June 10, 2012

Sensation of the year 1867

The American raft Nonpareil

ONE THING YOU LEARN in the journalism game is to be very, very careful about who did something first. For example, when I think of crossing an ocean on a raft, Thor Heyerdahl and the Kon Tiki spring to mind, as does Dr. Alain Bombard and his rubber dinghy l’Hérétique.

But years before these adventurers took to the ocean there was the Nonpareil, an American raft that very few people have even heard about these days. However, 145 years ago, after three men sailed her across the Atlantic, she was what one British newspaper described as the “sensation of the year among nautical men.”

The Nonpareil set sail from Sandy Hook, New York, on June 12, 1867, and arrived in Southampton, England, on July 25 of that year, having taken 43 days en route.  She was skippered by Capt. John Mikes and had a crew of two able seamen, George Miller and Jeremiah Mullane.

The raft consisted of three hollow, india-rubber, waterproof cylinders 25 feet long and 2 1/2 feet in diameter connected by what they called “waterproof sacking.” These large tubes were strongly secured by ropes to a wooden frame 21 feet long and 12 1/2 feet wide.

Her rig was peculiar to modern eyes. She had two masts, the foremast being rigged as a lugger and the mainmast as a gaff cutter.  Her accommodations were primitive, to say the least — a sort of tent formed of some waterproof cloth hung over a boom. An oil lamp was their only means of light and heat.

The Nonpareil apparently sailed reasonably well, though obviously had trouble making headway to windward. She weathered many gales by lying to a drogue, but apparently was never in any kind of danger.  She was offered help by a surprising number of ships, both steam and sail, but never needed any, although her crew did accept an invitation to dinner aboard a ship in mid-ocean one calm evening.

The Illustrated London News of August 10, 1867, said the purpose of the voyage was to test the practicability of the life-saving raft for deep-sea work, and her arrival in Britain “excited great interest with those concerned with nautical affairs.”

The Nonpareil’s crew was welcomed by the Royal Yacht Squadron, at Cowes, and she was shown to members of the royal family who were aboard one of the yachts there.

That voyage, as far as I know, was the beginning of the era of inflatable rubber life rafts that is still with us today. But who knows? Maybe the ancient Egyptians were the first.

Today’s Thought
It is the true cry of nature; wherever we are we wish to be first.
— Lacordaire, Conférences.

“Is it true that the Indians were here before us?”
“Well, naturally. They had reservations.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

1 comment:

Aaron Headly said...

With all due respect to Mikes, Miller and Mullane, I still prefer hard dinghies.