The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin/Section Sixty Two
Section Sixty Two
Our captain of the Packet had boasted much before we sail’d, of the Swiftness of his Ship. Unfortunately when we came to Sea, she proved the dullest of 96 Sail, to his no small Mortification. After many Conjectures respecting the Cause, when we were near another Ship almost as dull as ours, which however gain’d upon us, the Captain order’d all hands to come aft and stand as near the Ensign Staff as possible. We were, Passengers included, about forty Persons. While we stood there the Ship mended her Pace, and soon left our Neighbor far behind, which prov’d clearly what our Captain suspected, that she was loaded too much by the Head. The Casks of Water it seems had been all plac’d forward. These he therefore order’d to be remov’d farther aft; on which the Ship recover’d her Character, and prov’d the best Sailer in the Fleet. The Captain said she had once gone at the Rate of 13 Knots, which is accounted 13 Miles per hour. We had on board as a Passenger Captain Kennedy of the Navy, who contended that it was impossible, that no Ship ever sailed so fast, and that there must have been some Error in the Division of the Log-Line, or some Mistake in heaving the Log. A Wager ensu’d between the two Captains, to be decided when there should be sufficient Wind. Kennedy thereupon examin’d rigorously the Log-line, and being satisfy’d with that, he determin’d to throw the Log himself. Accordingly some Days after when the Wind blew very fair & fresh, and the Captain of the Packet (Lutwidge) said he believ’d she then went at the Rate of 13 Knots, Kennedy made the Experiment, and own’d his Wager lost. The above Fact I give for the sake of the following Observation. It has been remark’d as an Imperfection in the Art of Ship-building, that it can never be known ’till she is try’d, whether a new Ship will or will not be a good Sailer; for that the Model of a good sailing Ship has been exactly follow’d in the new One, which has prov’d on the contrary remarkably dull. I apprehend this may be partly occasion’d by the different Opinions of Seamen respecting the Modes of lading, rigging & sailing of a Ship. Each has his System. And the same Vessel laden by the Judgment & Orders of one Captain shall sail better or worse than when by the Orders of another. Besides, it scarce ever happens that a Ship is form’d, fitted for the Sea, & sail’d by the same Person. One Man builds the Hull, another riggs her, a third lades and sails her. No one of these has the Advantage of knowing all the Ideas & Experience of the others, & therefore cannot draw just Conclusions from a Combination of the whole. Even in the simple Operation of Sailing when at Sea, I have often observ’d different Judgments in the Officers who commanded the successive Watches, the Wind being the same. One would have the Sails trimm’d sharper or flatter than another, so that they seem’d to have no certain Rule to govern by. Yet I think a Set of Experiments might be instituted, first to determine the most proper Form of the Hull; for swift sailing; next the best Dimensions & properest Place for the Masts; then the Form & Quantity of Sails, and their Position as the Winds may be; and lastly the Disposition of her Lading. This is the Age of Experiments; and such a Set accurately made & combin’d would be of great Use. I am therefore persuaded that erelong some ingenious Philosopher will undertake it: to whom I wish Success.
We were several times chas’d on our Passage, but outsail’d every thing, and in thirty Days had Soundings. We had a good Observation, and the Captain judg’d himself so near our Port, (Falmouth) that if we made a good Run in the Night we might be off the Mouth of that Harbor in the Morning, and by running in the Night might escape the Notice of the Enemy’s Privateers, who often cruis’d near the Entrance of the Channel. Accordingly all the Sail was set that we could possibly make, and the Wind being very fresh & fair, we went right before it, & made great Way. The Captain after his Observation, shap’d his Course as he thought so as to pass wide of the Scilly Isles: but it seems there is sometimes a strong Indraught setting up St. George’s Channel which deceives Seamen, and caus’d the Loss of Sir Cloudsley Shovel’s Squadron. This Indraught was probably the Cause of what happen’d to us. We had a Watchman plac’d in the Bow to whom they often call’d, Look well out before, there; and he as often answer’d Aye, Aye! But perhaps had his Eyes shut, and was half asleep at the time: they sometimes answering as is said mechanically: For he did not see a Light just before us, which had been hid by the Studding Sails from the Man at Helm & from the rest of the Watch; but by an accidental Yaw of the Ship was discover’d, & occasion’d a great Alarm, we being very near it, the light appearing to me as big as a Cart Wheel. It was Midnight, & Our Captain fast asleep. But Capt. Kennedy jumping upon Deck, & seeing the Danger, ordered the Ship to wear round, all Sails standing, An Operation dangerous to the Masts, but it carried us clear, and we escap’d Shipwreck, for we were running right upon the Rocks on which the Lighthouse was erected. This Deliverance impress’d me strongly with the Utility of Lighthouses, and made me resolve to encourage the building more of them in America, if I should live to return there.
In the Morning it was found by the Soundings, &c. that we were near our Port, but a thick Fog hid the Land from our Sight. About 9 a Clock the Fog began to rise, and seem’d to be lifted up from the Water like the Curtain at a Play-house, discovering underneath the Town of Falmouth, the Vessels in its Harbour, & the Fields that surrounded it. A most pleasing Spectacle to those who had been so long without any other Prospects, than the uniform View of a vacant Ocean! And it gave us the more Pleasure, as we were now freed from the Anxieties which the State of War occasion’d.
I set out immediately, with my Son for London, and we only stopped a little by the Way to view Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain, and Lord Pembroke’s House and Gardens, with his very curious Antiquities at Wilton. We arriv’d in London the 27th of July 1757.