Thursday, September 17, 2009

shipping news

The Guardian had a piece yesterday on the sacking of the man who reads the maritime weather forecast on Britain's Radio 4. As its wikipedia article states, the broadcast is surprisingly popular as a result of "its unique and distinctive sound." The author of the Guardian article, explains that the program succeeds in delivering a "daily dose of the beautiful" largely because the announcer is so highly skilled. His is "the voice of God, all-knowing, untroubled, not one of those crazy Greek divinities squabbling on Mount Olympus, but the voice of pure knowledge, precise, calmed, aware of past and future, generous, loving even, concerned to protect you from the violence of the world." Of the Beeb bosses, he says, "Do they understand nothing? Nearly no one at sea now relies on the shipping forecast for their weather info. Any number of text messaging services, INMARSAT, SafetyNET or international NAVTEX data feeds are piped into bridges and nav stations with immediate and up-to-date satellite imagery. The shipping forecast nowadays is almost entirely listened to by people at home dreaming of past adventures."

In other words, the news does not just inform, it stimulates imagination. It
consists of more than the delivery of information intended to keep a citizenry well informed, it can also be a vehicle for transporting us outside the confines of our present experience and into an imagined, more soul-satisfying place and time.

I learned this from my father. He would take the Hudson Division trains from our suburban village to his place of work on 34th St. on the west side of Manhattan. Each day he would put his nickel in an unattended box and pick up a copy of the New York Times from an enormous stack on the station platform. He once showed me the trick of folding the large-format pages for reading a quarter-page at a time without disturbing the person sitting next to you on the train. Once learned, the trick makes reading the paper a whole lot easier — whether exploring sections and their contents or reading an article with its jumps from current to inside pages.

I learned from him that you do not have to begin your exploration of the paper at the front. For example, many might start with the business section, others with sports.

My father would begin by reading the shipping news.

During the time about which I'm writing, the 1950s of my school years, the Times reserved the bottom-right quadrant of a page close to the last for a a box headed SHIPPING—MAILS which included Ships That Arrived Yesterday, Incoming Passenger and Mail Ships, Cargo Ships Due, Outgoing Freighters, and the like. It told the name of ship and its line, where from and when departed, when arriving and at which dock, and, in the case of the liners, numbers of passengers.

He had no financial or business interest in these lists and he wasn't looking out for any particular ships or passengers. Their importance to him was rather with the activity of the port itself, the comings and goings within it of the great ships.

He loved boats, going to sea, being out on the water. He loved life on his father's yacht. And he also loved the romance of ocean journeys on the great liners and of prosaic churning of the tugboats that guided them into and out of their slips. Sea travel then had very little in common with air travel now, nor with the traffic of cruise ships. Liners were a form of transportation, as are airplanes, but they possessed infinitely more style. They provided the comfort of hotels, as do the cruise ships, but they existed mainly to move travelers from one place to another, not to give entertainment to vacationers. There was a great dockside bustle as ships got ready to sail. You would invite your friends and relatives to visit with you and celebrate your departure for a European journey. These were major occasions.

My father said if he ever owned a boat it would be a tug but I think he never believed he ever would, and in fact he did not.

Occasionally, in those years, my father took the family down to the docks to see this maritime activity. Though he got to travel across the Atlantic only a few times, his grandfather, the great import-export merchant and insurance magnate, would, in his time, travel back and forth to Germany, his travels being recorded in the local press rather like the shipping news was reported.

Back in that time the Times called its shipping news "Marine Intelligence" and later "Shipping News and Notes," but, apart from the years of World War, when it was prohibited, this news, whatever it was called, appeared throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

The pages of the Times of the 1950s are copyrighted so I can't show you what its shipping lists looked like. Here is a similar one from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle just before World War II.

{Shipping News table from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, from January 20, 1939; source:}

{Piers of New York Harbor, early in the 20th c.; source: Library of Congress}

{A Cunard liner at Chelsea Piers, NY; source:}

{Ocean liner with tug boats in NY harbor in the 1950s; source: Getty}

{Tugboats and the RMS Lusitania arriving in NY in my great-grandfather's time, September 13th 1907; source:}

{The great Titanic; source:}

{Tugs and fire-boats welcome the SS France to NY on its maiden voyage, February 08, 1962; source: Corbis}

{A tug; source:}

{Another tug; source: wikipedia}

You can search for shipping news on old New York papers at

If your library has a ProQuest account, you can find copies of the NYT for the 1950s and easily locate the Shipping/Mails reports. Use Advanced Search (ti (shipping/mails))LIMITS:(JN (new york times)).

Note: To the best of my knowledge I have adhered to fair use provisions of Copyright in reproducing photos in this post.

An added thought: Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt I, whom I wrote about the other day, died a hero's death when the Germans sunk the Lusitania in 1915. The wikipedia article says:
On May 1, 1915 Alfred Vanderbilt boarded the RMS Lusitania bound for Liverpool as a first class passenger. It was a business trip, and he traveled with only his valet, leaving his family at home in New York. On May 7 off the coast of County Cork, Ireland, the German submarine, U-20 torpedoed the ship, triggering a secondary explosion that sank the giant ocean liner within eighteen minutes. Vanderbilt and his valet, Ronald Denyer, helped others into lifeboats, and then Vanderbilt gave his lifejacket to save a female passenger. Vanderbilt had promised the young mother of a small baby that he would locate an extra lifevest for her.[1] Failing to do so, he offered her his own life vest, which he proceeded to even tie on to her himself since she was holding her infant child in her arms at the time. Many consider his actions to be very brave and gallant since he could not swim, he knew that there were no other lifevests or lifeboats available, and yet he still gave away his only chance to survive to the young mother and child.

Because of his fame, several people on the Lusitania who survived the tragedy were observing him while events unfolded at the time and so they took note of his brave actions. He and Denyer were among the 1198 passengers who did not survive the incident. His body was never recovered.

A memorial was erected on the A24 London to Worthing Road in Holmwood, just south of Dorking. The inscription reads, "In Memory of Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt a gallant gentleman and a fine sportsman who perished in the Lusitania May 7th 1915. This stone is erected on his favourite road by a few of his British coaching friends and admirers"

According to A. A. Hoehling and Mary Hoehling (in their study, The Last Voyage of the Lusitania) Vanderbilt's fate was ironic as three years earlier he had made a last minute decision not to return to the United States on R.M.S. Titanic.


GobberGo said...

Love this post.

Jeff said...

Thanks; it was a pleasure to write.