The Crooked Lake Review

Fall 2002

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Remembering the 19th-Century

Great Lakes Sailor


Richard F. Palmer

The bravery and the reckless daring of the average nineteenth-century lake sailor was proverbial and many a thrilling tale could be told of his exploits. He laughed at danger, and so fascinating was the life he led it was rarely he could be induced to forsake sailing for a less adventurous vocation on dry land. This was even so after he had accumulated enough wealth to live comfortably.

The lake sailor's life differed from that of the ocean tar in a great many respects. To begin with, his calling was far more dangerous. On the ocean, when a sailing ship was overtaken by a violent storm there was plenty of room in which to maneuver. She could run before the gale for days and weeks, if necessary, while on the Great Lakes, shelter must be found in a few hours' run. There are sunken reefs, rocky coasts, many small islands. It was difficult to maneuver schooners into the harbors without the aid of tugs. Vessels were always sailed on the ocean scientifically.

On the lakes not only the captain, but his officers and crew had to know every island, every light, the exact location of every reef— every rod of coast, every point of land. And they had to be as familiar with them as the rooms and passages of their homes. One could not go aboard a lake schooner and learn navigation by the use of charts and instruments as was done on salt water. The required knowledge could only be obtained with months and years of active experience.

A lake captain could take his vessel to the ocean and with a little study, ship a green crew and sail his vessel to England, France, or China with perfect safety. But again and again it proved simply impossible for a salt water captain to come to the lakes and navigate them with a green crew. It is not meant to reflect upon the abilities of the ocean sailor. But the fact was, lake sailors were far ahead of them in the qualities that go to make up the real sailor.

Ocean seamen used to regard the lakes as little fish ponds. Often these fellows passed this way "on a lark" to show our "land-lubbers" how to sail. They invariably returned with increased respect for the lakes and lake sailors. A story is told of an ocean captain who was engaged to command a new vessel that had been built at Oswego. He arrived full of bluster and exhibited contempt for Lake Ontario.

The vessel he was to command was very staunch and strong. He brought part of his crew with him and the rest he made up from among lake sailors. One fair day he sailed for Toronto with a cargo. After getting well up the lake a storm came on abruptly as they frequently do. It found the ocean captain with all his canvas set, and, so great was his contempt for lake winds that he refused to shorten sail, believing that his vessel with his good management could withstand anything. The lake sailors knew the treachery that lurked in the storm clouds, which continued to increase in blackness, and they remonstrated with the captain. He grew furious, it is said, and refused to guard against the force he termed an "ordinary ocean breeze." To be brief, the result was that a puff of wind more heavy than the rest, capsized the good vessel and all on board except two crewmen perished. That ended salt water experiments on this lake for a long time.

The wind may blow with greater force on the ocean at times than on the lakes and of course it "kicks" up a heavier sea. But at the same time there is less danger from the wind or the sea on the ocean. On the lakes the wind is puffy and does not blow as steadily as it does at sea. The waves follow each other in quick succession.

If a deeply laden schooner on the ocean happened to be engulfed with a big wave, and have tons of water washing over her decks, she had plenty of time to shake it off and recover before the next swell came along. On the Great Lakes it is different. That is why so many deeply loaded craft foundered. A six, 10 or 20-foot wave rolled onto a vessel and before she could rise from the trough of the sea and throw off the water, another, and perhaps two or three big rollers came aboard.

If a deep-laden vessel happened to broach-to in a heavy sea, the chances were very much against her recovering herself. The deep, long swell of the ocean is far from being as dangerous as that stirred upon the lakes by a 40 to 50 mile gale.

Reading the old accounts, both in newspapers and official U. S. Lifesaving reports, even at this distant time, one cannot help but admire the courage and dare-devil performance—especially those old time Canadian sailors who faced terrible storms of wind and snow late in the years, especially after the official closing of the navigation season which was usually around December 1.

It required considerable spunk to tow out of a snug harbor into one of the blackest of nights in the very teeth of a blinding gale of wind and snow—some schooner men referred to them as "sneezers"—with the thermometer below the freezing point and the barometer at low ebb. Huge white-crested waves would be rolling in, tossing the little ships about in a manner calculated to appall the stoutest heart.

It is challenging to put to paper a true picture of such nights of peril aboard one of those vessels. Walking out on the street of a lake port and facing a storm of frozen snow, driven along at the rate of 40 or more miles an hour was bad enough. But imagine being on the deck of one of those schooners, moving out in the face of that storm where there were no trees or buildings to break the force.

The vessel careens over almost on her beam ends, the wind whistles through the rigging with a wicked sound and the huge clouds of spray thrown into the air as the vessel plunges into each on-coming wave, blow into the faces of crewmen and freeze to everything. The din of the storm is terrific. One cannot see 20 feet ahead out into the darkness, and the lights from the town behind are quickly shut out. Above, behind, ahead, all over, is an impenetrable blackness. That was the situation on a stormy night on the lake. It was quite an undertaking to start in search of a harbor 60, 70 or 100 miles away under these circumstances. Small wonder many vessels were lost.

Imagine being aboard one of these vessels. The adroitness and quietness with which the sailors managed them would impress us today. The captain did not have to stand on "the quarter" with a big trumpet, bellowing out his commands above the fury of the gale like Captain Ahab. No big, burly mate stood about with his big boots to repeat the commander's orders and accompany them with a kick to a seaman. None of that ocean-going nonsense. A sailor was obliged to keep his ears wide open to hear a single voice. Every man knew his place—his duty. Everything went like clockwork.

They were all brave, hearty, hardy fellows and such scenes as described, that would terrify an ordinary person, were not regarded with the first tinge of fear by them. Of course sailors who manned the vessels trading on Lake Ontario were not subject to as much hardship as those who sail the upper lakes. But they took great chances and it wasn't often that Canadian skippers, especially, were "caught in a hole."

The greater number of them were young men who had sailed all their lives. They had earned their papers by years of experience and not through favoritism. When a man obtained a license to sail a vessel in Canada he must be thoroughly qualified in every respect.

Consider the schooners themselves. Pick up an old photograph of one and take a good look at the strong, heavy masts—hewn from the best timber. Look at the strong rope and wire rigging that stays them on either side, fastened with heavy bars and bolts of iron. Two arms would not reach more than half way around those masts at the bottom. As for the heavy wire shrouds, it would be difficult to conceive of any human agency pulling them asunder. Yet the mighty forces of nature could rip three huge masts out of the schooner on a stormy night as if they were toothpicks, stripping her of everything in the shape of canvas and rigging, and leaving her drifting a complete and hopeless wreck.

It is recorded that sailors were a superstitious lot. But they could predict the weather much more accurately than a meteorologist can today with all of his scientific instruments. Many old-time sailors believed they were always forewarned of a threatened disaster. One warning might come in the form of a quick, sharp flash of lightning—a very unusual occurrence late in the year. Usually, it was not more than three or four minutes after the flash that a storm would burst upon them with all the fury of a whirlwind, but in that short space of time the vessel tried to prepare to meet the attack.

One story is told of Captain Bill Griffin of the schooner Blazing Star who had gone into the cabin, it being his watch below. He had taken off his coat preparatory to "turning in" when he returned to the deck for something. Just as he poked his head through the companionway he was startled by a bolt of lightning from a storm cloud. He knew that something was wrong. Hastily donning his coat again he dashed on deck and shouted his orders to let the vessel "come up in the wind," and take in all sail. The vessel came up quickly, the jibs were hauled down and the mainsail and mizzen were "let go by the run." The foresail was part way down when the squall struck.

The force of the wind was terrific and with a little piece of sail up the vessel was forced over so far on her side that several loose planks were washed off the deck. Had the vessel met the storm with all her canvas up, the chances are that she would now be resting quietly at the bottom of the lake.

2002, Richard F. Palmer
Index to articles by Richard F. Palmer


Annual Reports of the U. S. Lifesaving Service, 1878 - 1890

Articles on lake sailors appearing in the column, "Salad for Saturday" in the Oswego Palladium, Nov. 15, 20, 27 and December 4, 1886.

Obituary of Capt. Joseph Parsons in Daily British Whig, Kingston, Ontario, Canada, August 15, 1921.

"Schooner Days," article with references to Capt. Parsons in Article XXXV, Toronto Telegram, February 20, 1932.

Some information also provided by Marine Historian Rick Neilson of Kingston and Maurice Smith,
Executive Director of the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes at Kingston.

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