Lost at sea

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

Posts Tagged ‘Hermann Piening

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)