Lost at sea

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

Posts Tagged ‘Alan Villiers

A sailor’s life – 83. Foaming water, clean living

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sailing ship wash day

Scantily-clad crew aboard Monkbarns, 1926 – “It then proceeded to rain in torrents and all hands could be seen on deck with next to nothing on, washing clothes. A great day for the sailor’s gear,” Eugene Bainbridge, 6 May (courtesy estate of Eugene Bainbridge)

Descriptions of rounding Cape Horn in sail tend to dwell on ice and howling winds and split fingers and harrowing near-misses. The doldrums, through which ships from Europe must pass to get to the southern hemisphere, feature only as a spot where vessels languish becalmed. The very word has drifted into the English language meaning “inertia, apathy, listlessness, malaise, boredom, tedium or ennui”.

The sheer hard work – and the sailor’s rare luxury of washing himself and his smalls in unlimited fresh water during rain showers in the doldrums – is therefore usually overlooked. This charming reminiscence about life on the German four-masted barque Peking on the Chilean nitrate run in 1928 comes from former Laeisz Flying P-line master Hermann Piening, one of many “grand old boys” interviewed by Alan Villiers, (quoted in The War With Cape Horn):

… And then the trades! That remembered paradise of the ocean sailing-vessel life when all the hardships are forgotten. Through the blue sea the keen cutwater of the sleek, big Peking rips day after beautiful day, scaring the wide-eyed flying fish with the roll of foaming water that forever races at her bow. Here the sailor may feel the essence of harmonious beauty between his ship and the sea. But nothing lasts. The doldrums come with their nervous cat’s-paws of fleeting airs, their sudden swift squalls, their deluge after deluge of almost solid rain.

Alan Villiers

Australian sailor and author Alan Villiers in 1929 (Photograph: NLA)

“You are not to think that we are dealing here with a domain of absolute lack of wind,” says Piening. “That seldom exists, for even slight variations in pressure must always result in movements of air. But the wind is uncertain and faint here. The navigator who is not continually ready to make use of even the lightest breath can spend weeks in this uncomfortable hothouse. There is no rest for the sailors. There are watches in which they hardly get off the braces for ten minutes.

… “There is only one pleasant thing about this region: it rains frequently. In a compact mass, the water falls from the blue-grey sky. Everything and everyone aboard revels in soap and water, for the fresh-water store of a sailer is limited and the duration of the passage most uncertain. A sort of madness seizes everyone. Clad only in a cake of soap, the whole crew leaps around and lets itself be washed clean by the lukewarm ablution. Filled with envy, the helmsman looks at the laughing foam-snowmen into which his comrades have transformed themselves. Everyone pulls out whatever he can wash and lets the sea salt get rinsed out thoroughly. By night the heavy lightning flashes of this region present a splendid show. Often the heavens flame copper-red and sulphur-yellows, and hardly for a second is the vessel surrounded by complete darkness. At times St Elmo’s lights dance upon the yardarms.”

[Editor’s note: The Laeisz four-master Peking is back in Europe after languishing rather unloved in New York for four decades. Yay! A major operation to get her back across the Atlantic in a floating dock last year is now being followed by a major refurb in Wewelsfleth, north of Hamburg.]

Alan Villiers talking to Captain Hermann Piening, ex Laeisz “flying P-line”, from The War with Cape Horn (1971)

A sailor’s life – 45. A boy’s own story

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Sailing ship Monkbarns in Newcastle NSW 1920s, private collection

Sailing ship Monkbarns on the wharf in Newcastle NSW 1920s, private collection

Nothing much seemed to have changed when Monkbarns limped back into Newcastle NSW in November 1920 with a new captain and a broken mast.

The Monkbarns boys were given the afternoon off to hear a concert at the Mission, and for most of the next month they had time off in the evenings and at weekends to lounge about the beach, surfing, playing tennis and making up tea parties, while they waited for the repairs. Captain Davies of Nefyn was welcomed like long-lost son by Newcastle’s Welsh mayor, Mr Morgan, and there were “umpteen” other sailing ships in port, including Vimeira, Garthsnaid, Kirkcudbrightshire and Rona (- now possibly better known as Polly Woodside), with 37 apprentices between them. On November 5th and 6th apprentice Francis Kirk wrote just two words lengthways down an entire page of the schoolboy notes he kept that trip: “Enjoying life”.

Mission outing, Newcastle NSW 1920 - Private collection

Mission outing, Newcastle NSW 1920 - Private collection

On the 20th Monkbarns hosted a dance, with more than fifty girls, he recorded happily. The old ship looked fine, decked out with flags and Chinese lanterns, and “our famous jazz orchestra” had played selections during the evening. They were still in Australia at Christmas, which Kirk celebrated in Lambton with the Blanch family, and they saw New Year in with a big regatta in the harbour at which the Monkbarns “men” won £5 in one of the races. On January 9th 1921, they left Newcastle again bound for South America,  “with heavy and breaking hearts”, Kirk scrawled, “All the girls gathered on Nobby’s Head and waved the old ship out of sight…”

Kirk, like Bert Sivell, had eventually left sailing ships for oil tankers, but he had never got over his love of the old square-rigger.

Cape Horners' Association logo

Cape Horners' Association logo

In 1957 he became one of the first members of the new British branch of the Amicale Internationale des Capitaines au Long Cours Cap Horniers – or Cape Horners’ Association – originally founded in St Malo, France, in 1937 to “promote and strengthen the ties of comradeship which bind together the unique body of men and women who enjoy the distinction of having voyaged round Cape Horn under sail”. They were “albatrosses” (who had commanded a sailing vessel round Cape Horn), “mollyhawks” (served in a sailing vessel round Cape Horn and subsequently commanded a motor ship), or “cape pigeons” (cooks, stewards, passengers etc).

Kirk – ranked Mollyhawk – threw himself with gusto into the annual jaunts to St Malo or Hamburg, Oslo or later Mariehamn, which held the record for old Cape Horners. “He used to come back with pictures of him and ‘old so-and-so’ and usually a woman in the shot whom he would pass off as such-and-such’s wife,” said his son. After his death there had been several intriguing lady callers.

In the 1960s an English language journal was set up, The Cape Horner, and its editor, Captain AG Course  – UK member 9, wrote that if any member was in Bournemouth, they were welcome to join the members’ coffee mornings, every Friday at 10.30am in Bealson’s cafe on Commercial Road. “No advance notice is necessary and your wives, relatives and friends will be welcome. Only one wife at a time, please!”

The maritime author Alan Villiers wrote of  joining one of these coffee mornings in 1971, and meeting “eight wonderful old boys, most of them octogenarians, except one aged 92, all with the stamp of the sea still upon their open faces, the snap of command in the old blue eyes”. The “wonderful old boys” more generally were not uniformly impressed by the new boys’ patronage (“… not really a proper sailor…”), and the subsequent acceptance of  yachtsmen as Cape Horners when anno domini began to tell on the original pre-motor, pre-GPS membership was contentious.

I was too late to meet Francis Kirk, or Harry Fountain, Victor Fall, Lewis Watkins, Lionel Walker and “Algie” Course – who single-handedly salvaged most of what is known of Monkbarns’ history, mainly by running his finger down the UK Cape Horners’ membership list and calling the old shipmates in for a fireside chat. (Which accounts for some of the more lurid tales). But their lives still resonate down the generations in remembered stories (“He said the freezing flailing canvas ripped fingernails to the quick…” “you tapped the biscuit on the table to knock the weevils out…”), and dusty diaries and yellowing photos, providing a lasting testament to all those boys like my grandfather who went down to the sea in ships and did business in great waters in the last days of sail.

Coming next: A model ship
Previously: Goodbye, Monkbarns – Corcubion, 1954

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Sea Fever

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

John Masefield 1902