Coastal History: Fantasy, fact collide on the high seas

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I was born and raised in the City of Ships. While I enjoy seeing the destroyers and other ships that Bath Iron Works builds, I have always loved the old wooden sailing vessels, and part of me is sad that I was born too late to enjoy them.

Many thousands of them were built in Bath, and thousands more came up the river with cargo to sell. They had all vanished by the time I came along, and it was too late to be a sailor.

As much as I like the looks of those old ships, though, would I really have enjoyed the sailing life? On the positive side, seamen got to see the world at a time when most people never ventured a few miles from their own farm. They sometimes experienced exotic food and exotic women. On the other hand, they experienced exotic diseases like malaria and yellow fever.

I always imagine the same scenario: I am standing on deck as my ship rounds Cape Horn. The ship is wallowing in heavy seas, and gale-force winds are blowing. The captain orders me aloft, and I have to climb 100 feet up the icy ropes as the masts swing crazily back and forth.

Once there I have to crawl out onto a spar in order to furl a sail, hoping to God that I don’t fall off. If I do fall, I probably hope to land head-first on the deck and get it over with quickly, rather than fall in the water and slowly drown.

Before I could participate in that sort of activity, I would have to memorize all the parts of a sailing ship, which was the most complicated machine built by humans before the invention of the computer. Every mast, spar, sail, and rope has a name.

While researching this article, my eyes glazed over as I read lists of the various ropes that were required to keep a square-rigged ship going. Some ropes hold up the masts, some are for standing on or climbing, some are for tying things up, some are for raising and lowering sails, and some have other uses. You would have to learn the name and purpose of each one, and something tells me that many captains and mates were not patient teachers.

Discipline on ship could be rough. Cabin boys and sailors could be caned indiscriminately for minor offenses, or horribly flogged for more serious ones. The colonial Naval Rules of 1775 stated that a captain could inflict up to a dozen lashes with cat-o-nine tails; anything more required a court martial.

In a naval history class I took in college, I remember the professor talking about a young seaman who was caught joking with a friend about starting a mutiny and taking over the ship. The captain hung him, which caused a fuss because the boy’s father was a U.S. senator. Another incident I read about involved a cabin boy who received 23 lashes on the buttocks. Apparently he was caught peeking into the captain’s cabin as the captain “went to embrace a lady.”

Fresh food was hard to keep on a sailing vessel, so much of the food consisted of hard biscuit and salted meat. There was often plenty of beer on some ships. There was no air conditioning, and heating a wooden ship was difficult, considering how flammable they were. A lack of indoor plumbing and bathing facilities must have lead to some interesting aromas on long voyages. Injuries were common, and hospitals far away. Dangerous storms lurked behind the horizon, and dangerous rocks lurked beneath the waves.

Worst of all, you could spend months or years away from your wife, children, and friends, unless you were the captain. The captain could sometimes bring his family along. Regular sailors were out of luck.

All things considered, I think I would rather be one of the men who built Bath’s old sailing ships. Somebody else can do the sailing.

Update: In last week’s column I wrote that the W&Q/WW&F railroads went out of business in the 1930s. While this is true, the WW&F railroad has been resurrected as a narrow-gauge history museum in Alna. The W&Q railroad is apparently back in operation.

Zac McDorr is the founder of the Bath Maine History Center on Facebook.You can reach him at [email protected].

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