Where Was I?

Where Was I?

When we last corresponded, my wife and I were about to set off on our sailboat (a 34 foot Cabo Rico cutter), the goal being the Bahamas. We did the trip, and it was both a blast and relatively uneventful, by which I mean with no disasters and few close calls.

I’ll largely skip the legal topic this month (and next), to tell about the trip, but I am going to touch on a few legal topics as we encountered them.

We set out almost exactly a year ago. Freeport to the Annisquam River was a long day, and we entered just after dark with a strong fair tide, snagging a mooring buoy for the night. The engine had hiccupped a few times and I changed the fuel filters – problem solved. We transited the Annisquam Canal, waited out a blow in Gloucester, then it was Provincetown, Block Island, and various harbors in Long Island Sound.

The East River was a thrill. Very cool to see the great buildings of Manhattan from the water. Dozens of small passenger ferries now swarm the East River and New York Harbor, which was not the case even twenty years ago.

We have good A.I.S. on Far and Away. Our Automatic Identification System sends out our position, speed and name to other boats, and we see the same information for them on our chart plotter, in graphic display. Boats on a collision course are highlighted. A.I.S. makes transiting crowded waters much safer.

Although A.I.S. certainly doesn’t take the place of a good lookout, its use is becoming the standard of care for all boats, and certainly for all ships. By “standard of care” I mean that if a ship doesn’t have A.I.S., and is in a collision that could have been avoided had A.I.S. been installed, the ship might be deemed at fault.

The situation is similar to how the nautical and legal world saw radar forty years ago, when lots of boats had radar but lots of boats didn’t. In that period more and more other traffic, particularly commercial traffic, assumed that the other vessel could see them on their radar, sometimes with a fatal result. In time the use of radar in limited visibility became the standard of care, and a vessel of any real size, which collided because it didn’t use radar had some explaining to do. A.I.S. does often lead to lax lookouts, because a glance at the plotter may substitute for the prudent mariner’s careful look around, but A.I.S. is now a fact of nautical life. It’s the new standard of care for boats transiting crowded waters, in my opinion.

We anchored in Great Kills Harbor, Staten Island (I think I saw Tony Soprano), then caught a fresh westerly down the Jersey coast to Cape May. Couple nights there, then up the shallow, muddy, rough Delaware Bay, where we anchored in the lee of a nuclear power plant.

The next day we entered the Delaware and Chesapeake Canal, a sea level canal of the scale, and vintage, of the Cape Cod Canal. The 1650 surveyors of the region noted that a fourteen-mile canal would enable a ship to get from the upper Chesapeake Bay to the upper Delaware Bay (so Baltimore to Philadelphia), saving 300 sea miles and a dangerous voyage outside. The canal was completed in 1825 at a cost of $3.5 million, one of the most expensive projects of its time. The original canal had many locks, and a huge steam engine was built to supply the make up water lost when the locks were filled. The Army Corps of Engineers preserved the engine at its fascinating museum in Chesapeake City – it’s worth a trip. The A.C.E. later dredged the sea level canal we use today.

One of the really fascinating aspects of our trip was seeing the engineering infrastructure, both modern and centuries old, along the way. For example, suspended high above the D and C Canal, in an elegant, shallow catenary extending from towers 1200 feet apart, is a twelve inch diameter pipeline carrying natural gas at 1500 psi, supplying a gas turbine electrical generation plant down the peninsula. Aren’t engineers wonderful?

The Chesapeake was fun, although I have to say that for natural beauty Maine has it beat. We loved Annapolis, where the legislature still sits in the original building, a place as thick with America’s history as anywhere I have been. And we overnighted at Tangier Island, a fishing community slowing sinking into the bay. The streets flood at high tide, a graveyard is abandoned to the water, and we saw a mowed lawn of marsh grass. Great people, though, and the best soft shell crab sandwich I’ll ever eat. Tangier felt a little like Matinicus: tough people, wary of outsiders, but you know they’d be there for you if disaster struck.

We entered Norfolk a day later. Norfolk, including the outlying bases, is the largest military complex in the world. It’s homeport to aircraft carriers, and we saw some destroyers I recognized from launchings at Bath. Waterborne security is tight.

After Norfolk we entered the Dismal Swamp Canal. Southwest of Norfolk is the Dismal Swamp, which even three hundred years ago was recognized as a million-acre trove of cypress, invaluable for shipbuilding. But how to get the cypress out? George Washington and a few other investors hired slave labor and dug a canal through the swamp, throwing the spoil on the southern bank as a dike. The resulting canal allowed access to the timber, and the dike allowed adjacent land to be drained and farmed. The investors made a fortune.

Pity the slaves though. There were no dredges or excavators of any kind in that day: the canal was dug by shovels. Works rules required that labor continue until the water was at shoulder height. Beside the absolute misery of such wageless work, digging mud and chopping roots in chest deep water infested with snakes, there was malaria as well. As we travelled further south we saw more evidence of the extent to which the country was built on such crimes against humanity. I don’t know how else to put it.

I’ll pick up this tale next month. Stay out of trouble.
Nicholas Walsh is an admiralty lawyer practicing in Portland. He may be reached at 772-2191, or nwalsh@gwi.net.

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