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Subject: ‘Ships’

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The loss of H.M.S.Victoria stunned the entire nation

Posted in Disasters, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Ships on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

This edited article about H.M.S.Victoria first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 597 published on 23 June 1973.

HMS Victoria,  picture, image, illustration
The Loss of HMS "Victoria", the Men jumping from the Ship as she turned bottom upwards before going down

“Full speed astern!” roared Admiral Markham urgently, but it was too late. Only a few moments later his ship, H.M.S. Camperdown, rammed the flagship of the Mediterranean Fleet, H.M.S. Victoria, which went down in a few minutes with 359 officers and men.

One man and one man alone was responsible for this totally unnecessary catastrophe and he was the Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet himself, Admiral Sir George Tyron, who went down with his ship, the Victoria. For it was not the fault of the Camperdown that the tragedy occurred. The date was 1893 and it was the greatest naval scandal of Queen Victoria’s reign.

1893. Great Britain ruled the waves of the world, as she had done ever since the Battle of Trafalgar. There had been no world wars since Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815 and throughout that time the Royal Navy had kept the sea lanes of the world safe for shipping.

The British Empire, protected by the Navy and Army, was at the height of its power. Soon, but not yet, rival navies, especially the German fleet, were to challenge British supremacy, but already there were signs that the world’s mightiest navy was not as good as it might be. The standard of gunnery was low and conditions for ordinary seamen were to remain poor until, in the early years of the 20th century, Admiral Fisher improved them and became affectionately known as “Jacky” by every Jack Tar.

Many warships were out-of-date, too, before he transformed the Navy. And in 1893, battle practice was not taken seriously enough because there had been no major sea battles for so long. The truth was that the rulers of the Navy were a little smug, like the British themselves!

Against this background the sinking of the Victoria came as a body blow. She had been launched in 1887 and was 340 feet long and 70 feet across at her widest. There were two 111 ton guns on a giant turret and many smaller ones, including twelve 6-inch ones. The battleship had plenty of armour plating, but a few critics, whose voices were drowned in the excitement of everyone else when the ship went into service, pointed out that only 162 feet of her 340 feet were, in fact, covered in armour.

On June 22, 1893, Admiral Tryon, on board Victoria, was leading his ships from Beirut to Tripoli. They were sailing in two columns, with Victoria on the column farthest from land, leading six other battleships and cruisers. The other column, led by Rear Admiral Hastings Markham, sailed parallel to them at the head of six more ships.

There were 718 men aboard Victoria, and the ship’s company were known as a happy, hard-working one. As for the Admiral, he had only just returned to sea duty after a long spell in posts ashore.

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Peter the Great was a political genius and brutal autocrat

Posted in Historical articles, History, Royalty, Ships on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

This edited article about Peter the Great first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 596 published on 16 June 1973.

Peter the Great,  picture, image, illustration
Dressed as an English sailor, Peter the Great helped shape oaken timbers and to build great sailing ships, offering no hints that he was Czar of Russia

He was dressed in the uniform of an English sailor. Each day he toiled long hours at Deptford docks in London, helping to shape the oaken timbers and to build the great sailing ships that then, in 1698, were second to none in the world.

He was a giant of a man, nearly seven feet in height. He said little, but his eyes were always alert, watching, learning. The way his great hands caressed the wood showed only that here was a man with an obsessive love for ships. And the humble way in which he obeyed orders gave no hint as to his true identity. For this was Peter the First, Czar of all Russia – the Czar who was to become known as Peter the Great.

Peter’s love for ships had begun long ago. Much of his childhood had been spent in a suburb of Moscow mainly peopled by foreigners. It was here that he met Brandt, a Dutchman who at one time had been a shipbuilder. He told Peter about the great ships that sailed the world. Peter had never before seen a sailing ship. Together, he and Brandt built a boat and Brandt showed him how to sail it. He did not know it then, but this was to be his first step towards the future creation of a Russian navy.

Peter’s other great love was playing soldiers. As a small boy he had played long hours with his wooden toy soldiers, working out long complicated manoeuvres far beyond the intelligence of any ordinary child. Later, as a youth of nineteen, Peter organised two real regiments of soldiers, attending to every detail even down to designing their uniform. But he still treated them as toys. He sent them into a “mock” battle against each other. However, the battle proved to be more realistic. One man was killed, many seriously injured, and Peter himself had his face badly burned by an exploding shell.

Peter had had a confused and frightening upbringing. Peter the Great’s father, Czar Alexis, had died leaving a second wife and the children of his two marriages – Ivan and Sophia by his first marriage, and Peter by his second. This could only result in conflict and a struggle for the vacant thrown of Russia. During this conflict, Peter was to see much violence and bloodshed which made him realise how cheaply human lives could be held.

Sophia was the eldest of the children and the most ambitious. Ivan was sickly and weak. Peter, by contrast, was a healthy strapping child but far too young then really to know what was going on. And so Sophia was able to intrigue cleverly with the help of her admirer, Prince Golitsyn. She gained the support of the special regiments of the army known as the Streltsy and so came virtually to rule Russia. She had Ivan and Peter proclaimed as joint Czars with herself acting as Regent. The two children would sit on a special double throne with Sophia concealed behind the curtains whispering the words she wanted them to say.

When he was 16, Peter was persuaded to marry. It was to be an unhappy match. Peter was clumsy, rough and blunt, more like a peasant than a Czar. His wife on the other hand was of noble birth and upbringing. They had little in common. Even the birth of a son, Alexis, did nothing to make their marriage happier.

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Cocos Island continues to guard its fabulous treasure

Posted in Adventure, Historical articles, History, Legend, Ships on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

This edited article about Cocos Island first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 596 published on 16 June 1973.

Captain Thompson and mate,  picture, image, illustration
Captain Thompson and his crew fled from their Spanish captors but only Thompson survived, dying in Newfoundland in 1844 by C L Doughty

In a stretch of waste ground at racing driver Sir Malcolm Campbell’s country house, every available man was busy digging. As soon as a hole was deep enough, unwanted pieces of old iron were thrown in and the excavation hurriedly filled up. When no more rusty chains, door locks or buckets could be found, Sir Malcolm ordered his superbly equipped workshops to be raided, and racing wheels, cylinder blocks and other car parts vanished underground.

The object of this hasty burial was to provide a test for a new treasure seeking aid in the form of an electric metal detector. Unfortunately for the one-time holder of the world speed record on both land and water, the gadget proved a total failure. Today, almost fifty years later, several hundred pounds worth of car spares are still quietly rusting beneath that particular stretch of ground, one more memorial to man’s passion for hidden gold.

For Sir Malcolm Campbell, it was only the beginning of a long story of rapidly mounting expenses that would eventually prove to him that although motor racing was unquestionably a rich man’s sport, treasure hunting could prove a pastime that was strictly for millionaires. But even if the great driver had been able to look into the future it is doubtful if he would have behaved any differently, for he had fallen under the spell of one of the great quests of all time. This was the search for the treasures of Cocos Island.

It was easy to believe that there might well be more than one. Cocos Island lies 300 miles south-west of Costa Rica, a tiny, volcanic heap of rock jutting up out of the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean. Only 4 miles in diameter, it has deeply caved cliffs that rise 600 feet, and what little land there is consists of almost impenetrable jungle. Unwelcoming the island may be, but it stands on what was once the main highway for treasure ships and pirates alike. For many a desperado in need of a quick hiding place, Cocos Island was the only available spot.

The first of its hurried visitors seems to have been Captain Edward Davis, who in 1683 commanded a pirate fleet of no less than 10 vessels. After plundering the coast about Panama, Davis’s flagship headed for Cocos Island on her own, and the pirate leader went shorewards with a number of heavy chests. Davis returned to the ship, but the chests remained behind.

In 1816, a particularly bloodthirsty scoundrel named Bonito Benito heard of a large consignment of gold due to be moved from Mexico City. Disguised as mule drivers, he and his men captured the load, hid it aboard their ship, the Relampago, and set sail. Bonito Benito managed to land his staggering haul on Cocos Island, but shortly afterwards he was cornered by a British corvette. Before he could be questioned, the pirate blew his brains out on his own quarter deck.

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A Soviet air rescue saved the passengers of S.S. Chelyuskin

Posted in Aviation, Disasters, Historical articles, History, Ships on Saturday, 8 March 2014

This edited article about the S S Chelyuskin disaster first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 586 published on 7 April 1973.

Slowly, painfully, its screws whirring frantically, the S.S. Chelyuskin fought its way through the ice floes of the Arctic Ocean. On her deck, her captain, Julius Schmidt, worriedly watched the ice pack inexorably closing in on his vessel. He had good cause for concern. In this area, more sturdy ships than his had disappeared without a trace, crushed to death by the terrible ice-floes. Of course, these were the chances that sailors took when they travelled in this area. But the S.S. Chelyuskin was no ordinary ship, inasmuch as she carried no less than 103 people aboard, including ten women and two children. It was a grave responsibility for a captain to carry on his shoulders.

The S.S. Chelyuskin was a Soviet ship which had set off from Russia in the August of 1933, with the express purpose of proving that an ordinary cargo vessel could voyage through the north-east passage and back within a single season. In the previous year, a Soviet ice-breaker under the command of Julius Schmidt had managed to make the journey. But unlike the Chelyuskin, she had been specially built to withstand the enormous pressure of the ice-floes.

Even so, the Chelyuskin had so far come through magnificently. After collecting a party of Russian scientists and their families from Wrangel Island, she had weathered blizzards and storms and had so far sailed through hundreds of miles of pack-ice without misadventure.

But now was the true testing time. Some way ahead of the vessel lay the open Pacific. But to reach it there were still some miles of water to be navigated, water that was filled with drifting gigantic ice-floes which could smash in the sides of the vessel like matchwood.

Desperately, the vessel twisted and turned, its bows throwing up a steady shower of ice splinters. Every now and then the vessel would halt abruptly, trapped between two walls of ice. Whenever this happened, the crew would jump overboard with cans of explosive which they planted on the ice. Numbed with the cold and breathless from their exertions, they scrambled back on the ship each time, only seconds before the explosives went up.

Then suddenly, miraculously, the Chelyuskin was only six miles from the open seas of the Pacific Ocean. Surely now, after going through so much, they would reach their goal without misadventure? The sunshine that came out at this point, softening the bleak outlines of the ice, certainly seemed to indicate that the worst was over.

Then, without warning, and as if from nowhere, a raging blizzard descended on the Chelyuskin, driving the ice floes forward until they formed a solid barrier in front of the vessel. Now it began to move forward, grinding remorselessly against the ship’s sides, until it had broken her ribs at the bows, torn a hole in her forward, and snapped off her rudder.

It was at this point that Julius Schmidt went to the radio to inform the world of their desperate plight. But even after that the ship still continued to survive for another three and a half weeks before the ice forced the occupants of the beleaguered ship to abandon her.

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British warships tried to police the Muslim trade in African slaves

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

This edited article about slavery first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 585 published on 31 March 1973.

Muslim slavemasters with slaves, , picture, image, illustration
Captives of Arabs led in chains from the docks, with dhow in background by John Millar Watt

A crowd came down to the harbour of Zanzibar to watch the departure of H.M.S. Daphne for Bombay. The last provisions were hoisted aboard, the pedlars and beggars scrambled from her decks and slowly she edged out to sea. Soon her sails had dipped below the horizon and a fleet of Arab dhows (sailing boats) which had been huddled in the port, began to trickle out. With the Daphne out of the way, and their cargo battened down, they could begin their trip northwards to the Persian Gulf.

But the Daphne was not out of the way. Captain Sulivan, her commander, had deliberately leaked the information that he was sailing for India in order to entice the dhows out of Zanzibar’s waters. In fact, he was waiting for them, hove-to a little way up the coast and when the first dhow appeared he steamed at full speed to arrest her. It was October 1867. The Daphne was policing the African coast. And the dhow was a slaver.

The abolition of slavery and the slave trade in the British colonies was one of the Britain’s most beneficial contributions to civilization in the 19th century and the work of Wilberforce and others, culminating in the Act of 1824, is justly famous. Other states followed Britain’s lead, although Portugal and the Americas refrained, and numerous treaties were signed which outlawed traffic in slaves. But as time went on the vigour with which the laws against the slave-trade were enforced diminished and by the 1860s it flourished on the east coast of Africa, as men like Livingstone discovered. Its most notorious outlet was the territory of the Sultan of Zanzibar, where it was carried on by Somali Arabs. But Britain discovered, to her horror, that British subjects, Indian merchants mainly, were also engaged in it and were making huge profits from it.

The British fleet in the Indian Ocean, which existed to protect British colonies, became a police force and found itself off obscure stretches of the African coast, searching vessels suspected of trading in slaves. This was not as easy as it first seemed. The treaties which had been signed with the Sultan of Zanzibar and other petty rulers contained clauses which permitted a certain amount of trade in slaves for domestic use; and the astute traders quickly found numerous loopholes in these clauses by which they could evade arrest. They also terrified the slaves in their dhows by saying that the British would eat them if they caught them. So, when the British boarded a suspected ship, the traders would swear that the blacks on board were crew or domestic slaves and not intended for sale and the terrified natives would agree. In these cases the navy could do nothing.

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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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Disaster struck at midnight aboard the Caspatrick

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

This edited article about maritime disasters first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 584 published on 24 March 1973.

Harry Macdonald counted himself lucky to be serving as second mate on the Caspatrick, a fine frigate of 1,119 tons which had been originally built for the purpose of carrying British troops to the Crimea. She was no record-breaker, but she was a sound, steady-going, comfortable ship, the sort of ship which most sailors speak of with affection when they find themselves berthed in a less happy ship. She had, moreover, a good Captain named Elmslie, who was a dependable seaman, liked and respected by the crew, even though he was something of a disciplinarian.

On the morning of September 11th, 1874, the Caspatrick set off from London, bound for New Zealand. On board was a crew of 44, which included Macdonald, and 429 emigrants. As far as Macdonald was concerned, the trip would be an uneventful one. But at least he could look forward to seeing something of New Zealand for the first time.

The Caspatrick reached Cape Town without incident, beyond the fact that she had been forced to skirt around the Bay of Biscay to avoid a bad patch of rough weather. Leaving Cape Town, she began the long run to New Zealand. The next day she ran into a blustery nor wester, and most of the passengers were badly sea-sick, an unpleasant experience for those concerned, but not one to cause any undue alarm. Macdonald and some of the crew went out of their way to make the passengers comfortable, and then carried on with their duties, knowing that it would be only a day or so before the seas became calm again.

Sure enough, the next day the wind dropped and the Caspatrick was once again cleaving a clean path through the waves. Macdonald paused in his work occasionally to look at the creamy wake of the ship as she sped on her way. It was comforting to know that one was on such a fine ship on which nothing could happen.

But something did happen.

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USS Nautilus – the world’s first atomic-powered submarine

Posted in America, Historical articles, History, Ships, Technology, Weapons on Friday, 7 March 2014

This edited article about the USS Nautilus first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 584 published on 24 March 1973.

USS Nautilus,  picture, image, illustration
USS Nautilus

In 1870 Jules Verne wrote about a mighty submarine that could cruise thousands of leagues under the sea. He called it the Nautilus.

On January 21st, 1954, at a Connecticut shipyard the dream of Jules Verne came true. As Mrs Eisenhower smashed a bottle of champagne against the dark green hull of the Nautilus, the world’s first atom-powered submarine slid into the water.

Nautilus is 300 feet long, displaces 3,000 tons and cost £10 ½ million to build. Her atomic power can carry her round the world without refuelling.

And her speed is in excess of 20 knots.

When the cheers of the launching ceremony died away Nautilus went to work. Soon she was breaking records and in 1957 came a voyage of exploration as exciting as any that man has known.

The brief of her captain, Commander William Anderson, was to explore beneath the ice packs of the North Pole. The rasp of the diving alarm sounded and for the first time Nautilus edged under the ice.

Somewhere in the ship a juke-box was playing. Off-duty members of the crew relaxed in their almost luxurious quarters.

In the mess another group were eating dinner. Meanwhile in the control room, Commander Anderson wondered what they would find below the ice.

It wasn’t long before the answers to questions that had been puzzling scientists for many years began to arrive. By means of a sonar machine scientists on board were able to form a very good picture of what the ice overhead was like.

A sonar machine is a device that picks up sound and so enables the navigator to detect the presence of any objects outside his ship. This he does by listening for the echo made by an object in the path of a beam of sound.

First they found that it was a huge, ever-moving mass of varying thickness. It was made up of floes ranging from a few feet to ten or twelve feet but not often more.

The North Pole ice-pack is interspersed here and there with small lakes, little more than cracks in the surface.

After cruising for some time beneath the surface Commander Anderson decided to attempt to bring Nautilus to the surface in one of these cracks.

It was, as he put it, rather like “threading a needle.”

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Gordon Campbell V.C., scourge of the German U-boats

Posted in Bravery, Historical articles, History, Ships, World War 1 on Friday, 7 March 2014

This edited article about World War One first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 583 published on 17 March 1973.

 HMS Farnborough,
British Q-ship HMS Farnborough by Graham Coton

She could have been the original “dirty little collier with a salt-caked smoke-stack.” She was about as shabby looking as any ship that ever put to sea, and the grey Atlantic waves upon which she rolled under a leaden sky did nothing to enhance her appearance.

She was called H.M.S. Farnborough and on that gloomy March day in 1916, when the sea was filled with predatory U-boats, the commander of U-38 watched her through his periscope and chuckled to himself at the ease of the kill which she presented.

Leisurely, the German submarine captain fired a torpedo. It missed. Suppressing a bored yawn, he surfaced. He would finish the wretched collier with his guns.

On board H.M.S. Farnborough all was panic and confusion as the crew leapt into the lifeboats. One boat slipped awkwardly and hung stern down in the water, adding to the terror. The U-boat captain watched indifferently from 800 yards away as he ordered his gunners to take action stations.

Then, in the next few seconds, occurred one of the astonishing scenes of the First World War.

From the bridge of H.M.S. Farnborough, her captain, Lieut.-Commander Gordon Campbell, rapped out a terse order. Suddenly, one side of the dirty collier dropped downwards on well-oiled hinges and four lethal looking long-range guns spat out a fusillade of fire.

Within a minute the submarine had dived desperately below the waves. But she was out of control and like a drowning man came up again, head first, to reveal a great jagged rent along her superstructure – a rent caused by the collier’s concealed guns. Then U-38 slid beneath the surface for ever.

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“Great Britain’s” most momentous journey was her last voyage home

Posted in Conservation, Engineering, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Ships on Thursday, 6 March 2014

This edited article about the S.S. Great Britain first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 582 published on 10 March 1973.

S.S. Great Britain, , picture, image, illustration
S.S. Great Britain arrives back in Bristol in 1970

Divers swarmed around the beached hulk of a once magnificent ship that lay partly submerged on the sand of Sparrow Cove in the Falkland Islands.

Battered by the sub-arctic waters of the icy Atlantic that had made a wide crack on the starboard side and pitted the sides with holes, she was the sad corpse of a pioneer of the oceans, the first screw steamer to cross the Atlantic.

A man of foresight, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, had designed her in 1843; the first ocean-going screw steamer. And another man of foresight, Dr. Ewan Corlett, a naval architect, was planning to bring her back to Britain.

To Dr. Corlett, this vessel, the S.S. “Great Britain” was as technically advanced for her time as the supersonic Concorde airliners of today, and for this reason she was worth preserving.

While the salvage experts were preparing the ship for her last historic voyage, Dr. Corlett must surely have reflected on the sequence of events that had brought the vessel to the Falkland Islands.

Her first trip to America had taken 15 days, an outstandingly short passage for those days. In her bunkers were a thousand tons of coal. And while her three hundred passengers enjoyed themselves in the enormous dining saloon or strolled upon her decks, her four-cylinder steam engine set the decks rumbling as it turned the giant-sized, six-bladed screw propeller.

There was 1,200 tons of cargo on board, stowed safely away from the eight roaring furnaces and three boilers that sent the ship surging through the sea at about 12 knots.

But she was an ill-fated ship. On her first voyage, she broke her propeller, which was replaced by a four-bladed one. In 1846, she ran ashore on the Irish coast and stayed there for nearly a year before she was refloated.

Another firm bought her, repaired her, gave her a new type of engine that was more powerful, and fitted a three-bladed propeller. After a while on the Atlantic run, she began carrying cargo between Britain and Australia.

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