A recent post by my blogging friend Indiana Jen inspired me to think about history, seamanship and careers. In it she recommends what turns out to be an outstanding article in Archaeology Magazine about a shipwreck a few hundred yards offshore from the island of Bermuda, a small island protectorate surrounded by treacherous reefs. The articulate author blends his team’s recovery efforts with a marvelous recap of the ship’s history. The Mary Celestia was an iron-hulled, steam-driven Confederate blockade runner, and her story is one that would have been worthy of the talents of history’s greatest writers of maritime adventure, writers like Richard Henry Dana, Herman Wouk and Joseph Conrad.
Adventures at sea have always held a special magic for me. Ships provide a unique setting when the subject is the test of human mettle. A ship’s physical space is limited, and every crew is unique. Thus each becomes a defined laboratory within which flawed humans strive with all the variabilities of character, equipment, design, circumstance, military actions (sometimes), and perhaps most of all, unpredictable weather. And to top it off, by tradition and practical necessity each ship is ruled by a single Captain whose personality, strengths and weaknesses color all that happens. The Mary Celestia’s story has all of this in spades.
The story of blockade runners in the Civil War leads to questions about human motivations, strengths and needs, and, not least, about the economics of that terrible war. As you will see in the article, the South was in desperate need of basics like ” . . . uniforms, boots, medicine, weapons, and ammunition.” And yet, there was a thriving black market for “luxury” goods like wine, perfume, china, silverware, and manufactured goods of all kinds. As you will see in the article, link to follow, this dichotomy had serious legal ramifications. This is the raw material of human adventure that Joseph Conrad handled like the master he was.
When the Mary Celestia ran aground and sank, it was a failure of navigation. She was under control of a pilot who claimed to know the Bermudian waters. But it is an axiom of naval tradition that the Captain always retains ultimate responsibility for his ship, pilot or not, and the ship’s navigation team should not have been without responsibility. Was this firmly in place in the Confederate Navy? I don’t know. The event caused me to recall some of my own Naval experience in that regard.
In 1969 at the height of the Vietnam War, I transitioned, involuntarily, from submarines to surface ships and was assigned as Navigator on the heavy cruiser USS Saint Paul (CA 73). Saint Paul was the last of the all-gun heavy (armored) cruisers, the others having transitioned at least in part to missiles. Our main battery was nine eight-inch guns. As Navigator for that size ship I was a Department Head, albeit a minor one, but except for the family separation in that frenetic time I found pleasure and some challenge in my job because it was traditional seamanship.
Unlike most other ships we had only the most basic of navigation equipment – sextant, radio time, and gyro compasses. There was no satellite navigation, and what electronics we had, radar and Loran, the latter being so unreliable as to be almost useless. So I fell into a routine of doing it the old-fashioned way: morning stars, a sun line, noon LAN (Local Apparent Noon), afternoon sun line, evening stars, all weather permitting of course. The book (Bowditch) calls that “a day’s work in navigation”. One time I still recall a tingle of pleasure in getting a sun line, a moon line (mid-morning!), and LAN all to cross in a point. With GPS in the Navy now I wonder if anyone still has the old skills?
Weather is a huge variable in traditional navigation – rain, fog, high sea states, obscured horizons, identification of navigation lights. Weather almost surely played a role in the sinking of the Mary Celestia on that Bermudian reef in 1864, although you will see from the account that it may have been more than that, it might have been perfidy. Her story is rich. It is the kind of detail all too often lacking in the dry, rote material of many a public school history curriculum. If students could be exposed to more stories like the Mary Celestia’s, perhaps the Navy recruiters might have a lot more applicants. Some might even be inspired to become teachers of real history, like Indian Jen. I’d like to think so. Such is the rich tapestry of life at sea, fully as exciting and interesting now as then.