The Marco Polo was, in 1851, the biggest ship ever to be built at the James Smith Ship Yard in St John, New Brunswick, Canada. With her going down the slipway were the hopes and dreams of her builder and the whole community.
Trouble started early in her construction when her completed skeleton under construction at Marsh Creek in St John was dashed about the boatyard by a massive storm. The pieces had to be gathered up and put back together. By April of 1981 she was launched, but not without a scare for all who watched.
At first there was difficulty actually getting her to slide toward the water. Once she started moving, there was literally no stopping her. She picked up speed and broke the check wires. Then an overloaded hawser and chain snapped. Once in the water, free of the slipway and moving quickly and out of control, she moved across Courtenay Bay. Stern first she hit a mud bank which caused her to swing around with the tide. When she finally came to rest it was discovered that several people on board had been injured by chains, barrels and other deck items that went flying when she abruptly stopped hard aground. It took five days of pulling and showing by many men in in smaller boats and the mercy of the tide to pull her free. It was discovered later that when the ship went over on her side and became stuck in the mud it twisted her hull. The uneven pressure from the weight of the ship caused the keel to become curved so it was 6 inches higher in the middle than at the ends. Marco Polo was refloated two weeks after launching and was registered on May 26, 1851 under the ownership of James Smith and his son, James Thomas Smith.
The old salt naysayers watching her being fitted out, predicted that the launch was an evil omen and that “She would never sail.” And, that she didn’t look much like a Clipper.
Originally the Marco Polo was intended to be a cargo ship. She was a medium Clipper with a bow made sharper than most Clippers of her time. She was wider amid ships with the idea in mind she could withstand she would be more stable and able to withstand more punishment form the seas than previous designs. Her masts were taller too. Marco Polo was a 184 feet 1 inch long with a beam of 36 feet. 3 in and a draught of 29 feet. 4 in. The ship had a hold depth of 30 feet Marco Polo weighed 1,625 tons. The ship was square rigged and fitted with the roller reefing system that allowed the sails to be reefed from the deck rather than have the crew go up into the sails. The vessel had three masts and carried up to 22,000 square feet of sail. Marco Polo was later reduced to barque rig in 1874.
Marco Polo was constructed of the best materials available. Enormous timbers wer used and careful formed and joined. Ventilation was provided to preserves the wood. The deck beams were of extra size pitch-pine baulks. Extra strong stern and stern frames were installed and with the best quality lodging knees.Up forward there was a poop deck used as a ladies cabin or home on deck. It was lavishly decorated with maple and ornamented glass panels. Decorations consisted of coins from various countries along with extensive ventilation and light. The upholstery was of crimson embossed velvet.
Ship builder James Smith built the Marco Polo with the full intention of sailing her to Liverpool, hosting an upside-down broom atop the main mast, as a signal to all that saw her that she was for sale. Despite the fact that her maiden voyage with a cargo of lumber got her to Liverpool from New Brunswick in just 15 days, it was not until her second trip to Liverpool that she was sold. Her second trip was from Mobile, Alabama. The buyer was James Baines of Liverpool who already owned several successful packets under the flag of his Black Ball Lines. Baines sensed that the recent discovery of gold in Australia would draw prospectors in search of a cheap passage to Australia. He converted Marco Polo to a passenger ship for service between England and Australia.
While they called it a Clipper, Marco Polo has some variations on the traditional Clipper design. Clipper Ships have long earned the reputation of being beautiful. When Marco Polo appeared, some called her “damn ugly” One pundit said she was “a great brick of a boat with a bow like a savage bulldog.” Actually. Marco Polo looked a great deal like a warship with her painted gun ports and angular stern. Very deep for her length, she was sharp as a wedge below the waterline.
As unusual a design for a clipper as she was, the Captain was an even more unusual choice. James Baines chose a skipper with a reputation. Marco Polo’s new skipper was a 32-year Scotsman name James Forbes. Even at the tender age of 32, he was quickly becoming a legend s a hard driving skipper noted for quick passages. Generally, skippers were older, but Forbes had made a name for himself shattering existing time records.
The Marco Polo sailed out of Melbourne on July 4th 1852 with 932 emigrants onboard.
The skipper had made the bold statement that he would get there in under 100 days. As the days went on her owner was concerned that he had not heard word that she arrived in Melbourne. Then to his complete surprise she arrived back in England having made it around the world in five months and 21days. When she arrived at Salthouse Dock, she carried a banner proclaiming “The fastest ship in the world.”
Forbes was a hard driving skipper and considered speed more important than passenger comfort. To get his way with seaman reluctant to push the ship too hard, he brandished a pistol. He is reported t
o have had confrontations with passengers and a record of 35 deaths on board due to small pox. Hard driving paid off with a ship that could handle it. Marco Polo made it out to Melbourne in 68 days. Some experts believe her accidental twist on the sandbar when she was launched added to her speed.
With all her high-speed glory there were some bad times for Marco Polo. In October of 1854, her skipper Charles McDonald beat his third mate and attacked another crew members. This led to the first of two munities. On Sept 17th 1863, some crew members broke into the liquor stores and drank the alcohol. In December of 1855 while under tow, Marco Polo collided with a barque then ran aground. In March of 1861, she hit an iceberg. In 1867 the ship was converted back to cargo service carrying cargoes which included guano, coal and timber. In a gale on July 22, 1883 the ship started taking on water and was run aground off Cavendish, Prince Edward Island. Here masts were cut down to keep the wind from pushing her further ashore. The cargo of water soaked lumber was offload and sold. But, to do so her beams had to be cut to retrieve the cargo. Then on July 22, 1884, a strong storm caused her to break apart leaving debris all along the coast. The pride of St John, New Brunswick, the “fastest ship in the world” was no more to roam the seas in record times. No more to have the wind in her sails or to feel the pound of her wooden planks against the angry sea. Might Marco Polo rest in peace.