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Down To The Sea In Stamps

By Ryck Lydecker
Originally found in BoatUS Reports.

The U.S. Postal Service is again issuing commemorative postage stamps that salute the nation's connections to the sea, a four-stamp set in tribute to the U.S. Merchant Marine. Appropriately issued at the United States Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York. This issuance pays tribute to four important vessel types: the "tall ships" from the mid-nineteenth century heyday of the American clipper, the auxiliary steamships that came later, establishing transatlantic mail and passenger service, the mass-produced Liberty ships of World War II, and today's modern container ships that established intermodal transportation, transforming the global economy. The stamps went on sale July 28 as Forever Stamps, always equal to the current First-Class Mail one-ounce rate.

History Of The Stamps

Since the founding of the republic, the United States has looked to the commercial maritime industry for much of its growth and security. This issuance pays tribute to the U.S. Merchant Marine, the modern name for the maritime fleet that has played this vital role. The four-stamp design on this pane features types of vessels that have formed an important part of this history: clipper ships, auxiliary steamships, Liberty ships, and container ships.

Clipper Ships

Photo courtesy of USPS

The clipper ship, notes maritime historian Benjamin Labaree, was "a unique American contribution to the glory of seafaring." Hundreds of "Yankee" clippers, noted for their streamlined shape and majestic cloud of square-rigged sails, were built from the 1840s through the 1850s. Their heyday arrived with the California Gold Rush of 1849, which hastened the need for faster sailing ships to take prospectors and supplies out West. In 1851, the fastest of the clipper ships, the Flying Cloud, sailed the 13,000-plus miles from New York around Cape Horn to San Francisco in a record eighty-nine days. Clippers also boosted the trade in tea, bringing it fresh from China to England and America. Clipper ships eventually lost their dominance to the more dependable steamship, which had greater cargo capacity and could sail on regular schedules. But during the time they "flashed their splendor around the world," as Samuel Eliot Morison has written, clippers embodied the poetry of the seas.

Auxiliary Steamships

Photo courtesy of USPS

In the mid-nineteenth century, steam-powered ships competed with clipper and other sailing ships for transatlantic mail and passenger service. In America the most magnificent of these were the four large wooden-hulled, sidewheel steamships—the Atlantic, Baltic, Pacific, and Arctic—that were built by New York entrepreneur Edward K. Collins in the 1840s. Like many steamships of the time, they included back-up or auxiliary sailing rigs to supplement their powerful engines. The elegant, 280-foot ships of the "Collins Line"—the ocean liners of their day—were notable for both speed and cargo-carrying capacity. They provided service between New York and Liverpool in the 1850s and set numerous transatlantic speed records before rising costs helped bring an end to their business.

Liberty Ships

Photo courtesy of USPS

During World War I, the United States learned how to mass-produce merchant ships. But the nation remained without a settled policy for maintaining a modern merchant marine to meet its economic and defense needs until 1936, when legislation established the U.S. Maritime Commission and empowered the "U.S. Merchant Marine" to serve as a naval auxiliary unit. The Commission immediately began increasing the size of the country's merchant fleet and shortly before America's entry into World War II ordered the production of plain but sturdy cargo vessels called Liberty ships. Over the next four years, the United States produced more than 2,700 Liberty ships--"the most impressive single page in the history of the American shipbuilding industry," according to historian Allan Nevins. They served in all theaters of war and sustained the Allied forces with a steady supply of food and war material. These ships were manned by members of the U.S. Merchant Marine, whose sacrifices, though less heralded than those of U.S. Navy crewmen, were no less critical to the war effort.

Container Ships

Photo courtesy of USPS

Without the container ship the global economy as we know it would be impossible. These ships, each loaded with thousands of containers measuring either 20 or 40 feet in length, carry virtually all the products and materials that end up in our local stores. "In 2006 alone," according to a maritime history exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution, "about 18 million containers stuffed with cargoes of all sorts were sent on more than 200 million trips by sea, rail, and road to places around the world." Container ships were pioneered in the 1950s by Malcom McLean, a trucking operator from North Carolina. McLean's idea was to eliminate multiple handling costs by standardizing the shape of a container so that it could be easily moved between different modes of transportation: truck, rail, and ship. Intermodal transportation took hold and created efficiencies that transformed the global economy. By the end of the twentieth century, container ships carried nearly all of the world's manufactured goods and exemplified the modern merchant marine.

The U.S. Merchant Marine stamps are being issued as Forever® stamps. Forever stamps are always equal in value to the current First-Class Mail one-ounce

California Oil Rigs OK For Fish Digs

A long battle over the fate of California's offshore oil rigs once they stop producing ended last September 30 when Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill that allows their conversion to artificial reefs. The new law means that many of the state's 27 oil rigs that have out-lived their production life can be left in the water as habitat for marine life.

And it also means that the rigs, which have been pumping oil and natural gas from the sea bottom for decades, can now pump funds into marine conservation. While Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi already have Rigs-to-Reefs programs, the Golden State has long debated whether the lattice-like subsurface structures that hold the production platforms above the water would make suitable habitat for sea life. Many believe artificial reefs help sustain more fish but some argued otherwise.

Photos provided by Sportfishing Conservancy

An earlier report from the state Mineral Resources Management Division acknowledged that oil platforms and artificial reefs have abundant fish populations but noted, "It is debatable whether the structures attract fish and make them easier to catch, or [whether they] produce more fish and sustain a larger fishery."

That debate (see "Fish Dig Big Rigs," BoatUS Magazine, September 2007) was settled when a new study from the Ocean Science Trust praised oil rigs as fish habitat. The 263-page study weighed complete removal against partial decommissioning—basically chopping off rigs at 85 feet or more below the waterline. Partial removal prevailed as the best option and dismantling on a case-by-case basis may begin as early as 2015. "There will be a complete permitting process that looks at each rig to see that it makes environmental sense," said Tom Raftican, president of the Sportfishing Conservancy and a long-time advocate for the concept.

California's Rigs-to-Reefs program also seems to make economic sense since previously, oil companies were obliged to completely remove spent rigs and return surrounding areas to natural conditions. Since partial decommissioning generates huge cost savings for oil companies, the new law stipulates that most of those savings would flow into the California Endowment for Marine Protection to improve marine life. By some reports, Rigs-to-Reefs will save up to $650 million if all 27 rigs are partially decommissioned.

Photos provided by Sportfishing Conservancy

Several prominent environmental organizations also embrace the Rigs-to-Reefs program, including Audubon Society and The Ocean Conservancy. Opponents include commercial fishermen who fear their nets will become tangled on the remaining structures and environmentalists who believe the measure gives oil companies too big a break. The Santa Barbara-based Environmental Defense Center (EDC) reacted negatively to the bill's passage. Twenty of the state's 27 rigs are off Santa Barbara.

"We're stunned," EDC chief council Linda Krop says. "The study identified 20 data gaps, mostly environmental and economic questions that were left unanswered. With no platforms ready for decommissioning for several years, we supported additional studies."

While the EDC does not intend to challenge the bill, they vowed to stay involved as oil companies apply for permits to partially decommission individual wells.

CSI for Jaws

Deep below the ocean's surface a serial killer lurks, slowly choosing his prey, waiting — not too close but not far away, either. When his target least expects it, he strikes. The victim in this case, a young Cape fur seal, never saw his killer — a great white shark. This was not some random act of violence according. According to research at the University of Miami, it demonstrated a hunting behavior similar to the ways human serial killers stalk their victims.

Applying a technique called geographic profiling that law enforcement uses to track serial killers, Dr. Neil Hammerschlag, assistant professor at the university's Rosentiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, and colleagues from two other universities, set out to determine if great white sharks attack their prey at random. The research focused on the feeding behavior of sharks around a large seal colony on an island in False Bay, South Africa, home to some of the largest great whites ever recorded.

Photo courtesy of NOAA

"We wanted to better understand the hunting behavior of white sharks and see if they're hunting randomly around the island or using any patterns to prey upon the seals, or more of a strategy," Hammerschlag said. Operating from two boats, the researchers used the profiling technique that Hammerschlag described as "like a CSI mathematical modeling tool " to analyze the sharks' search behavior and attack patterns. According to a June 2009 report in the Journal of Zoology, the study determined that the largest sharks attack from a well-defined search base, or "anchor point," to use criminal investigation terminology, where they target lone, young-of-the-year seals. Sharks here are known for attacking from below, often going completely airborne. Hammerschlag points out that great white sharks aren't mindless killing machines, as some in the popular press misinterpreted the study.

"There was a lot of media that tried to directly link sharks with serial killers in the headlines. The goal of our work was to put sharks in a positive light," said Hammerschlag, "We're hoping to show they're very complex social hunters." The big difference between human serial killers and great white sharks, he noted, is motive. While the motives of a human serial killer motive are unfathomable to most people, the great white's motive is survival, to eat.

Unexploded Bombs Not Likely In 'Foul Areas'

Ever wonder what's beneath your boat as you cruise along? Unless you're in clear turquoise water, what lurks in the depths is usually a mystery. NOAA charts can shed some light by labeling foul areas or dumping grounds, but what's really down there can remain unknown until somebody hauls up a sample, as evidenced by a spate of unlucky catches by commercial fishermen who landed unexploded bombs in their nets. In April, a New Bedford, Massachusetts, clam boat dredged up more than 100 hand grenades. Two months later, off Long Island, the crew of another clam boat was exposed to World War I mustard gas when barnacle-encrusted canisters appeared on their conveyer belt. The men suffered breathing difficulties and eye irritation when an aging munitions shell began leaking a strange smell. The incidents are among dozens recorded over the past decade. In 2009, north of Boston, a lobster boat brought up a live artillery shell, just about the same time a long-line fisherman hooked an eight-foot, air-to-air, guided missile about 50 miles off Panama City, Florida.

NOAA charts typically designate whether bombs may be on the bottom, although the information is often dated and the sources unreliable. According to Capt. Doug Baird, chief of NOAA's Marine Chart Division, "foul areas" on nautical charts are shown with a black dotted-line perimeter. "Foul areas are mostly located near the shore and tend to contain hazardous rocks or wreckage, and do not contain explosives," Baird said. Foreign charts designate "foul ground" areas, a term that suggests it's safe to navigate but anchoring is discouraged because of debris on the sea floor, he added.

"Unexploded ordinance, or unexploded bombs, should be labeled as such on nautical charts, and the terms 'foul area' or 'foul ground' would not be used," said Baird, adding that NOAA cartographers must make the dangerous location of submerged explosives apparent to the chart user. "The hazard might be labeled 'unexploded depth charges' if that's what the report says they are, or 'unexploded bombs' or 'unexploded torpedo' if the information available is that specific, or it might say 'explosives dumping ground' if the military designates an area as such."

Baird says NOAA can only chart unexploded ordinance or explosives dumping grounds that are reported to the agency. "In most cases, the explosives would have been disposed of or lost in deeper waters, but there are rare exceptions. There have been reports in recent years that munitions dumped far at sea have migrated into shallower waters or even washed ashore," he said. "NOAA has no way of knowing how much material may have been dumped over the years, or where it has migrated. However, when a fisherman brings up munitions, or a diver finds it, NOAA uses that information, plus information from the Coast Guard, to update the charts."