Sailing Ship accounts – the 3 masted "BLACKBRAES" in 1899

Rounding the Horn – a passage taking 11 months 15 days from South Shields to San Francisco,

An account from Sea Breezes in 1923

On June 3, 1899 we sailed from the Tyne Dock, South Shields bound for ‘Frisco with general cargo and going north about round the Shetlands soon reaching the Western ocean. There we were favoured with fair conditions all the  way to Madeira and sighted that Island on the 24th day out. On 5 July, we spoke to the barque Banffshire, outward bound to Sydney whilst another vessel, apparently homeward bound, away on the horizon had evidently lost her main topgallant mast, but we were unable to ascertain who she was.

When we were well into the Doldrums, the skipper was  keen on catching the numerous sharks that followed in our wake. One that he hooked gave a lot of trouble and required the services of several hands before he was captured. He measured 8’3″ long and when cut open he had a large bully beef tin in his stomach–a very indigestible meal. By 3rd August we were abreast of the rock of Trinidada and were experiencing heavy squalls and had lots of trouble with sails and gear carrying away; first the flying the gyb, then the fore Royal, and fore lower topsail went one after the other, which  kept us very busy.

On 1 September we sighted land on the port bow, which turned out to be Staten Island and we passed through the Straits of Le Maire, and with a fair wind which carryied us right down the Patagonian coast to the Horn. On the 5th, the weather became very bad, and we reduce sails to 3 lower topsails and the fore topmast staysail. Next day it was blowing a hurricane from the Southwest with tremendous seas running, with the decks being full-up to the rails. Then the wind seemed to blow still harder, and there was a loud bang  followed by another, and away went the fore and main lower topsails  in ribbons. Fortunately we had an awning in the weather mizzen rigging so that, with a goose winged mizen lower topsail we were able to keep her head up to the seas, which were roaring down on us from a great height. It was now quite impossible to bend any more sails, so we just had to make the best of things.

These wretched conditions continued without any lull for weeks. One day, however, to break the monotony we spoke to the three masted ship Woolf, 75 days out from Belfast towards Port Oregon, and on another day the Corrievrechan a, Glasgow vessel homeward bound for Liverpool. Needless to say, how are we all envied those aboard her!  With were now getting into a fine mess, all our lower storm sails blown away, skylight carried away on the Poop, cabin flooded, and many rail stanchions loosened, deckhouse stores and boats stove in, and worse than that hardly any fresh water to drink. We tried condensing salt, but this was hopeless.

At last came along came a lull, some fine weather canvas was set, and a course steered for Port Stanley, Falkland Islands, where we arrived off Port William.  We sailed with a fair wind up the fairway as far as possible when the little launch Sissie, came to our aid. She piloted us through the narrows into the Bay of Stanley, where we came to anchor Here we found quite a fleet of ships all suffering more or less from the effects of the blow off of Cape Horn. These were the four mastered Barque Beechbank.  They came in with the crew of a ship that had foundered, the German ship, Willhelm Mene, Penguin, the Barque Balkamar, and the Norwegian barque Langstown.  Also HMS Pegasus and Beagle.

During our stay here carpenters and blacksmiths came off everyday making good the damage, and most of the hands were put on sewing canvas for the new sails, which kept them busy for a considerable time. We had a passenger aboard with us who, of course, signed on as assistant Steward, and he thought he had had enough after his swim in the cabin off the Horn, and did not care too risk his skin any further, So he implored the skipper to let him go home. The captain would not hear of it however, and after a lot of strong language and threats of what he would do if we ever reached San Francisco, the captain gave in, so when the mail boat arrived the passenger said goodbye to all of us, as he did not expect to ever hear of ship or crew again and taking his departure stepped into the boat and was rowed ashore for England.

The fleet thins out

Port Stanley in those days was a very bleak sort of place, with very little soil, and with no warmth in the sun, no trees  and only the coarsest grass. It was altogether a very wind- swept place where most of the inhabitants spent their time farming sheep. The lads from the ship spent a good bit of their time in the boat between the ship and the shore and on one occasion were coming off in the boat under sail with the cargo of potatoes for the cabin with the wind blowing in strong gusts offshore. Suddenly we jibed and over went the lot in the none too warm water. Of course, we lost the spuds and nearly ourselves, but fortunately the Beechbank chaps had seen out plight and promptly came to our assistance.

On 22 November the Beechbank got underway but it took her three days to reach the open sea, owing to head winds.

Later, the Langstown and the  Balkamar left for Antwerp,

Then the Wilhelm Mene tried to get out, but she went aground. However, she got off later without assistance and sailed for Iquique. By 30 January we were, except for stores, ready for a second attempt to sail around the Horn, so we shifted from the bay to outside of the narrows, and on 6 February we were all ready to sail. After heaving up and dropping anchor we managed after some delay to reach the open sea, and with westerly winds our course was set for the Horn.

These conditions however did not last long, and we soon had to reduce sail,  topsails, foresail, and staysails until on the 15th we sighted the eastern side of Staten Island. The wind had dropped and all sail was then set. Next day we were well on our way around the Horn or at least we thought so, but that night the old conditions started again and it began to blow very hard. Before very long the mainsail and the fore upper topsail blew out, and then all hands were called to shorten down. The following morning all sail was again set and we sighted the Horn. This passing and repassing had been going on for quite a long time, and we were getting sick of it. However on 4 March we were rewarded with a fair wind, and with every stitch of sales set, we passed Diego Ramirez, on our port beam, so we were evidently cutting the corner close!  Our spirits were high as the wind held and we got away to the west and clear from the spot when we had seemed to have spent a lifetime. We eventually arrived off the Golden Gate without any further incident on 24 May 1900,  nearly a year from South Shields. When we finally dropped at the anchor we were besieged by newspaper reporters, doctors, missionaries, and all sorts of people.   in fact our safe arrival caused quite a lot of excitement.

We left San Francisco homeward bound on 23 July with grain. We were heading for Queenstown for orders and in company with the Winterpark who we lost sight of on the third day out. On the 3rd September we sighted the island Claremont Tonnaire in Latitude 18.20 S and longitude 24 36W. And five days later Mangur Rewa island. The Horn was reached on 21 October 90 days out, and we went round with a good stiff breeze after us and doing 12 kn. Although she pooped and the decks were full up, we kept going for days into the finer weather.

We spoke to the Barque Ganges of London on 9 November in Lat 31.38S and Long 24.36 W,  75 days out from Sydney to Liverpool with hides. We also spoke to the Almeida of Greenock with Capt Greeveson in command,  outward Bound to Iquique  71 days out from Liverpool. The line was crossed on 28 November, 128 days out a poor performance, But the Blackbraes was not built for speed ,but to carry cargo. On 4 January 1901 we signalled our arrival to the old head of Kinsale and receive orders to proceed to Birkenhead, where we arrived two days later after a total voyage of 106 days. We were all glad to be back in the old country once again.

This account was by a ” A. Goodban”.

Comment and observation:

This amazing voyage was made before the Panama Canal was open, and therefore a trip to San Francisco involved rounding the Horn, (or going right around Africa and across the Pacific). It would not be at all profitable with hindsight, given the duration and loss of spars and rigging plus salaries etc. The whole voyage including the return leg to the UK took 18 months for 2 cargoes only.

For anyone thinking it was a reckless undertaking, it should be remembered that 50 years earlier, the American clipper ships were regularly serving California from New York, Boston and East Coast ports, often carrying steam locomotives on deck around the Horn as the country opened up! The ships were so made and managed (and so beautiful) that the ship owners advertised a regular service in the newspapers of the time of around 110 days – port to port. Of course, there were mishaps rounding the Horn, but generally the service was reliable – a huge unmatched tribute to the builders, owners, and mostly, the seamen of that time in the 1850’s.

Alan Rawlinson

all comments welcome!

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