That grounded big container ship

So, just about a year after the Ever Given went aground in the Suez Canal, blocking traffic for days and creating chaos in the supply chain, a sister ship, the Ever Forward, somehow missed a small turn in the channel in the Chesapeake Bay while departing Baltimore and grounded in mud.

These ships are huge. They are 1300 feet long, nearly 200 feet wide, weigh 140,000 tons, and draw at least 40 feet of water when even partially loaded. They are the largest container ships built. Why one of these monsters was going to Baltimore is a question in itself. Baltimore is way up the Bay, far from the ocean, a relatively small East Coast container port. I was posted on a Military Sealift Command ship in Baltimore in 2015 and could see the container cranes from the ship, so I know where the Forward must have berthed. I imagine, if this was the first visit to the Port, there was some kind of event hosted by the Port, a celebration, executives with smiles and flowers and the press, “Oh, look, we can handle these ships, aren’t we the best?”

Based on videos and reports it seems the ship was traveling between 8 and 9 knots coming down the channel, coming south. The channel swings to the right, to starboard, maybe 15 degrees, but the Ever Forward just kept going straight. In the channel the water depth is 50 feet, but outside the channel the depth is 30 feet rising to 24 feet to less than 20 feet. The ship is now well off the channel, in the mud, fully, bow to stern. The depth at the bow is only 17 feet. This means that the hull of the ship, which is at least 40 feet from the keel to the water surface, somehow plowed into the sediment for all 1300 feet. Now the ship sits in the mud, with, quite likely, half that 40-foot draft not in water but in the mud beneath the water.

This is, actually, hard to imagine happening, unless that sediment was very soupy indeed. If the ship drove into the mud, pushing it aside as it drove forward, the mud would have to be pushed aside as well, meaning, forming a hump next to the hull. A rough calculation suggests this 140,000 ton ship might have pushed aside over 100,000 cubic yards of mud.

When the ship was coming south, the ship had to be under the command and control of a Chesapeake Bay Pilot. When I was sailing we always -always – took aboard a pilot when entering a port, any port. The pilot gives the commands, engine speed, wheel commands. One would think the pilot gave a command to turn the ship as the channel turned, but only the voice recorder will tell the real story. It is however likely the pilot, whoever he or she was, had rarely if ever been operating a ship that size, that slow to heed rudder commands.

Anyway, the ship went hard aground and now sits in the mud. Two dredges are working to remove the sediment from around the ship, the largest using a clam bucket that can hold 65 cubic yards at a time. Rough math, again – if it takes 15 minutes to drop the bucket, close it, bring it up, swing it over a barge, drop the load, and return to the bottom, and if the bucket never stops operating, day and night, to remove 100,000 cubic yards will require 16 days of dredging. But of course the barge and bucket have to be moved and repositioned as the dredging happens, so maybe you need to double that time, or triple it.

Apparently, also, the ship on leaving Baltimore was not holding a lot of ballast water, which is usually taken on when well offshore, so during the run down the Bay the ship is configured to reduce draft in the channel, meaning, with the weight of containers on the deck the ship might be considered tender – that is, a little top heavy. The reports are explaining that as they dredge by the ship they need to be careful they don’t cause a shelf near the ship which might allow it to roll into the deepened water – ie, take on a great list, or even capsize.

These ships are as I said earlier huge, and the containers stacked on the deck (as well as in the hull itself) reach very very high. Maybe it makes sense to remove fuel from the ship to lighten it, though this will also increase her tenderness. Another thing to do is remove containers, reduce the high weight. But the trouble here is that there aren’t many cranes mounted on barges that are tall enough to lift off those containers, and they would need to be lifted one at a time, a tedious and slow process. In the worst case, it might take weeks and weeks to remove containers and complete the dredging before the ship can be pulled back into the channel.

Of course, if the ship plowed through sediment this suggests that the bottom of the ship might be damaged, compressed, crumpled, bent. There is no question the sailors on the ship are sounding the voids and tanks every hour to make sure there are no leaks. Maybe there are leaks. Nobody had as of March 23 placed a boom around the ship, but surely this will happen soon, for there is the danger of fuel leakage as well.

This is going to be very expensive. The daily cost for dredging barges, dredges, and tugs is in the tens of thousands of dollars a day. It will be a race between trying to get the ship free as soon as possible so it can continue on its rotation, and dredging and moving enough sediment so the ship can be moved safely, without tearing open the hull or unbalancing the ship such that it shifts, maybe even rolls. And as they do this work, of course, as they pull the ship toward the channel, they come closer to the other marine traffic now using the channel. At some point the channel will need to be closed to free the Ever Forward. The worst outcome of all would be partly freeing the ship but not totally, yet blocking the channel.

This incident is not stopping a major world trade route. There will be no supply chain interruptions, except for those customers whose containers and goods are now delayed on that ship. But this is another sign of what can happen when an enormous, highly complex, clumsy ship makes one small mistake.

We will see more such mistakes.

Some early Totem reviews

“I believe that this book is a fitting conclusion to a remarkable set of novels. I enjoyed them so much, I plan to order up each in paperback to have them sit on my bookshelf. As far as I’m concerned, the Strong Heart trilogy is the best Netflix series yet to be filmed. Seriously. As I read each of these books, all I could think of was watching the story come to life on TV. I hope that these novels get into the hands of a reputable producer and are adapted for the screen.

“What I liked most were the wonderful characters, each unique, each with their own strengths and weakness, each with their own speech patterns that help to establish their individuality. I also appreciate Mr. Sheldon”s commitment to the land and the environment, a theme that runs through the entire series, one that causes the reader to take pause and consider what is happening to the planet because of climate change…

“The weaving of the mystical with speculative history is fascinating; the visions help move the story and successfully set the stage for the exciting conclusion. My only regret is that the series has come to an end because I would certainly have liked to spend more time with these exceptional characters.” OnLineBookClub for Readers reviewer, Feb 12, 2022

“I’m only at the third chapter of the book and I already love it, I have read the previous two books of the series and cannot wait to see how this one turns out. Judging by this forum and its reviews, it is going to be excellent as well.” OnLineBookClub for Readers reviewer, Feb 8, 2022

“I loved the journey this book took me through. It wasn’t just the North Pacific, but it was a journey through a culture that surpassed time and place. It’ was a learning journey that can be applied today to anyone who loves the past and wants to connect past and future with one another. That writing style is what keeps readers coming back for more. The ability to not only tell a tale but make readers live within it is a blessing. GREAT series!” OnLineBookClub for Readers reviewer, Feb 3, 2022

Woke human origins?

Here below is an article about a new take on ancient humans and the eating of meat. Essentially it argues that the thesis that ancient humans shifted from plant-based foods to meat around two million years ago is not correct. This finding came not from any new evidence or studies, but from an analysis of already-found sites, their frequency, and basically a reinterpretation of the data. It seems as if the authors a building a case for a reinterpretation of humans as a killing, meat eating species.

This study, much reported of late, follows hard on the heels of a book that came out last year, The Dawn of Everything, by Graeber and Wengrow, claiming that the earliest large societies of humans were in many cases non hierarchical, lacking evidence of temples and other manifestations of class and power distinction. The book is massive, wonderfully written, and basically offers no proof for any of its conjectures, yet it is being lionized everywhere. It seems the authors are trying to argue we humans arose as a peaceful, pacific species. However, the book is admirable in confirming that indigenous peoples carried great wisdom and western industrial societies could learn much from them, and in the past have learned much from them.

It sounds like a thesis is emerging that the earliest humans were not meat eaters, primarily, and that, furthermore, human societies since the beginnings of time have chosen many forms and many of them, early on, were benign, classless, cooperative.

It is interesting that Darwin’s survival of the fittest emerged at almost exactly the same time that European nations were busy colonizing (and had been colonizing) vast swaths of the earth. One might even argue that this thesis was justifying colonial behavior, ie, if indigenous peoples could not resist invaders then this was OK because the “winners” were fitter.

There is other history whereby scientific theses were used to justify ideologically-driven points of view – for example “eugenics” being used to justify the sterilization of people considered retarded as happened in the first decades of the 20th century.

As human evolution theories expanded during the period, say, 1875 – 1960, greater numbers of ancient human-like (or human) types (or “species”) were named and discovered. Then it was found that homo erectus, the first really big brained hominid (mentioned in the attached article about meat eating) had expanded from Africa nearly 2 million years ago (coincident with the start of the ice ages) to spread all over Eurasia and Indonesia. A school of thought arose that held that the different “races” of humans arose each in their turn from erectus all over the world, with specific appearance traits like skin color, yet interbreeding enough so the difference were groups, not species, but after World War 2 this thesis lost favor to another, arguing that all modern humans arose from a single mother in Africa, “Lucy,” born about 200,000 years ago. The multiple origin thesis was declared racist, or feared would be used to support racist ideology, whereas the “Lucy” thesis held everyone was basically the same, and countered any racial tendencies. Today the multiple origin thesis is essentially banned from any discussion whatsoever.

In the years since, other hominid species have been found – Denisovian, Florensis – and genetic analysis had determined that these different types interbred with each other and with Neanderthal and with homo sapiens. It seems that hominids of many different types in the last several hundred thousand years interbred when they could. This means they were all one species.

Some might argue that science has been used as a support mechanism for ideology. Others might argue that scientific theories and social movements may be more interlinked than anyone wants to admit.

Now we seem to be entering a new era, call it “wokeness” with studies and books sifting through available data and coming up with entirely new conclusions which support the current ideological thrust of those who are trying to characterize us and our ancestors as peaceful, vegetarian, benign beings who have somehow gone entirely wrong since….agriculture? Industrialization?

As regards this meat eating study, which again is simply a reinterpretation of existing data, the authors seem to miss many salient points. One, apes and other primates are primarily plant eaters and have huge guts to process the fiber. Two, humans were able to control fire at about the same time brain size expanded and also when teeth became much smaller. Controlled fire allows for the cooking of food, the breaking down of the structure so it is easily digested. The use of fire, and cooking, required smaller teeth and meant that the energy needed to digest all those plants in earlier primates and maybe hominids could now be used to support a much expanded brain. It is all linked together.

My personal thesis is that the earliest humans ate meat when they could find it and seafood and marine food; ie, clams, shellfish, fish, marine mammals. We forget that until 12,000 years ago we humans were not the apex predator. The great animals were – short face bears, dire wolves, saber tooth tigers, lions, huge hyenas. Humans had to hide on islands and protected refugees in the ice to prosper, and many groups were wiped out, again and again. On land, or in the interior, life surely was difficult, and dangerous.

It feels, a bit, as if there is a desire and urge to somehow classify we humans as somehow evolved from a peaceful, pacific species, to thus deny danger and death and suffering and tragedy.

Tribal urge stronger than survival urge?

The urge to survive is one of the strongest forces within humans. It seems that this urge is overcome, or overridden, only when a parent’s child or close relative is in imminent danger, in which case one sacrifices oneself for another, or in combat when a soldier sacrifices himself to save his friends. Except for a blood relation or combat, though, it seems the urge to survive triumphs over all else. A few years ago someone became trapped on a cliff and cut off his own arm to escape- to survive.

In the face of a deadly pandemic most people have chosen to follow whatever steps they can to survive – isolate, wear masks, and, when finally available, become vaccinated.Yet in the case of this Covid pandemic, millions of people are choosing not to take such steps, and now, with this Delta variant, tens of thousands are dying because they have refused to take the vaccine.

This counter view, that vaccines are bad, that wearing masks is weak, is held by millions, with little change despite the very clear evidence masks and vaccines either prevent catching the virus or minimize medical consequences if people do become infected. The evidence is overwhelming that deaths caused by this virus are enormously lower if people are vaccinated. Yet, still, millions refuse to take the vaccine.

The reactions to Covid are surely tribal. Most tribes of people – groups of aligned views and interests – follow the suggestions of medical experts, believing that people who must study for eight to twelve years know more about this disease than they do. There is, however, a large and intense anti-mask and anti-vaccine group, or tribe, that, despite the clear and obvious risks, nevertheless choose to welcome their exposure to that risk. This seems to be a matter of tribal belonging, identifying with this tribe, being a member. It is almost as if the need to be tribal, surely wired into we humans for group protection in the ancient past, is stronger than the urge to survive. This seems to be the case with Covid, as it was with the Jim Jones cult years ago in South America.

While appearing, initially, illogical, it may be there is a survival mechanism at place here, in that in the distant past those who held the strongest tribal ties were able to prevail over those others without such ties. In other words, maybe in the distant past there was a selection element in favor of tribal identity overpowering even the survival urge.

It seems, whether true or not in the past, this is the case today.

Dowsing for fish….

Every fall the bluefin tuna run into Cape Cod Bay and people go out with their boats to harpoon them. The boats are anywhere from 30 to 50 feet long, there’s a stand on the bow you go out on to “stick” the fish, which can be seen on the surface sunning itself. These fish are BIG up to 1,000 pounds and worth big money. One fish can be worth $ 20,000 and is sold fresh in the Tokyo market after being flown there overnight. So this is a short but big money fishery. One year my first skipper Sten was out there trying to get tunafish, with one sternman, but he got nothing. Not a thing, and he was a good fisherman.  Meanwhile my friend Gerry, who like me was first taught by Sten, was with one Elmer Costa on his big black boat the Columbia, and Gerry and Elmer had two fish. Sten was dying of curiosity, what was Gerry and Elmer doing that Sten was not? It bothered Sten. A lot. Meanwhile the season went on and Elmer and Gerry got another fish, and by this time Sten was sort of following them around, hoping to see their trick. Their technique.

This was the same year I had shown Sten with a dowsing stick where his well was, and found his gold coin, and this also perplexed him greatly, but not as much as being outfished by someone he had trained. Gerry and I had a discussion one afternoon because we both wanted to further excite Sten, and then I called Sten and said to him, “Listen, Sten, if you want to see the trick Gerry’s using, you follow Elmer tomorrow, close, get up right by their stern and take a look.”

This Sten did, it being a foggy morning so he was able to nose in real close, and he came around the stern of the Columbia and peered through the mist and saw Gerry on the stern of the Columbia holding in his hands a dowsing stick, facing aft, the stick standing upright and held in his two hands. Sten peered closer and realized that on the end of the stick Gerry was holding was an empty Bumblebee tunafish can.

This incident gave us much amusement, but then a strange thing happened. Sten began to catch fish and Gerry and Elmer were skunked, as we used to say. Sten ended the season with one more fish than Gerry and Elmer. This confused Gerry, and me, too, and one day that winter in the coffee shop we saw Sten and asked him, what changed for him? Sten gave each of us a long heavy-lidded look and cracked a slow smile.

“You were using the wrong can,” he said. “I caught my fish not with Bumblebee but with Chicken of the Sea.”

Sten passed away in 1998, brain tumor, but until he was across the bar he always said, with a perfectly straight face, when we asked, “Of course it’s true.”

Dowsing tales…True? Magic? Your lying scribe?

The stories that come to me fall in the category of adventure/magic realism, and I confess to treasuring those things in life that remain unexplained, mysterious, and hence magical. To me, one of the mist powerful indicators that magic might be real lies in dowsing.

Most people think dowsing – finding water with a stick or using a metal rod to find underground pipes and metals – is a complete hoax.  I first heard about dowsing when I was a little boy, maybe four years old, when we were living in Shutesbury, Massachusetts, a tiny community up in the hills behind Amherst. This was back in the days when roads were repaired using a truck filled with thick oil and a bed of pebbly small gravel. The truck would roll down the road and a wagon holding pebbly small gravel would drop the gravel in a thin layer on the road surface, and behind the wagon would be pulled another tank wagon holding hot thick oil, which would be dribbled into the gravel to soak in and then harden. But this was also back in the day when most of the roads up in the hills were still dirt.

Someone a few houses down the way was trying to dig a well, and had already sunk two holes without success. One day my dad grabbed me and took me on his shoulders to the property to watch a dowser, because the guy digging the well had called in the dowser to find water, find a spot to dig the third hole. The dowser seemed ancient, and his stick was completely clear of bark and shiny, and he held it in his hands before him, a forked “Y” of a stick with the two wings of the “Y” pointing down, one wing in the palm of each up-facing hand, fingers curled around. The man walked across the property holding the stick before him, single end pointing at the sky, arms straight before him. Then the stick turned down, the up-facing end turning down toward the man carrying it, which explained to me why he was holding it so straight away from himself, to give the end room to pass his face and chest.

“Here,” he said. This is a vivid memory to me, even all these years later. I also remember my dad announcing, one day after that, with great satisfaction, that the neighbor had found water where the dowser indicated. My dad, who was a wildlife biologist, and scientist, remained fascinated all his life that there remained this thing – dowsing – which defied explanation. It still does, it seems.

The year after my freshman year in college I had a summer job in the hills of Western Massachusetts removing the brush beneath a power line right of way running from the Connecticut River to the Yankee Atomic power plant in southern Vermont. It was hard work, the summer was hot, the brush thick. There were six of us on the crew, all kids 18 or 19 years old. One day during a break one of the kids, Alan, announced he was a dowser. I said to him, remembering my four year old memory, “Prove it.” He marched off to some thick brush and cut a living branch from a willow-like small tree, Y-shaped, and he held it just as had the old dowser years before. We all watched him as he walked back and forth until the stick began to turn down, and it was easy to see he was fighting it, trying to prevent the stick from turning. But, once it started, as he moved, it kept going. By the end his face was red. I thought he might be playing a trick, so I cut a branch from the same tree, held it just as Alan had, and I started walking.

When the stick began to move it pulled toward me and then down, and, try as I might, I could not hold it back. It was unbelievable, that power. The stick was from a living bush and I was strong and I fought it, holding as tight as I could, and yet the stick kept pointing down. The force was so strong the bark surrounding the stick ripped off the stick in my hands. Peter, and Neil, two of the other guys tried it, too, but it didn’t work with them. They didn’t believe Alan or me at all when we spoke of the force.

I imagine you, too, may be rolling your eyes, as so many do. Some of you, those who have tried it and felt the power, are nodding, others may be intrigued, but I suspect most are shaking their heads.

I became a believer that day, had to, because the power of that force was astounding, unmistakable, and real. Whence came it? Some kind of charge between the water in the stick and water below? Perhaps some twisting of gravity? A mental force, perhaps?

Of course we didn’t dig out there in that rocky right of way to see if there was water there, so we never knew, then, exactly, but that force was real.

It was later, and another story, or two, that I learned what that stick was pointing toward.

A sea story about Watergate and January 6th – Updated

This weekend I’m thinking about Watergate, the scandal that began when some operatives burgled a Democratic office and got caught. That happened in the run-up to the 1972 election, which Nixon won hugely, in June I believe. I was fishing then, off New England, chasing offshore lobster in Lydonia Canyon out on the edge of the shelf, maybe 120 miles from Nantucket. My skipper, Sten, who passed away in 2000, was an avid reader of Doonesbury. He had a close friend, David Martin, also long gone, who had worked on Elliot Richardson’s staff back when Richardson was instrumental in establishing the Cape Cod National Seashore. Sten followed politics, sort of, which we learned in the coming two years as you will see.

I have a very vague and dim memory of reading about the break-in. The “Plumbers,” I think they were called.

We had a very tough summer, that summer, because we had switched from long lining for cod and haddock to the lobster fishery and we were making every mistake you could make, plus fighting for bottom with other lobster boats in the deep canyons off Massachusetts. However, by the fall we started to make some money, land some big trips. We had 600 traps, in 50 trap strings, out there and we would fish those traps for a week or ten days before coming in. We had a flooded lobster hold with refrigeration. In the late fall, November, we chased the lobsters up into shoal water, 30-50 fathoms, on the slope of Georges Bank, and on December 7th a Russian fleet of four boats came upon us and our gear and nearly wiped us out, towing through the traps such that we lost 500 of the 600 traps despite our best efforts to wave them away. A little 65 foot wooden longliner against 300-foot  Russian stern trawlers is no match at all.

That winter, 1972-1973, I was living in a drafty cottage in Dennis, Mass, with the remaining 100 traps stacked alongside the driveway, and while Sten chased funding for more traps I spent the winter with piles of five-eighths inch polypropylene line splicing and rigging the 50-trap “trawls” in the living room. This was a lot of splicing – splicing sections of groundline together with long splices, splicing into the line loops for the brummel hooks to attach the trawl to, splicing in the brummel hooks, and splicing the collars and loop[s and hooks for the 500 new 48 inch long lobster traps, made of plastic coated stiff wire. I’d sit in the living room with gear all over, a sharp knife, bent over, splicing.  It was a long winter, cold. This was the start of the Energy Crisis, embargoes, lines at gas stations, and pundits spoke of a coming ice age.

I watched a lot of TV, the one station I could see, a black and white flickering screen, long before cable TV let alone the web, and consequently I ended up watching all the televised Watergate hearings that winter, Sam Ervin, Butterfield, John Dean, Howard Baker, endless hours of testimony about the break in. I was watching when Butterfield (I think it was Butterfield) announced that all the meetings in the Oval Office were taped. It was a sensation, pandemonium.

That spring we went back out there with the new gear and tried to recoup our losses. The Watergate thing moved along, with stories about tapes and fights for tapes, and John Dean was accused of being a traitor to the Republican cause, and all the Republicans, to a man (they were nearly all men then) howled that the entire Watergate thing was a political witch hunt. Still, a special prosecutor was appointed in the early summer of 1973, Archibald Cox, and thus began a bitter fight over tapes and their release.

Meanwhile we fished, hard, barely hanging on. Lydionia Canyon became too crowded and we heard there were a lot of lobsters being caught up on Brown’s Bank, Canadian waters off Nova Scotia, at the same time as Sten arranged with his Nova Scotian friends (half our crew were boys from Clark’s Harbor, Nova Scotia) to rig out a longliner to harpoon swordfish, which we would take aboard at sea and bring back to the US for sale, splitting the money. Swordfish was illegal then due to a mercury scare. We ended up loading all our gear on the boat, three total round trips, and moved it to the southwest tail of Brown’s Bank. The tides were awful up there and we hid in the fog and sank the buoy lines, grappling them up to haul gear using the Loran A to find it.

Big mistake, all the way around. In the end we moved the gear back to a little unnamed canyon east of Lydonia and did OK, and through the fall made a year of it.

Labor Day weekend that summer, 1973, we were between trips to our gear (which was a 16 hour steam from the boat’s base in Hyannis, Mass) and Sten asked me and Gary, another member of the crew, if we’d help him because he had agreed that weekend to take his boat to Chatham to pick up some people and then go out to Monomoy Island to the outer beach – his friend, David Martin, the wife and grown kids of Francis Sargent, former governor of Massachusetts, and Elliot Richardson and his wife. Richardson, from Massachusetts, was the Attorney General of the United States at this time, and Gary and I knew he had been under intense pressure all summer concerning Archibald Cox, Watergate, and what to do.

We picked everyone up at Stage Harbor, Chatham – I brought the boat with Gary up from Hyannis and we met Sten there –  and motored about fifteen miles out to the end of Monomoy Island, where we anchored just offshore and rowed everyone in to the beach. It was more than a little intimidating to be right next to the Attorney General, and a former governor’s family, especially because Gary and I looked like long haired hippies, especially after the summer we’d had, and when we got to the beach everyone ate from the picnic basket and then Gary and I took off over the dunes because we both felt out of place and awkward. Elliot Richardson had brought fishing gear and he was setting up to surf cast. He’d be standing at the most eastern end of the Cape Cod mainland, miles from any houses or people, facing the Atlantic, Washington and the political fever far to the south.

Gary and I, over the dune and across the point that ended the island, hung around and then, because it was a hot sunny day and what the hell, went swimming, bare ass naked. The water was nice, even warm, and we were in the water a while. When we came out, though, a current had carried us one way and Elliot had come the other way, casting, and when we emerged there we were, streaming water and without clothes, ten feet from the Attorney General. Elliot was totally unfazed by us, polite. In fact I think he was delighted to be in such a contrast to the fevers back in DC.

“How was the swimming?” he asked us.
“Nice. How was the fishing? Catch anything?”
“That isn’t the point.” He smiled at us. We smiled back.

That fall the Watergate events heated up. Sten would, while hauling gear way offshore, tune in an AM radio so he could hear the headlines. He ran the boat out on deck on the starboard side and he could hear the radio through an open pilothouse window. I was working aft of him, emptying traps as they came from the water. Sten would yell aft to the rest of us when things happened.

“Nixon’s trying to fire Cox!”
“Richardson resigned! Ruckelshous resigned!”
“They’re calling it the Saturday night massacre!”

The following spring and summer, now two years since that 1972 break in, evidence mounted as some tapes were released, yet still the Republicans stood as a bloc against anything changing, stood as a bloc claiming this must be a witch hunt. However, once Alexander Butterfield said there were tapes, the witch hunt argument weakened.

That summer Nixon resigned, and he resigned because, eventually, the Republican Senators came to see the battle must be lost, the evidence was too overwhelming, and once the Senators turned, it was over, and Nixon was gone.

I am thinking of Watergate these days because, while the Watergate scandal was very different than the issues surrounding the January 6th attack on the Capitol, there has been one great similarity – months and months of solid Republican unity, unity in favor of their President or former President.

But, when Butterfield made the announcement there are tapes, early on, I sensed then that the character of the situation had changed materially, so now with the release of phone records and text messages, speculation must now shift to awareness and reality. It is hard to claim a political witch hunt in the face of evidence, visible to all.

It feels, right now, very much the way it felt at the end of July, 1974, when evidence became a torrent and it was abundantly clear laws had been broken. I have said to myself throughout this latest January 6th event that unless and until members of the former Presidents party accept evidence as true and significant, little can and will change. This has been especially the case even though Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger have shown great courage to pursue the truth, but them alone.

It feels, this February 9th, based first on Mitch McConnell’s statements right after the papers were released to the Committee about seeing where the investigation leads, and then the other day coming out and forcefully stating the January 6th events were an effort to overturn the election, something might be shifting. Not much has shifted so far, but a few Republicans are coming forth to back McConnell, although at this point it seems clear they are doing this mostly to protect their own backsides than because those acts that day were sedition or treason

Back in the late summer of 1974 I had no idea, standing embarrassed and naked before the U.S. Attorney General, surely facing the decision of his lifetime, that I was standing before a true and real American hero. But I was. I am lucky for that. We all are. Now, nearly a half century later, every day, it seems, more evidence comes forth – the use of burn bags to destroy records, efforts to flush papers down the toilet, call logs and notes linking together a very broad conspiracy. What is still missing, though are any heroes, men or women who will stand before the flame and speak truth.

Where are they?

Fire at sea and complex systems…

Fall, 2021: So as I write this that ship is still burning north of here about 40 miles (I am in Port Angeles as I write this), with the situation uncertain as to what happens next; there are all these drifting containers about 40 miles west of the coast which represent a danger to other marine traffic;  and this enormous storm is bearing down on California. Just this afternoon the marine authorities near Los Angeles recommended in the strongest possible terms that the over 100 ships anchored or drifting just off the harbor entrance,  waiting for berth space, and positioned to hold their place in the queue to unload, put to sea immediately to gain sea room from each other and have room to battle the high waves and winds approaching them. If a huge storm with 20 to 30 foot swells strikes the land, all those ships anchored in shallow water, probably half a mile apart, but maybe much closer than that, will be at tremendous risk of dragging their anchors and running into each other. If you’re anchored and you wait for the storm to strike, believe me, hauling anchor in a 60 mile gale and 30 foot seas, and somehow getting up enough way to maneuver before you are cast against another ship, or the beach itself, is not a place anyone wants to be. I am guessing, right now, ships are scattering to the west, toward the storm, but toward sea room, too.

We build these complex systems which work wonderfully until they don’t, but when they don’t it is a disaster, and the necessary costs and preparation to respond to such a disaster can be enormous. For marine ships, it used to be, years ago, the U.S. Coast Guard had fire fighting ships, and the U.S.Navy had firefighting ships and tugs, but these days all that work is contracted out to private salvage companies, based a long distance from most events. Eventually they will gather the people and the material and the tugs or ships to respond, but in the long hours or days before then it is up to the ship’s crew and whatever small local city fire vessels there might be nearby. I would bet that the City of Seattle might have even sent one of their fire boats 60 miles north toward Victoria, for example.

We did fire drills all the time aboard commercial ships, and aboard military reserve ships too. Every time we did such a trial it was sobering. Here’s the thing. A ship fire suppression system is itself a complex series of pipes, pumps, valves and hoses, running all through the ship. In the engine room are the big pumps, which use fresh water stored in tanks or maybe salt water through hull sea cocks. These pumps need to be run every now and then, greased, maintained. All the valves to direct the water flow – and believe me there are hundreds on any ship, many in hard places to reach –  need to be “exercised” so they don’t freeze up, get stiff, or break. The hoses, canvas, heavy, up to four inches in diameter and extending hundreds of feet, with brass ends and fittings, lie coiled all over the ship, and they too need to be regularly rolled out, stretched, inspected, and charged with water to find weak spots. If you set up a fire hose system and run it fairly often it is a fantastic fire fighting system, but if you only try it now and then, it can be a disaster, a deluge of broken valves, frayed hoses, broken pumps. These systems run all over the ship, and the duty of the sailors and the engine room staff is to hold drills to get used to responding fast as well as to practice fire fighting, because when and if a real fire strikes you don’t want to be struggling to do your job, clumsy. This of course is not to mention the fire suits we have to don or the masks and tank air systems we use when going into an enclosed space or, worst of all, a fire in the engine room. Those tanks are supposed to hold air for 30 minutes of breathing, but when you’re in a 40 pound fire suit and helmet, crouched, in heat and smoke, heart hammering, the low air beep seems to start within five minutes.

So aboard a ship there is a fire fighting system (I haven’t even started with all the extinguishers) that is critically important but exercised seldom. Furthermore, as in many high-consequence situations (happening very rarely but when they do happen hugely consequential), when the best definition of success is nothing happens, over time all the drills and schedules become routine, often missed for good reasons, and bad reasons, such that what often seems to happen is when such a disaster strikes the system doesn’t work, or works badly, or the fire teams are not practiced.

All sailors need to conduct real fire training, with all the gear, and real fires, in terrifying closed spaces, again and again, to keep their certification. But all we sailors, whether deck workers or officers or engineers or the steward’s department, are not fire fighters by profession. Our task in the event of a big fire is to hold the fort as best we can until the big boys arrive.

We all know, all of us, that if such a fire happens far from any help, or a fire gets out of control, there is nothing we can do. Off course, if such a conflagration occurs well offshore, then one ship and her crew are lost, but if it happens in a harbor someplace, a naval base or a big container complex, then the disaster can be far greater. But it seems, these days, that at U.S. Navy bases there are no fire tugs or ships staffed by the Navy. There used to be, but over the last few decades this work has been outsourced to private contractors.
I worked on military reserve ships. It used to be that such ships were staffed and manned by Navy personnel, enlisted men and women and officers, but somewhere along the way the decision was made to remove these ships and their staffing from the Navy and contract it out. This meant work for U.S. trained commercial and merchant sailors, of which I was one when I did it, but the main lesson I received from the ships I worked on was that they cost an absolute fortune to maintain and keep operational, and now that fortune included a hefty profit for the private contractor, too.

All of which to say, just in the case of ships, they are complex, and expensive to maintain, and budget pressures always reduce those maintenance dollars, and then you have a complex asset that cannot justify the required maintenance and prevention budget, yet if a fire happens, is entirely ill equipped to properly fight that fire. Everyone who goes to sea knows this, of course, it is the secret gnawing anxiety always with you, and you simply hope for the best, pray your officers know what the hell to do if a fire breaks out, pray you know what to do.

So, vagabond drifting containers somewhere out there, right now. A ship burning just to the north, close to a harbor and a city, and questions arising about whether the necessary assets can be found to properly fight the fire. An enormous storm bearing down on southern California forcing over 100 ships to either flee into the teeth of the gale or try to ride it out where they are, all those ships forced to wait outside the harbor because of the myriad supply chain breakdowns throughout the system — lack of berth space, lack of empty containers, lack of chassis for the containers, lack of rail capacity, lack of spaces to store the containers, the entire worldwide flow of scheduled container services interrupted and changed, blockages expanding and then contracting, all resulting in huge uncertainties about deliveries — deliveries of all the goodies we’ve come to think is what Christmas is about and, even more important, deliveries of all the necessary parts and components needed to finish these complicated gadgets we’ve come to demand and depend on from a worldwide sourcing system that, when it falters, is a disaster.

Maybe this is a once in a decade confluence of factors bringing notice to the fragility of these complex sophisticated systems we have constructed and then cannot or choose not to maintain.

We better hope so.