go to home page
go to home page

Chapter 1 — EARLY DAYS
2. Sailing Ship Days

I was a sturdy youth of nineteen when — in 1884 — I joined my first ship at Barrow-in-Furness as one of her four apprentices. She was a Liverpool barque of 800 tons, was bound to an Australian port with rails, and was owned by a firm with a Jewish name, whose choice as my owners was never explained. I had been to a ball the previous night in London, had left at the last moment possible, travelled up in my dress suit, changed at a hotel into dungarees and went down to the docks; so the transition of circumstances was somewhat sudden.

The half-drunk Mate with a running wall-eye, the permanent ooze from which left a coloured mark down his cheek, was cleaning a pump, and he told me off at once to help him. The loading of the rails had just been completed. On the wharf was the Captain urging on the Ship's-husband — as the Captain-Superintendent of those days was named — the threat of severely bad weather and the impossibility of getting the rails properly tommed down and secured before the morning tide; to which the other replied: 'Captain Joncs, the tug has been engaged, the crew sign on this afternoon, you'll take the ship to sea or I'll get some one else who will'; and he turned away and hurried up the stevedores.

The next morning the bad weather had begun; storm signals were flying for what later proved to be one of the severest and most disastrous gales known on the coast; the tug had got hold of us; on the wharf a couple of harbour officials were commenting on the folly of our leaving, and the Ship's-husband with cold-looking smile was wishing the Captain a pleasant voyage.

The wind was westerly and rising, the sea increasing, and it was not until after dark — the sky was heavily overcast — that the necessary offing for making sail had been obtained. Lower topsails and jib were set and the hauling in of the heavy tow rope then began. For some reason, possibly the darkness and an increasing sea, the tug let go the hawser without first easing back towards the ship, and the Captain went forward to see about this very awkward matter. He returned soon after, and for the first time since I had been on board he spoke to me.

' You're a training ship boy, aren't you? Well, let's see what you can do; the mate is drunk, the second mate has all he can do setting sail and clearing up; I must look after the hawser myself; you stay here on the poop and see that the helmsman keeps her just full-and-bye; don't let her break-off, and for God's sake don't let her get aback.' So he left me, and it was four hours or more before he came again.

At first, pride in this early and unexpected responsibility dominated every other feeling, but not for long; for seasick-ness, which had commenced some time before, gripped me with foul violence. I had heard of the cure of drinking sea-water to get the business done with; I now tried it, filling my cupped hand from the scupper; as a consequence I felt that I would gladly die; but by the time that my watch was ended that drastic remedy had served its purpose well.

We slumped down channel on the starboard tack under upper topsails, the wind rising and the sea increasing; and then came the catastrophe we feared: the rails broke loose. Down into that inferno of slithering, greasy, massive railway irons—the upper layers rolling from side to side and sliding end on and fore and aft — were ordered the two Mates and all of the crew except a helmsman. Four hours later I was sent down to inquire how they were getting on. Vast clash and clatter of tumbling rails; sickening smell of paint added to the thick closeness of a hold; darkness made blacker by the flickering slush-lamps; vain efforts to secure, to lash, to tom down those giant spillikins, which now criss-crossed each other in a monstrous muddle; a dangerous struggle with impossibilities, which after another hour was given up. Then we squared away, and in a very few hours were off Liverpool — in the dusk — and there was shouting through a megaphone to and from a tug. ` What will you take us in for? '—` So and so.'—` No, that 's impossible.'—` I 'll do it for so and so.' —` Can't be done, my limit is so and so.'—` Good-bye and good luck.'

    My next recollection is holding the lamp on deck while the Captain studied the chart of the Liverpool approaches. In his anxiety and doubt he spoke to me as if I were worth consulting, and I experienced another piece of pride. ' High water at eight; we can't stand off; we must do it now or never; we may be too soon before high water and, if so, we shall be lost upon the bar. What do you think, boy? '—` I should risk it, sir.'—` Well, I won't. If I did, I should probably lose my ship by my own act; I prefer to risk the Act of God.'

He gave the order, ' Haul in the starboard braces,' and so we stood away on the port tack towards the north on the chance of being able to make Barrow-in-Furness again. Further north at daybreak another tug appeared; there was no bargaining this time — presumably salvage conditions held. The storm lulled a little; we hove to, used oil to make a smooth, and a pilot boarded from a little tubby boat that is so much safer in a seaway than a gig. Then again was safety snatched from us, for the tug in trying to take our hawser was swept by a sea so close across our bow that the jib-boom, striking her funnel, knocked it overboard. The tow boat, now herself in danger, proceeded in her crippled state towards the coast.

And now we hauled the foreyard round, and again we were close-hauled on the port tack; but the coast between Formby Point and Southport was on our lee, and the delay caused by the boarding of the pilot had resulted in our drifting so far towards it that to beat out became impossible; so we dropped both anchors and veered out the cables to their bitter1 ends.
1 — Note the nautical derivation of bitter end in its popular sense — the tail-end, the end secured to the bitts.
The day before the galley doors had been demolished by the seas and the place gutted out, and now in addition to no cooking no fresh water could be had. There was no one on deck.

With the Captain in the after-quarters were the mates, the carpenter, the sailmaker and the pilot; in our house, the most exposed and weakest structure of the vessel, were we four boys; in the forecastle were the crew. The opinion of the pilot had been repeated that there was little chance for us; we were in that worst of places, The Devil's Hole; to leeward of it there were quicksands, and no boat, he said, would stem the sea then running. That sea had not the mere up and down turbulence of ordinary waves. These were travelling waves with their vicious rush and hollow crests; they leapt over our bow and bulwarks and every now and then they filled the deck from side to side.

In that little cabin were we four; two were in their bunks. Norman Waitt and I — we had been Worcester boys together — were lingering over a last orange, hiding it greedily from the other two. Our thirst was bad, for we had been fed on ship biscuit and raw salt sprats for the last day or so, and there was not a drop of any normal thing to drink; but Waitt's thirst was too bad for him to be limited by what was normal, so he mixed all the medicines from the little chest his mother had provided and drank the lot. They must have counteracted one another, for no bad effects resulted.

I have no recoIIection of feeling fear; probably the combined misery of cold, of wetness — a scuttle had stove in — and overpowering thirst, saved me from anything further in the way of feeling. How miserable we were is shown by the oath we took on the Bible of my friend that, were we saved, we would never go to sea again.1 And now through the outrageous din of crashing seas and battering debris came the snap of a breaking cable. We did not hear the breaking of the second one; we learnt of it by the Mate's raucous shouting down the forecastle: ' Come aft, you blankity blankities, in ten minutes the lot of us will be in hell.' We got aft before we struck, and, as the vessel was then carried by the rushing waves, less water came on board. Then we struck the sand, and as each wave lifted and then dropped us the effect was as if we ourselves had been dropped ten feet or so.

1 — Wain broke his oath before I did and was wrecked again and drowned.
The whole of us were now in the saloon. The men asked for drink, but did not get it; the wall-eyed Mate was promising with blasphemies to lead a better life, if only he were saved this time; the Captain, with his affection for the ship, which he had commanded many years, was saying ` Poor old girl ! Poor old girl ! ' each time she struck; and the pilot was cheering us by references to those quicksands on our lee that had swallowed up so many ships.

But Providence or luck came to our aid. At the top of high water we were thrown over a certain ridge, and at daybreak found we were in unexpected safety from the quicksands. We saw, too, dotted round the bay, perhaps a dozen other wrecks of sailing vessels. It was said to have been a record of wrecked ships in sight of one another; and the loss of life — in those others — was very heavy. It was a very famous storm, that gale of '84.

We were landed by a lifeboat when the storm had lulled, and in the evening we got to Southport some miles away by walking. The wreck, we learnt, would be high and dry next morning when the tide had ebbed, so we hired a waggon with a pair of horses to take us there at daybreak in order to recover our effects before the wreckers got to work. We had made arrangements to that end when a man, well spoken and well dressed, offered to find us lodgings: and he took us to a brothel. For a time we were greatly puzzled by the place; then realization came and we fled in anger and disgust. In my diary I find this entry: ' We were taken to a restaurant, but, not finding it to our liking, left it '— a curious understatement; a genteel entry; significant of many things in an early-Victorian boy. And then, in spite of our appearance — jerseys, dungaree pants and sea-boots, no coats, no hats, — we went boldly to the Royal Hotel at dinner-time, and were warmly welcomed and made much of.

I suppose it was the influence of that oath — which I took quite seriously for a time — and the memory of the fear of death, which that crowd of rough men expressed in prayers and blasphemies, that made me wish to be a Naval Chaplain. I was quite a pious youth in an ordinary way, and the experience of the wreck gave me cause for thought; but it was not to be, and for a very curious reason. I wonder, indeed, if ever before or since so solemn and serious an intention has been frustrated by so ridiculous and scandalous a cause, which altered too the channel of my life.

I was to be interviewed by a weIl-known tutor for Naval Chaplaincies whose name was Littlejohn. I happened to know the neighbourhood where he lived at Greenwich, so I took no note of it nor of his name; the latter so easy to remember, even though my memory for names was always bad. I rang the bell, and then to my consternation realized that even that easy name had vanished from my mind. ` Is your master in? ' would sound so like a butcher's boy and give quite a wrong impression. Then the door opened and there appeared a fluffy pretty maid. For a moment I hesitated, then inspiration came. ' Is Mr. Smallcock in? ' I innocently asked. I must not tell what happened then — at first she Iooked puzzled, but not for long — of what she said and how she shooed me from the door and slammed it in my face. Then I realized what I had done, and I went away with my tail tucked well between my legs, feeling like nothing on earth, went home and told my father I had changed my mind and wished to go to sea again. If my memory had not failed me — if I had not made that error — I might have been a bishop.

It is not my purpose to tell the story of those three years in a sailing ship. It was a period of great variety and contrast; long spells of monotony varied by the strenuousness of shortening sail in gales and of wet and bitter cold; the contrast of the crude life on board with my experiences at Sydney and Wellington, where I had introductions and dined and danced and picnicked and went to Government House, and fell most violently in love with the daughter of a bishop; the wild interest of San Francisco in those early days — ' You'll get your neck shaved or your throat cut,' said the barber when I objected to being subjected to the local fashion; the close contact with one's fellows on those long passages — six months from San Francisco to England without a glimpse of land, a drunken Captain who thought I was the owner's nephew and made me read the Bible to him when he was threatened with D.T.; there was a half-witted apprentice whom he baited —' Boy, what do you mean by letting the wind drop; whistle, damn you, and whistle till it comes '— and Sam would whistle for hours on end until his lips were paralysed; then in a calm when the ship rolled heavily —' Boy, put a handspike in that scupper and heave as she comes up to ease the rolling '— and Sam would heave until his muscles nearly burst.

If you look at a map of the Southern hemisphere you will see that south of latitude forty there is a continuous belt of water a thousand miles or so in width right round the world, except where it is narrowed by Patagonia jutting into it; in that belt — the wind is ever west and nearly always blows a gale. And round and round it ceaselessly travel great waves; they are straight furrows in the sea some sixty feet in depth — straight to the horizon on either side with the perspective of a railway line — and their crests foam over with a roar; there is nothing like that monstrous rhythmic movement elsewhere in the world. These are the Roaring Forties of the sailing days which formed the track for ships from the Cape to Australia and thence to the Horn. Our little barque slithered up and down those slopes, and the crest came rushing up astern and sometimes topped the poop and smashed the lashed helmsman against the wheel. But now the Roaring Forties are deserted. ` All hands on deck; stand by the main topsail halliards.'

We are going to shorten sail. It is blowing hard, of course, and bitter cold, with that penetrating cold of sleet. It is night time — the sky densely overcast — and very dark; seas are lopping over the weather bulwark — heavy dollops of them — and the lee side of the deck is full of water. We are, of course, in oilskins and sea-boots with lots of clothes beneath — lumbering, slow-moving figures. There are curses in the air — curses of great variety — as one man gets his sea-boots filled and another slides on his back into the full lee scuppers. But now the halliards have been eased away and the bunt-lines snuggled home; we mount the weather rigging led by the lusty Second Mate, then crawl out on the yard, our feet on the swinging foot-rope, which bulges up and down between the stirrups with the movement of the men. With one's chest against the yard and one's body sloping and pointing aft, there is stability of sorts and one's hands are free to try and grasp the sail; but that sail is thick and hard and wet — perhaps it is even frozen — and it is only when it flaps that one can get a grip, and, if one is not supported by the others with their grip, a flap may jerk one off the yard. There is real earnestness to do the business and to get on deck again. In the bunt — the middle of the yard — is the Second Mate, and in cheerful tones with a curious yodling lilt he sings invariably that little ancient song whose meaning is unknown but whose purpose Iike all shanties is for team work. The officer's part is usually a mere sequence of conventional vowel sounds, though he may vary them by words; but the men's chorus, when they make their united effort, is invariably the same. Thus:-

' Call all hands. Stand by the main topsail halliards.' We are going to make sail, and this is a much more cheerful business. The weather is improving; the decks are dry perhaps. A few of us jump aloft to let go the gaskets which hold the sail; and then we gather round the bitts to hoist the heavy yard and sail. Either the Mate or the Second Mate leads the shanty. The former may select a well-known historical one about Napoleon with fixed and rather dreary words, such as ` Boney was a Warrior.' The more cheery Second Mate is likely to choose one about a girl.

The more or less impromptu words were often rhyming nonsense, but sometimes contained a genuine sentiment, and others were distinctly Rabelaisian. They were very useful, those shanties. They turned an arduous piece of work into an entertainment.