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A Reconstruction of The Independence

By Bob Sexton

Background information
The first intimation that a vessel had been built on Kangaroo Island came from Isaac Pendleton’s report in the Sydney Gazette of 8 January 1804. While the New York sealing brig Union wintered there for upwards of four months in 1803, Pendleton had built a 30-­ton schooner named the Independence

An account of her construction was given in a letter carried to King George Sound by the Independence, and the information was incorporated into his "Voyages Round the World" by Edmund Fanning, one of her owners. The forests on the island provided excellent timber which was hewn and sawn into planks by the ingenuity of the first officer, Daniel Wright, assisted by the armourer and the carpenter. Sails and rigging as well as other materials available from the brig were used in the building of the 40­ton schooner. 

According to an editorial in the Hobart Town Gazette of 12 June 1826, this ‘very handsome schooner’ was built of the ‘pine tree peculiar to the island. This timber resembles red Spanish timber and contains turpentine’. Callitris1 (shown at right) is still very common on the sandy shores of American River. 

Sydney port returns noted that the Independence was a 35­-ton schooner with no guns and a crew of six to sixteen [Historical Records of Australia I, 5:120, 263, 640, & 641]. An even greater number, twenty ­two, were on board for the voyage to the South Antipodes [Sydney Gazette, 16 Mar. 1806]. 

Reconstruction
There is no direct evidence about the build of the Independence. As tender to the brig, she would have been employed taking gangs of sealers from point to point on shore, and collecting skins for transfer to the Union. A handy vessel with good sailing qualities is thus called for. The despatch duties such as the voyage to King George Sound, for which Fanning says the Independence was actually constructed, suggest the need for a fast sailer. Fanning himself had built a fast­ sailing shallop2 at South Georgia several years earlier for servicing gangs of sealers. On the other hand, her carrying capacity must have been reasonable because she went off alone on a sealing voyage while the Union proceeded to Fiji for sandalwood. It therefore seems quite likely that the Independence was built on the pilot­ boat model common in small American schooners, fine­lined yet with a fairly full midship section, and a type with which the sealers would have been quite familiar. 

There are a number of features that seem necessary to fit out such a craft as a sealer’s work­ boat in remote and rough seas. Pilot­ boats spent much of their time cruising in wait of incoming ships, and might then be left in the charge of one man. It was found adequate to provide them with low bulwarks, formed by a plank bolted on edge around the deck, unstayed masts and simple rigging, and sufficient accommodation for just a few men who as pilots were nevertheless of some rank. The Independence probably had more substantial bulwarks, a windlass and catheads to handle whatever anchors were available from the Union, more spacious accommodation for up to twenty ­two men on board, although superior accommodation for officers calls for greater headroom in a cabin aft, and a hatchway large enough to take the casks of salt stolen from the vessel in Sydney [Sydney Gazette, 29 July 1804]. To the usual fore and main sails, fore staysail and main-­topmast­-staysail of the pilot­ boat can be added square topsail, gaff topsail, and jib as well as shrouds and stays to fit the vessel for general deep­ water use. The mainyard would have been steadied when being lowered by being secured to a wooden thimble running on a rope horse on the fore side of the mast [Chapelle, "The Search for Speed Under Sail", p. 58]. A parrel line3 passing behind the mast and through a pair of thimbles on the yard and leading down to deck could be tautened to restrain the yard while under sail, and remained aloft draped over the gaff when the yard was lowered. There may have even been a square foresail set running from this yard.

With regard to the size of the Independence, the tonnages must be examined in relation to proportions typical of pilot ­boats. One such that may well be contemporary was the ‘Virginia Pilot Boat’ figured by Steel in his "Naval Architecture" of 1804 [Pl. XXV]. This was 56 feet on deck, with a moulded beam of 15 ft 3 in, close that is to the typical three and a half beams in length of a schooner. Pendleton reported that he had built a 30-­ton schooner, but when the vessel actually arrived at Port Jackson, she was entered as 35 tons. Pendleton would have used United States Custom House measurement, subtracting an arbitrary fore­rake of three ­fifths the extreme beam— say 14 feet—from a length aloft of 47 feet to obtain the keel length, multiplying by beam and by an actual hold depth of say 5 ft 3 ins, and dividing by 95 to get 29.9 tons with these dimensions. The Naval Officer, insisting perhaps on re-­measuring a vessel arriving without papers, would have used the British style of measurement. Here the length was measured to the heel of the keel, thus reflecting a stern rake of say five feet, and was also further reduced by three ­fifths of beam. The resulting keel length was multiplied by the beam, and by half the beam which was arbitrarily adopted as being the depth, and the divisor was 94, giving the official 35 tons. The forty tons claimed by Fanning seems to have been an exaggeration.

Editor's notes:
1. Callitris wood is one of the hardest and densest of the softwoods. It is exceptionally resistant to decay and termites and is therefore widely used in ground-contact applications, such as fencing and flooring. Aboriginal Australians used the wood for many purposes, including, spears, spear throwers, ceremonial objects, paddles and music sticks, and the bark has been used to make rope.
2. A shallop is a light sailing boat used mainly for coastal fishing or as a tender.
3. A parrel line is a rope with with balls threaded onto it that is attached to the ends of the gaff jaws and rolls along the mast as the gaff is raised and lowered to reduce friction.