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Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Capt. Gray's Longboat




Capt. Robert Gray is one of the unsung heroes of maritime history. He discovered the great river of the West in 1793 and named it after his ship Columbia. He discovered two important Northwest harbors: Grays Harbor in Washington State and Tillamook Bay in Oregon. He also had a number of firsts to his credit: he commanded the first American vessel to circumnavigate the globe (the Columbia), the first American vessel to visit the West Coast of North America (the Lady Washington), first to visit China, and the list goes on.



Fast forward 200 years. The Grays Harbor Historical Seaport finished building the Lady Washington, a replica of the first of Gray's historic commands. This was supposed to be just a warm up to building the much larger Columbia Rediviva. But with only a fraction of the money to build that fully-rigged ship in the construction fund, the fledgling organization punted and built, not one, but two replicas of the Columbia's longboats: the Capt. Matt Peasley and the Hewitt R. Jackson, both launched in 1993.

A ship like the Columbia would carry about four ship's boats with the longboat being the largest. One or two of the other boats would be nested inside it while the ship was underway. Longboats were as big as would fit between the foremast and the mainmast of the mother ship. On the Columbia that was 26 feet, the same size as the longboat of the HMAV Bounty, on which Capt. Bligh made his record-setting voyage.

The longboats were the workhorses of the early explorers. They would lighter cargo of everything from horses to barrels of rum from shore to ship. They also did the hard work of exploring. In fact, the Columbia's longboat entered the Columbia River before the ship did, sounding as she went, to prevent the loss of the mother ship.




These vessels were built tough with thick planking and heavy frames. The boats have so much wood in them that when the U.S. Coast Guard filled them with water to test their buoyancy they floated with their gunwales well above the surface without additional buoyancy tanks or bags and with several shivering volunteers sitting inside. Carl Brownstein, the boatwright who built the two vessels, call them "two-ton dingies." A similar longboat built to yacht scantlings in another Washington port floated so high on her lines that she had to have more than 1,000 pounds of ballast added.

These longboats are amazing vessels in their versatility, utility and beauty. They can use up to 10 oars, but move well under just two. (Six is about optimal, especially if the crew are inexperienced rowers.) They have three masts and four sails. The main and the foremast are fitted with dipping lug sails, which are all kinds of fun! Each of the thwarts has a mast step that can accommodate either the mainmast or the fore, allowing for many different sail combinations.

Oh, I almost forgot the best thing, both longboats have a swivel gun mounted on the samson post.

Soon after the first longboat was completed it won the King of Spain Cup in a rowing competition in British Columbia. The Grays Harbor Historical Seaport uses these vessels for youth training in Washington state's San Juan Islands most summers.

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