Wednesday, August 31, 2011


On his second voyage to the New World, Columbus encountered a tropical storm. Although his vessels suffered no damage, this experience proved valuable during his fourth voyage when his ships were threatened by a fully developed hurricane. Columbus read the signs of an approaching storm from the appearance of a southeasterly swell, the direction of the high cirrus clouds, and the hazy appearance of the atmosphere. He directed his vessels to shelter. The commander of another group, who did not heed the signs, lost most of his ships and more than 500 men perished.
-- The National Imagery and Mapping Agency,
The American Practical Navigator ("Bowditch"), 2002 Bicentennial Edition.

Origins. A hurricane starts its life as a tropical disturbance, an area from 100 to 200 miles in diameter marked by atmospheric convection, resulting in cloud formation, and a discrete character distinct from a normal weather front. It becomes a tropical depression when it takes on a rotary character and wind speeds reach up to 33 knots. A tropical storm is clearly spinning and wind speeds reach up to 63 knots. With speeds above that, a tropical storm becomes a hurricane.

The word hurricane is derived from the Carib god Hurican, called Hurakan by the Mayans, whose breath blew the primordial sea from the land, creating dry Earth. Because of its Carib/Mayan origins, hurricane is the name given to storms in the North Atlantic and the Eastern North Pacific. In the Western North Pacific, they're called typhoons, except in the Philippines, where they're sometimes called baguios. In the Indian Ocean hurricanes and tropical storms are called cyclones or cyclonic storms. Such a storm originating in the Timor Sea is called a willy-willy.

Formation. No one is sure exactly what causes hurricane to form. There are several factors that are present in most hurricane formation:

  • water temperatures of at least 79.7 degrees F
  • rapid cooling with height that provides the energy for the hurricane
  • high humidity
  • low contrary winds (that would stall the storm's formation)
  • a distance at least 5 degrees of latitude from the equator (to allow the Earth's Coriolis effect to create spin)
  • a pre-existing tropical disturbance

By no means does a hurricane form every time these factors are present, and sometimes they form when some of the factors are not present.

Hurricanes and Climate Change. Some evidence suggests that the intensity of Atlantic hurricanes has increased in the last fifteen years, possibly due to increase water vapor in the atmosphere and higher sea surface temperatures. Despite this, the number of hurricanes worldwide has not increased. Major studies in Nature and Science predict stronger hurricanes over the next century.

Mariners and Hurricanes. Entire books have been written for mariners on hurricanes and hurricane avoidance. Most of the time, the smartest course of action is to avoid the storm entirely, a choice made more possible by the advent of increasingly accurate predictions using computer models and satellite monitoring. There are entire companies devoted to weather routing for ships. This is not and has not always been possible, however, and mariners who encounter a hurricane never forget it. In "The Typhoon Lady" (published in the US Naval Institute Proceedings in June 1949) Lieutenant (j.g) Robert J. Lauer described the encounter of the light aircraft carrier USS San Jacinto with a typhoon in September 1944
The intensity of the storm could never been imagined beforehand. Winds of over 100 knots and seas 70 to 80 feet high lashed at the ships of the formation. To ease the ferocious pounding the course was adjusted to place the ships in the trough of the seas, and speed was reduced to the minimum required to maintain steerageway. All hands stood by their respective spaces to ensure their security.
It was a terrifying sight to watch the gigantic breakers on the crest of the seas looming up, sometimes as much as thirty degrees above the horizontal, as the ship rolled through forty degrees or more. It would have been suicide to venture onto the flight deck.
Despite its reputation, even the so-called "eye of the hurricane" is not safe. Visibility increases and winds decrease, but seas can be "monstrous" and come from any direction. As "Bowditch" says of these storms, "The awesome fury of this condition can only be experienced."

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Bermuda Triangle

Whatever force exists in the Triangle affects craft and crew whether on, over or under the water. The weirdest Triangle incident of all occurred on December 5, 1944, while World War II was still raging. Five torpedo bombers took off from the Fort Lauderdale Naval Air Station. It was a routine patrol intended to last two hours. The planes were within easy radio contact of their base. The day was clear and sunny. The planes, each carrying a crew of three (pilot, radio operator, and gunner) were in perfect condition. Each man wore an inflatable life jacket, and each plane carried a raft.
     The planes left at 2 P.M. At 3:45 P.M, when they were supposed to be returning to base, the patrol leader radioes, "We seem to be off course...we cannot see land...repeat, we cannot see land..."
     When asked for his position, the reply came, we don't know which way is west. Everything is wrong...even the ocean doesn't look as it should."
     Even with a defective compass, the patrol leader should have been able to fly into the setting sun on a clear day. Why couldn't he see the sun?  The tower operators heard the men talking with increased panic. A new pilot took over the radio phone. At 4:25 P.M. the new leader was in the middle of a sentence..."Looks like we are entering white water. We're completely lost!"
     Then contact was lost. That was the last ever heard of the five planes.
-- Raymond Schuessler, writing in Robert Hendrickson's The Ocean Almanac

The story of Flight 19 is one of the most chilling in Bermuda -- or Devil's -- Triangle lore. Tales of ships, sailors, and aircraft disappearing in this area of the North Atlantic go back centuries, some say all the way to Christopher Columbus. Ships disappear, sometimes reappearing later missing all crew. The schooner Ellen Austin supposedly disappeared with two different crews then reappeared before vanishing for good with a third in 1881. Nuclear submarines and yachts vanish, satellite images are scrubbed, strange weather phenomena occur. With the 1974 publication of The Bermuda Triangle by Charles Berlitz and the subsequent movie based on the book, the Triangle has become not only a mystery, but an obsession to some.

Famous cases. Shuessler claims that "[at] least 100 ships and planes and 1,000 sailors and pilots during the last 30 years" have disappeared in the Triangle, but that "[ships] have been dropping out of sight in this area for centuries." Besides Flight 19 and the Ellen Austin, some of the more celebrated cases include:

  • Cyclops, 1918. The largest ship ever lost in the Triangle, the US Navy collier (coal vessel) was more than 500 feet long and carried a crew of more than 300.
  • Carroll A. Deering, 1921. The vessel was found abandoned and stuck in the sand near Cape Hatteras. Half-eaten meals were still on the tables in the mess, lights were on, there was no sign that anything was wrong. Locals later claimed to hear strange noises and see strange lights coming from the wreck.
  • La Dahama, 1935. The crew was rescued from the damaged ship by another vessel, then both crews watched the vessel sink. The vessel was found later, floating, off Bermuda.
  • Nereus, 1941. A sister ship to the Cyclops.
  • Proteus, 1941. Another sister ship of the Cyclops

Causes. What is the cause of these mysterious goings on? Explanations abound, from the mundane to the truly strange. Atlantis, space aliens, psychic sea monsters, and gateways to strange dimensions all get blamed. Many natural explanations from human error, to compass various, to undersea eruptions of "methane hydrates" are also put forth. This last was the topic of a recent posting on a LinkedIn discussion board used by maritime business professionals, hardly a hot-bed of crackpot conspiracy theorists.

Is there really a Bermuda Triangle? Schuessler claims that "Lloyds of London knew back in the 1600s that losses in the Triangle surpassed anything on other sea routes." But the maritime insurance giant told Fate magazine in 1975 that the incidence of insurance payoffs was no greater in the Triangle than in any other part of the ocean and the cost of insurance for ships transiting the area was no higher than those sailing elsewhere. The US Coast Guard also says that the number of ship, yacht and aircraft rescues is not out of proportion in the Triangle area compared to other areas it services.

The Discovery Channel has an interesting "tour" of the Triangle here.

See the US Navy's take on the Triangle -- which it calls "an imaginary area" -- here.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Helm Commands

In the early 20th Century, American ships were still using many helm commands left over from the days of the clipper ships. A surprising number of things that take place on a ship are dictated by law. Diet and sleeping arrangements are two major examples, but so are the commands that the officer of the watch gives to the helmsman to get a vessel going in a particular direction. Many commands given in the Age of Sail would still be recognizable by modern mariners, as recounted in John Harland's book Seamanship In The Age Of Sail:
'Steer West-North-West!' to follow a particular course. "Starboard!', 'Helm a-starboard!' 'Starboard handsomely!' when the turn is to be made circumspectly. 'Give her more helm!' when it was desired to swing more quickly, 'Hard over!', to increase the helm already on, and make the quickest possible swing. 'Steady!' when headed in the desired direction. The quartermaster reports the course at the moment the order is given, and if satisfactory the order 'Keep her so!" is given.
Some other helm commands are still in use today, including "meet her", "midships", and "shift your rudder." Others would make little sense on todays powered vessels including "Let her go off handsomely," "Let her come to," and "Let her luff."

Tiller Orders. Today only the smallest craft are steered by tiller, but this used to be true of all vessels. When steering by tiller, force is applied to the tiller at the opposite end from the rudder, so to go to starboard, you push to port. The process was the same even on large vessels until the relatively modern development of motorized steering. As Harland writes:

Orders to the helmsman were traditionally given in terms of ‘helm’. That is to say, the position of the tiller rather than the rudder. ‘Hard a-starboard!’ meant ‘put the tiller (helm) to starboard, so that the ship may go to port!’ It will be realised that not only the bow turned to port, but also the rudder, [and] the top of the wheel...

In the 1997 movie Titanic, for instance, the officer of the watch gives the order to go hard to starboard to avoid the iceberg, but the helmsman turns the heel to port. This has been cited as an era by some, but was perfectly correct in its time.

In 1935, in an attempt to update the helm commands for a primarily power-driven era, the US Congress eliminated the old commands and replaced them with more modern ones, still largely used today (the UK made the change in 1933). Some examples:

  • "Port X Degrees" or "Left X Degrees" - Turn the wheel to port until the rudder angle indicator reads X degrees port.
  •  "Starboard X Degrees" or "Right X Degrees" - Turn the wheel to starboard until the rudder angle indicator reads X degrees starboard.
  •  "Amidships" - put the rudder amidships, or to 0 degrees.
  •  "Ease to X" - From the current rudder angle, slack off on the turn until X degrees is reached.
  •  "Shift your rudder" - Switch rudder from current to position to opposite position, ex. from 10 port to 10 starboard
  •  "Left Full Rudder" or "Right Full Rudder" - put the rudder at 30 degrees in the proper direction
  •  "Hard to Port" or "Hard to Starboard" - put the rudder over as far as it will go in the proper direction (on most ships, between 35 and 40 degrees)
  •  "Steady up on course X" - Hold the desired course, applying rudder as needed to maintain the course.
  •  "Left to course X" or "Right to course X" - apply rudder enough to come to the desired course in a timely fashion, hopefully without passing your course.

For an excerpt from Seamanship in the Age of Sail at googlebooks, click here.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Alternatives To The Panama Canal

Between the time Holy Roman Emperor Charles V first envisioned the Panama Canal in 1523 and the time the US Army completed it in 1913, many alternative schemes to the Canal were envisioned and abandoned. Even today, shippers and Canal competitors look for ways to ship goods around the world while avoiding both the Panama Canal and the entire continent of South America.

The Tehuantepec Railroad. James Eads, an American engineer who built the St. Louis Bridge over the Mississippi River as well as many of America's ironclad ships proposed to build a railroad across Mexico's Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Ships would be brought ashore in a 450-foot dry dock, which would then be towed by three locomotive engines the 134 miles from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean (see picture above). Eads argued that not only would his plan cost half the money of a canal cutting through Panama, it would be twice as fast and would cut 2000 miles off a passage between the US west and east coasts. The Eads plan was approved by the US Senate at one point, but was ultimately defeated in the House of Representatives.

The Nicaraguan Canal. An alternative as old as Charles V's idea itself is a canal through Nicaragua. The canal would require only twelve miles of new channel be built; most of the route would be along the existing San Juan River and Lake Nicaragua. Ships much larger than those that can currently be accommodated by the Panama Canal could be carried, but the economic and environmental costs would be high. This alternative was given very serious consideration by many in the anxiety before the US handed the Panama Canal over to Panama in 1999.

The Arctic Routes. Many shippers are already using or planning to use Arctic routes opened up by the decrease in sea ice. Several different routes are available, depending on the time of years, often saving weeks between the coasts of North America, or Asian factories and European markets. One advantage of using Arctic routes is cost: shipping companies and nations need do nothing except let the ice pack get smaller and smaller each year. The region could turn into a conflict area, however, as different countries  argue about sovereignty, access to shipping lanes and resources, and steps to ameliorate global warming.

Rail Routes. With the advent of intermodal shipping -- in short, containers -- rail has become a much more effective alternative not only to the Panama Canal, but to all water-borne transportation. Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama itself, and even the United States have been touted as possessing the potential to be cost-effective alternatives to the Panama Canal. Columbia and China have recently begun discussing a rail corridor through Columbia that would bypass Panama.

The Panama Canal, Part II. In order to accommodate larger ships and increase traffic flow, the Panama Canal Authority has embarked on an expansion project, due to be completed in 2014. The project will add two new sets of lock, dig a new 6-kilometer long channel, and widen and deepen existing navigational channels.

For a BBC report on the Columbian rail "dry canal," click here.

For my post on transiting the Panama Canal, click here.

For my post on the effects of climate change on shipping, including arctic shipping, click here.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


On this date in 1940, Nazi Germany was riding high. Fresh from a spectacular victory over France, Hitler declared a blockade of Great Britain, part of an attempt to force the British to come to peace terms and thus end the war in the west quickly. The blockade would have prevented supplies from a still-neutral United States from reaching Great Britain and kept British men and material from getting out. Only a week later, though, two German bombers -- possibly by mistake -- dropped their ordinance on London and any hopes Hitler had for peace were dashed. It was to be a fight to the death.

A naval blockade is a hostile attempt to keep freight, people, and even information from getting into or out of a port, country or region. Ending a blockade, either voluntarily or by force, is called raising a blockade. To run a blockade is to sneak around or through a blockading force; a person or ship that does this is called a blockade runner. Perhaps the most famous blockade runner is the fictional character Rhett Butler from the novel and film Gone With The Wind.

Historically, blockades are considered an act of war. Today, blockades are allowed by international law. Article 42 of the United Nations Charter gives that organization the right to blockade "to maintain or restore international peace and security." The so-called San Remo Manual sets forth modern standards for conflicts at sea, including blockades. Among the Manual's provisions are a requirement that specific goods be declared contraband for the purposes of the blockade. Some items, such as humanitarian supplies and religious objects, may never be declared contraband. The Manual also sets forth the rights of neutral countries, vessels, and mariners.

The blockade of Great Britain was hardly the first in history. The Spartans defeated the Athenians in the Peloponnesian War in the 5th century BC by enforcing a blockade. The Israeli and Egyptian blockade of the Gaza Strip made news last year when six people were killed and 59 wounded when Israeli troops boarded ships of the "Gaza Freedom Flotilla" which was attempting to run the blockade. In some cases, blockades have marked turning points in history including:

• a series of blockades of the Byzantine capital of Constantinople by Muslim forces between 1394 and 1453 eventually lead to the city's downfall and the opening up of Europe to Islamic military forces.

• a Union blockade of Confederate ports in the American Civil War reduced southern cotton exports to a fraction of their previous level and was instrumental in the eventual Union victory. Most blockade runners of this era were on-leave British Navy officers, Rhett Butler's contributions notwithstanding.

• the "Cuban Missile Crisis" of 1962 was partly the result of a US blockade of Cuba. Depending on who you ask, the Cuban blockade was either a necessary act of self defense by the United States or reckless brinksmanship that nearly led to nuclear war.

Find the complete San Remo Manual on the International Committee of the Red Cross's website here.

Photo above from Times of Pakistan.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Monday Morning Mariner: Who To Vote For?

The 57th US presidential election is already under way, and the voting may start even earlier than in previous seasons with states jockeying to be the first to hold an actual primary or caucus vote. What has this got to do with mariners?

Consider the fallout from the Deepwater Horizon incident last year: the Gulf drilling moratorium, increased federal regulation of offshore industry, even calls to repeal or scale back the Jones Act. Consider the recent debt ceiling debate and the possibly deep cuts in even the most "third rail" federal programs. If Washington can go after Medicare and Social Security, what happens to Navy and Coast Guard operating and shipbuilding budgets, or to the Corps of Engineers and the infrastructure it maintains? What about the Department of Homeland Security's often rough relationship with commercial mariners, from the implementation of new STCW standards to TWIC card requirements?

The fact is, it matters to mariners who is president, even if maritime issues are are rarely if ever discussed by the mainstream media covering presidential elections. If you could ask a presidential candidate a question about an issue important to you, what would it be? I'm going to do just that, and I'm asking for your help.

Send me your questions at or leave them in the Comments section here. I'll put together a list of the most common ones and ask each of the candidates for their responses (not just the Democrats and Republicans, either, as I know several mariners who voted for Ross Perot, Ralph Nader, and other "minor party" candidates in past elections). The questions I submit will be related to maritime matters; if you really want to know if Sarah Palin is crazy, Newt Gingrich is a philanderer, or Barack Obama is Kenyan, there are plenty of blogs that address those issues. Please do indicate if your question is for a specific candidate or for all of them.

I'll report back on the answers I get the Monday before Election Day this November.

Presidential Candidates. An asterisk indicates a candidate who has not declared or formed an exploratory committee as defined by federal election laws.

Democratic Party

Barack Obama
Randall Terry

Independent Candidates

Robert Burck*
Charlie Crist*
Tim Gay Sr.*
Charles Harvey*
Becky Rusher*

Libertarian Party

Roger Gary
Carl Person
Wayne Allyn Root*
R. Lee Wrights

Republican Party

Michelle Bachman
John Bolton*
Scott Brown*
Herman Cain
Newt Gingrich
Jon Greenspon
Rudy Giuliani*
Lindsey Graham*
Jon Huntsman
Gary Johnson
Fred Karger
Andy Martin
Thad Cother
Jimmy McMillan
Tom Miller
Ray Moore
Sarah Palin*
Ron Paul
Tim Pawlenty
Rick Perry*
Buddy Roemer
Mitt Romney
Paul Ryan*
Rick Santorum
Joe Scarborough*
Allen West*
Vern Wuensche

Socialist Party

Stewart Alexander

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Misunderstood Mariners: Enrique De Malaca

This week in 1519, Ferdinand Magellan began his famous voyage to circumnavigate the globe. A slightly different version of this post first appeared on July 18, 2009.

Popular history gives Ferdinand Magellan credit for making the first circumnavigation of the earth, but that place may in fact belong to Magellan's slave Enrique De Malaca, or "Henry the Black." Little is known of Enrique's early life, except that he was a native of the Malay Archipelago and was captured and forced into slavery during the Portuguese siege of Malacca in 1511. Magellan bought him at that time and took him back to Europe. From there he accompanied Magellan on his voyages to find a western route to the Orient, where Magellan found him valuable for his ability to speak Spanish, Portuguese, and Malay.

When Magellan's circumnavigation voyage reached the Philippines, Enrique found he could understand the locals' speech, and the expedition knew it had reached the Orient. Magellan was soon after killed in a battle with the natives. Enrique left the expedition, citing a clause in Magellan's will freeing him in the event of Magellan's death. At this point Enrique disappears from the record, as mysteriously as he appeared. Meanwhile, the expedition continued under Juan Sebatian Elcano, and he and the other 17 survivors on the galleon Victoria are given credit for the first one-way circumnavigation of the world.

Enrique did not set out to become the first person to circumnavigate the globe, but may have eventually done so, possibly beating Magellan out by only a few days (based on the assumption that Enrique actually began his travels further east than Magellan). To this day Enrique is considered a hero in some southeast Asian countries.

Enrique gets a brief mention in William Manchester's A World Lit By Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age. Find it at Google Books here.

For a more complete description of the Magellan expedition, see Laurence Bergreen's Over The Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe. Bergreen doesn't get around to mentioning Enrique until page 260 or so and seems to disapprove of a slave taking the opportunity to get his freedom back, but overall this is a good popular account of the expedition. The first 27 pages can be found at Google Books here.

Gavin Menzies, in 1421: The Year China Discovered America gives credit for the first circumnavigation to the Chinese admiral Zheng He a century before Magellan. Menzies's scholarship and logic have been challenged by most mainstream experts on the matter, but he continues to defend his conclusions at here.

The above statue of Henrique of Malacca (Panglima Awang) is displayed in the Maritime Museum of Malacca, Malaysia. Photo by abdulatif hamadin.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Short Sea Shipping

Short sea shipping is simply moving goods and passengers along a coastal route, as opposed to a cross-ocean voyage. It is the oldest form of trade by sea: the ancient Phoenicians, who spent a most nights anchored or in port, established trade routes along the coasts of north Africa, Asia Minor and Europe between the sixteenth and fourth centuries BC. It remains an important component of shipping today, and for reasons the old Phoenicians never would have conceived of.

Short sea shipping has several advantages over land-based modes of shipping including
  • reduced congestion on highways and other roads (a barge can carry as much cargo as 100 - 200 semi trailers)
  • reduced carbon emissions and other pollutants
  • reduced payroll and operations costs
  • reduced chance of damage or theft
The disadvantages of short sea shipping including slower travel times and the need to transfer some cargo to land-based modes for final delivery.
In Europe today, about 40 percent of freight moves, at some point in its travels, via short sea shipping corridors (which includes rivers and canals). Most commonly moved this way are bulk products (grain, coal, etc.), petroleum products, passengers, and intermodal containers (containers that travel by ship, train or truck trailer).

In North America, traditional reliance on railroads and trucks has left short-shipping routes, often called "marine highways" under-utilized. The most famous marine highway in North America is the Alaska Marine Highway System which carries mostly passengers and vehicles between ports in Alaska, British Columbia, and the state of Washington. The system carries abut 350,000 passengers and 100,000 vehicles each year. The US and Canadian agencies responsible for the Saint Lawrence Seaway operate an intermodal system -- Highway H2O -- that carries about 40 million tons of cargo a year.

The US, under a 2007 law designed to increase the country's energy independence and security, has started a program to fund new or expand current marine highways (pictured on the map above). The program was set up to fund infrastructure construction and improvements, as well as reduce the tax burden on shippers and their customers.

For more on America's Marine Highway Program, click on the Maritime Administration's web site here.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Monday Morning Mariner: STCW Changes. Again.

I've written before about both the IMO's changes to the STCW Convention and the US Coast Guard's efforts to bring the American licensing and documentation system more in line with that of the rest of the world. Part of the Coast Guard's procedure for implementation of new regulations is public feedback and, as a result of feedback on some of the proposed changes, the Coast Guard has issued a Supplementary Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (SNPRM) incorporating some the concerns raised at both the public meetings and written comments.

Among the proposed changes are an attempt to separate the US domestic licensing system from STCW requirements, while at the same time allowing service on Inland or Great Lakes vessels to qualify -- at least in part -- a mariner for an Oceans license. It's unclear if this applies to all licenses or only those of unlimited tonnage. The formula would be day-for-day for Great Lakes service and "1 day of ocean service for every 2 days of inland service for up to 50 percent of the total required service." The Coast Guard cites differences in conditions, vessels and equipment, and training as the reason for the difference in sea service credit.

The Coast Guard also proposes to change medical requirements to more closely fall in line with international standards. STCW medical certificates will only be valid for two years, and only for one year from pilots and mariners under 18 years old. The requirements for US-issued credentials would remain at the current five years. Mariners will now be required to demonstrate physical ability, and there will be changes to the hearing and visions tests. On the one hand, the range of allowable vision tests will be expanded and not limited to the current, often unavailable, specific tests. On the other hand

the Coast Guard proposes to revise the vision standards for deck personnel with STCW endorsements by expanding the applicability of the vision standards from one eye to both eyes. This proposal would provide consistency with the 2010 amendments to the STCW Convention. Requirements for mariners who suffer from vision loss or lost vision in one eye remain the same

Implementation. The comment period for the SNPRM expires at the end of September. Expect the new regs to kick in early in 2012 with requirements phased in based on the expiration date of the mariner's current credentials. Those mariners with expiration dates in 2012 are likely to have to meet the new requirements early on.

For the text of the complete SNPRM, click here.

For my post on the current US license and MMD structure, click here.

For my post on mariner medical requirements, click here.

For my post "Is STCW Un-American?" click here.

For my post on proposed changes to the deck license structure, click here.

For my post on proposed changes to the engineer license structure, click here.

For my post on the Maritime Labour Convention, including the "Seafarer's Bill of Rights," click here.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The First Revenue Cutters

It was 1790, the new United States had a problem, and it was Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton's job to fix it. Under the country's new Constitution, the United States was expected to raise much of its revenue through tariffs, fees paid on exported or imported goods. Smugglers had little problem avoiding these tariffs, however: a ship carrying goods subject to tariff could just load all or part of its cargo into smaller vessels, called coasters, which then landed the goods, easily avoiding the small, harbor-bound revenue cutters that existed at that time.

“A few armed vessels, judiciously stationed at the entrances of our ports, might at a small expense be made useful sentinels of the laws," Hamilton wrote in 1790. Congress agreed and authorized the building of ten cutters on August 4, 1790. The Revenue-Marine, forerunner of today's US Coast Guard, was born.

The treasury department had bought and operated other vessels previously, but the new cutters were specially built and crewed to operate in rough conditions offshore, and to be be fast enough to overtake most merchant ships of the time. The new cutters were small. Most displaced less than 50 tons, and were about 50 feet long and 25 wide. The relatively shallow draft, a little more than six feet, made the old pirate and smuggler's trick of escape by sailing over shoal water less effective.

Little is known about the early exploits of the cutters, as most of their records were lost when the British attacked Washington in the War of 1812. Coast Guard tradition has it that Massachusetts (pictured above) was the first cutter to serve as a commissioned United States vessels; other records indicate that Vigilant, launched in March 1791, was the first. Whatever the case, a total of ten cutters were built that first year. Their mission: board vessels to verify that their papers were in order, their cargo properly documented, and their fees and tariffs properly paid. The cutters seized vessels in violation of the law.

As the only armed maritime service of the United States -- the Navy would not be created until 1798 -- the cutters also enforced quarantines, and US neutrality and embargo acts. The cutters also conducted charting surveys, supplied lighthouses, and even carried passengers on (usually) official business.

The first ten cutters served for a fairly short time -- the Massachusetts was sold only 15 months after she was launched. The cutter Argus sailed the longest, until it was sold in 1804 (the average US Coast Guard cutter serving today was commissioned 20 to 40 years ago).

More on the first ten cutters can be found on the Coast Guard's web site here.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Transiting the Panama Canal

On this day in 1914, the Panama Canal opened for business when the SS Ancon, under the first Panama Canal pilot John Constantine, became the first vessel to complete a passage through the Canal. Since then, more than 800,000 vessels have transited the Canal.

The R/V Alucia had sat at anchor near the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal for nearly 28 hours, and we still had not "cleared in" to the country yet. Even the crew members from Latin American countries, long used to slow-moving bureaucracies, thought things seemed to be moving slower than usual. Then we got the message: we could not clear customs, or book our passage through the Canal, until we anchored in the correct spot: the regulations involving transit of the Canal were very specific.

Our vessel, en route from Seattle, USA, to Recife, Brazil, would have required another 45 days at least to travel the additional 11,000 miles around the southern tip of South America. Transiting the 48-mile-long Panama Canal saved time, fuel, and money, but had requirements of its own:

Priority. All vessels must have an appointment to transit the Canal. Commercial vessels have priority over yachts, and military vessels of the Republic of Panama and the United States have priority over all. Appointments can be made up to nine weeks in advance.

Size. Vessels must be able to fit into the three sets of locks, the smallest of which is 320 meters (1050 feet) long and 33.5 (110 feet) wide. Vessels up to 80,000 tons can fit this description, called Panamax, although not usually when they are fully loaded. Vessels must also be able to fit under the Bridge of the Americas, at the Pacific entrance to the Canal, which has a minimum high tide clearance of 201 feet. A new set of locks, currently under construction and scheduled to open in 2014, would allow ships up to 1400 feet long and 180 feet wide to transit the Canal.

Pilots. Everywhere else in the world, pilots are simply advisors: the master is still the legal authority on board a ship. Panama Canal pilots are the exception. According to the Canal's regulations, "The pilot assigned to the vessel shall have control of the navigation and movement of such a vessel." In effect, the pilot becomes the captain for the duration of the transit. Any vessel more than 20 meters (65 feet) long is required to carry a pilot; boats shorter than that are required to carry a "traffic advisor."

Locking through. Each vessel going through the Canal is required to bring on a crew of Panamanian line handlers. With the assistance of a crew in a row boat, cables are led to the ship from "mules," locomotives on the lock wall that actually pull the ship through the lock.

The Canal's line handlers have an unsavory reputation among mariners. They are frequently forbidden from going into the interior of a vessel. In my own recent transit, I had to stop a line hander from going into crew quarters to conduct his "business" -- selling hats, keychains, and pornographic DVDs.

Cost. The fee a vessel pays for transiting the Canal varies depending on size and type of vessel, and the formula for computing the fee is complex. For a normal cargo vessel over 1600 tons, the fee is between US$3.00 and $4.00 per ton. Thus, the fee can range into the hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single transit.

For more on locks and canals, see my post here.

One of the passengers on board the cruise ship Radiance of the Seas filmed a time-lapse video of the ship's Caribbean-to-Pacific transit in 2008. See it here.

For the complete 112-page document, Regulations of Navigation in Panama Canal Waters, click here.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Monday Morning Mariner: If You Really Miss Going To Sea

You know what I'm doin' when this is over? I'm puttin' into port, I'm gettin' off the ship, I'm puttin' an oar on my shoulder, and I'm startin' inland, and the first time a guy says to me: "What's that on your shoulder?" that's where I'm settlin' for the rest of my life.
-- "Boats" O' Hara, Action in the North Atlantic

To celebrate my return to this blog, here's one for all my mariner readers who have retired, been downsized, or switched to a land job for personal or economic reasons. This material isn't original with me: I first saw some version of this about seventeen years ago, and it no doubt pre-dates that time by several years, if not decades.

If You Really Miss Going To Sea
  1. Sleep on the shelf in your closet. Replace the closet door with a curtain. Six hours after you go to sleep, have your spouse whip open the curtain, shine a flashlight in your eyes, and mumble "sorry, wrong rack."
  2. Renovate your bathroom. Build a wall across the middle of your bathtub and move the shower head down to chest level. When you take showers, make sure you shut off the water while soaping up.
  3. Every time there's a thunderstorm, go sit in a wobbly rocking chair and rock as hard as you can until you're nauseous.
  4. Put lube oil in your humidifier instead of water and set it to "High."
  5. Leave lawnmower running in your living room six hours a day for proper noise level.
  6. Have the paperboy give you a haircut.
  7. Once a week blow compressed air up through your chimney, making sure the wind carries the soot across and onto your neighbor's house. Laugh at him when he curses you.
  8. Buy a trash compactor and only use it once a week. Store up garbage in the other side of your bathtub.
  9. Wake up every night at midnight and have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on stale bread, if anything. (Optional: Canned ravioli or cold soup.)
  10. Make up your family menu a week ahead of time without looking in your food cabinets or refrigerator.
  11. Set your alarm clock to go off at random times during the night. When it goes off, jump out of bed and get dressed as fast as you can, then run out into your yard and break out the garden hose.
  12. Once a month take every major appliance completely apart and then put them back together.
  13. Use 18 scoops of coffee per pot and allow it to sit for 5 or 6 hours before drinking.
  14. Invite at least 85 people you don't really like to come and visit for a couple of months.
  15. Have a fluorescent lamp installed on the bottom of your coffee table and lie under it to read books.
  16. Raise the thresholds and lower the top sills on your front and back doors so that you either trip over the threshold or hit your head on the sill every time you pass through one of them.
  17. Lockwire the lugnuts on your car.
  18. When making cakes, prop up one side of the pan while it is baking. Then spread icing really thick on one side to level off the top.
  19. Every so often, throw your cat into the swimming pool, shout "Man overboard, ship recovery!", run into the kitchen and sweep all the pots/pans/dishes off of the counter onto the floor, then yell at your spouse for not having the place "stowed for sea."
  20. Put on the headphones from your stereo (don't plug them in). Go and stand in front of your stove. Say (to nobody in particular) "Stove manned and ready." Stand there for 3 or 4 minutes. Say (once again to nobody in particular) "Stove secured." Roll up the headphone cord and put them away.
I first saw a list like this one shortly after I started working on ships. The first time I read it, it was a photocopy of a photocopy of a type-written piece of paper, then it was an email Forward, then an HTML document. The technology to spread it has changed, but the basic reality of this list hasn't really changed much since I first saw it. Maybe we should add an item like: "Go online and print out a random certificate of some kind. Add an $800 charge to your credit card. File the certificate away in the thickest 3-ring binder you can find. Repeat in five years."

For a look at a guy actually running a lawn mower in his living room, click here.