October 12, 2017   Karen Higginson

From the May 1993 issue of 48° North by Hewitt Jackson

His Britannic Majesty’s Armed Tender (Brig) Chatham ranks high in the roster of honored ships prominent in the history of the Northwest American Coast. As consort of Captain George Vancouver’s Discovery, she played a slightly lesser but outstanding role in the discovery and first charting of Admiralty Inlet, Puget Sound and Vancouver Island and surrounding waters in the spring and summer of 1792. The following summers served to details the coasts of what is now British Colombia and Cook’s Inlet., Alaska and beyond.

Consequently she was of particular interest when research was being considered for a series of studies of the men and ships who led the way into our home waters. When one undertakes to provide a properly representative ship portrait,m or a highly detailed model of museum quality, it is essential to gather and consider all the available graphic material and data that ca be assembled for the purpose,It is no easy task; it is time consuming, expensive, and sometimes almost futile.

The Chatham was no exception though the effort required a somewhere in the middle range of such studies. The search for a reasonable portrait of the subject was quick and easy – but not very productive. She was shown in th background of the well-known engraving of the discovery on the rocks in Queen Charlotte’s Sound, and again, possibly, in a rendering of the South American port of Montevideo. In both cases she is only a very small portion of the picture, thus lacking in needed detail. Of the two, the one with the Discovery was the most rewarding, the engraving being done by Benjamin Pouncey, the foremost marine engraver of his time in England. Because of verifiable details, there is more than a reasonable supposition that he had seen the vessels after their return home.

The written data on the Chatham is brief in the extreme: “armed tender, of 135 tons burthen, built at Dover.” Period. We are somewhat better when it comes to description. Archibald Menzies, the naturalist on board, wrote from the Cape of Good Hope on 22 August 1791, “The Chatham was without doubt, the most improper vessel that could had been pitched upon. She draws 12-1/2 feet of water, and is scarcely the burthen of 120 tons; she has neither breadth nor length in the least reasonable proportion; where then is the fitness for rivers and shallows, which they say we are to explore? As you may conclude, we are very tender and for sailing we have not been a match for the dullest merchant vessel we have met with.” By August he had been at sea for several months – adequate time for him and his fellow in the afterguard to have formed a valid opinion of her.

A search for the Admiralty Collection of Draughts did manage to turn up some specific data, but only the deck and accommodation plans. They were well and precisely drawn in the standard 1/4” to 1” scale for both  Admiralty plans and models, and provided a great deal of information. Here we noted that the barrel windlass of the merchantman had been removed, though the bitts remained, and confirmed that a capstan had been mounted on the quarterdeck, which was standard naval procedure.

A further search was made for plans of vessels suitable for the service and agreeing with the known material at hand, several surveying vessels were found, but they were entirely inadequate for the distant voyage and the accommodations of the large crew and their stores for a passage of several years. Studying craft, brigs in particular that had been taken into a naval service as surveying and store ships, was more rewarding. The lines and details of the Duchess Of Manchester proved to fulfill Menzie’s critique. Remarks on other logs and journals of the voyage about the “tub” and “our chamber pot” gave me the material and confidence to proceed.

The incorporation of such material in to working drawings is long and tedious, requiring not only a practical knowledge of the ships of the period, but also a good background in wooden shipbuilding and rigging, and the drawing and lofting techniques of the naval architect and builder. I found my time at sea in working sail and an intimate familiarity with the vernacular of the sea and yard invaluable. Here is might be well to mention that as helpful as this was, there is no reason to believe that the same familiarity and knowledge can not be developed by a diligent study of properly selected material that is readily available today.

Rather than going in to this step by step, explaining many details, and expounding upon calculation and proportions, it seems much more to the point to present the preliminary drawings developed from the outlined sources. The Admiralty deck plans (viewed from above) were laid down as provided and them projected into a longitudinal section (interior side view). All other dimensions and materials were then sketched in. This allowed the construction of a mid-section of “dead flat,” a detail governing the general form of the hull.

Patience, trials, error and profanity consumed weeks of time. The Admiralty material, which dictated much of the hull form proved arbitrary and perplexing. In time a set of lines, plans and details emerged. A calculation of burthen derived from these fell well within the expected range for the Chatham.

The dimension were: length between perpendiculars (documented), 67’5”, on deck (measured), 72’0”, beam, moulded (inside plank and wales), 21’2”; depth of hold, 10’2”. The depth of hold, if measured from the main deck, would have been 16’. The draft of 12’3”, more or less, is from remarks, though being variable it was not given as a dimension during that period. The calculated tonnage was 117-10/95 tons.

These early projections show some details that were later refined or corrected. By the time the model was built, all that could be learned had been incorporated. A careful scrutiny of the drawings, paintings and the model of the Chatham will tell one much more than many pages of text written in the arcane jargon of the old time designer, shipbuilder and seaman.

The ship’s boats were an entirely separate endeavor, in many ways complicated because they were built ‘by rule of thumb’ by the bodybuilders in or near the Naval dockyards. The longboats would have been the largest carried and her overall length would have been determined by the space available on deck. A maximum of 19’ for the longboat would have been possible, the other boats proportionately smaller – woefully inadequate for the work that they did so admirably perform. It is remotely possible that a longer boat could have been carried ‘on the spars’ stowed on the gallows frames. There are known examples of this, such an increase in size would have been grossly inconvenient and a veritable brute to handle on board.

Recently there has been a growing interest in the various boating publications about historic boats, ships, models, and nautical museums. The question of suitable scale and size have been argued back and forth. In England our primary source for plans and data on the ships of our early period, the scale of the Admiralty Draughts were 1/4” + 1’ or 1/48. Most of their models were also built to this scale. From then only this has been both traditional and standard for museum work. It has the singular advantage of manageable size for display for the entire history of working sail. With related displays constructed to this scale readily comprehended comparisons can easily can easily be made. This should not imply  that model work of varying scale is not desirable as their are occasion where it is imperative.

The model building tradition in the America’s is more recent, the naval models projects being started by the Naval Constructor Wilson about the time of the Civil War. Various builders had made half-models prior to that and they varied greatly in scale. There is nothing to compare to the British dockyard models of the Collection of Draughts in our maritime history.

Model building in continental Europe was not developed to the extent of that in England, though there are many fine examples extant. Scale here is sometimes difficult to determine because of the great diversity in the kinds of units of measurement and the defined size of those units. Fixed standards were entirely lacking. It behooves us to remember that there was no standardization of weights and measure until about the fourth decade of the 1800s, after that is was slow in being adopted. The Metric system had been invented in France during the latter half of the previous century, though its use did not have practical or popular acceptance for some time.

In most recent publications on European ship models and plans, the data is given in the Metric system, this being a convenient way of reconciling all of the multitude of measurement in use at the time of origin. Many enthusiasts vociferously demand the adoption of the metric measure and a scale of 1/50 as a new standard. It’s admittedly close to the traditional, but would seem only to confuse the issue. They do not seem to be award that a fractional system was in sue throughout the centuries of model building and that a metric system would be an unwarranted intrusion in the field.

When it comes to the advocation of larger models, they do not seem aware of the problems of display and storage, of gallery space, building and budget. A forceful lesson came my way early in my career. Visiting at a well known institution of the Director was offered a huge painting of a famous local event. It was accepted with the proviso that it be permanently displayed. It took up a major portion of the available display and wall space and that gentleman’s successors have been trying for well over forty years to find a legal and gracious way to divest themselves of it. There is no virtue in mere size.