Hogging and Sagging

ZhengHe

July 10th 1405 is the supposed date of departure for the first of the “discovery” voyages of Admiral Zheng He.  There is a lot of hyperbole given out about these voyages and many Chinese compare them to the European voyages of discovery.  There is also a lot of boasting about the size of the ships involved.

Zheng He was a Muslim eunuch, scion of a famous Persian lineage which served the Mongol Empire.

The notion that he “discovered” anything is a little silly.  The Arabs had been sailing the seven seas since Sinbad was a boy in the 9th century and by the 15th Century when Zheng He weighed anchor their trade routes were well documented.  All he did was follow the Arabic trade routes to establish the bona fides of the Chinese Court from Africa to the far East.

The other great claim is that he built the largest wooden ships in the world.  It may be true that they were the largest when they were sailing, but it is debatable if they were as big as claimed.  There are limits to the size of vessels imposed by physics.  The largest documented wooden sailing ship, the Wyoming at 137 metres, was a six masted schooner built in 1909 in Maine, USA.  She suffered horribly from hogging and sagging in heavy seas.

Hogging occurs when a ship is on top of a wave supported by the middle section.  A very long ship can bend down at the fore and aft sections, since they are unsupported.  The opposite, sagging, occurs when the fore and aft are supported on two waves, leaving the mid-ship suspended, causing the vessel to sag in the middle.

The cumulative effect of hogging and sagging over time is to twist the planking in the hull, causing leaky seams.  Wyoming needed constant work at the pumps to keep her from flooding.  She eventually sank in heavy seas in 1924.

The Chinese claim Zheng He’s flagships, his nine masted treasure ships, were even longer and much wider than the Wyoming.  They probably employed a very different type of construction, far bulkier and more rigid.  Also the nine masts were likely far shorter than those of an American Schooner.  Chinese Junk Rigs use shorter masts with fully battened sails.  It would be no surprise that a ship the length of Wyoming would need more, shorter masts to drive it.

The fleet of 317 ships carrying 30,000 men was undoubtedly impressive and you get the sense that these voyages were intended to leave the world in awe of the power of the Ming dynasty.  The intention may have been to exert Chinese control over the Indian Ocean trade.

Ultimately it was not the Chinese who subdued the Indian Ocean.  Vasco da Gama returned to Portugal from India in 1499, just scraping in as the 15th Century voyager who had the most significant impact on world history.  He set out with 4 ships, none longer than 30 metres, and 170 men.  Sometimes size is not everything.

Bread Basket

Egypt

Egypt was the most valuable province of Rome for two reasons.  The first is obvious, in a time when any food surplus was highly valued Egypt was the bread basket of the Mediterranean world, churning out a regular, highly dependable surplus of wheat.

Secondly it operated out of step with the Northern summer season.  The monsoons hit Ethiopia in the Summer causing the Nile flood, so the Egyptians were planting when the Italians and Greeks were harvesting.  This allowed the Empire to stagger the deployment of transport.  Ships that transported grain from Sicily and Africa in Autumn could switch to the Egyptian trade in Spring.

When Rome lost Italy, Sicily, North Africa, Sardinia and ruled from Constantinople Egypt gained in importance.

As a result the 6th of July was a black day for the Romans when, in 640 AD a small force of Arabs under the brilliant general Amr ibn al-As al-Sahmi routed the Byzantines at the battle of Heliopolis on the outskirts of Cairo.

The Romans had, after a lifetime of war by Emperor Heraclius, defeated their arch nemesis, the Sassanid Empire, in 622.  As the two punch-drunk empires reeled away from each other the newly unified Arabs exploded out of the Arabian Peninsula and overran the Sassanid lands; the ancient Persian Empire.

The Romans believed themselves safe for at least a generation as the Arabs assimilated the feuding elements of the Persian empire.  They met the Arabs properly for the first time at the battle of Yarmouk in Syria in a battle that lasted for six days.  Rome lost Syria, but that was not a complete disaster.  Rome could survive without troublesome Syria.

But Egypt was another matter.  The loss of Egypt was a near deathblow to the Roman Empire.  Ultimately the Byzantine Empire could only survive by re-organisation of the entire economy.  The grain dole that marked out the highs of Roman Civilization had to cease when Egypt was lost.  Roman dominance of Mare Nostrum, the Mediterranean Sea ended as the Arabs gained a coastline with well defended harbours.

The Arabs by contrast, were unleashed.  Their cavalry thundered across the North African Deserts to Morocco and Spain.  Where horses and camels galloped the ships followed.  The failings of the Byzantines at Heliopolis were felt by Christians across the entire Western World.

 

The Northern Penguin

Auk

The final confirmed sighting of a nesting pair of Great Auks was off Iceland on July 3rd, 1844 when a pair were killed.  The Auk became a victim of it’s increasing rarity.  As the species dwindled museums and collectors across Europe competed with each other to secure specimens of the birds and their eggs.  As the prices rose the collectors stepped up the hunt until the last birds were found and killed.

Icelandic sailors Jón Brandsson and Sigurður Ísleifsson strangled the adults and Ketill Ketilsson accidentally cracked the last egg of the species with his boot during the struggle on the island of Eldey.

The Great Auk was the only “modern” bird in the genus Pinguinus.  None of the Antarctic Penguins alive today are related to the Auk and none of them belong to the genus pinguinus.  But it was the resemblance of southern penguin species to the Great Auk that led to them being called Penguins.

An important source of food for humans since neanderthals walked the earth they provided much needed winter protein for native american tribes.  But it was their downy feathers that doomed them.  They were harvested widely for feathers.  They were also used as a convenient source of fresh food by explorers and fishermen, who would herd flocks of them on to their ships for provisions.

The feather collectors used the oily birds as fuel for cooking fires on the desolate rocks on which they lived.

Ah, but those were different times, you say.  We wouldn’t do that these days.  Would we?

Man is still wiping the planet clean of species after species in our pursuance of depletion economics.  Every  business targets growth, and few of them ever pause to consider how this growth impacts the planet.  How much is too much?  How much is enough.  When will we begin to live on this planet within our means?

Because if mankind cannot live within our means, we will go the way of the Auk.

A caution to everybody by Ogden Nash

Consider the auk;
becoming extinct because he forgot how to fly, and could only walk.
Consider man, who may well become extinct
because he forgot how to walk and learned how to fly before he thinked.

 

 

Skerries

LE_Roisin_at_Rockall

A skerry is a small islet or rocky reef, generally uninhabitable because they are washed by the sea in storms.  The word skerry derives from the Norse sker which is a rock in the sea.  It derives from the older proto-indo-european word sker meaning to cut.

Some say this refers to the fact that a skerry is a rock cut off from the mainland.  As a sailor I wonder if it refers to the result should you cross a skerry by accident.  It cuts a hole in your hull.

The SS Norge did exactly that on the Hasselwood rock, on the 24th of June 1904.  A Danish liner, she sank for the loss of 635 people.  Hasselwood rock is a skerry that lies just to the north of the contested Rockall, which lies far out in the North Atlantic between Ireland, Scotland, Faroe and Iceland.

Rockall has been claimed by the UK for many years, but the claim is contested because the rock is uninhabitable.  The huge Atlantic storm waves regularly break over the entire rock.  They officially claimed the rock in 1955, which would have made it the last imperial acquisition of the UK, if anyone had accepted it.  Nobody does.  But they did stick a plaque on the rock.

In 1971 the Royal Engineers and Royal Marines were dropped onto the rock by helicopter.  They used explosives to level a pad on the top of the rock, and this level base was the site for installation of a beacon.  They also installed another plaque to establish that the British owned the rock.

In 1978 the members of the Dangerous Sports Club held a cocktail party on the rock, and stole the 1971 plaque.

In 1985 survival expert Tom McClean lived on the rock for the month of June, and a little bit of May and July.  His occupation record was expunged when Greenpeace spent 42 days on the rock in 1997.  They wanted to protest any attempt to exploit the waters for fossil fuels.  It was around this time that the 1955 plaque seems to have disappeared.

Nick Hancock holds the current record at 45 days.

Visiting and claiming ownership of the rock has become something of a standing joke at the expense of the British Crown.  But Rockall will never become an “Insta” prize.  It is not an easy place to reach and a harder place to stay.  Still, I guess it’s only a matter of time before some intrepid instagrammer loses their life for the shot of a lifetime.

 

The Rock in the Sea; by Archibald MacLeish

Think of our blindness where the water burned!
Are we so certain that those wings, returned
and turning, we had half discerned
before our dazzled eyes had surely seen
the bird aloft there, did not mean? —
Our hearts so seized upon the sign!

Think how we sailed up-wind, the brine
tasting of daphne, the enormous wave
thundering in the water cave —
thunder in stone. And how we beached the skiff
and climbed the coral of that iron cliff
and found what only in our hearts we’d heard —
the silver screaming of that one, white bird:
The fabulous wings, the crimson beak
that opened, red as blood, to shriek
and clamor in that world of stone,
no voice to answer but its own.

What certainty, hidden in our hearts before,
found in the bird its metaphor?

 

First Zeebrugge Disaster

Reproduction of a Cog

I have vivid memories of 1987 when the MV Herald of Free Enterprise, a Ro-Ro ferry capsized just after leaving the Belgian port of Zeebrugge.  It lay in shallow waters, half out of the water, but still 193 passengers and crew were trapped and died in the ship.

Long before Zeebrugge was a port the coastline of Zeeland and Flanders was very different.  The modern landlocked Dutch town of Sluis was, back in 1340 AD the Flemish port of Sluys.

The English under Edward III decided to land an army in the Low Countries in an opening gambit of the 100 years war, on this day, June 24th.  The French moved to the estuary with their superior fleet of 220 vessels.  In an accepted tactic of the day they chained the vessels together to create a floating fortress.

The English entered the river mouth with their fleet of about 130 ships.   They had few warships and mostly used commandeered merchant cogs.  The deep keeled and high sided vessels gave the English longbow men good elevation over the French galleys.  They also had a good following wind and freedom to maneuver.  As the English rained down shot and arrows the hapless French began to cast off their chains to break out of their “fortress”.

As they broke off piecemeal the French ships were hunted down by the English, operating in packs of 3.  In this way they captured over 160 French vessels and sank another 30 or so.  For a loss of 500 men the English took up to 20,000 French lives.  It was an unqualified disaster for France.

But the English navy did not “Rule the Waves” quite yet, and they were unable to convert the victory into any significant long term advantage either on land or sea.  No surprise given that the war was to drag on for a century.  The Knight’s son, the Squire from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales might well have been at Sluys….

With hym ther was his sone, a yong Squiér,
a lovyere and a lusty bacheler,
with lokkes crulle as they were leyd in presse.
Of twenty yeer of age he was, I gesse.
Of his statúre he was of evene lengthe,
and wonderly delyvere and of greet strengthe.
And he hadde been somtyme in chyvachie
in Flaundres, in Artoys, and Pycardie,
and born hym weel, as of so litel space,
in hope to stonden in his lady grace.
Embrouded was he, as it were a meede
al ful of fresshe floures whyte and reede.
Syngynge he was, or floytynge, al the day;
He was as fressh as is the month of May.

Happy Birthday Jacques Cousteau

Cousteau

As a scuba diver myself I am eternally grateful to the father of the Aqualung, the pioneer of sport diving Jacques Cousteau.  Born on this day in Aquitaine, France in 1910.

His contribution to diving, and to marine conservation, cannot be overstated.  He was also hugely influential in the film industry and bringing nature documentaries to a mainstream audience.

If you look up the town of Kilkee in Ireland on Wikipedia you will see a note that Cousteau considered Kilkee the finest dive site in Europe.  He probably said it too.  He regularly dived there with the local Scuba fanatic, the owner of the fish and chip shop: Manuel Dilucia.   As you can tell from his surname Manuel was not a Kilkee native; he was born in Belfast.  Indeed so were his parents.  It was his grandparents who emigrated from Italy.

Manuel’s was the “good” chipper in Kilkee.  A bit more expensive but worth it if you had a spare penny.  Manuel Dilucia was involved in all things marine in Kilkee.  He brought his love of seafood to the Irish people, who rated the fruits of the sea low on the scale of things to eat.  Manuel brought his Italian delight of seafood together with his love of marine sport.  He eventually opened a gourmet seafood restaurant in Kilkee when the locals were ready for more than battered cod after the pub.

He helped the Gardai with underwater searches, he pioneered scuba diving, he worked tirelessly on conservation of the natural environment and he founded the marine rescue service. It is no surprise that Jacques Cousteau would seek him out if he was interested in diving the West of Ireland.  So it may be unaccredited but I believe that Jacques Cousteau said that Kilkee was the best place to dive in Europe.

 

Dover Beach; by Matthew Arnold

The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
upon the straits; on the French coast the light
gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
listen! you hear the grating roar
of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
at their return, up the high strand,
begin, and cease, and then again begin,
with tremulous cadence slow, and bring
the eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
of human misery; we
find also in the sound a thought,
hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
retreating, to the breath
of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
and naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
to one another! for the world, which seems
to lie before us like a land of dreams,
so various, so beautiful, so new,
hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
and we are here as on a darkling plain
swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
where ignorant armies clash by night.

Black Irish

Black Irish

On June 7th 1832 the Asian Cholera arrived in Quebec.  The devastating disease took the lives of some 6,000 people, which was bad for the French and English Canadians who died.  It was worse for the Irish Canadians who were blamed for the disease.

It was not only in Canada that Irish were blamed for the Cholera.  All over the USA Irish Immigrants were held responsible for outbreaks of the disease.  Where Irish communities were absent the White Anglo Protestant ascendancy blamed the blacks.

From the caricatures above you can see that the Irish Immigrant on the right is portrayed with many of the features of the black reconstruction era politicians on the left.  Thick lips, vacant protruding eyes, aggressive postures; stupid, violent people.

The second cholera pandemic, also known as the Asiatic Cholera Pandemic, originated in Asia and spread to Eastern Russia.  From there it was tracked across the European continent.  The British Government quarantined vessels from Russia and Poland in 1831.  The symptoms were reported to the British Government from St Petersburgh, Russia by two English Doctors.

Yet when the disease reached Canada and the USA it was blamed on the minority groups of Irish and Negroes.  This is still happening today.  The English people want to blame the Coronavirus on Asian students.  Irish nationalist idiots attacked a fruit farm for employing Bulgarian strawberry pickers.  Donald Trump wants to blame the Chinese.

Populists harness diseases to push their agendas.  With Cholera this was quite easy.  Poor immigrants tend to live in the cheapest slums in the most unsanitary conditions.  They suffer worst from a water borne disease like Cholera.  It is easy to point the finger at them as a source of the illness.

This racism of 1832 was to have enduring consequences for the Irish.  When the Great Hunger struck in 1845 with the collapse of the Irish Potato Crop one route for the starving people was across the Atlantic to the New World.  But the memories were fresh of the Cholera outbreak and nobody was welcoming starving Irish to the Americas.

No_Irish_Need_Apply

 

The Pen and the Sword

lesmis

The 6th of June has seen many great days and is, currently, best known for D Day because we still have among us some of the men who stormed the beaches of Normandy in 1944.

Back in 1832 the 6th of June saw the crushing of the rebels in Paris during the June Rebellion, or the Paris Uprising.  The events were part of a confused series of Republican actions opposing the re-establishment of the Monarchy.  Many such actions have decayed in our memories as the participants died off.  But this one was immortalised when Victor Hugo framed his novel Les Misérables around the events.

This great novel of France was something I was aware of on the periphery in my youth, but there was never reason to read it or pay any particular attention to it.  It served simply as a literary reference.

Then in 1980 a French Musical version appeared in Paris written by Claude-Michel Schönberg (music), Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel (French Lyrics).  By 1985 an English language version with lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer reached London and has been on stage there ever since.  It is the longest running West End musical and the second longest running musical in the world.

In 2012 it went on release as a big budget movie version becoming a multi-million dollar success story.

Two years later a schools adapted version was staged in the Ursuline College Thurles in 2014.  My daughter was cast variously as a washerwoman, prostitute, and a rebel on the barricade with minor lines throughout the show.  That was the first time I saw it.

I would suggest that people today know more about the Paris Uprising of 1832 than they know about the Normandy Landings in 1944.  There is a challenge for a quizmaster!

Here is a parody from Key & Peele, in which everything is wrong!

Key & Peele – Les Mis

 

 

 

Sail Oil

Kilkee

Kilkee in County Clare on the West Coast of Ireland has an amazingly scenic beach, Moore Bay.  The strand is a perfect horseshoe open to the vastness of the North Atlantic.  On the north fringe of the beach is a small pier and boat slip used by the local fishermen.  Fishing is heavily weather dependent and Kilkee is not a bay in which you can keep a fleet due to it’s exposure to Western Storms.  And most of the storms on this coast are Western Storms.

Growing up I spent many years on holidays in Kilkee and our days were planned around the tides.  We went swimming almost every day.  If the tides were high we would walk out the headland to the North side of the bay to Byrne’s Cove.  For low tide days the pollock holes came into play, natural rock pools that lie just below this photo above on the bottom left corner.

The long channel gives some protection to Moore Bay, but not much.  I have seen breakers ten feet tall on the beach.

Sail Oil was a nickname given to the local village idiot.  That term is not used these days, but Jerry McDermott filled that role in the town.  He attempted to be a fisherman, but had the good sense to remain on his little boat within the bay so he didn’t catch a lot.

My oldest brothers went out in his currach with him once when they were young teenagers.  Along the way they encountered a basking shark, the second biggest fish in the world.  Basking sharks are enormous but placid plankton feeders.  When the boys tried to attract the shark by splashing their hands in the water poor Sail Oil had a meltdown.

If they had a good catch the real fishermen would toss Jerry a few mackerel or pollock to sell on the street corner beside Hickey’s Guesthouse.  When he gathered a few shillings he would nip into May Naughten’s Pub for a pint or two.  When the money ran short he would throw cow eyes at the locals and tourists in the hope of scamming a free pint.

He had a wooden pole with a bent metal hook for crabbing at the Pollock Holes.  Apparently he knew all the best spots for the plate sized brown crabs you can find there.

After storms he would walk the strand beach-combing for anything valuable that might have washed ashore.  That was how he found the mysterious cylinder that was behind the Thresher Hoax.  But that’s another story.

 

 

 

Thresher

Thresher

Launched in 1960 the USS Thresher was the fastest submarine of its day.  It was a nuclear powered attack submarine – a submarine hunter killer.

This was back in the early days of nuclear powered vessels and a lot of experimentation was happening.  In 1961 while docking in Puerto Rico the Thresher turned off its Nuclear Generator (standard practice in port) and ran on a backup diesel generator.  Unfortunately the diesel broke down and she had to resort to battery.  When it became clear the diesel could not be repaired the officers attempted to restart the nuclear generator, but the battery charge was too low.  So the embarrassed Captain had to ask another ship for a loan of some cables and then connected them to the diesel submarine, USS Cavalla, for a jump start.

In April 1963 the Thresher was engaged in deep diving tests off the coast of Boston.  The lives of 129 crew and shipyard personnel were lost in one of the worst submarine disasters in history.

Subsequent efforts to recover the boat failed.  All through 1963 and 1964 the shortcomings of the USS Navy rescue equipment for deep dive situation became evident.  The Thresher was found in 1964 in five major sections spread out over a 33 acre wide area of the sea bed, and was photographed to ascertain the cause of sinking.

I grew up with the tale of the Thresher because of a subsequent prank.  I was born in 1963 so I have no direct memory of the events, but a bit of detective work will turn up the newspaper clippings of the day dated March 29th to March 31st or thereabout in 1966, three years after the sinking.

Thresher2

In those days we used to spend every summer holiday in Kilkee, County Clare in the West of Ireland.  So it was big news in March 1966 when a mystery enfolded.  A three foot cylinder bearing the name Thresher and with radioactive markings was found on the beach in Kilkee the far side of the Atlantic from the sinking.

The Irish police informed the US Navy as a precaution, but had already established that the object was not radioactive.  Two US Navy officers stationed at the Nuclear Submarine base in Holyloch in Scotland were dispatched to retrieve the “object” and it was a mini-media storm.  The events were widely picked up by news media around the world.

The truth, as I heard it, was that some local wags in Kilkee painted up an old barrel and decked it up with markings to make it look like debris from the wreck.  They then placed it on the beach to be found by a local beachcomber, Jerry McDermott.  Nicknamed “Sailoil” this simple man was, as we say in Ireland “a bit touched”.  Today we would say he is on some spectrum.  The traditional Irish rendition is “leag Dia lámh air” meaning “God laid a hand on him” or “God touched him” hence “touched”.  He was the perfect innocent straight man to perpetrate the prank.

Sailoil proudly bore his prize home and stored it under his mothers bed.   The news of the fine percolated out into town and caused a bit of consternation when people saw the nuclear markings.  So experts were sent for, armed with geiger counters to scan the object.  The press showed up and the hoaxers celebrated with pints as they watched the whole thing unfold on the News.  In 1966 this was the equivalent of “going viral”.

As I say my memory of these events is third hand hearsay.  If you know better let me know!