Downeasters were the ships that epitomized Maine shipbuilding at its finest and most productive.
Downeasters made Maine-built ships and Maine-bred captains admired the world over.
The Maine Downeaster was born in order to carry the wheat crops of California. Maine and California were far more entwined than most of us realize today. The California gold rush of 1849 triggered the speed and beauty of the fast Maine clipper ships. For a few glorious years, they were the sailing marvels of the world.
Then the bumper crops of wheat in California from the 1870s to 1890s triggered the heyday of Maine's handsome Downeasters, so admired in paintings today. This California wheat had a quality of special importance to Maine shipbuilders: it could survive the 15,000-mile voyage from San Francisco to Liverpool and arrive in near-perfect condition. This was the prime reason Maine built hundreds of Downeasters…
Grain was not an easy cargo. To carry it required a tight, fast ship, sturdy and strong enough to withstand storms coming round the Horn, and gales they'd endure crossing the Atlantic. So Downeasters were built strong to withstand the punishing seas. Hulls were often sixteen to twenty inches thick, with white oak ribs and planking of thick pine. Keel and keelson together formed twelve feet of thick solid timber. Knees to brace the beams were of the strongest wood to be found-native hackmatack. Bolts were of copper.
Yet, with all their toughness, Downeasters were handsome ships. Their lines were not as hollow or sharp as those of the true clipper ships. Because they carried far more cargo, the vertical rise from the keel was flattened out, and more gradual. Yet their trim bowlines, flowing into the deck, were as pretty as a clipper's.
Maine had special pride in her Downeasters, from the day they were launched to the day they docked in foreign ports…
The safety record of Downeasters was good, even though the long routes they sailed were dangerous. One reason, according to marine historian Basil Lubbock, was that owners did not scrimp on the upkeep of these profit-makers…
When Maine skippers found themselves and their ship in terrible trouble, they improvised ways to get out of it. This ability to invent and make do is the hallmark of Maine skippers.
One Searsport captain, William H. Blanchard, lost his rudder and steering post in a gale coming down the South Atlantic, heading for the deadly Cape Horn and the crossing into the Pacific. Blanchard hove to, set his crew to work, rigged a jury rudder and improvised a steering gear. Then he sailed around the Horn with this rig, made stops to unload and load cargo at several west coast ports, and then sailed back to New York on his homemade rudder and steering gear.
Another Searsport captain of the same stripe was Captain E.D.P. Nickels. His Downeaster, May Flint
, was hit hard by a cyclone and damaged to the point where many captains would have abandoned her. The cyclone had torn away most of three masts. Passing ships sailed close to offer assistance or to take off the crew. Nickels waved them away and set to work. For two weeks, his ship wallowed sail-less in the ocean, while the crew improvised new masts. Then, satisfied he had done all he could, Captain Nickels hoisted his new spars, ran up the old sails, and sailed the May Flint
across thousands of miles to safe harbor in New York.
The young wives of ship captains also performed amazing feats of seafaring. When Captain William York of the Don Quixote
was washed overboard, his wife navigated the ship to port.
But the most romantic and awesome tale concerns the young and beautiful Mary Brown Patten. When her husband fell very ill, she took command of his 216-foot clipper, Neptune's Car
, and ran the ship for more than fifty days and nights. When the mate mutinied and tried to kill her and take command himself, Mary Patten put her pistol to his head, marched him below decks, and threw him in irons, where he stayed…Excerpted from Rivers of Fortune: Where Maine Tides and Money Flowed, by Bill Caldwell
. Available at the Down East book store