New York Sailing

Three Months at Sea

Our day of aircraft insulation, high speeds, and low risk travel is light years from a three month sea voyage in a slow leaking wooden vessel.  While it may be difficult to fully fathom this ocean journey, remembering a few aspects of life at sea uncover its imminent danger.

  • No control over speed.  The maximum distance that Levi Savage records is 310 nautical miles while the minimum distance is 14 nautical miles a few days later.  While they could harness the wind, they couldn’t create it.
    • Nautical miles are measured in degrees of latitude therefore the length of a nautical mile varies depending on how close the ship is to the equator.
  • Illnesses.  Both Levi Savage and Richard Ballantyne become infected with Small Pox while visiting friends, relatives, and collecting for their missions in San Francisco.  Two points are interesting to note:
    • Small Pox killed hundreds of thousands of Europeans every year until in the 19th Century vaccinations helped slow its spread.  The virality of this disease on a ship where no one could leave was extremely contagion.  Savage records that not many were willing to even feed them.
    • Savage also points out that if the symptoms had arisen earlier he would not have been allowed aboard ship, the fear of the disease was so great.
  • Water/Food for the journey.  This is not simply an inflight snack and you’re set.  Three months of food without refrigeration was not a simple pantry item.
    • How did they solve it?  Passengers brought their own food aboard and live animals took up some room between decks.
    • Fresh water could easily become contaminated.  Fresh rain and lightly fermented beer were safer to drink.
  • Friends or Rivals.  Between where they began their voyage to where they landed, their success depended on foreign powers and hospitality in an age when even communication about world events was slow.  Less port stops reduced the concern of rival contentions.  Hoisted flags signaled a ship’s purpose to others.
  • Something to Do.  At an average speed an adult could cross a long voyage ship of the 1850s ranging from 200 to 325 feet long in two minutes.  That’s about the length of a string of cars exiting a basketball game or three average sized homes in a neighborhood.  The ships were anywhere between forty and fifty feet wide or at least a fourth of the ship’s length.
    • Without a lot of places to escape, in other words, engagement with each other was inevitable.  And, it’s not surprising that the missionaries annoyed or even snarked at each other from time to time.
  • What to Write about?  Normally prolific writers didn’t have as much to write about on the voyage.


But what they did write is fascinating.

Source: Savage, Levi. Journal. Vol1, 1852. Courtesy of Mormon Missionary Diaries. Harold B. Lee Library Digital Collections. Accessed on 12/5/2013 pg43-85

Source: Landstrom, Bjorn. The Ship: An Illustrated History. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1961. pg 197

Source: Harland, John. Ill by Mark Myers. Seamanship in the Age of Sail: An Account of the Shiphandling of the Sailing Man-of-War 1600-1860, Based on Contemporary Sources. London: Naval Institute Press, 1984.


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One Response to Three Months at Sea

  1. Helen Horton 6 December 2013 at 1:02 pm #

    I’ve flown across the Pacific, from the US to Asia, a number of times. It’s a very long flight. Can’t imagine traveling by ship, especially taking my own provisions for such a long journey. These guys have my admiration.

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