Cordova Chronicles: News of the World

No, that is not one of local contractor Wilson Construction’s excavators trying to dig out the bow of the Ever Given container ship stuck in the Suez Canal. Photo courtesy of Suez Canal Authority

Recently, a book by Paulette Jiles titled “News of the World” was made into a movie. Set in the 1870s, it’s the tale of an aging Civil War veteran who travels throughout Texas reading clippings from newspapers all over the world to audiences captivated by events unknown.

The admission fee for the readings is a dime, and Captain Jason Kidd, played by Tom Hanks, is also somehow tasked with returning a young orphan captured by Kiowa raiders to her nearest relatives.

If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, I recommend both, for they feature Jiles and Hanks at their best, and to make it interesting, the book and movie adaptation end somewhat differently.

Captain Kidd went out of his way to find topics that would fascinate his audiences, and strangely, he would have been delighted to have read about recent events that even today seem unusual and would have had his listeners oohing and aahing.

Take, for example, the huge container ship that was lodged crosswise in the Suez Canal after running aground on March 23, 2021, bringing traffic through one of the world’s busiest waterways to a halt.

A quick trivia question: Could Captain Kidd have included news about the Suez Canal in his readings?

The answer is yes. Planning for the 120-mile passage began in 1859, and it was officially opened in November 1869. The project was opposed by the British government, and the work was done by the Suez Canal Company in an agreement between the French and Egyptians.

One hundred and 52 years later, the Suez Canal has definitely been news of the world.

Online and print news sources showed a lilliputian excavator that looks like it came fresh off Wilson Construction’s yard here in Cordova trying to dig out the bow of the 1,300-foot Ever Given, which rammed into a bank of the narrow byway.

The mishap was blamed on strong winds and low visibility due to as dust storm.

It turns out the Ever Given is twice as long as the canal is wide and draws nearly 52 feet. The canal is 82 feet deep in the middle, but quickly becomes shallower on either side, going to 49 feet, then 35 feet, to even less than that at the edges.

Fortunately, the massive ship was successfully pulled off on Monday, March 29. A combination of dredging, high tides and a pair of huge seagoing tugboats did the trick.

The state of Alaska is considering scuttling the ferry Malaspina to create an artificial reef. Photo courtesy of AMHS

Meanwhile, the state of Alaska has come up with its own news story that also likely would have fascinated Captain Kidd and his listeners. After all, the purchase of Alaska, named Seward’s Folly after William Seward, the U.S. Secretary of State who spearheaded the acquisition, took place in 1867, while Kidd was just beginning his tours.

It appears the Alaska Marine Highway System, which seems to be consistently short of vessels to maintain adequate ferry service through the state, is considering sinking one of its ferries –which in some bizarre way reflects the state of management of this transportation service so vital to many isolated towns, including Cordova.

The Alaska Department of Transportation is discussing whether to scuttle the ferry Malaspina, one of the oldest of the state’s ferries, to become an artificial reef. The ship has been tied up in Ketchikan since 2019 because of a lack of maintenance funding, but still costs the state about $450,000 in upkeep per year.

Sinking it to become a reef would first require cleaning at a cost between $500,000 and $1 million, but the state has discovered there is very little interest for it on the scrap market, which is glutted with disused cruise ships.

Somehow all this grounding and sinking reminds me of my dad Don Shellhorn and his 13.5-foot Boston Whaler. After he and mom retired from Shellhorn’s Clothing in the 1970s, they spent much of their summers and falls going down Alaganik Slough to our duck cabin at Pete Dahl.

Dad was frustrated with the load limit of his 14-foot metal Quachita, so instead bought this smaller Fiberglas craft which just happened to come with a guarantee that it was unsinkable. I’m sure his first mate liked that.

Captain Shellhorn grounds his beloved Boston Whaler on the way to Pete Dahl, and a falling tide makes it abundantly clear where the channel is. Photo courtesy of Anita Shellhorn

To inspire restraint from overloading, Dad actually taped a red load line on the side of the hull, but of course ignored it when launching the boat at Alaganik Landing. It was unsinkable, right? So if it had free-board, it was good to go.

Once on “step,” which often necessitated mom laying over the bow to attain, the Whaler performed well. But with a double-V-shaped hull, it drew more water that its flat-bottomed predecessor.

When the Captain ran into a sandbar at top speed in upper Pete Dahl Slough, the craft came to a sudden halt, with water surging over the transom to fill the entire boat.

Cardboard boxes and plastic totes loaded with supplies went floating down the slough. Dad lit his pipe; then he and mom bailed out the Whaler, making it much lighter. They pulled it off the bar, and putted down to the cabin, just in time to see their cargo floating up on the incoming tide.

Fortunately, off-loading the 18,300 containers aboard the Ever Given was not necessary to refloat it.

Ah, if only Captain Kidd could have looked into a crystal ball.

I am sure he would have included the tale of a ship blocking the Suez Canal, and a state sinking one of its ferries, in his News of the World.

And to tantalize Texans used to losing their cattle and wagons trying to ford rivers swollen by sudden thunderstorms, maybe even added a riverboat sinking in Pete Dahl Slough.

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Dick Shellhorn is a lifelong Cordovan. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 50 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016 and 2020, and third place in 2017 and 2019. He also received second place for Best Editorial Commentary in 2019. Shellhorn has written two books about Alaska adventures: Time and Tide and Balls and Stripes. Reach him at shorn@gci.net.