Lost at sea

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

A sailor’s life – 30. For those in peril

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USS South Carolina, circa 1914 - photograph: US Naval Historical Centre

USS South Carolina, circa 1914 - photograph: US Naval Historical Centre

For merchant seamen, war at sea is never just enemy submarines, mine fields and warships; all the everyday hazards of wind, sea, dangerous cargoes, injury and isolation do not go away because a couple of countries far away are at loggerheads.

In May 1917, the sailing ship Monkbarns – bearing an unfortunate resemblance to a disguised German raider newly reported at large in the southern Atlantic – left Montevideo in Uruguay bound for Newport News, Virginia, and on arrival in the US lost eleven men, including every single one of the hands picked up in South America to replace deserters there. They were left kicking their heels in Newport for weeks while Captain Donaldson struggled to find crew, and out at sea the shipping losses mounted.

America had finally abandoned neutrality that April, and so it was the battleship USS South Carolina that sighted the supposed enemy raider See-Adler early on September 18th en route for Buenos Aires and ordered her at gunpoint to heave to. At breakfast time that morning, Monkbarns found herself being boarded and searched by the US navy, under one Ensign J. Wilkes.

New York Times cutting 1902

Fire aboard Monkbarns, New York Times cutting, June 22 1902

Sadly, Bert Sivell’s surviving postcards make no mention of See-Adler or the US naval patrol, but he does comment dourly on the quality of American coal and the stevedores who stowed it wet. The cargo picked up in Newport News heated badly, he wrote, and they narrowly avoided having to put back into Montevideo  with the ship on fire. Fire in the hold or a cargo that shifted, capsizing the ship, were the stuff of nightmares.

Newport had been all heat and flies, reported Bert, but the Old Man had bought a Victriola and twenty-eight records so they were “expecting some high class music this trip”.

They spent umpteen weeks in Buenos Aires, still struggling to sign enough men to work the ship, and then, two days out of the River Plate and finally underway again bound for Australia, found themselves caught by a pampero.

Suddenly there were hurricane winds and a high, confused sea that churned over and round them. All day they struggled to take in sail, clinging to the yards high above the lurching, rolling decks until, at 9pm, as apprentice Lewis Watkins recalled, the mizzen lower topsail “carried away with a noise like gunshot”.

Watkins was knocked off his feet and down a companionway, breaking his leg in several places, but there was no time for first aid. Every man had his hands full. So the boy was just dumped on his pitching bunk and left, teeth gritted against the pain. All night the men wrestled with the wind and the sails and the sea, and it was not until early the following day that Captain Donaldson, assisted by the carpenter and old Henry Robinson the sailmaker, had a spare hand to cut off Watkins’ sea boot and straighten and set the leg on the still rolling decks. Watkins fainted dead away, he said.

The following six weeks were rather pleasant, at least for him. He spent them in his bunk in the boys’ half-deck, cosy and dry while all hands worked the ship through the Roaring Forties, and he was still enjoying easy duties when Monkbarns arrived in Melbourne at the end of January 1918. At that point, Donaldson called in an Australian doctor – who prescribed re-breaking the leg and resetting the fracture. Recovery was galvanised, and Watkins was back up on the yards with the other boys by the time they sailed again, two months later, bound for New York with flour for the US army.

Eight men deserted in Melbourne and they spent 17 days stuck out in the anchorage fully loaded, ready to sail, while Donaldson tried to find last-minute replacements. Time and again, men signed then failed to appear. “We are still short of four men and a cook,” Bert wrote to his mum on March 5th 1918, “so goodness only knows when we will get away.” The eight who eventually did arrive aboard were “a bunch of stiffs”, according to the apprentices, or as Donaldson put it later “a crew of the most difficult men.”

There was an American, a Peruvian, a Chilean and a Dane, a Norwegian cook, a Welsh former bosun with a good record, and an Irishman who claimed to have spent 30 years in jail. Neither the American nor the Peruvian appeared to have been to sea anytime recently, as there is no date for previous employment against their names in the crew list, and Donaldson’s records show he had to advance them £1 16s each to buy appropriate clothes. The eighth, a Dutchman, pulled a knife on young Watkins the first time they went aloft alone. He had come at him crabwise along the yard, hissing “you’re as bad as those bastards aft,” Watkins said.

Three months later they were all in court, charged with mutiny, in a row that would end Donaldson’s career.

Read on: The mutiny on the Monkbarns
Previously: Friend or foe?

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  1. […] Read on: For those in peril on the sea […]


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