Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year everyone! I hope that it gets off to a better start than it did for passengers aboard the SS Poseidon:

Thursday, December 30, 2010

"The Green Goddess" & Captain Sorrell

Captain Donald Sorrell was utterly amazed when he saw the RMS Caronia for the first time. He noted her huge funnel, sleek lines and unique green livery - which would soon earn her the nickname of "The Green Goddess." It was "the proudest moment of my career," her master noted. "To me had been entrusted the charge of this 34,000-ton luxury liner, which was insured for over four million pounds."

With her maiden voyage at hand, Captain Sorrell marvels at the Caronia's many sophisticated features:

Not a penny had been spared in her building; to Britons, still struggling under Sir Stafford Cripps's austerity régime, she was magnificent. Some of the younger members of my crew, all of whom were hand-picked, had never seen anything like it. There were six 45-foot motor-launches for cruising and two outside swimming pools. She had ten decks with thirteen public rooms and two restaurants, a cinema with seats for three hundred and a first-rate gymnasium with a qualified instructor. There was also a laundry large enough to cope with all passengers' washing, and the white uniforms of the crew which needed changing at least once, or sometimes twice and even three times a day in very hot weather.

There was only one refinement I didn't appreciate. Cunard had done me a special favour. Mine was the only bathroom on the ship to be fitted with fresh water. And I was probably the only person on
the ship who preferred salt-water baths!

With the bath aside, however, Captain Sorrell seems to have been pleased with his new ship and her amenities.

References: Sylvia Duncan and Peter Duncan, The Sea My Steed: The Personal Story of Captain Donald Sorrell (London: Robert Hale Limited, 1960), 151-152.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Poseidon Lives!

"The Poseidon Adventure" was a star-studded 1972 disaster movie which was based on the novel by Paul Gallico. In the story, SS Poseidon capsizes on New Year's Day after being hit by a rogue wave and suffers tremendous casualties. A model was built to capture these dramatic scenes on film (and to stunning effect too, if you ask me). But where is it now? Why, at the Los Angeles Maritime Museum in San Pedro, California!

It was during my search for the Queen Mary's propellers that I was able to take these photos. The Poseidon is a scale model of Long Beach's most famous ship (a quarter inch on the model equals one foot on Mary), weighing close to 2,000 pounds and measuring 21.5 feet long. A team of 15 modelers constructed it from the Queen Mary's original plans in about 3 months, and included battery-operated propellers, working funnels and interior lights. It was loaned the museum by 20th Century Fox and resides there to this day.

Two classic views.

A shot of the bridge, where Captain Harrison and his officers met their fates.

Here's a view that very few people get to see of the real Queen Mary nowadays (unless by boat...or Carnival cruise liner for that matter). These photos do not really do the model justice; it is amazing to see in person! No detail is too small. I do really suggest paying the Poseidon a visit if you happen to be in San Pedro.

Monday, December 27, 2010

"Now I met only memories."

The ocean liners' Golden Age faded away as jet airliners took to the skies in the 1960s and became the preferred mode of transportation. Valiantly (and perhaps vainly) the old ships continued on as best they could, but the signs of change were quite apparent by the middle part of the decade. Bob Arnott describes in his autobiography, Captain of the Queen:

I settled down to my career in a Cunard fleet that was being continually annihilated by the faster and cheaper giant jets. I did one spell on the Queen Mary in 1965 and wrote to Joan from New York, 'It's like working in a ghost ship.' On that voyage there were fewer than 200 passengers in a first-class section designed to take 750 in sumptuous comfort across the Atlantic. I walked along the companionways where, a few years earlier, people would have been bumping into each other as they hurried from one party to another. Now I met only memories. 'You know, sir,' I said to Captain Treasure-Jones, 'she's not sailing across the Atlantic, she's rattling across it like a great empty coffin.' Sadly, the skipper agreed.

The Queen Mary would operate for another 2 years before the City of Long Beach purchased her for use as a museum and tourist attraction. She was one of the very lucky few to survive; most of her contemporaries were broken up and sold for scrap as the tides shifted against those grand old ships.

References: Captain Robert Harry Arnott, Captain of the Queen: The autobiography of the most famous sea captain of them all. (London: Quadrant Books, 1982), 138-139.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

"They always said I would never make a steward."

Captain W.R.D. Irvine commanded the RMS Berengaria for much of the 1920s and was definitely a mariner of the highest quality. He also holds, however, the distinction of being perhaps one of the most peculiarly eccentric men to have ever commanded a Cunard ship. Commodore Robert G. Thelwell described him as one "who would accept no criticism, even implied, of anything that happened on any ship he commanded." This in itself is not too odd. Many others have certainly felt the same way about their vessels over the years - particularly of the great liners. But Commodore Thelwell then elaborates and explains why the nickname "Haughty Bill" stuck to Captain Irvine like glue:
[He] cared as little for the rank-and-file as he did for shipowners, managers and passengers. Pickets with sticks at Southampton determined once to prevent Berengaria from sailing because of a strike. Irvine drove to the dock gates in a taxi which was immediately surrounded by a milling crowd of men, their eyes full of menace. The captain alighted and surveyed the jostling throne with something like contempt. 'Stand back,' he shouted suddenly. 'You don't seem to realize that I am the captain of the Berengaria.' I doubt whether such tactics would be successful to-day but they were then. The pickets fell back and Haughty Bill was able to board his ship unmolested.

Commodore Thelwell then adds:

Passengers, too, sometimes caught of whiff of his contempt for the world at large. A short-sighted American woman passenger saw the erect uniformed figure of Haughty Bill on the promenade and unpardonably imagining him to be a steward ordered him to take her tea tray away. He was a man of the quickest possible reactions. He took the tray and dropped it deliberately a yard away from the passenger. 'They always said I would never make a steward,' he remarked as he strode away.

Many years later after Captain Irvine's retirement, the future Commodore Thelwell was looking through the Berengaria's chart room and came across an order book that bore his signature. The style of the writing "reminded [him] vividly of [Haughty Bill's] jutting chin and imperious manner." References: Commodore Robert G. Thelwell, I Captained the Big Ships, comp. Robert Jackson (London: Arthur Barker Limited, 1961), 56-57.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Splendor's Tugboat

In the early hours of November 8, 2010 the 113,300 GRT Carnival Splendor suffered from a terrible fire in her after engine room that knocked out all power to the ship and left all 4,500 people onboard adrift at sea. She had to be slowly towed by tugboat to San Diego, California and finally arrived safely on November 11.

Yesterday I met a man from Wisconsin whose brother had been a passenger on that trip, along with his wife, mother-in-law and sister-in-law (which had to have been an ordeal in itself, he said). But then he asked me if I knew the name of the tug that came to the Splendor's rescue. After thinking for a moment, I had to confess that I did not. "The Chihuahua," he told me. "That's the name of the boat that towed them in. My brother told me that if it had been named the St. Bernard they'd have been home in a day!"

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Lesson Not to be Forgotten

While returning from India aboard the RMS Georgic in 1947, Captain Harry Grattidge encountered a heavy fog and encountered what he considered to be a serious case of negligence on the part of another ship. He decided, therefore, to give them a lesson that they would not soon forget. But Captain Grattidge himself would also learn something.

Yes, she was a good ship, the Georgic, sturdy and reliable, with a whistle that cut the air like a razor if you needed it. It was...making for Liverpool, that I ran into fog off Anglesey, but not until the small hours of the morning did the officer of the watch send word that a vessel grouped around by smaller vessels had been plotted close ahead on the radar screen. So I ran topside to the bridge, reducing speed and altering course, blowing our whistle but getting no reply. Suddenly, at 2:30 A.M., the craft I had sought loomed out of the fog, close to our bow, silent as a ghost ship but with all her deck lights burning. By heaven, I thought, I'll teach them not to use their whistle when there's fog around, and for two unbroken minutes I made the night hideous with the ear-splitting scream of the Georgic's whistle.

Next morning, in Liverpool, Cunard's shore staff came aboard to ask searching questions. Had I run into anything unusual during the night? I gave the facts, but ended triumphantly: "If they threw a scare on me, I certainly threw a worse one on them. I blew the whistle so loudly that everyone asleep on that ship must have jumped clean from their bunks.

They seemed to know all about that. "The ship," explained one of them kindly, "was H.M.S. Dido.They were relying on radar, not blowing their whistle, so as to give their passengers a good night's rest."

Passengers on a destroyer? I said I could scarcely credit it. But no one had warned me, after all, that King George VI and Queen Elizabeth were crossing on an official visit to the Isle of Man.

Captain Grattidge would then write that his entire life had been full of mistakes like this one. But there is certainly no doubt that both parties learned a lesson from the entire experience.

References: Captain Harry Grattidge, Captain of the Queens: The Autobiography of Captain Harry Grattidge, Former Commodore of the Cunard Line as told to Richard Collier (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1956), 12-13.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

First Officer William Murdoch: An Unjust Depiction

According to filmmaker James Cameron, the Titanic's First Officer, William McMaster Murdoch, was an incompetent and corrupt coward who took bribes and shot several passengers before turning the gun on himself and committing suicide. His death is arguably one of the most dramatic ones in the film, and is depicted as a fitting end for a rather crooked seaman.

The real William Murdoch, however, was quite a different figure.

He hailed from the little Scottish town of Dalbeattie, where a memorial stands in honor of his courage and sacrifice. Historians have written how, as the Titanic foundered, First Officer Murdoch did what he could to save lives - in sharp contrast to the film's portrayel. Colonel Archibald Gracie, who had survived the sinking, later wrote of the First Officer's last moments:

He was a brave and efficient officer and no motive for self-destruction can be advanced. He performed his full duty under difficult circumstances, and was entitled to praise and honor. During the last fifteen minutes before the ship sank, I was located at that quarter forward on the Boat Deck, starboard side, where Murdoch was in command and where the crew under him were engaged in the vain attempt of launching the Engelhardt boat. The report of a pistol shot during this interval ringing in my ears within a few feet of me would certainly have attracted my attention, and later, when I moved astern, the distance between us was not so great as to prevent my hearing it. The "big wave" or "giant wave," described by Harold Bride, swept away Murdoch and the crew from the Boat Deck first before it struck me, and when I rose with it to the roof of the officers' house, Bride's reported testimony fits in with mine so far as relates to time, place, and [circumstances.]

Colonel Gracie's testimony clearly disproves what James Cameron would have audiences believe as fact. For the sake of a good story, his 1997 blockbuster portrays a heroic man in an unjustly negative light. The vice-president of 20th Century Fox (which produced the film) flew to Dalbeattie the following year and personally apologized to First Officer Murdoch's 80-year old nephew, Scott. He was "reasonably happy" with the apology, but also noted that in "three or four years people will have forgotten about [the] ceremony but the film and video will still portray my uncle as a murderer when he was a hero and helped save many passengers."

So let us not remember First Officer Murdoch as the sniveling coward that James Cameron would want us, and instead as the brave man who did his best to save lives on that terrible night of April 14, 1912.

References: Archibald Gracie, The Truth About the "Titanic," in The Story of the Titanic as Told By Its Survivors, ed. Jack Winocour (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1960), 144-145.

"Titanic makers say sorry," BBC News, April 15, 1998, under "UK," (accessed December 18, 2010).

Friday, December 17, 2010

"We're going in."

Docking a ship - any ship - requires tremendous skill, ability and resolve. Even more so when the weather is bleakly uncooperative. But master seamanship is what wins the day, as Captain Bob Arnott (later of the Queen Elizabeth 2) witnessed firsthand aboard the RMS Carinthia in 1960, under the command of the future Commodore Geoffrey Marr:

[He] was a great talker, words tumbling from his lips at an amazing rate, and his gift for rhetoric was superbly demonstrated in his lecture presentation on the sinking of the Bismarck. Geoffrey had served in the Royal Navy Reserve on one of the ships that sent the German battleship to the bottom on 27 May 1941, so his graphic descriptions were wholly authentic.

Yet I remember him not so much for his oratory as for a remarkable piece of navigation that brought Carinthia safely to the Pier Head in Liverpool when the Mersey was cloaked completely in blinding black fog. We were anchored in the river waiting for the solid blanket to lift; even the ferry boats across the Mersey were unable to move. Suddenly Geoffrey's fine voice called: 'We're going in.' He talked our tugs to us over the VHF radio and, with visibility down to zero, took the huge 22,000-ton liner cleanly into the landing stage. Passengers, already resigned to another night at sea, cheered in relief and delight, and the crew, anxious to get home to loved ones, were equally elated. It was a magnificent achievement by the Captain, considering the quite elementary navigational aids of 1960 in comparison to today's sophistication.

Captain Arnott then explains how he believes Captain Marr accomplished this feat:

It's a matter of record that some Captains have a sixth sense in fog; they can 'see' things quite invisible to the eyes of ordinary humans, and have often made apparently inexplicable decisions which, within seconds, have saved ships and lives.

Perhaps it is either ouf of modesty that many captains do not wish to talk about it. Perhaps it is due to the fact they themselves cannot explain.

In any case, Captains generally won't discuss the matter, and that includes the normally prolific talker, Commodore Geoffrey Marr.

References: Captain Robert Harry Arnott, Captain of the Queen: The autobiography of the most famous sea captain of them all. (London: Quadrant Books, 1982), 125-126.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Queen Elizabeth in Torrance

If you happen to visit the Del Amo Mall in Torrance, California - just on the corners of Carson and Del Amo - there is a good chance that you may see this building:

No, it's not a mortuary (despite the fact it looks just like one). It's a CapitalSource Bank that happens to have some very sacred maritime items on display. The anchor that you see in the photo came from the famous Cunarder RMS Queen Elizabeth. After the liner's fiery 1972 demise in Hong Kong Harbor, it was salvaged (along with some other objects) and sent back to California to create a monument at Mr. C.Y. Tung's offices there. Although he no longer has any claim to the property, the memorial still stands.

I first learned of its existence several years ago through an acquaintance, but was unable to visit at the time for a variety of (uninteresting) reasons. On the heels of my Queen Mary propeller hunt this summer, however, I decided to finally pay it a visit. After getting slightly lost on the freeway and parking (somewhat illegally) at a nearby center, I made my way over to the Lizzie's remnants. Awe and reverence swept over me like a rogue wave as I snapped this photo:

Just like the Queen Mary's anchors, the Elizabeth's were 18 feet tall and weighed 16 tons. Each of those links are 2 feet long and weigh close to 225 pounds.
And here are perhaps the most sacred objects of them all: the letters "Q" and "E" that spelled out the ship's name. Another set is on display in New York, as I understand, but are in rather poor condition. These letters had a broken plexiglass cover over them and you can see it in the top right corner of the photo. It was already cast to one side when I arrived, but I was sure to replace it when I left.

In addition to letters from Governor Jerry Brown and Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (those photos did not come out at all) there is a plaque on the site that reads:

The R.M.S. "Queen Elizabeth", 83,673 gross tons, was the biggest and fastest passenger liner ever built. She contributed valuable service as a troop carrier during World War II. In peace, she served as a blue-ribboned* passenger ship for two decades. C.Y. Tung of Seawise Foundation acquired her and renamed her "Seawise University", but she was destroyed by fire in Hongkong harbor on January 9, 1972 just as her renovation and conversion work was about to be completed. Her projected work as a floating university has been taken up by the S.S. "Universe Campus" based in Los Angeles. Her bow initials "Q" and "E" and her anchor are placed her in Los Angeles County appropriately as a memento of her service and contribution unrivaled in shipping history.

* = The Queen Elizabeth never held the Blue Riband.

It was an extremely touching pilgrimage. I realized that this is as close as I or anyone is going to get to the Queen Elizabeth (unless we dive to the 40-50 percent still underwater in Hong Kong), and being able to touch these objects helped bring her closer to me. Although the Queen Elizabeth is goine, she continues to exist in the hearts and minds of countless former crew members and passengers who sailed aboard her, as well as the enthusiasts and historians who study her. Long live the Queen!

Monday, December 13, 2010

"What, what, Arnott, what's that you're saying?"

Many people have interests that are wholly unrelated to their occupations, and sea captains are no exception. Commodore Sir C. Ivan Thompson, for example, was particularly fanatical (or devoted - it depends on how you view it) fan of the Liverpool Football Club. Bob Arnott, who later captained the Queen Elizabeth 2, joined the Queen Mary in 1952 as Third Officer. Of Commodore Thompson's obsession, he wrote:

Six days a week, Captain Thompson appeared an easy-going sort of fellow who loved a pint and a joke as much as any of his crew, but Saturdays it was different. Then, the Captain's mood depended
essentially on the success or failure of the Liverpool football club. He must have been one of their longest-standing members, and was certainly one of their most avid supporters. Towards tea-time on a Saturday, when the famous Merseyside club had no doubt just walked off the field after the final whistle, Captain Thompson invariably ordered: 'Go and find out how they've gone on.' Off I would troop to the radio room and wait until the British football results came over the air; the Master, meanwhile, paced the bridge in dire suspense. If the radio message was that Liverpool had won, I would hurry back at once to tell him the good news; if they had lost, I couldn't help but dawdle back to the bridge, for I knew that the normally genial face would turn a rich shade of purple at the sad tidings. 'What, what, Arnott, what's that you're saying?' was his immediate irascible reaction. And if the radio reported that the Captain's club had been really well beaten, it was a wise and immediate strategy to keep out of his way for a few hours, for by the next day, the thrill of anticipation over Liverpool's next game would have taken over, and our much-respected Commodore would again become an approachable human being.

It should be mentioned that Commodore Thompson was a Liverpudlian, which may help explain his devotion to that particular football club.

References: Captain Robert Harry Arnott, Captain of the Queen: The autobiography of the most famous sea captain of them all. (London: Quadrant Books, 1982), 95-96.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Inger Klein Olsen: Cunard's First Female Captain

It was recently announced that Inger Klein Olsen has been placed in command of Cunard's Queen Victoria, thus making her the first female captain in the line's 170 year history. Also, she is one of the youngest at the age of 43. Captain Olsen assumed command of the Queen Victoria - without passengers - on December 1, 2010 and took her to drydock in Hamburg, Germany. She will be on the bridge next Wednesday, December 15, as the ship departs on a "Getaway voyage" from Southampton.

Peter Shanks, the president of Cunard, said the following on this historic appointment:
While we are far from being the first shipping company to have a female captain, it is nonetheless noteworthy when such a long-established British institution as Cunard makes a break with its captaincy tradition. But as Mark Twain drily observed, "the folks at Cunard wouldn't appoint Noah himself as captain until he had worked his way up through the ranks." Inge has certainly done that...and we are delighted to welcome her as our first woman driver.

Captain Olsen was raised on the Faroe Islands, which are situated about halfway between Great Britain and Iceland. She joined the Cunard Line in 1997 as First Officer aboard the Caronia before transferring to Seabourn in 2001. Olsen served aboard Seabourn Sun
and Seabourn Spirit before being promoted to Staff Captain on the Seabourn Pride in 2003. August 2010 saw her return to Cunard as Deputy Captain of the Queen Victoria.

This is a truly historic event for the old shipping line. Although Captain Olsen is scheduled to leave the Queen Victoria on February 13, 2011, her appointment as master has helped to pave the way for future generations of female seafarers.

References: "History is Made As Cunard Appoints the Line’s First Female Captain," Cunard, December 9, 2010, under "News Room," (accessed December 10, 2010).

Fire Safety

Fire is the worst disaster that a ship can face next to sinking. Increasingly high safety standards have limited the number of accidents, but the threat is still a very real one. Not even a Cunard Queen is immune, as demonstrated by the fiery and tragic demise of the original Queen Elizabeth (which had recently been sold and renamed the SS Seawise University) on January 9, 1972.

Tragedy could have also fallen on her successor, the Queen Elizabeth 2. The new ship had been built according to both British and American safety regulations, which meant that she was extensively fire-proofed and had the best in fire suppression technology. The QE2 was built to be one of the safest ships afloat.

In 1976, an engine room erupted and ultimately knocked out one of the liner's boilers. This forced QE2 to limp back into port at Southampton, where it was clear to all that something had happened. The liner's distinctive white funnel had been blackened as a result of the blaze.

The faulty boiler was eventually replaced and the QE2 resumed her work. Had it not been for her high safety standards, she may have followed her older sister to Valhalla only four years later.

References: David F. Hutchings, QE2: A Ship For All Seasons (Dorset: Waterfront Publications, 1993), 40-41.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

God Saved the Queen!

It was 43 years ago today that the Queen Mary arrived in Long Beach, California to begin her new life as a tourist attraction. Under the command of Captain John Treasure Jones, the old ship left Southampton on October 31 and received a tremendous sendoff from spectators and the Royal Navy.

Once she arrived in California, the Mary got an equally impressive welcome as hundreds of small boats came out to greet the stately ship. She would be formally handed over to the city on December 11 and cease to be the pride of the British Merchant Navy.

I've always found it interesting that - especially now - the Queen Mary has been docked in Long Beach longer than she ever sailed the Atlantic. But thank goodness she's still around!