Tall Ships and Dangerous Cargo

Oct 22, 2007

RAY: This is from my shipping and commerce series. Tommy, do you remember when you were a boy? Back when the tall ships sailed the seven seas, those good old days when ships were made of wood and men were made of steel?

And those ships sailed from every American seaport to the four corners of the globe and in their cargo holds, and sometimes lashed to their decks, those ships carried, to Europe, for example, raw materials, finished goods, livestock, grains. From the Orient they brought things like exotic spices and fine silks. To South America these wooden ships transported ice -- ice cut from frozen lakes in New England -- and insulated with sawdust.

Now the greatest danger for these ships was, as you might expect, storms. High winds and powerful waves could sink any ship and no man-made ship, even with sailors made of steel, was any match for the unrelenting fury of the sea. But in addition to that omnipresent danger, there was something else. There was a certain cargo, a very ordinary cargo, which if not stowed properly, could sink a ship in minutes and without warning. What was that cargo?

Now before you start conjuring up smoldering gun powder or steaming whale oil or some esoteric substance from that bygone era, I'll give a hint, maybe two or three hints. It's something that's still transported by ship today. It's something that each and every one of us knows, and it's likely that you have some of it right now in your house. The question is, what is it?
RAY: Now I gave a couple of hints. This cargo was something that's still transported by ship today, something that each and every one of us knows.

TOM: Yeah.

RAY: And something you probably have some of in your house today. And I could have said it came from the Far East, I could have even added that, which would have made it even easier. But I will read an excerpt from a book by Philip McCutcheon called Tall Ships,

"Spaced along the upper deck were the cargo hatches with their heavy covers of reinforced hardwood planks, well chocked in and secured with three separate layers of tarpaulin, held down with ropes and more chocks to withstand the pounding of heavy seas. Below the hatches lay the reason for the ship's presence on the sea, her cargo, to be held inviolate against nature and disaster, against fire that could come from a self-combustible cargo like wool, or a cargo that could swell when it met water, such as rice."

TOM: Get out.

RAY: Which on more than one occasion in the long story of the sea swelled and in its irresistible pressure split the sides of holds like paper and sank those ships in minutes.

TOM: Rice. What a bummer when they found this out for the first time.

RAY: Well they might not have found it out for a long time, because what happened to the ship?

TOM: It was full of rice and it went down. Wow that's great.

RAY: Pretty good, huh? Do we have a winner?

TOM: Yeah. The winner this week is Len Parkin from Easton, Pennsylvania, and for having his answer selected at random from among all the correct answers that we got, Len is going to get a 26-dollar gift certificate to the Shameless Commerce Division at cartalk.com, with which he can get our four show CD collection called Four Perfectly Good Hours.

RAY: Are these four perfectly good random hours?

TOM: Absolutely not. They are hand-selected, grass-fed, free-range Car Talk shows that we picked because they were particularly good. Or I should say particularly not too bad. Like the show when Martha Stewart came on and answered questions with us, remember that one?

RAY: Oh yeah, like how long do I bake a cake, and what do I do when it catches fire.

Get the Car Talk Newsletter