Episode 1: The Hidden History of Ballast
The surprising connections between British Columbia jade, the Bristol Blitz, and a Swedish sunken ship.
Yes, Virginia, ballast from Britain built Manhattan. Or some of it. This was one of the enticing tidbits that got us very interested in ballast around here and we asked Elin Kelsey to delve in. A podcast on ballast? Sure, why not!
In this episode, Elin chats with some ballast experts—yes, they exist—tries some science in her kitchen sink, asks around to see if there’s any truth to the rumor that British Columbia jade was smuggled out of the country as ballast by Canadian Pacific Railway workers, and generally just gets us jazzed about the fascinating science and history behind ballast—the weight we add to boats that helps them float.
There’s an entire museum in Stockholm, Sweden, devoted to the Vasa, the extraordinary warship that sank in 1628 on her maiden voyage after sailing only 1,300 meters.
Here’s more on British Columbia’s nephrite jade—how it’s formed, where it’s found, how it’s mined, the current update on the marketplace, and more.
Take a tour of the SS Jeremiah O’Brien, one of two remaining fully functional Liberty ships built and launched during the Second World War.
Elin Kelsey This is the most incredible thing I have heard in a long time.
That is the sound of a zebra finch, a small Australian bird, singing to its chick. But the thing is that chick hasn’t even hatched yet. The parent is singing to a chick that is still inside the egg. Amazing, right? But the really astonishing thing is that zebra finch parents only sing this particular song when it’s super hot outside. And when they do, the sound of the song causes the unhatched chick to develop differently. Chicks who hear this song are smaller in size when they hatch than chicks who didn’t hear it.
My name is Elin Kelsey and I have a doctorate in environmental policy and communications. But really, I study hope and the environment. I am constantly searching for stories of the incredible resilience of other species and that’s what led me to try to convince Hakai Magazine to let me do this podcast.
But the ironic thing is, when they agreed to let me have a go at it, they gave me a topic that is as far away from egg-talking birds as you can imagine: ballast.
Elin Kelsey First of all, I am not a nautical engineer and I don’t even like ships that much. But whenever I’ve been presented with a topic that sounds so dull, I immediately find someone who is passionate about it and luckily that was easy to do.
Filipe Castro Oh, everything is boring if you look at it from a shallow viewpoint. Everything.
Elin Kelsey That’s Filipe Castro. He’s a professor of maritime archaeology at Texas A&M University.
Filipe Castro Modern art is boring if you don’t understand, if you don’t want to think about it. Ballast is amazing. I mean the very idea that it lowers your center of gravity. I mean the metaphors are, I think, in themselves, amazing. Without ballast there wouldn’t be any navigation.
Elin Kelsey I may not like ships that much, but I do love big ideas. And the idea that ballast is crucial to ships and that ships are crucial to our daily lives—after all 90 percent of world trade is carried by ships—it’s pretty significant.
The thing about ballast, I quickly discover, is that it affects us in ways I never expected. Like how it changed the world on a scale that rivals the impact of the ice ages. And how ballast shapes our cities and our cultures. And I even get to talk about earthworms and how they would never have existed in Canada and the United States without ballast. It’s about the remarkable use of ballast by other species. But also about the real and metaphoric things that we hide away in the dark places of our own psyches—what keeps us hopeful and afloat, and what makes us sink.
But before we go any further, I need to tell you what ballast is.
It’s sand. It’s water. It’s bricks. It’s rocks the size of small watermelons. It’s beer. Honestly, it’s stuff. Ballast is anything with weight that can be added to a vessel to improve its stability.
Pretty broad, right? That’s because what ballast is made of is much less important than what it does.
In fact, I bet you probably see ballast in action every single day, in your own kitchen sink.
Elin Kelsey So the whole thing about ballast, there’s part of it that just doesn’t strike me as logical. It’s this concept that you have to add more weight in order to help something float and I just can’t quite get my head around that, so I decided I would invite my friend Dustin over to use my kitchen sink. So, Dustin, why does adding more weight help something float?
Dustin So when you have a cup like this one, a little mug or something, you throw it in the sink, there’s nothing in it. And, immediately, it sinks. It tips over, there’s nothing in it, it sinks. Now there’s a bunch of bubbles and stuff coming out of it. But, if I fill that cup up even just a little bit … it still sinks. This is not a seaworthy cup.
Elin Kelsey I’m afraid I made that in ceramics class. Um, here, I’ll get you a real mug made by an actual person. Hang on.
Dustin This is actually a good example because this mug is off balance to begin with, so you have a heavy handle on one side, and, immediately it pulls that way and then sinks. So it would be the same if you had a ship though, really. If you had a ship that was a lot heavier on one side even putting a little bit of ballast in there wouldn’t be enough because it’s just too heavy.
Elin Kelsey Alright, so clearly, getting a cup to float in a sink isn’t as easy as we thought, but that doesn’t mean that Dustin’s little experiment was a failure. After all, I got my dishes washed and he inadvertently demonstrated something else that Filipe told me.
Filipe Castro Just floating is not enough for a boat. It needs to be stable to have a righting moment when it’s shaken by the water. And so to have a weight on the bottom gives it stability. So ballast is a synonym of stability; of something that keeps the boat straight and afloat when seas are rough.
Elin Kelsey This all sounds quite logical, but just picture how complicated it is to figure out the right ballast when the ship is being tossed around by waves or stormy weather. Or when it’s traveling for many months and the amount of food and water stored on board is being consumed by the crew so that the weight of the cargo and the stability of the ship is constantly changing.
Filipe Castro We made an experiment a few years ago with engineers. At a certain point we decided to make a model and then put it in the water. It was stable. We put the right amount of ballast and then we sailed it in the computer to India. And every time people drank a barrel of water, the impact stability of the vessel changed. So, everything had to be reevaluated to keep the vessel afloat after three months of trip when you have a lot of tons of water that are gone. And that gives you an idea of the importance of balance, of ballast, and of the balance of a ship. It is paramount.
Elin Kelsey And if there’s one story that nautical experts use to explain this concept, it’s the story of the Vasa.
Imagine you are standing in a wildly excited crowd in Stockholm harbor. It’s a beautiful summer Sunday, and oh yeah, it’s 400 years ago. You squint into the sun, the blue sky all but obliterated by the biggest, most expensive, heavily armed ship ever built by the Swedish navy—or any other navy—at that time. This thing is decked out—64 guns, 10 sails, and such rich ornamentation you can almost taste the pride of the king for whom the ship is named.
The Vasa is guaranteed to strike fear into the heart of Sweden’s enemies.
You watch as officers order sailors to move from one side of the Vasa’s great deck to the other. They shift to balance the vessel and to test her stability. Amongst them are children and family members who have been invited on board to celebrate the ship’s maiden voyage.
At last, the Vasa casts off. She is towed by cables along the waterfront, to a place where she can pick up the current. Finally, freed from the land, four of the 10 sails are set and a salute is fired.
And then catastrophe strikes. A gust of wind catches the ship. She immediately heels hard to port. She rights herself slightly and then tips over.
Mats Burström, a Swedish archaeologist, describes the scene: “Water poured in through the open gun ports and rapidly filled the ship. In a matter of moments the list was so great that the ballast began to shift.
“The ballast stones rolled to the port side, making the ship list even further. Disaster was now inevitable; the ship was beyond saving. On board were over 150 crew and guests, of whom 30 or so died.”
Getting a boat to sit properly in the water is vital to the survival of the crew, the cargo, and the stability of the ship itself. But what the history of ballast is teaching me is that what people chose to use for ballast, and how carefully they loaded their ships, was determined as much by politics, economics, and happenstance, as it was by physics.
This was certainly the case here in British Columbia, where over this past decade, there’s been a gold rush of sorts. Well, make that a jade rush.
According to foreign policy sources, China’s middle class is expected to nearly double by the mid-2020s. As the Chinese middle class grows, so too does the appetite for jade.
You might be surprised to hear that 90 percent of the world’s nephrite jade lies in British Columbia’s Cassiar Mountains. It brings the equivalent of a whopping 20 to 30-million US dollars into the BC economy every year.
But what’s this got to do with ballast? Well, the connection between BC jade and China started way back in the 1800s when a huge influx of Chinese laborers arrived in Canada to build the BC section of the Canadian Pacific Railway. When the CPR jobs ended, many of those people stayed to pan for gold along the Fraser River.
Tzu-I Chung So the story went that they actually were panning gold in the Fraser River and they saw some jade washed down the stream. And there were a lot of discrimination and racism during the time. So we don’t know how, but they somehow knew that this was jade and they managed to hide it from the rest of the people and then shipped successfully back to China.
Elin Kelsey That’s Tzu-I Chung, a cultural and social historian with the Royal BC Museum. I asked her to meet me in a jade store in the heart of Victoria’s tourist district because rumor has it that jade might have secretly made its way to China—hidden in plain sight—as ballast. After all, jade just looks like weathered brown, gray, or white rocks. The green nephrite is concealed inside.
Were the Chinese laborers trying to pull one over the ruling class? Were they seeking some sense of power, of floating above the institutionalized racism they suffered? It’s unlikely that written records would exist to prove whether or not an illicit trade in ballast occurred.
But that’s no obstacle for an ace oral historian like Tzu-I.
Elin Kelsey How can we figure out this ballast story? If I were to say to you, I’ll give you a million dollars if you could help me sort out whether jade went as ballast in ships unbeknownst to the people who were sending it?
Tzu-I Chung Okay, if you find the money, what I will do is I will go …
Elin Kelsey Tzu-I tells me how she would use oral histories, assembling a crew of Cantonese and Siyi speakers to talk with elders and their descendents. She’d mine their memories to chase down the real story of the alleged secret shipments of ballast that aren’t part of a written official history.
Stories about ballast are rich with these kinds of unsolved mysteries, but what I am really starting to love about ballast is that even when you are literally walking on the rocks and bricks and heavy objects that have been hidden away and carried around and dropped off by ships as ballast for hundreds and hundreds of years, you don’t necessarily see it. It’s invisible to us. Invisible, that is, until someone shows you an example that is simply too ginormous to ignore.
And that’s what led me to Pier 45 at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco and to a giant steel cargo ship called the SS Jeremiah O’Brien, a Liberty ship.
[Liberty Ship Newsreel]
America, traditionally a maritime nation, mobilizes its mechanical and its industrial genius to build the largest fleet of cargo ships ever to sail the seven seas.
The name, Liberty ship, has that Captain America vibe, but the great behemoth rising several stories above me is really nothing flashy. In fact, 75 years ago, during the ship’s heyday, then President Franklin Roosevelt called it “a dreadful-looking object” and Time magazine referred to it as the “ugly duckling.”
Yet, it has its place in history.
By the end of the Second World War, over 2,700 liberty ships had been built and those ships constantly delivered much-needed supplies in times of the greatest need.
It’s November, 1940. Bristol, England, is being pummeled by German bombs.
After one particularly horrific attack, Thomas Underwood, the mayor said, “The City of Churches had in one night become the city of ruins.”
The Bristol Blitz, as it came to be known, would last six horrible months. In its wake, this major industrial port, which was crucial to the war effort, along with 84,000 houses, were obliterated.
During this time the Liberty ships provided a lifeline, bringing everything from toilet paper to ammunition. Once they unloaded, each ship needed to take on at least 1,500 tonnes of ballast—that’s the weight of more than 85 fully loaded city buses—to make the return trip to the United States.
The problem was that Bristol didn’t have anything to export, so they used the one thing they had a lot of—rubble.
They filled the holds of the Liberty ships with bits and pieces of bombed out buildings and then they turned for home, where they dumped it on the shores of New York.
So today, when you drive on the east side of Manhattan, you are driving on the ruins of Bristol.
The scale of how ballast changed the world is almost impossible to comprehend. The fact that Liberty ships moved enough ballast over just a few years to extend the footprint of a city as big as New York—and that’s just one tiny example—gives you a hint at the enormous quantities of ballast materials that have crisscrossed the oceans.
As Filipe, who we heard from earlier, puts it …
Filipe Castro If you imagine how many vessels have been sailing since at least Roman times, it makes a lot of sense to talk about megatons of ballast that have been shifted around. Absolutely.
Elin Kelsey The year 1680 to 1690, 204 ships, 130,849 tonnes. The year 1690 to the 1700s, 235 ships, 143,295 tonnes. The year 1700 to 1710, 280 ships, 186,364 tonnes …
But, that’s for another episode.
We’d like to thank Mats Burström of Stockholm University, Filipe Castro at Texas A&M University, Kyle Day of the National Liberty Ship Memorial, Joost Schokkenbroek of the Vancouver Maritime Museum, and Tzu-I Chung of the Royal BC Museum.
This episode of Ballast was produced by Dustin Patar, Katrina Pyne, and me, Elin Kelsey. Our original theme music is by Tobin Stokes. The team also includes Jude Isabella, Adrienne Mason, Mark Garrison, David Garrison, and our fact checker Megan Osmond-Jones.
Check out hakaimagazine.com/ballastpodcast for more on each episode.
We are an endeavor of Hakai Magazine and are produced next to the sea in historic downtown Victoria, British Columbia.
Tune in to the next episode of the ballast podcast where we look at how ballast has transformed the way we eat.