Lost at sea

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

A sailor’s life – 39. Fishing for albatross

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Monkbarns - view from the yard arm. From the collection of John Fall, Australia

Monkbarns - view from the yard arm. From the collection of John Fall, Australia

Two weeks later, they tramped round the capstan at first light to a rousing chorus of Shenandoah,* and passed out of Rio bay into the open sea under tow. The apprentices were already aloft loosening sail.

The fo’c’sle crowd were a Scot, a Welshman, an Australian, three Finns, and a Norwegian – most of whom had arrived aboard Monkbarns the previous day distinctly the worse for drink. The cook, also new, was an Egyptian (known as “Satan” – to his disgust, although he wasn’t a bad cook), and there was one last young Welsh ordinary seaman who’d been with the ship since she left Cardiff in 1917, Laurence O’Keeffe from Port Talbot. Aged 17.

In all, they were thirty souls: Captain Donaldson and his four young mates, the three “idlers” – carpenter, sailmaker and cook, the four remaining senior apprentices, the ten new apprentices, and the eight crew.

They left Rio on 19th September 1918 bound for Bunbury, Western Australia, in ballast (that is not carrying any cargo, just weight) and ran south in fair weather backed by the current, not having to furl a sail or trim a yard for days.

On October 1st they sighted the rocky cliffs of Tristan de Cunha and turned eastwards into the “Roaring Forties”, a strong west wind that drove them along, until they were averaging 250, once even 288 knots a day.  The weather was colder here, the skies grey and the seas big. Every morning the boys were out on deck, scrubbing with long-handled brooms, cleaning the teak rails with sand and canvas, learning to splice and fix and take their two-hour “trick” at the great wheel, steering by the sails, watching to ensure they remained full, without the least quiver.

There were nasty jobs too, like greasing down the masts with a lump of pork fat tied to your belt, or tarring the wire backstays and shrouds – which involved slithering backwards down them with a pot of tar and a cloth swab.  But two blasts of the mate’s whistle meant a squall advancing visibly across the swells, and a race to take in royal or topgallant sails before they might be blown to rags. Then, when the squall was past, it was back aloft to re-stop the buntlines.

Albatross - southern oceans, from RSPB Save the Albatross campaignBy 42 degrees south, albatross appeared out of the empty skies, gliding effortlessly level with the ship’s rail day after day, waiting for the cook to dump something overboard, and the boys decided to catch one.

“To a hollow triangle of tin are tied lumps of pork fat,” wrote Victor Fall. “Pieces of cork are tied to the triangle to give it buoyancy; a strong line is attached to the base and the whole thing thrown over the side, where it floats, sinking into the troughs and rising on the crest of the waves – a bait no albatross can resist.”

Snagged by their own beaks when the lines were pulled taught, the huge birds – with a wingspan twice as tall as a man – were dragged hand over hand aboard. Once on deck they flapped helplessly, unable to take off except from the water, and were killed.

Ten were caught that trip, Fall recalled. Some were made into meatballs, which proved “almost uneatable”. The rest – the great webbed feet and strong white bones capable of flying thousands of miles across the Antarctic oceans – were made into tobacco pouches and pipe stems. For souvenirs.

And Monkbarns sailed on.

Next: Armistice in Bunbury, WA
Previous: A walk among the spars

Capstan shanty

Trudging round the capstan - from http://www.mustrad.org.uk

*The lyrics from Sea Songs and Shanties,
collected by W.B. Whall, Master Mariner (1910):

Miss-ou-ri, she’s a mighty riv-er.
A – way you rolling riv-er. The red-skins’ camp, lies on its bor-ders.
Ah-ha, I’m bound a-way, ‘Cross the wide, Miss-ou-ri

The white man loved the Indian maiden,
A – way you rolling riv-er. With notions his canoe was laden.
Ah-ha, I’m bound a-way, ‘Cross the wide, Miss-ou-ri

“O, Shenandoah, I love your daughter,
A – way you rolling riv-er. I’ll take her ‘cross yon rolling water.”
Ah-ha, I’m bound a-way, ‘Cross the wide, Miss-ou-ri.

The chief disdained the trader’s dollars: A – way you rolling riv-er. “My daughter never you shall follow.” Ah-ha, I’m bound a-way, ‘Cross the wide, Miss-ou-ri.

At last there came a Yankee skipper. A – way you rolling riv-er. He winked his eye, and he tipped his flipper. Ah-ha, I’m bound a-way, ‘Cross the wide, Miss-ou-ri.

He sold the chief that fire-water, A – way you rolling riv-er. And ‘cross the river he stole his daughter. Ah-ha, I’m bound a-way, ‘Cross the wide, Miss-ou-ri.

“O, Shenandoah, I long to hear you, A – way you rolling riv-er. Across that wide and rolling river.” Ah-ha, I’m bound a-way, ‘Cross the wide, Miss-ou-ri.


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  1. […] Fishing for albatross Previous: The new boys arrive in […]

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