Monthly Archives: August 2009

Thames Sailing Barge Races

For those of us who love indigenous working craft we have Dylan Winter to thank for this wonderful video of the iconic Thames Sailing Barges racing on the Medway. Great spreads of sail, ultra-long bowsprits, huge transom-mounted rudders. . .ahh.

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Wonderful World of the Future

Most predictions of what life will be like tomorrow, let alone half a century into the future we get it all wrong. However, this recently discovered film of the 1950s is amazingly accurate.

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My Worst Job Ever

I’ve had a lot of different jobs in my lifetime. Some were pretty good: newspaper reporter, magazine editor, hospital public relations director. Some were okay: Limo driver, boat rigger, bar tender, pizza delivery driver. Some were great: captain of an 85′ sailboat on the French Riviera, captain of several yachts and captain of crewboats in the Louisiana oil patch. And some jobs really sucked: captain of a 300-passenger tour boat in Chicago that was so boring I put the entire lecture on tape so I wouldn’t have to say the same boring lecture 12 times a day, six days a week, customer service representative, night manager or a fish and chips restaurant that paid $5 an hour and all the steaks and lobster tails I could carry out of the joint, and teaching a course in Nautical Science at West Jefferson High School in Louisiana.

But absolutely the worst job I ever had was the second job in my maritime career. When I got divorced I decided to pursue my dream of working on boats and got a job as deckhand on a dinner-cruise boat in Fort Lauderdale. It was a pretty good job despite the fact that it paid practically nothing. In fact, more than 30 years after I got that job, I’m still in regular contact with the captain of that boat.

When the boat voted to have union representation I was made shop steward in a rigged election (hey it’s good union tradition). Towards the end of the first year of operation the company was mired in deep financial problems and the workers (boat crew, wait staff and galley slaves) weren’t getting their pay checks. As shop steward I figured it was my duty to rattle the cages of the union officials to whom we were paying dues. I made regular appearances at the union hall and lots of phone calls, none of which helped our situation.

Late one night, just as I was getting ready to go to bed, there was a knock on my front door. I opened it to find a pair of  beefy, no neck union thugs. “We’ve got a job for you on a ship in Detroit. Be there in a week,” they said. I packed things up,put some stuff in storage and either threw or gave away everything else and six days later I stood outside the Detroit Greyhound station on a cold March day watching the falling snow turn brown before it hit the ground.

The Union Hall was as grungy and depressing as you would expect it to be but they fixed me up with papers to take to the Coast Guard offices so I could be issued a “Z card” which would allow me to work as an Ordinary Seaman on large ships. Back at the Union Hall they gave me some other papers and I was given directions on how to find the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge plant where I was to report on the SS Consumers Power, a self-unloading bulk carrier.


The ship was built in 1927 as a Straight Deck Lake Bulk Freighter by the American Ship Building Co., Lorain, OH as Hull #796. Launched December 30, 1926 as a) GEORGE M. HUMPHREY (1) for the Kinsman Transit Co., Cleveland, OH. and was 605′ loa.

The GEORGE M. HUMPHREY sunk in 80 feet of water after a collision with the steamer D.M. CLEMSON  off Old Point Light, at 2:50 a.m. on June 15, 1943. The HUMPHREY was downbound in the fog shrouded Straits of Mackinac with 13,992 tons of ore for South Chicago, IL. Thirty-one of the crew were rescued by the steamer LAGONDA, the remaining eight by the CLEMSON. Kinsman abandoned the HUMPHREY to the underwriters as a total loss for $860,000. The ship was raised, towed to The GEORGE M. HUMPHREY (1) sunk in 80 feet of water after a collision with the steamer D.M. CLEMSON (2) , 1 7/8 miles, 79 degrees off Old Point Light, at 2:50 a.m. on June 15, 1943.

The ship was towed to Manitowoc Ship Building Co., Manitowoc, WI, first for an estimate of repairs which totaled $469,400, and then was towed to Sturgeon Bay by the tug JOHN ROEN III arriving there on September 9th for reconditioning which was completed at a reported cost of $437,000. The ship re-entered service on May 1, 1945. She was renamed CONSUMERS POWER in 1958.

Self- unloaders are called that because that’s exactly how they discharge their cargo. You can see in the photo above the big boom that swings out from the ship. Two conveyor belts are located alongside the keel and these transport the cargo, in our case coal and rock salt, up to the boom and over the side like this:

As a result these ships are never in port very long as you can see by looking at the arrival and departure times of a few of these entries in the Shipping Log of the Muskegon News:

Vessel: Samuel de Champlain (tug)/Innovation (barge).

Length: 544 feet.

Destination: LaFarge slip, next to Heritage Landing.

Cargo: Cement.

Scheduled arrival: 11 p.m. Saturday.

Scheduled departure: 10 a.m. Sunday.

Vessel: H. Lee White

Length: 704 feet

Destination: Consumers Energy, B.C. Cobb slip

Cargo: Coal

Scheduled arrival: 11 a.m. Thursday

Scheduled departure: 6 p.m. Thursday

Vessel: American Century.

Length: 1,000 feet.

Destination: Consumers Energy Cobb slip.

Cargo: Coal.

Scheduled arrival: 2:30 a.m. Saturday.

Scheduled departure: 10:30 a.m. Saturday.

With the ships only staying at a dock for half a day or less this certainly wasn’t going to be a leisurely summer visiting ports on the Great Lakes. Unlike the work schedules I would encounter in the offshore oil industry a few years later where you generally worked a 14 days on followed by 14 days off or 7 on and 7 off on these ships you went aboard and worked pretty much until you got fed up and left or until the lake ports froze over.

Essentially what my job consisted of was to descend into the hold as the cargo was being discharged and knock down errant piles of coal and rock salt onto the conveyors and then washing the holds out with high-pressure hoses if the next cargo was going to be different than the one just dumped on shore. The only cool part of the job was docking. If you look at the photo you’ll see, just aft of the forward structure, a thin boom and a “T” shape dangling from it. When coming into a dock either myself or another OS would stand on the gunwale, slip the upside down piece of the tee between your legs and jump off the ship to be lowered to the dock where you’d put the steel lines to the bollards to tie the ship up for its short stay.

The worst part of the job, however, was shoveling coal or rock salt for 12 hours a day and having to share a tiny, overheated cabin with Abdul from Yemen. I lasted on the job for 10 days before I jumped ship back in Detroit.

Upon leaving the ship I headed to Chicago where I started a three-year long affair with a girl I’d worked with when I was an editor and I got my first skipper’s gig running a 42′ Hatteras Tri-cabin which I delivered to Fort Lauderdale in the Fall. On that trip out through the lengths of Lakes Michigan, Huron and Erie, I ran across the Consumers Power taking on a load of coal in Toledo, Ohio.

The Consumers Power was laid up for the last time at Erie, PA on December 6, 1985. She was sold for scrap in March of 1988 and was towed out of Erie on May 2, 1988 by the tug W.N. TWOLAN, later joined by the tug GLENSIDE, and arrived at Lauzon, Que. on May 9th. On June 14th she cleared Lauzon in tandem tow with her former fleetmate, the steamer JOHN T. HUTCHINSON behind the Panamanian tug OMEGA 809.. The CONSUMERS POWER passed through the Panama Canal July 12th as a single tow followed by the HUTCHINSON’s tow two days later. The tandem tow arrived at Kaohsiung, Taiwan October 2, 1988 where dismantling began on October 14th by Li Chong Steel & Iron Works Co. Ltd.


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Musical Comment on the State of the Economy

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Shantyboat on the Bayous

Yesterday, in my other blog, I mentioned Harlan Hubbard’s book Shantyboat on the Bayous and the fact that you could read most of it here on Google Books: If you spring to buy the book through Borders, Amazon or the University Press it will set you back $29.95 for the 141 page volume. Google doesn’t give you the whole thing but you get 120 pages. Being a pirate at heart I opted for the Google version for free.

The book is a delight. I was up until 1 a.m. this morning reading it. It’s not just that I enjoy Hubbard’s writing, but the subject was fascinating to me. I spent seven years running crewboats all over the area covered by the book 30 years after it hit the bookstores; Louisiana’s cajun country. I loved it there and in the more than a quarter century after the Hubbards passed through I doubt a whole lot had really changed. Oh, some of the towns, Barataria, Houma, LaRose may be a bit bigger, but outside of them the bayous remain the same.  I recognized the family names of the people Harlan mentions and I may, in fact, know some of the relatives of those people.

Harlan writes of the Cajun method of catching soft-shell crabs that was taught to me by an old Cajun. In order for crabs to grow they have to shed their old shells and in the few hours it takes for them to absorb and assimilate the salts in the water to create a new hard shell they are vulnerable to predation. The females are lucky. When they are about to molt they are also ready to mate and can only do so when they are “soft.” So a hard and horny male will mount her waiting for the opportune moment and he protects her from being eaten while in her vulnerable state.

But what happens when the males need to molt? They have to hide and that makes them vulnerable to the top predator in the food chain: man. What you do is cut willow branches and bundle them. Willow branches are the preferred hiding environment for the male crab. You lay these bundles along the banks of the bayou dangling into the water and then you run them a couple of times a day like a trap line. You pick the bundles out of the water and shake them into your boat. Any crabs that fall out are ready to “bust” and become the delicious delicacy of a “soft crab.” You take these crabs and put each on into a separate bucket of water and simply wait  for the crab to leave its old home. Then you cut a couple of slits on either side of the shell to remove the gills while you’re melting some butter in a cast iron skillet and chopping some garlic. Toss the garlic into the melted butter, dredge the crab in some seasoned flour and fry it up. That’s eating, cher ami.

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Some of My Favorite Groups

My friend Skip Williamson just posted a video of one of my favorite groups, The Texas Tornados. I have 19 of their songs on my iPod. They are GREAT!

An overlooked group, as far as I’m concerned, is The Blasters. I saw them back in 85 when this vid was recorded when they were playing at Tipitina’s in New Orleans.

The group Los Lobos is great enough for more than one video:

And what collection of groups would be complete without Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys?

And while most commonly thought of as a single performer, it’s Jimmy Buffett And the Coral Reefer Band and having lived and traveled on Interstate 95 I absolutely relate to this song.

Sweet Honey in the Rock

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Dodged Storms This Time

Well, it looks like we dodged Ana and Bill.

Ana looks as though she’s going well south of us:


And Bill is curving to the north which means there’s the possibility it might bother North Carolina yet and projected to be a Category 3 Hurricane with sustained winds of 111-130 mph it could be serious.


These storms can pop up overnight. Tropical Storm Claudette wasn’t on the screen when I posted yesterday but there it is now. All these storms lose intensity quickly when they hit land and while Claudette won’t cause much wind damage, it is dragging a lot of rain along with it, so look for stories of flooding in the next few days on the t.v.



While south Florida avoided Ana, it will slide into the Gulf of Mexico and with the warm waters there, which feed the storms there’s a good possibility it will grow into a hurricane before slamming into the coast somewhere and kicking some serious ass.

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