Sunday, August 2, 2020


2 August 2020: Wow! Here we are in August already... Time flies when you seem to be doing so little! The following is a bit of a diversion from our regular topics, but does have to do with the sea and things ... well, kind of maritime.
Lightly edited courtesy of FORBES magazine.

It’s called sunken scotch. And it’s practically a category unto itself: whisky rescued from the cargoes of a wrecked ship, resting for untold periods of time below the tides. Every few years tales of brown spirit raised from these depths grab headlines, while the liquor itself fetches top dollar at auction. The latest example happens to be scotch salvaged from perhaps the most famous shipwreck of the modern era. And it’s expected to earn as much as $20,000 in an on-going auction now live, online.
The bottle in question was retrieved from the wreck of the SS Politician. The ill-fated vessel ran aground during WWII and was at the center of a national firestorm shortly thereafter. On its way to the Jamaica, by way of Western Scotland, the cargo ship was carrying some 28,000 cases of whisky when it foundered on rocks along the rugged shoals of the Outer Hebrides
 After official attempts at salvage had ceased, nearby islanders made their move on the coveted contents of the Politician. Although the UK government viewed such actions as thievery, the locals saw it quite differently. According to contemporaneous reports, a widespread effort among the Hebridean communities was labeled a ‘whisky rescue.’ This led to a protracted battle between the accused scallawags and tax collectors from mainland Scotland and, eventually, London. Because no duty had been paid on the whisky, members of HM Customs and Excise eventually went after anyone proven to have lifted cargo from the ship. 

One local in particular helped immortalize these hijinks, attracting international attention. Compton Mackenzie, of Barra island, sensationalized the circumstances as the background for a novel called Whisky Galore. Published in 1947, it was adapted into a fairly popular British comedy of the same name two years later. A remake debuted at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 2016.
But the bottle currently up for sale at the Grand Whisky Auction house isn’t part of that controversially recovered booty. It was raised by George Currie more than fifty years later. The deep sea repairman was working on a subsea cable off the Hebridean coast when he hit pay dirt. Along with a team of divers, they were able to recover a VAT 69, Ballantine’s and four bottles of a now-defunct brand known as Gibbey’s. 

In 2013, a pair of similarly aged whisky from the SS Politician sold together for £12,050.
What does that particular offering taste like? Well that would be impossible to guess. There is no labeling of any sort on the glass. You won’t even get a chance to know where it was made nor a ballpark approximation of its age statement, let alone tasting notes. 

Just remember: unlike wine, whisky doesn’t age in the bottle. So the subsequent 80-odd years it has spent stored away undersea does not accumulate as part of its overall age. If this whisky was distilled in 1930, for example, and then bottled before its notorious 1941 journey, it’s still a 13-year-old expression.
wine from an earlier wreck
Nonetheless, the liquid does wear a beautiful burgundy color up beyond the shoulders of the bottle. An airtight wax top and high fill-level suggest that there’s been little oxidation here. As a result, a sip of this spirit is likely to be quite close to how it originally tasted nearly 80 years ago. 

If you’re on the fence about purchasing, perhaps this will convince you to take the plunge: The lot comes with a diving helmet, bricks from the actual SS Politician. and an original movie poster for the 2016 Whisky Galore remake, which currently holds a 44% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Hopefully the whisky aged better than the film it helped inspire. 

So, all you scotch fanciers: get onto the online auction and get your bid in! And, as the posting mentions, hopefully it will review better than the film did!

On a personal note, August marks the start of Maritime Maunder's seventh year and we celebrate (on 22 August) with one of our original posts (and possibly a wee dram!). We are amazed that we have accumulated over 111,000 readers! Thank you all! 

Until next time, 
                              Fair winds, 
                                  Old Salt

Saturday, July 25, 2020


25 July 2020: There would appear to be and on-going effort to save and revitalize - not for use, but for historical purposes - ships from days of yore that have been forgot and left to rot on some distant shore; or sunk and lost possibly for all time. It is truly wonderful that in these trying times there are folks out there who recognize the value of history and spend their time and treasure to make it relevant and available. From the British Guardian, the following lightly edited piece the speaks to this very phenomenon. 
 As it made its slow way up the Avon in July 1970, people lined the riverbanks to see the 127-year-old incredible hulk return home. After an 8,000-mile, 87-day journey, SS Great Britain was back in its place of birth.
Approaching the port of Bristol, the extraordinary ship built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel passed under the Clifton suspension bridge, another of the great engineer’s masterpieces. “Flags were flying, people were roaring and clapping,” recalled one witness. “Something took hold of the people of Bristol,” said another.
Fifty years ago on Sunday, the tide was high enough to lift SS Great Britain into the dry dock in the Great Western Dockyard.
Marion Morrison, who had been commissioned by the Observer to photograph and write about the marathon operation to salvage the beached ship, was elated to see it come home. “I climbed up above the bridge to get a good vantage point as it passed beneath it. It was quite emotional,” she said.
This weekend, the ship, museum and dockyard reopened after 17 weeks of lockdown, just in time for the 50th anniversary of the ship’s return.
The closure has already cost the SS Great Britain Trust around £1m in visitor revenue, a figure that is expected to double by September. Meanwhile, conservation costs have remained high.
Brunel’s innovative design for the first propeller-driven, iron-hulled steamship revolutionised shipping. At the time, SS Great Britain was the largest ship in the world, at 1,930 tons and almost 100 metres long.
But it had a chequered history. It started as a transatlantic passenger ship, and then spent 24 years carrying emigrants to Australia – more than 16,000 in total, many intent on making a fortune in the 19th-century gold rush – and troops to and from the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny.
In the early 1880s, it was converted into a three-masted sailing ship, transporting Welsh coal to America’s west coast. On its third trip, after being damaged in a storm off Cape Horn, the ship sheltered in Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands where it was used to store wool for 47 years before eventually being towed to Sparrow Cove. There it was scuttled and left to rot.
as she looked, rotting on the hard in the Falkland Islands

But SS Great Britain was not forgotten. The idea of returning it to its birthplace began to capture imagination. In 1968, naval architect Ewan Corlett, who likened the 19th-century Great Britain to the 20th-century Concorde in technological advancement, proposed a salvage operation in a letter to the Times. Jack Hayward, a property millionaire and later owner of Wolverhampton Wanderers football club, stumped up £150,000.
On the Falkland Islands, some said “the project was madness, others said the hulk should not leave … while one influential islander noted the money to be spent on the salvage would go halfway to paying for a much needed airstrip,” wrote Morrison.
The eventual 21-day salvage operation was not straightforward. A team of divers worked around the clock in icy water and stormy weather. A massive crack on the starboard side was stuffed with mattresses donated by islanders and patched up with plywood, and three huge masts weighing more than 30 tons each had to be removed before it could be refloated.
Meanwhile, a huge submersible pontoon towed by a trawler made its way from west Africa to the Falklands. Water was pumped out of the ship and, after several aborted attempts, it was towed over the submerged pontoon, which was then itself raised to take the rusting hulk out of the water. SS Great Britain was ready to begin its long journey back to Bristol, towed on the pontoon by a converted stern trawler.

Morrison and her husband Tony, a film-maker, documented the salvage operation for the BBC. She was the only woman present, and was pregnant. When the ship was raised on the pontoon and towed out of Sparrow Cove, Morrison took the stunning photograph that graced the cover of the Observer’s colour supplement.
Her story about the salvage was written on her portable typewriter during a three-day stopover in Montevideo, Uruguay, before she flew back to the UK. In the days before electronic communication, she took her typed story into the Observer’s offices when she reached London.
Looking back, she said: “We were so lucky to be in the right place at the right time. It was an incredible privilege to record the salvage of the Great Britain, a once-in-a–lifetime historic experience and an amazing achievement. Yes, it was challenging and exhausting at times but we really shared the joy of the crew when finally the old ship was brought home in 1970.”
Celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the ship’s return to Bristol are on hold until next year amid constraints imposed by Covid-19. The trust is not expecting large numbers of visitors to return for some time, and it will rely principally on interest and support from local people over the summer.

as she looks now

The story of the Great Britain’s rescue and homecoming was one of “audacity, ambition and ultimately achieving success against the odds,” said Paul Chibeba, the trust’s deputy creative director. “Conserving her for the nation is important, ensuring that Brunel’s innovative engineering continues to inspire future generations of entrepreneurs and engineers.”

A clear demonstration of how one person's vision and tenacity, along with some good fortune (consider how an Atlantic storm might have affected the outcome of this story!), funding, and a sense of history can make a difference. Bravo to Marion Morrison for documenting this significant event in maritime history! 

Until next time, 
                              Fair winds,
                                    Old Sale

Friday, July 17, 2020


17 July 2020: On 6 December 1917, two ships, bound for the war in Europe and loaded with highly explosive munitions, collided. And exploded. The incident occurred in Halifax Harbor where a convoy was forming for the trip to the war. The resulting shock wave and fires leveled half of Halifax, NS, killed nearly 2,000 people and injured over 6,000. The property damage, as we might surmise, was monumental. The known images of the disaster show only the aftermath. Until now, there were no known pictures of the explosion. Now, perhaps there is: from the CBC we have the following:

"The photo has the look of a very troubling dream," Dan Conlin says as he studies an old black-and-white image.

Conlin is a transportation historian who's spent a lifetime studying images of ships, trains and aircraft. He's also a former curator of Halifax's Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, which houses a large collection of materials from the 1917 Halifax Explosion.
The image he's studying surfaced recently on Reddit with a user from Halifax, England, wondering if it was a "new" image of the 1917 disaster. "You have these tranquil little wavelets in the foreground and some stately, anchored vessels — including a sailing ship," Conlin said. "But in the background there are these awful, nightmarish clouds, including a horrible column that is rising into the sky. It looks like a surreal nightmare."
When Conlin first looked at it, the crisp details of the foreground and the blurry background raised his skeptical eyebrows. "There was quite a tradition in the World War I era of faking photos by doing composite photos, where you layer one image on top of another," he said.
One well-known photo of the explosion taken from McNabs Island was later suspected to have been doctored by a company. They seem to have added clouds for dramatic effect — and to sell more postcards. 

possibly "doctored" image
There is evidence this image of the Halifax Explosion was doctored to make it more dramatic, and to sell more copies of the postcard it was printed on. (Nova Scotia Archives)
But Conlin thinks in the nightmarish photo, it's more likely that the clouds are moving from the force of the explosion, while the ships were untroubled by any winds. The disaster killed nearly 2,000 people and badly hurt thousands more. It levelled the Richmond district in the north end.
"It's carnage and destruction out of Dante at the base of that cloud. People are dying and fires are starting and this awful event has hit Halifax in the distance," he said.
"That angry cloud gives you an idea of the violence and tragedy that is unfolding even as the shutter clicks. It's really rare and that photo, as far as I can tell, has never been published."
CBC sent the photo to Joel Zemel, who's written two books about the Halifax Explosion. He's studied hundreds of photos relating to the explosion and estimates fewer than 20 show the actual blast cloud. He's posted many of the known ones to his website.
"I haven't seen this one," he said.
He noted the clouds obscure the distance and it gives few clues as to where it was taken. The strange three-masted sailboat to the right seems out of place in the steam age, but could have been moored and hulked — that is, used as a floating warehouse.
The high angle limits where the photographer could be around the harbour. "One of the only vantage points that could take a photograph that high would be off HMCS Niobe, which was a depot ship in the harbour at the time."
The Niobe was anchored near what was then the Canadian naval college and today is CFB Stadacona. The explosion happened about 1.2 kilometres away, near today's Irving Shipyard.

That image sure looks real to us, but were it faked, that would be the idea! We will take it as the real deal, since it appears no one today would gain anything from "finding" it now.

Until next time,
                                Fair Winds,
                                      Old Salt