Marco Polo Project Saint John New Brunswick

Marco Polo Project

The myth of the Marco Polo
Author says the ship wasn't so fast, but the navigation was revolutionary.

By Marty Kiankenberg
June 03/06

    Some say it was the wickedly hard-driving captain, Bully Forbes, that made the Marco Polo the world's fastest ocean sailing vessel. Some claim it was the willy-nilly way its frame was put back together after it was splintered in a gale. Some suggest it was the odd shape of the tall ship's keel, which was bent when it ran aground in Saint John at Marsh Creek on April 17, 1851.
   But a book launched this week at the New Brunswick Museum advances another theory: that the Marco Polo owes its fame not to its speed, but to the route that was taken when it became the first ship to sail from England to Australia and back in under six months and twice around the world in under a year.
   "It wasn't really that fast," Dr. Martin Hollenberg, the author of Marco Polo: The True Story of the Fastest Ship said Thursday night after a book signing at Market Square. "The main thing is that it took a shorter route and took advantage of prevailing winds and current patterns.
   "That goes a long way toward explaining how it cut one-third off the previous speed record."
   Dr. Hollenberg said the Marco Polo's principal owner, James Smith, and its captain were convinced to sail from Liverpool to Melbourne via the Great Circle Route by JamesTowson, a British expert in navigation. While dangerous, sailing a course through the icebergs of the southern latitudes cut 1,000 miles each way off the trip. The captain and crew also used wind and current charts devised by Matthew Maury, a U.S. Navy officer, to hasten the voyage.
   But it required an excellent mariner and stern taskmaster such as Bully Forbes (who by all accounts deserved his name) to keep on the route and stay out of danger. After Forbes established the new route, other ships soon eclipsed its records.
   Taught in schools in Saint John and other areas of New Brunswick as part of the curriculum, the story of the Marco Polo captured the imagination of Dr. Hollenberg, who is both a physician and a PhD. Through the use of original materials such as the vessel's on-board newspaper, letters and journals written by passengers and an account of the shipwreck at Cavendish, P.E.I., written by Lucy Maud Montgomery, Dr. Hollenberg paints a lively study in the book released last week by Nimbus Publishing of Halifax.
   The former Dean of Medicine at the University of Western Ontario and University of British Columbia, Dr. Hollenberg decided to write a book after retiring. Always interested in tall ships, he said he decided to make the Marco Polo the subject after stumbling across a website devoted to it. "Having completed my career in aca demic medicine, I could have gone anywhere with my writing," said Dr. Hollenberg, who was born in Winnipeg - "About as far away from the ocean as you can get" - and lives in Vancouver. "I could have picked any topic in the world. But the Marco Polo had everything an author could want: a speed record, the mystery surrounding why it was so fast, colourful characters, the wreck off Cavendish.
   "It was a famous ship with a phenomenal sailing history, and it deserved to be recognized for what it did. The more I read about it, the more I was hooked."
   Dr. Hollenberg read 30 books while researching his own work, and also contacted principals involved with the Marco Polo Project in Saint John.
   A scaled-down replica of the vessel, which was 185 feet long, is being built at Pugsley Wharf. On Thursday, Dr. Hollenberg met with those kindred seafaring spirits for the first time.
   "Today was a very emotional day for me," said Dr. Hollenberg, who was wearing a silver belt buckle decorated with a barque.
   "I'm from Vancouver, but I feel a part of this place. I just wonder if the citizens of New Brunswick fully appreciate what they have here.
   "In its day, the Marco Polo was one of the most famous ships in the ocean, and it should have been.
    " Dr. Hollenberg's book details a number of events that were related to the legend of the Marco Polo, including a boom in shipbuilding in Saint John and a gold rush in Australia.
   "That's why people wanted to get there so fast," he said.

Noel Chenier Photc Author Martin Hollenberg chats with Peter Dunphy as he signs a copy of his book at the New Brunswick Museum Thursday night.