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Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Orcas back in Wellington


Last spring a pod of orca whales had a great time in Wellington.  Like the southern right whale that visited a couple of months ago, they enjoy the crowd attention.  Or so it seems.

Coincidentally, we were travelling up the western coast by train, and the orcas were travelling up the coast, too.  It was fun to watch the lines of stopped cars, as people hopped out to take pictures and generally enjoy the flipping and diving.  Then we left the train at Paekakariki and walked south along the coastal track, watching orcas all the time.

And now they are back.  They must like the harbor.  Or so (again) it seems.  However, unlike the southern right whale, they have not come to play.  Instead, they are following stingrays, which definitely like our harbor.   Displaying remarkable intelligence, the orcas dig in the muddy bottom to disturb the rays, then herd them into the shallows, where they can feed at leisure.  Accordingly, that flipping and diving is part of the hunt.  Success is hailed by an abrupt threshing in the water, as the ray tries to fly off.  Indeed, they have been known to "jump" onto piers and rocks in their desperation to get away.  Unfortunately (though luckily for the orcas), helpful passersby can be relied on to "help" the stingray back into the water.

Most people think that orcas are whales --  their common name is "killer whale."  But they are in fact dolphins, the largest of the family.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Square-rigger that was NZ's first WW1 maritime casualty

And it was all because the lamp was turned off in a lighthouse

Not to be confused with the Titanic ... but with a similarly sad fate.

The Dominion Post published this great story this morning -- a story that brought back memories, as I once had the pleasure of meeting Captain Holm's granddaughter, and listening to the wonderful stories of her childhood that she shared with me.  This story, however, was new, and this is how the newspaper relates it:

Anne Erwin grew up hearing the adventurous tales of her seagoing father and grandfather. One of the most memorable was the story of the day the Titania sank, unexpectedly becoming New Zealand's first World War I maritime casualty. As told to Ruby Macandrew.
The day the Titania left Fiji bound for New Caledonia in July 1914 there was no thought that World War I was imminent, but less than a month later the crew would find themselves in peril, watching as their beloved ship sank.
The 1107-tonne ship, a four-masted barquentine, was owned and captained by Captain Ferdinand Holm, who, in 40 years of sailing, had never had a serious accident.  All that changed on August 23.

Mariner Holm, the son of Captain Ferdinand Holm, served as third mate on the ill-fated ship Titania.
Mariner Holm, the son of Captain Ferdinand Holm, served as third mate on the ill-fated ship Titania.

At the time, the ship, like many vessels of its kind, were not equipped with radios and Surprise Island had no regular mail, radio or cable connection with any other country.

Mariner and ship owner Pehr Ferdinand Holm (1844-1917), commanded the grand ship on its final journey.
Mariner and ship owner Pehr Ferdinand Holm (1844-1917), commanded the grand ship on its final journey.
As Titania approached the dangerous reef off Amadee Island  Holm asked the third mate, his 20-year-old son Mariner Holm, to go aloft and search for a light.
One was sighted and assumed to be from the lighthouse. But, unbeknownst to the crew, French authorities had already extinguished the lighthouse at New Caledonia.
The light they saw turned out to be a masthead light from HMAS Australia.

Anne Erwin, in 2004, with the bell her father saved from the Titania when it sank. The bell is now used at the ...
Anne Erwin, in 2004, with the bell her father saved from the Titania when it sank. The bell is now used at the Wellington Central Fire Station. (file photo)
Unsure about the light, Captain Holm gave orders "to stand out till daylight", but it was too late as a swell violently caught the Titania, sending it on to the reef just after midnight.

The force was so great that no-one could stand and everyone on board was forced to take refuge in the bow.
The bottom of the ship was ripped out. The crew sent rockets up all night but to no avail. By daylight it was clear only two lifeboats could be launched – the others were damaged beyond repair.
The crew left in the larger boat,  leaving Captain Holm, his son and friend Harry Howden to check the damage, before the ship went down by the bow and broke in pieces.
Ferdinand Holm and Mariner Holm arrived in Noumea harbour in a small boat towed by a steamer.
"The battering the Titania took that night was the worst I saw in all my years of sailing," the younger Holm wrote.
"The fact that no lives were lost was nothing short of a miracle."
Mariner Holm and Howden later returned to the ship to save its cat, three pigs and the ship's bell.
The bell was brought back to Wellington, where it remains in use at the Wellington Central City Fire Station.
The Titania was not the only ship wrecked on the reef that night. By daylight the crew saw, not just the lighthouse nearby, but three other wrecks piled up alongside.
An inquiry was held and Captain Holm, along with the masters of the other ships, was exonerated.
"The real cause of the wreck was the mistake in regard to the light. The officers could not know that the Amedee light was out."
The French were ordered to pay compensation but as Germany refused to pay their indemnity to France, they, in turn, refused to pay up.
The Titania's sister ship made £70,000 carrying freights during the year of the sinking. Holm received no compensation.
The 70-year-old Holm suffered a stroke while in New Caledonia and died two-and-a-half years later.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Equanimity mega-yacht update

The latest from ABC

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said Monday that Indonesia has handed over a luxury yacht allegedly bought with money stolen from the multibillion-dollar looting of a state investment fund.  In a Facebook video, Mahathir thanked Indonesia's government and President Joko Widodo for returning the $250 million yacht, Equanimity, which was seized by Indonesia off Bali in February in cooperation with the U.S. FBI. "We believe that this yacht belongs to the Malaysian government because it was bought with Malaysia's money that was stolen," Mahathir said, citing an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department.
Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng said the yacht has set sail from the Indonesian island of Batam near Singapore and is expected to arrive in Malaysia's Port Klang on Tuesday. "At the end of the day, the yacht must be sold off" so that Malaysia can recover as much money as possible from it, Lim said.
The Justice Department, one of several foreign agencies investigating the alleged looting of the 1MDB fund by associates of former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, had listed the yacht among the assets it could seize and sell to recover stolen funds. Najib set up 1MDB when he took power in 2009 but it accumulated billions in debts. The 1MDB scandal led to his shocking electoral defeat in May and Najib is now facing charges. 
Malaysian and international authorities want to question Malaysian financier Jho Low, who the Justice Department alleges was a key figure in the theft and international laundering of $4.5 billion from 1MDB. U.S. investigators said Low bought the yacht with proceeds diverted from 1MDB. Low, who has so far evaded investigators, issued a statement through his U.S. attorney on Monday protesting the handover of the yacht as an "illegal act" for ignoring court proceedings in the United States. The yacht's registered owner, Equanimity Cayman Ltd., had filed a claim on the vessel and filed further proceedings following the handover to Malaysia, the statement said, without giving further details. Mahathir said anyone who wants to claim ownership of the yacht must show proof that the vessel was not bought with stolen funds. "We want to know where they obtained so much money to buy such an expensive yacht," he said. 
The Equanimity's lavish amenities include a helicopter landing pad, plunge pool, gymnasium and a cinema. It was built in 2014 by the Dutch yacht manufacturer Oceano, which received detailed instructions from Low about its outfitting, according to the Justice Department's asset recovery case.

Monday, August 6, 2018

New Zealand's First Baby serenaded at Wellington airport

An impromptu song for Prime Minister's daughter

A group of Nelson singers is "buzzing" after serenading Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her baby Neve at Wellington Airport.
The Nayland College choir was en route to an inter-school singing competition in Melbourne on Saturday. Principal Daniel Wilson, who is travelling with the group, said as they waited between flights, they spotted a group of reporters.
When the students discovered Ardern was about to touch down with her six-week-old baby and partner Clarke Gayford, the students saw a chance to help welcome baby Neve to her new Wellington home.
The students checked with the press secretary and was told the PM, returning to Wellington to start work after her six-week maternity leave, "would love it," Wilson said.
When the song finished, Ardern thanked the choir. "She said it was beautiful, and that they helped put the baby to sleep."
The students were "absolutely buzzing" after the impromptu performance, he said. "They're amazing, they saw an opportunity to do something really special. I think they got as much out of it as she did."
The principal said he was proud of the students. "They're a fantastic bunch, and really talented. What a wonderful way to start our tour."
Hit the link and the video should start, so that you can hear the song...

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Lecturing on the Paul Gauguin

Well, I am back from my stint as a cruise lecturer on the wonderful mid-size luxury ship Paul Gauguin.  And, as expected, it was all perfect.  The crew remembered us and greeted us with joy and affection, and the ship was as sparkling clean as ever.  A bonus was the crowd of passengers who shared the voyage with us, and who attended my lectures with interest and attention.  They all loved hearing about Tupaia, Captain Cook, the Mutiny on the Bounty, Shipwrecks and Castaways, and the discovery of Tahiti by the first Europeans ... particularly the bit where Captain Wallis had to take his departure in a hurry, before his ship fell apart, having lost so many nails to give to the girls.

The passenger list included a fifty-strong group from the Dana West Yacht Club, who all seemed to know each other for twenty or more years, were cheerful and friendly, and had a blast of a time.  Each year, it seems, the current commodore gets to choose the destination for a club holiday, and the man at the helm this year, George Bloomfield, had the wit and wisdom to choose the Paul Gauguin.

Who knows where they will head next year?  That's up to the next commodore.  Meantime, I hope to publish George's account of the group's experience on this lovely ship, from the club's newsletter, "Lines & Bits."

There was also a big group from the friends of the San Francisco Opera.  And so the ship had a couple of opera singers on board, along with a magician (the rising star Nicolas del Pozo), ocean expert Denis Schneider, and (briefly) archaeologist Mark Eddowes.

Add wonderful food, superb wines (including whites from New Zealand), and luxurious surroundings, and I know that everyone had a great holiday.

Paul Gauguin at Bora Bora

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Mystery wreck found in Wellington

Mystery around wreck find off Wellington coast 

A mystery shipwreck has been discovered "beyond the point of safe return" off Wellington's South Coast.

Rob Wilson, of Ghost Fishing, and two others were diving off Owhiro Bay on Sunday when they discovered the wreck – a long distance from known wrecks in the area – and in an area few ever dove due to a treacherous rip and the long swim.
He is not making any firm predictions about what it is but suspects it may be the wreck of a fishing boat, Crescent, which sank in the 1930s.

While less likely, it could also be previously undiscovered parts of the area's known wrecks, he said.
"It's a very exciting find - we are not 100 per cent what wreck it is yet - but I took a lot of images of the hull ribs which are on the sea floor.
"We have dived this coast extensively for many years but have never seen this wreck."
The new wreckage found off Owhiro Bay, Wellington.
The new wreckage found off Owhiro Bay, Wellington.
Maritime archaeologist Andy Dodd, who surveyed the coast, believed the find was more likely from a boat, Progress, already known about in the area.
"Wreckage can be strewn across reasonably large areas, and the remains that I have seen from the Progress are not dissimilar to these, and are fairly well dispersed.
"I think it would be prudent to get more definitive diagnostic evidence before attributing it to a different shipwreck."
Rob Wilson of Ghost Fishing came across the wreckage with others on Sunday.
Rob Wilson of Ghost Fishing came across the wreckage with others on Sunday.
Greater Wellington Regional Council confirmed it had four wrecks listed in Owhiro Bay. Between them they claimed 13 lives.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Was James Cook a flogging captain?


Somehow, I missed this story in our local paper, the Dominion Post, or I would have searched out this book much earlier.  I already knew that Captain James Cook, very involved with his self-image, and how he appeared to his superiors, was inclined to fudge certain items in his journals.

For instance, he altered the date of Tupaia's death on the voyage of the Endeavour, to make it seem impossible that this Polynesian genius, priest, and star navigator could have died from complications from scurvy.  Determined to go down in history as the first captain to circumnavigate the world without losing a single man from scurvy (a feat that Captain Samuel Wallis of the 1766 voyage of the Dolphin had already accomplished), it did not serve his purposes to leave any hint that Tupaia might have suffered mortally from that dreadful disease of the sea.

However, until I found Captain Cook's Discipline, I did not know that Cook also veiled the number of floggings on board his ships, by merely noting that "nothing remarkable" had happened on flogging days.

It took a review by a member of the Captain Cook Society to send me in search of the book.  And a worthwhile quest it was indeed.  Privately published by its author, Allan Arlidge, it reflects thirty years of searching through logs and journals kept on Cook's three discovery voyages to list and describe the punishments carried out on board and on shore.

Historians have described the eighteenth century as "the flogging century," and pointed out that flogging was carried out so often that it was indeed "nothing remarkable."  But is this true?  Did some captains discipline more harshly than others?

Let's look at Bligh, for instance.  The usual story of the mutiny on the Bounty blames the uprising on the brutal behavior of the captain.  And this is what happened during the 18 months between departure from England and the mutiny in the south Pacific.

On voyage:
Matthew Quintall, 24 lashes, for insolence and contempt
John Williams, 6 lashes, for carelessness while casting the lead
At Tahiti:
Alexander Smith (John Adams), 12 lashes for allowing the cutter’s gudgeon to be stolen while he was on watch
Matthew Thompson, 12 lashes, for insolence and disobedience
William Muspratt, assistant cook, 12 lashes for neglect of duty
Robert Lamb, butcher, 12 lashes for allowing his cleaver to be stolen
Charles Churchill, 12 lashes x 2 for desertion
William Muspratt, 24 lashes x 2 for desertion
John Millward, 24 lashes x 2 for desertion

That's ten floggings -- a total of 198 lashes -- in 18 months.

According to Mr Arlidge's fascinating account and the listing in an appendix:

On Cook’s Endeavour voyage (37 months), there were seventeen instances of flogging — 330 lashes.
On the first Resolution voyage (36 months), there were thirty-two instances of flogging — 546 lashes.
On the second Resolution voyage (36 months), there were forty-nine instances of flogging — 618 lashes.

It is remarkable that instances of discipline increased so drastically each voyage.  Many historians believe it is evidence of Cook's poor health and deteriorating temper.  

Finally, let's look at Samuel Wallis, the captain who was the first European to discover Tahiti, and who brought his men home scurvy-free on the Dolphin.

On Wallis’s Dolphin, during the discovery voyage (20 months), there were four instances of flogging — one for quarreling, two for refusing to obey orders, and one for cheating a Tahitian — a total of 48 lashes.  There were two instances of “running the gauntlet,” where the seaman was punished by his own shipmates -- once for fighting, and the second time for throwing his messmates' dinner overboard -- by making the fellow run between two lines of men wielding "nettles" which were light lines usually used for tying up canvas.

Remarkably, too, Wallis never ordered more than 12 lashes at a time, which was the limit posed by the Admiralty when there was not a courtmartial.  Obviously, it was an easy rule to ignore, when the ship was on the other side of the world from England, and there were no other captains to stage a court hearing.  But Wallis chose not to ignore it.

There were other extremes, of course.  Hugh Pigott of the Hermione , who was notorious for flogging the last man down the mast, logged over a thousand lashes per year.  A sadist, and probably a psychopath, he was slaughtered by his own men.  A lesser known sadist was Captain Howes Norris of the Fairhaven whaler Sharon, who was chopped up by Pacific Islanders who were terrified of being beaten to death, which had been the fate of Norris's young black steward.

I thoroughly recommend Captain Cook's Discipline as superb piece of research and a readable, and thought-provoking account.  You can buy it directly from the author by emailing

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

How Conan Doyle learned his trade

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a very interesting man.  Sometime ago, I wrote about his strange belief in fairies.   He also sailed on a Greenland whaler, the Hope of Peterhead -- probably not so unusual, as it was common for new graduates from the Edinburgh medical school to pay off their debts and amass some savings that way.  However, Doyle fell overboard so unusually often that his shipmates called him "the Great Northern Diver."

Now we find that he learned a system of detection from one of his mentors, one that not only earned him classic status as a mystery writer, but inspired him to solve a crime of his own.

Watching the detectives
When Arthur Conan Doyle cried “J’Accuse…!”
In the case of the “Scottish Dreyfus”, the novelist deployed the acuity of his fictional detective

Jul 7th 2018

Conan Doyle for the Defence. By Margalit Fox. Random House; 352 pages; $27. Profile; £16.99.

TOWARDS the end of the 19th century a patient appeared before a doctor and his students in a Scottish hospital. The doctor, Joseph Bell, eyes bright above a hawk nose, addressed him. “You came from Liberton,” he said. “You drive two horses, one grey, one bay; you are probably employed by a brewery.” To the awe of his students, the sharp-eyed doctor was right on all counts.

The sharp-eyed reader will have guessed the identity of one of his acolytes: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (pictured left). It is well known that Conan Doyle borrowed Bell’s deductive genius (and his profile) for his fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes. Less well known is that Conan Doyle also used Bell’s methods to solve real-life crimes. One such crime—a murder—is the subject of Margalit Fox’s new book, “Conan Doyle for the Defence”.

Conan Doyle had involved himself in miscarriages of justice before, but this one would eclipse them all. It was so corrupt that it “savoured rather of Russian than of Scottish jurisprudence”; so anti-Semitic that its wrongly accused victim became known as a “Scottish Dreyfus”; so embarrassing to national pride that British writers resorted to not one but two international analogies to convey their disgust.

The inquiry should have been simple. On December 21st 1908 Marion Gilchrist, a wealthy spinster, was bludgeoned to death with a blunt instrument. Shortly afterwards the Scottish police “solved” the case when they arrested Oscar Slater (pictured right), a local German Jew. Slater was found guilty and sentenced to hard labour in His Majesty’s Prison Peterhead.

There he might have remained, had his plight not been brought to Conan Doyle’s attention, via a method itself redolent of Victorian melodrama. A pleading note was carried out of Peterhead, hidden in the dentures of a discharged prisoner. Conan Doyle, a Victorian dynamo with a walrus moustache and a passion for cricket and fair play, felt duty-bound to investigate. He set to work, trawling through page after page of evidence. He was horrified by what he found.

It is a capital offence, Holmes declared to Watson, to theorise in advance of the facts. Like Bell, Holmes drew conclusions from evidence as minute as bloodstains, mud on shoes and the precise sort of ash found at a crime scene—scientific techniques that, largely thanks to Holmes himself, would eventually become standard practice in police departments across the world. As Conan Doyle examined the Slater affair, he realised the Scottish police had theorised not merely in advance of the facts but in advance of the crime.

The bobbies in Glasgow had been watching Slater for months. He was no angel but, Ms Fox argues, he had aroused suspicions mostly because he was foreign. Not merely foreign, but German, Jewish, a gambler and (perhaps most horrifying of all) debonair. The police were immediately on their guard.

The deepest stains identified in the Slater case by Conan Doyle were not of blood, but the darker tones of anti-Semitism and xenophobia. If this was a Scottish Dreyfus, then Conan Doyle was its Zola and he cried “J’Accuse…!” with all the might that his position allowed. On November 14th 1927 Slater was released. The case was over. But the prejudices it exposed lived on.

Slater never returned to his family in Germany. That, says Ms Fox, was probably “just as well”. A few years later the Nazis took power and his two sisters were murdered at Theresienstadt and Treblinka.

This review first appeared in The Economist.

With thanks to Brian Easton

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Discovery of Tahiti

A great review of The Discovery of Tahiti from a fellow writer, seafarer, and maritime historian whose knowledge of the islands of Eastern Polynesia is encyclopedic.   A vast compliment indeed!

 Great shipboard or armchair reading July 7, 2018
My love affair with Tahiti began in 2001 when husband Bob and I arrived aboard our 36-foot sloop Topaz, having made our way from Hawaii where we lived. Our first view of Tahiti and her island group was the exquisite emerald landscape of Moorea -- roughly the same as shown on the cover of Joan Druett's book, The Discovery of Tahiti. This image remains clear in my mind and stands for the anticipation we felt, the lush beauty, seductive charm and romance the word "Tahiti" provoked in us. Bob and I spent the summer cruising Polynesia while I immersed myself in all the history, art, literature and culture I could discover. In the years that have passed since our Tahiti experience, I've continued to discover Tahiti through reading history, fiction, and through visiting Gauguin exhibits in Paris and London.

Joan Druett's book is an important addition to the history and literature of Tahiti. Like her earlier book, Tupaia; Captain Cook's Polynesian Navigator, The Discovery of Tahiti draws on logbooks, journals, manuscripts and books to frame the story around a notable individual history has largely overlooked. In her earlier work it was Tupaia, the Polynesian navigator Cook employed. In this book, it's the Cornishman, Samuel Wallis. The British Admiralty chose Wallace to command HMS Dolphin on a mission to find a missing continent believed to be somewhere in the largely uncharted South Pacific Ocean.

Druett points out that historians have largely overlooked Wallace and his crew's contribution as the first Europeans to find Tahiti, giving Captain James Cook most of the publicity and credit. Yet Samuel Wallace was here first and, making a great impression on the Tahitian queen, paved the way for Cook's subsequent success. Druett sheds light on the man, the ship, the crew, the voyage, and the aftermath. One of Druett's strengths as a writer of popular history is her ability to gather and cull all the known facts and present them in an immensely readable fashion. Her command of the historical Pacific maritime world is apparent. She brings the account to life with a historian's eye and a seaman's familiarity of pertinent details.

Includes bibliography, illustrations, maps, author's commentary, and a creative essay by the ship's barber, Rogers Richardson.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Whale in Wellington

Wellington City has a visitor who is obviously enjoying the stay, despite torrential rain and gales, because he (or she) is so reluctant to move on.

It seems that he (or she) is an exhibitionist, because the whale plays so happily to the crowd.  It also is supremely confident -- on Friday the ferry wasn't able to dock for 30 minutes, as the whale had taken up the berth.  But, as the captain remarked, the passengers didn't seem unhappy -- they were too busy with their cameras.

Instead of the barbaric and inappropriate Guy Fawkes firework celebration, we now have our big fireworks show at Maori New Year -- Matariki -- which meant that it would have been staged on Saturday night.  But even if the weather had been kind, the show would not have gone ahead, in case it frightened our large guest.

The sex of the whale will not be known until the scientific bods get DNA results from the sample they sneakily took.  But, whatever the gender, popular opinion has opted for the whale's name to be "Matariki."

You can read all about it in the Dominion Post.

And see a terrific video on Newshub.