating the Spanish-American War.
See the complete article by Rafael Martie at This post was originally published February 20, 2010.

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. 

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Lookout Rule

US Navy photo.

Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out by sight and hearing as well as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and of the risk of collision.
-- Rule 5 of both the US Inland Navigation Rules and the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea.
In many of the incidents I’ve been blogging about recently, whether the Costa Concordia disaster or the cell phone-related collisions, the question comes up: was the vessel crew standing a proper lookout? The Navigation Rules run to more than 200 pages of required lights, sound signals, and actions required in specific situation, but the short, one-sentence rule quoted above is the one most cited in legal actions against captains and other watch standers. As Judge John F. Swayne wrote in the 1872 case of the Ariadne (quoted in Farwell’s Rules of the Nautical Road by Craig H. Allen):
The duty of the lookout is of the highest importance. Upon nothing else does the safety of those concerned so much depend. A moment’s negligence on his part may involve the loss of his vessel with all the property and the lives of all on board…It is the duty of all courts charged with the administration of this branch of jurisprudence to give it the fullest effect whenever the circumstances are such as to call for its application.
Rule 5 requires that a lookout be maintained, not that a lookout be posted. Thus the rule refers to a process or action, and not a specific person. In cases of small boats, tugboats, and even small ships, courts have held that the helmsman or officer on watch can double as a lookout if circumstances are appropriate. The international regulations are a little more specific. Under the Standards of Training, Watchkeeping, and Certification (STCW)
The look-out must be able to give full attention to the keeping of a proper look-out and no other duties shall be undertaken or assigned which could interfere with that task.
But even STCW makes provision for a single person performing two functions. Even on large ships, a watch officer can serve as the lookout in certain situations.
On the other hand, in some cases more than one dedicated lookout may be required. One night near the mouth of the Sacramento River in thick fog, I had eight lookouts posted on deck as we approached the Rio Vista Bridge. But just having a bunch of people on deck or in the wheelhouse doesn’t count as having a proper lookout; in fact it can be a distraction. As the late Budd Gonder noted in his commentary on Rule 5:
The concept of a lookout can be misleading until an incident hits the courtroom. “Did you have a lookout posted?’
     “Well, yessir judge. We were all lookouts. Plain clear weather. How were we to know this guy would sail right out of the docks where we couldn’t see him coming? I know sailboats have the right –of-way over power, but we couldn’t see him, judge.”
     “Please answer the question. Was anyone on board specifically designated as lookout? Did you tell him or her that he or she was lookout?”
     “Well, no judge, you see we could all see…”
     Forget it. You just lost your case.

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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Great Achievements In Celestial Navigation

Earthrise. NASA photo taken from Apollo 8 by Bill Anders.
Although its actual origins are lost in prehistory, celestial navigation in various forms has played a key role in the spread human beings throughout the world, and even into outer space.

9000 - 8000 BC. Settlers from the mainland of Asia Minor settle the island of Cyprus using the "star path" method of navigation. In star path navigation, a traveler steers on a particular star during certain times, then switched to another as the stars move through the sky.

3000 - 1000 BC. The ancestors of the Polynesians spread out from the Asian mainland using star path navigation. They will eventually spread throughout the South Pacific, arriving in Hawaii between 100 and 300 AD.

150 BC. The Greek astronomer Eratosthenes proves the Earth is round and makes a pretty good guess as to its circumference -- he was off the actual figure by less than three percent. He also saw that the sun's rays are parallel, thus establishing a key concept in celestial navigation: that a heavenly body is directly over a particular spot on the Earth at a particular time, and that this time and position can be predicted.

Using a quadrant, c. 1564
1519 -1522. One ship of the Magellan expedition completes the first known circumnavigation of the world, using a mariner's quadrant and early declination tables as aids to celestial navigation.

1772 - 1775. Captain James Cook's circumnavigation of the world on Resolution is the first to use a modern sextant and the newly-developed Harrison chronometer, used for determining longitude.

1915 - 1916. Using celestial navigation, complicated by heaving Antarctic seas in a a 22-foot boat, the men of Ernest Shackleton's wrecked Endurance expedition make the 800-mile crossing from Elephant Island to South Georgia Island in just twelve days.

1968. While rotating the vessels of the Apollo 8 expedition to take a celestial fix, Lunar Module Pilot Bill Anders takes the famous "Earthrise" photograph.

1970. The troubled Apollo 13 expedition was unable to use star sights to fix its position due to debris from the earlier explosion obstructing the view. Mission commander James Lovell rotated the vehicle to get a sight on the sun instead, using an alternate procedure developed at Mission Control.

Related Posts
Shackleton and South Georgia
Misunderstood Mariners: Enrique de Malacca.
Dad, Magellan, and Greenwich Mean Time

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Danny Lee Davis Master's Thesis: Navigation in the Ancient Near Eastern Mediterranean.
University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology: Traditional Navigation in the Western Pacific.
Following The Path Of Discovery: Eratosthenes: The Measurement of the Earth's Circumference.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Celestial Navigation

Quartermaster 3rd Class Jay Kintner uses a sextant to verify the position of USS COWPENS (CG 63) by the stars. Photo by Dennis A Narlock, USN. 
The captain was telling me about a particular clear night on an offshore supply boat  (OSV) in the Gulf of Mexico. He stood on the wing station outside the bridge where the men on watch could see him. He held out his hand with the thumb and index finger extended, and held it up to the sky. He pretended to figure for a minute, wrote something in his notebook, then repeated the exercise a couple of times. He then went into the wheelhouse and, to the astonishment of the men on watch, plotted a very accurate position fix on the chart.  Now here was an old salt, they must have thought, able to plot our position with celestial navigation using only his hand and his memory.

To many, even those who work on ships today, celestial navigation is a bit mysterious. The mystique is intentional, and comes down from the Age of Sail, when the ships’ officers were taught the art, but not the crew. The idea was to make mutineers think twice: if only the officers knew how to find the way home, a rebellious crew might be less likely to slit their throats.

The idea behind celestial navigation is simple: that the objects in the sky – sun, moon, planets, stars – follow regular and predictable paths, and thus a given object’s position over a given point on the earth at a given time can be known in advance, or at least calculated. As Susan P. Howell put it in her book, Practical Celestial Navigation
Each celestial object can be thought of as a lighthouse since, for a specific instant of time, it stands directly over one spot on the earth. For instance, the sun will be 90 degrees high over Honolulu for a split second this summer and therefore marks that one place much as a lighthouse would.
In this example, using a sextant or other instrument, a sailor can compare the angle of the sun above the horizon and its observed direction to those of its known position over Honolulu. From this, the sailor’s current position can be calculated. In many cases, even a lot of math is not required; the calculations have been broken down into easily usable tables that are widely available.

While not mysterious, use of the sextant is an acquired skill, especially on the deck of a moving ship. And the calculations must be done accurately. These days, celestial navigators use worksheets that resemble nothing so much as IRS tax forms. If you can fill out a 1040A correctly, you can probably master the calculations for celestial navigation.

The captain I mentioned above had not, of course, determined his OSV’s position using only his hand and his memory. Before he stepped up on the bridge wing, he had consulted a handheld GPS that he then slipped into his pocket. So while celestial navigation is indeed one of the mariner’s ancient arts, he was practicing one even older: that of the practical joke.

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Strait of Magellan: Celestial Navigation 101: Lesson 1, Circles of Equal Altitude and subsequent posts.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

U-Boats Bring America Into World War I

"Versenkung eines feindlichen bewaffneten Truppentransportdampfers durch deutsches U-Boot im Mittelmeer (Sinking of a hostile armed troop carrier by German submarine in the Mediterranian sea)" by Willy Stower (1917)

    "Stand by for firing a torpedo!" I called down to the control room.
     A slight tremor went through the boat - the torpedo had gone.
     The death-bringing shot was a true one, and the torpedo ran towards the doomed ship at high speed. I could follow its course exactly by the light streak of bubbles which was left in its wake.
I saw that the bubble-track of the torpedo had been discovered on the bridge of the steamer, as frightened arms pointed towards the water and the captain put his hands in front of his eyes and waited resignedly. Then a frightful explosion followed, and we were all thrown against one another by the concussion, and then, like Vulcan, huge and majestic, a column of water two hundred metres high and fifty metres broad, terrible in its beauty and power, shot up to the heavens."
-- U-boat commander Adolf K.G.E. von Spiegel, U-boat 202 (1919)
On January 31, 1917, Imperial Germany -- for 2-1/2 years engaged in a horrifyingly destructive war with Britain, France, and other Allied nations -- declared that it would pursue unrestricted submarine warfare in the North Atlantic. The Kaiser and his general staff had given up hope that the United States would come into the Great War raging in Europe on its side, or indeed that the US would even remain neutral. After two years of American shipping and lives being lost as (what we would call now) collateral damage, the stage was set for all-out war and, in May of that year, the United States did indeed declare war on Germany.

Originally envisioned as a weapon against surface warships, the U-boats (from the German Unterseeboot), proved most effective against merchant shipping. Sinking cargo ships in convoy -- from Canada and other parts of the British Empire – was not only safer for a U-boat than confronting an armed naval ship, it was ultimately more damaging to the Allied war effort.

Although at first the German Empire observed the Victorian era “rules of war” regarding neutral shipping, in early 1915 it stepped up its pressure on Britain in reaction to British mining and blockades. Any vessel sailing into or out of Britain was now considered fair game, whatever its flag. On May 7, 1915 a German U-boat sank the ocean liner RMS Lusitania, killing nearly 1200, including 128 American civilians. The sinking was a mistake; the captain of the U-20 had mistaken the Lusitania for a troopship. What was not known at the time was that the ship was carrying ammunition, the explosion of which was a possible cause of the sinking.

In March 1916, a U-boat sank the British ferry Sussex in the English Channel, injuring several Americans. It was this incident that began to turn American public opinion against Germany. In reaction, Germany, ceased all-out submarine war for several months. Unfortunately, this also reduced the effectiveness of the U-boat fleet. Finally, in October 1916, Germany decided to intensify its submarine warfare in the hopes of forcing Britain to sue for peace before the US could enter the war.

The gamble failed. Following the sinking of three US-flagged merchant ships in March 1917, the US declared war on Germany. To counteract the U-boat threat, warships began escorting the convoys, thus removing one of the main advantages of “commerce raiding.” When he war ended in November 1918, Germany had lost half its 360 u-boats, which in turn had sunk more than 11 million tons of shipping over the course of the war.

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EyeWitness to U-boat Attack, 1916