Schooner Days No. 1
A White Squall
Many a good story had the late Magistrate J.J. O'Connor, of Port Arthur. District Magistrate for Thunder Bay, to tell of schooner days on the Great Lakes. He was an Ontario County boy and went sailing early out of Whitby. Here is one of his tales, as related last summer, shortly before he himself came to anchor in the last great harbor: -
"One of the finest vessels I was ever in was the Mary Ann Lydon.
"You would know her well, for she traded to Toronto for years and years. She was built in Port Burwell in 1874 of the fine white oak that was then plentiful on the shores of Lake Erie. Mr. John Lydon, a Port Hope merchant, who had a store on Walton Street in that town as I remember, bought her, and called her after his pretty daughter, Mary Ann.
"She was a fine packet, white, with green petticoats and green trim -- the schooner I am speaking of, although without the slightest disrespect that could be said of Miss Lydon, too. She was a grand carrier and stiff as a church - I am still speaking of the schooner - and it never blew too hard for her in all the time I sailed in her.
"One thing she would not do - she wouldn't go to weather without her jibtopsail. You could not flog her to windward without that sail, though you might try all day and all night. "If it came on to blow so hard that the jibtopsail was going to leave the boltropes the only way to keep the Lydon going to windward was to man the jibtopsail downhaul, had the sail half way down the stay, snag-reef the bunt of it, and heave the sheets taut with the capstan.
"So long as this patch of sail was kept out on her long nosepole she would smell up to windward; but if you had to take that in you might as well put the wheel up and let her run before it. That sail was to her like the carrot dangled in front of the donkey's nose.
Out Of A Clear Sky.
"In August, 1875, I was before the mast in the Mary Ann Lydon, when she was bound down Lake Ontario for Oswego with a cargo of lumber from Whitby. We were under full sail in mid lake with a brisk southwest wind pushing helpfully over the starboard beam and a perfectly clear sky.
"The other man in my watch was at the wheel, and I was on lookout, with nothing, apparently, to do. The skipper, Capt. Tom Price, was walking the weather gangway, smoking his pipe, when he suddenly ordered me to stretch the side-tackle between the port and starboard rigging. Then he went aft to the wheel and sent the other man forward with me to take in the gafftopsails and jibtopsail, and stow all.
"There seemed to be no reason for this, with the fair wind we had, and I knew very well from his ordering the jibtopsail in and stretching the side-tackle along that he had no expectations of the breeze heading us off.
"No sooner had we the light sails hauled down than out of the still clear sky came one of the most violent squalls it has been my lot to experience. The lake turned to a lather of blown-off froth. The Lydon was one of the stiffest vessels, either light or loaded, but this white screamer laid her over until the water was up onto her deckload. The wind picked up the twelve-inch planks and blew them about as if they were loose shingles.
Cargo Blown Through Sails.
"The woman cook in the cabin - all the lake vessels had women cooks in those days, and they were good - and the watch below the forecastle rushed on deck in a blue fright, thinking she was capsizing. We all leapt to the halliards and down-hauls of the lower sails, but before we could get the foresail off her the wind had upended several planks and tossed them clean through it, and it went to ribbons. The Old man put the wheel hard up on her and, as we got the last rags of sail stowed, she straightened away and ran off under bare poles.
"Then the wind shifted somewhat to the west, blowing as hard as I have ever known it to blow. The Lydon carried a squaresail in those days, brailing up to the foremast. With great difficulty we got this partly hauled out and kept her driving dead before the gale, as darkness settled down.
"The wind was so violently squally that we thought at times that what little sail we spread on the foremast would go out of her. We staggered along in a heavy following sea until we had to take the choice of shaping our course for Oswego piers or going to pieces in Mexico Bay.
"There was no protecting breakwater or outer harbor then, and we had to tackle the narrow piers in the full fury of the gale at the open mouth of the river, meeting the heavy overflowing current at the same time. With all hands on the halliards we managed to get a piece of the mainsail on her, to help her answer her helm. We then headed straight for the old stone lighthouse on the west pier, with the seas shooting over it in snowstorms.
"It was about midnight, and pitch dark, except for the white of the foam and the gleam of the lighthouse. As we roared along for the entrance we burned flare after flare for a tug. None dared to come out for us. I was at the wheel with another man, Jerry London, the mate, and as we came in on the top of the sea we rolled the wheel hard up to keep her from running over the pier. The outrushing current under her bows held her dead on that light until she was within forty feet of the pier end. Then she slowly paid off and missed the cribwork by about a fathom.
"The harbor tug was lying snugly inside, stern out and head up stream. She dropped alongside us as we swept by. We got her line and made it fast, but we had so much way on that we pulled her with us sideways until we were well up the river.
The Morning After.
"Next morning the harbor was covered with floating lumber blown from the tall lumber piles of the port. Many vessels were torn from their moorings, and were in all sorts of pickles. The Oswego schooner Comanche, a very fine vessel, which had just been rebuilt and refitted, was blown adrift and had lost her new jibboom and foretopmast in collision with the towering lumber in the harbor.
"It was said at the time that no such summer, or indeed, any other, blow had ever occurred at Oswego. Our own experience outside was lively and rough going, but as we had 'made' the Oswego piers (in those pre-breakwater days, a death trap which had spelled finis to as many as five vessels in one night) and had come through with nothing worse than a ribboned foresail, we were duly thankful and quite ready for another tussle. It was not long in coming, but the scene of it was Lake Erie."
While squalls, outbursts of wind from a clear sky, are unusual the world over, but they are sufficiently characteristic of Lake Ontario to be commemorated in shipping annals. The American schooner White Squall, of 318 tons register, built at Clayton, N.Y. in 1853, was one of the lake's great carriers in the schooner days of eighty years ago. She was a sister vessel to the White Cloud, by the same builder in the same year, and both were owned by Hugh Coyne of Detroit. Mr. O'Connor's Lake Erie experience will follow shortly.