Sometime in the mid-1760s, Sir Thomas Asquith contracted with a noted Boston shipwright, Benjamin Hollowell, to build a fast schooner, a relatively new type of ship that was gaining in popularity. She would serve in trade and as his personal yacht. He named her Sultana.

Hollowell laid her keel in 1767, but sometime after the she was completed, Asquith seems to have changed his mind about the best use of the ship. Soon, he sent a crew aboard the ship to England, in the hope that the British Admiralty might take an interest in her as a revenue ship.

Parliament had recently passed the Townsend Acts, which were designed to enforce the payment of duties upon such imports to the colonies as lead, paint, paper and—of course—tea.

These aroused a great deal of opposition among American merchants, especially as the British began using its fleet to enforce the policies. In 1773, Ben Franklin responded by writing “Rules by which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One.”

In it, the Philadelphian spoke hypothetically about how a government would “scour with armed boats every bay, harbor, river, creek, cove or nook throughout the coast of your colonies; stop and detain every coaster, every wood boat, every fisherman, tumble their cargoes and even their ballast inside out and upside down, and if a penn’orth (penny’s worth) of pins is found, let the whole be seized and confiscated. Thus shall the trade of your colonists suffer more from their friends in time of peace than it did from enemies in war. …Oh, this will work admirably!”

Sultana would prove an ideal ship for such nasty business. It arrived at the Royal Navy Yards in Deptford, outside Greenwich, England, where Asquith’s crew offered her to the Crown. Admiralty surveyors, in March of 1768 found that she “has the character of being a good Sailor… Appears well wrot & put together… a proper vessel fit for purchase to His Majesty’s service.”

In accordance with regulations the British Admiralty set down in 1750 calling for a full set of inked plans or “draughts” for every vessel captured or purchased, she was carefully measured and a set of drawings made. The Sultana became the smallest vessel for which the admiralty kept records.

At her measurement June 21, 1768, tidy little Sultana was found to be just 50'6" in hull length, with a maximum width of 16 feet 3ž4 inch, a depth in hold of 8'4", and by measured volume her cargo capacity was 52 tons. This in itself is not enough to build a plausible replica of the ship, but in addition to the surveyor’s detailed written report, a set of lines was taken.

These drawings are a series of vertical and horizontal cross sections through the hull, enabling the actual shape of the ship to be understood and replicated.

Because of those drawings, and the determination of two men—John Swain, president of Swain BoatBuilders in Millington, and his friend, Drew McMullen—the Sultana sails again today. A replica of the Revolutionary-era vessel, based in Chestertown, MD, is a floating “Schoolship of the Chesapeake” that helps almost 5,000 students a year receive lessons in colonial history and Bay ecology while sailing on the schooner.

It’s one of more than 120 members of the National Park Service’s Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, which highlights sites of cultural, historical and natural significance around the Bay and its watershed.

The public is invited to tour the vessel when it is berthed in Chestertown for scheduled open houses.

The Sultana’s Chesapeake connection stems from its job, in pre-Revolutionary times, as part of the fleet so derided by Ben Franklin. She was sent to cruise waters of the East Coast, and from October 1769 to August of the next year she was in the Chesapeake, and her time there was among her busiest.

She stopped scores of vessels to examine cargo and documentation, logging ships from at least 13 ports, domestic and foreign. In July, she sailed up the Potomac, and moored near Mount Vernon where her officers, Lt. John Inglis and Master David Bruce dined ashore with none other than George Washington.

Virtually all of her papers have survived, providing an unusually close documentation of how a vessel of the period operated, down to the signing of crew members such as Prince Gould, whose ancestors had been brought from West Africa and enslaved. The documents also note that many others chafed under the navy’s rigorous discipline and deserted.

Upon this pedigree of thorough information and detailed plans, Swain, a modern shipwright, helped to create a nonprofit organization in Chestertown, Sultana Projects, which sought to create a ship to benefit the community and teach young people about the Chesapeake Bay.

This proved a major undertaking, but was one of the most successful efforts of its kind. The keys, John Swain told Woodenboat magazine were teaming up with project manager McMullen, a superb shipyard crew who taught volunteers to do 60 percent of the actual construction, and Joyce Huber Smith, who donated significantly and stimulated others to raise the $1 million it took to launch Sultana.

Six farm owners in Kent, Queen Anne’s and Cecil counties in Maryland donated more than 250 rot-resistant Osage orange trees from which the schooner’s ribs were hewn. To approximate the original brick fireplace in Sultana’s galley, handmade bricks of Chestertown clay were fired at Colonial Williamsburg using a process similar to the one used to make the original ship’s bricks.

One particular challenge was reproducing the brass door fixtures, which were popular for only the first 20 years when the schooner was built.

They have done an admirable job; the saddest thing for the participants, Swain said, is that the job is all finished!

The public can join Sultana for one of her public sails, scheduled out of Chestertown or from selected ports around the Bay, but her focus out on the water is upon children, the generation of hope for this greatest of U.S. estuaries.

It was a busy spring day for the ship as Capt. Jaimie Trost and mate Chris Westlock were girding themselves for one such group—a full-capacity boarding party of 8-year-old boys from a school near Annapolis. All—busy and curious as raccoons—were shepherded by a couple of harried adults, and were mustered on the dock and given the lecture of shipboard safety and discipline.

Megan Gatsby has been with Sultana for a good part of the ship’s two-year career, and this kind of group was not a chore for her. Eyes sparkling, she reveled in this gaggle of eager young minds and the many pairs of willing—if inexpert—hands tailing on a halyard to hoist the ship’s huge gaff mainsail.

Gatsby scurried up the ratlines and aloft, completely at ease on Sultana’s foretop, and loosed the square topsail.

The topsails on fore’ and main’ were designed to give the schooner the speed to overtake merchantmen in light winds, but on this day, visitors got a lesson in how far modern sailing craft have evolved in two and-a-third centuries. Despite Trost’s best efforts, a fleet of light, fiberglass class racing boats came out of Annapolis Harbor from behind and simply slid by, ghosting along in the faintest of breezes at twice the speed of Sultana, which weighs 80 tons.

Captain Trost chided the crowd of interested boys on his quarterdeck over their intrusion on this hallowed ground, sacred to the skipper alone on 18th century naval vessels.

After the boys were put at ease and attentive, he cast his chip log to reckon Sultana’s speed, as it would have been done aboard the original. The chip is a triangular board, ballasted so it floats upright but nearly submerged, something like a wooden parachute which resists being towed through the water. Attached to this is a light line, which is allowed to run off a spool, as the ship sails away. The run of this log line is measured by knots passing through the hand of an assistant, while a small “hourglass” (more like an egg timer) runs for a period of 28 seconds.

The knots are 8 fathoms (48 feet) apart and the number passing the observer’s hand is the ships speed in “knots,” a measure still used on ships to reckon speed today. Fractional knots are measured by the number or portion of six-foot fathoms between knots when the little glass runs out—as in “four knots, six fathoms, sir.”

This morning was a sultry one for Sultana and the boys. “Are we moving?” one asked. “No,” another responded.

Actually, the Sultana was ghosting along toward Tolly Point. Her biologist crew deployed a plankton tow, (unheard of in the 18th century) a conical net with fine mesh to strain out the microscopic crustaceans which form the food chain link between plant or phytoplankton and young fish and shellfish.

A trawl seine was also drawn across the Bay’s floor in search of some of these small fish. The tiniest wriggling critter delights children unfamiliar with marine life, and offers Sultana’s interpreters an opportunity to make those linkages which adhere indelibly to young minds.

Sultana was one of the earliest schooners built in North America, and schooners subsequent to the original Sultana were to undergo a long evolution and become the backbone of U.S. commercial sail during much of the 19th century. (See “Past is Prologue: History behind sugar trade, Chesapeake not always sweet,” July-August 2003.) Schooners were designed, built and put into trade throughout the Chesapeake Bay, and continued so right into the 20th century.

Today, Sultana ranges the Chesapeake, not as a vessel of commerce, personal yacht or patrol ship, but on a dual mission, one of which is to serve as an ongoing boat building program that keeps those woodcrafting skills alive in addition to her focus on the Bay’s resources.

Long may she prosper in that work.

More Info:

The Sultana sails the waters of the Chesapeake Bay each year from April through November and offers several types of one-day, under-sail programs that focus on the history and natural environment of the Chesapeake Bay.

On one-day programs, participants—students or adults—develop team-building skills and work at various learning stations above and below deck.
The public is invited to visit the Sultana when it is berthed at Chestertown for open houses. Contact the shipyard at 410-788-5954 for the schedule.

Directions: From the west, take Route 50 East across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to Route 301 North to Route 213. (From the south, Take Route 50 West to Route 213 North.) Follow route 213 over the Chester River Bridge into Chestertown, where the Sultana docks at the waterfront.

For information, e-mail education@schoonersultana.com or call 410-788-5954, or visit www.schoonersultana.com

To learn more about Schooner Sultana and other sites in the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, visit the latter’s web site at www.baygateways.net

To learn more about the Sultana, or schooners in general, check out:

  • “Schooner Sultana: Building a Chesapeake Legacy” by Drew McMullen Tidewater Publishers, MD.
  • “Chesapeake Bay Schooner” by Quentin Snediker and Ann Jensen, 1992, Tidewater Publishers, MD.
  • “The History of American Sailing Ships” by Howard I. Chapelle, 1935, W.W. Norton & Co., NY.