Archives For Maritime Exploration

HMS Fury

August 25, 2013 — Leave a comment
HMS Fury

HMS Fury’s Sister Ship Trapped in Ice

The search for the fabled Northwest Passage captivated European explorers for much of the 1500s through the early 1900s. Alas, like Ponce de Leon’s mystical Fountain of Youth, the Northwest Passage proved elusive and commercially non-existent. Not until Roald Amundsen’s journey through the passage from 1903 to 1906 was someone able to complete the journey completely by sea.

Among the numerous expeditions sent to explore the far reaches of the Arctic Sea were two led by Royal Navy officer Sir William Edward Parry. For seaborne transportation Parry relied on two bomb ketches – the sister ships HMS Hecla and HMS Fury. Only a few months before the expedition’s return to England in October 1825, the Fury was severely damaged by ice floes which had trapped the ship. Despite numerous efforts to rescue the vessel, the Fury had to be abandoned on August 25, 1825.

Before she was abandoned, though, the vessel’s extensive stores were moved ashore and deposited into a supply cache. Four years later those supplies would save the life of Arctic explorer John Ross and his team before they were rescued. The site of the Fury’s loss is now called Fury Beach; however, it remains unclear if the Fury slipped beneath the waves when the ice floes parted or if she drifted off to sink into the clutches of the Arctic Sea in another location.

frozen-in-time

Frozen in Time by Mitchell Zuckoff is a thrilling tale of survival, heroism and discovery. Set in Greenland, Zuckoff switches between World War Two and the present day to relate the loss of three American military aircraft and the epic search for both the planes and their survivors. Zuckoff writing flows smoothly between the historic loss of the planes and the modern day search and the book’s 330+ pages seem much shorter as a result.

Perhaps one reason for Zuckoff’s engaging style is that he accompanied the 2011 expedition in search of the Coast Guard float plane that had gone down while searching for the other two missing planes. While set in World War Two, the book is not military history, but rather reads more like heroic survivor stories such as David Howarth’s We Die Alone or polar exploration tales like The Last Viking.

Frozen in Time showcases Zuckoff’s excellent attention to detail as the minutae of daily survival in a downed plane in arctic conditions is relayed to the reader; however, Zuckoff avoids the trap of losing the story (and the reader) in the minor details. The book also benefits from the generous use of photographs to document both the characters and the events described in the book. One amusing anecdote from the book is the author’s description of the whiskey his team chose to bring with them to Greenland – a modern recreation of Ernest Shackleton’s whiskey. Overall, Frozen in Time is a highly readable book that will appeal to anyone wishing to relieve the dog days of summer with a chilling tale of survival in a frozen land.

kickstarter

Kickstarter, the wildly successful crowdfunding website, is currently hosting two nautical themed projects. The first is “Twice Forgotten,” a documentary about the USS R-12, a training submarine that sank off the coast of Key West, Florida seventy years ago today. Forty US sailors and officers as well as two Brazilian officers went down with the sub and it was not until 2010 that she was re-discovered. Funding will allow the team to return to the site and conduct filming this summer to complete the documentary.

kickstarter

Instead of seeking to tell a true story from the past, the second project aims to produce a fictional film about a World War II submarine and its mysterious disappearance during the war. The film team has partnered with Battleship Cove, the home of the battleship USS Massachusetts and submarine USS Lionfish, to provide a filming location. If the project is funded, then the remaining half of the project’s expenses will be covered and the filming will be able to proceed as planned.

Dornier 17

A joint team from salvage company SeaTech and the Royal Air Force Museum have successfully recovered an intact Dornier 17 medium range bomber from the Goodwin Sands in the English Channel. The plane was first located in 2008 and in the intervening years efforts have been made to bring together a team to recover and restore the aircraft.

Dornier 17s were medium range bombers developed for the Nazi Luftwaffe and put into service 1937. The plane is one of the lesser known Luftwaffe designs as it was largely obsolete by 1942. Powered by two 1,000hp 9-cylinder engines, the plane could reach speeds of 265mph while delivering a 2,200 lb. bomb load. There are currently no surviving examples of a Dornier 17 as most were melted down after they were shot down or confiscated after the war.

Ramming Speed

April 4, 2013 — Leave a comment
battering ram

Athenian Trireme
CC Image Courtesy of Yannis on Flickr

Nearly 50 years ago, British divers off the coast of Libya discovered a metal object that turned out to be a 44 pound bronze ram from a Greek or Roman warship. Only recently, though, has a thorough analysis of the object, dubbed the Belgammel Ram, been conducted and the results have been published in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology. Dr. Flemming of the UK’s National Oceanography Centre brought together a scientific team with skill sets ranging from radiocarbon dating to metallurgy to 3-D imaging.

The ram had been previously established as not the primary ram found at the waterline of a ship, but rather a secondary ram termed a proembolion which would have “served to break the oars of an enemy ship.” Through the use of radiocarbon dating, the team established that the ram had originally been attached to a ship dating from 100 BC to 100 AD. 3-D imaging by Dr. Jon Adams of the University of Southampton revealed decorative images of tridents with a bird motif on the ram. Additionally, metallurgical sampling of the ram helped further archaeologists understanding of casting techniques from ancient times. Following the study, the Belgammel Ram will be returned to a museum in Libya.

Bering Strait

Vitus Bering

Today marks the 288th anniversary of Russian Tsar Peter I ordering Danish explorer Vitus Bering to explore the eastern reaches of the Russian Empire in the area of Kamchatka (“That place you can attack Alaska from” in Risk). This expedition, along with a second, gave the world a better understanding of the far eastern regions of Russia and western reaches of North America.

Vitus Jonassen Bering was born on August 5, 1681 in Denmark and first went to sea at age 18 which was relatively late for the time period. Bering joined the Russian Navy in 1704 and after twenty years of lackluster service, Bering was tapped by Peter the Great to lead the Kamchatka expedition described above. Due to his service in the Russian Navy, Bering also came to be known as Ivan Ivanovich Bering (not to be confused with Ivan Denisovich or Ivan Drago).

Bering and a team of 34 men embarked on their voyage of discovery in February of 1725 and spent the next five years searching for a land connection between Russia and North America. During their voyage, the expedition also prepared charts of the region and Bering was promoted to the noble rank of Captain Commander for his exploits.

Thirteen years later Bering set forth on yet another expedition to the area. During this second voyage, Bering was able to sail within sight of Alaska and discover part of the Aleutian Island chain. Sadly, Bering perished before the expedition could return to St. Petersburg and his remains were interred on what is now Bering Island. Even though Bering accomplished very few “firsts,” he was widely associated with the region which he explored and thus it is unsurprising that Captain James Cook named the strait between Alaska and Russia the Bering Strait.

Resande Man

November 26, 2012 — Leave a comment
Swedish shipwreck

Diving on the Resande Man

Three hundred and fifty-two years ago today, the Swedish warship Resande Man sank near Stockholm while en route to Poland. Embarked aboard the Resande Man was Count Karl Kristopher von Schlippenbach who had been dispatched on a diplomatic mission to Poland. Count Schlippenbach was charged with negotiating an alliance with Poland against Russia and the Resande Man was carrying royal treasure to help aid diplomatic discussions.

The wreck of Resande Man proved King Solomon’s axiom that there is nothing new under the sun. Swedish legend states that the ship’s captain, much like the Costa Concordia’s Francesco Schettino, was focused on a woman he had taken aboard and thus failed to tend to the proper navigation of the ship. The captain’s negligence led to the Resande Man foundering in a strong storm on November 26, 1660. While 37 onboard perished, 25 were able to make it to dry land.

Despite salvage efforts on the ship in 1661, the ship is rumored to still contain a rich cargo. Because of this, she has achieved mythical status in Swedish maritime circles, much akin to the Merchant Royal in Great Britain. Divers believe they have found the ship and conducted several dives on the ship earlier this year. The Resande Man was featured on a map compiled by Anders Franzen (see below), the discoverer of the Vasa, and if the wreck is indeed the Resande Man, then the final wreck on the map has been located.

Swedish shipwreck map

Anders Franzen’s Map of Historic Swedish Shipwrecks

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.

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.

Roald AmundsenIn his latest book, The Last Viking, author Stephen Bown documents the epic life of Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. Amundsen is best known for winning a dramatic race to the South Pole and becoming the first human to reach the bottom of the world. Bown presents readers with a modern retelling of Amundsen’s life and stunning achievements. Amundsen was not only the first to journey to the South Pole, he also was the first to reach the North Pole and to sail the Northwest Passage.

Divided into five parts, The Last Viking chronicles each of Amundsen’s polar explorations including his last ill-fated voyage to rescue the stranded crew of an Italian airship in the Arctic. Bown, though, resists the urge to focus solely on Amundsen’s explorations and presents readers with a portrait of a confident leader whose drive and attention to detail helped him become one of the most successful explorers of the 20th century.

Utilizing contemporary newspaper accounts and previously untapped archival materials, Bown describes in detail Amundsen’s voyages, personal financial problems and character flaws. The reader also learns of the behind the scenes struggles Amundsen endured with duplicitous agents, rival explorers driven by nationalism, and the cataclysm of World War I which hampered one of his voyages.

Each section of the book opens with a map of the region corresponding to the exploits Bown documents in that section. This is especially helpful to understand the vast distances Amundsen covered either by ship, sled, skis, airship or plane.

In a world where little is left to explore, Bown transports his readers to a time when great men battled nature to explore the earth’s last remaining terra incognita. As the winter months approach, readers would be well served to buy The Last Viking and curl up in front of a roaring fire to enjoy Bown’s gripping account of Amundsen’s epic polar adventures.