Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Who needs a press release?

Our first round of actual press releases are nearing completion, and while they will be making some big announcements, I'll drop a partial spoiler on you now.  After all, things are just too exciting to keep to myself, and I'll save the big announcements for the actual releases so there's still some surprise there.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Mini-HORNET improvements

This weekend work at the dockyard centered around work to improve Mini-HORNET, our 1:12 scale mock-up of the famous War of 1812 warship. She's an impressive display at more than 16 feet long at 12 feet tall.

So what were we making? Oh, just about everything, the biggest ticket items being boats and anchors.

Friday, June 24, 2011

A great kick-off

On Wednesday, the Board of Directors and several key supporters ventured to Washington DC for the kick-off reception of the War of 1812 Bicentennial Commemorations. The event, hosted by the Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of American History in front of the original Star Spangled Banner (Kenneth E. Behring Center) featured guest speakers Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus and Dr. Jose Fuentes, Chairman of OpSail. The event lasted from 7 to 9 pm and was capped off by libations at the Old Ebbet Grill with the Navy Commemorations Office and OpSail staff a few blocks away.

Photos of the event have been posted on Facebook - both the official photos, here, but also the blooper reel on my personal page as well. Some faces have been blurred to protect the innocent.

The NHS team was received very graciously by Secretary Mabus, who took a few minutes to share with me a few recollections of his own sea duty as a surface warfare officer.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Museum ships - damage control

As an amateur historian-type and active-duty SWO (surface warfare officer) I'm getting pretty fed up with reading about museum ships and their plight. That's because while I, perhaps more than most, appreciate the significance of these floating (wait for it) treasures, as I learn more and more about their management the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach gets worse and worse.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Mini-HORNET on the move!

Yesterday we recieved confirmation of a new exhibition for Mini-HORNET - our promotional 1:12 scale mock-up of the historic sloop of war. She won't be travelling far - in fact she's staying in Norfolk, but I want to bring her back to the Dockyard for some upgrades. What are we going to do? Here's a possible work list (it's not final) -

A not-so-quick rough look at James Biddle

I've been putting off my much anticipated (or not) brilliant narrative (or not) about the 'six degrees of separation' among Hornet's people and the early American navy. If you're a history nerd like I am, you'll enjoy these. If not, give it some time and I'll go back to talking about steam bending frames for Monomoy No. 3 - set to start within the next few weeks.

At any rate - I think we'll start with Hornet's second most famous commander - James Biddle. Why? Because the letter signed by Biddle that I bought off eBay just arrived and I'm all excited about the fact that I own something that (I think) he touched. Again - if you're not a history nerd, go ahead and tune out.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The story of HORNET and TWO Peacocks, or, Why not Wasp?

One of the singular occurrences in the War of 1812 related to USS HORNET (subject of our most recent initiative) is that she is the only US warship to challenge her own sister ship to a ship-to-ship duel - today in 1813. Confusing, I know. Let me explain.

HORNET and her close sister WASP were both built to the same design, by Josiah Fox, as we've covered in previous entries. But in 1805 new ship construction was closely scrutinized - President Jefferson's administration and a Republican dominated Congress had since resolved to focus on a reduction of the Naval establishment in favor of small gunboats for harbor defense. So an an experiment, it was decided to contract HORNET's construction to a private shipyard while WASP was built in a Navy yard by government workers. HORNET came in ahead of schedule and under budget, but once launched it was found that alterations to her rigging were going to be necessary as she had trouble in bad weather. WASP, taking a bit longer, was quickly altered in response to the lessons learned from HORNET, and HORNET was brought in for overhaul.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Reefer man

This weekend we managed to get some serious work done on Monomoy No. 3. Last week we realized that prior to re-framing, we had to reef all of the seams, i.e. pull out all the old caulking, putty, dirt, sand, crap. And while to the inexperienced bystander this sounds mundane, it's really quite a lot of work to dig all of that out without damaging the soft fir planking. In the first 6 man-hours of work, we managed to reef a total of 15 feet ot the boat's 624 feet of seams. Ouch.

And to make the work just that much worse, all that time weilding the scrapers starts to wear down your hands. After 10 hours of work on Sunday and 5 hours on Saturday, I'm finding that my hands can't grip and hold anything unless it's the same relative size as the scraper - my joints are that sore. Plus, add in the myriad blisters, raw spots and an occasional slice and you have all the reasons you should be wearing gloves while doing this.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Guest bloggers and reefing seams

Both can be irritating. And for reference, IC1, I don't own a whip - it's a rope end. And I only beat our volunteers because I care.

I should specify here that this is a joke. No, really - I will get nastygrams about this.


Yesterday we realized that we were about to overlook a critical step in our preparations for re-framing Monomoy No. 3 - reefing the seams. Basically, it means pulling out all of the old caulking and putty between the planking that was used to keep it watertight. The problem? Some of that stuff has been in there a while! And that's not what bothers me - actually the newer material is more of a problem. As IC1 pointed out, maintenance was done haphazardly in more recent times (probably at least 20 years ago), using what appears to be a nasty mixture of paint, silicone, bondo - you name it it's in there. And the effect that all of that had was to force the planks farther and farther apart until the sealing effects were all but negated. Armed with scrapers, file ends, screwdrivers and our trusty 5-in-1 tools, we began tackling this in earnest last night. We got approximately 15 feet of the 600+ feet of seams in the boat reefed. Moral of the story - we're in for a long, arduous job. Hang on, I have to go beat a slacker.

A guest blogger.... Or The Story of Dockyard Travails

This morning's guest blogger is IC1 Caleb Bryan, one of our best volunteers. Take it away, IC1:

Most Monomoy pulling boats are Carvel planked. The strakes (or planks) are attached to the frames and set edge to edge. The seam between is then sealed with cotton or oakum and a putty or pitch. The cotton is driven into the seam between the planks with a caulking iron and mallet and then payed with the pitch or putty. Now the Navy never, never, never ever neglects maintenance on it's boats and ship's, right? Right?!?! Well, in the case of our beloved Monomoy #3, maintenance was done many a time with a plethora of different procedures and materials - some of which were probably purchased at Wal-Mart. Reefing the seams (the process of removing the old caulking material) on #3 has produced an interesting variety: household caulking, paints and other substances used to keep her watertight are brought to light after long hours of painstaking work. Sore fingers, blisters, sweatsoaked clothing, raw mosquitobitten skin are just side effects of this process while the Dockyard Superintendant cracks his whip and shouts orders.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

HORNET Updates

I've been getting quite a few emails regarding the USS HORNET Project, everyone wanting to know what's happening. For those just joining us, this is our project to build the first blue-water replica of a US Navy sailing ship as part of the 1812 bicentennial commemorations - the Sloop of War HORNET (1805-1829). For more information check out our website at

First, I should say that we are working hard behind the scenes to get our media release ready. We need to put our best foot forward when we start broadcasting, and need to do our due dilligence and then some to ensure that. And in typical NHS fashion, we have saved our biggest surprise for that event. I know I like to say 'stay tuned' but you're probably not going to want to miss that one.

Framing stock is IN!

And that means we'll be in the shop tonight at 1900, continuing preparations for re-framing Monomoy No. 3. On tonight's work list, we'll be removing the thwart clamps amidships and building the jigs to hold the hot frames in place in the boat.


Yesterday was the first time I'd ever been to a sawmill. Northern Neck Lumber in Warsaw, VA is one of the few mills in the Commonwealth that still mills furniture-grade hardwood, and their management permitted me to pull stock straight off their "green chain" - where the freshly sawn timber comes out of the mill and is categorized and sorted before heading to the kiln. What this means for me is that I can pick the best framing stock right off the line, green as grass, for $1.50 a board foot. Not too shabby - especially when you consider that everyone in Tidewater told me that I'd never find such a thing at any cost.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Death to the hands!

This weekend we spent a good deal of time getting Monomoy No. 3 ready for re-framing - the process by which we're going to be replacing all of her 107 year old steam bent frames, or 'ribs'. Preparation calls for stripping the boat down to the bare essentials - out with the thwarts, the decking, deckbeams, centerboard trunk and keelsons - until all that is left is the shell of the boat, keel, planking and frames. It is a scary process that entails carefully (or sometimes not) removing old fasteners and gingerly lifting out structural members (or beating them into splinters with a mallet and big nasty chisel). And as we progressed, the shell of the boat gets more and more fragile and flexible. I am very happy to report that as of writing, the boat is happily resting in her tailor-made cradles, almost completely empty. There is a certain zen to sitting amidships and seeing nothing but open space out to the frames in every direction.
On both Saturday and Sunday, the Dockyard resonated with the steady thunk, thunk, thunk of sledges driving out keelbolts, punctuated by the occasional "AHH CRIPES! MOTHER F(*&^*&" as the occasional swing missed or glanced off the bolt and onto fingers. My left thumb still hasn't completely recovered. And now, myself and the other victim walk around with hands looking like we just came out of Fight Club. This morning I even noticed a person staring nervously at my hands. The only thing I could think to say was "you should've seen the other guy".

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Progress for No. 3

Yesterday we managed to get Monomoy No. 3 a little bit closer to the point where we can replace her frames. All of the thwarts were taken out and the hull temporarily stabilized, but we have more work to do before we can actually start ripping out old and steaming in new. This Saturday, we'll be getting together at 9 am to get her the rest of the way. Here's what's on the work list:

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Chesapeake Day - Part 2

In the last entry, we looked at the stereotype of USS Chesapeake as an inferior ship, and pointed out that she wasn't. Unlucky, yes - and Sailors get that, even today. But poorly designed, inferior, no. Chesapeake was pretty standard, possibly very pretty, but about comparable to what the British brought to the fight.

So if the two ships were so similar, what made the difference? Training. It's a simple matter of preparedness that ultimately decided the conflict before it even began. Here's a good example of what Broke and the Shannon were up to for months prior to the fight:

"The weekly routine at sea was for the watch on deck to be exercised at the great guns on Monday and Tuesday afternoons, and in the afternoons the first division of the watch was exercised at small arms. Wednesday and Thursday forenoons saw the watch on deck at the carronades, and in the afternoons the second division of the watch at small arms. Friday was reserved for the Midshipmen – great guns in the morning, small arms in the afternoon. Thus each man had one morning at the 18-pounders, one morning at the carronades and two afternoons with musquets in every week.
Saturdays were reserved for washing clothes and scrubbing the berth deck in the afternoon. Sunday, apart from Church service and any necessary evolutions with the sails, was free."

Chesapeake, meanwhile had been trapped in port for more than a year, her crew was generally a mixed bag of experienced sailors and new recruits - including her officers. None of these elements had been afforded a chance to exercise together. I'm not sure if Lawrence ran drills dockside, but it seems from many of the accounts to remind me of Chesapeake's 1807 run-in with HMS Leopard - unprepared, disorganized and thoroughly confused. At any rate, the two ships were near polar opposites in that regard.

So why, then, did Lawrence choose to fight - and he had a choice, he was in port while Shannon beckoned from open water - if he knew himself to be facing a superior foe in a ship that was nowhere near ready? The answer is the bite of hubris.

Earlier in the year, while still commander of Hornet, Lawrence discovered a British warship, the HMS Bonne Citoyenne (why do they so hate the French but love their language?) loading with gold in San Salvador, Brazil. Though Hornet was in company with Constitution at the time, Bainbridge pledged to keep Constitution out of action as Lawrence chided his prospective opponent to come out and fight. When the British commander, Pitt Barnaby Greene, refused on the grounds of responsibility to the gold over his own personal honor, Lawrence claimed a victory and touted his success to the American public - who saw it the same way. Now, Lawrence was under the honor microscope, and with dire consequences.

You have to remember, this was a time when personal honor was paramount in personal and professional life alike. I'm sure - though I have no evidence of it - that Greene took a ribbing from his fellow British officers, even though by all considerations he seems to have done the right thing by his duties. Lawrence played the coward card, and now unless he sailed out to meet Broke in combat, he would more than likely be painted with the stain he had so vigorously applied himself just months before. In the early 19th century navy, this was a no-brainer - he had to go, ready or not.

There is no piece of evidence that shows this resignation more than the maneuver with which Lawrence opened the fight. Broke had Shannon hove to, waiting for Lawrence, and rather than cut to windward and attempt to gain the weather gauge he remained hove to as Chesapeake barreled down on him. With the ships in this position, it would have been a customary offensive maneuver for Lawrence to sail past Shannon, firing into her stern as he passed - a maneuver known as raking. It would have had a devastating effect on his challenger and given him an early upper hand. But instead, Lawrence wore hard and ground to a near stop with his ship alongside of, parallel to and to weather of Shannon before unleashing his first ragged broadside.

From that moment, it was no contest. Shannon battered Chesapeake and eventually boarded her to complete the victory. It was a bloody battle, and Lawrence himself was mortally wounded. Carried from the deck early in the engagement, he gave the command "Tell the men to fire faster and don't give up the ship, fight her 'til she sinks!" And later "burn her." In context, it was quite clear (at least to me) that Lawrence knew he was doomed, but elected to fight on and go out with a bang - and under no circumstances humbly submit to the drubbing, but rather prevent the British taking the prize by destroying the ship. When you really think about it, it was a fanatical act of dedication to the concept of honor in refusing to surrender. It is a sign, I think, of knowing that it was the only way to avoid his tremendous hubris.

James Lawrence was certainly brave, definately had an influence on the early Navy, and absolutely knew how to get the public on his side. But he was also human, and I believe his engagement with Shannon was more akin to a sad, hollow thud at the end of a life and career rather than the triumphant ring of a patriotic soul, as it is so often thought of today. It should be a warning to us as professional Sailors and war fighters - beware of gloating over your advantage, it will bite you. Triumph with honor means a gracious victor.

In the end, Broke did capture Chesapeake, and led her into Halifax under British colors. Taken back to England, she was refitted, her lines and details recorded, and sent back to sea as HMS Chesapeake. In a final dose of irony, very likely intentional, she was sent to blockade Chesapeake Bay and Hampton Roads - where she had been built.

Ouch. Remember that burn.

In case you're wondering, those are Chesapeake's lines in the image, and they are the same as the background on this page - have been for some time.


Chesapeake Day, hats off. Part 1

Today marks the anniversary of the capture of USS Chesapeake by HMS Shannon in 1813. James Lawrence, who had achieved national fame in Hornet for sinking HMS Peacock in a sharp 14 minute fight, also earned promotion to Captain and command of a frigate - Chesapeake. June 1st would become a day of several ironies for Lawrence, in an engagement that isn't so plain as "unlucky ship" versus "crack ship" and a valiant end to a national hero.
We should all contemplate that event a little more closely, and here's some food for thought- part 1 - Chesapeake, the ship.
First of all, I will not argue that Chesapeake wasn't an unlucky ship (she very certainly earned that epitaph), but poorly designed she was not. There are accounts (albeit from Hampton Roads area newspapers) that called her the most beautiful of the original six frigates. She was the smallest, but this was not a deficiency, but rather an intentional choice by Fox - who was a highly experienced designer and shipwright. He argued, contrary to Humphries (who is generally credited today with designing the six), that the big frigates would be unwieldy, susceptible to grounding, and targets that the British, whose Navy far outnumbered ours, could easily blockade or hunt down with superior forces. Constitution is the exception here, not the rule (though even she grounded a number of times), but looking at the others, we see he was right.
(referencing service in the War of 1812, only)

  • United States made one successful cruise and captured HMS Macedonian, but was then blockaded in New London CT for most of the war by a superior British force.

  • President captured a few ships and did some extended cruising, but never took a significant enemy warship (she captured a schooner, HMS Highflyer). She grounded off Sandy Hook in 1814 causing significant damage, and was captured a short time later by overwhelming forces of the British blockading squadron.

  • Congress captured some merchant shipping, but again, never met an enemy ship in battle - most that she chased outran her. In late 1813 she was placed in ordinary due to lack of available manpower.

  • Constellation was trapped in Norfolk for the entire war, blockaded by the British.
Calling Chesapeake a bad frigate is really trying not to admit that the original 'six frigates' program of the early navy didn't have nearly as great an effect on the actual tactical or strategic picture that we think it did.
In contrast, Fox argued for the construction of smaller ships, particularly smaller frigates and sloops of war. Hornet (designed but not built by Fox) is a gleaming example of the class, and there are few that match her longevity or success, but on the whole these smaller vessels made quite a difference in the War of 1812. The ships could be produced much faster than the large frigates, at significantly reduced expense, and because there were more of them, I would argue that they lent very seriously to the cultivation of a broad and deep base of professional knowledge and experience in the junior officer corps that saw the navy through the next 50+ years. I am getting off topic.
My point? Don't knock Fox. It's popular, as his fight with Humphries turned very public and resulted in significant slanting of the pros- and cons of the big frigates in Humphries favor in our look at things today. Chesapeake may have been unlucky, but poorly designed, she was not.
Now, for fair comparison, let's look at Chesapeake compared to Shannon.
Characteristic / Chesapeake / Shannon
Broadside wt. / 542 lbs / 550 lbs
Compliment / 379 / 330
I could continue, but the main points are there, and the ships were more or less well matched and equal - with a slight advantage in numbers going to Chesapeake. But as we will see later, naval warfare is reliant not on numerical advantage, but training. And the British, as with so many other frigates, had not only prevented our much-touted frigates from getting underway, but prevented them from developing a level of training commensurate with our strategic reliance on them in our prior planning - and even our perception of them today.
More in Part 2, later today.
By the way, to answer some of the comments I am already receiving - it is absolutely true that enemy warships were not the prime objectives in the War of 1812, but rather to disrupt merchant shipping. But the big frigates were vastly expensive, heavily armed and stoutly built - considerations that are totally unwarranted to take on a commerce raiding mission, as demonstrated by the vastly more successful privateers of the war.