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  • Archive for the 'Nautical Book Project' Category

    Nautical Book Review: Two Years Before the Mast

    Posted by David Foster on 22nd July 2014 (All posts by )

    Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana, Jr.

    —-

    (Review by CB commenter Gary Snodgrass, whose blog is here)

    In 1834 a young Harvard undergrad from the upper class of Boston left school to become a common merchant sailor. Sailing around Cape Horn to California aboard a Yankee Clipper, “Two Years before the Mast” is the memoir of that trip.

    While a student at Harvard, Richard Dana contracted measles and was in danger of losing his sight. Hoping to improve his condition he signed on to the Merchant Vessel “Pilgrim” for a two year trip. I think it was more for the adventure, and chance to prove himself than for the stated “Health” reasons.

    Dana describes in detail the day to day duties of the common sailor and what they went through. In the opening pages he captures the fact that he is an outsider hoping to measure up.

    “… and while I supposed myself to be looking as salt as Neptune himself, I was, no doubt known for a landsman by everyone on board as soon as I hove in sight. A sailor has a peculiar cut to his clothes, and a way of wearing them which a green hand can never get. … doubtless my complexion and hands were enough to distinguished me from the regular salt, who, with a sunburnt cheek, wide step, and rolling gait, swings his bronzed and toughened hands athwart-ships, half open, as though just ready to grasp a rope.”

    His adventure quickly becomes a hard life as he loses a shipmate and friend overboard and two other sailors are viciously flogged for minor offenses. Yet still, he is able to take pride in his new life.

    “… But if you live in the forecastle, you are “As independent as a wood-sawyers clerk, and are a sailor. You hear sailors’ talk, learn their ways, their peculiarities of feeling as well as speaking and acting. … No man can be a sailor, or know what sailors are, unless he has lived in the forecastle with them – turned in and out with them, eaten of their dish and drank of their cup. After I had been a week there, nothing would tempt me to go back to my old berth”

    It was the comradeship he felt and the atrocities he had witnessed that later led the attorney Richard Dana to become a champion of the Common Sailor and a leading abolitionist later in life.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, History, Nautical Book Project, Transportation, USA | 9 Comments »

    Nautical Book Review: The Cruel Coast, by William Gage

    Posted by David Foster on 12th July 2014 (All posts by )

    The Cruel Coast by William Gage

    —-

    In an early morning in May 1944, the German submarine U-234 is cruising on the surface in heavy fog.  The bored lookouts are startled fully awake by the sight of a British corvette heading directly for them at full speed, 4-inch gun crashing and 20-millimeter cannon hammering.  The corvette rams the submarine about 30 feet from the bow, hitting hard and doing major damage.

    The submarine manages to disengage from its British pursuer and find temporary safety in the fog, only because the corvette also has suffered from serious damage.  But the effects of the ramming make it impossible for U-234 to submerge, and Captain Ludtke knows that his expected lifetime on the surface, in an Atlantic dominated by Allied air and naval forces, is quite short.  He resolves to put in at sparsely-populated Spanish Island, off the coast of Ireland, and attempt to repair his U-boat.

    To the people of Spanish Island, U-234’s arrival is like the appearance of a spaceship. The inhabitants are mostly fishermen, all living without much in the way of luxuries or possessions, isolated from the mainland except for the weekly visits of an old steamer, the Kerry Queen.  Ireland is of course neutral in the Second World War, but the people of Spanish have an inherited anger against Britain and hence have pro-German inclinations, carried over from the First World War without much thought.  The only person on Spanish who has a real sense of the issues in the present war is Nora Berkeley, a college graduate who lived for several years on the island after becoming orphaned as a child. She is now on Spanish to visit her grandmother, Lady Maud.  Nora loves the people of Spanish and feels protective toward them;  she does not like the Nazis and does not like submarine warfare—“How can they be honorable, and torpedo defenseless merchant ships?”

    U-234’s captain is Gerhard Ludtke.  He is a very successful submarine commander, holder of the Iron Cross, and his greatest ambition is to add the Oak Leaves…the ultimate award for military valor and success…to this decoration. Ludtke’s father surrendered a battleship to Bolshevik mutineers in the chaotic days following the end of WWI, and Ludtke’s own life has been largely driven by a strong need to redeem this strongly-felt disgrace.

    The submarine’s First Officer is Kurt Riegel—a devout Nazi, and with the kind of personality one might expect of such an individual–Riegel is arrogant, dramatic, quick to cast blame on others when anything goes wrong. The Engineering Officer, Peter Hoffman, is a very different sort of individual–quiet, with a “shy, tilted smile.” Once a violinist and an avid skier, Hoffman was deeply affected by the death of his wife Erika, who was killed in an air raid.  His considerable capacity for loyalty and devotion is now directed toward the crew of U-234;  indeed, his sense of responsibility toward the submarine’s crew parallels Nora Berkeley’s feelings toward the people of Spanish Island.

    Most of the people on Spanish are initially enthusiastic about the submarine’s presence and eagerly volunteer to help with the necessary repair work.  But Peter Hoffman quickly determines that submerged operation will only be possible if they can procure certain electrical parts which are by no means available on the island.  Captain Ludtke initially considers radioing for a Luftwaffe air drop, but realizes that any transmission would probably be intercepted and triangulated by the British.  He resolves to send Hoffman to the mainland by fishing boat to buy or steal the necessary equipment, with two strong islanders to do the rowing and Nora Berkeley as a guide.  Ludtke overcomes Nora’s objections by telling her that if the sub doesn’t get repaired quickly he may be unable to control his men, and some of the island women are likely to be raped… moreover, he warns, if the sub is still there when the Kerry Queen arrives on her weekly trip, he will blow the steamer out of the water.

    Hoffman and Nora Berkeley and the two islanders make their way to the mainland without incident, with Nora harboring a secret intent to slip away and notify the police about the sub’s presence in Irish waters.  They borrow a car and begin a tour of electrical distributors and power stations, with Peter looking for circuit breakers and battery acid that he can acquire and Nora looking for an opportunity to get away and go for the police.

    But as they become acquainted, talking among other things about music and  their childhoods (“Things did not seem to have been greatly different at Wassenburg Akademie and the St Brigid Convent School”), a strong mutual attraction grows up between Nora and Peter.  Nora now has a three-way dilemma: Keep harm from coming to the people of Spanish, keep U-234 from returning to the fight, and keep Peter Hoffman alive until the end of the war.

    The author has done a good job in portraying the two closed worlds of the islanders and the submariners and in building the action of the story around the collision of these worlds.  This book would have made…still could make…an excellent movie, with lots of opportunities for good visuals and good acting.

    Long out of print, but a fair number of used copies are available.

    Posted in Book Notes, Germany, Ireland, Nautical Book Project, War and Peace | 4 Comments »

    Nautical Book Review- Overboard

    Posted by Michael Kennedy on 21st June 2014 (All posts by )

    Overboard by Hank Searls

    This is one of several cover designs for this book, written in 1977. Much of the non-sailing information in the book is dated badly. The protagonist is a lawyer who wins a medical malpractice judgement of $1.5 million, “The largest judgement in California history.” Obviously that is dated.

    The novel opens when the wife falls overboard. She gets up to check for traffic in the night and does not fasten her safety belt although she knows she must. A simple moment of carelessness and she is in the water. They are between Tahiti and Bora Bora in the Society Islands. They have been cruising for months. The backstory is told in flash backs.

    Mitch the husband is a sailor who navigates for her father, a racing skipper who is getting old and is too competitive for Mitch. Mitch was a pre-med student in college who switched to pre-law and graduated from Boalt Hall, the UC law school. Lindy, his wife, did not finish college as she became pregnant with their oldest child at age 18. The two children are rather aimless in the way many college age children were in the early 70s.

    Mitch is sailing with her father on San Francisco Bay, the author is rather contemptuous of racing, when he sees a Colin Archer ketch crossing the race course and nearly colliding with them as her father refuses to give way to the right-of-way boat until Mitch forces the helm over. He is entranced with this beautiful cruising ketch and spends considerable time searching for it and the owner.

    A Colin Archer ketch under full sail.

    As a racer myself, I am not enamored of Colin Archer designs as they are very slow sailers. San Francisco with its 25 knot afternoon breeze, would be a good place for one. Mitch searches for the ketch and, finally, Lindy’s father Shawn tells Mitch he knows where the boat is in a yard in Sausalito. Mitch goes to the yard and finds the owner, a salty old boatbuilder who looks like he has lost weight, possible due to illness, and who is very reluctant to sell. The discussion of what a buyer should look for and how a builder might feel about his boat are all authentic. The discussion ends with a tentative decision to sell.

    Mitch is a trial lawyer and is suing a young doctor in a case where the patient suffered catastrophic injury but the doctor may not have been at fault. He is tortured by his conscience as his father was a surgeon (as was Searls’ father) and he dreads the censure of other doctors. The malpractice crisis was just arriving as this book was published. He wins the case but decides to quit and go cruising with his new boat. His wife is a reluctant first mate but is gamely enthusiastic.

    The story alternates flashbacks with the present crisis of the wife overboard. Part of the story is told from her point of view in the water and part from his point of view as he searches desperately for her. There is an undercurrent that she was not enthusiastic about going cruising and she has had a probable affair with a fictional character who is obviously Bernard Moitessier, a famous yachtsman who circumnavigated several times, most notably in a single handed round the world race which he was leading near the finish when he decided to quit and sail to the south Pacific instead of to the finish in England.

    The author, who lived aboard his own yacht for many years, has many novels to his credit and many movies including Jaws2. Searls also wrote the novelizations for the films Jaws 2 (1978) starring Roy Scheider and Murray Hamilton and Jaws: The Revenge (1987) starring Michael Caine and Lorraine Gary.

    His meticulous research is famous among writers. Born in 1922, he is too old to be living aboard although he was when he wrote “Overboard.” In 1988, he was ashore, probably for good.

    The couple now share a cozy, two-bedroom condo overlooking a golf course in Newport Beach. One bedroom serves as Searls’s office, and there he begins work each day shortly after 6:30 a.m. A nearby garage holds cartons of research materials, and a rented storage room several miles away contains 700 cubic feet of carefully labeled files—enough for “five different novelists,” he says. Although Searls is “easy to live with,” says Bunny, “he’s always researching, even if we go away on vacation.”

    The story is authentic in every respect I can find and I have been sailing since the 1950s. I even gave serious thought to taking six months off from my medical practice to go cruising in the late 1970s, about the same time as this story. The story is a bit of a downer compared to “Trustee from the Toolroom” but the details of sailing are excellent and the story is very plausible, which “Trustee” lacks a bit. A view of the movie I made of the 1981 Transpac will show that we were almost completely negligent in the matter of safety harnesses but we were a full crew. A single or double handed boat crew at night is almost suicidally careless to ignore safety gear. When we were in heavy weather, we always wore safety harnesses. In a small hurricane in 1977 off Mexico, we spent the night in swim trunks and safety harnesses with the wind at 60 knots plus like a hot shower.

    The book is an authentic tale of sailing in the days before satellite telephones and GPS.

    Posted in Book Notes, Nautical Book Project | 6 Comments »

    Nautical Book Review “The Shipkiller.”

    Posted by Michael Kennedy on 10th June 2014 (All posts by )

    The Shipkiller by Justin Scott.

    This is a great adventure novel that is marred only by the fact that it was written 35 years ago when the Shah of Iran was still in power. The story is of Peter Hardin, a doctor who has invented the digital thermometer. He has retired and he and his wife, Carolyn, have decided to sail their ketch across the Atlantic to England. They are relaxing on a sunny afternoon in the Western Approaches to the Channel when their yacht is run down by a monstrous tanker called “Leviathan” which is enormous and is run recklessly because it carries millions of gallons of crude oil from the Persian Gulf to Europe, which makes it immune to admiralty law. The captain is impervious to criticism because no one else can sail this enormous ship. He and it are above the law.

    Hardin’s wife is lost and he washes up on the beach of southern England where he is found and revived by a beautiful Nigerian woman doctor. He is disconsolate and, after his recovery, decides to try to prosecute the captain for not maintaining a lookout while running his ship too fast in restricted waters. That fails and Hardin eventually tries to physically attack the captain which gets him arrested. He finally comes to the conclusion that he has no alternative but to attack the ship, itself.

    After he has recovered from his injuries he buys a Swan 38, a gorgeous and fast yacht similar to the one I sailed through a hurricane in 1977. It is fast as a witch and will withstand almost any heavy weather. I sailed mine through a small Mexican hurricane, called a “Chubasco.” Wikipedia calls them “violent squalls” but the one we sailed thorough lasted 12 hours and had wind speed above 60 knots where our wind speed indicator pegged.

    He sails it to Europe and buys a Dragon anti-tank missile from an alcoholic soldier in Germany. He conceals the missile in a pod he has constructed and attached to the keel of his yacht. He returns to England where his boat is searched by the authorities who are suspicious of him but the concealment works and it is not found. He plans to follow Leviathan to the Cape of Good Hope at the bottom of South Africa where he will kill it with the missile. All ships rounding that Cape must follow the same narrow course and he should be able to find it.

    An Israeli agent learns of his plan and offers to help with the location of the tanker. Hardin has no choice but to accept his help to avoid betrayal. The Nigerian doctor, the daughter of an senior army officer in Nigerian, asks to go with him as far as west Africa and he agrees. They develop a strong attraction during the voyage and she learns of his obsessions with the tanker. His memory of his dead wife prevents him from accepting her love and he goes on with his quest. As they near the point where he must drop her off, she finds the missile and asks to go with him. Again, he is caught between the risks to her and the risk she will turn him in. They continue and she asks him where they are going now. His answer is Winter ! The Cape in winter is a fearsome place, risky even for a ship the size of Leviathan.

    The story is gripping and will hold the attention of anyone familiar with sailing. It is probably the best sailing novel I have read. The detail is excellent and the plot is well done, although dated. The author knows sailing and fast sailboats. It has a bit of the tone of an Alistair MacLean novel where the protagonist overcomes repeated and monumental obstacles. The sailing part is great.

    Posted in Book Notes, Middle East, Nautical Book Project | 6 Comments »

    Nautical Book Project: Volunteers Needed

    Posted by David Foster on 9th June 2014 (All posts by )

    Who wants to sign up to do a review of:

    1) One or more Joseph Conrad nautically-themed novels?

    2) Moby Dick?

    3) The Aubrey-Maturin series (either the series as a whole, or the early books)?

    4) Other?

    Ones I’m planning to do myself are White Jacket (Melville), The Hornblower Series (at least the early ones), and The Cruel Coast.

    Michael Kennedy, with your considerable sailing experience I hope you’ll sign up to do at least one review for this series.

    Posted in Arts & Letters, Biography, Book Notes, Nautical Book Project, Transportation, War and Peace | 27 Comments »

    Nautical Book Review: To the Last Salute, by Georg von Trapp

    Posted by David Foster on 1st June 2014 (All posts by )

    If you’ve seen The Sound of Music–and who hasn’t?–you’ll remember Captain von Trapp.  The real Captain’s real-life children were not thrilled with the way he was portrayed in the movie–according to them, he was by no means that rigid disciplinarian who summoned the children with a bosun’s whistle and required them to line up in military formation.  (The bosun’s whistle was real, but only for communication purposes on the large estate…no lining-up involved.)

    The movie was indeed correct that Captain von Trapp was a former naval officer whose services were much desired by the Nazis after their takeover of Germany and, later, Austria…and that he wanted absolutely nothing to do with them. His memoir, To the Last Salute, was originally published in German in 1935 and later translated into French; an English translation has only become available fairly recently.

    Captain von Trapp could not be called a brilliant writer, but he does achieve some nice descriptive and reflective passages. Here, he is returning from a patrol very early in the First World War, when he was commanding a torpedo boat:

    We had been out all night searching for enemy ships that had been reported, but once again, had found nothing.  Far out in the Adriatic we had investigated, looked, and looked, and again came back disappointed through the “Incoronate,” the rocky, barren island,s that extend in front of the harbor at Sebenico…These islands look bleak; nevertheless, years ago people found them and still live there…It is a heavenly trip there between the islands with the many large and small inlets swarming with fish. But it is most beautiful in the wind still nights, which are uniquely animated.

    From one place or another, red and white lights flash on and off. They are the beacons that flash their warnings to the ships. Out of the many inlets merge innumerable fishermen’s boats. Some are under sail, hauling big nets; others, sculled about almost silently by heavy steering rudders, search the water with strong lanterns…As they put out to sea, the people always sing their ancient folk songs: ballads with countless verses, wild war cries, soft, wistful love songs…

    The war broke into this peaceful world. Traveling between the islands changed overnight…The singing has become silent, for fishing is forbidden, and the men are fighting in the war…Mines lie between the islands.  At any moment an enemy periscope, or a plane with bombs, could appear, and the nights have become exceptionally interesting; there are no more beacons. The war has extinguished them.

    Soon, Captain von Trapp was reassigned to command of a submarine,the U-5.  This board was one of a type that was extremely primitive, even by WWI standards. Propulsion for running on the surface was not a diesel but a gasoline engine, and gasoline fumes were a constant headache, often in a very literal sense.

    The Captain seems not to have thought a great deal about the rights and wrongs of the war.  As a professional, at this stage he also felt no animus toward the men it was his duty to attack; quite the contrary. Here, after sinking a French cruiser:

    I quickly scan the horizon. Is there absolutely no escort ship? Did they let the ship travel all alone? Without a destroyer? WIthout a torpedo boat? No, there is nothing in sight, only five lifeboats adrift in the water.

    After discussing the matter with his exec and determining that there was no feasible way to take the survivors on board:

    With a heavy heart, I order the engines to be turned on, and I set a course for the Gulf of Cattaro. “They let our men from the Zenta drown, too,” I hear one of the men say.  The man is right, but I cannot bear to hear that yet.  With a sudden movement I turn away. I feel a choking in my throat. I want to be alone.

    I feel as if something were strangling me…So that’s what war looks like! There behind me hundreds of seamen have drowned, men who have done me no harm, men who did their duty as I myself have done, against whom I have nothing personally; with whom, on the contrary, I have felt a bond through sharing the same profession. Approximately seven hundred men must have sunk with the ship!

    On returning to base, von Trapp found numerous letters of congratulation waiting for him, one from an eighth-grade Viennese schoolgirl.  To thank her for the letter, he arranged to have a Pruegelkrapfen from a noted confectioner to be delivered to her.  “The outcome of all this is unexpected. Suddenly it seems all the Viennese schoolgirls have gotten the writing bug because it rains little letters from schoolgirls who are sooo happy and so on.  But such a Pruegelgrapfen is expensive and, at the moment, I don’t have time to open a bakery myself.”

    On one patrol, U-5 met up with an allied German U-boat, and von Trapp had an opportunity to go on board.  He was quite impressed with the diesel engine, compartmentalization of the boat, the electrically-adjustable periscopes, and even creature comforts like tables for dining.  “It’s like being in Wonderland…”  The German commander’s comment, on visiting U-5, was “I would refuse to travel in this crate.”

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Britain, Europe, Germany, Military Affairs, Nautical Book Project, Transportation, USA, War and Peace | 8 Comments »

    Nautical Book Review: The Caine Mutiny, by Herman Wouk

    Posted by David Foster on 20th May 2014 (All posts by )

    Just about everyone has seen the movie based on this book, featuring Humphrey Bogart’s famous performance as Captain Queeg.  The movie is indeed excellent–the book is even better, and contains a lot that is absent from the film.  And while the film ends basically after the court-martial scene, the book continue to follow the USS Caine and  key characters for the duration of the war.  In this review, I won’t worry about spoilers re plot elements that were included in the movie, but will try to minimize them as far as other aspects of the book are concerned. After summarizing the story, I’ll comment on some of the issue raised by the book. (A recent article, referencing The Caine Mutiny, refers to Wouk as “the first neoconservative.”)

    Lieutenant Commander Philip Queeg, a rigid and insecure man, is appointed during WWII to the command of Caine, a decrepit old destroyer-minesweeper…the ship and its slovenly-appearing crew are described as being part of the  “hoodlum navy.”  This is Queeg’s first command, and he is desperately concerned to make it a success, deeply afraid of making a mistake which will lead to his failure.  Ironically, it is specifically this fear of failure and perceived need for perfection which is responsible for many, perhaps most, of his troubles. When Caine runs aground the first time Queeg takes her out, he fails to submit the required grounding report for fear of higher authority’s reaction. When the ship cuts her own towline while assigned to target-towing duty, Queeg cannot make up him mind whether or not to attempt recovery of the drifting target–and radios in for instructions.  Incidents like these do not inspire confidence in Queeg on the part of his superiors.

    The officers and crew of Caine also lose confidence in the captain as his obsessive-compulsive behavior becomes increasingly problematic.  As a result of several incidents during combat, there are also concerns about Queeg’s personal courage. While no one aboard Caine likes Queeg once they get to know him, the captain’s most vocal critic is an officer named Thomas Keefer, an intellectual who is an aspiring novelist. Keefer has a cynical attitude toward the Navy, which he refers to as “a master plan designed by geniuses for execution by idiots,” and advises Willie Keith, a young officer who is his subordinate,  that “If you’re not an idiot, but find yourself in the Navy, you can only operate well by pretending to be one.”

    The ship’s executive officer is Steve Maryk. In civilian life a commercial fisherman, Maryk now hopes to make the Navy his career. Maryk is a fine seaman and a good leader, but not a highly-educated man–he is somewhat in awe of Tom Keefer’s intellectual attainments.

    In repeated conversations, Keefer tells Maryk that the captain must be mentally ill, using psychological jargon and concepts that Maryk does not pretend to understand. Maryk is concerned enough about Queeg’s behavior that he begins keeping a “medical log” on Queeg, with the idea of presenting this to higher authority if necessary and possible. The time seems right when Caine shares an anchorage with the battleship carrying Admiral Halsey:  Maryk takes his log, takes Keefer in tow, and heads over to the New Jersey to see if they can speak with the Admiral.  But Keefer, at the last moment, chickens out, asserting that Halsey, with his experience aboard large well-managed ships, would never be able to understand the state of things aboard a hoodlum-navy ship like Caine, and that raising the issue with him would only get the two of them in trouble.  Feeling unable to make the case without support, Maryk gives up on talking to Halsey and the two officers return to Caine.

    But soon thereafter, the old ship encounters a typhooon. Fleet course is 180 degrees, due south–away from the wind–and Queeg refuses to adopt the safer course of heading into the wind even though communication with other ships, as well as radar contact, has been lost.

    An unbelievably big gray wave loomed on the port side, high over the bridge. It came smashing down. Water spouted into the wheelhouse from the open wing, flooding to Willie’s knees. The water felt surprisingly warm and sticky, like blood. “Sir, we’re shipping water on the goddamn bridge!” said Maryk shrilly. “We’ve got to come around into the wind!”

    “Heading 245, sir.” Stilwell’s voice was sobbing. “She ain’t answering to the engines at all, sir!”

    The Caine rolled almost completely over on its port side.  Everybody in the wheelhouse except Stilwell went sliding across the streaming deck and piled up against the windows.  The sea was under their noses, dashing up against the glass.  “Mr Maryk, the light on this gyro just went out!” screamed Stilwell, clinging desperately to the wheel.  The wind howled and shrieked in Willie’s ears.  He lay on his face on the deck, tumbling around in salt water, flailing for a grip at something solid.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Arts & Letters, Book Notes, Human Behavior, Management, Military Affairs, Nautical Book Project, Transportation | 13 Comments »