The following letter from one of the crew of this noble ship, will be read with interest:
On board Ship Sovereign of the Seas,
SAN FRANCISCO, Nov. 16, 1852.
DEAR SIR:—In fulfillment of my promise at starting, I now send you some account of our passage to San Francisco. We sailed from New York August 4, with a fine leading breeze, but during the night the wind changed ahead, and blew a gale. The noble ship, however, clawed off shore like a pilot boat, carrying whole topsails, courses, jib and spanker. Next morning, the wind favored us a little, and we were soon under all sail, close hauled, walking to the eastward at the rate of 15 miles an hour, and long before sunset were out of sight of land. Here let me give you some idea of the discipline of the ship. We had a picked crew of nearly a hundred men. These, of course, were divided into two watches, but were also stationed, man-of-war fashion, on the forecastle, in the tops, in the waist, and on the quarter-deck; so that in working ship, making or taking in sail, every man was at his station. We had a boatswain and boatswain's mates, a carpenter and a carpenter's crew, and six quartermasters, whose duty it was to steer the ship. We had four mates, two for each watch, one stationed forward and the other aft.
All these arrangements were made by the captain, who appears to be an easy, good-natured sort of a man, careless of display. I should like to have seen some of the noisy Astor House captains looking on, while Capt. McKay stationed his men, and laid down the rules which should govern both him and them during the passage, for everything was done so quietly and orderly. No swearing, no bustle, nor even imperious language. Our chief mate, who was a swaggering, swearing bully, laughed in his sleeve at what he sneeringly termed the simplicity of the "carpenter." Our captain, you know, is a carpenter, has served in that capacity in the U.S. Navy, and is the author of a valuable work on Naval Architecture. Since leaving the Navy, however, he has commanded several vessels, and proved himself a most successful shipmaster. Whether the mate knew these facts or not, I do not know; but he presumed that the captain was only a man of straw, and soon began to put on airs inconsistent with his position. He began by swearing at the men. This the captain checked at one -- not in the presence of the men, but privately. This reproof, however, was so mild and gentlemanly, that the mate thought the captain afraid of him, and persisted with increased insolence, highly seasoned with Dutch courage. He even went so far as to countermand the captain's order's, and mutinously attempted to assume the command of the ship. Without any explosion of wrath or fury, Capt. McKay ordered him off duty, when twenty days out. His services were not again required during the passage. This was the only difficulty that occurred with either men or officers. The ship was now as perfect as a machine; the utmost harmony prevailed fore and aft; one mind governed the whole.
The first sixteen days we encountered strong southerly winds, and made only 500 miles southing. twenty-seven days out we crossed the Equator, having worked almost every inch of the way dead to windward, for we had no N.E. trades, and the S.W. trades were hardly worthy of the name. When we reached the Falkland Islands we had tremendous S.W. gales, with a sea awful to look at, yet we carried a heavy press of sail, and actually drove the ship through it, standing off and on every four hours. hail, snow, and screamers were our companions day and night, but most nobly did the gallant behave. Under double, or close-reefed topsails, she would stay like a top; we never wore her once during the passage. And here let me show you what kind of man Capt. McKay was to his crew. He had stoves in their quarters, and continually had one or more of the boys to attend the fires, and at the same time dry the sailor's clothes; had warm coffee, and tea, and provisions served out during the night as well as the day, and never exposed the men more than was absolutely necessary. Still he carried on sail so as to make it truly frightful to look aloft, and fairly beat his ship dead to windward, against head gales and currents, from the Falkland Islands to Cape Horn, a feat, I believe, never before performed, under such circumstances; and what redounds to his credit, is the fact, that by his judicious conduct, not a man was made sick or disabled. We doubled the Cape in 51 days, and here, by way of a change, had four days calm.
From the Cape we had head winds, calms, and gales by turns, and it seems astonishing to me how we ever got along. On the night of October 12, during a heavy gale, but carrying, as usually, a press of canvass, the maintopmast trestle-tree settled, which slackened the topmast backstays, and away went the main topmast over the side, taking with it the foretopmast, foreyard, and mizzen topgallant mast, and every stitch of canvass off the foremast. here was a disaster to make the bolder heart beat quick, and even palsy the tongue. Now, let us contemplate Captain McKay's position. Consider, for a moment, that his brother had invested all he was worth in the ship; that he had built her in opposition to the advice of his best friends, had refused to sell her, and when it was ascertained that he intended to sail her himself, his friends again advised him to put some old experienced captain in her, and not his own brother, our captain. these, and many other thought, connected with his brother's interest, and, above all, the reputation of the ship, must have passed through our captain's mind. yet he quailed not. The hands were called, the ship hove too; and "now," said he, to the second mate, (acting mate,) "you take the mainmast, and I will take the foremast, and let us clear the wreck. Remember, everything must be saved -- nothing must be cut."
"Impossible, sir," replied the mate, "we must cut the wreck adrift."
"I repeat," said the captain, in a tone of voice not to be mistaken, "nothing shall be cut;" and turning familiarly to the crew, said -- "Boys, remember Kossuth's motto -- nothing is impossible to him that wills! I will that every thing shall be saved, now go to work like Trojans." And to work they went in earnest. They wied [?] with each other in going overboard to clear the wreck -- not a murmur was heard fore or aft, and before sunset the next day every thing was on board; and the ship under her mainsail, crossjack course and mizzen-topsail, was balling off 12 knots. Our decks were lumbered up to the leading blocks. The Captain was everywhere; now setting a sail maker's gang to work repairing sails, next a carpenter's gang to making and fitting masts and yards, and the sailors generally to clearing the rigging, getting down the stumps of the topmasts, &c. Every man was employed and worked with a will, but at night the watch was regularly set, though the captain himself slept not. The watch on deck worked during the night, and all hands during the day. In a week both topmasts, topsail yards and fore yard were aloft and the sails bent, and in 12 days the ship was once more a-tanto, and as complete aloft as if nothing had happened. If the ship, at the time of the disaster, with the wreck of the spars alongside, could have been placed in the harbor of San Francisco, I have no hesitation in asserting, that the damage could not have been repaired there, as we repaired them, for less than $25,000. The underwriters ought to bear this fact in mind.
I cannot find words to express my admiration of Capt. McKay, his skill as a sailor, his dauntless energy as a man, his kindness to his crew, and his entire abnegation of self, all stamp him as a truly great commander. During the whole of the disaster, such was his deliberate coolness and judgment, not a man suffered the slightest injury. I will not be invidious by enumerating the many vessels which have put into ports since the California trade began, with not half the damage we sustained, for Capt. McKay's conduct require no such contrast. His brother Donald knew him better than any other man -- he knew that the reputation of his ship would not suffer in his hands, and most nobly has his confidence been vindicated.
All that I need say about the ship is that, she is the swiftest and finest vessel under every circumstance that I ever saw, or ever expect to see. Her enterprising builder stands deservedly, in the front rank of his noble profession. We arrived here on the evening of the 15th inst. (November), having beaten every vessel that sailed within a month of us. We spoke and passed several vessels on the passage, and went by them as if they had been at anchor. The ship has frequently balled off 18 knots, but never had a steady breeze during a single day to test her full speed, yet she made one day, running dead before the wind, 372 miles. She will return to New York in ballast, and if she has a decent chance will make the quickest passage on record.
Transcribed by Lars Bruzelius.
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Copyright © 1997 Lars Bruzelius.