The World’s Largest Sailing Ship

Aug 12, 2021 1 comments

On December 14, 1907, a large sailing ship wrecked off the coast of Annet, in the Isles of Scilly, killing all but two of her eighteen crew and causing the world’s first large marine oil spill. The ship involved in the accident, Thomas W. Lawson, was an incredible ship.

Thomas W. Lawson was the world’s largest pure sailing ship, i.e. without an auxiliary engine, and the only seven-masted schooner. She was built by the eponymous copper baron Thomas W. Lawson for the sole purpose of showing the world that sail could still be competitive in the age of steam.

Thomas W. Lawson

Launched on July 10, 1902, Thomas W. Lawson was 475 feet long and contained seven masts of nearly two hundred feet tall each, carrying 25 sails with a cumulative canvas area of 43,000 square feet. She measured 5,218 gross register tons, boasted a carrying capacity of 11,000 tons, and was operated by a crew of only 18, when a similar-sized steamer would have required anything up to fifty. This was possible because the work of the sailors was facilitated by various mechanisms. The schooner, while it did not have an engine, was equipped with a steam steering engine, steam winches, an electrical system and even a telephone network.

When fully loaded, the Thomas W. Lawson's draft was 9 meters. Curiously, at that time there was only one port in the United States capable of receiving such deep-seated vessels—the Newport News, in Virginia. As a result, her capacity was reduced to 7,400 tons in order to accommodate her into more ports. Even with reduced cargo, Thomas W. Lawson was so large that she was difficult to maneuver and sluggish. She tended to yaw and needed a strong wind to be held on course. Sailors likened her to a bath tub or a beached whale. 

Thomas W. Lawson

The Lawson was originally set up to ply the coal routes along the the American East Coast. But at the beginning of the 20th century, there was a great demand for oil, so the sailing vessel was sold to the Anglo-American Oil Co and at the Newport News & Drydock shipyard in 1906 it was converted into an oil tanker with a capacity of 60,000 barrels, making her one of the largest tankers afloat at the time.

On November 19, 1907, Lawson set sail from the piers of Marcus Hook Refinery, 20 miles south of Philadelphia, for London on her first transatlantic crossing with 58,000 barrels of light paraffin oil. During the voyage, the Lawson encountered several gales that destroyed all but one lifeboat and most of her sails. Despite the damage, the schooner reached the Celtic Sea northwest of the Isles of Scilly. On December 13, entering the English Channel, where it was hoped she could ride out the storm. Captain George Washington Dow, confident that the ship would survive the storm, adamantly refused help from two nearby ships.

Thomas W. Lawson

Charlotte Dorrien-Smith remembered: “The Captain hoisted no signals of distress and said he did not consider himself in any danger. With his tackle he could have ridden out any storm on the American coast, but alas, not here.”

The following night, the gale reached 90 mph and snapped the ship’s anchor chain. Now left to the mercy of the raging seas, the schooner was smashed against the rocky shoreline near Annet and capsized. In the morning light the ship's upturned keel could be seen near the reef from which the wreck slid off into deeper water. A thick layer of layer, from the ship’s hold had gathered on the surface. Of the 18 men on board, only two survived the sinking—Captain George W. Dow and engineer Edward L. Rowe. All whose bodies could be recovered were buried in a mass grave in St Agnes cemetery.

The broken-up and scattered wreck of Thomas W. Lawson now lies to the north-east of Shag Rock at a depth of 60 feet and can be visited by scuba divers under calm weather conditions. One of the anchors is now built into the outside wall of Bleak House, Broadstairs, the former home of Charles Dickens, and can be seen with a picture of the schooner.

Thomas W. Lawson

Wreck of the Thomas W. Lawson.


  1. Remember that very large sail vessels were working and engaged in the annual grain race/delivery to England from Australia until WW I when they became victims of submarine warfare.
    If one could find a copy of "The Last Grain Race". Historical book/ along the lines of "Two years before the mast" that speaks of those huge sailing vessels


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