The voyage of the stalwart little ship 'Detroit'

The Detroit would travel 6,000 miles across the ocean in 1912 to make a point about the safety of marine travel.

B The Titanic disaster in the north Atlantic in Feburary of 1912 stunned the world. A ship so great seemed to make the ocean seem small, no big deal to cross, especially by such a magnificent vessel.

ut after the tragedy, fear captured ocean travelers, causing reservations on ocean liners to plunge.

Enter Detroiter William E. Scripps, son of Detroit News founder James E. Scripps, who decided to try to return confidence to travelers. Not coincidentally, his Scripps Motor Company produced engines. The marine gasoline engine was fairly new in 1912, and its possibilities had not been fully explored. Scripps figured if a gasoline-powered boat could cross the Atlantic –specifically, from Detroit to St. Petersburg, Russia — it could only help business.

Scripps, who was also commodore of the Detroit Motor Boat Club, which would disband in 1916, dabbled in the exciting new industry that made aircraft, automobiles and motorcycles. He ordered a sturdy ocean-worthy craft to be built by Scott Matthews from the Matthews Boat Company in Port Clinton, Ohio.

The finished ship, named Detroit, would exceed the strength of any of comparable vessel then afloat. But it in no way matched the huge Titanic.

Trip sponsor William Scripps, left, poses with stern-looking Capt. Thomas Fleming Day before the voyage.

    At 35 feet long and 10 feet at its widest, it looked like a lifeboat. The deck was broken into three distinct sections, raised forward and aft and depressed amidships. A spruce spar rising 24 feet above deck carried the 240-square-foot sail, and a 16-horsepower gasoline engine built by the Scripps company provided the power. It drafted 5 feet and had a loaded displacement of 14 tons. On board, five stainless steel tanks held 960 gallons of fuel. Below the crew’s bunks were water tanks holding 300 gallons.

The boat launched June 25, 1912 at Port Clinton. However stalwart, Commodore Scripps would not take the cruise himself, choosing New Yorker Thomas Fleming Day to captain the vessel. Captain Day, 50, affectionately called “The Old Man” and occasionally called “tuffernhell,” had already crossed the Atlantic Ocean in June 1911 in a 25-foot yawl, the Sea Bird.

On June 26, The Detroit News sports page displayed a photo of Scripps and 11 others in straw hats on the Detroit, inspecting it just before launch at Port Clinton. Scripps and a few other club members were to cruise the vessel to Detroit to the Detroit Motor Boat Club.

In Detroit the ocean crew of four would stock up from city stores because it was to represent the city in every way. It would also get clearance papers for the trip.

Day gave a short speech before the launching. “In years gone by I must admit that I was prejudiced against shipbuilding away from the seaboard and in the Middle West, but let me tell you this little boat is perfect in every detail and could not be better constructed.

The ship leaves New York, heading for the open sea.

“With ordinary precautions we hope to make this trip without accident of any kind and again prove to the world the navigation of the ocean in a small boat is not dangerous; that it is even safer than traveling on the great liners with their proneness to meet with disaster.”

However, just in case, Day would be prepared. The News continued: “Skipper Day is a great believer in the use of oil on the water during heavy storms. To obviate the use of sponge and pail he has two pipes leading down to the water line from a feed tank. In this manner he can use as little or as much of oil soother as he needs.”

Unlike today when oil spills constitute a tragic situation, in those days it was believed that oil deliberately spilled on troubled waters soothed the seas and smoothed the water’s surface, giving safety to small or large ships.

The boat named Detroit visited the city of Detroit July 2 before setting off through the Great Lakes, the Erie Canal and the Hudson River. On July 12 it took on gasoline at New York City and began its ocean crossing.

The crew consisted of “green hands,” according to Day, who would later write a book about the trip. The mate was Charles C. Earle, a 21-year-old recent Harvard graduate whom Day had known since he was a boy. Detroiter Walter Moreton, the chief engineer, was 29 and had never sailed on the ocean. William Newstedt was the second engineer and mechanic.

In his book, Day sang the praises of Earle, “a born sailor,” and Moreton, “plucky, good-natured, always on the job.” But he could not bring himself to even mention the name of Newstedt.

“I am sorry to say, (he) turned out worse than useless,” Day wrote. Frightened and sea sick, he lay down and refused to work. “I coaxed and cursed him, to no avail.”

The trip was gruelling. Day said he remained on deck for up to 36 hours straight without a rest. Meals were eaten standing up, out of packages or cans while the men held on to the boat with their elbows or legs.

During the trip, hunger, thirst, and constant “holding on” plagued the small crew. When the sea allowed, they took turns resting below. Day insisted that they sleep lying flat to rest the spine.

The chill required Day wear five shirts, vest, coat and rain coat, and still he felt the weather. When the sun came out they all shed a few layers to enjoy the warmth.

The low mid deck was constantly awash, the sea breaking in on one side and out the other. The water was ankle deep, and the crew had to constantly wear rubber foot gear.

After a few days, the captain gathered a large pail of hot water, plenty of soap and towels, and enjoyed his first shave. The mate refused to follow suit, much to Day’s disgust.

“Dirt and whiskers are exceedingly depressing. The dirtier I get and the more whiskers my chin and cheeks exhibit the more depression takes charge of me. The spirit of the hobo liveth not within me,” Day wrote in the flowery style of the day.

He continued to try to shave for the rest of the voyage. “What made it so disagreeable was that your face and hair were encrusted with salt, and this salt worked into the pores of the skin and burned like pepper. It was especially bad in the corners of your eyes, making them sting. The salt clung to your hair like icicles on a sheep’s back, and matted it together. But all these things were forgotten after sticking your head into a bucket of warm water and sousing around a bit.”

The day that Day shaved remained in his memory as “one of the happiest days of my life.”

Besides movement and salt, noise plagued the crew.

“That we could hold no pleasant conversations was one of the main drawbacks on Detroit. It was impossible to converse except by shouting. I kept my ears stuffed with cotton wool and in this way could hear what was said, but with open ears it was impossible to catch a word unless it was yelled. How we used to welcome the hour when for a few minutes the engine was shut off for a look over and the hideous uproar ceased!”

Last port: The Imperial river yacht club at St. Petersburg, Russia.

    Day bemoaned the lack of an efficient engine muffler. “Had we had this device on Detroit it would have added greatly to our comfort.”

Nonetheless, Day marveled at the speed of the boat, which he estimated could travel 144 sea miles per day. “What suprised me most of all that an engine which looked no bigger than a couple of hat boxes turned upside down could drive such a heavy hull at the speed it did.”

When they encountered the liner Amerika sailing west from Southampton, it seemed like a six-story building. About 2,000 people lined up from stem to stern, talking and shouting and taking pictures.

The small boat came alongside and hoisted the signal, “Report me to the New York Herald.” The report would be transmitted to Scripps and printed in The News for interested Detroiters following the voyage.

Amerika‘s captain informed them that they were 1,000 miles from Queenstown, Ireland. He also offered to give them pails of water, which they had no place to store. He had no bottled water.

Detroit attorney George M. Black was on the liner and later told The News, “It was a common report on board, after the Detroit had passed on, that the Amerika’s commander called it ‘Yankee impudence’ on the part of the little motor boat to stop the liner. However, none of the passengers felt that way. They were pleased, and had a lot of fun in conversing with the members of the small boat’s crew.”

During the latter part of the voyage, Day mused about the old vessels beneath them, wrecked years ago, slowly decaying in the silt thousands of fathoms below.

“Think of all the timberdroghers that have dropped out of sight in this stretch we’re sailing over,” he wrote. “You don’t see so many of those ragged, rotten hulks wallowing across nowadays.”

Day recalled, “What horrible tales are the tales of men rescued from these cargo-borne wrecks. Remnants of crews picked off after days, weeks, and even months of suffering. Clinging to the deckhouse or lashed in a top, the hull awash … and slowly breaking up, each gale leaving her in worse shape to weather another blow.”

Nevertheless, despite his detailed fears, the little ship reached Queenstown,, Ireland Aug. 7 after an ocean crossing that took 21 days, 16 hours. They had endured continual rain and wind, but no severe storms.

They entered the harbor and spotted a small sailing craft.

Capt. Day called out, “Send us a man to pilot us in.”

“What’ll ye give?” came back the reply.

“Never mind what I’ll give. Come alongside.”

“All right, sir… Where ye hail from?”

“New York, America,” they replied, not exactly accurately.

“From Amerikee in that one? Ah! Yez are brave boys. It won’t cost ye a penny. Jump aboard an’ take ’em in, Danny.”

The Irish had not been expecting the boat but delighted upon hearing the story. Word spread and a dozen Irish newspapermen came to hear their story. The Royal Cork Yacht Club and the local dignitaries led the festivities. And Day satisfied the newspapermen with stories they made much more exciting than accurate.

The Detroit visited a few more ports, and wished to visit more, but the weather acted up, and they needed to go on to St. Petersburg, where they landed safely on Sept. 13.

Quotes from Day’s book, “The Voyage of Detroit” describe the triumphant entry into the Russian city:

“Sunday was gloomy and still raining, but the procession formed and with Detroit leading, we made our way up the Neva. The quays and bridges swarmed with people; the papers said 50,000 assembled to see the boats. They cheered and waved hats and handkerchifs, the Imperial’s yachts and steamers dipped their colors, and I lifted my hat until my arm ached in response. What struck Detroit’s crew was the number of uniforms in the crowd; at least every other man was in uniform. This did much to brighten up the scene.”

Day praised the little ship, “the wonderful work of the engine I have spoken about several times. It certainly established a fresh record for this type of power, and has done much to assure men of its dependability for long ocean passages. No doubt many small craft will follow Detroit’s track, and may they all have as safe and successful a passage.”

Day thanked Scripps for having built and sent the craft. “The thanks of the yachtsmen of the world are due. He has given the sport a big lift in popular favor, and opened to the future yachtsmen a wide field of endeavor and pleasure, which they will unquestionably take advantage of. The effect of the voyage on European yachting is already manifest. I have just heard from Holland that they are to have a long ocean race for power craft this summer, the result of Detroit‘s visit to their country.”

However, Day did have one regret about the trip. He wished that patron Commodore Scripps had gone with them.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News.)
By Vivian M. Baulch / The Detroit News