Schooner Thomas W. Lawson

July/Aug 2003

The great age of American schooners was but a short 30-year span extending from the late 1880s to about 1920. During this time, when these vessels were as common on the sea as 18-wheelers are on the highway today, there were innumerable two- and three-masted vessels, 54 five-masters, 10 six-masters and, for a short while, the only seven-masted schooner ever built.

This behemoth was named Thomas W. Lawson in honor of the Boston Bay State Gas Co. president. It was built in 1902 for the Coastwise Transportation Co.

Designed by B.B. Crowninshield, the 395-foot Lawson was constructed of steel with wood spars by the Fore River Ship & Engine Building Co., of Quincy, Mass. Lawson had a 49-foot beam, displaced 5,218 tons and drew 28 feet when fully loaded. It also carried more than 43,000 square feet of canvas � just shy of an acre. Of the 25 sails, there were seven gaff sails, seven gaff topsails, six staysails and five jibs. A crew of about 17, assisted by a steam donkey engine, usually handled this massive amount of sail.

Despite the success of previously built six-masted schooners, Lawson had too much draft to pick up cargo � it was built to haul coal and could carry 11,000 tons � in any port other than Newport News, Va. As a result, in 1906 it was reconfigured to carry bulk oil, working between Texas ports and Philadelphia.

Schooners, as a class of vessels, became popular as working boats because they were the most weatherly and economical sailing craft in the world. They handled well with small crews in confined waters and didn�t usually require the services of a tug, which saved owners money. Unfortunately, Lawson didn�t live up to these expectations. One sailor who worked aboard claimed that the ship �handled like a beached whale.� The hull was described by maritime historian Basil Lubbock as having �the lines of a canal barge and looking about as sweet as a bathtub.�

In December 1907, while on its first trans-Atlantic passage, Lawson was wrecked off the coast of England, sinking on Friday the 13th on Hellweather Reef off the Scilly Islands, England. Lawson sank with a loss of 17 souls and the ship�s cat. Edward Rowe, the engineer, and Capt. George Dow were the only survivors. Due to bad weather and faulty dead reckoning, the vessel was closer to the reef than the captain anticipated. Caught in a gale, the crew let go the anchors, but the ship dragged into the rocks, breaking in two. It now lies in about 50 feet of water at 49� 53� N by 6� 23� W.

The account I have of Lawson�s last voyage is from Edward Rowe. I uncovered his story, called The Lawson�s First and Last Voyage, while doing research. It was originally published in Yankee Magazine.

Lawson departed Philadelphia on Nov. 27, 1907, carrying bulk oil bound for England. Throughout the passage, Lawson had hellacious weather. It sailed through hurricane-strength winds under bare poles, making 15 to 18 knots for more than two days. Then, while closing on the coast, got caught in a northwest gale. It was difficult to take any sights, and it seems that the DR lagged behind the actual position. During the storm, a breaking sea smashed open the No. 6 deck hatch, mixing seawater with 300 tons of coal stored for ship�s use. The bilge pumps clogged, and the ship was impossible to pump.

This is Rowe�s account of what happened next: �We never did pick up Scilly Light, but by navigation and record of courses sailed, we knew we were somewhere in the vicinity of the Scilly Islands some 35 miles off the coast of Cornwall.

It was the 16th day out, Friday, Dec. 13 � suddenly the roar of breakers ahead � no mistake. Calculations to fetch outside of Bishop Rock Lighthouse which work the dangerous ledges off Scilly Isle, somehow the dead reckoning had gone askew.�

Let�s join the ill-fated crew on a day when the captain had some clear sky and could take a sun sight for an LOP. The day is Dec. 8, and the wind is blowing a gale from the northwest. The height of eye is 25 feet. The index error is 2.2� on the arc. The sight is of a lower limb, and the time of the sight is 11:25:15 GMT. The Hs is 13� 19.2�. The ship�s DR is 53� 45� N by 11� 30� W. We will use the 2003 Nautical Almanac. (For those of you who don�t have HO 249: Hc is 12� 26�; d is �59; Z is 163�; and in Table 5, 42� of declination is �41�.)

A. Reduce Hs to Ho.

B. Find declination for time of sight.

C. What is the intercept?

Compare the DR to the LOP and think about what might have happened when the �dead reckoning had gone askew.�  

By Ocean Navigator