PORTLAND, Maine – Capt. Edward Payson Nichols of Searsport held the spyglass to his eye. Nichols could barely make out a tiny vessel some two miles distant, drifting in the Atlantic Ocean, just south of the equator.
He could see the lifeboat-sized craft had an improvised mast of wooden slats strung up with a ragged hunk of cloth but Nichols saw no signs of human life.
Still, the code of the sea and his own humanity told him to change course.
Nichols ordered his crew to turn their merchant vessel – the Frank Pendleton – around and head for the smaller craft.
“In the bottom of the boat lay a man who was powerless in all of his limbs, naked as at the time he was born” Nichols later wrote, “reduced in health to almost a skeleton and exposed to the scorching rays of the tropical sun.”
Once recuperated, the man told a harrowing tale of shipwreck and lone survival. It later turned out he was a deserter and his story was mostly lies. But he was polite, leaving Nichols a thank you note when he slipped away.
The whole incident was front page news in the Ocean Chronicle, the 19th century’s only newspaper produced at sea, on a sailing ship. Nichols was the Chronicle’s publisher, editor, lead reporter, typesetter and printer.
He produced one edition per voyage for 23 years, from 1878 until 1891. Nichols mailed copies to family and friends upon reaching port. Subscriptions cost just one return letter from each subscriber. In the days before ship-to-shore communications of any kind, the Ocean Chronicle kept Nichols and his family in touch with their far-flung circle of loved ones and acquaintances.
“This number was printed in so many different parts of the globe that it would be impossible to say where it was published,” the scribbling skipper wrote in one issue. “One page was run off the press in the North Pacific, another in the South pacific, and two in the North Atlantic.”
In the 21st century, Nichols’ vivid, often playful writing, provides historians with uncanny details of daily shipboard nearly 150 years ago. Other records of the time are not nearly as rich and abundant. Diaries and letters to folks at home are scarce. Official log books are dry affairs, usually only noting weather and chart positions.
“It’s great context about what it was like at sea during the tail end of the United States’ golden age of merchant sailing,” Penobscot Marine Museum Curator Cipperly Good said.
The museum holds a nearly complete set of Ocean Chronicle issues. Most were donated over the years by local folks in Searsport whose families were acquainted with Nichols and got his paper in the mail.
Judging by the number of ads for ship brokers, chandlers and suppliers included among his copy, Nichols probably even turned a profit with his paper. Circulation numbers ran at least as high as 750 copies for some issues.
“People got bored on those ships, during long journeys,” Good said. “Other captains took up carving scrimshaw or building ship models. He had his newspaper.”
Nichols’ brief-style “Local Items” column is a particularly rich vein of fun, informative tidbits of life aboard his ship.
“Our passenger list, as now reads, is one monkey, one cat, two dogs, six pups, two hogs, one dozen hens, one Hong Kong goose, three canaries, two doves and a guinea hen,” he wrote in one issue.
Nichols later reported Fannie, of the ship’s dogs, gave birth to six puppies.
“We now have Jumbo, Nero, Rover, Tip, Curly, Nimbus and Baby all in a perfect state of health. They’re all just alike but some are more alike than others,” he wrote, in his typical, breezy style.
Under the Chronicle’s masthead Nichols’ wrote: “Printed for pastime only, and sent to friends as a letter, therefore not open to criticism.”
Good said she appreciates the captain’s dry humor.
“They’re sort of dad jokes,” Good said. “He was always trying to get his wife and daughters to submit items. I can see his wife rolling her eyes.”
Nichols’ wife, Martha, plus their three daughters often all lived aboard the ship as well.
In one column by Martha Nichols, written en route to Hong Kong, she reports on the family’s recent visit to a Welsh castle. She also laments how one daughter was neglecting her sewing and schoolbooks. She also alludes to friendly rivalries with other merchant ships.
“I cannot say that we are expecting a quick passage, but hope not to be beaten by the George F. Manson, or Annie H. Smith; yet, we want them to have a good passage,” she wrote.
In another heartfelt column, Martha, who traveled the entire globe with her husband, said she’d seen nowhere as lovely as home.
“There is no more beautiful scenery to be found than is on the Penobscot Bay and river,” she wrote.
Good said Martha’s voice is especially illuminating to hear, as 19th century women are not well-represented in the historic record.
“Especially since she was a landlubber from Levant who didn’t grow up around ships,” Good said.
The Nichols’ children also printed at least one newspaper of their own in 1887 called The Rolling Billow. In it, they describe their father’s first command aboard the bark Clara.
That stint ended when the ship wrecked off the southern tip of Africa – though the family escaped unharmed.
“This is the first time I have been at sea in five years,” wrote daughter Martha Nichols, “and the thing I remember most about my last voyage was when I was hauled to the shore in a basket. After that experience I had no desire to go to sea for a long time.”
Sometimes, Nichols waxed philosophical in the Ocean Chronicle, composing clever poetry. At other times he wrote analytical business pieces bemoaning the state of the merchant trade, reporting it was hard to find enough experienced sailors.
“If a captain gets to sea and finds but eight men who have ever been to sea before, out of 16 shipped as seamen, he is expected to wear a complacent smile,” he wrote, “and thank God he is permitted to care for them.”
Nichols did all the printing as well as writing. He lost his first press when the Clara wrecked but he managed to build another one himself aboard the Frank Pendleton. In one issue, he stated its flat printing plate was made from a furnace door and the roller came from a sawmill. The roller’s weight was himself.
Some of Nichols’ mismatched type was a gift from the Sydney, Australia Evening News but he often ran out of some letters. Nichols would then invert n for u, b for q and vice versa.
Nichols came from a large family of shipbuilders and sea captains around Searsport and seems to have been quite well known in his own lifetime. He retired from the sea in 1891 and opened a store in Bucksport. He died in 1899 at the age of 55.
Martha Nichols carried on until 1922.
Aided by Nichols’ descendants, the Penobscot Marine Museum published a collection of Ocean Chronicle issues in a book in 1942. It is now out of print.
Nichols kept his good humor all the way to the final issue in 1891.
“The Ocean Chronicle has the largest circulation of any paper printed on the ocean,” Nichols wrote.
Of course, it was the only one, too.