Saturday 17 March 2012

Santiago Pilgrims: Are you ready to go home yet?

If you look over to the right, you will see that I have added a new page for A Casa do Raposito (orange link and underlined), a Post-Camino pilgrim retreat near Muxia and as far as I know the only one of its kind. Just click on the link to learn more. It has been my dream for many years to be able to offer a place such as this: a place to rest, to read or write, to walk without having to get up at 5:00 a.m., to relax and to discuss with others your experiences, or to remain silent: we won't bother you. Maybe you might even like to go fishing? That too can be arranged!

I shall be working on a web page shortly and Foxy will also have his own Facebook page very soon...

I am also offering to take guests on "History and Mystery" tours to places you would never find alone, even with a car. All is on a "Donativo" (donation) basis and includes meals.

Wouldn't you like to stay for just a little longer...?

The ship that never should have been...

If you just did a double take at the odd design of this ship maybe you might like to ask yourself why. Yes, that is a separate deck below and those odd –looking round things are actually gun turrets. The HMS Captain was a ship designed to revolutionize battle at sea. Within months she would lay on the bottom of the ocean off Cape Finisterre. This is her story.  

Unlike the Prestige or even the Serpent, I doubt you will have ever have heard it before. Yet she took almost 500 human souls – including that of her inventor's – to a watery grave off the Costa da Morte.

The HMS Captain should never have been built; but she was, though not without controversy. In fact, she became the result of a highly public dispute between Captain Cowper Coles, her designer who invented her revolving turrets, and the director of naval construction, Edward Reed, who insisted she was unstable and potentially dangerous. Coles had discovered the possibilities of floating rafts with shielded guns on a turntable during the Crimean War, but had remained on half-pay since then, promoting his inventions to Parliament and the press. Coles was ambitious and he was determined. Despite Reed's resistance, and the fact that Coles had already built a rigged ship with similar turrets – the HMS Monarch, which was of a different size and design entirely - Coles had enough clout with the Admiralty and with the public to get the chance to build a masted turret ship to suit his own fancy. With enormous public pressure and the backing of Parliament, the project got the nod in 1867.

From the outset, the construction of the ship was problematic. Coles was ill during much of the construction and supervision was lax at best. Once completed, she was 740tons over her designed weight and so sat much lower in the water than her design allowed for. In fact, the main deck was often awash even in light seas. The Captain had a high centre of gravity due to her towering rig which was attached to the upper deck, thus justifying Reed's concern about her stability.

At first, it appeared that Coles was right in his claims that this was the ship of the future. She made a couple of successful short round trips to Vigo before joining the Channel fleet. But later, the commanding admiral who visited the ship during a voyage of the often treacherous Bay of Biscay remarked that the turret deck appeared to be perpetually awash (which if you look again at the picture is hardly surprising).

On the night of Sept. 6, 1870, while sailing off Cape Finisterre in a freshening gale, the Captain abruptly capsized and sank like a stone. She took with her 473 of her crew, including her captain, and Coles, who was on board as an observer on the voyage. Perhaps we should add, thankfully, as he did not survive to see what his stubbornness had done. There were only 18 survivors of the disaster, all of whom made it to a boat which which had pulled free of the sinking ship. They were rescued late the following day.

The Captain affair became a long-lived naval controversy, and immediate steps were taken to improve the stability of warships built for the Royal Navy. Within decades, sail became a thing of the past though not before several equally strange looking vessels were brought before the Admiralty.

If you go to St. Paul’s Cathedral you will see the Captain remembered in two side-by-side memorial plaques. The list of names seems to go on and on…

Arthur Hawkey, author of HMS Captain remarks on the book's cover:
"On 30 April, 1870, when HMS Captain was commissioned, the ensign was accidentally hoisted upside down. Never has an omen been more tragically of swiftly fulfilled.”

“Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bidd'st the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!”
Next castles and castros…

Sunday 4 March 2012

Nunca Mais: The Prestige Oil Disaster

It’s a windy night here in Galicia. The wind makes me think of those “in peril on the sea” as we used to sing in assembly when such things were not blighted by political correctness. It also serves to remind me that sometime back I began a series on shipwrecks of the Costa da Morte. There are literally hundreds, recently put together in an excellent book by my friend Rafael Lema. The most famous, or rather infamous, is probably the Prestige. In terms of loss of human life it cannot rank with The Serpent or the HMS Captain as mercifully no one lost their life as a direct fresult(the HMS Captain went down with 480 souls and about which later), but as an environmental and ecological disaster it is probably without equal.

The tanker Prestige was a Greek operated single-hulled ship which, by all accounts, should never have been on the high seas.

On the voyage in question in November 2002, it was carrying 77,000 metric tons of heavy oil when one of its tanks burst off the Galician Costa da Morte. The captain contacted the authorities with the news expecting that the ship would be brought into harbour. Captain Mangouras sought refuge for his seriously damaged vessel in a Spanish port: a request of which has deep historic roots. However, instead the ship was turned away not only from the Spanish coast but also the Portuguese where the naval authorities forced the vessel to once again change its course and head northwards. French opposition to having the ship in its ports left the Prestige with nowhere to go. On November 19th, having lost a substantial amount of its cargo, the ship split in half some 150 miles from the Galicia coastline.

An earlier oil slick had already reached the coast. The Greek captain of the Prestige, Apostolos Mangouras, was taken into custody, accused of not co-operating with salvage crews and of harming the environment. After the sinking, the wreck continued leaking oil. It leaked approximately 125 tons of oil a day, which polluted the sea bed and contaminated the coastline, especially along the Costa da Morte of Galicia.

Initially, the government announced that 17,000 tons of oil had been lost, and that the remaining 60,000 tons would freeze and not leak from the sunken tanker. However, by early 2003, it was claimed that half of the oil had been lost. In subsequent investigations that figure has risen considerably to almost 90% of the Prestige’s cargo.

The immediate damage to those who depended upon the sea for their livelihood, and to habitats and wildlife was incalculable. While the governments of Galicia and Spain pondered what to do, thousands of volunteers were organized to help clean the affected coastline. As teams of volunteers cleared one thick coat of fuel from the sand another black wave would wash in.

In a region renowned for an abundance of fine fish and seafood, fishermen faced the though of complete ruin. Almost 26,000 people depend on the sea in Galicia for their livelihood, but as the slick spread all fishing was banned.

The massive cleaning campaign was a success, however, recovering most portions of coastline not only from the effects of the oil spill but also from the accumulated usual contamination, although even today, patches of oil and oil-covered rocks are still a common enough site on many beaches.

But according to recent BBC news story, a scientific study suggests clean-up workers may have been exposed unnecessarily to harm. Genotoxic analysis detected increased "damage values" in volunteers exposed to the oil over several months, suggesting a higher risk of certain illnesses, including cancer.

Although the oil covered 100's of miles of coastline, the environmental damage caused by the Prestige was most severe in the coast of Galicia, where local activists founded the environmental movement Nunca Máis (Galician for Never Again), to denounce the passiveness of the conservative government regarding the disaster. The cost of the clean-up to the Galician coast alone has been estimated at €2.5 billion. The clean-up of the Exxon Valdez cost US$3 billion. Because of the colder temperature of the waters off the Canadian west coast, the oil from the Exxon Valdez was said to be easier to contain. In the immediate aftermath of the Prestige incident, rescue teams found more than 22,000 dead birds. It is thought that was a fraction of the total number killed.

Unlike the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, where BP is having to foot a huge bill for compensation, the complexities of international shipping meant Spain only recovered a small percentage of the estimated 660m euros ($832m; £541m) worth of damage caused by the Prestige.

For most Galicians, the trial of the tanker's captain and crew - and the director of Merchant Shipping in Madrid - is about getting answers, not money.

They want to know who was responsible, and they demand reassurance such an accident could never be repeated.