Sailing on Land (Snippets 35)

sailing on land

Flora’s Wagon of Fools by Hendrik Pot (c. 1637)

Long before the days of trains or cars, travelling on land had been attempted many times by means of wind power.  This practice dates back to the 6th Century AD in China, and was first attempted in recorded European history in 1600.  It subsequently became something of a minority sport.

When the Right Reverend Ashton Oxenden (1808-1892) wrote his autobiography The History of My Life, in 1891, he mentioned a Sailing Machine from his youth, invented by his father Sir Henry Oxenden (1756-1838).  Ashton Oxenden was born in Kent, where he spend his childhood, although later in life he moved to Canada to become the Bishop of Montreal.

One of our great amusements as boys was the use of a certain Sailing Machine which my Father had invented, and in which we often sailed on Barham Downs, midway between Broome and Canterbury. Its structure was singularly beautiful, from its perfect combination of elegance and strength, with lightness, and velocity.

The circumstance which gave rise to its construction was this. When my Father was an under graduate at St. John’s College, Cambridge, there was a long and severe frost in the year 1776, which caused a large sheet of water to be thickly frozen over, extending far and wide over Whittlesea Mere, at that time an undrained marsh. One day the conversation happened to turn on the degree of speed attainable by a good skater, when my Father, with his enterprising spirit and his delight in any mechanical contrivance, offered to construct some kind of machine on wheels, which would carry him on the ice by means of a sail. Great excitement, as may be supposed, prevailed as to the result of this novel idea. He forthwith set to work, and in a few days launched his temporary vessel on the fine frozen mere, and triumphantly ran his mile in less time than he had undertaken to perform the feat.

This experiment completely answered; and he felt assured that, with the application of a little more science to the construction of a flat-decked machine on wheels, he would be able to sail on land with great speed; and this opinion was borne out by the after results. It was not long before he built, in the workshop at Broome, his first Sailing Machine, as mentioned above. It was a kind of Cutter-rigged Vessel on four wheels, with two sails, namely, a foresail and a large mainsail. This craft measured thirty-five feet from the tip of the bow sprit to the end of the boom. The steerage was extremely delicate, and it answered the rudder so promptly that the great difficulty was to have a sufficiently steady hand to keep the vessel in its course. It required three men to man it well, and there was barely room for two passengers besides the crew. Such was the history of the famous Sailing Machine, which gained a great name in our neighbourhood and county, affording us all an amount of pleasure.

It was indeed a gala day when the wind was declared to be favourable for a trip on Barham Downs, and I, as a boy, was allowed to join the sailing party, and to take my turn in the vessel. This was all the more enjoyable from the fact that our voyages were always accompanied with some risk, as the pace under a strong breeze was tremendous, and a capsize was of not unfrequent occurrence. In the enjoyment of this, and other amusements, the days of my boyhood passed very happily at my dear old home, and with plenty of brothers and sisters to share it with me.

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