Category Archives: History
The world is holding its collective breath as the Steno Impero, a Chinese built, British Flagged, owned by a Swedish Company (Steno Bulk), licensed through a Create based LLC, operated by a Scotland based operations company and with a crew that does not include a single UK citizen tanker sits in an Iranian Port, having been seized by a paramilitary group in retaliation for the British seizure of the Panamanian tanker, Grace 1, which is sitting in Gibraltar.
Got all that?
Now the UK is sending naval assets to the Persian Gulf to “show the flag” to Iran, while the US is asking other naval powers to assist us in guarding the Straights of Hormuz from what is essentially piracy by using naval force, all while reminding Teheran that we could – at any moment – wipe them off the map, but probably not before they launch whatever nefarious weapons they may or may not have at Israel, which neither owns nor flags any of the tankers involved.
So how does all this weirdness happen? Why is it so confusing?
Like most things, it started here in the United States, for reasons that will make sense to you as soon as you hear them. It – the practice of convenience flagging of ships – continues today because despite what you might intuitively think, there are advantages to having it be as totally confusing as is possible.
In 1963, Alister McClain published a novel about a spy satellite that fell from orbit and landed in a place where almost nobody could get to it. Almost.
The book and the 1968 film, tell the story of the race by an American atomic-powered attack submarine to get to the ice pack and land a team of Special Ops forces to retrieve the capsule before the weather clears and the Soviets can drop their airborne troops to do the same thing. There are submarines*, spies, confusion, double-crossing, star athletes and Rock Hudson. When everything is said and done, the film canister that everybody is chasing after is destroyed. After all of that effort and blood, nobody had anything.
Which is pretty much a metaphor for the Cold War anyway.
Imagine my surprise to learn – in a completely UNCLASSIFIED manner – that a few years after the novel and the movie, a US spy satellite dropped its film canister out of orbit, only to have its parachute fail and the canister plunge into the deep abyss of the Pacific Ocean**. The race was on to recover it before the Soviets could get wind of the potential intelligence coup and to keep them as in the dark about it as long as possible.
Heading to the scene, an old World War II Salvage Tug dragged a World War II surplus Floating Dry Dock out into the Pacific Ocean**. Inside the dry dock sat one of the most ungainly, misunderstood and surprising pieces of technology ever created. Even as men were walking on the moon, this thing, the Trieste II, was about to dive to depths almost never penetrated before for the sole purpose of recovering a satellite film canister that had landed in the wrong place.
There were a couple of differences from the novel and film. First, it wasn’t in the Arctic. Next, it was not an atomic-powered boat. But the biggest difference of all is that it actually happened.
A real-life Ice Station Zebra…
*The movie contains one of the most nerve-wracking scenes I have ever seen. I can watch it, but it leaves me with heart palpitations and sweating.
**Every “c” in “Pacific Ocean” is pronounced differently. Just thought you’d like to know that. Ever since Kenneth pointed it out to me, I cannot stop thinking about it.