“The Cape Horn route around South America is one of the most dangerous nautical passages in the world. Both sailors and passengers fear it because of the many sailing mishaps that have occurred there… Due to the violent weather in the Cape Horn area, sailors navigated this route only with the greatest of apprehension. These hazards became well known to sailors in the 18th century as this route came to be sailed more often. The waves in this area often reached heights of over 65 feet. There are also an average of 200 days per year with gale storms and about 130 days per year with heavy clouds. Most of the rest of the year the winds are strong and the waves are high. As a result, there were frequent shipwrecks in the Cape Horn area during the 18th and 19th Centuries.”[from: www.essortment.com/perilous-cape-horn-16725.html]
The following is shared in The McComas Saga: A Family History Down To The Year 1950, Compiled by Henry Clay McComas, Assisted by Mary Winona McComas, 1950, and transcribed by Barbara Bache Chalmers, March 2009.
“Certainly it would seem that we should know a great deal about a certain ‘Captain Courageous’, Henry Gough McComas; for all who are his grandchildren, knew and loved his wife and we are also the offspring of those two boys and daughter to whom he so often refers to as ‘G.W., Little Hen and Bell’…. I can still remember my grandmother describing him as a man who was as broad as he was tall, but who had ‘the most beautiful brown eyes’ and once or twice she remarked that he was the ‘black sheep’ of the family; but she had loved him all her life.”
One of the most picturesque figures on our family tree, he navigated the smallest ship that had gone around the Horn in his day, a job that called for a Captain and two mates and which he accomplished alone with six sailors. Here is what we know about him:
“Henry Gough McComas was born Oct. 23rd 1816, in the little house that his father William had on High Street. It was just two years since his uncle had been shot at North Point. [This story will follow in the days to come.] Here he lived for two years, when the family moved to the other side of town. All the homes he lived in as a boy were within easy walking distance of the long rows of sailing ships ties up to the wharfs. They must have been the most interesting things in Baltimore – flags from all over the world hanging from their masts. Strange and interesting cargoes came out of their holds. Sailors! What a group of enchanting characters they were! All sorts of languages could be heard on the streets near the vessels. Any small boy could hear tales in that part of the town that would make the Arabian Nights seem drab. True, the environment left something to be desired with its dirty dives, its horribly drunken tars… to say nothing of the thievery and the bloody fights. One could get an education there.
In strong opposition to the influence of the Sea, must have been the influence of his mother. Ellen Fort McComas was a positive character and a very intelligent woman. Somehow or other, she saw to it that Henry got a good education for his time… Of one thing we may be sure, he must have had a good drilling in mathematics and navigation.
It seems that at about 16 years of age, he left home and went off to Sea. Of course, there were many boys of his age and younger in the old wind-jammers at that time. Some sort of duties were given them before the time that they could ship ‘before the mast’ and become able bodied seamen.
What voyages he made and what hardships he endured during these early years, have left no record. Had he prospered sufficiently to embark upon matrimony? Here is a statement that comes down the years from his wife. There was a little party being held in Harford County and she remarked, ‘I am going to marry the best looking man who comes to this party.’ Then she selected the young sailor who probably had gotten his ‘shore legs’ by that time. Undoubtedly he did not know what was happening to him, probably thinking that he was using a good deal of judgement in selecting a wife. At that time, he was 24 and she was 28. However this affair started and developed, they certainly were deeply in love with each other through out all the years of their lives.
…The Captain had seen about every great city in the world. Fifty acres of Gresham’s Colledge must have looked rather minute compared with what he had been seeing… Whether we like it or not, there are men who cannot adjust themselves to the hum-drum life of most occupations. Perhaps the old Captain represented a throw-back to the old Viking spirit. No Viking ever made as long and hard a trip as he did around Cape Horn in [1849/50].
He was married May 7 1840 and may have lived in Harford County for a few years, as it seems that his children were born there in an old stone house on Gresham’s Colledge, where their ancestors had lived. However, in 1846, we find letters to his wife that she was living in a house at the corner of Pine and Baltimore Streets. At this time, he was making voyages along the coasts of North Carolina and Georgia. Just what his journeys were, we can only infer from the addresses on the letters he received. In January, he was in Norfolk, Virginia, in February he was in Elizabeth City, North Carolina; in April and August of that year, he was in Savannah, Georgia. From those letters, it would seem that he was master of a ship and could plan her trips and select her cargoes.
Some time later in 1847, he appears to be engaged in making trips to Europe, for now we find his wife’s letters being sent to New York to be delivered to him aboard ship. From the letters, it would seem that he had recently come from London and was waiting for his ship to make a return voyage to Europe…
In 1849, occurred the great Gold Rush to California. Evidently, the Captain wanted to improve his finances and was thinking about a voyage to San Francisco around the Horn in 1849, when his wife declared she would not follow him out there. [Within the year, in the summer] he did make the trip.
At least 20 ships left Baltimore in one year, loaded with provisions or men, going to the Gold Fields. I understand the Captain sold some of his property to put into a little ship… this little vessel was a 100 hundred ton ship named the ‘George Washington’. This is the smallest vessel that ever rounded the Horn and the feat was considered a very daring one. She was laden with the sort of things that miners might need. According to my Uncle, there was a group of men interested in this enterprise. The ship was not very sea worthy and the men put as much insurance on the vessel and the cargo that they could obtain. According to my Uncle, they were betting that the little ship would not make the trip and they would get their profit from the insurance.”
The book “‘Fifty South To Fifty South’, by W.M. Tompkins, gives a picture of a small schooner… and her trip around the Horn a few years ago… he had a vessel comparable to the George Washington… Captain Tompkins had made many long trips sailing in ships. He constantly carried in the back of his head the idea that some day he must attempt the passage around the Horn. Says he, ‘A man who loves the Sea and ships can aspire to no more searching test than a Horn passage. It is the last word in the lexicon of sailor men. There Nature has arranged trials and tribulations so ingenious that in the van of all synonyms for sea cruelty and hardships it is the iron bound Cape Horn.'”
When Captain Tompkins finally made his voyage around the Horn, he “had an ample crew of experienced young men who knew all the tricks of the sailor’s trade. When a gale ripped his mainsail, three young men had room enough on their craft to haul it down, haul up a substitute and in despite of the cold, sew up the long rip. I cannot see how Captain Henry could have met such an emergency. Then too, [Captain Tompkins] had enough men in his crew to serve the ship while their companions were getting rested for their turn. Captain Henry had only six [inexperienced men] and the hardships were so terrible that two of these died at sea. We must envisage this stocky man, about five feet four tall with a chest like a barrel managing the navigating, directing and helping his crew by day and by night. We note that at one time the going was so bad that he had some thoughts of turning back. We also note that he didn’t do it.
…Though we willingly concede the necessity for good judgement and experience in this enterprise, I think that nearly everyone finds his admiration based on something else. Consider some of the features of that voyage. On the 4th of July, the salt water had frozen to the depth of two feet on the deck. Ice must have been thick in the rigging. How a sail could be raised, lowered or reefed is a mystery. This condition persisted for two month when the wind from Westward kept beating them back. That means they had to tack against a head wind and the sails had to be adjusted to the ship’s course. That this could have been done with only one man on deck, is a most remarkable achievement…
It is nothing short of outrageous that our family did not get a long description of the Captain’s voyage. In it were materials that would make an epic. How he returned from California, by land across the continent, or by sea and that hazardous trip across the Panama Canal, we have no idea. That is a shame. Either trip, we know from records of those days, would have to be full of strange experiences, exciting adventures and some description of the country and the conditions of that romantic period.
All that we do have is [a] letter written from Valparaiso as his little ship had at last quit her violent rolling and plunging and was steady enough to write…”
Stay tuned for PART 2, including this fascinating letter, coming to this blog for the next Mariner Monday.