A Trip Down The Mississippi, Fit 1 - Choosing The Boat

I've written a little about my first "ocean voyage" - aboard a Volkswagen, at Daytona Beach, Florida (to find that post, click "Seagoing Automobiles" in the Categories list on the right side of the page). But of course my friends and I, growing up in the American Midwest, had spent lots of time on fresh water growing up. We camped & fished, swam in creeks and lakes, paddled rowboats and canoes; and I had an uncle who built boats up on the Great Lakes at Benton Harbor, Michigan, where my grandparents also lived. One early memory is a trip on Lake Michigan in my uncle's boat, when weather got so rough that he strapped me into a seat with his belt to stop me bouncing around the cabin like a pea in a rattle - I was a pretty small kid at the time. So even while showing abysmal ignorance of tides at Daytona, we weren't entirely inexperienced afloat. By choice, I've been around boats and water most of my life.

My best friend John and I were shipmates working for Getty on their domestic fleet - I was an AB and John had just become Third Assistant Engineer - when we decided it would be fun to go down the Mississippi River. If you've ever read Huckleberry Finn, you'll know the attraction. As an adventure it sounds both epic and ad hoc, and yet at the same time involves a pleasurable amount of planning. We evolved a plan that was ambitious, complicated, and impractical. We played it out over the next couple of years - in Canada, Indiana, Louisiana, and points between - sort of ad-libbing as we went, and we never did bring it to a full conclusion. But the fun we had! Both of us look back on that journey as one of the most remarkable times of our lives.

In the beginning (Fit 1, with apologies to Lewis Carroll), we chose a boat. 

We wanted a boat large enough to sleep in - we figured we'd be a month or more going down, and we didn't want to camp on shore each night. But a conventional motorboat or sailboat didn't seem to fill the bill at all. Too complex, too expensive to run, too ordinary! We needed self-sufficiency, but as little size as possible. It's a well known fact that the smaller the boat, the more fun fits in it.

I'd been reading some of Chesapeake Bay boatbuilder Tom Colvin's articles. After serving in China during WW2, Colvin had conceived an admiration for the Chinese junk and its rig, and had begun to experiment with junk rigs on Western hulls. Tom was famous in the Chesapeake Bay region for GAZELLE, a 42-foot junk-rigged boat that had no engine - the junk rig was so easy to handle that he got along fine without one. I'd also been reading a lot about dories - their rich history,  seaworthiness, and wide range of uses - in John Gardner's Dory Book. And I thought: how about a junk rig on a dory? Ought to work. I'd never heard of a dory with a junk rig; it could be a first (although it turned out it wasn't - see: Annie Hill), it would be our own, and it should be fun. . . so that became our vehicle for the trip. 

Nobody built dories in Indiana, where my parents lived at the time - their house (whether they knew it or not) was to be our staging area. We consulted National Fisherman. The best sources for dories, we found, were in Maine and Nova Scotia. After some correspondence, we settled on the W. Laurence Allen shop in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. They were a fine old shop, their prices were reasonable, and they built a model made for outboard motor use (unlike Colvin, we figured on needing a motor, especially in the Mississippi). You could put a motor on other dories, but usually into a well built in the bottom, well forward of the stern; the W. Laurence Allen design, though, incorporated a well that was formed by an internal false stern, occupying the final few feet of the boat. The dory shape was kept, but the motor hid in the shaped stern, out of sight, in a good location to steer and propel the boat. Best of all for our purposes, this system kept the main part of the hull free for us and our gear. We planned to make a sort of convertible camper out of the dory, and needed room to swing hammocks and so on.

You can't tackle anything new without having your horizons expanded in remarkable ways. For John and me, that started with acquiring the dory.

We made a couple of trips to Canada. On the first one we stayed in Lunenburg for several days with W. Laurence Allen's master boatbuilder, Freeman Rhuland. Freeman and his sweet wife ran a B&B in their home; it was off-season (does Lunenburg have a season?) so no one was there but us. It was like staying with your grandparents when you were a kid. Every morning we got up with Freeman and had a good Canadian breakfast, then went down to the boat shop with him. It was maybe a 10-minute walk, but it took him about 20 to make it 'cause he'd stop to talk to everyone he knew, and he seemed to know everyone. After ambling through the shop door, he'd set us some simple job or other, just to keep us busy. 

We spent a lot of time watching Freeman instead of working, though. He'd tackle some tricky piece of work so quickly and efficiently, it looked like magic. I remember him fitting a replacement plank on a dory that had been smashed somehow. After getting out the broken plank, he took a new one and began to shape it by eye, hacking away with a hatchet that was so sharp that it would have shamed a laser. He'd hack a bit, the wood coming off like butter - stick the result up into the place where the old plank had been - hack some more, moving very fast and carrying on a conversation the while. In addition to shaping the plank's curve, he was simultaneously putting in the bevel to make it fit against the one above it. In a few minutes, he had a perfect replacement; he slipped it into place and secured it. Piece of cake. And he'd never stopped telling us stories and kidding us about being American - didn't even refer to what he was doing.

We'd accompany Freeman home for lunch, then return to finish the day at the shop. In the evening we'd have supper with the Rhulands, hearing about Lunenburg history, the local fishing industry, dories. . . storms that dorymen had survived, and storms they hadn't. And then - just like at Grandma's - we'd help with the cleaning up while the talk went on.

Freeman had another sideline, which was making model dories constructed with planks & frames, just like full-sized ones, complete with fishing gear in accurate detail. I remember the beautifully made oars, hurdy-gurdy, the tub & line - everything was there but a couple of little men and a swell to ride. He'd have sold us a model very reasonably, and I forget why we didn't buy one - guess we figured we had the real thing a-building at his shop. Wish we had it now! 

At any rate, we couldn't get our dory that trip within our time window; the shop was swamped with other work. So we went on to Halifax for a couple of days, to see the sights, then back south to find Briar Island, Nova Scotia - Joshua Slocum's home island at the entrance to the Bay of Fundy. We stood on the shore and watched the fishing boats return, running full ahead against the tide but making only about a foot per second over the ground - going nowhere, but throwing a big wake! There was no accomodation there, so we couldn't spend the night. We wanted to - it was wildly beautiful and the people were great. I guess Slocum didn't stay long, either - life still looked spare in that place! 

After that, we jogged by Quebec, but only stayed a day and a night - the Quebec soveriegnty movement was in full swing, and all we spoke was English. We were in a bar with very loud disco music, and asked two girls to dance, using gestures. Then we bought them drinks, all in dumb-show - you couldn't hear yourself speak. I'll always remember the looks on their faces when the music finally stopped for a moment, and they heard us speaking English!

I returned to Lunenburg in the middle of winter to help finish and take delivery of our dory. The story of a spare, long-haired hippie, towing a big dory on a converted horse trailer frame that John and I had acquired for $100 and modified, through the Canadian winter to Indiana wasn't as interesting as it might sound; and in spite of misadventures (more fun than serious) with the ramshackle trailer and old car, I made it in one piece. 

So, set up in my parents' back yard, our dory awaited Spring and our transforming touch! I'll cover those highs (and lows) next time - in Fit 2.
NANUQ, an ice-class supply vessel that will work in tandem with AIVIQ
An unsatisfied ambition of mine was to work in the Arctic - the Polar and high-latitude regions have intrigued me since as a kid I read Shackleton and Rockwell Kent. 

Now that the Arctic ice cap is shrinking, we've started seeing a lot of exploration for energy, mining, and other commercial activity up there - not to mention the recent opening of the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route as practical shortcuts between Europe and Asia. Vessels like Shell's new private icebreaker designed for oil exploration will become more and more common over the coming decades. 

Here's the link to the story, or you can also click on the photo of another of Shell's ice-class vessels, the NANUQ, above:

Anyone out there involved in this sort of work? I'd love to hear about your experiences, and pictures would be very welcome too - I'll post them for the world to see.

See this link about Apple's move to China:
A story out of my own family's past, echoed in today's headlines: back in the '80s the company my Dad worked for, CTS, moved many operations to Singapore for the same reasons detailed in this article. 

Dad was an engineer for CTS who went to Singapore to guide the establishment of the new plant, and I was able to visit them there. He marveled at the Singapore government's support of tech industries & engineering education, sharp young freshly-trained engineers available for a fraction of US wages, uncomplaining 12-hour work shifts by skilled workers, and radically lowered rate of rejects. CTS also saw a radically lowered cost of operations in Singapore.

Of course, after about two years in Singapore, Dad came home and suddenly faced early retirement. He fought it off for a while, but finally - along with a slew of other US engineers - had to go. Fortunately for Dad, he was old enough to retire - younger engineers weren't, and simply found themselves out of work. And that was 30 years ago. The fact that Apple held on until 2004 says that they tried, at least to stem the tide. To have held out longer would have crippled the company.

I'm no expert, but I don't think either Mitt or Obama, no matter how badly they would like to "create" good-paying American jobs, can do so in any predictable way. I don't think the US can restructure her economy to reclaim those particular lost jobs. It will take The Next Big Thing (whatever that turns out to be) and like most of these transformations, it will probably take us by surprise. 

The only good move I can see at this point is to invest in education. That's what Singapore did in the '70s & '80s, paying for higher education for any student who showed the talent and discipline to work at it, including post-grad work at universities abroad. It's one of the factors that drew Dad's company to Singapore and made that little "tiger" ready for anything - and prosperous today.

I don't think draconian cost-cutting to "make America competitive again" will get that done! We need to think beyond that now. 

Dad's gone, but I can see him nodding his head.


Interesting post from Maritime Propulsion:

As an old single-screw tug man who's learned the modern art of maneuvering a tractor tug, I'd love running this thing. At times long in the past, I've run older, high-hour Diesel boats that smoked a lot (I remember one Pilot who called for me to "cut 'er back!" when the tug I was running almost smoked him off the bridge wing!) He'd never have to worry with one of these.

LNG is not only a cleaner fuel, but it's currently cheaper, too. I think we'll see more LNG powered tugs coming, to join the LNG powered OSVs and ships that are starting to appear.

Do you work on an LNG powered vessel? I'd love to hear a description of your experience or see photos - see my Contact Me page. Thanks!


Craig Allen posted about the Master's obligation - and any seaman's similar duty - as illuminated by the 1841 WILLIAM BROWN episode. The judge in that case said:

"The passenger stands in a position different from that of the officers and seamen.  It is the sailor who must encounter the hardships and perils of the voyage.  Nor can this relation be changed when the ship is lost by tempest or other danger of the sea… for imminence of danger can not absolve from duty.  The sailor is bound, as before, to undergo whatever hazard is necessary to preserve the boat and the passengers...  The sailor (to use the language of a distinguished writer) owes more benevolence to another than to himself.  He is bound to set a greater value on the life of others than on his own.  And while we admit that sailor and sailor may lawfully struggle with each other for the plank which can save but one, we think that, if the passenger is on the plank, even 'the law of necessity' justifies not the sailor who takes it from him."  ~Justice Henry Baldwin

That is how the public should view professional seamen, and that is the standard professional seamen should live up to. Good post, have a look:

gCaptain's John Konrad, using AIS data from COSTA CONCORDIA, gives a pretty good rundown of the final maneuvers made by the ship.

If only Capt. Schettino had been watching his own readout. . . pretty chilling, if you've had any experience navigating anything large and unwieldy - he certainly had way too much speed on, and apparently wasn't maintaining adequate awareness of his position, for he was closer to shoal water and the shore itself than he insisted he was right after the incident:


I’ve been busy lately, and have a  lot to catch up on, especially with regard to the big news story lately, the wreck of COSTA CONCORDIA – this page tells all about her (not about the wreck):  

I think the thing that has struck me – and probably a lot of you as well – was the Master’s apparent abandonment of his ship and passengers during the emergency. Here’s a transcript of a conversation he had with the Port Captain – pretty shocking:  And, here’s the actual audio:

A former cruise line safety manager and Master gives his opinion, and it’s pretty harsh:

Schettino explains his action that resulted in the grounding:  (He apparently had no precise idea where the ship actually was, but was using "eyeball navigation" to con his large ship in those circumstances!) His explanation for leaving the ship?

Giglio’s Mayor went on board COSTA CONCORDIA to help with the evacuation, and says he “never saw Schettino” and had trouble finding any officers at all:

This report seems to indicate that the crew were in denial, assuring passengers that all was well, that it was a generator problem, and to return to their cabins – this after the ship had already struck, been holed and was taking water: Over an hour passed before the order to abandon ship was given. In view of the fact that people have died, a much more prudent and proactive emergency response was in order. Were Schettino and his staff paralyzed by the events?

Another Wikipedia page devoted solely to the COSTA CONCORDIA wreck at Giglio is here:

Former Captain Schettino and first officer Ambrosio have been arrested. Much investigation remains to be done, so we won’t hear the full truth for a long time. So far as COSTA CONCORDIA, Smit has been contracted to deal with the wreck, and no one knows at this point whether she can be salvaged or not.

Personally I think it’s a sad day for our profession - and for those who trust us - that this incident happened in the first place. Poor judgment in spades was shown with regard to navigation, on a ship with so many sophisticated resources. And the emergency was handled so spectacularly badly by the officers and crew of COSTA CONCORDIA that it makes me ashamed as a seaman. I live in a country where the public at large knows little of the marine world. I hate to see a story like this become emblematic of marine professionals!


Interesting post on Maritime Connector:‘costa-concordia’-and-history’s-worst-shipwrecks/  COSTA CONCORDIA as stacked up against some of history's famous shipwrecks - good article & pictures.
Some underwater photos taken by the Guardia di Finanza - huge hole torn in Costa Concordia's hull  

Some early analysis from gCaptain's Rob Almeida - much more to come in this investigation. . .  

Amateur videos from scene:

Ours looked worse. . .

As promised, something about my own career:

I grew up in the American Midwest – farming country – a long way from any ocean. But for some reason, I always thought of the sea – I read volumes about it and dreamed about becoming a sailor. The flat fields of the Great Plains seemed confining, and I couldn’t wait to escape!

My first view of the ocean happened just after graduating from high school – my best friend and I took an ailing Volkswagen Beetle (you had to push it to start it) on a trip to Florida.

After a number of misadventures on the way down, early one morning we arrived at Daytona and drove out on the beach, thrilled to see the sea at last.

Ah, the ocean! How vast, how blue! The ocean . . . and the beach!  So hard, so smooth, wonderful to drive on – they used to race cars on this beach, y'know . . . yeah, the beach . . . hey, wait - what’s becoming of this beach? It’s getting narrower and narrower as we drive along . . . the water almost covered that last ramp . . . it HAS covered this ramp . . . uh-oh, we’re trapped!

And we were. Coming from the rural Midwest, we’d never figured on the effect of tides – maybe I slept through that day in science class. Back home, the lakes and ponds politely stayed where you left them most of the time, they didn't go crawling restlessly up and down the beach that way.

Unable to get the VW off the beach, we tethered it to a telephone pole up on shore and let it ride out the flood tide. It floated (they said it would, and it did) but it didn't do it any good. It didn’t run for six weeks, during which time we hitchhiked inland and found work as migrant workers, irrigating the orange groves (and, for a few desperate days, setting smudge pots in the groves to fight a freeze – there was a battle!) We earned enough money to buy a used engine and install it. Then, chastened – and cold, because sand and seaweed from the VW’s float on the ocean had blocked her heating vents – we drove home in time for Christmas. So that was my first brief ocean voyage – in a car.

We told the folks at home that we’d had a wonderful time.

The Vietnam war was getting hot at that point, and I signed up and volunteered for combat duty. I spent 13 months in Vietnam on a patrol boat. It was the first time I’d ever actually lived and worked on the water, and it was a challenging job. I learned that even in that environment, scared half the time and experiencing the loss of friends in combat, that I loved being on the sea. I was hooked.

So as a young civilian I started in tankers, peeling spuds and cleaning up in the galley. When an opportunity offered I moved to the deck department, earning my AB ticket, and eventually working my way up to Bos’n.

Then I studied for my license, and became Second Mate (my license & ratings are on the Professional page of this website). I worked on a Bludworth ATB that traded to S. America and Asia. Had some unique adventures on that S. America run, but never made the Asia trip.

Then – it happens to almost every man – I fell in love and got married. Wanting to be nearer home & family, I took a job as Mate/Relief Captain on a research vessel operating on the US east coast. From there I moved to tugs, working in ship assist as Mate & Captain, and later coastwise towing as a Captain. Ambitious to become a Pilot, I got my federal Pilot's license for Baltimore Harbor, but ended up moving into the office instead. I’m now General Manager for a towing company in the Chesapeake Bay region.

One of the aspects of our industry that I like so much is one’s ability to try new things, to grow, to find something entirely new within your field of expertise that will challenge you and teach you something. It’s certainly been true of my career, and I'm sure its true of yours.

Let me know what you’re doing and what you plan to do! And don’t forget to send your photos and comments for posting. It’s an interesting big world out there, and mariners are some of the luckiest people in it!

See you next time,


This was taken in 1917, but we contend with the same sea as they did. . . (Click on photo to go to see larger image)
Photo #: NH 48479. USS Wenonah (SP-165). Built by George Lawley and Son. Steams through heavy seas while en route from Bermuda to the Azores in November 1917. Photographed from USS Margaret (SP-527) by Raymond D. Borden. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.


This is really the first post for the blog to be known as The Chain Locker. On good advice from my son, I’m going to try to post regularly, often, and stay within the fields I know something about: the marine business, in which I’m a professional; and an occasional detour into tech, in which I’m an enthusiastic amateur.  The two are increasingly intertwined these days. Also, I may refer readers to books & websites that are good resources for those two things. And I may ask questions – there’s much I don’t know about in our rich & varied maritime world!

Some ideas I’m interested in exploring:

·      Getting other marine professionals to send in photos of the places they go, the ships they’re in, and the things they do & see, for posting on the site;

·      Correspondence with mariners along those same lines, with original news and insight from your end of the industry; and,

·      To try to make sure the information that appears here is either original, or at least well corroborated, and to link only to reliable web sources.

More will develop as time goes by, I’m sure, and –  provided that this blog becomes interesting enough for anyone to follow – I’ll be happy to incorporate ideas you may have for suiting it more to your own purposes. Please feel free to critique, correct, set me straight, illuminate, or expand on anything you read here!

Many vessels these days have Internet access, crewmembers have digital cameras and cell phones, and sailors worldwide are very savvy with regard to tech. Information flies around the world more freely than it ever has, in spite of challenges from governments & fears about security in some parts of the world.

I hope you’ll take advantage of our ability to communicate, to let the world have a peek into your own personal and professional maritime universe. As sailors, we live apart from the bulk of the world’s people, and many of those folks have no idea what our lives are like!

Please consider this blog to be your blog – your soapbox – your picture gallery. I look forward to getting to know every sailor from every environment who takes the trouble to communicate, to post your thoughts and photos without undue editing, and I look forward to making many friends and learning a lot about my favorite business!

In the next post I’ll give a rundown of my own career up to this point.