The Wiles of Compasses And Speedy Clippers

My brother was lately removed from the cultural center of the universe to San Diego, and as he was barely settled when California weather went sour, my wife asked me just where this San Diego is, anyway. Donning my Mackinaw and mittens, I stepped out to the breezeway and brought in my copy of the world atlas, our best authority on such matters, published in 1810 by Tuttle & Tuttle, and approved by the Portland Marine Society.

It proved to be unaware of San Diego. It shows Tahiti, Yokohama, and the guano coast of Chile, but otherwise has nothing west of the Cumberland Gap. So I told my wife about Lizzie Coombs, who told the Shining Light Club that her brother Lemuel had gone to North Dakota to homestead, and Sadie Benson had asked, ``Is that out West?''

``Oh yes,'' said Lizzie, because in those days there was some glamour to going out West.

``How far out West?'' persisted Sadie.

Lizzie said, ``Well, it's as far out West as it is from Boston out West.''

``My goodness,'' said Sadie.

The Portland Marine Society, very old, set up a whopping charity fund to aid the widows of members who were all deep-water and down-Maine sea captains, and obligated its members to share navigational experiences with others. The ``declination of the needle'' was then a matter for study, as the compass can be capricious, and upon completing a voyage the captain would bring his log to the next meeting and his observations on compass variations would be posted.

Times have changed and seafaring also. Portland harbor sees ``sticks'' only on summer mahogany, but each Christmas a few widows share the benefits from invested funds. Today, sailing masters who touch at Portland are mostly off tankers.

Consider the ``declination of the needle'' that was duly reported by Capt. Warren H. Bearce of the clipper Flying Scud. Her launch in 1858 was late in the clipper decade, and the discovery of gold in Australia offered a new horizon. The Australian Pioneer Line of Cameron, in New York, was offering ``Sixty Days to Australia,'' and when the Flying Scud was available, Cameron bought her and Captain Bearce departed New York on Sept. 9, 1858.

The vessel was heavily loaded until ``her scuppers were nearly awash,'' and on this voyage there was not meant to be a test of speed, although the Scud was designed for quick passages. Barely on her way, in the Gulf Stream, the vessel was struck by lightning, and this magnetized the cargo of iron in her after hold. Captain Bearce was to report that his compass was rendered useless, and it simply sat there and twirled its needle around and around like a windmill in a gale.

The only way they could get any kind of a reading was to lash the compass to a plank, shove the plank over the sea from the port rail, and then lower a man in a bucket-chair from a boom. He'd call aboard his best guess as to direction.

In spite of being so overloaded, the Flying Scud reached Australia in 76 days. On one of those days she logged 449 nautical miles, compass and all, and that would be the best speed of all the clippers. Later the Scud made New York to Marseille in 19 days - but with her compass working.

It's fun to think of those tedious ocean voyages as ``speedy'' in today's jet-lag contexts. The Red Jacket, loveliest of the later extreme clippers, made dock-to-dock, New York to Liverpool in a stormy voyage. The time: 13 days, 1 hour, and 25 minutes.

Indeed, well after the era of sail, the Germans built a fleet of steel vessels that had one fault - they were fitted with sophisticated sails that gave them incredible speed. And this speed proved to be the vessels' own undoing. They went so fast in any kind of a wind that conventional seamanship was not sufficient for safety.

Yet wind power was still cheaper than fuels, and the clippers and down-easters had proved that sailing vessels could be made speedy, so that there need be no great delay if goods went with the wind. These huge German windjammers got plenty of cargo. One of them, butting down the Channel in the mad March days, was off the English coast with all sails set when she found herself abeam of a cross-channel ferryboat headed for Belgium. Its holds bulging, the German ship was heavy in the water. She was doomed by her own momentum.

It was always interesting to me that the cargo of this monstrous hulk didn't run to Masefield's Tyne coal and cheap tin trays, but included the reasonably highbrow commodity of 500 grand pianos. It seemed to me, always, that a sea disaster that involves pig-lead makes some kind of forlorn sense, but that 500 grand pianos running amok before the wind is too much even for the English Channel. Unable to turn or stop his Goliath of a craft, the unfortunate captain could only shout a feeble Vorsicht!, and ride the matter out in John Gilpin style. The two boats collided. It was a major marine tragedy, and came somewhat as a farewell for the commercial sailing vessel.

The collision emphasized that bigger and bigger sailing craft were not an answer, and the age of power was reluctantly accepted by the old-timers as a fact. The passengers on the ferry were inconvenienced, and considerable litigation resulted. Perhaps the only happy note was that the captain of the German sailing vessel made it safely to dry English soil, while his first mate accompanied him on a piano.

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