March/April Issue 253: A black cat aboard Nancy Hanks


Many a ship has sailed with a cat aboard. Cats were often carried on sailing ships to hunt rodents but also simply for their companionship.

Black cats have, of course, been thought to possess supernatural powers. It was a good omen if a cat approached a sailor on deck and an unlucky portent if it retreated. It was also believed they could summon storms by the magic in their tails. If a cat was thrown overboard or fell off a ship, it could presage doom. For the schooner Nancy Hanks, these superstitions were invoked for its untimely fate.

Built in Thomaston, Maine, in 1917, Nancy Hanks was a high-bowed, four-masted schooner of 1,162 tons and 204 feet long with a 41-foot beam, drawing 19 feet, with a crew of 10. She was built by George Gilchrist for the trans-Atlantic trade. The schooner was thought to be named in honor of President Lincoln’s mother. Throughout her career, she was a mysterious and unlucky ship. According to local lore, it had been cursed by sailors “from Cape Cod to Zanzibar,” having a reputation among sailors as a ship “on which the devil held high fiesta.” It was said the ghost of John Wilkes Booth haunted the craft.

Captain Foster took command in the 1920s and made a passage to Durban, South Africa. The schooner sprung a leak, but repairs were effected en route. It was on this voyage that a mysterious and very large black cat with glowing eyes appeared wandering around the ship, spooking the crew. After the initial sighting, Nancy Hanks was caught in a violent storm that damaged the schooner. During that storm, the crew spotted not only the original black cat, but now she was trailed by four black kittens. Then another gale struck them. The ship safely arrived in Durban and proceeded to African ports. Once again, the cat was spotted. The ship was caught in another storm and a severe case of dengue fever broke out, followed by another storm. The weakened crew couldn’t reef the sails, which were shredded, yet somehow Nancy Hanks reached Boston.

Upon arrival, Captain Foster quit the ship. After that, Nancy Hanks worked the coastal trade, finding it more and more difficult to get crew, until the vessel was reported off Miami, Fla., in distress. The replacement skipper had been swept off the deck in a storm, a mutiny followed and another deck officer had been murdered. Nancy Hanks was towed into Miami, but no crew could be found, so persistent were the evil stories dogging her. She was on a mooring when, during a storm in January 1926, she broke free and grounded on Fisher Island, remaining there until fire consumed her.

Before these disasters struck, let’s join the ship on a trans-Atlantic passage. We are using the 2019 Nautical Almanac. It is Jan. 27, and the ship is at a DR of 35° 20’ N by 66° 10’ W. The skipper is taking a morning sun sight using the lower limb. Height of eye is 20 feet. Hs is 22° 16’. The time of the sight is 13:45:15 GMT.

A. What is the Ho?
B. What is the intercept?
C. What is the EP?

A. Ho 22° 25.6’
B. Intercept is 21 nm away
C. The EP is 34° 28’ N by 66° 12’ W

By Ocean Navigator