Lost at sea

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

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A sailor’s life – 25. Monkbarns and Lusitania, May 1915

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The sinking of the Lusitania, reported in the New York Times

The sinking of the Lusitania, reported in the New York Times

It was spring 1915. Europe was at war and the German Kaizer had struck back against the British blockade of German ports by announcing unrestricted submarine warfare: no warning would be issued, said Berlin. U-boats would sink any merchant vessel of any nationality seen to be approaching any British port. As the sailing ship Monkbarns rejoined the steamer tracks across the north Atlantic after a long, hard passage round the Horn from northern Chile, the whole sea around the British Isles was a war zone. But the men and boys aboard Monkbarns didn’t know that. They were more concerned about the dwinding provisions aboard.

From saloon to fo’c’sle, they were hungry. The salt pork and beef in the casks had not travelled well. Eventually even the water was brackish. Leif Asklund described the last rations as mouldy biscuits and pickles and some “slobs” of fat from the meat barrel. As day slipped into day, they ran up flags, signalling to the first ship they saw. But the distant funnels scattered over the horizon, fearing a trap.

Eventually a Scottish steamer stopped and Monkbarns lowered a lifeboat to row across. Young Asklund was one of the oarsmen and recorded his delight at the couple of bags of potatoes they were allowed to buy. As well as other stores, the Scottish captain gave each of the rowers a cigar – a huge treat for men who hadn’t seen any “baccy” for many weeks. He also sent over some newspapers, which was how they learned of the German U-boats preying on merchant vessels off the Irish coast.

By April, 128 days out from Caleta Buena, when Monkbarns finally picked up the pilot outside Queenstown (nowadays Cobh, County Cork), the war had claimed more than 100 merchant ships – sunk or captured, including a British cargo freighter bound for the US to pick up food aid for Belgium.

Harpalyce had been torpedoed despite her white flag and the words Belgian Relief painted in huge letters on her hull. Fifteen men including the master died, and American public opinion — previously mixed about the British tactic of starving Germany into submission — was shocked.

Queenstown harbour was closed off with nets at night but open by day and the Monkbarns fo’c’sle hands were able to buy fresh eggs from a bumboat while they were at anchor; food which, Asklund claimed, the master and mates sometimes had in port but “we others” never got. He also claimed to have seen a periscope near the ship one foggy day, a story my grandfather backed up, but again the old windbag was unmolested.

In Queenstown, Monkbarns received orders to continue across the Irish Sea to Garston, near Liverpool, but because of the U-boat attacks she had to wait three weeks for an armed escort. On May 7th 1915, the old windjammer was barely out of Queenstown harbour and still under tow by the Dutch steam tug Zwarte See when it picked up a distress call from the passenger liner Lusitania, five miles away. The apprentice boys on Monkbarns watched the ships steam out of Queenstown past them to pick up the survivors, fully expecting that they might be next, according to their young Swedish crony in the fo’csle. They were, after all, carrying nitrates needed for the war effort.

Lusitania, bound for Liverpool from New York, had been torpedoed without warning and sank in eighteen minutes. More than eleven hundred lives were lost, including a hundred and twenty-eight Americans and nearly a hundred children.  The US president was outraged. But neutral America was still not quite ready to enter the war. Germany apologised.

Questions were raised about why such a fast ship, capable of travelling at 26 knots, should fall prey to a much slower U-boat. Why the master was not zig-zagging, and why warnings of three other attacks in the same area in the previous two days were ignored. Two explosions had been heard, and Germany claimed the second was a secret cargo of munitions exploding in the hold. Britain said it was coal dust igniting in the empty bunkers. There were rumours of German spies among the dead.

Germany's warning the US, 1915

Germany’s warning to the US, 1915

Two weeks previously a warning issued by the German embassy in Washington had run beside Cunard’s advertisements in several US newspapers. “NOTICE!” it read. “
Travellers intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies; that the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isles; that, in accordance with formal notice given by the Imperial German Government, vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters and that travellers sailing in the war zone on ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.”

It was widely dismissed. Why, if it was safe enough for the millionaire Vanderbilts, with their connections … (Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, aged 37, and his valet were among the lost – last seen tying a life jacket to a woman with a baby.)

In the trenches of northern France allied troops were choking on a new deadly green gas. They had no masks, just instructions to “breathe through damp cloth”. British casualties in the war were tens of thousands and mounting.

On arrival in Liverpool, Bertie Sivell went home to his parents. They had not seen him for two years.

Read on: End of indentures
Previously: Monkbarns and the Battle of Coronel

Lost at Sea – 82. The sailmaker’s tale

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Monkbarns at sea, October 1925 - Old Man (Captain William Davies) Russell at helm and 'Sails', Henry Robertson

Monkbarns at sea, October 1925 – the Old Man (Captain William Davies), Ian Russell AB at helm and ‘Sails’ Robertson, private collection E. Bainbridge

One of the rare surviving photos of everyday life aboard Monkbarns shows a handsome man in a cap and leather waistcoat sitting on a low bench on the aft deck surrounded by folds and billows of canvas. His tools and twine are laid out in a neat “housewife” beside him, and both hands are busy as “Sails” looks up from his work to smile at the camera.

The master perches on the saloon skylight nearby in jacket and bow tie, having insisted on changing into his good shore-going gear for the occasion. In the background, a youth at the wheel studiously minds the sails overhead. The sea is calm and the sun is high.

Henry Robertson was 70 when the image was recorded in 1925 by the ship’s final English apprentice, Eugene Bainbridge, who brought a fresh eye and a Leica aboard with him.

“Sails” was a grizzled widower from the east coast of Scotland. He liked his own company and staring into the middle distance with his pipe, the master’s son recalled*, and would recite chunks of Sir Walter Scott’s epic poem Marmion to himself whenever he thought no one was listening.

He had been at sea all his life, the son of the court clerk of Montrose who’d died when he was six, leaving the family to experience “what it was like to have the sheriff officer in the house to take away the clock to pay for poor rates,” as he put it.

Back in Scotland were four grownup children, three daughters and a son, born at five year intervals to the pretty housemaid he’d met at a dance in Montrose in his thirties. She had died of tuberculosis in 1907, leaving the baby to be raised by her eldest daughter and younger sister. “Sails” was devoted to them all and wrote frequently to his daughters, but he preferred to stay afloat.

'Sails' Henry Robertson

Henry Robertson with his son and daughters in Dundee, 1920. Photograph private collection.

The girls concurred. A studio portrait from 1920 shows a handsome family, happy and relaxed around a proud father. But the girls were resilient and resourceful as well as beautiful; sea voyages were long and mails irregular, and for eight months after their mother’s death they’d forged her signature on their father’s allotment note, to keep receiving Henry’s pay and keep the family together. They also embroidered the truth a little locally, making out that he was a ship’s master rather than a sailmaker, and had run away to sea rather than follow in the footsteps of his stuffy town clerk father and grandfather.

In a letter written the year after his wife died, Henry describes being swept overboard in oilskins and seaboots that March during seven weeks of fearful bad weather south of Cape Horn and only narrowly escaping with his life by hanging onto the line he’d been repairing. “All I thought of when in the sea, ‘my bairns are Motherless now they are to be Fatherless’ – but God has had more for me to do, and saved me from a watery grave for a time.”

Ditton had endured “gale after gale, and the wind like to blow the old ship to pieces,” he wrote to his daughters. “I was in the sea a good while before anyone knew I was overboard, so when they did come to pull me up, I could not hold on so away I went again, I was so numbed with the icy seawater … The skipper says he never pulled so hard in his life as he did getting me on board.” The mountainous seas had also smashed the chart and wheel houses and carried away two of the lifeboats, he said.

Full rigged ship Ditton

Ditton – steel full-rigged ship built in 1891, sailed from Hamburg to Santa Rosalia, on the Pacific coast side of Mexico, in 180 days in 1907

It is an account that seems to offer little reassurance for 18-year-old Nell left caring for her three-year-old brother, but when Henry briefly attempted life ashore, his youngest daughter, Jean, later looked back on it as the worst two years of her life. The girls were used to doing things their own way, and Henry hated living on dry land. So back to sea he went. And at sea he remained.

He and Monkbarns were off Chile when the first world war began far away in Europe, and for five years they were kept busy carrying nitrates for explosives, and flour for troops – dodging enemy raiders and submarines and hunger and mutiny described elsewhere. In 1919, Monkbarns finally struggled home manned largely by apprentices. The old master and the young mate, my grandfather, quit. The “Old Man” – as masters are always called – retired to Australia, and Bert Sivell abandoned sail for oil tankers.

“Sails” hung on, and continued hanging on – patching and mending – as the ship and new young crew spent the next two years trying to beat steamers to peace-time cargoes. When Monkbarns was towed to Belgium in 1921 to be laid up alongside some of the world’s other surplus antiquated tonnage, “Sails” signed on as cook and bottlewasher. The master and mate were obliged to be aboard, but “Sails” was there, the master’s son wrote, “because he had no wish to be anywhere else”.

As the three tugs pushed and pulled them across the Channel in thick fog that September, Henry, leaning on the ship’s rail, puffing on his short black pipe as was his habit, will have passed the remains of HMS Vindictive still visible off the mole at Zeebrugge, and the deserted tangles of barbed wire in the sand dunes along the coast. Inland lay a lunar landscape of dead tree stumps, shell holes and trenches.

The U-boat shelters in Bruges

The U-boat shelters in Bruges, June 1919 – photograph: Australian War Memorial

Monkbarns came to rest in Bruges, seven miles from the sea, beside a row of concrete U-boat pens in an outer dock a mile’s walk and a tram ride from the great medieval cathedral and picturesque canals. Beside and behind her were three other laid-up ships, including Laeisz’s Perim and H. Hackfeld, confiscated from the Germans by the Allies as war reparations to the Italians. The ink was barely dry on the treaty of Versailles, ending the first world war, and around them Belgium was a wasteland.

Pretty Bruges itself, however, had survived the war largely unscathed as an enemy-occupied marine base, where German frontline troops came for brief R&R from the mud and blood of Ypres and Passchendaele, billeted on local families or in schools and churches. Officers of the Kaiser’s army came from miles around asking to see the town’s collection of Flemish Primitive paintings. The main damage was “friendly fire” from Allied attacks, parried by the new German Flugabwehrkanonen (Flak).

By Christmas 1921, there were lights and decorations, bright shops spilling light and warmth onto the cobbles, and fantastic chocolate confectionary too amazing to eat, according to Captain William Davies’ son, Ifor, who had arrived for the school holidays in the station cabbie’s horse-drawn landau. His mother and younger brother were already living aboard.

Ifor remembered fondly the warm welcome the Welsh family received from their “well-fed” Flemish butcher and his wife and daughter in the Grand’rue and the genteel patissier where they bought their bread, cakes and groceries. Mijnheer Lobrecht produced cigars for Captain Davies and thick slabs of chocolate for the children, while Monsieur Fasnacht – “a tall slender gracious old man with a sparse imperial beard and gold-rimmed spectacles” – conjured up steaming cups of hot chocolate.

At the moorings, too, a small convivial international community had formed, with lots of visiting. Captains Graziano, da Costa and Mazzoni poured mysterious drinks in tiny glasses and their wives introduced the family from Nefyn to ravioli. Communication was fractured, but no one minded.

During the summer, Sails could watch from the rail as the children played football on the concrete floor of the old German barracks, or rowed on the canal. Sometimes they took a trip on one of the barges plying the waterway to the sea, or helped local farmers picking fruit – returning with bags of fresh produce. In winter the dock froze, and they played on the ice around the ships until Mrs Davies called them in to eat. If the weather was bad, they hung around the warm galley, watching the old Scot prepare their meals, or huddled in the sail locker to watch him pushing the big needle to and fro through the mountains of canvas with his leather sail-maker’s palm.

Laid-up or not, the work of mending the standing rigging and patching and “roping” the sails – sewing on hemp bolt-rope edges for strength and identification – continued.

Arbroath from the harbour

Arbroath on the east coast of Scotland, immortalised by Sir Walter Scott in The Antiquary as “Fairport” (Private postcard)

Monkbarns spent 16 months in Belgium but Henry was only lured ashore once, on Christmas Eve, and then only came out of courtesey to Mrs Davies because, as her son put it, “he was a gentleman”. Mostly he kept himself to himself, refusing invitations to join the family in the saloon and settling instead in the warmth by the galley stove with his pipe. He was a keen reader with a rich booming voice, and loved to recite to himself for hours on end. He knew by heart enormous stretches of narrative poems like Marmion and The Lady of the Lake (“Where shall he find, in foreign land, so lone a lake, so sweet a strand…)

“Most of the time, we respected his privacy,” Ifor recalled. “But once in a while Dick [the mate] would tempt us after supper to leave the saloon and tiptoe towards the galley so that we could hear Sails. If we knocked at the door he would courteously invite us in, tell us to make ourselves at home, and then, without a trace of self-consciousness or condescension, continue where he had left off.”

To Henry, the works of Sir Walter Scott were not merely pleasant recreation but also a link with home. Monkbarns is the main character in Scott’s third Waverley novel, The Antiquary; a well-to-do collector living in an ancient house Scott based on Hospitalfield, Arbroath, the leprosy hospice founded in the 13th century by the monks of Arbroath abbey. Scott had stayed there as a guest. When Sails signed on with Monkbarns he gave his address as 24 Allan Street, Arbroath.

The ship Monkbarns was one of three commissioned for a prominent local canvas manufacturer. He named them Monkbarns, Fairport (as Scott called Arbroath in the novel) and Musselcrag – the abbey’s old fishing village, Auchmithie.

Steam-powered shipping was already cutting the demand for sailcloth by 1895, when Monkbarns was launched, but there was still a living to be made in sail, where the wind was free and labour cheap, and Arbroath was a mass of saw-tooth factory roofs and chimneys to prove it.

Charles Webster Corsar could have invested in steamers to bring in the Russian flax his factories needed, but the last surviving son of the weaver with the vision to buy James Watt’s engine chose instead to build sailing ships, and with a wry flourish he named them after a historical romance.

Henry Robertson and Josiah Arthur

Newspaper cutting from 1925 with Monkbarns ‘old-timers’ Sails Robertson and the ship’s cook, Josiah Arthur

ship's cook

Monkbarns’ cook, Josiah Arthur, photographed by Eugene Bainbridge. (Copyright)

A newspaper cutting from 1925 again shows Henry Robertson sitting on Monkbarns’ deck surrounded by canvas, now with the ship’s black cook, Josiah Arthur, posed beside him. The journalist describes them as “the knight of the needle and the cracker-hash king … survivors of types the world will soon know only in history”. There was hardly a square foot of Monkbarns’ canvas that had missed Henry’s palm and needles in 14 years, he wrote, and Arthur claimed to have cooked more cracker-hash, dandy-funk, and lob-scouse than any ship’s cook left in active service.

‘“No steam-boats for me, massa,” said Josh of Jamaicy,’ runs the toe-curling prose. ‘“I’ve always been used to serving out lime-juice and trimming salt-junk, and at my time ob life, massa, I don’t feel like turning on ham and eggs and peaches and cream for steam-boat sailors.”’

The crew list for that voyage reveals Josiah was in fact from from Barbados not “Jamaicy”, and that Henry had sheared ten years off his age. He still looked good. He could get away with 60.

Four years later, however, the old Scot was dead. Captain Davies, too, was dead, probably of stomach cancer. He fell ill on what was to be Monkbarns’ final rounding of the Horn and was buried in Rio. Monkbarns herself had limped back to the UK only to be sold for a coal hulk. The boy with the camera failed his sight test and never sailed again.

Monkbarns sailmaker Henry Robertson and his leather sailmaker's "palm", in the Signal Tower Museum, Arbroath

Monkbarns sailmaker Henry Robertson and his leather sailmaker’s “palm”, in the Signal Tower Museum, Arbroath

After a lifetime at sea, Henry Robertson finally went home to his children and grandchildren, and he lies buried with his Kate in Sleepyhillock cemetery, Montrose.

His sailmaker’s palm, a last tangible link with the ship, sits on a glass shelf in the Signal Tower museum in Arbroath – beside one last view of Henry surrounded by billows of canvas, stitching in eternal sunshine aboard Monkbarns.


*J Ifor Davies, Growing Up Among Sailors, 1983


A sailor’s life – 26. Monkbarns: out of the half-deck

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The iron-hulled three-master Monkbarns, built 1895

Bertie Sivell was still three months short of the end of his four-year sail apprenticeship when Monkbarns entered the Mersey off Liverpool in May 1915, his first time in a “home” (British) port port in two years. The war that was to have been over by Christmas, wasn’t. His father wrote to the master, Captain James Donaldson, for advice.

“I have nothing to write but what is favourable to your son,” the Old Man wrote back. “He is a smart, intelligent, clever, well-doing lad and there is no doubt he will quickly get on in his profession. If this war was over your son would out-distance eight out of every ten, but at present it is numbers only, no matter what their ability is.”

Captain James Donaldson, master of Monkbarns 1911-1919

Captain James Donaldson, master of Monkbarns 1911-1919

Donaldson advised against sending the lad back to school for formal training. “He can do all the problems now,” he said, signing off: “With kind regards, hoping he enjoyed his holiday as it will soon be over, yours truly, Donaldson”.

It was not a disinterested response. After four years working unpaid in the half deck, Bert was a skilled hand the elderly master could ill afford to lose. Which was why the end of his indentures that August found Bert back at sea, bound for New York with a cargo of salt. Donaldson put him on the crew list as an Able Seaman at £1 a month, but in fact Bert had taken over as acting 3rd mate  on £2 10s a month “as per arranged with the owners,” Donaldson noted on the back of the sea-stained John Stewart & Co contract.

It was to be the start of a rapid career.

Read on: Drunkenness and insubordination – Captain Donaldson’s tribulations
Previously: Monkbarns and Lusitania

A sailor’s life – 24. Monkbarns and the Battle of Coronel, 1914

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German WWI armoured cruiser Scharnhorst

German WWI armoured cruiser Scharnhorst

The first world war came to the shipping lanes of the nitrate coast of Chile not round the Horn, where the British navy lay in wait among the Falkland Islands, but from the west – creeping across the Pacific.

The first the Monkbarns boys knew of it was when the pilot arrived aboard off Corral. Europe had been at war for two months, he told them, and in the wet weeks that followed as their cargo of Australian wheat was slowly discharged they read more in some English language newspapers. The boys had learned the marching song “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” from Irish lads on the four-masted barque Oweenee at the Mission in Stockton the previous year – and they felt a companionship with the British troops singing it now in faraway Belgium.

Monkbarns left Corral at the end of October 1914, in ballast for Caleta Buena north up the Humbolt Current, and at sunset on November 1st five crack German armoured cruisers ambushed the British naval patrol led by Rear-Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock just outside Corral, at Coronel. With the British ships framed against the light dying in the west, the Germans opened fire. As darkness fell, they were swallowed up by the black landmass behind them and the British had only the flashes from the enemy guns to aim for. Burning ships did the rest.  By dawn on the 2nd more than 1,600 Royal Navy seamen and their admiral were dead.

Vice admiral Count Maximilian von Spee

Vice admiral Count Maximilian von Spee

Monkbarns’ goggling crew actually sighted the enemy warships, the young Swedish seaman Leif Asklund reported, but the old square rigger had been allowed to run on northwards up the coast, unmolested. German intelligence had reported a British warship in Coronel and the enemy commander, pounding swiftly past the old windjammer in a deadly game of cat and mouse, had not deemed her worth the shot that would have lost him the advantage of surprise.

The German warships leaving Valparaiso on November 3rd 1914, after the battle off Coronel.

The German warships leaving Valparaiso on November 3rd 1914, after the battle off Coronel.

Vice admiral Count Maximilian von Spee needed coal. Driven out of Germany’s colonial bases around the Pacific by the advance of Japan, Australia and New Zealand, he was bound home for Europe, with orders to disrupt the allies’ supply lines by sinking their merchant ships. After Coronel, he put into Valparaiso, where the German community threw a banquet in celebration. Refuelling his warships there tweaked the nose of the Hague convention, but Von Spee had inflicted Britain’s first naval defeat for a hundred years and only a handful of their German compatriots were even scratched.

A week later Monkbarns arrived in Caleta Buena, north of Iquique, the smallest and bleakest of the nitrate ports, clinging to the edge of the Tarapaca desert. “We have fallen into a lovely hole this time and no mistake,” wrote Bert.

A hand-tinted postcard shows a shore line of sheds cowering beneath what looks like an 8,000ft slag heap, slashed by a mountain railway like an appendix scar — “practically all there is to be seen here”. Out in the bay the ships rolled at anchor in the heave of the Pacific “just as if they were at sea”. They were there for over a month, with nothing to look at but railway sidings and spindly jetties.

Caleta Buena, Chile, 1914

Caleta Buena, Chile, 1914 – “We’ve fallen into a lovely hole this time and no mistake,” wrote Bert Sivell

From the south came the first reports of an attack on a British steamer, and Bert noted that the British- flagged Chincha, another steamer, was waiting for orders whether to go home via the (expensive) Panama canal or risk the Magellan straits. One of Von Spee’s support vessels remained at large off Chile, but by early December news came through that Von Spee himself was dead, sunk with his guns and two thousand of his men when the British navy struck back as he rounded the Horn back into the Atlantic. “Is your trade much affected by the war? Is it not a terrible business,” wrote Bert, belatedly.

In Europe, the German advance on Paris had been stopped at the Somme, in northern France, and weary soldiers were digging into trenches that stretched to the Swiss border, but the conflict was rippling outwards. Turkey had attacked Russia in the Black Sea; Russia had invaded Armenia; France and Britain were pounding the Dardanelles; and colonial troops were fighting all over Africa. At sea, enemy mines were claiming merchant ships of all nationalities, but Bert’s only surviving comment concerned a spat between France and Chile over the breaches of neutrality. “I hope they will not start scrapping till we get clear out of it,” he wrote to his Ma.

When the last bags of saltpetre were finally aboard and stowed, two spars were lashed together and hoist aloft with two white lanterns vertically and two red horizontally, Asklund reported. Monkbarns’ crew then united in three cheers for each of the ships lined up waiting to leave after them and, when they had received the customary answering cheer for Monkbarns from each, they lined up and marched aft singing “John Brown’s baby had a pimple on his nose” hoping that the Old Man would splice the mainbrace. But Captain Donaldson was a teetotaller, so they were out of luck, said Asklund.

They sailed the following morning, early – so as to catch the off-shore breeze. At the crack of dawn boats rowed across from the other ships to help them heave up the anchor and set the sails. It was just before Christmas 1914 and Monkbarns was bound round the Horn for Ireland, for orders. Only steamers had the option of the Panama shortcut. Sailing ships were stuck with the extra six thousand miles of gales, fog and icebergs, and now enemy cruisers.

Monkbarns needed a fast passage, as there had been a scarcity of ship’s stores in Chile because of the hostilities. But as the months passed and the boys saw no further enemy vessels, they concluded that at least the war must be over.

Next: Monkbarns and Lusitania
Previous: Desertions and the coming of war