17th century sailing

17th century sailing & boating adventures,
by Len W, 1 July 2012

Not a lot is known about voyaging in the smaller ships and boats of the 17th century, but early Quaker journals provide some fascinating insights. A free-thinking group, the Quakers were savagely persecuted and many emigrated. A leading Quaker, George Fox, survived many beatings and imprisonments and in 1671 sailed out to visit the small and scattered Quaker communities in the Americas, voyaging in small ships, open boats and canoes. One of his companions was George Pattison, a ship’s master sailing as a passenger. Pattison daily noted their latitude by sextant reading, compass courses, wind strengths and direction and the distance run by the log board. We therefore know their latitude positions, but their longitudes were uncertain, chronometers then being still far in the future. Note was also made of cetaceans and birds seen and fish caught, and of the passengers’ illnesses. Their journals are quoted and I propose George Fox’s account for the 1672 Naylor Noggin!

From London they sailed by a ‘King’s Boat’ to reach a ship lying at Gravesend, the port ‘one tide from London’. ‘King’s Boats’ were licensed ferries, which ‘had to sail on every tide whether passengers or not’. They were tilt boats (open boats with awnings) of 35 tons and carried a six-man crew, who presumably had to row in calms. Fox recorded, ‘Upon the whole, the passage is cheap, and with a fair wind and good weather extremely pleasant and agreeable; but not to be recommended to ladies.’ On August 11, together with twelve other Quakers, fifty passengers in all, he boarded a ‘ketch’ lying below Gravesend. (Terms such as ketch and sloop had different meanings in those days. From the ‘Oxford Companion to the Sea’ it appears that at that time a ‘ketch’ would have been a two-masted vessel, square sail on the fore-mast, of 50 up to 100 tons.).

The ketch then sailed to The Downs (an anchorage off Deal), where England being at war a navy frigate impressed three of their seamen. Because of the war they were meant to be sailing in a convoy, and the delay had put them behind the other ships. However that night there was what George Fox enthusiastically described as a ‘pretty fine gale’ (north-easterly) and they overtook the convoy off Topsham in Devon, and next morning they sighted a fleet of Dutch ships that had left The Downs a week before them. The Dutch asked whether their country was at war with France. (The maritime nations were frequently at war without their ships at sea being aware of it.) On the 20th it was blowing so hard that the Quakers persuaded the captain to lower his topmast. One of the other ships then lost its topmast thus proving them right. On the 21st their shrouds, slack after the gale, were tightened, but crossing the Bay of Biscay their mainstay parted through rubbing, but was mended before nightfall. All this time the ship was leaking so badly that the passengers as well as the crew were constantly manning the crude and inefficient pumps, clearing ten tons of water a day. (Fox took a sanguine view of this. ‘It keeps the seamen and passengers in good health’ he wrote.) Further south, with the heat, conditions aboard the crowded vessel became very bad, but fish were caught to provide valuable fresh food. (In those days scurvy was always a hazard on long voyages.)

It must be borne in mind that in those days ships could only to sail to windward with great difficulty, and clearing the English Channel tacking against the prevailing westerly winds could be very difficult. (On one occasion the English fleet, ordered to sea from Portsmouth, took three months to clear the channel!) Once clear of the channel they would sail south to avoid the westerlies and gain the north-east trade-winds. These however would take them well within range of the pirate-infested Barbary Coast (now Morocco).

On the 2nd September at ‘about four in the afternoon we espied a vessel four leagues (12 miles) astern that seemed to give chase. To prevent her, when it began to get dark, we altered our course’. ‘Some among the mariners conjectured that it was likely to be a Sallee man-of-war’ (pirates from Sale in Morocco.) ‘Notwithstanding (she) came up within a mile and a half of us by the eleventh hour.’ ‘I could see him out of my cabin¦’. Eventually, ‘we being of the dark side of the moon … as soon as the moon did set (after dousing all lights except a candle to steer by) we steered NE a while, and after that E and SE till break of day, and so saw no sight of her.’

Fox became very ill during the latter part of the voyage, but on the 3rd of October they anchored off Barbados, and ashore here he recovered. Meanwhile their ketch was check and ‘at the keel of the ship there was a long hole one might put his hand in’. (Which accounts for the leakage!) It was stopped, but fish were still swimming about inside the ship.

On 11th January they sailed on to Jamaica in a ketch (apparently a different ketch), but this one also sprang a leak. ‘and we were in great danger, and the carpenter, being a seaman, dived in the sea with his hammer, chisel and oakum, and groped out the hole, and stopped it under water with oakum, and came up again and said he had made her tight…and so she was.’ They came to Jamaica on the 18th ‘which they say was 1,200 miles.’

Then on the 8th March the party took passage from Jamaica for Virginia, having the choice of two vessels, ‘a frigate or a ketch’. The frigate’s owner quoted a high fare, so they opted for the much cheaper ketch. The two vessels sailed out together, but with calms and contrary winds separated. The frigate put back and was captured by Spaniards, although the English later retook it. On the ketch meanwhile they were struggling to get to windward, and it was 14 days before they passed out of sight of Jamaica. (In those days windward progress was very poor even in ideal conditions, and in heavy weather they might make no progress or be driven back.) The same day they ‘were in great danger; the mainstay of our ship’s great yard fell down.’ On the 2nd April Florida was in sight, but they ‘had great winds and many storms that tossed us backwards and forwards.’ ‘In the storm our boltsprit broke and blew the jibsail into the sea to the great hazard of the ship, but all was well’. Storms and contrary winds continued, they were driven back, ‘and all of us were much wet, both company and passengers, with the rain and the waves.’ (This suggests that the ketch was an open boat). On the 16th conditions were so bad they had to ‘tie up the rudder bands and the helm and let the ship go which way she would.’ At last, after casting overboard a seaman who had died, they anchored in Paxutent Bay on 19th April

The Quaker whaling ship Essex

The WHALING SHIP ESSEX, sketched by its cabin boy Thomas Nickerson, one of the survivors. The Essex was attacked and sunk by a sperm whale in 1820 and is said to be the only vessel in history known to have suffered such a fate. The extraordinary story of the ship and its crew inspired a young whaler, Herman Melville, to write Moby Dick. “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex” is a National Book Award winning work of maritime history by Nathaniel Philbrick.  The stoic Quakerism of the Nantucket whalers seems incongrous with the gruesome killing they undertook at sea. {License: PD-art}

This was not the end of their perils however. The master visited another ship and came back ‘mad drunk’, threatening to cut down the mast and throw people overboard, but Fox ‘had power over him’. Next day ‘there was a great storm and there was a boat cast upon us for shelter’ with men women and children aboard. During the night not only was this boat lost, but the ship’s own boats too, so they were all marooned. ‘All our provision was gone, and we did not know how to get on the shore.’ Fox, never to miss an opportunity, held a service for his captive audience, (who by then were likely to be well in the mood for prayer!) Then ‘George Pattison ventured his life in a little boat to get to another ship’  ‘and none could believe, except Friends (Quakers) but that he would be cast away.’ Then ‘that boat was driven away. And all our provision was gone.’ Finally on the 23rd April, Fox’s party was at last able to get ashore, and, ‘though we were weary, travelled sixty miles’ to attend ‘a Quaker Meeting for Worship’! After that ‘we came about forty miles by water, and a great storm came on us soon after we had set out, and our sloop was cast on ground, ready to be broken in pieces.’ George Fox was also suffering from a fever and was wet to the skin with sweat as well as with spray. ‘But we got the boat off the sands and all was well. And we got to the place called The Cliffs by the break of day’ where they attended another Quaker Meeting. Another forty mile boat journey followed, this time to a meeting where an Indian ‘Emperor’ and two ‘kings’ attended ‘who were ‘very loving.’ Later on another Indian ‘king’ was very impressed with Fox’s teachings, and said he would like to become a Quaker, ‘but if he did the Puritans (Pilgrim Fathers) would hang him. He would therefore remain a heathen.’ (The Pilgrim Fathers were a nasty lot, and they did hang Quakers.)

George Fox’s travels continued, sometimes by water, sometimes through trackless forest with Indian guides enduring considerable hardships. Some rivers were crossed by ‘dangerous canoes’ (probably heavy dugouts rather than birch-bark canoes), with their horses swimming alongside. On one occasion they crossed a river floating on a tree-trunk. (They were probably unable to swim). On 3rd May they took boat to Rhode Island, about 200 miles. ‘We were weary with travelling by land and water, but the … Power of the Lord carried and preserved us through and over the fury of wild beasts and men, woods, storms, wildernesses, bogs, rivers, famine and frosts.’

It is hard for us today to understand why people underwent such hardships and danger to get to these religious meetings, but in those days religion was something they died for. Besides, George Fox was a charismatic preacher, offering what was then exciting new thinking. A Justice of the Peace said that ‘he had never heard the like or such things in all his life.’ Many of the people came to Meetings by boat, the land still being without roads. (These woodlands even today are so dense that according to Bill Bryson a six-seater aircraft disappeared in them without trace!) Whether by land or water travelling was dangerous. Another Quaker ‘was cast overboard and drowned, but not in our sloop that time’. In their open boats, with rain and spray they were often wet for days at a time, as they also were when journeying through the forests.

Their travels continued, and 5th November their party sailed to Virginia, and by the 6th they had ‘rowed and sailed about eighty miles. The weather being stormy, and wind and fog and rain, at night we put to the shore and in the woods we made us a fire with much ado, all things being wet, and there stayed all the night by it.’ Fox was at the helm most part of a day and night. ‘And so the next day, and the next again more of the same’. It seems that their boats were mostly heavy shallops, since sometimes canoes were towed as tenders. On one occasion their boat was so rotten it sank, but they beached it, bailed it, repaired it and carried on.

Eventually on 21st May, George Fox boarded a ship to return to England. The English were at war again, this time with the Dutch, but it was decided not to wait for a convoy. They weighed anchor, but the wind being against them they only made a mile. Next day they made six or seven miles against the wind, and so on anchoring at night until the 27th when the wind came fair, but only on the 31st reached the main ocean. ‘On the 13th day we had a tempestuous wind that made the sea like mountains…….. And the master and men wondered and said they never saw the like of this before.’ Fortunately the storm took them in the right direction. ‘On the 27th we sounded and found ground at 35 fathom. And it being a great storm and windy, we took down our sails and mizzen, and let her drive northwards, fearing the land, and at midnight they did discern the Island of Lundy, and then they were greatly glad, for all were on watch.’ When they anchored next day the press gang came aboard and took four of their men, but stayed for George Fox’s Quaker Meeting, and ‘liked it very well’. After the meeting George was able to persuade the press-master to return them two of the pressed men.

There are many other sailing adventures in Quaker history. The longest known open boat voyage (even longer than Bligh’s) was by survivors of the Quaker whaling ship Essex in 1820, and the little ‘Sirius’ was the first steamship to cross the Atlantic (a week before Brunel’s huge ‘Great Western’). British Quakers remain few in number but notable in many fields. Contrary to the dour Quaker image, the late Paul Eddington (‘Yes, Prime Minister!’) and Dame Judy Dench may be familiar to readers. Incidentally there is no required belief for British Quakers; some, like myself, are agnostic.

Ref. The Journal of George Fox. Ed. John Nickalls. Cambridge University Press ‘52.