Meet the Crew of Liberty Star

As Liberty Star enters the home stretch, meet more of the professionals who keep things “ship-shape” at sea.

Clinton Small, Boatswain

Today we’re talking with one of the Liberty Stars boatswains on this trip. Boatswain Clinton (Koko) Small, 34, is from New Smyrna, Fla. That’s just north of the Kennedy Space Center. He’s been onboard Liberty Star for nine years.

The rank “boatswain” goes back pretty far in history, having been identified by historians in the old English ships as far back as 1040.  Boatswains have traditionally served in a supervisory and hands-on leadership role, working closely with the deck hands performing hard work. Boatswains have always been a vital part of running a ship.

Clinton’s specific responsibilities include supervision of the deck crew with regards to maintenance and repair of ship’s exterior, interior and deck machinery. He also stands two four-hour watches as a lookout while vessel is under way. On smaller ships like Liberty Star, boatswains stand the watch, but not on larger ships.

Clinton is a graduate of New Smyrna High School and has studied industry-related courses at the Maritime Professional Training School in Fort Lauderdale. He also is currently studying to sit for his 1,600 ton mate’s license. He worked construction before joining United Space Alliance.

Clinton goes to sea because he likes the excitement and the fresh air. When he’s not at work, he enjoys going four wheeling, fishing, hunting and hanging out with his girlfriend and dogs. He says the part of the job he likes most is going home at the end of the day. Smart man!

Patricia Hershock, Chief Engineer

One thing about “Chiefs” — they are always important or they wouldn’t be called “Chief.” Whether it’s a Navy Chief Petty Officer or Army Chief Warrant Officer or Chief of Police, they are responsible for making something work properly, not work once in a while, but work every time.

Chief Patricia Hershock (Trish, or Chief), 46, is a native of Stamford, Conn. For those not familiar with New England, that’s just across the Long Island Sound from Long Island, N.Y.  She has served with Liberty Star for two years, nine months.

Trish started out with the Navy. She enlisted and trained as engineman in 1985 and was stationed at Naval Station Treasure Island, San Francisco. She also has also onboard the U.S. Navy tug YTB-812, the Accomac, based at Treasure Island, and served on commercial ocean-going tugs and commercial inland river towboats. By the way…that’s the industry that keeps many millions of truck miles off our highways each year.

She has completed engineering courses as well as industry related continuing education courses at maritime schools.

As Chief Engineer onboard Liberty Star, she is responsible for the operation, maintenance and repair of all main propulsion and auxiliary machinery. Trish works six- hour rotating shifts with Assistant Engineer Dan Dugan while under way. That’s a rough schedule in anyone’s book.

When asked what she likes most about her service onboard Liberty Star, she responds that she enjoys the variety of work that comes with the job and the camaraderie of her shipmates.

What does Trish do for relaxation when off the ship? Another outdoors person! She enjoys tinkering on her antique motorcycle, scuba-diving, gardening, and surfing with her husband, Karl.

Sailing With the Stars: International Space Station

Bringing ET-134 to Kennedy Space Center has one purpose; launch STS-130 to the International Space Station. NASA’s top priority today is to fly the space shuttle safely and complete construction of the space station. It’s been a long road getting from there to here!

International Space Station. Credit: NASA

Do yourself a favor one day and go to this website:

Scroll over to your right, then down to space station over flights of your town. Click and you’ll find yourself on a NASA Johnson Space Center Website. In the left column you’ll find a place to enter your country and find your home town and that’ll show you when the space station will overfly your town.

The over flight will be fast; and the time of day is important because space station is best viewed just before dawn or the beginning of morning nautical twilight and just after fading evening light or the ending of evening nautical twilight; perhaps the station will approach from the southwest, sail over your town in 2-5 minutes at 220 miles above you and depart to the Northeast. 

I hadn’t made an effort to see the station over fly Huntsville, Ala., for quite some time, until one day last year I studied the tracking charts, found that it would make a spectacular flight over Huntsville in a few days. That evening I hooked up my two bichons and went out to see the station. It was an amazing over flight. With ten-power binoculars I could detect a great deal of detail including that the space shuttle was docked, a gigantic spread of sail, or rather, solar arrays, and the space station had grown — big time — to the size of a football field.

Astronaut Nicole Stott, Expedition 20 flight engineer, participates in the STS-128
mission’s first session of extravehicular activity (EVA) as construction and maintenance
continue on the International Space Station. Credit: NASA
View all “Sailing With NASA” images in this Flickr gallery

When I joined NASA in 1991, I was immediately joined at the hip with space station. It has been part of my daily duties ever since in one public affairs capacity or another. The space station has evolved from development models and design charts to real hardware during the intervening years.  It is simply a marvel, flying through space at 17,000 miles per hour, brighter than the stars; so much so you might say it is a star…well, it is a Star!

Partnerships: Are Getting Us From There to Here
The space station is why we’re on this journey. We are bringing the gas tank, ET-134, for space shuttle mission STS-130, during which space shuttle Endeavour will deliver to space station Node 3, named Tranquility, the last of the three nodes built by our Italian and European space partners. 

The space station has been a dynamic and fruitful partnership for its members; including the United States represented by NASA, the Russian Federal Space Agency, the European Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency — I particularly like the title of the Japanese space agency because they have included the word “exploration.” The specific nations in the partnership have included Canada, Denmark, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Holland, Luxembourg, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Great Britain, Japan, Russia, and our very own United States.

Space station flight operations are controlled from the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and the station science command post is located at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.  European Headquarters is in Paris; the Canadian Headquarters is in Saint-Hubert, Quebec; the Russian Station Mission Control is in Korolev, Russia; and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency headquarters is in Tokyo, Japan.

By any stretch of the imagination space station has been an unqualified success in political, technological, engineering and scientific partnerships and is perhaps the greatest demonstration of peaceful human cooperation and achievement in history.  It is a testimony to what humanity can achieve in unity of purpose and peace; and a testimony to the role of space travel to bring together diverse peoples for common good.

An Exciting Time for the International Space Station
This year the spacefarers expanded the crew on space station from three to six and expanded the available working and living space.  Three space shuttle flights delivered Japan’s Kibo scientific research laboratory module, a supporting logistics module and a unique facility for mounting science experiments outside the Station. Also, in the past year a space shuttle delivered the Columbus science experiment module built by the European Space Agency. 

A close-up view of the unpiloted Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV)
in the grasp of the International Space Station’s robotic Canadarm2. Credit: NASA

View all “Sailing With NASA” images in this Flickr gallery

The Russian Space Agency continues space station support by launching frequent logistics flights using their Progress automated rendezvous and docking vehicles. Russia also launches astronauts, cosmonauts and other visitors via their Soyuz launch vehicles.  Russia also maintains Soyuz vehicles on station for potential emergency evacuation.

There were two recent additions to the family of spacecraft arriving at the station this year as well. The European Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) docked at station in March 2008 and just last month, in mid-September 2009, the H-II Transfer Vehicle of Japan successfully launched and arrived at the station. Both transfer vehicle arrivals mark a substantial increase in operational capability at a time when the shuttle program is due to be completed. 

A Time of Transition Ahead for Station
Up until now the emphasis of work on station has been directed at the assembly of arriving components such as nodes, solar arrays, and life support systems; and mastering the operational and engineering tasks necessary to keep the station properly functioning and maintained. 

Check out this great NASA website about the International Space Station:

On this site you will find a mountain of information about the station, including great image galleries, how to view the station as it passes over your town, many interactive features, tons of statistical information and my own favorite aspect of space station, science experiments on station. 

The transition that will gradually occur on station over the next few years will involve the transition from assembly activities to science.  Today there are some 96 science experiments on station encompassing almost every science discipline found on a university campus or at a national research laboratory. Indeed, NASA has officially designated the space station a national research laboratory open for business. Much of the science on station up to now has focused on study and analysis of how humans adjust to low levels of gravity and human physiology. Just a few months ago, in August 2009, space shuttle Discovery delivered the new Materials Science Research Rack (MSRR) and the Fluids Integration Rack (FIR). The MSRR will permit study of materials such as alloys, ceramics, crystals, polymers and glasses for new materials applications and ways to improve existing materials. The FIR will help add to our storehouse of knowledge about fluids under microgravity conditions and aid in development of better fuel tanks and water systems for spacecraft.

Science in space began gradually. The Gemini program astronauts and even the Apollo astronauts had precious little space in their spacecraft for experiments dedicated to science although they performed an impressive amount of science, regardless. The first American spacecraft dedicated to science in a substantial way was Skylab and later Russia added the Mir Space Station. Skylab was America’s first space station, it was fairly roomy compared to cramped Gemini and Apollo and Skylab hosted a vast array of science work.

Spacelab came after Skylab. Spacelab, planted in the cargo bay of the space shuttle, flew some 25 missions dedicated to science investigations. Twenty-one of these science missions were controlled from Marshall’s Payload Operations and Integration Center, while Johnson Space Center controlled the flight operations.

It may not be generally known but the European Space Agency designed the science facilities of Spacelab, the inner functioning and layout of the working module, while NASA provided the spacecraft, the shuttle, and many science experiments sponsored by universities, NASA centers and other government agencies. The partners of Spacelab learned a great deal from space-based science and how to control and operate experiments autonomously from ground stations located at universities or NASA centers. 

Unfortunately, the Spacelab missions had short durations, only 7-16 days. The promise of space station was to deliver a state-of-the-art orbiting laboratory and one that could function 24/7. 

And deliver it did. Today, scientists see their experiments launched into space and once the experiments are activated, scientists can control and collect data from those experiments from ground stations. Many experiments require direct astronaut involvement, but many do not, freeing the astronauts to perform their own science investigations and operate the station. The increase in the number of astronauts and experiment facilities on station will triple the number of hours dedicated to science in the next few years. And it’s not in 7-16 day increments — the duration of a space shuttle mission!! — it’s 24/7.

Just last month NASA published a report on the progress of science experiments on space station. The link to see the report highlighting science results from Station research experiments is below:

So there you have it. Long term it’s about utilization of space station for a growing array of science investigations that will enhance our knowledge of living and working in space while enhancing our knowledge of science for all of us on Earth. 

What’s ahead? The International Space Station will play a major role in getting us ready for the next big step, human exploration of the Solar System. It has been a long road getting us from there to here! Now we’re here!

Liberty Star,Pegasus and ET-134 Entering the Home Stretch

Captain’s Corner, 6:30 p.m. Eastern
Liberty Star, Pegasus and ET-134 Entering the Home Stretch

Liberty Star, Pegasus and ET-134 have a long way to go, but they’re beginning the home stretch to Cape Canaveral and Kenndey Space Center. We are making progress, but less than we had hoped for by swinging a few miles south and east to pick up the Gulf Stream current to bring us home faster. Thus far, we have benefited less from the Gulf Stream than hoped.

We’re clearing Plantation Key to our north and hope to pass Miami by the early morning hours.

Liberty Star is currently underwway at nine knots — about 10 miles — per hour, heading into southeasterly winds of 13 knots and seas running at 3-5 feet.

Pegasus is following with ET-134 in good shape and the Liberty Star crew in good spirits, knowing we’ll soon be closing on home waters. We’re looking at an arrival at Port Canaveral tomorrow evening, Friday, Oct. 23.

Michael Nicholas
Captain, M/V Liberty Star

The Greatest Explorer

After completing passage of the Florida Straits, Liberty Star, Pegasus and ET-134 will pass west of an icon of human exploration, the mixture of small islands generally believed to be where Christopher Columbus first sighted land in the Bahamas. No one knows for sure which island was the first to be sighted by Columbus, but the prime candidates are Samana Cay, Plana Cays, Grand Turk, or San Salvador Island (named San Salvador in 1925 in the belief that it was Columbus’ San Salvador).

Near Florida and Cuba, the underwater terrain is hilly, and the crests of many of
these hills comprise the islands of the Bahamas. Credit: NASA/AQUA, Moderate
Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS)

With the blessing and financial support of the King and Queen of Spain, Christopher Columbus had sailed from Palos, Spain in early September 1492 and stopped at the Canary Islands, the westernmost of Spanish possessions. Columbus left the island of Gomera on September 6, 1492.

Columbus arrived at his Bahamas landfall on October 12, and then proceeded to Cuba on October 28. Columbus continued with the Santa Maria and Niña eastward, and arrived at Hispaniola on December 5, while the captain of the Pinta sailed on his own mission looking for gold.

The flagship Santa Maria grounded on a reef on Christmas Eve and foundered the next day. Columbus used the remains of the ship to build a fort on shore, which he named La Navidad (Christmas). Now down to just one ship, Columbus continued eastward along the coast of Hispaniola, and was surprised when he came upon the Pinta on January 6. Columbus’s distress was eased by his relief at having another ship for his return voyage to Spain.

Columbus returned to the Americas three more times, but ended his life thinking he had discovered the route to Asia.

In 1992 in celebration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage to the Americas, replicas of the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria were constructed, crewed by volunteers and sailed across the Atlantic to reenact this incredible voyage of exploration. In June 1992 the replica Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria passed the launch pads of the Kennedy Space Center. The picture says it all: old voyagers and explorers riding the wind and seas, passing the torch to the new explorers; and saluting those spacecraft waiting their turn to fly from the Kennedy Space Center. What an unforgettable picture!

On the 500th arniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the New World,
replicas of his three ships sailed past the launch pad at the Kennedy Space
Center (KSC). Credit: NASA

In June 1992 Replicas of Christopher Columbus’ sailing ships Santa Maria, Nina, and Pinta sail by Endeavour, Orbiter Vehicle (OV) 105, on Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Launch Complex (LC) Pad 39B awaiting liftoff on its maiden voyage, STS-49. The second picture above was taken from the water showing the three ships in the foreground with OV-105 on mobile launcher platform profiled against fixed service structure (FSS) tower and retracted rotating service structure (RSS) in the background. Next to the launch pad (at right) are the sound suppression water system tower and the liquid hydrogen (LH2) storage tank.

But Columbus wasn’t finished yet and in fact Columbus’ life and travels in space have just begun. In February 2008 the European research laboratory, a large, fully equipped state-of-the-art science laboratory, was launched on board NASA’s STS-122 mission to the International Space Station. The Europeans named their science laboratory Columbus. 

The “Columbus” module and the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

Columbus is a major contribution to one the history’s most amazing partnerships in science and engineering, the International Space Station.

A Day in the Life of NASA

NASA is one of the most amazing organizations in human history; a unique blend and concentration of scientists and engineers whose various goals are focused both on exploration of the Solar System and the study of our Earth and its integrated environmental systems.
Here are some of the amazing activities NASA and its international partners have currently underway or have successfully completed in just the recent weeks and months;

  • The Ares I-X test flight is scheduled later this month;
  • LCROSS smacked into the moon exactly where intended;
  • Aqua is scouting our Earth’s water system;
  • Kepler is scouting for rocky, habitable planets;
  • Messenger has scouted Venus and is scouting Mercury.

NASA’s MESSENGER, launched Aug. 3, 2004, became the first spacecraft to
orbit the planet Mercury. It was launched aboard a Boeing Delta II rocket
from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.. On Sept. 29, 2009,
MESSENGER completed its’ third and final flyby of the planet.
Credit: NASA

  • New Horizons is past Jupiter on the way to the edge of the Solar System;
  • Hinode is scouting the sun;
  • GLAST is hunting down gamma-ray origins;
  • Cassini is scouting Saturn.

NASA’s Cassini’s spacecraft captured this image of Saturn’s Titan moon,
showing it encircled in purple stratospheric haze. Credit: NASA/JPL

  • Deep Impact is completed and is out there somewhere;
  • NEAR is riding high with EROS;
  • Dawn is on the way to scout Ceres and Vesta;
  • The Moon Mineralogical Mapper is scouting the moon;
  • NASA scientist are developing means to extract water from the ice below the surface of the moon by using microwaves to heat the lunar soil;
  • Ice Bridge is scouting the Arctic and Antarctica;
  • The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is scouting Mars.

A 1997 image of the planet Mars. Credit: NASA/GRC

  • The International Space Station is flying 220 miles above us right now;
  • NASA and international partners, using data from three international spacecraft teams, discovered water ice does exists on our moon;
  • One of most successful partnerships in the history of humanity is under way, having just now begun the 21st science expedition on board the International Space Station. On that same space station, the crew has expanded to six persons, making possible increased science and engineering experiments;
  • NASA is preparing to launch its next space shuttle mission to the space station, mission STS-129;
  • Japan’s automated transfer vehicle, the HTV, has successfully rendezvoused with space station;
  • Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle, the ATV, has also docked with space station;
  • The three NASA Great Observatories, the Hubble Space Telescope, the Spitzer Infrared Telescope and the Chandra X-ray Telescope continue to fly high above space station and build our understanding of the formation and forces of the universe. NASA successfully refurbished the Hubble Space Telescope and enabled continuation of breath taking images of the solar system and our universe.

Composite Chandra X-ray Observatory image of JKCS041, the most distant
galaxy cluster ever detected. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/INAF/S.Andreon
et al. Optical: DSS; ESO/VLT.

  • NASA is preparing STS-130 for launch in February, STS-131 in March 2010, STS-132 in May 2010, STS-134 in July 2010 and STS-133 in September 2010;
  • And of course — Liberty Star is towing Pegasus to KSC where ET-134 will have its rendezvous with destiny.

All in a day’s work — nothing to it. 

Meet the Crew: Liberty Star

More about the skilled professionals that are guiding ET-134 on its journey…

Todd RoseTodd Rose, Ordinary Seaman

Let’s meet Todd Rose of USA Marine Operations, serving on this trip as Ordinary Seaman with primary duties of serving as bridge lookout with the officer of the bridge. Todd, 42, is a unique seventh generation Floridian who currently resides in Merritt island, Fla.

Todd normally takes care of the ship’s retrieval equipment, serves as a diver during retrieval operations and participates in the disassembly of the boosters.

Todd enjoys all aspects of his multifaceted job and his contribution to the space program.

When not on the job, he enjoys being with family, diving, fishing and drag racing.

Allan Gravina, Second Mate

Second  Mate Allan Gravina (Big Al), 36, is from Long Island, N.Y.,  and has served onboard Freedom Star for some nine years. As Second Mate, his responsibilities onboard ship include the maintenance of all navigational equipment and medical supply inventories. Typical of Second Mates, he stands two four-hour navigation watches when the vessel is under way.

Big Al currently holds a 1,600 ton mate’s license. A 1,600 ton ship would be like one of the medium-sized coast guard cutters you can see docked at Port Canaveral near the cruise ships.

When asked what he likes about his job he says, “the part I like about the job the most is that I am one of only 20 people in the world doing what I do. It helps that I love being on the water and being part of the space program.”

When not at work he spends time on his boat with his wife and family.

John Bensen, Second Mate

Let’s now meet the Liberty Star’s Second Mate, John Bensen, 57, of Miami, Fla. The second mate, or second officer, is a licensed member of the deck department of a ship, third in command of the ship, a watch keeping officer, and customarily the ship’s navigator. Other duties vary, but the second mate has often received medical training and may also be in charge of maintaining distress signaling equipment.

John Bensen, also known as Russ, JB  or Gunny, has been on board Liberty Star an amazing 26 years. He’s seen a lot of the space program in that time. During most launches John is located off shore and close to the booster separation and down range impact area of those same boosters. He has seen 115 launches. He has an associate degree in Marine Science from Miami-Dade Junior College in Miami. His responsibilities on board ship include the maintenance of all navigational equipment and medical supply inventories. Typical of Second Mates, he stands two four-hour navigation watches when the vessel is under way.

The part of the job he likes most is going to sea and completing the job on time, safe and error-free.

When not sailing with NASA, John is into Civil War reenactments throughout the South and keeping up with his three daughters. His nickname “Gunny” comes directly from his role servicing a Civil War artillery piece during reenactments.

Michael Nicholas, Captain

Today, I had the opportunity to sit down with Captain Michael (Mike) Nicholas for a few minutes. 

He’s been sailing with the NASA booster recovery ships for 22 years and he holds a 1,600 ton Masters license upon oceans. Mike started work with the retrieval vessels when only 19 years old, in 1988, and has risen through the ranks from Ordinary Seaman to his current position of Relief Master. Quite an accomplishment in any career.

The 41-year-old, who claims Cape Canaveral, Fla., as home, oversees all operations of the vessel from safety, training and navigation to the accomplishment of the mission.

He says he may not have been an astronaut, but feels he’s a vital part of the space program. While it’s his job to ensure the Liberty Star, Pegasus barge and external tank make it safely from port to port, he’s also concerned with ensuring his “family” on the ship are well taken care of and learn during their time on the sea.

Mike enjoys the changing and challenging aspects of life at work on the sea. And believe it or not, when Mike is not on the ship, he still enjoys being on the water — fishing and diving.

Joe Chaput, Manager, United Space Alliance Marine Operations

Joe Chaput participates in firefighting training at Cape Canaveral, Fla., as part of normal Coast Guard certification training. Some months ago, in preparation for this trip on board Liberty Star, I met Joe Chaput. He took me on a tour of Liberty Star and onboard the Pegasus Barge. He is in charge of NASA/USA maritime assets with headquarters at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. We also talked by phone and e-mail several times and here’s how his very interesting career evolved. 

Joe is a native of Evanston, Ill. (a northern suburb of Chicago) and was raised in neighboring Wilmette. Fishing with his dad and watching the shipping on Lake Michigan stirred his interest in working on the water. In 1983, he graduated from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y.  After the academy, he worked on supply vessels and then on military supply ships for Military Sealift Command (MSC). While aboard a MSC ship in Port Canaveral, he witnessed the Liberty Star and Freedom Star get under way. Having met his future wife and looking for a place to call home, he applied for a position with the NASA fleet. They happened to be crewing up for a third vessel and he was hired. He eventually worked his way up to Captain of the Liberty Star where he served for 11 years. He then was moved to Marine Operations Manager in 2001.

If you want to know how to jump-start a seaborne career, I bet a talk with Joe would do the job. Many thanks to Joe for making this trip possible for NASA public affairs.

Liberty Star,Pegasus and ET-134 Under way in the Florida Straits

0945 a.m., Oct. 22 — Liberty Star, Pegasus and ET-134 Under way in the Florida Straits

Last night I stood by the watch on the bridge for a short time. The bridge, completely darkened, was lighted only by soft, red LED lights and the glow of the two radar scopes. The watch, John Jacobs and Clint Small, were checking readouts of wind direction, speed, the tow of Pegasus — depending upon their vision and the excellent ranging of the radars for vessels moving within the area of interest of Liberty Star. It was a dark, cloudy, starless night, as black as space.

Radar scopes fill up with targets now; off Liberty’s bow, the Strofades, a freighter pushing east; off Liberty’s starboard side, a tanker passing east and a freighter passing west; off Liberty’s port bow a yacht moving east; Key West packed with moored ships.

Seas are running 4 to 6 feet and we are moving at eight-and-one-half knots.

Pegasus, spray washing over her bow, reported all is well.

The Captain has just closed a meeting with his senior officers concerning plans for the remainder of this tow and upcoming missions beginning next week and into the busy weeks ahead.

A radio squawks! Coast Guard Station Key West via International Hailing Frequency: small craft advisory throughout the area.

The routine of weather and sea, ship and crew continues. All is well. Aarg!

Into the Florida Straits

The Straits of Florida, Florida Straits, or Florida Strait is a 100-mile strait located south-southeast of Florida, and is generally accepted to be the area between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, and between the Florida Keys and Cuba. The strait carries the Florida Current, the beginning of the Gulf Stream, from the Gulf of Mexico into the Atlantic. (By the way, a strait is a thin, navigable channel of water that joins two larger navigable bodies of water.)

Florida, seen during space shuttle mission STS-95 on Oct. 31, 1998. Credit: NASA

The history of exploration of the Americas is strewn everywhere here as well. Off to the south some 70 miles away is the Island of Cuba; a major point of entry to the Western Hemisphere and base of operations for early Spanish explorers and ships returning across the Atlantic to Spain. To our north are the Florida Keys.

The Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon first recorded sailing through the straits in 1513. Many more Spanish ships came later.

In 1622, twenty-eight heavily laden ships left Havana for Spain carrying the wealth and prestige of the Spanish empire in the Americas. Besides heavy cargos of silver, gold and emeralds from Spain’s American possessions, the ships carried thousands of sailors, soldiers, passengers, and all the necessary materials and provisions for a long voyage. The fleet was overtaken by a hurricane as it entered the Florida Straits. By the next morning eight Spanish vessels lay smashed on the ocean floor, scattered from the Marquesas Keys to the Dry Tortugas. Among these sunken ships were the Santa Margarita, the Nuestra Senora del Rosario and the Nuestra Senora de Atocha.

The Florida Keys. Credit: NASA

The most famous Spanish wreck found west of the Florida Keys was the above-mentioned Nuestra Señora de Atocha with a value estimated by some at $300,000,000.

Beginning in the 1500s, virtually every navy in Europe sailed these waters. Spanish, English, Dutch, Portuguese, French and eventually American colors have fluttered over the Straits.  Many ships flying no colors, pirates and privateers, prowled the Straits in the 1600s and 1700s seeking luckless and under-armed victims. During World War II, German U-boats transited the Straits on their way into the Gulf, but they remained only a short time before withdrawing to the much safer and deeper waters of the Atlantic Ocean. 

The Florida Keys contain the few coral reefs in the continental United States, making it a haven for fish and coral. These same reefs are hazards to navigation and thousands of ships have wrecked over the centuries in the Keys and elsewhere in the waters of Florida.

Key West

As Liberty Star enters the Florida Straits we should note one of the oldest inhabited islands of this area, Key West. First noted for its potentially strategic location by Ponce de Leon in 1513, Key West — or Cayo Hueso, as it was originally known by the Spanish — is situated at the western gate of Florida Straits some 90 miles north of Havana, Cuba. Key West had for several centuries a more or less continuous exploration and commercial relationship with her sister colony in Cuba. Fishing and salt production highlighted some of the early industries.

Key West, Fla., seen from the International Space Station in 2002. Credit: NASA

Spanish rule of the area was interrupted by twenty years of English domination, but the end of the American Revolution in 1783 returned Florida to Spain. In 1819 Spain ceded all of Florida to the United States and as a result the population began to grow along with American interest in the Keys strategic military location. 

A major fortification, Fort Zachery Taylor, was built at the extreme western end of Key West just prior to the American Civil War and although Florida seceded from the Union, Fort Taylor was seized by Federal forces almost immediately after hostilities began.  Just east up the coast from Fort Taylor Union engineers built additional fortifications known today as the East and West Towers of Fort Martello. 

Key West played a pivotal role in preventing Confederate blockade runners from operating freely in the Gulf of Mexico throughout the Civil War.

Some 27 sailors who died in the USS Maine explosion in Havana Harbor were buried at the Key West Cemetery.

Both forts have been preserved and are open to the public. In the 1960s Fort Taylor was fully excavated and found to have buried within its confines the largest collection of surviving civil war cannon anywhere in the country.

The U.S. Navy returned to Key West with a large presence during World War II and remains today a major employer in the area with Key West Naval Air Station and other smaller facilities. 

Fort Jefferson and the Dry Tortugas

Today we are passing one of the most famous forts of the Gulf Coast defense system envisioned after the War of 1812 and designed to keep those pesky enemy fleets away from the our favorite beaches of Galveston, Gulf Shores, Pensacola, Panama City and of course Destin.

To our east lies the Dry Tortugas and located on one of those islands, Garden Key, is historic Fort Jefferson. Built in the mid-1800’s, with over 16 million bricks, this is America’s largest coastal fort. Originally constructed to protect the important Gulf of Mexico shipping lanes, Fort Jefferson was used as a military prison during and after the Civil War. During this time, it was “home” to Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was convicted of complicity in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, but pardoned by President Andrew Johnson in 1869.

The Islands were first discovered by Spanish explorer Ponce De Leon in 1513. It was first named Las Tortugas, The Turtles, due to the abundance of sea turtles. Construction of Fort Jefferson began in 1846 but the fort, which covers 11 of the key’s 16 acres, was never apparently finished. The fort was plagued with construction problems and yellow fever epidemics. The invention of the rifled cannon made the fort obsolete, as its brick walls could be easily penetrated. The Army finally abandoned Fort Jefferson in 1874.

In 1898 the USS Maine made a stop here at Fort Jefferson; then moved on to its rendezvous with destiny at Havana, Cuba.

Dry Tortugas, seen from the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

In 1908 the area became a wildlife refuge to protect nesting birds from egg collectors. In 1935 Fort Jefferson was proclaimed as a National Monument but it was not until 1992 that Dry Tortugas was designated a National Park to protect both the historical and natural features. Limited camping is available.  Park officials tell you to bring your own water. I think I’ll go camping there someday. Sounds really great.