Captain Christopher Bassett sailed the 53-ton schooner, Rob Roy, out of Newburyport harbor, with a fair wind, on the morning of June 28, 1832. Nine passengers headed to Portland, Maine were his only cargo. He was sailing the vessel pretty light, as there were no dark clouds that morning to foretell the destined consequences of a “swept hold.”
Fifty-five year old Capt. Bassett was a seasoned master, having followed the sea since his ninth birthday. Had he been sailing to Cuba without a cargo, as he sometimes did during his otherwise estimable career, he would have gone to the trouble to load ballast for the vessel’s stability, but it was typical in the 1830s for the hold of New England coasting schooners to be left empty or “swept,” unless a storm seemed imminent.
At about 2 p.m. a white squall came out of nowhere. According to later coverage in the Boston Courier, “The ‘Rob Roy’ was under a fore-sail, double reefed main-sail and jib, with her fore-top gallant-sail handed.” She had Boon Island E SE 5 miles and Nubble Point N NW 4 miles when a sudden, violent gust of wind took hold of her sails and flipped her on her beam ends.
Five passengers were trapped inside the cabin as it filled with sea water in an instant.
Mr. Samuel Cutler, the 80-year-old former Town Clerk of Newburyport and his wife, Lydia, tragically succumbed at once, as did Mrs. Hall. She was the sister of Capt. Stallard of Portland, who had recently lost the brig Hariet — in nearby Wells bay. The two other passengers trapped in the cabin were the widow of Newburyport grocer Moses Bailey and her 5-year-old son.
Capt. Bassett struggled unsuccessfully to pull the Bailey child up the companionway, but sinking twice, he almost lost his own life in the process. The passengers who had been above deck when the squall struck were Moses Clough of Portland, and George Roaf, Joseph L. Huse, and George Rogers of Newburyport. They, and an exhausted Bassett, clung for their lives to the side of the capsized schooner. The mate and two of the crew were able to get the schooner’s boat afloat and attempted to go for help.
Meanwhile, Capt. Littlefield had just left Wells harbor for Boston with the sails set on his year-old, Wells-built schooner Miriam. She was about the same size as the Rob Roy, but with a full load she was far more stable and maneuverable. The wind was unusually high on shore from the northwest. Nevertheless, Littlefield and his crew managed to rescue Bassett and the four surviving passengers and put them ashore at Wells. The next day, the survivors of the sudden calamity made their way to their respective home towns.
The Rob Roy and Capt. Bassett’s trunk, which had been onboard, were thought at first to be lost. The trunk contained $102 in money (a significant sum in 1832) and some copper currency plates for a new bank in Portland.
Several days after the accident it was reported in the Newburyport Advertiser, “It is thought that the accident having happened so near the land, the schooner, which is a good vessel, will be saved.”
And in the Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics on July 7, “The schooner ‘Rob Roy’ has been towed to Portsmouth and the bodies of those that perished were found and interred in that place on Sunday.”
The people of Newburyport mourned the death of Mr. Samuel Cutler with formal ceremony and his life was honored in the Newburyport paper. “Mr. Cutler was for many years a merchant, President of an Insurance Company and a vestryman and warden of the Episcopal Church of Newburyport.” He and his wife were removed to Newburyport and buried in the Episcopal churchyard.
Capt. Christopher Bassett went right back to work as soon as repairs to the Rob Roy were completed. Within the month he was delivering a cargo of molasses to J.B. & T Hall of Boston on the schooner Rob Roy.
Death at sea was still a fairly common occurrence for seamen and their passengers in the 1830s and 1840s, but a large percentage of the casualties that occurred on New England coasting schooners were blamed on instability caused by a “swept hold.”