The world’s largest sailing ship is wrecked and seventeen lives are lost. Now, the master is called to account, especially to himself.
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It was the biggest sailing vessel ever built and the world’s first super-tanker. In the winter of 1907, the four hundred foot, seven-masted schooner T.W. Lawson was making her first trans-Atlantic crossing with two and a quarter million gallons of kerosene for delivery to London. With almost fifty years of sailing experience, Captain George W. Dow was not intimidated, despite the Lawson’s checkered history. But, three weeks of hurricane winds and an angry sea conspired to easily defeat man and machine. Bereft of her sails, the giant ship found itself trapped in treacherous shoals off the southwest coast of Britain. Seventeen lives would be lost, including a local pilot attempting to avert disaster. Now, Captain Dow is called to account, most especially to himself. Leviathan’s Master is a true story, transformed into a gripping historical novella by the Captain’s great, great nephew.
Then, early in 1907, Arthur Crowley telephoned. I hadn’t seen him in several years, and I was taken aback when he asked to come calling. I figured Coastwise wanted my services, though I never suspected it might be for the Lawson. I suggested he come after dinner, as Jennie would be napping. No need to get her riled up before any decision was taken.
Captain Crowley was a thickset fellow in his late thirties, with closely cropped, light hair. A shadow of a mustache was the only hint of whiskers on his face. He was fourteen years junior to his brother John, yet he looked twenty years older than his years. When he came in, he seemed less than comfortable. I presumed it was the dismal weather. It seemed to me it might snow that evening. We sat in the parlor, nursing hot tea against the cold and winter gloom outside. Despite the hour, I burned the electric lights.
“John would have come, George, but he’s down with a hacking cough,” Arthur began. “He usually handles the management side, while Elmer and I command vessels.” He shifted in his chair without finding his ease.
I pretended not to notice and busied myself with loading my pipe. “Tell John I wish him a speedy recovery. These winter colds are a nuisance! But don’t fret, Arthur. Whether it’s you or John, it’s shipping that’s the subject at hand. What can I do for you?”
Arthur cleared his throat. “Well, George, we’d like you to take command of the Lawson.”
I was speechless. I stood and made a fuss of brushing bits of tobacco off my vest. Then, with a laugh, I said, “What’s the matter, Arthur? You getting tired of being hauled up and down the coast by a steam tug? I wouldn’t blame you at all. Nearly makes a passenger out of a fine captain like yourself. No, don’t try to sell such a post to me.”
Arthur placed his cup on the side table. His face had visibly reddened. “Oh, it ain’t the coastal run for the Lawson, George. The folks at Sun Oil want to deliver kerosene to London. You’d have her under sail, good and proper.”
I froze at the mention of London just as I went to strike a match. “London! The Lawson’s never been an open-sea carrier —might never be with her hard-luck reputation.”
Crowley jumped to his feet; then, apparently embarrassed at his reaction, he resumed his place on the settee. He seemed to me afraid. Maybe he was worried that no master worth his salt would take the position.
“Now, hold on, George! That’s a lot of seadog hooey. Sure, she’s run aground on occasion, but she was never built for the coastal trade. She’d have been a deep-water vessel save for the damned international manning regulations. But those requirements are behind us. The Lawson can sail the oceans and turn a good profit too. I tell you, George, she’ll handle well, loaded and in open waters.”
I stared at the carpet, my mind racing. I needed time to digest this crazy notion. I turned back to Crowley. “If it’s true what you say, why aren’t you happy to take her across?”
Crowley shifted again. “You know I’m a coastal man—always have been. You’ve been a deep-water master since before I was born! Besides, John wants a man who knows schooners back and forth, inside and out.”
“When’s the sailing? She’ll need refitting, top-masts replaced, new rigging.”
“I’m not clear on that yet. But you’re right. We’ll refit her in New York. Can’t say how long that will take. I would guess we’re looking at August or September, maybe.”
As he stood to leave, he pressed me for an answer.
“I’ll give it serious thought,” I promised, fetching his coat and hat. “Tell John I’ll have an answer for you in a day or two. You know I have a high regard for you Crowleys. With John Emery gone and Dan easing away from the brokerage, I can’t think of a company more to my liking. But it’s the ship, you see. It’s that oversized ‘tin can’ that’s the worry.”
Arthur didn’t push further. He thanked me, we shook hands, and he passed out into the gathering dusk.
August or September, eh? At least the weather ought to be tolerable.… Jesus, what will Jennie say?