One thing I forgot to mention, while reefing topsails in a gale of wind, I lost my hold. I cried out to the carpenter to catch me, and I barely saved myself by the sail flapping on the windward yard arm or main top sail. – Elam Luddington “An Autobiographical Statement of Elam Luddington”
Elam Luddington wrote that reefing the sails was one of three times he almost lost his life. What did this actually look like? In discussing this passage with Jonathan Vega, an experienced sailor, touring the US Sloop of War Constellation in Baltimore, and consulting John Harland’s Seamanship in the Age of Sail, the conclusion is that Luddington’s description is too vague to determine exactly what happened. However, can we rule out anything or come up with a few possible scenarios?
A gale of wind is a strong forceful wind typical on the Atlantic especially as the northern and southern winds merge off the coast of New England but can occur anywhere along the way to Europe. According to the Beaufort Wind Force Scale, a gale of wind on a scale of 0-12 occurs between the score of 7-10 just before “Storm”. In a Moderate Gale between 32-38 miles per hour, trees will sway. In a Fresh Gale of between 39-46 miles per hour, twigs break and walking is impeded. In a Strong Gale between 47-54 miles per hour chimneys and slates are damaged. In a Whole Gale of between 55-63 miles per hour, trees fall and there is considerable damage.
Large brigs turn sideways to the wind to reef the sails to prevent wind from pushing against them. This creates a windward and a leeward side of the ship and yard (the arm that holds the sail). Men climb up to the sails on the shroud or lattice and then hang on their waists along the yard. They reef the sail or take it in using ties which are attached to the sail. They don’t completely tie up the sail when reefing because keeping the sail out provides some balance against the wind compared to not having a sail at all. This is a dangerous occupation and given to the lower ranked crew members.
What Could have Happened?
Now we return to Elam. The leeward yard arm was the most dangerous side from which to reef the sails because the gale hit the windward side causing the ship to tilt. The men on the leeward side of the yard arm, therefore, could potentially be hanging over the ocean. The tricky part about Elam’s description is that he says he barely saves himself ‘by the sail flapping on the winward yard arm or main top sail’. Does that mean he is on the windward side of the ship or could he be on the leeward side? What did this look like?
There are several points to consider. If he is on the windward side of the vessel he would presumably be dangling over the ship. If he believes he could have lost his life he could have been high enough that the fall would prove fatal or the location of his fall may have been uncertain. The complicating factor is that the ship could have been swaying dramatically which precludes any definitive position windward or leeward.
He could also have slipped from the leeward side catching hold of a flapping sail from the windward side. He does not state, however, that he actually caught hold of the sail. The sail could have broken a fall. It seems likely that he must be either near the mast on the windward side or on the leeward side since a sail flapping from the windward side would blow away from him if he was on the outer windward side of the yard. Again, he could fall from a higher location down and caught the flapping sail as well. If he was on the leeward side catching hold of a windward flapping sail, did he swing at all across the boat as his weight pulled the sail down? Or were the winds so powerful he stayed horizontal?