Between his voyages to England and France, Benjamin Franklin logged more transatlantic cruises than any other founder. In fact, in his lifetime, he took a total of eight cruises[i].
On his final 1785 cruise sailing from France to Philadelphia, Ben continued a letter he had started in 1784 in Paris to his friend Julien-David LeRoy. This very long letter eventually morphed into a 1786 paper called “Maritime Observations” and was published by Franklin’s own American Philosophical Society[ii] in their publication Transactions[iii]. In this mega-letter, Franklin predicted the propulsion of ships using steam instead of wind. He added additional data to his earlier research of the Gulf Stream’s water current temperature variability and its effect upon vessel speed and navigation.
Ben’s Cruise Checklist
But on a lighter note, Franklin also gave travel tips to future voyagers thinking about taking a transatlantic cruise, the average length of time being six weeks. Franklin stated that no matter what the ship’s captain said he had on board for food and drink supplies, like a frequent flier in today’s world, Franklin listed[iv] fifteen items “Passengers” should always bring with them:
- Good Water, that of the Ship being often bad. You can be sure of having it good, only by Bottling it from a clear Spring or Well & in clean Bottles.
- Good Tea.
- Coffee ground.
- Wine of the sort you particularly like, & Cyder.
- Capillaire [infusion of maidenhair fern, used to treat coughs].[v]
- Jamaica Spirits.
- Eggs greas’d.[vi]
- Diet Bread.[vii]
- Portable Soup.[viii]
In typical Franklin style in caring about the less-fortunate people, he wrote that there’s always the small chance the captain actually stocked good supplies on board, “as to render some of the Particulars above recommended of little or no Use to you.”[x]
So rather than over-indulging or letting the carry-on supplies go to waste, Ben reminded the reader, “… there are frequently in the Ship poorer Passengers, who are taken at a lower Price, lodge in the Steerage, and have no Claim to any of the Cabbin Provisions, or to any but those kinds that are allow’d the Sailors. These People are sometimes dejected, sometimes sick, there may be Women & Children among them. In a situation where there is no going to Market to purchase such Necessaries, a few of these your Superfluities distributed occasionally may be of great Service, restore Health, save Life, make the miserable happy, and thereby afford you infinite Pleasure.”[xi]
Pick Your Captain, Don’t Tell Anyone, and Don’t Swim With the Sharks
Aside from the 15 items Ben suggested to pack as cruise carry-ons, he had a few other tips. Regarding the ship’s captain, Franklin told the reader that one cannot always “make a Choice in your Captain.”[xii] But he added that if you could, it would make all the difference in making the closeness of a very long cruise miserable or make it “so much the happier.”[xiii]
One particular travel tip of Franklin’s is as valid today as it was back in his time. He suggested not telling anyone you’re taking a trip until you’re completely packed. Then, if there is leftover time, go see them at their house. “When you intend a long Voyage, you may do well to keep your Intention as much as possible a Secret, or at least the Time of your Departure; otherwise you will be continually interrupted in your Preparations by the Visits of Friends and Acquaintance, who will not only rob you of the Time you want, but put Things out of your mind, so that when you come to Sea, you have the Mortification to recollect Points of Business that ought to have been done, Accounts you had intended to settle, and Conveniences you had propos’d to bring with you, &c. &c. all of which have been omitted thro’ the Effect of these officious Friendly Visits.”[xiv]
To stay freshened up on those long sea voyages, Franklin had a habit of waiting until a calm day when there was no wind pushing on the ship’s sails. Then he’d jump overboard and swim around in the salt water for a while. In one letter, he wrote there was, “… a calm that lasted all day. In the afternoon I leaped overboard and swam around the ship to wash myself. Saw several Porpoises this day.”[xv]
But a little more than a month later in the same voyage, Ben penned, “I was determined to wash myself in the sea to-day, and should have done so had not the appearance of a Shark, that mortal enemy to swimmers, deterred me; he seemed to be about five feet long, moves round the ship at some distance in a slow majestic manner …”[xvi]
The following day, Franklin’s only entry reads, “A fresh gale at West all this day. The shark has left us.”[xvii] It doesn’t mention if Ben splashed into the Atlantic again that day. Franklin was a smart guy. Maybe he figured he could wait and just take his chances with sharks of a different nature at the upcoming Constitutional Convention.
[i] Edmund S. Morgan, ed. Not your usual founding father. Selected Readings from Benjamin Franklin (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006), 96.
[ii] In Franklin’s day, the word “philosophical” was used to describe technology and science.
[iii] “Maritime Observations” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, held at Philadelphia, for Promoting Useful Knowledge, Volume II (Philadelphia, PA: Robert Aitken, at Pope’s Head in Market Street, 1786), 320.
[iv] Morgan, Not your usual founding father, 107-108.
[v] “Capillaire” was colonial medicinal syrup of the 18th century.
[vi] “Eggs greas’d” may have been one of two techniques used for preserving eggs on a long ocean cruise. One practice was encasing hard-boiled eggs inside jars filled with rendered (clear) lard. The second may have been burying the eggs, “in charcoal or wheat bran, after greasing them a little with mutton tallow.” Lettice Bryan, Kentucky Housewife, (Cincinnati, OH, 1839) 224.
[vii] “Diet Bread” of the colonial era is generally thought to have been a small sponge cake-biscuit eaten by the upper class.
[viii] “Portable Soup”, also called “Pocket Soup” was the colonial version of bouillon cubes. The expeditions of both Captain Cook and Lewis and Clark carried along dehydrated “portable soup” with them.
[ix] “Rusk” was a dry, hard biscuit of colonial times. We know it today as Melba toast, Biscotti, or Zwieback.
[x] Morgan, Not your usual founding father, 108.
[xi] Morgan, Not your usual founding father, 108-109.
[xii] Morgan, Not your usual founding father, 107.
[xiii] Morgan, Not your usual founding father, 107. Edmund S. Morgan thinks this “pick your captain” part of Franklin’s letter comes from the doubtless number of bad captains Franklin had sailed with over the decades. But in this 1785 voyage, Franklin’s final trip, he apparently had the pleasure of sailing with a particularly good captain, Thomas Truxton, commanding the packet ship Franklin was on. Truxton had been a privateer during the Revolutionary War and was known as one of the most able seamen that the new United States of America had. Truxton would go on to become a U.S. Navy commodore sailing the famous frigate U.S.S. Constellation. Morgan, Not your usual founding father, 98.
[xiv] Morgan, Not your usual founding father, 107.
[xv] “Journal of Occurrences in My Voyage to Philadelphia on board the Berkshire, Henry Clark, Master. From London”, Sunday, August 6 (excerpt), http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp vol. 1:72; accessed January 10, 2014.
[xvi] “Journal of Occurrences in My Voyage to Philadelphia on board the Berkshire, Henry Clark, Master. From London”, Wednesday, September 21 (excerpt), http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp vol.1:72; accessed January 10, 2014.
[xvii] “Journal of Occurrences in My Voyage to Philadelphia on board the Berkshire, Henry Clark, Master. From London”, Thursday, September 22 (excerpt), http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp vol. 1:72; accessed January 10, 2014.