The tall ship Lynx visits Vineyard Haven harbor

The tall ship Lynx visits Vineyard Haven harbor

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Lynx, a replica of a 1812 vintage privateer, is similar to the schooner Shenandoah and about the same size. Shenadoah is a 1964 re-imagining of the 1830 revenue cutter Joe Lane. Shenandoah is taller, carrying a square topgallant sail above her topsail. — Photo courtesy of Martha's Vineyard Museum

The tall ship Lynx, a 122-foot square-topsail schooner, is scheduled to arrive Wednesday, May 16, at Ralph Packer’s Tisbury Wharf and will be here for five days. The heavily armed clipper is a replica of a privateer from the war of 1812. The Martha’s Vineyard Museum and Sail Martha’s Vineyard invite the community to visit the Lynx from 5 to 7 pm Friday, May 18. Guests can tour the ship, learn about the Lynx from the crew dressed in period clothing, and help fire the cannons to salute the Island. Tickets are $25 for adults (children under 12 are free).

The Lynx crew will also be offering public educational tours and sailing adventures during the ship’s stay here. Schedules and information can be found at www.privateerlynx.com/calendar.html

Privateers occupied an interesting niche in naval history for at least three centuries. At the outbreak of the War of 1812, the British navy was the largest in the world and commanded hundreds of warships large and small. The American navy consisted of only 17 warships. To extend their ability to harass British merchant ships and run British blockades, Americans used privateers, a system common in the 17th and 18th centuries.

A privateer was an armed, speedy, and maneuverable ship whose owners were given commissions (or “letters of marque”) from one country to try to capture the merchant ships of an enemy country. They were privately operated warships, not government navy warships. Captured “prize” ships and their cargo were sold, and the profits, which might be very great, were the compensation privateers received, but if no prizes were taken, the privateers received no pay at all. Unless trapped and forced into it, privateers didn’t fight against enemy warships, which were usually bigger and better armed. In some ways they were not unlike pirate ships, and some early privateers probably began life as pirates before becoming legitimized by a letter of marque.

In the War of 1812, privateers were also used as blockade runners. Although the British fleet blockaded the East Coast, the fast privateers were often able to slip by the ponderous blockaders. Because of the blockade, there were large profits to be made by ships that could get through.

According to The History of the Lynx (Lynx Educational Foundation), the original Lynx was commissioned on July 14, 1812. Built at Fells’s Point, Baltimore, during the opening days of the war, she was larger than most privateers then being built, and cost between $9,000 and $10,000. She was used as a blockade runner, but only for about a year, making one run to Bordeaux and back carrying wine, perfume, stockings, and gloves. While waiting with three other schooners (Arab, Racer, and Dolphin) to run the British blockade of Virginia rivers, she was caught by the British. There was no wind, and so the speed of the privateers under sail was of no use, and they were helpless to escape. Fearing capture, many of the American sailors jumped overboard and swam ashore, where they disappeared into the Virginia countryside.

The Lynx Educational Foundation quotes Edgar Stanton Maclay in A History of American Privateers: “As soon as these (American) vessels were made out from the enemy’s mastheads, the British sent seventeen boats with a large force of men . . . against them. Unfortunately for the privateers, it was calm at the time and, as their vessels were too far apart to be within supporting distance of each other, the British were able to attack them separately. They selected the Arab as being further down stream and made a dash for her. This boat was not surrendered, however, without a desperate struggle in which both sides sustained the heaviest losses of the day. The British then made for Lynx, whose people, observing the fate of the Arab and seeing that resistance was hopeless, hauled down their colors at the first summons.”

The Lynx, renamed the Mosquidobit, joined the British navy blockading the entrance to Chesapeake Bay. Later, she was stationed in Nova Scotia and then Deptford, England. By 1820, she was sold to a private owner, and nothing further is known of her fate.

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