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San Juan Islands, Washington State, United States
A society formed in 2009 for the purpose of collecting, preserving, celebrating, and disseminating the maritime history of the San Juan Islands and northern Puget Sound area. Check this log for tales from out-of-print publications as well as from members and friends. There are circa 500, often long entries, on a broad range of maritime topics; there are search aids at the bottom of the log. Please ask for permission to use any photo posted on this site. Thank you.

24 February 2012

❖ The Ship THERMOPYLAE ❖ Victoria B.C.

Detail of a painting by Robert McVittie.
off the west coast of British Columbia.
The ship in her later years, in cut down barque rig.
"To have been the home port of one of those queens of the seas, the speedy tea clippers of the latter half of the eighteenth century was an honour for any sea town. To have been able to claim, as Victoria could from 1891 to 1895, that on her port register was one of the two fastest ships afloat is an honour of which this city has perhaps never been sufficiently aware.
      The question of whether it was THERMOPYLAE or CUTTY SARK that should have the pride of first place is one that even today is good for an argument in sailing circles but certainly at the time THERMOPYLAE was berthed in Victoria there was one old veteran sailing ship captain who was not afraid to write in the local press of "the THERMOPYLAE which, I believe, is still the fastest sailing ship afloat."                                                    
THERMOPYLAE picking up the pilot at the mouth of the Columbia R.
Photo by Robert Reford, her agent. 
Courtesy of the Vancouver Public Library.
      She was beautiful...and she was glamourous... with an aura which rubbed off onto those who sailed on her so that they were said to be "not like other men."
      Small wonder then that when a group of retired sailormen in Victoria looked for a name for their sea-lovers' club they decided to call it 'The Thermopylae Club'.
      Many have written of this famous clipper, Basil Lubbock among them. 'How sweetly she sailed!' he wrote, 'able to fan along at seven knots in an air that would not extinguish a lighted candle, yet she was both comfortable and easy to handle when running over 13 knots under all plain sail.'
      Even those she defeated applauded her. On her first passage, when she passed H.M.S. CHARYBDIS off Port Phillips Heads, her captain hoisted the warm-hearted message, 'Good-bye. You are too much for us. You are the finest model of a ship I ever saw. It does my heart good to look at you.'
      To use bald figures about such beauty seems sacrilegious, but then that is the practice of the day, so here in all their starkness they are: Length from stem to stern 212-ft, beam 36-ft, depth 21-ft, displacement when loaded 970-tons. From keel to topside her hull was rock elm, above that India teak.
      In rigging this vessel--planned to be a winner in the days when the earliest load of tea to reach London commanded the premium price--her builders made some changes from designs already in use. Mast height was lowered, sails widened, her mainyard a great 80-ft spar from which dropped a mainsail 40-ft deep at the bunt. Thirty-two hundred square feet of canvas in that sail alone!
      The THERMOPYLAE was built to make records--and she did. Her speedy passages helped by her first captain, the daring, driving, Kemball. It was under his command that, in the dim of early morning in Nov. 1868, she left the London docks. By the time she returned to them she had broken many records, including making in  24-hours, 380 miles and cutting two days off the record for the FOO CHOW, China to London run.
      THERMOPYLAE then was the talk of the docks.
      It is rather sad to have to add that this record was not hers for long. Within two weeks the SIR LANCELOT had shortened the passage by a further two days!
      But the THERMOPYLAE continued to pile up other records until rivals were driven to build the CUTTY SARK to challenge her reign. 
      Finally, it was steam that put an end to all sail in the tea trade and the ships moved to other uses.                    
      THERMOPYLAE was sold to the Montreal firm of Reford who planned to use her on the Pacific to bring rice from the Orient to Puget Sound.
      At midnight, on 24 June 1891, by the light of a moon just over full, she sailed for the first time up the Juan de Fuca Strait and anchored in Royal Roads.
      Later in Victoria, she as taken over by Nova Scotia-born Captain J.N. Winchester and added to her crew a number of men from the sealing schooners, as well as three apprentices.
      On her runs to the Orient, the THERMOPYLAE had some rough times, the worst, that reported in the Colonist of 24 March 1892.
      They arrived here 101 days after leaving Bangkok. Waterspouts had menaced them and winds had been so destructive that captain Winchester had felt he had to excuse his vessel's battered and untidy appearance when she reached Victoria with the words 'though we left Bangkok with three suits of canvas, she now has not one presentable or serviceable sail!'
      They had also run out of food and for the last ten days had been subsisting on rice, this while they were enduring two weeks of struggling to make the entrance into the Strait.
      How different another voyage from China in a record 29 days!

loading lumber through ports cut in her bows.
The size of the pieces being loaded is 24" x 23" x 100'.
The figurehead of Leonidas stands proudly at the bow.
Courtesy of the Vancouver City Archives.
       In 1895 Victorians had their last sight of her cloud of white canvas coming up behind Race Rocks and she was once more off for Europe, this voyage being the only one, I believe, on which she rounded Cape Horn. In her holds then she had some of British Columbia's great forest harvest, including monstrous balks of Douglas fir, a hundred feet long and 24-inches square!
      So ended Victoria's connection with a world-famous ship, a jewel in this city's history for long overlooked but now recalled by the plaque which the Thermopylae Club added to the Parade of Ships embedded on the Causeway wall in 1962."
Text by Ursula Jupp. Home Port: Victoria, BC. 1967. 

Well done book of short stories by one of the most regarded maritime historians from British Columbia.
Book search here––Home Port: Victoria

This fine book has 14 beautiful pages devoted to the THERMOPYLAE.  
Book search here––

Westcoasters, Boats that Built BC

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