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LAST OF A VANISHED FLEET

A Slow Pacific Passage in the "Tusitala" By ROLAND BARKER

 

NOT SINCE 1932, when the Tusitala was decommissioned, has any square-rigged sailing vessel engaged in commercial voyaging under the American flag. Owned by James A. Farrell and commanded by Captain James P. Barker, Tusitala survived by more than two decades an era now in the keeping of the dim past. It seems difficult to realize that the commercial square-rigger, with all it has meant in the way of romance, adventure and excellent training to the youth of maritime nations, has vanished forever." While today's potential seaman may imagine himself handling billowing canvas high aloft on a slanting yardarm, he must now be content with the prosaic steam vessel with its smokestack and skeleton masts.

Captain Barker looked upon his command of Tusitala as a distinguished privilege, not only because she was the lone survivor of a vanished fleet, but because of the many young sea-minded Americans who were enabled to acquire experience under canvas, an invaluable training which both he and Mr. Farrell believed would enhance the efficiency of the American Merchant Marine.

Tusitala was 261' long between perpendiculars (310' over all), 39'5" beam, and 23'5" depth, and her hull was iron.

In rig she was a ship in the strictest sense of the word—a three-masted vessel, square-rigged on all three masts. Her total sail area was more than 20,000 square feet; the mainsail alone being 3,200 feet and the foresail 2,600. She carried single topgal-iantsails below fore, main and mizzen royals.

She was strictly a merchant vessel, carrying valuable cargoes between the ports of New York, Honolulu and Baltimore via the Panama Canal. The freights earned contributed largely to her maintenance, deficits  being made up by the owner. Captain Barker, a veteran of over half a century afloat and 41 passages around Cape Horn at the time of his decease in 1946, took command of Tusitala in 1925, making an annual voyage to Honolulu until she was tied up seven years later.

Extracts from the Captain's journals, besides being of historical interest, convey vivid pictures of the life aboard Tusitala, of the weather encountered, of the vagaries of. the doldrums reaching from the Bay of Panama to about 120° W. longitude, where the northeast trades were usually encountered. A typical voyage was begun on June 1, 1929, when Tusitala sailed from Hoboken, N.J., with a cargo of sulphate of ammonia destined as fertilizer for the Hawaiian pineapple plantations.

"As the lines were cast adrift and the tugs moved us away from the pier," Captain Baker wrote, "hearty wishes for fair winds and a pleasant voyage reached across to us. Out in the river, we began to make sail to a light nor'west breeze, and as the white canvas was hoisted aloft, ferry boat passengers forgot their worldly troubles to wave and cheer, tugs tooted in appreciation of this vision of a bygone day, and off Stapleton liners blew hoarse blasts in reverent salute. The ship's company, comprising for the most part young men of little experience, evidently realized the novelty of the situation, for they pulled and hauled with enthusiasm, shouted and laughed, as though off on a pleasure cruise—none of them sensing the coming disillusionment, the hard labor, the exasperating grind that lay inevitably ahead.

"Off Ambrose Lightship the tug was cast adrift, and I gave the order to fill away on the main and crojik yards. All sail was clapped on her. The course was given to the man at the wheel. The mates picked the watches, and the men settled down to customary routine. Soon the tug was hull down on 'the western horizon. Tinitala, lifting to the increasing swell, slowly gathered headway—outward bound for Honolulu."

Captain Barker paid tribute to the owner's generosity in fitting out the ship. Unlike the scantily found and short-handed vessels of his earlier years in sail, Tusitala was equipped with the best gear obtainable. Aloft, the standing rigging had been recently renewed. The sails were excellent, finely cut. The running gear, three miles of it, was good and dependable. Below decks there was enough new rope to replace every fathom of running gear in the ship. The food, wholesome and plentiful, was not at all reminiscent of the cracker-hash and salt horse served at sea in days gone by. There was every reason for the crew to feel highly optimistic concerning the prospects for a happy and successful passage. On the second day out, however, some of the new hands, experiencing seasickness for the first time, bewailed their decision to go to sea or prayed frankly for oblivion.

Wrote Captain Barker: "Many of them have pale green faces and woebegone expressions, their movements the reverse of youthful activity. At noon today I was nearly baptised with pea soup when the messman, losing his balance as the ship gave a violent lurch, spilled a plateful just clear of my lap. Like most self-respecting youths seasick for the first time, he emphatically denied my sympathetic accusation, only to hurry out on deck where he nearly gave up the ghost.

"Tusitala is now 300 miles SE X S from Sandy Hook. I am heading toward the Bermudas to obtain a weatherly position for making the Mona Passage, for the trades are mostly south of east, compelling one to sail close hauled on the port tack from the parallel of 24° N.

"At 7:00 p.m., June 5, raised Gibbs Hill Light (Bermuda) half a point on the lee bow—too scant for clearing. I therefore bore away and ran round to the north end of the island, bringing up close to the wind when St. David's Head bore southeast, distant 12 miles. During the afternoon watch we had been assailed by sharp squalls with heavy showers, enabling Tusitala to log an easy 12 knots.

"The first-voyagers seem to have lost some of their romantic notions of sea life, and are beginning to realize that life aboard a square-rigger at'sea affords plenty of hard work and bodily exercise. I have questioned several of them as to whether they have swallowed the anchor, but they all replied, 'No, sir! We like it fine!' I gave them to understand that they could contribute a great deal toward making their experience a pleasant and happy one by responding to all commands cheerily and in a lively manner.

"June 15-16. This day began with a fresh EXS breeze and rough sea, before which the old ship sped along at nearly 10 knots with a bone in her teeth like foaming yeast. Her wild lurching and rolling sent pots and pans clattering down to leeward, to the accompaniment of deep growls, salt-water curses and frequent appeals: 'Go it, Old Girl. That's the style. Get down to it and make things hum.' This she did, recklessly, until midnight, when I found that she had made 125 miles since noon.

"At eight bells, however, the wind took off, reducing our speed to six knots. Sunrise came with frequent showers, some of which carried a heft of wind. The rugged sea often crashed inboard to pour out through the lee scuppers and waste-ports. The excitement of heavy water on deck apparently fascinated the beginners, who seemed to enjoy getting saturated. I am pleased to observe that under the tutelage of the few old-timers in the forecastles they are picking up some of the wrinkles of seamanship, responding with alacrity whenever an order is given."

Tusitala passed through the Mona Passage in the late afternoon of June 16th, but not until eight days later—having met with light, variable airs in the Caribbean—did she arrive at Colon. Captain Barker appears to have been reasonably satisfied with the progress made—time on the passage 23 days, distance made good 2,753 miles.....

"Most of the green hands have lost those expressions of sickly bewilderment caused by the playful tricks of the Old Man of the Sea. They have experienced weather fair and foul, have been drilled in making and shortening sail, and for the most part have done well. However, the Pacific doldrum belt, with its vexatious and bewildering airs, its calms and sudden squalls, will test their enthusiasm and stamina to the limit. In a sailing ship one can only hopefully conjecture as to the probable length of a passage, which can be just as full of ebbs and floods, sunshine and fog as is the very voyage of life. What lies ahead for us on the other side of the Isthmus depends on the whims of the fickle wind gods, on our own patient efforts and submission to unrelenting grind."

Having passed through the Canal, Tusitala took on fresh provisions below the Mira Flores Locks, then entered the Bay of Panama, whose shimmering waters were first gazed upon by the Spanish conquistadore Balboa. On this placid arm of the sea, the light winds change with great frequency, making a sailing ship's passage from Panama to the parallel of Cape Mala one long to be remembered. The Bay of Panama, however, is but an infinitesimal part of the vast doldrum regions through which Tusitala was compelled to work her way, for between the meridians of 80° W and 115° W the weather is so bewilderingly perverse as to be unequalled in any other part of the world.

With main and mizzen royals furled and cross-jack unbent, the "Tusitala" makes the best of a fair wind (left)

"June 29-30. Like the soft breathing of a child in sleep, a very light nor'west breeze urged us to the sou'sou'west at a rate of about two knots until 9:00 p.m., when it gave a last -dying gasp, leaving us without steerage way. Clouds massing thick and black all round the horizon are illuminated by vivid flashes of lightning—in other latitudes a sure indication of wind, but hereabouts merely the gods spitting fire at each other. Experience gleaned from previous voyages reminds me of the vast distance to be overcome ere favoring winds can be expected.

" 'Clews the crojik and mains'l up! Haul round the crojik yards! Main yards round! Haul away there! Belay all! Let go fore tack and sheet! Haul away fore brace! Belay fore! Haul away tops'l braces, both together! You, behind there on that lower tops'l brace, look alive; put your weight on it! Belay tops'l braces! Haul away fore braces.'

"And again and again, until the yards are hauled round and braced hard on the backstays. Then, 'Head sheets over! Main and mizzen stays'ls over! Down fore, main and crojik tacks! Sheets aft, and haul taut the weather fore and main braces!' This work on an average of ten times in a watch of four hours. No wonder I tell my men when shipping of the need for fortitude, cheery willingness and boundless enthusiasm.

"July 5-6. All the living quarters are now wet and damp, a coating of green mildew having formed over everything from shoes and clothing to the very bread we eat, making things decidedly uncomfortable. Passing the mate's room shortly after noon, I peeped in to gaze upon a veritable Paddy's Market of mildewed clothing, shoes and books, together with marlinespikes, spunyarn, bath-brick, polishing rags, and even a couple of pots of paint. How he manages to climb into his bunk and fall asleep amid such confusion is certainly a mystery to me. A veteran deep-water man of the old school, he is something of a stoic, for as he says, he never misses the things he never had.

"This day has been filled with baffling light airs and dead calms. During heavy rains the ship has been tended ceaselessly, yards braced round to fleeting changes, several times to breezes that insisted on following her as she was being wore round. We have lost ground in a sea confused and boiling with cross currents. More than once the ship has been swung through an arc of 90°. I am unable to understand why the Hydrographic charts for the vicinity of Malpelo Island-now bearing S 39 W, distant 40 miles—are so glaringly in error, the currents now experienced being diametrically opposite to those depicted on the charts for June and July.

"July 11-12. Light adverse winds set the vessel back until she had lost over 30 miles of the hard won ground made on July 9-10.

"A sad accident befell us this day. One of the Able Seamen, who had finished furling the mizzen royal and was descending by way of the royal stay, lost his hold and fell heavily to the deck from a height of more than 70 feet. On picking him up and making an examination of his injuries, I found that his skull was fractured above the right ear. He was carried below, where I could attend him; but from my first glance it was evident to me that his injuries were of a fatal nature. The catastrophe occurred at 7:50 a.m., the poor fellow lingering until two bells (9:00 a.m.) when in the presence of two watchers and myself he gave up the ghost.

"Mustered all hands on the quarterdeck and informed them • of the death of their shipmate and my intention to arrange for burial at 4:00 p.m. prompt. I referred briefly to our • distress on this occasion, pointing out that it would be unwise for any one of us to dwell on our loss. I reminded them that we had our own lives to live, and duty to perform, both to ourselves and to others, and that we of the Christian faith could rest assured that the poor fellow's soul was already in the safe keeping of the Almighty. Urging them to work industriously as before, I dismissed them—the watch on deck to hauling the yards round, the watch below to their quarters.

"One could not but observe the lassitude of every one of them; they are all young and easily influenced, and I have little doubt but that they were sadly depressed. The mate's voice lacked force and direction, and his face was the picture of utmost distress. For the purpose of lifting the men out of their gloom, I commenced to bark out orders, telling them to step lively and make a noise when pulling on the braces. The response was immediately noticeable, and not until 4:00 p.m. did gloom return—when they mustered aft on the poop, listened solemnly to my reading of the burial service, and saw the shrouded corpse committed to the deep.

"Immediately following the brief rites I gave the order to haul round the main and crojik yards which had been flattened to the masts. Leaping as though in great relief the men had those yards round and the sails filled in less time than it takes to write these few words. Doubtless, involuntary thoughts of the unhappy tragedy will invade the mind, causing transient gloom for weeks to come. Through*it all the wind gods seemed to jeer and taunt us with exasperating shifts. Distance made good 23 miles.

"July 12-13. Calms, contrary light head winds, and a current setting east at more than two knots have combined to make the Tusitala lose ground to the tune of over 50 miles, despite the fact that for four hours she sailed South 80 West and made 19 miles by log. We have been set back 50 miles of longitude.

"While at breakfast this morning the mate told me he knew we would carry a favoring breeze ere long, for he had noticed several cockroaches about, and this, he claimed, was a lucky sign. 'Mister,' I said to him, 'you're just as superstitious as your countrymen who lived 500 years ago. One of your famous mariners went so far as to advise others to keep a sharp lookout when approaching the eastern shores of South America, where numerous large, black birds would be seen hovering about. And if, by any chance, one of those birds was seen to incline its right foot towards its tail that was indeed a serious matter, an infallible sign of tempestuous weather.'

"Reading of the old Spanish galleons making a landfall on the coast of Southern California and proceeding along the coast of Mexico, via Acapulco, during their voyages from the Phillipines to Panama, causes one to ponder on the fortitude and indomitable courage of those ancient mariners.

"Current rips have been very much in evidence. Most of the time the overfalls made one think of soundings, and as we are not any great distance from a dangerous reef, the position of which is marked 'doubtful' on the chart, a vigilant lookout is maintained. Why any rock or reef should be a menace to navigation nowadays, because no efforts have been made to establish a true position, is certainly food for speculation. Well, be that as it may, here is the Rivadeneyra Shoal evidently in existence, a source of anxiety to any mariner making use of these seas, but its definite position is unknown.

"July 17-18. Tusitala has come close to her best day's work this passage, for she's made 92 miles on a N 73 W course. Taking a mid-course, I find we have gained what appears to be a long leg on the chart. This is to be gazed upon and chuckled over with glee. Hopes soar boundlessly; visions of freshening winds, foam-crested seas, and straining sheets make one step lively and look forward to the next meal with gusto. The birth of each day brings fresh hope, its passing sees that hope shattered.

"Clouds on the rim of the horizon are scanned intently for signs of wind. A patch is thought to move. Yes, there's a slight discoloration on the water—wind, sure enough. I walk to the binocular box, pick up the glasses, focus them and watch far-off catspaws gambolling here and there, but none with enough energy to reach us. While looking instinctively all round the horizon, I discern a long straight blue patch of water that seems to advance. It's a little breeze. Slowly, it moves towards us, reaches us, very faintly. It's something, anyway—worth boarding the tacks and hauling aft sheets to. It makes a little. The ship commences to stir and shake herself, and in a few minutes she is slowly creeping through the water, not nearly as slickly as a month ago, for by this time her underbody is covered with a mass of barnacles. On the starboard tack she heads up to N 50 W true, and makes five knots. Fine! And thus she continues till noon, when she is found by observation to be in Lat. 6:10 N; Long. 91:13 W, 680 miles WbyS from Cape Mala. Distance made good 43 miles.

"July 31-August 1. July has proved uncannily profitless to us, all its 31 days having been consumed in making less than 900 miles.

"Not until the stroke of eight bells (noon) did the Tusitala begin to creep through the water. At that time I hooked and hauled aboard a 40-pound dolphin that measured five feet in length. I had the tail cut off, and immediately sent the bosun aloft to the fore royal truck with hammer and nails to secure it thereon in a fore and aft position, as a good luck charm.

"As I live, within a few minutes Tusitala's canvas rounded out to a light breeze well abaft the beam. The old ship began to forge ahead at three knots. This speed was maintained until 5:30 p.m., when the wind freshened and the sails actually bellied for the first time in many days. Much to the satisfaction of all hands, she kept it up throughout the night. At noon I was elated to determine by observation distance made good 118 miles.

"August 11-12. This day a boat was lowered and its crew caught a turtle. Also, during the a.m. watch, a shovel-nosed shark was hooked from the poop. When hauled aboard and cut open, its belly was found to contain about 50 pounds of corned beef—the contents of a barrel which, because of decomposition, I had ordered hove overboard on August 7. Monstrous horn-billed turtles can be seen floating lightly on the surface. Catching them from a boat is an easy matter, for to submerge they are obliged to deflate—a slow process. Many times at sea I have come alongside a turtle, grasped it by a hind flipper and hauled it into a lifeboat.

"August 19-20. Tusitala has made more direct mileage during the last 12 days than in the previous 43. Yet, only twice has she made respectable runs. The utter absence of winds and the presence of foul currents have together clapped a stopper on our progress. Owing to the baffling vagaries, the yards have been swung and reswung more than ever before, o that the wear and tear on truss and goose-neck pins, braces, blocks, sheets, and sails has been without let-up.

"Had the ship's company not been young and filled with an eagerness to comply with all the demands made upon them, I doubt but that some of them would have become apathetic and sought the questionable comforts of their damp bunks under the pretense of sickness. Happily, and much to my gratification, there has been never a grumble, never a hint of sickness, never a loss of appetite—the latter a most healthy sign. The ship's cook spends long hours in the galley, trying to satisfy the ravenous hunger of young men who, for nearly two months, have handled miles of braces, clew-garnets, tacks and sheets, and in so doing developed hitherto dormant muscles.

"August 20-21. Members of the watch below caught five dolphins during the morning watch, four from the poop and one from the jibboom. In all, they weighed 87 pounds, enough for several good meals. My eyes are becoming dim with constant peering for signs of stronger winds to waft us along on our journey. Surely we must be nearing the eastern margin of the trades in this befouled ocean. Fesition by observation 2,373 miles WxN from Cape Mala; distance made good 83 miles.

"August 24-30. At noon of August 25, the Tusitala was 60 days out from Panama and still 1,910 miles from Honolulu. Should we, by good fortune, run into strong northeast Trade winds we may possibly make the balance of the passage in 10 days. The Trades thus, far have been spitefully light, but perhaps the month of August, certainly this one, is not auspicious for a square-rigged ship. The sailing vessel experiences all the bounding pleasures of strong, favorable winds and swelling sails, the bitter disappointments of calms, doldrums, and head winds. Inanimate though she is, she imparts to the humans manning her those same pleasures and disappointments. ... In the last six days we have made good 206 miles, and at noon of August 30 we are 1,215 miles ExS from Honolulu.

"September 9-10. Ambling along at four knots all the afternoon and throughout the first dog-watch, Tusitala made 25 miles to 6:00 p.m., when Makapu Point was reported dead ahead. As there was still 30 miles to sail ere I could reach an anchorage, the ship was hove to on the port tack at 6:30 p.m., to await dawn, when with luck we would square away for the last leg. The freshest breeze of the entire passage blew unceasingly all during the night of September 9, but alas, it was too late for us to make up for lost time.

"Drifting while hove to towards our destination, we were 15 miles off the port at sunrise. I then squared away, and under all sail Tusitala covered the remaining distance. On arrival at 8:00 a.m., I learned from the agent that the old ship is to load sugar for New York. Good news! Time occupied on this passage a few hours short of 76 days, distance made good 5,452 miles."

Over 20 years have rolled away since that day. Tusitala sails the seas no more, and Captain Barker has coiled up his ropes and gone to his final watch below. The old vessel made two more voyages under his command; then she was tied up, and for several years was a familiar sight lying alongside a Hudson River pier' near the George Washington Bridge. Countless New Yorkers visited her, pausing no doubt in her after cabin to read a framed message from Joseph Conrad hanging on the panelled wall:

"On leaving this hospitable country where the cream is excellent and the milk of human kindness never ceases to flow I assume an ancient mariner's privilege of sending to the owners and the ship's company of the Tusitala my brotherly good wishes for fair winds and clear skies on all their voyages. And may they be many! "And I would recommend to them to watch the weather, to keep the halliards clear for running, and to remember that any fool can carry on, but only the wise man knows how to shorten sail in time . . . and so on, in the manner of ancient mariners all the world over. But the vital truth of sea life is to be found in the ancient saying that it is 'the stout hearts that make the ship safe.' "Having* been brought up on it I pass it on to them in all confidence and affection."

 

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