Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Misunderstood Mariners: Amerigo Vespucci

You learned it in high school history class: although Christopher Columbus discovered America, the continents were named for his contemporary and rival Amerigo Vespucci. Well, Columbus and Vespucci were contemporaries but pretty much everything else about that statement is wrong.

Vespucci, a Florentine by birth (although not residence), was already middle aged when he first sailed to the Americas for the King of Spain in 1499. Over the next few years he sailed on three (some sources say four) expeditions to the New World for either Spain or Portugal. He found little that hadn't been already charted and frequently had trouble finding work. Columbus was hardly threatened by Vespucci: he found him an honorable man and seems to have felt a little sorry for him. After his voyages, though, he came into his, own, being made chief of navigation for Spain. He died there in 1522.

Vespucci was not without his contributions. He charted many navigational stars that had been forgotten since the time of the Greeks. He developed a method of finding longitude that was more accurate than any other until the invention of the chronometer more than two centuries later. He is also credited with being the first to demonstrate that the Americas were not part of Asia, but an entirely different continent.

The idea that the Americas were named for Vespucci derives from the use of the word America on a world map drawn by the German cartographer Martin Waldseemuller in 1507. Not everyone agrees that Vespucci was the source of the word, however. Pointing out that new lands were either named for religious figures or the sponsors of the expedition doing the discovering, many point to Welshman Richard Amerike, sponsor of John Cabot's second (and only successful) voyage to America as a more likely source. This latter claim is weakened by the lack of any documents directly supporting it; on the other hand Vespucci has been accused of embellishing and even outright fictionalizing many of his exploits.

For an entertaining biography of Vespucci, see historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto's Amerigo: The Man Who Gave His Name to America. Fernandez-Armesto portrays Vespucci as a self-promoter of the highest ambition and debunks many of the myths perpetuated by Vespucci himself.

Geologist Jules Marcou first advanced the theory that America was named for the Amerrique region of Nicaragua, a gold-bearing area known to both Columbus and Vespucci. George C. Hurlbut, longtime librarian of the American Geographical Society of New York, published the definitive article on this perspective in that society's Journal in 1888. Find the complete article (for $12 fee) at http://www.jstor.org/pss/196759.

As for who "discovered" America, it is a pointless question since humans have been living in the western hemisphere for at least 12,000 years. Despite inconoclastic claims for Egyptians, Chinese, Polynesians, and others, the first modern people to colonize the Americas were the Inuits, who arrived about 1000 AD. Archaeological evidence shows Viking settlements in Newfoundland about the same time, but the Vikings pulled out relatively soon thereafter. Modern European settlement of the Americas really began with Columbus, just like you learned in high school. For a humorous and informative look at that early exploration and settlement, see Tony Horwitz's A Voyage Long and Strange: On The Trail of Vikings, Conquistadors, Lost Colonists, and Other Adventurers in Early America.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Married At Sea, Buried At Sea

Time was, if a couple in love wanted to be married at sea, the captain of their ship enjoyed the happy privilege of performing the ceremony. That's still possible in today's increasingly regulated world, but the restrictions are much tighter than they used to be.

For a shipboard marriage to be recognized in most jurisdictions, it has to meet the requirements any land-based marriage would in that jurisdiction. For instance, if a wedding is performed in the territorial waters of a state requiring that an ordained minister perform the ceremony, the captain must be ordained in order for the marriage to be legal. Many American captains, including yours truly, are ordained for this very purpose. If the couple wants to be married on the high seas -- outside the territorial limit of any state or nation -- they must often have a civil service performed in port if they want the marriage to be recognized as legal. Some large cruise lines have worked around this. Princess Cruise Lines used to be the best bet for a high seas wedding, but other cruise lines are starting to offer the service as well.

Ironically, it may be simpler to be buried at sea than married at sea. In the United States, a captain may scatter ashes as long as the vessel is at least three nautical miles from shore or "bury" a body at sea if in at least 600 feet of water. California forbids full-body burials at sea and most other states require some preparation to ensure the body sinks quickly. Local jurisdictions tend to be more forgiving of cremated remains, allowing ashes to be scattered as long as they don't blow back on shore (Alaska), or even right off the dock (New York).

Burial at sea is so popular that some outfits offer it for a fee. The Neptune Society is the most well-known of these companies, although it has had some legal troubles. Last October its Colorado franchise was cited by that state's Division of Insurance; other franchises have been in court facing charges of illegal dumping and emotional distress caused by co-mingling of ashes.

The Cruise Critic website has a good article about getting married on a large cruise ship at http://www.cruisecritic.com/articles.cfm?ID=4. It's undated, so I'm not sure how current the pricing and availability information is.

For more on the Neptune Society's controversy, see the Funeral Consumers Alliance website at http://www.funerals.org/component/content/article/64-comments/399-neptune-society

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Rules of the Road

I was astonished to read recently in a sailing magazine that sailboats in particular and regattas in general have the right of way on the water over any other vessel. To give the writer credit, at least he knew that there are "rules of the road," even if he didn't really understand what they are. Some motorboat and personal watercraft operators seems to thinks it's a free-for-all out there. It's not, or at least it's not supposed to be.

Rules of the road have several levels, starting with the COLREGS (Collision Regulations) that were agreed to by international treaty. Many nations, including the United States, have their own variations on these in domestic waters. The US, in fact, has slightly different sets of rules for the Great Lakes, the "western rivers" (Mississippi, Missouri, and their tributaries), and "inland" waters in general.

I could blog several times a week on the Rules of the Road alone, but some general principles do apply. In terms of right of way, a less maneuverable vessel generally has the right of way over a more maneuverable one and a slower vessel over a faster one. Every vessel is required to keep a proper lookout and every vessel is obligated to take action to avoid a collision if possible.

That sailboater does indeed have the right of way in a lot of situations, but not every time. If he's using his engine, in a narrow channel or designated traffic lane, or encountering a vessel that can't maneuver due to it's work (dredging or recovering divers, for instance), he may have to give way. And that regatta? Unless the Coast Guard or local law enforcement declares the area off limits, it's nothing but a bunch of folks out sailing.

Any vessel more than 12 meters in length is required to have a copy of the rules onboard. The current edition is Navigation Rules (International-Inland), COMDTINST M16672.2D, the so-called "D" Edition. Find the latest updates in the Notices to Mariners, or on the Coast Guard web site at http://www.navcen.uscg.gov/mwv/navrules/navrules.htm.

To find the complete Rules online, try Handbook of the Nautical Rules of the Road (Third On-line Edition) by Chris Llana and George Wisneskey at http://navruleshandbook.com/index.html

Filed from M/Y Safari Explorer at Baranof, Warm Spring Bay, Southeast Alaska.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Ice! Ice! Baby!

Ice has been a challenge to mariners from ancient times right up until today. Two of the most infamous maritime disasters of all time, the Titanic sinking and the Exxon Valdez oil spill, were caused by either a collision with an ice berg or an attempt to avoid one.
Calving glaciers. The photos at right show the South Sawyer glacier in Tracy Arm, a fjord in Southeast Alaska. The picture on top was taken in May of 1995, the bottom picture in June 2009. South Sawyer was always good for a show, but about five years ago it started calving at a much increased rate and went into what scientists call "catastrophic retreat." The pictures weren't taken at the exact same distance (lots of seal pups were hauled out on the ice in the more recent picture, so the Spirit of Yorktown kept her distance to avoid disturbing them) but it's obvious how much the glacier has retreated in the intervening years.
Ice words. It's a myth that Eskimos have more than a dozen words for "snow," but mariners have developed a huge vocabulary to describe ice of various sizes, age, and composition. Large chunks of floating ice are called either bergy bits or growlers. Bergy bits are the size of a small building, reaching up to five meters above the water and an area of up to 300 square meters. Growlers -- named for the sound they sometimes make as they bounce in the waves -- reach less than a meter above the water and take up about 20 square meters. Sea ice -- ice formed by saltwater -- can be described as frazil, grease, nilas, rind, pancake, young, old, etc.
Great Lakes Ice. During a particularly cold winter, Lake Superior can be completely frozen over for some periods, with ice as thick as 100 centimeters. During a mild winter, Lake Ontario can be basically ice-free, possibly with some forming around the entrance to the St. Lawrence River in early January. Despite this variability, recent years have seen a decline in the amount of overall Great Lakes ice formed and the time it stays frozen. While this may seem like a boon for shipping at first, the increased time the water of the Lakes stays in liquid form increases the evaporation rate in a given year, ultimately lowering the lake level.
Ice breakers. Coast Guard and research vessels (or cruise ships that are converted research vessels) rated as ice breakers have especially heavy and reinforced hulls. These vessels don't break ice by plowing through it, they break ice by running their bows up on the ice and using the weight of the vessel to break up the ice from above. Ice breakers are mainly used in areas where sea ice has formed, or in large frozen areas of fresh water like the Great Lakes. In places like Tracy Arm, ship captains go slow, contact ice chunks at an angle, and take into account the material and thickness of their hull.
A nice short video of the Canadian ice breaker Samuel Risley in action can be found on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XqWBBM09Kro&NR=1
Michael Scott of The Cleveland Plain Dealer filed an excellent article on the consequences of the reduction of Great Lakes ice back in March. Find it at http://blog.cleveland.com/metro/2009/03/great_lakes_ice_cover_shows_cl.html
Filed from M/Y Safari Explorer in Pavlof Harbor, Chichagof Island, Southeast Alaska.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Misunderstood Mariners: John Paul Jones

This week marked the birthday of John Paul Jones, "father of the American navy." Like a lot of the early heroes of the United States, Jones's story had been polished up a bit in popular accounts. While he was undoubtedly a brave and brilliant naval commander, Jones left a lot to be desired in the leadership department.

Born John Paul in Scotland in 1747, Jones went to sea as teenager. His early berths were in the slave trade, but he found that distasteful and switched to other vessels. The first black mark on his record came when a sailor he had flogged died, leading to charges of over-harsh punishment. When Jones killed another sailor in a sword fight (as part of a mutiny over wages), Jones left the British service and fled to Virginia, where he took the last name "Jones."

After some struggle, Jones acquired a posting in the new Continental Navy in the fight against the British. Jones felt he was being held back by his superiors and butted heads with them as a result. Eventually, partly due to his new friendship with Benjamin Franklin, he was given command of the Ranger and brought the fight against Britain to its home waters, raiding shipping off the coasts of Scotland and Ireland. Jones crew thought of themselves more as privateers than as part of a navy and the British branded Jones a pirate for his acts of plunder and destruction during the war. One of these raids led to the capture of a prize ship and a falling out with one of his officers, leading to the officer's court martial. The charge was dismissed through the efforts of John Adams, but Jones had developed a reputation for being difficult among both his crew and his superiors.

Jones's next command was the Bonhomme Richard, which engaged in the famous battle with the British ship Serapis. It was during this battle that Jones supposedly said "I have not yet begun to fight." What he actually said is a matter of dispute. Jones says he told the Serapis's commander "I am determined to make you strike" (referring to striking the colors as a sign of surrender). Members of Jones's crew remember the Jones saying "I have just yet begun to fight."

After the Revolution, Jones was having a hard time finding work for the Americans, so he went to sea for Russian empress Catherine the Great in her campaign to free Istanbul from the Ottoman Empire. Jones's feuded with other officers, though, leading to charges of sexual misconduct against him. He retired after two years to France, where he died in 1792.

Jones was not allowed to rest in peace. The cemetery where he was buried was taken over by the French revolutionary government and eventually used as a place where animal fights were held. There Jones lay for a century, until a determined search by admirers found his remains and moved them to the US Naval Academy grounds in 1906, where they rest today.

Many biographies of Jones are in print. It's hard to beat John Paul Jones: A Sailor's Biography by the dean of naval historians Samuel Eliot Morrison. Morrison is a historian of the old school who doesn't gloss over Jones's warts, but presents him as an overall admirable person nonetheless.

If you like your history in two-minute musical segments, Johnny Horton of "Sinking of the Bismark" and "Battle of New Orleans" fame recorded his lesser hit "John Paul Jones" for his 1960 concept album Johnny Horton Makes History.

The general story of the Continental Navy and the eventual development of the US Navy has not been particularly fertile ground for popular histories. The best overview is historian George Daughan's interesting, if somewhat flawed, If By Sea: The Forging of the American Navy -- From the Revolution to the War of 1812. It is superior to, if not as well marketed as , financial analyst and speechwriter Ian W. Toll's Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the US Navy.

Filed from M/Y Safari Explorer at Bartlett Cove, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

A Girl In Every Port

Before heading out on a recent passage, my significant other teased me about having "a girl in every port." I retorted that the only thing I wanted to get in every port was a nap. The truth is, the days of a ship pulling into port for days or weeks at a time are over: it is the rare crewmember with time to hook up in every port.

Turnaround times vary with the type of vessel. The ships of the Alaska Marine Highway System only spend a couple of hours or so in port on a scheduled run.  Cruise ships will usually spend a little bit longer, from a few hours to day. A ship carrying “break-bulk” cargo -- cargo that is carried in the ship’s holds or on deck in small, various-sized containers or crates – may spend one to three days in port. A container ship, one of the giants carrying hundreds of forty-foot standardized containers, will spend less than a day in port, the average being around sixteen hours.

These huge container ships are expensive to run: $30,000 to $40,000 a day. Shipping companies are always looking for ways to trim the time spent in port, using complex computer models to determine the best container arrangements, loading and unloading strategies, and other ways of trimming hours off a port call. The mariners on board have little, if any, time to get off the vessel and look around. A quip common among modern mariners is “join the merchant marine and glimpse the world.”  And even if they had time, there is little to see: modern container terminals all look much alike, owing to the standardization of equipment and vessels. Container ports also tend to be far from urban centers and tourist areas and require huge areas to service not only the vessels, but the rail cars and trucks that take the containers to their final destinations. The nearest “waterfront” bar can be miles away.

Crew on US Navy ships may be spending more time in port due to recent budget changes. A navy crewmember can expect only about a week out of every twelve or so underway for “routine operations.”  This can vary a lot, of course, depending on a ship’s particular mission. Smaller ships tend to spend more time in port than larger ones, like aircraft carriers. Port calls during a deployment for any vessel rarely last longer than a few days, but time between ports is usually less than a month.

US Coast Guard cutter deployment times are similarly variable, going out on various missions for a few weeks to a couple of months, then returning to their home port for a few weeks.

Even if a vessel is in port, that doesn't mean the crew has time to go ashore and mess around. Port calls, especially for vessels that only make short ones, can be the busiest times for a ship's crew. A port call is a time to unload passengers, cargo, and garbage and a time to take on new passengers, cargo, stores (groceries and other supplies), fuel, and fresh water. "There's always something to do on a ship," the saying goes, and a lot of work gets done in port (painting, etc.) that can't be done as easily underway. But, if you're lucky, you'll get a few minutes off to call home and tell them about all the interesting things you've glimpsed.

To see just how closely the whole issue of containerization is studied, see Intelligent Freight Transportation by Petros A Ioannou. Google Books has good excerpts (amazon.com has the full book for $140, if you're really that interested) at http://books.google.com/books?id=-HI1YZarRAkC&pg=PA13&lpg=PA13&dq=container+ship+turnaround+times&source=bl&ots=SfAmO56v-M&sig=NGwVHVqVlBaumarLHv9Rf8JCz8c&hl=en&ei=795OSuvNOpHasgPAv-yqDQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1.

For a less technical discussion on how it all got started, see Marc Levinson's book The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger.