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Subject: ‘Boats’

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The quest to find Noah’s Ark was briefly ended

Posted in Ancient History, Archaeology, Bible, Boats, Historical articles on Friday, 14 March 2014

This edited article about the discovery of Noah’s Ark first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 589 published on 28 April 1973.

Discovery of Noah's Ark,  picture, image, illustration
Lieutenant Roskovitsky of the Russian Air Force was convinced that he had spotted the ark by Roger Payne

Lieutenant Roskovitsky, of the Russian Air Force, stared down at the mountain top below him. He knew only two things about Mount Ararat in Armenia. One was that it was almost 17,000 feet high, which was a point worth remembering when flying the shaky aeroplanes of 1916, and the other was the well known tradition that it was on that very peak that Noah had grounded his ark at the end of the Great Flood.

Suddenly Roskovitsky caught his breath. On one of the highest slopes there was a shape that seemed too regular to be natural. In fact it looked for all the world like a huge boat. A boat? Could the old Bible story be true after all, and was he actually looking down on what was left of that extraordinary floating zoo?

The pilot headed for home and made his report with some misgivings. As an official report it sounded hopelessly far fetched, and Roskovitsky was well aware that his superiors were quite likely to haul him over the coals for wasting time on fantasies in the middle of a war. As it turned out, he had no need to worry. The story of the stranded ark worked its way from office to office until it came to the ears of the Czar himself, who promptly organised an expedition to Mount Ararat in order to recover the ancient timbers. The war against Germany might be important, but men had dreamed of finding the ark for two thousand years!

To ordinary men and women there had always been something logical about the quest, for was it not clearly stated in the Old Testament that “the ark rested in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, upon the mountains of Ararat”? The Flood had receded long ago, so surely it stood to reason that Noah’s wonderful vessel must still be up there?

This belief was shared by the Armenians, who up to the beginning of the 19th century refused permission for anyone to climb Mount Ararat on the grounds that a monk had once attempted the ascent, only to be turned back by an angel. This meant, they argued, that the mountain was particularly holy and quite inaccessible to ordinary men. So far as the Armenian Church was concerned, the ark would have to remain undiscovered.

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Captain Bligh sailed an open boat 3,618 miles in 45 days

Posted in Boats, Historical articles, History, Ships on Friday, 7 March 2014

This edited article about Captain Bligh of the Bounty first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 585 published on 31 March 1973.

Captain Bligh's boat reaches Timor,  picture, image, illustration
Captain Bligh arrives in Timor by Peter Jackson

The story of the mutiny on the Bounty has been told many times, mostly with her captain, William Bligh, cast as the villain of the piece, a role that has been perpetuated by two film versions of the story in which Bligh appeared as something only a little better than a monster in human guise.

There is no doubt that Bligh was a severe disciplinarian who believed that the occasional use of the lash did no harm. But these were sea-faring days when sailors were often the dregs of the sea-port towns, and were therefore considered by their officers to be little better than scum. If Bligh had the same view of his crew and treated them harshly, he was, in this, no worse than most of the other officers who served in His Majesty’s Navy.

Whatever Bligh’s faults were, he was a magnificent seaman and a man of exceptional fortitude, as he proved to the whole world when his ship was taken over by the mutineers. For those who are not too well acquainted with the story of the Bounty, a brief outline of the events which led up to that mutiny will perhaps not come amiss.

In the year of 1787, the merchants and planters of England who were interested in the West India possessions, petitioned the king to cause bread fruit to be introduced into those islands from somewhere like Tahiti. Complying with this request, the king ordered the armed transport Bounty, a ship of some 215 tons to be fitted out with the proper requisitions. William Bligh, who had been around the world with Captain Cook, was appointed to command her. Victualled for fifteen months and laden with trinkets for the natives, she set off for Tahiti by way of Cape Horn in the December of 1787.

After three months of tempestuous weather, the Bounty reached the eastern coast of Terra del Fuego. After violently battling his way through fierce westerly gales, Bligh changed course.

It was to be nearly a year before he reached his ultimate destination in the Pacific.

Finally landing on Tahiti, Bligh immediately summoned the native chiefs to a meeting where he informed them that he had come to do them a great favour by allowing them to collect the roots of bread fruit trees for the Great King of England. A tent was erected on the shore, and each day the natives brought along the trees, which were potted on the spot. When Bligh eventually set sail for England in the Bounty, he took with him 1,015 roots in pots, tubs and boxes. But if Bligh was congratulating himself on a successful voyage, his feeling of triumph was to be short lived.

Thirteen days after they had left Tahiti, the crew, with the exception of eighteen men, mutinied. Bligh and the eighteen men, who were mostly officers, were bundled into a launch and cast adrift with a hundred and fifty pounds of bread, twenty-eight gallons of water, a little rum and wine and a quadrant and compass. A few pieces of pork, some cocoa-nuts and four cutlasses were cast in the boat as it moved away. The nearest point where the occupants of the boat could land in certain safety, was at Timor, a Dutch colony, some 3,500 miles away.

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“A miracle of deliverance” – the epic story of Dunkirk

Posted in Boats, Famous news stories, Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, History, Ships, World War 2 on Thursday, 27 February 2014

This edited article about Dunkirk first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 572 published on 30 December 1972.

Dunkirk,  picture, image, illustration
Escape from Dunkirk by Graham Coton

The armada of small boats was on its way to France to save the British Army. There were almost a thousand of them, yachts, pleasure steamers, fishing trawlers, barges, tugs, cabin-cruisers, towed lifeboats and motor boats, and they had come from ports and tidal rivers all along the East and South Coasts to rendezvous in selected harbours and get their orders from the Navy.

They set off before dawn on May 30, 1940, from Ramsgate, Dover, Margate, Portsmouth, Folkestone and other places best known for jolly holidays by the sea, not the grim realities of war. It was a gallant little fleet, manned by every sort of sailor from ex-Navy men to weekend yachtsmen. There were 60-year-olds and teenagers and men of every age in between, some of them dressed in true seaman fashion, others in suits, raincoats and a wide variety of headgear.

Few of the boats had accurate charts, fewer still had much in the way of medical supplies, or experience of sailing far out at sea. And not many could boast any armaments. The Deal beach-boat “Dumpling” with a skipper of 70, had been built in Napoleon’s time! But every sailor in that strange but magnificent fleet was determined and ready for anything. Hardened naval men, watching from destroyers as the little ships went by, were sometimes almost moved to tears at the gallant sight.

The part-time sailors needed every scrap of gallantry that they could muster as they approached the beaches of Dunkirk and its harbour, once a bustling port, now a raging inferno. The full impact of the nightmare was soon grimly apparent. It was a nightmare that had really started at dawn just 20 days before, when the Second World War, which, on land at least, had become something of a joke, suddenly and violently came to life.

The war had begun in September 1939 and, after the initial German conquest of Poland, had settled down into stalemate, with the French and British behind the heavily fortified “impregnable” Maginot Line staring at the Germans behind their Siegfried Line. So little happened, except at sea, that the war was dubbed the Phoney War! Even the German conquest of Norway in the spring of 1940 did not alert the Allies. Yet the danger had been seen by a few British and French military thinkers.

These few were not convinced that the British Expeditionary Force 390,000 strong, was, as was officially claimed, “as well if not better equipped than any other similar army.” Actually, it had inferior tanks and mostly inferior guns, and many of the soldiers were undertrained. As for the French, though their army was bigger than the Germans’, it was riddled with defeatism and its leaders were rooted in the past. Most British and French generals failed to realise what their German opposite numbers knew – that in modern war air power and mobile, powerful tanks were destined to play major not minor roles.

They were soon to find out. And, to make things worse, the much-vaunted concrete masterpiece, the Maginot Line, did not even extend to the sea. All the Germans had to do was to invade Holland and Belgium and strike at France at the same time, and this they did on May 10, 1940, by land and air. The result was one of the most brilliant campaigns in history.

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A German U-boat was haunted by a phantom officer

Posted in Boats, Historical articles, History, Mystery, Oddities, Superstition, World War 1 on Thursday, 13 February 2014

This edited article about U-Boat 65 first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 550 published on 29 July 1972.

U-boat 65,  picture, image, illustration
The haunted U-boat

Before she had even left the dockyard U-Boat 65 had claimed five lives. Then a rating was lost overboard and a torpedo explosion killed four men and an officer. From then on the ghost of the officer haunted the German submarine, striking terror into the hearts of the crew. Superstitious tales maybe? But were they?

It began before they had even finished building her. A steel girder which was being lowered into place in her hull, suddenly slipped from its chains and crashed down on two workmen below, killing them both:

It was unfortunate and sad that two men should die, the foreman said, after the two shattered bodies had been carried away. But the work had to go on. The Fatherland needed ships. When this one was finished it would be yet another nail in the coffin of the British Imperialists who were already reeling under the hammer blows of the U-Boats, haunting the icy waters of the Atlantic. Now back to work. For the Fatherland.

With these words ringing in their ears, the workmen returned to their tasks, thinking no doubt that it was pressures like these which caused men to become careless.

The next accident could not be put down to carelessness. Just before the ship was launched, three men were sent down to the engine room to check over the equipment. Suddenly, inexplicably, they found themselves choking rapidly to death in a thick haze of poisonous fumes which seemed to come from nowhere. Gasping their lives away, the three men stumbled blindly to the door, only to find it jammed. Within minutes they were all dead. The subsequent enquiry could find no reason for the escape of the deadly fumes, nor any reason why the door should have jammed.

The U.B. 65 had already claimed five victims. She was to claim many more before her career came to an end.

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The many mighty monarchs of the Mississippi

Posted in America, Boats, Historical articles, History, Ships, Transport, Travel on Thursday, 6 February 2014

This edited article about steamboats first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 546 published on 1 July 1972.

Steamboats on the Mississippi,  picture, image, illustration
Steamboats on the Mississippi by Gerry Embleton

Some boats were floating palaces equipped with every luxury that their owner-captains could afford. Others were virtually armoured gunboats ready for action against Indians on the upper Missouri. All of them looked impressive as their paddles flashed in the sun and the smoke poured out of their tall funnels.

For 60 glorious years these steamboats of the Mississippi, Missouri, their tributaries, and other Western rivers were as glamorous as they were important. Passengers, businessmen and ordinary Westerners depended on them for so many things, including travel, transporting cotton and other goods and even bringing the wounded back from Indian fights.

The steamboat era began on the Mississippi when Nicholas Roosevelt’s New Orleans started trading between Natchez and New Orleans in 1811. Seven years later, the first steamboat slowly puffed its way up part of the Missouri. By 1840, the Steamboat Age had reached its peak to decline in the 1870s when the railways finally conquered the boats. Today, modern barges carry freight on the rivers and a very few carefully preserved steamboats carry tourists.

At their height, the steamboat kings were a different breed from other successful businessmen, simply because there were so many more of them. The majority of captains owned their boats and by any standard they were kings of the Western rivers.

These men thought nothing of spending some £150,000 – in terms of today’s money – on furnishing their ships. After all, they could recover that much in a single season on the river.

The captains were more than just skilled rivermen. They acted as bankers and merchants. They were men to whom a plantation owner would hand over his entire stock of sugar or cotton and sell it for him later at the highest market price. They were men that Western farmers and ranchers could trust.

They had to cope with the best of men and the worst of men, everyone from respectable travellers, soldiers and politicians to riverboat gamblers and outright criminals. Before organised “showboats” appeared, and even after, they provided entertainment for the passengers. The captains of showboats had to combine navigation with a knowledge of show business, and give performances not only aboard but in towns and villages along the banks.

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The inventive genius of waterways engineer, James Brindley

Posted in Boats, Engineering, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History, Industry, Trade, Transport on Thursday, 16 January 2014

This edited article about canals first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 513 published on 13 November 1971.

James Brindley, picture, image, illustration
James Brindley was both gaffer and labourer on his many canal projects

In the summer of 1766 James Brindley – the man who worked with water – travelled to London by donkey to put his case for a new canal before the Government. He was granted a meeting with a group of influential Members of Parliament, who asked to see a plan of a bridge which would span the proposed waterway.

For a moment Brindley was nonplussed. Then he excused himself, hurried from the House of Commons, and returned a short time later carrying a huge cheese.

To the amazement of the watching politicians, he took out a knife, cut the cheese in half, and placed the two pieces so that they resembled the arches of a bridge.

“There you are gentlemen,” he said matter-of-factly. “That is my plan. I trust you will approve of it.”

“Yes, but where is the canal itself?” asked one of the committee.

Brindley replied by producing a twelve-inch length of wood from his coat. He laid the wood between the halves of cheese and pointed to the improvised model. “Now, gentleman, you have it all,” he said. “Bridge and canal. I await your decision on my scheme with interest.”

After this impromptu but effective demonstration, it took the Parliamentary Committee nearly two months to make up its mind. Then, in September that year, the members told Brindley that he could go ahead and construct his canal between the River Mersey and the Cheshire port of Runcorn.

In fact the new canal was really an extension of one already in existence – the famous Bridgewater Canal which joined Liverpool with Manchester, and so reduced the cost of transport that the price of coal had dropped by nearly three-quarters.

Altogether Brindley designed and built nearly 400 miles of waterways, or canals, throughout England. The barges which used them were at one time the railway’s greatest rival, and Brindley claimed that almost every important city was within fifteen miles of his vast network.

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100 mph gales caused a lifeboat to capsize off the Cornish coast

Posted in Boats, Disasters, Historical articles, History on Friday, 29 November 2013

This edited article about maritime disasters first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 469 published on 9 January 1971.

The lifeboat from St Ives, picture, image, illustration
The lifeboat from St Ives, Cornwall, the John and Sarah Eliza Stych, was itself almost shipwrecked in 1939, by Ken Petts

The first vital requirement of a lifeboat is that she shall be stable enough to remain on an even keel in the roughest water; the second is that, if she should overturn in abnormal conditions, she should automatically right herself. Such lifeboats are known as “self-righters.” St. Ives, on the gale-swept Atlantic coast of Cornwall, one of the most dangerous in the British Isles, possessed a lifeboat of this type, the John and Sarah Eliza Stych.

Shortly after midnight on 24th January, 1939, distress-signals were reported a mile out to sea off the Pendeen Light. It was a night of phenomenally bad weather even for a coast accustomed to Atlantic gales. The anemometer at the St. Ives coastguard station that night recorded a wind speed in excess of 100 miles an hour. It was blowing directly on shore, from the nor’-nor’-west. No ship in distress lying off shore that night could hope to survive. So, the St. Ives boat was called out.

She carried a crew of eight, with Coxswain Thomas Cocking in command. On that night, however, one crew member was on sick leave, and his place was taken by a volunteer, Will Freeman. It was the first time he had ever served aboard a lifeboat. So furious was the wind that it took more than 70 men to launch the lifeboat, even in the partial shelter of St. Ives Point. Coxswain Cocking steered her boldly out into St. Ives Bay in order to clear the headland before turning due west along the coast to search for the distressed ship, believed to be about 12 miles distant. He had confidence in the powerful engines installed in his lifeboat, but so formidable was the gale into which he was now headed that he wondered whether they could master it.

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In 1682 the future James II almost drowned when the Gloucester ran aground

Posted in Boats, Disasters, Historical articles, History, Royalty, Ships on Tuesday, 26 November 2013

This edited article about maritime disasters first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 463 published on 28 November 1970.

The Gloucester sinks in 1682, picture, image, illustration
The Lord Provost’s boat had not pulled away from her side before it was almost overwhelmed and sunk by other passengers, and some panic-stricken seamen too, by Angus McBride

On the morning of Saturday, 6th May, 1682, the man-o’-war Gloucester, with all sails set and the Royal Standard flying from her mast-head, was beating southwards from Edinburgh, bound for London. Though the day was fine, a strong north-easterly was blowing, and Captain Sir John Berry was unhappy about the course laid down by the pilot he was carrying. His own instinct was to stand well out to sea, now that the Norfolk coastline constituted their lee shore. But the pilot insisted that he knew what was best, and ordered the helmsmen (there were two of them in the strong wind) to steer closer inshore. Traditionally, a captain defers to his pilot on account of his special knowledge; such was the case here, as the Gloucester stood in closer to shore, with the town of Yarmouth lying off her starboard beam.

She flew the Royal Standard because there was a royal personage on board: no less a personage than the then Duke of York, who three years later was to be crowned King James II. He was accompanied by a retinue of courtiers and other distinguished persons, including the Lord President of the Court of Session, the Earl of Perth and the Lords Roxburgh and Hopetoun, together with their personal attendants. Not least among this notable company was the Lord Provost of Edinburgh. Of the various accounts of the disaster that befell them all, his is the most detailed and interesting.

The Duke of York and his retinue, the Lord Provost and all the other important passengers, were still in their cabins at eleven o’clock in the morning when, suddenly and without warning, the Gloucester ran aground on a sandbank oddly known as the Lemon and Oar, some miles off Yarmouth. This longish, narrow ridge of sand rose to within three fathoms of the surface, but had deep water on either side. Either a miscalculation on the part of the pilot, or failure to judge the strength of the wind, caused the vessel to run straight on to the ridge instead of passing safely to one side or the other. Her draught was over twenty feet, so she ran her full length on to the bank before being brought to a halt, firmly held in the grip of the sand from stem to sternpost. The tide was setting in one direction, the wind in the other: the vessel was therefore being rocked sideways, to port and starboard, as though in a child’s cradle. Within minutes her lower planks had parted and water was flooding in through the great gaps between her ribs.

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The history of the steam turbine begins in Alexandria

Posted in Boats, Engineering, Famous Inventors, Historical articles, History, Inventions, Ships on Tuesday, 26 November 2013

This edited article about ships first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 462 published on 21 November 1970.

Turbinia at Spithead, picture, image, illustration
Turbinia, a small, 100-foot craft, dashed between the formidable warships during the 1897 Naval review celebrating Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, by John S Smith

The Queen Elizabeth II, the latest pride of the Cunard fleet, the last word in nautical luxury and machinery is driven by steam turbines.

As the whole world knows, there was a fault in the design of the turbines which caused breakdowns and trouble on her proving voyage. With every new invention there are bound to be some teething troubles, but the steam turbine is far from being a new invention.

The steam turbine is first recorded in working use when most ships were powered by gangs of galley slaves.

Round about 100 A.D., a Greek named Hero, who lived in the Greek colonial city of Alexandria, made steam work. His turbine was simple. A sealed bowl of water was heated by fire. When the water boiled the steam rose up two thin tubes into a sphere which was supported on either side by these tubes and was able to revolve on them. Jutting from the globe were two jets, turned at right angles to the diameter of the tube, so that when the steam escaped from these jets under pressure the reaction caused the sphere to revolve. The device was nothing but a toy, although it has been unreliably rumoured that it was built into a full-sized paddle boat.

The first steam turbine to perform useful work was constructed in 1629 by the Italian mechanic Giovanni Branca. Hero’s turbine had worked by reaction. Branca’s was an impulse turbine, in which a jet of steam was blown on to the vanes of a wheel, which was connected by gearing to a device for pounding and grinding chemicals. Curiously the steam was not blown from an ordinary pipe, but from the lips of a negro’s head, artistically wrought in metal.

The first turbine-powered boat was the Turbinia which arrived uninvited at the Spithead Review of the Fleet by Queen Victoria in 1897, and zipped along among the dreadnoughts at an exceedingly nippy speed.

Thor Heyerdahl proved that Polynesians could have sailed from distant Peru

Posted in Adventure, Anthropology, Boats, Historical articles, History, Sea on Tuesday, 12 November 2013

This edited article about Thor Heyerdahl originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 454 published on 26 September 1970.

Kon-Tiki, picture, image, illustration
The Voyage of the Kon-Tiki by Ron Embleton

Norwegians have not only explored the polar regions, but have taken part in expeditions to many other parts of the world. During the years 1880 to 1917, Carl Lumholtz penetrated into the mysterious heart of Australia, as well as leading expeditions to Mexico, India and Borneo. Between 1878 and 1882 another Norwegian, Carl Boch, travelled to Borneo and Sumatra and to the interior of Siam. From one year to another exploration conquers new fields, and the tradition that runs from Erik the Red to Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen is still being carried on.

Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian explorer, is the hero of one of the best known modern adventures – the “Kon-Tiki” expedition. Heyerdahl was born in 1914, and spent several years studying ethnology (the study of races) and allied sciences prior to the expedition that catapulted him to world fame.

On 28th April, 1947, with five other Norwegians and one Swede, he set out on his “Kon-Tiki” adventure. Like Nansen, Heyerdahl made use of currents – not to cross the North Pole, but to drift right across the Pacific Ocean, from Peru to the South Sea Islands, a distance of some 4,000 miles.

I went to see Thor Heyerdahl in Oslo soon after his return from his momentous trip. There he showed me the raft, made of great balsa wood tree trunks, which he and his companions had built themselves. They had first cut the balsa logs in the Ecuadorian jungle, and floated them down the rivers to the Pacific. The raft was christened “Kon-Tiki” after the Sun God of ancient Peru, who, according to legend, had voyaged out across the Pacific accompanied by white bearded men, before the Incas came to power in Peru.

Thor Heyerdahl told me: “The raft was an exact copy of the old craft of Peru and Ecuador and was made by lashing nine of the huge logs together with hemp rope. We did not use a single spike, nail, or any wire rope, in the whole construction. We lashed thin balsa logs crossways over the main logs, and laid down a deck of split bamboos. We erected a small open cabin which we walled with plaited bamboo reeds, and roofed with leathery banana leaves.”

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