Aboard a transatlantic packet

Sept/Oct 2002

From the 1820s through the 1840s regular transatlantic passages were run year round from New York’s South Street to Liverpool and back again. Although there were at least four shipping companies that took part in this business, the Black Ball and Swallowtail lines are perhaps the most famous.

The idea behind this business was to establish a regular time schedule that merchants and passengers could depend upon (although this wasn’t really viable until steamers were fully introduced). No matter how light the cargo, human or otherwise, the Liverpool packets maintained a regular schedule that soon became one of the mainstays of the sailing industry in New York City. Herman Melville, Charles Dickens, as well as countless less-well-known names made passages to and from New York aboard these ships.

The ships employed in this demanding trade – each made about six round trips annually – were all about 400 tons, some 106 feet long, with a 28-foot beam, and drawing about 14 feet. They were twin deckers with three masts carrying square sails. According to an advertisement in the New York Evening Post from Nov. 27, 1822, the ships were “built of the best materials, copper fastened, and coppered, commanded by men experienced in this trade, and no expense will be spared in making their accommodations convenient and comfortable for passengers. The price of passage in the cabin is 35 guineas; for which sum, beds, bedding, wines and stores of the first quality are furnished. For freight or passage, apply to the captains on board €¦ ”

Depending on the time of year, passages could be as fast as 20 days or as slow as 50 or more outbound from New York. The passages back from Liverpool could be even longer and no doubt much more trying, especially during the winter months.

One of the better known skippers on the Swallowtail Line was Nash DeCost, who, after serving in the Far East trade and aboard various whalers and coasting schooners, joined the company of Fish and Grinnell in New York. The company owned the ships Cortes and Robert Fulton, which were the nucleus of the Swallowtail Line. DeCost made six trips annually from the 1820s to 1830, when he retired from the sea at the age of 47. In his time as master he was most proud of the fact that he never had to flog a sailor – something not many masters of his day could say. DeCost had an enviable reputation as a master shiphandler and an able leader of men. We must remember that the crews of these packet ships were often drunk when sold by crimps to the ship owners. They were a hard lot and in the sailing hierarchy of the times, considered pretty low on the totem pole.

So let’s join Capt. DeCost and his crew of 20 men, strong and true, as they depart Sandy Hook in July 1827 bound for Liverpool. We will be using the 2002 Nautical Almanac. The height of eye is 25 feet; the sextant has an index error of 3 minutes on the arc. We will DR from Sandy Hook for two days, then take a noon sight.

On July 20 depart Sandy Hook, latitude 40° 30’N by 73° 57’W. DeCost is steering a True course of 125°. Variation is 14° West.

A: What is the compass course sailed by DeCost? (The deviation on this heading is known to be 003° East.)

B: DeCost travels under overcast sky and according to his log has sailed 180 nm until noon the following day, July 21. What is his position based on his DR?

C: At 1651 GMT Capt. DeCost takes a noon sight. His Ho is 71° 46.3′. What is his latitude?  

By Ocean Navigator