On Decem­ber 14, 1907, a large sail­boat was wrecked off the coast of Annette in the Isles of Scil­ly, killing almost all of the crew and caus­ing the world’s first major oil spill at sea. Thomas W. Law­son’s wrecked ship was an incred­i­ble ves­sel.

Lawson's great sailboat

Thomas W. Law­son was the world’s largest sail­ing ship, that is, a ship with­out an aux­il­iary engine, and the only sev­en-mast­ed schooner. She was built by the epony­mous cop­per baron Thomas W. Law­son for the sole pur­pose of show­ing the world that a sail could still be com­pet­i­tive in the age of steam.

I also advise you to read a his­tor­i­cal essay on the sail­ing ships of the world in a sep­a­rate arti­cle.

Launched on July 10, 1902, the Thomas W. Law­son was 144 meters long and had sev­en masts almost 60 meters high each. There were 25 sails on board, the total area of ​​the can­vas was 13,100 square meters. It had 5,218 gross reg­is­ter tons, a car­ry­ing capac­i­ty of 11,000 tons, and was manned by a crew of 18, where­as a steam­er of the same size would require up to fifty sailors. This became pos­si­ble because the work of sailors was facil­i­tat­ed by var­i­ous mech­a­nisms. The schooner did not have an engine, but was equipped with a steam steer­ing engine, steam winch­es, an elec­tri­cal sys­tem, and even a tele­phone net­work.

Thomas Lawson

With a full load, the draft of Thomas W. Law­son was 9 meters. It is curi­ous that at that time there was only one port in the Unit­ed States capa­ble of receiv­ing such deep-sea ves­sels — New­port News in Vir­ginia. As a result, her car­ry­ing capac­i­ty was reduced to 7,400 tons in order to accom­mo­date her in more ports. Even with a reduced load, the Thomas W. Law­son was so large that it was dif­fi­cult to maneu­ver and was slow, had a ten­den­cy to yaw, and need­ed strong winds to keep her course. Sailors com­pared the ship to a bath­tub, or a whale washed ashore.

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huge sailboat

The Law­son was orig­i­nal­ly intend­ed to lay coal routes on the east coast of Amer­i­ca. But at the begin­ning of the 20th cen­tu­ry, there was a strong demand for oil, so the sail­boat was sold to Anglo-Amer­i­can Oil Co, and at the New­port News & Dry­dock ship­yard in 1906 she was con­vert­ed into an oil tanker with a capac­i­ty of 60,000 bar­rels, which makes her one of the largest tankers afloat in that time.

Inter­est­ing arti­cle: The his­to­ry of the old­est sail­ing ship in the world — USS Con­sti­tu­tion

On Novem­ber 19, 1907, Law­son sailed from the Mar­cus Hook refin­ery piers 20 miles south of Philadel­phia for Lon­don on her first transat­lantic cross­ing with 58,000 bar­rels of light paraf­fin oil. Dur­ing the voy­age, Law­son encoun­tered sev­er­al storms that destroyed all but one lifeboat and most of her sails. Despite the dam­age, the schooner reached the Celtic Sea north­west of the Isles of Scil­ly. On Decem­ber 13, she entered the Eng­lish Chan­nel in the hope of weath­er­ing the storm. Cap­tain George Wash­ing­ton Doe, con­fi­dent that the ship would sur­vive the storm, cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly refused the help of the two near­est ships.

bow of the ship

Char­lotte Dor­rien-Smith recalled: “The cap­tain did not give dis­tress sig­nals and said that he did not con­sid­er him­self in dan­ger. With his tack­le, he could have weath­ered any storm on the Amer­i­can coast, but, alas, not here.”

The next night, the wind reached 90 miles per hour and broke the ship’s anchor chain. Left to the mer­cy of fate by the rag­ing sea, the schooner crashed on a rocky shore near Annette and cap­sized. In the morn­ing light, the ship’s upturned keel could be seen near the reef from which the wreck had slid into deep­er water. A thick lay­er of oil prod­ucts from the hold of the ship accu­mu­lat­ed on the sur­face. Of the 18 peo­ple on board, only two sur­vived the sinking—Captain George W. Doe and Engi­neer Edward L. Rowe. All whose bod­ies were found were buried in a mass grave in the ceme­tery of St. Agnes.

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See also: The most pic­turesque ship­wrecks


The bro­ken and scat­tered remains of the Thomas W. Law­son now lie north­east of Shag Rock at a depth of 20 meters and can be vis­it­ed by scu­ba divers in calm weath­er con­di­tions. One of the anchors is now built into the out­er wall of Bleak House on Broad­stairs, the for­mer home of Charles Dick­ens.

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