Tag: sea story

The greatest small boat journey ever made?


Shackleton’s trip to South Georgia Island from Elephant Island in the Southern Ocean. But he has competition –  Bligh’s passage after the mutiny across 2,000 miles of Pacific Ocean in an open boat, or Blackburn’s row across the Atlantic after losing his fingers and toes in a blizzard off the Grand banks…..humans have been going to sea in open boats for hundreds of thousands of years, before writing, before history, before legend…what about their journeys? Imagine – navigating an open boat, skin-covered perhaps, along a harsh coast, heavy ice on the upland, great animals, hungry, roaming and looking if they come ashore, forced to find food as they travel, despite danger, facing the cold, the weather, the unknown…..yet still they traveled….and found, and populated, the earth…


The Dory Men

Denny was born up Pubnico way in eighteen and ninety two,

In nineteen eleven to Boston he came, a dory man tried and true.

He fished from a dory for thirty two years till the war put an end to the trade

Moved to Chatham and fished alongshore in good weather, not much, but a living he made,

At age seventy-two he fetched up on the beach in a shack in the woods by the Bay,

Rigged gear for the fleet and cleared our bad snarls, recoiled in a tight perfect lay.

A master, was Denny, rerigging our gear, each bundle a near work of art,

With his help all that summer we landed huge trips and a half share we left in his cart.

Denny was tiny, a lone quiet man, no family he had of we knew,

We’d leave him some beer and groceries to hand in the winter when gear work was few.

Then one day next winter Denny was sick, in his shack stone cold and in pain,

To a hospital bed in Hyannis he went not far from our boat on the bay.

We’d travel to see him, kids twenty five years, he’s lost in the bed, thin and pale,

Hated that hospital food, he did, wouldn’t eat and was wasting away.

So we went to the fish store and bought us some haddock which we cooked on our boat at the dock,

Wrapped it in foil and raced to the hospital, still hot when he reached for his fork.

Oh that fish he did eat, every bit, every bite, and a smile we’d see in his eyes,

So each day we’d cook and bring him his lunch, hear his stories which Denny called lies.

Later he moved to an old people’s home in South Chatham for hospice care,

The food there was better, but Denny was failing, companionship was all he could share.

And always with Denny, those last weeks he had, three men sat with him for hours,

Old dory mates all, telling tales of the days they all shared in their youth and their power,

Harold and Peter and Edward their names, first sailing then steaming offshore,

From their dories through years of weather and waves, saw men lost in the fog evermore.

I can hear those four men, all old, one quite ill, in that pale late afternoon light,

Their memories and laughter of days now long gone when from dories they worked with such pride.

Denny came to Boston a century ago, a dory man he and his mates,

I was lucky to know him, see his art working gear, he was small but to us he was great.

His lies now all lost, the memories too, but I hold in my heart that rare sight,

Four dory men true, gathered together, keeping real their lost way of life.

Now Denny’s long gone, it’s nigh forty years since the kid in me brought gear to his shack,

And just as his memories are lost now forever mine soon will fade in the black.

When you see an old fisherman, hands like burled wood, skin pale and eyes watery and dim,

Unshaven, clothes rumpled, slumped deep in a chair, never judge there’s no glory in him,

His story not written, his memories mist, his whole way of life but a dream,

Whaler, salt banker, dory man he, now one with the unchanging sea.

Ancient Seafarers

Special Report: Ancient Seafarers Volume 50 Number 2, March/April 1997
by Peter Bellwood
[image] Map of Southeast Asia and Australia, with present and Ice Age land-sea boundaries, shows the importance of seafaring in this region. Possible routes for the colonization of Australia by modern humans are north, through Sulawesi, and south, crossing from Timor. By 1000 B.C. obsidian from New Britain was reaching Borneo. Indo-Roman pottery reached Bali by the early centuries A.D. (Lynda D’Amico) [LARGER IMAGE]

Southeast Asia and Australia give archaeologists some of the best evidence for ancient sea crossings, not just by Palaeolithic humans but also by Neolithic peoples and even spice traders contemporary with the Roman Empire. New discoveries, some controversial, are pushing back the dates of human colonization of this region and are expanding our knowledge of early island networks. These finds are also illuminating the first steps in some of the longest prehistoric open-sea voyages of colonization on record–from Southeast Asia to Polynesian islands such as Hawaii, Easter Island, and New Zealand, and perhaps also from Indonesia to Madagascar–during the first millennium A.D.

To understand the implications of these discoveries, one must be aware that the Indo-Malaysian Archipelago contains two very different biogeographical regions. The western islands on the Sunda Shelf–Sumatra, Java, Bali, and Borneo–were joined to each other and to the Asian mainland by landbridges during glacial periods of low sea level. Hence they supported rich Asian placental mammal faunas and were colonized by Homo erectus, perhaps as early as 1.8 million years ago. The eastern islands–Sulawesi, Lombok, Flores, Timor, the Moluccas, and the Philippines–have never been linked by landbridges to either the Sunda Shelf or Australia, or to each other. They had limited mammal faunas, chance arrivals from Asia and Australasia.

Migration through the archipelago has always required that humans cross substantial stretches of open sea. But when did they first attempt to do this? There is a current controversial claim by a joint Dutch-Indonesian team that humans were contemporaries of stegodons, extinct elephant-like animals, at a site called Mata Menge on the Indonesian island of Flores. Stone flakes and stegodon bones have been found here in presumed association in deposits located just above a reversal of the earth’s magnetic field dating to 730,000 years ago. Should this claim receive future support we will have to allow for the possibility that even Homo erectus was able to cross open sea, in this case the 15-mile-wide Strait of Lombok between Bali and Lombok.

That the Australian continent was first settled at least 30,000 years ago, by people who had to cross consecutive sea lanes in eastern Indonesia, was well known by the late 1960s. Research by the late Joseph Birdsell and by Geoffrey Irwin of Auckland University suggests that there were separate northern and southern routes, along which most islands would have been visible from their closest neighbors on clear days, leading from the Sunda Shelf islands towards Australia and New Guinea. If Australia was first reached from Timor, as seems likely, then a final sea crossing of about 55 miles, involving movement out of sight of land, would also have been required.

The Australian archaeological record has now been pushed back to the limits of conventional radiocarbon dating, with several sites clocking in between 35,000 and 40,000 years ago. Radiocarbon dates of this age are potentially subject to contamination by younger carbon at levels undetectable in the laboratory. Such contamination can produce a date younger than 40,000 years when the real age is much older. In recent years, optical luminescence dating of sites in northern Australia has raised the possibility that humans arrived there as long as 60,000 years ago, and many archaeologists now accept these new dates. More controversial are current reports, widely publicized in the world media and published in the journal Antiquity, that Jinmium, a sandstone rock-shelter in Australia’s Northern Territory, has stone artifacts more than 100,000 years old. The site’s investigators–Richard Fullagar of the Australian Museum in Sydney and Lesley Head and David Price of the School of Geosciences at the University of Wollongong–used thermoluminescence dating to determine the age of its lower levels. The lowermost stone artifacts are claimed to be more than 116,000 years old. Because the Jinmium dates are from thermoluminescence rather than the more accurate single-grain optical luminescence, many archaeologists question this claim, and verification is essential. Conventional wisdom has always held that the first humans to reach Australia were modern Homo sapiens, but if the Jinmium dates are correct it could be that more archaic forms once lived in Australia, as they did throughout the rest of the tropical and temperate Old World. Indeed, on Java new dates from the Ngandong and Sambungmacan sites suggest that Homo erectus may have survived far longer than previously believed, perhaps to as recently as 25,000 years ago (see “Homo erectus Survival“).

Elsewhere in the Southeast Asian island region, new evidence for early voyaging comes from archaeological projects undertaken in the Moluccas, northern Borneo, and Bali. In the northern Moluccas, between Sulawesi and New Guinea, humans were visiting the coastal caves of Golo and Wetef on Gebe Island 33,000 radiocarbon years ago. Caves and open sites on coastal Sulawesi, northern coastal New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago, and the northern Solomons (southeast of New Guinea) have already produced similar dates. At this time people seem to have been very mobile, leaving only sparse traces of occupation (mainly flaked stone tools and marine shells) and not engaging much in trade of raw materials, such as stone for making tools. Many of the islands at this time, especially in the Moluccas and island Melanesia (the Solomons, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia), may have had such limited land faunas that they were unable to support large permanent populations. Those who reached New Guinea and Australia, then joined by a landbridge, might have found a better living hunting now extinct species of large marsupials and flightless birds. Current research at the site of Cuddie Springs near Brewarrina in western New South Wales is demonstrating contemporaneity of humans and megafauna on the Australian continent about 30,000 years ago.

Between 20,000 and 10,000 years ago the Moluccan and island Melanesian archaeological records indicate greater contact and innovation. Obsidian from New Britain was carried to New Ireland (but not apparently as far as the Moluccas) possibly beginning 20,000 to 15,000 years ago. Marsupials were deliberately taken by humans from New Guinea and perhaps Halmahera to stock small islands, presumably for hunting purposes. Cuscuses (nocturnal catlike creatures) were taken to New Ireland, and by 10,000 years ago both cuscuses and wallabies appeared on Gebe. The people of Gebe also built small circular arrangements of coral blocks, too small to have functioned as hut foundations, on the floor of Golo Cave ca. 12,000 years ago. They may have served a ritual function. Several sites in the northern Moluccas, Talaud, and Admiralty Islands have a unique and rather impressive industry of adzes made from shells of large Tridacna and Hippopus clams at about the same date. These adzes suggest that manufacture of dugout canoes was technically possible by 13,000 years ago, although the earliest colonists of these islands probably paddled small rafts. Whatever their craft, the extent and repetitiveness of the earliest colonizations–to as far east as the Solomon Islands via many island-hops by 30,000 years ago–makes some degree of intentionality undeniable.

Many millennia later the Indo-Malaysian region again witnessed remarkable transfers of people and material culture. Three thousand years ago, Neolithic people exchanged New Britain obsidian across 2,400 miles to the site of Bukit Tengkorak in Sabah, northern Borneo. The Lapita people moved it for 2,100 miles eastward from New Britain to as far as Fiji. A new report in the journal Science claims that New Britain obsidian, excavated by archaeologist Stephen Chia of Universiti Sains Malaysia and analyzed by anthropologist Robert Tykot of the University of South Florida, reached Bukit Tengkorak much earlier, by 4000 B.C. No details of the dating are presented, however, and the claim remains unsubstantiated. During the original excavation of this site, by myself in 1987, we recovered a good series of radiocarbon dates and obsidian, identified by Roger Bird of the Australian Nuclear Sciences and Technology Organisation as coming from New Britain. At that time we concluded that the Bukit Tengkorak obsidian dated back no further than 1000 B.C. and was contemporary with the Lapita archaeological culture of the western Pacific (ca. 1500 to 300 B.C.).

As far as Lapita is concerned, my own view, and that of many other archaeologists including Patrick Kirch of the University of California at Berkeley, is that the Lapita culture represents the Austronesian-speaking Neolithic populations that colonized Oceania (Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia) beginning ca. 1500 B.C. These people were ancestral to modern Polynesians and eastern Micronesians, and also ancestral, to a lesser degree because of the prior existence of human populations in the western Pacific, to many of the populations of island Melanesia. In this view, Lapita represents a transmission of people, and Austronesian languages and cultures, into Oceania from Island Southeast Asia, and ultimately from southern China and Taiwan. It is significant that the New Britain obsidian trade, although occurring locally back into the Pleistocene in the Bismarck Archipelago, reached its long-distance apogee in Lapita times.

Opposition to this view of Lapita origins comes from John Terrell of the Field Museum of Natural History, who believes he has found evidence that many cultural features linked with Lapita may have evolved on the northern coast of Papua New Guinea and not in Southeast Asia. At sites near the town of Aitape he has found pottery, so far not precisely dated, which resembles Lapita but lacks its elaborate impressed designs. According to Terrell it also resembles pottery made in Indonesia at about the same time as Lapita, and perhaps even slightly before. Terrell believes that the Polynesian ancestors did not migrate directly from Southeast Asia but were living in northern New Guinea for a very long time before some people finally left Melanesia to colonize Polynesia. However, archaeologists such as myself, who have undertaken research in both Island Southeast Asia and Polynesia, may find this opinion difficult to accept and will certainly demand accurate dating of the new materials from Aitape before giving them serious attention.

We also have dramatic new evidence of sailing ability in the early historical period in Southeast Asia, in this case perhaps involving use of the monsoon winds that blow seasonally across the Bay of Bengal. About 2,000 years ago, pottery characteristic of the Indo-Roman site of Arikamedu in Tamil Nadu, on the Indian coast, found its way to the site of Sembiran in Bali (excavated by I.W. Ardika of Udayana University in Bali), an astounding 2,700 miles as the crow flies, or much more if the sailors hugged the coast. This Indian trade pottery–the largest assemblage ever found outside the Indian subcontinent itself–heralded a millennium of cultural contact that gave rise to the temples and civilizations of Pagan, Angkor, and Borobudur. Much of this trade probably involved spices–even Romans occasionally acquired cloves, which came from small islands in the northern Moluccas.

Future research, if some of the above claims are to attain the status of fact, must involve more thorough dating and more careful attention to the stratigraphic pitfalls that one can fall into, both in caves and open sites. Apparent associations between artifacts, datable materials, and geomorphological contexts can often be deceptive. Furthermore, all the coastal sites that might contain direct traces of Pleistocene colonization were inundated by a rise in the sea level of 325 feet or more after the last glacial maximum. All we see now is the inland geographical skeleton of the former landscape. Underwater archaeology might one day come to the rescue, but so far historical wrecks are proving more attractive, and lucrative, than sunken Pleistocene sites.

Peter Bellwood is a professor in the department of archaeology and anthropology, Australian National University. His research in the Moluccas was supported by grants from the National Geographic Society and the Australian Research Council. A revised edition of his Prehistory of the Indo-Malaysian Archipelago will be published by the University of Hawai’i Press this year.

50,000 years ago people went to sea

In a stunning discovery, a team of archaeologists in Australia has found extensive remains of a sophisticated human community living 50,000 years ago. The remains were found in a rock shelter in the continent’s arid southern interior. Packed with a range of tools, decorative pigments, and animal bones, the shelter is a wide, roomy space located in the Flinders Ranges, which are the ancestral lands of the Adnyamathanha. The find overturns previous hypotheses of how humans colonized Australia, and it also proves that they interacted with now-extinct megafauna that ranged across the continent.

Dubbed the Warratyi site, the rock shelter sits above a landscape criss-crossed with deep gorges that would have flowed with water when Paleolithic humans lived here. From extensive excavations conducted last year, the archaeologists estimate that people occupied Warratyi on and off for 40,000 years, finally abandoning the site just 10,000 years ago.

By analyzing layers of earth in the shelter, the scientists were able to construct a timeline of settlement in the space. They used carbon dating on nuggets of hearth charcoal and eggshells to discover that the shelter was first occupied about 50,000 years ago. They also used a dating technique called optically simulated luminescence (OSL) on buried grains of quartz. This technique determines when those quartz grains last saw sunlight and heat. Both techniques returned similar dates, adding to the researchers’ confidence in their findings.

This makes Warratyi the oldest evidence of human occupation in the arid Australian interior, long believed too hostile for ancient people who had few tools. But these findings make it clear that the ancestors of Australia’s indigenous people were, in fact, seasoned explorers who could survive in difficult conditions.

New Orleans to New York by Sea March 2016

IMG_20160329_170845From Violet Louisiana to the shipyard in Bayonne New Jersey, a 42 year old 960-foot ro-ro ship, fourteen days. Crew flies in Wednesday and the madhouse begins. The steward is ready to quit, the second engineer maybe had a stroke, the new captain has his own set of rules, half the new crew are green and the other half greener still. Lash everything down, secure the watertight doors, set the watch routine, and cast off into the Mississippi River, starting downstream, only to anchor up 15 miles further with an engine problem.  New part arrives on a launch at midnight, we lift it aboard, and by dawn we’re off again. Everything held together with hope and wire, the engineers madly finding solutions, the rest of us steering and cleaning and lashing, crossing the Gulf, coming around Florida, then heading out into the Atlantic to burn our heavy fuel oil far from land, day after day doing donuts on the broad reach, back and forth. Hours – days – replacing the ballast water, pumping and sounding tanks and pumping again. The new steward’s assistant misbehaves with the cook and assistant cook, misbehaves badly, and is sent to swab decks far below for the balance of the trip. His name becomes Creepy. One sailor becomes sickened in the holds and goes to his room, another runs out of smokes and becomes insufferable, the food starts to run out, the milk goes, and the wind begins to blow. The big ship rolls and pounds, lashings shift and slide, nobody sleeps, the gale rages, the big crane hooks forward come loose and swing like death, one of the anchors breaks, the toilets stop flushing and the hot water system dies. No one is happy.

Now, finally, at anchor in New York, the bright skyline teasing, waiting for dry dock, everyone stumbling with fatigue, Creepy slinking the halls, the steward muttering, and the captain barking impossible orders everyone ignores.  But we are on the hook, in the Hudson, safe, and arrived.

Life is good.





These are the roro ships Gilliland and Gordon berthed in Baltimore. Skeleton staffed and in a 96 hour ready to sail status. These are part of the US Navy military sealift command fleet. The crew keeps the machinery running and performs maintenance and other projects.  This is home for the next few months. I will try to keep this blog updated using my phone links as we don’t have WiFi here. Unlike the earlier trips to Singapore which left no time for scribbling stories, here there may be time to start with this tale I’ve been pondering ever since finishing Adrift last summer.

We’re tied to a Berth and a warehouse with holes in the roof behind a fence and security gate somewhere in industrial waterfront Baltimore. It’s a ten minute hike to a few stores for supplies and sundries. Baltimore is way up at the north end of Chesapeake Bay but there are a dozen ships I can see, mostly small break bulk and auto carriers.

Last time I was in Baltimore was 1993 with some people from APL looking at the on dock rail system at Baltimore’s container terminal before we built one in Seattle. Since then container trade up here has dropped because its a long way up here and Norfolk out at the mouth of the bay has become one of the biggest east coast ports anywhere and snaked away cargo from Baltimore.

Doubling Down

There’s a lot of highly negative press right now about how useless government is, and how broken everything is, so it’s refreshing and nice to see how one city and small port decided to take their future into their own hands. Just this week, after a difficult yet encouraging season trying a brand new direct shipping service between Cleveland and Antwerp, the Port and its Dutch partner decided to add a second ship for next year. Not only that, it seems this highly risky and daring venture has the full support of the local community. We could all learn something, here, I think. Check out this editorial from the Cleveland Plain Dealer September 24 2014:

Port of Cleveland, Dutch partner expand port’s smart trans-Atlantic gamble: editorial

“Dead in the water” seemed an appropriate descriptor for the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority when Adam Wasserman was at its helm between 2007 and 2009.

The taxpayer-floated agency was adrift in a Sargasso Sea of pie-in-the-sky strategies – the most infamous of which was Wasserman’s $500 million plan to relocate the port from its current site to a yet-to-be-created landfill north of East 55th Street.

What a difference five years and new leadership make.

Today, among other initiatives, the port is full steam ahead on a welcome and innovative venture aimed at making Cleveland a global cargo hub.

The Cleveland-Europe Express, the only direct shipping service between the Great Lakes and Europe, weighed anchor last spring.

The port inked a two-year deal with the Spliethoff Group, the largest shipowner in the Netherlands, to charter a vessel for monthly cargo runs across the pond. It’s already helped diversify cargo through the Cleveland port and helped increase cargo runs through the St. Lawrence Seaway.

“The status quo was not acceptable to me or the board,” said port President Will Friedman, who came on board in 2010. “We want to become a real Midwestern hub for companies trading internationally.”

The venture remains a gamble — the Cleveland-Europe Express has lost nearly $3 million since its launch in April, more than five times what had been projected.

But instead of shelving the idea before it can be fully tested, the port’s Dutch partner decided to put some of its own skin into the game and add a second ship to the trans-Atlantic service.

“We like it. More important, our customers like it,” Torin Swartout, a Spliethoff vice president, told Plain Dealer business reporter Robert L. Smith.

The greater frequency of voyages makes the port initiative competitive with East Coast ports, Swartout said. “We’re doubling the frequency, but we expect to more than double the cargo we ship.”

Proponents note the service offers a quick, cost-effective – and greener – alternative for businesses to transport goods through the Saint Lawrence Seaway to Europe rather than moving them by rail to East Coast ports and then across the Atlantic Ocean.

Startup hasn’t been cheap. The port ponied up $550,000 a month, plus fuel costs, to charter the Fortunagracht.

Friedman and his crew are taking the port into uncharted waters.

And that may be exactly where the future is.

Grit in the Heartland Continued

So in Cleveland spring came slowly, as spring does downwind of that chilly lake, and while the rest of the city paid attention to whether or not the Republican Convention for 2016 would come to Cleveland (it will) and whether or not Johnny Football would self destruct or not (he hasn’t yet) and whether Lebron might return home (he did), down at the port the little ship Fortunagracht departed after the second trip half empty, carrying, among other things, a yellow school bus. On the first two trips the ship carried little cargo, both eastbound and westbound, and there seemed to be no trend emerging that could in any way be called positive.

Meanwhile in Europe and in Cleveland the Spleithoff and Port of Cleveland staff kept burning up the wires and phone lines (except these days “phone lines” is meaningless, isn’t it?) seeking bookings, delivering quotes, hustling, always hustling.

Then as the weather warmed and May slid into June a big shipper from the area decided to use the new service to haul a lot of heavy cargo to Europe. Then we heard from Europe that some folks there had decided to send some heavy stuff west to Cleveland. And then a decision was made to send the parts of a disassembled auto plant to China using the new service through Antwerp. Down on the docks, stuff began to appear, big boxes, stamped Kazhakstan and other strange distant places, standing in silent rows on the scruffy pavement, waiting for the ship.

People had thought, when this started, we’d see containers supporting the business, but what was happening, was, the special pieces and the big pieces, looking for a direct route from the heartland to the world, came to Cleveland.

By the time the ship left Antwerp for the third voyage she was nearly filled with cargo, three quarters of a million dollars’ worth, and when she arrived in Cleveland she was unloaded and then loaded with almost as  much eastbound cargo back. The value of the bookings went from less than a half million dollars for the round trip to one million, three hundred thousand dollars – more than all operating expenses. This meant that by the third trip, with a brand new and untested service, flying in the face of traditional hub-port logic, the ship was making money. Not much, but making money. And it wasn’t containers. It was the special big pieces of strange and one-off gear – transformers, turbines, machinery, heavy gears. Stuff big and heavy, hard to sling and lift, hard to secure in the hold.

I have sailed on container ships, which are the epitome of simple and routine cargo handling. Lift a box on, lift it off, use special cranes, move fast, cycle fast, hour after hour. On Fortunagracht, the cargo was all different, heavy, awkward, and each piece needed to be strapped up, lifted by ship’s gear, placed and sometimes welded into the hold. She is a small ship, and how she is loaded is critical, so it’s a balancing act (literally) to load and place the many different pieces such that the ship can carry s much as possible and not become top heavy and unstable.

She loaded piece after piece from a disassembled auto plant. In a way it was tragic, seeing the manufacturing core of this region being sent to China for re-use, but at least the material was departing Cleveland not an East Coast port. These pieces are so big and heavy they need special 18 or 20 axle trucks to drive over the road. They weigh 100, 120, 170 tons apiece. The trucks need a special permit to drive over the road and there is a steering station at the rear of the trailer for maneuvering on city streets.

Here’s the truck they used. The length of this thing from nose to stern is almost 300 feet. It’s four or five trailers connected together.

20-axle heavy rig

IMG_20140626_135027 IMG_20140626_134909


Here’s the way they sling up the heavy pieces. It’s a science. The IMG_20140621_093046biggest pieces they use two ships cranes at once.



For containers, it’s damn slow. This is because container cranes don’t exist in Cleveland. You need to hang a container spreader – the thing that grabs the container –  from the ship’s crane or a shore crane and guide it with straps and manpower over the container to be picked up, set the four corner cones, and then lift. This is slow. It’s even slower when the people guiding the container are standing on other containers in the air. The big ships and big ports, they’ll place four or five cranes against a ship at once, each one lifting 25-50 containers an hour. On a general cargo ship using their own gear, they’re doing great to lift 15 containers an hour.

container system

I couldn’t resist this -here’s the mobile office the long shore men use…..

dock office

Anyway in June the ship was full, both ways, and made a bit of money. In July the ship was full again. This time there were a few changes, though. Because the service was passing down the St. Lawrence River, the port of Valley Field down by Montreal was used to offload some wind generating equipment from Europe, which helped. Some other cargo was sent from Cleveland down the river to Valley Field as well, which was allowed because Valley Field is in Canada, not the US. If it had been an American port then a US built ship needed to be used, and Fortunagracht is a Dutch ship. In addition, there was some other cargo in Duluth in Minnesota, also wind energy equipment, that needed to be dropped off, so the ship went there first before coming to Cleveland. These stops extended the length of the voyage but the ship was filled.

The July voyage also earned one million three hundred thousand.

Now it’s well into August. The signs for the August voyage are positive.

Could this be a trend? Maybe. Or a summer blip? Maybe that, too. Point is, after two weak months to start, cargo volumes have risen. There is no question that a market exists for such a service, and it seems that there are a lot of companies now interested in using the service. This suggests to me that the fundamental uncertainty – is there sufficient cargo – has been answered. Now the next question is, can the service endure, make money, be self supporting? This is a function of operating costs, stevedoring costs, and marketing costs, and these questions won’t be answered until the end of this season at the earliest.

Little of this story is visible anywhere, and maybe properly so, especially when compared to Johnny Football and LeBron and the RNC and the algal blooms off Toledo – this being another interesting tale from the heartland I will get into soon – but this gamble, taken by the Port of Cleveland and Spleithoff, and supported by the local community, may be the most important story of all.

Cleveland Harbor


Grit in the Heartland

Cleveland Harbor

This is the Port of Cleveland, at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River on Lake Erie. That little ship on the left in the picture is the Fortunagracht, a Dutch general cargo vessel, 12,000 tons.  The Port has access to the world’s seas through the St. Lawrence Seaway, which is open eight or nine months of the year and frozen solid the rest. The port handles about 13 million tons of cargo a year, mostly materials for cement plants on the river and a big 800 acre steel complex at the head of the river, 6 miles upstream through three 180 degree turns. 600 to 700 ships a year go up that narrow winding river every year and come back down, some ships 700 feet long. More about the river system later. The port piers in the picture here are right next to Brown’s Stadium, right downtown, 80 acres, four or five berths, 300,000 square feet of warehouse space, mostly for imported steel products. About 50 inetrnational ships visit this faciity every year. (By that I mean, not US or Canadian ships plying the Great lakes system with iron ore, taconite, and liestone. Of the 260 remaining US flag deep sea cargo ships still sailing, 60 work on the Great Lakes. Last year at this time I was on the 261st US flag ship, the President Truman, heading for the breakers in India.)

Cleveland has had some hard times, like much of the industrial heartland around the Great Lakes. Once a city of nearly a million people, less than half that many live there now. Like Detroit and other midwest cities, the inner core is filled with abandoned homes and a diminishing tax base. Nearly 50 years ago, now, the Cuyahoga River caught fire, for the 13th time in the last century and a half, and it was this fire that caused the Clean Water Act and a number of other environmental laws. The story beyond northeast Ohio has been Cleveland has been sinking, failing, and losing ground. But don’t tell that to the people who live there. Especially now, what with the city getting the 2016 Republican Convention, Johny Football Manzell for the Browns, and LeBron James deciding to return to his home state and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Cleveland’s had a good run since this last spring and I was lucky enough to be there, for the first time in my life, except for driving through in 1967 and 1968 on I-90.

Last fall the Port of Cleveland-Cuyahoga County, a terrific small operation staffed by 18 people and governed by commissioners appointed by the Mayor of Cleveland and the Administrator of Cuyahoga County, made a choice to take their future into their own hands.  The Port had been led down one road by a previous Port Director who wanted to spend millions competing head to head with big US East Coast container ports, a totally flawed concept which soon became clear. For years ship visits to Cleveland had been diminishing and some were suggesting the port as an entity was doomed. The current Port Director, though, Will Friedman, his excellent staff, and his Board of Directors, lacking nothing in courage, strength of conviction, and titanium balls, decided there might be a market for a new liner service between Cleveland and Europe, direct sailings, through the Seaway. Their argument was that all the international cargo now shipped from the midwest must now be trucked or shipped on rail to an East or Gulf Coast port, hundreds of miles, and then usually sit in the yard somewhere for days before being placed on a ship. Why not, instead, ship a much shorter distance to Cleveland, load on a ship there, and send it directly to Antwerp and a hub for the rest of the world? Direct, fuel efficient, and faster.

They – the Port staff – did some market research, some studies, went to Europe, talked to shippers and manufacturers, and heard some interest. Of course they also heard all the reasons the many people in the Never section listed:

The Seaway is closed a third of the year what do you do then?

If you ship to an East Coast port and miss a ship there’s another the next day or two, always to the same place. In Cleveland if you start with one ship it comes once a month. If you miss that sailing that’s a long wait. Too long.

Nobody will dare take a risk and commit to a new untried service that is shaky at best and unknown.

You don’t have proper container cranes or handling gear and will never be able to handle them fast enough to be competitive.

Any ship coming through the Seaway is at the biggest 35,000 tons and most much smaller, and this flies right in the face of the trend to larger and larger ships. I mean, they’re widening the Panama Canal for such ships.

Oh, the list was long. Long.

But you have to understand, here, that this is Cleveland, one could say a nothing to lose city, a place that had seen the bottom of the pit and knew what it felt like. Backs to the wall. If the port did nothing, nothing would happen. The ship visits would continue to decline, the facility would continue to get old and tired, and whatever had been here in the way of maritime jobs and commerce would leave as so many other sectors had left. For sure, no vessel owner would ever consider starting an untried and new service to a small port on an inland sea. Ships are expensive. The cost to charter a ship of 12,000 tons, which is about as small a ship as you can imagine for such a service, is at least $ 500,000 a month for the ship, crew, stores, and operation. Now add to that the fuel. One round trip back and forth from Antwerp to Cleveland will require $ 350,000-$400,000 in fuel and thousands more in pilotage charges through the seaway. Call it, a million a month before even considering stevedoring costs to handle the cargo.

The only way such a service could be started would be if the Port itself chartered  a ship, paid for the fuel, and in partnership with a vessel owner booked and handled cargo. The Port found a partner in a Dutch Company, Spleithoff, located Amsterdamn, a 100-vessel feet owner, specializing in mixed project cargo ships – ships built to carry both containers and special cargoes, or project cargoes, heavy lift items, odd shaped pieces, big pieces of machinery and equipment. The Port chartered a ship. Filled it with fuel.

In November of 2913 the Port Directors voted to do this. The Port was in good shape financially, but this is a small port, with operating revenues of about $ 3,000,000 a year. Imagine – you charter  ship that will cost you, each month, one third of your annual operating income. For a start-up, an unknown and untested trade route, competing with east coast ports, and understanding that with any start up you don’t make money right out of the gate. You do this because you want and believe there are cargoes and goods within your region that need such a service, that will see the value of direct shipment to the world, avoiding the trucking and fuel costs of east coast truck or rail delivery. You do this because you believe in your port and your city and region and because unless you try it nobody will.

You think you will capture a lot of containers and some portion of project cargo. You spend the months from November 2013 until April 214 chasing bookings in both the United States and Europe. Spleitfoff places a couple of people in the Port offices in Cleveland for sales, and others in Europe for the trade there. Spleithoff selects a sweet little ship for the service, a 600 foot, 12,000 ton multi purpose mixed cargo vessel, built in 2011, nearly new, crew of 18, fuel efficient, with three deck mounted cranes and holds that can handle everything from bulk to project cargo to containers and mixtures in between.

This is the ship that departs Antwerp about the first of April, 2014, carryring some empty containers for use back in Cleveland and virtually nothing else, the first westbound voyage. The ship leaves Antwerp just about as I get on the plane to fly to Cleveland to provide some help to their staff there, because I worked with Will years ago at the Port of Seattle and we’d spent some time in the Olympics together on steep snowfields and survived, and he’d contacted me, said he needed some help, so I headed east, found an Amish farm to live on outside the city, and with the rest of them waited for the ship’s arrival.

This is the ship:


The first morning I rose before heading to the port, here’s what I saw:

Parkman sunrise

Tuna Fishing – Another True Dowsing Story

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.”