I was invited in the Spring of 1872 to go on the famous yacht “America” to the thousandth anniversary of the Island of Iceland. My parents could not bring their minds to my being many months away with no possibility of hearing from me. So I re-fused an invitation, which, to a young man of nineteen, was a great sacrifice. Apparently the Icelanders only celebrate but once in a ‘thousand years. So I had no hopes for a second invitation.
Shortly after, my mother’s cousin, Captain Charlie Marshall, called to say that he was in command of an Al, wire-rigged Clipper Ship built by Wm. H. Webb, a famous ship builder of those days. This ship was named after my mother’s father, Captain Charles H. Marshall, who had died in 1865. He was one of the founders and owners of the famous Black Ball Line of packets. Cousin Charlie invited me to go with him; and my mother, as a reward for declining the Iceland trip, out of consideration to her, gladly consented.
On May 20, 1872, we were towed down the harbor. The crew consisted of Captain Marshall, first and second mates, boatswain, cook, steward, and twenty-two sailors before the mast, a motley crowd of many colors and nationalities. There was a doctor, his wife, and my cousin, Alexander M. Peabody, about my age.
Experiences commenced at once. Just after the tug had left at Sandy Hook, and the sails were being unfurled, a North River steam-boat came into collision with us. Whether the Captain of this boat was ignorant of the channel, or drunk, we couldn’t tell, but he crowded us so that we were forced either to maintain our course or possibly go aground on a bar on our port side. Our Captain kept the course he was entitled to, and the steam-boat collided on our starboard side, at the point where the fore-mast shrouds are attached to the ship, called the fore-chains. A sailor jumped into the chains with a rope fender, thereby hoping to lessen the shock. The impact, however, was so great that he lost his hold and fell between the colliding ships. I was in the shrouds just above him and dropping to the deck, ran aft and threw a life preserver, but he had been stunned by the blow and immediately sank from sight. Our ship was not damaged, but the steam-boat’s rail was badly crushed, and she was otherwise injured. As the result of this tragedy, the sailors would not sing during the entire voyage. It was their seafaring way of showing respect to a dead comrade.
The voyage was uneventful for the first eight days, lovely weather, and I had the interesting experience of becoming acquainted with a noble ship. My cousin and myself were soon at home in the rigging. The main-top may be described as a platform about five feet wide and eight feet long. At the top of the mainmast, where the shrouds joined the mast, two coils of heavy rope were always coiled, and furnished an easy and safe hole to lie in, and very comfortable withal. Hours have I read in that lofty nest. When we felt particularly venture-some we would go to the crosstrees, a story higher, and get a magnificent view. Once, but only once, was I brave enough,rash enough, would be more correct,to go to the top of the Royal Yard. A drop from that point would clear the deck and land one in the sea.
On the eighth day a dense ice fog came down upon us. We were on the grand banks of Newfoundland. The fog froze to the rigging. The sails were stiff and hard, and the sailors used wooden mallets to handle them. For four days the sailors took turns on blowing a tin horn, a feeble warning, compared with the sirens of to-day.
After four days of this misery and chill we struck perfect weather, with gentle breeze astern. A sight that greatly interested us was an enormous school of whales, between two and three hundred, blowing graceful spouts of water and apparently enjoying themselves highly. One, however, directly in our course, was asleep and we struck him. There was a great splash, much water was thrown on deck, the jar to the ship was considerable, blood discolored the waves, and the great fish disappeared. For days we had delightful weather. The sea life held for me and my chum an endless charm. We built a row boat, which was to be brought back for use on the Captain’s farm in New Jersey, and we painted a red, white and blue stripe on each side. Alas ! we did not know that on the return voyage that boat would be converted into a coffin for our dear Captain.
On June 8th, the 19th day out, when reeling along under all sail, a squall struck us. All three royals, the loftiest sails, were blown away before they could be furled. The squall blew these sails into ribbons and they made a savage noise as the ribbons snapped like a hundred whips. Every man was on deck. The Captain shouted through his trumpet for volunteers to go aloft to take in the upper topsails. Two of these went with a noise like an explosion before the sailors could furl them. The sight of the volunteers going up the rigging with their knives in their mouths was great. Almost immediately the squall turned into a gale, the sea ran high. Fortunately it was astern. Under close reef we were making good time. The squall having struck us before the daily observation, the Captain put out a patent revolving log to estimate the run in miles, but some sea creature mistook it for food and chewed up the mechanism, and when it was taken in, it was a wreck. We therefore had no reckoning and no sun to take an observation. We were rapidly nearing Cape Clear. For two days and two nights we plunged along with the gale astern. Early in the morning, the third day, I rushed on deck half dressed, to answer the Captain’s call for all hands on deck. We had passed Cape Clear, were apparently driving into a bay on the east coast of Ireland, about fifty miles northeast of the Cape, as we afterwards discovered, having completely lost our reckoning. The breakers were right ahead, but the Captain put that ship about. The masts fairly shook under the sudden strain. The excitement was great. Everyone pulled his best on the ropes and when the last one was belayed fast we saw the breakers astern. Our altered course brought us out into the Irish Sea. We passed Holly Head in the moonlight that night and reached Liverpool the next day. The voyage took twenty-three days. It was a unique and never to be forgotten experience, but I have always maintained that the Iceland voyage would have been less risky.