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The “Marco Polo”

Foredoomed to failure in the eyes of the critics because of her ugly appearance and clumsy lines, the clipper ship “Marco Polo” proved to be one of the fastest vessels of her time


The Marco Polo surprised the world with her speed

ONE OF THE UGLIEST SHIPS BUILT, the Marco Polo surprised the world with her speed. Launched at St John, New Brunswick, in 1851, she had a registered tonnage of 1,625. The Marco Polo had a length of 184 ft 1-in, a beam of 36 ft 4-in and a depth of 29 ft 5-in. These dimensions differed slightly from those projected before the ship was built.

IN many ways the history of the clipper ship Marco Polo is the most interesting of all. She made her wonderful records when nobody expected her to, she was commanded by one of the most vividly picturesque figures in the history of sail, she opened the history of the fast clipper to the Australian goldfields, and she brought an era of prosperity to a large area of the British Empire - the Maritime Provinces of Canada. Altogether a remarkable record for a ship which was so exceedingly ugly that every sailorman laughed at her.

Before the end of the eighteenth century Scottish craftsmen, settled in the Maritime Provinces, had started an industry for which the colony was later to become famous, the building of merchant ships on speculation for sale in Great Britain.

Sailing vessels of all sorts and sizes were built in Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Their reputation was quite up to the average of their time, but their market was restricted and the shipbuilding industry, although valuable, employed a comparatively small number of men.

Every ship thus built was a separate venture and often much of a gamble. The materials were cheap and some of the ships so built richly deserved everything that is suggested by their popular nickname of “hard scrabble packets”, but others were remarkably well built at a time when the craftsman took a real pride in his work. Well built or ill, the routine was always the same - to load them with a cargo of lumber and send them across to England, where they were put into the hands of specialist brokers. These men seldom had any difficulty in finding a buyer when the price was so much below the British level.

The brokers knew their ships and found their buyers accordingly. Really good ships would go to firms of high standing, but in the first half of the nineteenth century the great majority were fit only for lumbering and were sold for that purpose, or for the purposes of unscrupulous owners who merely wanted to collect their insurance. These came to be shunned by the underwriters as much as by the seamen.

By 1850, therefore, the Colonial-built ships had a poor reputation and the exceptions were ignored in the general condemnation. Even during the worst period of jerry-building, however, there were some ships which made fine records, and the boom in sailing tonnage caused by the discovery of gold in California in 1849 made the longer-sighted men in Canada realize that there was big business if only the owners could be convinced that the Colonial yards could turn out a good job.

One of the ships built under this policy was the Beejapore, laid down on speculation by a syndicate headed by two brothers, W. and R. Wright, at St. John, New Brunswick. She was designed to be the biggest and best built ship ever attempted in the district and was to have a registered tonnage of 1,600, which was far above the average.

The Wrights’ neighbour was James Smith, and he determined to go one better, apparently principally from a feeling of jealousy. His ship was to be bigger still, with a registered tonnage of 1,625, with a length of 185 feet between perpendiculars, a beam of 38 feet and a depth of hold of 30 feet. The rule-of-thumb methods of obtaining a design offered little chance of a beautiful ship, but the Marco Polo, as this second vessel was named, was as curious a vessel as had ever been turned out by semi-amateurs.

She was flush-decked without poop or forecastle, but with a small deckhouse beside each hatch. Above the water-line she was the clumsiest and squarest timber drogher ever seen; just a square box without any pretensions to grace. Below the water-line she was designed on a different principle and she was given sharp lines, as sharp as those of most clippers.

Unkind critics suggested that she was two different ships pasted together. Her builder maintained that she was designed to carry a large cargo and to sail well at the same time. The extraordinary thing is that, against all educated professional opinion she did all that her builder claimed and more. Although many ships were built as exact duplicates of her they were all utter failures and behaved just as the experts expected the Marco Polo to do.

Against her chances of success a series of mishaps was soon added to the quaintness of her original design. When the frames were erected and nearly ready for planking, the shipyard was struck by a particularly heavy gale and they were all blown down.

Speed Due to an Accident?

The vessel’s frames were set up again as quickly as possible, but the builders had no money to spare and some of the parts were built in again in a sadly battered condition. Then, when she was launched into Marsh Creek, all the precautions that were taken on account of her abnormal size were ineffective. Launched on the top of spring tides, she could not be stopped and ran into the opposite bank of the creek. There she stuck firmly in the soft mud, and when the tide ebbed she fell over on her side, giving her builder a fortnight of strenuous digging to release her. That accident caused a slight distortion of the hull, which was noticeable when she was at sea. There were many who claimed it to be the reason for her remarkable speed.

So she was sent to Liverpool with a cargo of timber and scrap iron, the freight being a secondary consideration beside the necessity of selling her for as big a price as could be obtained. It would appear that at that time even her builder was beginning to think that her critics might be right. Liverpool shipowners certainly agreed with the critics. One look at her heavy, black hull and ungainly lines was sufficient for most of them, and the fact that she had made her maiden run across in fifteen days, an excellent time, passed unnoticed.

Gold had been discovered in Australia and, on the experience of California, what the shipowner wanted was an out-and-out clipper, not a heavy lump as square as a brick with a bow that resembled a bulldog. Having failed to find a buyer, she recrossed the Atlantic in ballast and picked up a cargo of cotton at Mobile, Alabama. She did the run back to Liverpool in thirty-five days.

the James Baines was built at Boston in 1854

A CONSORT OF THE MARCO POLO, the James Baines was built at Boston in 1854. Of 2,275 tons, she had an overall length of 266 feet, a beam of 44 ft 9-in-. and a depth of 29 feet. Captain Charles MacDonald was promoted to her in 1854 after he had commanded the Marco Polo for one season. Under his command the Marco Polo is supposed to have made a run of 428 nautical miles in one day.

When she came back from Mobile her builder and his associates were in no financial condition to keep her much longer, so that a Liverpool marine store dealer named Paddy McGee, a great character even in that age of characters, picked her up for a small price. He fully realized her ugliness, but he thought that with an obvious demand for big ships starting for the Australian trade he was bound to find a buyer who did not know too much.

The buyer who eventually came along was anything but a simpleton. James Baines had seen her out of the water and he rightly calculated that, while her cumbersome upper body would give her power and the ability to hang on to her canvas long after most clippers, her fine lines under water would give her speed if she were properly handled. Baines was not a rich man, his whole capital consisting of the profits of one shrewdly managed voyage to Australia and the backing of a few friends, and his bargaining with McGee must have been noteworthy.

Eventually Baines bought her for a price which was satisfactory enough to the vendor and at the same time left the buyer with a little in hand to replace her original iron fastenings with copper and to sheath her with metal. This was a necessary operation for a fast ship, but one which was almost invariably left until the Canadian-built ships had reached England.

It was James Baines’s opinion that if she were to be successful two things were necessary - a first-class captain and a big crew. Finding a crew was easy enough, for the outward voyage at least, which was the one in which speed counted, as there were any number of gold seekers who were willing to work their passage.

The choice of a captain was a different proposition, for the clippers were booming on the China and the Australian trades and a first-class man of proved ability had no difficulty in finding a ship. There were others who were able enough, but who by their recklessness or some other characteristic had prevented the average shipowner from engaging them.

Captain “Bully” Forbes

Baines chose for the Marco Polo Captain James Nicol Forbes, popularly “Bully” Forbes, who had already commanded two unimportant ships on the Australian trade and had done well with them. An Aberdonian who was just over thirty when the Marco Polo was bought, he had neither money nor influence, and his apprenticeship had been a hard one. But he had real ability and an iron nerve. When he had tramped to Liverpool as a lad of eighteen these and his unlimited ambition had been his only assets. Perhaps that accounts for the bragging and bombast which marred his character later and which finally ruined him. They had been his only means of making Liverpool shipowners consider him at all. His first command was a wretched brig intended to founder; he made her do wonders and forced the shipping world to take him seriously.

Since he had taken the Marco Polo over Baines had her fitted out as an emigrant ship, but that did not usually mean any elaborate work. The first-class accommodation, for which there was a fair demand, was pleasantly furnished and well fitted, but the ‘tween decks which accommodated the emigrants were given only the roughest of deal fittings. In the Marco Polo, however, there were not the appalling conditions which disgraced many emigrant ships, for she was chartered by the Government Emigration Commissioners for selected settlers, and they insisted on certain standards which the average shipowner considered to be unnecessary.

the Marco Polo

FLUSH-DECKED, WITHOUT POOP OR FORECASTLE, but with a small deckhouse beside each hatch, the Marco Polo was designed with ample room to hold a large cargo. Below the water-line, however, she was given sharp clipper lines. Under Captain Forbes she made a record passage from the Mersey to Melbourne in sixty-eight days, pilot to pilot, thus beating the auxiliary steamship Australia by a week.

Married couples were berthed amidships, the single women aft and the single men forward and a sound system of regulation was adopted. At that time she was the biggest ship to be considered for the Australian trade, and Baines, who in many ways was before his time as a shipowner, took full advantage of this to install reasonable ventilation in the emigrants’ quarters - over 900 of them were packed into her - and also fitted a sick bay.

Thus equipped, she was advertised to sail from the Mersey towards the end of June 1852, but it was not until a fortnight later that she finally towed down to the Bar. A fortnight’s delay in the sailing of an Australian emigrant sailing ship was nothing out of the way and did not attract any particular attention. There was a certain amount of comment about her looks, but her size impressed Merseyside. She had a full crew, about thirty Liverpool Irishmen of the “packet rat” type, but all first-class sailormen, in addition to thirty extra hands who were working their passage out.

On September 18, 1852, she arrived at Port Phillip Heads, Melbourne, after a record passage of sixty-eight days pilot to pilot, her time from port to port being seventy-six days. The auxiliary steamer Australia was on berth at the same time and was hand-somely beaten by a week, although she claimed to be the fastest ship on the Australian run and was charging accordingly.

Running her Easting down across the Indian Ocean, when her powerful hull had the best opportunity of showing its qualities, the Marco Polo averaged 336 miles a day for four days running, her best being 364. It was a magnificent performance and could not have been done except by a fine ship; but there is no doubt that Captain Forbes’s skill had much to do with it. It was the great chance of his life and, whatever his faults may have been, he was not going to spare himself in making the most of it.

The first thing that met his eyes when the ship arrived at Hudson’s Bay was a number of ships of all descriptions lying at their anchors without crews.

The Forecastle Outwitted

Nearly forty in all, most of them had brought out emigrants to the goldfields, and the prospect of a fortune gold-mining would have been sufficient incentive to the average sailor even without the talk that they must have heard all through the voyage.

Whole crews had deserted their ships to go up to the goldfields, leaving them helplessly tied up until the seamen, disappointed of their riches, began to trickle back to the port again. Forbes was not going to have anything of that sort. A prompt interview with the police, a judicious bribe, and his whole forecastle was clapped into gaol for alleged mutiny and threatening conduct, with the understanding that they would be brought back to the ship as soon as they were wanted. One might have expected the wild Irishmen to have been furious at being tricked of their hopes of gold in that way; but, on the contrary, they treated it as a huge joke, and thought that Forbes was the greatest man alive to get to windward of them so neatly.

So the Marco Polo lost no time in landing her passengers and working out her cargo, and in little more than three weeks after her arrival at Melbourne she was outward-bound again, making for Liverpool by way of the Horn. In one day she logged 353 nautical miles and, between Australia and the Horn, she had three successive days of over 300 miles. She arrived in the River Mersey on Boxing Day after a passage of seventy-six days, the round voyage having taken five months twenty-one days. Baines had faith in his captain, but he never expected him to do anything of that sort. When he heard that the Marco Polo was approaching the river he was incredulous.

the Schomberg, 2,282 registered tons

UNDER CAPTAIN “BULLY” FORBES, the Schomberg, 2,282 registered tons, sailed from Liverpool on October 6, 1855, flying the signal “Sixty days to Melbourne”. On December 27, however, she went ashore not far from Cape Otway, Victoria, Australia. She was then eighty-one days out. This closed Forbes’s career with the Black Ball Line. His two later commands were the Hastings and the General Wyndham. He died at Liverpool on June 4, 1874, aged 52. The Schomberg was 288 feet long, 45 feet in beam and 29 ft 2-in deep. Her main lower-mast, of pitch pine, was 110 feet long, and weighed 15 tons.

With such a voyage to her credit there was no difficulty in filling up for her second passage, but her owner aimed at smaller numbers and bigger prices, and she was not packed nearly as tightly as she had been under the Government Commissioners. The passengers were mostly men of a position to afford an extra fare, and she also carried a large sum in minted gold. She arrived at Melbourne after a passage of seventy-five days.

Her passage home was spoiled by ice, and she did not arrive in the Mersey until ninety-five days out from Melbourne; but even so the round voyage was made in exactly six months, and was regarded as exceptionally good. Forbes then left her to take command of the new Lightning, which had been built by Donald McKay in the United States. His new command was the last word in clipper ships at that time. Forbes was succeeded by Charles MacDonald, who had been his mate for the first two voyages. Under Macdonald the Marco Polo is popularly supposed to have done a run of 428 nautical miles in a day.

Captain MacDonald ran her for the season 1853-54 only, making good passages in either direction. He was then promoted to the new James Baines, and was succeeded by Captain Wild for one voyage. That was the voyage in in which the Marco Polo raced the Money Wigram Blackwaller Kent, a much smaller vessel with a great reputation for ghosting along in light airs. The two ships left Melbourne together, and the Kent landed her mails by boat at Hastings, Sussex, the day before the Marco Polo reached the Mersey.

She retained her popularity, although she was rather unlucky in the matter of minor accidents. In 1855 a collision in the Mersey was followed by stranding, but she got off and made a good run of eighty-three days. In 1861 she collided with an iceberg and made Valparaiso with difficulty.

Final Degradation

Considering the manner in which she was built and the materials, it was remarkable that she should have had a passenger career of almost twenty years. It was not until 1871, when James Baines was in low water, that she was transferred to J. Wilson and Company of South Shields, who bought her with the idea of running her on the coal trade to the Mediterranean. By that time she was showing her age badly and a coal cargo was about all that she was really fitted for. Fast passages were not required, but small crews emphatically were required, so she had her yards reduced and was cut down to barque rig.

In 1874 her owners became Wilson and Blain and she was chartered for a cargo of guano from South America. In 1880 she was condemned by the authorities in London as unseaworthy; but she was sold to a Tyneside firm, which spent enough money to let her scrape through a survey of sorts. Her new owners used her on the coal trade for two years and then sold her to M. J. Wilson of Liverpool for the transatlantic timber trade, the final degradation of a fine ship.

In that last chapter of her history she was so badly strained that she had to be frapped round with chains to keep her afloat, and her crew, reduced to twenty-two all told, had to be at the pumps almost continuously.

Finally, in July 1883, on a passage from Quebec to London with a cargo of timber, her pumps broke down and she was obviously on the point of foundering off Cape Cavendish, Prince Edward Island. Captain Bull contrived to beach her in such a position that it was possible to save the cargo which, with the wreck, was sold by auction for £600.

While the work of discharging the cargo into schooners was in progress a gale sprang up and the ship rapidly broke up. Some of her fittings were salved and her steering gear was installed in the barque Charles E. Lefurgey, a new Canadian-built ship which, in the same way as the Marco Polo, had been severely wrung at her launch and whose speed was put down to that defect.

The Kent of 927 tons

THE PIONEER BLACKWALLER of Money Wigram’s Melbourne passenger trade was the Kent, of 927 tons. She had a reputation for ghosting along in light airs, but the Marco Polo, having left Melbourne the same day in 1854, reached the Mersey only one day after the Kent had arrived at Hastings. Sussex. The Kent was 186 feet long overall and had a beam of 32 ft 6-in. Her main royal mast-head was 130 feet above her deck.

[From part 38, published 27 October 1936]