It is funny in history how the most mundane can end up shaking the very foundation of western civilization. Long before our high-tech insulated clothes of today, a seaman’s very survival against the savage harshness of the seas all depended on a garment called the dreadnought. A thick woolen coat, it protected captain and sailor alike. If you wore the garment, you ‘feared nothing’ from the elements. Even today, the British Navy wears the dreadnought and it has even become stylized into British fashion wear for both ladies and men.
Years later in the early twentieth century, this same garment’s name was applied to the mighty British warships that had huge guns on their decks – they, in effect, proclaimed they ‘feared nothing’.
But long before the name was applied to those iron warships, it was applied to Newburyport’s most famous clipper ship built at the Currier-Townsend Shipyard. Her daring and determined Captain, Samuel Samuels, carefully oversaw her construction and was committed to making her one of the fastest sailing ships on the sea.
After she was completed, she was brought down to New York to become a packet ship. A packet was a high-speed currier ship that was built not so much for cargo capacity but as for speed to get parcels and people to either side of the Atlantic as quickly as possible. Dreadnought would run from New York to Liverpool on the presumption that she could outrun and shoot ahead of all ships even the earlier versions of the steamer ships. Her first run became the stuff of legends.
While other ships would hove to (to bring the ship’s head to the wind, and stop her motion), the ‘Wild Boat of the Atlantic’ would be seen with every sail unfurled speeding against the gale force winds. It was said that as long as Captain Samuels was at the helm, she never cut her sails or turned away from her chosen route. She held a speed record for a sailing vessel of nine days and seventeen hours which has not been beat even today.
When people talk about a clipper ship, they often refer to the Dreadnought. In the mid-nineteenth century, she was a celebrity. Poems and tributes were made to her. She was attributed to be the fastest of the clipper ships and heartily promoted by statements from her captain, “She possessed the merit of being able to bear driving as long as her sails and spars would stand” which generated nicknames of her such as the Flying Dutchman. She would often slip into Liverpool way ahead of other ships – her Captain often boasting that if she did not arrive at the agreed time, he would forfeit his share of the profits from the cargo.
Today, October 6th, marks the anniversary of her launching into the sea in 1853. Believe it or not, the massive running beams that guided her into the Merrimack River are still visible today making it easy to visualize her massive shape laying just east of the present Merri-Mar Yacht Basin Store in the center of what is now a paved parking area.
Most of Newburyport and even our visitors who arrive via the Chain Bridge rush past the bottom of Ashland Street not noticing the uniqueness of this location. This was the sight of the Dreadnought’s construction, the Currier-Townsend shipyard. It later became the Hatheway Boatyard.
This highlights a wonderful ‘outsider’ from Lawrence, Walter J. Lesynski. Part of the ‘Greatest Generation’, he served in the Navy Seabees during World War II. His battalion built landing strips, hospital stations and bridges for the Navy and the Marines in Hawaii and the Philippines. He worked later at the Portsmouth Navy Shipyard and began his long standing love affair with the U.S. Coast Guard and the sea.
After the war, he married his wife, Ruthann, he sought for a place where he could combine his love for the sea with an opportunity to ‘drop anchor’ and start their own business.
He then purchased the Hatheway Boatyard, refitted it, and called it the Merri-Mar Yacht Basin. One of his first acts after he became established was to create the Dreadnought Memorial in 1959 directly in front of where the historic ship had been built.
The plaque reads:
Mr. Lesynski passed away last year February 27th, 2011 at the age of 92, surrounded by his close friends and families. But he did not just create a memorial, he was also one of the founding members of the Newburyport Harbor Commission and was a strong advocate for the Coast Guard and the volunteer Coast Guard Auxiliary and the Custom House that preserves our maritime history. He was also a strong advocate for the historic preservation of the Downtown and especially for the waterfront. You can see his picture and read the amazing full story of his life in the Daily News.
He will be sorely missed. He believed and practiced, “Linking the past with the present and future” that is now the Preservation Trust’s slogan. He lovingly maintained the Memorial so that people would not forget the significant history that occurred at this spot.
Next time while travelling along Merrimac Street, slow down just a bit and take notice of the Dreadnought Memorial and then look up and glance at the Dreadnought in all her glory on the Merri-Mar Yacht Basin Sign. Remember Newburyport’s famous ship and the great man who adopted our city and would not allow us to forget our history.
PS. Don’t forget to obtain your tickets for the Black-Tie Affair this coming Saturday at the Custom House. Last year’s Black-Tie event was an incredible experience and all indications it will be that way this year! For more information, click the link below: http://www.customhousemaritimemuseum.org/calendar/?page_function=detail&event_id=200