Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Around the Horn before the mast

Just as steam took over the world’s seaways, a last flowering of sail gave us some of the most beautiful vessels ever built. They did not last for long. But they left their mark on literature

On March 17 1894, Scientific American had its usual varied diet for the curious and intelligent. There was a report on a cablecar service over the Tennessee River in Knoxville.  Figurines in Oriental dress had been unearthed in Mexico’s Oaxaca state. The number of immigrants landing in New York had been down in 1893 (the largest group was Italian, at nearly 70,000). Tucked away in an inside page, however, was maybe the biggest story. The Arthur Sewell & Co. yard at Bath, Maine, had launched the Dirigo - the first steel sailing ship to be built in the USA. The article reported that she was 330ft overall, of 45ft beam, and was to carry 4,500 dwt in cargo. “The vessel is rigged as a four-masted ship ... and will spread about 13, 000 yards of canvas," the Scientific American reported. "In the early spring she will be fitted for sea and will load at pier 19, East River, New York, for San Francisco, Cal.”

The Beatrice (Allan C. Green/State Library of Victoria)
Westward round the Horn, then, against the prevailing wind; a baptism of fire.  But this was an important ship. Eugene Chamberlain, the USA’s Commissioner of Navigation, clearly thought so. Patricia M. Higgins, in her Hidden History of Midcoast Maine, quotes him as saying that the Dirigo’s construction represented “the beginning of a new industry in this country. The ship of the future is to be of steel, and the introduction of that material is necessary to the maintenance of, for foreign trade, a fleet of large sailing vessels.” But neither the Scientific American nor, probably, Chamberlain fully grasped that the iron or steel-hulled sailing ship, or windjammer, was not a new era for sail. It was its brilliant apotheosis.

The windjammer era was brief. Today we celebrate them as “tall ships”, and those still at sea are usually training vessels. In their heyday, they were hard ships on which to sail. Usually four-masted barques with steel hulls, their era started sometime in the late 19th century. They are not to be confused with the clippers, which were smaller but carried far bigger crews, enabling them to be driven hard in poor weather, and were therefore much faster; their time was already really over when the Dirigo was launched.  The windjammer’s purpose was not to fly to Tilbury with the first of the year’s tea. It was to carry non-perishable bulk cargo such as coal, grain and nitrates at lower cost than the new steamships, by using the prevailing winds, and taking as long as they needed on the journey. When the windjammer era began, steamers still needed frequent stops for water and bunkering, and were often quite slow.

By the 1920s, much had changed – and in time the motorship appeared, cleaner, more economical and easier to run. The windjammers fought harder and harder to compete; costs were slashed, crews were small – sometimes almost too small to work the vessel – and the conditions on board were basic. Yet they represented the last flowering of a technology that had evolved from the time humans had gone to sea. They were also romantic; and they have left their mark on literature as no containership will ever do.


The Dirigo played its part in this. In March 1911 Jack London and his second wife, Charmian Kitteredge London, boarded her in Baltimore, bound westward round the Horn to Seattle. The voyage would provide the backdrop for for one of London’s last novels. Published in 1914, only two years before his death, The Mutiny of the Elsinore isn’t his most famous book and it’s not seen as his best. It is still memorable.

The book’s plot (without spoilers) is as follows: It is March 1913 and a successful but world-weary young playwright, John Pathurst, seeks refreshment and inspiration by going round the Horn as a passenger on a windjammer from Baltimore to Seattle. He knows the Elsinore may take months over the voyage, but that’s fine. He has paid highly for his passage, and is accompanied by his manservant; he intends to be comfortable. But the rounding of the Horn is drawn-out and dangerous, and the ship is nearly lost. Moreover the regime aboard the Elsinore is harsh, and the crew are a bunch of no-good lowlifes who will eventually mutiny against it. Pathurst’s luxury passage will turn into a nightmare. The long voyage south-east towards West Africa and then south-west to the Horn is used to build up character and tension, so that by the time the Elsinore gets stuck in westerlies off the Horn, you know there’s a disaster waiting to happen.

It helps that London does a fair job of evoking what life in a windjammer must have been like. He can do this because this book was drawn, at least in part, from life.  London and Kitteredge boarded in Baltimore very much as Pathurst does in the book, and Kitteredge later described the voyage in a memoir of London that she published a few years after his death. The Elsinore is clearly the Dirigo and the novel includes a number of incidents that that are in Kitteredge’s account. Most are trivial (London/Pathurst’s fox terrier, Possum; an attack of hives; the chickens in the hut amidships). One or two are major. For example, in the novel, the captain dies on passage off the Horn. On the Londons’ real voyage he did fall sick there, and died shortly after the ship reached Seattle.The captain and mate in the book also seem to match those of the Dirigo. The captain, according to Kitteredge, was: “The fast disappearing type of lean New England aristocrat, who always presented himself on deck immaculately attired... The calm kingliness of his character was in cool contrast to that of the Mate, Fred Mortimer, hot-hearted, determined ... driver of a crew that was composed ...of landlubbers and weaklings.”

Aboard the C.B. Pedersen (State Library of Victoria)
London takes these two officers and exaggerates their characteristics, and those of the crew too. As the latter board in Baltimore: “ ...I encountered a few laggards who had not yet gone into the forecastle. These were the worse for liquor, and a more wretched, miserable, disgusting group of men I had never seen in any slum. Their clothes were rags. Their faces were bloated, bloody, and dirty. I won’t say they were villainous. They were merely filthy and vile. They were vile of appearance, of speech, and action.”  And later: “I ...wondered where such a mass of human wreckage could have been obtained. There was something wrong with all of them. Their bodies were twisted, their faces distorted, and almost without exception they were under-sized.”

Long before the mutiny of the title, life on the Elsinore becomes a struggle of two worlds – the gracious, comfortable world of the officers and crew in the poop, dining pleasantly every night, the Mate, Pike (as he is called in the novel), playing classical gramophone records with enthusiasm; and the forecastle, full of degenerate wretches that Pike controls with an iron fist and great savagery. Bit by bit the Elsinore seems to appear a microcosm of a divided, unfair society. Is this what Jack London was trying to say in this book?

Or is there something more sinister being said? Pathurst is the narrator, and his sense of superiority expresses itself in a belief that the Captain and the Mate are superior beings, and the crew scum. His class is thus destined to dominate. Moreover a number of the crew meet with nasty ends even before the mutiny. During it, two die quite horribly, torn apart by giant albatrosses: “A great screeching and squawking arose from the winged things of prey as they strove for the living meat. And yet, somehow, I was not very profoundly shocked. These were the men whom I had seen eviscerate [a] shark and toss it overboard, and shout with joy as they watched it devoured alive by its brethren. They had played a violent, cruel game with the things of life, and the things of life now played upon them the same violent, cruel game.”

Oh dear. Men born to rule over their inferiors, and nature red in tooth and claw. It’s the narrator’s voice, but London seems to use it with great enthusiasm (with references to the captain as a Samurai warrior, and occasional references to Nietzche). It’s just a little too genuine, and Pathurst’s views are not discredited by the way the book ends. Jack London was a socialist all his life, but was there also a whiff of fascism about him?

George Orwell thought so. Writing in 1940 about an earlier London book, The Iron Heel, he commented that London was “temperamentally ...very different from the majority of Marxists. With his love of violence and physical strength, his belief in ‘natural aristocracy’, his animal-worship and exaltation of the primitive, he had in him what one might fairly call a Fascist strain." In The Mutiny of the Elsinore, we see this; it’s also evident in his earlier and greater book, The Sea Wolf. However, Orwell didn’t say London was a fascist. Rather, he thought these traits made London better able to understand the nature of the ruling class, and that far from espousing fascism, he understood its dangers before it existed (The Iron Heel, published in 1908, describes a fascistic dystopia). It is more likely that London is using Pathurst to warn how the ruling class really think. Still, the earliest Nazis appealed to a certain type on the left as well as the right. Reading The Mutiny of the Elsinore, you do wonder whether, had London lived into the Fascist era, he might have been swept up in it all.

That apart, The Mutiny of the Elsinore is quite a read. The description of the ship as it fights to round the Horn is also excellent, bringing forth a picture of a great steel ship, its sides streaked with rust, burdened by a cargo of thousands of tons of coal, wallowing in the huge seas as the sun comes and goes behind fast-moving, hostile clouds. The crew are also well-drawn. Now and then they do get close to caricature, but most work well. In particular, there is a frail man with a twisted spine who radiates malevolence; he is also very well-read, and it is easy to see where his hatred comes from as he compares Pathurst’s luck with his own. Several of the crew are clearly “bad lots” and there is a reign of terror in the forecastle, from which the officers mostly dissociate themselves. By the time the ship reaches the Le Maire (or Lemaire) Strait at the southern extremity of Argentina, several of the crew have gone mad, or killed themselves or someone else.

Perhaps London exaggerates somewhat (he’s writing a novel, after all). But life on a windjammer was indeed hard. To compete with steam, they sailed on small margins; the crew were paid little, the food was bad and the ships were sometimes worked with too few men. London does not exaggerate the difficulty of rounding the Horn from the Atlantic side, either. Now and then a skipper just gave up, turned round and sailed east around the world instead.  The Mutiny of the Elsinore is a striking account of how it must have been. Maybe it says how London saw his fellow-man. Maybe it doesn’t. In any case, London is not the only person whose attitudes now look suspect because of events they pre-dated, and would not have condoned.  The Mutiny of the Elsinore might not be the greatest book that London wrote, but it is enthralling nonetheless. It is also a vibrant picture of a world that has passed.


That world would endure a little longer. On January 19 1928, 17 years after London’s voyage, two four-masted barques loaded with grain left Port Lincoln in South Australia, bound for Falmouth. One was the Beatrice, an elderly 2,000-ton iron ship built on the Clyde in 1881, and now owned in Sweden. The other was the steel barque Herzogin [Duchess] Cecilie, built in Germany in 1902, and now Finnish-owned – by the world’s largest remaining sailship operator, Gustaf Erikson of Mariehamn in the Åland Islands. The two skippers knew each other, and both intended to reach Falmouth first. There they would await orders as to where they would discharge their cargos.

Herzogin Cecilie (Allan C. Green/State Library of Victoria)
On board the Finnish ship was the Australian writer and seaman, Alan Villiers. At the time he was only 24 (though he had already written two books). He had shipped on the Herzogin Cecilie as an able seaman, but it was understood that he would write of the voyage.  Falmouth for Orders, his account of the voyage, was the result. It is an odd book, part travelogue, partly an account of the then state of sail.

The post-war slump of 1921 had caused freight rates to collapse. By 1927, according to Villiers, there were about 30 such ships remaining, of which perhaps 15 were actively trading. Those that were, were mostly either German vessels carrying nitrates around the Horn from Chile to Germany; or they were Erikson’s, working the grain trade. They would sail, usually in ballast, from Europe around the Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean, load in South Australia and return either the same way or eastward round the Horn. The skipper might not decide which way round to go until he was at sea.

Villiers describes the trade, and the fates of individual ships, in great detail. It is all a bit geeky, and the book would have been the better with less of it. When he writes of the voyage itself, he is more interesting. There’s a charming glimpse of life in Port Lincoln, where both ships host parties for the locals on board:  “The [Herzogin Cecilie’s] own orchestra, in the shape of four of her boys supplied the music, and ...a real Scandinavian supper was provided. ...The presence of two uninvited guests, in the shape of two rats who made their presence known in the middle of a waltz, added considerably both to the noise and the excitement.”  No-one seems to take much notice of a young woman who visits the ships in port, and keeps stating her determination to sail in a ship like this. On the second day out she appears on deck, dressed as a boy, having got a fisherman to bring her to the ship by pretending to be a seaman who’s been on a bender. She hides in the hold and emerges only when she thinks the ship will no longer want to put about. “It was Petrén who saw her first,” writes Villiers. “He got such a shock that he nearly fell out of the jigger rigging.” The woman was not welcome on board, but became so as the voyage progressed, making herself useful and minding her behaviour. Villiers does not give her name, at least in this book, but it seems to have been Jeanne Day or Jennie Day (another source says Jean Jeinnie). She was 23 and from Adelaide, where she had apparently been a teacher in the Methodist Ladies’ College. She stays with the ship to England, where she is said to have died only a few years ago.

The captain, reconciled to his stowaway, decides on an eastward passage; he will go round the Horn. The Beatrice  fades from sight (in fact, she has gone via the Cape). The Cecilie’s progress is slow at first; some on board blame this on the presence of a woman on board. But eventually they pass south of New Zealand, and the pace picks up.  The same is true of the story, but only up to a point. Villiers diverts too often into discussions of the dying industry, and there are long lists of ships and their voyages. His description of the passage across the Southern Ocean, one of the most challenging places on earth, is not really resonant, although the ship has gone a very long way south and there is a smell of ice in the air. Rounding the Horn seems easy enough, though it can never really have been (it is true that westbound ships had it much worse).

The later chapters are better. The ship is caught in the Doldrums and does not move for days. Villiers and others take the opportunity to circle the ship in a launch, and he is struck by its beauty; he takes a photograph, which shows the Herzogin Cecilie perfectly reflected in the flat calm. Later, a mystery ship is spotted that could be the Beatrice; overhauled, the turns out to be the Swedish-owned C.B. Pedersen, built in Italy in 1891. They exchange visits, complete with bands and feasting, and a good time is had by all. The meeting is a major event for the crew of both ships, for it is not unusual for a windjammer to sail from South Australia to Falmouth or Queenstown without seeing another ship, or land; on this voyage the Cecilie had sighted land just once, a brief glimpse of Staten Island off the southernmost tip of Argentina.

Then on towards England, and the Cecilie runs into a bad North Atlantic storm:

At a little after 4 o’clock in the morning ...we had the most vivid thunderstorm ...With appalling suddenness the sky seemed to burst into a sheet of flame that lit up the whole ocean and instantly dispelled what there has been of fog; there was a roar as if all the stars ..had been throwing gelignite at each other ... The thunder boomed and crashed and roared, until we feared that ...there wouldn’t be any sky left; the lightning flashed and crackled and burst, lighting up the blackness of the sea and the gleaming wet of the driving ship’s decks with strange effect. ...Queer blue lights danced about the steel rigging and on all the steel yardarms. ...And we had to lay aloft and set the royals fast in the midst of those blue lights.

But the Herzogin Cecilie makes Falmouth in 96 days – a fast voyage even for her. She has beaten the Beatrice, which has had a dreadful voyage, by many days.

Although parts of this book read well, others don’t. The lists of long-dead ships and voyages were more important at the time, but even then they must have dragged for some readers. Also, there is a slight Boy’s Own air to some of the writing; splendid tanned seamen, adventure, beautiful ships. It is all just a little too jolly given that conditions on these ships were hard, and could also be very dangerous. Villiers was well aware of the danger; at one point he lists some of the accidents and deaths that have occurred off the Horn. Yet somehow the book’s tone does not convey the hazards and hardship the way it might have done. Villiers was to become a distinguished figure, and would go on writing about the sea for another half-century. I remember being enthralled, as a young boy, by his account of the Battle of Trafalgar. He also wrote more about the last days of sail, and took wonderful photographs of this voyage and others (many now held by the National Maritime Museum, which has exhibited them). Falmouth for Orders is probably not his best book. But for those who love ships and the sea, there is much to enjoy.


The Herzogin Cecilie continued to trade. In April 1936, after an even faster passage, she again arrived off Falmouth, and was ordered to Ipswich. On her way she ran aground off South Devon; despite attempts to salvage her, she eventually sank off the mouth of the Kingsbridge Estuary. She lay in shallow water and one could (and still can) swim over and view the wreck. Two years later the 18-year-old Eric Newby did just that.

Herzogin Cecilie aground off Devon, April 1936 (State Library of Queensland)
In 1938 he was a bored 18-year-old working in a London advertising agency. When it lost an account, many of his colleagues were sacked. To his disgust, he wasn’t. Apparently he was not important enough to sack. After the holiday on which he swam over the Cecilie, he left anyway and signed on as an apprentice on the windjammer Moshulu for a round-the-world voyage. The Last Grain Race is the story of that voyage. Published nearly 20 years later, it was the first book from one of the best-loved of British travel writers.

In 1934, two years before the Herzogin Cecilie ran aground, her owner, Gustaf Erikson, had bought the 30-year-old Moshulu, one of the largest and best windjammers left afloat. He paid just $12,000. It was not much. But freight rates were still collapsing, especially in the grain trade, for there was a slump in wheat prices in the 1930s. Erikson must have thought hard about this, even at the price. But he was not the sort of man who leaves a record of his thoughts.  In any case, Newby joined her at Belfast in September 1938. As usual, she would sail in ballast via the Cape of Good Hope and the Indian Ocean to South Australia, where she would load several thousand tons of grain; then she would return via the Southern Ocean and around the Horn. The journey would take from September until the following summer. Moreover Newby was indentured; his father had paid £50, no small sum in 1938, and would forfeit it if Newby failed to discharge the terms of his apprenticeship. If he was killed, his father would of course get it back. This would look likely on several occasions.

Boarding at Belfast (with a Louis Vuitton trunk), Newby is sent straight up the rigging, in unsuitable shoes. It is a good move because he does not seem to have felt such terror again. He will have more trouble in the forecastle, where he is the only Englishman in a bunch of a very hardboiled Scandinavians. He is not popular. Eventually he finds a turd in his cigarette-tin. He takes on the perpetrator in a fist-fight; it is a close contest but Newby prevails, hurting his opponent badly, only to be told later that the turd has actually been left by someone else. But that isn’t the point.

Life in the forecastle would be rough anyway. In bad weather the water sloshes around inside and nothing is ever dry. Work is hard, a constant battle against changing winds, decaying ropes and rust. In the high (e.g. low) latitudes of the Southern Ocean, bound for the Horn, they are thrust into a force 10 gale that lasts for days. On one occasion Newby is thrown from the rigging and is lucky to be caught in a cradle of ropes some five feet down. Yet throughout this he never loses his sense of adventure, or his eye for the beauty. You do need patience with this book now and then. It’s full of Swedish and Finnish jargon. There is also a great mass of top-gallants, buntlines, clewlines, crojacks and more. But it is worth it. The Last Grain Race is an achievement, and is a reminder that the greatest travel books transport us across more than one dimension. To read this book is to be dumped right in the middle of a world that is gone forever.

It would vanish sooner than Newby imagined. Soon after the Moshulu returned to Belfast, the war broke out and the windjammer grain trade – the last in which they were profitable – came to an end. It never really re-started after the war, and Erikson himself died in 1947. The ships too have gone. The Herzogin Cecilie’s fate we know. Dirigo is not far from her; she was stopped by a German submarine in 1917 while on passage from New York to Le Havre, and sunk with explosives six miles south-west of the Eddystone Rock lighthouse (the position of the wreck is known). The Beatrice was broken up in Stavanger in 1932, not long after her hard-lost race with the Cecilie.

The C.B. Pedersen (State Library of Victoria)
The C.B. Pedersen, the ship Villiers encountered in mid-Atlantic, survived until April 1937. In that month, about 600 miles southwest of the Azores, she collided with a Scottish steamer, the Chagres.  Everyone aboard the C.B. Pedersen was saved, though the skipper of the Chagres died of a heart attack. The Sydney Morning Herald  for April 27 reported her loss and recalled that on her last voyage to Australia, she had been unable to find a cargo; she had loaded passengers instead and made for Europe via the Torres Strait, a difficult passage for a windjammer. The voyage, says the Herald, had been “enlivened by several exciting incidents. Three days after the vessel put to sea a girl stowaway was found on board, and later, one of the apprentices in the crew deserted by fitting an outrigger to the captain's wooden bath, and sailing it to an island – a voyage which occupied six days.” Further details are lacking.

Newby’s ship, however, has survived. The Moshulu was dismasted during the war and spent most of the next 30 years as a floating grain store. Yet for her, at least, it was not the end. Fitted with dummy masts and rigging, she was brought to Philadelphia, where today she is a floating restaurant. The owners clearly respect the ship’s history, which is recounted in some detail on the restaurant’s website.

The food seems to have improved. That served in the forecastle, according to Newby, was terrible. Early in the voyage they are served something very pungent that Newby thinks is fried herring. “Ees not fish,” says Newby’s enemy, Sedelquist. “Ees bacon, smelly like English girl.” It is, says Newby, “ghastly and apparently putrefying”. He throws it overboard. Later he learns never to waste even the worst food and to eat what he can get. Were he to visit the Moshulu today, he would be offered “Herb-rubbed Italian-style pork sandwich, Ciabatta Roll, Provolone, Pickled Eggplant & Hot Pepper Relish; House Cut Fries”. One wonders what Newby (or Sedelquist) would have thought of that.

But if dining on the Moshulu is a little different now, the books, at least, give a flavour of the past.  The Elsinore (or Dirigo) fighting for her life off the Horn. Sunsets of bright yellow as the light slants under dark grey clouds across a rough sea; great albatrosses swooping around the ship; the warmth as she turns north after rounding the Horn. Seas of blue, green and white washing across the deck of a rolling ship, smashing men sideways and into the scuppers or, if they are unlucky, over the side. A thunderstorm, with electric light flashing across the yards. Or a flat calm, the ship rolling a little on an oily swell, its silhouette perfectly mirrored in the surface of the sea.

Follow Mike Robbins on Twitter (mikerobbins19), on Facebook or on Goodreads
Mike Robbins's collection of travel writing, The Nine Horizons, was published in 2014 and is available as a paperback, as a Kindle download and in other eBook formats.