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Tuesday, January 26, 2021



It all began with Joseph Banks.  

Having been one of the very few who had visited the eastern coast of the continent now called "Australia," while lording it over as self-funded botanist on the Endeavour, he was considered an expert.  The problem facing the current government was what to do with the flood of convicts that were being herded into derelict ships that lay moldering in the mud of the Thames. Men, women, and children were being sentenced in great numbers, for crimes as trivial as the theft of short lengths of cloth, but transportation to the Americas was not possible any more, America having won its independence. 

So Banks wrote a paper.  It was called Heads of the Plan for Botany Bay, and recommended New South Wales as a place “for effectually disposing of convicts,” who had increased alarmingly in number, “particularly in the Metropolis.” All that was needed, Banks declared, was “a ship of war of a proper class, with a part of her guns manned and a sufficient number of men aboard for her navigation, and a tender of about 200 tons burthen, commanded by discreet officers” to escort a fleet of convict ships, carrying “seven or eight hundred convicts, including one vessel for women” along with a couple of companies of marines, including craftsmen, carpenters, a chaplain, and a surgeon. And, once the convicts were settled on the new land, the tender could be sent to Tonga or New Caledonia, to fetch some willing girls to keep the marines and craftsmen company.  

 The government liked the idea, with the result that in August 1786 the Admiralty was ordered to organize suitable convict ships “with all possible execution,” plus a flagship, the sixth-rate HMS Sirius, and an armed tender, HMS Supply, to escort them. Captain Arthur Phillip, a personal friend of Banks, was put in charge, and the little fleet sailed out of Portsmouth on May 13, 1787.

At the head of the armada was HMS Sirius. Arthur Phillip was on board as admiral, and John Hunter as ship’s captain, while the second lieutenant was Phillip’s close friend, Philip Gidley King. Trailing behind were five convict transports, including the Scarborough, which was carrying 208 male convicts; the Charlotte, with 88 convict men and 22 convict women; the brig Friendship, with 76 men and 21 women; and the Prince of Wales, with just one male convict and 49 women. Also in the squadron were three storeships, Fishburn, Golden Grove, and Barrowdale. The armed tender HMS Supply raced back and forth, keeping them all in order.

The fleet sailed via Tenerife, Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town. On November 25, a few days after leaving the Cape of Good Hope, Phillip shifted from the Sirius to the faster Supply, taking King with him. This was in the hope of reaching New South Wales much earlier than the rest of the ships, to give him a chance to sum up the territory, and prepare for their arrival. However, bad weather slowed the Supply, and it was not until January 18, 1788, that Arthur Phillip set foot on the territory that he would govern — with great difficulty — for the next four years.

The Sirius dropped anchor in Botany Bay just two days later, on January 20, 1788. Short as the time had been though, it had been long enough to find that Joseph Banks had been dangerously over-optimistic. As Phillip wrote to the Secretary of State, the anchorage was shallow and dangerous. Even the smaller ships were “obliged to anchor” at the open entrance of the bay, “exposed to a heavy sea that rolls in when it blows hard from the eastward.” Instead of the fertile, fruitful meadows that Banks had described, Lieutenant King, sent out to scout, found a “country low & boggy, & no appearance of fresh water.” There was no place that looked likely for setting up camp. In short, as Phillip glumly concluded, “I did not see any situation to which there was not some very strong objection.”

Accordingly, the governor decided to take three boats, commanded by officers, and explore the prospects of the great inlet Cook had called Port Jackson. To his delight, he “had the satisfaction of finding the finest harbour in the world,” surrounded by lush meadows. One of his boat’s crew, Jacob Nagle, was equally pleased with the prospect, describing an extensive haven with a scattering of large trees and a good run of fresh water. When he dropped a line over the side of the boat, to fill in the time while Governor Phillip and the officers were exploring, he hauled up a fine, large fish — a black bream. “Recollect,” said Phillip to Nagle after he returned to the boat, “that you are the first white man that ever caught a fish in Sidney Cove where the town is to be built.”

 Phillip returned to Botany Bay, where he at once ordered the ship captains to prepare to weigh anchor. On January 25, he went ahead in the Supply, “leaving Captain Hunter to follow with the transports” and by the next evening they were all moored in the spectacular bay he had named in honor of his patron, Thomas Townshend, Lord Sydney.  And next morning the British flag was raised, on what was to become memorialized as Australia Day.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Tim Severin, seaman, adventurer, author


I was saddened to learn that Tim Severin, a truly remarkable man who was a living inspiration, passed away last month.

The Irish Times has a feature on his life, focused (of course) on his first big hit, The Brendan Voyage. 

Tim was born in Assam, India, the son of an English tea planter -- that planter being an employee, not the owner of the plantation, as his son was always anxious to point out.  As was usual in those days, Tim was sent to boarding school in England at the age of seven.  One cannot help but wonder how his mother felt to wave goodbye to such a small boy, but it is easy to imagine how tough it must have been for the boy himself, English boarding schools being notorious.  Was he bullied?  Probably.  There would have been an emphasis on toughness and survival instincts, which would have served him very well in the strange adventures ahead.

His first was as an undergraduate of an Oxford college, when he followed in the wake of Marco Polo -- on a motorbike.  The next was to follow in the wake of the Spanish Conquistadors, down the Mississippi, this time in a boat.

His big inspiration evolved in 1976, when he decided to try and prove that St. Brendan could have sailed from Ireland to Newfoundland in a leather boat.  As always, his research was intense -- he intended to recreate the voyage as exactly as possible.  So off he and a small crew sailed, bailing madly all the way.  And on June 26, 1977, they made port in Newfoundland, proving that St. Brendan could have definitely done it, 900 years before Columbus.

The books that gripped my imagination were The Sindbad Voyage and The Spice Islands Voyage, which can read with Alan Villiers' Sons of Sinbad, as a perfect entry into the craft and seamanship of the Far East.  Ever since, I have been photographing prahu and pinisi (and writing about them, too, in Eleanor's Odyssey and the Wiki Coffin mystery stories), and Ron painted and drew them.

The books poured out of Tim Severin -- more tracings of ancient voyages, novels about Vikings.  I remember him for his kindness, his helpfulness, and generosity to someone faraway who was seeking answers to the same sort of questions.  His eyes were those of a navigator or a mountaineer, always seeking a new horizon.  He will be greatly missed.

Monday, January 4, 2021

Are blogs still relevant?


Having just come back from 8 days in the South Island of New Zealand-Aotearoa, I thought about blogging ...  

Normally, I have lots to say about what I have seen and experienced, but is that suitable any more?

News about Covid dominate the world, so that carefree jaunts seem both irrelevant and inappropriate.

It is worth noting, however, that people are turning to books more than ever, and books about leadership failures and successes have more personal impact.

I guess that is why I came back to find that a host of reviews of my book about castaways, desolate islands, and leadership, ISLAND OF THE LOST had materialized while I was away.

And here is a little sampling. 

From Canada

Reviewed in Canada on January 1, 2021
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I didn't buy this book expecting to learn anything more than about shipwrecks and survival, but there are so many other intriguing pieces to it, like the sub-antarctic sealing industry, that there is no question that I will be expanding my reading to learn more about this time period.

The book's synopsis is a bit misleading; yes, there were two shipwrecks on the island that overlapped much of the same time period, but the focus is on the wreck of the Grafton and its small crew. There are also very serious environmental and seasonal factors (timing) that contributed to the shipwrecks survivors; differences in leadership played a part of how well each group succeeded, but was not the only defining factor in my opinion. As well, and something that the pulled the book together for me, each wreck had at least one individual who had a level of resourcefulness that contributed greatly to each groups survival. The forge building or the coracle building as examples!

The author's ability to meld two separate incidents and her writing style that is highly engaging and to the point, made for a relatively quick read and I look forward to reading more of her work on naval history.
Highly recommend this book if this topic or region of the world is of interest. However, would caution that there is a great deal of emphasis on killing seals, especially pups, as a main food source and this may be a big turn off to some readers. As the author notes in the afterword, one group of survivors were mentally prepared to kill seals. This was the one area of the book that I was not mentally prepared for myself!

From the United States

Reviewed in the United States on January 1, 2021
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Reviewed in the United States on December 30, 2020
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Reviewed in the United States on December 28, 2020
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Reviewed in the United States on December 27, 2020
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Reviewed in the United States on December 26, 2020
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More about the trip -- and the old steamboat Earnslaw later

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

The truth, the absolute truth


“What I’ve always believed is that humanity has the capacity to be kinder, more just, more fair, more rational, more reasonable, more tolerant. It is not inevitable. History does not move in a straight line. But if you have enough people of goodwill who are willing to work on behalf of those values, then things can get better.”

-- Barak Obama, a thought inspired by Genghis Khan and Ozymandias, and the lessons of history

Friday, November 13, 2020

Sea Princess deck officer wins medal for brave rescue at sea


From the BBC

A 24-year-old sailor who showed "incredible bravery" saving three men from drowning has become the youngest recipient of the Merchant Navy Medal.

I remember the incident well, as I was lucky enough to be on board for the 2019 World Cruise.

It was exciting, really.  The captain announced that the ship was reversing her course in response to a distress call from a sinking ship.  And off we raced into the gathering night.  By the time we arrived it was pitch dark, and the light of the rescue boat as it plunged down to the bumpy waves and then up and down on its way to the invisibly sinking ship seemed very small and lonely.  The whole complement on board, I swear, was hanging onto the nearest rail, gazing raptly.  First, we saw the distant, tiny light of the lifeboat carrying the survivors of the foundered craft, and then the nail-biting slowness with which the light of the rescue boat approached.

The two lights merged.  There was a sense of unseen activity, and then the rescue boat was plunging back to the ship.  She arrived, and everyone cheered.  Never had a rescue crew and their saved men received such a welcome, I am sure.

And here is what the BBC had to say about the sailor from Devon who commanded the rescue:

Max Bingle, from Paignton, received the award after navigating rough seas in the Caribbean to help a sinking boat.

He and two colleagues from a Princess Cruises ship carried out the rescue mission in July 2019.

Mr Bingle said saving sailors in distress was part of what he was "trained to do".

After receiving a coastguard distress call, third officer Mr Bingle lowered a fast rescue boat and sailed with his crewmates to reach the three men on the sinking boat.

He took the trio back to the ship he was working on, Sea Princess, where they were given medical care.

'Call of duty'

Mr Bingle said the commendation had come "completely out of the blue".

"Everybody on board acted in the highest maritime tradition by going to the aid of fellow sailors in peril on the sea," he said.

"Saving lives is what we are trained to do as seafarers, and I'm grateful for this recognition."

Another recipient of the medal is Fazilette Khan. Her Green Seas Trust charity works to place nautical-themed recycling bins in coastal towns.

Maritime minister Robert Courts said all the recipients of the award had "gone beyond the call of duty" in service to both their industry and the UK.

He said: "It's a special honour to award the medal to Max, its youngest ever recipient.

"He showed incredible bravery in saving three fellow sailors from drowning in rough seas, and this award is a recognition of his incredible selflessness that night."

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Preparing for a pandemic


When he returned to Washington, he called his top homeland security adviser into the Oval Office and gave her the galley of historian John M. Barry's "The Great Influenza," which told the chilling tale of the mysterious plague that "would kill more people than the outbreak of any other disease in human history."

"You've got to read this," Fran Townsend remembers the president telling her. "He said, 'Look, this happens every 100 years. We need a national strategy.'"

Thus was born the nation's most comprehensive pandemic plan -- a playbook that included diagrams for a global early warning system, funding to develop new, rapid vaccine technology, and a robust national stockpile of critical supplies, such as face masks and ventilators, Townsend said.

The effort was intense over the ensuing three years, including exercises where cabinet officials gamed out their responses, but it was not sustained. Large swaths of the ambitious plan were either not fully realized or entirely shelved as other priorities and crises took hold.

But elements of that effort have formed the foundation for the national response to the coronavirus pandemic underway right now.

"Despite politics, despite changes, when a crisis hits, you pull what you've got off the shelf and work from there," Townsend said.

When Bush first told his aides he wanted to focus on the potential of a global pandemic, many of them harbored doubts."My reaction was -- I'm buried. I'm dealing with counterterrorism. Hurricane season. Wildfires. I'm like, 'What?'" Townsend said. "He said to me, 'It may not happen on our watch, but the nation needs the plan.'"

Over the ensuing months, cabinet officials got behind the idea. Most of them had governed through the Sept. 11 terror attacks, so events considered unlikely but highly-impactful had a certain resonance.

"There was a realization that it's no longer fantastical to raise scenarios about planes falling from the sky, or anthrax arriving in the mail," said Tom Bossert, who worked in the Bush White House and went on to serve as a homeland security adviser in the Trump administration. "It was not a novel. It was the world we were living."

According to Bossert, who is now an ABC News contributor, Bush did not just insist on preparation for a pandemic. He was obsessed with it.

"He was completely taken by the reality that that was going to happen," Bossert said.

In a November 2005 speech at the National Institutes of Health, Bush laid out proposals in granular detail -- describing with stunning prescience how a pandemic in the United States would unfold. Among those in the audience was Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leader of the current crisis response, who was then and still is now the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

"A pandemic is a lot like a forest fire," Bush said at the time. "If caught early it might be extinguished with limited damage. If allowed to smolder, undetected, it can grow to an inferno that can spread quickly beyond our ability to control it."

The president recognized that an outbreak was a different kind of disaster than the ones the federal government had been designed to address."To respond to a pandemic, we need medical personnel and adequate supplies of equipment," Bush said. "In a pandemic, everything from syringes to hospital beds, respirators masks and protective equipment would be in short supply."

Bush told the gathered scientists that they would need to develop a vaccine in record time.

"If a pandemic strikes, our country must have a surge capacity in place that will allow us to bring a new vaccine on line quickly and manufacture enough to immunize every American against the pandemic strain," he said.Bush set out to spend $7 billion building out his plan. His cabinet secretaries urged their staffs to take preparations seriously. The government launched a website,, that is still in use today. But as time passed, it became increasingly difficult to justify the continued funding, staffing and attention, Bossert said.

"You need to have annual budget commitment. You need to have institutions that can survive any one administration. And you need to have leadership experience," Bossert said. "All three of those can be effected by our wonderful and unique form of government in which you transfer power every four years."

Bush declined, through a spokesman, to comment on the unfolding crisis or discuss the current response. But his remarks from 15 years ago still resonate.

"If we wait for a pandemic to appear," he warned, "it will be too late to prepare. And one day many lives could be needlessly lost because we failed to act today."

How right he was.  I know that in New Zealand his warnings were kept in mind, which may be much of the reason that the country has fared so much better than the United States, where George W/ Bush's prescience was ignored.