Thursday, October 29, 2015


29 October 2015: A week or so ago I put up a bunch of expressions in everyday English that derived from the language of the sea and ships. The response seemed to indicate it struck a nerve and I interpreted that to mean more would be welcome. So, once again, into the breach with a few more expressions we use in everyday speech that found their origins in the nautical world.

ALL AT SEA: Shortened, due I assume to our inherent laziness, to "at sea." Original reference to a ship out of sight of land and potentially lost, it now means in a confused state, bewildered, and unable to understand. Probably applies to more people than we realize!

BEDLAM: A famous 18th & 19th century London mental hospital, St. Mary of Bethlehem Hospital, gained the foreshortened nickname which has now come to mean a state of extreme confusion and disorder. the hospital was where the Royal Navy put those discharged for reasons of insanity.

BINGE: The original meaning of this in a nautical context was to clean out a cask - as in a cask of rum - and the sailor tasked with the chore was known to "have a binge" - Now, of course, there is still an alcoholic reference as the word is used to describe an immoderate indulgence of alcohol, but also the use of other things, like chocolate.

CHOCK A BLOCK (CHOCK FULL): In the days of sail, the blocks (pulleys) would often be pulled up tight to each other so the sails would be hauled in tight thus allowing the vessel to sail closer to the wind. Now, of course, means full or tightly packed.

CUT AND RUN: Referred to cutting the anchor cable to make a hasty escape. Also refers to the 'small stuff' or light line used to furl sails so they could be cut quickly to make sail. Still today implies a sense of urgency.

FLOG A DEAD HORSE: British sailors were given a 4 week advance before the ship sailed so they might purchase necessaries ashore or from the purser. When the 4 weeks had passed, a celebration was often held, sometimes including hoisting the effigy of a horse into the rigging. The expression references the futility of getting any extra work out of the men during that celebration. Today, a dead horse means, among other things, a debt to the government or an advance of salary.

Okay, that will do it for today. Maybe there will be more if the response continues favorable! So before I find myself all at sea, I will cut and run!

                                    Fair Winds,
                                      Old Salt

Sunday, October 25, 2015


25 October 2015: One of the more famous naval engagements of the War of 1812 took place on this date in 1812. While it is well known to naval historians and folks with an interest in the War of 1812, it seems not to be "common knowledge" to the general public. So once again, I will throw myself into the breach and tell you about it!

 On 8th October, 1812, several American squadrons sailed from Boston in search of British ships to fight, merchants or men of war. One of the squadrons which included the frigate USS Constitution and USS Hornet (James Lawrence of "Don't give up the ship" fame in command) headed south and ultimately had success off the coast of South America. Commodore John Rodgers in USS President, sailed to the north in company with USS Congress, and Commodore Stephen Decatur in USS United States sailed east with USS Argus in company.
USS United States

  Decatur ordered Argus to sail independently shortly after the ships were out of sight of land and continued on, toward the Canary Islands, in United States. His ship was a heavy frigate and sister ship to Constitution . Rated at 44 guns, mostly 24 pounders, she carried over 50 for this cruise. The rating of 24 pounder refers to the weight of the iron ball the cannon fired.

At dawn on 25th October, lookouts in United States spotted a sail some 12 miles distant, and Decatur order his ship to close. He quickly recognized HMS Macedonian - in fact, shortly before war was declared, Decatur had been aboard Macedonian to visit her captain, John Carden. He knew all British frigates mounted 18 pounder guns and did not have as great a range as his own 24 pounders. He maneuvered to gain an advantage and at 9 AM, opened fired at a long range with a full, but inaccurate, broadside. Macedonian closed and fired her guns while the American ship reloaded, doing minor damage to Decatur's ship. Further broadsides from each continued and the heavy weight of shot and longer range advantage of the 24 pounders in the American ship told; by noon, Macedonian was a dismasted hulk wallowing in the long swells of the South Atlantic. Carden had little choice but to surrender. He had lost over 1/3 of his crew, half his armament, and all his rig. United States, on the other hand, had eight casualties and only minor damage.

Now comes the amazing part: Decatur decided, in his continual quest for personal glory, to bring the conquered British ship back to America as a prize! For the record, a foreign warship has been "brought in" by an American ship only twice before or since! (the second, in WWII, was U 505, now at the Chicago Museum). So, the two ships drifted in the Atlantic while Macedonian was jury rigged sufficiently to sail the 1000+ miles to the American coast. Talk about luck: during the crossing, the two vessels encountered not a single British ship (the prize would most likely have been pretty easy pickings for a "healthy" British warship) nor any bad weather! The prize crew sailed triumphantly into Newport RI on 4 December while Decatur took United States New London CT and then to New York. The crew and of course, Stephen Decatur, were the heroes of the day, bringing such a ringing success to the American side in what had been a somewhat lopsided conflict. Macedonian subsequently sailed to New York for the major repairs necessary and became a unit of the American Navy, where she served until laid up "in ordinary" (mothballs, in today's parlance). Interestingly, the ship, through a widely divergent career, lived in one form or another, until 1922 when the hotel built from her timbers on City Island New York burned down!

Now that's longevity! It's too bad the world at large had little sense of archiving some of the great warships of the period - or perhaps they did and could not generate the funding to accomplish it - but wouldn't it have been amazing to see some of them here. So, America's Ship of State, USS Constitution lying in Boston (currently in dry dock for a refit) gets all the glory and well deserved it is!

Until next time, friends,

                                               Fair Winds,
                                                       Old Salt

Thursday, October 22, 2015


22 October 2015: Yesterday we celebrated the 218th birthday of America's Ship of State!  USS Constitution was launched 21 October in 1797. Happy birthday, old girl . . . or should I say, "Old Ironsides." Yes, the Hartt Shipyard in east Boston slid our Ship of State into the waters of Boston Harbor 218 years ago!

She was built as a result of the Naval Act of 1794 signed by George Washington in recognition of the fact that our newly independent country needed a navy to deal with foreign enemies, most notably (at that time) the Barbary Pirates of North Africa. Six frigates were authorized and built in varying locations including Boston (Constitution), Philadelphia (United States), Baltimore (Constellation), and others. Three of the six were designated as "heavy" frigates, meaning that they would carry at least 44 guns which would fire a 24 pound iron ball; and three as lighter frigates of 36 to 38 guns. As a matter of practicality, none ever carried their rated allotment; it was always more, sometimes by as many as ten!

Constitution fought at Tripoli, the third flagship sent over to deal with the pirates - Edward Preble was the commodore in charge of that fleet and acted most aggressively against the Barbary corsairs. But it was in the War of 1812 that Constitution really earned her stripes . . . and her nickname, Old Ironsides.

USS Constitution finishing off HMS Guerierre
 After a very bad two months of war against England, the ship, under Isaac Hull, encountered and defeated HMS Guerierre in single ship combat. This was the battle in which she won her famous nickname. It was a glorious and most welcome victory for the Navy and more generally, the United States following lots of bad news from the Western frontier. Shortly thereafter, under William Bainbridge, Constitution headed south and found HMS Java off South America. A sharp battle ensued and Old Ironsides once again was victorious.

Constitution (foreground) vs Java
Perhaps one of her most famous fights occurred in February of 1815, technically after the war was over, against two Royal Navy frigates, HMS Cyanne and HMS Levant. She took them both but Levant was recaptured by the British before she got back to a U.S. port as a prize.
After serving as a training ship, barracks, and very nearly being scrapped, she assumed her role as good will ambassador, a role she has performed brilliantly for many years from her berth in historic Charlestown Navy Yard. She was named "Ship of State" a couple of years ago and continues to shine! She sailed under her own sails for the first time in over 100 years in October of 1997, in celebration of her 200th birthday. I was there! Here's a couple of pictures of that amazing event!
in the image to the left, you might notice the Blue Angels over top!
It was an awe inspiring event and then, in recognition of the 200th anniversary of her victory over HMS Guerierre, she sailed again in 2012, albeit in a very light breeze and remained in Boston Harbor. USS Constitution Museum, in the Navy Yard, acts as the "voice" of Constitution and is privately funded, not being an agency of the federal government. the museum is marvelous, and not to be missed if you find yourself in Boston!

USS Constitution is the OLDEST SHIP AFLOAT IN THE WORLD. What about HMS Victory, I heard someone mumble? Well, Victory is indeed older, but she is also resting comfortably in concrete in Portsmouth Royal Dockyard in England where she just finished a refit and new paint job. Constitution is usually afloat and indeed, gets underway, albeit with a tug alongside. And even though she now is undergoing her own refit in historic Dry Dock #1 at the Charlestown Navy Yard, she will be refloated in a couple of years and once again, be doing her famous "harbor cruises" in Boston. Incidentally, should you be interested in a live image of Constitution in dry dock (be warned, she is covered in scaffolding!) here's a link:
                   Live camera of USS Constitution

Incidentally, Constitution is carried on the rolls of commissioned U.S. Navy and is manned by active duty Navy sailors and officers! 

"I feel a strong predelection [sic] for the Constitution. I think  . . . she will be a most fortunate ship; and I am sometimes good in my predictions . . ." Tobias Lear, consul general to the Barbary Regencies in a letter to Capt. John Rodgers, 16 October 1804.

                                       Fair Winds,
                                                Old Salt

Thursday, October 15, 2015


15 October 2015: For generations, off shore sailors, navigators, and even shore-bound explorers relied on the use of a sextant and the resulting mathematical (Trigonometry) calcutations to determine where on the surface of the earth, water or land, they might be at any given time.

Of course, if heavenly bodies (stars, moon, and sun) were not available, they used deduced reckoning (generally called "ded reckoning" NOT "dead" reckoning!) and hoped the clouds would dissipate before too long. The art, and yes, it was an art, faded into the background with the advent of modern GPS (global position satellites) and sophisticated electronics. Ultimately, the United States Naval Academy quit teach celestial navigation, taking it entirely out of their curriculum in the late '90's. (they had made it an elective course before they totally dropped it). And let's face it, the math and use of a sextant are both challenging and don't come easily to most. Good choice, dropping a difficult course, right? Maybe not!

Then someone woke up and thought, "OK, what happens if we lose electricity on the vessel or the bad guys take out our satellites? We could meander aimlessly around the seas with little or no idea of where we are." So, enter the lowly sextant and its required and inherent position finding skills called trigonometry ... again!

The use of tables required to reduce the angles found by the use of a sextant can neither be hacked nor put out of action by cyber attack, nor can the sextant. And, while the position rendered after many minutes (if you're good!) calculating is a good deal less accurate (inside a 1.5 mile circle is considered acceptable) just knowing pretty much where you are could save your life and that of your shipmates should the unthinkable happen. And until it does - if it does - the electronic forms of navigation will still be available to navigators.

Interestingly, the Naval Academy is looking to the United States Merchant Academy (Kings Point, NY) to help reinstate the celestial navigation program; the Merchant Marine Academy never quit teaching it.

So, future Naval Academy midshipmen, don't drop high school math; you're gonna need it beginning with the class of 2017! And besides, what's saltier than using a sextant to find your position in the middle of the ocean!

Until next time, (and we figure out where we are!)

                                    Fair winds!
                                        Old Salt

Monday, October 12, 2015


12 October 2015: OK the title might be a trifle misleading - the birthday of the US Navy is actually tomorrow, 13 October. But I may not get time to post so an early happy birthday to the US Navy! Today, 12 October is a noteworthy day but for a quite different reason: it is the 15th anniversary of the terrorist bombing of the USS Cole, a US Navy destroyer, in Aden Yemen.

This is USS Cole prior to the attack, and here are a couple of images following that terrible event that killed 17 US Sailors and wounded another 38.

And after first being towed to safety and loaded aboard a huge ship transporter for return to the U.S. she was restored and put back in service:

So, a fitting tribute to the Navy on the day before its birthday! As a matter of interest, while the terrorists who blew the hole in the ship were of course incinerated in the blast, those behind the attack were never brought to justice - or even chased down by the Clinton administration.
And tomorrow, on 13 October, we salute the US Navy, born in 1775 at a meeting of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia when it voted to fit out two sailing vessels with 10 carriage guns and swivels and manned by crews of 80 men. The ships were to be sent out on three month cruises to intercept and destroy British ships carrying munitions to America. While the ships (ultimately, 50 ships fought in the Revolution) were decommissioned or sold after the war, Congress again voted to build six frigates in 1794, re-constituting a navy. USS Constitutition, United States, Congress, President, Chesapeake, and Constellation were ultimately built, fighting during the "Quasi-war" with France and the War of 1812 against Great Britain. Constitution still exists in Boston and is the oldest commissioned war ship afloat in the world (though she is currently in drydock undergoing an overhaul).
USS Constitution at celebration of bicentennial of War of 1812



Until next time, friends, I wish you all

                                            Fair Winds,
                                                Old Salt

Sunday, October 4, 2015


4 October 2015: OK friends - here's a strange one for you. And the title does not refer to the metaphoric "ships of the desert", camels. Nope, these are, as you will soon see, real ships left in the desert through what could be likely the worst ecological disaster in modern times.

In Uzbekistan, there used to be a body of water known as the Aral Sea, at one time, one of the four largest lakes in the world. Now, it's a desert. In a fit of misguided genius in the 1960's, the Russians diverted the rivers feeding the lake for irrigation purposes and, as the waters went down, the lake dried up and the fishing boats became stranded. Now, dozens of fishing vessels, some quite large, lay disintegrating in the middle of what has become a desert.

The nearest shore line is nearly 100 miles away! This would be a fine example of the "law of unintended consequences!" There remains less than 10% of the original body of water. And the town, supported by fishing, died along with the lake and its fishy inhabitants. Interestingly, the fishing industry supported about 40,000 people in its heyday!

Pretty amazing, the depredations inflicted by man, on nature, environment, and people.

As a PS to this story, the diverted waters irrigate cotton fields. And cotton is now the main product of Uzbekistan, and one on which the people are totally dependent for their livelihood.

Until next time, then, I wish you all

                                          Fair Winds,
                                                Old Salt (and still afloat!)

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