Paquebot: mailing letters from the sea

Ron Tabbert talks of what live was like getting mail off the high seas.

Ron Tabbert

Special to the Star

We don’t have too many ocean liners plying the seas these days, but there was a time when it was the way to get “across the pond,” as some said it.  After several days or a week on board, travellers wanted to send a note home to let them know all was well.  Provisions were made for this, and letters could be posted on board.  They would be mailed at the next port and sail back on the next ship.

These “covers” (envelopes with stamps and cancels) were called “paquebot.”  In fact, the word was actually stamped on the cover.  It’s a French word believed to have been used in 1894 in Great Britain.  In 1897 it was adopted for general use by the Universal Postal Union, the organization that regulates international mail.  Paquebot means “packet boat,” though it has come to mean “mail boat” since it came to be stamped on ship-board mail.  “SS” in the cancel would indicate “steamship.”  “RMS” would later be used for “Royal Mail Ship.”

There are instances, too, of ships meeting on the ocean and swapping mail to be carried to the next port for mailing.  Whalers were often at sea for two years, and folks yearned for a line of communication with loved ones.  Often, captains would transfer to the other ship, even the crew, for dinner and a bit of socializing before sailing on. This led to an interesting phenomenon.  The open sea is international waters, so a ship was considered to be territory of the country under whose flag it sailed.  Thus, paquebot mail often has stamps of two different countries, or more commonly, has the stamps of one country and a cancel from another.

A Czechoslovakian, Richard Konkolski, sailed the world in his private “yacht” which he considered to be Czech territory and therefore stocked Czech stamps.  He reports that he never lost a letter, no matter where he mailed it.  He did, however, have to educate American postmasters about the practice, but he eventually became so familiar with their regulation book, he could refer them to the page as needed.

There may still be a place in the Galapogos Islands called Barrel Post Office Bay, dated from 1793.  It appears that since 1787 for sure, whalers have stopped there to pick up turtles, nature’s canned food.  A barrel was set up to receive mail which would (hopefully) be picked up by the next ship and carried on.  Mr. Konkolski reported he left some letters with assorted gifts for the finder, such as canned food, maybe a bit of rum or such, and his letters all arrived at their destination.

Land-locked communities also see boat mail at times.  It can be just a motor boat delivering local mail to an island town on up to a full, floating post office.  Many of the lakes in central Europe have boats with functioning post offices on board.  I have a cover cancelled in Ontario  July 4, 1950 aboard “Muskoka Lakes STR No. 2.”  STR being a “steamer.” These steamers remind me of the days when we hurried to put our letter right on the train in North Dakota and it would be stamped on board in the “RPO” (rail post office) and delivered to Grandma in a day or two as the train went through Montana.

Not many items survive from the Titanic, obviously.  And, though it’s an airship, covers cancelled on German dirigibles are common because they carried 12 tons of mail on each flight.  The United States even issued three stamps just for “Zeppelin” mail.  Covers from the Hindenburg are scarce, of course, since it went up in flames on its last arrival in the United States. These days you can e-mail family and friends from a ship almost anywhere.  But, if you wish, you can mail cards and letters on board.  Generally, most ships don’t have a post office, but the main information desk will stamp your mail with a circular design with the ship’s name and usually a sketch, and then post them at the next port.

Canada Post issued two “Alaska Cruise – Picture Postage” stamps in 2003 with a blank square where passengers could have their photo digitally printed on the stamp and then use them for mail.  Sheets of the stamps were available for purchase, but I have only read of one genuine card using the Cruise stamp mailed aboard ship.  Obviously my cards are as much for my collection as telling Mom I’m OK, but they still make nice souvenirs.  One is from the MS (Merchant Ship) Lofoten of the Hurtigruten route up the coast of Norway.

We’ll have some examples of these and other interesting items mailed “on board” at the next meeting of the Golden Stamp Club, 3 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 30.  Questions? Call Ron, 344-5939 or relich@uniserve.com .