It Wasn’T All Drowning And Scurvy On Those Old Sailing Ships


A few weeks ago we took a look at iron men, wooden ships, and multiple ways to die. But I had to leave out and I felt bad about it — the trips that made it without killing off half the passengers and crew. Were they an important — but also not so great — part of sea travel? I’ll let you judge that.

Suppose I tell you about Ben Franklin’s trip from London to Philadelphia in 1726? It wasn’t a special voyage. Franklin was just on his way home after a year in England. By chance, he kept a journal, so we have a complete record of a typical sailing voyage.

OK, where to begin? In London, England, on July 22, 1726. The ship is headed for Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 3,100 miles away. How long should it take? Here’s something you can compare it with: In 1952 I shipped across the Atlantic to Iceland in a very slow troop ship. We sailed the same distance as Franklin did. Took us nine days, sailing at 13 knots (14.5 mph), 24 hours a day.

So here we go. London to Philly on a romantic windjammer.

At 8 a.m. on Friday, July 22, Franklin’s ship ups anchor, sails “with the tide” until 11 p.m. and drops anchor at Gravesend.

So where’s Gravesend?

Twenty-five miles down the Thames River.

Sat 23rd: Up anchor and off to Margate. Franklin reports that some passengers are “very sea sick.” How far out to sea are they? Margate is ... uh, 54 miles farther down the Thames River.

Sun 24th: At last, Johnny! We’re at sea! In the English Channel under sail for Dover. Distance covered ... uh, 21 miles.

Mon 25th: Calm winds in the morning. But the ship ups anchor in the afternoon, by golly! And by nightfall the passengers can see “the Isle of Wight in the distance.” A good days sail! The distance from Dover to the Isle of Wight is 150 miles.

Tue 26th: The ship hits “contrary winds,” sails hard all day, and by nightfall the passengers can again see “... the Isle of Wight in the distance.” Oh, well!

Wed 27th: Ship anchors 5 miles from the ... uh, Isle of Wight.

Thu 28th: Ship sails to Cowes on the Isle of Wight.

(Distance covered during Week One: 234 miles at 2.78 knots.)

Fri 29th: Contrary winds. Franklin strolls around the island.

Sat 30th: Ships weighs anchor and sails off to Yarmouth, on the ... uh, Isle of Wight, about 10 miles from Cowes.

Sun 31st: They set sail for America and end up back in Cowes.

Mon, Aug 1, 1726: They sit in Cowes waiting for a fair wind.

Tue 2nd: In Cowes waiting for a fair wind.

Wed 3rd: They set sail for Yarmouth, but end up in Cowes.

Thu 4th: Franklin spends the night ashore in Cowes.

(Miles covered to America during Week Two: Zero.)

Fri 5th: Everyone hurries aboard the ship. It sets sail, gets past Yarmouth and out into the ocean, but then the wind changes and they spend the night worrying about being driven on shore. But have no fear, they are saved by a ... uh, dead calm.

Sat 6th: A fair breeze blows up in the morning, but dies. They are near, uh ... the Isle of Wight. Franklin jumps in the sea and goes for a swim, not worried about the ship outrunning him.

Sun 7th: “Fair breezes all day.” Translation: They crawl along the southern coast of England.

Mon 8th: “Fine weather, but no wind worth mentioning.” But they see the “lizard,” the southwestern tip of England.

Tue 9th: They pass out of sight of land after only 19 days.

Wed 10th: “Course SW about 4 knots. Nothing remarkable.”

(What could happen at five miles an hour?)

Thu 11th through Thu 18th: Franklin lumps eight days together with the comment, “Nothing remarkable. Calms & fair breezes. No contrary winds. Four dolphins followed the ship for some hours.”

(Pretty boring stuff so far? Relax. It’s about to change.)

Fri 19th: “... complaints being made that Mr. G...n, one of the passengers had with fraudulent design marked the cards, a Court of Justice was called. The evidence was plain and positive. The Court perceived the case was plain. The Jury found him guilty, and he was condemned [to be hanged].” (Don’t worry, they just wanted to “hang” him at the top of the mast, not by his neck.)

But the prisoner “refused to submit to punishment” so he was hauled up by a rope around his middle. They let him hang up there cursing at them for 15 minutes, but when he started turning black in the face because the rope was getting too tight around his belly they let him back down. And so ended a thrilling day at sea.

Sat 20th: They “sailed on” — forward I hope. Ben doesn’t say.

Sun 21st: On this day, the anniversary of one month aboard ship, a great event occurred — a small bird landed on deck. It was so tired it allowed itself to be picked up. Franklin estimated it had flown perhaps 200 leagues from land. Evidently it had made better time than the ship.

Mon 22nd: (I’ll quote the entire entry.) “This morning I saw several flying fish, but they were small. Favorable wind all day.”

Tue 23rd through Thu 25th: Again, the entire entry: “Fair winds, nothing remarkable.”

Fri 26th: “Fair winds,” during the day, but then “... the wind came about and we had squalls with rain and lightning.”

Franklin seemed quite thrilled. I suppose it beats hanging a card-cheating passenger up by the belly just to have something to do.

Sat 27 Aug - Fri 16 Sep: “Wind west, nothing remarkable.”

(* West winds, of course, blew them back toward England.)

Fri 23rd: They pass a ship and cheer to see other faces.

Sat 24th - Tue 27th: Fair winds.

OK, I’m going to let you down easy. I know doggone well if you read “fair winds” or “nothing remarkable” again you’ll end up climbing the wall. Want proof? Try reading Franklin’s journal.

Did they EVER get to Philadelphia?

Yes. After 80 days at sea. On Tuesday, October 11, 1726.

(Remember, they started on July 22nd.)

Now I ask you, Johnny, what do you suppose Ben Franklin had to say about his sea voyage after it was finally over?

“THANK GOD!” (His caps, not mine.)

Well? What would you say after 80 days averaging 1.6 knots?


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