Lost at sea

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

A sailor’s life – 16. Monkbarns: learning the ropes

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Square rigger Monkbarns, John Stewart & Co, Bert Sivell's collection

Square rigger Monkbarns, John Stewart & Co, Bert Sivell's collection

Bert Sivell recorded that he had arrived on board Monkbarns on August 14th1911, but the ship did not sail until the 22nd. In between, the new apprentices were “learning the ropes” – essential for working an unlit sailing ship at night in a storm when the wrong move was life and death. Everyone — even the cook — had to know the ship’s gear by feel, from the layout of the belaying pins where the running rigging was fastened, to the hemp edging identifying the back of the square sails. If a boy did not know the ropes, if he slackened or hauled on the wrong one in the blackness, he risked drowning them all.

Being neither officers nor crew, and unpaid to boot, apprentices were given all the nastiest jobs aboard, from polishing the brasswork to sanding the deck every morning on hands and knees. Bert spent the first week painting and cleaning, loading food and canvas, and working as a stevedore before the hired hands turned to. But off watch, in the boys’ rank dank little glory hole amidships, squatting on their shiny new sea chests, there were yarns and horseplay and friendships were struck up that would last a lifetime.

Out at sea, the chipping and greasing and swabbing and pumping continued unabated, at the beck and call of the Mate, or chief officer. The boys had to strike the bells on the poop that kept the ship’s time and heave the log, which measured speed and drift, and keep the compass binnacle (the stand) polished and the oil in the lamps topped up. They scrubbed the decks with great  ‘holystone’ blocks for hours at a stretch until their backs and knees ached, to prevent the timbers becoming slippery, and sluiced them with salt water to prevent shrinkage.

When there were ropes to be hauled on* [As any fule kno, there is in fact only one rope on a ship, and it is attached to the ship’s bell, the rest are halliards, braces, lines and hawsers, see below, Ed.], the boys pulley-hauled behind the crew and coiled the ends away. They helped take in sail and let out sail, and learned rapidly to jump aloft in all weathers and at all hours, feet splayed along the wires slung under each swaying yard, to grease a mast or slacken off the lines that gathered the canvas “bunt”, to prevent the sails chafing.

Within weeks they were clambering like monkeys, high up among the sails beyond the last tarred rope ratline, from where the ship far below looked like a blade cleaving the sea.

Read on: The devil provides the cook
Previously: Why would you?


Halliards haul up yards, braces swing yards, clewlines haul up the clews or corners of sail to the yard, buntlines gather the body or bunt of the sail to the yard, hawsers are for mooring. Some would say the ship’s bell hasn’t a rope either but a lanyard…

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  1. […] Read on: A sailor’s life – 16. Monkbarns: learning the ropes […]


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