The Gold-Rush Clippers

This was first published in the May 1989 issue of Sailing World after Thursday's Child, skippered by Warren Luhrs, bettered the record of the clipper ship Flying Cloud on the New York to San Francisco run via Cape Horn. Flying Cloud's record had stood for 135 years. Reprinted by permission.


Picture of the world of 1848. The Industrial Revolution was well underway. Scientists and inventors had changed the face of society with steam engines, electrical wonders, and the machines of mass production. Everywhere, it seemed, farmers were leaving their fields and joining the lines of factory workers. The modern rules of life were facing down the old ways, and there were full-blown political revolutions happening all over Europe. There was a new book out called The Communist Manifesto, whose authors were taking things a step farther, talking about the inevitable triumph of the industrial working classes.

FC - Wikimedia commons
Flying Cloud, designed by Donald McKay, held the New York to San Francisco record for 135 years. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Victoria was queen. In three years there would be a Great Exhibition with a Crystal Palace and other wonders of the modern world. There would be a yacht race around the Isle of Wight, with a black schooner from America taking home the trophy that would bear her name.

The planet Neptune had recently been discovered. Big-city doctors were beginning to use general anesthesia in surgery. Steam locomotives and short-run railroads were common; European mail could be delivered from Boston to New York in a matter of hours by train and steam packet. It was almost incredible, but you could send a message at almost the speed of light: Morse’s telegraph lines were being strung up everywhere. Edison and Bell had arrived — they were in diapers, but they were here. In July, there was a big women's right convention in Seneca Falls.

Not far away from all this modern hubbub, along the Mississippi in places like Independence and Council Bluffs, the westbound traveler looked across the river and saw… well, Indians. What lay on the other side of the Big Muddy was about as different as you could get from the world of Queen Victoria and Karl Marx.

Out there, these were the days of Jim Bridger and Kit Carson, mountain men and isolated trappers. The great trails through the wilderness — the Santa Fe and the Oregon — had been traversed, but it was no cakewalk for settlers to get to California and Oregon. There were the Comanche, Blackfoot, Pawnee, Creek, Cherokee, Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Crow, and it wasn’t even close to the time of the last battles when they were driven off their land once and for all.  Cochise and Geronimo were peaceful young Apaches in 1848, and wouldn’t be heard from for another 20 years or so. Sitting Bull was a teenager. George Armstrong Custer was a 10-year-old schoolboy in Ohio.

In 1848 there was no question that the Native Americans ran the continent west of the Mississippi. Even if you were wise enough to enlist the services of an expert trail guide, it was by the good graces of the natives, or your own smarts, or luck, that you made it through without a fight.

Then there was the territory itself. The rivers carried names like Snake, Wind, and Cimarron. They were places called Hell's Canyon, Muddy Gap, Devil's Hole, Cripple Creek, Purgatoire, Death Valley. Winter was terrible in the mountains, and the desert was worse. If you strayed off the trail in a blizzard, or took the wrong cutoff, you were — not to put too fine a point on it —  doomed. There were grizzly bears, wolves, mountain lions, and rattlesnakes. And smallpox. Heading west was something to mull over carefully.

Rush to the Gold

Early in 1848, gold was discovered on John Sutter’s land in the Sacramento Valley. Word spread quickly, and everything changed. Danger? Hell — California here I come! By the end of the next year, 80,000 people had rushed to the Pacific. Emigrants of all nationalities flocked from every direction as fast as possible, by any means they could. For Easterners, one alternative to the risky wagon train was to ship themselves around Cape Horn. Most people booked passage on the scores of slower vessels, some decrepit, some sound, that were thrown suddenly into the California run. Others who could afford it demanded faster transport.

It wasn't only the Forty Niners who needed delivery to the coast; the goods to sustain them had to get there, too. Prices were astronomical in California, and there were huge profits to be made by getting the goods there quickly. For a few years, until the market was glutted and freight shipments lay wasted in the streets, ships bulled their way around the Horn laden with anything and everything their owners could throw on board. The faster the ship, the better the profits while the prices held high.

King philip

The Gold Rush didn’t create the clipper ship. Fast sailing ships had been called clippers for a long time, and they’d be known by that name well after their day in the spotlight. American sailors had developed a serious appetite for speed after the War of 1812, when it had made all the difference between a loss and a standoff with the world's greatest naval power. By mid-century Yankee ship design had reached a high stage of evolution, and sailing speed was a matter of interest not only to shipowners, to whom it meant good business, but to the public, excited by the idea that faraway exotic worlds were being pulled within reach. When R.H. Waterman brought the bark Natchez into New York after a 78-day run from Macau in 1845, he was lionized in the streets.

The early years of the Gold Rush did, however, make legendary a certain breed of clipper that sailed for about a decade between ‘49 and’ 59. These ships were unique in two inseparable ways: They were built strictly for speed at the expense of cargo-carrying ability, and they were driven by speed demons. Waterman was such a demon, famous for his China passages aboard Sea Witch and Natchez, and there were maybe a dozen others who became household names  in their time. Some, like Philip Dumaresq, commanded several ships; others were associated with a particular clipper, even if they sailed her for only one record-breaking passage: Ashbel Hubbard of the Flying Dutchman, Freeman Hatch of Northern Light, John Williams of the Andrew Jackson, Josiah Cressy of Flying Cloud, Asa Eldridge of Red Jacket, and J. N “Bully” Forbes of Lightning.

Of all the designers and builders who entered the fray, Donald McKay quickly rose to the top of the heap. Even before the decade of the California clipper, the speed records set by his ships had eclipsed many others. It wasn't just that McKay's ships were fast; they were outstandingly handsome, sturdy, and well-finished. These attributes helped them lure the best drivers, and success begat success. They became legends in their own time. McKay made his name with his first clipper, Stag Hound, launched at his East Boston yard in December of 1850. His second, built the next year, was Flying Cloud.

Flying Cloud is a good focus for a clipper ship discussion for two reasons. First, her record run from New York to San Francisco was not bettered for 135 years, until 1989, and then only by a high-tech, high-performance sloop that could skim the water with no cargo aboard. Second, she truly represented the state of the art. Samuel Eliot Morison, in his Maritime History of Massachusetts, summed her up this way: “McKay built faster clippers, but for perfection and beauty of design, weatherliness, and consistent speed under every condition, neither he nor anyone else surpassed Flying Cloud. She was the fastest vessel on long voyages that ever sailed under the American flag.”

She was 229’ long on deck, 235’ from knightheads to taffrail. Her maximum beam was 40’8”, and she drew 21’6”. She registered at 1782 tons. Her rig is described in Howe and Mathews’s American Clipper Ships 1833-1858: “[L]ength of foremast, 82 feet; topmast 46; top-gallant, 25; royal, 17; and skysail mast, 13. On the main — 88, 51, 28, 19, and 14 ½. On the mizzen — 78, 40, 22, 14 and 10. [Length of] yards; on the foremast: 70, 55, 44 ½, 32 and 22. On the main — cross-jack, 56, topsail, 45; topgallant, 33; royal, 25; skysail, 20. The foremast was 35 inches in diameter, the main, 36, and the mizzen, 26. Diameter of the foreyard, 20 inches; main yard, 22; and cross-jack, 16 inches. The bowsprit was 28 inches in diameter, 20 feet outboard. The jib-boom was divided at 16 feet and again at 29 feet, with a five-foot end. The spanker boom was 55 feet long; gaff, 40 feet; and the main spencer gaff, 24 feet. The masts all raked alike, 1 1/4 inches to the foot.”

The terminology doesn’t come naturally to the modern sailor, but once you’ve located all these parts in your mind’s eye, you begin to see an awesome picture. What the particulars make obvious, even in an age of hollow aluminum extrusions, plastic, and carbon fiber, is that this ship was gigantically sparred for her size. Like other “extreme” clippers she was meant to spread many thousand square yards of sail and keep most of it up in heavy winds and seas. That was the way to speed records and profits.

On Flying Cloud’s maiden voyage in 1851, Josiah Cressy took her out of New York, around the Horn, and to San Francisco, in 89 days, 21 hours, anchor-to-anchor— an astoundingly fast passage. On her fourth voyage, begun on January 21, 1854, she bested her own time, arriving at anchor in San Francisco 89 days, 8 hours out. This was the record that stood until 1989. (There has been a longstanding debate over whether the record should have been credited to the Andrew Jackson, a clipper that made the run in the winter of ‘59-’60 to the pilot grounds inside the Farallon Islands in 89 days, 4 hours, but was then becalmed and couldn’t make port until the next day. A tempest in a teapot, you say? The most rabid fans of Red Sox and Yankees could not have been at greater loggerheads.)

The clippers of the 1850s represented a great leap forward in naval architecture. They had sharp entrance lines with radical concave bows, moderate or low deadrise with flattish bottoms and shallow, clean runs aft for minimum drag. With their enormous sail areas they were radically fast by any standard. Compare them to what came before: The original American naval frigates like Constitution, Philadelphia, and Constellation, which outsailed the British men-of-war in 1812, were occasionally capable of 12-knot speeds. Early merchant clippers like Sea Witch and the famous Baltimore ships like Ann McKim could do a knot or two better. Flying Cloud had her best day’s run during her sixth and last voyage around the Horn in ‘56 — 402 miles at an average of 16.75 knots. In 1854, the McKay-built Champion of the Seas made 465 miles noon-to-noon on December 11-12 in the Roaring Forties — an average of almost 20 knots. It would be 40 years before a steamship could equal that. In Southern Ocean conditions it’s still a good day’s run for a 21st-century warship.

The thoroughbred clippers weren’t just temperamental to sail, they were downright frightening. In order to set records they had to be sailed at the far edge of sanity. Riggers would often be sweating over the last of their work as the ships were being towed out of harbor on their maiden voyages. Everyone understood that the hemp would stretch, and that if sails weren’t reefed at the right time, and sheets and yards weren’t tended properly, and if the helm wasn't handled perfectly, gigantic objects would start breaking.


It’s hard for modern-day sailors to picture the mayhem when things did break. On her maiden voyage, Sovereign of the Seas, built by Donald McKay and commanded by his brother Laughlan, lost her main topmast, mizzen topgallant mast, and foretopsail yard over the side in a gale off Cape Horn. With a record to set, there was no option of cutting the rigging away and heading into Valparaiso for repairs. McKay re-rigged her then and there. “Theoretically, it was impossible in the heavy weather that existed to save the massive spars,” said Carl Cutler in his authoritative Greyhounds of the Sea. “...It required herculean efforts merely to prevent the spars from pounding the ship full of holes, let alone getting the ponderous weight of the spars and the backstays on board again…

“Within 24 hours the fore and main topmasts and mizzen topgallant mast, with all the yards, sails, and gear attached, were back on board and the work of re-rigging was underway. It was a task that involved everyone engaged in it in the utmost danger. The main topsail yard alone was a stick that must have weighed considerably more than three tons without the hamper attached to it, and the work of disengaging such a spar from the snarl of rigging in the heavy seaway that prevailed was a thing to tax the courage of the bravest and most active sailors afloat.”

Within 30 hours they were making 12 knots. For the record, the main topsail yard on Sovereign of the Seas was 19.5 inches in diameter and 70 feet long, about twice the size of a typical utility pole, and much heavier. To be put back in service it had to be hoisted about nine stories into the air with hemp rope and wooden blocks in a violent rolling sea, by men in soggy and inadequate clothing being whipped by a cold wind.

On the other hand, imagine the thrill of a fast passage. On February 12, 1853, Laughlan McKay took Sovereign of the Seas out of Honolulu, bound for New York with 8,000 barrels of whale oil. They were extremely shorthanded, with only 34 crew in addition to the officers. McKay closely followed sailing directions given to him by Lieutenant Matthew Fontaine Maury, then director of the U.S. Naval Observatory. Maury would soon publish his Physical Geography of the Sea, which would set the standard for all modern oceanographers. For now he was pleased with McKay’s confirmation of his theories: Sovereign made New York in 82 days, obliterating all previous records. She averaged 378 miles a day for four days straight, and 330 miles a day for another eleven-day period. In mid-March she recorded a 24-hour run of 430 miles (later analyzed and reduced by the Navy to 410.7 miles in 23:18, or about 421 miles in 24 hours). A letter from one of the ship’s officers to a friend in Boston is quoted by Howe and Matthews:

“The day we ran 430 miles she had the wind on the larboard quarter and carried all drawing sail from the topsail down, but had the topmast been sound she could have borne the topmast studding sail also. The sea was high and broken, the weather alternately clear and cloudy, with heavy showers, and at night we had occasional glimpses of moonlight. She ran about as fast as the sea and when struck by a squall would send the spray masthead high. Now and then she would fly up a point and heeling over skim along between the deep valleys of the waves, and then, brought to her course again, righten with majestic ease and as if taking a fresh start would seem to bound from wave to wave.”

On Sovereign’s earlier, maiden voyage, the re-rigging triumph would probably have been impossible if it weren’t for the fact that Laughlan McKay was a master carpenter, having served as such aboard the frigate Constellation, and had brought with him a mostly hand-picked crew of 105 — a huge crew to ship aboard a clipper. Most clipper captains were unable to attract decent crews, either in numbers or expertise, and sailed shorthanded, as McKay did in his Honolulu-New York run. Those who did ship out were generally miserable about it, and were treated miserably as well. They were paid a few dollars a month to endure unheard-of hardship and danger with no time off, bad food, and bad company. “Americans would not willingly accept such wages for such work,” said Morison. “Coasting vessels, paying $18 a month, absorbed the Yankee boys with a craving for the sea. The shipowners could have obtained American crews had they been willing to pay for them, but they were not. Like the factory owners, they preferred cheap foreign labor.”

The crew problem, the rise of steam power, and the cost of operating fast, low-capacity ships in pursuit of markets no longer frenzied — these were the main factors that brought about the demise of the Gold Rush clippers. But the 1850s, a decade of often painful social and technological transition that foreshadowed the American Civil War, were golden years for some of the most exotic ships ever to sail.


Anchored for a Storm, August 2020

Hobbes would have described the weather event as nasty, brutish, and short. It hammered Connecticut on August 27th from the northwest through Bethany, North Haven, Hamden, and then, big-time, Branford. The town had 99 percent of its power knocked out, with lines down everywhere and hundreds of trees sheared off, uprooted, or otherwise mangled.

We were anchored in good mud, upwind of a marsh, in four feet of water, with the oversized ground tackle we've lugged around on Pup for 17 years so that we can sleep at night. As a last-minute thought I led the rode from the bow roller to the big midships cleat that's bolted through the cockpit coaming. This provided a little extra stretch and helped with the shock-loading. I'm not sure the bow cleat would have held. NOAA reported multiple microbursts with windspeeds in our zone at 90-100 mph, or 80+ knots. Melissa's video below is three clips from the first couple of minutes when it hit. Then it got really windy for a little while and she stopped filming so she could hold on with both hands.

In those few minutes we were busy, running in gear and trying to stay behind the anchor rode to take some strain off it. We had our PFDs close at hand, and possibly should have put them on. But I've never liked the idea of being trapped under a boat with an inflated PFD, and thought, well, we can always walk ashore...

A word about NOAA, an agency that does a lot of good work with not enough money and, it must be said, under extra pressure these days from some dubious non-scientific outsiders: Their 24-hour weather predictions for this storm had been very good, along the lines of "There's a strong potential for nasty weather to develop by tomorrow afternoon. Keep an eye out for it." That was enough to make us cancel our cruising plans and stick close to home. And the warnings did increase in urgency the next day, but what had been expected to be some severe thunderstorms coalesced very quickly into something much more powerful, and the system moved so fast that NOAA's marine emergency alerts began to arrive less than half an hour before the weather did. Even then, we could clearly see what was approaching us on radar from a smartphone app while listening to NOAA weather warnings over the marine VHF that focused on danger in White Plains, New York, over 50 miles west of us.

We didn't have time to run far, but we were only a few minutes from where we wanted to be in case of really bad weather — in the shallows, with sticky mud to anchor in, room for plenty of scope, protection from waves and flying debris, and a soft place to leeward if we had to scud or wade.

There's a good discussion of the whole event by Ryan Hanrahan of NBC Connecticut.

- DL



The Drift of the Drazel

Back in the 1980s there appeared a few articles in Yacht Racing & Cruising (and later Sailing World) under the name Ebon Bilgewater, a determined and sometimes hapless young sailorman. This is a lightly revised version of the original from Sailing World, September 1986. Reprinted by permission.


The engine was flat busted. I’d had 15-round bouts with its injectors, water pump, transmission, fuel lines, alternator, and virtually all of its gaskets. When its puny mounts gave way during a slight altercation with a cutlass bearing early one spring, I decided to take it out and leave it out. Sailors, I reasoned, had managed pretty damn well without engines for a long time. Would clogged injectors have left the Santa Maria wallowing helplessly? Would Drake or Nelson have turned tail because of a leaky transmission? Would the Vikings have whined that they couldn't go sacking and pillaging because they weren't getting a charge on their batteries?

With my old friend Abednego Hawser at the tiller of Drazel, I slid into the inflatable, mounted the oars, and towed the yawl out of her slip and down the west side of City Island. It was a gray April morning, not cold, but silent and placid and just a bit smoky on the surface. The mist, I decided, was a good sign. It portended a sou'wester, and a sou'wester meant a broad reach, due east down the Sound, 62 miles to a new home and a new mooring with swinging room. I kept the little plastic blades singing, and pretty soon I had Drazel rippling along. We cleared Old Tom in a half hour, and no sooner had we turned east than the fresh sou'wester, good as gold, came darkening the water up from the Throg's Neck. I thought it was a bit early for it to be showing up, but I wasn't complaining. NOAA, coming from the handheld VHF, was predicting the arrival of a high-pressure system with brisk northerly winds. Perfect.

Western sound
The Drazel's voyage took her from City Island, lower left, to the Thimble Islands, upper right — 62 nautical miles — at the speed of a toddler walking tentatively and sitting abruptly to cry every so often.

I climbed aboard Drazel, hoisted up the dink, pulled the plug, and pretty soon had it stuffed down the lazarette. Meawhile, A.H. had set the big jenny and eased the sheets, cinched down the vang, hoisted the board a foot or two, and had Drazel humming along like a snipe at five or six knots. This was going to be a fine old sail, straight down the rhumbline. My record for the passage, which I'd set alone two years before on a cold, blustery day, was 10 hours. And that was with a hulking, sulking engine stinking up the bilge to the tune of 500 pounds and more.

Sat. 0600. Wind S.W. 12-14 kts. Booming past Hart Island under 150%, main, and mizzen. Leaving Executioner's to port. Speed approx. 6 kts. Current just turning fair. Tickety Boo.

0700 Wind S. 0-3 kts. Drifting in fair current off Hempstead Hbr.

0800 Wind -0-. Still drifting. Turned slow circle in eddy w. no steerageway.

0900 Wind W. 5-8 kts. Rain, fog. Put up light-air jib and reaching at approx. 3 kts. to N.E. Figure we'll get over to the Connecticut shore, pick up the northerly early when it comes in.

1030 Wind S.W. 5-8 kts. Rain stopped. Pretty thick fog. Passed some racing boats powering for the starting line of American YC Series off Rye. Friend on As Larks Harmoniously gives a shout and a wave. Asks if we can spare any diesel. He's spitting over the side. Been sucking up the dregs from the fuel tank to feed the starving injectors. I laugh derisively. Would Isaac Hull have been spitting diesel all over Constitution's topsides?

1230 Wind -0-. Drifting off Stamford. Turned another circle or two. Fog is scaling up a bit. Tide turning foul. No records today. NOAA still calling for northerly. Wish it would show up.

1300. Wind W. 4-6 kts. Fog lowered and raining again, but nice to be moving.

1330. Wind crapped out again. This is getting silly. Where's that northerly? Rain stopped. Visibility lousy.

1400. Wind N. 10-12 kts. Here we go. Reaching along shore at approx. 4.5 kts. Making maybe 3 over bottom. Good enough for now. It's all downhill from here.

1430. Wind lay down and died again. We're ghosting along, just bucking the current. NOAA says the northerly's blowing now. Where do those guys work, Phoenix?

1500. Wind E.(!) 8-10 kts. Weird, but we'll take what we can get. Short-tacking along the shore off the Norwalk Islands to stay out of the worst current, making maybe 2 kts. over the bottom.

1700 Wind dead as a smelt again. Drifting off Fairfield under hazy sky. Current turns fair soon. NOAA still reporting a stiff northerly. I mean, come on.

2000 In 3 hours have drifted to about middle of Bridgeport Harbor. Clouded up and got dark about an hour ago. Two tankers moored here offshore with lights ablaze. Put on battery-powered running lights, set up 1-hour watches with A.H. Getting a bit nippy out.

2200 Wind E.N.E. 12-15. Changed to 120% high-clew and beat offshore at approx. 6 kts. Got about an hour of fair current left. Good and cold now.

2230 Tacked and headed back for CT shore, figuring we could fetch Milford. About 5 mins. later the wind rolled up its eyes and expired. And the rain started again. And the current's gone slack.

2330 Wind W.S.W. 0-4. Making approx. half kt. to the north with light-air jib up.

Sun. 0100 Dead in water. Intermittent rain. Decent visibility to shore, but black on water to south. Seabirds toward Stratford Shoal setting up unholy racket. Then heard nasty thrumming to the east. Pretty soon could see two vertical whites with a red low to starboard., and another red and green combo to port. One green missing. Figured it was buried in the inside red. Went below to check light configuration. Went back on deck, watched bearing. Didn't change. Went below and woke up A.H. Got VHF, went back on deck, flashed a Delta at the tug's bridge, then shined a light at our mainsail. Called tug on 13. "This is Drazel, WRV 3622, calling the tug with barge alongside heading west a mile off Stratford Point...." "Drizzle thizis (indecipherable)" the excellent fellow answered. "Zat you lil thang jes off ma po ba wi tha lil dinky laht?" I confirmed that it was, since there were absolutely no other numbnuts out there for us to be confused with. "Moan come jesabit to ma stab." Thanked the man profusely, for monitoring 13, for keeping a good watch, for not plowing this poor old blowboat under.

0200 Wind totally slack. Have drifted with foul current back to Bridgeport. Getting set down on easternmost tanker. Let go anchor in 60 feet of water. Listened to NOAA to get the hourly amusement.

0230 Wind N.N.E. 7-10 kts. Hauled up anchor and got going again on a close reach. Making maybe 2.5 kts. over bottom. Raining again.

0430 Bloody frikkin cold now. Once in a while start shaking like dropped jello. But we've been moving forward for a while now, and the current's turning fair. A.H. heated up some coffee with the propane torch.

0530 Off New Haven breakwater. Sky has lightened a bit in east. Wind has spun around and bit the dust again. We're down to our last few Fig Newtons.

0630 Wind N.E. at 6-8 kts. Heading E. closehauled at 2-3 kts.

0730 Wind E.S.E. at 12-15 kts. Drazel booming along at 5-6 kts. in pea-soup fog. Course S.S.E. Wind has built and veered for an hour. Boatspeed variable, no lobster-pot floats to gauge current, D.R. plot a mess. Blowing one long, two short on the conch, waiting for another tug to issue the coup de grace. A.H. at the tiller with eyes that look as if they've been stuck on by a taxidermist, singing "farewell and ad-ieuuuu, my fine Spanish ladies, farewell and ad-ieuuuu..." 

0815  Tacked N. No sooner trimmed in on starboard than the wind gasped its last. Adrift again. Finished the Fig Newtons, thought of  Géricault's “The Raft of the Medusa.” Agreed with A.H. to continue due N. when possible, run boat up on nearest rock, swim ashore, move to Wyoming.

0930 Still drifting in the soup. NOAA says they're sorry, but the low-pressure system that was supposed to move offshore keeps circling around itself. Forecast now for light and variable northwest winds, locally on-shore, with mixed clouds, fog, and sun. Bet they got a good laugh out of that one. Got out the plastic oars, lashed them to a boathook and whisker pole and started paddling.

1030 Fog scaled up enough to see the East Haven shore. Anchored against foul tide in 40 feet of water. Lay on the deck and yelled obscenities.

1130 Wind N. 7-10. Sky turning blue. Making about 2 kts. eastward over the bottom.

1200 Wind N. 12-15 kts. Bright blue sky. Changed to 150% and making about 5.5 kts.

1230 Wind N. 15-20 kts. Drazel rail-down in flat water, beam reaching at over 7 kts. Branford Reef coming up to port.

1300 Short-tacking up to shore, taking turns with A.H. running the jib around the mast, sheeting home without winch handle, yelling and whooping and jumping up and down.

1330 Rounded up, dropped genoa, jibed around and coasted up to mooring, 32 hours out of City Island. Average rhumbline speed... just under 2 knots.

Once ashore, fed, washed and napped, Abednego and I decided not to move to Wyoming. We knew that Poseidon had wrung us out a little for good reason: Our senses had become honed to the slightest nuance of wind and current. Our eyes were keen and our hearing acute; our hands freeze-dried, thawed, pickled and hardened — and not a single speck of engine muck under our well-chewed fingernails.

Ebon Bilgewater is the brother of Ambrosia Bilgewater.

Do Not Tease the Cutlass Bearing

Back in the 1980s there appeared a few articles in Yacht Racing & Cruising (and later Sailing World) under the name Ebon Bilgewater, a determined and sometimes hapless young sailorman. This is a slightly updated version of one originally called “Beating the Bushing.” Reprinted by permission.

Anyone who has spent some time around auxiliary sailboats will be familiar with the curious sensations generated by a worn cutlass bearing: a deep, low buzzing in the ears, as if a giant mosquito were hovering nearby, and a tingling numbness in the legs akin to what is felt by some motel visitors after standing on their Vibro-Beds for several hours. The numbness is most noticeable while motoring through a glassy calm with a hot sun beating down relentlessly overhead.

The trade name is Cutless, but most people call the innocent-looking part a cutlass bearing. Photo courtesy of Johnson/Duramax

 The more worn the bearing, the more intense the sensations: In yawls and ketches with neglected bearings, watching the mizzen shrouds vibrate for more than a few seconds will induce optical illusions and nausea. So it is both a seamanlike and medically sound practice to change cutlass bearings when they become worn; and, as in everything else, there is both a right way and a wrong way to do it.

Before getting into procedures, a word about the cutlass bearing itself is in order. First, the proper term for the item is "stern bushing" or "stern tube bearing." But even more proper, if you’re a boat-parts purist, is calling it a cutLESS bearing, because Cutless is a trade-name for the stern bushing made by a particular company. However, the word “cutlass” is widely used, especially because experiences with this particular boat part remind us that a cutlass is a type of sword, habitually used by pirates to hack innocent seafarers into tiny, indiscriminate pieces.

The bearing sometimes lives in a strut; sometimes, logically enough, in a stern tube projecting below the boat or embedded in the trailing edge of a keel. What it bears is the propeller shaft, which first comes out of the engine's transmission and then goes through the stuffing box. The cutlass bearing is the last thing that holds the shaft on its way to the propeller. Theoretically, the shaft makes its way through the bearing straight and true; the clearances between shaft and bearing are minute and precise. No matter how well-aligned the shaft, though, within a certain number of years it will wear down that bearing surface and start to bounce around at a high frequency, thus causing the medical problems referred to earlier.

Cutlass bearings have traditionally been made chiefly of brass or other composition metals like monel, which is an alloy of mostly nickel and copper, used extensively for marine propellers and shafting. The bearing surfaces used to be made of lignum vitae; now they're usually vulcanized rubber, arranged in longitudinal grooves that lightly hold the shaft and allow water to flow in and out as far as the stuffing box for cooling and lubrication. Some cutlass bearings today are made entirely of plastic, so that inserting and removing them is simply a matter of adjusting their temperature (by refrigeration or subtle use of a torch or hair dryer) to let them expand into or contract out of tight places.

The cutlass bearing here lives in the projection of the stern tube outside the keel. Note the painted-over set screw. Doug Logan photo.

 The cutlass bearing to which I am referring in this cautionary tale is one of the older variety: It is to the all-plastic bearing what Ahab, at the height of his monomaniacal fury, is to Skipper, of Gilligan's Island.

Problem: You have just bought a used displacement sailboat. In the surveyor's glowing report, there is one sentence that disturbs you: "Cutlass bearing needs replacement ASAP." You sail the boat for a full season, and whenever you run the engine, you worry. Gradually,you begin to hear the giant, invisible mosquito. Little by little, the vibration of the cockpit sole takes hold of your psyche, until, as the first golden leaves of autumn drift down into your anchorage, you resolve to haul early and have at the bearing, before it causes a problem. You haul and block the boat, remove the prop, loosen the shaft at transmission, slide the shaft easily from engine, and stare haughtily at the naked interior of the cutlass bearing. Now, all you have to do is remove it.

If your cutlass bearing lives in a strut outside the hull, you’re in luck. You can skip all 12 steps in the next section and go directly to the conclusion: “The Right Way: Three Easy Steps.”

The Wrong Way: 12 Easy Steps

  1. You understand that the cutlass bearing has been embedded in the aft end of your keel for 14 years, and that it is likely to be a bit recalcitrant about coming out. All right, then, the first thing you will have to do is remove the set screw that (you think) keeps it in place. The screw might be in the side of the external strut, or in the keel at the side of the bearing, or inside the boat, aft of the stuffing box somewhere in the stern tube. It will probably be painted over, or stripped, or both. Also, if it’s inside the boat there will be tankage, or plumbing, or some engine or cockpit part that will prevent you from turning your hex wrench or screwdriver more than a twitch at a time. (If the screw is not already stripped, go ahead and strip it; get that step out of the way. Maybe you can get hold of enough of it with Vice-Grips to move it, or if that doesn’t work, hit your Vice-Grips with a hammer. You didn’t like those Vise-Grips anyway. Or just face the music and drill it out. You can tap a new set of threads before you put in the new bearing.)
  2. Next, listen to some pundit tell you that a bearing can be knocked out with a dowel or a piece of pipe of a bit smaller diameter. If you are foolish enough to try to tap the bearing out with a dinky little hammer and a broomstick handle held against the bearing, and find that it doesn't work, you will probably be foolish enough to think a little more force is necessary. In that case, the best thing to do is go and get the jack of your foreign car, place it between your engine transmission and the cutlass bearing, and crank it right up.
  3. After you have put the remnants of your automobile jack in an appropriate receptacle, you will probably want to lose your temper, go to the hardware store, and buy a four-ton hydraulic jack. By all means, do so. They're surprisingly inexpensive, and pack quite a wallop.
  4. Place your new hydraulic jack between your engine transmission and the cutlass bearing, using all sorts of blocking materials and galvanized pipes in between. You will be dimly aware that you are skating on very thin ice over very deep water. It will be exciting. Go for it.
  5. As you pump up the pressure on the hydraulic jack, and near its maximum capacity, you will begin to hear creaking and moaning in the boat. You will be tempted to pay attention to these sounds. You may even think that the boat is trying to tell you something, like: Stop. The bearing isn't going to move. Quit bothering it, or you’ll be sorry. But you won't listen to the boat, will you? No, you are quite sure you've got all the angles covered.
  6. Sooner or later you will reach a point where you will want to give the jack One More Little Pump. By now things are very exciting, with strange and exotic sounds coming from everywhere. You know the bearing has to give, and you know it will be on the next stroke. Oh boy. You can hardly wait. Just to be on the safe side, though, remove yourself from the area and do that last stroke by remote control. Tie a piece of flag halyard to the jack handle. Take off the doors or hatch to the engine compartment, lead the flag halyard over the top of the engine, and pull the pump handle in the comfort of your main cabin.
  7. You have now pulled the handle that extra stroke. You have heard even more strange and portentous sounds, but, as you cringe your way back to inspect the bearing, you find that it hasn't budged. You're good and mad now, aren't you? Go ahead, show that bearing a thing or two. Give it the Old What For.
  8. For the Old What For you will want to be fully braced, knees bent, feet wedged against something solid, hands holding the length of flag halyard in a pose which, if the flag halyard weren't there, would remind an onlooker of a late 19th-century pugilist.
  9. Now begin your last Herculean tug. The creaking and groaning will resume. Increase tension. The cords in your neck will stand out like the striated vertical ridges on the slopes of a brewing volcano. Your fingers, wrapped by turns of a stretching, humming polyester boa constrictor, will turn a royal maroon. You will probably want to grit your teeth and grunt something like, "Come on, you little...," and more to the effect that if the cutlass bearing doesn't move, you will somehow punish it severely. What you don't realize, and you will understand quickly in hindsight, is that it is impossible to intimidate a cutlass bearing.
  10. At some point during the Old What For you will hear a loud noise; a giant cracking, clapping sound, much like what you would hear if you happened to be standing near a sequoia when it was snapped off halfway up the trunk. The flag halyard in your hands will go slack, and simultaneously you will punch yourself in the nose. You will then fall backwards into your companionway ladder, which will shatter like a prop in a Three Stooges gag.
  11. Now you can pick yourself up off the cabin sole. Your ears will be ringing, but you can be thoroughly pleased with yourself. Judging from the sonic boom, the cutlass bearing has emerged from the stern tube at Mach+ speed, flown through the chain link fence of the boatyard, and landed at the far side of a neighboring parking lot. 
  12. Check your work. Remove the jack and all blocking materials from the bilge where they have fallen. Look down the stern tube. The cutlass bearing is still there, is it not? Now look behind you. Your two aft engine mounts are sheared off, are they not? And the transmission is now resting directly on the turn of the bilge. What a nuisance.

The Right Way: Three Easy Steps

  1. Find yourself a comfortable stool, or a boat cushion will do. Place it on the ground near where the cutlass bearing is located in your keel or strut. Sit down.
  2. Take a new hacksaw blade, wrap one end of it in a rag so you won't hurt your hand, insert it in the cutlass bearing, and begin sawing. Saw for quite a while, until you’re through to the stern tube all along the bearing.
  3. Take another new hacksaw blade, begin at a point about 90 degrees away from your first cut, and saw for another long time. At some point during your session, the cutlass bearing will slip from the stern tube like a jellybean from the mouth of a child, and land in your lap. This may hurt, but you should be glad of the pain.

Ebon Bilgewater is Ambrosia Bilgewater's brother.



BoatSense Included in ⁠"Best Boating Books of All Time⁠"

BoatSense is currently listed by The Book Authority in the 15 Best Boating Books of All Time . The Book Authority uses "a proprietary technology to identify and rate the best nonfiction books, using dozens of different signals, including public mentions, recommendations, ratings, sentiment, popularity and sales history." They don't do business with authors or publishers, and they don't accept requests to list a book.


BoatSense Reviews:

Soundings: Sea Stories 

Good Old Boat 

WaveTrain  and Points East 

Carol Newman Cronin - Boats Meet Books 

Sailing Scuttlebutt: Why We Are Who We Are

Professional Boatbuilder

Mystic Seaport and a Rope Treasure

Any few hours spent at the Mystic Seaport will yield a surprise or two, even if you've been there dozens of times. I've loved the place since I was a kid and the Charles W. Morgan was hard-docked in sand. We went this Black Friday after Thanksgiving, figuring correctly that the crowds would be stuffing the malls and the seaport pathways would be lightly traveled.

A massive eye splice -- wormed, parceled, served, and tarred. When was it made? On what ship did it serve? Doug Logan photos.

It was first aboard the L.A. Dunton, a Gloucester fishing schooner from the era of Rudyard Kipling's Captains Courageous. Her spars were out but she'd been recently recaulked and painted. Then to the Morgan. She was not only afloat but heeling slightly to a brisk northerly that was hinting of the snow to come. Then aboard the Joseph Conrad, the sail training ship whose second incarnation was so well-chronicled by Alan Villiers. Then respects to the Emma C. Berry, to my eye the prettiest gaff sloop of them all. Then, eventually to the Rope Walk.

As we were leaving we looked between the buildings and spotted an amazing rope trove under the roof of an open shed. There were old tarred shrouds and ratlines aplenty, but also some of the most wondrous examples of wormed, parceled, served, and decorated marlinspike work that could be imagined: massive eye-splices, hawser and cable ends, and some items whose purpose I'm ashamed to say I can only guess at. It's off to the old maritime reference books for me, and I'll follow up with anything I find.


BoatSense Talk at the Jamestown Library: Chaos and Seamanship

A cumulonimbus chaos agent near St. Thomas. Doug Logan photo.

We had a discussion about BoatSense (both the book and the idea) recently at the Jamestown Philomenian Library in Rhode Island, with a couple dozen old and new friends, among them shipmates from over the years and former colleagues from Sailing World and Cruising World. Pretty much everyone in the room was an old hand as far as boats are concerned, and there were some serious racing sailors there — one Olympian and at least two others who had won championships at the national or international level.

We focused for a while on one of the themes of the book — chaos. The world that boats operate in, at the intersection of two vast fluids, is by nature chaotic, if only because those two fluids are of very different densities. The intersection is a zone of uncertainty, and each fluid has a profound effect on the other. And they both have profound effects on boats, which then tend to exhibit chaotic tendencies themselves. So, life aboard boats is to a great extent about dealing with mayhem, both natural and man-made — anticipating it, preparing for it, averting it, mitigating it, and learning from it.

Racing sailors, in particular, challenge chaos in a conscious way, tacking and jibing in tight quarters, or keeping a spinnaker up those extra 20 seconds in order to claim room at a turning mark, knowing that the potential for chaos increases with each second of delay, and welcoming the challenge. But all sailors and powerboaters, if they stick with the game long enough, develop an appreciation of the forces that seem to conspire to make their time on the water more challenging. And their relationship to those forces, whether in preparation or response, is defined by the practice of seamanship. 

— DL

BoatSense Review by Carol Cronin

There's a welcome review of BoatSense by Carol Cronin on her blog, where she collects her thoughts on a variety of topics, mostly marine-oriented. Carol is an Olympic sailor (Athens, 2004), a meticulous editor, and novelist. She's also an old (not to say aged) friend ⁠— the kind who would actually take the time to read a book through and then offer a thoughtful response.

Carol Cronin — author, editor, Olympic sailor

First she pegs me as a curmudgeon, or maybe curmudgeon-in-waiting, and I can see where she gets that impression. A lot of what she read of my writing when we worked together came from that sort of viewpoint, which I hasten to add was encouraged and sometimes commissioned by our mutual friend and editorial director at the time, John Burnham. But then she dives into what we could call the philosophical parts of the book, most of which came from an earlier time when I was editor of Practical Sailor. In those parts I hoped to promote the idea that much of the real pleasure and fulfillment you can get out of a boat is fundamentally different from what's advertised by the people trying to sell boats (and all the gear that's supposed to make you happier and safer and more comfortable on boats), and also fundamentally better and more valuable both on and off the water. And Carol gets that, as people who have been steeped in boats for a long time all get it, even if they work in the boat-selling industry and have trouble saying it out loud. (Practical Sailor, by the way, is subscriber-driven and accepts no advertising.)

Carol points out that the collection of yarns and advice is "varied" and  "somewhat difficult to categorize," and she's right about that, too. I have a lot of yarns, but I tried to pick a few that would get across a range of pleasures and points of worth. And I have a lot of advice (some good, some suspect, some gratuitous), but there are already several excellent reference books out there full of the stuff. So I wanted to lay out maybe a dozen or so points of specific practical advice for the new or lightly experienced person who might be in the market a boat—advice that I think is not given enough, but that can make a big difference in whether that person will end up in boats for a long time or leave early in disappointment.

Then, after she hauls me under the keel for several uncaught word repetitions in the book (a form of typo to which I am prone) she says, "It might be a hard one to categorize, but this book will make an easy gift for anyone who thinks deeply about the world, especially if they like stories that center down on boats."

Can't ask for better than that. Thanks, Carol.

— DL

The Hunt for a Boat Diesel Coolant Leak

A few posts down in this feed there's one called Give Me Pressure. It had to do testing for a leak between the raw-water side and the coolant side of a heat exchanger. The leak itself was one of those creeping, intermittent, insidious little sneaks that puts white steam and the sweet smell of coolant into the exhaust with no sign of external leaks on the engine, and no bad gaskets. 

He2The new heat exchanger (left), built from plans over 20 years old, had to be pulled back off the engine when the header/expansion tank (right, marked Nor'Pro) proved to be the leaky culprit. That tank has an upper chamber that holds the coolant reservoir; its bottom chamber opens to the exhaust ports. That space is supposed to be dry. It wasn't. There was rust. And two pinhole leaks. Let's not call the new heat exchanger unnecessary. Let's call it a proactive purchase. No hard feelings. We'll keep the old one as a spare.

Ha (I laugh bitterly), if only I'd known when writing that post what I know now... that there was no breach in that heat-exchanger; that parts for old, off-brand, marinized diesels are not to be found on any old shelf; that by the end of summer I'd be as fast as a Le Mans crew chief swapping out major parts, knowing the peculiar recalcitrance of every bolt, every hose clamp... well, I guess I'm glad I didn't know.

The good folks at Sen-Dure in Fort Lauderdale made me a new heat exchanger from plans dating back to the last century that I think even they were surprised they still had. I installed it, started up the old Isuzu, and the leak continued. This was... let's say it was disappointing.

So, having eliminated as culprits...

  • The coolant-side heat exchanger end gasket (replaced)
  • The head gasket (pressure-tested)
  • The heat-exchanger itself (replaced)
  • The transmission oil-cooler (doesn't circulate coolant in this engine)

... I figured the only thing left to leak was the big header/expansion tank, which in this engine contains coolant in a chamber directly above a dry chamber that receives exhaust gases from the cylinders.

PortsideengineGood view of the port side of the engine, and a chance to bust some more rust, touch up the paint, check the water-pump impeller...

So, out came the new heat exchanger, off came the header tank, and in the lower chamber where there should have been carbon but no rust, there was rust. In the dark of night I stuck a LED gooseneck light down into the fill hole on top of the tank, peered into the exhaust-elbow opening... and lo, there was a pinhole of light. I rust-busted around it and took the tank to a talented local metal fabricator, who welded a small steel plate over the pinhole. This whole procedure happened twice, because another pinhole appeared after the second rust-busting.

Header3There was a lot of rust and a couple of small leaks from the coolant reservoir into the chamber of the header tank where the exhaust comes to mix with seawater on its way to the discharge.

And finally (never say finally) the tank, which I tested with both water and air, was leak-free. I reinstalled everything, filled up with fresh coolant, took the boat on a couple of late-season runs to double-check everything, then topped up the tanks and changed the oil. Now the boat is hauled out. The next steps are to winterize this carefully coddled cooling system, cover the boat, and call it quits for the year.

Header3Most of the surfaces cleaned up pretty well with solvents, 3M kitchen scrubbers, rags, and wire brushes. WD40 is a good, relatively cheap cleaner for jobs like this. It works especially well sprayed on the threads of studs and bolts that have a lot of grime in them.

The chances that more pinholes won't appear over the winter or next summer are slim. Maybe the tank will last one run, one week, another whole season? But there's no replacement tank out there. When it leaks again it will be time for major surgery. With luck the shell and the welded-on exhaust couplings will survive, but it will have to be cut open for new channels and chambers to be custom-made and installed. Which is why I'll be dreaming this winter of repowering, of sailing, of rowing, of swimming.

-- DL


Mayflower II in Mystic

The original Mayflower brought the Pilgrims to New England in 1620. Her replica, Mayflower II, was launched in England in 1956 and voyaged across the Atlantic under command of the great sailorman Alan Villiers, himself a human bridge between the days of square-rigged sailing ships and the modern day.

Mayflower 2Above, Mayflower II was relaunched on September 7, 2019, after a three-year refit at Mystic Seaport. (Doug Logan photo)

Since then, Mayflower II has been kept and cared for by Plimouth Plantation. When it came time for a major refit, Plimouth partnered with Mystic Seaport in Connecticut. Mystic had the facilities and skilled shipwrights to take on this massive task, and three years later, on September 7, 2019, Mayflower II was lowered slowly down the ways  into the water again.

The keynote speaker at the relaunching ceremony was Nathaniel Philbrick, bestselling maritime author, who published a lively history of the Mayflower in 2006. Here's an excerpt from Philbrick's address: