Ericofrockport’s Weblog


The Conte Bianco Rides out Hurricane Carla
August 1, 2016, 7:24 pm
Filed under: Commerical Fishing, Family, History

In the fall of 1961 I began the seventh grade. September had always been my favorite month. The weather was still warm, but the crowds of summer had left by Labor Day afternoon.  The only problem was that school began the next morning.  A small consolation was Junior High Football.  We were practicing hard, but that year our season had no sooner started than it was interrupted by a little tropical disturbance that popped up in the southwestern Caribbean Sea .  However, no one seemed too worried about this ill-defined area of squalls at first.  Most of the big storms that had threatened us in the past had formed in the Atlantic, a thousand miles east of the Lesser Antilles, like the big storm of 1919 that my friend Mr. Charlie had told me about.

charlie

 Mister Charlie’s Place  (Hurricane surge receding in 1940s)

Charlie Silberisen was one of the first waterfront characters I met when we moved to Rockport in 1951. I was only three when my family had moved from El Cajon, California, where my Dad had made a living fishing for tuna in the Pacific.  This had been very profitable for a time since the Japanese tuna fleet had been crippled by the Second World War, but by 1950 the Japanese were back in production, the price of tuna had fallen dramatically, and most of the tuna boats were laid up.  Proud white tuna clippers were tied up together like derelicts with the same two or three day growth, but for these once noble vessels the whiskers were the red stains of rust  that streaked down across names such as United Victory, Conte Bianco, and Jennifer B.

Dad had heard of the shrimping industry on the Texas gulf coast and decided to come down and give it a try. By the late 1940s’ people had begun to accept and eat the deep water brown shrimp instead of thinking they were rotten white shrimp from the bays.  I liked Rockport because my dad allowed me to go with him to the harbor.  I spent many hours playing at Jackson’s fish house and watching the boats unload their catch.  Now I was thirteen; that meant I’d been hanging out around the water front for almost ten years.  I had a long string of acquaintances, all with their own unique salty flavor.  Among them were Tom Cat Shelby, a net fisherman who stayed with Mr. Charlie when he wasn’t fishing, and Don Sellers, a very intelligent young man whose hobby was building scale models of three masted lumber schooners.  Between jobs Don would occasionally bunk with Mr. Charlie, too.

I had spent many hours at Charlie’s place over the years listening to stories of the old days in Rockport. He’d been a young man at the turn of the century and described a Rockport of grand hotels and frequent passenger trains full of tourists from San Antonio.  He spoke of a prosperous water front that included a large railroad pier and several bathing pavilions.  But today I especially remembered the time he had told me about the great storm of 1919.  I had been on my way home after seeing my father off on a fishing trip.  He was to be out in the Gulf for five to seven days trawling for shrimp in about 30 fathoms of water.  I always felt sad when dad left, partly because I knew I wouldn’t be hanging around the fish house while his boat was not in port.  However, as I rode my bike out of the shell drive way, I saw Mr. Charlie coming back from his afternoon walk around the harbor.  He waved and invited me in for a coke. It was late summer—the season of the storms, and I was always uneasy when dad departed during hurricane season.  Mr. Charlie and I talked as we he poured me a coke and himself a hot cup of coffee, and I had asked him about the worst hurricane he had ever experienced.  He sipped his coffee and began to paint a fractured verbal picture of a small fishing resort devastated by a very large hurricane, the storm of 1919.  This one had been so large that in its early stages it was said to have been noticed off the west coast of Africa.  He recalled wading through waist deep water just south of the Aransas County court house and ultimately seeking shelter in the school building, on North Live Oak. After the storm he and his uncle worked with others searching for bodies of those who had drowned. During the search he had a close brush with a 15 foot alligator and had been knocked head over heels by a blow from his large tail. San Antonio had not heard from Rockport for five days after the storm hit.  Mr. Charlie had created quite a painting in my imagination, one I often thought about during hurricane season.

Today it was warm and calm, but the whole town was bustling with excitement. School had been canceled, no football practice today! The undefined area of squalls had intensified and had been upgraded to a hurricane.  Since it was the third storm of the year it would be given a name beginning with “C”:  Carla; just a woman’s first name.  Little did I know what that name would mean in just a few short days.

My dad had been back in port for a week or so, watching the unsettled weather, looking for a break; boat payments don’t wait just because the weather is stormy. My dad had a reputation for fishing in bad weather; he had no choice. In addition to boat payments his second daughter was beginning college. My mom and younger sister had left only that morning to take her to TWU in Denton. Dad and I left the house early and made our usual visit to Brocado’s Cafe.  He drank coffee with the other fishermen and talked about the storm.  Which way would it go?  Would it continue to strengthen?  What would they do with their boats?

My dad sought advice from some of the old-timers as to where the best holding ground was in Aransas Bay. It was probably Jimmy Frandolig or old Mr. Alvin Brundrett who told dad that the best anchorage in the bay was between the Intracoastal Waterway and the north end of Mud Island.  Dad said that since the insurance deductible on his boat was so high, he really couldn’t afford to have any damage due to the storm.  He was planning to take the Conte Bianco, out into Aransas Bay and anchor on the other side where the best holding ground was.  He would stay aboard in case the anchor line broke.  Since school was canceled because of the storm I wanted to go with him, but my Mom had made arrangements for me to stay with my friend Jack Gwynn while she was away.  Jack’s mom owned the Sea Shell Shoppe, and while she spent the morning preparing her store to weather the storm, Jack and I were running around the harbor and down town area watching all the activity. We saw a large crane down at the turning basin removing the mast from the ARGO, Mr. Bailey’s 50 foot yacht.  Later we walked down to the beach to watch the rising tide.  The sky was cloudy by now; the bay was rough and the same leaden color of the sky.  The wind began to increase in strength as we watched the ARGO motoring north from Rockport harbor.  She looked naked with out her tall mast.

Shrimp trawlers were moving out as well, seeking refuge away from the short pilings that lined the boat slips in Rockport harbor. As the tide rose and the wind increased the pilings would become the demise of any vessel that broke her moorings.

The larger gulf boats sought a good holding ground somewhere in Aransas Bay. Others were heading north to seek shelter in the Victoria barge canal.  Jack and I ran and played on an empty beach.  We watched Mr. Bailey anchor the ARGO in Little Bay and row ashore in the dinghy, then noticed Jack’s mother waving at us to come.  As we drove back down the beach and through the empty boarded up downtown she scolded us for running away with a big hurricane headed toward Rockport.  We made on our way to Taft, where we stayed for two nights with Capt. Jones’ wife Mildred.  It rained so hard most of the time that I was sure the roof must be about to cave in.  It seemed like the boredom would never end.  Finally, driving back into Rockport on the third day, we saw that many buildings had been severely damaged by wind and high water.  Most of the down town stores had at least 6 inches of sand and mud.  As we neared the Shell Shoppe there were bay boats blown up on the road next to the harbor. The area between the Navigation District office and Little Bay was strewn with smaller shrimp boats, up to about 30 feet in length.  At last my anxious glances found the Conte Bianco, tied up at the ice dock, right where she was moored when we fled the storm.  She looked as though she had never left her berth.

rus04

First Light – Steven Russell  (Courtesy of the artist)

I hurried down the driveway to the fish house, scampered out the ice dock and jumped aboard. My dad was there, and I eagerly listened as he told me about his trip.  He had run across the bay between the intracoastal canal and Mud Island.  About 2 miles west of the ranch house he put out his standard anchor and cable.  He used a north hill anchor with two fathoms of 5/8 inch chain attached to 100 fathoms of inch and a half nylon line.  This line was connected to another chain that was rove through the anchor davit and shackled into the forward bit.  There was no way that line was going to chafe!  My dad had always told me that a sailor who let his lines chafe was no seaman.  Then, dad did one thing he didn’t ordinarily do when he anchored in the gulf: he attached one of his towing cables to the anchor, shackling it into the same chain beside the inch and a half nylon.  He let out 115 fathoms of the 5/8 inch steel towing cable for safety.  As night approached dad said he thought he could make out a dark wall of heavy clouds on the eastern horizon, the bar of the storm. Fully Clingman had been decking for dad and he was aboard, along with Sam Thompson and his wife.  After battening down all hatches and securing all loose gear the four settled down to a supper of beef stew and hot coffee.  After dinner Dad talked by radio to a few fishermen who were holed up in the Victoria Barge Canal, and then listened to the latest weather reports.  Carla seemed to be drifting toward the north; landfall was predicted between Aransas Pass and Port Lavaca.  The wind was from the north at 40 knots with gusts up to 50.  Dad had kept the main engine idling, but the sound of the big 6 cylinder “jimmy” was slowly eclipsed by the howling wind and pounding rain.  The Conte Bianco began pitching sharply to the increasingly short, but steep sea. In the shallow bay the waves became like a series of thick water fences cascading over the bow.  The barometer had fallen sharply since sundown, a sure indication of the approaching bar of the storm.

It was difficult to see anything now, the night was too dark. The rain continued and the wind increased to fifty-five knots, gusting to seventy.  Dad was wedged in his chair in front of the wheel watching the anchor line through the beam of the spotlight.  The steel cable that initially drooped down below the main anchor line was now beginning to come taught, meaning the inch and a half nylon was stretching.  One hundred fathoms of nylon was now one hundred fifteen fathoms.  Still, he was safe.  The rope manufacturers claimed nylon would stretch at least fifty percent prior to parting.  Dad eased the main engine into gear and increased the RPMs.  As he watched the anchor line, the steel cable slowly began to sink with the engine easing the strain on the nylon.  By midnight the wind was up to seventy-five knots gusting to one hundred and the glass had dropped over one inch.  Dad had to slowly increase the engine speed to relieve the strain on the anchor line.  Fully was attempting to sleep and Sam and his wife were playing cards in the galley. Dad would occasionally refresh his coffee and look out at the back deck.  The wind shrieked through the rigging and even though the engine speed was more than half, the engine noise was no longer audible.  It was an eerie loud sort of quiet.  The tops of the seas were being blown into the air.  Then on the port bow a ghostly shape appeared: a big gulf boat, adrift, rolling heavily broadside to the short steep waves.  Which one was it? Three other boats were anchored in the same area and left to ride out the storm alone.  Was it the Dorothy M., the ARSCO or the Butch B?  Dad and Fully were not sure, perhaps the Dorothy M.  She was the only one painted white and left to ride out the storm alone.

By three AM the wind seemed to back slightly, coming more out of the northwest, indicating that the storm was moving north of Rockport, as predicted.   This meant that the Conte Bianco was in the navigable semicircle of the cyclone, which was some consolation.  The glass stopped falling and remained steady almost a full inch and a half below normal.  By five A.M. the wind was blowing out of the west northwest and the speed had decreased to 60 knots gusting to 70. Carla had probably already made landfall.  Dad gave the watch to Fully and explained the need to reduce the engine speed as the wind decreased.  He had just gotten to sleep when he felt the Conte Bianco roll heavily to port.  If the bunk had not been athwartship it would have easily pitched him to the deck.  At once dad was up and in the wheel house.  It was beginning to get light. Fully was at the wheel and had increased the engine speed.  He was steering to port and he pointed to starboard. Dad looked to see another gulf boat that had broken loose and was drifting, though not rolling as much as the first one.  The ARSCO was so close you could almost read her name.  If Fully had not veered to port the vessels might have collided.

By now it was time for breakfast. Mrs. Thompson prepared a hearty one of scrambled eggs, sausage and oven toast. Dad ate, and went to sleep. After six fitful hours, he woke up.  Two P.M. It had been almost 24 hours since they’d left the dock.  The wind was now out of the southwest at about 35 knots.  It smelled of pastures, cattle, and sage grasses, reminding him of his boyhood in west Texas.  Time to heave anchor and head in! Except for an occasional waterspout, hurricane Carla was no longer a threat.  The rain fell less steadily as the Conte Bianco approached the Rockport harbor, but the level of the water on the jetty indicated that the tide was still over three feet above normal.

They tied up, Sam and his wife went home, and dad and Fully had a deserved rest on board alongside the ice dock. The next morning he walked home and checked on our house, no damage there either.  Then I had arrived, relieved to learn that everyone was safe and sound and that dad’s boat was not damaged.  After hearing the account of his adventure, I asked dad if I could have a look around, and headed home to get my bike.  It seemed extra still and quiet as I made my way to Water Street. Yes, the town was for the most part still evacuated, but there was something more: it was the proverbial calm after the storm. As I passed the old warehouse where Mr. Charlie lived, I thought about the 1919 storm and his experiences.  Now I have my own almost firsthand account of the Conte Bianco riding out hurricane Carla, and I told myself, when I’m old enough to have spare time I will tell this story to some young boy who has time to listen, and I’ll tell Charlie’s stories too, about a special little town named Rockport on Aransas Bay.

 



The Shipyard
August 1, 2016, 2:18 am
Filed under: Commerical Fishing, History, Ship Building

Rockport Yacht and Supply Company, or RYSCO as we called it, was located at the foot of Main Street. I remember the first time I saw “the yard”, I was about four years old and it seemed sprawling as it extended for two whole blocks along Water Street.  My dad had business at the First National Bank and as I waited in the car I looked in wonder at the activity going on in the shipyard across the street.  Several shrimp boats were hauled out and in various states of repair; one had a large crane looming above its superstructure.   In the next slipway a large yacht with a freshly painted bottom was waiting to go back in the water.  I had no idea that soon this “yard”; as my dad referred to it, would to me become synonymous with a big man named Albert Silchenstedt.

I remember well the first day I met big Al. It was Saturday, the day dawned cold and gray, a cold front or “norther” had passed through earlier in the week.  Dad did not go to the coffee shop that morning because his Uncle and Aunt were visiting from Lubbock.  As we sat around the breakfast table talking, an explosion that rattled our windows shocked us.  While the adults puzzled about what had happened, the phone rang. It was for my father.  He hung up the phone, quickly put his shoes on and was out the door with the tense explanation, “The Texas Twelve has blown up!”.  The Texas Twelve was Dad’s 48 foot shrimp boat. The rest of us piled into Uncle Luther’s new Mercury sedan and followed anxiously.  When we arrived at Jackson’s fish house we saw with relief that the Texas Twelve was still afloat.  Dad was in the wheelhouse and had the engine running.

From our perspective on the dock it appeared that the forward part of the vessel was intact, except for a crack at the sheer strake. A crowd had gathered and the word was that the explosion had been caused by a leak in the butane line near the stove. As we pushed our way out on the wharf we noticed that the back deck had been blown away revealing the ribs, bulkheads, and bottom planking. The naked steering quadrant atop the rudderpost seemed almost obscene in the bright morning sun.  These components that once resided in the bowels of the vessel were now exposed in a cruel way.  There was no doubt that the 48-foot gulf trawler was seriously damaged.  My dad had all bilge pumps operating and was able to keep ahead of the incoming water.  Uncle Luther asked my dad “Don, what are you going to do?”   My dad replied, “We’ll take her over to the RYSCO yard and haul her out”.  At that I quietly slipped aboard and stepped into the wheelhouse. Dad’s eyes met mine, he didn’t say anything, but his glance gave me permission to occupy my usual “battle station” post in Dad’s top bunk just behind the wheel.  From my position, just above dad’s shoulder, I could watch all the action, perched out of harm’s way.

Some of the men on the wharf cast off the mooring lines and Dad backed the Texas Twelve out of the slip.  I’d watched dad do this many times before and never dreamed this would be the last time for the Texas Twelve.  Dad shifted the faithful 671 “jimmy” from astern to ahead and gently increased the throttle with the helm hard to port.  The once stout little vessel swung around slowly and headed out of the turning basin toward the RYSCO marine lift near the harbor entrance.  As we approached the yard I was distracted by a beautiful little bungalow nestled amidst palm and banana trees. This little oasis was situated between two sprawling shipyards, Mr. Rice’s yard to the north and RYSCO to the south.  I marveled that though I knew every inch of Water Street I’d never noticed the driveway, near the end of Warf Street that connected this interesting hideaway to the rest of the world.  Suddenly the vibration of the engine going astern woke me from my daydream.  Ahead, the cradle was submerging and a docking skiff was standing by to take mooring lines and to adjust the keel blocks.  Dad eased the vessel into the submerged cradle, watching closely the hand motions of the docking master.  I could tell that we were being lifted as the Twelve” was suddenly still and had none of the motions of a floating vessel.  Soon the lift stopped and we were 15 feet in the air.  The shipyard crew put up a ladder and we scampered down to survey the bottom.  I was shocked when I looked directly at the stern. The transom and bulwarks were completely gone along with the name, TEXAS TWELVE Rockport, Tex.  However, the cypress planking below the waterline was intact, except for just above the keel where several open seams of which the caulking had been blown out.

It was then that I saw Al walking down the dock, his eyes intent as he surveyed another vessel. This tall man had an interesting air about him.  It was hard to tell what it was; perhaps it just seemed as though he knew more about ships than anyone else.  It was as if he related to ships as a doctor to his patients, and those around him could sense the empathy he felt, an attribute not always understood by others, but always respected.  He greeted my father, and as they talked it became apparent that neither of them had any hope of repairing the once stout trawler.  They were however, mildly amused about the excellent condition of the galvanized nails that had previously held the transom planking in place.  My dad commented that he had worried about the condition and integrity of those nails on more than one stormy winter night while he rode out a “nother” in thirty fathoms of water off Matagorda Light.

I liked Al, and he and my father became good friends; I‘m not sure why, possibly because my dad and Al were both outsiders. They each had had commercial fishing experience outside the somewhat closed little community of Rockport.  Al was the son of a Norwegian immigrant who settled in New Orleans and opened a ship chandlery.  Al had fished and built boats in Louisiana prior to moving to Rockport to manage RYSCO.  Dad, who was raised in west Texas, had fished with the commercial tuna fleet out of San Diego, California and had previously owned and operated an albacore boat in nearby San Pedro.

The Texas Twelve did not fish again; the underwriter’s survey declared her a “total loss”.  Dad acted quickly and made an offer to the insurance company to secure the wreck.  He salvaged the engine, reduction gear, electronics and most of the fishing gear.  His plan was to build a new boat and fit her with as much of the salvaged gear as possible.  Early the next spring the keel would be laid for the 54’ Conte Bianco.  

From that point on I had the run of this sleepy little shipyard. Later I discovered a large yacht, the Lady Cora II, berthed in one of the large boathouses that lined most of the yard’s harbor frontage.  This was by far the biggest yacht I‘d ever seen.  It was converted from a World War II PT boat and belonged to the owner of RYSCO.  I was surprised to find out that Al was not the owner, but Mr. Tiny Smith.  I’d never heard of that first name, and when I finally met Mr. Smith I was tickled to discover that he was not tiny at all.

“The yard” became my favorite place to be when Dad was out fishing. Big Al was the General Manager, and he always welcomed me and asked if there was anything I needed.  Dad had bought me a little 8’ skiff to play in at the beach, and I often took big Al at his word.  There was always some scrap plywood or an old paint can with a little paint in the bottom that would go a long way on an eight foot punt.

Over the next few years I noticed quite a change in “the yard”.   Construction began on a 65’ gulf trawler built of Honduras mahogany and eventually christened the ADVENTURER.  My uncle commented on its heavy scantlings: “You couldn’t put your head between the frames,” he said.  I’d never seen any wood with such clear and uniform grain.  At every opportunity I sifted through the mountain of scraps that grew almost overnight near the huge band saw that cut the timbers to shape.

Soon “the yard” began to build steel hulled trawlers, these 72’ “Rockport hulls” became quite well known in the fishing industry worldwide.  Japan, Venezuela, French Guinea, Surinam, and West Africa were some of their foreign destinations, not to mention all the gulf states of the US.  At the beginning of this construction boom an incredible thing happened to me.  I was 13 years old, in the 7th grade, and my parents generously gave me a 16’ sloop for Christmas. The Fancy Free was a beauty! Steve Atwood, a very accomplished boat builder, had built it for himself; she had a semi-V bottom, centerboard, and professionally sewn sails. The weather warmed up after Christmas and we launched the Fancy Free at the turning basin just behind the Shell Shop.  My friend, Rudy Nava, and I paddled it around to the RYSCO wharf and tied up on the south side in the shallows near the shore.  Dad had asked Al if we could moor there and I never had a doubt that big generous Al would say anything but “Sure, go right ahead”.  What a dream for a 13-year-old sailor**.

The men at the yard were still as nice to me as ever. I became good friends with the man who cared for the LADY CORA II.  Mr. Smith’s private yacht was moored on the other side of the pier from the Fancy Free, inside the largest boathouse I’d ever seen.  Jim, her caretaker, busied himself daily keeping this Lady clean and shipshape.  The windows were always spotless, the bright work freshly varnished.  Jim began painting the bow and when he arrived at the stern he began again at the bow.   We became good friends and occasionally he came out to sit in the warm sun in the lee of the Lady’s big barn and watch me dress up my own little yacht.  Sometimes he invited me down to the Lady’s galley for a coke or a cup of hot coffee.  It seemed that this boat always smelled of fresh varnish.

With the construction of the steel hulls the sleepy nature of the yard slowly vanished. Yes, the men remained my friends and I still had the run of the yard, big Al was still generous and the scrap piles and rubbish heaps were mine for the asking.  But I now saw men with a purpose as the hull numbers rose to double digits and eventually triple digits.  I saw men who had been painter’s helpers with bottles stashed in the paint locker become painting superintendents.  I no longer saw the cases of beer stacked up in the big shed on payday. Rockport, with her heritage of shipbuilding, was in production again, and I knew the man that was the catalyst: Big Al.  Over the years my father delivered two or three of the trawlers to South America and West Africa.  One of these vessels was the Cayenne Borden, which he fished for several years out of French Guyana.  He later lost this vessel on the rocks of Devil’s Island and was shipwrecked there for a short time, but that’s another story.

It was about this time that Don Sellers, one of my favorite water front friends, entered the RYSCO picture. I met Don while he was working on my dad’s boat about the time I met Big Al. Don Sellers was very talented, he had apprenticed with a local shipbuilder named Westergard in the 1930s and 40s. Mr. Westergard had grown up while sail was still an important part of shipping, and had encouraged Don to build a small, fast sailing vessel.  Don did so, was hooked, and became a student of naval architecture and shipbuilding.  The models he built, completely from scratch, of the three masted lumber schooners that had frequented the Sabine River in the early 1900s were second to none.  After visiting the Smithsonian and other maritime museums in England and Holland I now realize that Don was a master model builder.

Now I was in college, a midshipman at a merchant marine academy, following the wonderful role models set before me. As I studied naval architecture I thought of Don and his model building. I think that I was the only one in my class who already knew what a buttock or a water plane line was.  When I studied steel ship construction and learned about the exponential increase in costs due to the fairing of a steel hull, I thought about Al’s classic 72’ Rockport hull. The hull form Al created overcame the design limitations of steel incorporating the lines of the traditional full-bodied wooden trawler, with the strength and durability of steel.

It was during Christmas break that freshman year that I visited with Don Sellers, busy building two schooner models. An old high school classmate who now owned a fleet of large commercial vessels had commissioned them. With excitement Don shared that he was now employed as a marine draftsman with RYSCO.  This excited me, too!  Now Don could use his talent in a professional way.  We looked at all the books he was studying on Naval Architecture and ship construction, and talked late into the night.

I went home and dreamed of water planes, buttock lines, and block coefficients, very proud of the men I’d watched and been impacted by over the years. Of course the dreams were played out on a stage called “the yard”.

**Postscript:

We had many wonderful days of salt, sail, and sun that winter and spring. After 45 years the classic painting Breezing Up (Fair Wind) by Winslow Homer still reminds me of the windy summer afternoons on Aransas Bay. As the sun moved into the western sky the wind would freshen and the choppy bay would turn to a deep green just like the painting.  Homers critics said he was too realistic, I’m glad he was!  When I look at the print above my bed I feel the motion of an open sloop reaching out into Aransas Bay, hull down, windward rail high and I can just make out two or three barefooted boys sitting high on the starboard rail looking to windward for signs of St. Joe Island.

breezing up

Breezing Up (Fair Wind) by Winslow Homer



Book review: Carry On Mister Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham
June 19, 2016, 2:54 pm
Filed under: Family, History, Philosophy, Sailing

Although this biography of the little known “Father of American Navigation”, Nathaniel Bowditch (1773 – 1838), won the 1956 Newberry Medal for children’s literature, I must admit that when I first began reading it to my children, I was taken by it because of my own familiarity with his work, The American Practical Navigator. As a second generation professional mariner, I had used Bowditch’s magnum opus as a text book in college and a reference book at sea. It has remained the “bible” of navigation to professional navigators since its original publication in 1802, and had a special place in my heart. However, as we read on, I found Carry On, Mr. Bowditch to be a well-written, fast-paced and exciting narrative by an author who is clearly very sensitive to what is important to a child.

My seven children loved this book for perhaps a variety of reasons: like Nathaniel they were each one of 7 children born into what some may have called a poor family, since their mother did not work outside our home, being gainfully employed educating our children. Like Nathaniel, who had to stop formal schooling at 6th grade for economic reasons and ultimately became an indentured servant, my children received their “formal education” in the midst of chores and familial obligations.

One of the enduring themes of Bowditch’s life is the absence of self-centeredness combined with the “Yankee ingenuity” that characterized our young nation. In his early teens, Nat is indentured to the owners of a ship chandlery and his dreams of studying mathematics at Harvard appear to be dashed forever. At that time an old sea captain explains to young Nathaniel how becalmed ships would make headway “sailing by ash breeze.” In other words, the seamen would simply get into a longboat and tow the ship using oars of ash and their own “blood, sweat, and tears.” In parallel fashion, when Nat wants to read Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, the standard university mathematics text of the day, he finds he will first have to learn Latin. Unable to afford a tutor, he acquires a Bible in Latin, along with a Latin grammar book, and studies it himself by carefully comparing the Latin with the English of his own Bible. In principio erat Verbum et Verbum erat apud Deum et Deus erat Verbum: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God (John 1:1). He went on to learn French in the same way in order to provide for himself the education that had been denied him by his economic circumstances.

Bowditch endured many other difficulties and setbacks, but rather than allowing himself to become a victim, he persevered, and ultimately used his great intellect to serve his community, his nation, and the world. At that time loss of life at sea was very great, and Nathaniel used his mastery of mathematics to correct hundreds of serious errors in the current navigation tables, to improve navigational methods, and to communicate these concepts in such a way that common able-bodied seamen could master the sophisticated techniques of astronomical observation at sea.

Copyright © 2016 by Eric G Henderson

 

 



Book review: Call It Courage by Armstrong Sperry (author & illustrator)
June 19, 2016, 2:46 pm
Filed under: Family, Philosophy, Sailing

This was a real book of beginnings for me when my teenage sister read it to me for the first time nearly 60 years ago! I was about 8 or 9, and I could never have read it for myself at that age, as I struggled with some kind of learning disability, but because someone took the time to introduce me to this excellent book, I (and my children) have loved it ever since.  By God’s grace I have tried to embraced the many worthwhile themes that run through this marvelously written little book, not only courage, but the importance of friendships and loyalty, and the satisfaction of completing a difficult task yourself: self-reliance tempered by a realistic understanding that we are definitely subject to circumstances beyond our control, and that everyone cries out to God when it gets bad enough. Furthermore, the author himself provides some beautiful sketches that are just enough to inspire the imagination of a youth.

This current age of media has crippled the imaginative development of the average child and caused the seed that should have grown in to a huge banyan tree of imagination to be stunted and totally dependent upon the imagination of the film or video-game huckster. This book could provide a healthy counter to that sad phenomenon! To those who reviewed this book on the internet and said their kids could not get into this book, I ask: “Did you break the hard shell off this delicate, delicious, nutritious nut for them by reading it to them? Do you lead by example in reading challenging and worthwhile books yourself?”

The author Armstrong Sperry traveled extensively through the South Pacific as a young man and was inspired by the great seafaring adventure novelists: Melville, Stevenson, and London. Call It Courage won him the coveted Newberry Metal for children’s literature in 1940.

Sperry made the following comment about his book:

“I had been afraid that perhaps in Call It Courage, the concept of spiritual courage might be too adult for children, but the reception of this book has reaffirmed a belief I have long held: that children have imagination enough to grasp any idea, and respond to it, if it is put to them honestly and without a patronizing pat on the head.”

Copyright © 2016 by Eric G Henderson



A Boat Building Endeavor
March 15, 2016, 11:42 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Most boys who live near the ocean or another large body of water have dreamed of having a boat. If the family happens to be wealthy that dream is easily reachable, but if you are like most people in the world, then you must first dream about building a boat. You may ask “why?” about such dreaming, and to answer that question I defer to Rat, one of the characters in the children’s book Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame:

“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing—absolute nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. In or out of ’em, it doesn’t matter. Nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all…”

When I was very young, in San Diego California, I knew nothing of a great body of water that existed less than twenty miles to the west. Shortly after I was born my parents moved to a hill top home on an acre and a third in the sleepy rural village of El Cajon. My first memories were there in our lovely back yard and the beautiful steep hill where my dad tended his “54 fruit and nut bearing trees.” He had installed an irrigation system and the fruit we had from his labors and the rich California soil were delicious. I don’t remember understanding why my dad went away periodically until one day when I was about 2 and a half we went to meet him at his commercial fishing boat when it came into the San Diego Harbor. I will never forget the smell of the salt water, kelp, and the great tuna fish they were unloading. In addition to the warmth of the sun was a refreshing coolness that wafted in off the Pacific. There was something else – though I was too young to understand that this vessel, the United Victory, had just arrived from a three month fishing trip that had taken it as far south as Panama, Peru, and the Galapagos Islands – I felt something of the romance that exudes from such happenings.

Less than a year later we moved to the Gulf Coast of Texas: to Rockport, a small fishing village on Aransas Bay. This shallow bay was connected to the Gulf of Mexico by Lydia Ann Channel and Aransas Pass. Our home was two blocks from the beach and as a three year old I was allowed to go wading and hunting for crabs with my older sisters. The water was very shallow for a hundred yards and we felt very safe wading and in the summer swimming.  It was at this stage that I remember contemplating building a boat for the first time. I was probably five or six and had been given the freedom to wander down a dirt lane to our beach and play on my own.  One day it came upon me as I lay dreaming on the floor of our front room. This room was a screened in porch which served as our living room, especially in the summer when it was so hot.  We congregated here to catch the cool breeze off the water. That day my mom had setup her ironing board and was busy ironing clothes. As I looked up from the floor I noticed that the underside of the ironing board was a wide wooden plank. I soon began to imagine how I could take that blank and build some sides on it and make a boat.  It was not till later that I read Rat’s eloquent description of pure joy, but somehow I knew, though unfortunately I could not express it.

I began fulfilling this dream as a child and have actually have owned and still own many boats, I never have completed the actual construction of one. Now that my children are raised I have begun another boat building project. This is not a 50 ft. schooner nor a 32 ft. North Sea pilot boat cutter, (for both of which I have the plans) but an Eastport Nesting Pram that is slightly under 8 feet, the size of the first boat that my parents gave me a year or so after I had that first daydream.  For the past three weeks I have been cutting out the parts from Okoume marine plywood.  Next weekend I hope to begin assembling the hull using the stitch and glue method. As an elementary school student I got very low marks on my report card in “finishing tasks assigned,” and my bosses over the years have been overjoyed about my enthusiasm for new projects and how fast I could complete the first 70%`, but may have been distressed at my progress in the final 30%.  So it was with some trepidation that I started this project. I could have jump-started it by buying the kit that comes with all the parts already cut out by a CNC machine (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-oxPS1I_wc0), but I wanted to “do it myself.” I am not sure I would recommend it, but I did save a couple hundred bucks. This link will take you to some pictures of what the finished product will look like, (http://www.clcboats.com/shop/boats/wooden-sailboat-kits/eastport-pram/eastport-nesting-dinghy.html)

 



Three Generations of Hendersons and the Panama Canal
March 15, 2016, 11:36 pm
Filed under: Family, History, Sailing, Travel
Eric (4), Dad, Uncle Gray, & Uncle George
Eric (4), Dad,  Great Uncle George, & Uncle Gray

 

As a young man in high school I read The Royal Road to Romance, by Richard Halliburton, the quintessential 20th century adventurer and author. There were a whole slew of these guys in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Joseph Conrad, Mark Twain, and Jack London to name a few. They went exploring and seafaring and then wrote novels about their adventures that were devoured by a general populace unable to go adventuring themselves. Thus they traveled vicariously, seeking a sense of adventure in the only way available to them, through books. I still did not understand the term romance even after I read Halliburton’s book. But much later, GK Chesterton, one of my favorite authors, seemed to unlock the mystery for me. He writes:

“How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world, and yet at home in it?…I wish to set forth my faith as particularly answering this double spiritual need, the need for that mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar which Christendom has rightly named romance.

For….nearly all people I have ever met in this western society in which I live would agree to the general proposition that we need this life of practical romance; the combination of something that is strange with something that is secure. We need so to view the world as to combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome. We need to be happy in this wonderland without once being merely comfortable.”

Although, I knew nothing of romance at such a young age, I do remember vividly sitting in our backyard as a baby of 8 – 14 months and enjoying my Dad’s first morning home after months at sea on one of the large tuna clippers common to this coast in the 1940s.

Our backyard: My mom and Dad holding me & my sister Linda on the left.

Our backyard: My mom and Dad holding me & my sister Linda on the left.

From his home port of San Diego, CA, he fished as far south as Panama and occasionally near the Galapagos Islands. And, I recall being able to get a glimpse of that totally foreign environment in which he lived, worked, and rested for months at a time. Although we moved from San Diego to Rockport a couple of months before my third birthday, I can still remember traveling with my mother and sisters from our hill top home in the nearby rural community of El Cajon to the busy San Diego waterfront to meet my dad’s boat, the United Victory.

uvsteam

As we approached the docks the fresh smell of that cold ocean filled my nostrils imprinting the memory in my mind as other emotions ran high. The ocean was a new world, far from our hill and the rural setting of fruit orchards and paddocks. I remember clearly walking around the cabin, seeing the bunk room where he slept, the galley where he ate, (guarded vigilantly by an ancient cook), and a Catholic shrine that I peered at with great awe, but did not comprehend. All these impressions combined with others over succeeding years to create a sense of romance for me. As Chesterton says: the familiar with the unfamiliar.

From my earliest memory as a child my geographical world was framed by the points of a triangle, the first point was the place of my birth El Cajon, California, near San Diego. The second was Rockport, Texas, where we moved in 1951 when I was almost three, and third, oddly, was the Panama Canal, though I would not know it personally for almost another 20 years. It was talked about often in my home and it captured my imagination. After all, it was a nearby wonder of the world, and occasionally my father’s tuna boat had stopped at the Panamanian port of Balboa on the Pacific side of the isthmus. In addition, my dad and his brother Gray had worked in the Canal Zone during the Second World War and they often reminisced when my Uncle Gray visited us. One day I was impressed to hear that they had an uncle who had actually helped build the Panama Canal, my great uncle George Henderson. In fact I sport two middle names after these men, George and Gray, my dad’s “best drinking buddies”. It wasn’t till I was about four or five that I remember actually meeting my great uncle George. We had already moved to Texas where my dad was continuing his fishing career in the Gulf of Mexico, fishing for brown shrimp 30 – 40 miles off the Texas coast. Depending on the season he would work as far as the Mexican border to the south and almost as far as the Mississippi Delta to the east. During this time Uncle Gray decked for my dad on the TEXAS 12, the first gulf boat my dad purchased in Texas. It was in this context that Uncle George, now retired, came to visit us. He would get up early and go to the boat with us and I would sit with him, my father, and my Uncle Gray at the galley table were they would drink coffee and talk till it was time to go to work at 8. During these early mornings I would listen to them talk about many aspects of their trade and often the talk came back to Panama. My dad, and uncle Gray would speak of their experiences working with the SEABEEs in the canal zone during WWII and Uncle George, a relatively quiet man, would brighten, and tell stories of his early 20s when he joined the other 25,000 Americans and a much larger number Caribbean islanders who provided the labor force for this great effort that really was one of the great peace time achievements of history. After I learned of the tremendous loss of life in its building (5,600 during the American phase and more than 20,000 during the French attempt) I realized that my uncle was a man from another time, and I remembered an incident on my father’s shrimp boat the TEXAS 12 which illustrates this. Uncle George had gone out on a trip with my father and Uncle Gray. They were usually out in the gulf for 4 -6 days, fishing through the nights anchoring and sleeping through the days. My Uncle Gray was letting out the net or “putting over” as they called it and the cable that was paying out rapidly back-lashed and it hit my Uncle’s little finger at the last joint as he gripped the brake wheel. The finger was severed and dangled by threads of sinew and muscle. My great uncle George quickly took out his pocket knife finished the job and tossed it into the gulf.

Soon after those days of gulf fishing and morning family camaraderie, my father would take his own newly built shrimp boat, the Conte Bianco, through the Canal into the Pacific shrimping grounds off the coast of Columbia and in the Mexican Gulf of Tehuantepec. In the early sixties, on his first trip home from Columbia, I listened so earnestly as he described his first canal transit from the Atlantic to the Pacific, that I can almost remember the pilot’s name even today! Then just 10 years later, I would join the SS Inger in New Orleans, where she was discharging 20,000 tons of raw Hawaiian sugar and after loading alumina (aluminum oxide) in Ingleside, Texas, I too would be bound for Panama.

inger_aransas

I was a green third mate when I joined the Inger and I was fascinated to learn that this ship had originally been the T2 Tanker, Fort Casper, built in 1945 at the end of WWII. She was one of 460 T2s built to support the war effort. These work horses carried 65 million tons of heavy oil, diesel fuel, and gasoline to the war zones. After being sold several times she and her sister ship were purchased by Reynolds Metals Company and converted from a liquid bulk carrier to a dry bulk carrier. Her bow and stern were cut off and the mid-body removed and a new slightly wider mid-body, designed to carry dry bulk, was inserted. The mid-ship house which included officer quarters and bridge was removed and fitted atop the stern house. This process was done on many of the war surplus tankers, many of the early Sea Land container ships were “jumboized” like this. Since the engine room was in the stern and the ground tackle and anchor windlass was on the bow all useful components of the ship were saved.

color_walterRice

Little did I realize that first trip that I would make another 15 canal transits on the Inger. After departing Ingleside, Texas, we steamed seven days south to Panama. The excitement began as we approached Limon Bay and the port of Cristobal. The large harbor was protected by two long breakwaters that extended out into the bay leaving a relatively small entrance. As we approached that first night I noticed other ships to port and starboard that were obviously making for the same entrance. Our agent had received a cable from us indicating our estimated time of arrival, but the final position in the canal queue was the order that your vessel passed through the breakwater. I’m sure that breakwater entrance was the source of more than one close call or even collision. Once inside the breakwater we would contact the Panama Canal Authority to announce our arrival and get instructions. Normally we were instructed to proceed to one of the anchorage areas and await our Pilots. The Inger required two Pilots because of the two cranes that reduced visibility of the lock wall when looking from the opposite bridge wing. So we had one on either wing when we moved through the locks. Normally they had groups of ships or convoys that would depart together and pass each other in lake to avoid ships passing in the nine mile Culerbra cut, which was the narrowest stretch. Before entering the locks Panamanian line handlers came aboard to handle the cables that attached the vessel to the electric locomotives or mules. These mules did not pull the vessel through the locks, the ship moved by her own steam and the mules, under direction of the pilots, used their winch to maintain clearance between the lock walls and the sides of the ships. Ship personnel that took up special stations during the transit where: The Captain on the Bridge, the third mate on the bridge manning the telegraph transmitting engine orders to the engine room, the chief mate and the Bosun on the bow and the second mate on the stern during lockage. If the transit was at night the cooks and stewards would prepare and serve a breakfast at midnight. On the Atlantic side the Gatun Locks were encountered first by the southbound convoy; these locks lift the vessel 85 feet in three steps up to the level of Gatun Lake. At each end of the locks there were two miter gates, as a safety precaution. In case a ship collided with one, the other would still remain intact. These gates although made of iron are hollow and float, so the stress on the great hinges is small. It only takes a 40 HP electric motor to drive the great bull gear that opens and shuts the gates. The weight of all of the gates has been compared as equal the weight of the great passenger liner the Titanic.

Panama_canal_crosssections

After departing Gatun Locks the vessel would proceed across Gatun Lake through channel marked by buoys. During this stage the ships of the north bound convoy would pass, proceeding on through what was the Chagres River Valley the canal narrowed with rising hills and mountains on either side as the continental divide was is approached. This section is called the Culebra Cut and is about nine miles in length.

Inger_cut

Next is Pedro Miguel Lock (one step) then a short distance across Miraflores Lake to Miraflores Locks for the final two steps down to the Pacific Ocean. The approach channel passes by the Pacific port of Balboa. The pilots are dropped off and the Inger heads south and west to clear Cape Mala and soon turning North West up the beautiful coast of Central America.

Our port of discharge was Longview, Washington about three hours up the Colombia River. The Colombia River Bar is said to be one of the roughest bars in the world. Then we would sail in ballast (empty) to Hawaii and load 20,000 Tons of raw sugar and then back to Panama and then to Galveston or New Orleans. The trip took about two months. The officers on the ship would rotate two trips on and one trip off.

I often thought about my dad and my great uncle George as I passed through, it was a busy time, but a welcome change to the uneventful days at sea. I wondered what work Uncle George had done, did he work on one of the giant Byrus steam shovels, or on the trains continually hauling the spoil away to the great Gatun Dam or possibly on track maintenance or the innovative steam crane that picked up tracks ties and all and shifted them from side to side. I don’t know, I’m sure he talked about it but I did not understand or was daydreaming,  or looking in the water for a catfish to gig. I was proud to have known him and through him had a little part in the building of a great modern day world wonder.

Halliburton, I later found out, was not immune to the lure of the canal and in 1928 was the first man to swim its 50 odd miles in its entirety. People had swum it before, but had not been allowed to swim through the locks at either end. However Halliburton they allowed, charging him the standard canal fee based on tonnage; so plugging in his weight of 140 pounds they calculated his transit fee of 34 cents, the smallest toll ever for a canal transit.

I have always had a fascination with canals. The thought of huge ocean going vessels passing through a pasture or farm or jungle or the thought of this incredibly effective mode of transportation where huge steel or iron vessels laden with an even greater weight of cargo floats and moves relatively easily on this magic liquid. Perhaps I first experienced this when as a very young boy sitting on a dock next to my dad’s boat. I was sternly admonished, by my uncle, not to get my hand or foot between the boat and the piling, if I did and the boat moved against the pile, he said: “that’s all she wrote”. On the other hand it really intrigued me when I pressed all my 50 pounds down on a mooring line and saw this heavy vessel slowly move to my slight weight.



July 4, 2015
July 5, 2015, 9:35 pm
Filed under: History, Travel | Tags:

July 4, 2015

Oh, the myopia of youth! I never really considered that someday I would be living in the 21st-century, but as I write this I am even more surprised that a decade and a half of it has already slipped by. I pondered America’s Independence Day yesterday amid all the many festivities, which included contacts with both old and new friends. To begin with, Nathan Shenk, Word Adkins, Nora Brett and Isabella (David Brett’s sister-in-law who is visiting from Germany) joined me for an early-morning sail. It was her first time on a sail-boat, and because of that, I suppose, we all focused on Isabela. I asked her to steer and as she eagerly embraced the helm of North Wind, we barraged her with questions. She responded vivaciously and articulately, even though English is her third language (after German and Italian), and enlightened us with her first hand European experiences, clear observations of current events, and fresh view our own country through the two states she has briefly visited: California & Texas (suburban LA , Austin, and Rockport).

Later, after a busy day of yard work, hospitality, and more sailing, (including a dramatic “kedging off” of North Wind), I arrived home after dark and sat out in the yard listening to the end of a conversation between Sheila Murray and Georgianna about Shelia’s experience in Holland learning Dutch and attending college and medical school. Can you imagine a more daunting task than attending college classes (and med school!) in a language one is just learning? I was greatly impressed as I sat in silence and listened to these two very intelligent, well-traveled women converse. Then, to add icing on the cake, Shelia began to share that her new husband, also a doctor with a specialty in radiology, had taken a job in Rotarua, New Zealand where she will be joining him after she finishes the last of her training in Holland. Thus, I started the day with Germany and finished with New Zealand via Holland and our neighborhood, four of my absolutely favorite cultures!!

Finally, for several days I have been thinking about a particular memorial plaque that hangs in an old church in London, All Hallows by the Tower. Yesterday I had not time or will to send it to you. I certainly did not want to make you sad on the Fourth, for this plaque brought me to tears 13 months ago when I arrived in London. I was on my way to the jobs in Spain and Africa when I stopped briefly in Greenwich, England to acclimatize to the European time zone. On my way from the airport to Greenwich my underground train changed lines at the Tower of London. It was noon, so I surfaced to see this iconic sight and have a quick lunch of fish and chips. While wandering about I stepped into an old church nearby.  The Anglican service had just finished and I was invited by the Rector to join the congregation for tea and “bickies” (biscuits or cookies). I was astonished at this beautiful old church and intrigued by the many memorial plaques on the wall. Perhaps because I was extra tired after the overnight flight, the one quoted below, particularly, impacted me profoundly. This plaque reminds us of the great price that has been paid for the freedom we enjoy and which we celebrated especially yesterday, July 4, 2015!

God bless you, children, as you remember the past and the many that died for you, especially Immanuel, Jesus Christ, our Savior!

PS: You may remember that prior to the US’s involvement in WWII, the HMS Prince of Wales was the battleship that transported Sir Winston Churchill to meet President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland. Roosevelt arrived at their meeting point aboard the American heavy cruiser USS Augusta. It is also a noteworthy historical fact that Admiral Tom Phillips was the highest ranking Allied officer killed in battle during WWII.

OH VALIANT HEARTS

WITH PRIDE AND REMEMBRANCE OF

SIR TOM SPENCER VAUGHAN PHILLIPS,

                                                               K.C.B., R. N.

ADMIRAL OF THE EASTERN FLEET

AND ALL HIS COMPANY WHO WENT DOWN WITH HIM

IN H.M.S. PRINCE OF WALES AND H.M.S. REPULSE

AT SINGAPORE IN THE BATTLE OF THE MALAY PENINSULAR

10TH DECEMBER 1941.

THIS TABLET IS PLACED HERE BY HIS WIFE

AND HIS SON IN THE YEAR OF VICTORY 1945.

PEACE BE TO YOU SAILOR AND A SOUL AT REST

IN YOUR GREEN MANSION SILENT IN THE SEA

THE DOORS ARE OPENED TRUTH HAS TURNED THE KEY

AND JUSTICE ENTERS – A BELATED GUEST

 IMG_0219