The Greatest Captain of Them All
The Old Manse Inn was home to great captains throughout the Colonial and Clipper Ship eras. They alternately purchased the great estate, as time passed on, and they raised sons here who later became great sea Captains themselves.
Each of them added new layers of history and romance to the place. But, of them all, few could surpass the legend of Josiah Knowles, son of the estate's first sea captain Winslow L. Knowles.
Indeed, here is a summary of just one of his tales, as recorded in his journals (which are now part of the University of California's historic document collection).
The Big Crash
It began with a scream from the lookout, that announced the great dread of all captains: "Breakers under our lee!"
The "Wild Wave" Clipper Ship, which Josiah Knowles commanded, had begun a nightmare scenario, smashing its hull into a coral reef somewhere in the vast Pacific. And the impact was horrendous, snapping masts like matchsticks, and sending copper bottom hull plates crashing down on the decks.
Within just five minutes, the ship was full of water, and the sea was breaking over the hull.
By morning the nightmare deepened. Josiah fixed their position at Oeno Island, a spit of barrier land, that was so far out of the shipping lanes, that it made rescue - and survival - impossible.
But things soon went from bad to immeasurably worse. Torrential rains, howling winds and lightening strikes, swept the island on the first night, and carnivorous land crabs made their way into the sailor's sleeping blankets, to hack at the crew's flesh indiscriminately.
And so the hellish conditions continued for eight more days. The only solace being a fragile canvas tent that the crew managed to salvage from the "Wild Wave" before it went down. A few also huddled under two of the tiny wooden lifeboats that were also salvaged from the "Wild Wave" clipper ship.
The Pitcairn Disaster
Half starved, lost amid the endless swells of the Pacific, and reduced to eating the leaves of scrub trees, it was enough to break the spirit of most men.
But most men weren't Josiah Knowles.
Setting out in one of the battered and fragile lifeboats, he sailed out into the sea with six other members of the crew, to take a stab at finding the legendary Pitcairn Island (rumored to be the place where the descendants of the mutineers from the H.M.S. Bounty lived on).
The first disaster happened when the wild surf, surrounding the towering cliffs and mountains of the island, reduced the lifeboat to kindling wood, and smashed the stock of the only gun they had. And, while the island was home to bananas, breadfruit and orange trees, the wild boars threatened them at every turn - especially since they had no defense given the destruction of their only weapon in the surf.
But the worst was yet to come.
After scaling the almost perpendicular cliffs of the Island, they reached a plateau and their hearts sank. A few scattered remnants of buildings remained, and a single carved sign announced that the descendents of the mutiny aboard the Bounty were once here all right, but that they had long since taken their own chances and fled.
The Power Of One
It was over then.
Or rather it would have been over, except for the determination of one Sea Captain named Josiah Knowles.
His plan: to create a boat 30 feet in length, and four feet in depth, with essentially no tools to work with and no nails. An impossible fly spec of a boat, that would sail the endless vastness of the Pacific in search of a ship, or a harbor, where rescue could be found.
Leading the project, he had his men somehow create planks and beams using dulled axes, and he conjured up the idea of burning down the dilapidated buildings, where he had his men sift through the ashes to find usable nails. Finally, after nearly five months of work, and another idea - of finding small, windblown pieces of canvas on the island which were later patch-worked into a sail - Josiah Knowles and two other crew members sailed beyond Pitcairn Island's surf... to God knew where. (Note: Three other crew members refused to go, preferring being marooned on the island to their doubts about the seaworthiness of the boat they had built).
Maybe those that stayed behind were right. As the journey started, the ship began spinning on an odd corkscrew configuration, and the seasickness experienced by the men became almost unendurable. Then came an even greater terror - the only islands they came across were not only uninhabited, but uncharted as well.
The answer then?
For Captain Josiah Knowles it was simple, really. Try to reach the Sandwich Islands THREE THOUSAND NAUTICAL MILES AWAY!
It must have been. Because after nearly half a month at sea, the disintegrating ship reached the Marquesas Islands, and discovered the USS Vanalia, an American sloop of war, at anchor. (After taking Josiah Knowles and his two crew members to Tahiti for their return to the U.S., the war sloop returned to the Islands of Oreno and Pitcairn to rescue the other castaways as well).
A Legend is Born
The incredible Pitcairn adventure soon became a legend in the Pacific. When, for example, Josiah Knowles stopped at Pitcairn Island many years later (now inhabited), after breaking the world Clipper Ship speed record, he was treated as a wonder... a hero... a man larger then life itself. And, in San Francisco, the Maritime Museum there had its own exhibit of Josiah Knowles and the great "Wild Wave" adventure.
Perhaps it was all said best by the poet John Masefield, when he wrote the following about the great clipper ship era:
"They mark our passage as
A race of men,
Earth will not see such ships
As those again."
A Note to the Reader:
The above story is just one of many that is part of the history of the Old Manse Inn.
And, thanks to the new owners, you can live this history itself. More to the point, they have set up historical markers and exhibits throughout the mansion, that makes for a truely remarkable experience for guests. And, if you are intrigued by the tales of Josiah, there's a lot more surprises in store.