Lost at sea

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

A sailor’s life – 15. Why would you?

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Ordinary seaman's indenture signed by Thomas Sivell, Bertie Sivell and Captain John Stewart in August 1911

Ordinary apprentice's indenture signed by the Sivells and Captain John Stewart in August 1911

The story in the family was always that Thomas Sivell, master carriage builder of Ryde, on the Isle of Wight, had packed his only child off to sea in sail to put him off sailoring once and for all. But it would appear the family was wrong again.

Life on the windjammers was cold and hard and dangerous, and no doubt a cruel shock after a year as a flunky on passenger ships. While steamers ate up the miles in straight lines across the ocean, sailing ships tacked and tossed at the will of the wind. They could not sail through Mr De Lesseps’ canal at Suez, linking Europe to the Far East, nor through the new canal being built at Panama to open up the Pacific. Instead, they fought their way south round the Horn and the Cape of Good Hope, adding thousands of miles and months of dangers to their journeys. Ships were lost and boys were killed, but as a training it was considered second to none.

Thomas paid £10 for Bert’s apprenticeship because Thomas was investing in gold braid.

Hindsight proves him right, too. Up to the first world war steam ship companies like Cunard and White Star, with the biggest and most modern engines, sought their officers only among those with experience in sail. The demand outlasted the ships. The Thames and Hull pilot services only dropped the requirement in the 1930s, by which time most of Britain’s sailing ships had been sunk or sold “foreign” to the Baltic and South America, and junior British officers were having to ship with foreign vessels to comply.

If Thomas did quietly harbour hopes of ill-winds, as my father believed, he got more than he bargained for. For the first world war broke out before the end of Bert’s four year apprenticeship, and Monkbarns was to go down in history as the last British commercial square rigger to suffer a mutiny.

Read on: Learning the ropes
Previously: Monkbarns apprentice


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  1. […] on: A sailor’s life – 15. Why would you? Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)A sailor’s life – 1. Beginning, middle and […]

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