Thomas W. Lawson (ship)

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Thomas W. Lawson on her maiden voyage in 1902
Thomas W. Lawson on her maiden voyage in 1902.
Career (U.S.) 100x35px
Name: Thomas W. Lawson
Namesake: Thomas W. Lawson
Owner: Coastwise Transportation Co. (John G. Crowley), Boston
Route: US East coast coal trade;
in 1907: transatlantic voyage to London
Ordered: June 25, 1901
Builder: Fore River Ship & Engine Building Co., Quincy, MA;
Naval architect: Bowdoin B. Crowninshield
Cost: $248,000 construction, total costs with oil cargo in 1907: ~$400,000
Yard number: 110
Laid down: November, 1901
Launched: July 10, 1902
Christened: July 10, 1902
Completed: August 1902
Maiden voyage: September 1902 via Philadelphia to Newport News, VA
Reinstated: 1906 as a tanker for oil in bulk
Homeport: Boston, MA
Fate: sunk in a storm within the Isles of Scilly on December 14, 1907 with the loss of 17 men out of 19 including pilot
Status: wreck
Badge: none; no figurehead
General characteristics
Class and type: seven-masted steel gaffschooner
collier, later on case-oil tanker and bulk-oil carrier (1906)
Tonnage: 5,218 GRT / 4,914 NRT
Displacement: 13,860 ts (at 11,000 ts load); 10,260 ts (at 7,400 ts load)
Length: 475 ft (145 m) (overall)
394.3 ft (120.2 m) (on deck)
369.25 ft (112.55 m) (btw. perpendiculars)
Beam: 50 ft (15 m)
Height: 189.25 ft (57.68 m) (keel to masthead truck)
155.5 ft (47.4 m) (main deck to masthead truck)
Draft: 28 ft (8.5 m) at 7,400 ts
35.33 ft (10.77 m) at 11,000 ts
Depth: 36.5 ft (11.1 m) (depth moulded)
Depth of hold: 32 ft (9.8 m)
Decks: 2 continuous steel decks, poop and forcastle decks
Installed power: no auxiliary propulsion; donkey engine for sail winches, steam rudder, generator
Propulsion: wind
Sail plan: 25 sails: 7 gaff main sails (No. 1 to 6 of equal size, spanker sail of larger size), 7 gaff topsails, 6 staysails, 5 foresails with 43.000 sq ft (4,000 m²) [46,617 sq ft (4,330.86 m²)] sail area
Speed: 16 knots (29.632 km/h)
Boats and landing
craft carried:
three lifeboats and captain's gig (stern)
Complement: max. 18
Crew: 1902: 16; 1907: 18 (captain, engineer, 2 stewards, two helmsmen (1st & 2nd mates), 10 to 12 able seamen)

The Thomas W. Lawson was a seven-masted, steel-hulled schooner originally planned for the Pacific trade, but then used primarily to haul coal and oil along the East Coast of the United States. Built in 1902, the ship holds the distinction of being the largest schooner and the largest pure sailing vessel (without an auxiliary engine) ever built. Larger sailing vessels, but with an auxiliary engine for propulsion, were the French and German five-masted barques France II  (1911) and R. C. Rickmers  (1906) respectively.

The Thomas W. Lawson was destroyed off the uninhabited island of Annet, in the Scilly Isles, in a storm on December 14, 1907, killing all but two of her 18 crew including the pilot who was already aboard ship.

Development and construction

Designed by naval architect Bowdoin B. Crowninshield (famous for his fast yachts) for Captain John G. Crowley of the Coastwise Transportation Company of Boston, Massachusetts, the construction of the Thomas W. Lawson was contracted to the Fore River Ship and Engine Company on June 25, 1901. At a cost of approximately $250,000, the Thomas W. Lawson holds the record of being the only seven-masted schooner, the only seven-masted sailing ship in modern time (see Zheng He's Treasure Ships), the largest schooner, and the largest pure sailing vessel, in terms of tonnage, ever built. Her design and purpose was an ultimately unsuccessful bid to keep sailing ships competitive with the steam ships that were becoming more common for freight transport purposes. However the ship's underwater hull was too large and its sail area was too small for good sailing properties, and a reduced load capacity from 11,000 to 7,400 long tons (see below) made working to capacity impossible, and cut the expected profits.

Launched on July 10, 1902, the Thomas W. Lawson was 395 feet (120.4 m) in length (lod = length on deck), contained seven masts of equal length (193 feet (58.8 m)) from which 25 sails (7 gaff sails, 7 gaff topsails, 6 topmast staysails and 5 jib sails (fore staysail, jib, flying jib, jib topsail, balloon jib) encompassing 43,000 square feet (4,000 m²)) of canvas would power her. Originally painted white the ship's hull appeared in black later on. The naming of her masts was always a subject for some discussion (see external link "The Masts of the Thomas W. Lawson"). In the original sail plan and during construction named (fore to aft): 'no. 1 to no. 7', no. 7 being replaced by "spanker mast" later on. The names of the masts changed then to: 'fore, main, mizzen, spanker, jigger, driver, and pusher' at launch and to: 'forecastle, fore, main, mizzen, jigger, and spanker' after launch. Later on a lot of different naming systems were formed, e.g. 'fore, main, mizzen, rusher, driver, jigger, and spanker' or 'fore, main, mizzen, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, and no. 7', the naming preferred by the crew (which incorporated a possible misunderstanding between "fore" meaning "foremast" and "mast no. four"). Even a naming after the days of the week was discussed with the foremast being named "Sunday" and the spankermast "Saturday".

The ship consisted of a steel hull with high bulwarks and a double cellular bottom 4 feet deep and used 1,000 tons of water ballast. She displaced 5,218 gross tons of water (10.460 tons at 7.600 ts cargo load), could carry nearly 11,000 tons of coal, and was operated by a crew of 16 to 18 including captain, engineer, two helmsmen, and 2 stewards. Due to the low depth of the eastern ports except Newport News, VA, she could not enter them with her maximum load. As a result, she carried a reduced capacity of 7,400 tons in order to reduce her working draft. She had two continuous decks, poop and forcastle decks, a large superstructure on the poop deck including the captain's rooms with fine furniture and leather seats, the officers' mess and rooms, card room, and a separate rudder house. On the main deck were two deckhouses around mast no. 5 and behind mast no. 6, as well as six main hatches to access the holds between the masts. Two huge steam winches were built in under the forecastle and behind mast no. 6. on the main deck. Smaller electrically driven winches were installed beside each mast. The exhaust for the donkey engine boiler was horizontally installed. All seven lower steel masts were secured by five (foremast: six) shrouds per side, the wooden topmasts with four shrouds per side to the crosstrees. The two ship's stockless anchors weighed five tons each.


The ship was named for Thomas W. Lawson, the "copper baron", a Boston millionaire, stock-broker, book author, and President of the Boston "Bay State Gas Co." at that time.


File:Schooner Thomas W. Lawson 1902-1907 (loaded, later period).jpg
Deeply loaded in Boston Harbor, hull painted in black; photo taken in 1906 or 1907.

Often criticized by marine writers (and some seamen) and considered difficult to maneuver and sluggish (comparisons to a "bath tub" and a "beached whale" were made), the Thomas W. Lawson proved problematic in the ports she was intended to operate in due to the amount of water she displaced. She tended to yaw and needed a strong wind to be held on course. Originally built for the Pacific trade, the schooner was used as collier along the American East Coast. A year later in 1903, Crowley withdrew her from the coal trade. He had the topmasts, gaff booms and all other wooden spars removed and had chartered her out as a sea-going barge for the transportation of case oil. In 1906, she was retrofitted for sail at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company for use as a bulk oil carrier using the lower steel masts to vent oil gasses from the holds. Her capacity was 60,000 barrels. Under charter to Sun Oil Company, she was the world's first pure sailing tanker, carrying bulk oil from Texas to the eastern seaboard.


In 1907, the Thomas W. Lawson was under charter to the Anglo-American Oil Company (part of Standard Oil) and set sail on November 19 from the piers of Marcus Hook Refinery (20 miles south of Philadelphia) to London with 58,000 barrels of light paraffin oil. Two days before leaving the new captain George Washington Dow had to hire six new men to the crew because six other seamen had quit their jobs due to payment problems. Those new men weren't able seamen and some didn't speak fluent English. Leaving the mouth of the Delaware river the large schooner set course for England under fair weather conditions. But the following day the weather turned considerably worse. The ship was not sighted for more than twenty days during its first transatlantic journey which was quite horrible in extremely stormy weather. With the loss of most of her sails, all but one lifeboat, and the breach of hatch no. 6, causing the ship's pumps to clog due to a mixture of intruding seawater and the engine's coal in the ship's hold, the schooner reached the Celtic Sea north west of the Isles of Scilly. On December 13, entering the English Channel, she mistakenly passed inside the Bishop Rock lighthouse, the westernmost one in Europe, and her captain anchored between the Nundeeps shallows and Gunner's Rock, north-west of Annet island, to ride out an impending gale, refusing several requests of St. Agnes and St. Mary's lifeboat crews to abandon the ship. Captain Dow trusting in his anchors only accepted the Trinity House pilot Billy "Cook" Hicks from St. Agnes lifeboat who came aboard at 5:00 p.m. on Friday 13. Both lifeboats of St. Agnes and St. Mary's had to return to their stations because of an unconscious crewman on the former and a broken mast on the latter. They cabled to Falmouth, Cornwall for a tug which couldn't put to sea, unable to face the storm.

During the night around 1:15 a.m. the storm increased, her port anchor chain broke, and half an hour later the starboard anchor chain snapped close the hawsepipe. Left to the mercy of the raging seas the pounding schooner was smashed starboardside on against Shag Rock near Annet by tremendously heavy seas after having grounded the dangerous underwater rocks. All seven masts broke off and fell into the sea with all seamen who had climbed up the rigging for safety on their captain's command. The stern section broke apart behind mast no. 6, drifting off the capsizing and sinking ship. In the morning light the ship's upturned keel could be seen near the reef from which the wreck slid off into deeper water later on. 16 of the 18 crewmen and the Scillonian pilot Wm. "Cook" Hicks who was already on board having climbed up the spanker rigging for safety were lost, captain George W. Dow and engineer Edward L. Rowe from Boston being the only survivors probably because they managed to get on deck from the rigging and jumped into the sea before the ship capsized. Both were lucky in being washed to a rock in the Hellweathers, to the south of the wrecking site, to be rescued hours later on without having received serious injuries. Despite wearing their lifebelts, the other seamen died of the thick oil layer, the smashing seas, and the schooner's rigging that had drowned so many of the crew including the pilot. Four dead bodies were found later on - those of Mark Stenton from Brooklyn, cabin boy, and of two seamen from Germany and Scandinavia, and that of a man from Nova Scotia or Maine, furthermore some bodies without heads, legs or arms which couldn't be identified. They all have been buried in a mass grave in St. Agnes cemetery.

The broken up and scattered wreck lies 56 ft deep on position 49 53' 38" N (lat.) and 6 22' 55" W (long.) and can be visited by scuba divers under calm weather conditions. The broken-off stern with the spanker mast lies a few hundred yards southwest.

See also

  • Preußen the largest square rig pure sail ship ever launched


Further reading

  • Hall, Thomas S., The T. W. Lawson - The fate of the world's only seven-masted schooner. Scituate, MA (2005).
  • Hall, Thomas S., The T. W. Lawson - The Fate of the World's Only Seven-Masted Schooner. The History Press, Charleston, SC, (2006). ISBN 159-629208-3
  • Hornsby, Thomas, The Last Voyage of the Thomas W. Lawson. Publ. in the 'Nautical Research Journal' Vol. 5 (1959), pp. 53-59, 61, illust.
  • The Western Weekly News: DISASTER AT SCILLY - American Sailing Ship Lost. Hugh Town, Scilly Isles, December 21, 1907
  • Rodd, Peter, Wreck of Thomas W. Lawson. Publ. in The American Neptune Vol. 29, Salem (1969) pp. 133-138.
  • Coughlin, W. P., The Last Voyage of the Thomas W. Lawson. (1964).

External links

Coordinates: 49°53′38″N 06°22′55″W / 49.89389°N 6.38194°W / 49.89389; -6.38194

de:Thomas W. Lawson es:Thomas W. Lawson (barco) fr:Thomas W. Lawson (voilier) ru:Томас У. Лоусон