Repairing Sextants in the Age of GPS

I first arrived in New York harbor forty years ago, as a freshly minted naval architect working for Moore McCormack. In those days, the Brooklyn docks were crowded with US flag shipping companies, many with their headquarters or sales offices in Lower Manhattan. Just to the north, in the narrow streets of Tribecca and Soho were clusters of little workshops where often elderly craftsmen repaired or calibrated chronometers and sextants, and rebuilt or reconditioned everything from pumps and valves to ship’s order telegraphs to the old tube radar sets.  

In New York, these shops are long gone now. I was please to recently learn of a shop in Medford, MA, where Ridge White, 73, proprietor of Robert E. White Instrument Services, is carrying on a three generation family tradition of maintaining and repairing nautical instruments, particularly sextants. From an interview with Cindy Atoji-Keene in

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Listening to the Eerie Songs of Icebergs & Glaciers

Photo: Andreas Weith

In the summer of 1997, researchers at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) detected a mysterious ultra-low frequency underwater sound over an acoustic hydrophone array in the Pacific ocean.  They had no idea what it was. was it some form of unknown sea mammal? It matched the frequency of some whales, but was like they had ever heard before. Was it a sea monster? Was it something man-made? Whatever it was, it was loud. The sound was heard on multiple sensors over a range greater than 5,000 km. NOAA scientists called the mysterious sound, the the “bloop.” Only fairly recently have researchers concluded that the bloop was an “icequake”, the sound made by the the cracking and fracturing of a large iceberg. 

Now, scientists are focusing their hydrophones on glaciers and icebergs and have been hearing a wide range of bloop-like sounds as well as eeire and mournful songs, created as massive blocks of ice in glaciers and bergs rub together and break apart.  

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A Hornpipe for a Saturday — Come Ashore, Jolly Tar, With Your Trousers On

Here is a fine hornpipe for a Saturday. It is the tune from “Come Ashore, Jolly Tar, With Your Trousers On” played by Gavin Atkin. For the lyrics go to In the Boat Shed.

Jacky Tar

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Not Just the Rum that Kills You — Lead Poisoning in Sailors and Soldiers in the 18th Century West Indies

For Royal Navy sailors and British soldiers in the West Indies during the 18th century, rum was a refuge for the discomforts of the duties of the day. The rum also may have been killing them. It wasn’t the alcohol, but the way it was distilled that proved deadly.

A group of scientists from Lakeland University, Ontario have examined 31 bodies found in the Royal Naval Hospital cemetery in English Harbor, Antigua.  As reported by the Daily Mail: 

‘Excessive drinking and lead poisoning have been suggested as being serious health issues for the navy of the period,’ Professor Varney told MailOnline. 

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Derelicts & Ghost Ships — Are Catamarans the New Lumber Schooners?

Rainmaker, somewhat worse for the wear, after being adrift for over a year

Derelicts, abandoned ships often waterlogged and just barely afloat, are fascinating ghosts which wander the seas according to the vagaries of the winds and the currents. They are also significant hazards to navigation. In the later half of the 19th century, American lumber schooners were particularly susceptible to become derelicts. When these schooners were abandoned by their crews in heavy weather or after a collision with another ship, their buoyant cargoes of timber would often keep the schooners drifting with their main deck just above the surface for extended periods, sometimes for literally years.

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Sailing Around the Globe, Part 2 — Clipper Round the World Race

Yesterday, we posted about signing aboard as trainee crew on the square rigged barque Picton Castle, to sail all or part of the way around the world. But what if you want to sail in a globe girdling ocean race instead of on a beautiful square-rigger? To participate in an around the world ocean race usually requires millions and often tens of millions of dollars, but there is an alternative — the Clipper Round the World Race.  

The Clipper Round the World Race is the global ocean race for the rest of us.  Doctors, lawyers, students and clerks all have the opportunity, for a fee, to match race around the world on a fleet of twelve identical yachts. The race is the brainchild of sailing legend, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, the first person to sail solo non-stop around the world, and is run every two years. The race is now in its eleventh edition. The entire race is 40,000 nautical miles around the world on 70-foot ocean racing yachts, sailed in eight legs and 14 to 16 individual races. Each boat has a professional captain and the crew may sign on for the entire around the world race or for specific legs. 

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Sailing Around the Globe, Part 1 — Picton Castle

Let’s say that you want to circumnavigate the world by sail and yet you don’t necessarily have enough experience or even, for that matter, a boat. All the same, you really want to make a-once-in-a-lifetime voyage where you are more than just a passenger, where you stand your trick at the helm, set and furl sails and watch the sun rise and set on a rolling sea. The good news is that you can do just that, and you even have several options. In the next two posts, we will look at two very different, and yet, in many respects, interestingly similar, ways to take make that epic voyage around all, or part, of the world under sail.  

One alternative for those who want to sail a square rigger is the 179 feet long, three-masted barque, Picton Castle.

In October 2017, Picton Castle will begin it’s seventh voyage around the world under sail, setting off on an epic 18-month voyage around the world.  For a fee, you can sign on as one of 40 sail trainees supported by 12 certified professional mariners. From the Picton Castle website:

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USCG Cutter Tamaroa Reefed off New Jersey Coast

On May 10th, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Tamaroa was sunk approximately 26 miles off shore from Cape May, NJ to help develop an artificial reef. 

Sinking of the USCGC Tamaroa

Built in 1943 as USS Zuni, the 205-foot fleet ocean/salvage tug and one of seventy Cherokee-class fleet tugs saw service in World War II in campaigns in the Marianas, the Philippines, and at Iwo Jima.  After the war, she was transferred to the US Coast Guard and renamed Tamaroa.  

USCGC Tamaroa had a 48 year long career in US Coast Guard, serving on safety patrols, in drug interdiction and fisheries protection. She was the first Coast Guard Cutter to arrive at the sinking passenger liner Andrea Doria after the collision with the the Swedish liner Stockholm 1956. Tamaroa may be best known for rescuing the crew of the yacht Satori, as well as the crew of a downed Air National Guard helicopter during the “Perfect Storm” of 1991,
described in Sebastian Junger’s book, The Perfect Storm.

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On Land and On Sea: A Century of Women in the Rosenfeld Collection at Mystic Seaport

In 2011, we posted about the Rosenfeld Collection at the Mystic Seaport with a particular focus on their maritime photography. Mystic Seaport has a new exhibit of another aspect of the work of the Rosenfelds “On Land and On Sea: A Century of Women.” They have also posted a video to capture a bit of the exhibit.

On Land and On Sea: A Century of Women in the Rosenfeld Collection at Mystic Seaport

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The Problems with the USS Gerald R. Ford (Hint — It’s Not the Catapults)

In an interview with Time, the notional Commander in Chief again showed his willful ignorance by calling for steam catapults rather than “digital catapults” on the new Gerald R. Ford class of aircraft carriers.  Aside from the limitations inherent in using the decades old steam technology, the new Electro-Magnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) catapult on the carrier USS Ford are not “digital.” It is not clear what a digital catapult might be. What is clear is that the president has absolutely no idea what he is talking about, yet again.

The Electro-Magnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) is computer controlled, as is just about everything these days, but is hardly “digital.” EMALS use a series of electric motors instead of a conventional steam piston drive. The system allows more controlled acceleration which puts less stress on the planes and can be tailored to plane size, from drones to the heaviest carrier-based fighter bombers. The system is lighter and also should be far less costly to maintain. It also allows for more planes to be launched faster than the old steam catapults. The system had initial bugs but is now said to be ready for sea trials.

Right now the EMALS seems to be one of the least problematic systems on the $13 billion supercarrier USS Gerald R. Ford.   Continue reading

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Berths Available for Oliver Hazard Perry Arctic Voyage

In September, we posted about an upcoming voyage on the SSV Oliver Hazard Perry into Canada’s Northwest Passage.  Apparently there berths still available for those who would like to join in the adventure. From the OHPRI website

Earn your “Blue nose” by sailing across the Arctic circle. Berths still available to join us on the first leg of our historic voyage to the Arctic (Lunenberg – St John’s; St John’s – Pond Inlet). Open to ages 15 and up with a number of private 2 person cabins available for adults. Voyage highlights include open ocean sailing, overnight sailing, leadership development program, seamanship skills, St Pierre & Micquelon, L’Anse aux Meadows, Nuuk Greenland. Click here to learn more.

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Update: Indonesia Captures Shipwreck Thieves

CHUAN HONG 68 Photo: timbo2 from

In February, we posted about the strange disappearance of entire wrecks of Dutch and Japanese ships sunk off the coast of Indonesia during World War II. It was believed that grab dredgers might have literally picked the ships apart for the scrap value of their steel, bronze and copper.

Now, the Indonesian and Malaysian authorities have arrested the 8,000 gt Chinese grab dredger Chuan Hong 68 on charges of illegally scavenging wrecks, including from sunken warships as well as sunken commercial vessels. The Chuan Hong 68 had been arrested by the Indonesian authorities on April 20, but two days later the vessel escaped to Malaysian waters where she was detained again by the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency.

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Irish Beach Reappears Almost Overnight After Being Washed Away 33 Years Ago

Dooagh Beach, before and After Photo: ACHILL ISLAND TOURIST OFFICE/SEAN MOLLOY

The lost beach of Achill Island has returned after being gone for 33 years. Achill Island’s Dooagh Beach was a sand-covered strand until the summer of 1984 when a series of storms washed all the sand away, leaving a bare and rocky shore. Now, strong northerly winds and tides, over a period eight to ten days, have carried tons of sand and shells to the shore, restoring beach to its previous sandy glory.  

Achill Island in County Mayo, off the west coast of Ireland, is country’s the largest island, at roughly 57 square miles. With a population of under 3,000, the economy relies primarily on tourism. The return of Dooagh Beach has already triggered a flood of tourists.

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Pioneering Spirit — Removing North Sea Oil Rigs

The oil fields beneath the North Sea are running out of oil. As there is less oil to pump, costs rise per tonne of oil delivered from the now aging offshore platforms. A decline in oil prices only makes the economics of these rigs worse and yet they cannot be simply shut down and abandoned.  Under a 15-nation protocol called the “Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North East Atlantic,” known simply as OSPAR,  the rigs must be removed and taken ashore for scrapping. To dump them at sea or allow them to decay in place would risk serious environmental damage. But how does one dismantle an offshore rig that can weigh anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 tonnes of steel?  And there are a lot of them. According to the BBC:

There are currently 470 oil or gas rigs and 3,000 pipelines in need of decommissioning – and 5,000 wells that need plugging with cement to depths of thousands of metres. The topsides weigh typically in the tens of thousands of tonnes – with, for example, Shell’s Brent Delta platform’s topside weighing in at a cool 24,000 tonnes.

One tool for this massive task is the Pioneering Spirit (formerly Pieter Schelte), the largest construction vessel ever built. The ship has a gross tonnage of 403,342 GT, a breadth of 123.75 m/406 ft and a full load displacement of 900,000 metric tons. The ship is a dynamically positioned catamaran designed to install or decommission offshore platforms and to lay pipe.

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Will Whistleblower Rewards & Huge Fines End Cruise Line “Culture of Crime?”

For one Scottish ship’s engineer doing the right thing paid off. In 2013, Christopher Keays risked his entire career when he turned whistleblower shortly after taking a job as a junior engineer on board the cruise ship, Caribbean Princess. At the end of last month, he was awarded by US courts $1 million for his role in exposing Princess Cruise Line’s illegal polluting.  

Keays found that oily waste was being dumped by the Caribbean Princess into UK water waters using a “magic pipe.” “Magic pipes” are piping and valves which allow unscrupulous engineers to discretely divert oily waste overboard without being treated. They are highly illegal, but also incredibly difficult to spot except by an engineer who knows the ship’s engine room very well. Keays spotted the magic pipe. The easiest and safest thing to do would have been to just keep his mouth shut. Instead, the young engineer secretly took photographs and recorded video footage of key equipment with his cell phone. He then reported what he had found to the UK’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency. 

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Sailing on the Four-Masted Schooner Margaret Todd

A short video aboard the schooner, Margaret Todd, sailing in Frenchman Bay from Bar Harbor, Maine. Built in 1998, Margaret Todd is the only four-masted schooner to work in New England in over a century

Aboard the Margaret Todd

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Do We Really Need a Flying Jet-Ski?

Last week there was considerable media attention to a new “flying car” developed by a start-up called Kitty Hawk, which is funded in part by Google’s Larry Page, as well as Uber and Airbus.  The only problem, at least to my eyes, was that the “car” was not a car. The demonstration was over a lake and the flying craft had pontoons instead of wheels. If it put down on dry land it would not be mobile.  It did remind me of something, but what? Something noisy, probably dangerous and largely pointless. That’s it — a flying jet-ski! Whether we really need a flying car is one issue but do we really need a flying jet-ski?

The newest flying car is backed by Larry Page

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DNA Study Suggests Women Were on Franklin Expedition, Or Maybe Not

Researchers have published the results of their analysis of DNA from 24 individuals who died on the ill-fated Franklin Northwest Passage Expedition.  Surprisingly, four of the 24 individuals appear to be European women, based on DNA markers. Were there women in the Franklin expedition? Perhaps, but likely not.

Franklin’s expedition set off on the  H.M.S. Erebus and the H.M.S. Terror in 1845 heading to Arctic Canada to look for the fabled route between the Atlantic and the Pacific. By 1846, Franklin and his 129 crew members were iced in. Though the expedition was stocked with enough food to last for several years, none of officers or crew on the expedition survived. 

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Captain and the Masseuse Escaped by Jetski — Lawsuit Over Sinking of Quest 1

For affluent surfers, the ultimate escape is to take a luxury charter boat to surf perfect waves on distant islands. The Mentawai Islands of Indonesia are just such islands and the Quest 1 was just such a boat. Or it was until the night of July 21, 2015 when the Quest 1’s engine room flooded and it quickly sank while on an expedition in the Mentawai.  Fortunately, the eight guests and five crew were all rescued safely. Now, however, the passengers on the doomed charter boat are suing Rip Curl, the owner of the Quest 1, claiming, among other things, that the boat’s captain and masseuse fled together on a jet ski abandoning them in the Indian Ocean. 

The 21 meter long Quest 1 was considered to be legendary for scouting exotic surfing locales and for helping to develop the Mentawai Islands as a surfing destination. The boat also appeared in several surfing movies.  

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The Tragic Sinking of the SS Cap Arcona, 5,000 Concentration Camp Prisoners Killed

SS Cap Arcona in 1927

On this day, 72 years ago, May 3, 1945, the German liner SS Cap Arcona, serving as a prison ship, was sunk by Royal Air Force  fighter bombers in the Baltic Sea. Almost 5,000 prisoners from Nazi concentration camps who were being transported aboard the ship, were killed. Tragically, the attack took place as the war was ending. It was three days after Hitler’s suicide and only one day before the unconditional surrender of the German troops in northwestern Germany. Also attacked were the prison ships Thielbek and Deutschland. All the prisoners and crew were saved on the Deutschland, but an 2,000 additional prisoners died on the Thielbek.

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