Christmas time sailing “before the mast”

Christmas is just another time of the year for seafarers.  The oceans and seas of the world carry much of the goods that we consider essential but this desire never ceases.   This was just as true in the days of sail and to give a sense of the struggles faced by sailors at the time, I want to describe the Christmas adventures of two sailing vessels in this golden era for sea travel.  Neither vessel was unique, or in any way noteworthy but they both provide an insight into the struggles endured and the dangers faced at sea under sail.  One is the tortuous slow progress of the Waterford vessel Glide.  The other is the toil of the crew of the Hilda, coming into Waterford harbour.  A related article on the Moresby tragedy at Dungarvan at Christmas 1895 is linked also.

However before this, here’s just one report from a newspaper at Christmas 1855 to set the scene on what was admittedly a wild and windy week.

During the past week we have had some severe storms… the brigantine Isabela, 200 tons burthen, which was lost an Tuesday night… on a rock called the St. Patrick’s Bridge (Kilmore Quay)…The crew, composed of six persons and the captain, got on the stern, the sea breaking over them terrifically. One of the men, named Leary, was washed overboard and drowned…Towards morning the stern of the vessel broke away, and the captain and remaining five men held by it. After some time they were washed ashore. They suffered considerably from cold and injuries received…The schooner John Bull, (of Youghal) 120 tons burthen, coal laden, bound from Newport to Youghal, was driven ashore at the bar of Dungarvan on Thursday night, and shortly after sank. There is no report of the crew…the schooner John Webb, laden with iron ore, drove ashore inside the bar of Dungarvan on Thursday night. It is feared she will become a total wreck. The brig Thistle, lying at Passage East, Waterford, was driven ashore on the Seedes bank on Wednesday.

Glasgow Courier – Thursday 27 December 1855; page 4
Image: Off the Coast in a Snow Storm – Taking a Pilot, published by Currier & Ives (undated). Accessed from https://classicsailor.com/2017/12/christmas-at-sea/

I wanted to include this as it gives a sense of how matter of fact the newspaper reportage was, and how common it was for seafarers to get to sea in all weathers and times of year. But now to the two vessels at hand, and firstly the Glide.

The brig Glide (1837) was a Waterford-owned vessel, over 80 feet long, and 20 wide, and her stated tonnage was 154 tons.  Over Christmas 1867 the Glide departed the Waterford Quays with an undisclosed cargo for France.  The Master was John Commins, of Ballyhack, and his crew were predominantly, if not completely local. On Friday, Dec 20th, 1867 the ship was loaded at Waterford City quays. The vessel departed on Sat 21st, sailing downriver on an ebb tide and coming to anchor at Passage East, where they waited on favourable winds.  On Sunday 22nd they sailed, rounded the Hook, and ran into a strong SE wind.  On Monday the weather was worsening, and when they eventually got a sighting of land, they had travelled backwards and were off the west Waterford coastline at Mine Head lighthouse.  As the storm increased the crew struggled to make it back to the shelter, eventually arriving back to Passage East where they anchored at 5 pm that evening. 

Captain and crew of the Glide spent Christmas 1867 at anchor. However, apart from the weather, the ship’s log records nothing of the holiday, any gifts, special meals, or religious observations.  As Commins was a local, and some of the crew were from the Hook, it’s hard not to imagine that he went ashore to spend a bit of time with family, although a watch would have been required on the Glide. Hopefully, they enjoyed it, because as bad as the weather had been thus far for the crew, it was only going to get worse. 

The weather finally settled and on Sat Dec 28th they again sailed from Passage East but it would be another 3 weeks before they finally arrived at their destination, the port of Boulogne in northern France. In the interim, they had endured storms, lost an anchor, damaged masts, rigging, and sails and worked without sleep for days on end manning pumps to keep their vessel afloat. 

The Glide continued her noble calling until February 1874. Departing Cardiff laden with coal the ship had run into fog just after sunset.  The fog was so dense nothing could be seen within a cable length of the vessel.  At some point the vessel grounded close to Kilmore Quay and broke up on rocks, the crew getting away safely.

Another ship just a few years later got closer to Waterford but met a similar fate. 

The Hilda was a small schooner, owned by Fredrick Leigh Hancock, of Hawarden, Flintshire in the UK.   Registered in the port of Chester, the vessel was built at Connahs Quay in 1893 and registered at 91 tons.  At some point over Christmas week in 1897, she sailed from Swansea with a cargo of coal. Her port of destination was New Ross, the cargo consigned to a Mr. Power.  This was a familiar journey to the ship, the harbour of Waterford was seen as a haven after crossing the Irish Sea and the dangerous approaches along the Wexford shoreline.

Having departed, the weather turned foul, and rounding Hook Head on Monday 27th December they must have hoped for better luck as they ran ahead of a SE gale and stinging sleet showers. As they headed up the harbour leaving the worst of the wind astern the vessel came close to Duncannon Fort but unfortunately, it was there that a combination of wind and tide drove the Hilda off course and onto the jagged rocks of the Fort.

No details were later recorded in local newspapers from the crew about their journey from Swansea. There would likely have been no fuss or bother made about a Christmas dinner or indeed an exchange of gifts!  Such vessels were competing with much faster and more regular steamships for cargo and any break in the weather would have meant they would sail.  Once at sea, the normal routine of watches would be in place, but in bad weather, all hands were required, often meaning there was no time for cooking, or sleeping. 

Having rounded the Hook, normally a pilot would have boarded, but in such weather, it was common that the pilots, themselves in a small sailing pilot cutter, would have been sheltering up the harbour.  The master of the Hilda may have thought he knew the area well enough to make it to Passage East for safe anchorage and later be piloted to Cheekpoint, and from there another pilot would take them on to New Ross when the weather and tides would suit.

Now, as their ship sank beneath them, the four-man crew took to the rigging, calling out to those ashore for salvation.  Luckily the Coastguard unit was at hand, only a few miles upriver at Arthurstown and a rocket apparatus was brought to the scene post haste.

The rocket originated from the work of George Manby.  At the time of the Hilda incident, a breeches buoy was in use which was part of a rope-based rescue device which was used to take sailors or passengers off wrecked vessels.  The breeches buoy was probably deployed from around Duncannon Fort using a rocket system to shoot a line into the ship’s rigging.  This line was used to haul stronger ropes to the ship and once these were secured to something solid like the ship’s mast, the system could be used to take people ashore one at a time in a chair-like device. 

The apparatus as seen in Hook Head currently

Although the four-man crew were rescued they were now formally unemployed, owning only the clothes on their back, with no pay or place to call home.  They were most likely cared for locally that night in Duncannon but probably left on the paddle steamer Vandeleur the next day on her daily run to Waterford, and from the city took the next available ship back to Wales to find another ship. Any pay due to them was only to cover the period up to when their vessel was lost. The master probably waited around to determine the fate of the vessel and his cargo.

Hilda sunk off Duncannon Fort. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Wigham

One of Waterford’s worst tragedies of the sailing era of course was witnessed in Dungarvan Bay on Christmas Eve 1895 when the Morseby was wrecked. It all played out in front of the town and had a deep impact. The ship had sailed from Cardiff on Dec 21st bound for Pisagua in South America and ran into a bad storm off the Waterford coast. Of the 25 aboard including the Captain’s wife and child, only 5 of the hardy sailor crew survived. The County Museum has retained the story for posterity both in display and in words. The Mary Sinclair was lost the day before at Balinacourty.

Morseby off Dungarvan

Although the modern seafarer has little of the challenges faced by sailors in the days “before the mast” it is still a time of family separation and loneliness.  So this Christmas as you enjoy the festive spirit, spare a thought for the seafarers around the world.  Their work may have become safer and easier, but the distances from home are still vast and the work no less essential in the modern era.

Below is a 19th C Christmas carol of which there are many versions:

I saw three ships come sailing in, On Christmas in the morning; Three goodly ships came sailing in, On Christmas in the morning; And what was in those ships all three? On Christmas in the morning; The holy babe and sweet Mary, On Christmas in the morning; I saw three ships come sailing in, On Christmas in the morning; Three goodly ships came sailing in, On Christmas in the morning; But whither sailed those ships all three, On Christmas in the morning; They sailed straight into Bethlehem, On Christmas in the morning; Now all the bells on earth did ring, On Christmas in the morning; For in the heavens the angles sing, On Christmas in the morning; And all the souls on earth shall sing, On Christmas in the morning; And all of us rejoice amain, On Christmas in the morning;

The Zigzag Series by Hezekiah Butterworth (1880)

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