Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Celebrating Sail: "Marco Polo"

In the heyday of square sail, clipper ships were the finest vessels afloat. With billowing clouds of canvas straining their spars and rigging, they were a beautiful tribute to man's ingenuity in harnassing the power of wind.  I have always admired beautiful square rig sailing ships, and so it is reasonable that I should have painted one. Of course, if you are from southern New Brunswick, a square rig ship means "Marco Polo"

My first encounter with the "Marco Polo" was in research for a book I wrote, published in 1970 by Ginn & Co., entitled "Shipbuilding in the Maritimes".  The following paragraphs are quoted from the book.

At the time of her maiden voyage, the Marco Polo was a timber drogher, a cargo carrying vessel.  But in Liverpool she took the eye of James Baines, who bought her to make passenger runs to Australia.

Into drydock went the Saint John timber ship. She was reinforced with copper fastenings and sheathed with metal. Her interior was rebuilt into comfortable staterooms. On her deck was built a richly ornamented dining saloon, picturesquely lighted and finished with the finest of materials. The doors were panelled in stain glass and the upholstery was crimson velvet. She could hardly be recognized as the same ship that left Saint John.  At that time, the only decoration of the Marco Polo had been the full length figure head of the explorer, Marco Polo, reaching forward from the stemhead.

(This has been preserved and is now found in the New Brunswick Museum)

As captain, Baines engaged James Nicol Forbes.  He was known as "Bully" Forbes, as tough a man as ever hauled himself hand over hand across the rigging of the flying jib boom.  A captain of experience and nerve, he boasted that he would go to Melbourne and back within six months.  Though this boast was discounted with amusement, Forbes had sailed in British North American ships and knew that he could do some traveling under full sail in the latitude of the Roaring Forties.  An American navigator had recommended a route to Australia and back that made use of these strong winds both ways.  Forbes planned to follow this route.

On July 14, 1852, the Marco Polo left Liverpool for Melbourne with nine hundred and thirty emigrants on board.  He had a crew of sixty men, half of whom were working their way to Australia.  Forbes made the trip in sixty-eight days, an impressive achievement.  In four days in teh south latitudes he covered 1,343 miles, an average of 336 miles each day.

Because of the gold strike in Australia, captains had problems obtaining seamen in Melbourne.  Sometimes whole crews left their ships to go to the gold fields.  Forbes solved the problem by having all his crew jailed in Melbourne on a trumped up charge as soon as the Marco Polo docked.  When he had loaded all his suppliles and cargo, Forbes withdrew the charges against the crew and had the men returned to the ship.

The Marco Polo went back to Liverpool by way of Cape Horn and arrived there five months and twenty-one days after she had left Liverpool.  Forbes had lived up to his bopast.  The shipping world was astounded.  None were more excited than James Smith and his men when they learned of the achievement of the ship they had built. Thousands of people came to see the Marco Polo at Liverpool. They admired the banner that hung between her foremast and mainmast proclaiming "THE FASTEST SHIP IN THE WORLD"

The Marco Polo made many more journeys to Australia and back under a succession of different captains. A fast passenger ship, she continued in the Australian service for fifteen years. By the end of this period her hull was becoming water-soaked, her timbers were strained, and she was getting too heavy in the water to be a fast passenger ship. She could no longer stand the full sail of her early days when she covered the long distance between England and Australia in record times.

She was cut down in rigging to become a barque.  The proud Marco Polo was reduced to a tramp, slowly luggin consignments of heavy cargo.  In 1880 she was sold to a Norwegain company.  Once more she engaged in the timber trade. She limped across the ocean laden with timber, her tired hull wrapped in great lengths of enormous chain to hold her together.  A wind-powered pump operated full time to discharge the water that trickled through her sodden seams.

Finally, in August of 1883, while struggling along in the Gulf of St. Lawrence with a load of timber, she was caught in a gale and smashed on the shores of Cape Cavendish, Prince Edward Island. After thirty-two years of making history throughout the world, she had bravely staggered home to the shores of her native country to die.

1 comment:

  1. Eric, thank you for that interesting story on the ship that my 3rd great grandparents William and Jane BRYAN traveled on in 1852 to Australia.It goes well with your painting as well.