Friday, May 28, 2010

Wreck of the Ceaser

" find a good schooner of light draught and about 150 tons burden and to charter the same" were David Kokernot's orders from the Revenue Cutter Service. So he "chartered the schooner Julius Caesar" and set out for pass Barataria, which was "alive with smugglers." Kokernot's tale that follows is an exciting one, with a hurricane, shipwreck on a deserted shore, death, rescue by children, and eventual return to New Orleans just in time for the birth of his first child. Almost none of it is true.

What is true is that David Kokernot cruised to Texas and was shipwrecked and returned in time for Elizabeth Kokernot's birth. Contemporary documents--newspapers, Customs and Cutter Service records--tell the true story, and it's almost as good as the one Kokernot tells. It's also good for a chapter in length, so here I'll just tell the story of the vessel itself.

The vessel was named the Ceaser, and it was purchased and registered with the Customs Service on July 8, 1831, just three days before its departure. The registration documents give the vessel's length as sixty-five feet; beam, thirteen feet; and the depth of its hold, three feet, one inch. This is extraordinarily broad and shallow for an ocean going schooner and suggests the Ceaser was built for inland trading instead. It would be ideal for shallow waters, such as Lake Pontchartrain and the bayous of Louisiana. In fact the previous owner, Felix Boyer, had not registered it when it was new in 1818 but rather had enrolled it with the Customs Service. Enrollment was cheaper than registration, but did not permit international trade, such as with Texas, Havana, Haiti, or, before 1821, Florida. Not a problem for Boyer, who probably never ventured onto the Gulf of Mexico.

Ceaser was far smaller than the 150 tons that Kokernot described. Tonnage is an estimate of the cargo capacity of a vessel and is calculated from the vessel length, width, and depth of the hold, yielding 25 38/95 tons for Ceaser.

The Ceaser did not head for Barataria, as Kokernot claimed he was ordered, but instead sailed toward Texas and quickly encountered severe weather. In Kokernot's telling he sent all crew and passengers, except himself and two others, "below." This is unlikely, since the hold was only three feet deep and, he claimed, had two feet of water in it. I have seen drawings of small schooners with a cabin, three feet tall or so, on deck. Ceaser may have had such a cabin covering access to the hold. It could provide shelter from weather and permit standing upright with feet on the floor of the hold.

At thirteen years Ceaser was old for a wooden vessel operating in the tropics and was probably not structurally sound. Rough weather would inflict a lot of pounding, so it isn't surprising she quickly developed leaks when sailing on the fringes of a hurricane.

Carlyn Iverson created the adjacent rendering of the Ceaser about to wreck, based on what we know about the vessel, on sketches of later scow schooners, and on some informed guesses. Her hull is broad and flat, and her prow blunt, allowing her to navigate shallow lakes and bayous and nudge straight into shore for unloading. Rather than a fixed keel board she probably had a retractable centerboard for the same reason. The hold was small, so the deck was used for living space as well as additional freight stowage. Under storm conditions both the mainsail and jibs were completely furled and the foresail half furled. The crew was trying to find deep enough water to thread their way into the Sabine River for shelter but instead grounded on the sandy bottom. The old and worn Ceaser quickly broke apart, but the crew salvaged all the cargo and made their way to the remote sandy shore just ahead.

Kokernot's description of the Ceaser was flawed. How about his description of the rest of the voyage? Why did they go to Texas instead of Barataria? Was the Ceaser chartered by the Revenue Cutter Service? Who owned it? Who commanded it? What was Kokernot's part in the tale? What was in the hold? Who was the fifteen year old Yiddish speaking lad on board who had only arrived from Amsterdam the previous month? All these excellent questions will be answered in Chapter Four of my equally excellent biography of David Kokernot.

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