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  • Masters of the Italian Line by Ian Sebire

    A magazine advert for the new ship, dominated by her namesake's self-portrait in old age. (Masters of the Italian Line, Amberley Publishing)

    Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raffaello

    As a child I was fascinated by ships and the sea, in truth of course I still am. Perhaps it is in the blood (Sebire may be of Norse origin, meaning ‘Sea Bright’), or the result of long summer holidays spent on Guernsey and Herm in the Channel Islands. Whatever the reason, passenger liners have always held a particular interest. If the mighty France/Norway remains my all-time favourite, the Italian Liners of the 1960’s, with their svelte profiles and often exotic names, collectively captivated me most.

    Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raffaello were the most prominent of these vessels and amongst the most significant passenger ships (the twins were the fourth longest and largest post-war built liners, exceeding P&O’s Canberra) of their era. Perversely I was aware of the ships long before I knew about the artists for which they are named, yet prior to the advent of the internet there was little information about them, especially in English. Peter C. Kohler changed all that in the late 1990’s with his superb history of the Italian Line entitled ‘The Lido Fleet’; my threadbare copy bears witness to the numerous times I have read it, or ‘dipped in’ and inevitably it was a key reference source for me.

    Nevertheless, to my knowledge there has never been an English language book prior to ‘Masters of the Italian Line’ that focussed exclusively on these three magnificent vessels. My hope is that this book helps to fill that void.

     

     

    Early artist impression of the new ships with their projected vital statistics. (Masters of the Italian Line, Amberley Publishing)

    Leonardo da Vinci remains, in my view, the most beautiful ship of all time; tangible evidence of the Italian genius for synthesising form and function. Unique, she also seems to have been a happy ship, imbued perhaps with the benevolent spirits of those seeking to avenge the loss of her predecessor, Andrea Doria. That she was unable to make the transition from ocean liner to cruise ship was particularly disappointing, her elegant silhouette would have graced the piers of every port she visited. Political sensibilities aside, making the switch would still have been difficult without reconfiguring the engine rooms and installing diesels to replace the thirsty turbines.  Of course the fire at La Spezia in July 1980 destroyed all those dreams.

    Inevitably Michelangelo will always be synonymous with her wave encounter on 12th April 1966. That single dreadful event overshadows a decade long career, during which the first of the ‘make work’ sister ships transported tens of thousands of passengers across the Atlantic and on languid pleasure cruises. She always took centre stage and inevitably her final departures from both New York and Genoa drew the largest audiences and media attention.

    Michelangelo reflected in the clear, still waters of Geirangerfjord in the course of her North Cape cruise. (Masters of the Italian Line, Amberley Publishing)

    In contrast Raffaello has always seemed more distant and enigmatic. Perhaps it’s an Englishman’s penchant for the underdog, or more rationally my preference for her modern, bright, European decor but Raffaello has always been my favourite of the two. Pathos pervades both the superliners’ careers but the manner of her demise, sunk as an innocent ‘civilian’ victim by the Iraqi Air Force, gives her story a particularly sad final twist.

    At times exhausting and frustrating, writing this book, including collating the information and photographs has nevertheless been a wonderfully rewarding experience. As a novice I am indebted to many people from several different countries who generously helped, those directly involved are included in the acknowledgements at the end of the book. There is however one person not mentioned who has been instrumental throughout. Thanks to a fortuitous delay in the departure of Fred Olsen’s ‘Black Watch’ several years ago, I met Nigel Lawrence, editor of Shipping Today and Yesterday magazine, at the end of Dover’s Prince of Wales pier. We got chatting and Nigel subsequently published my article about the Italian line in the magazine and has printed several of my ship biographies since, giving me the confidence to pursue this project and see it to fruition. I am really grateful.

    Ian Sebire's new book Masters of the Italian Line is available for purchase now.

  • Sailing Ships of the Bristol Channel by Viv Head

    I was not a young man when I came to sailing with a first cruise on a yacht from Southampton to Weymouth aboard a 38 foot Sigma. A fine boat sailed in company with an experienced crew. At the end of four days I recall saying – Well I enjoyed that but I don't think it's going to change my life. Rarely have I made a more ridiculous statement.

    I have owned a yacht of some sort for twenty years now and for most of that time I have been a member of the OGA, the Association for Gaff Rig Sailing. The gaff rig has a four-sided mainsail and was used for centuries by working boats. It is the way sailing used to be and, increasingly, the way it is becoming once again.

    Sailing Ships of the Bristol Channel 2 Nutmeg in the Bristol Channel, passing Flat Holm showing the lighthouse under repair and the WW2 gun emplacement

    I grew up in Cardiff and am back living there now with the remarkable Cardiff Bay and the challenging Bristol Channel right here on my doorstep. Sailing the gaff-rigged 19 foot Shrimper Nutmeg, nothing pleases more than the satisfaction of being on a beam reach with a sailor’s wind, sails tight and a hand on the tiller, the boat lifting and dipping to the rhythm of the sea. In the Bristol Channel you do have to keep a weather eye on the horizon and the tides which are notoriously strong.

    From any point of the compass, the Bristol Channel has played its part in maritime heritage right around the world. It has a fascinating history and researching it for Sailing Ships of the Bristol Channel was a satisfying journey in itself. In Denmark I visited the Viking Museum at Roskilde, running my fingers along timbers from Viking ships more than a thousand years old, knowing that one of them was built in Dublin in the year 1042 and had every chance of having ventured up the Bristol Channel. Not just that, but having the opportunity to put to sea in a replica of a Viking ship, pulling on the oars in tune with fellow crew mates and raising the single flax sail knowing that the Viking ships of old had voyaged from these waters.

    The other place that caused me to pause and reflect on events of long ago was the graveyard of ships at Purton. With the banks of the Sharpness to Gloucester canal in serious danger of being breached by the searing tides of the Severn estuary, local men came up with a scheme to save the day. In 1909 they began running derelicts aground on the river bank so that they would catch the silt that is a feature of the rushing tides and cause it to build up. Over half a century more than 80 ships were deliberately abandoned here – schooners, trows, barges and lighters were all pressed into final service. And it worked, the bank has grown and the canal is safe now without the need for any major embankment construction. Most of these old working boats are buried deep in the silt and long out of sight but the old sailors certainly knew what they were doing. You may feel safe standing on the bank today amongst the scattering of maritime skeletons, yet a few feet away, the swirls and rush of the muddy brown water of a filling tide has a threatening menace about it.

    Sailing Ships of the Bristol Channel 1 Replica Viking ship under oars at Roskilde, Denmark

    There are many mysteries that lie beneath the waves that have long been forgotten and cannot now be re-discovered. Brave deeds, returning heroes, ships lost and sailors drowned. So it’s all the more reason to celebrate what we do know about this fascinating coastline over 300 miles long. In Sailing Ships of the Bristol Channel I set to capture some the stories of the famous ships, working ships and lost ships that have sailed these waters. The Bristol Channel has an incredibly rich maritime history, not just locally – many of its ships have made an impact on the affairs of the world. Some were built along its shores – the legendary Bristol Channel pilot cutters have a global reputation. Eighteen original vessels still exist and modern ones are still being built. John Cabot set out from Bristol in the Matthew and discovered America. The Newport Ship, built circa 1450 is the most complete fifteenth century vessel anywhere in the world. Four famous Antarctic exploration ships loaded Welsh coal before heading south. Scott’s Terra Nova is well known while the Antarctic pioneer Scotia was later wrecked and burnt out on Sully Island.

    More recently, around-the-world racing yachts and many more modest working boats and pleasure yachts were built, raced, traded or simply spent their lives earning their keep in a notorious stretch of water. In Sailing Ships of the Bristol Channel I set out to bring the story of this heritage, courage and endeavour into one readable volume with many fascinating photos and stories of more than sixty vessels.

    9781445664002

    Viv Head's new book Sailing Ships of the Bristol Channel is available for purchase now.

  • Pirates: Truth and Tale by Helen Hollick

    Pirates. The word conjures a promise of exciting adventure, Caribbean islands, hot sun, blue sea, the Jolly Roger flag, a parrot or two, chests of treasure and a chap with a wooden leg, a patch over one eye and a gold hoop in his ear. Go on, admit it, you were tempted to utter a resounding ‘Arrr!’ weren’t you?

    The truth is, the pirates of the Golden Age, the early 1700s, were very far from our romantic Hollywood image. The truth of piracy is very far from the fictional tales.

    Pirates B) canstockphoto3695931 The common perception of a pirate. (c. jgroup, Pirates: Truth and Tale, Amberley Publishing)

    When Amberley approached me to write a book about pirates I was initially inclined to say no. There are dozens of books and internet blogs about pirates. What could I write that was different? Then I had an idea. I could look at pirates from the factual and the fictional side. I knew many facts because I write my own fictional series about a pirate, written for adults with a lot of swashbuckling adventure and a touch of fantasy (think Pirates of the Caribbean, Hornblower, Sharpe, James Bond and Indiana Jones all rolled into one). Would it be fun to explore these two different angles, using known characters such as Blackbeard, Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny alongside Errol Flynn, Jack Sparrow and Captain Hook, as well as my own creation of Captain Jesamiah Acorne?

    As a writer, once the idea had been conceived I just had to follow it through. The result is Pirates: Truth and Tales.

    Pirates were sea-based robbers, terrorists of the seas. Unkempt, untrustworthy rogues, with most of them ending up on the gallows. Most were originally sailors, either merchant seamen or Royal Navy. Some became pirates because other pirates attacked their ships and forced their victims to join them – especially those with a skill such as carpentry, navigation or best of all, medical knowledge. A surgeon was an enormous prize. Others turned to piracy out of desperation to survive, a wish to get rich quick, or because of plain boredom. One pirate, however, bought a ship, gathered a crew and went off ‘On the Account’ for no other reason than to escape his nagging wife. His name was Stede Bonnet, and he ended up dancing the hempen jig on the gallows. Divorce would have been easier.

    The word pirate comes from the Greek verb, peiran, which means to attack. In Ancient Greek culture pirates were looked upon as heroes, on a par with warriors. By Roman times they were less tolerated, and come the 15-1600s were either encouraged or loathed depending which country you were from and which war was being fought at the time.

    Pirates Map-Sea-Witch3-finalPrivateering was nothing more than legal piracy, but government and monarch sponsored. It all started with Sir Francis Drake and the war between England and Spain. There was nothing wrong, so thought Elizabeth I, with plundering Spanish ships. By the mid-to-late 1600s doing so was actively encouraged because Spain was still the enemy and Spanish galleons were carrying vast amounts of treasure from the Americas back home to Cádiz. That is, if they were not intercepted by the likes of Captain Henry Morgan (he of the rum-brand fame). But when a treaty of peace was signed, vessels were left to rot while sailors kicked their heels in various ports with nothing to do except drink and find ‘entertainment’ with the ladies.

    And then a Spanish treasure fleet was destroyed by a hurricane. At least eleven ships went down just off the coast of Florida, hundreds of men were drowned and the Spanish had a mad scramble to salvage what they could. As did dozens of others who realised there were easy pickings to be found in the shallows. The 1700s equivalent of a lottery win.

     

    Pirates ship A pirate's most important asset: his ship. The Lady Washington, better known as HMS Interceptor in the movie Pirates of the Carriddean: Curse of the Black Pearl. (c. Ifistand, Pirates: Truth and Tale, Amberley Publishing)

    The Caribbean trade routes were just starting to flourish. Tobacco, sugar cane and its by-product of rum had to be shipped from the American colonies to England. With little to no defence the ships were easy prey. By 1717 the rich merchants back in England were beginning to feel the pinch, and piracy had to be stopped. The law cracked down, all pirates were to be hanged if caught, and Woodes Rogers, a noted privateer in his own right was sent to be Governor of the Bahamas, based in the pirate haven of Nassau. Using his wits he offered a King’s Amnesty, which most pirates took, and adhered to. Those who did not, Charles Vane, Edward Teach (Blackbeard), Jack Rackham, Edward Low and a few other notables, thumbed their noses and returned to the sea. By 1720 they, and most of the well-known ones, were dead.

    The movies, TV shows, fiction, all depict pirates as heroes, charmers with a touch of redeemable rogue about them. Handsome eye-candy usually with an eye to a wench with a well-endowed chest rather than to a chest of gold. Remember Pugwash, the bumbling cartoon character of children’s TV? What of Hook in Peter Pan, a pirate indeed, but a gentleman character who went to Eton and spoke of ‘good form’. Then there’s Jack Sparrow – oh we all fell for Johnny Depp’s inspired character didn’t we? Although only the first movie, The Curse of the Black Pearl was good; two, three and four in the series were not. I await to make an opinion on the fifth, due out this summer 2017.

    The adventurous tales of derring-do far outweigh the truth. Frenchman’s Creek, Treasure Island, my own Sea Witch Voyages are popular entertainment reading. The romantic idyll of life at sea, a cool breeze blowing in the rigging, the crack of sails, the gurgle of the sea rushing past the hull – the occasional firing of a couple of cannons or making some innocent walk the plank all adds to the adventure. Would we be so keen, though, with the reality of weevil-ridden rancid food, scummy green drinking water, no medicines or medical supplies, no sanitation, no clean clothes – no clean bodies, and the daily threat of the noose to end it all?

    No thanks, I’ll stick with my Jesamiah Acorne and that Sparrer’ feller if you don’t mind! (for more information check out my author community page for my social media links.)

    9781445652153

    Helen Hollick's new book Pirates: Truth and Tale is available for purchase now.

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