The Clipper Ship Era/Chapter 13

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CHAPTER XIII


CALIFORNIA CLIPPERS OF 1852—THE "SOVEREIGN OF THE SEAS"


AS one by one the California clippers came home from Asiatic ports or round Cape Horn from San Francisco in 1852, it was found that almost all of them needed a pretty thorough overhauling aloft. The masts, spars, and rigging of the Flying Cloud were fine examples of the skill of her sailors in clapping on fishings, lashings, stoppers, and seizings, while her topmast fids, crushed and broken, were taken up to the Astor House and exhibited to the admiration of the town. Her owners, Grinnell, Minturn & Co., had her log from New York to San Francisco printed in gold letters on white silk for distribution among their friends, and Captain Creesy fled to his home in Marblehead in order to escape notoriety.

The Sea Serpent, Eclipse, and Stag-Hound were in much the same condition aloft as the Flying Cloud, while the Witchcraft, on the voyage from San Francisco to Hong-kong had lost her main and mizzen masts with all sails and rigging attached, during a severe typhoon in the China Sea. The Tornado, commanded by Captain O. R. Mumford, bound from San Francisco to New York, had lost her bowsprit with the foremast and sprung her mainmast, when to the westward of Cape Horn. It required fourteen days to complete the jury rig at sea, after which she sailed to New York, a distance of 8000 miles, in 51 days. In acknowledgment of Captain Mumford's services on this occasion, the New York, Sun, Astor, and Mercantile Insurance Companies presented him with a costly solid silver service, which was made by Ball, Black & Co., and exhibited in the window of their store on the corner of Murray Street and Broadway.

All of these ships were rerigged in New York with stouter spars and rigging than they originally carried, and much valuable experience was gained by sparmakers and riggers as to the requirements aloft of these large, powerful clippers, while their captains had at the same time become better acquainted with their peculiarities. The great difficulty was to get a large ship, say from 1600 to 2000 tons, that would sail fast in moderate winds. If she had canvas enough to drive her along in a light breeze, the chances were that in a gale something was bound to carry away aloft. The utmost skill and judgment were required to rig and to handle these heavily masted ships with wooden spars and hemp rigging.

The great race to San Francisco in 1852 was between the Sword-Fish of New York and the Flying Fish of Boston, both extreme clippers and built respectively by William H. Webb and Donald McKay. The Flying Fish sailed from Boston November 11, 1851, and on the same day the Sword-Fish passed Sandy Hook. Large sums were wagered upon the result. Captain Nickels of the Flying Fish and Captain Babcock of the Sword-Fish were both young and skilful commanders, and it was believed by their friends that each would send his ship along at her utmost speed. The Flying Fish made an excellent run of 19 days to the equator, leading the Sword-Fish by four days. From the equator to 50° S., the Flying Fish was 26 and the Sword-Fish 22 days, so that they passed that parallel on the same day. They raced round Cape Horn, part of the time side by side, the Flying Fish making the run from 50° S. in the Atlantic to 50° S. in the Pacific in 7 and the Sword-Fish in 8 days. From this point the Sword-Fish came up and steadily drew away. She made the run to the equator in 19 days, leading the Flying Fish by 3 days, and from the equator to San Francisco in 20 days, gaining on this stretch another 3 days, and arrived at San Francisco February 10, 1852, after a splendid passage of 90 days 16 hours from New York. The Flying Fish arrived on the 17th, or 98 days from Boston. The Sword-Fish was regarded by many as the fastest and handsomest ship built by William H. Webb; and her passage of 90 days, the second best ever made from New York to San Francisco, and within one day of the record, together with many other fast passages, among them her record run of 31 days from Shanghai to San Francisco in 1855, an average of 240 miles a day, certainly places her at or very near the head of the list of clippers launched from this famous yard.

Some of the other notable passages of this year were made by the Sovereign of the Seas and Comet, each 102 days; Sea Witch 108 days from New York; Staffordshire 101 days, and John Bertram and Shooting Star each 105 days from Boston.

The Flying Cloud, on this, her second voyage from New York, arrived at San Francisco September 6, 1852, 113 days from New York. She had, for her, a long run of 30 days to the equator; and when she was off the coast of Brazil, running before a light northerly wind under skysails and royal studdingsails, with the weather clew of her mainsail hauled up: as Captain Creesy was taking his noon observation, a large clipper ship was reported about six miles ahead, under the same canvas but almost becalmed. She was soon recognized by Captain Creesy and his officers as the N. B. Palmer. The Flying Cloud carried the breeze until about two o'clock, when she also ran into the calm, and signals were exchanged. Captain Low, of the N. B. Palmer, reported with pardonable pride, that he had sailed from New York eight days after the Flying Cloud, and had found good winds to the equator; indeed, a few days after sailing he had made 396 miles in twenty-four hours.

As may be imagined, Captain Creesy was somewhat chagrined, but at all events, here at last were the ships about whose speed there had been so much discussion, side by side on blue water, and soon there would be a chance to find out which was the faster of the two. As there was every indication of a southerly breeze, both ships took in their studdingsails, rigged in the booms, and got ready for the new wind, with a pull on sheets and halliards fore and aft. The Flying Cloud had a fine crew, and in after years Captain Creesy in describing this race said that, "They worked like one man, and that man a hero."

At about four o'clock there was a faint southerly air with a few cat's-paws, and soon the breeze came up from the south in a dark-blue line across the horizon. Both ships felt it at the same moment, and braced their yards on the starboard tack sharp by the wind, which soon freshened to a fine whole-sail breeze. The Flying Cloud now began to draw away. At daylight the next morning, the N. B. Palmer was hull down to leeward, and by four o'clock in the afternoon was no longer in sight. Both ships had strong westerly gales off Cape Horn, and the Flying Cloud led her rival into San Francisco by twenty-three days.

It is only fair to say, however, that the N. B. Palmer lost five days through putting into Valparaiso to land two of her crew, and as it turned out, to ship seventeen men to replace deserters. One of the two men landed had shot and wounded the mate, and the other, known as "Doublin Jack," had knocked the second mate down with a handspike. Captain Low put both these men in irons, triced them up in the mizzen rigging, and gave them each four dozen lashes of ratline stuff, which they had well earned. Captain R. B. Forbes, one of the most humane and kind-hearted of men, declared in an address before the Boston Marine Society in 1854, that he regarded "the abolition of the power of flogging refractory seamen as having been injudicious"; and I think that most men who had experience in handling the crews of merchant ships on the high seas in those days will be inclined to agree with him.

The demand for new clipper ships had by no means abated in 1852, and thirty-three California clippers were launched in this year. Donald McKay built the Sovereign of the Seas, Bald Eagle, and Westward Ho; William H. Webb, the Flying Dutchman; Samuel Hall, the Polynesia, John Gilpin, Flying Childers, and Wizard; Jacob A. Westervelt, the Golden City, Golden State, and Contest; Jacob Bell, the Messenger and Jacob Bell; Paul Curtis, the Golden West, Queen of the Seas, Cleopatra, and Radiant; J. O. Curtis, the Phantom and Whirlwind; Jabez Williams, the Simoon; R. E. Jackson, the Winged Racer; Pernald & Pettigrew, the Red Rover.

Undismayed by difficulties as to spars and rigging that beset the minds of other ship-builders, Donald McKay resolved in this year to build a still larger clipper than had yet appeared. This ship was the Sovereign of the Seas, of 2421 tons register, and when she was launched in June, 1852, the bells that had welcomed the New World and Stag-Hound as the largest merchant ships afloat, again rang out a joyous greeting to this noble clipper, as she glided smoothly and swiftly into the blue waters of Boston harbor.

The Sovereign of the Seas measured: length 258 feet, breadth 44 feet, depth 23 feet 6 inches, with 20 inches dead-rise at half floor. It is interesting to note that each one of Mr. McKay's clippers had less dead-rise than her predecessor. The Stag-Hound had 40 inches dead-rise at half floor with slightly convex water-lines; the Flying Cloud and Staffordshire 30 inches with concave water-lines and shorter but sharper ends. The Sovereign of the Seas had the longest and sharpest ends of any vessel then built, and combined the grace and beauty of the smaller ships with immense strength and power to carry sail.

She had a crew of 105 men and boys, consisting of 4 mates, 2 boatswains, 2 carpenters, 2 sailmakers, 3 stewards, 2 cooks, 80 able seamen, and 10 boys before the mast. She was commanded by Captain Lauchlan McKay, who was born at Shelburne, Nova Scotia, in 1811, being one year younger than his brother Donald. Like him, he went to New York, served an apprenticeship there with Isaac Webb, and after becoming a master shipwright, was appointed carpenter of the U. S. frigate Constellation, in which he served four years. Admiral Farragut was a young lieutenant on board this ship at the same time. In 1839 Captain McKay published a work on naval architecture, and soon after, in company with his brother Hugh, opened a shipyard at Boston. Here they did repairing, and in 1846 built the bark Odd Fellow, in which Lauchlan sailed as captain. In 1848 he commanded the ship Jenny Lind, and made some excellent passages in her. When he took command of the Sovereign of the Seas, Captain McKay was in his forty-first year, and of gigantic build and strength.

The Sovereign of the Seas sailed from New York for San Francisco, August 4, 1852, a poor season of the year for a rapid run to the equator, but she crossed 25 days out from Sandy Hook, making a run which had never been bettered in the month of August, and only twice equalled—once by the Raven from Boston in 1851 and once by the Hurricane from New York in 1853. She was 23 days from the equator to 50° S., and 9 days from 50° S. in the Atlantic to the same parallel in the Pacific. After rounding Cape Horn, she carried away her fore- and maintopmasts and foreyard, and it required fourteen days to rerig her, during which time she was kept on her course, and made the run from 50° S. to the equator in the remarkable time, considering her disabled condition, of 29 days. She went thence to San Francisco in 17 days, which is the record for the month of November, and her total run from New York to San Francisco was 103 days.

Had the Sovereign of the Seas not been dismasted, it is reasonable to suppose that she would have equalled the fastest run from 50° S. to the equator in the month of October, which is 19 days, made by the Ocean Telegraph in 1855. This would have reduced her passage to 93 days; still, as it stands, her passage of 103 days has never been equalled by a vessel sailing from New York for San Francisco in the month of August. Captain McKay received much credit for rerigging his ship at sea and not putting into Valparaiso, and was presented with a very beautiful silver dinner service by the New York Board of Marine Underwriters.

This was the only passage made by the Sovereign of the Seas between New York and San Francisco. She carried on this voyage 2950 tons of cargo, and her freight amounted to $84,000; a portion of the
The Sovereign of the Seas p218.jpg

The "Sovereign of the Seas"

cargo, consisting of flour, sold in San Francisco at $44 per barrel.

She cleared from San Francisco in ballast for Honolulu, and there loaded a cargo, or rather several cargoes, of sperm oil which had been landed by American whale-ships in the Pacific, and sailed for New York, February 13, 1853. She had light and variable winds to the equator, her day's runs ranging from 89 to 302 miles, and she made this stretch from Honolulu in 8 days. On February 27th, she was off the Navigator or Samoan Islands, and one cannot help thinking of the delight it would have given Robert Louis Stevenson if he could have looked upon this giant clipper flying southward under her white cloud of canvas, and with what magic words he would have made her name immortal.

On March 4th, the Sovereign of the Seas sprung her foretopmast, and although it was fished on the 6th, it was a source of anxiety for the remainder of the passage, and Captain McKay, mindful of his recent experience in these seas, carried sail with a considerable caution. Nothing of special interest occurred until March 15th, when the first strong westerly gales were felt, and a series of remarkable day's runs was begun. Up to noon on March 16th, she had sailed from her position at noon the day before, 396 miles; on the 17th, 311 miles; on the 18th, 411 miles, and on the 19th, 360 miles, a total of 1478 miles in four days. During these four days, she made 34° 43' of longitude eastward, which with the difference in time gives an average of 15½ knots, or an average of a fraction over 378 miles for each twenty-four hours. In the 11 days from March 10th to the 21st, she made the remarkable run of 3562 miles, and as she made during this time 82° 24' of longitude, her average allowing for difference in time, was 13¾ knots, or 330 miles each twenty-four hours.

During her great run on the 18th of 411 miles, she made 10° 30' of longitude, which reduced her sea day to 23 hours 18 minutes, and shows an average speed of 17 2/3 knots, or 424 miles in twenty-four hours. On this day her log records: "Strong northwest breezes and rough sea." It seems extremely improbable that she could have maintained uniform speed of 17 2/3 knots throughout the twenty-four hours, but at times her speed probably slackened to 15 or 16 knots. If this supposition is correct, it follows that her speed must at times have exceeded 17 2/3 knots in order to account for this average. In the absence of any data on this point, which is much to be regretted, it seems probable that she must have sailed at a speed of not less than 19 knots during a portion of these twenty-four hours, and perhaps 20 knots. After rounding Cape Horn she had light and moderate winds, her best day's run being only 286 miles, and she arrived off Sandy Hook May 6, 1853, after a passage of 82 days from Honolulu.

She sailed again from New York for Liverpool, June 18th, passing Sandy Hook at 6:30 p.m., sighted Cape Race in Newfoundland at 6 a.m. on the 24th, was off Cape Clear in Ireland at 6 a.m. on June 30th, took a pilot at 2 p.m. July 2d, and anchored in the Mersey at 10:30 p.m. that day, having made the entire run from dock to anchorage in 13 days 22 hours and 50 minutes. This must be regarded as a most remarkable passage for the season, and has never been equalled by a sailing vessel during the month of June. Her best day's run was on June 28th, 344 miles, by the wind, under singlereefed topsails, and on the 30th, 340 miles with skysails and royal studdingsails set. The Cunard S.S. Canada sailed from Boston on the same day that the Sovereign of the Seas sailed from New York, and a comparison of their logs published at the time shows that in five days, June 25-30th, the ship outsailed the steamer by 325 miles, and that the best run of the Canada during this passage was only 306 miles.

On this voyage her builder, Donald McKay, was a passenger on board the Sovereign of the Seas, and he passed most of his waking moments on deck, watching her movement through the water and observing the various strains on her spars and rigging. When he returned home, Enoch Train asked him what he thought of the ship, and Mr. McKay replied, "Well, she appears to be a pretty good ship, but I think I can build one to beat her"; and eventually he did so.

Mrs. Donald McKay sailed with her husband on this voyage and took a keen interest in everything that went on aboard ship. Although this was a summer passage, nevertheless, there was enough rough weather to bring out the splendid sea-going qualities of the vessel, and to Mrs. McKay, who, it is a pleasure to record, is still living, the vivid picture of this thoroughbred clipper wrestling with the winds and waves has always remained one of the exciting experiences of her life.

All of the American clippers made good passages home from China to Atlantic ports in 1852, though no record was broken. The run of the Shooting Star, 83 days from Canton to Boston, was the best of the year.

It was during the passage from Canton to New York in this year that Captain Creesy of the Flying Cloud had the unusual experience of perusing his own obituary in mid-ocean. It appears that after passing Java Head, and when his vessel was well across the Indian Ocean, she fell in with a ship outward bound, and in exchange for chickens, fruits, and vegetables from Anjer, received newspapers from New York, one of which contained the following somewhat startling announcement:

"Captain Creesy of the ship Flying Cloud.—It will be seen by the telegraph news in another column that this gallant sailor is no more. Two days after sailing from San Francisco, bound to China, he died, and the ship proceeded in charge of the mate; he was a native of Marblehead, and about forty-six years of age. For many years, he commanded the ship Oneida in the China trade, and was distinguished for the rapidity of his passages. In the Flying Cloud, he made the shortest passage on record to San Francisco, and eclipsed the finest and most costly merchant ship in the world,[1] and yet this crowning triumph of his life was attended with many disasters to his spars and sails; still, he pressed on, disdaining to make a port short of his destination. In every scene of a sailor's life 'with skill superior glowed his daring mind'—his dauntless soul 'rose with the storm and all its dangers shared.' But now he rests from his toils, regardless of his triumphs. Peace to his manes."

It was found that this news originated in New Orleans, having been telegraphed from there to New York, and although no explanation of the blunder was ever made, it at all events relieved Captain Creesy of an annoying lawsuit. It will be remembered that in August, 1851, on the passage to San Francisco, his first officer was put off duty soon after rounding Cape Horn, "in consequence of his arrogating to himself the privilege of cutting up rigging." This was a more serious offence than perhaps appears at first sight, as the Flying Cloud was badly crippled aloft, and was a long way from the nearest ship chandler's store, while Captain Creesy needed every fathom of rope on board for preventers and lashings. In due time, the mate turned up in New York and got in tow of a philanthropic legal "gent," who paid his board and lodging while awaiting the arrival of the Flying Cloud in order to prosecute Captain Creesy; but when they learned that he was supposed to be dead, the mate was shipped off to sea again, while the sea-lawyer friend lost no time in making fast to his three months' advance.


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