Alan Villiers

We have worked hard to secure permission to display Chapter 6 of Alan Villiers work ‘The Set of The Sails’. In this chapter he describes vividly his time aboard the James Craig. A special thank you to the estate of the late Alan Villiers.

The Set of The Sails

Chapter 6 – ‘A move For’ard’

The James Craig was a lovely little vessel, as much a clipper as the Rothesay Bay was a warehouse. I looked back on that old warehouse with affection as I pulled across to my new ship. Her war-time grey was streaked with rust. Ugly flat punts full of New Zealand timber cluttered her sides. Her royal yards were down, but there was still a graceful rake to the high masts, and a lovely line to her sheer which spoke of sea-kindliness. I had not been with her very long – only one voyage- but I felt that as long as I lived I would owe her something. Something of me would be with her so long as she survived; something of her would be with me too, as long as I survived.

The James Craig looked a thoroughbred, the poor old Bay a workhorse. The lines of the Craig‘s hull were extremely lovely. She sat gracefully and light even upon the waters of Johnson’s Bay, with the hulk of the Daniel beside her and her sharp bows high out of the water where the coal had been discharged for’ard to get at a leak there. Her rigging was new, and lofty. The line of her sheer was unbroken, for she had neither a raised fo’c’sle head nor poop. Her iron hull was painted black with a gilt line of beading. A scroll-work ornament decorated her sweet bow.

“D’ye like the look of her, lad?” a bewhiskered old Scot working on a stage by her side addressed me, as our boat came alongise. “Ye should ha’ seen her in the old days. She’d a wunnerful figurehead then. Aye, ’twas Steel of Greencok built her, away back in ‘seventy-four. He built some lovely ‘uns. But she’s just a rigged-up hulk now. Ye shoud ha’ known her in the ‘seventies when she was a Glasga’ West-coaster. Did ye ever hear tell on her figurehead, now? Did ye not?”

I said I was sorry I had not.

“‘Twas a full-length figure of a Highland cieftain,” said the whiskered one, ” and wunnerful well carved. ‘Twas the McLeod o’ McLeod, in his full regalia, an’ the tartan an’ all was there, proper an’ shipshape. The old man thought so on it that’twas kept covered up at sea, wi’ a special sor of canvas cload f’r its protection, an’ to keep the mcLeod man war’r’m. An’ in ports ’twas only uncovered of a Sunday moor’rnin’, sharp at eight bells. The old man’d lift his hat an’ say a greetin’ as a ‘prentice boy took off the coverin’. ‘Guid moornin’, McLeod,’ hei’d say, takin’ his old hat off. I mind a time when I was in her in Newcastle in ‘ninety-six when a de’il of a young ‘prentice boy tied a whusky bottle to the spor’r’r-ran an’ put a beard o’ tarry oakum on t’ face, an’ a clay pipe on him an’ all. ‘Twas ajoke, he thought. But we all thought the old man’d gone mad, when he saw it. He was rafvin’ ther an’ cussin’ in the Gaelic for a week. D’ye have the Gaelic, now, ye’sel’?”

I couldn’t answer that because I had only a vague idea of his meaning.

“Do you speak Gaelic? hea means,” whispered Tom Germein at the oars. “you know, Gaelic, like they speak in the highlands of Scotland and at the smoking concerts in the Caledonian Club.”

I had to reply then that I regretted I did not. The port of registry on the Craig‘s counter was Hobart, not Glasgow. Gaelic, now? What had that strange tongue to do with the pretty barque, lying in Sydney Harbour? I had great difficulty in understanding the old man even when he thought he was speaking English.

The bewhiskered mariner noticed my bewilderment. “She’s still a Scottie,” he said, “though there’s stars in yon Red Duster she’s flyin’ now an’ she’s been lyin’ a coal hulk in Rabaul these dozen year’r’rs. Aye, laddie, once a Scot always a Scot, ships an’ men. An’ the Gaelic’s guid aboar’rd here.”

I realised why the figurehead was the Chief of the Clan McLeod when I read the name on the bell by the antique up-and-down windlass immediately abaft her low fo’c’sle head. “Clan McLeod,” it read, “1874.” The old name was still there thought she had been the James Craig since 1903. At that time – the middle of 1920 – the line of lovely little barques which (with a sprinkling of barquentines) flew the J. and J. Craig house-flag out of the port of Auckland, had been dispersed, and the James Craig had been rescued from service as a coal hulk in New Guinea, rerigged because of the shortage of shipping and the temporary harvest of good freights. When I joined her she belonged to a firm of Tasmanian jam merchants and shipping agents, who had financed her refit. The refit must have been skimped somewhere, for she had almost foundered on her first passage – from Newcastle with coal towards Hobart, in Tasmania – and she had run back in distress to Sydney, from off Gabo, with her forepeak full and many of her shrouds so slack as to be useless. They had been cut too long, or perhaps her lower masts might have settled a little. She was in the process of a second refit to put these defects right when I joined her, and the old wooden Norse barque Daniel, which had been an inter-Colonial trader since 1907, now cut down to a hulk, was alongside to store her coal while the hull was made seaworthy.

I swarmed aboard, throwing my new sea-bag (which I’d sewn myself) and bedding before me. I’d sold the big chest, which was really an encumbrance in a small ship. The Craig was a good hundred tons smaller than the Rothesay Bay, and she had no half-deck. I made my way along the deck to stow my gear in the forecastle, approaching that historic domicile with interest. In the Bay the cadets had never gone into the for’ard house. This was not actually forbidden, but it was not done. The “squareheads” and “dagoes” in there were left to themselves in their free time, as far as we were concerned, though we were all good friends on deck.

The James Craig had no half-deck and only the smallest poop. Her fo’c’sle was a house on deck immediately abaft the foremast. It was obvious that it was a new house, built to replace an older, smaller one which had been removed when the abarque was a coal hulk. The new house took up most of the space between the main hatch and the fore fife-rail. It served to accommodate crew, galley, and cook, and to carry the two double-ended life-boats. The after-part of the house was a small galley, with a coal stove. Adjoining the galley, on the port side, was an airy mess-room for the crew. This was an innovation. There was a sliding hatch through which the cook could deliver meals, piping hot from the stove. The mess-room was enamelled in white and was spotlessly clean. The remainder of the house, forward of the galley and mess-room, was the fo’c’sle proper. It was divided into two sections by means of a bulkhead down the middle. The starboard side, with six bunks, was for the starboard watch, and the port side, also with six bunks, for the port watch. All the bunks were fore-and-aft. There was a good stowage for oilskins. There were several large ports on each side, and it seemed that the designer had really had the well-being of the sailors at heart. I never saw a better fo’c’sle in a sailing-ship anywhere. A locker was provided for each man to stow his gear, and the mess-room was also a recreation-room. I was pleasantly surprised.

“You’ll be starboard watch. Take any free bunk. They’re all the same. No water comes in here,” said a cheerful young Englishman who was repairing some sennett on his ditty-bag. “Grub’s good, too. No ‘whack’ here, though we signed for it. She’s on ‘sufficient without waste’. Do me, too, after the hungry Cumberland. You’re from the Rothesay Bay?”

I said I was.

“You’ll find a good crowd here. My name’s Keen – Sharkey Keen, they call me,” said my new friend. “The old man’s one of the best. The mate’s a lanky Tasmanian. He’s a grand fellow to work for. Gets things done without yelling. She’s got a bos’n. Doesn’t carry a second mate. Bos’n is a very old Scot, name of Sandy McNab. Sandy is a good one, too. There isn’t much he don’t know about sailing-ships. He’s over eighty and he’s been in ’em since he was ten. We’re in Sandy’s watch. That’s him you can hear now, making that awful row on the pipes. You’ve got to put up with that. Never let on you don’t like it! It stops sometimes. Not often, though.”

Sharkey Keen was quite right about the Craig‘s crew. They were a very decent set of men, most of them much older than the Scandinavians who manned the Rothesay Bay. The fo’c’sle was inhabited by twelve men, eight of them able seamen – real able seamen – and four ordinary seamen. Half of the men were over forty, two of them over sixty. They were old sailing-ship men who had never been in steam. They were the real faithful. The bewhiskered mariner who had hailed me in the boat was Dan Murchison, a distant clansman of Murdo’ Murchison, the master. There were several others named Murchison, all distantly related and all from the same part of Ross-shire. These spoke Gaelic among themselves, and were much given to playing upon a reed they called a “chanty”, which seemed to be the mouthpiece of a set of pipes without any pipes to it.

“They sold their pipes,” confided Sharkey. “That’s all they’ve got left – thank the Lord.”

I soon discovered that life in the fo’c’sle was well regulated and, except during bouts of drunkenness among the Scots (which were rare, because it cost a great deal to get them drunk, and they had very little), good manners prevailed. The place was kept to the same standards of cleanliness which our half-deck boss had insisted upon in the Rothesay Bay, except that the men were neater than the boys, and the place was less cluttered with gear. The older they were, the neater were the sailors, and the less gear they had. Whatever else they might not have had, each treasured a small canvas bag, liberally decorated with sennet and fancy work, in which he kept the tools of his trade – his fid and marline-spike, a palm and a few needles, a piece of beeswax and a sail-hook on a lanyard for holding the seams when working on the sail-maker’s bench. By that time I had one of these bags myself, though there was little in it.

The boss of the starboard fo’c’sle was a Belgian name Bert who had run from one of the big Bordes four-masted barques at Hobart. Bert ruled the roost thoroughly, but with benevolence. It was queer to hear him remonstrating with the Scots for using what he called “Garlic”. English, he said, was the proper language of the ship and they should use it. But the Scots were intransigent. Bert’s own version of English was rather astonishing. An argument between him, big Dan Murchison, and an old Russian Finn named Gus was a delight to hear, provided one was not expected to follow it.

At the meal table, if there were any ignorant departures from the men’s own code of good manners, Bert’s rebuke was instant and severe. Our code could be summarised very simply. Eat quietly; waste nothing; allow elbow-room to all. These were the basic rules. There was no tolerance of any departure from them. It was, for example, definitely not the thing to cut half a piece from the loaf of bread.

“If you only vant an ‘alf-slice you don’t vant any,” Bert laid down. “If you vant an ‘ole slice cut it flush-decked an’ eat the lot. No fo’c’sle ‘eads on de bread!”

As with the bread, so with everything else. Tidiness reigned. On deck, and in the quarters, everything was shipshape, and the Lord help any who “while sober” did anything out of place.

It took a month to get the little barque squared up for sea. Mr. Carver, the Tasmanian mate, and Sandy McNab, the bos’n, superintended the rigging work day after day, and I learned more about rigging in that month than I ever learned in the rest of my life. Mr. Carver was one of those sailor-Tasmanians who used to abound in the Tasman Sea and round the Islands. Tasmania, then, had a few remnants left of the island’s once great sailing fleet, which in former days had rivalled the clippers in the wool trade round the Horn, and there was still some tradition there of following the sea under sail. Mr. Carver knew his business, though he spoke no Gaelic and could not blow the pipes.

In port there we did not see much of our captain, who was a dark and very pleasant Scot from the barque Lobo, and the Scottish Lochs before that. He hailed originally from Ross-shire, but had been in Colonial barques since 1903. He spent much of his time ashore on the ship’s business, as a shipmaster must. The men said he had been magnificent when she’d been struck by the southerly buster off the Gabo, and they’d thought she’d sink. She would have sunk, they declared, under almost any other man. They swore by Captain Murchison to a man.

My own stay in Sydney was spoiled by an incident ashore very shortly after I signed in the Craig. I went to the city (which I seldom did) in order to send my pay home to my mother in Melbourne. Sharkey Keen came with me to show me the way, but soon after we landed a pretty girl smiled at him and that was the last I saw of Sharkey. I had not sent money by mail before, never having had any, nor had I been in a post office. I proposed to send the cash, which was in six new crisp notes, by money order. I drew a bad blank in the first post office I tried.

“Get a form,” snapped the clerk when I asked how I could send my wealth.

I looked about. There were lots of forms. Most of them seemed to be intended for writing telegrams.

“What sort of form, please?” I asked.

The clerk gave me a scornful glance and went on with this work. After a few minutes I left that post office and searched for another, somewhat bewildered. As I looked about the busy Sydney streets a cheerful stranger, very affable and pleasant spoken, chummed up with me. He looked like a seaman, though somehow not quite the type I should expect to find signing in the Craig or the Bay. He was a little oily in his manner. I was glad of his friendship. He soon discovered what I was trying to do, and, saying that he had a lot of experience in such matters, offered to help.

“I know just where there’s a good quiet post office,” he said. “I’ll be glad to help. Those forms take careful filling in, you know. Least thing wrong and those pigheaded cows behind the desk won’t send your money for you. A nasty lot, son, a nasty lot. So you’re in the old James Craig? I knew her well when she was one of the J. and J.’s. She’s a lovely one, if you like. And sail! She used to offer her mooring lines to half the steamers on the Tasman Sea, to help tow ’em along as she left ’em behind. Aye, son, you’re the lucky one, now, to be in a little honey of a windbag like that! Are there jobs in her, you say?”

We got along famously, though we seemed to be walking a long way, and I thought I had already noticed two post offices we had passed.

“It’s a special one I’m looking for, son,” said my cheerful guide. “Aye, a very special one.”

When at last we found the special post office of his choice I readily accepted his suggestion that he could deal with the cows of clerks better than I could , and the best thing to do was to hand him the money to buy my order for me.

“Just wait in the sun here,” he said. “It’s no use depressing yourself inside. I’ll be out with the receipt in two shakes of a dead lamb’s backside. That I will.”

I handed over my six crisp notes, and in he went. He never came out again. I waited and waited, at first sorry that he should be put to such trouble on my behalf, for I thought he was having an argument with some dreadful clerk. But after a while I began to be a little anxious. It must be an awfully long argument. Perhaps there was something wrong.

I looked inside. There was no sign of my kind-hearted friend at all.

Then I saw that the post office had an exit to another street. I’d been fleeced by a shore bastard! I felt as if I had been let down by the whole human race. The mean, thieving rascal had pretended to be a sailor. I found my way, hungry and depressed, back to the ship; it was years before I landed in Sydney again.

Reproduced with the kind permission of Laurence Pollinger Limited and the estate of the late Alan J Villiers.