Naval Marine Archive - The Canadian Collection
Library Catalogue Ships database Research Collections Bibliography About us Donate

Insurance Job, 3 August 1940.

Schooner Days CCCCXLV (445)

By C.H.J. Snider

The old man was philosophizing on the wheel box as the schooner towed out of Oswego. It was his watch, on the old lake principle that the captain takes her out and the mate brings her home.

"No sir, never again," said he. "I wore out four men and the mate, and got what the doctors call Arthur Itus or something like that, pumping the whole lake through the old Balmacca. Three nights and four days we were at it, for the wind fell light after she opened up on us after a heavy squall. We could have quit her in the yawlboat and got ashore safe at any time. But we broke our hearts keeping her afloat, and saved he insurance companies $5,000 total loss on ship and cargo. And when the bills for caulking her after we got her in were less than $500, they wouldn't allow me anything at all, falling back on some Minnie Mum risk clause in the policy, I hadn't $500 or $5 ahead of me, and I lost the Balmacca to the sheriff, after saving her from the lake. No sir, never again."

J, just out of his teens, had risen to the rank of mate, and was serving in various vessels, wherever there was a paying prospect. He listened respectfully to the pronunciamento of the sovereign of this new kingdom in which he was Grand Vizier.

There were, as he knew, two sides to this insurance business. It hadn't worried him as a kid in the Rover and the Brothers, for the Williams boys who sailed these little craft carried their own insurance by working hard and being careful. But in big vessels it was different. Some captains, unable to make their vessels pay, tried to "sell them to the insurance company" by means of a nine-inch auger or an upset lantern, or other contrivances. "Accidents" in hard times were numerous. The companies protected themselves by increased rates and increased limits of liability. Sometimes the innocent suffered – as in this case of the Balmacca – while the guilty escaped. This war went on until eventually it was impossible to get insurance at all on any lake schooner – and sometimes even on the cargo.

This particular schooner in which Johnny had shipped as mate had insurance and deserved it, for she was well equipped and in good shape. Outside Oswego they picked up a good breeze off the land and went trotting along, with the prospect of completing the voyage in twelve hours.

When the young first mate came on deck and took over the watch from the captain a few hours later he was surprised at the list, or incline, the vessel had. She was heeled over and punching through the water as though it was time to take her topsails in; yet the breeze had hardly freshened, and was just a reasonable zephyr that certainly wouldn't blow the galley fire out.

Weather wise Johnny climbed the rigging to the crosstrees, and tried lighting his pipe there. Sometimes there is a much stiffer stratum of air aloft than below. The match burned clear, the pipe lighted easily. It was only an ordinary breeze, making a little babble of sea as she left the land. And yet she was heeled down as though she were cracking on for the harbormaster's hat.

"Try your pumpwell, and see if there is any water in her," ordered the mate to the man in his watch who was on lookout. The other was at the wheel.

"Not enough to make the pump suck when they tried her in the other watch," grumbled the sailor, but he did as he was told.

"Rod's all wet," he reported after examining the eighteen-inch sounding rod, iron on the end of a twelve-foot lanyard. The rod's length was marked in nicks an inch apart.

"How much of the lanyard's wet?" demanded Johnny.

"Eighteen inches more."

"Clew down your gafftopsail's!" shouted the mate to the lookout. "Let her come round!" he called to the man at the wheel. He himself jumped to the jibsheets, cast them off, and nipped them neatly on the other pins as soon as the wind began to shake the sails over the stays. The schooner paid off on the other tack, but at first she leaned to windward.

Johnny knew why. The three feet of water in her bottom, nine feet deep in the bilge on the former lee side, had its weight to windward now. As it slowly filtered through the hundreds of tons of coal in the hold the schooner straightened up and flopped over more and more, until she was heeling as badly on the new tack as she had been on the old.

He had called the Old Man and his watch as they came about. That worthy asked him what be was doing.

"She's so much water in her we'll have to run back," said Johnny, getting both pumps clanging.

"She'll never steer with her jibs trimmed like that. Get 'em flat!" said the captain.

"I pinned 'em close when she came around," Johnny reminded him.

"Get 'em flat, I say!" roared the Old Man. "Take all hands to it, but get 'em trimmed right. I'll take the wheel."

"Come on, boys" said the mate. "Take a messenger to the capstan and heave them sheets down!"

They hove in a few inches more of the jibtopsail sheet, when bang! the clew pulled out, and the sail, uncontrolled, flogged itself to ribbons.

"Get them sheets flat!" shouted the captain again, and they clapped the messenger on to the flying jib sheet, and hove on it. In a few minutes that sail, too, was flying in rags.

"Well, then, get your standing jib trimmed right!" demanded the skipper. They hove on its sheet until the sail was flat as a board, and as dead as a board, but still he was not satisfied. A final heave on the capstan bars, and the standing jib was a mass of fluttering patches, split across the leach.

While they were getting stops around what was left of the torn jibs there was a burst of thunder from aft, and the mizzen sail commenced to flog itself to pieces.

"It started to go at the clew," observed the Old Man, pocketing his clasp knife, as the gang ran aft. "Lower the gaff, but I don't think we can save much of the sail."

All the proud three-master now had left serviceable of her ten sails was her foresail and mainsail and staysail. These served to get her back to Oswego, swimming very deep, with water gushing from her scuppers, her pumps going, and her crew's backs broken. They were so dog tired they could barely heave her into Goble's drydock.

"Well, mister," said the Old Man complacently to his worried young mate, "they ain't going to fall soft on any $500 Minnie Mum this time.

They're going to pay for a complete caulking and overhaul of this schooner, as well as a new outfit of sails, and they're darn lucky they don't have to pay a hundred per cent. loss and go looking for their risk at the bottom of the lake. When I said 'Never again' I meant it."

Johnny didn't like that, though he could see an element of rough justice in it. He thought of his old skipper, Capt. Dick Curphy, who had also had his troubles with the insurance companies too, but they ended differently.

The Hon. Richard had been left flat by his crew once in a Lake Erie port when he was sailing the New Dominion of Toronto, for the Donald firm. Only the mate and the cook stayed with him. It was a sailor's strike of some sort. Capt. Curphy, with Manx determination, would not capitulate, and pulled the fly for the tug and towed out, just as though the New Dominion was full-handed.

The mate and the cook were good stuff, and they worked the schooner to the Welland Canal and through the long level from Port Colborne, when the insurance companies, hearing of how she had navigated Lake Erie, cracked down. They wanted to fire the captain and have the New Dominion tied up for risking their precious dollars on the raging lake without enough mariners to properly man the vessel – which was, of course, very, very wrong. The insurance policy was granted on the assertion that the good ship New Dominion was staunch, tight and seaworthy and adequately manned and equipped.

The Donald firm, however, pointed out that the vessel must have been "adequately manned" or she would never have arrived, and declared that Capt. Curphy and the two who had stood by him were more entitled to medals than menaces; that a captain less zealous in the interests of the insurance companies might have let his vessel drift ashore when deserted by her crew, and have her pulled off and towed to Port Colborne by tugs, for which the companies would have had to pay.

It was a bit of special pleading, but the insurance people ended by telling Capt. Curphy not to take chances again, and to put this bit of advice into a new meerschaum pipe and smoke it. They supplied the pipe, in a velvet and morocco case.


Schooner Days

. . . you can easily

Consult Rowley W. Murphy's subject index, or ...

jump to the top of the page, or to "Schooner days" number 100, 200, 300, 400, 500, 600, 700, 800, 900, 1,000, 1,100, 1,200, or ...

Return to the regional search index.


Naval Marine ArchiveThe Canadian Collection
205 Main Street, Picton, Ontario, K0K2T0, Canada
Telephone: 1 613 476 1177
E-mail: for comments, queries and suggestions.

Copyright © 2024
Naval Marine Archive
The Canadian Collection

Revised: 18 July 2015