Essays - Winter 2019

Launching the Greatest Fleet

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How American war surplus helped build the world’s most successful merchant marine

By John Psaropoulos | December 3, 2018
Built in 41 days, the SS <em>Black Hawk</em> was launched in New Orleans in January 1943. She, like the <em>Cormorant</em>, was part of the U.S. fleet of Liberty Ships. (The National WWII Museum/Gift of Earl and Elaine Buras)
Built in 41 days, the SS Black Hawk was launched in New Orleans in January 1943. She, like the Cormorant, was part of the U.S. fleet of Liberty Ships. (The National WWII Museum/Gift of Earl and Elaine Buras)

Even though more than half a century has passed, Captain Yiannis Tsaganis remembers his worst storm clearly. He had embarked on the Greek merchant vessel Cormorant as a seaman in 1964. The ship’s five holds had been filled with lumber in Vancouver, and because lumber is a light cargo, beams had been strapped with ropes to the hatch covers as well, allowing the ship to reach its maximum capacity of 10,000 tonnes. The Cormorant ’s destination was the port of Yokohama—a distance of more than 4,000 nautical miles across the treacherous North Pacific. Normally the trip lasted about 15 days, but on this occasion the ship began to list. The lid of the ship’s aft ballast tank had cracked and was seeping water into the cargo holds. Then, a typhoon hit, with waves as high as 36 feet bashing the Cormorant to the height of the bridge.

The storm might very well have sunk the ship, but its captain turned adversity to advantage. First, he ditched the lumber strapped on deck to lower the center of gravity. Since the weather came from the northwest, he nosed the Cormorant southwest, keeping the wind to his right. “We sailed the ship like a caique, keeping the weather to our list side,” says Tsaganis. “You could really feel the lift of the weather from starboard. It kept the vessel up.” Using the wind against the list meant that the flooded holds were no longer a liability but a stabilizer.

When the Cormorant arrived at Yokohama, she was listing so badly that the Japanese pilot refused to come on board and guide the ship to its moorings. According to Tsaganis, the captain told the pilot to board the ship to sign a release “ ‘saying you refuse to pilot me,’ and as soon as the pilot was on board, he pulled up the ladder. He got the pilot to guide us to the outermost buoys at Yokohama port and then let him go.” When the crewmen stepped off their ship for the first time in a month, they realized what had frightened the pilot. “The starboard deck was barely six inches from the water.”

The captain of the Cormorant was an example of the Odyssean seamanship and diplomacy that helped catapult the Greek merchant fleet from ninth place globally before World War II to the top of the league after 1972, a place it has held ever since.

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