One spring night in 1853, Capt. Freeman Hatch sailed the Northern Light into Boston Harbor, having accomplished an astonishing feat of seamanship.
He had set a record for sailing between San Francisco and Boston, a record that still hasn’t been broken by a single-hull vessel. And he did it without a hand raised against a member of his crew — unusual at the time for Yankee captains, who meted out discipline with heavy hands.
Northern Light was a clipper ship, of course.
She was designed by Samuel Hartt Pook, New England’s first independent naval architect. He was known for building speedy ships. The Briggs Brothers built her in their South Boston shipyard and launched her on Sept. 25, 1851. She had an angel dressed in white and holding a flaming torch as her figurehead.
By then, racing around Cape Horn had become the national maritime sport. Sportsmen placed bets on which ship would make the fastest run between San Francisco and the East Coast, and nearly all the clipper captains raced against another ship.
In 1852, Hatch set sail from Boston in the Northern Light. He had bad luck and took 118 days — a respectable time — to reach San Francisco. He was angry, though, at being beaten by two New York clipper ships, the Trade Wind and the Contest.
A Boston merchant offered Hatch a new suit of clothes if he beat the Trade Wind on the return voyage. He didn’t think the Contest was beatable.
The Trade Wind left on March 10, the Contest two days later, and Northern Light the following day. Early in the race, Hatch easily passed the Trade Wind, earning his suit of clothes, and took off after the Contest.
He caught up with his rival at Cape Horn, dangerous because of its high winds, strong currents, tall waves and icebergs. Historian Samuel Eliot Morison wrote that only the most experienced seamen could “be trusted to drive these saucy, wild clippers against Cape Horn howlers.”
Northern Light and Contest sailed in company for a day or two. The Contest then sailed ahead, but Hatch drove the Northern Light until he was 40 miles ahead at the equator. Hatch, a thorough clipper ship captain, wrote one maritime historian, ‘never allowed his ship to suffer for want of canvas.’ On the clipper ship’s fastest day she sailed 354 miles.
When Northern Light sailed into Boston, Contest was picking up her pilot off the New Jersey Highlands. Morrison, described her entrance into Boston Harbor:
…with skysails, ringtail and studdingsails set on both sides, alow and aloft, she slipped into the Narrows of Boston Harbor on the evening of May 27, 1853, just seventy-six days, five hours, from San Francisco.
Early the next day, Hatch went ashore, hired a hack and drove to the home of Northern Light’s owner, James Huckins. He woke Huckins from a sound sleep and said, “Here I am with the Northern Light, but I’ve strained her dreadfully getting here!”
All Huckins cared about was that he’d beaten the Contest. “I don’t care a damn how much you’ve strained her,” he said.
In the early 1860s, Freeman Hatch retired from the sea. He moved to Needham, Mass., with his wife, Lydia, and took up the practice of alternative medicine.
Northern Light met her end on Jan. 2, 1862, when she sailed out of Havre and collided with the French brig Nouveau St. Jacques. The French vessel sank, and Northern Light sustained so much damager her crew soon abandoned her. Two vessels picked up the captains and crews and took them to the British ports of Falmouth and Cowes.
Hatch died in 1889 and was buried in Evergreen Cemetery in his hometown of Eastham, Mass. His gravestone reads:
Freeman Hatch, 1820-1889
He became famous making the astonishing passage in the clipper ship Northern Light from San Francisco in 76 days 6 hours — an achievement won by no mortal before or since.
With thanks to Shipmasters of Cape Cod by Henry Kittredge. This story was updated in 2021. Image: Cape Horn CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57801..