A Connecticut Shark in the Hudson River

ECHO underway, posted Friday, August 6, 2010

Norwich’s shipyard at Chelsea Landing was busy in 1776. Even before the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia, the Connecticut colonial assembly was ordering ships to be constructed for the colony’s navy.

Of course, one conjures up wood vessels, with masts and rigging, graceful sails and perilous gangplanks. Even the ship types—brigantines, sloops, brigs of war, and frigates—lead us to romantic images of the Age of Sail.

Yet, carpenters under the direction of Captain Jonathan Lester were constructing a more modest vessel: a row galley. Yes, a vessel powered not by wind, but by men and oars. Named Shark, this vessel was described in the state’s official records as having a “sixty feet keel, eighteen feet beam, five feet hold, and seven inches dead rising.” It cost 861 English pounds and some change when it was completed and accepted in July 1776.

Now, stop thinking about all those movie scenes from Ben-Hur and Spartacus. This vessel was modern, decked out with two pieces of ordnance and six or nine pounders. Fifty men, including officers, were furnished with lances, poles, and hatchets for defense. Command was given to Stonington’s Captain Theophilus Stanton, but he soon surrendered that duty when General George Washington ordered the Shark to New York City, where it patrolled the Hudson River. Tories, stay out of the water!