Harbo & Samuelson–did they row all the way?

First Atlantic Row: Harbo and Samuelson in 1896

This risky activity has its origin in 1896 when two Norwegian fishermen departed Manhattan in a plank-on-frame 18-foot dory heavily-loaded with canned food and water. They landed on the Scilly Isles in SW Britain in 55½ days. It was 70 years before anyone tried to repeat this feat……………..
In 1966, two British soldiers, Chay Blyth and John Ridgway tried to repeat this voyage across the North Atlantic in a 20-foot open dory. It took them 92 days. In 2015, Tom Rainey and Lawrence Walters set out from Manhattan, New York to row to SW England. They also reached land after 92 Days. This only increased the respect for the Norwegians, who are regarded as the founders and patrons of the sport whose feat is accepted without question.

Harbo and Samuelson set off across the Atlantic in this 18′ skiff and arrived in SW England in 55 days. This is still considered the world record, even though the best time modern pairs have achieved is 92 days using modern gear like carbon fiber oars, watermakers, dehydrated food, GPS navigation etc. For a 60-day crossing the Norwegians would have needed about 120 gallons of water in cans weighing over 1,000 lbs plus about 300 lbs of dried and canned food–an impossibly large cargo that would have filled the entire boat!

At the minimum, this also begs the question how did the Norwegians beat modern rowers by 37 days? Remarkably, this well-documented evidence has not inspired anyone to make a side-by-side comparison of these voyages and ask how Harbo and Samuelson achieve an average speed of 60 miles per day, which is impossible to beat? 120 years later, that miraculous 55-day mark has never been equaled by the best equipped and trained two-man teams with all the latest high-tech gear!
However, it would only increase my respect and admiration for them if I knew they had hoisted a small sail to increase their chances and avoid dying in a storm or from starvation or thirst. After all, they were poor fishermen trying to make a name for themselves and hopefully earn some money–not upper-class Victorian sporting gentlemen who would rather die than sacrifice their honor!
While researching this, I realized what a remarkable feat of navigation it was in a tiny boat under primitive conditions on a rolling ocean. In fact, accurate navigation by sextant from a rowboat in a seaway is practically impossible, and this skill was only studied and mastered by ships’ officers. To make a landfall on the Scilly Isles after 55 days at sea almost certainly required that they regularly find a ship and ask their position. (The highpoint of the Scilly Isles is Telegraph, only 167 ft above sea level.) Besides getting a good noon sight, it requires use of an almanac and tables to work out the calculations and a large scale chart to plot the position line—having kept all the tools dry and in good working order for two months in an open boat.
In addition, they needed to carry about a gallon (3.5 L) of water per day. That means a minimum of 55 gallons per man–a weight of 900-1000 lbs, plus 300-400 lbs of food, which  would sink their dory. So they must have depended on collecting rainwater with a canvas sheet (sail) or stopping passing ships for supplies–a perilous way to cross an ocean!
When a four-man team followed the Norwegians’ direct route in 2010 and arrived in 43 days, the press acclaimed them for “smashing a 114-year world record.” This is a typical example of the hype, exaggeration and deception that has become standard journalistic practice.
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After 70 Years, Katie Ford Sails on in British Columbia

In the summer of 2016, I received an email from the Canadian owner of the 44′ cruising yacht Katie Ford, inviting me to its 70th birthday party in Victoria B.C. This classic old sailing yacht was built in in 1946 at Astoria Marine Construction Company (AMCCO) and was considered the finest sailing vessel on the Lower Columbia until her designer and owner Heine Dole migrated north to Gig Harbor in the 1950’s. The yacht passed into Canadian ownership around 1970, and she has found a home on Vancouver Island ever since.

I have to admit that I had already written the story of the Katie Ford in the early 2000’s without ever seeing the boat, though I did correspond with the owner. (I relied mainly on a file of old photos and newspaper stories for the yacht’s early history–all the work of Larry Barber, the last marine reporter for the Oregonian newspaper.)

I finally caught sight of Katie Ford on the water at the Wooden Boat Festival in 2010, but it took another three years before I finally caught up with the boat and her third owner, Canadian Barry Goss, on my next visit to Port Townsend –by bike–in 2013. Having waited so long, I took my time walking down the dock, enjoying the anticipation.

On learning of my interest, Barry invited me on board, introduced me to his daughter Liz, and brought me up to date on the boat’s recent history. He told me he was leaving the boat in Point Hudson over the winter to have the planking completely inspected and replaced. Down below, I found the interior almost as if it had just been launched. It has a unique traditional design for living afloat full-time, which Dole did for several years on the south end of Puget Sound.

There is a comfortable v-berth in the foc’sle and one permanent bunk to starboard in the salon. Forward of the mast is a full galley with traditional Coast Foundry oil stove and small two-burner alcohol stove and sink . In the main cabin, there is a bookcase, solid fuel fireplace with tile surround, chart drawers, settees port and starboard. and a pull-down teak dining table that seats six.

I happily agreed to meet again on Sunday so I could join the family for the grand Parade of Sail in the afternoon. It was only once we were under sail that I really settled down and noticed almost nothing has been changed on deck. All the original bronze deck fittings Dole had installed are still in place, from the substantial Highfield levers for the runners to the roller-reefing main boom and wire-halyard winches. (One concession to modernity is the jib and foresail converted to roller-furling.)

Dole gave the yacht a steering wheel inside the pilot house with full visibility through the distinctive vertical windows, and a second wheel at the aft end of the cockpit, making it a true “pilot-house sailing yacht.The large mainsail and non-overlapping is also back in fashion, showing that there’s not much that’s really new in design.

Barry suggested I take the helm, and I happily steered Katie Ford to windward on a couple of laps out into the sound and back. I barely needed to touch the wheel while we easily made 4-5 knots, with very little leeway, passing the smaller craft and being passed by the big schooners. Total sail area of the cutter rig is around 1,000 square feet.

After a couple of memorable hours, we returned to Point Hudson and tied up at the head of the dock, so the boat would be ready to be lifted out in a couple of days. The sails were removed, and on Monday the mast was lifted out, and the yacht was soon tucked away inside the Navy A- building at Sea Marine. Robert d’Arcy, master of the schooner Martha, surveyed the bottom and confirmed the need to remove most of the planking below the waterline.

That required around 2,200 wood screws be unscrewed–no mean feat in itself–revealing the state of the interior structure in the bilges. After 65 years, many of the frames under the cockpit and amidships were ready to be retired. Around 1000 feet of Alaskan Yellow Cedar planking was shaped and fitted to the turn of the bilge–a skill that is rare these days–at least beyond Port Townsend!

In addition, d’Arcy replaced two water tanks, and installed a folding Maxprop, and a new engine–the boat’s fourth. Heinie Dole first installed a Gray Marine gas engine; it was replaced with a Hercules 50 HP motor many years ago. This was followed by a 55HP Perkins 4-108 diesel more recently, and the fourth engine— fitted this winter–is a 60hp Beta.

This was a once-in-a-lifetime complete re-build for this fine old yacht, but it also takes constant attention every winter to keep an old wooden vessel in good condition. She was previously given a major refit in 2001, when rot was located in the transom area. The stern was dismantled to get at the source and fit new framing and transom. That was also when the original hull color of blue was changed to white.

In 2002, the spruce mast was refitted and varnished; in 2003, Brian Toss Riggers of Port Townsend, replaced all standing rigging and lifelines. Since then, Katie Ford has been the subject of continual upgrades to gear like through hulls, electronics, circuits and breaker boxes, head replaced and re-plumbed etc. In 2009, the cabin top was replaced including removal of all fittings and Dorade vents, which were replaced.

With a complete set of new sails from Carol Hasse at Port Townsend Sails, this elegant lady of the north-west yachting scene returned to her Canadian home, ready for many more years of cruising and festivals. I wasn’t able to attend the party in Canada, but I hope to meet her again one day….

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Opinion: Clipper Race a “Sporting Cult?”

The Clipper Race changes lives–but at what cost?

Joining the Clipper Race is a serious step that leads a novice or wanna-be sailor on a long, very expensive path away from family and friends into an isolated world full of like-minded people all dedicated to the this life-changing experience. This requires several training classes onshore and on the water, and up to 10 months racing around the world on a 70′ yacht. Many crew members have never been on a yacht in their lives and must commit to paying around $10,000 for one leg or $75,000 for the entire race.

This sounds and looks like a cult to me!

So I looked around the web and found an “ethical contract” used by the medical profession that has been re-purposed into a mock contract for cult membership. It is used as a teaching tool for cult survivors, and I have re-written it to create a contract for participants in the Clipper Race.

Judge for yourself….

Contract for Membership in the Clipper Race

I, ____________ hereby agree to join THE CLIPPER RACE.

I know what I am doing and agree to all of the conditions:

  1. I understand that my life will be changed personally and financially by my participation in the Clipper Race.
  2. I agree to ignore my own needs and goals as I learn to sail a Clipper yacht and become a Clipper crew.
  3. My clothing, personal appearance and diet will all be dictated by the Clipper organization.
  4. My total mental attention will focus on learning the skills, language and rules of the Clipper race.
  5. My family and friends will be neglected as I spend more time and money on training and race legs.
  6. I will accept and cherish the skipper’s opinions and skills more than my own.
  7. My self-esteem will depend on my relations with the crew, the skipper, and the Clipper management.
  8. My fear of rejection will determine what I say or do on board a Clipper yacht.
  9. While at sea, I waive my right to maintain contact with the outside world.
  10. In port, I will follow the directions of the organization by attending official events and staying with the group.

Now you can decide if this a joke, satire, or a skeptical opinion piece. I look forward to your comments…….

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The Cutty Sark Sails into the 21st Century

In 2008, the world’s only surviving clipper ship, the Cutty Sark, suffered a disastrous fire that came close to destroying the entire hull in its permanent drydock beside the River Thames in Greenwich. This news was especially shocking for me because I grew up less than a mile from the great ship and considered it a permanent part of my English heritage. It seemed highly unlikely that visitors would ever walk the decks of the great ship again, or stare up at the three square-rigged masts towering above the River Thames.

Whatever its fate, I knew I would always have memories of the Cutty Sark from my youth in the 1960’s, when I discovered sailing and made the ship a regular stop on my bike rides along the waterfront. The arrival of Sir Francis Chichester’s round-the-world yacht Gypsy Moth IV in 1967 was an additional attraction, though even then it was a sad sight: entombed in a smaller concrete pit than the Cutty Sark, and also open to the weather.

So I soon I found myself writing an epitaph for the last tea clipper for Northwest Yachting–and watching the salvage project unfold over the next five years…. I remembered taking an evening class on the ship in celestial (sextant) navigation in 1970. The instructor was a ship’s officer and the classroom was a musty ‘tween deck space with old figureheads on the walls.

Too Long in Harbor Rots Ships and Men!

I never did take a real noon sight from the deck of the plywood catamaran I had designed and built in a backyard and I was blissfully unaware of the short life of plywood yachts before the advent of epoxy and glass sheathing. Apparently no one ever suspected that the wooden hull and iron frames of the Cutty Sark were also deteriorating at an even more rapid rate—like  Chichester’s 54′ molded wood yacht.

But I spent the next 40 years in the Pacific North-West, far from unfashionable Greenwich, which slowly moved up the list of historic areas around London until it was selected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. I built a 20′ plywood trimaran in 1972, and have managed to stave off the rot with the application of gallons of epoxy– and a lot of preventative surgery in the last few years!

Coincidentally, the same thing was happening in Greenwich, to the last clipper ship and the first yacht to follow the clipper route—two craft that were considered national treasures. The Cutty Sark was actually becoming a safety hazard by 2005, when a $40 million restoration finally began.

(Coincidentally, in 2005, the prestigious Camper & Nicholson yard was finishing the total restoration of the Gipsy Moth IV, repairing all the damage caused by rot burrowing deep into the six layers of hardwood that they had laminated by hand when they built the yacht. It did indeed sail around the world again 40 years after its pioneering voyage, but needed another re-build after stoving in the side on a coral reef in the South Pacific.)

The Cutty Sark also needed it share of luck to survive into the 21st century: the ship was totally stripped, and the entire rig, deckhouses and deck gear had all been removed for the re-build, when the fire ignited in a vacuum cleaner left running overnight. The flames were fed mainly by the temporary decks, wooden staging and plastic roof. The ship’s original planking–teak above the waterline and American rock elm below–was only slightly charred and 540 of the original long planks were saved.

Restoration versus Reconstruction

This disaster almost overwhelmed the charity that ran the ship, and vast amounts of money from the Heritage National Lottery Fund were needed to keep the project afloat. On top of that, a heated debate began among historians and traditional sailors about the way the preservation should proceed. There was even a group with the bizarre idea of making it seaworthy enough to become a training ship!

Essentially, the issue was reconstruction versus restoration. Restoration is what we expect of castles, antique cars, and archaeological finds–including Viking burial ships. Reconstruction is what sailors do to keep wooden ships seaworthy–gradually replacing everything that looks suspect, hopefully before it fails. The problem was that the Cutty Sark was there was nothing to replace.

It was one of the last vessels to use the first form of “composite construction,” with wood planking over wrought iron frames. This method gave the narrow clipper hull far more cargo space than would have been possible with large timber frames, and the stiffness to support three huge masts – the tallest 152 feet. But the high salt content retained in the bilges had acted as a catalyst for corrosion of the metal

To make matters worse, the hull was also sheathed in Muntz metal, a type of brass designed primarily as an anti-fouling measure, which also caused electrolytic corrosion. When the aft planking was removed, the frames looked as if they were being held up by the planks, not supporting them. Richard Doughty, director of the project, didn’t mince words: “Even in the mid-1990s, it was known that something had to be done to stop Cutty Sark’s iron framework rusting away. Otherwise we would have ended up with a heap of metal and planks in the bottom of the dock.”

My ambition was not only to preserve as much of the ship as possible but also to turn her back into a ‘must-see’ London destination, as she had been 30 years ago,” he continued. The solution approved by a hand-picked board began with a low-pressure air abrasive to remove corrosion, and then grit-assisted water jetting, again at low pressure, to clean the frames.

The metalwork was painted immediately after cleaning to prevent further corrosion. (The coatings were two-pack epoxy zinc phosphate primers, two-pack epoxy micacious iron oxide intermediate coats, and two-pack acrylic urethane gloss-finish top coats.) Original ironwork was painted white, as it was originally, and new steelwork painted gray. The planks were re-built with new wood spliced in where possible, or with epoxy fillers where they were too far gone.

Tea Chests, Wool Bales and Wheat Sacks

The Cutty Sark was launched in November 1869–the very same month the Suez Canal opened and put many sailing ships out of business. So it only made the tea run eight times, and never won it before the Chinese tea trade was lost to steam ships that went through the canal. But the commercial sailing fleet fortunately found a replacement cargo in the Australian wool trade.

This was where the ship excelled, setting records returning from Australia to England, although its cargo capacity may have been significantly less than the new iron “windjammers” in the trade. In 1885, the ship achieved a record of 77 days outbound to Australia and 73 days homebound with full holds. That commodity too was taken over by steam in the 1890s and the sailing fleet began a slow decline into oblivion.

Under the Portugese flag, the Cutty Sark traded around the Atlantic carrying many different cargoes back to Europe, including coal, jute and castor oil. In 1922, after 40 years with a Portugese crew, Cutty Sark was driven into Falmouth, SW England by a gale, and spotted by a retired sailing ship captain. He vowed to buy the clipper and bring it back to England, which he did the next year, saving it from the breaker’s yard.

He turned the ship into a cadet training vessel, and opened to the public on weekends. After the captain’s death in 1936, the ship was sold to Thames Nautical Training College, where she was again used for training cadets. During WWII, the Cutty Sark’s shortened rig was dismantled to reduce the visibility of the ship as a navigation aid for German bombers.

By 1950, the college was able to obtain modern war surplus vessels for training, and the last clipper ship needed to find new patrons. In another coincidence, Britain’s Labour government was planning the Festival of Britain, to brighten up the dull post-war years, and someone recognized the old ship’s potential as an exhibit. It was towed to Deptford, a mile upstream from Greenwich, and became a festival attraction. (This was not the first famous ship to find a place in Deptford–Francis Drake’s Golden Hinde had been put on show there in the late 1500’s.)

A preservation organization was formed and the Duke of Edinburgh was recruited as the patron. As part of SE London’s post-war re-building, a graving dock was excavated next to the Royal Naval College in Greenwich. The Cutty Sark was floated into its final resting place in 1954, the entrance channel was filled in, and the waterfront re-built. Soon, the ship became as famous a Greenwich landmark as the Royal Observatory–home of Greenwich Mean Time.

Being the last of the clipper ships allowed writers and sailors to start promoting the myth of the Cutty Sark as the most famous and fastest of her kind. This was certainly not the case when the tea races really made headlines, but the clippers actually differed very little in design. As in today’s sail racing, it was the skipper, the crew, and the weather that made the difference!

Time Runs Out in Greenwich

But time had run out in Greenwich by 2008. The trust was leaking money and fighting to stay afloat, as the cost sky-rocketed. First it was millions of pounds more, then tens of millions that were needed to keep the project moving. Doughty and the board had to find a way to not only preserve one of “Britain’s greatest maritime treasures,” but also find some way to finance its upkeep for the indefinite future.

Traditional sailors all over the world watched and worried while the board decided how they would resurrect this nautical icon. Months passed as numerous options were considered, but the trustees still disagreed on the best course to take. The lottery payments were suspended until a proper commercial plan was submitted that would show how the ship would be funded in the future.

The only real asset the trust had was the narrow lot around the crumbling dry dock–until Grimshaw architects suggested a revolutionary idea. Lift the ship off the ground and free the space under the ship’s keel as a unique exhibit hall and a venue for corporate hospitality events.

When this radical new plan was unveiled, it caused a storm of protest from every angle. Trustees resigned and expert consultants were fired if they disagreed. The dye was cast: this faded relic was to be reinforced with 160 tons of internal steel framing, raised into the air, hung on giant steel struts, and surrounded with a geodesic glass roof attached at the waterline!

Doughty put it this way: ”It was clear from the moment we were engaged on the project that we needed a radical idea to present the ship in an exciting way for 21st century audiences. Early on, I went down under the ship and realized that I hadn’t really appreciated how important the hull shape was to the speed of Cutty Sark. It’s very common for sailors to look at their boats from below in a boatyard but it’s not common for most people and it would be the best opportunity for them to appreciate the ship’s shape. This was the beginning of the radical idea, and lifting the ship also took the weight of the ship off her fragile iron framework.”

A Thoroughly Modern Clipper

The Cutty Sark had survived from the 19th century to the new millennium, but could it survive the 21st century? And how would it look next to some of the finest baroque architecture in the world? On the floor of the graving dock, the keel was encased in a steel box and the hull reinforced with numerous steel sister frames and shelves. Then 14 massive compression tubes were maneuvered into place beneath the ‘tween deck, with cables running down to the keel from each end to form rigid triangular trusses inside the hull.

These are invisible except where they pierce the topsides with 14 giant chainplates per side, which are pinned to angled tubular legs running up from the dry dock. With this new skeleton carrying the weight and preventing any sagging, the hull was jacked up 11 feet by a specialist Dutch company, and suspend in mid-air for the foreseeable future. Then the glass dome was erected, and even the most optimistic of observers had to admit that it appeared to be floating on a sea of angled tinted glass panels—or dropped from a great height onto a waterbed, as one critic put it.

That was the state of affairs when I made my first visit to Greenwich in 24 years early in 2012. The spars were being hoisted aloft and landscaping work was still underway to prepare the site for the visit of Queen Elizabeth, who had originally opened the Cutty Sark to the public in 1957. It rained of course, but she cut the ribbon again and refrained from commenting on the design or the final cost of $80 million. (Unlike her son, Prince Charles, who is a harsh critic of modernism.)

To the general public, the result was another British triumph of engineering. Personally, I really didn’t mind the idea of the glass roof, but because the waterline was now high above ground level, the roof curved down to the ground, which looked very non-nautical.

What the Critics Said

However, the final result evoked some witty and ferocious criticism in the papers. The design was derided by both the architectural press and the historic ship fraternity, who compared it to a “Victorian hovercraft, a dockside crash into a greenhouse,” etc. Building Design magazine awarded the project its Carbuncle Cup for the worst new building completed in 2012: “One is left bewildered by the idea that this jewel of British maritime history should have been subjected to such dramatic adjustment in order to equip it for an age of mass tourism.”

An Unsinkable Ship

Another year passed before my second visit in 2013. On the first day, I was content to walk around the ship and continued into the old Royal Naval Hospital—a favorite location for films needing a historic backdrop, from “Pirates of the Caribbean” to “The Iron Lady.” After several days of brief walks around the outside, I finally took the plunge, and entered the dome through the gift shop under the stern counter to buy my ticket.

I was trying to maintain my journalistic neutrality, but finding the only entrance to the ship was via a large aperture cut into the hull below the waterline really shocked me. Once inside, I was glad to see a traditional approach with stacks of tea chests and explanatory signs. The ten-minute video was entertaining and informative for me and a family that was also watching.

The best feature was the large amount of the hull planking that was left visible, with the old and new steel framing and the diagonals visible. And unless you knew where to look, the triangular truss was barely discernible.

The main deck is brand new but still looks authentic, and the chance to touch the rigging, the winches and the giant wheel, and see the captain’s cabin and officers’ mess really takes you back in time.

Unfortunately, the exit is as annoying as the entrance. You descend from the deck via a large glass tower, with an elevator for handicapped access. That eyesore brought me back to the gift shop, and the stairs down to the dry dock. I have walked under many ships in north-west drydocks, but that bears no comparison to the strange sensation of walking under the Cutty Sark.

The metal sheathing gleamed gold and bronze as the sunlight streamed down through the angled glass roof, creating a unique ambiance and a slightly religious atmosphere. The ship seemed to float above my head like a plane in an air museum, and the keel stretched out for 200 feet.

The world’s biggest collection of figureheads, including the ship’s own carving of the Scottish witch in her “cutty sark” (short shirt) filled the head of the dock. All the wooden characters seem to be locked in a permanent gaze toward the central space under the keel where, says the ship’s website, “There are great opportunities to design your event beneath the gleaming copper hull, perfect for gala dinners, awards ceremonies, unique events and receptions.” Cost–$20,000 per night.

After I’d circled the ship, I turned my gaze up to the 14 massive struts that support the hull on each side. It’s the kind of engineering you expect to see in a bridge or giant crane, but not around a historic ship. So, if I had to sum up my impression, I would have to say that it’s well worth a visit, but the world’s last clipper has now been transformed into the world’s first “robo-ship.”

P.S. Cutty Sark (1869) v. Star of India (1863)

By the time the Cutty Sark was launched in 1869, the technology of building ships from iron plates was already in use, and those riveted iron ships have proved to be incredibly durable. Around the USA and northern Europe there are numerous iron sailing ships still afloat. Some are still seaworthy including the 205′ Star of India, based in San Diego, which sails around Mission Bay every two years.

Remarkably, it was built in 1863 on the Isle of Man, one of the British Isles. It is not considered a true clipper, but was nonetheless a fast ship, making 21 passages from England to New Zealand in as little as 100 days, carrying emigrants. It is the oldest iron-hulled merchant ship still floating and the oldest ship still sailing regularly.

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How the Taste for Tea Created the Tea Clippers

Tea reached Europe from China around 1560 on Portuguese and Dutch ships, but it was a latecomer to England. In London, coffee was the drink of choice among businessmen and Edward Lloyd’s coffee house became the center of shipping insurance. The most English of drinks only gained popularity when Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660. His wife, Catherine of Braganza, was a Portuguese princess who had grown up drinking tea, so she introduced this new beverage into her aristocratic circle.

Upper-class ladies followed this new trend and it was promoted as a medicinal beverage or tonic. This was great for the British East India Company, which had a total monopoly on trade with Asia. Since there was no competition, there was no hurry to transport tea or coffee. The company’s priority was to minimize costs and become the world’s first “multi-national corporation.” So they built full-hulled heavily-armed ships that took almost two years to complete the round trip to China.

A 1676 act taxed tea and required coffee house operators to apply for a license. This was just the start of government attempts to control, or profit from the popularity of tea. By 1700, over 500 of the coffee houses of London also sold tea; one promised it would “make the body active and lusty.”

This distressed the tavern owners, as tea houses cut into their sales of ale and gin, and the government, which depended upon the liquor taxes and had burdened it with taxes and duties of over 100%. The result was a whole new industry – tea smuggling. The smugglers became so efficient that Britons were drinking more smuggled tea than legal tea!

Tea and Politics in the Americas

The American colonies also had a thirst for tea, which had to be landed in England first and re-loaded for shipment to the American colonies. When the government in London gave permission to ship direct to the colonies from Asia, an extra tax of three pence per pound was levied. The American colonists were outraged by the tax on this important commodity, and the continuing monopoly of the East India company.

When British ships arrived in Boston in late 1773, the townspeople resolved that no tea would be brought ashore and no duty paid. This led to the Boston Tea Party, and ultimately to the War of Independence. The outrageous taxes on tea had also had a dramatic effect in Britain, where more tea was smuggled into the country than imported legally. In 1784, The Commutation Act reduced the tax on tea from 119 per cent to 12.5 per cent. The smuggling of tea ceased to be profitable, and the smuggling trade vanished virtually overnight.

When the USA emerged from the war, it began its own tea trade with China using the small handy ships that had escaped the English navy like the Lady Washington and the Columbia Rediviva. By the early 1800’s, the USA had its own fleet of trading ships and able captains and had established a regular route to China and back. This was a three-part route that could produce huge profits—if they could survive the many dangers!

In Boston or New York they loaded locally-produced goods and foods, rounded Cape Horn and sailed all the way to the remote north-west coast. Here, they traded for furs and timber that they carried across the Pacific via Hawaii to China. The second cargo was turn traded for tea, pottery and textiles that would fetch a good price back in the north-east USA.

The Yankee Clippers

In 1833, the British government finally put a stop to the East India Company’s tea monopoly, and an exciting new chapter in shipping began. New Englanders saw the opportunity and their ship design began to evolve to fill the need for faster cargo ships. This new type of vessel had a sharp bow, slender hull, and acres of sail.

The first real “clipper” was the 159′ Rainbow, designed by John W. Griffiths and launched in 1845. This created a sensation while on the stocks because of the concave or hollowed lines forward, which defied all tradition and practice. She made the journey from New York to Canton in 102 days – taking more than two weeks off the previous record for that trip.

Maine yards built most of the clippers, which also carried passengers and mail across the Atlantic, then supplied the gold fields in California during the Gold Rush of 1848-50. The Flying Cloud was was the most famous of the Yankee clippers built by Donald McKay. In 1854, it set the record for the fastest passage between New York and San Francisco of 89 days 8 hours that was only beaten by modern yachts in the 1990’s.

in 1849 the British Navigation Laws were repealed, opening up the tea trade, so American ships could now deliver Chinese tea and goods to Britain. The first clipper to take advantage of this was Oriental, which arrived at West India Dock in London on 3 December 1850 – just 97 days after leaving Hong Kong. British merchants were horrified – this was three times as fast as the East Indiamen.

The Tea Races

In 1851, a British ship owner built the aptly named 174′ clipper Challenger on the River Thames, with the stated intention of beating the Americans. Leaving Canton for London in 1852 loaded with tea, she fell in with the 224′ American clipper Challenge, a much larger, older ship, admired for her speed. The news of the race was wired to London where large sums were bet on which would make it to London first. The British Challenger won by two days, amid much jubilation.

The demand for tea was now so huge that the tea merchants’ warehouses depended on the arrival of the fresh crop at the docks. In 1853, this led to the understanding that there would be a race from the Canton River to the London Docks. The first ship to unload its cargo won the captain and crew a hefty bonus. It soon became the greatest sailing spectacle of all time as the great ships raced up the channel to the Thames come hell or high water. Telegrams would be sent with news of their progress and crowds would gather at the docks.

This led to a boom in shipbuilding in Britain in the early 1860’s and over 60 clippers loaded tea in China in 1866; 16 of the best ships assembled at the Pagoda Anchorage on the Min River, downriver from Foochow. Among them were the 185′ Fiery Cross, which had been the first tea clipper home in 1861, 1862, 1863 and 1865–and should by all rights be remembered as the “greatest of the clipper ships.” As a slightly older ship, she was built entirely of wood. Nevertheless, she was full of the latest technology: iron masts and riggin and Cunningham’s patent roller reefing topsails and top-gallants.

The 197′ Ariel carried 100 tons of fixed iron ballast, moulded to fit low in the hull and a further 20 tons of moveable iron ballast. This gives an indication of the “yacht like” nature of her design. The 183′ Taeping had already made a fast passage of 89 days to London, covering about 15,800 nautical miles. The fastest ships had all left China on the same tide; Ariel, Taeping and Serica arrived at the London Docks 99 days later and docked on the same tide. The tea brokers declared the race a tie. It made a great story and is remembered to this day.

The End of an Era

When fully rigged and riding a trade wind, these clippers could reach average speeds of 16 knots. But their average speed was closer to 6 knots. What isn’t mentioned is the fact that a sailing ship with auxiliary steam power had departed later than the tea racers and arrived almost two weeks earlier in 77 days. A steamer, SS Agamemnon, had just completed a record outward passage of 65 days and was on her return trip with a very large cargo of tea. Because of their speed and reliability, the rate paid to steamers was nearly twice that paid to the sailing ships, and the insurance premium was cheaper.

The age of the tea clippers lasted only two decades,1849-1869, but this brief reign has gone down in nautical history, famed for its daring and romance. The Cutty Sark was built in 1869, in the mistaken belief that the Suez Canal and steamships would not take over the tea trade. The last race between tea clippers to catch public attention was between Thermopylae and Cutty Sark in 1872.


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2007: Heart Transplant–Caterpillar Re-Powers Corps of Engineers Dredge Essayons

A story I wrote in 2007 for Diesel Progress magazine became an official Caterpillar press release titled Eight Cat® engines re-power the dredge “Essayons,” providing more power, improved efficiency, and emissions compliance for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

(Needless to say I was not credited or paid for this!)


The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operates two hopper dredges on the west coast of the U.S.A. to maintain shipping channels. The largest and most modern of them is the “Essayons,” built by Bath Iron works in Bath, Maine in 1982. Based in Portland, Oregon, the 106.7 meter Essayons works in harbors between Alaska and California, as well as in Hawaii. Routine work occurs on the edge of shipping channels while commercial ships pass nearby, and also close to jetties, reefs and wrecks, even in marginal weather, so both vessel and crew must be prepared for every eventuality.

Essayons was originally powered by 4x EMD 645 main engines (two for propulsion and two for dredge pumping) and 3x Cat D399 generator sets. In addition to its normal navigation equipment and hotel needs for a crew of 24, the ship needs 60 Hz power to run numerous valves, including those used for flushing and jetting in the hoppers and filling the ballast tanks. After 25 years in service, the main engines were showing their age, and did not meet the latest air-quality standards for California harbours.


Consequently, the U.S. Congress approved funds to re-power the ship and install a new power-distribution system. The new line-up consists of eight EPA Tier 2 compliant Cat marine engines: 4x Cat C280-12 main engines, 3x Cat 3512C generator sets and 1x Cat C18 emergency generator set. The Halton Company, the local Cat® dealer, provided consulting services for the installation, with Cascade General providing project management at the Portland Shipyard.

Unfortunately, engine rooms seldom allow for easy engine replacement. All the piping and wire runs in the forward engine room bulkhead had to be dismantled, and an opening was cut toward the hopper to prepare for the re-power. After the old engines were removed, the new Cat C280-12 engines, weighing a total 40 tons with generators, were craned into the hold and skidded into position.

The Cat C280-12 is a 222 L, vee-type, 12 cylinder, medium-speed marine engine with electronic ADEM™ A3 control. It produces 3,460 kW at 900 rpm for continuous service and meets EPA Tier 2 emission standards. The dredge’s two outer C280-12 units are fitted with reduction gears turning controllablepitch propellers that enable the engines to run at an efficient 750-950 rpm while the ship is dredging at only 1-2 knots. The two inner units are connected to Kato 600 V generators each producing 3,250 kW of electrical power.

The smaller Cat 3512C generator sets are located in a separate engine room and are also connected to Kato generators, each rated 1,030 kW at 1,800 rpm. All three generator sets are set on flex mounts to reduce vibration and noise.

An automated power management system monitors engine functions, temperatures, and pressures, which are displayed on ten computer work stations in various locations on the bridge, engine room, and fire-fighting station.

The two Cat C280 generator sets supply power to the 600 V bus, whereas the three Cat 3512C generator sets serve the 480 V bus. The dredge pumps and the bow thruster run off the 600 V bus, and the dredging hydraulics, as well as the rest of the ship’s electrical load, run off the 480 V bus. Both busses are cross-connected via circuit breakers and a transformer, guaranteeing maximum flexibility in load sharing.

Located high above the waterline is the 6 cylinder Cat C18 emergency generator set, developing 425 ekW at 1,800 rpm, which is sufficient to keep the lights running should the ship be damaged by some hazard.


“The new engines have greatly improved our operational efficiency,” said Captain James Holcroft, who has been in command of the Essayons for six years. “With the old engines, when dredging upstream and going against a strong current, we barely had enough power to maintain forward motion. With the new Cat engines, we have an extra 2,000 hp enabling us to get the job done even under difficult conditions.”

Holcroft also emphasized the improvements achieved because of electronic engine control and performance monitoring. “We are able to spot potential problems at an early stage by checking engine data on the control displays. And by having 100 percent Cat power on board, we only need to stock one brand of spare parts.”

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2017: Old Astoria Pilot Boat Arrow 2 Returns

The pilot boat Arrow 2 disappeared from the Astoria waterfront in 2012 and has been greatly missed by the seamen who admired its unique traditional hull shape and general low-tech appearance. There was much speculation about its final disposition: would it become a reserve boat for Foss, be converted into a pleasure boat, or rust away as a derelict on some backwater of the lower Columbia, the river where it spent its entire life?

Many former crews dreamed about restoring the old boat, but it was Mark Schacher, a former Foss employee, who finally took on the responsibility—and liability—of owning a boat that has been painted and photographed almost as many times as the wreck of the Peter Iredale. After a year’s hard work in the hangar at Tongue Point–cutting out rusted plate, sand blasting, welding and painting–Mark finally has the boat in first-class shape and looking as good as new. and plans to offer waterfront tours for up to six passengers this summer..

The Arrow 2 was built in 1960 at a time when the bar pilots still relied on a rowboat to cross from the pilot boat to the ships several miles away from land. So the new steel launch was a step up from its predecessor—a wooden boat of the same name built in the early 1900’s. The new Arrow 2 was also built for the long run and spent spent over 50 years ferrying Columbia Bar and Columbia river pilots out to ships passing the Astoria waterfront.

With an average of 2,000 ship visits per year—in both directions–that works out to about 200,000 quick trips from the 12th Street dock and back, under four owners and several generations of crews. Around 2000, the bar pilots began riding a helicopter out to sea to meet incoming ships, but the 52′ X 14′ steel harbor launch with its wooden wheel, hard bench seats, and single large propeller remained a sentimental favorite until it was retired in 2012. (It was replaced by a modern CAMARC design built in the Foss Rainier Yard upstream from Astoria.

The Arrow 2 was relaunched on April 24 using the WW II Catalina seaplane ramp at Tongue Point and I was the first visitor to board the boat in its new role. Mark told me he had researched the boat’s early history and learned that the hull was designed by the owner of Arrow Launch Co. Jim Stacy who wanted it to look like a stylish wooden boat. With the help of his two long-term employees Bill Maki, carpenter and Ed Prebish, welder, he drew a long lean shape with a distinctive radiused transom. The bare hull was delivered by the Nichols yard in Hood River and the three men did all the engine installation and built the deckhouse with the traditional curved front. That’s why the design has stood the test of time, Mark explained.


The Arrow 2 goes back into the Columbia River, where it worked for over 50 years as the Astoria pilot boat from 1960 to 2012.



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WW II: Astoria’s Epic Minesweeper Years

Astoria Shipyard’s Minesweeper (YMS) Production Remembered
The 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor last December gives us a chance to review the incredible history of the “war at home” in Astoria—a time when thousands of ordinary women performed extraordinary feats in many traditionally male-dominated jobs. Every aspect of their daily life was affected by the conflict; there was a constant demand from the government at all levels to produce more, consume less, and stay alert to threats real and imagined. As I write this in March 2017, I find it ironic to see how the nation is so divided by politicians who see enemies on all sides.
I hope this short history lesson will show what America can do when the country is truly united in working towards a single goal! Within days, the war had changed everything: families were separated and a simple chore like shopping became a daily struggle with every staple from gasoline to shoes rationed. Canned salmon was an important part of the food supply so had a high priority. Women already dominated the cannery workforce and now added tasks like loading and driving.
Younger women joined military auxiliary groups like the WACs, WAVES, and SPARs, to free up men for fighting duties. There were numerous other ways to serve on the home front including the Citizens Defense Corps, Aircraft Warning Service, Women’s Land Army, Women’s Ambulance Corps, Victory Gardens, Victory Book Campaign, etc. Barely a week went by without a scrap drive, bond sale, black-out test or bomb drill, plus spy rumors and invasion scares to keep everyone on their toes. The goal was always to support the troops overseas and ultimately win the war.
By the late 1930’s, Astoria already had wo established military posts: the Tongue Point Naval Air Station opened in 1938 and Fort Stevens 249th Coast Artillery (dating from the Civil War) plus the Coast Guard stations on both sides of the Columbia River. Catalina Seaplanes began patrolling the northwest coast from Tongue Point, where the hangars and ramp are still in use today. But there were also civilian facilities like the new airport in Warrenton (built 1935), the Port of Astoria docks, and the AMCCO boatyard south of the airport on the Lewis and Clark River/Netul River. Within weeks of Pearl Harbor, all three were swept up in the national mobilization and were assigned a role in the war effort.
The first orders for warships actually came to Clatsop County before Pearl Harbor, from the faraway war in Europe when Britain announced that a state of war existed with Germany on September 3, 1939. The Brits were soon struggling to survive the predations of German U-boats (submarines) that threatened to stop the vital flow of food and industrial materials from North America. The federal government created the Lend-Lease program to build cargo ships for Britain, and it was signed into law by President Roosevelt on March 11, 1941. (That was how Henry Kaiser began building the original 60 “Liberty” ships for Britain nine months before the USA declared war on the Axis powers.)
The Royal Navy also asked for smaller military vessels to defend their coastline, especially wooden minesweepers. This was also the opportunity for the US Navy to acquire more modern vessels and they commissioned a new design for a wooden minesweeper.–because steel ships would be detected by magnetic mines. This began a short-lived revival in traditional marine construction skills in the USA as boatyards all around the country responded to the government’s invitation to submit bids. Oregon’s wooden shipbuilders in Astoria and Coos Bay won initial approval, with more on Puget Sound and northern California for a total of 19 west coast yards ready to leap into action.
The US Navy sent inspectors out to the west coast to inspect all these facilities and verify their sources of high-quality softwood lumber. On April 1, 1941, the Navy awarded AMCCO a $1,312,000 contract to build four minesweepers, called the Yard Mine Sweeper or YMS. However, Joe Dyer, the manager and one of the three owners, still needed to expand the shipyard, which only had one marine railway and 30 employees. So AMCCO began building wooden minesweepers for lend-lease to the British Navy in the summer of 1941.
These complex 136-foot warships were a giant step beyond the fine wooden yachts, ferries and fishing boats the yard had built since 1922. Dyer intended to create an assembly line system to increase efficiency and pre-fabricate parts for all four boats simultaneously, but was not sure how he would finance this ambitious plan. Fortunately the Navy, anticipating situations like AMCCO’s, allowed a 10% progress payment upon laying of the vessels’ keels. Dyer bought some adjoining tideland pasture, where he laid down four 110’ Douglas fir keels sawn at the mill in Westport, Oregon, then drew up plans for sheds, building ways, and workshops to be built when the money was paid.
As soon as the new buildings were roofed and the saws and planers set up, Dyer found more skilled carpenters and shipwrights who came out of retirement to start the pre-fabrication of parts for the second boat. Then the crew began attaching oak frames on the second keel for the YMS 101. The inner planking was 2” Douglas fir, the outer layer over 1” thick, to withstand the shock wave when mines were swept up and deliberately detonated by rifle or deck gun. It was powered by a pair of GM 400 HP diesels—long-lived engines that are still found today in some older working boats.
It had taken almost one year since the contract was signed, but the next three boats were all well on the way and methods of pre-fabricating the 24‘-wide glued wooden hull frames were being perfected. The company’s records state that the first vessel, YMS 100, was launched on April 12, 1942. The new boat shop complex was carefully organized to speed up production and the second minesweeper was delivered on July 17. The YMS 102 was sent out into the Columbia a month later, followed by the YMS 103 on September 18.
They were all commissioned as British Motor Minesweepers (BYMS) and were delivered to Britain by crews from the Royal Navy. This was an amazing feat, and the building team of over 200 were able to celebrate their incredible achievement of delivering the second pair only six months after the keels were laid. With all this bustle around the waterfront, we need to remember that there were constant reminders of the war in the Pacific. The Oregon coast was the most likely target of a Japanese attack—anything from landing a spy to a full-on D-Day type amphibious landing. The beaches were absolutely off-limits and were covered in barbed wire, and the Oregon Shore Patrol was organized by American Legion posts in coastal counties in December 1941. They were replaced by improved Coast Guard patrols and Army installations along the Oregon coast.
Oregonians watched news reels of the bombing of London and heard radio reports from pioneers like Edward R. Murrow, and wondered “could that really happen here?” Authorities answered with an emphatic “yes” and worked to prepare the state for the worst. This included organizing tens of thousands of Oregonians who volunteered for the Aircraft Warning Service and served as air raid wardens. But to be effective every citizen needed to be ready to respond to a variety of terrible weapons that could fall through their very roof.
By 1942 authorities across Oregon had organized complex civilian protection programs staffed by tens of thousands of volunteers. The work of these air raid wardens, auxiliary police and fire forces, fire guards, emergency medical teams, decontamination units, drivers, messengers, evacuation officers, public utility repair squads, and others (collectively known as the Citizens Defense Corps) was coordinated and integrated by the State Defense Council
 Coastal residents were commanded to black out their homes at night by covering windows with shades and blankets. Block wardens patrolled neighborhoods, looking for telltale lights and reprimanding offenders. Volunteers watched for airplanes, balloons from Tillamook kept watch from the sky. All shipping in and out of the river had to wait for an escort through the minefields, while nervous trainee pilots practiced landing on the short 500′ deck of the “baby flat top” aircraft carriers launched in Vancouver every few weeks.
And this was the summer when the Japanese made the well-known attack on Fort Stevens. On the night of June 21, 1942, an enemy submarine fired seventeen shells at Fort Stevens, near Astoria. Most of the shells landed in a swampy area at the edge of the fort, and some exploded on the beach or buried themselves in the sand. Undoubtedly that must have been a hot topic at AMCCO, which was now a full-blown marine industrial facility striving to meet the US Navy‘s demand for hundreds more minesweepers.
Overhead, delivery pilots ferried planes to the the airport across the Netul River. The city docks became the “last stop” before crossing the bar for all the 456 ships that emerged from the famous and amazingly efficient Kaiser shipyards upriver. There were no more (male) workers with shipyard experience in the region and the Kaiser shipyards wanted AMCCO to perform all the finishing work necessary to their Liberty Ships and oil tankers, plus last-minute modifications to the escort aircraft carriers. Kaiser was already employing thousands of women, and Dyer brought in the first women in April of 1943.
They were assigned to the sweeping crew, but soon they were training as drill press operators, light joiner workers, gluers, sanders, pipe threading machine operators, light deck caulkers, and lead and plugging workers. A total of about 70 women and 400 men ended up working at AMCCO at the end of 1943, when the company proudly announced: “201 Ships Built, Outfitted or Repaired!” And they had also won the Treasury T-flag for full participation in the year long bond drive, paid with 10% of their annual wages.
In 1944, the yard’s weekly newspaper, the AMCCO Log, reported that two welders, Garnet Verschuren and Harold Johnson married at the yard wearing their welding garb and attended by their workmates. (Could this happen today?) The Log also tell us that there were another 1,000 AMCCO workers on the port docks working on the carriers and armed transports streaming out of the Kaiser shipyards.

The Columbia River Bar Pilots used a WW II minesweeper as a station boat for 20 years.

In the three-year period from the spring of 1942 through December 1944, AMCCO built 18 identical wooden hulls, 16 as sweepers, two as sub-chasers/patrol craft. They also built six VT harbor tugs and 16 smaller tugs. The wood-hulled YMS proved to be one of the U.S. Navy’s more durable and versatile types through a quarter-century of service, filling a variety of roles for a number of navies. Over 400 were built at 35 yards around the USA. YMS 117 arrived on the Columbia in 1947 to serve as the Bar Pilot’s station boat on the ocean for over 20 years.
BYMS 26, built on Lake Union in Seattle served in the Mediterranean where it was converted into a car ferry. It was discovered by Jacques Cousteau in the 1950’s and was converted again into his dive-support ship Calypso. It became famous in the USA through the series the Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, which ran for ten years from 1966 to 1976. At a time when color television was a novelty, his programs opened the eyes of a generation to the wonders beneath the waves.
In the years immediately after WWII, AMCCO specialized in mothballing Navy ships that were moored in great fleets behind tongue Point. Many of those ships were eventually scrapped at the wartime shipyard in SW Portland beside the Ross Island Bridge. This still exists as Zidell’s yard and this June, they will launch their last barge and close. AMCCO is the most intact small shipyard on the west coast, thanks to its continued original use, hauling local fishing boats for repairs and maintenance. It has become a National Historic Monument—but one with a serious pollution problem from those desperate war years that is not going away….
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In Praise of My Own “Retro” Bikes

The frames of all my bikes were designed 20+ years ago, so qualify as “retro.” Several of them are based on the early mountain bike, so here is a brief introduction to that design,followed by four of my “variations on a theme.  (Scroll down to see my folding, touring and road bikes.)

Re-Fitting 1980’s Mountain Bikes for Low-Cost Multi-Use Travel and Fun

The mass-produced mountain bike was introduced in Marin County in 1979 by Tom Richey. The idea was picked up in 1981 by Specialized to produce the first Stumpjumper. On the first run, the chainset and brakes where French randonneur-style, the brake levers from a motorbike, and the stem, bars and pedals from BMX suppliers. By the mid 1980’s, the world was being flooded with steel Tig-welded frames from Taiwan with 26″ wheels. Mountain biking began to dominate the entire bicycling business, and the boom continues to this day when the desperate rush to create ever lighter suspension-bikes with more complicated and fragile equipment has sadly consigned millions of early steel frames to junk status.

Of course, being a lifelong retro-bike fan, I continued riding a 1980’s mountain bike until 2012 with only the addition of some aged shock forks, since I wasn’t interested in downhill speed and only entered multi-sport races occasionally. Ironically, it was the theft of that perfectly adequate Cadex bike that drove me to look in the basement of my local shop Bikes & Beyond in Astoria for a replacement.

I never did come close to the Cadex with its high-tech carbon fiber tubes glued into aluminum lugs on a 1980’s frame design. But what I discovered more than made up for its loss: a pile of old steel frames destined for the scrap yard.  I commandeered them for my “research project” to prove that the classic early 1980’s mountain bike can do practically anything–from off-road touring in southern Chile to urban commuting in Portland. It took a while, but I have done that to my complete satisfaction.

1) Off-Road/Gravel Riding

This was me in 1991 with my first mountain bike on top of Steens Mountain in SE Oregon halfway through a very tough circuit from French Glen. I was a late adopter and the bike was already out of date, but the Steens is the highest bike route in the NW and still rarely ridden.

No shocks, no bar ends and 1.5″ tires meant a rough ride that hurt my hands on the wild 5,000′ descent on the back road. Simply adding bar ends, changing to a vintage shock stem and wide tires would make this basic bike suitable for most primitive roads/trails at minimum cost.

2) Commuting/Gravel Road

This is a GT frame with the trademark triangle in the seat cluster, which I found in the bike shop basement and converted into a commuter with an assortment of equipment (1.5″ tires, V-brakes, raised stem, rack) like the original mt. bikes.

I felt so confident that I decided to tour on it, so added a front rack, aero bars, (see photo below) and shipped it via Bike Flights.com to the house of a friend who had moved to Virginia. Then I rode west 1100 miles across the Appalachians and Kentucky, crossing Missouri on the KATY trail to Kansas City.

3) Touring  with full camping gear











4) Mule Packer (My design for a take-apart travel bike)

Peter Marsh on top of Astoria on the first Mule Packer

My 1990 Bike Friday–a Folding Travel Bike

While riding the Camino del Norte in Spain, the author came across a remarkable bike sculpture in Cabezón de la Sal in Cantabria.


 3) 1987 Panasonic Touring–updated to a 7-speed!

The author on the Columbia River with the Ocean Watch crew, who had just sailed around the Americas

 4) 1994 Paramount OS Road Bike–Tange Prestige tubes


 This frame was part of the final production run at Schwinn’s Paramount department. After many years as the biggest name in American cycling, the company was losing business to newer brands that all relied on Asian manufacturers. So Schwinn also had the last Paramounts hand- built in Japan. I found my frame hanging from the ceiling of City Bikes in Portland around 2005. It was surrounded by a lot of cheap used frames, so I adopted it and we have been riding the back roads every summer.

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The Flettner Rotor Makes a Comeback!

The new hybrid ship designs were pioneered in Scandinavia where ecological hydro-power has long been the standard for utilities. The public demand for more clean power use has led to the introduction of hybrid propulsion in several new ferries and short-haul cargo vessels. So I expected this to be the “gold standard” for green shipping for several years until some new technology like the fuel cell was perfected.

Boy was I wrong! On January 25, a news release from Viking Cruises of Helsinki, Finland really upped the ante in the “green ship” stakes. It announced that the M/S Viking Grace, an LNG-fueled cruise ferry and one of the most environmentally-friendly cruise ships in the world, will be adding “renewable power” to its credentials and its marketing, thanks to the addition of a Norsepower Rotor Sail.

When it resumes cruising in 2018 through the pristine archipelago between Turku (Finland) and Stockholm (Sweden), Viking Grace will be the third modern ship and first passenger vessel in the world to harness the wind via a simple law of physics known as the “Magnus Effect.” This radical concept in marine technology may sound like a “spin off” from advanced aeronautical research, but it is actually something we are all familiar with, since it causes balls to rise when hit with backspin, creating a surprising amount of lift in sports from golf to soccer.

Solving the Mystery of the Magnus Effect

When the wind is on the beam (60-130 degrees) and reaches a pre-determined strength, the 75 feet high and 12 feet diameter tubular Norsepower rotor mast will automatically begin spinning. This will extract lift from the wind to supplement the ship’s engines and reduce its emissions and fuel cost. This is based on research that began in the 1600’s when Sir Isaac Newton observed the unexpected motion of tennis balls.

A century later, the object in motion was the musket ball and the scientist was another Englishman named Benjamin Robins. He tried to predict the range of the British army’s standard musket in winds of different strength and direction. In the 1860’s, this problem was carefully studied and described by Gustav Magnus, a German professor and a scientific genius who actually made far more important discoveries in chemistry electro-magnetics etc. (Sadly, he is only remembered for some minor experiments involving the trajectory of spinning iron balls.)

Anton Flettner—Seaman, Engineer and Scientist

Other than making guns more accurate, none of these learned gentlemen seemed to have any more constructive uses for the rotor effect. But Anton Flettner (1885-1961) was a German-born engineer who came from a long line of seafaring men. His first dreams of invention began when, as a boy, he made a voyage to Australia before the mast in his father’s ships.

As a young engineer in the Zeppelin Works he made a close practical study of aerodynamics. He went on to become director of the Institute for Aero and Hydro-Dynamics in Amsterdam. At the end of World War I, the age of commercial sail was practically dead. Germany’s great fleet of steel square riggers built to carry nitrates from the Chilean desert around Cape Horn was stranded in ports all round the Americas and could no longer compete with the latest steam ships.

This was seen as a cultural disaster by traditional seafarers, and many retired captains pondered ways to modernize sailing ship and preserve this iconic symbols of a bygone era. Flettner himself was inspired to try a brief experiment with a metal sail around 1920. It almost ended in disaster, but he was widely quoted at the time stating it was far more efficient than a fabric sail—as the last America’s Cup clearly demonstrated!

Now his thinking led him in a completely opposite direction-away from sails entirely. Some colleagues were investigating the Magnus effect in aircraft, and he was intrigued by the idea of applying the concept to ships. He took the next logical step and used the institute’s wind tunnel to study this phenomenon. He proved that a vacuum was created ahead of the spinning cylinder and an area of high pressure behind, resulting in forward propulsion. His tests appeared to show that a rotating cylinder could extract up to 15 times as much energy from the wind as the same area of sail.

The Amazing Rotor Ship

In 1924, he successfully tested a prototype of his rotor mast on a small yacht and visualized a future where ships would be powered by rotor power. So he took the ambitious step of obtaining the funds to acquire a 156’ schooner to fully demonstrate the ability of his discovery. (If you think wingsails are revolutionary today, imagine what mariners must have felt when they saw Flettner replacing the two masts and rigging with two hollow cylindrical towers

The cylinders were over 60 feet high and 10 feet in diameter, made of riveted and rolled sheet steel, and sat on bearings so they could be rotated. Not by a few degrees like a wingsail, but at 120 rpm by small electric motors driven by a 50 hp diesel engine! The total weight of the complete mechanism–towers, engine and motors–was given as 15,000 pounds, just one-fifth the weight of the discarded sails and rigging. This must have been a dramatic sight in a time when traditional trading ketches still sailed on the Baltic Sea and most aircraft were bi-planes.

The next year, 1926, he renamed his ship the Baden-Baden and successfully crossed the Atlantic to South America. According to the New York Times, when the rotor ship arrived in New York, “He received a welcome such as is accorded only to celebrities of the very first rank. Here was a man who had truly revolutionized the art of harnessing the wind, who had replaced a device, used in essentially unaltered form for thousands of years, the canvas sail, by a modern machine, ten times as efficient and requiring no crew for handling.”

No less a mind than Albert Einstein pronounced the rotor principle of great practical importance. Popular Science Monthly jumped on the bandwagon with more praise for Flettner and his invention. Blue Coal” was now the slogan the inventor used for his wind machine that would harness wind-fuel for the good of mankind. “It is wonderfully cheap”, he tells us, “and it is available to the world in billions of horsepower.”

Flettner claimed that each tower produced 500 horsepower of thrust and that this was safer because “reefing” was accomplished by simply slowing the spinning. Two students in naval architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, were so impressed they decided to build their own rotor. themselves. They managed to complete the new rig from salvaged parts and step it on an abandoned 30′ navy cutter. (No report on how it really sailed and fuel consumption—a common feature of the coverage of Flettner’s “miraculous discovery.”

The German government showed their faith in him by building a 3000-ton 3-rotor passenger ship, the Barbara–then the story reaches a dead end with no explanation. Some skeptical marine engineer must have found the fuel log and discovered the rotors were a net loss–using more fuel than they were supposedly saving. The whole episode seems to have been viewed as a useful but unsuccessful experiment; the rotors were scrapped, the ships returned to their former roles, and the rotor ship seemed as dead as the clipper ship.

That would appear to be the end of the matter. (I wonder if the Germans have an expression for our No such thing as a free lunch.”) But in Berlin, one minister had predicted that “the time is not far off when forests of windmills will be centralized in various parts of the country to supply power and light to nearby cities and factories.” (History intervened in Germany, but this prediction really came true in the 21st century.

Flettner continued to do research and made many more design breakthroughs. He went on to invent and mass produce the famous Flettner rotary ventilator that ran without any electric input in buses, boats etc. During World War II he engineered new machinery for one-man helicopters, then was picked up by the occupation forces and brought to the USA as a consultant to the office of Naval Research along with many other aviation pioneers.

He started the Flettner Aircraft Corporation which tried to develop new helicopters for the U.S. military. His greatest contribution may have been the servo rudder for aircraft, which was incorporated into many self-steering vanes for yachts. He died at 76 years of age in New York City in 1961.

Cousteau’s Alcyone and the Turbosail

Fifty years after the rotor ship totally disappeared, the oil price started its climb in the 1970’s. Here was the opportunity for armchair sailors to once again expound on simple, cheap effective ways to propel ships by free, renewable energy. Ship owners had to show some interest in this energy-saving trend to keep their shareholders happy, but none of the Quixotic 1980’s solutions like kites and wingsails seemed any more feasible than those from the 1920’s.

The only serious effort came from Jacques Cousteau, who saw his windship project as an elegant statement of intent and marketing to his ecologically conscious fans. The Alcyone is a research vessel powered primarily by twin engines with a beamy 100′ aluminum hull.

Cousteau and his scientific team designed and patented a system that could assist the twin engines when the wind was fair. It steps two 34′ fixed ovoid cylindrical Turbosail masts, each with a movable full-height foil flap that worked like an aircraft wing flap and can be rotated around the back of the mast to tack. To delay the stalling point of the airflow, a large fan at the top of the Turbosail pumps air up the mast and out through thousand of little vent holes to allow the air to escape on the lee side exposed by the flap’s movement.

When the Alcyone visited Portland in the mid 1980’s, I fought my way through the crowds filling the dock and managed to talk my way on board. Jean Michel Cousteau gave me a tour of the windship and let me climb into the mast through the access door. I remember there was a ladder up the inside that looked very tempting, and large floppy discs in their computers, my first sight of the digital world.

According to one of the Alcyone’s more recent skippers, Bernard Deguy, who went around the world, results were not what they hoped for. “ First we never use the fans atop the masts. Because the noise, it is impossible for the crew to sleep inside the boat. Secondly, we need a good breeze coming from amidships to notice that the Turbosails are producing power. In fact, we are motoring most of the time !”

Finally—an American Rotor Yacht

That was probably the conclusion reached from the serious experiment on the 42-foot yacht Tracker in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. In the early 1980’s. A reporter was impressed by the rotor 24 feet high and 42 inches in diameter as it revolved at up to 600 rpm, powered by a lawn-mower sized engine driving a hydraulic pump and motor. “Under rotor power alone, the 42′ Tracker reached a maximum speed of 6.1 knots in an 18.4 knot wind and a true wind angle of 122 degrees,” he wrote. (Of course, that begs the question how fast would it have gone if the engine was simply connected to a marine propeller?)

Flettner Rotor Gets Another Spin

In 2010, German wind-turbine manufacturer Enercon launched a 426 foot hybrid cargo vessel called E-Ship 1 with four 88-foot tall Flettner rotors. The ship was designed to transport wind-turbine components and has made several voyages to Uruguay. This route passes through the NE and SE tradewinds, which should provide near-perfect sailing/rotoring conditions. However, this was never cited in the report Enercon provided In 2013.

This stated that the the rotors had added two knots to the ship’s speed of 12 knots with the wind on the quarter near the Brazilian coast. The company, which is a major player in the turbine business, continues to claim fuel savings from 10% to 35% are possible.

It’s hard to avoid the impression that they are “cherry picking” their data by highlighting the rare days when the wind is on the beam and ignoring the rotors fuel use by using exhaust heat to run a small steam turbine, so it is more-or-less free energy anyway! But hope springs eternal in the attempt to capture the power of the wind for ships–even if does not use sails.

In 2015, the first Norsepower rotor was installed on the Finnish vehicle ferry Estraden, which operates between the Netherlands and the UK. Weather conditions were mainly calm throughout the study, but the results overseen by Finland’s VTT Technical Research Centre confirm fuel savings of 2.6%. So a second rotor was installed in 2016 and the fuel savings jumped to 6.1% with a peak of 10% while sailing.

This led to Norsepower receiving a $4 million investment from a clean technology venture fund to develop largest ever Flettner rotor with a height of 100 feet. It should have a maximum equivalent power output of more than four megawatts (MW), and the company forecasts savings of 20% for vessels on favorable wind routes. (Well they would, wouldn’t they?)

Windship believers look to a brave new world where new technologies like hydrofoils and weather satellites could be applied to shipping. This has certainly resulted in two amazing recent passages under sail: French singlehander Thomas Coville raced around the world non-stop in 49 days on a 103′ trimaran, while a crew of six of in a 105 footer followed soon after and returned to France in just 41 days!

I wasn’t expecting those records to fall for a decade or more, so I admit I have no idea how much more performance the high-tech Flettner rotor can deliver. Maybe we will soon see them spinning atop the state ferries as they go for a “spin” on the sound.

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