Lost at sea

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

Posts Tagged ‘F Laeisz

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 – 22. The nitrate coast, Chile, 1912

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Postcard Taltal, Chile, 1912

Postcard Taltal, Chile, 1912

Taltal, in Chile, was a sprawl of single storey houses and sheds clustered round a solitary spire on the edge of the Andes. It was a bleak open anchorage battered by the Pacific, indistinguishable from dozens of other barren little ports strung out along 1,600 km of what became known as the nitrate coast.

Behind them, from Arica in the north to Coquimbo in the south, stretched the Atacama desert, where no rain is said to have  fallen for a thousand years. It was once the only known source of naturally occurring sodium and potassium nitrates – saltpetre, as Bert Sivell knew it – fertiliser and explosive for the munitions factories and fields of industrialised Europe.  Wars were fought over it. Fortunes were made.

The nitrate king, John Thomas North, Avery Hill, London

The nitrate king, John Thomas North, Avery Hill, London

Teeming Iquique, at the northern end of the treeless, dusty strip, had been a small fishing village in Peru when the “white gold” rush started in the 1830s. Foreign capital had poured in, building railways and processing plants and even an opera house, and men had flocked to the desert lands to live out their dreams in mining concessions with names like Adventure, Perseverance and Chance. Bolivia, Peru and Chile fought for control of the rich territory, and Chile won.

By the 1890s there were sometimes a hundred vessels at a time loading in Iquique bay and sailing ships rocked in Chilean anchorages from Talcahuano (known to British sailors as “Turkey Warner”) in the south to tiny bleak Caleta Buena near the new border with Peru. By 1912 Chile was exporting two million tons of nitrates a year.

Monkbarns arrived in Taltal in June and left again at the end of August. In between, all hands discharged their Australian coal and heaved the nitrate – nowadays considered dangerous to actually handle — bag by bag down the hatches for two months. Bert sent postcard views of the exposed bay, the long jetties battered by the breakers, and the cross-hatch of distant roofs and railway lines that petered out into rubble tracks up into the surrounding mountains. Thirty or forty ships heaved and rolled with the swell in lines beyond the surf, as restless as if they were in the open sea.

Taltal, Chile, postcard 1912

Taltal, Chile, postcard sent by Bert Sivell 1912

The nitrate trade was one of the last in which sailing ships could compete against steam. Sailing ships did not rely on expensive supplies of coals and water and so could afford to hang about beyond the sand bars for months while an awkward cargo was ferried out to them slowly, boat by boat. Guano was worse, a throat-catching green powder of ancient bird droppings shovelled off rocky outcrops further north, off Peru, and stowed in the holds by men who could only work 20 minutes at a time before they choked. The crews of guano ships were known to flee into the rigging to escape the ammoniac fumes. But the nitrate was in many respects no better.

Nitrate was white, mined and stewed in the distant desert where no rain falls from one year to the next and until the railways came, carried to the sea by pack mules that died of thirst along the way. It had to be stowed dry. But out in the anchorages, in the holds lifting and falling in the long Pacific swell, the evaporation from the bags was known to kill rats and even woodlice, and ships’ cats who curled up on the sacks in dark corners grew lethargic and died.

Day after day, from six in the morning to six at night, the crews would shovel the Australian coal out through the hatches and tip it basket by basket into the waiting lighters, until the dust grated in their lungs and ground itself into their skin. There would be arguments with the Chilean tally clerk, a stray foot on the scales to mask a bit of pilfering for the fo’c’sle stove, and then finally shanties and cheers as the last basket was hoisted out followed by a well-earned tot of whisky for all hands. But the following day the work would go on, cleaning out the holds before the long, tedious, unhealthy process of stowing the saltpetre began.

It came aboard in bags of 200lbs and was stacked into pyramids in the holds for six weeks by a single stevedore, who could drop each bag into place off his shoulders with absolute precision, never stooping to shift one. Monkbarns took 34,000 sacks, Bert wrote. (About 3,000 tons). The great, beautiful four- and five-masted clippers that set records and made fortunes for AD Bordes of Bordeaux and F Laeisz of Hamburg did the same job with up to 5,500 tons of nitrate in eleven days flat, but they had steam winches – four to a hatch, a small army of cadet officers and shore staff.

Out in the anchorages, the boys from humbler ships made social visits up and down the lines, held sailing races or fished – sometimes with sticks of dynamite, depending how sporting the master was and how much they wanted fresh fish. Even in one-eyed places like Taltal and Caleta Buena there were regularly new faces. Of the 106 sailing ships that left Newcastle NSW for nitrate ports that autumn, according to Lloyds List, a third were British, a third German or Norwegian, and the rest French, Russian, Italian or Swedish. When it was at last time to go, the send-off was exuberant. Home for everyone was round the Horn and language was no barrier.

As the last bag of saltpetre was swung aboard, the smallest boy would leap on it and be hoisted high into the rigging, up and down, for all to see, waving the national flag and bellowing “three cheers for the captain, officers and crew” of whatever ship it might be. There would be answering cheers from each ship in the line, French, German, Finnish, Norwegian or Italian, and at nightfall all would ring their bells, starting with the homeward bound ship, but chiming in until every clapper on every ship in the anchorage was clanging. The din could sometimes be heard for miles out to sea. As it died away the departing ship would solemnly “raise the Southern Cross”, a constellation of lamps lashed to a wooden frame – indicating the direction home.

Then the cheering began again, calling and answering, rippling across the bay. There were chanties and whistles, flaming torches and sometimes – insanely, surely – fireworks. It all took hours, particularly if there was more than one ship preparing to depart. But eventually only the occasional burst of cheering would disturb the sleepy anchorage and ten o’clock would find the homeward-bounder surrounded by work boats, like piglets round a sow. In the saloon, the captain would be entertaining other captains and their wives and shipping people from shore, and in the half deck the apprentices would be doing likewise among the cronies who had rowed their masters over.

Laeisz's four-masted barque Pamir

Laeisz’s four-masted barque Pamir – the last commercial square rigger to sail round the Horn, in 1949

The following day the ship would sail away to the south-west, turning into the Westerlies towards the ice bergs and the gales and the mountainous seas round the Horn and a three or four month passage home. Bert Sivell arrived back in the UK from Taltal just before Christmas 1912, after a passage of 97 days at sea. Laeisz’s flying “P” line did the trip rather faster – and Potosi set a record of 57 days in 1904 – but demand kept even the smaller, slower ships busy.

The nitrate trade eventually died in the 1930s, after the invention of synthetic ammoniac during the first world war. The last British-registered ship to hoist the Southern Cross was John Stewart & Co’s William Mitchell in August 1927. After weeks in Tocopilla loading saltpetre, her apprentices and remaining crew began to cheer the last bag out – but their shanties met no reply. William Mitchell was the only sailing vessel left in the bay and the dreary steamers and motor ships around her did not trouble even to ring a bell.

Read on: Desertions and war, 1914
Previously: Monkbarns apprentice – Harry Fountain

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