Rattling 'Em Off From Jibs to Spanker

HERE is a letter from a yearning gentleman who asks me to supply him the names of the sails on the Thomas W. Lawson. To relieve me of any financial burden in this matter, he encloses a self-addressed stamped postcard. He also thanks me in advance. A postcard? The sails on the Lawson?

I remember seeing, somewhere, a common pin on which the 23rd Psalm had been engraved. The thing was in a museum, of course, and there was a magnifying glass in a bracket so anybody who had never memorized the psalm could do so. The Thomas W. Lawson was the only seven-masted vessel ever built, and offhand I am not sure if she had 350 sails or more or less. It seems to me a full-rigged ship, with three masts, that carried 38 ``kites,'' of which one would be the main-royal studding sail. I realize for postcard purposes that can be reduced to stun-s'l.

I never really memorized the sails, but I was of an age with boys who could rattle them off from jibs to spanker, and our town was then still supplied with old salts who could readily correct an upstart who left one out. Cap'n Jule Soule, who lived at the bottom of our street, told me once, however, that sails that went to sea didn't always come back. He explained that sails properly fitted in harbor didn't always draw well at sea, and a good master would see a fault before long and correct it.

Cap'n Soule's best example was the legendary Dash, built in our town for a privateer in ``Mr. Madison's War.'' When she left the Harraseeket River on her first foray (Edward Kelleran, master) she was rigged as a tops'l schooner. Capt. Kelleran opined that she could stand more sail, so he fitted her as a hermaphrodite brig and added a ``ringtail,'' an extra sail off the main boom that could be spread when more speed was needed. Now square rigged forward and schooner rigged aft, she had a strikingly different appearance, and there was nothing afloat at that time that could match her speed.

Speed was important in privateering, but not always in merchant vessels, where cargo space was considered and safety was more likely to prove profitable. It was in the California gold rush days that the clipper was designed - the clipper got there fast!

But the clipper has been misunderstood. Her day was brief, just over 10 years, and she proved unprofitable when California wheat days followed the gold-rush period. Then came the finest sailing vessel of them all - the downeaster. Made in Maine yards and taken to sea by a Maine crew and master, the downeaster extended the era of commercial sail by an extra 25 years, and supplied the world with hard California cereal grains. But the clipper owned the glamour, and while far more important in commerce, the downeaster got second billing. Most of the paintings you see of ``clippers'' show downeasters. Square rigged and lofted for cargoes of wheat, a downeaster would carry at least 27 sails on three masts. Her quarters were always of beautiful woods, beautifully crafted, and for her day she had every convenience.

Another thing, the downeaster was never let lose her style. Any line that showed fraying was replaced, and every sail that tattered was renewed. The deck was holystoned meticulously at least every week, usually as a prelude to prayers on Sunday. The downeaster was a queen.

The after-quarters of a downeaster were as often as not the home of the master's family. Mothers taught the children their school lessons according to specifications supplied by the Maine State House and after two and three years at sea would be paid upon arrival home for ``larnin'' their own youngsters. A downeaster with the captain's family aboard was called a ``hen frigate.'' And when downeasters met in foreign ports, the several captains would have the longboats lowered and families would gather to visit. Such gatherings were called ``gams,'' which is the word for a school of whales. There was good reason for so many Maine children, in those days, to be able to recite the sails - a sing-song exercise like the books of the Bible, the list of interjections, and the multiplication tables to 12.

The Thomas W. Lawson had seven masts and was schooner rigged. Built, I think, at the Fore River Yard at Quincy, in Massachusetts, she was steel and used a steam donkey engine to set the sails. I must look her up for this postcard gentleman who no doubt has good reason for wanting to know. I hope he uses another postcard to tell me why.

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