Voyages in old sailing ships were long and lonely. The sea was vast, and empty for days at a time. What must it have been like to see a hazy blob on the horizon that might have been a sail, and to watch it get bigger and more distinct. At last, another ship! Euterpe diarist Joshua Charlesworth wrote that "you can't possibly have a prettier sight than seeing a ... ship with all sail set, her tall mast bending to the breeze, cutting the dark blue waves with her prow & leaving a long white streak of foam in her wake."
But passing ships were much more important to voyagers than the pleasure of seeing a beautiful vessel and watching her sail by. Those were the days before radio, and the sight of a ship meant communication. It meant contact of a sort with other travellers after days of vast emptiness all around. It meant checking up on each other, reassurance that all was well. It sometimes meant being able to swap messages and letters and supplies. There was time to write letters on sighting a ship on the horizon because it took a while for the space between two ships to close.
Sometimes, on the regular routes where the traffic was steady, there might be several sightings, always greeted with tremendous excitement by passengers and crew alike. There was competition too. Another diarist reported that they "overtook a barque today, the Mary Bowen of Swansea. and had the pleasure of leaving her behind". My mother remembered being told stories of her father and both grandfathers racing their clipper ships between ports.
Ships depended on signal flags for "speaking" to each other, unless they were passing close enough for the crews to call across. George Lister described the process when one evening they saw coming towards them the masts and spars of a large steamer. "As she came nearer we observed through the ship's telescope that in addition to the white ensign at the peak, which proved her to be a British Man-of-War, she had also signal flags flying below, representing the letters GCVJ."
The signal code book revealed that the ship was the Tenedos, a twelve-gun screw steamer, and a signal flag "conversation" began. The captain ordered the Euterpe's letters VPJL to be hoisted, thereby introducing herself. The Tenedos asked "where from?" to be answered with "London 20 days out". "Where bound" came next, and Euterpe replied "Canterbury" followed by "please report us well". The Tenedos promised to do so and wished Euterpe a pleasant voyage. "We thanked her" Lister wrote, "and saluted her by dipping our ensign three times. The distance at which we passed each other was probably about 5 miles, and our gallant ship was no doubt reported all well the following day at Plymouth or some other Channel port."
As Longfellow so eloquently put it, "Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing; only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness".
Photo courtesy of Mike Wood Photography - thanks again