Labor and Danger Under Sail

by Stephen N. Sanfilippo

Mike Crowe’s excellent article “Learning the Ropes,” appearing in the March 2012 edition of Fishermen’s Voice (Vol. 17, no. 3) brought to mind several accounts of working sail in square riggers of the 1800s. The vessel pictured in Mike’s article, The Pride of Baltimore, is incorrectly identified as a clipper ship. It is, in fact, a two-masted main-topsail schooner. Clipper ships were three-masted square-rigged vessels with particular sail and rigging configurations and hull construction. Although at least twice as large as the typical schooner, the clipper ship sacrificed some cargo capacity in favor of speed. In reading the descriptions that follow, keep in mind that the actions are taking place on 3-masted square-rigged ships, 200 to 400 feet in length, with mastheads over a hundred feet above the deck, and carrying about a dozen sails from jib to spanker, far more if staysails and studding sails were set. Sails, some weighting over a ton, were handled by as few as five men, facing high winds, high seas, rain, sleet, or snow, with lines and sails wet or frozen, shaking in the wind while the ship took 45 degree rolls.

Seamanship on deck and aloft under sail required great skill and strength, acrobatics, and perseverance, and had to be done quickly, without rushing, precisely, without variation, and in total coordination, often through the use of chanteys, the unaccompanied songs sung only for ship’s work. Any failure by the mates and crews to carry out the necessary labor would endanger the ship and the lives of all on board, and even work done correctly might not be enough to save a ship or all of the hands in the face of the fierce power of wind and wave.

Many songs of the sea describe labor and hardship under sail. Among these, the best I have come across in my 30 years of research is “Description of a Squall.” I found this otherwise unknown song in the journal Melvin P. Halsey of Water Mill, Long Island, New York kept during his voyages in the 1860s and 1870s, one whaling off Iceland out of New York City, one on a coastal schooner out of Rockland, Maine, and one, a six-year whaling voyage to the Pacific, out of New Bedford, Massachusetts. The journal, an unpublished manuscript, is in the collection of the Southampton (N.Y.) Historical Museum. Keep in mind that the action had to be repeated for each sail on each of the vessel’s masts. Here are the second, third, and sixth verses. Try both to visualize the action and to feel the fatigue of this exceptionally hard labor. & by there came a squall
Which struck us on our lee quarter with all
Haul down your StudSails alow & aloft
Clew Up your Royals fore & aft

Lay up there Boys and make them fast
See that the gaskets are right well Sassed [?]
Steady taut your Braces
before that you go
To keep the yards from swinging to & fro

All hands Stand by give tacks & sheets
See they run right single round their cleets
Haul out your Reef Takle your tacks & sheets let fly
A Reef in each course & aloft let you lie.

And much more! And all in the face of a squall that could capsize the ship if the work was not done quickly and properly. These men certainly had to “know the ropes.”

Sometimes, however, knowledge, skill, strength and courage were not enough. Many excellent seamen lost there lives when blown or shaken off a yardarm or swept from the main deck in a storm, the seas running so high that no rescue could be attempted. There were also many accidents, even among the best of seamen. Consider the following from the 1901 “Autobiography” of Daniel Howell Buckingham of Middle Island, Long Island, New York, in the collection of the Suffolk County (N.Y.) Historical Society. Sixty-one years after he completed his final whaling voyage, Daniel still remembered vividly the tragedy that took one shipmate’s life.

The incident took place in January, 1846, off the coast of Brazil. Visualize as you read.

...we lost our2nd Mate,
Frank Ackerly overboard early
in the morning, while his watch...were reefing the fore
topsail. His brother Henry...was aloft on the yard. The
wind was blowing fresh, and the main tack of the main
sail rove through the sail and belayed to a wooden pin,
where an iron pin belonged, but was misplaced. The
pin broke and the main sail slatted heavily, and as Mr. Ackerly had his arm over the tack looking at his men
reefing, it threw him clean across the deck, striking the
Waist Boat, Davit head. As he went overboard, the cry
rang out...“man overboard.” A boat was quickly lowered
to save him, but he had gone down. Probably killed when
he struck the Davit head. They picked up his hat.

Imagine the horror of Henry Ackerly as, from aloft, he watched his brother being flung across the deck, thrown overboard, and lost at sea — with nothing but a hat remaining of what had a moment earlier been a robust whaleman.

Yes, as Mike Crowe wrote, going to sea under sail meant “learning the ropes.” But the sea is always a dangerous place. Nearly 30 years ago the beautiful main-topsail schooner Pride of Baltimore, sailing the Atlantic, sprung a plank and went down quickly. Its survivors were rescued several days later, afloat in a life raft. The people of Baltimore were stunned by the loss, but did not lose resolve, and soon a second Pride of Baltimore was built to sail the waters of Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic. The sea is a place of beauty and adventure, but also of constant peril - - - and no matter what the craft, no one who takes to the sea can long survive without “learning the ropes.”

Stephen Sanfilippo divides his time between Pembroke, Maine and Southold, New York. He served as a petty officer in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War. As a teenager he labored in a textile mill in Port Jefferson, New York that had made sails for the great sailing vessels of the 19th century. He received his Ph.D. in History from Stony Brook University, is program coordinator for the monthly Sea Chantey Sing at the Pembroke Library, and is developing a course on the history of American maritime music that he will be teaching at Maine Maritime Academy in the Fall 2012 semester. Stephen can be reached at