Lost at sea

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

A sailor’s life – 37. Monkbarns apprentice: Victor Fall, 1918

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VG Fall (left), aged 13 in 1915, with his brother Don, school army cadets. From the collection of John Fall, Australia

VG Fall (left), aged 13 in 1915, in school army cadet rig with his brother Don. From the collection of John Fall, Australia

Monkbarns’ ten new apprentice boys arrived arrived in Rio de Janeiro in convoy aboard the RMS Highland Rover on 2nd September 1918 and Captain Donaldson was waiting for them on the quay. He was aboard as soon as they docked, to whisk them off to the British consul – and sign them on as crew.

None of the boys had been out of England before. Their brass buttons were shiny and their sea chests were brand new. The youngest of the ten was still only 15. The Old Man rounded up the luggage and shepherded the entire schoolboy party across Rio’s teeming bay by launch to where the old sailing ship lay in dry-dock, her tall masts bare and her decks piled with grimy mounds of rope and blocks.

In the dim half-deck house they were introduced to the senior apprentices, Wilkins, Watkins, Harries and Brough, four world-weary “old hands” in patched dungarees and bare feet, veterans of the Horn and the mutiny. The senior boys treated the newbies with the lofty superiority of age – though not one of them was himself out of his teens.

The British sailing ship Monkbarns, circa 1918

The British sailing ship Monkbarns, circa 1918

The half-deck was an iron bunkhouse amidships, two rooms and a corridor with doors either end so that entry could always be from the lee side of the ship while at sea. It was an ice box in winter and an oven in the tropics, but it had a skylight exit and a “monkey bridge” to the poop that was popular in heavy seas, when the decks were often awash to a depth of two feet or more. There were bunks around the walls on three sides, a bare deal table with raised sides up the middle – with boot-marked benches either side, a pot-bellied iron stove and a battered cupboard in the corner divided into lockers, with fancy knotted rope tails for handles. There was a mirror, mottled with damp, and a single kerosene lamp swinging in gimbals.

The bunks were narrow, with high boards along the open side to stop the sleeper rolling out as the ship pitched, and coloured pictures – often of girls, sometimes a country scene – pasted to the surrounding bulkhead by previous occupants. By some hung a canvas “tidy”, containing needles and cotton for repairs. The apprentices had to do all their own washing (in salt water) and their own mending, cobbling and hair cutting, and the old hands looked cynically at the new boys’ new straw mattresses. Their own bunks were bare except for blankets. “You won’t keep those long,” they said sagely, and within weeks the new boys learned why, when the “donkey’s breakfasts” had to be tossed overboard – crawling with  bed-bugs, the curse of long voyages and poor hygiene.

But that was later. The first day the social chat was provided by the Mate, who came into the half-deck, introduced himself and told them all, “Get out of those shore togs and into your working gear – there’s plenty of work to be done!” The boys were relieved to see he was young and “not at all formidable”, according to the then 17-year-old Victor George Fall.

For the rest of the afternoon they roamed the ship, “giving a hand here” and “taking a haul on that”, examining the maze of  ropes belayed to the fife rails around the masts, inspecting the capstans and winch, and gazing up at the spars high overhead. “Oh, go aloft if you want to,” said the Mate, Bert Sivell. “Might as well get used to it. Only don’t break your necks, we didn’t go to all the trouble of bringing you out here for that.”

So they did.

Coming next: A walk among the spars
Previous: After the mutiny

Work in progress: the book I never wrote about the sailor grandfather I never knew, from his apprenticeship on the square-rigger Monkbarns to his death by U97, presumed lost with all hands aboard the Shell oil tanker Chama in 1941 Blogroll


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  1. […] sea, windjammer « A sailor’s life – 35. Monkbarns: crimes and punishment A sailor’s life – 37. Monkbarns apprentice: Victor Fall, 1918 […]

  2. […] Coming next: Armistice in Bunbury, WA Previous: The new boys arrive in Rio   […]

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