Today I’ve got a seafaring saga to share with you – the story of a four-masted Yankee schooner that was photographed while visiting New Zealand in the 1920’s. There are no pirates in this tale, but there is just about everything else. There are ghost ships, tempests and a mutiny. Also Nazis, sort of.
The photograph is from my private collection, found in an album of maritime related snaps that I picked up some years ago in an antique shop in Christchurch. I imagine that the original owner must’ve been a lighthouse keeper, or retired sea dog, as nearly every photograph is of a visiting ship, and while there are no dates each vessel has been lovingly named. Whoever took the snapshots must’ve loved the sea.
There are some warships, some steamers and some recreational yachts, but there is one vessel that stands out as odd – a four masted “Yankee Schooner” called the ‘Forest Home’.
I’m a sucker for tall ships and this one is no exception, she is an absolute beauty. However she does seem a little out-of-place. The age of sail was all but over in the 1920’s and fully rigged tall ships were becoming a rarity; and what exactly is a Yankee schooner doing hanging out in New Zealand waters anyway? There is a story here…I can sense it.
The Forest Home was built in Marshfield, Oregon. On 29th September 1900 the San Francisco Call published details of a reception that was held on the new vessel. The headline reads “Handsome New Schooner”. Handsome she was, but she wasn’t a pleasure craft – she was built for hard work. She was destined for the lumber trade where despite being only 190 feet long she could carry a million feet of timber.
It took four tall ships like the Forest Home to carry the same amount of wood as the average steamship of the time, however they were considerably cheaper to run and they could be made of wood – something that this part of North America had in abundance. Here at least the age of sail continued.
The Forest Home’s maiden voyage was from San Francisco to Puget Sound to pick up lumber for Callao or Valparaiso, where she would load nitrate for the return voyage. This would be the first of many long trips across the Pacific. Most of these voyages were without incident but the Forest Home would make the news six years later when she rescued the crew of a distressed vessel.
It was 7th December 1906 and a fierce gale was raging off Cape Flattery, which at the time was the northwesternmost point of the United States. A ship called the Sea Witch was in peril; she had sprung a leak, was waterlogged and threatening to break apart. I guess that is what you get for giving your ship a name like Sea Witch. In desperation her crew set off distress signals and hoped that help would come. They were in luck – the Forest Home saw the signals and came to their rescue. All sixteen crew were saved from their sinking ship and four days later were dropped off at Port Townsend, Washington. However there is one thing that they forgot – witches float.
The Sea Witch didn’t give in to the waves and instead was destined to become one of those crewless derelicts known as a phantom ship. She was spotted in the North Pacific for weeks afterwards, sometimes crossing the path of other vessels. She was last sighted drifting southwest and was thought to have eventually sunk somewhere in the South Pacific, although I like to think that maybe she is still out there.
During her career the Forest Home made a number of trips to Australasia, with one report from February 1910 referring to her as “one of the fliers” of the American lumber fleet. She also worked in Alaskan waters fishing for salmon and believe it or not was also a movie star – she was hired for work on at least three silent films shot in San Francisco Bay. One of these was “The Hell Ship” (1920) and another was an adaptation of Jack London’s ‘The Sea-Wolf’, the story of a shipwreck victim that is rescued by a cruel captain. The line between fiction and reality was about to blur.
At 8:30am on 25th April 1923 the Forest Home arrived at Wellington, New Zealand after an 85-day voyage from Vancouver carrying a cargo of Oregon pine. The sight of the handsome schooner coming in to dock seemed innocent enough but she was about to make headlines for all the wrong reasons.
The first sign of trouble was an unfortunate mishap involving one of the crew. At 8pm on Monday 30th April a man was seen to fall overboard and disappear into the depths. Despite the best efforts of a fellow crew-member and local police, the body of John Bouchard was not recovered until the next day. The exact cause of the mishap is unknown, but allegedly the body showed evidence of injuries to the face.
Less than a week later and Captain Wewetzer of the Forest Home was the centre of a major scandal. He appeared before a magistrate charged with assaulting one of his crew; the complainant Thomas Mullen claimed that the previous Friday he was the night watchman and after lighting the lamp had disappeared below deck to warm up. A few minutes later the Captain appeared and demanded why he wasn’t keeping watch. He then proceeded to punch and kick the man until another member of the crew came to his rescue. The Captain was found guilty of assault and was fined £5 plus costs.
During his defence the Captain claimed, “The crew have been up against me all the voyage”. This statement hinted at earlier trouble on the Forest Home and sure enough the voyage to New Zealand became headline news the next day.
The NZ Truth claimed that trouble began just one fortnight into the voyage when the crew began to complain about the state of their rations. They complained that the salted salmon smelled awful, the biscuits were “weevily”, that the bread soon ran out, there was no tea or coffee and most dinners consisted of salted pork or beef with rice pudding. More serious allegations include that the Captain kicked one member of his crew in the shins, docked pay for trivial reasons and produced a revolver on multiple occasions.
A few weeks later William Wilson, first mate of the Forest Home, appeared at the Magistrate’s Court charged with stealing £19 from Captain Wewetzer. He admitted the crime and was sentenced to three months imprisonment – with the proviso that he was to be returned to his vessel before it sailed. I wonder if perhaps he considered his mandatory return to the ship as more of a punishment than the time behind bars. At some stage the Captain was fined ten shillings for drunkenness and at about the same time Mullen was charged with assaulting the Captain, but the case was dismissed with the magistrate commenting, “This appears to be a very troublesome vessel”. The trouble wasn’t over yet.
The affairs of the Forest Home would play out in court yet again when members of the crew sued the captain for lost wages. They claimed that four other men had deserted since they arrived in the port and the only thing stopping the rest was the money that was owed to them.
Seemingly cursed with poor luck in Wellington the Forest Home finally left for Wanganui where it dropped off the rest of its cargo, however it continued to be plagued by troubles. A month passed and the Forest Home was still idle at Wanganui; the captain was in severe financial strife – struggling to pay the amount owed to his crew along with the mounting harbour dues. On 1st September the Supreme Court ruled that the Forest Home was to be sold by public tender to cover the cost of the amount owed.
Thus, for the price of £600 the vessel found itself with New Zealand owners, Holm and Co. They towed the schooner by steamship back to Wellington where over six months they gave her a complete overhaul and refitted her with four new masts. The Forest Home was also given a new name – Holmwood.
Meanwhile some of the old crew were still causing trouble in Wellington. On 29th December, William Wilson, formerly of the Forest Home and having being previously been charged with six accounts of drunkenness, appeared in court charged with breaching his prohibition order. When asked for his plea he replied “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year”. Less than a month later and another of the former crew was located and charged with desertion. The Magistrate’s Court was no doubt getting sick of the Yankee Schooner.
Her new life as the Holmwood began in July 1924 when she left Wellington for Newcastle to load a cargo of coal. She made numerous Tasman crossings under the command of Captain Taylor, Captain S. Holm and Captain. C. Stannish.
There was a curious event on 12th December 1925 when her captain reported the sighting of an upturned wooden vessel about 100 miles northwest of the North Island. Part of me likes to think that this was perhaps the remains of the Sea Witch haunting her once rescuer, but alas it was thought that this new ghost ship was the ketch Lialetta, a trading vessel that had disappeared a year earlier with all hands lost. They never found out for sure.
In the following year the Holmwood would have a close call of her own.
It was perhaps during this gale, or at least in one similar, that these images were taken.
By the late 1920’s what was now known as the Holm Shipping Company decided that the cost of running the old tall ship was too high and she was relegated to the role of coal hulk in Wellington Harbour. Unlike other hulks at the time her four masts still stood proudly, testament to her previous life as a timber trader and movie star. She would last in this role for a decade.
In 1939 the last of the coal hulks started to receive death sentences. In May the old clipper William Manson (1872), once a rival of the well-known Cutty Sark, was towed to Ward Island and set alight. The Holm Shipping Company had only two weeks to find a buyer for the Holmwood or she would meet a similar fate. There was talk of her perhaps being converted into accommodation for the upcoming Centennial Exhibition but it was not to be.
Just a few weeks before the outbreak of the Second World War the old schooner made her last voyage. The Port Whangarei towed her across the Cook Strait to her final home at Port Underwood where she was beached and broken up for her fine Oregon timber.
The Forest Home had a fascinating career dodging phantom ships, riding out storms, starring on the big screen and was even nearly the scene of a mutiny during her infamous voyage to Wellington. She then briefly played an early role in the history of one of New Zealand’s shipping dynasties but even with a new owner, captain, crew and masts I suspect she still struggled to ever shake off her reputation as a troublesome Yankee schooner. The photograph in my collection was likely taken in the mid-late 1920’s during her service as the Holmwood, however it is perhaps a testament to her reputation that the photographer labelled the image with her true name – the ‘Yankee Schooner’ Forest Home.
But wait! Didn’t I promise Nazis? There is a short epilogue of sorts to this story. In August 1940 the Holm Shipping Company bought the steamship Tees and renamed her Holmwood. For this reason the Forest Home and the Tees have occasionally been confused. In November of the same year that she was purchased the second Holmwood was on her way from the Chatham Islands to Lyttelton when she was captured and sunk by a Nazi raider. I’ve had the privilege of interviewing one of the civilians that was on-board that day, but that is another story…
© Lemuel Lyes