Thomas Lowe sails the South Pacific

Early 1900's sailing ship in a bottle

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

At last, as you can see from the last post of this series, Thomas Lowe has sailed from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, rounding Cape Horn during its summer season. The last words he wrote on December 13 were: “It is positively a shame to go to bed in a night like this, mild and clear as day, such a change has the Easterly wind affected and so totally different from the strong and chilling gales coming from the ice in the Frozen Regions.” So they are still sailing through the Easterlies, which are the winds that round the entire world south of Capes Horn and Good Hope, and north of Antartica. Thomas Lowe’s journal continues:

December 14, Tuesday. All night we continued to press every stitch of canvass upon her that could in the slightest degree be of any use to her [the ship Vancouver], and thus accelerated her speed to 7 knots an hour, and the Sea all the time delightfully smooth. About 6 o’clock in the morning we passed a large dead Sperm Whale with swarms of Albatrosses and other birds feasting upon the Carcase. It had probably been struck by some South Seamen [whalers, perhaps?], but escaping at the time, had afterwards died of its wounds. It seemed recently killed, and it would have been worth while to have got a few tons of oil out of it, but a fair wind is a fair wind, and what we have lately had precious little of, and the Captain thought it best to take advantage of it as long as it was in his power. . . The breeze continued good until noon, when it died away, having however during the last 15 hours carried us a distance of 120 miles in the right direction. We continued almost becalmed the whole day, but late at night a breeze sprung up from W.S.W, but not so favourable as the last one. We are now fairly in the broad Pacific and I hope out of reach of the gales which keep Cape Horn and the adjacent Ocean in such constant agitation.

Wednesday, 15. The weather is moderate today and not so cold as formerly. There is however a disagreeable Scotch mist, which keeps the deck wet and renders it dangerous slippy [sic]. The wind is light, and it is perhaps as well that it is so, as it blows full in our teeth, and the swell from the South West has not yet subsided. Today as may be expected we have made but little progress.

The next day Lowe was able to report that “The breeze has all day been steady and fresh from W.S.W., and carried us 6 or 7 Knots an hour.” There were occasional squalls of wind and rain, which was common to this part of the ocean. “If this breeze continues for any length of time,” Lowe has learned, “it will soon bring us into warmer weather, and unless we made a quick run from here to the Sandwich Islands we will upon the whole have had a long and tedious voyage.” For the moment, the Sandwich Islands [Hawaii] is their destination.

On the 17th the wind remained brisk and favourable until midnight, when it subsided. On the 18th they were becalmed all day, and Alexander Simpson shot an albatross. The massive bird was injured and landed on the ocean about a quarter of a mile distant from the ship, and Simpson sent his manservant, a Sandwich Islander, to retrieve it. Not in a boat, as you might think, but ordering him to swim to the bird, and bring him back to the ship. As Lowe stated, Sandwich Islanders are noted swimmers (and they are). But. . .

When he reached it [the bird], with its beak it lacerated his hands and arms in various parts, and it was with great difficulty he succeeded in getting his handkerchief about its neck. When this was accomplished, he took the enormous bird in tow, and in a short time had it alongside. We found that it measured 11 feet from tip to tip of the wings, with a body in proportion. It must have been a tremendous tow for the poor Islander, who seemed quite exhausted and trembled much, as he had no doubt found the water a great deal colder than what he had before been accustomed to.

Well, it was the Southern Pacific Ocean, and close to the Arctic Ocean — of course the water was cold! Thomas Lowe expressed sympathy for the poor man, but it does not seem that Alexander Simpson did. But Simpson was a useless fur trader, and to all appearances not a good man. As a cousin by marriage of Governor George Simpson, Alexander had joined the fur trade in 1827, sailing for North America the following spring. In 1839 he was posted to the Hawaiian Islands to assist George Pelly, where he spent two months observing and enquiring into the state of affairs at the post, before returning to Fort Vancouver. He did the same a few years later, but returned to London this time, instead of Fort Vancouver. Now he was sailing, once more, for Hawaii. On this particular sailing voyage he had been made Chief Trader by his cousin, Governor Simpson, and was sailing to the Sandwich Islands to take charge of the HBC post there. He will arrive at the post eventually, only to find that Governor Simpson had already appointed George Traill Allan to the position he was supposed to take. As he wouldn’t take a position anywhere else, he took leave of absence on the island, and departed it forever in February 1843. And that was the end of Alexander Simpson’s fur trade career. 

So, Thomas Lowe’s journal continues. Here he uses a term I have not seen before, “alow and aloft.” Translate this as “high and low.”

A light breeze sprung up at 6 pm and gradually freshening sent us through the water at a rate of  6 or 7 knots an hour, set studding sails alow and aloft, and continued to carry them all night.

19, Sunday. The breeze kept favorable all day, but gradually veered to the westward and felt lighter towards night, when we had a smart shower of rain. The weather today has been mild and beautiful and the Sea as smooth as a Mill Pond. 

20, Monday. Wind still in our favour, but there is less of it, and genuine Pacific Weather. Made 150 Miles. Endeavouring to get as far as possible to the westward as the prevailing winds blow from that quarter, and we can generally make sure of getting to the Northwards.

So they are aiming to reach the Westerlies, which blow from the West to the East and are in “the clement part of the Earth.” So says my source, at least. It’s hard to know where they are and the belts of wind do, of course, shift around. But it sounds as if they are still not far from the northern edge of the Polar Easterlies — the same set of winds that brought them around Cape Horn. At last, on Tuesday:

The wind has chopped around to W.N.W and we are running due North on a taut bowline. Upon the whole the wind has been moderate, with frequent lulls and as frequent revivals. The sky looks rather overcast.

The next day was another good sailing day, but on Thursday the 23rd, Lowe said:

The wind is right in our teeth and obstinately keeps blowing there. We are running N.N.E and the wind is N.W. so that we are close hauled & sailing within 6 points of the wind. Weather still beautiful and not too warm.

If the wind is blowing from the North West, they are now in the Westerlies. The men aboard the Vancouver caught another 5 Albatross, “by towing a line behind the ship and a fish Hook affixed; baited with pork.” The hungry  Albatross ate the pork, and were then hauled on board “very opportunely for Christmas dinner, which they [the crew] always endeavour to have of some kind of fresh meat; and this will prevent them killing the pig whose life was in imminent danger, but which has thus unexpectedly been saved for the New Years Regale.”

So they roasted the albatross like turkeys, I presume, for Christmas dinner. On Christmas Day, the crew had time off so the ship went sailed on its own, as the crew left the sails more or less to their own devices during their day off. The gentlemen and passengers also enjoyed their Christmas Day. They must have enjoyed their Christmas dinner (only the cook worked), and then lounged around and talked. Almost certainly they enjoyed some wine or liquor of some sort, although no one mentions it. Thomas Lowe’s journal reads: 

Many a vague supposition was advanced as to what our friends at home would be engaged in at present, but as nothing definite could be positively agreed upon, it was almost certain that, while we were sitting under an awning to protect us from the heat, they would probably be muffed up to protect themselves from the cold. When “absent friends” was proposed, I am sure it met with a quick response in every breast, in mine at all events. . . By this Voyage I have eluded a Winter, and altho’ I certainly got my fingers nipped on rounding the Horn, yet it was only for a week or two, & the middle of Summer. In all probability I will get my fingers nipped after leaving the Sandwich Islands, not till then, however. There is nothing tests a person’s health more than this sudden transition from heat to cold, and again from cold to heat. The weather has all day been beautiful. Towards night it fell calm. 

And so their journey continues, as they sail north toward the Sandwich Islands. It is December 25: they will have their first sighting of the Hawaiian Islands on February 12, 1842. They still have a long way to go! 

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Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2021. All rights reserved.