Good Sam RV Travel Guide & Campground Directory

Next Horizon

By Bob Difley



It’s easy to get caught up in the Romance of the Seas

It is said that there is a little bit of the sailor in all of us. Have you found yourself gazing longingly out to sea when a sail appears on the horizon? Do you dream of distant tropic isles, soaring frigate birds, and dolphins surfing the bow waves of a four-masted Windjammer as she plows the seas in the Indian spice trade?

Today the cumbersome, leaky sailing ships that brought settlers from the Old World to the New, and the venerable Atlantic-crossing trading schooners transporting supplies to the colonies and returning with Colonial commodities such as tobacco, lumber, and cotton have been replaced by immense cargo ships the size of floating cities.

The Crossing
The rapidly growing population of the colonies by 1700 had topped the quarter-million mark, and the lifeblood of the colonies, and the wealth-building of English investors, rested solely on the efficacy of sea trade. So most settlements had grown up within 50 miles of the coast and within easy access to a major port city. In the south, plantations spread as far as 150 miles inland, but were connected to the sea by deep tidewater rivers navigable by large ships.

Since the most efficient method of transportation between population centers and seaports was by water, and with the vast, apparently unlimited forests of sturdy virgin timber, the colonists began building wood ships about as soon as they waded ashore. By 1676, some 730 ships had been built in Massachusetts alone, and shipyards from Maine through the Chesapeake Bay to Virginia turned out even more. And by 1690, Boston was the third largest port in the world, behind London and Bristol.

At first the shipwrights built small shallops and pinnaces for coastal cruising, but as the demand for trade with England expanded, ships so large that they could transport 700 hogsheads (the four-foot high barrels that growers packed with tobacco leaf and weighing 1000 pounds each) established shipbuilding as a major colonial industry. Due to the availability of abundant raw materials, a high level of quality, and lower costs than in Europe, one-third of all English sailing tonnage was built in the New World by 1760.

At the same time, the problem of simple survival for the colonies had passed, and commerce had evolved into fierce competition between the Old World aristocratic and moneyed interests, who controlled all shipments into and out of the colonies, and the New World’s independent-minded entrepreneurs to control seagoing commerce--and especially the distribution of profits.

This struggle would evolve into a full-blown revolution in 1775 as the colonies joined to cast off the commercial strait-jacket imposed by English law, to put an end to English rule, and to establish the new independent country of the United States of America. This would enable them to direct their own growth, choose their own commercial trading partners, invest in new ventures, and of course to achieve a bigger share of the profits.

After the permanent removal of English taxes and embargoes in 1781, America’s ports exploded with warehouses, counting houses, and wharves to meet the demands of the burgeoning sea trade. New York’s piers stretched for seven miles along the waterfront, and American ships began to challenge the English for supremacy of the seas.

In 1818, New York merchant, Isaac Wright, established the first scheduled shipping between New York and Liverpool. His ships guaranteed their customers that, unlike existing carriers, for a premium price his packets would sail on a given day, full or not, in any kind of weather. The term “packet” originally meant any utilitarian vessel designed to carry cargo bundled in packets, but came to mean a ship sailing on schedule and counted on to deliver mail, urgent cargoes, and important passengers.

The idea worked, and by 1843 as many as 24 packets shuttled from New York to Liverpool like today’s commuter airlines, with others sailing across the Atlantic from Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore to London, Le Havre, and Antwerp. Their success resulted from sailing hard, with as many sails as they could fly, day and night establishing record-breaking times—reducing the eastbound passage from a month to 24 days and the westbound return from three months to 40 days. Their ships were efficient and robust, their captains courageous and diligent, and the crew as hard as ships biscuit. “Packet sailors,” one captain wrote, “were the toughest class of men in all respects. They could stand the worst weather, food, and usage, and put up with less sleep, more rum, and harder knocks than any other sailors.”

Flood of Immigrants
The prosperity and opportunity of the new nation began attracting another kind of cargo—immigrants seeking a better life. Between 1846 and 1855 more than two million immigrants crossed the Atlantic to the new United States--double the number in the seven decades since American independence. Most were poverty stricken, escaping from the threat of starvation or fleeing political unrest, and unlike the more affluent travelers that could afford the comfortable cabins, desperate immigrants crammed into “steerage”. This dark, fetid, rat-infested, claustrophobic cargo space between decks received its only light and air from open hatches, which were closed tightly under inclement weather. As many as 800 passengers might live for 40 or more days in narrow bunks in a space 100 feet by 30 feet. It would not be unusual for ten percent of the passengers to die enroute. Most arrived suffering from malnutrition.

Though sighting land was an occasion for celebration, the perils of the sea had not completely passed. The twenty-five mile stretch from the Sandy Hook lightship in New Jersey to the piers on the East River in New York where the ships tied up was a gauntlet of shifting sandy shoals, treacherous currents, and the increasing traffic jam of Atlantic packets.

About this same time, in the 1840s, American shipbuilders began to build the fastest and most beautiful wooden ships the world would ever see, the classic Yankee Clipper. Built solely for the profitable New York to China tea trade, these long and lean greyhounds of the seas were built for speed with sharp bows to cut through the waves, rugged to withstand the ferocious gales of Cape Horn, flying clouds of sails and achieving unheard of speeds—exceeding 20 knots and covering as much as 400 miles every 24 hours—setting sailing records that have yet to be broken.

With the discovery of gold in California in 1849, fortune-seeking passengers filled the “tween decks” steerage space, and supplies—cheese, tobacco, blasting powder, tents, boots, picks and shovels—everything and anything that could be sold to the hopeful miners, filled the holds to capacity. Many of the clippers paid off their construction costs and provided a profit for their investors on their maiden voyage by stopping and disgorging their passengers and cargo in San Francisco and continuing on to Hong Kong for tea to be carried to London or back to New York.

The clippers raced the clock, flying every scrap of sail they could find, and delivered their cargoes quicker than the world had ever seen. The fastest were the first to fill their holds, commanded the highest shipping rates, and since the ship captains shared in the profits, they pushed their ships, rigging, and men to the breaking point, and broke speed records as fast as new, swifter ships could be built.

But as quickly as they appeared and revolutionized the world’s sea trade, they disappeared in less than a generation. Around 1895, a set of larger, heftier, steel sailing ships called Windjammers, began carrying six times the tonnage with less than double the crew, proving to be sturdier and more economical to operate. Even more threatening, the new improved steam ships could maintain a steady speed over long distances through any kind of weather. By the turn of the century, the age of commercial sail would fade into the history books.    

Today you can visit—and sometimes go aboard—many of these historic sailing ships, both restored and built as replicas, at various locations along the Atlantic coast and in the Chesapeake Bay. Several maritime museums also depict the age of sail with photos and ship’s gear. See Sidebar for listings.

SHIPS YOU CAN VISIT


Homeport:WASHINGTON, DC
Current Use:MUSEUM VESSEL (DRY BERTH EXHIBIT)
Original Use:COMBATANT
Location: National Museum Of American History
Smithsonian Institution
12th & Constitution Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20560
202-357-1300
Built: 1776 Skenesborough, Vermont. Length: 53.2, Beam: 15.2,
Preservation Status: FAIR. 90% original fabric, listed on the National Register Of Historic Places, designated a National Historic Landmark.

Ship:KALMAR NYCKEL (Re-Creation)
Homeport:WILMINGTON, DE
Current Use:OFFICIAL TALL SHIP OF DELAWARE
Original Use:BROUGHT FIRST PERMANENT EUROPEAN SETTLERS TO DELAWARE VALLEY
Location:Kalmar Nickel Shipyard
1124 E. Seventh St.
Wilmington, DE
(302) 429-7447.
Original Built:Holland, Swedish-flagged
You'll definitely want to check out the Kalmar Nyckel, a re-creation of
the Dutch-built, Swedish-flagged ship that brought the first permanent
European settlers to Delaware Valley: www.kalmarnyckel.org.

Ship:CONSTELLATION, Sloop Of War
Homeport:BALTIMORE, MD
Current Use:MUSEUM VESSEL (FLOATING EXHIBIT)
Original Use: COMBATANT
Location:Pier 1, Constellation Dock
301 East Pratt Street
Baltimore, Md 21201-3134
410-539-1797
Built:1854, Gosport Navy Yard, Near Norfolk, Virginia. Length: 176, Beam: 40.6.Preservation Status: POOR, 30% original fabric, listed on the National Register Of Historic Places, designated a National Historic Landmark.

Ship:E. C. COLLIER, Skipjack
Homeport:ST. MICHAELS, MD
Current Use: MUSEUM VESSEL (DRY BERTH EXHIBIT)
Original Use: FISHING TRADES (FISHING, OYSTERING, ETC.)
Location: Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum
St. Michaels, MD 21663
410-745-2916
Built:1910, George Washington Horseman, Deal Island, Maryland. Length: 52, Beam: 17.9. Hull: WOOD.
Preservation Status:POOR, 50% original fabric, listed on the National Register Of Historic Places.

Ship:REBECCA T. RUARK  Skipjack/Sloop
Homeport: TILGHMAN ISLAND, MD
Current Use: EXCURSION/CRUISE / FISHING TRADE
Original Use: FISHING TRADES (FISHING, OYSTERING, ETC.)
Contact:  Capt. Wade H. Murphy, Jr.
21308 Phillips Road
Tilghman, MD 21671
410-829-3976
Built: 1886, Moses Gogheogan, Taylor's Island, Maryland. Length: 47.3, Beam: 15.7.
Preservation Status: EXCELLENT, 5% original fabric, listed on the National Register Of Historic Places, Designated A National Historic Landmark.

Ship: LETTIE G. HOWARD  Schooner
Homeport: NEW YORK, NY
Current Use: MUSEUM VESSEL (OPERATIONAL)
Original Use: FISHING TRADES (FISHING, OYSTERING, ETC.)
Location:  South Street Seaport Museum
207 Front Street
New York, NY 10038
212-748-8725
Built: 1893, Arthur D. Story, Essex, Massachusetts. Length: 74.6, Beam: 21. Preservation Status: POOR, 65% original fabric, listed on the National Register Of Historic Places, designated a National Historic Landmark.

Ship: PEKING  Bark
Homeport: NEW YORK, NY
Current Use: MUSEUM VESSEL (FLOATING EXHIBIT)
Original Use: CARGO/FREIGHT
Location: South Street Seaport Museum
207 Front Street
New York, NY 10038
212-748-8725
Built: 1911, Blohm And Voss, Hamburg, Germany. Length: 321, Beam: 47, Depth of Hold: 26.2, Gross/Net Tons: 3080/2850. Hull: STEEL.
Preservation Status: FAIR, 95% original fabric.

Ship: PIONEER Schooner
Homeport:NEW YORK, NY
Current Use: EXCURSION/CRUISE
Original Use: CARGO/FREIGHT
Location: South Street Seaport Museum
207 Front Street
New York, NY 10038
212-748-8725
Built: 1885, Pioneer Iron Works, Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania. Length: 57, Beam: 21, Hull: STEEL.
Preservation Status: GOOD, 20% original fabric.

Ship: PRISCILLA  Schooner
Homeport: WEST SAYVILLE, NY
Current Use: MUSEUM VESSEL (OPERATIONAL)
Original Use: FISHING TRADES (FISHING, OYSTERING, ETC.)
Location: Long Island Maritime Museum
86 West Avenue
 West Sayville, NY 11796
 516-854-4974.
Built: 1888, Patchogue, New York. Length: 34.2, Beam: 14.
Preservation Status:GOOD, 60% original fabric.

Ship: GAZELA Barkentine
Homeport: PHILADELHIA, PA
Current Use: MUSEUM VELLEL (OPERATION/FLOATING EXHIBIT)
Original Use: FISHING TRADES (FISHING, OYSTERING, ETC.)
Location: Philadelphia Ship Preservation Guild
Columbus Blvd. at Chestnut St.
Plhiladelphia, PA 19106
215-923-9030
Built: 1883, Cacilas, Portugal. Length: 178, Beam: 27.
Preservation Status: GOOD, 85% original fabric.