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Saturday, April 27, 2019

Sealed Orders is not just a page-turner

Sealed Orders is the eleventh in this very popular war-at-sea-in-the-Napoleonic-Era series -- and the eleventh in any series is about the time that the books begin to pall.  I certainly found that to be the case in the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian.  Accordingly, having loved Honour Bound -- the tenth book in Bond's "Fighting Sail" series -- so very much, I approached this one with some trepidation.

But there was absolutely no need.  The characters are as vital, the dialogue as convincing, and the battles as authentic as ever.  This is a series that does not flag.

As it happens, I have just finished my fourth reading of this novel.  Why?  Because I find the characters quite addictive.  They are so real that I want to reacquaint myself with them.

This is particularly the case with the lower deck tars -- the ordinary seamen, the topmen, the boatswain's mates, and the unqualified who work in the dank depths of the ship, the holders.  The afterguard -- the officers and their servants -- are compelling, too, but theirs are the stories that have been told so often by C.S. Forester and his many followers, and so they seem familiar.  The descriptions of life on the lower deck, by contrast, are fascinatingly new.

A highly recommended addition to a terrific series.  I am now embarking on the twelfth, Sea Trials, but without nearly the same trepidation.  Watch this space.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Miraculous survival in the Auckland Islands

After having researched and written the story of two nineteenth century wrecks on Auckland Island, my heart sank when the news arrived this morning that a rescue helicopter had crashed there.  I felt no hope for the three men on board.

But, miraculously, the trio not only reached Auckland Island, but they were rescued from there.

From Radio New Zealand 

Three helicopter crew members who survived a crash in the subantarctic ocean have made it safely back to the mainland.
The crew had been on their way to medically evacuate a person from a fishing boat when they crashed last night.
About 10.20am, Rescue Coordination Centre NZ said a fishing boat had found wreckage from the helicopter, later confirmed to be the door.
About midday, the men - two pilots and a St John paramedic - were found alive on a beach on Auckland Island, about 450-kilometres south of New Zealand, after more than 16 hours of being missing.
Late this afternoon, they arrived at Southland Hospital in Invercargill, where their condition will be assessed.Rescue Coordination Centre's duty manager Kevin Banaghan said he had heard reports that one of them may have minor injuries to his ribs.
A spokesperson for St John said the organisation was very pleased that the group was safe and now receiving medical treatment.
The spokesperson said the paramedic's family were hugely relieved and looking forward to being reunited with him later tonight.
Rescue Coordination Centre duty manager Kevin Banaghan said it was an outstanding result, and he was very pleased.
"The owner of the company, Richard Hayes, who's actually arrived down there as part of the rescue effort, actually arrived on scene and located the three crew walking around the beach in their immersion suits."
The crew were transported to Enderby Island at the northern end of the island group to seek shelter before returning to the mainland.
The Auckland Islands.
The missing helicopter crew were found walking on a beach in the Auckland Islands. Photo: RNZ / Ian Telfer
Earlier today, the centre's Mark Dittner earlier told Morning Report the last contact with the helicopter was at 7.37pm near Yule Island.
"The owners of the helicopter, Southern Lakes Helicopters, they realised that they hadn't had contact with the helicopter for a while and they informed the rescue centre at 8.15pm last night."
"We're currently trying to locate the helicopter, so we've got a P3 Orion from the Royal New Zealand Air Force using the specialised equip it has on board. We've also got five fishing boats on the scene," as he said at the time.
Mr Dittner said the helicopter - a long-range commercial aircraft, though the specific model was unknown - had been intended to airlift someone from a boat at the islands to Invercargill.
A brave rescue mission, fortunately without a tragic end.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

You could buy that hardback book for $15, but.....

Bookstore in Reno, courtesy Jacqueline Church Simonds
How many times have you seen a customer in a bookstore -- or a hardware store, for that matter -- wandering the aisles with phone in hand, checking the online prices of the same things?

It's an all-too-human trait, like the cruise ship passengers who come into our Wellington supermarkets, just to ooh and ahh about what we are charged for lettuces or chocolate or whatever. 

But has anyone thought about the economic consequences of this casual behavior?

The proprietor of a bookstore did, after he became tired of watching customers check the prices of his stock, and then stomp off to buy the book on Amazon.  Or whatever.   He sketched out his justified anger in a tweet -- and was amazed when it went viral.

It even reached the august ears of the Chicago Tribune. And their roving reporter, Mary Schmich, wrote a story about it.

Danny Caine, who is 32, was sitting in the tiny office of his bookstore the other day when he heard a customer at the counter say something he hears a lot.
Listening to the clerk patiently try to answer the customer’s complaint, he stifled his reflexive frustration and decided to do something productive.
On the store’s Twitter account, he began to type:
“Today a customer mentioned that she could get a new hardcover book online for $15. Our mission is not to shame anyone for their shopping practices, but we do feel a responsibility to educate about what it means when a new hardcover is available for $15 online.”
He laid out some numbers.
“When we order direct from publishers, we get a wholesale discount of 46% off the cover price. The book in question had a cover price of $26.99, meaning our cost for that book from the publishers would be $14.57. If we sold it for $15, we’d make…43 cents.”
Tweet by tweet, he continued the math.
“We have 10,000 books in stock. If we sold every one of them with a 43 cent markup, we’d make enough to keep the store open for about six days.”
He also listed thoughts on how independent book stores strengthen communities. They create jobs and pay taxes. They offer author visits, open-mic nights, a place to hang out, store cats to pet and photograph, etc. He concluded:
“If you’ve ever wondered why it seems like ‘there are no bookstores anymore’ or why retail businesses keep closing in your downtown, this is it. A cheap book still has a high cost.”
Caine sent his words into the ether expecting they might be seen by a few of the 6,200 Twitter followers of The Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kan. That was on Wednesday.
On Thursday morning he got up and checked his phone notifications.
“Oh my God,” he thought.
His initial tweet had been retweeted thousands of times, all across the country, by readers, writers and bookstores, including Chicago’s Women & Children First, which is how I stumbled on it while cruising for news of the Mueller Report.
It made me do a double take. A tweet from a little Kansas bookstore had stirred more reaction than most of the tweets about the day’s big news?
Want to read more?  Hit the title of the newspaper to get the full story.

I learned about it from a writer/publisher friend who works in a large bookstore in Reno, Nevada. "Every day, I hear, "Well, if you don't have it, I'll order it on Amazon." and I always think, hey, thanks for making sure 70 local people will be unemployed," she said.
"The internet has made people casually mean, ridiculously cheap, and value other humans less. There's no better place to witness this than in retail."

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Storm, shipwreck, gyro and GPS

A fascinating link between these four things is described by the BBC

On 5 October 1744, a storm was brewing in the English Channel. With sails set for home after chasing a French fleet off the coast of Portugal, a squadron of British warships was in trouble.
The lead ship HMS Victory sank 100m to the seabed 50 miles (80km) south of Plymouth, taking with it 1,100 men and - so rumour had it - lots of Portuguese gold. The wreckage lay undisturbed until it was located by a marine salvage company in 2009.
Beyond the rumoured gold, there was something else on board which was arguably much more economically significant.
Also lost that day was the first known attempt to develop an idea that is now used to guide everything from submarines to satellites, from rovers on Mars to the phone in your pocket.
When the Victory went down, it took with it John Serson's "whirling speculum", forerunner to the gyroscope.
Serson was a sea captain, and barely literate. But he was also an "ingenious mechanick", as The Gentleman's Magazine later put it.
He was trying to solve a serious problem.
Sailors worked out a ship's position by using a quadrant to take an angle from the sun to the horizon, but you could not always see the horizon, because of haze or mist.
A Venetian illustration showing how to measure the distance from ship to shore, using a quadrant marked with shadow-scales from 1598Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionQuadrants have been used for marine navigation since the 15th Century
Inspired by a child's spinning top toy, Serson wondered if he could create an artificial horizon - something that would stay level, even as a ship lurched and swayed around it.
As The Gentleman's Magazine recounts, he "got a kind of top made, whose upper surface perpendicular to the axe was a circular plane of polish'd metal; and found, as he had expected, that when this top was briskly set in motion, its plane surface would soon become horizontal. If the whirling plane were disturbed from its horizontal position, it would soon recover it again".
After impressing two high-ranking naval officers and an eminent mathematician, Serson was asked to make further observations… aboard the HMS Victory: "and so perish'd poor Mr Serson".
However, a century later, French physicist Leon Foucault would produce a successful prototype based on the same principle which had fascinated Serson.
Part of Foucault's gyroscope demonstration apparatus, 1883.Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Foucault called his device a "gyroscope", from the Greek words for "turn" and "observe", because he used it to study the Earth's rotation.
It was a spinning disc mounted in gimbals, a set of pivoted supports that allow the disc to maintain its orientation regardless of how the base might be tilting around.
Then electric motors came along, meaning the disc could spin indefinitely. And practical applications came thick and fast.
Ships got workable artificial horizons and so did aeroplanes.
In the early 1900s, two inventors figured out how to align the spin to the Earth's north-south axis, giving us the gyrocompass.
A cigarette card illustration of a gyrocompass built by the Sperry Gyroscope Company, from a 1938 series called "Modern Wonders"Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionThe gyrocompass was widely hailed as a modern wonder, shown here on a cigarette card.
Presentational white space
Combine these instruments with others - accelerometers, magnetometers - and you get a good idea of which way up you are and in which direction you are heading.
Feed these outputs into systems that can course-correct, and you have an aeroplane's autopilot, a ship's gyro-stabilizer, and navigation systems on spacecraft or missiles.

    Add in GPS, and you know where you are.

    Friday, April 12, 2019

    The crudely named luxury yacht

    As the luxury yacht magazine LuxdB observes, it is not a good idea to give huge money to the tasteless.

    We have all cringed at the news that the tiny, oil-rich kingdom in a corner of Borneo, Brunei, has adopted the cruelest and most barbaric of Sharia law, legalizing the stoning to death of gay men, among others.

    What we did not know, most likely, is that the Sultan's brother, Prince Jefri, went to equal extremes as a playboy. 

    "Prince Jefri of Brunei is filthy rich, and he spends enormous amounts of money on things like…the Titsmega yacht," runs the LuxdB commentary. "Yes, you read it well, it is called Tits. And to complete the picture, Prince Jefri named the two tenders of the vessel Nipple 1 and Nipple 2.
    "The yacht is large enough to accommodate his whole harem (!), as it measures 180 feet and it has several decks. Marble floors, gold furnishings, and elevators connecting the decks, these are just a few of the luxury amenities of the yacht."
    The Telegraph caught up with this extraordinary man earlier this month, and to the interviewer's surprise, the Prince did not look extraordinary at all.

    Prince Jefri of Brunei appeared to be the ultimate hedonist - but a High Court ruling has made him a wanted man. Richard Fletcher reports:
    In the 1990s he was a byword for excess: Prince Jefri Bolkiah, the wayward younger brother of the Sultan of Brunei, who toured the world buying up trophy assets on behalf of the oil-rich state, from the jeweller Asprey & Garrard to the landmark Dorchester hotel.
    With his fleet of private planes, including a Boeing 747 allegedly converted to carry polo ponies, million-pound shopping sprees and a luxurious yacht called Tits (complete with the tastefully named tenders Nipple One and Nipple Two), Prince Jefri was the Playboy Prince. 

    Yet in person the shy Jefri failed to live up to his billing. When I first met him, in Paris in October 2006, it was impossible to reconcile the impeccably dressed, quiet, restrained man who sat across the table with the profligate prince I had read so much about - the man who for 10 years had been engaged in a bitter battle with his brother, himself at one time the richest man in the world.
    The solid silver tissue-box holders and excessive use of gold paint and red fabrics in the opulent Paris apartment, next door to the Ritz hotel, were hardly in the best taste - but the former finance minister of Brunei did not look like the sort of man who would reportedly spend millions of pounds on exotic motor cars.
    But spend he did, for several years, until the Asian crisis of the late 1990s brought his high living to an end. Amid the fallout from the financial crash that saw economies crumble across Asia, Prince Jefri found himself accused of misappropriating $8 billion (£4 billion) from Brunei, the tiny Asian state - not much bigger than Norfolk - ruled by his brother.
    The resulting row between the prince and the sultan sparked a family feud - and a decade-long legal battle that climaxed this week with a High Court judge in London issuing a warrant for Prince Jefri's arrest after he refused to attend proceedings. In the latest twist to the story, the Playboy Prince is now "on the run".
    I wonder if "on the run" involves sailing into some dark secret ocean in his peculiarly named super-yacht ... or something much more mundane.

    Wednesday, April 10, 2019

    Tuesday, April 9, 2019

    Creation of a Best Seller

    Raynal, a French engineer, was the first mate and supercargo of the Grafton.  During the long, cold months of their castaway ordeal, he not only designed and oversaw the creation of a hut with a fireplace, stone hearth and chimney, but was the inspiration behind the construction of tanning pits, a forge, a getaway boat, and much else besides.

    Returning to France in 1867, he settled down to writing an account of his experiences.  Once finished, he took the manuscript to a small publishing house, Librairie de L. Hachette.

    Hachette had an interesting history.  It's founder, Louis Hachette, came from a poor family, but had attended a prestigious school, because his mother was the linen maid there.  In 1822, when he had been on the verge of graduating, the school was closed down by the authorities, because of its left-wing views.  But, he had made rich and influential friends, meantime, who financed him into the purchase of a bookshop.  This, he turned into a book publishing business, focusing on travel (he pioneered railroad bookstalls), and always promoting democratic and liberal views.

    Thus, Hachette was the ideal publisher for Raynal's book.  On the island, the castaways had saved themselves through the kind of brotherhood that the publisher promoted.

    Hachette had passed away, meantime, but his successor, Charton, maintained his liberal views, and immediately saw the huge potential of Raynal's book. 

    His plan was simple, but very effective.

    Raynal's book was an immediate success, a huge best seller.

    The story of the Invercauld castaways has been kept secret, by contrast, completely unexplored until Madelene Ferguson Allen published Robert Holding's memoir.

    And it was not until 2007 that both stories were told in tandem, as a potent illustration of the crucial importance of enlightened leadership.

    Monday, April 8, 2019

    Shipwrecks and castaways -- the memoirs

    An undoubted hero of the grueling castaway experience was Captain Thomas Musgrave, who commanded the little Grafton expedition.

    It was because of his leadership, self-sacrifice, strong moral character, and deep sense of democracy that all five Grafton castaways survived.

    He was the first to publish an account of the ordeal, in 1865, under the title Castaway on the Auckland Isles: a narrative of the wreck of the 'Grafton': from the private journals of Capt. Thos. Musgrave, with a map and some account of the Aucklands.

     Captain Dalgarno of the Invercauld, whose lassitude and  poor leadership had contributed largely to the awful death toll of those castaways, wrote an account for the owners of the ship and the newspapers.  This was brief, omitting most of the details, certainly his own lack of resourcefulness. Andrew Smith, the first mate of the ship, also wrote a short account, which was published in Glasgow with the title The Castaways: A Narrative of the Wreck and sufferings of the Officers and Crew of the ship Invercauld of Aberdeen, on the Auckland Islands.

    Robert Holding, the humble seaman who did the most to ensure survival, merely typed out a memoir in his old age.  It was not until 1997 that it was finally published.

    But it was the book written by Francois Raynal that was to become an enduring bestseller....

    Sunday, April 7, 2019

    Shipwrecks and Castaways -- escape from the island

    When the three survivors of the Invercauld were rescued by a passing ship, there was no attempt made to search the island for other castaways.  And so the five Grafton castaways were left to find their own salvation.

    Which meant that they had to build their own getaway boat.

    They did have the tough old timbers of the schooner, but had no tools.  And so their first move was to build a forge, which was fired with charcoal that they laboriously burned from the tangled shoreside forest.  No only did have to forge their tools, but they had to manufacture thousands of nails .... one by one, by both day and night.

    And then, when they finally finished their little craft, they were faced with yet another problem.

    But that is not the end of the story ...

    Saturday, April 6, 2019

    Shipwrecks and Castaways -- the Second Wreck

    For four months, the five castaways from the Grafton endured a grim daily life in the hut they had built in the south of remote Auckland Island .... 

    Holding, the only man with the skills to live off the land, keeping body and soul together, could have saved many more lives -- but no one listened to him, because he was "just" a humble seaman.  As it was, the captain and first mate survived because they bullied him into giving them the food he had saved, and because they copied the little shelter he had made -- though they made sure their little huts were a "proper" distance away.  It was shipboard ranking gone mad.

    Friday, April 5, 2019

    Shipwrecks and Castaways -- the first wreck

    As planned, the schooner Grafton duly sailed to Campbell Island, through tempest-driven sub-Antarctic seas, only to find that the story of a tin mine was nothing but a myth.  And so, the decision was made to sail for the Auckland Islands, in the hope of harvesting seal skins.  No sooner had the schooner reached the southern end of the main island, however, than a storm blew up, forcing the crew to find a refuge in Carnley Harbour.

    Disaster struck.  Precisely at midnight, on January 2, 1864, the Grafton was driven onto the rocks.

    It was only because of the gallantry of Alick, who was a strong swimmer, that all five survived ... to face a grim future on the uninhabited island.

    And then they settled down to a grim routine of staying alive while they waited for rescue.  That the five men survived at all was a testament to their remarkable character -- and the strong, steady leadership of Captain Thomas Musgrave.  How they did it is worthy of a story of its own.

    But there was another lesson in leadership looming, as another vessel approached the bleak cliffs of Auckland Island ....

    Thursday, April 4, 2019

    Shipwrecks and castaways ...

    Twelve years after its first publication, Island of the Lost has become a maritime classic, one of the foremost in its genre.

    This is the story of the castaway ordeals that inspired it, and of the memoirs and books that resulted from the terrible experience.

    The first to feature in the tragedy was the schooner Grafton, which sailed out of Sydney, and had a remarkable crew of five.

    The fifth in rank was the cook, a Portuguese from the Azores called Henry Forges.  Henry had already been cast on an island -- by his own request, because his messmates in the ship where had been serving had been so revolted by his face, which was scarred by leprosy, that he had begged to be marooned in the Samoan Islands.  The kind natives had nursed him back to health, and so he had come to Sydney.

    Then there were the two seamen, English George Harris, and Alick Maclaren, who despite his Scottish name was Norwegian.

    Even more remarkable were the first mate and supercargo, Francois Raynal, an engineer who had been unsuccessfully searching for gold for the past eleven years, coming away with nothing more than bad health.

    And then there was the captain, Thomas Musgrave, a master mariner of good reputation, a fine navigator, and a staunch member of the church, with a good reputation.  Like the rest, he was trying to make his fortune in Australia -- and the way to riches seemed to be a wild tale of a tin mine in the sub-Antarctic Island called Campbell.....