Sea Captains: San Francisco 1800s


Lauchlan McKay

Brother to shipbuilder Donald McKay

Daily Alta California, November 29, 1852

Remarkable Triumph of Science
The Sovereign of the Seas

Since the arrival of the magnificent Sovereign of the Seas in this harbor, one of the most interesting circumstances has transpired, connected with her late passage, that has ever been recorded in the annals of voyages to this ocean. The incident is fraught with the deepest importance to the cause of science, and we hasten to lay the particulars before the public.

The Sovereign of the Seas left New York on the 3d day of August and arrived in this port on the 15th day of November, her passage occupying 103 days, two hours. A few weeks previous to her departure, her captain, L. McKay, addressed a letter to Lieut. M. F. Maury, the well-known astronomer at the Washington Observatory, requesting copies of the fourth edition of his "Sailing Directions," for use during the voyage. Captain McKay received, shortly before sailing teh following letter in reply.

This letter furnishes one of the most remarkable instances of scientific foresight and knowledge that has ever come in our possession. The astronomer in his studio at Washington predicts from the observance of certain sailing directions, which he himself has resolved and laid down, the passage of a vessel bound on a voyage over 17,000 miles in length, and does not err, in his calculation of the time, occupied, two hours!

Here is the letter.

NATIONAL OBSERVATORY, Washington
July 28, 1852

If you have not the charts and old sailing directions that accompany them, please call on my agent, George Manning, No. 142 Pearl street, and he will furnish you with them.

I am driving through the press the 4th edition of Sailing Directions. I hope to have the chapter on the route to California out in time for the Sovereign of the Seas. If so I will send you them in the sheets, and yours will be the first vessel that takes them.

If you get them, stick to them, and have average luck, I predict for you a passage of not over one hundred and three days.

Wishing you all the luck you can desire,

I am, Very Truly, &c,

M. F. Maury
Captain L. McKay,
(Care of Messrs. Grinnell, Minturn & Co ) 
New York.

P. S. For fear the new directions should not be out in time, do this: Follow the old (third edition) as they are for doubling Cape Horn. After you get round, make as much westing, where the degrees are short, as the winds will conveniently allow, aiming to cross the parallel of 40 south, between 100 and 105, the parallel of 30, about 110. Don't fight head winds to do this. Cross the line near 150 deg. west, which you will do, considering you have a clipper under your feet, on or before the 25th October. Ten will hardly get the northeast trades south of 10 deg. north. Make a due north course through the " doldrums,'' and when you get the northeast trades, run along through them with topmast studding sails full, of course going no farther west than the winds drive you, taking care not to cross the parallel of 20 deg. north to the east of 125 dec. west.

When you lose the northeast trades, if you get a smart breeze, make eastard. But if you have "horse latitude" weather, make the best of your way due north until you get a good wind or find yourself in the variables, (westerly winds,) between 35 and 40 deg. Then stick her away for port.

Captain McKay "crossed the line" fourteen hours behind the time specified above. Lieut. Maury's directions were fully observed and with what success it may be seen. His prediction was fully verified, end a glorious triumph achieved for American science.

January 24, 1853, Adams Sentinel, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

Scientific Prediction Fulfilled

The Boston Journal states that McKay, of the clipper  Sovereign of the Seas, built in Boston, previous to sailing from this city (N.Y.), for San Francisco, in August last, addressed a letter to Lieut. Maury of the National Observatory at Washington, requesting a copy of the fourth edition of his Sailing Directions, for the use of the voyage. Lieut. Maury answered the letter, stating that if Capt. McKay would follow the directions laid down, the  Sovereign of the Seas would be able to cross the Equator in the Pacific on or before the 25th day of October, and would reach San Francisco in one hundred and three days.

The Sovereign of the Seas crossed the line only 14 hours behind the predicted time, and dropped anchor in the harbor of San Francisco in one hundred and three days and two hours after leaving New York.

This prediction on a voyage of 17,000 miles is a forcible illustration of the benfits of modern scientific research.

July 17, 1853, Daily Alta California, San Francisco, California

Capt. L. McKay, the commander of the ship Sovereign of the Seas, has been presented with a handsome and valuable service of plate by the underwriters of New York, for his skill at sea, and safely getting his vessel in San Francisco after being dismasted. On one of the pieces is inscribed the following:--

Presented by Atlantic Mutual Insurance Co., to Capt. L. McKay, of the ship Sovereign of the Seas, to express their appreciation of his skill and ability in fitting his ship at sea after having been dismasted on the 12th October, 1852. The Sovereign of the Seas sailed from New York on 18th June for Liverpool.

September 7, 1853
London Nonconformist, London, United Kingdom

. . . In the new American clipper, the Sovereign of the Seas, the ropes which form the running rigging are of cotton, which is not only capable of a tighter twist, but is not liable to become deteriorated by friction in the same degree as hempen cords. After they have been in use, too, for years, they can be sold for nearly as much as the original cost. These ropes are quite smooth, and run with great rapidity through the blocks. The sails also of this vessel are of cotton, two sets of cotton sails costing only the sum paid for one set of linen.

Mckay Clipper, Anglo-American.
Painting by Roy Cross
McKay's Clipper Anglo American by Ross Cross.

Donald McKay Clipper, Anglo-American.

The Authority to Sail.The Authority to Sail: The History of U.S. Maritime Licenses and Seamen's PapersThe Authority to Sail.
Robert Stanley Bates, George Marsh (Editor), John F. Whiteley (Forward) (Batek Marine Publishing, 2011; Nominated in 2012 for a Pulitzer Prize)
This book depicts important aspects of our maritime history as a result of original research done by the author, Commodore Bates, the holder of an unlimited master's license who has enjoyed a distinguished fifty-year career in both the Coast Guard and the American Merchant Marine.

The U.S. Coast Guard issues all Captain Licenses for U.S. Ports.
Note: Other countries have different regulations, i.e. the RYA (Royal Yachting Association), conducts certification for Britain and Ireland. As of 2011, they did not recognize the USCG certification; certification through their courses was required.

Master Unlimited is a licensed mariner in ultimate command of a vessel any gross tons. The captain is responsible for its safe and efficient operation, including cargo operations, navigation, crew management and ensuring that the vessel complies with local and international laws. All persons on board, including officers and crew, other shipboard staff members, passengers, guests and pilots, are under the captain's authority and are his or her ultimate responsibility. The STCW defines the Master as Person having command of the ship.

Merchant Marine License.

The Sea Chart
The Illustrated History of Nautical Maps and Navigational ChartsThe Sea Chart.
The Sea Chart.The Sea Chart.
John Blake
The sea chart was one of the key tools by which ships of trade, transport and conquest navigated their course across the oceans. Herein is a history and development of the chart and the related nautical map, in both scientific and aesthetic terms, as a means of safe and accurate seaborne navigation. 150 color illustrations including the earliest charts of the Mediterranean made by 13th-century Italian merchant adventurers, as well as 18th-century charts that became strategic naval and commercial requirements and led to Cook's voyages in the Pacific, the search for the Northwest Passage, and races to the Arctic and Antarctic.

Get Your Captain's License. Fifth Edition Get Your Captain's License. Fifth Edition. Charlie  Wing.
Charlie Wing
Considered the quickest, easiest, and least expensive way to prepare for the U.S. Coast Guard captain's ratings exams required for anyone who takes paying passengers on a boat, and useful for serious boaters who want to save money on insurance. 350 pages of seamanship and navigation tutorials. More than 1,500 questions and answers from the Coast Guard exams. Includes an interactive CD-ROM with all 14,000 questions and answers in the USCG database, so you can take an unlimited number of practice exams

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Sources: As noted on entries and through research centers including National Archives, San Bruno, California; CDNC: California Digital Newspaper Collection; San Francisco Main Library History Collection; and Maritime Museums and Collections in Australia, China, Denmark, England, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Wales, Norway, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, etc.

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