2007-07-03 / Sam Bari

Moonrakers, Godbotherers, and Angel Whispers

You can't beat a system you can't understand
By Sam Bari

Independence Day is upon us; the tall ships have left Narragansett Bay and sailed into the sunset, leaving us with memories that will last a lifetime. Powered by the wind, those finely engineered craft have legacies that represent everything exciting, adventurous, and romantic. Their voyages to the far corners of the globe to distant and exotic lands bring meaning to the word freedom.

The following story is really a yarn passed down over generations about two of the finest tall ships to ever sail the seven seas. It was inspired by a discussion between two brothers about sails and their names. Whether the tale has any credibility, I have no idea. Even our crack research team, the Googlamaniacs, could find little to support its validity.

I choose to think about it as one of thousands of entertaining stories told by sailors during long nights on faraway oceans and embellished by many bottles of rum. Keep in mind it is a yarn, no more and no less, but an entertaining yarn it is, and who knows - it could have really happened.

During the nineteenth century, man was learning to conquer nature. It was an age of invention, with the introduction of steam power, the telegraph, and canal building. It was also the age of the fastest sailing vessels in history - the legendary clipper ships.

The clipper ship was the epitome of speed at sea. As many as five masts were seen on some clippers, and sails were crowded on all of them, wherever they could be made to draw air. To make these fast ships even faster, above the courses, topgallants and royals, sails never before seen began to appear. The first of these additions to the traditional sail inventories, above the royals, were the skysails. Then, the even higher moonraker was added for an extra boost of power. But that was hardly the end. Even loftier sails were brought into play to make one legendary clipper faster than any sailing ship in history.

Although the historical record is a bit fuzzy, possibly due to divine intervention to remove a certain ship from human memory, the story allegedly happened this way:

The year was 1854, and Captain Judas Pariah of the clipper ship, Shameless Hussy, intended to set the new sailing record from New York to San Francisco. However, in order to accomplish this feat, he had to best the most famous clipper ship of all time, the Flying Cloud.

The Cloud was a legend in its own time. She set the record for the New York to San Francisco run in 1851 by making the voyage in a mere 89 days. Then, in 1853, she beat the world-renowned clipper ship Hornet by nearly two days.

"About the Flying Cloud," wrote nautical historian and author David W. Shaw, "It was all the more unusual because its navigator was a woman, Eleanor Creesy, who had been studying oceanic currents, weather phenomena, and astronomy since her girlhood in Marblehead, Massachusetts. With her husband, ship captain Josiah Perkins Creesy, she logged many thousands of miles on the ocean, traveling around the world carrying passengers and goods. In the wake of their record-setting transit from New York to California, Eleanor and Josiah became instant celebrities."

In those days, having a woman on board a merchant ship, let alone in the crew, was unprecedented and highly suspect amongst most seafaring men. Nonetheless, legend has it that Captain Pariah challenged Captain Creesy to the alleged race of the century.

Once under way, Captain Pariah ordered all sail crowded on from the courses to the skysails and moonrakers, but that was not enough; they still weren't pulling ahead of the Flying Cloud, which also left New York harbor on that frigid January morning in 1854.

This was an ocean race between the world's two fastest clippers, and Pariah knew that second place would not be significant. More than profit was at stake; this was a contest for glory and honor, a prize worth dying for in the nineteenth century.

However, the Shameless Hussy allegedly carried a closely guarded secret onboard. Before leaving port, Captain Pariah had bare poles installed above the highest named sails known to clippers, and he realized that now was the perfect time to write a new chapter in the history books of sailing. So he ordered the hands to bend on additional sails that he called Angel Whispers and Godbotherers - the highest sails ever flown on any ship

A satisfied smile spread across Pariah's face as the heaven-piercing canvas swelled and the Hussy planed off, leaving the Flying Cloud blinded in her spray.

The sailors on the Cloud watched in dismay as the Hussy shot over the horizon, but when they arrived in San Francisco 89 days later, there was no word of the Shameless Hussy. She was never seen again.

Perhaps there is a limit to God's tolerance for man constantly getting up His nose, but we shall never know for sure. To this day, the Flying Cloud holds the record for sailing 'round the Horn, and no ship since has tried to tempt God's wrath by mounting any canvas above a moonraker.

Consequently, Angel Whispers and Godbotherers are no longer part of that system we can't understand.

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