Thomas Lowe sails north

Early 1900's sailing ship in a bottle

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

The ship Vancouver, in which Thomas Lowe is sailing, has now reached the Pacific Ocean and is heading north toward Fort Vancouver, where he expects to begin his employment in the Hudson’s Bay Company. The ship left London on the 7th of September, 1841, and it is now just after Christmas. They have traveled around the Horn in the southern hemisphere’s summer-time, and are following the season north toward the Sandwich Islands [Hawaii]. On Sunday, December 26, Lowe writes in his journal:

Had a 7 Knot breeze right aft all day but not steady, lulling frequently. The night was beautifully clear and starry, and I read by the light of the Moon from an Astronomical Book the names and positions of all the principal stars, and compared their position in the heavens with that set down in the Book. When we passed the Equator of course, we left the North Polar Star & Great Bear Constellation behind and came in sight of the Southern Cross. This constellation bears a marked resemblance to “the cross,” and the Stars composing it are very conspicuous. I remained on Deck till Midnight when a heavy rain fell, the wind at the same time relaxed, and we thought it would change as it looked so very black & threatening ahead, but it soon regained its former strength. 

The crew changes the sails, as you will see below. It seems like unnecessary work, but it does make sense that you use the good sails as you round the Horn, and the older suit of sails when the weather is expected to be fair.  I didn’t know that sailing ships operated that way, but new sails that haven’t yet been stretched by wear are more likely to carry a ship efficiently through dangerous waters — and rounding Cape Horn always carried a ship through dangerous waters, with high waves and ferocious winds: 

27 Monday. The crew have been employed all day in getting up an old suit of sails, and taking down the stout new ones we had set on rounding the Cape, for a ship contrary to the general custom, puts on its worst coat for the fine and reserves its good one for the foul and bad weather. Considerable excitement was caused this evening by what was taken for a ship appearing above the horizon, it turned out, however, to be nothing more than a cloud. . .

And here is something else these sailors did: their fresh provisions were gone and they were now into their salt provisions. There is a lot to know about making a long journey by sea, and this is very interesting, indeed!

28 Tuesday. Nothing of importance occurred, all going on in the usual quiet but by no means lazy manner. . . All the sheep and most of the pigs for the use of the Cabin are finished so that we are living on what are called Salt Provisions, although by towing beef or pork behind the ship for a day or two it is rendered almost fresh, and I like it better. At dinner we have always Preserved or Pea Soup, and the Ship is plentifully stocked with potatoes of which the crew [are] put on no allowance, but told to take as many as they can eat, and no waste. The Stewards likewise baked loaves every day, and plum puddings twice a week. In cold weather the crew, whoever wishes it, breakfast on porridge (which they call Burgon) and Molasses, so that there is little danger of Scurvy breaking out amongst us. Wind variable & weather warm. 

Does molasses prevent scurvy, by any chance? It seems it does. The famous medical journal called The Lancet has published an article titled “Preventative and Remedial effects of Molasses in Scurvy and Diseases Connected with Chronic Starvation,” written by D.H. Cullimore, and published in January 1880 — I cannot access this article but I think the title says it all! And I did wonder if sharks ever attacked the meat that was being hauled behind the ship. Yes, they did! From Thomas Lowe’s journal:

29 Wednesday. We continued all day either entirely becalmed, or facing light contrary winds. As I was leaning over the taffrail in the evening, looking for blubber (immense numbers of which of all different hues & shapes were surrounding the ship), I saw an enormous Shark, endeavoring to swallow some pieces of meat in a strong rope net towing behind the ship. I immediately gave the alarm, and shortly afterwards the Captain wounded him in the fin with a boarding pike, on which he made off, and we saw no more of him. The ugly rascal had nearly cheated us of our next day’s dinner. 

Looking for blubber? Is he keeping an eye open for ambergris (grey amber), a solid, waxy, substance that is produced in the gut of a sperm whale and discharged into the ocean? It is valuable, smelly, and rare, and highly valued by perfumers, but I think it is unlikely he hopes to find a piece of that! And certainly, if it is rare, it is not going to be “surrounding the ship,” as he says above. More likely he is referring to the Portuguese Man of War, which he talks about, below. 

On December 30 the wind was contrary and light, and Lowe feared that they would have a long passage north. Friday was Hogmanay. “Everything going on as usual. The wind is still a “teether.”” Hogmanay is, of course, the Scottish name for New Year celebrations, celebrated ever since Mary, Queen of Scots, returned to Scotland from France.

January 1842. 1 Saturday. This is New Year’s day and a Holiday to the crew. By the English, this day is not much Kept, but as this can scarcely be called an English ship, the Officers and all the Passengers being Scotch, although the crew are composed principally of Englishmen and foreigners, we hold it as a holiday. The men take very little time to enjoy themselves, as they generally find enough to do in mending their old clothes, or making new ones for themselves. Made no progress to-day. 

On Sunday the wind was “breezing up a little, and lulling again at short intervals,” which continued for most of the day. At sunset, however, “a light but steady breeze arose from the South carrying us 4 Knots an hour. This calm weather, especially when there is any swell, does more injury to the sails than a heavy gale of wind would do, at every heave of the sea she rolls and pitches as there is no wind to steady her, making the sails beat at every heave against the Masts, Yards, and Crosstrees.” So I can see why the ship is using its old sails here. Lowe also saw

numbers of what are called Portuguese men o’War, floating on the surface of the water — they are sort of light, transparent blubber with a round high back, something of the shape of the Turtle. Saw also several schools of Shipjacks. In the evening Mr. [James] Sangster (the Mate) and I were sitting on the taffrail conversing about something or other, we saw a fiery Meteor shoot right across the Heavens, it stopped and seemed to break into numberless fragments. It was very bright and appeared much larger than any falling star I ever saw before. What rendered it more extraordinary was that it was quite light at the time this happened, the Sun having scarcely sunk below the horizon, and long before any of the other stars made their appearance. It startled every one on deck, and all said that they had never seen one so luminous before. It exactly resembles a rocket and was a sublime & imposing sight.

Skipjacks are medium sized members of the tuna family. The taffrail is the rail, and its ornamentation, around the ship’s stern. James Sangster was a British sailor who spent many years working in the Hudson’s Bay Company ships on the west coast. He was a likable, competent man, and a skilled sailor, but according to Governor Simpson was a confirmed drunkard. It seems he was: he lived and died in Esquimalt. After years of drinking took its toll on his health, he chose to cut his own throat. 

Two days later, on Tuesday, they met another ship. “It is unusual in almost any part of the Pacific to speak [to] vessels,” Lowe wrote, “but more especially in that part of it, where we now are, as we thought ourselves altogether out of the track of homeward bound ships.” It turned out to be an American ship, the Lausanne of New York. “She was about 500 tons burden and had lately been at the Columbia & Sandwich Islands.” Yes, indeed — the Lausanne had sailed around the Horn and delivered missionaries to Fort Vancouver, arriving there on May 24, 1840. Among these missionaries were Jason Lee, Daniel Lee, Gustavus Hines, H.K.W Perkins — all familiar names in Columbia River history! One of them, Solomon Smith, taught school at the Fort Vancouver school. Others set up missions at Willamette Falls, The Dalles, outside Fort Nisqually, and at Clatsop, at the mouth of the river. 

So now the Lausanne was on the way home. The captain had lots of news for the Vancouver men: the Bolivians and Peruvians had been at war, and the President of Peru and 8.000 men had been slain! The American Government was sending 150 soldiers and 300 Settlers to the Columbia. “This being the case,” Lowe said, “and only the breadth of the River between, he guessed the British and Yankees would prove rather quarrelsome neighbors.” Indeed, they would be uncomfortable neighbors. But the best news the Captain shared, was that “the trade winds had failed him only about 24 hours before we we met, and that in all probability we should soon fall in with them.”

That night, the wind freshened, and all the next day they had “a strong and favorable breeze of wind. . . but it does not blow in the direction of the “Trades.” Strong heat during the day but a slight shower of rain fell in the evening, which cooled it a good deal. Make a good days run.” So, they were still in the Westerlies, in the band of winds that circled the globe, blowing from the West or northwest toward the East. Lowe’s journal continues:

6 Thursday. No change either in weather, wind, or Sea from yesterday. Saw a Tropic Bird today, entirely white, except two long red feathers sticking out from its tail like a marline pike. I think that as regards plumage, it was the most beautiful bird I ever saw, its feathers being pure white, soft and glossy like silk. It is about the size of a pigeon and nearly the same shape. Towards sundown the winds freshened, and a beautiful starry night followed.

These birds, that look like exotic terns, are Red-Tailed Tropic Birds. They have a small black mask and a red bill, and two long streamers, twice as long as their body, in their tail. They feed on fish, of course, and nest on land, and they do sound quite beautiful! Certainly Lowe thought them beautiful.

These sailors may have expected to fall in with the South East Trade Winds, but that did not happen for a while. For the next few days there were squalls, “accompanied by heavy showers of rain, and at night we saw a bright flash of Lightning issue from one of the clouds, which is the only one that has been seen on this side of the Cape.” The weather continued warm, but on January 11 the wind turned into a “Teether,” and “keeps steadily blowing from the N.W.” So no S.E. Trade Winds yet, and if the wind is blowing from the N.W, it is still the Westerlies!

On Monday, January 10:

The same as yesterday. Crew employed in tarring the Stays and rigging, and making our vessel look rather cleaner and more ship shape. Caught some Skipjacks, they very much resemble Mackerel. 

In his journal he says they were only about 500 miles away from the Easter Islands. The group of islands he is referring to is not Easter Island, but Polynesia, which has Easter Island as its southernmost island. The distance between Polynesia and the Sandwich Islands [Hawaii] is more than 4,000 miles — the Vancouver still has a long distance to travel! In his journal, Lowe also tells us that the sailing journey from what he calls the Downs to the Sandwich Islands is generally 4 1/2 or 5 months. If they set sail from the Thames in early September, they should reach the Sandwich Islands in January or early February. The Downs he speaks of here is outside the mouth of the Thames, lying off what they called the Goodwin Sandbanks and the town of Deal — as you will see in the first blogpost of this London Ship series, here: 

But of course, once they are in the Trade Winds, the sailing becomes easy and the ship flies through the water. That will come, in a few days time, and in the next blogpost. When it is written, it will appear here:

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