Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The start of something new

Since Ocean Titans was released in the United States in May, I’ve been immersed in a new book that will be coming out next year, in both the U.S. and Canada, hopefully by Spring. It’s a look at modern-day piracy on the high seas, a serious global problem that is most acute off the coasts of Africa and in the Bay of Bengal. I’m currently abroad working on this new book, traveling through Southeast Asia, East Africa and the UK. For those interested in some of my thoughts on what I’m encountering, please visit (or click on the link in the list to the right).

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The smell of war

I am lucky to live within sight of the largest green space in urban Toronto, the lush expanse of trees, trails, streams and rolling hills known as High Park. For years, a morning routine has been to walk the park, getting some exercise while enjoying the changing moods of the place. Different seasons trigger different memories, and this morning was no different. Tramping through a trail beneath a cover of blossoming hard wood trees, the earth wet from an overnight shower, I came upon a small clearing of green grass. It was one of those areas families will soon use for picnics, and the groundskeepers had just finished cutting the grass when I smelled it again: the smell of war.

I hadn’t suffered any sort of traumatic flashback to some personal experience in a battle, nor was I even thinking about a conflict that had recently occurred. But I was reminded of war and death, and the smell most definitely stopped me dead in my tracks. For there, in a peaceful park in Canada’s largest city, the smell of the First World War came back to me. Our sense of smell is supposed to be leave the strongest impression, and the freshly cut grass certainly brought a lot back to me this morning.

Bois des Fosses, northeast of Verdun, France

A few years ago, I spent some time in northeastern France with members of the government’s Département du Déminage. These Interior Ministry personnel are tasked with the ongoing clearance of France’s battlefields from two world wars, hauling unexploded shells, grenades, mortars and other ordnance from the very soil where millions of men fought.

On an early summer morning, I followed a six-member team into the forests near the village of Bezonvaux, just north of Verdun. The village itself was destroyed during the Great War and never rebuilt. We passed it without even slowing down, the unit’s trucks veering off the paved road onto a small dirt track that snaked its way from Bezonvaux into the Bois des Fosses. The trucks stopped at some pre-determined point and the men quickly split into three teams and headed off into the woods, with yours truly tagging along. I had no idea what the demineurs were searching for, but as I followed them I could clearly see signs of the horrific 1916 Battle of Verdun everywhere: the ground was pitted and scarred from all the artillery shells that had exploded, small hillocks on all sides. There was no such thing as old growth forest here, for there had been no forest left after the initial artillery barrages between the French and Germans over ninety years ago. And though the trees had eventually begun to grow again – many years after the Armistice of 1918 – the Bois des Fosses harboured a far deadlier harvest for the demineurs.

Deminuers with unexploded German shell

It didn’t take long for the men to begin their work. Quite simply, their job entails working their way through selected portions of the forest battlefield and picking up the various unexploded munitions that the earth heaves up from time to time. In some places, I was told, over two tonnes of munitions fell on a square metre of soil and the French government has predicted it will take something like 800 years to clear the entire country. Yes, 800 years. And, given the way governments tend to be conservative with many of their statistics, one wonders if the real figure isn’t much higher. For the demineurs, though, there is a cost to all this clearance, as dozens have been killed over the years protecting France from her past.

As the men continued to haul away ordnance, the sky began to resound with the rolling thunder of an impending storm. It made me think of what the soldiers who had fought and died here must have heard, when the guns opened up and the German 77mm and French 75mm field artillery began hurling their deadly charges skyward.

The variety of ordnance and equipment employed during the battle for Verdun was atypical of the entire First World War: there were shrapnel shells, high explosive shells, gas shells, howitzers, siege guns, mortars, even immense railroad guns. And since not everything that was fired exploded on impact – duds, so to speak – there is an awful lot for the demineurs to reap.

High explosive shell

After a couple of hours, the impending thunderstorm finally exploded from above and the team’s supervisor put a halt to the day’s work. The various munitions collected were placed in the waiting trucks – into sandboxes, so they shells wouldn’t roll around as we returned to their base. And back at the old German fortress they called home, near the ancient city of Metz, the shells from the War To End All Wars were laid to rest in secure vaults. In a few weeks’ time, the shells would be trucked to a military base and piled into heaps, wired up with explosive charges and detonated, finally putting an end to their long and dangerous lives.

Ah, but the smell I was reminded of? Well, after the teams had unloaded the ordnance, one of them took me aside to show me a special shell they’d found. It wasn’t much larger than a section of a baseball bat, a brown, rusting relic that he held very gingerly in his gloved hands. He gently rocked it from side to side and told me to listen to the shell, to put my ear close to it. As he moved it from side to side, I could hear the faint sound of a liquid sloshing within it. This, he told me, was gas. By the ring on its nosecone, it was a phosgene shell, a German chemical weapon from the First World War.

Phosgene gas shell

The demineur told me to follow him into the vault as he placed it upon a pile of other chemical shells, and then pointed to a collection of white, plastic jerry cans in one corner. These contained liquid phosegene that had been removed from shells too rusty to trust. The demineurs drilled a hole in the decrepit shells, emptied the contents and stored them here until they could figure out to properly dispose of the chemicals.

He took one of the containers, and unscrewed the cap. “Here, have a smell,” he said, “But not too close, okay?” And so I took a whiff of the weapon that had inspired so much fear and caused so many injuries and deaths, taking in the scent of 1916.

That scent remains with me to this day, for it smelled like a fresh cut lawn.

Monday, May 07, 2007

U.S. release of my last book

For those of you living in the United States, I’d like to announce that you can now purchase my book “Ocean Titans: Journeys in Search of the Soul of a Ship”. Lyons Press released the book last Tuesday, May 1, and it is available through various online sellers as well as select stores. Check you favorite sources for availability.

“Ocean Titans” is a chronicle of two and a half years of journeys around the world to meet those who design, own, build, captain, crew and scrap ocean-going vessels, It is a tale of the birth, life and death of modern ships – and the individuals whose lives revolve around these leviathans. I ventured to meet designers in the Bahamas, shipowners in Monaco, shipwrights in Korea and shipbreakers in India. I traveled aboard a container ship across the North Atlantic in severe gales, sailed with the crew of a bulk carrier tramping up and down the eastern seaboard of America and spent hours in the engine room of a tanker in the Pacific. From masters to deckhands to engineers to cooks, I sought to find out what those who make their livelihoods from the sea really think about their transient homes, asking them if they really think a ship can have a soul.

I invite you to check it out if you're so inclined. Meanwhile, I have begun work on my second book, a look at modern-day piracy and terrorism on the high seas that will be released in both the U.S. and Canada in 2008. More on that as things develop.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Washing up on a buccaneer island

Three hundred years ago, the Ile de la Tortue (called Tortuga by the English) would have been a place to avoid if you were a seafarer. This little island off the north coast of Haiti was known as a base for buccaneers who preyed on shipping passing through the West Indies. By all account, the mostly French buccaneers were a wild band with a ruthless streak; a sailor would have done whatever he could to avoid encountering them. But this past Saturday (April 28), Tortuga was exactly where a shipwrecked captain wanted to be.

According to the US Coast Guard, Captain Ramon Pichardo washed up on a beach on Tortuga after spending four days adrift in the Caribbean. He’d been clinging to a wooden box, without food or water, when he spotted the island as dawn broke and decided to swim for shore. Though he was suffering from mild exposure, Capt. Pichardo was able to find a telephone and contact the authorities, who continue to hunt for survivors. So far, 19 people have been rescued; another 20 remain missing.

Tourists who have visited Puerto Plata may be familiar with the destination of the fishing boat: the Silver Bank, about 100 km north of the Dominican Republic resort town. Fishing and whale watching are popular on the bank, and Capt. Pichardo’s passengers were no exception. His vessel, the 52-foot Abra Cadabra set out from Puerto Plata on Monday, April 23 around 5:00pm, with 39 passengers and crew. But sometime after midnight, sea conditions worsened and the vessel capsized, throwing passengers and crew into the waters. They were over 30 kilometers from shore.

The 38 year-old Pichardo told rescuers that he and six other survivors managed to use a wooden box as a makeshift raft. They drifted west with the current, covering 120 kilometers in four days. Pichardo does not mention if they encountered sharks, but he must have remembered events like the infamous 1987 Death’s Head Beach incident. At that time, dozens of Dominicans, mostly women, were trying to make it to Puerto Rico in the hope of finding work. Smugglers agreed to take them in a fishing boat about the same size as the Abra Cadabra and it, too, capsized. The survivors were soon set upon by dozens of sharks who, according to witnesses, turned the waters red off what is really called Death’s Head Beach.

Currently, vessels and aircraft from the United States, the Dominican Republic and Haiti are running search patrols along the north coast of Hispaniola.

USCG map showing search area off north coast of Haiti

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Memorable Meals – Prt 1: India

At a dinner party recently, the topic of conversation shifted to memories of fine dining experiences. Guests recounted exquisitely prepared meals, five star restaurants, top chefs, vintage wines and the like. While I listened to these experiences, I began thinking of my own memories of memorable meals and found that not a single one involved great restaurants. In many cases I’d be hard pressed to remember the name of whoever hosted or prepared these culinary impressions, but that didn’t really matter. For me, the memories of good food and drink remain centered on the social aspect involved, not the ingredients, per se. And Lord knows I’ve tried to replicate some of these repasts by carefully gathering the elements and meticulously preparing the meal, only to have it end in mediocrity. It just isn’t the same; the experience of great meal is an immediate thing that can never quite be duplicated, and probably should remain so. Too much of anything isn’t supposed to be good for us, so these fleeting moments should be remembered, not replicated. With that in mind, I’ll be recounting some of my more memorable meals from my various travels around the globe, for as George Bernard Shaw once said, “There is no sincerer love than the love of food.”


On the dirty shores of the northwestern Indian state of Gujurat can be found the largest shipbreaking site on the planet: Alang. It’s a grimy, dirty expanse of industrial hell where ocean-going vessels come to be cut apart by thousands of migrant workers so that the steel and other artifacts can be recycled. I was visiting Alang to do research on the life cycle of a ship and had been invited to wander through one shipbreaking yard by its genial owner. As the sun began to set behind Alang, the man invited my translator and me to join him for dinner in the ramshackle building he worked from at the far end of his yard.

To decline the invitation would have been considered impolite, but I was a little nervous about things: this was my first trip to India and I’d heard numerous tales of people getting sick while eating local food. And one look around the shipbreaking yard did little to help, as the place was covered in a perpetual haze from the welding torches cutting through steel and the air was thick with metal particles and God knows what else. Making our way to the owner’s hut, we wandered past workers heading for the nearby hovels they called home, men and boys who were caked in grime but still managed to smile my way as they finished up for the day. The clang of a steel plate echoed somewhere close and the wind coming in off the bay carried with it the stench of human excrement and smell of burning steel.

At the back of the shipbreaking yard, we were led to a backdoor into the hut, which revealed a small kitchen and a couple of men cooking on a large stove. The room was small, with a dirt floor. We continued inside, past the shy chefs, and into the dining room, which was fashioned completely from bits and pieces of some long-gone ship. By the looks of things, it had once been the mess hall on a Yugoslavian freighter, with a long table in the middle and several lounge chairs nestled by the mock-wood paneling. The owner had even kept the photos from the mess hall bulkheads, fading black and white images of Rijeka and Pula, two important shipbuilding ports in what is now Croatia. I did note that there was no framed photo of Tito hanging, though I’m sure one had hung somewhere in prominence on the ocean-going vessel.

Unsure of what was to happen next, my translator and I sat ourselves at the table and waited. Within a few moments, one of the cooks entered bearing the first of the meal. Pradip, my trusted translator, quickly explained that we were being served a traditional Gujarati meal, which meant a vegetarian dinner served without utensils. As the stainless steel trays were placed on the table, I quickly wiped my hands on my pants and, following Pradip’s lead, began to delve in into the thali meal.

What happened next remains fixed in my memory: A delicious mouthful of great subtlety. I’d already sampled Gujarati food while staying in nearby Ahmedabad, but it had been prepared for foreigners and was bland. The region is not noted for rich or spicy foods, as some other areas of India are, but some people in Toronto had told me it could be fantastic. But until this moment I had not experienced it.

Potatoes, green beans, rotis, yogurt, dal, papd, chutneys – the meal kept growing, and I kept eating. Like savouring a fine wine, this was a meal in which you had to pay attention to the small things, the flavours and aromas that gently came at you. Unlike richer, cream-based meals, this dinner did not fill you up quickly; it was lighter and graceful.

By the time we’d eaten our fill the owner arrived for tea, served in the Indian style. He invited the cooks to join us for glasses of spicy chai, giving me the chance to thank them for the meal. So in the midst of a ramshackle dining room pieced together from a dead ship, stuck in a grungy scrap yard, two men whom I would never meet again smiled meekly as I stammered my gratitude for the best meal I had ever had in India.

As the chefs left, I asked the shipbreaking yard owner where they learned their craft, and where they lived. He took a sip of chai and told me, “They learned from their mothers. They are Gujaratis. And they live here – in Alang. They are also shipbreakers.”

Thursday, February 15, 2007

A Grim Anniversary

Twenty-five years ago, on February 14, 1982, a fierce storm was heading for the Grand Banks off Newfoundland, preparing to alter the lives of thousands of individuals within a few hours. The storm, with winds in excess of 70mph and waves topping 100 feet in height, was bearing down on a group of offshore oil rigs and merchant vessels that would soon be faced with a mariner’s worst nightmare.

Sometime around 7pm that Sunday evening, the world’s largest semi-submersible oil rig, the Ocean Ranger, was moored over a drill site in the Grand Banks when her Master reported an immense wave crashing over her. The Ocean Ranger was considered unsinkable to many, possibly including many among her crew of 84, 67 of whom were Canadians. As reported to the rig’s shore base in St. John’s, Newfoundland, 180 miles to the west, the wave had smashed portholes in the Ocean Ranger’s ballast control room, leading to some flooding and electrical shorts. In theory, this should have been a minor incident quickly dealt with by the crew; no one could imagine that this would lead to one of the worst maritime disasters in recent Canadian history.

The Ocean Ranger

A little after midnight, in the early hours of a storm-ravaged Monday morning, the Ocean Ranger’s situation had become perilous. The flooding in the ballast control room had led to a list in the rig, caused by short circuits in the equipment that opened sea valves in the hulls. By 1:56am on February 15, the Ocean Ranger’s list had reached the point that the crew radioed for help. The Rescue Coordination Centre in Halifax, Nova Scotia, heard the call: "Request assistance a.s.a.p....We are an offshore drilling platform...Winds at this time are approx....75 knots. Rig is of semisubmersible listing severely 12° to 14°portside."

This would be the last transmission heard from the Ocean Ranger. With the storm still raging over the area, neither fixed wing aircraft nor helicopters could be effectively deployed to assist the crew of the rig, and any other vessels in the area were dealing with their own serious conditions. About 65 miles east of the Ocean Ranger was a Soviet freighter that might have been able to help, but the MV Mikhanik Tarasov was fighting its own life and death battle with the seas.

By 3:30am, the Ocean Ranger’s list had reached the point of no return: she was going under. Whether anyone made it to the lifeboats of not before she sank is still unknown. But at 3:38am, the gigantic platform disappeared off radar screens. Once dawn broke on that Monday morning and rescuers were finally able to arrive on the scene, the Ocean Ranger was gone, swallowed up by the North Atlantic. All that remained was some debris and overturned lifeboats.

There were no survivors.

In a sad coda to the Ocean Ranger’s demise, the Soviet freighter Mikhanik Tarasov soon radioed her own Mayday, stating she was taking on water and listing badly. Within twenty-four hours of the loss of Ocean Ranger, the freighter also succumbed to the storm, leaving only five survivors out of a crew of 37. In all, 116 men lost their lives on the North Atlantic during those terrifying days a quarter century ago.

Friday, February 02, 2007

MSC Napoli update

Concerns that the grounding of the MSC Napoli had driven up the price of nickel on global markets have now been proven false. The container vessel was in danger of sinking two weeks ago after her hull was damaged in a storm while sailing through the English Channel. Her captain then ordered the ship deliberately grounded on a reef in Lyme Bay, off the coast of Devon, where the crew was eventually rescued and where the stricken vessel still remains.

Among the Napoli’s 2,200 containers was said to be over a thousand tonnes of nickel, an amount that initial reports stated was over twenty percent of the available world inventory. This news, coupled with the threat of a looming strike at a major Canadian mining operation, helped drive the price of nickel sharply up on the London Metals Exchange, to $38,300 US a tonne.

However it has now been reported that the Napoli only carries about 150 tonnes of nickel (owned by Columbus Stainless Steel of South Africa, where the vessel was bound when she was damaged). The price of nickel fell to close at $33,850 US yesterday.

Meanwhile, the first containers from the Napoli are being offloaded onto barges for transport to shore.