A Salty Side Trip to Key West

Some places are more “salty” than others. Not surprisingly, they all have a close relationship with water…with the fringes. Key West, Florida, U.S.A. is one of them.

Key West is the southernmost island in the chain of islands that dangles like a string of pearls off the southern tip of Florida.  My wife Lynn and I visited last month while scouting retirement locations on the mainland (see previous post).

Residents call their tiny speck in the ocean the “Conch Republic.”  (Conchs are small, meaty, edible monstrosities that find homes in those shells you hold to your ear to hear the ocean.)  In 1982, after a stress-inducing U.S. Border Patrol roadblock, locals became angry and seceded from the United States.  Sort of. It was a mock secession, but residents use the incident now to boost tourism.  Key West even flies its own micro-nation flag. These folks obviously have a great sense of humor.

For such a small place, Key West has a lot going for it.  Here’s a quick tour:

L to R: Dave, Robin, Lynn, Anonymous

We stayed with friends Dave and Robin at the condo they rent every year.  I met this super-friendly retired couple while hiking the Appalachian Trail last year.  (Their permanent home is in the mountain village of Hiawassee, Georgia.)  Although we only had a brief meeting on trail, we hit it off. They invited us to stay with them, and now we’re like old friends.

The first night the four of us ate at Half Shell Raw Bar, where I satisfied my craving for seafood with raw oysters and conch fritters.  The following morning, Dave and I hiked around the island for several hours while Robin and Lynn hung out at the condo.

Then Lynn and I embarked on a whirlwind (hurricane) tour of tourist spots.  First we saw the Harry S. Truman Little White House where, beginning in 1946, President Harry Truman spent 175 days of his presidency.  His famous desk plaque that says “The Buck Stops Here” is on one of the desks.  Other presidents, dating to William Howard Taft, have also stayed here…some, like 45, who pass the buck more than others.

Truman Little White House

Next, we had nachos and Key lime pie (a KW essential) at the original Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville on Duval Street, which ranks with Bourbon Street, Times Square, and Court Street at my alma mater (Ohio University) for party spirit.  Although I’m closer to Deadhead than Parrothead, food is what mattered at this moment, and Buffett’s came through for us (largest pile of nachos—a veritable food castle—I’d ever seen).  Also, friendly service by an actual lifetime resident…a Conch, not a recently arrived Freshwater Conch.

(NOTE: authentic Key lime pie is always pale yellow, never green.  Don’t get the wrong color!)

The next stop was the Southernmost Point of the Continental U.S.A.  We actually hit this place by accident while strolling around.  The spot is identified by a large, concrete, buoy-type structure painted an ugly red, black, and yellow.  (The structure was vandalized this past New Year’s Eve by two drunken tourists who couldn’t get laid).

Musician Jimmy Buffett…
…and Margaritaville. Anyone seen a shaker of salt?

It’s important to know that this is not the southernmost point of the U.S., merely the contiguous U.S.  (The true southernmost location in the U.S. is the south tip of the island of Hawaii.)  It’s also worth noting that the concrete buoy is designed merely for tourist purposes.  (The actual southern tip of Key West is a half mile west at the Naval Air Station.)  Also, while advertised as only “90 miles from Cuba,” the distance is actually 94 miles; four miles is a lot of ocean to dog-paddle.

Tourists lining up at false southernmost point

As John Lennon sang, “Just gimme some truth.”

But I guess a lot of people choose to ignore truth, because they dutifully line up in sweltering heat to have their photo taken while posing next to this large, ugly, recently vandalized, painted cement buoy.

Continuing on, we passed the Key West AIDS Memorial at White Street and Atlantic Boulevard near Higgs Beach (one of two sand beaches on the island).  Key West has long been known as a community sympathetic to gays, and the memorial has engraved names of 1,240 people in the Florida Keys who died from complications of AIDS.  It was the first municipal tribute to AIDS victims in the world.

Speaking of profound tragedies, further down is a memorial to Africans who in 1860 were rescued by the U.S. Navy from a Cuban-bound slave ship, the Wildfire.  Despite their rescue, over 300 died from disease and malnourishment and were buried in a mass grave beneath the sand.

I found these last two memorials more interesting than the Southernmost Point. And, of course, there were fewer people.


The following day, Dave joined me in a jaunt to the Ernest Hemingway House on Whitehead Street.  Here’s where one of America’s greatest writers lived from 1931-39.  “Papa” wrote several long and short works here, including his popular short story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”

“You might as well take my last cent,” a disgusted Hemingway said as he thrust a penny at his second wife, Pauline.  She’d recently built a pool that was two-and-a-half times the cost of the property.  (Guess she thought this was cute, because she preserved the penny in concrete.)  And lazing and prowling around the property are dozens of six- and seven-toed (polydactyl) cats.  It’s still speculative that the felines are descended from a Hemingway cat named “Snowball.”

A writer’s job is to tell the truth…All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.

Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway study. He wrote in a separate annex.

Southern-Gothic playwright Tennessee Williams (The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) also lived in Key West, though we missed a visit to his house.  We also need to someday submerge ourselves in the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum.  Fisher was an American treasure hunter who, in 1973, discovered the wreck of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha, which had sunk in Florida waters in 1622.

That’s about it, mainlanders.  Hope you enjoyed the tour, and next time you eat Key lime pie, make sure it’s not green.

Coastal scene, Key West

An Ohio Yankee Visits Liverpool, England


[An Apology: in my last post, I wanted to humorously discuss absurdity and pettiness in the office. (For you young people, it happens more often than you might think.)  Sort of a Dilbert-styled satire with a casual nod to the classic short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street.”  But my wife, who reads my stuff occasionally when she has the stomach for it, characteristically sidestepped the gist of my essay and, instead, took exception to my reference to urinals.  Also, my friend Tad politely noted some double entendres that were—believe me—entirely unintentional.  Anyway, I’m sorry if I offended anyone, and I promise today’s post will go nowhere near porcelain fixtures.  No guarantees about double entendres, though.]

When I decided to fly to Glasgow to visit my daughter’s family, one of my first actions was to open my world atlas and check the distance from Glasgow to Liverpool, England. In 1964, my friend John Hire and I became fans of an exciting musical group from Liverpool. I think this was concurrent to John instructing me about his older sister’s body parts.

I’ve been marveling at and studying The Beatles’ music…and the physical attributes of the opposite sex…ever since.

But in addition to visiting the home of The Beatles, I was also curious about Liverpool as a famed seaport city. During the 19th century, Liverpool was a thriving port for American merchant ships delivering cotton to textile factories in northern England, and also a busy departure city for immigrants. In the 20th century, U.S. naval sailors took shore leave in the city and sold their blues and early rock ‘n’ roll records to working-class English youth hungry for anything with a backbeat.

American writer Herman Melville (“Bartleby,” Moby-Dick) was a young merchant sailor who visited Liverpool in 1839 and wrote stirringly, in his book Redburn, about the profound poverty of this mecca of the Industrial Revolution:

Every variety of want and suffering here met the eye, and every vice showed here its victims…Old women, rather mummies, drying up with slow starving and age; young girls, incurably sick, who ought to have been in the hospital; sturdy men, with the gallows in their eyes, and a whining lie in their mouths; young boys, hollow-eyed and decrepit; and puny mothers, holding up puny babes in the glare of the sun, formed the main features of the scene…But these were diversified by instances of peculiar suffering, vice, or art in attracting charity, which, to me at least, who had never seen such things before, seemed to the last degree uncommon and monstrous.

Ferry Cross the Mersey

Ohio Yankee, looking for ferries on the Mersey

“Uncommon and monstrous.” Hard to believe it’s the same city. Liverpool in 2019 barely resembles the city of Melville’s time, or even when the Fab Four were growing up. The dock that existed in 1839 is now below ground about 200 yards inland from the River Mersey, the water having been “reclaimed” by land. In 2008 Liverpool was recognized a European Capital of Culture by the European Union (EU), which helped encourage urban renewal, exemplified by Liverpool ONE shopping complex. Liverpool is now a top tourist destination in the UK.

Since I had a limited amount of time in Liverpool, I listed my top priorities. John Lennon’s boyhood home at Mendips, Menlove Avenue, Woolton was the bullseye. If you don’t know who John Lennon is, he’s famous for being the only person to have his name on a major British airport.

Second to this was the Cavern Club, where The Beatles first made a name in 1961-63 while playing an astonishing 292 dates (little wonder that ensemble was so tight). Third was the location of Old Dock. Fourth was St. Peter’s Church in Woolton Village, where John and Paul McCartney first met at a garden fete on July 6, 1957. And if I had time, Strawberry Field, Penny Lane, and Paul’s boyhood home in Allerton.

st. george's

St. George’s Hall, from Lime Street station

I exited Lime Street Railway station and was confronted by the neoclassical splendor of St. George’s Hall and a sea of people and buses.  I poked around Liverpool City Centre toward what I hoped would be the Mersey. It took me a while, but I eventually found Albert Dock and Merseyside Maritime Museum. The museum receptionist told me about the reclaiming that turned Mersey water into land, and that the only way to see the original 1716 Thomas Steers’ dock, the world’s first commercial wet dock (later called Old Dock), was to take an underground tour. I didn’t have the time or inclination, but I did manage to get a peep at history through a viewing window on a plaza near the Hilton Hotel.

Staring through a glass capsule in the middle of a hotel plaza while a musician absentmindedly played Beatles songs on a cheesy organ, it was a minor struggle envisioning 20-year-old Melville squeezing his way through emaciated beggars and cripples in 1839 after disembarking his vessel St. Lawrence. But for a fleeting second, I was there.

Old Liverpool Dock

Old Dock…buried under the edifice of a luxury hotel

Close to Old Dock is Mathew Street, where the Cavern Club is located, although I didn’t immediately know it. I just wandered through streets and alleyways until stumbling upon a small crowd in a curving pedestrian alley. Then…boom. There was John Lennon, lounging against a wall.

Or, at least, a life-sized statue of him. It was positioned next to a sign indicating this was the CAVERN PUB. Not to be confused with Cavern Club…but so many businesses in this area try to link themselves with The Beatles, the proprietors may want you to be confused, just to get your business. There was also a wall of bricks with numerous band names inscribed on them, some famous, some unknown. Each band had performed at one time at the Cavern Club, which existed from 1957 till 1973.

I saw a man gazing at the wall for a long time. He appeared somewhat misty-eyed. I asked if he wanted me to take his photo.  He thanked me but declined. After chatting with him a little, I learned his name was Ken, and he was looking for his band’s brick. He said he was once in a group called the Heartbeats, and it had performed at the Cavern Club on three occasions in 1966.

Liverpool Ken of the Heartbeats

Ken the Heartbeat, in front of Mathew Street Wall of Fame

Ken let me snap his photo with my own camera.  After he left, I spent a good ten minutes looking for his brick myself, but with no luck. Ken was very nice, and I really wanted to find his brick.  But it must have tumbled through the cracks of time.  (NOTE: a Manchester band called the Heartbeats did exist in the Sixties, and they later became Herman’s Hermits. But Ken never said anything about being a pre-Hermit.)

Getting back to the Cavern Club…the Club, not Pub, is actually across the alley and downwind about a hundred feet. Or, at least, a facsimile of the original club. Believe it or not, the Liverpool home of The Beatles was demolished in 1973 to make room for a proposed underground (subway) air shaft, which never materialized. The basement club was later resurrected, but with a different entrance location, interior, and stage.

I don’t consider many things sacred, but on the stupidity scale, a demolition project like this ranks with a construction project on the U.S.-Mexican border.

The original entrance is marked by a black-and-white mural with photos and a club history. Another statue is here: Cilla Black (1943-2015), who was a Cavern Club hat-check girl, then began jumping onstage to sing, then became friends with The Beatles, then forged a very successful recording and television career.

While near Mathew Street, I tried to locate the site of the record store which genius Beatles manager Brian Epstein (1934-1967) owned when he first heard about the group. It was on busy Whitechapel Street. I asked a few people, but all appeared under the age of 75 and didn’t know anything. (Some, sadly, didn’t even know the name Brian Epstein.) As for the store, it may have been swallowed by a London or U.S. land shark wearing designer clothing.


Brian Epstein

Well, if I’m gonna visit Johnny L. at Mendips, I’d better get scooting. I made one more trip to Albert Dock, to the office of the “Magical Mystery Tour” (which conducts a guided bus tour) to get a map of Beatle sites. The price of the map was typically outrageous, and the tour folks typically tried to sell me a tour ticket, since “It’s really the only way to properly see all the sites.” I smiled and told them You say ‘Yes’ but I say ‘No,’ then headed to the city bus station for my own ticket to ride.

But not before dropping into the spanking new Museum of Liverpool. As if on cue, the museum was at that moment hosting a limited-run exhibit devoted to John and Yoko. I spent about a half hour here. Yoko had a big hand in the presentation, much of which was devoted to her and John’s social activism, which I was already fairly knowledgeable about (bagism, hairism, bedism, and other peace-isms).

What really hit me was coming off the elevator, turning the corner, and hearing “Imagine” at the moment I stepped up to the photo below.

Though a deserved classic, “Imagine” isn’t one of my favorite Lennon songs. But I must say, I got a little choked up. (I kept my tears in check, though, as I didn’t want the security guard embracing me.)

There was also a large wall with upwards of a hundred handwritten notes. A pencil and a pile of blank pieces of white paper were on a small table with a sign encouraging people to scribble anything about Lennon, The Beatles, the world, universe, jelly babies, or anything one had a mind to. All the notes would eventually be delivered to Yoko.

I kept it simple and just told Yoko that her late husband’s group has been a bright piece of an Ohio boy’s life since 1964, when he lived on 142 Sherbrook Road.

Then I walked toward the elevator.  I descended, left the museum, and made my way…a sentimental old man in a foreign city, haunted by memories…to 251 Menlove Avenue.


John and Yoko exhibit, Liverpool 2


Ghost Patrol: The Strange Disappearance of Flight 19

flight 19

We all love mysteries. Edgar Allen Poe knew this. So did Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. So do those intrepid ghost hunters who propagate the idea of a deadly “Bermuda Triangle.”

The inexplicable disappearance of five U.S. naval bombers and one rescue plane in the Atlantic Ocean in the year 1945 is one of the most gnawing mysteries of the 20th century. Hundreds of ships and planes have “gone missing” throughout modern history. But how could an entire fleet disappear, only a hundred miles off the coast of Florida, with merely a few panicked radio signals to serve as an epitaph?

It happened.

December 5, 1945 was a seemingly routine day when U.S. Naval Lieutenant Charles Carroll Taylor climbed into the cockpit of his Grumman TBM Avenger torpedo bomber at 2 PM on the tarmac of the U.S. Naval Air Station (NAS) at Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Taylor was a qualified senior flight instructor with 2,500 flying hours under his belt. His job that day was to lead four other Avengers, piloted by trainees with between 350-400 flight hours, on a standard navigational training run over the Atlantic. They were to participate in a mock bombing exercise, and practice how to calculate current position using predetermined coordinates. There’s a navigational term for this: “dead reckoning.”


Lieutenant Charles Carroll Taylor

Taylor was 28 years old. He’d graduated from Naval Air Station Corpus Christi in February 1942 and had served in WWII. Photographs show him to be slim, unimposing, with languid eyes and bright white teeth. Definitely more Audie Murphy than John Wayne.

Taylor was an experienced WWII combat pilot. But he’d distinguished himself for something other than bombing Dresden: he’d ditched two planes in the ocean.

I don’t know where we are.

The Avengers left base at approximately 2:10 PM. The flight plan was to fly due east 53 miles to Hen and Chickens Shoals, unload their bombs, continue east another 67 miles, turn sharply left and fly northwest 73 miles, then turn left again and fly 120 miles southwest back to the station. A triangular pattern, not too far offshore.

The weather was a warm 67 degrees. Surface winds were 20 knots, with gusts of 30 knots. Average conditions for a training mission. But there were also scattered showers.

The low-level bombing practice at Hen and Chickens Shoals went according to plan. But at 5 PM an unidentified radio transmission was picked up at NAS. An unknown Flight 19 crew member asked U.S. Marine Captain Edward Joseph Powers, who was senior to Taylor but had less Avenger flight time, for his compass reading. Powers responded “I don’t know where we are. We must have got lost after that last turn.”

A second squadron, FT-74, had followed Flight 19 on a similar training mission that day. Lieutenant Robert F. Cox led FT-74. He requested clarification from Powers, and picked up a series of confused suggestions from Flight 19 crew members as to their exact position and flight path.

Then Taylor came on. “Both of my compasses are out,” he transmitted, “and I am trying to find Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I am over land but it’s broken.” Taylor mistakenly concluded he was over the Florida Keys. He was, in fact, hundreds of miles northeast… over the Bahamas.

By this time weather conditions had deteriorated. Heavy rain, darkness, transmission static, and radio interference from Cuba created a spiraling frustration, as evidenced by one crew member who transmitted “Dammit, if we could just fly west we would get home… head west, dammit!”

avenger with men

NAS Ft. Lauderdale pilots with a TBM Avenger aircraft in back


FT-74 radioed NAS that Flight 19 was lost. Acting on Taylor’s assumption he was over the Keys, NAS advised him to put the sun on his port wing and fly north. Taylor did, indeed, head north. Further into the black Atlantic.

We all go down together.

A British tanker, the SS Empire Viscount, was near where Flight 19 disappeared, northeast of the Bahamas. It radioed that it was experiencing turbulent seas and billowing winds. Taylor’s last transmission was at 7:04 PM. “All planes close up tight … we’ll have to ditch unless landfall … when the first plane drops below 10 gallons, we all go down together.”

The five planes were never heard from or seen again. It’s believed they had enough fuel to remain in air till 8 PM. After that, they’d be at the mercy of the roiling ocean.

Two PBM Mariner patrol planes were dispatched to perform square pattern searches in the area west of 29 degrees N, 79 degrees W. Only one returned. A tanker, the SS Gaines Mills, testified later about seeing an explosion and a large oil slick on the water’s surface, near where the one Mariner disappeared. Like Flight 19, the missing Mariner was never found.

Altogether, 27 men died.

And the sea gave up her dead which were in it. (Revelation 20:13)

There have been attempts to locate the remains of Flight 19. So far, however, what little wreckage that’s been found has proven inconclusive. Although the navy ultimately attributed the disappearance to “cause unknown,” Lieutenant Taylor’s own mother may have influenced this decision. She accused the navy of unfairly blaming her son, basing this on a specious argument that, if no bodies or wreckage could be located, how could blame be attributed?

The mysterious disappearance of Flight 19 may never fully be explained. But it’s certain that several crucial factors contributed to six planes plunging beneath the ocean waves: bad weather, malfunctioning equipment, and most of all, human error. Flight leader Taylor clung to the notion he was over the Keys, when in fact he and his pilots had turned away from the mainland while over the Bahamas.

They landed in the center of  The Twilight Zone.

Lost Squadron

The 14 men of Flight 19

Kon-Tiki Sails into the Movies


Thor Heyerdahl had a theory.  He believed that the Polynesians of the South Pacific did not originally come from Asia, as most experts believed.  He speculated they actually migrated 1,500 years ago from South America.  He based his theory in part on resemblance between the cryptic monuments on Easter Island and pre-Columbian designs in Peru.  But in order to reach the distant South Pacific islands, Peruvians would be forced to cross the mighty Pacific in nothing sturdier than small rafts made of balsa wood.  Impossible, Heyerdahl’s critics argued.  So the Norwegian set out to prove it possible by sailing from Peru to the islands on a raft, which he called Kon-Tiki after the name of the Incan sun god.

His epic 3,770-mile (6,067 km) voyage, accompanied by five other courageous Scandinavians, is the subject of the recent movie KON-TIKI.  The movie is based on Heyerdahl’s 1947 sailing excursion, which was detailed in his subsequent book and award-winning documentary.  So far the film has received a lot of praise (despite taking a few creative liberties for excitement purposes).  It was produced by Brit Jeremy Thomas (THE LAST EMPEROR) and directed by two young Norwegians, Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg.  They grew up in a small village outside Oslo and idolized Heyerdahl. 

“’He was ambitious and not afraid to admit it, which is not very Norwegian,’” says Roenning in the April 2013 issue of Smithsonian Magazine. “’We wanted to be a part of Heyerdahl’s adventure.’”

That adventure included not only Heyerdahl’s crossing the Pacific, but raising money for the expedition, hiring a crew idealistic and brave enough to join him, chopping down balsa trees in Peru to assemble the raft, and publicizing the adventure.  Heyerdahl succeeded magnificently.  Post-war America, Europe, and Australia were hungry for an inspirational diversion, and the world was riveted by tall, handsome Heyerdahl and his crazy scheme.  To make things even more interesting, Heyerdahl was afraid of water and never learned how to swim.

“’Heyerdahl was a great storyteller, but his true genius was PR,’” says Roenning, who refers to the voyage as the world’s “first reality show.”


The critics who groused that Heyerdahl was on a suicide mission ended up eating their words.  Rather than splitting the Manila rope lashings, or being ripped apart by 25-foot ocean waves, the balsa logs became “spongy” and comfortably melded with the rope.  Water flowed through the logs “as if passing through the prongs of a fork.”  Although there were perils (the usual storms and sharks, and even a phenomenal water spout), the crew made it to the islands unscathed.

But Heyerdahl never was able to convert those who mocked his anthropological theories.  Most scientists and historians today believe that, based on “linguistic and cultural” evidence, the Pacific islanders did originate in Asia (though recent genetic evidence does reveal a tenuous link to Native Americans).

Apparently, getting the movie made was more of a problem than the Kon-Tiki’s actual voyage.  Backers for the film were difficult to procure “because no one had died.”  So the filmmakers decided to sacrifice the raft’s mascot, a parrot named Lorita!  Finding acceptable scriptwriters was also troublesome.  One of the early candidates had helped write the script for ET: THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL, but she made the mistake of inviting the aging Heyerdahl to see the movie RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, which she hoped to use as a model for her script.  Heyerdahl was disdainful of Indiana Jones’s “approach to archaeology.”  She wasn’t hired.

USS Monitor Sailors Buried at Arlington


On Friday two sailors who went down with the American Civil War ironclad USS Monitor 150 years ago were buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.  The sailors’ skeletons were found inside the vessel’s turret, which was discovered on the floor of the Atlantic in 1973 and was raised in 2002.  Descendants of those sailors who perished in the sinking attended the burial.

The Monitor is perhaps the most famous vessel of the Civil War.  A Swedish-born inventor, John Ericsson, designed it just after the war broke out in 1861.  The U.S. government wanted a steam vessel made of iron that could compete with the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia (known as the wooden frigate USS Merrimack before the war).  The most distinguishing feature of the Monitor, aside from its iron hull, was the revolving gun turret.  This allowed the ship to fire its guns in any direction, regardless of its position.  The turret was frequently referred to as a giant “cheesebox” due to its odd cylindrical shape and eight-layered, bolted plates.  It mounted two 15-inch Dahlgren guns, each weighing 16,000 pounds (7,300 kilograms).

On March 9, 1862 at Hampton Roads, Virginia, the Monitor clashed with her nemesis the Virginia in the most famous naval conflict in U.S. history.  It was the first-ever engagement between two steam-powered iron ships and it ushered in a new era of naval warfare.  The battle itself was a draw, although the Monitor was successful in defending the federal stronghold at Hampton Roads.  She later participated in the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff on the James River.

In December 1862 the Monitor was being towed to Beaufort, North Carolina by the USS Rhode Island in preparation to an attack on Wilmington, NC.  On the 30th a gale struck about 16 nautical miles (30 kilometers) southeast of Cape Hatteras.  Sixteen of the 62-member crew drowned during the vessel’s sinking, including the two unidentified sailors in the turret. (Note: a rescue party of the Rhode Island later found shelter onboard the supply hulk USS William Badger…please click the “Blubber Book” tab for info regarding my biography of the Badger).  

The identity of the two sailors is as yet unknown.  Forensic evidence reveals that both were Caucasians, about 5-foot-7-inches tall, with one sailor in his late teens or early 20s and the other in his 30s.  DNA tests of the remains are ongoing.

Acclaimed Civil War historian James McPherson believes that Union sailors deserve to be honored as much as the soldiers who fought at Gettysburg.  Most were volunteers, and those who served on ironclads knew that, unlike wooden ships, their vessels would immediately sink once enough water broke through the hulls.  They knew that such a vessel could be “a coffin for the crew.”

Ferry Crashes in East River


On Wednesday, early morning commuters at Pier 11 on South Street, Lower Manhattan witnessed something not often seen: a ferryboat crashing into the dock.  The Seastreak Wall Street, a high-speed commuter ferry that operates between New Jersey and Manhattan, evidently rammed into the dock at a high rate of speed (over ten miles per hour).  Dozens of passengers were hurtled to the deck, with several severely injured, including one man who fell down a flight of stairs and landed on his head.  Fortunately there were no deaths.

The mishap reminded many of a more serious accident that occurred October 15, 2003, when a Staten Island ferry missed the dock and struck a maintenance pier.  Eleven people died and 70 were injured.

The worst river disaster in New York City occurred on June 15, 1904.  The steamboat General Slocum was ferrying 1,300 German American residents of Little Germany in the Lower East Side to an annual picnic on Long Island Sound.  Minutes into the trip a fire erupted onboard ship.  The flames spread so rapidly that the ship had no time to disembark the passengers.  The final death toll was 1,021 people, mainly women and children, who either burned in the blaze or drowned in the East River (few people in the early 20th century knew how to swim).  It was New York City’s worst tragedy until 911.

The fire was supposedly caused by a discarded cigarette or match in the Lamp Room, which contained straw and oily rags.  But the disaster was exacerbated by the fact that the life preservers were rotten, lifeboats were permanently tied up (some so old they were wired and painted in place), and there had been no fire drills and only cursory ship inspections.   Mothers who survived the tragedy recounted putting life jackets on their children, throwing them overboard, then watching in horror as their children sank immediately.

Shockingly, only one person was convicted in the disaster: the captain, who many considered to be a scapegoat of the negligent Knickerbocker Steamship Company, which owned the General Slocum.  The disaster traumatized Little Germany.  The tight-knit community never recovered and eventually dispersed into greater NYC.  The last survivor of the tragedy died at the age of 100 in 2003.  Her name was Adelia Wotherspoon (née Liebenow), who was only six months old at the time of the tragedy.  Her two older sisters died in the fire.

As of this writing, investigations are ongoing into what caused the recent Seastreak crash.  The captain was supposedly extremely competent, and there is no evidence of intoxication.  The most plausible theory is that the propeller system acted up.

HMS Bounty Sinks

Hurricane Sandy, and the nor’easter accompanying her, are smashing into the eastern U.S. coast as I write this – my daughter Holly is barricaded in her apartment in Philadelphia, where her backyard wall just blew away.  And my mother and aunt are stranded in Alexandria, Virginia.  My other aunt is even closer to the storm, in northern New Jersey, and my uncle is riding it out in Manhattan.  So basically I have family all around the periphery (right now it’s just high winds here in southwest Ohio).  I’m confident that all of my family will be safe.  But thousands of people have had to evacuate, power is down everywhere… and, unfortunately, lives have been lost.

One of the victims was a crewmember of the tall ship HMS Bounty: deckhand Claudine Christian.  Her body was found this evening.  The Bounty’s longtime captain, Robin Walbridge, is still missing.  The other 14 crewmembers made it safely into rafts.  The Bounty herself has joined thousands of other ships in the Graveyard of the Atlantic, off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

The Bounty is a 180-foot three-masted ship that was built for the 1962 film “Mutiny on the Bounty,” starring Marlon Brando, and it was also used in one of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies.  It is a replica of the original British vessel that, on April 28, 1789, experienced the most famous sea mutiny in history.  First mate Fletcher Christian (could Claudine possibly be related?) and other mutineers overtook tyrannical Captain William Bligh, then forced him and his supporters into an open boat in the middle of the South Pacific.  Christian sailed to Tahiti, and eventually to obscure Pitcairn Island, where he lived out a short and troubled life.  Bligh unbelievably navigated his boat and crew over 3,000 miles to safety – the greatest open boat journey in history.

The true reasons for Christian’s mutiny are unclear.  Bligh was certainly domineering, possibly brutal, but he wasn’t unlike many other ships’ captains of the time, who were essentially dictators on their vessels.  There is evidence that the mutineers were hypnotized by the utopian, sexually uninhibited society on Tahiti, and thus wanted to return.  But could this have been enough reason for Christian to send half the ship’s company to almost-certain death in a longboat, and to commit himself to the wrath of the exalted Royal English Navy, as well as permanent ostracism from his homeland?  Was it pride, lust, impetuousness, or a combination of all?  We’ll never know.

POSTSCRIPT: According to the ChronicleHerald of Nova Scotia, which recently interviewed her, Claudene Christian was 42 years old and the 5th great-granddaughter of Fletcher Christian.   Our hearts go out to her family.