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Subject: ‘Sea’

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Captain Webb founded a new sport – English Channel swimming

Posted in Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Sea, Sport, Sporting Heroes on Saturday, 8 March 2014

This edited article about Captain Webb first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 586 published on 7 April 1973.

Captain Webb,  picture, image, illustration
Matthew Webb, the first man to swim the English Channel in August 1875 by John Keay

The vicious seas slammed into the flank of the little sailing boat, and spray covered the men peering anxiously to starboard in search of a tiny black dot in the water.

It was an important dot – a human being, struggling to be the first man ever to swim across the English Channel.

Nowadays the Channel is swum every year, with a fleet of escort boats with strong engines which can bring them alongside in a matter of seconds if a swimmer gets into trouble. But the only escort for Captain Matthew Webb on 24th August, 1875, was one cockle-shell of a boat, which was in almost as much danger from the rough seas as Webb himself! Even the men aboard the boat thought Webb was a madman. They were there because they had been paid by a London newspaper, but they fully expected to return to Dover carrying the body of a drowned man.

Webb had begun with a spectacular dive from Dover Pier. He was a short, strongly built man, already the holder of a Royal Humane Society Medal for trying to rescue a sailor who had fallen from a ship in the Atlantic. Later, as a test before swimming the Channel, he had outswum a boat full of oarsmen on the Thames.

Now, with his body smeared with grease as a protection against the cold, he was fighting his way across against weather which grew steadily worse with every hour that passed.

He swam breast-stroke, as most swimmers did in those days. It took him more than three hours to cover the first four and a half miles, but even so he was in good spirits. A cup of beer was handed down to him, also beef tea, and a spoonful of cod liver oil.

He grinned up at the men in the boat, handed his cup back to them, and kept on.

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Dr Beebe was under tremendous pressure in his tiny bathysphere

Posted in Engineering, Historical articles, History, Sea on Friday, 7 March 2014

This edited article about Beebe’s bathysphere first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 583 published on 17 March 1973.

Bathysphere,  picture, image, illustration
Beebe teamed up with Otis Barton and John Butler to build a Bathysphere by Aldo Torcchio

The hollow steel ball in which Dr. William Beebe and his assistant, Otis Barton, were about to risk their lives was no more than four feet, nine inches in diameter, and its walls were only an inch thick. The two men intended to dive into the ocean to a depth of over 3,000 feet or 500 fathoms.

Beebe had no illusions as to the risks they would be taking. He had already nearly lost his life in the bathysphere when it had drifted against a submerged reef, full of large spiky crags, capable of piercing his quartz windows. On another occasion his “air tight” door had begun to let in water so rapidly that it had been touch and go that they would be hauled to the surface before the cabin had filled with water. He had survived that, only to have a worse experience when a sudden hurricane had whipped up the waters to such an extent that his cable had been in danger of snapping.

All these accidents had happened when he had been exploring the undersea world in comparatively shallow waters. What would happen this time when he descended to a depth never before achieved by man?

Beebe had begun his career as an ornithologist, and it was not until he had reached middle-age that he became interested in marine life. For a long time he had explored the ocean in a diver’s suit, which he had found limiting and unsatisfactory. The idea of using a bathysphere had come to him while he was talking to President Theodore Roosevelt on the subject of creating some radically new technique with which men could explore the oceans of the world, free from the problems of pressure. He had already thought of using a diving chamber in the form of a cylinder, and he drew a rough sketch of it on a piece of paper. Roosevelt took the pencil from his hand and drew a sphere. It was, as Beebe realised later, an inspired suggestion, as a sphere would ensure an even distribution of pressure over the whole surface.

Now the bathysphere was about to descend to a depth far deeper than that even achieved by any submarine. For the first time, with luck, man would explore a strange underseas world where unknown species had existed, perhaps for millions of years before human life began. It was a solemn thought for the two men to take with them as they clambered into the bathysphere on that August day in 1934.

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A steamer sent ‘Poseidon’ to the bottom of the China Seas

Posted in Disasters, Famous news stories, Sea, Ships on Thursday, 6 March 2014

This edited article about submarine disasters first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 580 published on 24 February 1973.

Yuta strikes Poseidon,  picture, image, illustration
In the China Seas in 1930, the 2,000 ton steamer Yuta slammed into the side of the submarine Poseidon by Graham Coton

Six men lay at the bottom of the China Seas, trapped in the bowels of their submarine, the “Poseidon,” with seemingly no hope of rescue. They were Petty Officer Patrick Willis, Able Seamen Lovock, Holt and Nagle, Leading Seaman Clark, and a Chinese steward, Ah Hai.

Numbed with shock, they lay in the inky darkness, knowing nothing of an accident that had sent them to the bottom, beyond the fact that it had happened with such devastating suddeness that there had not been the slightest warning of any danger.

One moment they had been cruising peacefully along the surface of the water. Then there had been the deadly shock of some sort of collision, and an echoed shout of “Close watertight doors.” They had sprung to obey this order, only to be flung off their balance immediately after they had closed the door of the bulkhead of their own compartment. Then there had been a swift descent to the bottom of the ocean.

The “Poseidon” had been built in 1929, and commissioned for service in the following year. In the December, 1930, she sailed with three sister ships to the China Seas, and it was there that the accident had happened.

While the sub was on the surface some distance away from the rest of the squadron, those who had been standing on her deck suddenly became aware that a steamer named the “Yuta” was bearing blindly down on them at full speed. Unable to stop in time, she had rammed into the side of the submarine, crashing through the steel plates.

The “Yuta,” which was manned by a Chinese crew, immediately reversed her propellers. But it was already far too late for that to stop the ship. Slamming into the submarine with all the full weight of her 2,000 tons, the “Yuta” rolled the submarine on to her side. At the same time, water began to gush through the great gash that had been made in the side of “Poseidon.”

Twenty-nine men managed to get through the open conning tower before the submarine sank. With the exception of the six men trapped forward, all the others on the submarine were drowned.

For the six who had survived, the situation was grim. It was true that men on surface ships nearby would have seen what had happened, and would, even now, be steaming to the rescue. But how long would it be before they were able to get divers down to examine the ship? And when they did get down, would they find a practical way of releasing the six men?

Willis, who was in charge of the party, very much doubted it. Moreover, time was already running out. Water was seeping steadily through the bulkhead door, and there was no air beyond that which they were already breathing. At most, Willis reckoned, that air would last them for about six hours.

As far as Willis could assess the situation they had only one means of escape – the Davis rescue gear.

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Philip Nolan – the American whom America rejected forever

Posted in America, Historical articles, History, Oddities, Sea, Ships on Wednesday, 5 March 2014

This edited article about Philip Nolan first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 579 published on 17 February 1973.

Philip Nolan,  picture, image, illustration
Philip Nolan took over a gun and his encouragement and bravery greatly helped to bring about the defeat of HMS Java

It was May 11th, 1863. The American corvette, U.S.S. Levant, was sailing in the Pacific. Captain Danforth was on duty on the bridge when a Lieutenant approached him, saluting smartly.

“Our guest is asking to see you, sir,” the Lieutenant said.

Captain Danforth nodded. “I’ll see him later.”

“He is asking for you urgently, sir,” the Lieutenant persisted. “He appears ill.”

Captain Danforth handed the bridge over to the Lieutenant and went below. He made his way to a cabin at the stern of the ship and knocked on the door. A weak voice asked him to enter. Captain Danforth went in, closing the door behind him.

“Thank you for coming, Captain,” said the man who was lying on the bunk. He tried to lift himself up but he was too weak and he fell back against the pillow.

Captain Danforth went quickly across to the bunk and looked at his passenger. He was white haired. The hands clutching at the blanket were veined and wrinkled. Captain Danforth guessed him to be about eighty years of age. There was no way of telling from the face. This was covered by a black velvet mask. All that could be seen were the eyes, dull and watery, and the thin wrinkled lips.

“You are ill,” Captain Danforth said with concern.

The man shook his head. “No. Just old and dying.” He raised a hand and pointed. “The map.”

Captain Danforth looked around the cabin. It was the first time he had been in it. It was sparsely furnished. On a shelf there were a handful of books. On one wall hung a painting of the American eagle, done by the occupant of the cabin. On the opposite wall hung a map of America.

“The map,” the man muttered again weakly.

Captain Danforth went and fetched the map. He saw that this too had been drawn by his passenger but that it was badly out of date.

“I drew that map many years ago,” the man said. “Over fifty years, I think. I would like to know what it would look like now.”

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Treasure is often found by accident as well as scientific skill

Posted in Historical articles, History, Sea, Ships on Tuesday, 4 March 2014

This edited article about treasure hunters first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 577 published on 3 February 1973.

Mary Rose sinks,  picture, image, illustration
Disaster came swiftly to the 'Mary Rose'

All over the world, every year, new treasures are found as both chance and hard work play a part in the hundreds of searches being made. Some of the finders are simply lucky people, like the farm labourer who turned up a collection of gold ornaments when he was ploughing a field in Suffolk. Others are like the London solicitor who gave up his job to concentrate on finding the wreck of the “Association” off the Scilly Isles. For him, years of patient research and hard work were needed before he could claim his treasure.

But above all, the twentieth century has seen some of the most exciting treasure hunts because of the aids which science has produced. The age of coded maps, secret messages and pick axes is over. Now diving bells, the aqualung, electronic devices and underwater explosions are used so that treasures which would once have defied the most persistent searcher can be uncovered.

One of the most spectacularly successful of modern treasure hunts took place in 1941 off the coast of New Zealand. The mailboat “Niagara,” carrying vital gold from Australia to Canada (where it was to pay for essential war supplies) steamed straight into an ambush laid by some unknown German raider. After hitting a mine there were several underwater explosions and although the passengers and crew had time to launch the boats and were saved, the ship sank in over 400 feet of water.

Five hundred and ninety gold bars, desperately needed for arms and equipment had to be recovered, and recovered quickly. A superb new diving bell was used and the operation actually to pin-point the wreck was mounted. Two brothers, John and William Johnstone did most of the actual diving and it was on John’s second descent that the real difficulties suddenly became apparent.

Inside the nine-foot high diving bell the sound of voices over the intercom was the only indication of the outside world in the strange, almost unreal panorama under the sea. Then suddenly John heard a scraping sound. Peering out he saw a rusty old cable which could not possibly belong to the salvage ship, and which, to his horror, he realised was the anchor cable of a mine. It had become entangled with the salvage ship’s own anchor cable and one false move could have meant disaster to everyone working on the treasure hunt.

Somehow, the delicate operation of cutting the anchor cable but retaining a watch on the position of the mine was completed and the mine was exploded by gunfire. It was two months later, in February 1941, before the “Niagara” was finally found and even then over one hundred underwater demolition charges were needed before the strongroom door was finally blown open.

Then, at last, the diving bell went down again, with its mechanical grab ready to pluck out the boxes of gold ingots. But the water was as thick as coffee and despite the diving bell’s fourteen quartz glass windows, directing the grab was like threading a needle in the dark. While the men above waited impatiently the scoop finally closed and came up. On the deck spilled mud, sand – and the first wooden box, containing an ingot of gold.

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The Spanish treasure sunk with the ‘silver fleet’ in Vigo Bay

Posted in Historical articles, History, Sea, Ships on Monday, 3 March 2014

This edited article about treasure hunters first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 576 published on 27 January 1973.

Chaplain of the Pembroke,  picture, image, illustration
Overhearing the chatter at a waterfront Inn, the British chaplain knew that a Spanish treasure fleet was in Vigo Bay

The situation in Spain was desperate. Everyone knew it, from the soldiers who waited for their pay and the merchants whose bills were never paid to the priests whose treasures might soon have to be melted down to fill the nation’s coffers. For the truth was that, in 1702, the country was nearly bankrupt, despite the riches it had amassed from its colonies. The War of the Spanish Succession, in which France and Spain were united against Britain and the Netherlands, was ruinously expensive and dragging on but, more importantly, the fabulous “Silver Fleet” had been delayed for three whole years.

It was this fleet which provided the basis for Spain’s wealth. Once a year a huge convoy of vessels, closely guarded, would bring back all the gold and silver from the mines of Mexico, Peru and New Granada. Precious stones, coins and sacks of pearls looted from the colonies were added, until the total value of the cargo reached many millions of pounds. Naturally, the fleet became a target for both pirates and warships from hostile countries and the Spanish resolved not to let it sail unless it had adequate protection from their own fighting ships.

It was the lack of a strong escort squadron which had caused such a long delay. But, in 1702, the French offered to provide twenty-three frigates and ships of the line, and the Spanish, desperate to replenish their coffers, gratefully accepted. The result was the long, straggling procession of seventeen galleons which, together with their escort, left Havana on June 11, bound for Cadiz. It was “the richest silver fleet that ever crossed the ocean.”

When the fleet reached the Azores, however, there was bad news in store. A vastly superior collection of Dutch and English ships was blockading Cadiz, and yet another English squadron was patrolling off the north west corner of Spain in the region of Cape Finisterre.

A council of war was hurriedly held in the great cabin of the French flagship, the 76-gun Le Fort. Around the huge table and amid the rich furnishings, French and Spanish allies argued fiercely about the disposal of the treasure. The French wanted to make for one of their own ports, but mutual trust did not extend to that, and eventually Vigo Bay was suggested.

It was a fine, natural harbour in the north of Spain where, once the fleet had passed the narrow channel into the inner bay, it could quickly be made safe from attack. It was not only a careful and well thought-out plan but, because the Spanish acted swiftly, it should have been foolproof. Had it not been for a clergyman, and a careless remark at an inn, the story of the Vigo galleons might have been very different.

By October, 1702, the British and the Dutch fleets, charged with blockading Cadiz, had had enough. It was a thankless task, and the gunners on shore had been getting steadily more accurate, as the list of wounded men and damaged ships showed. It was decided to return home for the winter, and officers and men, disheartened by their lack of glory or prize money, sailed disconsolately home. One ship, the “Pembroke,” put into a Portuguese port for water supplies and the chaplain took the opportunity to stretch his legs ashore.

An hour later, the chaplain was settled comfortably with a glass of Madeira wine at a waterfront inn. Looking idly out of the window at the quayside bustle, he was suddenly aware of soft voices behind him and a mention of the word “galleons.”

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The P & O Liner ‘Egypt’ was called “the impossible salvage”

Posted in Historical articles, History, Sea, Ships on Saturday, 1 March 2014

This edited article about ship salvage first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 575 published on 20 January 1973.

The P. & O. liner 'Egypt' sank in 1922,  picture, image, illustration
The P. & O. liner 'Egypt' sank in 1922

Thick fog had surrounded the 8,999-ton P. and O. liner “Egypt” all day, as she had made her way cautiously out of the English Channel. It was still with her as she rounded the French coast into the Atlantic. For hours now, the dull boom of the liner’s foghorns and the answering calls of other ships in the vicinity had grown so monotonous that most of the passengers had paid little attention to them. They were there to enjoy the voyage, and as they dressed for dinner most of them thought only of the pleasures of the evening ahead.

But three men aboard the ship had a very good reason to be worried. The captain, the chief officer and the purser shared both a secret and a responsibility which made their steady glances into the fog-shrouded night doubly anxious. Only they knew that in the ship’s fireproof and thief-proof strongroom lay a cargo so valuable that its existence had to be kept a secret.

Apart from the passengers’ jewellery and valuables, they carried some 2,318 gold and silver bars and a mass of gold sovereigns together valued at over a million pounds. These, the property of the British government, were destined for India and the Far East.

But the three men were fated never to finish the fateful journey which had started at London on 20th May, 1922. While everyone was at dinner a dull, grinding thud shook the ship from stem to stern. As tables overturned, crockery smashed, women screamed and alarm bells rang, it was obvious that the ship was already settling in the water, doomed to be sunk. She had been rammed by a French freighter, which had not seen her in the fog, and a huge hole in her stern had made everything but the abandonment of the ship impossible.

Despite a swift emergency evacuation, 88 men were still on board when the “Egypt” slid noiselessly under the water. Seven years later she was still there, her treasure lying in nearly four hundred feet of water, so well protected that men were already referring to the job of recovering it as “the impossible salvage.”

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Captain Kidd took the secret of his buried treasure to the gallows

Posted in Historical articles, History, Mystery, Sea, Ships on Wednesday, 26 February 2014

This edited article about Captain William Kidd first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 570 published on 16 December 1972.

Kidd and his treasure,  picture, image, illustration
Captain Kidd's treasure was said to have been buried on a rocky island in the Salvage Group, off the west coast of Africa, by Roger Payne

One of the world’s most mysterious and baffling treasure hunts started on a dull May evening in the grim surroundings of the condemned cell at Newgate prison.

William Kidd had been pacing up and down furiously all afternoon, his brain scheming away until finally he came to a decision. He had been condemned to death for piracy and had only two days to live. It was time to play his trump card – he would offer his hoard of buried treasure in exchange for his life.

Calling for pen, ink and paper, he sat down to compose the letter on which his life depended. “In the Indies, I have lodged goods and treasure to the value of one hundred thousand pounds,” he wrote, and went on to plead for a ship to be sent to rescue the treasure, whose location was known only to himself. “If I fail,” he added, “I desire no favour but to be forthwith executed according to my sentence.”

Kidd’s last, desperate attempt failed and he was hanged at Execution Dock, Wapping, on May 23, 1701. But his letter, which can still be seen at the British Museum, started a mammoth treasure hunt which has seen false clues misleading seekers all over the world. Some of his treasure had been hidden at Gardiner’s Island, off the coast of North America, and this was swiftly recovered; 200 bars of gold and silver, hundreds of diamonds, 1,000 ounces of gold dust and other valuable items were, in fact, returned to the Government. But did Captain Kidd have an even greater hoard, which is still waiting to be found? Many people believe that he did, and the answers can perhaps be found in his exciting and adventurous career as the Captain of a Privateer.

William Kidd is believed to have been born in 1645 at Greenock in Scotland. He was the son of a parson but his longing for adventure soon took him to sea and over the years he gained a fine reputation as a brave man and an adventurous seaman. He had married a widow in New York and apparently settled down to the life of a prosperous seaman and merchant when suddenly he decided on the venture which was to end in disaster.

Kidd accepted the offer of leading a voyage to the pirate-infested waters of the Indian Ocean, but he was to go there with the authority of the British Government to try to rid the area of some of its pirates. To do so, he obtained a special warrant from William III and set off from Plymouth as Captain of the privateer “Adventure.”

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Joshua Slocum saw a spectral Pilot on board the Spray

Posted in Historical articles, History, Mystery, Sea, Ships on Tuesday, 18 February 2014

This edited article about maritime mysteries first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 556 published on 9 September 1972.

Joshua Slocum,  picture, image, illustration
Joshua Slocum claimed to have seen a spectre on board the sloop, Spray, in 1895 by Graham Coton

He was not a man given to fantasies. Not the sort of man, for an instance, likely to imagine that he had seen a ghost. Rather the reverse. Master mariners who spend most of their lives on the sea are generally practical sort of men, whose only acquaintance with spirits is usually with those found in a bottle in some tavern ashore: Joshua Slocum certainly belonged to this breed, which makes it all the more strange that he saw what he did while sailing single handed around the world.

As a sailor, Slocum had done it all, from being a lowly deck hand to becoming the master of his own barque. But the barque had been shipwrecked, leaving him penniless. After that he had toiled quietly away in a Boston shipyard until a friend, the captain of a whaler, had made him a present of a sloop called the Spray. The gift was not as generous as it might seem, for the Spray had been beached for seven years and was now practically falling apart.

It didn’t matter. Slocum now had a sloop of his own, or at least, enough of one to make it a seaworthy vessel. And he didn’t even need money for that. All that he needed were his two strong arms and time. First he personally felled a great oak tree to make a new keel and ribs for the rotting hulk that was in the shipyard.

Thirteen months later the Spray was as good as new. But that perhaps is an exaggeration. What Slocum now had was a perfectly seaworthy vessel with years of good service ahead of it, but for all that it was not really the sort of boat that any sensible man would have thought of setting off in to sail around the world.

And that is precisely what Slocum did. On July 1st, 1895, he put forth from Newport, Rhode Island, U.S.A., to make a journey that no man had done before alone, although a Spanish crew had sailed around the world in the 16th century.

It was a lonely as well as a dangerous venture, even for a stolid man like Slocum, who was used to his own company. Not that he was completely cut off from social intercourse all the time. Calling at the island of Fayal in the Azores, he was greeted like visiting royalty. Plums as well as other fruit and an enormous white cheese were ceremoniously presented to him, and a young woman offered to accompany him as his cook and general help for the rest of the voyage. Politely declining the offer, Slocum took on board his gifts and sailed away – next stop Gibraltar.

It was then that Slocum did something foolish. Instead of carefully conserving his fruit for as long as he could, he settled down to gorge himself on plums and cheese. Inevitably he was soon bent double with the most agonising stomach cramps.

To make matters worse a strong breeze blew up and it was clear to an experienced sailor like Slocum that a major storm was in the offing. Falling about the deck, bent double with pain, Slocum adjusted his sails and then lashed the helm. Feeling more dead than alive he then staggered down to his cabin, where he collapsed on the floor in a dead faint.

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The sea-serpent of Gloucester was sighted far and wide

Posted in America, Historical articles, History, Legend, Mystery, Sea on Monday, 17 February 2014

This edited article about sea monsters first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 555 published on 2 September 1972.

Sea serpent,  picture, image, illustration
A sea-serpent wreaks havoc by Graham Coton

Visitors to Scotland often make their way to Loch Ness, not only to gaze upon the beauty of the scenery but tempted there by the thought that they might be fortunate enough to see the now-famous monster that is thought by some to inhabit the dark waters of the best known of the Scottish lochs. By all accounts many visitors do see the monster. Some claim to have photographed it and the pictures they have produced as evidence have caused considerable controversy. Not only visitors to the Loch claim sightings of “Nessy,” but the locals, too, can claim this honour. Some even are said to have observed it many times.

It would seem by the many sightings reported in the past that the Loch Ness monster has or has had cousins the world over. But judging by descriptions perhaps the creature that most deserves the honour of being Nessy’s closest relative would be the Gloucester sea serpent of America. According to historical records a monster serpent was seen in the harbour of Gloucester in Massachusetts about 30 miles to the north of Boston as well as in the nearby Nahant Bay, from as early as the middle of the 17th century and at various intervals for about the next two hundred years.

The first recorded account of this creature’s appearance occurs in the writings of a Mr. John Josselyn, a visitor to Nahant Bay in 1638. Mr. Josselyn tells of a creature that was seen coiled up on a rock and of an adventurous Englishman who, being on a passing boat at the time, prepared to shoot the beast but was prevented from doing so by an accompanying Indian, who informed the gentleman that to do so would bring them both bad luck.

It was not until 1817 that the Gloucester serpent really drew attention to itself. It would seem that in the summer of that year the monster stayed in the vicinity of Gloucester and Nahant Bay long enough for many people to see it, and even to instill considerable fear into the hearts of the inhabitants of the local towns and villages.

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