Web Exclusive! Tales from the Caribbean Sea

December 1, 2004
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Memoirs of a geodetic surveyor, 1953-56.



From 1953 to 1956, I worked for the InterAmerican Geodetic Survey (IAGS). The IAGS was under the Army Map Service (AMS). Our group was supplied with army equipment and supported by army personnel, but we were civilians. Our mission was to extend survey control throughout South and Central America so a dense network of monumented points (usually a bronze marker set in a concrete cylinder or a rocky outcropping) could be established and the exact latitude and longitude of each point could be determined.

In 1956 I worked on a triangulation arc that ran through the Caribbean Islands and was part of this network. This was before the advent of the Global Positioning System (GPS) or even Electronic Distance Measuring devices (EDMs) so the primary method for extending survey control was through a triangulation arc. These arcs were formed by a chain of triangles arranged as quadrilaterals and central point figures. The angles between the lines were accurately measured with a high-grade direction theodolite and made at night on special signal lamps since the lines were very long, sometimes extending 70 miles.

Periodically, base lines were included in the triangulation arc and used for the beginning length of the string of triangles or later, to compare the measured length with the triangulated length. Because of the accuracy required, these base lines were meticulously measured with calibrated metal tapes under very high standards and could sometimes take months to measure.

FS boat

Sailing on the Caribbean Sea

Our base of operation for the triangulation net running through the islands was an FS (Freight Supply) boat, the FS217. The FS217 was a small U.S. Army transport ship called an "island hopper" that carried supplies in shallow water conditions. The general specifications of the FS-217 were: 515-ton displacement; 177 feet in length; 33-foot beam; 10-foot draft and 13 knots of average speed. (The 1955 movie "Mister Roberts," a film about life on a not-so-important ship in the U.S. Navy during WWII, features an FS boat.)

LCM boat
We also worked from two small boats called LCMs (Landing Craft Mechanized boats). These 40-foot long, 14-foot wide vintage WWII flat-bottomed boats had been used extensively during the war for all sea-land assault operations. Our LCMs either sailed beside us or, if the voyages were very long, were towed by the FS boat. We used the LCMs for transferring men and equipment to the individual islands or to stations along the coast. Fortunately, nobody was shooting at us, since one of the LCMs seemed to frequently get stuck and had to be pulled off by the other LCM or the FS boat.

Martin with some of the other crew members.

Meet the Crew

The officers of the crew consisted of the captain, first and second mates, chief engineer, first and second assistant engineers, purser and about 20 or 25 deck hands and engine room gang. They all had their stories.

The purser was responsible for the business end of the ship: payroll, stocking the ship with supplies and food, etc. We ate rather well at the beginning of the cruise but as time went on and our supplies began to run out we ate powdered eggs along with a lot of fish caught by the crew. I remember eating a lot of barracuda steaks, which I found to be quite tasty. One time we were lucky enough to buy or trade for a 55-gallon drum of freshly caught Caribbean Spiny Lobster. We had lobster for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Most of the deck hands and engine room gang were English-speaking black people from islands off Panama that were part of Colombia. The inhabitants of the islands had a long sea-faring tradition. They hated sharks, long before the movie "Jaws" made them feared. When they caught a shark, they hauled it aboard, cut off its nose and released it. They said it would then starve to death because it could not use its sense of smell to find food. When they caught a small shark, they cut off its tail so it could not swim and tossed it back in the ocean. The blood attracted other sharks, and the victim was powerless to escape.

The first mate was an old seadog who had a large dislike for the captain. But he did say an interesting thing one day at mess. The first mate said that the captain of an FS boat has a tougher job than the captain of the Queen Mary, the legendary ocean liner of transatlantic sailing. The FS boat is always operating in shallow waters near land and is in continual danger of running aground. In contrast to this, the Queen Mary is towed out of the harbor by tugboats. It then sails in deep water not close to any land or ships and when it arrives at its destination, it is again escorted in by tugboats and never in any real danger or threatening conditions. I don't know if that was only the first mate's professional jealousy or a lot of good sense.

One lesson from the captain sticks in my memory. We were sailing to Puerto Rico and the trip had been pretty rough with the accompanying seasickness, inability to sleep, etc. Later we learned that we had passed through a minor hurricane. I was on deck at the back of the ship with some of the other engineers when we spotted a light (land) and we began to make quite a commotion shouting, "Land! We are saved!" It had nothing to do with us being worried, it just meant that we were close to land and we would soon be going ashore soon for all the usual young man's diversions.

The captain, doing his duty, came right off the bridge and admonished us for creating such a disturbance, which might have signaled a man overboard. He then gave us a little nautical lecture about what to do when a person falls overboard. The ship is maneuvered into a type of turn that brings it back to the spot where the person would drift. Needless to say, we did not have to make the turn since nobody had fallen overboard, but from then on we had to control our youthful enthusiasm.

Transit of the Canal

Another incident I remember well was something you might call a "rite of passage." We occasionally returned to Panama to re-supply. The ship docked in Colon on the Caribbean side, but once I did make a trip through the canal to the Pacific side. We were so small, we were paired with another vessel in the locks. To be able to experience the totality of one of the world's greatest engineering achievements was inspiring. It is difficult not to wonder about the hardships, diseases and difficulties that the builders faced in this uninhabitable environment. And then finally floating out onto Gatun Lake in the middle of the canal, and seeing the vast array of the various ships from all the nations of the world waiting for their turn-it was really a once-in-a-lifetime thrill.

A sugar mill on Nevis island.

Surveying from the Island

I was situated on Nevis Island, which is the sister island of the more well-known St. Kitts. St. Kitts was located two miles to the north of us over open sea. Our station was on the top of Nevis Peak, with an elevation of 3,232 feet above sea level. Nevis has two claims to fame. It was on Nevis that Admiral Horatio Nelson met, wooed and married Lady Frances Nisbet in March 1767. Nevis was also the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton. During the 17th century, Nevis produced 85 percent of all the sugar in the British Empire and was among the richest islands in the Caribbean. Though sugar is no longer cultivated as a cash crop, vestiges of that bygone era, such as sugar mills, still remain.

We were trying to observe lines to Barbuda, Monserrat and Antigua. In order to see the long distances involved, all our triangulation stations were on the high points of the islands. Since Barbuda did not have a high point, we constructed a Bilby Tower there.

A Bilby Tower.

Building Bilby Towers

The Bilby Tower was a survey signal of two separate and distinct towers built entirely of reusable steel bars and rods held together with bolts. The inner tower supported only the survey instrument while the outer tower supported the survey party and, at the very top, the signal lights. These strong structures with standard heights of 37 feet to 116 feet could be erected in increments of 13 feet by an experienced five-man crew in a day or less and dismantled by a four-man team in about half that time. But since we did not have experience, we probably took a couple of days to put the tower up. The Bilby Tower components could be reused numerous, even hundreds of times, and they became the mainstay of triangulation surveys for increasing the sight distance between stations before the advent of GPS. I remember working on the tower with no hardhat, safety belt or safety net underneath. OSHA would have probably shut us down if we tried that today!

Because the land was warmer than the surrounding water, almost every evening and during the day, the fog or clouds would condense around the peaks of the islands and make visual observations a rarity. If one island were fog-free, another island would not be. In fact, when Columbus first saw Nevis Peak, it reminded him of the snowcapped Pyrenees, so he named the island "Nieves" after the Spanish word for snow.

Camping on Nevis Peak

As strange as it may sound now, I was camped on top of Nevis Peak for 51 consecutive days in 1955; my partner during that stay, a stalwart New Hampshire man named H.V. "Woody" Woodworth, had previously been there for 83 days in late 1954 and early 1955 with a Nevisian helper.

On Woody's first trip up to the top of Nevis Peak, he leveled the trees and brush on top of the hill to the ground so that the peak had a clear visibility in all directions. Woody also set three brass disks in rocky outcroppings on top of the peak. (I wonder if any of them are still there after 50 years.)

All of our living equipment, surveying equipment, food, water and supplies were brought up the hill by locals who we hired for the magnificent sum of $1.00 for the arduous climb. I doubt if they would do it for that sum today!

Martin's home on Nevis Peak.
We lived in two brand-new tents called "wall tents" because they had actual three- to four-foot-high walls around them. We set up one tent with two cots for sleeping and a table between them for eating. The other tent was used for washing ourselves, cleaning our utensils, storing our supplies and food, etc. All in all, we were rather comfortable; the weather was always warm and balmy, and the only thing we had to worry about was the rain. We affixed a number of ponchos to the tents so that was not a problem.

Outside the tent we constructed a worktable and a latrine. Using the best Army directives, we periodically filled the latrine in and moved it to another location.

In a recent letter Woody sent me, he claimed that he dug a pit down the hill a short ways in which he bathed. He said it filled with water easily but the water was a bit muddy. Also, he said that given the situation we were in, he did not mind the mud a bit.

We basically ate canned goods, which our packers had brought up the hill. They also would supply us with water in five-gallon water cans. Since water weighs about eight pounds per gallon, that made a 40-pound load for the packer. Not an easy chore. One of the more humorous incidents that "Woody" and I still chortle about occurred when I made a radio call back to our base on the ship requesting a re-supply of food. I read one of our fellow engineers a list of the food we needed. Included in the list was peas. I guess the radio message was not too clear because he kept saying, "Roger, roger you want some theses." I kept repeating "peas." Finally, he said, "Roger, you want some theses." And then after a short pause he asked, "What are theses?"

Mizz Pomeroy and her friends on a visit to the top of the peak.
Except for the rare opportunities when the fog cleared from our station and make visual observations at least a possibility, the most exciting happening was when a local lady named "Mizz Pomeroy" hiked up the hill along with some others. She brought us lobsters and said they had been caught by one of "Cousteau's Boys," obviously referring to Jacques Cousteau. He was not in the area at the time, but the man who had caught the lobsters was French. So she was either mistaken or making a joke.

"Mizz Pomerory" lived a ways outside of the city, but except for that neither Woody nor I remember anything about her. Perhaps some of the real old-timers on Nevis may remember her. Or, maybe she is still there and might remember us, the crazy "gringos" who lived on top of Nevis Peak for months on end.

One of the peculiarities we developed on Nevis was to never throw anything away. One time some foam rubber strips that held our signal lights in their boxes became wet and came out of the boxes, so we discarded them with the other trash. Not long afterwards, we needed something to hold our small cups made from tin cans so as not to burn our fingers when they were full of hot liquids. We thought of how useful that wet soggy piece of sponge rubber would have been for that task. So we said, "NEVER, NEVER throw anything away again."

Martin turning angles on Nevis.
People often ask me what we did to pass the time for all those days up on top of the peak. Actually, it never got boring. It seemed like there was always something to do. As soon as it was dark, we would begin to make radio calls about the weather to find out if any of the conditions on our station looked suitable for observations. These calls would continue until midnight or later depending on the weather conditions at the various stations.

During the day, we spent time fixing our meals, cleaning the dishes, fixing and improving the campsite or just reading. We had all brought a load of pocket books up the hill to read. We would fiddle with our radios to see if we could pick up any of the latest news or music.

Cays are small sandy islands, often covered with coconut palm trees.

Surveying Along the Coast

While on the FS boat, we also did surveying along the Hondurian and Nicaraguan Miskito Coast (we called it the "Mosquito Coast"). The Miskito Coast, along the eastern coastal area of Nicaragua, is considered to be the most remote part of the country. The local people consist of the descendants of the Miskito, Sumu and Rama Indians as well as ex-British slaves. The primary languages spoken were English, Miskito and a little Spanish. All the rivers, towns, etc. had very romantic Miskito Indian names such as Walpasixa and Principolka. When we were there, the country was very bucolic and unspoiled (I have heard that it has since changed for the worse and the Miskito culture has deteriorated).

We had tower stations right along the beach as well as stations on the cays. These cays were small, sandy, two- or three-acre islands only a few feet above sea level with an abundance of coconut palm trees. I remember being on one station named Askill Cay, which I have not yet been able to find on a map.

On the coast I pretty much lived as I did on Nevis Peak except that I ate a lot of coconuts and was next to the ocean for swimming, bathing, washing my cooking gear, etc. My swimming days ended one afternoon, though, when I was up on the tower admiring the beautiful views.

A local fisherman had caught a ray and was cleaning it and cutting the outer extremities off in water no more than two feet deep. He left the body in the water and went ashore. From the tower I clearly saw a six or seven-foot shark come into the shallow water and with one bite engulf the body part and swim away. That was the last time I went bathing in the ocean.

Ship-Shore Triangulation and Other Historic Methods

When the geography permitted, we would try to make basic triangulation figures such as triangles or quadrilaterals between the mainland beach stations and the cays. But when that was not possible, we came up with a unique method of extending the control along the beach. It was called ship-shore triangulation.

In this method, we had three Bilby Tower intervisible stations on the beach located about 10 miles apart (or whatever height a 103-foot tower would allow). All three stations pointed with a Wild T-3 theodolite at a light on the ship, which was anchored out in the ocean. Each T-3 had a radio-controlled camera that simultaneously photographed the calibrated plates of the T-3 when a signal was sent out from the ship. We used all the standard First-Order observing methods such as changing plate settings and reversing the instruments.

Martin on the Miskito house porch.
Later, we developed the film on the ship with a special machine we had that read the verniers from the photographs of the photo recording theodolites and determined the two instantaneous angles of the two adjacent triangles. We then computed the third angle of the triangle and the length of the new triangle from the law of sines. Naturally, we had many lengths to compare so we could evaluate our results through the probability laws. Again, the advent of EDMs made this type of surveying obsolete.

One time one of the stations needed a fresh roll of file for the night's work and the sea was too rough for the LCMs to risk going out. For that reason, we placed a roll of film in a watertight container, and loaded it with me into a dugout canoe with an outboard motor. They then maneuvered the dugout in close to the breakers and unceremoniously dumped me out of the canoe into a raft so that the waves would wash me ashore with the film. Somebody took some pictures of me, which they thought might be my last, but obviously were not.

Willie at the Hondurian campsite.

Trekking to a Jungle Station in Honduras

Part of our work along the coast included making conventional triangulation ties between an existing Hondurian triangulation arc and the offshore islands near La Ceiba. This was possible because there were plenty of high hills for the triangulation stations. I occupied a station in Honduras whose name I have long since forgotten but whose experience I have not.

Larry Boney, the head of the entire project, who it was rumored had been head of horizontal control for the Tennessee Valley Authority survey, put a fatherly hand on my shoulder and handed me a station description saying, "This is yours."

The description read, "Distance of the station is approximately 29 kilometers (two days' travel) and the trail is bad and can be dangerous"¦This is a camping spot to pass the night. Take precautions, as there are tigers in the vicinity"¦The packers are hard to obtain and do not care to go into these mountains."

In order to give me courage and boost my morale, Boney sent Frank Herbst along as my guide. Frank was a legend at IAGS. He was featured in an article that appeared in the March 1956 edition of The National Geographic magazine. Under the title, "Jungle Trouble Shooter Carries Pistol on Hip," Frank's picture appears.

The article stated: "IAGS engineers in Latin America must extend surveys through country known to few except Indians. They face malarial mosquitoes, snakes, jaguars, and headhunters. When the going looks toughest, the IAGS is likely to tap Frank Herbst, onetime gold and diamond prospector, to blaze a trail. A former professional soldier in Europe and Africa, he has taught survival techniques to U.S. Marines. Mr. Herbst disappears into the bush with only a few pounds of provisions relying on rifle or shotgun to bag game. He reappears with a rough map for the geodetic engineers to follow."

Because of the station description's warnings, Frank and I, along with my partner Bill "Willie" Hidalgo, went ashore looking like an invasion party. We did not see any tigers but we did see a lot of monkeys in the trees. Frank shot one, skinned it and roasted it. I remember it looked like a small baby being cooked. It was not too appetizing, but I guess if you are starving it would taste like filet mignon. Except for the monkeys, the pack was quite uneventful. It was typical jungle terrain with trees more than 100 feet tall. Frank stayed with us one night and then returned to the ship.

Although we never did see any tigers, the packers pointed out marks on the trees where the tigers would reach up and leave a scratch to mark their territories. The higher the mark, the bigger the tiger. I presume it was like young boys showing their muscles. We heard tigers roaring some nights, which did, as you can imagine, bother our restful sleep.

The most exciting event was when Willie and I spotted what appeared to be a corral snake or mock corral snake going into our tent. We did not attempt to find out if it was the real thing or not and we proceeded to clear everything out of the tent to the ground. We found nothing. In order to emulate the "Great Hunter" Frank Herbst, Willie went out and shot a wild turkey. We cooked it and it was about the toughest piece of meat I ever had.

Willie putting his fantastic eyes to work.
Willie was a native born Canal Zonian who had the most fantastic eyesight of anyone I have ever known. Remember, most of our work was done at night on tiny pinpoints of light that would be obscured by distance and weather conditions. Willie, who had been an artillery spotter in the Army, would focus his eyes and spot a light that I could finally find with the instrument only after turning the instrument lights off and letting my eyes adjust to the darkness. He said something about moving his head back and forth to make the light move. It never worked for me.

The weather was terrific, no clouds or rain, so we were able to complete the angular observations between us, the stations on the beach and the ones on the offshore islands (called "Islas de la Bahia") in two weeks.

Martin posing with the surveying instruments.

Making Precise Observations

It was while we were occupying this station that we got to do a little bit of rarely used geodetic computations. Our "bible" for all our work was the famous "Manual of Geodetic Triangulation Special Publication No. 247," published by the U.S. Department of Commerce for the Coast and Geodetic Survey. We followed the procedures and instructions in it to the letter. If it had told us to circle the instrument four times and bow toward Washington, D.C. before making observations, I am sure we would have done it.

According to the Manual, for any observations where the line of sight was greater than five degrees from the horizontal, the spirit level on the instrument had to be read from the graduations on it and their values recorded in the notes. Since we were observing some stations that were right on the beach, this is what we did.

Later, back at the ship, we determined the constant for the instrument's bubble and made minor corrections for the instrument being out of level. I do not remember what the magnitude of these corrections were, but it highlights how meticulous and precise First-Order work was.

Martin and Woody--lifelong friends.

Reminiscing

Woody and I both look back on our experiences with the IAGS with fond memories and with no regrets that we were not able to fully accomplish our assignment. Luckily, our procedure was superseded by more technically proficient methods. I left IAGS in 1956 and returned to California to work as a land surveyor during the great building booms. Some may wonder why I have waited almost 50 years to write this article. I think I wanted to document a little-known chapter in the history of surveying, which to me still holds a certain sense of romance and adventure that seems to be lacking in our profession today.

I would be remiss if I did not give an enormous amount of credit for this article to my longtime friend, Woody Woodworth. His memory for past events is phenomenal and he saved many of the letters we had written over nearly 50 years, which I used for much of this article. Also, I am indebted to him for most of the photographs. Either he sent them to me or he took my picture. In one of his recent letters, Woody mentioned how much history has been lost by making phone calls instead of sending letters. How true that is.

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