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  • James Wheeling

Cramped and Crabby - Sailing Around Cape Horn in 1849

For this mountain girl, the idea of being surrounded by water for months is a pretty foreign concept. Perhaps was the case even for those ambitious and eager gold seekers in 1849: not all of them would have been familiar, let alone comfortable, on a ship for very long. My story forced me to read many accounts, study books on ships and sailing, and actually visit ships to get the essence of what it might have been like to sail long distances.

Early in my story I had to decide which type of ship my characters would be sailing on. Whew! There were so many to choose from given that, in 1849, the demand for sailing to California sometimes superseded the common sense of which type of vessel would have the greatest chance for success. Finally, I found my ship! In the book, “American Sailing Ships: Their Plans and History” by Charles G. Davis, I was so excited to find pictures and the actual plans for the packet ship, “ISAAC WEBB”.

Packet ships were the work horses of merchant ships that plied between Europe and America starting around 1805. As they evolved and improved, more room was given for passengers over freight and by the late 1840s, they had become the ship I used in my story. Generally, there were accommodations on the deck for the passengers and officers while the crew bunked in the forecastle at the bow. There was a galley at mid-ship, sometimes two, and most of the drinking water, live animals for food and crates of dry goods were stacked on the main deck.

Below the main deck was called the “‘tween deck”. In some ships it was only about four feet below the main deck so, just enough space to crawl around. Here is where cargo or passengers traveling on the cheap would bunk. Below the ‘tween deck was the hold, most having a depth of between 14 and 20 feet. This is where the cargo was held and depending on what it was, after it was loaded, there was rarely any need to interact with it during the voyage.

Contrast those dimensions with that of the “ISAAC WEBB”. Built in 1850 by the New York shipbuilder, William H. Webb, she was one of the largest of her class at 1800 tons. Compared to the early packets that weighed only 200 tons, the ISAAC WEBB was a huge improvement in freighting. She was 185 feet long on deck and 38 feet from outside her frame to the inside of her planking. She was BIG. But, since she was built in 1850, I didn’t think it right to use her in my story, although it was helpful to see her plans and understand all the different terms and dimensions.

To give you an idea of its space, the deck of a packet ship built in the 1820’s was roughly 121 feet overall, 30 to 40 feet wide or roughly 4,250 square feet. If one were to subtract the passengers quarters, storage for life boats, food and water storage, and other sailing equipment, I imagine there would be space for walking on the deck of an oval about 60 feet by 4 feet at the outside railing. Don’t forget that the crew also had to maneuver in the same space as they sailed the ship.

While I was out working in the field the other day, I stopped to ponder what an oval like I described would look like. We were planting rows of peas that are 130 feet long so I walked off halfway. Then I stepped off 40 feet. Not an overly large space for passengers, even those who got along, to exist together for 120 to 180 days.

If you are so inclined, step off a 60 foot by 40 foot oval and imagine that to be your only source of exercise for the next four months. Who knows, after COVID that may seem completely plausible to you, but for me, it’s hard to wrap my head around.

At the beginning of the gold rush, there were mostly men occupying the passenger’s quarters of the westbound ships. But, as women began to seek their fortunes in California, or families joined their fathers and husbands there, the situation changed. There are all manner of stories about folks who sailed around Cape Horn who never adapted to the pitch and roll of a ship and were sea sick virtually the entire trip.

Boredom was a huge problem for those not sailing the ship. Folks had to get creative about what to do with their days and nights. Inevitably, there were troublemakers that made life miserable for everyone. There are accounts of difficult individuals being put off the ship in a port and left to figure out their next step in a foreign country. Ultimately in charge of sailing the ship and keeping the peace, the captain had the right — or more correctly, the obligation — to sort it out for the success of the voyage.

There are accounts of crews being disciplined with lashes and confinement but I didn’t find much about passengers being physically disciplined. It was more likely that the captain would confine them to their quarters and then set them off at the next port. Harrowing to say the least!

In my next blog, I will go into the wind and currents a sailing ship encounters around Cape Horn in 1849 compared to modern sailing. My, how things have improved!

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