The initial ephemera regarding Captain Thomas Drake (1863-1936) to slip into the historical collection came with the arrival of two vintage photo postcards. Research indicates the bluewater sailor had these two cards printed in Seattle to sell at speaking engagements to help fund his international sailing adventures.
The puzzle for this writer started unfolding when brief references to Captain Tommy were noticed in Andrews and Kirwin's This was Seafaring and also, High Tide by newspaperman R. H. Calkins. These authors indicated Drake was a sailor friend to many in the Northwest, sometimes mooring in Seattle or Stanwood, but known around the globe.
| PROGRESS (O.N. 231796) |
Captain Thomas Drake
The PROGRESS was built in Tacoma in 1932 and lost in 1936.
Her home port was Stanwood, WA, on federal documentation.
Undated original photo postcards from S.P.H.S.©
Thanks to the Northwest and Special Collections Librarian, Sean Lanksbury, WA. State Library, Olympia, WA.
Herein a long-winded story of one tough, deep-water, sailor.
"If Seattle ever establishes a Hall of Fame for extraordinary old men of the sea, Captain Tom Drake would get my vote. Should somebody form a Tom Drake Fan Club, I'll be first in line to register.
A man who would roam the seas alone for more than 120,000 miles--as late in life as 76--he deserves a tip of the watchcap. Consider also that he built the boats he sailed--none longer than 37-feet.
If you've never heard of Tommy Drake, you're not alone. He didn't make big headlines--even when he went down to the sea in his last little ship in 1936. Captain Tom just went away for awhile. He was last seen headed out from San Francisco, bound downcoast for San Diego and ports beyond.
Drake favored double-enders--those boats pointed at both ends. He built or worked on all of them at Stanwood, Snohomish County, which he also called home. He sawed his own timbers and scantlings there.
Captain Tom was some sea-going man. He was only 5-feet tall, moustached; the grin into a camera's lens was ever-ready.
A tough little guy, he was. At 70 he pulled into the Seattle harbor from Hawaii after battling mountainous seas for part of 53 days. His 37-foot PROGRESS was limping with sails shredded and bowsprit gone. Tommy also was battered. His right arm hung loosely at his side. The hand was broken and the arm badly sprained. He had caught them in the boat's spinning wheel-spokes.
'I'm going into Marine Hospital to get patched up, then I'll head out again,' he told a reporter. Tommy said he had steered and sailed left-handed for 20 grueling days.
Who WAS Tommy Drake? The records are sketchy but complete enough. He was a peppery little man who talked with a Cockney accent in short, clipped sentences. He limped badly on a leg shortened 4-inches by a shipboard fall in his youth. He began sailing out of England at age 13.
Old newspaper clippings describe him as 'The Lone Sea Rover'. He never traveled with a companion. Newsmen repeatedly said he had roamed the seven seas, calling on 117 ports and logging 120,000 miles out of Puget Sound. He had sailed in windjammers and rounded Cape Horn as a matter of life. The last two tall ships on which he was mate were the bark IFIFIA and the brig TARTER.
Men here knew him well. He was a member of the Seattle and Queen City Yacht Clubs. His oil portrait, done by Peter Jordan Savage, was a prize adornment of the Seattle Yacht Club. [Do you know the whereabouts of this painting?]
In 1935 a newsman wrote: ' Tommy Drake, venerable seaman and nautical hermit, is gone again. He left at dawn yesterday and pointed his schooner's bow outbound from Lake Union. Where was he going? Nobody knows, except perhaps Tommy himself.'
Tommy was that way--chatty and congenial but close-mouthed about his destinations. One summer he shoved off and didn't return for more than four years. During those absences he wrote to friends such as 'Doc' Freeman, Harry Kirwin, Jacob Lough, George Broom, and others.
It was Lough, a druggist, who traveled to San Francisco August 1937, and on to Pescadero Point to examine beached wreckage of a boat identified as Captain Tom's.
In October 1926, it had been Lough who received a letter from the lone skipper who said he had arrived safely in Balboa, en route to his boyhood home in England by way of Cape Horn. There had been no word from him since his departure from Seattle four months earlier in his 36-foot schooner, the PILGRIM.
He did battle his way around the Horn, up to the Bahamas, made a good passage across the Atlantic, sighted the Azores without putting in, and arrived off the English coast in a gale that forced him to heave to. Blown back out to sea, he had to beat for nearly a week before he made Fowey after 52 days at sea.
He called at coastal villages, then sailed up the English Channel and entered the Thames, happy and triumphant to revisit the river waters he had left 50-years earlier. But his joy was marred when he luffed into the moorage of a Gravesend yacht club and was told he could not tie up, being a nonmember of a yachting fraternity.
Drake explained that his lame hip was painful, that he had voyaged a long distance and was tired. Club officials still denied him mooring, so he went to a less prestigious club and told officials there he was a member of a Seattle yacht club. After confirmation by Atlantic cable was made, Drake became a celebrity of the London waterfront. The yacht club that had denied him moorage sent a delegation to offer the club's apologies. The press reported that he received the apologists cordially and invited them aboard.
He left England for leisurely touring of Scandinavia and Holland. Then came a press report out of Amsterdam that described how the Lone Sea Rover had been shipwrecked and was rescued by fishermen.
Tommy worked his way in a ship to the East Coast, rode a freight train cross-country and arrived in Seattle's railroad yards.
Drake, then 66, was back from the sea in Seattle after four years and six months.
In all, Captain Drake sailed 4 of his home-built ships out of Puget Sound. His first schooner, the SIR FRANCIS, was completed in 1915. She was 32-feet, a double-ender, and drew less than four feet. The vessel was lost in a storm on the east coast of Mexico after he had logged 31,000 miles in the Pacific, Atlantic, South American, and Caribbean waters.
Then followed the 35-foot double-ender, SIR FRANCIS II, lost off Cuba.
But the PILGRIM, which he sailed to Europe and lost off Holland, probably was his best-liked boat. After he arrived on the freight train, he went to work on his last ship, the PROGRESS, 37-feet, with inside ballast of 5-tons and draft of 4-feet. To shake her down, he sailed down-coast and across to Hawaii. It was on his return passage to Seattle that he broke his hand.
In the fall of 1936, Drake shoved off--again down the coast and not announcing his ultimate destination. In March, his Seattle friends began to voice apprehension. For him not to mail letters for months was not unusual. But uneasiness was growing.
His last-known whereabouts was San Francisco, where he had headed outbound under the Golden Gate Bridge in November 1936.
The skipper's age then was reported in the press as 76 years.
The Seattle Times, 16 May 1937 reported:
'The aged skipper's fraternity of friends are afraid that when Captain Drake stood proudly erect at the PROGRESS's wheel during the marine parade through the Lake Washington Ship Canal last summer, Seattle had its last look at him. They hope he'll turn up--in Hawaii, India, in the South Seas, or somewhere.'
Occasionally you find an old-timer who knew Tommy Drake well, and he talks about his long-ago friend. But there ought to be a memorial or some kind of remembrance in Puget Sound country for Tommy Drake. He was a champion of sorts."
Quote below from: Sea Quest, Borden, Ballantine, 1967.
"Once or twice a year for a quarter of a century, the Cape Flattery lookout at Tatoosh Island, recognizing the familiar scrap of hull and sail coming up over the horizon, would report Capt. Tom bound into the Strait of Juan de Fuca again from Samoa, Honolulu, Panama, and other ports around the world."
A historical file has been built to record the history of this once popular sailor. If you know the whereabouts of any clippings to copy or photographs to scan or purchase, please advise us by email to this site, found on the profile page. Thank you.