Content of this Newsletter: A bit about the Deepwater Horizon, now the the film is out, Rolloos, a fantastic communications system, overcoming problems on oil rigs, The Sir Walter Scott, the Yavari and the Melik, the CIA involvement in the bombing of the Springfjord and the discovery of the wreck of HMS Terror.


This week the film of the Deepwater Horizon accident opens. I’m going to have to go to see it. It has been considered by some to be at least some sort of a memorial to the eleven guys who died in the accident, which is something we have to remember. It is unusual for a Hollywood film to be made about a recent industrial accident and one assumes that it has been prompted by the mass of publicity resulting from the pollution, and the various investigations which have been carried out, fairly well nailing BP one would say. A day or two before writing this I heard Mike Williams the electronics man from the rig talking on Radio4 responding to questions from the presenter in a way which he must by now have done many times before, but there is no doubt that without some actual knowledge of the processes it is still difficult to understand. Being an electronics man he might not initially have understood what had happened apart from the fact that the rig was burning, but doubtless he knows now. I have done my best to produce an unbiased record of the event, with sufficient background information for readers to grasp what actually happened in my book “A Catalogue of Disasters” which can be read in half an hour or so. It is developed from all the investigation reports, as well as the videos and the reports from the Coast Guard, produced during the aftermath. We should remember that the accident occurred in April 2010, more than six years ago, but it still seems pretty fresh in our minds. If you don’t fancy buying the book click on this link:


Earlier this year I was involved in the IADC (International Association of Drilling Contractors) exhibition and conference in Estoril, on behalf of the company of which I am a director. It was not fantastically attended, and drilling contractors have taken action to reduce their costs, and I suspected that some of the people who had not turned up might well have been made redundant. But whatever, we exhibitors had quite a bit of time to ourselves and so looked at each other’s stuff. Near to our stand was one for the Dutch company Rolloos, who were exhibiting a communications system. This system seemed to deal with all the failures of the existing comms on oil rigs which include endless problems with poor reception and transmission with VHF/UHF radios and lack of numbers and poor locations of wired handsets. The Rolloos system uses its own server, which is sufficiently compact to be carried as luggage on aircraft,  connected to all external inputs, together with Bluetooth transmitters scattered around the rig. The personnel are then provided with what look like more or less standard mobiles, and tablets (which can be Ex) and they can use them in the same way.  A technician in the pontoon of a semi-submersible can therefore call the office and talk to his boss onshore, even exchanging photos and reviewing the service history of the object on which he might be working, and his position on the rig can be monitored from the control room. So what’s not to like?



The Sir Walter Scott on Lake Katrine: Victor Gibson

When I was a newly qualified master mariner I worked for a few years as a stevedore superintendent in Southampton, mainly on the Cape Mail Service, the jewel in the crown of the British and Commonwealth Steam Navigation Company, and back in London the board of the company met daily to review the status of the fleet. One of their primary considerations was the amounts of cargo loaded on the outward cape vessel and discharged from the inward cape, and therefore we were alive to the means of ensuring that these figures satisfied them. One of our techniques on the outward cape was, should the expected totals be poor, to load a few CKDs – knock down cars – which were very large crates, weighing almost nothing but would be a massive boost to the day’s figures which were measured in cubic feet.

At the time I was unaware of the existence of knock down ships which similarly were constructed at shipyards in UK and then shipped to different parts of the world during the nineteenth century, and strange as it may seem today, it was common practice during the Victorian era. The yard on receipt of an order would build the ship, bolt it together carry out the trials and then unbolt it into its component pieces and ship it to the client.

There are some quite famous ships still afloat, built in this way, and one of them is the Sir Walter Scott which was built in  Dumbarton by William Denny and Brothers in 1899, bolted together, trialled on the River Clyde, taken to pieces, transported by cart and barge to Loch Katrine and reassembled there using rivets in place of the nuts and bolts. You can take a trip on it today.

Denny Brothers also built numerous knock down ships for the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company in Burma, all on the same basis, although one assumes that aspects of the operation were simpler, since it would be possible to load the complete ship into an ocean going steamer on the Clyde, and to unload it directly at its point of assembly in Burma. None of these vessel have survived, because the whole fleet was scuttled during the Second World War to prevent them falling into Japanese hands.

Possibly it was a bit more difficult to get the Coya, built in 1893, from the yard on the Clyde to Lake Titicaca the highest substantial body of water in the world, but nevertheless it was accomplished, and followed in the steps of others.

The Yavari on Lake Titicaca: Victor Gibson 

And the others? In 1861 during a war between the Peru and Bolivia the Peruvian government ordered two gunboats from the Thames shipbuilders of James Watt & Co.  The ships were constructed then disassembled into 2766 pieces and transported by sea round Cape Horn to the port of Arica which was then Peruvian. They were then transported by train to Tacna, and onwards by mule to the lake. The first of the two ships, the Yavari was re-assembled and launched on Christmas Day 1870, and the second ship the Yapura in 1873. This was 12 years after the order had been placed, and by then the war between Peru and Bolivia was over, although a later conflict between Peru and Chile resulted in the transfer of ownership of the ships to the British Peruvian Corporation. The Yapura now the BAP Puno is a medical support vessel on the lake and the Yavari is owned by the Anglo-Peruvian Association, has been restored and has recently been out on the lake under its own power, a diesel engine installed in 1914, to replace the original steam engine which had been fuelled by Llama dung.

Also towards the end of the Victorian era, and the heyday of the  knock down ship, General Gordon was killed in Khartoum by the forces of the Mahdi. He had been sent out there to evacuate the city of its European and Egyptian personnel, but instead decided to stay and fight it out, and held out for nearly a year, during which the British government was forced by public opinion to mount a rescue operation. The relief force, spearheaded by a couple of paddle steamers, arrived in January 1885 but the city had been taken and Gordon killed two days earlier.

Thereafter an expedition was mounted to recover the area from the Muslims under the command of Lord Kitchener. To make the assault from the river three new gunboats were order from Britain and sent out to Egypt in pieces. These ships, the Sheik, the Sultan and the Melik were shipped from UK in sections and were unloaded in the Bitter Lakes in the middle of the Suez Canal. Thereafter they were towed up the Sweetwater Canal and the Nile to Wahdi Haifa  then transported still in their individual sections by the newly constructed railway across the desert between there and Abadiya. The construction of the railway is itself an amazing story.

Once at Abadiya, lacking any form of crane, the sections were manhandled into the river and bolted together by the Royal Marines, and prepared for action. These vessels were small heavily armed warships, as opposed to the rest of the fleet, some of which had actually fought their way up the river to Khartoum in 1885. After participating in the battle of Omdurman the warships were kept in service by the Egyptian army, but over time most of them have faded away leaving only the Melik and one of the General Gordon vessels the Bordein in existence. It seems that the Bordein was at one point cut up, but then the hull was reassembled, and the Melik served for years as the Blue Nile Yacht Club clubhouse as well as participating in the 1938 film “The Four Feathers”, before being washed onto a sandbank by a Nile flood. Now, in 2016 it seems likely that both vessels are still awaiting restoration, despite the existence of the ‘Melik Society” based in London.


The SpringFjord (not in Guatemala): Wikipedia

One of the advantages of working directly onto a desktop computer screen is that one’s desk can become a storage area, rather than a working area, since only the space taken up by the keyboard is required. But every now and again it is time to clear up, and when I did this the other day I discovered that I had saved a page from the August 2014 edition of “The Telegraph”. The page involved the CIA sinking of a number of  “neutral” vessels, seen by them as assisting the enemies of America. Blimey! I hear you exclaim. The foremost ship mentioned in the article is the Springfjord a small British owned cargo ship which was loading a cargo of local products in Puerto San Jose in Guatemala  on 27th June 1954, when an unmarked Lockheed P-38 Lightning  flew in from the sea and bombed the ship, setting fire to it. The crew were fortunate to escape without injury, and over the next few days the ship burnt out and sank. Questions were subsequently asked in parliament after the ship-owners requested compensation from the Guatemalan government, then seen as the reason for the attack, since the population had voted in a left wing leader one whose policies was land reform. And, to add to the mystery, over 40% of the farmland in the country was owned by the United Fruit Company, in which the director of the CIA at the time, Allen Dullies, had shares.  Another British ship, the tanker San Flaviano was also sunk by unmarked aircraft also, on the orders it is suggested, of the CIA. Blogger Hugh Jaeger is on the case and would like to hear from anyone who had been involved in these incidents.


The Erebus and the Terror in New Zealand in 1841

Just now there is news from the Arctic where the wreck of HMS Terror has been discovered by a private archaeological expedition bankrolled by Canadian businessman Jim Balsillie. This discovery has been followed up by a more formal study by a team from “Parks Canada”. It is said that the ship appears to be in good condition, sunk in 24 metres of water and that the discovery of the Terror was at least in part the result of Inuit oral legends passed down through the generations.  This then is the final piece in the mystery of the loss of the Erebus and Terror, the two ships which took part in the Franklin expedition back in 1845 which went out in search of the Northwest Passage. They have been searched for numerous times in subsequent years, in attempts first of all in the hope of finding anyone from the expedition alive, and then later in the hope of finding out what had happened. And then we come to the other exciting Arctic news. Amundsen’s vessel the Maud, built in Asker in Norway which was intended to explore the northeast passage is to be recovered to its birthplace. This ship took six years to get to Nome in Alaska, where it was sold by Amundsen’s creditors and was bought by the Hudson Bay Company. It sank close to their store in Cambridge Bay in 1930 having been trapped in the ice in 1926. Although much of its upperworks have been removed – for firewood – the ship is now on a barge ready for its voyage home. 

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