The Lady Washington

The Lady Washington trip was originally planned as an expansive vacation to San Francisco to spend two days seeing at least four and maybe five Clipper ships at the National Maritime Museum, and it was a disappointment to cancel, for I must concede that the famously elusive Clipper has eluded me yet again. However, it was my brand new car that was slated to be driving through the raging forest fires in Central California, and it just didn’t, especially with the cost of refurbishing my own vessel still a pressing issue.

But I did make a break for Port Hadlock to see the local equivalent of the Clipper ship, the Lady Washington, 178 tons berthen, a brig built about fifty years before the era of the Clippers.

The existing Lady Washington is a replica of the Revolutionary Era Sloop-of-War that harrassed British shipping during the war. I notice they left the guns off — though the portholes are still in evidence. 

After her time as a ship of war, the original Lady Washington served as a merchant vessel that departed Boston Harbor in 1787 to make the long and perilous journey to the West Coast, down along the Atlantic coast of the Americas to the bottom tip of South America, rounding the snowy Cape Horn, up the continent northward, trading with the natives along the way, and eventually acquired the distinction of being the first recorded vessel to make landfall on the Oregon Coast, near Tillamook. 

I have made some inquiries of the Historical Society about her original voyage from Boston to the Pacific Northwest, but have not heard back. Maybe the answers to my questions cannot be found. In any case, I am going to speculate on what might have happened based on the usual goings-on in the Americas.

This brig is outfitted for a crew of twelve. Likely most were American and European — the English being the most proficient mariners -- but sailing was an international business, and ships picked up hands wherever in the world they were. So let’s imagine ten from America and Europe, one from Africa, and one from either Asia or the Spanish-speaking regions of the Americas. There would have been a Captain, a first mate, a cook, and sailors. 

These men may or may not have sailed together in the past. Some sailors stayed with the ship and some with the captain, but each voyage was a discreet unit and hired hands for the journey, say, two years, starting with a signing bonus, with pay at a certain monthly rate, to be collected usually at the end of the journey or possibly some when at liberty in port. They would each bring their trunk with personal gear, set up in a berth that was often a hammock, often meeting their shipmates for the first time the day the vessel sailed. 

Most didn’t know the captain in whose hands their fate rested, but word got round. Most captains were fine, but the very delicate relationship between the types of officers and the types of hands was always part of the success of the journey, and sometimes things got out of hands. The captain ruled supreme, but the sailors had their ways of pushing back against abuse. Mutiny of an entire ship was rare and punishable by death, but the practice of one or two sailors running off mid-voyage and hiring on with another ship was not unheard-of. If a sailor ran away, a reward would be offered for his return, everyone in town would be out looking for him, and, if caught, he would be remanded back into the custody of his original vessel, with some punishment. However, if he were not caught within about two days, he was free to ship with another captain and take his chances on that journey. It was often a situation of personality conflict, so there was considerable leniency in taking on disaffected hands. 

One of the most popular pursuits that I am noticing in these southward-bound Atlantic journeys was to stop in Argentina and ride horses while the ship took on cowhide pelts for the international leather trade. Horses were plentiful in the pampas areas, and the main expense was the rental of the saddle. Many sailors spent happy days riding in the valleys around the town. When not entertaining themselves in equestrian pursuits, they might be socializing with the local marine set, swapping books with other seamen, and taking on a variety of amusing effects, such as musical instruments, pets, luxury items for the folks back home, and a profusion of tobacco products, much of which will be described in the coming posts, including how the nomenclature has stayed the same, a telling feature and much-loved in the world of seamanship.

An awful lot of South America was idyllic for a little vacation time. The exception were the villages in Brazil or somesuch places that were overrun with monkeys, large troops of sizeable monkeys and quite dangerous, so they had to be getting out of the way of those monkeys. Plus there was all the monkey chatter, which went on night and day.

Then there was an island of mostly pigs and many squabbles about these pigs, one of which lead almost to war except for cooler heads. 

The crossing of Cape Horn was no easy matter, with the icebergs of Antarctica looming, fierce storms driving ships onto the rocks, the unfamiliar ocean awaiting them.

The Pacific side was not so commonly traversed as the Atlantic, the natives less knowledgeable about outsiders and more prone to violent outburst. It was in the Pacific that the greatest explorer of the era, Captain Cook, lost his life just a few years before this voyage when hospitality with the Hawaiian Islanders ran out, but evidently this vessel did not meet with such terrible luck, and made it all the way up the coast to what was probably hoped was the mouth to some Northwest Passage that would make sea journeys between the oceans easier. Instead, what it met with was the Salish people, already well-entrenched in American culture, and willing to climb on this curious new thing of a very large canoe, with strange contraptions of rope, powered by cloths in the wind.

© Joann L. Farias 2023