The Old Merchant Marine
by Ralph D. Paine

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Chapter X. Bound Coastwise

One thinks of the old merchant marine in terms of the clipper ship and distant ports. The coasting trade has been overlooked in song and story; yet, since the year 1859, its fleets have always been larger and more important than the American deep-water commerce nor have decay and misfortune overtaken them. It is a traffic which flourished from the beginning, ingeniously adapting itself to new conditions, unchecked by war, and surviving with splendid vigor, under steam and sail, in this modern era.

The seafaring pioneers won their way from port to port of the tempestuous Atlantic coast in tiny ketches, sloops, and shallops when the voyage of five hundred miles from New England to Virginia was a prolonged and hazardous adventure. Fog and shoals and lee shores beset these coastwise sailors, and shipwrecks were pitifully frequent. In no Hall of Fame will you find the name of Captain Andrew Robinson of Gloucester, but he was nevertheless an illustrious benefactor and deserves a place among the most useful Americans. His invention was the Yankee schooner of fore-and-aft rig, and he gave to this type of vessel its name.* Seaworthy, fast, and easily handled, adapted for use in the early eighteenth century when inland transportation was almost impossible, the schooner carried on trade between the colonies and was an important factor in the growth of the fisheries.

* It is said that as the odd two-master slid gracefully into the water, a spectator exclaimed: “See how she scoons!” “Aye," answered Captain Robinson, “a SCHOONER let her be!” This launching took place in 1718 or 1714.

Before the Revolution the first New England schooners were beating up to the Grand Bank of Newfoundland after cod and halibut. They were of no more than fifty tons’ burden, too small for their task but manned by fishermen of surpassing hardihood. Marblehead was then the foremost fishing port with two hundred brigs and schooners on the offshore banks. But to Gloucester belongs the glory of sending the first schooner to the Grand Bank.* From these two rock-bound harbors went thousands of trained seamen to man the privateers and the ships of the Continental navy, slinging their hammocks on the gun-decks beside the whalemen of Nantucket. These fishermen and coastwise sailors fought on the land as well and followed the drums of Washington’s armies until the final scene at Yorktown. Gloucester and Marblehead were filled with widows and orphans, and half their men-folk were dead or missing.

* Marvin’s “American Merchant Marine,” p. 287.

The fishing-trade soon prospered again, and the men of the old ports tenaciously clung to the sea even when the great migration flowed westward to people the wilderness and found a new American empire. They were fishermen from father to son, bound together in an intimate community of interests, a race of pure native or English stock, deserving this tribute which was paid to them in Congress: “Every person on board our fishing vessels has an interest in common with his associates; their reward depends upon their industry and enterprise. Much caution is observed in the selection of the crews of our fishing vessels; it often happens that every individual is connected by blood and the strongest ties of friendship; our fishermen are remarkable for their sobriety and good conduct, and they rank with the most skillful navigators.”

Fishing and the coastwise merchant trade were closely linked. Schooners loaded dried cod as well as lumber for southern ports and carried back naval stores and other southern products. Well-to-do fishermen owned trading vessels and sent out their ventures, the sailors shifting from one forecastle to the other. With a taste for an easier life than the stormy, freezing Banks, the young Gloucesterman would sign on for a voyage to Pernambuco or Havana and so be fired with ambition to become a mate or master and take to deep water after a while. In this way was maintained a school of seamanship which furnished the most intelligent and efficient officers of the merchant marine. For generations they were mostly recruited from the old fishing and shipping ports of New England until the term “Yankee shipmaster" had a meaning peculiarly its own.

Seafaring has undergone so many revolutionary changes and old days and ways are so nearly obliterated that it is singular to find the sailing vessel still employed in great numbers, even though the gasolene motor is being installed to kick her along in spells of calm weather. The Gloucester fishing schooner, perfect of her type, stanch, fleet, and powerful, still drives homeward from the Banks under a tall press of canvas, and her crew still divide the earnings, share and share, as did their forefathers a hundred and fifty years ago. But the old New England strain of blood no longer predominates, and Portuguese, Scandinavians, and Nova Scotia “Bluenoses” bunk with the lads of Gloucester stock. Yet they are alike for courage, hardihood, and mastery of the sea, and the traditions of the calling are undimmed.

There was a time before the Civil War when Congress jealously protected the fisheries by means of a bounty system and legislation aimed against our Canadian neighbors. The fishing fleets were regarded as a source of national wealth and the nursery of prime seamen for the navy and merchant marine. In 1858 the bounty system was abandoned, however, and the fishermen were left to shift for themselves, earning small profits at peril of their lives and preferring to follow the sea because they knew no other profession. In spite of this loss of assistance from the Government, the tonnage engaged in deep-sea fisheries was never so great as in the second year of the Civil War. Four years later the industry had shrunk one-half; and it has never recovered its early importance*

* In 1882, the tonnage amounted to 193,459; in 1866, to 89,336.

The coastwise merchant trade, on the other hand, has been jealously guarded against competition and otherwise fostered ever since 1789, when the first discriminatory tonnage tax was enforced. The Embargo Act of 1808 prohibited domestic commerce to foreign flags, and this edict was renewed in the American Navigation Act of 1817. It remained a firmly established doctrine of maritime policy until the Great War compelled its suspension as an emergency measure. The theories of protection and free trade have been bitterly debated for generations, but in this instance the practice was eminently successful and the results were vastly impressive. Deepwater shipping dwindled and died, but the increase in coastwise sailing was consistent. It rose to five million tons early in this century and makes the United States still one of the foremost maritime powers in respect to saltwater activity.

To speak of this deep-water shipping as trade coastwise is misleading, in a way. The words convey an impression of dodging from port to port for short distances, whereas many of the voyages are longer than those of the foreign routes in European waters. It is farther by sea from Boston to Philadelphia than from Plymouth, England, to Bordeaux. A schooner making the run from Portland to Savannah lays more knots over her stern than a tramp bound out from England to Lisbon. It is a shorter voyage from Cardiff to Algiers than an American skipper pricks off on his chart when he takes his steamer from New York to New Orleans or Galveston. This coastwise trade may lack the romance of the old school of the square-rigged ship in the Roaring Forties, but it has always been the more perilous and exacting. Its seamen suffer hardships unknown elsewhere, for they have to endure winters of intense cold and heavy gales and they are always in risk of stranding or being driven ashore.

The story of these hardy men is interwoven, for the most part, with the development of the schooner in size and power. This graceful craft, so peculiar to its own coast and people, was built for utility and possessed a simple beauty of its own when under full sail. The schooners were at first very small because it was believed that large fore-and-aft sails could not be handled with safety. They were difficult to reef or lower in a blow until it was discovered that three masts instead of two made the task much easier. For many years the three-masted schooner was the most popular kind of American merchant vessel. They clustered in every Atlantic port and were built in the yards of New England, New York, New Jersey, and Virginia,--built by the mile, as the saying was, and sawed off in lengths to suit the owners’ pleasure. They carried the coal, ice, lumber of the whole seaboard and were so economical of man-power that they earned dividends where steamers or square-rigged ships would not have paid for themselves.

As soon as a small steam-engine was employed to hoist the sails, it became possible to launch much larger schooners and to operate them at a marvelously low cost. Rapidly the four-master gained favor, and then came the five- and six-masted vessels, gigantic ships of their kind. Instead of the hundred-ton schooner of a century ago, Hampton Roads and Boston Harbor saw these great cargo carriers which could stow under hatches four and five thousand tons of coal, and whose masts soared a hundred and fifty feet above the deck. Square-rigged ships of the same capacity would have required crews of a hundred men, but these schooners were comfortably handled by a company of fifteen all told, only ten of whom were in the forecastle. There was no need of sweating and hauling at braces and halliards. The steam-winch undertook all this toil. The tremendous sails, stretching a hundred feet from boom to gaff could not have been managed otherwise. Even for trimming sheets or setting topsails, it was necessary merely to take a turn or two around the drum of the winch engine and turn the steam valve. The big schooner was the last word in cheap, efficient transportation by water. In her own sphere of activity she was as notable an achievement as the Western Ocean packet or the Cape Horn clipper.

The masters who sailed these extraordinary vessels also changed and had to learn a new kind of seamanship. They must be very competent men, for the tests of their skill and readiness were really greater than those demanded of the deepwater skipper. They drove these great schooners alongshore winter and summer; across Nantucket Shoals and around Cape Cod, and their salvation depended on shortening sail ahead of the gale. Let the wind once blow and the sea get up, and it was almost impossible to strip the canvas off an unwieldy six-master. The captain’s chief fear was of being blown offshore, of having his vessel run away with him! Unlike the deep-water man, he preferred running in toward the beach and letting go his anchors. There he would ride out the storm and hoist sail when the weather moderated.

These were American shipmasters of the old breed, raised in schooners as a rule, and adapting themselves to modern conditions. They sailed for nominal wages and primage, or five per cent of the gross freight paid the vessel. Before the Great War in Europe, freights were low and the schooner skippers earned scanty incomes. Then came a world shortage of tonnage and immediately coastwise freights soared skyward. The big schooners of the Palmer fleet began to reap fabulous dividends and their masters shared in the unexpected opulence. Besides their primage they owned shares in their vessels, a thirty-second or so, and presently their settlement at the end of a voyage coastwise amounted to an income of a thousand dollars a month. They earned this money, and the managing owners cheerfully paid them, for there had been lean years and uncomplaining service and the sailor had proved himself worthy of his hire. So tempting was the foreign war trade, that a fleet of them was sent across the Atlantic until the American Government barred them from the war zone as too easy a prey for submarine attack. They therefore returned to the old coastwise route or loaded for South American ports--singularly interesting ships because they were the last bold venture of the old American maritime spirit, a challenge to the Age of Steam.

No more of these huge, towering schooners have been built in the last dozen years. Steam colliers and barges have won the fight because time is now more valuable than cheapness of transportation. The schooner might bowl down to Norfolk from Boston or Portland in four days and be threshing about for two weeks in head winds on the return voyage.

The small schooner appeared to be doomed somewhat earlier. She had ceased to be profitable in competition with the larger, more modern fore-and-after, but these battered, veteran craft died hard. They harked back to a simpler age, to the era of the stage-coach and the spinning-wheel, to the little shipyards that were to be found on every bay and inlet of New England. They were still owned and sailed by men who ashore were friends and neighbors. Even now you may find during your summer wanderings some stumpy, weatherworn two-master running on for shelter overnight, which has plied up and down the coast for fifty or sixty years, now leaking like a basket and too frail for winter voyages. It was in a craft very much like this that your rude ancestors went privateering against the British. Indeed, the little schooner Polly, which fought briskly in the War of 1812, is still afloat and loading cargoes in New England ports.

These little coasters, surviving long after the stately merchant marine had vanished from blue water, have enjoyed a slant of favoring fortune in recent years. They, too, have been in demand, and once again there is money to spare for paint and cordage and calking. They have been granted a new lease of life and may be found moored at the wharfs, beached on the marine railways, or anchored in the stream, eagerly awaiting their turn to refit. It is a matter of vital concern that the freight on spruce boards from Bangor to New York has increased to five dollars a thousand feet. Many of these craft belong to grandfatherly skippers who dared not venture past Cape Cod in December, lest the venerable Matilda Emerson or the valetudinarian Joshua R. Coggswell should open up and founder in a blow. During the winter storms these skippers used to hug the kitchen stove in bleak farmhouses until spring came and they could put to sea again. The rigor of circumstances, however, forced others to seek for trade the whole year through. In a recent winter fifty-seven schooners were lost on the New England coast, most of which were unfit for anything but summer breezes. As by a miracle, others have been able to renew their youth, to replace spongy planking and rotten stems, and to deck themselves out in white canvas and fresh paint!

The captains of these craft foregather in the ship-chandler’s shops, where the floor is strewn with sawdust, the armchairs are capacious, and the environment harmonizes with the tales that are told. It is an informal club of coastwise skippers and the old energy begins to show itself once more. They move with a brisker gait than when times were so hard and they went begging for charters at any terms. A sinewy patriarch stumps to a window, flourishes his arm at an ancient two-master, and booms out:

“That vessel of mine is as sound as a nut, I tell ye. She ain’t as big as some, but I’d like nothin’ better than to fill her full of suthin’ for the west coast of Africy, same as the Horace M. Bickford that cleared t’other day, stocked for SIXTY THOUSAND DOLLARS.”

“Huh, you’d get lost out o’ sight of land, John,” is the cruel retort, “and that old shoe-box of yours ’ud be scared to death without a harbor to run into every time the sun clouded over. Expect to navigate to Africy with an alarm-clock and a soundin’-lead, I presume.”

“Mebbe I’d better let well enough alone,” replies the old man. “Africy don’t seem as neighborly as Phippsburg and Machiasport. I’ll chance it as far as Philadelphy next voyage and I guess the old woman can buy a new dress.”

The activity and the reawakening of the old shipyards, their slips all filled with the frames of wooden vessels for the foreign trade, is like a revival of the old merchant marine, a reincarnation of ghostly memories. In mellowed dignity the square white houses beneath the New England elms recall to mind the mariners who dwelt therein. It seems as if their shipyards also belonged to the past; but the summer visitor finds a fresh attraction in watching the new schooners rise from the stocks, and the gay pageant of launching them, every mast ablaze with bunting, draws crowds to the water-front. And as a business venture, with somewhat of the tang of old-fashioned romance, the casual stranger is now and then tempted to purchase a sixty-fourth “piece” of a splendid Yankee four-master and keep in touch with its roving fortunes. The shipping reports of the daily newspaper prove more fascinating than the ticker tape, and the tidings of a successful voyage thrill one with a sense of personal gratification. For the sea has not lost its magic and its mystery, and those who go down to it in ships must still battle against elemental odds--still carry on the noble and enduring traditions of the Old Merchant Marine.


Chapter I. Colonial Adventurers in Little Ships  •  Chapter II. The Privateers Of ’76  •  Chapter III. Out Cutlases and Board  •  Chapter IV. The Famous Days of Salem Port  •  Chapter V. Yankee Vikings and New Trade Routes  •  Chapter VI. “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights”  •  Chapter VII. The Brilliant Era of 1812  •  Chapter VIII. The Packet Ships of the “Roaring Forties”  •  Chapter IX. The Stately Clipper and Her Glory  •  Chapter X. Bound Coastwise  •  Bibliographical Note

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Old Merchant Marine
By Ralph D. Paine
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