Category Archives: Ships

“Against Captain’s Orders” at National Maritime Museum

The ShipIndex team is traveling through Europe for a few weeks. I had initially planned to post one little maritime thing each day, but that has, alas fallen by the wayside. It’s certainly not for a lack of maritime-related items I’ve seen, but more a lack of time sitting at the computer, rather than exploring exploring exploring.

So, now that I’m on a two-hour train ride in France, perhaps I can write some entries of particular maritime relevance.

About a week ago (ten days? four days? Who knows when you’re traveling) my wife and I took my son (11 years old) and nephew (12) to the Royal Museums at Greenwich, home of the National Maritime Museum, the Royal Observatory, the Cutty Sark, and the Queen’s House.

As an aside, we started the day with a visit to the Sky Garden, the viewing platform at the top of the Fenchurch Street building known as the “walkie-talkie building”. This a new place to visit in London, and it’s not super-easy to do, because you need to make reservations in advance if you want to go up there for free. I think you can also go up if you agree to buy some food at the cafe, and I was surprised to see that the prices are quite reasonable, so that could also be a good option. The views from here are great – and maritime, too, if you consider the views of the Thames, and of HMS Belfast, and Tower Bridge, and more on the river.


But then we went on to Greenwich, where we visited the Cutty Sark and saw the production of “Against Captain’s Orders” at the National Maritime Museum.

I love what the folks at Cutty Sark have done with the ship in its recent renovation. I have read long-time ship enthusiasts express dismay at the work, but I honestly don’t know why. The glass around the ship shows where the waterline was – something that isn’t easily done when a ship is permanently out of water. The new event space under the ship, at the bottom of the drydock, is really impressive. The ability to see what the ship is like from underneath is just great. You get an idea of the size of the thing, and you can see what sort of work went into creating this ship long ago. And the idea of creating such a remarkable and unique event space is also great – any historic ship needs some way of generating revenue for any of the work it plans to do, so I see nothing wrong with this. Especially when it is such an amazing layout.

CuttySark   BelowCuttySark

We then went on to the 4pm performance of “Against Captain’s Orders”, a production by Punchdrunk Entertainment for the National Maritime Museum. I don’t know anything about who put this together, but they did a great, great thing. I’m also not going to tell you much of anything about the content of the production itself, since that would ruin the “Adventure”.

It’s a very active performance; you spend time running from room to room. You have to have a child (6-12 years old) to attend – so it was a good thing I had my son and nephew with me. I made it clear to them that they were simply my ticket to see the show, but they did enjoy it a great deal. It can be a bit scary for the youngest kids, though we saw one of the ‘curators’ give a young girl a small electric candle, and we wondered if they’d done that because they thought she might be a bit scared. The performance really does adapt to the audience.

The performance uses important pieces from the museum’s collections to encourage kids to think about the stories behind them, and how they might create their own Adventures (I’ll say we were on board HMS Adventure during the experience) from items of historic significance and historic value.

I honestly think every museum curator, especially at living history museums, should find a child to take to this show, before it closes. I think they’d all come away with crazy new ideas about how to engage kids with the unique or special items they have in their own collection. Even more so, theater groups should see what Punchdrunk is doing, and figure out how they could propose or create such productions for museums or other cultural institutions in their community. The level of detail that appeared here was pretty unreal; we didn’t have anywhere close to enough time to absorb all of it, or pick up all the in-jokes on the walls.

The entire show was about 45-50 minutes long; the only change I would have liked to see would have been some better conclusion, where we could applaud or somehow recognize the two ‘curators’ (really actors) – they sort of left and we didn’t realize that they weren’t coming back. So I’d say to them here, if I could reach them, that the performance really was great, and they did a fantastic job of making it so.

All in all, it was a great experience and I hope its model can be used in many other locations in the future.

USS Constitution — Preservation 200 Years Ago, and Today

Two hundred years ago today, a note appeared in the National Intelligencer, a newspaper in Washington, DC, calling on the government to preserve USS Constitution, even then known as “Old Ironsides”.

A transcription of the piece appears below:


Column from May 23, 1815, edition of National Intelligencer, on the importance of preserving USS Constitution

May 23, 1815, edition of National Intelligencer, on preserving USS Constitution

Our National Ship, the Constitution, is once more arrived.

Let us keep “Old Iron Sides” at home. She has, literally, become a Nation’s Ship, and should be preserved. Not as a “sheer bulk, in ordinary” (for she is no ordinary vessel); but, in honorable pomp, as a glorious Monument of her own, and our other Naval Victories.

She has “done her duty“; and we can therefore afford to preserve her from future dangers.

Let a dry dock, such as are used in Holland, and other parts of Europe, be contracted for her reception, at the Metropolis of the United States. Let a suitable and appropriate building be erected over her, to secure her from the weather; and other measures used to preserve her from decay: that our children, and children’s children, may view this stately monument of our National Triumphs.

The decks of this noble Ship have witnessed peculiarly striking instances of superiority and success over her enemies — When in battle, the skill and courage of her officers and crew, have invariably brought her victory: and when pursued by a superior force (frequently happening) the superior seamanship of her different commanders has completely baffled the efforts of her foes, and preserved her for new and splendid triumphs!

“She has done her duty”; she had done ENOUGH!

Let us preserve her as a precious model, as an example for future imitations of her illustrious performances!


Just five days ago, on May 18, Constitution once again went into dry dock, as the author of this piece called for 200 years ago, to be further conserved and restored, so she will continue to be around for our children’s children, and more.

This time-lapse video shows the ship’s movement into position:


And the Navy’s website about USS Constitution has much more about the ship’s history, and how she was, in fact, saved, many times, in the past two hundred years.


How do you get a 458′ long, by 50′ wide, ship through a 270′ long, by 45′ wide, canal?

So many ships have so many great stories. I’d like to start highlighting a few of them. Here’s a start:

Toward the end of World War I, the US government needed all the shipping tonnage it could obtain, to move resources to Europe. It looked to the Great Lakes for freighters available there, and among the ones it found there, the last it took was the largest of all, the Charles R. Van Hise. The Van Hise was built in 1900, and was 458 feet long, and 50 feet wide. To get any of these ships from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic meant taking them around Niagara Falls, from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario. The way to do that is through the Welland Canal . At the start of the First World War, the Canal had 26 locks, each 270 feet long and 45 feet wide. Most ships that were taken by the US Shipping Board were too long to travel through these locks, so they were cut in half amidships, each end had a bulkhead added to the cut side, and each half was towed through the locks separately. They were then put back together once they’d arrived in Lake Ontario, before heading up the St Lawrence Seaway and on to the Atlantic.


The Van Hise, however, was not only too long, but also too wide: the locks were 45 feet wide but the Van Hise measured in at 50 feet. In a remarkable feat of engineering that has not been repeated, the ship was first cut in half admiships, like previous ships had been. Then she was rotated on her side, using some internal tanks and added pontoons. Since she wasn’t particularly deep, she could be turned on her side, and with her port side now acting as her keel, she was narrow enough to fit through the locks.

This excellent story (via Google Books) in the March 1919 issue of Popular Science describes how the process was done. The forward section passed through the first lock, as a test, in early December 1918, and the aft section, which was at this point waiting in Buffalo, was to follow in the spring of 1919. Each piece would then be towed through the other locks of the Welland Canal, to get to Lake Ontario. But hostilities had ended, and the need for the ship was negated. So the bow was towed back through the southern-most lock, back to Lake Erie, and the two halves were rejoined at Ashtabula, were the ship was also extended in size.

PopSci VanHise ArticleVan Hise went back to work, and then went through a variety of name changes – A. E. R. Schneider, S. B. Way, J. M. Oag, and finally, in 1936, Captain C. D. Secord. More work continued to change her profile, but she kept working the lakes, up until 1967. In 1968, she was sold to a Montreal scrapping firm who resold her, and in August 1968 she was towed to Spain to be broken up.

So how did she get through the Welland Canal to head out on her final voyage? Canal construction, running from 1913 to 1932, had reduced the number of locks from 26 to eight, and significantly increased them all in size, to 766 feet long and 80 feet wide – plenty wide enough for the Van Hise’s trip to the breaking yard, nearly 70 years after she’d been launched.


Sources: The story of this remarkable ship first appeared on the MARHST-L discussion list in January 2015. Posters included links to the Popular Science article (linked above), and this extended history of the ship’s life, on the Maritime History of the Great Lakes site. This page from the Great Lakes Maritime Database came via, and has this image of a dozen or so men standing on the Van Hise’s starboard-side-acting-as-deck. tbnms1ic_0146613_005_F_VANHISECHARLESR_375_229_full_0Other links from within led me to an entry at Bowling Green’s Great Lakes Vessel Online Index, as well as manuscript records for Captain C.D. Secord at Milwaukee County Library System, an image hosted by York University.

(For information on how I tracked down those manuscript records — which is not a simple process — read my entries on making the most of WorldCat record, here.)

Most popular ships in libraries, from OCLC

Not long ago I analyzed information about vessels registered in the US and found a list of the 100 most common ship names in America. Folks at OCLC, the online library cooperative, did something somewhat similar lately – and found the 10 most common ships in library collections.

Thom Hickey, Chief Scientist at OCLC, had put together a list of about 50,000 authority records for ships, for me – which went in to the free part of the database. To be clear, an ‘authority record for a ship’ is a record that defines a ship as an entity, not unlike a record that defines a person. Ships can be subjects of books, of course, but they can also be authors of books. As an example, the logbook of a vessel is “by” the ship, in addition to being by the person or people who recorded the information – though often their names may not be known.

This new set of 50,000 authority records was a great enhancement to (see my blog post about these records, and see an earlier post about how best to use them). It updated a set of about 40,000 records that had been put together for me five years ago, and also gave me a chance to correct, improve, and update this information in the database. Again, all of this information is in the free portion of the database. These authority records make a great way of finding books about, say, the Titanic or the Lusitania, and are particularly valuable when one is searching for a whole book about a particular ship.

The folks at OCLC then went one step further, and decided to see what ships were most popular in libraries around the world. They took the list of ships they’d generated, then looked at how many library holdings were noted for each ship. This is a great way of measuring popularity: you’re not looking just at how many books (or movies or other works) have been created about a particular ship, you’re also looking at how many libraries own each of these works.

The results are here; I think it’s no surprise that Titanic tops the list. I will admit I was quite surprised about the rest of the top five: Mayflower, Bounty, Amistad, and Endurance.

Ship name Number of holdings*
  Titanic 260,693
  Mayflower 48,657
  Bounty 35,382
  Amistad 32,464
  Endurance 27,877
*as of 11 July 2014

The OCLC Blog entry has great examples of resources about each ship (check out the image of a Titanic made from dried apples!), findable through WorldCat, and is very much worth a close read. Take a look at the next five most popular ships, too – you might be surprised at what is most popular in libraries.

The 100 Most Popular Vessel Names in the US

The US Coast Guard publishes something called “Merchant Vessels of the United States”, searchable through their Maritime Information Exchange. It’s a directory of merchant ships over about 5 tons in size. (Smaller vessels that aren’t included in MVUS may be registered by states, rather than by the federal government.) Originally, it was in print, and many copies are still available in libraries or through online sources (here’s one from 1897). Then it was published as a CD-ROM, and then USCG made a database out of it, and put it online.

USCG used to have static, ship-specific links to the database, so you could follow a link that would take you right to the entry about the ship. I discovered some time ago that those weren’t working, and eventually I contacted USCG, and got a reply from them that, yes, static links were no longer available.

I had to decide what to do, and I realize I’d made a bit of a mistake in being too caught up on the static links. If you know that a database mentions a vessel, and you still need to search for it once you get to the database, that’s still far better than not knowing at all. Then, while preparing the updated file for import, I discovered that the Office of Science and Technology, of NOAA Fisheries, publishes its own version of the same database, but with vessel-specific links! So I changed what I was doing, and modified the links so they’d point to NOAA’s version of the database.

I will soon remove the old links to the USCG database, and I haven’t yet decided if I should add an updated version of that database, even though one must still do a search for the ship there. If the information is exactly the same as what appears in the NOAA version, I might not add those links. Thoughts?

Anyway, as part of this work, I noticed that many ship names are used over and over in this database. I thought I’d take this opportunity to determine the most popular vessel names in the US.

Here are some caveats: This data is based on information compiled from the USCG MVUS database. It’s not perfect. Some people put “MV” or “SS” or other terms in front of their ship names, which they really shouldn’t do. Others (many others) start their ship name with “The ”, which I also think they shouldn’t do. (That said, my brother built a rowboat for our father, and I carved a name plate for it, and we called it “The Prelude” – with the article – because it was a reference to, among other things, Wordsworth’s poem of that name [pdf]. So clearly at least some people specifically intend to include an article. Most, however, don’t.)

Also, I didn’t combine different spellings of the same name, like “Meant II Be”, “Meant 2 Be”, and “Meant To Be”. Ship names are obviously very popular places for puns, like “Naut On Call”, and they should be left as such. I also did not combine “Nauti Boy”, “Nauti Buoy”, “Nauti Boys”, “Nauti Boyz”, “Nauti Bouys”, etc., into one name…

With all that said, here are the 100 most popular vessel names, including the number of vessels with that name, from the 365,846 named vessels in the US Coast Guard’s Merchant Vessels of the United States database:

Vessel Name Occurrences
  Serenity 417
  Freedom 382
  Liberty 329
  Osprey 306
  Second Wind 289
  Destiny 285
  Andiamo 262
  Dream Catcher 247
  Spirit 245
  Odyssey 243
  Carpe Diem 232
  Island Time 232
  Escape 231
  Pegasus 231
  Blue Moon 230
  Morning Star 226
  Obsession 216
  Orion 216
  Island Girl 209
  Voyager 195
  Grace 193
  Serendipity 191
  Legacy 189
  Time Out 188
  Escapade 185
  Tranquility 185
  Happy Ours 183
  Summer Wind 183
  Aurora 174
  Phoenix 171
  Free Spirit 169
  Double Trouble 168
  Harmony 167
  At Last 164
  Patriot 164
  Magic 163
  Sandpiper 163
  Relentless 162
  Southern Cross 162
  Halcyon 159
  Mariah 159
  Amazing Grace 157
  Pelican 154
  Endless Summer 153
  Calypso 152
  Whisper 151
  Encore 148
  Imagine 148
  Pura Vida 148
  Seas the Day 148
  Impulse 147
  Eagle 146
  North Star 144
  Zephyr 144
  Wanderer 143
  Ariel 142
  Great Escape 142
  Quest 141
  Raven 141
  Cool Change 140
  Prime Time 140
  Second Chance 138
  Camelot 136
  Hakuna Matata 136
  Mirage 136
  My Way 136
  Panacea 134
  Windsong 134
  About Time 133
  Valkyrie 133
  Perseverance 132
  Journey 131
  Valhalla 131
  Puffin 129
  Patience 128
  Dream Weaver 126
  Restless 125
  Gypsy 124
  Renegade 124
  Black Pearl 123
  First Light 123
  Sanctuary 122
  Sundance 122
  Independence 121
  Resolute 121
  Dulcinea 120
  La Dolce Vita 120
  Sea Hawk 120
  Islander 119
  Moondance 119
  Sea Breeze 119
  Sea Ya 119
  Dragonfly 118
  Liquid Asset 118
  Aquaholic 117
  Dolphin 117
  Oasis 117
  Shearwater 117
  Adagio 115
  Sea Horse 115

More on US Navy ship naming

A member of the MARHST-L discussion list pointed out a fairly recent Congressional Research Service document about the naming of US Naval vessels, titled “Navy Ship Names: Background for Congress“. It’s an interesting read. As a CRS document, it just provides background, and doesn’t discuss whether previous actions are right or wrong, but it sure does highlight how mixed-up the US Navy’s current approach to ship naming is.

I assume (but don’t know for sure) that this report is part of the response to a Senate Amendment to the FY2012 National Defense Authorization Act, adopted November 30, 2011, which called on the Secretary of Defense to submit a report to Congress within 180 days that contained an overview of the past naming of navaly ships, and recommendations for the future. This document is dated January 6, 2012, so I imagine it makes up the first part of the report to Congress. I would be interested to see how long it takes the Navy to develop the ‘policies’ part of the response.

I certainly hope the Navy, and its Naval History and Heritage Command, comes up with some much more specific policies on how ships should be named, and then sticks to them. It makes sense that aircraft carriers should be named after presidents (but should they only be named after good presidents?), and that, say, attack submarines should be named after states, and destroyers named after naval leaders and heroes. And so on, and so on. What seems most important to me is that they develop a sensible policy, and stick to it. It would be nice to be able to identify the type of vessel based on its type of name. (I realize that wouldn’t always be the case, but it’d be nice if it were nearly always the case.)

There should also be an inviolate policy that no individual be considered to have a ship named after them until 12 months have passed since their death.

But we’ll have to wait and see. If you hear of the release of the final document before I do, please let me know here.

From the 9th Maritime Heritage Conference, Baltimore

I’m writing from the 9th Maritime Heritage Conference, in Baltimore, right now. The Maritime Heritage Conference takes place every three years, and I’ve had the opportunity to attend a few conferences in the past. It’s neat to get reconnected with friends in the maritime history community, and find out what’s been happening in the maritime history community.

Given the subject, we’ve had some great conference receptions on board ships, and I must admit I’ve failed to take advantage of seeing the most of these ships. I certainly attended, and wandered around a bit, but (so far) I didn’t explore the vessels as much as I should have. On Wednesday evening, when I arrived, we had a reception on board the Liberty Ship John W. Brown. The folks running the Brown have done a great job in putting together a walking tour of an incredible amount of the very large ship. The Brown is also nicely represents a specific time – 1944, when it’s getting ready to travel on a convoy across the North Atlantic. The folks working and volunteering on board the Brown have had a lot of history with these ships, and some attendees told me about talking with the volunteers, some of whom began working on these ships when they were operating in convoys, or soon after the War.

Last night’s reception was on board USS Constellation, and again I enjoyed it, but didn’t take advantage of going through all levels of the ship. However, I understand today that I can board any time during the conference, so I hope to get a chance to go again.

Tomorrow morning, there’s a tour of NS Savannah, the first nuclear merchant ship, which is moored in Baltimore while its future is being decided. I hope I’ll be able to participate, though the tour is quite long and I am also giving a talk about tomorrow afternoon and need to be sure I’m fully ready to give this presentation.

Tomorrow evening, we’re scheduled to have a reception on board USCG Barque Eagle, which arrived in Baltimore today. It may have done so; I haven’t looked out yet to see if there’s a new set of masts in the Inner Harbor. I feel certain we won’t be able to go below on board Eagle, so I should feel OK about just standing on the deck tomorrow evening!

This Day in History, 1620 – Mayflower Set Sail

On this day in 1620 (old style; September 16, in new style), Mayflower sailed from Southampton, England. She arrived in the hook of Cape Cod on November 11. The rest is, as they say, history.

Nathaniel Philbrick published his book about the ship in 2006; it’s titled Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War. My feeling was that the book should have been titled “King Philip’s War,” since it was much more about the interactions between the settlers and the Native Americans they encountered once they arrived, than it was about the voyage or the vessel, but very little is known about those subjects. Nevertheless, it made for an interesting story.

If you have other opinions about the book, please don’t hesitate to share.

This Day in History, 1939 – First British Ship Sunk by Germans

On September 3, 1939, the British passenger liner SS Athenia was sunk by the German sub U-30. This was the first British ship sunk in World War II, and because it was a passenger vessel, rather than a cargo ship, it was a violation of existing treaties between Germany and England. In fact, the Germans did not admit to sinking Athenia until well after the end of the war. Many didn’t believe that the Germans would have sunk a passenger liner, as there was much to lose, and little to gain, by doing so.

118 people lost their lives, from more than 1100 on board, and much that loss occurred during the rescue. Because the seas were calm, many vessels were able to assist Athenia, and most did so successfully. A Norwegian vessel, Knute Nelson, caused about 50 deaths when it suddenly steamed full speed ahead, sucking a full lifeboat that was aside it into its propeller.