Voyage saved by captain’s 19-year-old wife

Mar/Apr 2003

During that short period when American clipper ships reigned supreme � a period of no more than 10 years � captains and crews, people not much different from you and me, occasionally performed tasks that can only be described as heroic. One of these is the story of Mary Patten and Neptune�s Car.

Mary Ann Brown was 16 years old when she married Capt. Joshua A. Patten of Rockland, Maine, in 1853. Patten, at 26 years, had already proven his mettle as a man of fine character, as well as a skipper who made fast passages. As a result of this reputation, he was offered command of the extreme clipper Neptune�s Car, after its first captain took ill.

Neptune�s Car was 216 feet, drawing 23 1/2 feet with a 40-foot beam. It displaced 1,616 tons, similar to Flying Cloud, was built at Page & Allen in Portsmouth, Va., and launched in 1853.

Patten accepted the job with the understanding that he could bring his bride with him. Although it wasn�t usual for wives to accompany their husbands on passages �round the Horn, it was not unheard of either. Capt. Josiah Creesy and his wife Eleanor had already made history aboard Flying Cloud.

On their first passage to San Francisco from New York, Neptune�s Car raced the extreme clipper Westward Ho for bragging rights. After a passage of a little more than 100 days, Neptune�s Car pulled into San Francisco only 5 1/2 hours behind Westward Ho. The ships then raced to Hong Kong, and this time Neptune�s Car beat Westward Ho by 11 days. It was on this passage that Patten began teaching his young wife the rudiments of navigation, a skill she soon excelled at and one that would prove invaluable.

In 1856, Neptune�s Car departed New York, once again bound for California. This turned out to be a difficult passage. The first mate was found sleeping on watch and, against the captain�s orders, had repeatedly shortened sail while the captain was asleep. As a result, Patten locked the mate in his cabin and advanced the second mate to the position. Unfortunately, the second mate was ignorant of even the rudiments of navigation. As a result, Patten was forced to stand watch continuously without sleep, until he collapsed from �brain fever.� He eventually grew delirious and couldn�t command the ship.

Nineteen years of age at this time, pregnant and facing a sick husband and the Roaring Forties to boot, Mary Patten took command of the ship. Such was her magnetism that she persuaded the hard-bitten crew to carry on to San Francisco. �To a man,� wrote a contemporary, �they resolved to stand by her and the ship come what may.�

For the next 50 days, Mary Patten had little rest between navigating and caring for her beloved husband. During this time, the captain seemed to recover but then lapsed back into sickness that was compounded by deafness and blindness. How Mary Patten managed is almost beyond comprehension. But manage she did, and after 136 days, Neptune�s Car passed safely through the Golden Gate.

The Pattens took the train back east, and the shipping company gave her a gift of $1,000 for saving the ship and crew, a paltry amount, given that the value of the cargo exceeded $350,000. Mary Patten was briefly famous, but she quickly faded into obscurity. Not long after her son was born, her husband passed away. Mary didn�t live long, herself, dying at the age of 24 from tuberculosis. She and Joshua are buried in Everett, Mass.

Let us join this powerful woman aboard Neptune�s Car. It is the morning of March 18. Mary, with sextant in hand, gets an upper limb shot of the sun. The DR is 36� N by 125� 30� W. Her height of eye is 25 feet. Chronometer error is 8 minutes slow. Index Error is 1� on the arc. Fix time is 15 hours 30 minutes 17 seconds. We will use the 2003 Nautical Almanac and Vol. II HO 249.

A. If the chronometer is 8 minutes slow, what is the time of sun sight?

B. Mary Patten gets an Hs of 13� 55�. What is Ho?

C. Using HO 249 Vol II page 217, what is intercept?

For those who don�t have the volume:

Hc: 13� 41�

d: 36

Z: 100�

Table 5: 4�

D. Plot the numbers.  

By Ocean Navigator