For centuries, lighthouses have help to guide mariners in all corners of the earth, and to avoid the hazards of the near shore and rocks and reefs out to sea. But in spite of these stalwart bastions, and the dedicated men and women who kept their lights and fog signals strong in both clear skys and in the foulest of weather, many a ship still foundered on the rocks and sandbars. It wasn’t always the result of poor seamanship. Sometimes the gales were just too strong, particularly in the days of sailing ships.
The John C. Hanna, sailing out of Liverpool, England, was but one of these ships overpowered by the winds of an October blow. The year was 1859. The Hanna was headed for Portsmouth, New Hampshire, with a load of coal from the mines of Wales, and had been making good time. Three days from her destination, Captain Marcus Macauley found his ship unexplainably becalmed. Not unusual in the doldrums of summer, nor in the more southerly latitudes, this was most unusual in the North Atlantic. Captain Macauley was rightfully proud of his record of making port on time, and so he was concerned, but knew full well the old adage, “If you don’t like the weather, wait a few moments!” He was sure this unusual situation wouldn’t last.
Three days later, the ship had hardly drifted a mile closer to the New England coast. Captain Macauley sent his crew out in two longboats to try and tow the ship forward. This was heavy work, and in short order the crew was exhausted and had only progressed another mile or so. They put the ship’s anchor in the longboat and played out the chains, then winched the ship to the anchor. This too was exhausting work, and resulted in little coastward progress. There was only one other solution the captain decided. They would pray for some wind. Gathering his crew about him on the main deck, Captain Macauley called on them all to bow their heads as he prayed. He thanked the Good Lord above for all the blessings that had up to then followed him and his crew and his ship on this and other voyages. He prayed and he prayed and he prayed some more. Finally, he finished with a brief reminder that he never asked for much, but if the Lord could see his way to send them just fifty cents worth of wind, they would all be eternally grateful. “Amen,“ said the Captain. “Amen.” repeated all of the crew. With that the Captain took a half-dollar coin from his pocket and threw it far out over the rail into the calm waters.
Nothing happened, or at least nothing happened right then. When Captain Macauley and his crew awoke the next morning, the sky was darkening and the clouds were building. By noon there was a slight breeze from the North East. By eight o’clock they were moving west at a furious clip. By midnight they had to reef in the mainsails. By ten o’clock the next morning, in spite of the new lighthouse on Boon Island, and the one at Portsmouth, the John C. Hanna was hard aground on the rocky shores of Southern Maine.
The crew was rescued, but the cargo and the ship were beyond salvation, Local residents gleaned much of the coal from the rocks and beaches over the next several winters. Captain Macauley, a bit the worse for the experience, would go on to master many another ship across the oceans, but he had learned something important here. “If I had known that wind was so cheap,” he told his rescuers, “I would only have asked for a quarter’s worth!”
[ Fiction by John T. (Jack) Graham, Lighthouse Volunteer and Storyteller. “Buying the wind,” is an old, old theme, and variants of this tale are found in the folk literature of almost all nations whose ships ply the seas. ]