Wooden Ships And Iron Men? You Bet! They Had To Be. Part Ii


Last week we left off in 1771 as Captain James Cook and his crew barely escaped death on the Great Barrier Reef stretching along the northern coast of Australia. But death by drowning when a sailing ship was driven aground on a reef or a rocky shore by “contrary” winds was just one of the many things men and women faced in the day of the square-rigged European ship.

There are worse things than drowning, Johnny.

Read on.

What does it take to convince us two-legged troublemakers that we’re having a good day? Well, let’s see. Being warm and dry. Eating a good meal. Resting when we’re tired. Feeling well. Having a place we can call our own. Really doesn’t take much, does it?

Could you get that on the old sailing ships? Wel-l-l ...

Before British ships ventured upon the wide Pacific there was a Portuguese captain named Vacso de Gama who sailed around the southern tip of Africa and became the first European to reach India. That much I’ll bet you know. But did you know this? He left Portugal in July 1497 with four ships and an estimated 390 men, and returned in August 1499 with two ships and 55 men.

They don’t bother to mention that in the history books.

Having arrived in India, de Gama casually says, “... many of our men fell ill here, their feet and hands swelling, and their gums growing over their teeth, so they could not eat.”

Scurvy, of course. The old wooden ships couldn’t carry fresh food so the crew subsisted on hardtack and salt meat. Over 125 of de Gama’s crew of 170 died of scurvy. But why they died after they got to India where fresh food was plentiful he doesn’t say.

Ferdinand Magellan sailed from Seville, Spain, in August of 1519. He rounded the southern tip of South America in November 1520, his crew still healthy because he had stopped at several places to take on fresh food. But then he “... left the strait and entered the [Pacific Ocean], in which we sailed the space of three months and twenty days without tasting any fresh provisions.”

And the result of that was? Ready for this?

“The biscuit we were eating no longer deserved the name of bread; it was nothing but dust, and worms which had eaten the bread. And what is more it smelled intolerably; being impregnated with the urine of mice. The water we were obliged to drink was equally putrid and offensive.”

So, as usual during long sea voyages on the old sailing ships, they ate the pieces of “leather with which the mainyard was covered to prevent it from wearing the rope.” But don’t worry, Johnny, they soaked it in sea water for five days and broiled it up nicely. Yum! And you ain’t heard nothin’ yet.

“Frequently, indeed we were obliged to subsist on sawdust, and even mice, [which] were sought with such avidity that they sold for half a ducat apiece.”

Half a ducat is $22. For a half ounce mouse! Wow! What would they have paid for a pound of nice juicy hamburger?

Magellan, by the way, lost 208 of his 230 men to scurvy, and between 1506 and 1810 scurvy killed at least 2 million sailors.

But starvation, scurvy and drowning weren’t the only method those old ships had of killing off the crew. Sometimes the ships reached out to the poor ignorant crew members even while they were “enjoying” a short stay on an island. In December 1596, William Barents, in search of a Northeast Passage to Asia, stopped on Bear Island. While they were on shore in a jury-rigged shelter, far above the Arctic Circle, a “great storm” arrived, causing the temperature to plunge. And so ...

“... one of our companions gave us counsel to burn some of the sea coals we had on board the ship, which would cast a great heat and continue long; and so at evening we made a great fire thereof, which cast a great heat.”

And having a death wish they ...

“... agreed to stop up all the doors and the chimney; thereby to keep in the heat, and so went to sleep, well comforted ...”

Then, having almost died of carbon monoxide poisoning they opened up the place “... and recovered our healths again by reason of the cold air which before had been such an enemy to us.”

And then there were the ships that tried to reach the North Pole. Now I can see why people would set sail for the Americas or India, but the North Pole?

What’s there? You — if you make it.

In a wooden ship that was a big if.

Nevertheless, as late as 1879, by which time steel hulled vessels were common, and America was building Perry’s “Great White Fleet” of steel-hulled warships, a group of poor misguided souls decided to sail into the Arctic Ocean with a wooden-hulled ship.

Why? Because of what has been termed the “Petermann Factor.”

Which is?

It seems that German geographer August Petermann believed in what he called the “Paleocrystic Sea,” saying that, “The central region of the Polar regions is more or less free from ice.”

So they cast off and sailed north in July 1879.

And two months later in September 1879, they were solidly frozen in the pack ice somewhere above Alaska.

Tell me something, Johnny. Why doesn’t that surprise me?

Jan. 18, 1880. Temperature 48 below zero. The ice welded to the ship’s wooden hull began to squeeze it from both sides, applying enormous pressure to the hull, which cracked loudly as “water came swirling across the floorplates of [the] engine room.”

They stayed trapped in the ice as it slowly crushed the ship. In June 1881, they abandoned ship and took to the ice. At 1 a.m., two sailors on night duty saw the end. “The mizzen mast had already gone, her smoke pipe [was] awash. With Bartlett and Kuchne the only witnesses, the ship went down.”

Only 13 of 33 men survived. The rest froze to death.

Tall ships? Hah! I’ll settle for short ribs and a hot tub. Under a ponderosa pine. At 5,448 feet above sea level.


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