Archives For Atlantic Ocean

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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.

 

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.

Cleopatra’s Needle

October 14, 2014 — Leave a comment

London Needle

For nearly a century and a half, an Egyptian obelisk has graced the Victoria Embankment along the Thames River in London. Flanked by a pair of sphinxes, the obelisk was gifted to the United Kingdom by Muhammad Ali, the ruler of Egypt and Sudan, in 1819 in honor of two British victories in Egypt including Admiral Nelson’s victory at the Battle of the Nile. While the gift was a magnanimous one, the cost of transporting it to the UK proved prohibitive and the obelisk lingered in Egypt until 1877 when £10,000 was donated by a philanthropist to ship the monument to London.

Carefully ensconced in an enormous iron cylinder outfitted with a rudder, deckhouse and dubbed Cleopatra, the 69 foot, 224 ton red granite obelisk began its long journey to London from Egypt. Tragedy struck the needle and its tow vessel Olga on October 14, 1877 when a storm struck in the Bay of Biscay. As the towed cylinder began to buck and roll amidst the storm’s swells, six crew were dispatched from the Olga to steady the Cleopatra. Sadly, their boat capsized and the men were all lost. The Olga was able to rescue the six men aboard the Cleopatra and the needle was abandoned to the vagaries of the storm in a sinking state.

Four days later the Cleopatra was discovered adrift by Spanish trawlers and was salvaged by the steamer Fitzmaurice out of Glasgow. After paying off the salvage claim, the Cleopatra finally arrived in the UK on January 21, 1878 after a harrowing and deadly journey. The needle was erected on September 12, 1878 and has attracted tourists and Londoners alike ever since.

London Needle

Cleopatra’s Needle Arrives

Sinking_of_the_emigrant_ship_Austria_on_13th_September_1858The 19th century witnessed a wave of emigration from Europe to the Americas and the creation of an entire industry focused on catering to the needs of European emigrants. The sailing of the SS Austria on September 1, 1858 should have been just another trans-Atlantic voyage, however, twelve days later one of the worst maritime disasters of the 19th century would strike the ship and her passengers and crew. Departing from Hamburg with 548 passengers and crew, the ship was only a year old and one of the most modern steam ships in the service of the Hamburg American Line.

Around noon on September 13, the crew began to fumigate the steerage passenger area. A handling mishap of the fumigation equipment by a member of the crew led to a mariner’s worst fear – fire aboard the vessel. The vessel was a veritable tinderbox between its wooden construction and highly varnished and flammable décor. The fire quickly spread throughout the Austria and when the helmsman abandoned the bridge, flames raced down the entire ship as the ship turned into the wind. With nowhere to go but the sea, the passengers and crew flung themselves to the mercy of the waves. Two vessels, the Maurice and Catarina picked up 65 survivors, but, sadly, the remainder of the 538 original passengers and crew perished.

CC Image Courtesy of UK MOD on Flickr

CC Image Courtesy of UK MOD on Flickr

Yesterday the Royal Navy decommissioned its last Invincible class aircraft/helicopter carrier, HMS Illustrious, better known to her crew as “Lusty“. Laid down in 1976, Illustrious was the second of the three Invincible class carriers with her sister ships being HMS Invincible and HMS Ark Royal. While the ship was being fitted out, the Argentinians invaded the Falkland Islands and the carrier was rushed into service – so rushed in fact that she was commissioned at sea on June 20, 1982 as she sailed to the relief of the occupied Falklands. The Falklands War also changed the role the Invincible class carriers were originally conceived to fulfill. Instead of operating in a primarily ASW role, the Falklands forced the Royal Navy to adapt the carriers to embark a larger fixed-air complement in order to provide air cover for both land and sea operations.

Illustrious served not only in the Falklands, but also supported British and Coalition forces in Bosnia, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan. The ship will avoid the fate of being scrapped like her sisters. Plans are being made for preservation in some form as a tourist attraction, museum, or floating hotel/conference center much like the plans in consideration for the SS United States. While the Royal Navy’s floating fixed wing capability was scrapped several years ago with the retirement of its Harrier fleet, the decommissioning of the Illustrious truly ends, for now, the Royal Navy’s ability to field a floating fixed wing airstrip. Until the commissioning of the HMS Queen Elizabeth in 2017, the Royal Navy must rely on its sole aircraft carrier HMS Ocean for air support of both maritime and land operations.

Danmark

“We have decided to send the Corvette Galathea to the East Indian Islands and particularly the Nicobar Islands, over which We hold Sovereignty, in order to perform scientific Survey of the natural Products of this Group of Islands and their use for Cultivation and Trade.” ~King Christian VIII

 

In the early 1840s Danish King Christian VIII decided to embark upon an ambitious expedition of discovery and scientific research. King Christian ordered the Danish Navy to outfit a ship for an around the world adventure which would be part vanity project, part scientific voyage and part geopolitical gambit. On June 24, 1845, the 43 meter corvette Galathea departed Copenhagen on what would become a nearly two year voyage. Stuffed aboard the Galathea were 36 cannon, provisions for a year and 231 sailors, scientists and officers. Incredibly, the voyage cost the Danish treasury ~3% of its annual expenditures – by comparison NASA’s Apollo project was ~4% of the US federal budget.

Sailing south, the Galathea rounded the Horn of Africa and visited the Danish colonies at Tranquebar on the west coast of India. The expedition then called at the Nicobar Islands in the Indian Ocean southwest of Sri Lanka. After a stopover in China to improve Sino-Danish trading ties, the Galathea headed for the Sandwich Islands (modern day Hawaii). Departing the Sandwich Islands, the Galathea and her crew made a couple stops in South America before sailing around Cape Horn for home.

During the course of the expedition, the Galathea’s science team gathered 93 boxes of organic and inorganic specimens as well as 21 boxes of local material culture and a large collection of objects from Java. Among the collection were 368 dragonflies from 107 different species with 37 of these unknown to scientists of the day. Sadly, the expedition’s royal sponsor perished shortly after the voyage returned in 1847 and Prussia and Denmark descended into conflict. These two events stifled the processing and publication of the expedition’s results and many of the boxes of specimens remained unopened for several years.

ship bombingThe late 19th century and early 20th century were the heyday of luxury trans-Atlantic steamship travel. Among the numerous liners plying the waters between New York City and Liverpool was the RMS Umbria, a Cunard luxury liner. Launched in 1884 the Umbria and her sister ship Etruria were named for regions of Italy and reflected the Victorian obsession with all things Egyptian, Greek or Roman. The two vessels were the last liners built for the Cunard line with auxiliary masts that could be rigged for sailing. Additionally, they were designed for easy conversion to armed merchant cruisers in the event of war. Both Umbria and Etruria held the westbound Blue Riband at points in their careers for being the fastest vessels on the Europe to New York journey.

Arguably the most intriguing anecdote in the Umbria‘s career was her being the target of a bomb plot by the Italian Mafia. On May 9, 1903, a letter was delivered to the New York police claiming a bomb had been placed aboard the Umbria. Incidentally, the chivalrous bombers claimed they had originally planned to target the RMS Oceanic but changed targets because Oceanic contained too many women and children. The police acted swiftly to prevent Umbria from sailing and a search of the ship revealed a 3×2 foot box filled with 100lbs. of dynamite and a fuse. The bomb was defused and police traced it back to the Mafia Society in Chicago. The ship sailed for Liverpool after only a short delay.

By the time of her scrapping in 1910, the Umbria had served the Empire twice as a troop ferry and auxiliary warship, been disabled in the North Atlantic, grounded herself on the wreck of a coal barge and even sunk another steam ship in a collision.