Lost at sea

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

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A sailor’s life – 38. A walk among the spars

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Victor George Fall, aged 16

Monkbarns apprentice Victor George Fall, July 1918, aged 16, from the collection of John Fall, Australia

“One after another the new apprentices swung into the shrouds and, slowly at first, mounted the ratlines until they reached the futtock-shrouds to the ‘top,’ a small platform at the top of the lower mast,” wrote former Monkbarns apprentice Victor Fall, years later.

He and nine other teenagers had been posted out to Brazil from Britain after the infamous mutiny around the Horn in June 1918. They joined the ship in Rio de Janeiro in September and on their first afternoon aboard, the young chief officer, Bert Sivell, gave them permission to go aloft.

“The futtock shrouds, like a small ladder, project outwards from the mast, so one has to climb more or less on one’s back – like a fly on the ceiling – until one has got over the edge. Rather an ordeal for a new hand. Then, glowing with a sense of achievement, you can pause and look around. Just below was the huge main yard, 92ft long and weighing three tons, supported by lifts and a big steel hook and held to the lower mast by a metal band, allowing it to be swung fore or aft by ‘braces’ from the deck below through a tackle at the yard arms.

The futtock shrouds to the 'tops', which aren't - and involve hanging like a 'fly on the ceiling'

"Climbing like a fly on the ceiling" - the futtock shrouds to the 'tops' (Photograph: squarerigsailing.com)

“Strung below the yard on wire strops was the footrope, on which men stood when laid-out on the yard furling or reefing the sail. Along the top of the yard ran a steel rail, with wire ‘grommets’ at intervals, rather like large coits; through them an arm could be thrust in time of need,” remembered Fall.

Below on deck figures moved to and fro doing incomprehensible things; on the dockside locomotives fussed about shunting trucks, while beyond lay the blue water, the islands and the anchored ships. It was all rather pleasant, but this was really only the start of the climb.

“From the top, on either side of the mast were narrow, nearly vertical wire ladders, the topmast shrouds, which led to the topmast cross-trees. On the way up you passed the huge spar of the lower topsail yard, and just above it, supported by wire lifts and held to the mast by a metal parral, the upper topsail yard. This was hoisted when the sail was set, rising another thirty feet above the yard below.

“On reaching the cross-trees, the climb was still not nearly done, as from them ran upwards another ladder, quite vertical this time, leading to the head of the topgallant mast. On this mast were two more yards, positioned much as the larger topsails below. Above the topgallant masthead the mast rose for another 35 feet to the royal yard. When the royal yard was hoisted and sail set the only way to reach this was by climbing, hand over hand, up the iron chain of the royal halyards, until you could swing a leg over the royal yard and site astride it, or stand on the footrope.

“To reach the absolute top of the mast – the truck – required a hand over hand climb. However, even when lowered, the royal yard was about 150ft up, and the view was marvellous. The men below were tiny figures, the locomotives toys, while the wider view stretched right across the harbour.”

Monkbarns new apprentices were pleased with themselves. They, who had never been away from home before, had travelled across the Atlantic in armed convoy, and now they’d been right up the main mast to the royal yard.

“Soon they would be going up and down, day or night, as a matter of routine,” wrote Fall. “Barefoot most of the time, but in heavy weather in clumsy sea boots and oilskins. ”

On this first attempt, the boys had descended with care, finding coming down more difficult than going up, and had arrived back on deck with an “ill-concealed air of pride”.


Next day the “business of the sea” which John Stewart & Co had promised to teach each of them started in earnest, as they were set to work washing down decks, coiling gear, and helping “bend on sail” – hoisting the heavy canvas from the deck to its appropriate yard, sidling along the yards on the footropes and then learning how to lash the sails to the jackstay  and pass rope gaskets around them for a neat stow. Then, there were halyards to reeve and buntlines.

After three days of this, Monkbarns was towed out of drydock and lighters came alongside with stones for the ballast. The stones were swung aboard in baskets and tipped down the hatches. John Stewart & Co didn’t do engines – the boys believed there had been one ill-fated experiment in the past, after which the old sailing ship captain had banned them – so down in the steamy holds the apprentices sweated, dragging the slimy stones out to the sides, balancing the ship, shovelling the smaller stuff till their hands blistered.

After three more days of that – broken only by a spell on deck sending aloft the cro’jack yard, which had been ashore for repairs – there were sails to be bent on until every yard had its canvas aloft and they were all ready to set sail.

Now the 3rd Mate went to fetch the Old Man from shore, and returned with the news that the ship had a charter for Bunbury, in Western Australia, to load jarrah wood.

The boys and the young mates looked at each other. Nobody had heard of Bunbury. They were disappointed that they weren’t going to Newcastle, NSW, where there were lots of ships and girls and parties. “There was much searching of atlases,” wrote Fall.

He didn’t know it, but he was about to emigrate.

From: One Cargo of Jarrah, by VG Fall

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Previous: The new boys arrive in Rio



A sailor’s life – 36. Monkbarns, Rio 1918

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Postcard views of Rio, sent by Bert Sivell 1918

Postcard views of Rio, sent by Bert Sivell 1918

Bert Sivell marked his seventh anniversary aboard the sailing ship Monkbarns in Rio, with a big cigar and a trip up the Corcovado mountain — three years before building began on the 130ft figure of Christ the Redeemer. It was August 1918 and a postcard view marks the empty summit with an arrow.

He had been to church, he wrote to his father (as you do), and was developing quite a taste for the cheap local cigars, of which he was laying in a stock.  Monkbarns was in dry dock across the bay in Nictheroy, undergoing repairs, a big grey rust-streaked hull dwarfed by her three tall masts – the main being 192ft from truck to keelson. She could set twenty-three sails, and needed twenty-four hands to work her. “Who would have thought when I joined her that I would be mate before being six years at sea,” Bert wrote. He was 23.

Rio harbour during the first world war was a magnificent sheet of water ringed with jungle-clad peaks and big city sprawl, and dotted with palm islands. There were ships of every sort, from cruisers and destroyers to Atlantic liners and little steam coasters, and between them all tall sailing ships, barques, brigs and schooners, loading or unloading cargoes, and bobbing at the farewell buoys.

View towards Rio de Janeiro from Nictheroy, 1920s

View towards Rio de Janeiro from Nictheroy, 1920s

Captain James Donaldson, his young officers and the four remaining apprentices had been left kicking their heels in Rio for two months since Monkbarns’ mutinous crew were convicted at a trial on HMS Armadale Castle that June, and they were to remain for one more month while the boys’ half-deck house was enlarged. The cargo of flour had been whisked north by a Lamport and Holt steamship and John Stewart & Co were sending out ten new little apprentice boys to work the ship home. Never again would Monkbarns’ fo’c’sle hands outnumber the officers.

Next: John Stewart & Co’s new apprentices
Previous: Crimes and punishment

A sailor’s life – 35. Monkbarns: crimes and punishment

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RMS Armadale Castle, pre-war, from collection at histarmar.com.ar

RMS Armadale Castle, pre-war, from collection at histarmar.com.ar

What ordinary seaman Fausto Humberto Villaverde thought of his trial aboard the HMS Armadale Castle in June 1918 was not clear. Charged with “combining to disobey lawful commands” – or mutiny, as his officers saw it, the evidence had to be translated into Spanish for him, and even the translator appeared to have struggled with his replies. The Peruvian’s defence is given as one line: he had “illness in the stomach”.

The Dane Soren Sorensen had been heard first. Unlike the other men, he was accused only of insubordination – for having answered back when Monkbarns’ master, Captain James Donaldson, criticised his steering. He denied using bad language. He claimed the master had sarcastically asked what time he, Sorensen, would be able to steer the ship and that when he had complained he was feeling sick Donaldson had threatened to “smash him in the face”. The only witness on the poop at the time was the young 2nd Mate, Aplin, who did not support this version of events.

As Sorensen had technically already been punished, by the imposition of the five shilling fines – which was all the authority Donaldson had under British maritime law – he was found guilty but no further action was taken.

The Irishman Thomas O’Brien was called next by the impromptu naval court in Rio bay and was asked to explain his refusal to grease down a mast when ordered to do so. His defence that he was starving met short shrift from both British ship captains officiating. “You don’t look like a man that had been starved,” they said.

They wanted to know why, if the food was so bad, O’Brien had bothered to steal more of it during the voyage from Melbourne, as he admitted. He claimed he had only disobeyed orders because he was “played out from starvation” and too weak to work, “except where it was necessary”. But his judges jumped on the rider.

Was he to be the judge of that, asked the president. “Suppose you were ordered aloft to furl a royal [sail], am I to understand that you wouldn’t go unless you thought it necessary? Who is the best judge of what is necessary, you or your properly appointed officers?”

When the American, Charles Moore, also complained about the food, and particularly the substitution of grease for butter the president exclaimed “Butter! Do you expect to get butter in wartime. Margarine is considered a luxury in London.”

The Welshman David Thomas’ evidence is the most poignant. “I thought I was going home,” he told the hearing. Perhaps Captain Donaldson – desperate to replace deserters in Australia – had been a little economical with the truth. By the time the ship left Melbourne their cargo of flour was destined for New York, not wartorn Europe.

At 45, Thomas was the oldest man in the fo’c’sle, and he had suffered rheumatism and cramps from sleeping in a wet bunk during the long, stormy passage round the Horn. Though only rated able seaman on Monkbarns, he had done two voyages as bo’sun on his previous ship, he said, which showed he was not of such bad character as painted. He had not been looking for “any bother”. He had gone aloft when he could. His handwriting in the crew list is shaky like an old man’s and there is no year against his last ship.

He was scathing on the subject of the pantry however. The food was so bad it made him sick, he said, and he had seen some of the boys in the ship so hungry they would get a cup of flour and fry it in fat in the galley to have something to eat.

The mate (Bert Sivell) half stuck up for him, telling the court that Thomas would usually go aloft to make sail fast, although he had refused to do so for the greasing, but the president wasn’t having any of it. “Well, if he can go aloft to take in sails he can go aloft to grease down the mast,” he said, firmly.

Thomas and O’Brien were found guilty of continued wilful disobedience. Moore, Henriksen and Villaverde were found guilty of combining to disobey.

All five men were sentenced to twelve weeks in prison in the UK and the cost of their “board” on the passage home, which was calculated at three shillings a day for 38 days. Thomas and O’Brien were also fined six days pay, and O’Brien was further charged £2 for the food he had admitted stealing. They set off in convoy under lock and key aboard the Armadale Castle in July and arrived in Newport, Wales, after an uneventful crossing on August 4th.

Sub-lieutenant George Frost’s last sight of them was handcuffed together on the railway platform at Newport, waiting for a train to take them to prison. They had six weeks of their sentence left to serve. For them, the war was over.

Read on: John Stewart & Co sends out new apprentices
Previous: The court martial