Luxury Sailing… or Not

Before air travel became affordable, people travelled by sea, but here’s one that turned into a nightmare. In 1870 the Victory sailed from Liverpool on 4 May with 297 passengers. This is from E Keble Chatterton’s book Seamen All:

For most of the voyage she had westerly gales; she lost both fore- and main-topsails, split some of her other canvas, stove in both her hatch-houses, strained herself badly in her tolling, sprang a leak, requiring all the crew and passengers at the pumps, and before she reached land 3 of her people had been buried at sea. It was not till May 7 that she was clear of Ireland, and by the 112th it was blowing a heavy gale. Most of the terrified passengers ere, of course, prostrate with sea-sickness, and the banging about of their luggage from side to side, and the cooking utensils flying in all directions, did not add to the peace of the ship, which was frequently well over to leeward.

On deck the cable and some barrels went careering about with a noise like thunder. Aboard came the seas, carried away the main hatch-house, poured below in tons, rose as high aft as the bunks, floated the luggage about, threatening to kill the screaming women and children. Aloft, the main-t’gallant sail, skysail, fore-royal yard, and the fore-topsail yard carried away, and then she sprang a serious leak with 9 feet of water in her hold. When the passengers were called to the pumps… some were afraid to go on deck, but they were told they must either pump or sink.

…Picture yourself that you were not aboard the Victory that night, toiling at the pumps with the gale screeching through the rigging, ropes and blocks flying above your head, anxious mates running about the deck in shirt and pants, rigging and sails in shreds and every sailor worked to a point till they could hardly stand. then suddenly there was heard a crash, and a large iron tank containing 1,000 gallons of drinking water broke adrift, came bursting through into the bulks drove the passengers nearly frantic, and killed an elderly man who was promptly stitched up and buried over the side.

After a fortnight, the gale recommenced, the Victory’s boats were smashed to bits, the fore-hatch carried away, the roof of the galley was lifted off, another yard was broken and the sails again torn. The lookout man was knocked down and crippled for life, the passengers were again sent to the pumps, another sailor was thrown from one fo the mizzen-yard arms into the sea, but miraculously a wave hurled him back on board. There followed a period of light weather, which enabled the gear to be repaired, but this did not end the series of discomforts. Some of these emigrants were a rough, hard-drinking crowd who began quarrelling and cutting each other’s heads open with belaying pins. Before the middle of June they ere in a filthy state and their lousy clothes had to be thrown away. ..As they were approaching the North American coast, there came that enemy of ships, the fog. the Victory had carried away her sidelights, had no fog-horn, and then an hour after midnight eh lookout man sent a flash of terror through the ship as he clanged the fo’c’sle bell and shouted: “she’s bearing right down on us… Look Out! Look out!” But the steersman hurriedly spun the wheel over and a real disaster was narrowly avoided. Finally, on June 20th, Long Island was sighted and next morning the tug got hold of her… and she slid into New York Harbour.

One thought on “Luxury Sailing… or Not

  1. I think we do sometimes forget just how dangerous sea voyages were.
    My great-grandmother, Margaret Ryan (1851-1925), came to Australia from Kilkenny around 1870. The sea voyage would have taken around three months. Apparently she found the journey incredibly distressing (sea sickness, storms, just being out in the middle of the ocean no land in sight) that she and a friend prayed that the ship would sink so they would die. But she survived, married and went on to have nine children and a contented life. I think, though, the fact that this story was told and passed down shows just how terrifying the experience must have been.


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