History Matters: A Young Niantic Man’s Rite of Passage
Lawrence Howard came from a seafaring town, so it probably was not surprising that he did what he did, even at the tender age of 17. Sailing in one of the last square-rigger ships to ever voyage “around the horn,” from New York to San Francisco, was no small feat. Later in life he would write about that experience.
Few copies of his book, “Log of the Edward Sewall, 1911-1912,” exist today, but recently I discovered one that had been donated to the East Lyme Historical Society in 1998 by the Abraham Wilensky family. A personalized version, it had been given to “My friend, Mrs. Ethel Wilensky, with the kind regards of the author, Captain Lawrence C. Howard.”
Niantic, especially during the 19th century, was a seafaring town. There was shipbuilding on the Niantic River and a fishing fleet anchored in Niantic Bay. “The tide is always running, either in or out and much of the activity in the town had to do with fishing and the servicing of small boats,” wrote Larry Howard, in 1958. “The moaning of the foghorn was taken for granted in thick weather. Among the old families there was hardly one but had traditions of seagoing relatives, sometimes on the Grand Banks, sometimes coastwise, sometimes deepwater.”
Both of Lawrence Howard’s grandfathers were Niantic seafaring men. One grandfather, Enoch Newton Howard, was a shipmaster who had a license to captain any size vessel in any type of water, a most impressive rating. His other grandfather, Charles Henry Congdon, was a Grand Banks fisherman.
According to Howard’s recollections, there were at least a dozen retired sea captains still living in Niantic when he was growing up, and he said he knew each and every one of them. He loved listening to their exciting adventures and tales of the faraway places they had visited. “From the time I was in grammar school, I never had any other idea but that I was going to sea but when I announced that intention (at age 14) at once there was tremendous family pressure in opposition.”
But talks with his father proved fruitful. Harry Dawes Howard told his son he’d once had similar dreams, but he had dissuaded his son from a seagoing career. “But let’s do this the right way,” the father wisely counseled.
As it turned out, “the right way” meant attending New York Nautical School after local grammar school graduation. That was made possible with more than a little help from the elder Howard.
When Harry Dawes Howard was much younger, he had saved a fellow crewmember from drowning when he was swept overboard in a boat race. That young man’s father happened to be a professor in New York City, who never forgot how Howard had saved his son’s life. The professor was more than agreeable to temporarily adopt young Lawrence Howard in order to satisfy the nautical school’s New York residency requirements. Entering the school in 1909, Lawrence Howard would graduate two years later with numerous school honors to his credit.
Despite the rigorous classwork and the practical sailing experience the school provided, Lawrence Howard knew he still had a great deal more to learn. He also wanted to challenge himself. A voyage aboard a square-rigger would check those boxes.
“I wanted to increase my practical knowledge of seamanship,” Lawrence Howard wrote, “so I walked the waterfront until I saw the bark Edward Sewall tied up in Brooklyn. I think it was her white color that attracted me. The ship was about ready to go to sea after undergoing repairs (from an earlier voyage.) I went aboard and presented myself to Captain Richard Quick, who seemed not at all impressed by my nautical school training and the practice cruises (I had undertaken.) But he was in the process of getting up a crew, so he listened to my pleadings and signed on this husky 17-year-old Connecticut boy as an ‘ordinary seaman,’ wages fifteen dollars a month. I had my first job, and I was a member of the crew of the Edward Sewall, bound ‘round the horn.’ And I was happy.”
The Edward Sewall was a 332-foot-long, four-masted steel bark built in Bath, Maine. Captain Quick said his ship was “the toughest vessel that ever squared a yard.” It had been specifically built by the Sewall Company to endure the rigors of Cape Horn sailing and it managed to successfully navigate that route some 28 times over its long and distinguished career.
Captain Quick was a man of short stature and had a red moustache and small eyes, according to Howard’s log. Threats, curses and punishments were not uncommon, but underneath his rough exterior, young Larry Howard reported seeing a gentler and more caring side of the captain and would go on to enjoy a warm relationship with him later in life.
There were a first and a second mate, two ordinary seamen, 18 able-bodied seamen, a carpenter, a steward and a cook.
“The deck of a ship makes a small world where men have to live in close quarters for more than four months, and allowance must be made for this,” Howard wrote. “It’s a tight little world where there were two or three living aft who represented authority. But they couldn’t sail their ship without the back-breaking obedience of possibly twenty-five men who lived forward. It was rough and tough… It follows that the voice of authority from the cabin had to make itself felt in all weathers and under every emergency.”
Howard further reported thankfully that there were no murders, no suicides and no mutinies during the voyage, but there certainly had been many disagreeable and tense moments.
Much of the work was tedious and repetitive, and everyone was busy at all times. “I felt miserable the first week aboard,” he reported. “My hands were sore, bruised and bleeding from the work aloft and my muscles ached from head to foot. I was also somewhat seasick, which made matters worse.”
Young Mr. Howard’s logbook would reveal that even greater challenges lay ahead.
“When I came on deck at noon, a terrible storm was raging… The wind was increasing in violence and the sea was rising.
“I thought I knew bad weather, but I never saw anything like this. The seas were mountain high. The entire ship was (soon) submerged. You could not see her main deck from poop to forecastle; everything was awash. The only sails which held were the fore and main upper topsails. The mizzen topsail, main lower topsail, main sail and fore lower topsail blew away. They snapped and they cracked like pistol shots and how the wind whistled through the rigging. It was an awesome sight. Number three hatch strongback worked lose. If it had gone, it would have been just too bad for the Edward Sewall and all on board.”
“At no time did I have a feeling of fear. I had always thought that I would be scared to death in a bad storm, but I never felt the least bit afraid,” Lawrence Howard recorded in his journal the day after the squall. This was why he had signed on. This was the test that he needed to pass to become a man, and a man of the sea.
The journey lasted almost five months. The amount of money Lawrence Howard would eventually earn for his strenuous and dangerous labors (after deductions for purchases made during the voyage from the ship’s “slop chest”) totaled a whopping $40.
But then, it was never about the money.
(For readers who wish to experience what it felt like to be part of a journey like this, I recommend the Mystic Seaport’s YouTube video “Four Masted Barque Rounds Cape Horn.” It features incredible footage of a similar voyage made in a similar vessel in 1928. I found it truly terrifying, making me appreciate even more those men who once had the courage and skill to challenge nature’s elements in such a way.)
Jim Littlefield is a retired history teacher in East Lyme who has written two local history books and two historical novels. His columns can also be found in the Post Road Review.
Comment threads are monitored for 48 hours after publication and then closed.