The Curious Mariner

By Pierre-Yves and Sally Bely

When questions arise about the world of boats and the sea, a clever book called Do Dolphins Ever Sleep? seeks to answer them. Here's a sampling.

Photo of Milwaukee Harbor on Lake MichiganChristine Grubbs from Franklin, Wisconsin, took this beautiful shot for our photo contest back in February. The two ships pictured, the Inland Seas (green hull), a 77-foot schooner, and the Appledore IV, an 85-foot schooner (white hull), were captured in Milwaukee Harbor on Lake Michigan last September, just as a storm rolled through.

When we're on our boats, our curiosity about the sea, the sky, the subtleties of marine meteorology, the voyages of ancient navigators, all that and so many other wondrous things, has all the time in the world to develop. In my case, while crossing the Atlantic, west to east, my curiosity prompted questions for which I had no clear answers. I had to wait until I was home again to do a bit of research. Here are some of the answers, for all of you who feel, as I do, that understanding things is, in itself, a pleasure.

What laws regulate the freedom of the seas?

The control of coastal waters has always been a subject of rivalry among world powers. And yet, seamen have also always considered themselves to be members of a large family that transcended nations. You came to the rescue of a ship in distress no matter what flag it flew. There was a tacit agreement that the seas were no one's private property. It was a Dutch jurist, Hugo Grotius, who first expressed the principle of the free use of the sea by all countries with the publication of his Mare Liberum (The Free Sea) in 1609. But somewhat later, another Dutch jurist proposed limiting this notion to the high seas, and extending the sovereignty of countries with seacoasts to a strip of water along their shores. In 1703, it was decided that the width of such territorial waters would be equal to the reach of a cannon ball, or about three miles. This principle was adopted by all countries, though some of them sometimes adopted a distance of six or even 12 miles.

Beginning in about 1930, countries slowly began to understand the value of the continental shelf for oil, minerals, and fishing, and some of them decided to extend their territorial waters. In 1945, at the instigation of oil companies, President Harry Truman unilaterally annexed all of the continental shelf adjoining the United States (this shelf extends out for about 200 miles). That move pushed other countries to standardize the extent of their own territorial waters and the question was brought before the United Nations in 1958. After long negotiations, a treaty was devised in 1982 at Montego Bay, Jamaica, specifying that the territorial waters, the zone over which a coastal nation has full sovereignty, extended for 12 miles, and that every coastal nation also had the exclusive right of exploitation of the sea and sea floor in a 200 mile-wide zone called the "exclusive economic zone" (EEZ).

This treaty went into effect in 1996, with the ratification of the 120th country. The European countries have all ratified it, but the United States has yet to do so. With the 200-mile definition, EEZs occupy an enormous part of the seas. If you put all the EEZs together the area would represent a third of all the oceans, leaving only two-thirds as pure "high seas." The Montego Bay treaty also affirms the right of all to circulate freely in international straits. In the Mediterranean, only the Strait of Gibraltar is subject to this convention. The other straits there (Dardanelles, Bosporus, Suez) are each under the jurisdiction of a single state. In these cases, the freedom to move through them is governed by regional agreements. The freedom of the seas is governed by international law. The activities of navigation, maritime transportation, fishing, scientific research, and aerial overflight are free to all. In order to protect our increasingly fragile environment, these activities may have to be regulated in the future.

Why is Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) also called "Zulu" time?

In the past time was defined locally, by the sun, usually with the help of a sundial. Consequently, the time of day varied from town to town as one traveled in the east-west direction overland, but the slight incremental differences between neighboring places seldom mattered because travel was quite a slow affair. But with the advent of railroads, time discrepancies became a nightmare.

By 1840, the British railroads decided to adopt one single, official time for their entire network. That was obviously impossible for the United States, however, with a territory covering 55 of longitude, 3.5 hours of time difference. But how could travelers know how long a trip was going to last if the time shifted with every mile traveled? How could you write a train schedule? How could you coordinate train connections for different legs of a journey involving different railroad companies unless both companies ran on the same time system? So in 1883, at the instigation of the American railroad companies, the United States decided to officially divide the country into four time zones. And the following year, an international conference meeting in Washington, D.C., extended the system to divide the entire world into 24 zones each one 15 of longitude wide. The meridian of Greenwich, England, was adopted as the reference point, with the mean solar time of Greenwich (Greenwich Mean Time, GMT) furnishing "time zero."

In civilian use, the time zones are designated by a code usually composed of three letters. The zone containing Greenwich is GMT (Greenwich Meridian Time) or WET (Western European Time). The 48 lower states of the U.S. have EST, CST, MST and PST (Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific Standard Time), east to west. The military, especially navies, prefer to use the letters of the alphabet for different zones, easier for radio and even written communications. The zones run from A through Z, omitting the letter J (25 letters are needed rather than 24 because the zone covering the international date line is divided into two). The zone containing the Greenwich meridian was given the letter Z for zero, which, in the International Phonetic Alphabet is "Zulu." So the time zone designations GMT and Zulu are equivalent.

When entering a port, you leave the red buoys to starboard in America and to port in Europe. How in the world did that come to be?

It's true! Throughout the Americas, including the islands of the Caribbean, even if they happen to be English, French, or Dutch possessions, the rule is "Red, Right, Return." But when you sail into a European port, be it English, French, Dutch, or any other, you must leave the red buoys on your port side. Crazy as it seems, the world is divided into two zones, A and B, with the beaconing in one being the reverse of the beaconing in the other. Generally speaking, zone A is historically the zone of British influence, while zone B reflects American influence.

The situation is incongruous; marine buoys are international by nature and should be identical everywhere on the planet. And yet, if the situation is what it is today, it is certainly not for lack of debates and international conferences. The first international conference on the subject was held in 1889 in Washington, D.C., and discussions went on for two months. The decision was made to adopt a lateral system based on colors and shapes: a black cylinder portside for ships coming into port, and a red cone to starboard. But at the time it was just a question of paint colors, as buoys and towers were not yet equipped with lights.

The same conference in Washington also examined the rules designed to prevent collisions at sea and decided that vessels should be equipped with running lights for navigation at night. It would have been sensible to rule that the ships' lights and the buoys should be the same color, making the night and day signals identical; starboard lights would be red, for example, like the red buoys left to starboard as one sailed into port. But the issue was settled differently: the color red was adopted for a ship's portside light, green for the starboard light. That led to today's "schizophrenic" situation.

An attempt was made to correct the anomaly early in the 20th century, when buoys began to be equipped with lights. But in spite of a whole series of international conferences, there has been no meeting of minds. The Europeans, especially the British, have wanted to adopt the "ships' lights" rule: when two ships meet in a channel, each stays right, giving red light against red light. Hence it seemed best to have red channel lights on the port side of a harbor entrance so that a ship's pilot would react the same way to a red buoy or jetty light as to the red running lights of another ship. Americans, on the other hand, have wanted to uphold the decisions of the Washington conference. The two opposing viewpoints were cemented into the international rules at a conference in Lisbon in 1931. The world has been divided in two ever since.

Who was the greatest navigator of all time?

So many names come to mind: Pytheas, Columbus, Magellan, Vasco da Gama, Bougainville, and so on. And more recently Slocum, Chichester, Tabarly, Knox-Johnston ... . This is a delicate matter, with chauvinism and bias hard to eliminate, but we will venture an opinion that at least tries to be objective. If by navigator we mean a person who had it all — a profound understanding of the sea, a great talent for running a ship, commanding a crew, and the difficult art of exploring unknown coasts, and who, finally, traveled all over the seas of the world, one name stands above all others: James Cook.

It was the Age of Enlightenment, a century where reason and knowledge were prized. Cook's voyages of exploration, financed by the Academy of Sciences and the British Admiralty, were motivated by relatively unselfish goals, free of thoughts of conquest, unlike the explorations of preceding centuries. His ships carried scientists and artists who would bring back faithful images of their voyages and discoveries. During his three epic voyages around the world, Cook put the Pacific, which until then had been practically unknown, "on the charts." Covering 150,000 nautical miles, from Australia to Siberia, from Oregon to Tahiti, his voyages of exploration had an impact that can still be felt today. 

A passionate boater who's crossed the Atlantic and Pacific several times, engineer Pierre-Yves Bely worked with NASA and the Paris Observatory. Do Dolphins Ever Sleep? (Sheridan House) is co-authored by his wife, Sally Bely, who taught college French, and has a special interest in marine biology and sailing.

— Published: August/September 2011

Explorer Extraordinaire Captain James Cook

Photo of James Cook

The Voyages of James Cook and his crew are best likened to a modern space mission. They were out for years, their bodies test subjects for the British Navy's understanding of scurvy and ways to prevent it, eating sauerkraut and other foods whether they liked it or not. Floggings were not unheard of.

On his first voyage to the Pacific in 1768, Cook's mission was to observe the transit of Venus, an event that takes place in pairs, eight years apart, but every 120 years. Viewing the planet as it passed between the Earth and the Sun would give astronomers an idea of the distance from Earth to Venus, and a basis for calculating the size of the solar system. Despite the loss of several crew members along the way, the Endeavor reached Tahiti with two months to spare, made the observation, then undertook a second, secret, mission — to find and claim for Her Majesty a great, undiscovered, land mass in the South Pacific which, as it turned out, didn't exist. Endeavor completed a circumnavigation, however, and Cook and his crew were the first Europeans to make contact with native Australians (and, less happily, with the Great Barrier Reef).

On subsequent trips, Cook led expeditions that surveyed New Zealand, the Hawaiian Islands, and the Northwest Coast of North America; crossed the Arctic Circle; and searched for the Northwest Passage. In 1779, he arrived in Hawaii during the festival of the god Lono (it has been suggested by historians that Cook was mistaken for the god), and was feted for a month before putting out to sea again. Unfortunately for Cook, his ship was dismasted shortly afterward, and he returned to the island. There, tensions grew between the Europeans and Hawaiians, finally coming to a head when an argument over a stolen boat led to a fight. Cook was killed while attempting to escape, his body was prepared for burial according to elaborate island traditions, and his ships sailed home without him.



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