The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Oswego Palladium (Oswego, NY), Sat., Dec. 18, 1886

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A Landsman on Lake Sailors.

It is not very often that we find such an able journal as the Utica Herald talking about a subject that it knows nothing about. Yesterday it undertook to read lake sailors a lesson in navigation. It whangs into a subject with all the assurance of one who possesses a thorough knowledge of the lakes and lake sailors, but we venture the prediction that the person who penned the article could not tell a lanyard from a jib-topsail if his life depended upon a correct answer. But here is what the Herald says:

The number of fatal disasters this fall among the lake shipping is appalling. The number of life stations upon the lake coasts is inadequate to the proportion of disasters. The schooners and small crafts which travel those waters need much more watching and care than ocean vessels, for there are many of them manned by lumbermen or longshoremen ignorant of the first principles of navigation; fair weather sailors, helpless in a storm and trusting to luck more than science to escape perils which are upon these waters often more capricious than on the high seas.

Hundreds of wrecks occur, often with fatal attendance, when the foresight and experience of a good navigator would have saved both crew and vessel. Seamanship on the lakes is peculiar, and so is lake navigation. It is therefore the more necessary that the sailors on our inland waters should be instructed in the peculiarities of their navigation, in the summer especially, and the facilities for obtaining men as "hands" to run any kind of crazy craft, the contrary is true.

There are two precautions which might be suggested: the maintenance of a school of navigation, under government control, for the free instruction of sailors in the principles of navigation, with special reference to inland waters, and a second, the increase of the number and efficiency of the life saving stations upon Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, and the Great Lakes west of them.

It is true that there has been a large number of disasters on the lakes during the past season and that there are not life saving stations enough. But when the Herald declares that lake vessels need more watching than ocean craft because they are manned by men "ignorant of the first principles of navigation," it does our brave seamen a great injustice. We do not believe there is a single vessel master between Ogdensburg and Chicago but who owes his position as captain to years of active experience.

Neither do we believe that there is a common sailor on the lakes who could not give the most scienced ocean captain points about lake navigation. There is just as much difference between lake and ocean navigation as there is between picking hops in Oneida county and swinging a sledge in a blacksmith shop. Ocean sailing masters have been brought to the lakes many times and given command of vessels, and in ever case, we believe, the experiment has proved disastrous. A man can learn how to navigate the high seas without any real practical experience. He can navigate a vessel to almost by the aid of his instruments and charges.

Lake navigation can not be acquired in this way. As for teaching it in a "school of navigation ," the idea is absurd. You might as well send the sailors to a Kindergarten. The required knowledge can only be acquired by years of experience. Navigation is made more dangerous on the lakes by the increased violence of storms, by their suddenness and because there is comparatively little room in which to operate a vessel.

Let an ocean captain get lost, or discover land with which he is not familiar, or a light that is strange to him, and he can go into his cabin, bring out his instruments and his charts, make his computations, and can take plenty of time to ascertain just where he is. While he is doing this, there is plenty of room in which to work his vessel. But suppose a lake captain loses his way in a storm, as is often the case in the Fall when it is snowing almost continually. Suddenly the storm lets up a moment and perhaps he gets a glimpse of the shore or discerns a light. he may be within ten or fifteen minutes run of the beach.

He has no time to go into his cabin, study his chart and guide books, and overhaul his instruments. What he does must be done on the instant. He must know whether there is shelter behind that point and whether that light stands on a dangerous reef or at the entrance of a harbor. A few moments delay may mean destruction to his vessel and her crew. At that moment he must be possessed of a familiarity with the coast and the lights that he never could have acquired in a school.

Just as navigation was coming to a close this fall, a Canadian vessel left a port in Canada for Oswego. She was caught in a snow storm and ran for five hours without the crew being able to see 200 feet ahead. Suddenly the storm broke just for a moment. The captain ran aloft and got a glimpse of a piece of woods. Then the storm set in again thicker than ever. The wind was howling down the lake at the rate of 40 miles an hour. The vessel was at the foot of the lake, and it would be simply impossible to come about and go back. Now, there are many strips of timber along the lakes such as the captain saw and yet that one little glance saved his vessel from certain destruction.

Another mile and she would have been on the rocks. While he could not see the harbor, he knew just where to lay and was able to slightly change the course of his schooner and make his calculations so close that he sailed her directly into the river. if he had taken time to consult his charts and study up his position, his vessel would have been lost.

We agree with the Herald regarding the need of an increased number of life saving stations, but when it talks about the incompetency of lake navigators and places ocean seamen above them, it makes a miscalculation.


Media Type:
Item Type:
Believed to have been written by Clark Morrison, Editor of the Palladium.
Date of Original:
Sat., Dec. 18, 1886
Local identifier:
Language of Item:
Richard Palmer
Copyright Statement:
Public domain: Copyright has expired according to the applicable Canadian or American laws. No restrictions on use.
Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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Oswego Palladium (Oswego, NY), Sat., Dec. 18, 1886