Converted to an oil tanker in 1906, the Thomas W. Lawson became the first pure sailing tankship; it also created the first major oil spill.
The Thomas W. Lawson was an extraordinary ship. It was the world’s largest pure sailing ship, the only seven-master ever built, and garnered notoriety by creating the world’s first major oil spill.
In 1901, a group of Boston investors decided to build the world’s largest sailing ship and rig it as a schooner, without even having an auxiliary engine. The ship was to be based in San Francisco and employed in the Pacific. However, during its construction, the economics of the U.S. East Coast coal trades had changed due to the railroads cutting their rates. Not wanting to be held hostage to the railroads, the investors contracted the naval architect B.B. Crowninshield to design their ship and the Fore River Shipyard at Quincy, Mass. undertook its construction.
Boston-based Coastwise Transportation Co., which was headed by John Crowley, became the ship’s owner and named it the Thomas W. Lawson, who was president of the Bay State Gas Co. and one of the financial backers of the venture. Costing $248,000, the ship began its maiden voyage in 1902.
Each of the Thomas W. Lawson’s seven masts were the same height, 125 feet. The logic of the schooner rigging was not without reason. The prevailing offshore winds along the East Coast meant that both the north and south bound voyages could be accomplished on a broad reach. This is the best point of sailing for a schooner. A schooner is easy to recognize as all the sails are set in a fore and aft direction and the upper edge of the main sails are supported by a spar, called a gaff. A majority of coastal sailing fleets on the East and West coasts at the time were comprised of two-, three- and four-mast schooners. (The Thomas W. Lawson carried 25 sails, seven gaff main sails, seven top sails, six top mast stay sails and five jib sails encompassing 43,000 square feet of canvas.) A major advantage of the schooner was the reduced number of crew required to operate the ship, especially on the larger schooners where a “donkey” boiler supplied steam for power to steer, raise the sails and handle the anchors. The crew of the Thomas W. Lawson numbered 16 to 18, whereas a square rigger or barque required twice that number.
When the Thomas W. Lawson entered the coal trades, the shipowner painted the hull black. This illustration shows the schooner laden with about 8,000 tons of coal.
The Thomas W. Lawson’s specifications were impressive. It was 403 feet in length, 50 feet in beam and 35 feet in depth. A cargo of 11,000 tons of coal on a draft of 28 feet was possible; however, it usually carried only 7,500 tons of coal due to the fact that most East Coast ports at the time had a limiting draft of 26 feet. The ship’s hull was built of steel and fitted with a four-foot cellular double bottom with two continuous decks. In many respects, the Thomas W. Lawson compared favorably with the Liberty ships that were built for war service 40 years later.
The ship’s first years proved quite profitable, however in 1904 the coal rates fell from a $1 per ton to 60 cents per ton. The Thomas W. Lawson, at the time, was chartered to the Sun Oil Co. as a seagoing barge, carrying cased oil from Texas to Marcus Hook, Pa. A seagoing tug towed schooner across the Gulf, but once hitting the Gulf Stream off Key West, Fla., it set its sails and regularly logged 14 to 16 knots along the East Coast. At this speed, the giant schooner left most steamships, whose average speed was 9 knots, in its wake.
This ship model of theThomas W. Lawson illustrates the deck arrangement of its hatches.
In 1906, the Thomas W. Lawson entered the Newport News Shipbuilding & Drydock Shipyard for conversion to an oil tanker. Cross bunkers, cofferdams and bulkheads were installed to conform with regulation. Upon completion, it became the world’s first pure sailing tankship, with a capacity of 60,000 barrels. Interestingly, the lower steel masts were used to vent the gases from the cargo of oil.
After a number of successful coastal voyages, the Thomas W. Lawson was chartered to the Anglo-American Oil Co. (an affiliate of Standard Oil) for a trip from Marcus Hook to London. In late November 1907, the ship loaded 58,000 barrels of lubricating oil. Fierce winter storms followed the entire crossing, making life on board for the crew and navigation nearly impossible. The ship lost most of its canvas and all three lifeboats. The winds and currents set the Thomas W. Lawson far north of its intended course. Recognizing the situation while rapidly approaching a lee shore, the crew put both anchors out awaiting the storms to abate. It was not long before the unrelenting westerly winds broke both anchor chains and the ship grounded on Heleweather Reef off Annet Island in the Scillies. Shortly thereafter, the rigging sagged, the masts swayed and the ship broke just aft of its no. 6 mast. Sixteen crewmen were swept overboard as the cargo of oil poured from the ruptured tanks. There were only two survivors from the wreck.
Thus, the Thomas W. Lawson became the first ship to experience a major oil spill. Ironically, 60 years later on March 18, 1967, the world’s attention was drawn to another tanker disaster quite near the sunken remains of the schooner. The giant tanker Torrey Canyon, which was carrying 119,328 tons of crude oil, ran aground and broke up on the same rocky islands, becoming the world’s then largest shipwreck and causing enormous damage to the environment. Today, the bones of these two exceptional ships lay almost together after each experienced their moments of fame.