Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
I spent the afternoon in the port city of Liverpool, walking the docks. Here’s the view from one point, a panorama running from sunshine on the right and grading into rain on the left, looking across the Mersey (click to enlarge). As a seaman, there’s not much I’d rather do than wander the waterfront in some strange town.
If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.
There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs—commerce surrounds it with her surf. Right and left, the streets take you waterward. Its extreme downtown is the battery, where that noble mole is washed by waves, and cooled by breezes, which a few hours previous were out of sight of land. Look at the crowds of water-gazers there.
But look! here come more crowds, pacing straight for the water, and seemingly bound for a dive. Strange! Nothing will content them but the extremest limit of the land; loitering under the shady lee of yonder warehouses will not suffice. No. They must get just as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling in. And there they stand—miles of them—leagues. Inlanders all, they come from lanes and alleys, streets and avenues—north, east, south, and west. Yet here they all unite. Tell me, does the magnetic virtue of the needles of the compasses of all those ships attract them thither?
Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward. What do you see?—Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against the spiles; some seated upon the pier-heads; some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging, as if striving to get a still better seaward peep. But these are all landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster—tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks. How then is this? Are the green fields gone? What do they here?
And indeed, despite the imminent storm, there were people all over the docks. And deservedly so, they are very interesting. I learned lots of things there.
First, I learned another bit more about the siting of windmills. There are five Darrieus rotors mounted at the corner of the Echo Arena … except that the Echo Arena doesn’t have any corners, it’s round. And since it’s round I’d have thought that any windmills near each other by the building would be in about the same wind. But in fact, only the two nearest of the five in the photo were rotating fast. The other three, despite being within a few metres of the others, only gave an occasional desultory turn.
The other joke was the size of the windmills. The swept area of the rotors were each maybe twenty feet by ten feet … call it 200 square feet, maybe 20 square metres each. By contrast, a modern bat-chopper’s blade is maybe 100 metres in diameter, almost 8,000 square metres. There’s not enough wind energy in twenty square metres to do more than light a couple of light bulbs … and that only when the wind is blowing. Useless. However, at least they look kinda cool, and they don’t go “thwop-thwop-thwop” like the bird-shredders.
As I wandered along the dock, the squall got closer and closer, and the wind started kicking up waves along the sides of the stone docks. The stonework on the dock is lovely, not because it is supposed to be, but because the form fits so perfectly with the function. The stones were all carefully and cleverly fitted with a minimum of chiseling and a maximum of results. Here’s an example:
Now, on the chains you can see at the top of that picture, all along the waterfront there are locks locked onto the top chain. Some of them have people’s names on them, some don’t. I thought I’d google the reason when I got back, but then I figured I’d just ask the assembled masses for their local knowledge … so, what’s up with these padlocks?
The weather was threatening, but I got to the Maritime Museum and ducked inside. There, I went first to the Slavery display on the third floor. It was interesting in part because there was a whose section, not on slavery itself, but on the African cultures that existed at the time. They showed a lot of different African arts and implements, often very beautiful pieces. Overall it was a good exhibit, but somehow they failed to mention the participation of the Africans in the slave trade as slavers. Hey, it wasn’t mostly white guys going out into the African bush to collect slaves. They bought them from black slavers at the coast. They also didn’t say a word about the fact that slavery existed in Africa for thousands of years before the melanin-deficient folk made it into a big business. But other than that it was hugely informative and fascinating, and only in part because on account of my family’s participation in the trade, the subject is always of great interest to me.
I used to feel bad that my ancestors were involved in the slave trade. But I let go of that after a comment from a man I met at a party thirty years ago in Dakar, in Senegal, where much of the slave trade took place. I spoke to him about what my family had done. He looked at me and said “So what if your great-great-grandfather did something to my great-great-grandfather … what the hell does that have to do with you and me?”
What the hell indeed, I thought, and since then it hasn’t been an issue for me. We humanoids desperately need to learn to forget the past, or we end up fighting about things that happened before we were born.
The next floor down in the Museum is all about the Titanic. Not much there that was new to me, although there were a few lovely artifacts that had been salvaged from the wreck of that majestic liner.
The next floor down had a whole section about the Second World War. In that section, I saw something I’d never heard of, a “fog signal” to keep the ships in convoy from coming up on the ship in front of them and smashing into the stern. Here’s what it looks like:
The way the contraption works is like this. You attach a rope to the chain you can see at the left, which goes up and is attached to the underside of the boards. You let it out over the stern of the ship, and trail it along behind. Now if you look at the right end, there’s a metal scoop. As the contraption is dragged along, the water is picked up by the scoop and jetted high in the air. Unlike a light, which the Germans could have seen, this jet of water would only be visible when you get near to it. Pretty ingenious, if you ask me …
Down in the bottom of the Maritime Museum, there’s an exhibition put on by the Customs and Excise department regarding smuggling. They show all the goofy ways that people have tried to smuggle stuff into England over the centuries. It’s an old, historical trade, it goes back a long, long way. Or at least that’s they said, because me, all I know about smuggling is what I read in the popular press and see in the museums …
When I came out, the squall was over, and the sun was shining through a hole in the clouds right on the town buildings. Here’s another question for those in the know about Liverpool—what are those birds that are portrayed on the top of the Municipal buildings?
If I had any question about the importance of the ocean to Liverpool, I found out that the middle of those the three big buildings is the “Cunard Building”, home office of the Cunard ocean liners …
The docks of Liverpool are very unusual in that many of them are actually protected by locks. This is because of the huge swing of the tides. Here are the tides for this month:
About nine metres (30′) of tidal swing in six hours? … yikes! So they built up an entire system of docks that were protected by locks. The ships would come in and out only at high tide, and then the lock gates would be closed behind them so the water couldn’t flow back out. That way they could unload the ships without the bottom dropping out of the ocean and the ship sitting down on the harbor floor.
In Alaska the tides are about that big, but we didn’t have locks. I’ve seen guys struggling hard with that problem, for instance getting a drunk crewman to a ship that’s thirty feet down over the side of the dock by tying a rope around his chest, taking a couple of turns with the rope around a bollard, and pushing him over the edge and lowering him down with the rope … in hindsight, the Liverpool method is greatly preferable.
From there, I went to the Liverpool Museum. I’ve been considering the question of energy lately, what with windmills and steam locomotives. In the Museum, they have one of the oldest steam locomotives in existence. It’s called the “Lion”, an absolutely gorgeous piece of 1800’s engineering. I couldn’t get a good photo of it, here’s one from the web, it’s a jewel.
I was amused to find out that after the Lion was retired, they pulled out the boiler and used it to drive a pump at the waterfront. But of course, the Lion was run by coal. So if they wanted to do that these days I fear they’d have to revert to an even earlier form of energy, immortalized below on the Liverpool docks:
This is the statue in honor of the working horses of Liverpool, to which we all may be reduced if the anti-CO2 maniacs win the fight … just sayin’ …
On the way back, I passed an enclosed bit of water with a couple dozen of the “narrow boats” from the canals. The nearest one, the “Irene Grace” had the laundry hung out … and the second one, the “Hodmedod” had its garden out in the sun.
On the way back, my weather luck ran out. It started to pour down rain, and the only shelter in a long ways was an ornamental arch that is about twenty feet tall and three feet wide … so it provided little in the way of shelter for the six of us trying to get out of the rain. Now, there is one of those half-bowls mounted on the side of the arch, maybe a yard (metre) across. I hunched myself down as small as I could get, and tried to hide underneath it. So I’m all smooshed up under the bowl, feeling like a perfect idiot, and I notice that it’s not really raining … because what’s coming down is actually pepper-corn sized hail.
Hail! How could I not like hail, it’s one of my favorite phenomena. Here’s why.
Any fool can convince heat to flow from a warm place to a cold place. But a thunderstorm manages to make cold flow from a cold place to a warm place, in the form of snow, hail, and sleet. To me, that’s one of nature’s most ingenious tricks. It extends human refrigeration, which involves only the phase change from liquid to gas and back, to include a second phase change—from liquid to gas and back to liquid, then the second phase change, from liquid to solid.
However, that didn’t make me any dryer, and it sure didn’t make me any warmer. So I gave up my vain attempt to stay out of the weather. I emerged from my pathetic, ineffective excuse of a hiding place under the half-bowl, and I abandoned myself to the crazy vagaries of the English atmosphere.
Oddly, the weather I’ve happened to see so far here has shown all of the same phenomena I used to see in the tropics—when it starts getting warm, up pop the cumulus to slow the warming. When it gets even warmer, thunderstorms appear. In other words, it’s one more example of the emergent phenomena doing what they always do—<em>keeping the world from overheating.</em>
And I can testify that they kept me from overheating as well, I was shivering hard before I got back to the house, with a small version of the Mersey River running from the nape of my neck, straight down my back, and pooling somewhere around my unmentionables. So I guess that means that the universe is unfolding just as it should.
Tomorrow the circus decamps again. We’re off to the Lake District, to see what that part of the planet looks like and to meditate on these questions in a new location … or as Herman Melville had it:
Once more. Say you are in the country; in some high land of lakes. Take almost any path you please, and ten to one it carries you down in a dale, and leaves you there by a pool in the stream. There is magic in it. Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries—stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if water there be in all that region. Should you ever be athirst in the great American desert, try this experiment, if your caravan happen to be supplied with a metaphysical professor. Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.
I’m ready to go down in a dale to a pool by a stream, indeed I am.
My best to everyone, more to come as time and the hail permits …
PS—The title of this post is from John Masefield’s “Sea Fever”, a poem which is one of my life-long companions:
I MUST down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face and a grey dawn breaking.
I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must down to the seas again to the vagrant gypsy life.
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.