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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NOAA Office of Response and Restoration: Abandoned Vessels: Drifting Across the Pacific Ocean Since 1617.

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.