Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Poetry as Disaster Literature

Can poetry and disaster lessons go together? This genre would fill a rather small shelf, but one of my favorites is Rudyard Kipling's Ballad of the Bolivar (1892). Upon first reading, it sounds like a basic adventure story: a ship goes out and is trapped in a storm. The men barely get their cargo to port, all the while cursing their old bucket of bolts. There's more to it, but it's not obvious to the modern eye, given Kipling's use of irony and arcane nautical terms. What was happening here? I'll offer some details on the other side. For now, enjoy his lyrical skills:

Ballad of the Bolivar, by Rudyard Kipling

Seven men from all the world, back to Docks again,
Rolling down the Ratcliffe Road drunk and raising Cain:
Give the girls another drink 'fore we sign away--
We that took the 'Bolivar' out across the Bay!

We put out from Sunderland loaded down with rails;
We put back to Sunderland 'cause our cargo shifted;
We put out from Sunderland--met the winter gales--
Seven days and seven nights to the Start we drifted.

Racketing her rivets loose, smoke-stack white as snow,
All the coals adrift a deck, half the rails below
Leaking like a lobster-pot, steering like a dray--
Out we took the 'Bolivar,' out across the Bay!

One by one the Lights came up, winked and let us by;
Mile by mile we waddled on, coal and fo'c'sle short;
Met a blow that laid us down, heard a bulkhead fly;
Left The Wolf behind us with a two-foot list to port.

Trailing like a wounded duck, working out her soul;
Clanging like a smithy-shop after every roll;
Just a funnel and a mast lurching through the spray--
So we threshed the 'Bolivar' out across the Bay!

Felt her hog and felt her sag, betted when she'd break;
Wondered every time she raced if she'd stand the shock;
Heard the seas like drunken men pounding at her strake;
Hoped the Lord 'ud keep his thumb on the plummer-block.

Banged against the iron decks, bilges choked with coal;
Flayed and frozen foot and hand, sick of heart and soul;
'Last we prayed she'd buck herself into Judgment Day--
Hi! we cursed the 'Bolivar' knocking round the Bay!

Oh! her nose flung up to sky, groaning to be still--
Up and down and back we went, never time for breath;
Then the money paid at Lloyd's caught her by the heel,
And the stars ran round and round dancin' at our death.

Aching for an hour's sleep, dozing off between;
Heard the rotten rivets draw when she took it green;
Watched the compass chase its tail like a cat at play--
That was on the 'Bolivar,' south across the Bay.

Once we saw between the squalls, lyin' head to swell--
Mad with work and weariness, wishin' they was we--
Some damned Liner's lights go by like a grand hotel;
Cheered her from the 'Bolivar,' swampin' in the sea.

Then a greyback cleared us out, then the skipper laughed;
'Boys, the wheel has gone to Hell--rig the winches aft!
'Yoke the kicking rudder-head--get her under way!'
So we steered her, pulley-haul, out across the Bay!

Just a pack o' rotten plates puttied up with tar,
In we came, an' time enough 'cross Bilbao Bar.
Overloaded, undermanned, meant to founder, we
Euchred God Almighty's storm, bluffed the Eternal Sea!

Seven men from all the world, back to town again,
Rollin' down the Ratcliffe Road drunk and raising Cain:
Seven men from out of Hell. Ain't the owners gay,
'Cause we took the 'Bolivar' safe across the Bay?

It's a story of men and machines persisting against great odds, and has the spirit of the "Flight of the Phoenix" movie (the original one, anyway). To summarize: the owners had insured the old steamer and sent it out in bad shape under the worst conditions, hoping it would sink so they could collect on the policy from Lloyd's. But the crew (much smaller than it should have been for a tramp steamer) keeps it afloat, causing consternation among the owners upon its arrival in Spain.

The voyage starts in Sunderland, on the northeast tip of England. At the time it was a major shipbuilding center. The ship heads south, then across the Bay of Biscay to Bilbao on Spain's north coast, near Portugal. The season is winter, the worst time to cross the bay because of storms that arrive unhindered off the North Atlantic.

Refrain: this tramp steamer is woefully undermanned. A crew of 20-30 would be more like it.

First stanza: the Bolivar is cursed with carrying one of the most dangerous cargoes of the era, steel rails. Steel rails are massive and slippery, and therefore tend to break loose from their fastenings in a storm. Then they try to bash their way out of the hull. I gave an example of this in Chapter 12 of Inviting Disaster: in 1886 five ships left Liverpool in one week, carrying steel beams and rails, westbound across the Atlantic. Three sunk on the way. In this stanza, the crew realizes their danger in time and returns to Sunderland to rework the fastenings.

Second stanza: Seawater is coming through the riveted joints and the weather deck. Ships often carried extra steam coal on the deck in burlap bags or in temporary wooden bunkers, and this is coming loose. The smokestack is turning white, either from frozen spray or salt crust.

Third stanza: After seven days the ship is clearing the lighthouses on the southern tip of England. The Wolf is Wolf Rock Lighthouse at Land's End, in Cornwall. The Start" is Start Point. It's now exposed to the gales on the starboard beam, so it is leaning to the left. "Coal and fo'c'sle short" means that the ship is moving so slowly it's running low on coal. It's also short of deckhands to cope with the emergency.

Fourth stanza: Now the weather deck can't be seen for the foam and spray.

Fifth stanza: "Wondered every time she raced if she'd stand the shock:" this refers to a general problem for steamships in storms. The propeller speeds up as the stern comes out of the water, then slows abruptly as it re-enters the water. This puts great stress on the propeller shaft and the journal bearings that carry the shaft from the engine room to the stern gland, unless the engineer backs off the throttle with every roll. The problem is described in Farley Mowat's classic book about deep sea salvage, Grey Seas Under. "Plummer block" is one of those bearings. To keep a thumb on the block is to make sure it's not vibrating or overheating.

Sixth stanza: "Bilges choked with coal" means that coal dust is about to foul the intakes of the bilge pumps. If not cleaned the pumps will fail and the ship will get lower in the water with every hour.

Seventh stanza: A reference to the owners' insurance policy at Lloyd's of London. "Felt her hog and felt her sag" means that the ship is flexing with every wave, the midships section rising one moment and sagging the next.

Eighth stanza: "Shipping green:" Now the ship is taking waves over the bow and starboard rails. It's so deep over the deck that the water is green, rather than spray or foam.

Ninth stanza: a salute to a big liner that is having no trouble handling the weather.

Tenth stanza: The chains that connect the steam engine to the rudder head have broken under the impact of the waves, and the crew has to jury rig the rudder with block and tackle. Having control over the ship's heading is essential to staying afloat in such a storm.

Eleventh stanza: Reference to the gambling game called euchre.

Closing refrain: the men have made it back to Sunderland, and are celebrating in the bars of Ratcliffe Road. Ironically, the men cursed the ship but it brought them to shore, against all odds.

My rating: two thumbs up, for technical accuracy and great storytelling. More details are available at the Kipling Society, here.

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