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Eric Jay Dolin, whose previous work includes Leviathan and When America Met China, has generated yet another meticulously researched and well narrated piece of nautical history. Focusing on America’s lighthouses from inception to the current day, Brilliant Beacons is a sweeping, majestic piece that encompasses technology, material culture, engineering, personal histories and the strategic role lighthouses have played in America’s development and growth over the last three plus centuries.

Writing with the passion of someone who has long had a love affair with the sea and her incredible stories, Dolin draws the reader in with the origins of American lighthouse design and tirelessly waltzes through topics that lesser authors would render dry and boring. This is the second of Dolin’s books reviewed on this site and both have held particular meaning for me. The first being When America Met China, which, for someone who majored in Chinese language at America’s ninth oldest university, was of particular interest and is a phenomenal read. Having grown up in North Carolina, I have always had an affinity for lighthouses, especially given that I was a young teenager when the iconic Cape Hatteras light house was moved 1,500 feet to save it from being engulfed by the ravaging waves of the Atlantic. Thus, the subject of Brilliant Beacons more than intrigued me and, while I didn’t have the opportunity to read it at the beach, I read the first 25% from my home overlooking the Port of Tampa and the remaining 75% on a round-trip flight to New York City, a city forever linked with the sea.

Overall, Dolin’s narrative style enables the reader to make quick work of the book’s 400 plus pages. Saying Brilliant Beacons is the perfect beach read might sound a little cliche, however, the book is both illuminating and entertaining and the timing of its release at the height of the summer months could not have been better planned. Pick up Dolin’s latest and read away, you will be glad you did.

 

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CC Courtesy of Harold Meerveld on Flickr

Engineers and archaeologists have successfully raised a 600 year old sailing cog from the depths of the Ijssel River in the Netherlands. The 55 ton vessel, along with a barge and punt, had been deliberately sunk to alter the flow of the river to make it more navigable and easier for ships to dock on the Ijssel’s banks. Then, as now, maritime trade was essential to the Dutch economy and any impediments to riverine traffic directly affected the economic well-being of the area’s inhabitants. As such, medieval maritime engineers devised a plan to divert the flow of silt from the river’s banks making docking along the bank easier. The engineers strategically sank the cog, barge and punt to achieve their goal. The river quickly silted up over the vessels which created the anaerobic environment essential to the state of preservation they are currently in.

The vessels were rediscovered in 2012 and a lifting platform was built to raise the vessel from the seabed. As is the case with many scuttled vessels, the cog had been stripped of all items of value, however, archaeologists hope to study the techniques in the construction of the vessel. Now begins the lengthy preservation process which involves slowly removing salt from the vessel’s timbers and eventually drying it out. If successful, then the vessel would be a smaller version of England’s Mary Rose or Sweden’s Vasa.

Robert KursonRobert Kurson is back again with another story of adventure, exploration and humanity with Pirate Hunters. In Pirate Hunters, John Chatterton, one of the main characters of Kurson’s previous book Shadow Divers, embarks on an expedition to locate and salvage the wreck of the Golden Fleece, a pirate ship lost in the 1600s off the coast of the Dominican Republic. Kurson blends the story of 17th century Captain Joseph Bannister, 21st century divers John Chatterton and John Mattera and the zany world of shipwreck hunters to create an exciting and engaging read. The book swiftly transports the reader from the shores of the present day United States and Dominican Republic to the 17th century and back again as Chatterton and Mattera seek to solve the mystery of where lies the wreck of the Golden Fleece, a pirate ship captained by the enigmatic Joseph Bannister.

Coming in at just under 250 pages, Pirate Hunters is a quick read (the author read it in a day of air travel), but covers a great deal of ground and introduces the reader to such legends within the Florida wreck diving community as Bob Marx. Readers will be amused and enthralled at the colorful stories of Chatterton and Mattera’s efforts in the Dominican Republic, stories which typify the rough and tumble life just a few hours flying time from US shores.

A minor quibble with Kurson’s writing is that he devotes a significant amount of the short work to the life stories of Chatterton and Mattera. While this fleshes them out as real life men, the amount of pages devoted to their back stories detracts from their groundbreaking work in the Dominican Republic and the story of the sinking and salvage of the Golden Fleece. Overall, though, Pirate Hunters is a great book to enjoy as one soaks in the last few days of summer.

Great War

A post written by the author for another website didn’t include an illustration of his great-grandfather, Ernest Kronenfeld, who served in the Great War.

CSS Georgia

In early 1862, the ladies of Savannah, Georgia came together to raise funds to partially pay for the construction of an ironclad to defend their native city. Dubbed the “Ladies’ Ram,” the vessel was launched on May 20, 1862 and commissioned as the CSS Georgia in July 1862. Like many of the Confederate Navy’s other ironclad vessels, the Georgia suffered from weak engines which kept her from making any serious effort to sally forth and break the Union blockade of her home port. Instead, the vessel was utilized as a floating battery and moored in a location where she could be warped so as to bring either broadside to bear on attacking vessels. Her career ended suddenly on December 20, 1864 as General Sherman’s March to the Sea brought him ever nearer Savannah.

Although partially salvaged for her armor of iron rails, the Georgia remained at the bottom of the Savannah River perilously close to the main shipping lane. Rediscovered in 1969, the vessel is now about to undergo a final salvage effort by the US Navy’s Mobile Diving Salvage Unit 2. The removal of the ship is necessary to complete a $703 million channel dredging project to enlarge Savannah’s shipping capacity. The unit will work from June 1 to July 20 to remove the ship’s armor, steam engine, superstructure components and arms and armaments. Following their salvage, the items will undergo conservation at the US Naval History and Heritage Command’s Conservation Research Laboratory in College Station, TX.

Tamar Hong Kong

HMS Tamar before her conversion to a floating depot ship

According to a report by the South China Morning Post, the remains of the HMS Tamar may have been discovered in the midst of the Wan Chai Development project in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour. If the vessel is indeed the Tamar, then its re-discovery dredges up a chapter in Hong Kong’s history that most of the cast of characters involved would prefer remain silent. Built in 1863 (some sources state she was launched in 1865), the Tamar was named for the Cornish river Tamar in southwest England and was the fifth vessel to carry the name.

Tamar arrived in Hong Kong on April 11, 1897 as a transport vessel and was transitioned to a floating office and depot ship. For the next forty-four years she served in this capacity until Hong Kong was threatened with Japanese invasion in December 1941. On the night of December 11/12th, the Tamar was towed out to deep water and scuttled, however, due to her enlarged superstructure, the vessel did not sink immediately and shore artillery had to finish the job. Thirty-five of the two hundred fifty ship’s company of sailors and Royal Marines perished in the next two weeks as the British fought against long odds to hold off the Japanese invasion force.

Hong Kong Tamar

                                                                            HMS Tamar as a floating depot ship

Following the liberation of Hong Kong in 1945, the wreck was removed so as not to be a hazard to navigation and the Royal Navy’s shore station was renamed HMS Tamar in 1947. Despite the salvage effort, it is likely elements of the ship’s keel and lower decks were left in the mud of Victoria Harbour. This is most likely what was rediscovered by the Wan Chai Development crews and how the vessel is treated is an open question perhaps many would rather not have asked. The scuttling of the Tamar is a reminder to Britain of her embarrassing defeat in Asia during World War Two – the loss of Singapore, Hong Kong and HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse to the Japanese severely undermined Britain’s primacy in Asia. It is also a reminder to the People’s Republic of the eight years of misery they endured at the hands of the Japanese as well as the ignominy of having certain ports colonized by foreign powers. Finally, it reminds Japan of a past it would at times rather forget.

Capture

News is slowly seeping its way into the press regarding the incredible discovery and excavation of the SS City of Cairo, a World War II British Merchant Navy vessel sunk in the South Atlantic at the height of the Battle of the Atlantic. The stories surrounding the City of Cairo are numerous with an entire book, Goodnight, Sorry for Sinking You, having been written about her sinking and the travails of her survivors. The City of Cairo was traveling from Bombay, India to the UK with stopovers in South Africa and Brazil and among her cargo of 7,422 tons were 2,000 boxes of silver Indian rupees stowed in the Number 4 hold.

In addition to the general cargo and precious metals, the City of Cairo carried 150 passengers with a total complement of 311 souls aboard. Sighted by U-68, a German U-boat captained by Karl-Friedrich Merten, the City of Cairo was quickly dispatched on the night of November 6, 1942 by two torpedoes. Six lives were lost in the initial evacuation into six overcrowded lifeboats. Interested in learning what vessel he had sunk and what she was carrying, Merten surfaced his U-boat to speak with the survivors. He directed them to the closest land and closed with the now semi-famous words, “Goodnight, sorry for sinking you.”

The survivors then began what would become an epic and tragic fight for survival. Unfortunately, the boats rapidly lost touch with one another in the vastness of the South Atlantic. One group consisting of three boats with 155 survivors was picked up on November 19th after thirteen harrowing days at sea. The group had nearly made it to their destination of St. Helena which was 500 miles from the point of sinking. Another group of only 2 survivors was picked up on December 27th only 80 miles from the coast of Brazil. The original group of 17 had sailed nearly 2,000 miles before being rescued. The third group of three survivors were rescued by a German blockade runner, Rhakotis on December 12th. One of the survivors perished aboard the Rhakotis. For the two survivors, their story became even stranger when, on January 1, the Rhakotis was herself intercepted and sunk by Allied warships. Thankfully, the two were rescued and brought home safely to the United Kingdom. In all, 104 persons died as a result of the sinking.

Public information is very limited as the salvors have sought a low profile with the project, but the salvage company Deep Ocean Search is claiming to have recovered 100 tons of silver coins from the wreck of the City of Cairo over the last few years. If true, then it is quite an accomplishment as the wreck lay in 17,000 feet of water and days of sailing from the closest port. The photos of the wreck and coins provided by Deep Ocean Search are quite stunning. There has been no word on whether the company intends to make the coins available for sale or is melting them for sale into the precious metals market.