Ballast
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98 Ballast Charlie Hailey Joseph Conrad often weighed in on ballast. This material, intended to stabilize ships, stirred the sailor-­ author’s maritime narratives. Like the sea itself, ballast could delay journeys, vex captains, hide treasure, ruin profit, and destroy the vessels it helped balance. One of Conrad’s early autobiographical stories tells how storm-­ flung ballast nearly sank his ship and postponed departure for Bangkok by more than a month. Ballast shifted leeward, and the imbalance left the vessel “tossing about like mad on her side.”1 All hands descended below deck to shovel sand windward to right their ship. Ballast binds its characters’ fate: what material, other than gold—­or perhaps Conrad’s claret—­might draw together captain and ordinary seamen? Like a sailor’s bend knot, it ties ship architecture to narrative space: where else but in a ship’s “gloomy” and tallow-­ lit “cavern” could such inert and burdensome material divine the sea’s invisible forces? And ballast collapses distance: how else can we reckon thousands of miles of geography, terrain, city-­ states, nations, and natures? But a ship—­ whether narrated or tallied—­ can hold only so much. Ballast also measures profit, and its stabilizing presence to balance ships can signal trade imbalance. Balance When Conrad writes, “[T]here are profitable ships and unprofitable ships,” he mixes the empirical nature of a ship’s balance with the economic reality that ballast is an unwanted burden to the bottom line.2 Ships travel either “in cargo” or “in ballast.” In the former condition, they are delivering goods, whereas in the latter, they freight only the necessary load for balanced navigation on the return voyage or to the next port of call. Loading and unloading the material was expensive and chronically inefficient, and merchants wished away, sometimes even ignored, the need for ballast. But Conrad cannot fathom such a vessel, and he distrusts advertisements for ships that sail without ballast as maritime paragons that displace a ship’s character with “excess of virtue and good-­nature” and betray laws of buoyancy and stability.3 He bemoans the mod- Ballast 99 ern seaman’s loss of knowledge about such skills as stowing, trimming, and ballasting. Balancing the craft was itself a craft, and ballast was a moral imperative , because the art of sailing could not always account for economies of trade that left a ship’s hold empty of valuable cargo. As Conrad narrated his adventures , at the turn of the twentieth century, aqueous ballast was replacing solid ballast, and now, at the opening of the twenty-­ first, as global marine trade increases exponentially, the necessity for ballast can again be tied to virtue and to those excessively good natures. More ships travel farther distances in ballast, bearing the economic, social, political, and cultural multivalences that Conrad and his fellow seamen recognized long ago. Always an agent of dislocation , ballast is now a more fluid, and less visible, agent of internationalization. Because water carries invasive organisms, it is ballast that measures a ship’s value as well as its virtue, and it is ballast that might tell us where the global ship is heading: an unlikely but illustrative material link between economic and environmental concerns. Design Ship design entails both buoyancy and balance. Legendarily climbing into his tub, Archimedes recognized the principle that floating bodies displace water equal to their weight. When ships float, they link material properties of water and solids. Water’s forces work upward, and a vessel’s mass presses downward. On the open sea, a ship must contend with lateral forces of wind and wave, and it is ballast that controls buoyancy, stabilizes the ship, and affects its maneuverability . In the South Pacific, outriggers created stable watercraft, but elsewhere, vessels required sheer weight, the bare load embedded in ballast as an integral part of ship design. Until the latter half of the nineteenth century, when pumps began to harvest the convenient weight of seawater, ballast was solid material: iron, stone, gravel, and sand. The heavier the better. Each nautical manual offered its own rule of thumb, and Conrad’s favored source, Stevens on Stowage, advised that ballast weighing half a ship’s tonnage would stiffen and trim a cranky vessel. But ultimately, balancing a ship is more art than science, and each vessel has its own physics and chemistry. As pataphysicians who study exceptions to rules, captains not only account for what they see, as their ships list from port to starboard or need trimming...


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