'Ship in Distress' Sails Into History Books

The Savannah, painted by British maritime artist John Stobart
The Savannah, painted by British maritime artist John Stobart

by Ray Setterfield

June 19, 1819 — A ship with smoke billowing from her was spotted distantly off the coast of Ireland on this day causing the vessel Kite to be despatched to the rescue. But to the amazement of the Kite’s officers, the ship thought to be in distress turned away as the rescuers drew near.

This, in fact, was no ship in distress; it was a ship in triumph: the Savannah had set sail from Savannah, Georgia, on the first successful trans-Atlantic voyage (partially made) under steam propulsion.

The voyage, which lasted 29 days and 11 hours, came at a time when such crossings were made exclusively under sail.

But although originally laid down as a sailing vessel, the Savannah was also fitted with a steam engine and paddle-wheels. Admittedly, these were employed sparingly on the voyage – being used to drive the ship for only 80 hours in her 29-day voyage.

Nevertheless, history had been made and one newspaper declared: “Visionary Yankee ingenuity has stolen a march on British Empire sea leadership and at the same time has blazed the way toward a new means of travel between the Eastern and Western hemisphere.”

The US Government was quick to join in the celebrations. According to a Joint Resolution of Congress that month: “On May 22, 1819, the steamship Savannah set sail from Savannah, Georgia, on the first successful transoceanic voyage under steam propulsion (sic), thus making a material contribution to the advancement of ocean transportation.

“Therefore be it resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that May 22 of each year shall hereafter be designated and known as National Maritime Day, and the President is authorised and requested annually to issue a proclamation calling upon the people of the United States to observe such National Maritime Day by displaying the flag at their homes or other suitable places and Government officials to display the flag on all Government buildings on May 22 of each year.”

And so they do – to this day.

PS: Not to be outdone, in 1838 two British steamship companies sent rival ships – the SS Great Western and the SS Sirius – to New York within a few days of each other, both completing the crossing under steam power alone.

Published: May 20, 2019

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