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Title: On Ocean Racecourses
Author: John Arthur Barry
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1301781h.html
Language: English
Date first posted: April 2013
Date most recently updated: April 2013

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On Ocean Racecourses.


(Author of "In the Great Deep." "A Son of the Sea," "Steve Brown's Bunyip," etc.)

Published in the Australian Town and Country Journal, Sydney NSW
Saturday, December 8, 1900

Although, now, ocean racing between sailing ships is practically a thing of the past, steam having effectually put a stop to all opportunities for such sport, the racecourses—the vast stretches of water across which the white-winged clippers used to rush to and from the ports of the world—still remain! And the unwieldy sailing tramps of to-day jog doggedly along the same tracks as the noble clippers whose places they have usurped, and compared with whom they are as draught horses to the thoroughbred racer. To us Australians the swift clippers of the United Kingdom flew out by the one course, round the Cape of Storms, and, after a breathing spell in Antipodean ports, started off along the return one round the Horn. And on this outward track they cracked on all they knew in the attempt to break their individual records to the Adelaide Semaphore, or the Otway, or the Heads of Port Jackson.

A splendid course it was, too, although you won't find it marked on any up-to-date route charts; these only give the steamers' track hugging the land all the way to the Cape, and then cutting straight as a dart across the boundary of the Southern and Indian Oceans, say about the 40th parallel. The sailer, on the contrary, keeps well out in the middle of the course, through the two Atlantics, and from, say, 15deg south, describing a vast circle, leaves Africa far to port, and swoops down into the heart of the great Southern Ocean, where the "brave westerlies," shouting in their glee at having such worthy objects upon which to spend their strength, used to catch the old-time clippers, roaring a welcome into the rigid concaves of their full topsails, and sending the shapely fabrics foaming furiously across the vast expanse. "To appreciate the force and volume of these polar-bound winds in the southern hemisphere," says a writer, "it is necessary that one should 'run them down' in that waste of waters beyond the parallel of 40deg south, where the winds howl and the seas roar. The billows there lift themselves up in long ridges, with deep hollows between them. They run high and fast, tossing their white caps aloft in the air, looking like the green hills of a rolling prairie capped with snow, and chasing each other in sport. Still, their march is stately, and their roll majestic. The scenery among them is grand, and the Australian-bound trader, after doubling the Cape of Good Hope, finds herself followed for weeks at a time by these magnificent rolling swells, driven and lashed furiously by the brave west winds."

And it was on this portion of the course that the outward race was practically decided by the westerlies in favor of the ship that could best stand up to them and "run," in place of having to ignobly heave-to because of their friendly and well-meant violence.

The small beam and lofty spars of the old clippers made them extremely ticklish things to handle when "running heavy," i.e., with both wind and sea behind them—the one howling and shrieking aloft; the other roaring solemnly, as it balanced its green, snow-capped mountains over the traffrail. But it was seldom, indeed, that any of the beautifully-handled crafts came to grief, despite the fact that their skippers carried a maintop-gallant sail where those of to-day bucket along under lower topsails.

And how disgusted the brave old westerlies must feel, as, notwithstanding their best efforts, the huge four-masted tanks they are now called upon to deal with can only, at their top, do eight or nine, in place of the thirteen, fourteen, and even fifteen that rewarded their labors on behalf of the yacht-like green clippers of Aberdeen, or the less fine-lined but squarer-rigged "composites" of the Thames.

Thoroughly disgusted must the westerlies be in these degenerate days with having to spend themselves so vainly on stump masts and canvas that, though running into acres, cannot drive the massive hull below it at any decent rate of speed! Cannot you imagine how, in the old days, they knew each "flier," her name and her record, and did their level best for her; took a pride in her, and blew their mightiest to help her to—if she was, perchance, a favorite with them—keep up her reputation? Poor old westerlies! One almost pities them now; and the utmost they can do by way of showing their bewilderment and chagrin at the change is to break a steamer's shaft now and again. With the big sailers they can do nothing, because when the good winds get to work in earnest, in place of, like the old clippers, running all the, faster, they heave-to and lie a-wash.

And in this connection it may not be out of place to mention a little incident related to the writer recently by a naval officer. Years ago, when he was on H.M.S. Charybdis, she and the renowned Aberdeen clipper Thermopylae cleared Port Phillip Heads in company. But not for long; as soon as the "flier" got all her canvas upon her she drew rapidly away from the warship, who was making every effort to keep up with her. But in vain; she could not look near the White Star packet. And at last her captain, realising that it was a hopeless business, gave orders for the Mercantile Code to signal as follows:

"Good bye. You are too much for us. You are the finest model of a ship I ever saw. It does my heart good to look at you."

Few and far between at this time of day—if there are any—are the merchant ships who could draw such a hearty and generous encomium from the lips of a Royal Naval officer.

Navigators in those times, too, used to stretch away much further south than they do now, many running down beyond the 50th parallel in their desire to catch the westerlies strong and "brave." And when it is remembered that in 65deg south is the beginning of the great icy barrier, and that bergs were often as thick as plums in a good duff down on that portion of the racecourse, it will be understood that there were risks to take.

But the men who ran the little clippers of the late sixties and the seventies meant business, and, knowing to an ounce what their ships would stand, they drove them at their top, whether loaded outward with "general;" or homeward full to the hatches with Australian wool for the February sales.

And, of course, it was the run home that the world heard most of—that portion of the world at least that took any interest in such matters, and among which was numbered the whole of Australasia. Sometimes as many as half a dozen clippers would start from our ports within a day of each other, all homeward bound along the same course, and all equally determined to be first at pilot or port.

Of one such group of four, two of which left Sydney and two Melbourne, in the sixties, with a day between their sailings, three met off the southern end of New Zealand, and, catching the westerlies together, ran them along the 55th parallel in company, until they got to the latitude of the Horn, where they found the fourth ship lying in a dead calm which was nearly shaking the sticks out of her. Without going so far south, she had got even-stronger westerlies than her sisters; but having taken her along in breathless haste at a pace far beyond that of any mail steamer, the brave winds, arrived at their limit, left her abruptly, and returned to look for other ships.

And the quartette now rolled in company, nearly dipping their lower yard arms, for three days. During this time No. 4 sprang her main and mizzen masts very badly. Then Antarctica sent up a bitter south-easter, and three went off, leaving No. 4 refitting.

The original three met again in the Capricornian calm belt, in about 30deg south, all absolutely certain that No. 4 was, this time, far behind them. They were now just fifty days out. Two of them ran through the south-east trades in company, but parted in the doldrums. But all, to the no little surprise of at least three of them, met in the Sargasso Sea, No. 4 on this occasion coming in last. They were in 30deg north, and the calms of Cancer kept them box-hauling their yards about for forty-eight hours before they got a fresh start. Two of them exchanged signals in 45deg north, 15deg east. And, although in the mouth of the English Channel they must have been all together, they did not sight each other again. But they got their pilots on consecutive days. No. 4 being the first, and thus winning the race, it having been agreed that the course should be run from pilot to pilot, and not from land to land, or from port to pilot, The case of these four vessels is noteworthy, not for particularly rapid passages (97, 98, 99, 100 days respectively), but because of the way they kept in touch with each other throughout the long struggle; and because of the close finish made possible by the pilot to pilot reckoning. In the early fifties, on another great ocean course, there was brought off a race that Lieutenant Maury describes as the most famous and celebrated that has ever been run.

The course is 15,000 miles in length, from New York to San Francisco. And in the autumn of 1852, four splendid new clipper ships started from the last-named port.

"The names of these noble ships and their masters," says Maury, "were the Wild Pigeon, Captain Putnam; the John Gilpin, Captain Doane (alas, now no more); the Flying Fish, Captain Nickels; and the Trade Wind, Captain Webber. Like steeds that know their riders, they were handled with the most exquisite skill and judgment, and in such hands they bounded out upon the "glad waters" most gracefully. Each, being put upon her mettle from the start, was driven, under the seaman's whip and spur, at full speed over a course that it would take them three months to run."

"The Pigeon sailed October 12, the Gilpin October 29, the Flying Fish November 1, and the Trade Wind November 14. All ran against time; but the John Gilpin and the Flying Fish, for the whole course, and the Wild Pigeon for part of it, ran neck and neck, the one against the other, and each against all. It was a sweepstake around Cape Horn, and through both hemispheres."

Wild Pigeon led the other two out of New York, the one by seventeen, the other by twenty days. But luck was against her, and she fell in with gales and baffling winds, and had a bad time in the Horse Latitudes. After being nineteen days out, she had logged no less than thirteen of them as days of calms and baffling winds. But from 26deg north, she made a fine run to the Equator crossing it on the thirty-second day out.

In the meantime, the John Gilpin and the Flying Fish came booming along with better luck, and gained on her the first by seven, and the last by ten days. To quote Maury verbatim: "Evidently the Fish was most confident that she had the heels of her competitors; she felt all her strength, and was proud of it; she was most anxious for a quick run, and eager withal for a trial. She dashed down southward from Sandy Hook, looking occasionally at the charts, but feeling strong in her sweep of wing, and trusting confidently in the judgment of her master, she kept, on the average, 200 miles to lee-ward of the right track. Rejoicing in her many noble and fine qualities, she crowded on her canvas to its utmost stretch, trusting quite as much to her heels as to the charts, and performed the extraordinary feat of crossing, the sixteenth day out from New York, the parallel of 3deg north."

Then, however, she got into the doldrums and lost about four days simply, as Maury tells Nickells, her master, by not observing the sailing directions on the former's charts. Then, on November 24, the Fish found herself alongside the Gilpin in 5deg south. The Wild Pigeon had passed St. Roque ten days before; the Trade Wind twelve days after. From 5deg south to 53, the Gilpin gained on the Pigeon two days, and the Pigeon on the Fish one. By dashing through the Straits of Le Maire, the Fish gained three days on the Gilpin; but the Pigeon, as ill-luck would have it, just as she was about to double the Horn, met a westerly gale, and was kept back ten days, giving her pursuers ample time to come up, bringing fair gales with them. Thus, Fish, Pigeon, and Gilpin swept round the Cape together, and crossed the fifty-first parallel, the two first one day each ahead of the Gilpin. A great and exciting race.

On December 30 the three ships, still together, crossed the parallel of 35deg south; and with fair winds and open sea, they had a clear stretch to the line of 2500 miles. They reached it with the Fish leading, the Pigeon hard on her tail, and the Gilpin dropping astern.

And now occurred a curious mischance that lost the race to the Pigeon. Her skipper last year had crossed in 109deg, and then made a capital seventeen days' run to port. If he crossed there again this time, the conditions being equal, there seemed nothing to prevent him repeating the process. But the fickle winds deceived him; and the Fish, crossing two hours before the Pigeon, and only 40 miles away, led her into port by no less than a whole week!

John Gilpin was, meanwhile, making up for lost time, and crossing in 116deg, exactly two days after the other two, made a splendid run of fifteen days to the San Francisco pilot grounds.

The Flying Fish won with a passage of 92 days and 4 hours from port to anchor; the Gilpin second, with 93 days and 20 hours from port to pilot; the Wild Pigeon took 118 days. The Trade Wind made the run in 102 days, having taken fire and burned for eight hours on the way, Doubtless, it was a great ocean race; but with all due deference to Lieutenant Maury, some of the wool clippers in the sixties and seventies, put up equally as interesting and exciting records, only we had no scientific, high-class navigator and observer like himself to chronicle and watch every foot of the contest. Nor, so far is I am aware was there anyone at the other end who, in those days, even attempted, like the clever and eloquent American, to analyse in detail each step of these great ocean trials of speed, and make their results subsidiary to scientific calculation and direction for the future use of navigators.

A thousand captains were working for him day and night, and getting ready for him their experiences of winds, currents, storms, soundings—every instance, in fact, that came under their notice connected with the physical geography of the sea. And the results are the noble wind and current charts and wreck charts issued free of cost to the American shipmaster from the National Observatory at Washington.

But the captains of our clippers were content with simply jotting down the routine events in their log; and even had they gone into details there was no Maury anxious to explain, to warn, or to advise. Thus, in these logs are hidden away the doings of many a ship that has, almost un-noticed, except for a brief line in a newspaper of the day, made a record for herself, where Maury would have used the experience to demonstrate a fact, or point out a possibility.

Perhaps more has been written about the races on the great China-London course, and its tea laden flyers than on any of the others. But the articles have been mainly the work of amateurs, and not of experts—scribblers who depended on illustrations to carry off a few lines of scrappy letterpress in some magazine or other. What a difference between the loving care with which Maury handles the subject, and a mere synopsis of which there has only been space here for!

But the day of deep-water racing under canvas may be said to have vanished. Sailers are no more built for speed, but for carrying capacity; great steel tanks, with nothing above their double topgallant yards; with more coal-tar than paint about them; spike bowsprits and iron decks smothered in more or less useless patents; heavy lumbering craft, most of them, upon whom, as I have already said, the brave westerlies, blow they their utmost, can make little impression, except in the way of heaving them to.


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