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Saturday, February 4, 2012

The time-honored sport of "show-boating"

It dates all the way back to the wedding-cake-like paddle-steamers that plied America's rivers

It's called "show-boating" -- putting on a show for spectators on shore.

And that, it seems conclusive now, was exactly what the captain of the ill-fated cruise ship Costa Concordia was doing -- he was show-boating, to the detriment of both his ship and his career.

Additionally, it seems there might have been a contest between ships and captains involved.

I don't know if he is going to find it a comfort, but this kind of sport has been a tradition since steamships first began, as attested by a racy news item in the Otago Daily Times (28 February 1884), which provides a couple of paragraphs of light entertainment in my next book.

On 26 February 1884, the Union Steamship Company crack steamer Wairarapa steamed into Port Chalmers (port of Dunedin, New Zealand) with her port quarter badly dented, and her poop deck awry, creating a storm of gossip. 

Apparently the steamer had left Melbourne with all her lights blazing, belting along at top speed.  Steamship captains were a flamboyant lot, and Captain Chatfield was no exception, but he was not just “show-boating” for the edification of watchers on shore.  According to what a passenger related to the press, the local steamship Adelaide was coming close behind, travelling at such a headlong speed that “flames fully six feet high” billowed from her smoke-stack.  Chatfield hung back so that the Adelaide could catch up, and then the two steamers pelted down the harbour past Williamstown, “coaling up at a great rate” — as the passenger phrased it.  In a word, they were racing.

“It was fully known on board that a race was intended,” he said.  Everyone was most animated, “holloaing and making all sorts of noises,” and bets were being placed.  Then the race came to a sudden end, as the captain of the Adelaide altered course, steering straight at the port quarter of the Wairarapa. Apparently, he meant “to jockey the Wairarapa out of her running” by forcing her toward the starboard side of the channel, but unfortunately, there was a miscalculation, and the Adelaide ran right into the rear end of the New Zealand steamship, “making a most dreadful noise as she blew off her superfluous steam.” 

The crash was terrific. For a moment or two the steamers were so closely locked together that one athletic (or terrified) passenger jumped from one ship to the other. Then a sudden fog had come down. Losing sight of each other, the two steamers had come to a stop, and had sent boats across the water, asking if everything was all right.Neither ship, as it turned out, was badly damaged. Though her beauty was marred, the Wairarapa was still perfectly seaworthy, as her speedy passage from Melbourne to New Zealand had demonstrated.

There was an inquiry, held at the Dunedin Custom House, but it ended inconclusively, as none of the passagers had been willing to testify against such a popular man as Captain Chatfield.  And anyway, as the Otago Daily Times remarked, there was nothing in the law about steamboat racing, and so the board could do nothing about it.

I somehow doubt that the Costa Concordia trial will come to such a happy conclusion ...

1 comment:

Boating said...

I have never quite understood the concept behind 'show boating' and it is a tradition!