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I recently spent the weekend in Lisbon with my wife. It is a wonderfully old fashioned place with little winding streets within a few hundred yards of the city centre, and numerous places to visit. One of the places is Belem a short bus ride down the coast, and the site of the dock from which the Portuguese navigators left on their voyages of discovery, trade and plunder. It is sobering to think that Portuguese ships were trading with Japan in the 16th Century. Belem is also the site of the Portuguese maritime museum dedicated to Henry the Navigator which is full of models of vessels through the ages, and glass cases containing the instruments used by the navigators. An instrument that caught my eye was a sort of brass circle with a pointer equipped with a couple of holes through which the navigator might view the sun. "And they went round the world with that" I thought.

But then I realised that we all have our place in the process. Today I believe there is a possibility that deck officers will no longer be taught celestial navigation, because now there is GPS, and probably in time other satellite navigation systems. Indeed, if one wanted to use them I expect the old satellites which sent out the signals for SATNAV systems would still be available. As well as allowing ship's positions to be immediately shown on electronic charts, GPS receivers will usually give course and speed over the ground making even compasses redundant as instruments of navigation.

So, taking our place in history,  we navigators in the 1960s still relied on our ability to get the best out of the sextant and our feel for the environment in which we found ourselves. Those of us who were navigating ships across the North Atlantic often had to use considerable ingenuity to get a sight, sometimes descending to the main deck to get a horizon. We relied on the clockwork chronometer, and had to remember to wind it regularly and our gyro compasses were either Sperrys which occupied most of a small room, of Browns which were smaller, but which had to be constantly maintained if they were to keep going. We used paper charts which were often engravings from the 19th Century and the radar was a device to be used with caution. Looney captains, who thought that there were only a limited number of hours in the device, often kept it locked - yes they often needed to be activated with a key - forcing us to make running fixes using distant mountain tops, when making a landfall.

So taking all that into consideration, we did pretty well, and on the plus side there was considerable satisfaction to be gained from making landfall in the right place, and the right time after a long ocean passage. This satisfaction is likely to be denied the modern deck officer, and no bad thing they might say!


Having been following the story of the Ice Maiden with interest ever since the first press release by C&M probably two years ago, we might have reached the end of the affair.

I was attracted by the ambition of the scheme which was to take a very old Russian ice-breaker and convert it in America into a state of the art dynamically positioned accommodation vessel. It was to be so sophisticated that it was to be capable of working on DP, connected by a gangway to platforms in the UK sector of the North Sea. C&M had up to that time gained experience hiring a large DP supply ship in West Africa, loading up the deck with a pile of portacabins and using it to support construction there. The Company won awards in Scotland, and were supported in their scheme by important investors.

The ship got a contract to provide accommodation for a Shell platform which was supposed to start in the middle of 2007, but it did not arrive, and only a couple of months ago the reason became evident. It appeared that things had not gone well in America and that as a result the ship, now a hull with no upperworks, would be brought back to the UK on a heavy left ship and the job finished on the Tyne. Now 12 months behind schedule, and with little work apparently done the company were forecasting that it would be ready for work in March 2009, and that a further 50,000,000 had been invested in the project.

The, a couple of weeks ago it was announced in the South Shields Gazette that C&M had gone into administration and that work on the ship had not started. It is rumoured in Aberdeen that this might have been because considerable quantities of asbestos had been found in the hull. So, there it is. The administrators are looking for some-one to take over the project, and until then a very large hull of a very old ship will be tied up alongside at A&P Tyne. This is not the first time that the purchase of a ship has brought a company down. It has happened to more experienced people than C&M.


One summer I was mate on an Isle of Wight car ferry running between Portsmouth and Fishbourne. The Captain and I would take turns in driving and navigating the ship from one side to the other, and it was an enjoyable and testing experience. As we left Portsmouth and turned out of the channel we would give the helmsman the instruction "The Trees", and he would point the ship towards a hilltop on the island. Why is it "The Trees" I asked. "Well, about twenty years ago there used to be a stand of trees up there" I was told. When returning to Portsmouth we would put on starboard helm to turn into the harbour and give the helmsman the instruction "Foudroyant", which was a wooden hulk lying at anchor way up the harbour, and he would head the ship towards it. During the summer the Foudroyant was loaded onto a heavy lift barge and  towed to Hartlepool for restoration back into the British man of war Trincomalee. I was amused to find that there-after we still gave the helmsman the same order, and now he aligned the bow with the space where the Foudroyant used to be.

I was reminded of this experience when I read the obituary for Tony McGinnity in the Telegraph, who died at the age of 70. He was a professional seafarer with an enthusiasm for old ships, becoming in 1959 a founder member of "The Paddle Steamer Preservation Society". In 1963 at the age of 26 he put his money where is mouth is and bought a paddle steamer, the Consul, and although it was sold after a couple of years he retained an interest in old steam ships, while carrying out more commercial marine activities. He was a trustee of the Foudroyant, which was a training ship for boys, and was the last surviving ship afloat from Nelson's navy. It was he who oversaw the ship's transportation from Portsmouth to Hartlepool. I found it heartening that firstly a professional seafarer had managed throughout his life to maintain his enthusiasm for old ships, and secondly that he had made sufficient impression in the world due to this for his life to be recorded in a national newspaper.


 Every now and again sailing ships re-emerge as a possible additional means of the carriage of goods by sea. The latest news item has been circulated through people's email systems, including mine and part of it states:

The 108-year-old, wooden, triple-masted Kathleen & May has been chartered by the Compagnie de Transport Maritime la Voile (CTMV), a shipping company established in France to specialise in merchant sailing. "This is beyond anybody's dreams," said Steve Clarke, the owner of the Kathleen & May, which was built in 1900 in Ferguson and Baird's yard at Connah's Quay near Chester.

The ship was chartered to carry 30,000 bottles of wine to Dublin as a special "green" venture. And, keeping our feet on the ground, this is 2,500 cases, possibly a little less than 100 tonnes. Unfortunately as seafarers all over the world have discovered, it is the cost of personnel which is uppermost in the minds of the accountants who now run practically every shipping company everywhere, and even without knowing how many crew there were on the Kathleen & May, the project does not sound as if it was actually economical, even though it did not use any fuel. On the other hand, the world seems to be getting short of diesel, and as a pundit recently pointed out, you can't select how much of the various "ends" you get from a  ton of crude, you can only separate what there is. So is there a chance that as well as ships burning the heavy residues that no-one else could possibly use, they may end up being adapted to burn petrol! Or aviation fuel!


I have been writing stuff for Safety at Sea International about offshore lifeboats, which should be appearing in a month or two. One of the problems with lifeboats is that the standard person against whose weight they are constructed weighs in at 75 kilos, and it seems likely that many people working on oil rigs weigh quite a b it more than this, but I don't want to steal my own thunder so nothing more about oil rigs. However, I had not realised that the difficulty had already been identified by at least one lifeboat manufacturer. I was about to throw away an old copy of the Nautilus UK  Telegraph, when my attention was taken by a picture of a free fall lifeboat apparently diving vertically towards the waves. You could not imagine anyone being brave enough to be inside it.

Anyway, the accompanying article was about the weight of seafarers, and the fact that  Schat-Harding have re-designed one of their boats. The actual words are "reconfigured the interior arrangements". It goes on to say that the specially adapted seats and seatbelts are designed to make boarding easier .....The boat has a capacity for 32 persons, and one wonders how ingenious the manufacturers have been to be able to use the same size boat for bigger people. Of course seating on free- fall boats is special, and one wonders if it would be possible on conventionally launched boats.

Victor Gibson



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