The Sailing Packets
Before steamships started crossing the North Atlantic, the best way to travel between Europe and America was by sailing ships called packets. Built and run mainly by Americans the packet lines introduced new concepts and comfort levels for ocean voyages. They dominated the transatlantic traffic for decades, setting key precedents for steamships that eventually replaced them.Along with their more famous contemporaries, the whaling and clipper ships, they comprised the golden age of American sail. Of these three types, the packets lasted the longest and made the most voyages and money for their owners and crews.Yet today whalers and clippers remain drenched in popular legend, while packets are scarecely known betond dedicated circles of ship buffs.No packet builder ever became as famous as Donald McKay with his clippers, and no novelist ever wrote a Moby Dick about packets. They just did their jobs quietly and well, year after year, and then passed into historical obscurity reserved for Predictable competence.
A group of textile importers in New York started the first packet line. The main founder, Jeremiah Thompson, was an English immigrant from Yorkshire who had come to New York age seventeen in 1801 to join his uncle in representing the family's woolen manufacturing business. from that base the engaged in shipping and shipowning with three local associates. These five men all lived near the waterfront at the southern tip of Manhatton. four of them were Quakers ( Jerimiah Thompson, an active friend, was an officer in the New York Manumission Society, dedicated to freeing slaves; but also made a fortune by exploiting raw cotton, grown in the American South by slave labour.
Thompson had a breakthrough idea for improving ocean travel, At the time, a shipowner might advertise a ship's departure, but the captain would then wait until enough cargo and passengers had been loaded, and wind and weather seemed favorable, before weighing anchor.
A passenger hoping to embark might have a long waiting time, for a week hanging around the docks.Spending money on food and lodgings and wasting time.Thompson dealing in volatile markets for finished imports and raw exports, wanted faster, more reliable service.He concieved the notion of a transatlantic shipping line, several vessels under co-ordinated private management, sailing on known dates between established ports, and locked into an unchanging departure schedule for the foreseeable future.
In the autumn of 1817, the Thompsons and their three associates placed a notice in New York's newspapers. In order to furnish frequent and regular conveyances for GOODS and PASSENGERS, they announced, the subscribers have undertaken to establish a line of vessels between NEW YORK and LIVERPOOL, to sail from each place on a certain day in every month throughout the year.They listed the line's first four ships: three masted and square rigged, and larger than average size for their time at around 110 ft long and 400 tons. The "Pacific", launched in 1807 and the oldest of the four, was especially fast, earlier that year she had made a run to Liverpool in only seventeen days, These ships have all been built in New York, of best materials, the owners asserted. They are known to be remarkably fast sailers, and their accomodations for passengers are uncommomly extensive and commodious. Thompson and his partners were promising a daring combination of speed, comfort and predictabilty - qualities previosly unknown on the North Atlantic.
Next Chapter to follow soon:
Source for above: The Ocean Railway, by Stephen Fox, Published by; Harper Collins
|Sailing Packets Part II|
Futher to my research into Packet ships I now add the following.
By the late 1830's twenty packet ships were running fro New York to Liverpool, twelve more to London, and sixteen to Le Harve. every month, a dozen packets left New York for Europe and a dozen more arrived;an average of one ship every thirty hours, all year long,regardless of wind and weather.The packets suffered occasional collisions and founderings at sea, but only two accidents caused any loss of life over the first two decades. The "Albion " of the Black Ball Line sank off Ireland in 1822, killing forty six people, and four years later the " Crisis " of Black X Line dissapeared on a westbound run with her crew and a dozen passengers. Those two disasters aside, the packets had compiled, for the time,a remarkable record of fast, safe, predictable transatlantic travel.
According to testimony from both sides of the ocean, Americans were building and running the finest sailing ships in the world.A London newspaper in 1834,after comparing the safety records of the New York packets and the British Goverments mail ships, urged the admiralty to but American vessels. In 1836, a committee of the British Parliment inquiring into the problems of shipwrecks presented evidence that American ships were better built than their British counterparts ( and thus preferred by shippers and insurance agents ), and that American commanders and officers were more educated and competent and American seamen more carefully selected, more efficient, and better paid, to the point that the best British sailors were defecting to American ships. American authorities could only happily agree. Mathew Maury, an American naval officer and one of the founders of oceanography, praised the New York packets in 1839 in language of patriotic but unchallenged hyperbole:' For strength, safety,fleetness and beauty: and for a combination of all the requisites of a good ship, in such admirable proportions,no nation can boast of vessels, public or private,compariable to them.
The packets became,in some measure, the victims of their own success. They had created a very notion of rapid technical improvement in transatlantic travel. Passengers came to expect bigger, faster ships every few years. The wind, however,could not be improved on: it blew hard or not at all, from the east to the west, but always beyond human control.Sailing ships could only depart on a scheduled date. The time of arrival might then vary by weeks, depending on the ocean's vagaries. Steam power extended possbilities of a ship on schedule. or nearly so, at both ends of the passage. But Americans became so proficient and applauded at turning out wooden sailing ships that,as time passed, they, in complacency and inertia, kept building those ships for to long, far past the technological prime. In Great Britain, especially Scotland, other men were about to take over the leadership of transatlantic shipbuilding. Thus the sailing packets were soon to becaome a part of maritime history, as metal steam powered ships began to appear upon the seen and challenge the very routes set up by the sailing packets.