Archives For 21st Century

Robert Holland

Robert Holland’s Blue-Water Empire is a phenomenal history of British engagement in the Mediterranean world from 1800 to the present. Holland takes the reader around the entire circumference of the Mediterranean from Gibraltar to Malta to the Ionian Islands to Cyprus to Suez and leaves the reader struck by the influence the United Kingdom exerted in places many could not even locate on a map. Instead of focusing explicitly on social, political, military, diplomatic or economic history, Blue-Water Empire masterfully weaves them all together to present a comprehensive account of Great Britain’s strategy (or lack thereof) in colonizing and policing the Mediterranean over the course of three centuries.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is how Great Britain’s actions in the Mediterranean continue to echo today. For example, Holland carefully analyzes the trajectory of Cyprus under British rule and the air fields retained by the United Kingdom after her political withdrawal from the island. Those same air fields at Akrotiri and Dhekelia have been used as staging grounds for any action against Syria in 2013 or 2014. Also addressed in the book is the perennial question of how best to deal with the flood of refugees that accompanies unrest in North Africa or the Middle/Near East. Not only has the Arab Spring resulted in the destabilization of the region, but it also has driven refugees to seek asylum in places like Malta and Italy. Tragically, many of those refugees have died en route as their vessels are overcroweded and unseaworthy and subsequently sink.

Overall, Blue-Water Empire will not only entertain the casual reader, but will also inform the curious as to some of the origins of today’s headlines.


CC Image Courtesy of jim68000 on Flickr

A week ago the anchor handling tug Jacson 4 sank in heavy weather off the coast of Escravos, Nigeria. Divers were able to recover 10 bodies from the wreck, however, the ship’s cook Okene Harrison remained missing. Two days after the vessel’s sinking, divers located Mr. Harrison alive and well in one of the ship’s compartments. Miraculously, Mr. Harrison had survived nearly 48 hours on the oxygen trapped within the compartment.

Complicating his rescue, though, was the fact that his body had normalized to the pressures of the environment 90 feet beneath the surface and a return to the surface without equalizing the pressure would result in death from the bends. Donning a diving helmet, Mr. Harrison moved to the safety of a diving bell (similar to the one shown above) where it took a further two days underwater for him to decompress and return to the surface. As of May 31st, Mr. Harrison was recuperating and responding well to treatment after his providential recovery.

argentina navy

ARA Libertad
CC Image Courtesy of maduroman on Flickr

Earlier this October, a court in Ghana ordered the Argentinian naval training vessel ARA Libertad to be held until the Argentinian government posts a $20 million bond to release the ship. The action ultimately stems from Argentina defaulting on its debt in the early 2000s. Argentina’s default wiped its balance sheet clean of billions in bond liabilities while leaving bondholders with bonds worth 30% of their face value. Because Argentinian courts will not force repayment of the bonds, some bondholders who are holding out for the full value of the bonds have turned to more novel methods of collecting on Argentina’s sovereign debts.

One of the most time tested techniques for securing a judgment and payment on a debt is arresting the debtor’s assets when they are in a jurisdiction favorable to the bondholder. Thus, when Libertad arrived in Ghana, Elliott Capital Management sued for the vessel to be held until the Argentinian government pays the bond. While some would characterize the technique as nothing more than holding the ship hostage in exchange for a ransom, the bondholders merely seek to recoup the money the Argentinian government received from the sale of the bonds and promised to repay.

Elliott Capital Management, a New York based hedge fund, manages money for large institutional investors which often includes the likes of pension funds for firemen in Peoria, teachers in Chicago or trash collectors in Milwaukee. The Argentinian government has protested Ghana’s actions with their usual populist rhetoric and decried Elliott Capital Management’s actions as “trickery” instead of accepting it as simply the rule of law. Elliott Capital Management and other bondholders have received more than 100 court judgments against the Argentinian government, none of which the Argentinians have honored.

Yesterday the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea ordered Ghana to release the Libertad. Because both Argentina and Ghana are signatories to the Law of the Sea Treaty, the International Tribunal’s decision is binding and Ghana must release the ship. The United States has thus far not signed the treaty and this incident is yet another example of why signing the treaty would be a serious mistake for the US and would impede US sovereignty.

Photo: US Navy

Earlier this week the first of two test X-47B unmanned carrier aircraft systems was hoisted aboard the aircraft carrier USS Harry S Truman. The aircraft will continue a slate of tests that have occurred primarily at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station. Completion of the shipboard tests will bring the X-47B one step closer to proof of concept.

As illustrated below, the X-47B is a fighter sized unmanned aircraft system designed by Northrop Grumman. The X-47B is intended to provide the US Navy with an unmanned strike capability and, while the X-47B is merely a test bed for further development, the craft has been outfitted with two internal weapons bays capable of carrying a 4,500 lb, payload. Unlike most drones, the X-47B was designed to fly a specified route and return to base as opposed to being actively flown. If the X-47B’s concept is brought into production, then sometime in the next decade or two the US Navy will be able to strike targets without risking a single naval aviator.

Photo: Northrop Grumman

Below is official US Navy footage of the X-47B’s first test flight.

More photos of the X-47B can be found here.

Sandy Island

R/V Southern Surveyor

Australian scientists aboard the R/V Southern Surveyor have made a surprising (un)discovery in the South Pacific. Earlier this year, the Southern Surveyor had sailed to the eastern coast of Australia to conduct scientific research on tectonic activity in the region. While there, the team decided to investigate a discrepancy between one of their navigational maps and the remainder of their scientific and weather maps. While the ship’s scientific and weather maps displayed the existence of Sandy Island (referred to as Sable Island on some charts), an island approximately the size of Manhattan, between Australia and New Caledonia, one of their navigational maps had no such island.

Deciding to further investigate the island’s existence, the ship sailed to Sandy Island’s coordinates. Upon the Southern Surveyor’s arrival, though, the island was found to simply not exist. The ship arrived under cover of darkness and there were initial concerns that Sandy Island was merely submerged and could ground the Southern Surveyor. This theory was quickly dispelled as depth soundings found that the ocean was 1,400 meters deep at Sandy Island’s coordinates. Some have theorized that the island simply never existed and was merely a protection against unauthorized copying of a cartographer’s map while others have asserted that the island actually exists but was misplaced on the charts.

coastal steamer

SS Robin
CC Image Courtesy of Paul Hudson on Flickr

Entering service in December 1890, the SS Robin is the world’s oldest coastal cargo steamer still in existence. Robin spent the first 10 years of her life shuttling between British, Irish and continental ports. In 1900, Robin was sold to Spanish owners, renamed the Maria and spent the next 72 years plying Spanish and French coastal waters. The ship survived the ravages of both World Wars as well as the Spanish Civil War and was destined for the breakers yard in the early 1970s when the Maritime Trust purchased the ship intending to restore her for use as a museum ship.

After extensive restoration from 1974-1975 the Robin was placed on display until 1991 when the ship was mothballed. The ship was purchased by the SS Robin Trust in 2002. Beginning in 2008 the Robin was subjected to a multi-million dollar exterior and interior restoration which is now nearing completion. The Robin now resides atop a custom built floating dock reminiscent of a heavy lift ship like the M/V Blue MarlinThe interior of the floating dock will house exhibits detailing Robin’s history as a coastal steamer. SS Robin’s website describes the ship as possessing True Grit for surviving as long as she has. On a slightly related note, Charles Portis, the author of the American novel True Gritresides in Little Rock, Arkansas – the location of last week’s featured museum ship. Even though the Robin won’t be open to visitors until next year, its website extensively documents the ship’s history and provides a 360 degree virtual tour of the area surrounding the vessel.

chinese shipwrecks

Li River, Guilin, China
CC Image Courtesy of olly301 on Flickr

Xinhua News is reporting that China is building its first dedicated marine archaeology vessel. The ~175 foot ship will displace 860 tons and have the ability to both locate and excavate shipwrecks within Chinese coastal waters. Operated by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, it will be put to use finding and preserving China’s numerous ancient shipwrecks.

Much like Vietnam, China has the potential to be the location of a vast number of discoveries due to its society having been stunted from revolution, insularity and the ravages of communism. Today, the increase of both nations’ wealth and openness to the world has created opportunities for marine exploration to blossom.

Currently, Chinese marine archaeologists must rely on rented fishing vessels to serve as expedition platforms, although in the case of the Awa Maru project, the Chinese government spent millions on a dedicated salvage barge.

Captain Cook

HMB Endeavour
CC Image Courtesy of Alex Bikfalvi on Flickr

Launched in 1993, HMB Endeavour is a faithful recreation of the bark used by Lieutenant James Cook on his expedition to Australia and New Zealand from 1768 – 1771. Cook and his crew explored various parts of Australia and New Zealand, gave Botany Bay its name and even ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef. Returning home a hero, Cook led two more expeditions of discovery before his death at the hands of natives in the Hawaiian Islands. The Endeavour continued in his majesty’s service as a troop transport before being sold into private hands. Renamed Lord Sandwich the bark was eventually scuttled as a blockship off Providence, Rhode Island during the American Revolution.

Having sailed over 170,000 nautical miles and visited 29 countries, the bark now calls the Australian National Maritime Museum home. Located in Sydney, the Australian National Maritime Museum has more than a half dozen museum ships including the patrol vessel HMAS Advance, submarine HMAS Onslow, destroyer HMAS Vampire, and barque James Craig. The bark is open for tours and more information can be found here.

research vessel

R/V Sikuliaq
Photo: The Glosten Associates

Yesterday, Marinette Marine launched the arctic research vessel Sikuliaq which will enter service with the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 2014. Sikuliaq, which means young sea ice in Inupiaq, will replace the 40 year old R/V Alpha Helix. The $140 million ship is not only newer, but also is more capable than Alpha Helix. Being designed specifically for arctic use, the ship is capable of cutting through ice up to 3 feet thick and can house 26 scientists for up to 60 days at a time. With the increase in commercial use of the polar regions, the ship will be put to good use studying the geology of the arctic, its fisheries and changes in ice levels. One of Inupiaq‘s designers was also responsible for the new Neil Armstrong research vessel class for the US Navy. The University of Alaska Fairbanks plans for the ship to be deployed on oceanographic expeditions for 270 days out of the year.

st. louis low water ship

Wreck of USS Inaugural
Photo: Dillon Fulcher

Low water levels on the Mississippi have revealed the wreck of the USS Inaugural, a World War II minesweeper which sank in the Great Flood of 1993. The Inaugural began life in Washington state where it was built for the US Navy during World War II. A member of the Admirable class of minesweepers, the ship was commissioned in December of 1944 and earned two battle stars for its service in the Pacific Theater. Inaugural and her crew fought in the Okinawa campaign and swept more than 80 Japanese mines from the Pacific.

Following World War 2, the ship was mothballed in Texas as a member of the Atlantic Reserve Fleet until an enterprising St. Louisan named Robert O’Brien discovered the ship in a military surplus catalog. O’Brien purchased the ship and moved it to St. Louis where he charged $1 per person to tour the Inaugural. The Inaugural changed hands several times throughout the intervening years until she was ripped from her moorings during the Great Flood of 1993. Efforts by the US Coast Guard and other vessels allowed the ship to be safely beached just south of downtown St. Louis, however, the ship sank a few days later in what some believe to be mysterious circumstances – possibly flowing out of the owner’s desire to collect insurance on the vessel and pay off looming creditors.

The ship now breaks the surface every time the river level is below average and under current conditions is almost completely above water. The Inaugural is not the only recent maritime oddity on the St. Louis riverfront as a cement barge sank while at anchor just last year and a fire claimed the steamboat Robert E. Lee in 2010.

Go here for more pictures of the wreck.