From the Archive — From the April 2015 issue

A Floating Freehold

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It was a strange and pleasant life for me all this summer, sailing entirely alone by sea and river fifteen hundred miles, and with its toils, perils, and adventures heartily enjoyed.” Thus opens Captain MacGregor’s account of his third summer voyage in the Rob Roy. The two earlier voyages — one through Central Europe and the other over Norway and Sweden — have already been described in the pages of this Magazine; and it may certainly be presumed that this third voyage, more interesting than the former two, will command the attention of our readers.

The previous voyages were made in an oak canoe; their progress was mainly dependent upon muscular effort, and in the matter of food as well as of sleep they never permitted an absolute divorce from the land. So Captain MacGregor cogitated during the winter of 1866–67 how he might make the pleasure of a voyage complete by effecting a release from this degrading necessity of seeking rations and rest on shore. The result was that a beautiful little sailing boat took the place of the oak canoe, but the familiar name of “Rob Roy” was retained. “Once afloat in this,” says the Captain, “the water was my road, my home, my very world, for a long and splendid summer.”

The yawl has been carefully prepared in the most minute details. The Captain has no idea of getting swamped, smashed, stove in, or turned over by going adrift in a craft which has been huddled into being by some builder ignorant of what is wanted for a sailor traveler. “I resolved,” he says, “to have a thoroughly good sailing boat — the largest that could be well managed in rough weather by one strong man — and with every bolt, cleat, sheave, and rope well considered in relation to the questions: How will this work in a squall? on a rock? in the dark? or in a rushing tide? a crowded lock? — not to say in a storm?” The new boat was “first safe, next comfortable, and then fast.” Speed might have been insisted upon as the first quality if there had been two men to go aboard, one to pick up the other when he should fall over; but in this case the Captain was also to constitute the crew. The Rob Roy then is a lifeboat to begin with. She is seven feet breadth of beam and twenty-one feet long, and is thus capable of carrying in her cabin another boat — a little dinghy or punt — which is also a lifeboat, eight feet long, “to go ashore by, to take exercise in, and to use for a refuge in last resource if shipwrecked.”

These two boats are the Captain’s sole companions. But he is adapted for this place; he has good health, good spirits, and a passion for the sea; he has learned to rise, eat, drink, and sleep as the water or winds decree, without regard to his watch; his wits are large enough to circumscribe the tide, breeze, waves, chart, buoys, and lights — also the sails, pilot-book, and compass — the passing vessels — and to cook, eat, and drink in the midst of all; so that, even apart from his disposition, he is not likely to have time to feel “lonely.” We shall let the Captain describe his boat after his own fashion:

“The Rob Roy is a yawl-rig, so as to place the sailor between the sails for ‘handiness.’ She is double-skinned to make her stanch and dry below, and she is full-decked to keep out the sea above. She has an iron keel and keelson to resist a bump on rocks, and with four watertight compartments to limit its effects if once stove in. Her cabin is comfortable to sleep in, but only as arranged when anchored for the purpose — sleep at sea is forbidden to her crew. Her internal arrangements for cooking, reading, writing, provisions, stores, and cargo are quite different from those of any other yacht; all of them are specially devised, and all well done.”

Thus prepared, the boat is hastily launched at three p.m. on the seventh of June 1867. She has a ton and a half of pig iron on board for ballast, is laden with the luggage and luxuries for a three months’ voyage, her masts are stepped, the sails are bent, the flags unfold to the breeze, the line to shore is slipped, and the Rob Roy leaves Woolwich, “never to have any person aboard her in progress but the Captain, until she returns to the builder’s yard.” And the Captain, with good reason, congratulates himself upon the comparison of his floating freehold, “to another home founded on London clay, sternly immovable, and with the quarter’s rent to pay.” We landsmen, who are accustomed to look upon the sea from the beach very much as we would look upon a picture, can scarcely appreciate the sailor’s love of the ocean. He does not view it in perspective; his life and his home are upon it.


From “Voyage Alone in the Rob Roy,” which appeared in the May 1868 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The complete essay — along with the magazine’s entire 164-year archive — is available here.

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