PORTLAND, Maine – Captain Edward Payson Nichols of Searsport raised the telescope to his eye. Nichols could barely make out a small vessel about two miles away, drifting in the Atlantic Ocean, just south of the equator.
He could see that the lifeboat the size of a lifeboat had an improvised mast of wooden slats strung together with a tattered piece of cloth, but Nichols saw no sign of human life.
Yet the code of the sea and his own humanity told him to change course.
Nichols ordered his crew to turn around with their merchant ship, the Frank Pendleton, and head for the smaller craft.
“At the bottom of the boat lay a man helpless in all his limbs, naked as at the time of his birth,” Nichols later wrote, “of health reduced to almost a skeleton and exposed to the scorching rays of the tropical sun. . “
Once recovered, the man told a poignant story of shipwreck and lonely survival. It later turned out that he was a deserter and his story was mostly made up of lies. But he was polite, leaving Nichols a thank-you note when he slipped away.
The whole incident made the front page of the Ocean Chronicle, the only 19th-century newspaper produced at sea, on a sailboat. Nichols was the publisher, editor, senior reporter, typographer, and printer of The Chronicle.
He produced one edition by voyage for 23 years, from 1878 to 1891. Nichols sent copies to his family and friends when he arrived in port. Subscriptions only cost one return letter from each subscriber. In the days before ship-to-shore communications of any kind, the Ocean Chronicle kept Nichols and his family in touch with their distant circle of relatives and acquaintances.
“This issue has been printed in so many different parts of the globe that it would be impossible to say where it was published,” the scribbled skipper wrote in one issue. “One page was printed in the North Pacific, another in the South Pacific, and two in the North Atlantic.”
In the 21st century, Nichols’ vivid and often playful handwriting provides historians with eerie details of daily ship navigation nearly 150 years ago. The other documents of the time are not so rich and abundant. Diaries and letters to people at home are rare. Official logbooks are dry affairs, usually only recording weather and map positions.
“It’s a great background on what it was like at sea at the end of the golden age of merchant shipping in the United States,” said Cipperly Good, curator of the Penobscot Marine Museum.
The museum holds a nearly complete set of issues of Ocean Chronicle. Most were donated over the years by Searsport residents whose families knew Nichols and received his paper in the mail.
Judging by the number of listings for ship brokers, sellers, and vendors included in his copy, Nichols likely even made a profit with his newspaper. Circulation numbers reached at least 750 copies for some issues.
“People were bored on these ships, on long journeys,” Good said. “Other captains took to carving scrimshaws or building model ships. He had his journal.
Nichols’ short-style “Local Articles” column is an especially rich vein of entertaining and informative detail about life on board his ship.
“Our passenger list, as it now reads, includes a monkey, a cat, two dogs, six puppies, two pigs, a dozen hens, a Hong Kong goose, three canaries, two doves and a guinea fowl.” , he wrote in an issue. .
Nichols later reported that Fannie of the ship’s dogs gave birth to six puppies.
“We now have Jumbo, Nero, Rover, Tip, Curly, Nimbus and Baby in perfect health. They all look alike, but some look more alike than others, ”he wrote, in his typical, breezy style.
Under the title of the column, Nichols wrote: “Printed for the hobby only and sent to friends as a letter, so not subject to review.” “
Good said she appreciated the captain’s dry humor.
“These are kind of dad jokes,” Good said. “He was always trying to get his wife and daughters to submit articles. I can see his wife roll her eyes.
Nichols’ wife, Martha, and their three daughters also often lived aboard the ship.
In a column by Martha Nichols, written on her way to Hong Kong, she recounts the family’s recent visit to a Welsh castle. She also regrets that a girl neglects her sewing and her textbooks. It also alludes to friendly rivalries with other merchant ships.
“I can’t say we’re expecting a quick pass, but I hope I’m not beaten by the George F. Manson, or Annie H. Smith; yet we want them to have a good passage, ”she wrote.
In another heartfelt column, Martha, who has traveled the world with her husband, said she hasn’t seen anywhere as beautiful as at home.
“There is no more beautiful scenery to be found than on the bay and the Penobscot River,” she wrote.
Good said Martha’s voice is particularly enlightening to hear, as 19th-century women are not well represented in the historical record.
“Especially since she was an earthling from the Levant who didn’t grow up around ships,” Good said.
The Nichols’ children also printed at least one newspaper of their own in 1887, The Rolling Billow. They describe their father’s first command aboard the barque Clara.
That stay ended when the ship was wrecked off the southern tip of Africa – although the family survived unscathed.
“It’s the first time I’ve been at sea in five years,” her daughter Martha Nichols wrote, “and the thing I remember most from my last trip is when I was hoisted to shore in a basket. After this experience, I had no desire to go to sea for a long time.
Sometimes Nichols waxed philosophically in the Ocean Chronicle, composing intelligent poetry. At other times he wrote analytical articles lamenting the state of the merchant trade, pointing out that it was difficult to find enough experienced seafarers.
“If a captain goes to sea and finds only eight men who have been at sea before, out of 16 dispatched as sailors, he is expected to sport a complacent smile,” he wrote , “And thank goodness he’s allowed to take care of himself. them.”
Nichols did all of the printing as well as the writing. He lost his first press when the Clara wrecked, but he managed to build another himself aboard the Frank Pendleton. In an issue, he said his flat printing plate was made from a furnace door and the roll came from a sawmill. The weight of the roll was itself.
Some of Nichols’ mismatched guys were a gift from the Sydney, Australia Evening News, but letters were often missing. Nichols would then reverse n for u, b for q and vice versa.
Nichols came from a large family of shipbuilders and ship captains around Searsport and seems to have been fairly well known during his lifetime. He retired from the sea in 1891 and opened a store in Bucksport. He died in 1899 at the age of 55.
Martha Nichols continued until 1922.
Aided by the descendants of Nichols, the Penobscot Marine Museum published a collection of issues of the Ocean Chronicle in a book in 1942. It is now out of print.
Nichols kept his good humor until the last issue in 1891.
“The Ocean Chronicle has the largest circulation of all ocean print papers,” Nichols wrote.
Of course, it was also the only one.