River travel before steam: wind, white-ash breeze, and kedging

In “The History of the Seventeen Towns of Rensselaer County,” Arthur Weise described river travel before the age of steam. In periods of calm winds, the tides of the river could be, a little bit, the traveller’s friend, but then sometimes they had to resort to kedging:


“Anyone taking passage in a sloop or schooner sailing to New York, or from that city to Troy, at this early day, generally expected, if the wind was favorable, to make the voyage in two days at the furthest, but should the wind be variable and continue to blow in the opposite direction to that in which he was going, the journey was often lengthened to several weeks. When there was a head-wind and the tide against the vessel, the sloop would be compelled to lay to. If there was a period of calm weather, she went with the tide six hours and then anchored six hours. Sailing with ‘a white-ash breeze’ was a burlesque phrase to express that the men employed on the vessel were rowing with long white-ash oars, or ‘sweeps,’ as they were called. These sweeps were about 20 feet in length, and when used in connection with the drift of the tide, about 14 miles a day could be made by a sloop in calm weather. Oftentimes the large anchor of the sloop was let go, and a boat sent ahead to a bar, with a line and a small anchor called a kedge. The kedge being dropped on the bar, the large anchor was taken up and the sloop by means of the line attached was towed forward. The operation of moving a vessel in this way was called kedging. It was a very tiresome and slow process, slower, in fact, than the movement of a canal boat. A sloop generally had accommodations for conveying from 10 to 15 passengers, having as high as 14 or 16 berths in a cabin.”

At those kinds of speeds, it’s a wonder everyone in the 18th century wasn’t suffering from sloop-lag.

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