Friday, May 24, 2013

Full Fathom Five...

I love to beachcomb. I never visit the shore that I don't come home with booty, my pockets overflowing or even a plastic bag filled with shells, agates, driftwood pieces, sea glass, and more. The sea gives up its treasures, sometimes after many years of hoarding it.

Sea glass is a favorite. It shines when wet and then often dries to a milky hue, having been polished by the sand over time. The great ocean rock tumbler makes beautiful art! There's a science to identifying the different kinds of sea glass. I love the greens best. Occasionally I find blues or reds--rare. In Greece, while spending five days at Kakokefali Lighthouse at Chalkida, I found pottery shards with pretty patterns, which made me wonder: "How old?" The times I've stayed at New Dungeness Light Station on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, I've always found sea glass, and other beach treasures. On one walk I found a Japaense toothbrush!

A few days ago I had a conversation over lunch with a colleague at Olympic College where I teach. She teaches English and does a "green" theme for the students' readings. One of the articles her students read is called "Polymers are Forever." (This website has a similar article:  It's a sad and startling informational piece on how we humans have polluted the ocean with plastics, either accidentally and deliberately, and how these plastics degrade into miniscule particles. My friend and I chatted about the good things and bad things that wash up on beaches, and then we admitted there's a lot of stuff floating on the open sea or deposited on the seafloor that people seldom see. "Out of sight, out of mind," as the saying goes....

This reminds me of some briny vocabulary I learned years ago while working at Mystic Seaport Museum. I attended days of training and lectures to prepare me for the big picture of the sailor's life and ships at sea and in port. I worked in numerous exhibits and had to know the background information.

Flotsam: This term is from the old Latin "fluitare," meaning "to float." It refers to anything unnatural floating on the sea, such as the glass fisherman's float in the picture above, a chunk of milled lumber, broken fish nets, stuff that falls off ships and boats, or some of those nasty polymers than reduce themselves to tiny particles and suspend nefariously in seawater, possibly ending up in our seafood. "Flotsam Fish" might be the new item on the menu! Flotsam originally applied to objects remaining after a shipwreck. Today, it's an umbrella term for all junk and treasures floating on the sea. The tsunami in Japan a few years back sent lots of flotsam into the sea, and some of it has come ashore in my state, Washington. The key here is that flotsam ends up in the sea unintentionally. Flotsam happens, you might say.

Jetsam: This is from the old Latin "jacere," meaning "to throw out." It differs from flotsam in that it goes into the sea deliberately. In the days of sail it referred to cargo and goods purposely jettisoned from a vessel to lighten the load and possibly prevent a shipwreck. A big ship rolling in storm waves fares better if its cargo is evenly stowed and not too heavy. Storm waves breaching the deck can steal items too, making them unintentional jetsam. If a sailing ship was becalmed, say in the Horse Latitudes where wind comes at a premium in some seasons, the master might order cargo thrown into the sea. The Horse Latitudes supposedly got their name because cargoes of horses were thrown into the sea here to lighten a sailing ship's load. Such a cruel practice! Sometimes jetsam floats, like flotsam, so unless you know how an object got into the water, it's hard to know which to call it, flotsam or jetsam. NOAA (National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration) images below suggest both. On top is a picture of a NOAA crew pulling up a ball of net, which probably was cut loose by a fishing vessel when it couldn't be winched in. Below that is an undersea view of miscellaneous flotsam and jetsam floating on the sea surface, a view much like a seal or a fish would see. The ocean has a way of corralling this stuff.

Lagan: This is from the Icelandic word "lagnir" for "sea net." It's debris lying on the ocean floor. The earliest Icelanders, a.k.a. Vikings, were great sailors, beachcombers, and salvagers, willing to dive down to the ocean floor to retrieve useful items. They marked these finds with special buoy-like objects called lagnir. All manner of items, good and bad, lie on the sea floor. Some are of great value--amphora, old coins and other treasure, shipwreck remains, valuable cargoes that have sunk. Robert Ballard has made a fortune finding shipwrecks on the sea floor, including the Titanic. She's a very deep and precious pile of lagan for sure! Wrecker is the occupation of pulling up items from shipwrecks or refloating sunken ships. Places like Cape Cod and Key West had dozens of wrecking businesses in the age of sail, and they still have a few. NOAA has special cleanup crews to pull up lagan. Here's a photo of old tires and other trash sunk on the sea floor. For generations, we considered the ocean a big trashcan. We're re-thinking that attitude, I hope.

I wouldn't blame anyone for the piece of flotsam shown below--a message in a bottle washed ashore. (I suppose it becomes beach debris once it comes ashore and is no longer flotsam.) It's romantic, yes, and makes for a great tourist pitch for a place like the Bahamas or Tahiti. But in some cases it's a lifesaving tool or becomes historically revealing. Those Titanic passengers threw bottles into the sea with SOS messages in them. Columbus supposedly dropped one of these littoral letters into the great ocean post on one of his voyages to the New World after a hurricane damaged his ship. Imagine finding that treasure! Ocean research often relies on drogues, special bottles that track ocean currents and storm waves. If you find one of these research bottles, you should fill out the form inside, indicating its location, and return it to NOAA.

A final tidbit, just for fun...
I have in my lighthouse file for Cape Cod's Highland Lighthouse, a cute story I was told by the staff of the Cape Cod National Seashore many years ago. It's a tale about a mother cat and her three kittens that survived a shipwreck in the early nineteenth century. It wasn't uncommon for sailors to have cats aboard old sailing ships. In fact, well-known sailor/author Alan Villiers once said, "Every ship ought to have a cat." Cats are nimble, good climbers, efficient rodent eradicators, and excellent companions. The park service staff on Cape Cod didn't provide specific details about the shipwreck, as they probably didn't know them. This makes me suspect their story is a bit more lore than actual truth. But it probably has a kernel of truth somewhere in it. Anyway...the mother cat and her babies floated to shore in a willow basket, possibly set afloat by the crew to save them. The lightkeeper at Highland Light watched helplessly as the ship broke apart in the late afternoon and then went down in the waning winter light. He went to the beach in the darkness, lantern in hand, to look for survivors. He found none, but the desperate mews of the kittens and their mother were heard, and they were rescued. The lightkeeper adopted them and named the mother Shipwreck. Every lighthouse, just like every ship, needs a cat...or two...or three...

You guessed it--the three kittens were named Flotsam, Jetsam, and Lagan.

This adorable kitty at the tideline is a photo on Tumbler from For excellent information on ocean debris, go to the NOAA Marine Debris Facebook page:

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Happy Birthday, Trinity House

Yesterday, May 20th, was the birthday of Trinity House, the lighthouse authority for Great Britain. It began as a medieval mariners guild of "Godley disposed men who do bind themselves succor from the dangers of the sea all who are beset upon the coasts of England." King Henry VIII chartered Trinity House on May 20, 1514. Unfortunately, he is better remembered for his many dalliances and multiple wives than for the important work of launching an effort to protect mariners and shipping. Trinity House took its name from the Holy Trinity, under which seamen fervently placed themselves for protection at sea and the blessing of St. Clement, patron saint of British sailors and fishermen. The initial charter provided for a master and twelve wardens to make laws and govern shipping throughout the realm.

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, King Henry VIII's daughter, Trinity House was authorized to erect beacons and seamarks and was given a coat of arms and the motto "Trinitas in Unitate." The first lighthouse built by Trinity House was at Lowestroft in 1609. Before this time, any beacon lights in the British realm were operated by monks, merchants and ship owners, or private citizens. As the British Empire grew, Trinity House established lighthouses and other navigational aids at home and in its many crown colonies and territories--Australia, India, the Bahamas, Polynesia, China, and many, many more places far from England. Trinity House built the first offshore, wave-swept lighthouses, of which the famous Eddystone Light was the first. A number of nations, including the United States, modeled their lighthouse systems on Trinity House.

Today, Trinity House oversees hundreds of lighthouses, buoys, daymarks, and vessels and continues a long tradition of keeping the coasts and waters safe. Trinity House has a wonderful website and a blog, both rife with pictures and history, plus information about the entity's current efforts. You'll find information on the blog about next year's 500th birthday celebration and a new book about Trinity House due to be released in October 2013. Go here to see the blog:

Here's a Wikimedia Commons image of the Trinity House HQ in London. Note the whale weathervane on the roof.

For many years, when British lighthouses were still staffed, I corresponded with several lightkeepers. They sent letters, postcards, pictures, Christmas cards, and great stories of their experiences. There's no better pen-pal than a lonely lighthouse keeper! I have lots of mail to prove it. In fact, most of the postcard collection I have from the British Isles came to me via postal mail from a lightkeeper at Inner Dowsing Lighthouse in the North Sea. On his time off ashore, he traveled to lighthouses all around England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland and took pictures and talked with the lightkeepers. He spent more than ten years on this lighthouse. I'd say the work was definitely a calling. A look at his lighthouse home will explain why. One would most certainly need to like lighthouse work to live on Inner Dowsing. No doubt it gets a dowsing in the winter when huge storms brew up on the North Sea.  (Photo from Trinity House)

Today I am finishing up an article for the U.S. Lighthouse Society journal, The Keepers Log, about the lighthouse on tiny Denis Island in the Republic of the Seychelles. It's a much different place than Inner Dowsing and an example of the reach of Trinity House. It was built by Great Britain in 1883, rebuilt, rebuilt again, and the 1910 tower still stands (though not as a functional lighthouse). The island is now private and has a posh resort next to the lighthouse. The image below is from the National Archives of Britain and shows the old wooden tripod lighthouse on the left and the newer steel one (1910) on the right. Denis Island had copra, cinnamon, and vanilla operations for many years, so the lighthouse was critical for delivery of supplies and provisions and pickup of cargo. It's rainy and cold in Puget Sound this morning, so an escape to the idyllic Seychelles is a pleasant diversion, if only in my imagination.

Here is a sampling of British lighthouses pictured on the Trinity House website, from top to bottom:
St. Catherines
Longships at Lands End, being slammed by a large wave
Bishop Rock, with its help pad on top
Europa Point at Gibralter (the gate to the Mediterranean Sea and site of a big shipwreck a few years back)

Monday, May 6, 2013

Chesapeake Fog & Chinese Pigtails

Summer is just around the corner, and I am seeing morning fogs on the West Coast, typical of our summer fog pattern. Warmer air from the land colliding with the still-cold ocean causes these "marine layers," as we call them. The sun usually burns off the layer by late morning or noon. Above is a shot of this phenomenon at Heceta Head Lighthouse in Oregon.

Foggy mornings that lead to clear and warm afternoons remind me of a story. I wrote it for Chesapeake Bay Magazine’s April 1988 issue. It is copyrighted, so please don’t reproduce it without asking me first and paying my reprint fee. ( Enjoy reading it though!

Chesapeake Fog and Chinese Pigtails
 ©Elinor DeWire

To safely steer in the treacherous fog that sometimes shrouds the waterways, numerous noisy signals have been invented to penetrate the murk—bells, horns, gongs, sirens—and a host of devices to sound them. The Chesapeake Bay has had no shortage of such clamorous signals, many of them at lighthouses where jaded keepers were charged with maintaining them and enduring the din of a foggy day.

The earliest fog signals were hand operated, usually by an overworked attendant who fired a gun at regular intervals or hammered out a code on a bell when the beacon failed to pierce the fog. Later, mechanical strikers were developed for bells, freeing the bell keeper from duty at the hammer, but still necessitating good judgment as to when to turn on the signal.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, people began to think brains ought to cast off the shackles of brawn, and the word automation gained a place of prominence. Scientists and inventors devised hundreds of ways to free up weary hands and make things work automatically. Fog signals, with their persistent need to be manually sounded, were no exception.

The problem with fog was its stealthy character, creeping in “on little cat feet” to shroud the seaway with everything from a mist as light as a bride’s veil to murk as thick as pea coup. A fog-detecting device was certainly in order, and a parade of strange inventions hurriedly passed in review. But none was odder in theory or appearance than the Chesapeake Bay’s Chinese pigtail signal.

The year was 1921, and scientists at the Baltimore Lighthouse Depot had found a material they thought would be ideal for detecting fog—human hair. Since hair responds to dryness by stretching and to dampness by shrinking, it could separate or bring together electrical contacts on a fog signal switch. Of course, the longer, thicker, and coarser the hair, the more stretching and shrinking it could do, so a Chinaman’s queue about two feet long was selected for the experiment.

A foghorn in Baltimore Harbor was chosen to receive the first pigtail signal. Researchers first treated the hair to remove all oil and foreign matter, then on a dry sunny day they attached the pigtail between two electrical contacts on the foghorn’s actuating switch. The initial development and installation of the signal’s unusual switch ran $1,300, but the researchers estimated it would economically operate for a mere $8 per month. Pigtail groomed and in place, the scientists returned to their Baltimore laboratories to await a foggy day.

A short time later President Warren Harding arrived in Baltimore to dedicate the new Francis Scott Key Memorial at Fort McHenry. The day dawned clear and sunny, and all manner of boats took to the harbor to celebrate the unveiling of the new memorial. As President Harding arrived at the memorial, fire boats began shooting water high in the air to salute him. The light mist from the rocketing streams drifted across the harbor to the Chinese pigtail, settled on its obsidian braid, and caused it to contract.

Just as the President stepped up to the lectern and uttered his first word, the contacts on the foghorn’s electrical switch met, and the insubordinate horn bellowed an ear-splitting greeting that nearly sent President Harding reeling off the podium and into the harbor. Somewhat abashed by their invention’s poor sense of timing, researchers from the Lighthouse Depot gave quick explanations and apologies. But the horn’s inappropriate behavior could not suppress their excitement over the apparent success of the experiment.

Another pigtail signal later was installed at Lambert Point near Norfolk, but both it and the Baltimore signal proved unable to distinguish between various levels of humidity. A heavy dew or a muggy but clear day could set their horns roaring as easily as a bonifide fog. Researchers were never able to make the pigtail discriminate. A German scientist would solve that dilemma with a pencil-thin beam of light projected a predetermined distance to a receiving target. When fog prevented the thin light beam from reaching its destination, the fog signal automatically kicked on.

As for Chinese pigtails and their creative electrical circuitry, they were retired to an obscure corner of the Lighthouse Depot warehouse. We can be sure President Harding never forgot them!

(I so wish I could find a photo of the Chinese pigtail fog signal! In lieu of that, below  is a shot of a traditional fog signal, operated at the judgment of a lighthouse keeper. It shows a lightkeeper standing under the old foghorns at Point Vicente Lighthouse, California about 1940. They were operated by bellows powered by steam boilers. The photo was taken by Irving Conklin, himself a lightkeeper, and resides in the Nautical Research Center, Petaluma, California. The bottom image was taken by me and shows a modern fog signal--a stack of horns facing several directions and a fog sensor box with what appear to be eyes. Metaphorically, they are eyes--looking for fog. The eyes actually project that pencil-thin light beam discussed in the article above.)