On May 25th, in addition to other items in their collection, the Seaman’s Church Institute is auctioning off a letter written by Joseph Conrad in 1923 to the “owners and ship’s company of the Tusitala, ” in which he sends “my brotherly good wishes for fair winds and clear skies on all their voyages. And may they be many!” (Thanks to Joan Druett, author of Tupaia: Captain Cook’s Polynesian Navigator, for posting about the auction on her blog.)
But who were the ”owners and ship’s company of the Tusitala” to whom Conrad passed on his best wishes? Therein lies a tale.
The ship Tusitala, was the last full-rigged merchant ship to fly the American flag. She was an iron-hulled sailing ship of 1684 tons built in 1883 in Greenook, Scotland as the “Inveruglas.” She subsequently sailed under Norwegian flag as the “Sophie“. After being laid up for several years, she was acquired by a group of New York writers and artists who went by the name of the “Three Hours for Lunch Club.” The ship was brought under the US Flag and renamed Tusitala, in honor of Robert Lewis Stephenson. Tusitala was the Samoan name adopted by Stephenson, meaning “Teller of Tales.”
The letter written by Joseph Conrad was read at the renaming ceremony of the Tusitala by Christopher Morely, the founder of the “Three Hours for Lunch Club.” As fanciful as the venture may seem, one of the writers behind the acquisition was Felix Riesenberg, a ship’s captain who wrote novels as well as historical and professional maritime works. Riesenberg has already served twice as superintendent of the New York Nautical School (now the State University of New York Maritime College at Fort Schuyler.) See also our review of Riesenberg’s Under Sail : A Boy’s Voyage Around Cape Horn.
Despite Riesenberg’s experience, the “Three Hours for Lunch Club” quickly ran short of funds and the Tusitala was sold to James A Farrell, the president of US Steel and the founder of Isthmian Steamship Company. His sons would later form Farrell Lines which would grow to become a major US shipping firm. (Farrell Lines is now a US flag subsidiary of P&O Nedlloyd.)
Farrell operated the Tusitala in service from New York to Hawaii via the Panama Canal until in 1939 it became a training ship at the Unites States Maritime Services Training Center at Bayboro Harbor in St. Petersburg, Florida. The ship was finally scrapped in Mobile, Alabama in 1947.
Farrell donated the letter to the Seaman’s Church Institute in 1939. The bidding on the letter is expected to be in the range of $2,000 – 3,000.