Messing About in Boats

News stories this week are showing the stricken cruise ship, Costa Concordia, being re-floated and towed to the scrap heap, and that gets the attention of my inner sailor. Actually, it’s not much of a stretch, as I’m editor of Marine Technology magazine, and most days I’m surrounded by all things maritime.

But ship salvage fascinates me. So much so that I found myself more or less obsessed with this one particular dealer booth at an outdoor show last fall. Among other large artifacts, this guy had a truly stunning ship’s telegraph—a throttle control on a stand that mounted to a ship’s deck—and I spent quite a bit of time admiring it. Made of brass and other metals, the unit was propped up against a tent pole (due to the ship’s deck staying behind when it was salvaTelegraph picged) and absolutely screamed early 20th century industrial design. It may not have been love, but I definitely was smitten with this piece of maritime history. The telegraph itself was similar to the one shown at left, although this one is without the stand. (It still sold for almost $300 at a 2011 auction.)

I moved on after seeing the price (way out of my range), but then circled back—several times—to look at the telegraph again. Did I think the price would magically change to one that I could handle? Who knows? Maybe it was the idea that this device, having spent years and years guiding some long-forgotten ship on its appointed rounds, now was sitting in a field surrounded by wicker chairs and soda signs and garden statues and somehow I hated that that part of its history had come to an end.

A business conference in Houston a few years back included a weekend visit to Galveston, where I had a chance to poke around Nautical Antiques & Tropical Decor, a ship salvage shop run by Michael and Adrienne Culpepper. Net floats, deck lights, buoys, navigational tools, cleats, liferings and on and on. If it was once part of a ship, the Culpeppers rescue it and find it a good home. My time there was great fun, so I called Michael recently to see where the nautical antique market is headed. I especially wanted to hear his thoughts on telegraphs and other ship control units. “Well, it’s Binnaclestill hard to find the good stuff,” he told me. “We’re seeing more aluminum units—usually they’re Japanese made—now than ever before. And in terms of finding telegraphs and binnacles [deck-mounted instrument stands], the price of scrap metal affects us a lot…when the market prices for brass and copper go up, that has a real impact on what we’re able to get.”

Michael also said that their customers tend not to be nautical collectors. Rather, many of them are non-collectors who are just struck by a particular piece. “Often it’s a person who stops in front of a binnacle and realizes, ‘Hey…that would look great in our front hallway,’ and that starts the process.”

He also told me that overall, their business has picked up in the last couple of years, and that demand for these larger pieces is strong. Just what I didn’t want to hear as I hunt for a ship’s telegraph that costs less than a mortgage payment.

Douglas R. Kelly is considering selling his miniature wastepaper basket collection to raise enough cash to buy a telegraph.

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