Thursday, August 14, 2008


Sam Smith - Since a young boy, I've been fascinated by multi-masted schooners. As a teenager on several Maine coastal cruises, I ranked sightings of the three-masted Victory Chimes - the last of her ilk - as among the high points. The purpose of these ships: a final effort to compete with the rise of steam vessels, and later with diesel.

Now comes word that, thanks to the cost of fuel, multi-masted sailing vessels are again being used. Tree Hugger reports that the Kathleen & May pulled into Dublin with 22 pallets carrying 21,000 bottles of Fair Wind Wine. The vessel is one of those owned by the Compagnie de Transport Maritime a la Voile which says that such carriers have one-seventh the carbon emissions of a container ship. (They still use diesel to run navigational aids and help them into port). The trip takes up to twice as long as a fuel-powered vessel but the wine companies get to put "Carried by sailing ship' on the label.

I learned about the unimportance of speed while serving an eccentric tour with the Coast Guard in St. Louis. The principle was simple: as long as the stuff kept coming it didn't make any difference how long one piece of it took to get where it was going.

Thus lethargic tows of football field proportions - with each barge carrying the equivalent of ten freight car loads - would plough quietly along, some carrying more cargo than all the steamboats of Mark Twain's day put together.

But there's also an irony for me in the return of the multi-masted schooner. My grandfather was president of the Coastwise Transportation Company, involved in a last ditch effort to provide sailing competition to steamships. The idea was to use coastal schooners of simple design with multiple masts that could be cheaply operated. Although these vessels seem exotic today, quite a few were built, 41 four to six masted schooners in Maine's Percy & Small shipyard alone. The company owned nine multi-masted ships, the grandest being the seven-masted Thomas W. Lawson. The masts carried only a mainsail and a topsail above the gaff. There were no square sails requiring large crews and all rigging could be raised and lowered by steam winches. Seven men could run the Lawson. There has been argument as to the names of the sails on this unusual rig. Some have said they each had a nautical name such as fore, main, mizzen, pusher, jigger, driver and spanker. Others said they were numbered. Still others said they were called after the days of the week.

In any case, no sailing ship like it was ever built before or after the Lawson. There was good reason. The ships were a disaster. Unwieldy and of marginal seaworthiness, the vessels were wrecked one by one.

In 1908, the treasurer of the company wrote the stockholders that the "common stock is absolutely valueless. . . As you are well aware, the past year has been a disastrous one for this company, the loss of the schooner Thomas W. Lawson and other vessels has seriously crippled us at the present time."

And now, exactly 100 years later, the circle has closed.