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Smooth Sailing with O'Hara: An Easy Voyage Toward Discovering Seafaring Ancestors
by Patricia Ann Brimeyer
My personal investigation into our family's history began with what I thought was a simple question: Were rumors true that we American descendants had a sea captain hanging on one of our English ancestral branches? During the next two years, along with a major addiction to genealogical research, I found my great-great-grandfather the master mariner, all right...as well as two Coastguardsmen, one lifeboatman, an array of Royal Navy personnel (one having served with Horatio Nelson), and six Merchant Navy mariners which included five more Masters!
It quickly became clear to me that my research would never be complete without obtaining ancestral maritime records. But...alas...I lived in Midwest America and the records I needed were at Kew in the U.K. Making a trek to England was immediately impossible, so I was going to have to obtain them by other means. I was going to have to hire a professional researcher.
I panicked! Where to begin? The idea of entrusting my ancestors, myself, and my pocketbook to someone an ocean away whom I'd never met was heart-stopping! It sounded confusing...and I had so many questions.
The foremost concern was, of course, financial. The weak American dollar meant I'd have to almost double whatever it was going to cost me to hire someone in pounds. Would I get my money's worth? Even more practically, I needed a method of payment - like a credit card - to take the hassle out of exchanging to foreign currency. Would an English researcher make this possible? And, after I did dole out my hard-earned money, what was I going to get? I had no idea what was available at Kew, what to ask for, or what a researcher would provide. The last thing I needed were more lists of indexes and guidelines. I was ready for "meat" - real facts and data and documents pertaining specifically to my family.
Another concern I had was my own lack of knowledge of anything maritime. How would I even be able to discuss the topic? I was a 60-year-old American female. Was I going to find myself drowning in a "boys' club" sea of naval terminology, battle descriptions, and service medals? I was interested in the "human" aspects of my ancestral seafaring heritage. Where did they go? What did they do? How did it affect their families? I wasn't exactly looking for a discourse on the history of the English Navy, fascinating though it may be.
My lack of knowledge led to a final concern...communication. Performing a quick rundown on an online list of potential researchers proved to be like reading the "personals" ads. I knew I didn't want anything to do with the guy who haughtily made it clear he was a *professional* and, by heavens, I'd better be prepared to pay him as such! How would I ever blindly find someone I knew I could speak with comfortably? I also had the problem of an antiquated dial-up computer system and even more antiquated skill in running it. So being able to communicate was a real priority for me.
With trepidation unworthy of a descendant of my brave ancestors, I began surfing the Web...searching for that one person who might possibly be the perfect guide into the sea of research documents and maritime data I knew I would have to face.
And that's when I fortuitously "met" Bob O'Hara...
The Bob O'Hara web site first caught my attention because of the font used in printing it. It was unique to other sites I'd examined...appearing almost penned by hand. Some might be put off by the informality of it, but I found it reassuring. It made me believe this researcher might be less "stodgy" and more open...perhaps even, wonder of wonders, possessing a sense of humor? But did it also mean he was less professional? A quick examination of his posted credentials gave a resounding, "No!"
Bob O'Hara's credentials were impressive and emphasized two areas of expertise that I particularly lacked...maritime knowledge and familiarity with U.K. research facilities. Bob was both a former member of the Royal Navy and a former employee of GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters). Not only would he understand the naval records he might find, he would also have easy access to them. His web site even mentioned that Bob's locale was right next to the National Archives - "literally in its shadow," he humorously noted. This sounded practical, cutting down on time and my money; and it was an image I could picture, making me feel I was there with him.
I still didn't know what I could expect Bob to discover. Not to worry...the site listed examples of the types of documents available at Kew and results of searches Bob had performed for other clients, complete with companion web sites. When I saw that English Coastguard records were available; and, even more pointedly, Preventive Water Guard records, I got excited. That was information I needed but never expected to obtain. My mind was made up. I would hire a researcher...this researcher. Now I just needed my practical needs addressed.
The practicalities were listed clearly, were reasonable, and were made as easy for me as possible. Once I retained Bob, it would take about three weeks for him to begin my search. Good. Now I knew about the timing. The fee was based on a per hour basis and was not only listed in pounds but in American dollars, as well. How very politely inclusive! The big shocker, however, was that I could pay with a credit card all right, but I could also, instead, choose to write a personal check...even in American dollars! This is unheard of in any transatlantic transaction! Talk about user friendly! My final concern was addressed, as well. Bob would take photos of the documents and I could receive them through an online software program or be mailed a compact disk. A disk was something I could handle and felt comfortable using. All my concerns were answered. (Note: Bob ended up teaching me how to use the online program, which saved us both a lot of time and effort - an example of his personal attention.)
Having the mechanics dealt with...now what? I didn't know how to judge the hours it would take for Bob to research my ancestors, particularly since I had several relatives in mind; and I also felt I wanted to give him a little background on them to see if there was even any sense in beginning a search. The web site didn't just offer, but actually encouraged me to e-mail Bob, so I did. Then I prepared to wait, reasoning that my general inquiry would not warrant any rapid response. Not so. To my amazement, I sent the e-mail just before retiring for the night American time and had an answer (from Bob personally) by the time I woke the next morning.
Bob's response laid out the very reasonable cost per research hour in American dollars and gave me an idea of how much time is usually needed for a basic search for each person...3 hours at Kew. Bob emphasized that it's not always possible to find the documentation one hopes for; but his promise to conduct a "diligent, honest, and efficient" search gave me confidence. He then presented me with options. Since I wanted searches done on several ancestors, I could contract for however many hours at a time I desired and felt I could afford...starting and stopping when needed...or spending more time on an ancestor for whom there was more material and less on any who might be more elusive. These personal choices and control over the time and finances made me certain I wanted to proceed. So I asked Bob to put me on his client list, sent off a check to cover research on five of my mariner ancestors, and waited for three weeks to pass.
As promised, in just less than three weeks I heard from Bob again...not with a "We're ready to start your search now" letter but with an actual first report! And, oh, my...the material he found! Because of a project of my own, I had requested that my Coastguard Preventive Service ancestor be examined first. Bob sent data on all my ancestor's Coastguard postings (most of which I couldn't find during my own research), proof that my ancestor had gone to sea as a Boy (which I didn't know at all), collateral information on dates for my ancestor's family members, and a tracking of the family via census records. I also received explanations from Bob on what some of the maritime listings meant and where the present material might or might not lead. Then, too, Bob asked for my input about what he had sent and any follow-up questions I might have. In my case, I had full access to the census material so opted to keep the search on maritime matters only, which Bob was only too happy to do. This was the beginning of a personal dialogue between us and, for me, a feeling of "working together"...always receiving input and answers promptly. Bob may have been spending three contracted hours a day on my Kew research (I have a hunch it was more), but he was spending a lot of additional time communicating with me. I had definitely found the researcher with whom I could speak.
The first report proved so exciting, I could barely wait for the next. It came swiftly...the very next day. And it included a major surprise! My great-great grandfather was the family member I'd "suspected" was a sea captain. Indeed, Bob found far more than enough proof that he was a Merchant Master. He found names of my ancestor's ships, voyages listed, documents from the shipping companies, and, most thrilling, ship's logs from a couple of the voyages, with my ancestor having signed the entries! Even more surprising, he found that, on one of the voyages, three of my relatives sailed together - my great-great grandfather, his brother, and their seventeen-year-old step-brother. I told Bob not to worry about the 3 hours per person plan...just keep following the leads and mix up the hours with whatever ancestors needed them most.
I can't even begin to list the materials Bob has subsequently found for me. In one case, the discovery was made that a relative (another Merchant Master) had two different ships blown up and sunk by enemy mines and torpedos during WWI. He even found my relative's testimony during an inquest regarding one of the sunken ships, which led to my own subsequent correspondence with present-day divers who dive to those very wrecks.
Bob O'Hara has proved to be the single most advantageous "research tool" I have yet used. As I collect data on each of my ancestors, I contract Bob to dig into the files for which I lack access. I use him the same as I do my other genealogical reference materials...almost as if he's sitting on my study shelf, close at hand, ready to be taken down and referred to as needed. My initial fears and concerns about hiring a researcher have proved to be groundless. And, in Bob O'Hara, I not only found a professional...I found a friend.
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