Saturday, July 29, 2006

Never fading away

One of my oldest friends sent me an email today congratulating me on a review that appeared in the Globe & Mail for my book, Ocean Titans. The Globe - for those of you outside Canada - is our national newspaper and getting a review in it is great, even if it won't pay the rent.

Dave, who is now a parliamentary correspondent in Ottawa for CTV News, went on to post a nice piece about me on his blog, but I have a beef with my friend's thoughts about our past. He talks of our love for the music of The Jam, XTC, The Buzzcocks and the teenaged affectations of the mod lifestyle. And lord knows we thought we were pretty cool: while others were listening to Hall & Oates or Rick Springfield, Dave and I and countless others were discovering soul, r & b, Motown, even ska and reggae. It was a much more comprehensive musical education than most of our schoolmates.

But in the midst of this was the unmistakenably raw sound of The Clash, The Pistols and other great bands. And at the apex of that raw sound was the one band that Dave forgot to mention in his posting: The Ramones.

In the thirty years since they broke on the scene in their native New York, The Ramones have been lionized as progentiors of a new form of music, a group who laid the framework for The Sex Pistols, Clash and whatnot.

But what gets forgotten when writers remember Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Marky (let's not get into Tommy and all the others), is that they were first and foremost performers. To see them play live was to experience something unlike any other group; they didn't mince words, play to the local crowd or act like rock stars. They just did it. And they could do it like few others.

Case in point: A teenager in a small Canadian city hears that The Ramones are coming to town, and are going to play in the gymnasium of a local high school. He wants to see them, but doesn't want to go to a concert alone. Yet nobody - nobody - he knows could care less about going to see a bunch of New Yorkers in leather jackets playing two minute songs that all sound alike. But he eventually finds somone to go and they trek down to the high school, sit in the bleachers normally used for basketball games and watch a ninety minute set of the music that changed a generation. The Ramones didn't care that they were playing in a school gym - they just cared about playing. Relentlessly. Joey never once (that I remember) looked up from his mic, nor did Johnny for the matter. Dee Dee may have glanced at us, but it was with a scowl, like the rest of them, asserting that we should be glad to be seeing them. But it wasn't arrogant. It just was. It was The Ramones.

Thank god Dave Akin went with me. And bless you Joey, Johnny and Dee Dee wherever you may be - you changed our lives.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Lady’s Looming Death

As someone who’s spent the last half-decade pondering whether ships have a soul, the news of her looming demise caught my attention. She was, for a time, the most magnificent passenger vessel to grace the seas, larger than the Queen Elizabeth 2 and with a refined elegance that has never been recreated. And, for now, she lies anchored in the murky waters of the Bay of Khambhat in northwestern India.

The former SS France riding at anchor off Alang
Photo by Amit Dave, Reuters

I speak of the famed passenger liner SS France, later known as the SS Norway, now re-christened the Blue Lady. Thirty-six years after being launched, it appears the ship’s days are numbered as she idles within sight of the vast shipbreaking yards of Alang, India, though not without stirring some controversy about her impending death.

The liner was originally conceived in the waning years of the era when ocean-going passenger liners plied the Atlantic between Europe and America. In the mid-1950’s, the French government was seeking a new symbol of maritime prestige, something to replace the soon-to-be retired SS Ile de France and SS Liberté and counter the dominance of the British liners RMS Queen Mary and RMS Queen Elizabeth, as well as the SS United States. So it was that exactly fifty years ago today, on July 26, 1956, the new vessel was officially ordered.

The keel for what was known as Hull G19 was laid on September 7, 1957 at the Chantiers de l'Atlantique shipyard in Saint-Nazaire. Less than three years later, the wife of president Charles de Gaulle cracked a bottle of champagne upon the hull after christening her the SS France, and the thousand-foot long vessel slid down the ways to her natural home.

The France was the longest passenger vessel in the world when she departed Le Havre on February 3, 1962 for her maiden voyage to New York. For the next twelve years she plied the trans-Atlantic route and also did winter cruises, carrying movie stars, famous musicians, politicians and even the da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. In 1967 she berthed in Montréal for two weeks, acting as a temporary second French pavilion at Expo 67. With the distinctive wings on her two funnels, she was the last word in sea-going elegance, the finest way one could cross the Atlantic. But the SS France had arrived at the end of an era, at a time when air travel was replacing sea voyages.

First class lounge

First class patio

By 1974, the French government could no longer afford to subsidize the liner and she was withdrawn from service. A French maritime union protested the decision by effectively hijacking the ship and refusing to dock her, but she eventually was berthed in Le Havre and decommissioned.

Five years after being mothballed by the French, the liner was sold to Norwegian Cruise Lines who towed the SS France to Bremerhaven, West Germany, for re-fitting. On April 14, 1980 the liner was re-christened the SS Norway and began a second life as a luxury cruise ship. The Norway helped to revolutionize the cruise industry as other firms ordered new and large vessels to compete with her.

By 2001, though, even the vessel’s cruising days were numbered and when the SS Norway departed Manhattan on September 9, few expect her to return. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks two days later, the SS Norway managed to survive as a cruise ship for a short time more. On May 25, 2003, the Norway had just docked in Miami when there was a boiler explosion near the crew quarters. Seven crewmembers died and seventeen were injured. The Norway’s owners took her out of service, towed her to Bremerhaven and mothballed the ship for a second time.

Bremerhaven, Germany, February 2004

Last year the SS Norway left Europe for the last time, being towed halfway around the world to Malaysia. She sat in Port Klang for some time until being sold to shipbreakers who renamed her the Blue Lady. She was unceremoniously dragged around from port to port, first to Bangladesh, then to the United Arab Emirates until finally reaching Indian waters in June of this year. Environmentalists and labour activists are concerned about the variety of toxic pollutants encased within her, including asbestos used when she was built in France fifty years ago. Some are still hoping she’ll not be beached at Alang and cut apart for scrap, with one idea being to use her as a floating hotel in Dubai.

But, for the time being, the Grand Dame is quiet, her cabins home to a skeleton crew whose only job is to prepare her for death. Whether she will receive a last minute reprieve is doubtful, but perhaps there is still some life in the Lady.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

New Canadian naval expenditures

A few weeks ago, on June 26th, the Canadian government announced the first of a series of upcoming defence expenditures, the sum total of which will be in the neighbourhood of $15 billion (Canadian dollars). The initial announcement by defence minister Gordon O’Connor was in Halifax, headquarters of Maritime Forces Atlantic, and concerned the need to replace the fleet’s two aging supply vessels, HMCS Protecteur and HMCS Preserver. These ships help to maintain the Canadian navy’s vessels with fuel, food and other supplies while at sea, a logistical element that is paramount to the operation of on-going fleet exercises. They also help supply allied forces from time to time.

HMCS Preserver

The government has decided to replace these supply vessels with three new ships, each of which will be in the range of 28,000 tonnes, with the first to be delivered in 2012. The announced cost of the new buildings is $2.1 billion, a somewhat staggering amount for what will be support vessels, not fighting ships.

The need to replace Protecteur and Preserver goes without saying: they are both almost forty years old, having been launched in 1968 and 1969 respectively, an awfully long time to be plying the waters of our planet. The stresses placed upon any vessel working the high seas is considerable and only increases with the years; corrosion, structural integrity and aging machinery can create a hazardous environment for those who ship out aboard older vessels.

But the cost of the replacements for these two ships does make me wonder: Is $700 million for a single supply vessel not a tad high? On the world market, one can pick up a similar merchant ship for a lot less money – say $50-60 million. That’s off-the-shelf from a builder like Hyundai or Daewoo in South Korea (albeit with a waiting period for delivery of up to five years, owing to the huge backlog created in the commercial shipping industry).

Now there are a variety of reasons why a Korean vessel costs about $50 million and these new Canadian-built ones will be about $700 million. On the one hand, the Canadian shipyards will have to re-tool, hire and train new staff and essentially start from square one (they’re more attuned to refitting and repairing vessels than new construction). As well, military procurements normally require the work to be done at home, whether for national prestige, security requirements or job-creation scenarios. And, of course, there are the peculiar requirements of a naval vessel versus a commercial one, one meant to not only battle the sea but also a belligerent enemy. On the other hand, Korean shipyards are mass-production facilities geared to the requirements of the private sector that pay their workers less than their Canadian counterparts – base economics.

Still, I have to posit that perhaps Canada could have ordered some vessels from a reputable foreign yard, brought them to Canada and refitted them to our naval standards. It might have saved hundreds of million dollars, money that could have been used elsewhere in our cash-strapped armed forces.

Will it be worth it? Well if past experience has shown anything, just keep an eye on the cost overruns and delivery delays.