Tall ships that aren't and really tall ships that were

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A recent TV nugget showed the "Tall Ships" arriving for a harbor visit and one of 'em looked a good bit like the Banks schooner Gertrude L. Thebeau returning to Gloucester with a get of dabs, or as we highlanders put it, a hold of groundfish. Welcome aboard, Matey, for a hearty nautical briefing!

This same TV promo had a salty voice-over misquoting John Masefield thus: "I must go down to the seas again...." John Masefield never wrote such a thing, he didn't, and I happen to know! And a schooner is not a tall ship. John Masefield did ask for a tall ship and a star to steer her by, but he downed to sea, and the very transitive verb "go" was not in his desire. I asked him about this and he told me so.

Back in the l930s, poet Masefield came to lecture at Bowdoin College. After his talk we went with a small group to an informal reception at the home of Prof. Herbert Brown, who had made the arrangements for the poet's appearance. It seemed to me the situation was tense, perhaps in awe of the guest. So I took a chance at easing things, and I offered, "Tell us, Mr. Poet, have you 'downed' to the seas lately?" It was sneaky, but it worked. Mr. Masefield looked to see who had asked this and said, "You rascal! My answer takes 20 minutes, and here goes!"

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Bartlett's Familiar Quotations and a few anthologies give Masefield's "Sea Fever" as he wrote it. Otherwise, you'll find that the editors know more about poetry than did the poet, and have corrected him so he "goes down" to the seas. Masefield told us that evening that when he wrote the poem he said he must "down" to the seas, and the idea of "going" never entered his head. As the years passed, he learned it did no good to write letters and orate: Everybody knew more than he did, and he was doomed to perpetual misquotation. I didn't see Mr. Masefield again, but I've always felt sorry for him.

I feel sorry, too, for the swabs who think they know their sailing terms and toss them off glibly and won't listen to an expert. People who are told over and over that there is no direction nor'east, there is no place abaft the aft, and that a pail is a bucket.

I grew up in a Downeast coastal town, and one of my friends was Cappy Lon Lavers who had been 32 times around the world and once to Philadelphia. He set me straight early about brigs and barques, the names of the masts on the seven-stick Lawson, and about the only two six-masters afloat that collided in curious coincidence in Boston Harbor.

He was strong on the Dash, a privateer launched in our town in l8l3 and the fastest boat afloat. The Dash did have a heroic record, and was no more than a licensed pirate meant to catch British vessels during the War of l8l2. She was built by Master Brewer for the Porter Brothers, Portland (Maine) businessmen and speculators, and her true purpose was somewhat stated when she was "pierced" for 16 warlike guns. She took every prize she went after, brought them all home at a profit, and had no equal in speed. But she wasn't considered a tall ship.

On her ninth scavenge she was lost in a snowstorm on the Georges Bank, and her speed was probably her undoing. She no doubt capsized in the gale wind before her crew could drop sail. Some feel the Dash was a more heroic American warship than Old Ironsides, but she never came home to claim her fame. There is a model of the Dash by which her builder worked, and it may be seen on the wall in the public library of Maine's principal city of Freeport.

M'sieur Roget gives many versions of the general word "boat," and neglects to say that a ship is properly a three-masted sailing craft with square sails. The QE2 may be called a ship, but won't qualify until the day she sails for the realms of gold with three sticks. Neither are the ketch, the yawl, the sloop, nor the peapod with a sprit. The clipper, which was a ship, had a decade of gold-rush priority and then gave way to the extreme clipper, which in turn developed into the downeaster, the highest development of the sailing vessel. It held off the steamship (which is not a ship) until the 20th century. The downeaster was strictly a Maine ship. Designed in Maine, built by a Maine yard, owned by Mainers, with a Maine crew and Maine master.

In the closing days of sail, Germany built a number of really tall ships that were a threat to the coming era of steam. They were huge hulks with tremendous sail spread, and in a sense their speed was their prime fault.

Once they got going they were hard to maneuver and there was no way to stop them to avoid collision. Otherwise, they had cargo space, and with a fair chance could arrive sooner than the best of the new coal-fired steamboats.

One morning one of these gargantuan marvels was butting down the channel, and she lined up with a British ferry headed for Ostend, and there was no doubt as to what would happen. The big vessel was crank; there was no time to alter course, and no way to bring the great hull to a stop. There was a vast collision, with great loss of life, and the extensive manifest of the German craft was cast adrift along the English beaches.

It was incredible that the long list of cargo could fit into one vessel's holds! That list included 500 grand pianos! Das ist unmglich! But it was even so, and this is the last word on the subject of large-scale sailing vessels.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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