Lost at sea

Tales my grandfather would have told me. A sailor's life 1910-1941

A sailor’s life – 14. Monkbarns apprentice

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Monkbarns running under lower tops'ls, from the private collection of John Fall

Monkbarns running under lower tops'ls, from the private collection of John Fall

Day after day and night after night there was nothing round the ship but the howl of the wind, the tumult of the sea, the noise of water pouring over her deck. She tossed, she pitched, she stood on her head, she sat on her tail, she rolled, she groaned, and we had to hold on while on deck and cling to our bunks when below…

From Youth, Joseph Conrad, published 1902 

In 1912, the year Titanic sank with her band playing and the men deep in her engine room drowning to keep the electric lights blazing across the icy waters, Monkbarns was a throwback to a darker age.

Lit only by the smelly kerosene lamps that lurched in the cramped living quarters fore and aft, Monkbarns had no generator to winch cargo or weigh anchor, no auxiliary motor, refrigerator or Marconi.  She had no great steam boiler growling in her bowels fed by a mountain of coal and a dozen stokers, condensing drinking water and drying wet clothes as it pushed them onwards across the sea. On Monkbarns the only sources of heat were a couple of cast iron bogey stoves and the coffee pot bubbling on the galley fire — until the cook chased you away. Down among the narrow bunks where the men off watch ate and slept, from the crew in the cramped fo’c’sle — where the waves boomed and crashed under the bows — to the officers in the cramped saloon aft, the ship reeked of wet oil skins, Stockholm tar, pipe smoke, and the dank straw mattresses known to sailors as donkey’s breakfasts.

It was a groaning, moaning, banging world 267 feet long and 23 feet wide, contained within a squat rust-streaked hull and dominated by three masts festooned with hemp and steel lines and wooden spars. Overhead, acres of weather-beaten canvas strained and slapped, tearing muscles and ripping fingernails to the bloody quick.

There was a raised deck fore with the anchor and a raised deck aft with the great wheel, open to the winds, and in between, set apart from both the men and the masters, two deck houses, one for the apprentice boys and one for the “idlers”: the cook, the sailmaker and the ship’s carpenter. Below them and sometimes stacked around them, was the cargo: wood or grain or coal or wool, but always “saltpetre” (nitrate) back.

When Monkbarns left Hamburg bound for Santos, in Brazil, on Bertie Sivell’s first trip, there were 14 men in the fo’c’sle, mainly Germans, Danes and Swedes, plus a Finn and an Austrian, and Bert was one of nine gangly apprentices in the boys’ house, conspicuous in their crisp new dungarees. Although the ship was Liverpool registered, only the boys and the young 1st and 2nd mates were English, and not all of them. At 16, Bert wasn’t the youngest aboard either. The senior apprentice was 21, but the Old Man – who wasn’t a bad old stick – promoted him out of the half deck as 3rd Mate on Christmas day, the log records.

Captain James Donaldson, master of Monkbarns 1911-1919

Captain James Donaldson, master of Monkbarns 1911-1919

The “Old Man” was a Scot, Captain James Donaldson of West Kilbride. Ship masters are always known to their men as the Old Man, no matter how young they may be, but Monkbarns’ Old Man was old indeed; a tall, thin, stiff, white-haired giant of 62, gaunt and craggy after half a century at sea. The son of an Ayrshire coal miner, he had started in coasting vessels at 17 and worked himself up the hard way through the fo’c’sles of deepwater traders.

By 1912, James Donaldson had been a master in sail for 36 years. But he had evidently not forgotten what it was to be young, for he kept a wind-up gramophone and a few records in the saloon for Sunday afternoons at sea, when his apprentices washed their socks and smalls. There had been a Mrs Donaldson, but the boys the Old Man trained did not recall her later when they themselves were old Cape Horners recounting for posterity their tales of the Monkbarns years. But they remembered their old master with respect and affection, as a “gentleman of the old school”.

And the old school in square riggers was tough. Officers, men and apprentices alike lived in two “watches”, working four hours on and four off day and night, night and day, except for two hours between 4pm and 8pm when they ate their evening meal, and swapped over. Their lives were measured in half-hourly bells, one to eight, telling through the day from black coffee and hard tack at 4am to the graveyard shift at midnight and on to 4am again. Week in week out, miles from land, through sunshine or fog, eight bells sounded the weary end of one watch and the bleary start of another.

In heavy weather, of course, there was no routine and no rest, only the imperious cry of “all hands!” and the urgency of taking in or letting out sails, dragging the yards round to change tack, and the kick of the great steering wheel aft which could break the helmsman’s arms and knock him flying across the poop.

Then, the teenagers clinging spray-drenched to the yards 80 feet above the pitching deck, fighting the bellying canvas with frozen fingers, swiftly learned the first rule of sail, which was “one hand for the ship, one for yourself”. There were no safety harnesses or carabiners. Like the Alpinists of their day, if they let go, they fell off, and once overboard they would swiftly be swept from view.

It was not always possible to turn the ship in heavy weather, nor to risk lifeboats and more lives. Mountainous seas can hide whole fleets let alone a bobbing head and flailing arms. Seamen often deliberately did not learn to swim, to ensure the end was quick.

Read on: Why would you?
Previously: Apprenticeship


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  1. […] on: A sailor’s life – 14. Monkbarns apprentice Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)A sailor’s life – 1. Beginning, middle and […]

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