The myth of the Marco
Author says the ship wasn't so fast,
but the navigation was revolutionary.
By Marty Kiankenberg
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.
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."
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.
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
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
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
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
"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.
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