Masters Of The Merchant Marine


AMERICA is in the midst of a revival of interest in things nautical—nineteenth-century nautical. It began with the efforts of a handful of romantics to preserve the few remnants of the age of sail and was intensified by the magnificent Bicentennial Operation Sail. Now seaports across the country—in New York and San Diego, Philadelphia and Galveston, San Francisco, Boston, and Houston- are turning their waterfronts into public parks, often with a tall windship as the centerpiece. Such acts of urban renewal and historic preservation are praiseworthy and even stirring but they are happening only because of the irony that our historic ports are being abandoned by modern shipping.

We seldom see today’s ships. They no longer load or unload near metropolitan centers. Many are bigger than whole fleets of 188Os vessels, and we regard with caution their size, their odd shapes, their potential for disaster through fire, explosion, or oil spillage. Passenger ships, which once brought us our most significant import, people, have given way to cruise ships, adult playgrounds as useful as television’s Love Boat.

It seems particularly sad, as we spend more and more time recapturing our maritime past—when sporting men would bet on the duration of the next clipper passage and cheering boys trailed famous captains down the street—to consider that only a quarter of the ships owned by U.S. companies now fly the American flag, and that, by 1978, the median age of our sailors was nearly fifty.

Clearly it is time to look back over the way we have come as a seafaring nation and to assess America’s long struggle to build better ships and to recruit better sailors to man them.

Our independent life as a nation began with one of the greatest surges in maritime activity, innovation, and sheer zestf ul adventure in world history. Each seeming reverse in shipping called forth a new spurt: privateering was our answer during the Revolution and the War of 1812; smuggling and the development of the Far East trade was our answer when the British closed their markets to us. Privateers, smugglers, and slavers demanded speed and daring seamanship. More peaceful vessels needed to be able to outsail pirates whose motto was “Dead cats don’t mew. ” Very quickly our designers and builders surpassed their European counterparts in the speed, tonnage, and efficiency of their ships.

The men who drove those ships came from the vessels’ home ports; seafaring in the early nineteenth century was still localized. A ship out of Salem would be manned mostly by Salem boys. At thirteen or fourteen, a youngster shipped out as “boy” in a coastal vessel commanded perhaps by father, brother, or uncle. In the first recorded mention of nautical schooling for the American merchant marine, the Reverend Whit man of Wellfleet, Cape Cod, wrote in 1794, “We have in the winter a number of private schools, by which means the greater part of the young men are taught the art of navigation.” Thirteenyear-old Robert Bennett Forbes signed on the Canton Packet in 1818 “with a capital consisting of a Testament, a Bowditch, a quadrant, a chest of sea clothes and a mother’s blessing.” He already knew how to use the quadrant and to read the Bowditch tables.

These young men were not babied; they worked a twelve-hour day, plus off-watch calls for all hands. A bright, industrious boy was expected to rise to command after only a few voyages. James Howland II, of New Bedford, combined his honeymoon with a trading voyage to the Baltic as master of the merchant vessel his father had given him on his eighteenth birthday. Each of the five Crowinshield brothers commanded a ship at twenty. Most of the famous clipper captains made their reputations while still in their twenties.

Adventure, true adventure, was real, almost routine. In 1794 the Boston Centinel reported, in four words—“Sloop Union, Boit, Canton”—the arrival of an American vessel commanded by nineteen-year-old John Boit, Jr., after a voyage that sounds much like a boy’s novel: an Indian attack in Puget Sound; on to Whampoa for silk, to Mauritius for coffee and pepper; then a visit to Owhyhu (“the females were quite amorous”); encounters first with a French and then a British man-o’-war.


During this period, the homogeneity of the fo’c’sle began to break up, though officers remained for the most part native-born. Ships replaced crew members lost during voyages through sickness, accident, or desertion with Portuguese, Scandinavians, Spaniards, Germans, Kanakas, Lascars. As early as 1817 Congress felt it necessary to pass a law requiring two-thirds of the crew of any American ship to be citizens.

The following year a new phenomenon in ocean commerce appeared: the packet ship. For centuries vessels had set sail only when holds were full and weather reasonable; and they carried out “ventures” in which the shipowner also owned the freight, the captain and supercargo sold it and with the proceeds bought cargo for the return voyage. Packets carried passengers and priority freight, and they sailed on a designated day to a designated port, full or empty, fair weather or foul.