Log of the Steamer Beaver 3

Early 1900's sailing ship in a bottle

A Sailing ship in a bottle, from early 1900’s

As we read the steamer Beaver’s Log, we reach the point where the first measurement of Longitude is indicated. Clearly the two ships are still somewhere around the English Channel, and are travelling toward the south west, either still following the south coast of England toward the Atlantic Ocean, or continuing the same course until they are far out into the Atlantic Ocean. Here’s what the Beaver’s Log says:

September 4. Light variable winds and clear weather. 4 pm., no wind and rain. 5 pm., Shortening sail for the Columbia. Midnight, light wind, cloudy. 1 am., Light wind and heavy rain. 6 am, Set the foresail and foretopgallant sail, royal and gaff topsail. People employed drawing and knotting yarns. Longitude 8 degrees 34′, Latitude 48 degrees 58′. 

I looked to see if the word above was yarns, or yards — and I think it was yarns. On a sailing ship, “rope yarn” was used for mending the men’s clothes and hammocks. For this task the men took apart the short pieces of rope that the sail-maker had set aside as damaged, and used the threads of these ropes for sewing. They were usually given a half day off every week for the essential chore of repairing clothing and hammocks, etc., and that is how the sailors kept their clothes neat and in one piece for the long sea voyage around the Horn. 

But there seems to be something wrong with some of these Latitude and Longitude measurements: not all of them, but some. When I look them up in Google Earth, they are out in the middle of the Atlantic when they should be at the western end of the English Channel. From my atlas I can tell that the lines of latitude in the English Channel might be close to correct, but it appears as if they would be coasting along the French shoreline, not the English. My Atlas indicates that the Longitude along the English Channel ranges from 1 degree E (more or less at Deal), to 6 degrees West at Land’s End. 8 degrees W is well out in the Atlantic Ocean. Admittedly, it does take a southward course of 10 degrees to avoid ploughing into Portugal’s north coast, so perhaps the Beaver is taking a very wide turn south from a place that is well outside of the English channel.

But another reason why these lines of Longitude and Latitude might not be correct, is that there have been many transcriptions of this manuscript: a rough copy from the original journal many years ago; a transcription of that rough copy for publication in the book where we found the journal; and finally, my copy made from the transcription from the very small print in the book as it was displayed on my computer screen! There is plenty of room for error, and whether you like it or not, errors do creep in! 

The journal continues: Below, as you see, the Beaver‘s Log is recording a Longitude reading of 10 degrees, 18 minutes! With that reading they will safely pass the coast of Portugal, which juts out quite a distance from the European continent. At the same time, the Beaver‘s Log reading of Latitude 45 degrees means that the two ships are sailing past the Bay of Biscay (off France), and approaching the waters that lie off Portugal. They will pass Portugal in safety, but will probably have to alter course to round the big bulge of the African continent. (Actually, what they will likely do at that time is sail in a more or less straight line, southwest, across the Atlantic Ocean to South America). The Beaver‘s Log continues:

September 5. Moderate and cloudy. 4 pm with rain. Noon, steady breeze and cloudy. People employed greasing masts and cleaning forecastle. Signalized to the Columbia to steer S.W.

September 6. Moderate and cloudy. Bore up for the Columbia and signalized course to her — west. Midnight clear. Spoke [to] two Dutch vessels bound to the eastward; took in lower steering sails. Several vessels in sight standing to the eastward. Mustered the crew and had prayers. Longitude, 10 degrees 18′, latitude 45 degrees, 54′. 

Now we get to watch the numbers go down as the ship travels southward, until they cross the equator at 0 degrees. Here is the next batch of entries in the Beaver‘s Log:

September 7. Light breeze and fine weather. Bore up for the Columbia. Light airs and rain. People employed about the rigging; sixty gallons of water expended, 4,072 remaining.

September 8. Light airs. Tacked ship and set starboard, topmast and topgallant sails. People variously employed. Signalized course S.W. to Columbia.

Starboard is always the right-hand side of the ship as you are looking up the length of the ship from the stern. The left-hand side of the ship is the port side, because that is the colour of the navigation light that is displayed on the port side of the ship — Red! So that’s how you remember: you put the port side with the red light with the Port Wine, which is red! And just to confuse those of you who are actually sailors: at this time the Starboard side carried a blue light, not a green light, as they do today! Blue. So, the port side had a red light, and the starboard side blue.

It is about this time that I realized how confident a sailor Captain David Home was! He seems to be making all the decisions about the course they choose on this expedition west. Unfortunately, other than a hint in the last blogpost, we know little about Captain Darby of the Columbia. And yet, his logs for this journey are in the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, number C.1/243. It is not something I am going to research, but someone else may want to do that to get the other side of the story.  

Let’s continue with the Beaver‘s Log: 

September 8. Light airs. Tacked ship and set starboard, topmast and topgallant sails. People variously employed. Signalized course S.W. to Columbia.

September 9. Moderate breeze, all sail set. Showed colours to a French ship. People variously employed about the rigging. Columbia in company bearing N.E. 1/2 E.

September 10. Steady breeze throughout. Took in lower steering sails; set them again. Strange sail in sight standing to the eastward. People employing in making mats for the rigging. At noon Columbia bore N. 1/2 West, distance 2 miles.

September 11. Moderate and fine throughout. Took the larboard steering sail in, took foretop sail in. People employed washing clothes and airing bedding. At noon signalized course and longitude to the Columbia. Longitude 14-44, Latitude 36-23.

So are they north of the Equator, or south? If, as it says in the next entry in the Beaver Log, they are approaching Madeira, then they are still north of the Equator, and probably well off the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea. The Beaver and the Columbia will sail across the Equator as they make their way from the northern bulge of the North African continent to the east coast of South America. The Beaver‘s Log continues: 

September 12. Moderate breeze. Set the jib and gaff topsail. People employed scrubbing paint work, cleaning ‘tween decks and greasing masts. Columbia three miles distant.

September 13. Made the Island of Porto Santo bearing S.W.W., distant 10 leagues. At noon made Island of Madeira, west point, bearing S.S.W., 8 miles. Read prayers to the ship’s company.

So, Madeira. Madeira is a island that belongs to Portugal, even though it is off the coast of Africa and close to places with romantic names such as Casablanca and Marrakech, in Morocco. Its location is 32.7607 degrees North Latitude, and 16.9595 degrees West Longitude. Porto Santo, also mentioned above, is a Portuguese Island 27 miles north of Madeira, and the northernmost and easternmost island of the archipelago of Madeira. So you can see the Latitude has come down from the 36 degrees of a few days ago, recorded in the Beaver‘s Log. Also, from what is recorded above, you can see that the two ships are plying a course that is west of south.  

So let’s look at the Vancouver’s record. The Vancouver was in the same class of ship as the Columbia. On her second voyage the Vancouver left London September 11, 1841, and arrived at Fort Vancouver April 4, 1842, taking seven months, more or less. In his 1841 journal, Thomas Lowe recorded that the Vancouver sailed past Lizard Point, “which is the last of Old England any of us will probably see for many years to come,” on September 14. This was three days after the Vancouver had left Gravesend. As we know from the last post, the Beaver and the Columbia left Gravesend on August 29, and they turned SW on September 5. If we presume that she was then off Lizard Point (and the Longitude and Latitude seem to indicate she was not), then it took the Columbia seven days to make the distance between Gravesend and Lizard Point. 

Thomas Lowe does record in this part of his journal that the Vancouver‘s crew shifted lumber in the hold, and that “this alteration has caused considerable improvement in her sailing.” Anything, but anything, can affect the speed of a sailing ship! If you want to see Thomas Lowe’s journal for this part of the journey, go here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/thomas-lowe-4/

By September 26 (twelve days after leaving Lizard Point), Lowe knew that the Vancouver would soon be under the influence of the trade winds — one of two permanent bands of easterly winds that encircle the earth on both sides of the equator. In the northern hemisphere, the trade winds blow steadily from the north east, the air flowing from tropical high pressure belts to the low pressure zone at the equator. Ships sailing to North America depend on the trade winds to make their journey faster. On September 28 the Vancouver was off the Canary Islands, which are about 500 km (300 land miles) south of the island of Madeira, mentioned in the Beaver‘s Logs. But the Canary Islands are also much closer to the African Continent. The Vancouver sailed a course well east of the island of Madeira, but just west of the Canary Islands, while the Columbia sailed past Madeira on its eastern side: if you remember, Madeira was S.S.W. 8 miles, according to the Beaver‘s Log.      

So how do the ships compare so far? It took the Vancouver eighteen days to cover the distance from Gravesend to the Canary Islands, 500 kms south of Madeira. The Beaver and the Columbia left Gravesend on August 29 and sailed past the Island of Madeira at noon on September 13: it took her sixteen days to cover that distance (which was a little shorter than the Vancouver‘s run). Lowe says the Vancouver did not have good sailing winds through the Trades, and the Beaver’s Log reported that they had “light airs” until they reached the Trade Winds (I presume), when they enjoyed either “Moderate breeze,” or “Steady breeze throughout.”  

I am cheering for Thomas Lowe and the Vancouver, of course. But I have to say, the Columbia is not sailing as badly as I suspected it might, in comparison to its sister ship. But things change: I know that in 1841 the Vancouver had a difficult time getting around Cape Horn because of the weather, while the Beaver and Columbia seemed to have had no trouble at all, and no bad weather. But that is in the future, and we will address it when we get to that place.

To return to the beginning of the Beaver‘s Log, go here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/steamship-beaver/  

When the next post in this series is published, it will appear here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/beaver-in-the-south-atlantic/   

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2024. All rights reserved.