Captain Leslie T Palmer


The late Captain Leslie T. Palmer served as A.B. on the James Craig in 1921 and on the Bellpool in 1922-23. He retired as Launchmaster of the Wellington Harbour Board in 1967. Under the pseudonym “Sinbad” he contributed many stories to the New Zealand Marine News.

We are indebted to his family for permission to re-use this story which was found amongst his papers after he died in 1975.

“All hands wear ship at eight bells! Get your soul and body lashings on! By crikey, she’s piping.” As the harbinger of these joyous tidings turned up the old kerosene lamp, which is not extinguished in heavy weather conditions but kept burning turned down low so that the watch below can be ready for an instant call and no time wasted in trying to strike wet matches, we who were being roused out wearily turned out of our bunks fully clad except for boots, and pulled on our oilskin pants and coats which were like pieces of wet tripe, having been wet for weeks with no chance of getting dry. “Blimey, this is my voyage in sail; to hell with this caper, I’m going to work on a farm and marry the boss’s daughter.”

“Eight bells! All hands to the weather braces.” To those of the older generation of seafarers who had much experience in sail, these words will recall memories of a life now long passed from the face of the sea which, though hard and requiring the best efforts from all hands, oft times wet and miserable and uttermost depths of discomfort and, in some ships, hunger, also gave you the privilege of knowing many fine types of men of all nationalities with whom you shared your lot.

Tough hard cases, but seamen to the fingertips whose natural element was at sea and who often became a nuisance to law and order when they got ashore and got lit up on chain lightning grog. It seemed to bestow a certain social status if it took more than one policeman to run them into the lockup. They are a fast vanishing type and each year sees many more of them slipping their moorings and passing on to “fiddler’s green”.

The day Friday has always been considered by the old-timers as an unlucky day to start a voyage, a belief no doubt based on an old superstition and in the case of which I am now writing it certainly gave the old salts a chance to say “There-I told you say.” On Friday 21st May 1921 the tug Te Awhina towed the barque James Craig from the King’s Channel.

As it was a flat calm when the tug cast off the towing hawser. Our yards were “box hauled”, that is braced up on opposite tacks so that whichever direction the wind came away from we would be half prepared for it. With a fine piece of tug handling the captain of the Te Awhina put his stern alongside of us at the main rigging to keep clear of our lower yards and braces and called out “Lead out your topsail halliards and I will masthead your topsail yards for you.”

This welcome offer of service was quickly accepted by the mate, and in record time we had the fore and main topsails set. The forestopsail halliards had to be led across our deck through a snatch block. I have not experienced such co-operation either before or since. As the tug left us we were setting our fore and main topgallant sails and one of her crew sang out “I’ll think of you blokes hanging on up there while I’m comfortably turned in with the missus tonight.” The address in reply was forthcoming needless to say.

The James Craig was an iron three mastered barque, built at Sunderland by the firm of Bartram for the famous Clan line of Thomas Dunlop of Glasgow and launched in 1874, and was of 646 tons register. In her early days under the “Clan” flag she was engaged in what must have been one of the toughest trades possible for a comparatively small ship,deep laden with coal from the Bristol Channel out and copper ore from Chile home to the U.K. – at least twice and sometimes three times a year off Cape Horn. It was referred to by Joseph Conrad as the toughest school for a seaman to learn his trade in.

About the turn of the century she was bought by J.J. Craig of Auckland and entered his fleet of smartly kept and run ships as the James Craig. I am not certain, but think it was just before the outbreak of the 1914 war that she was dismantled and sold out of the fleet to serve as a store hulk for eight years in New Guinea. Owing to the acute shortage of tonnage after the war and the huge freight rated then prevailing she was purchased by H. Jones and Co. of Hobart in 1920, towed to Sydney and rerigged in all pristine glory, with the port registry Sydney on her stern.

Externally the outstanding difference in her appearance was that instead of the usual painted ports of the Craig fleet she was now painted with black bulwarks and french grey hull, with salmon colour lower masts, yards and doublings. She certainly looked a smart little barque. The riggers at Morts Dock fitted her out with lanyard rigging instead of steel rigging screws. This was a step back into the past, as the lanyard rigging at this time was usually only found in vessels that had been so rigged years previously. I is quite possible that the rigging screws were in short supply at the time. She also made another concession to the past in that she was fitted with a jib-boom beyond the bowsprit.

The old anchor windlass was the original 1874 installation and was not fitted with a capstan but had the up and down levers which gave you plenty of physical exercise reaching up for the sky and then bending down to the deck, and the anchor cable had to be dragged abaft the windlass with tackles. She still carried her old original bell “Clan Macleod 1874 Glasgow”, indicating that the modern craze for souveniering (a refined term for stealing) ships’ bells had not yet arrived. I recall many of the old hulks in Wellington Harbour having their original name on their bells.

If in her re-rigging they had made a step back into the past, such was not the case with her crew accommodation and food generally. For a sailing ship she was twenty years ahead of her period. There were port and starboard foc’s’les in the forward deck house with a crew mess room and galley in the after end of it. What is now established practice, but what was not known then even in steamers, was a slide between the galley and mess room, and your meals were served up on your plate by the cook and passed through to you. Splendid food, well cooked and clean, full and plenty.

This was a far cry from the then prevailing practice of having the whole allowance put into a tin mess kid and every man for himself. I must say, though, that it was most unusual for any man to take more than his “whack” and the unwritten law of the sea, “Think of your shipmates”, prevailed in. In the James Craig there was no such thing as “whack”; full and plenty without waste was the system that prevailed.

If she looked fresh and smart aloft and on deck, such was not the case below decks. Down in the hold she certainly showed her age, as her frames, stringers and plates were badly rusted – not surprising when one considered the heavy hammering and straining she must have had in her youth. She was certainly an old ewe done up to look like spring lamb, but for all that she was a very happy ship with exceptionally considerate treatment from the Captain and the Mate.

The Second Mate had no certificate and was a glorified boatswain. Such people in those days were usually referred to by sailors as “crackerhash second mates”. He was not nominated in any popularity competition by the crew, but the mate and master were gentlemen and superb seamen. If they had not been so, there is no little doubt whether I would be alive writing these memoirs fifty years afterwards. What was in store for us took all their skill and judgment to enable the old ship to win through and survive.

Captain Alec Purdon was a man and seaman who commanded the respect and, if I might say, affection of all those who sailed with him. The mate, Mr MacVicar, was a grand old man of over 60 years of age who had been an outstanding seaman in his youth but, sad to relate, the old whisky bottle had been the cause of his undoing. He had served his time in China tea clippers and was second mate in the famous wool clipper Mermerus and other famous ships of Carmichael’s fleet.

A few years after I sailed with him his name cropped up while I was working alongside the sailmaker in another fine ship, the Mount Stewart. Sails had served many years in the Carmichael fleet, especially in the Thessalus, and told me that back in the 1890 period the master of his ship took ill in Melbourne and they were looking for “Early MacVicar” to take the Thessalus home as master but Mac was away on a real binge and that settled his career.

With us he always commanded respect and as I was in his watch (the port watch) many a time have I stood at the wheel in foul weather and watched the old chap hanging on to the weather mizzen rigging peering to windward through the spume and spray and sleet, a superb seaman but a pathetic figure. Nonetheless, I treasure his memory.

After the tug had given us a farewell salute on her whistle and started back on her return to Auckland, we did not have to wait long for a breeze to come away. Nothing unusual in the way of weather was experienced on the run up to North Cape and we had a reasonable run to half way across the Tasman, and then a succession of fresh to strong westerlies was experienced but often easing off to moderate to fresh, which gave us plenty of sail drill both setting and furling as the occasion required.

Although the ship was reported to have averaged a run of 12 1/2 knots across the Tasman in her early days in the Craig fleet I never once saw her get a favourable chance with the weather as it seemed to be heading us all the time. So far as I can remember we were off Wilson’s Promontory at the eastern entrance to Bass Strait about 20 days out from Auckland and then the winter westerly gales set in full force to give us the full treatment.

In the Journal, Autumn 1972 number, Jack Churchouse in his article on Captain Young fully covered her experiences under Captain Murchison when she sprang a leak and had to put back to Sydney in distress. Ever since she had been re-rigged a hoodoo seemed to have dogged her with bad weather and I cannot imagine she could have been a very profitable venture for her owners.

To give some idea of the persistency and intensity of the westerly gales in this region it is worth recalling that the barque Inverneil, two years previously in 1919, had made two attempts to work to the westward bound from Melbourne to Bunbury in Western Australia. On the first attempt she was blown south of Tasmania and ran back to Sydney to recover from her battering. On the second attempt when she arrived off Gabo Island the wind came away full gale force from the southwest so Captain Shoppen decided to turn tail and ran north of New Zealand and south of Cape Horn and Cape of Good Hope and arrived at Bunbury 76 days out from Sydney.

When he arrived in Bunbury he received advice that the wind had been blowing hard from the westward for three months. This vindicated his judgment in sailing 14,563 miles at an average speed of 191.6 miles per day as against a distance of less than 2,000 miles on a steamship course from Melbourne to Bunbury. Captain Shoppen sailed as mate of the Mount Stewart and I was privileged to read his diary of the trip.

As a matter of interest, here are some salient points: Off the north of New Zealand five days out from Sydney, Cape Horn thirty-three days out, off St. Paul’s Island in the South Indian Ocean when sixty-six days out and ten days from there to Bunbury. She experienced plenty of snow and ice in the high latitudes.

Bass Straight was still living up to its reputation when we arrived there and we were usually under upper topsails and foresail trying to beat to windward, but little headway could be made as the seas were heavy and our little barque was taking a fair hammering. When the foresail was taken off her we were usually down lower topsails and mizzen staysail, sometimes head reaching but usually hove to and drifting to leeward.

We were timber laden with a deck cargo, which saved us from being washed about the water-filled decks as when coal laden. However, what we gained in one respect we lost in another as there was no protection from the bulwarks whatsoever. Set up and stretched between the rigging were life nets to save anybody being washed over the side.

Whenever there was the slightest easing in the wind all possible canvas was set to try and make any westing we could. I have seen the royals set at eight a.m. and by dark in the evening we have been down to lower topsails still trying to plug to the westward.

One day when the sun broke through a leaden grey sky the captain and mate got a sight after a lapse of some days and after working up the ship’s position announced that we were in about the same position as we been a week previously, southwest of Flinders Island, and so it went on day after day and week after week.

“Wear ship at eight bells!” To the uninitiated I would explain that this is changing from one tack to the other by going around stern to wind. When this occurs in heavy weather the whole success and safety of the operation depends on the judgement and timing of the captain as he must wait his chance after running her off the wind and bracing the yards around on the other tack before he puts the helm down to bring the wind again on the opposite tack. Should she lie in the trough of the sea and be over-sluggish on coming up the chances are she would be combed fore and aft by the heavy seas prevailing which, to say the least, would cause a great deal of havoc.

It was the considered opinion of many old sailing ship masters that where ships have been posted missing – lost with all hands – they have been overwhelmed when trying to wear ship. I was told by the mate of one ship I sailed in that he had witnessed such a tragedy off Cape Horn when he saw a small Danish barque completely rolled over – lost with all hands.

One particular night stands out in my memory when all hands were kept mustered on the poop under the lee of a weather cloth in the mizzen rigging. The wind was up to a full gale force with a heavy sea running and we were hove to with a main lower topsail and mizzen staysail. The elements seemed to have gone mad when at the height of a severe squall the main lower topsail was blown out of the bolt ropes, leaving only a few strips of canvas streaming to leeward. It was only the mizzen staysail and weather cloth in the mizzen rigging which saved us from falling off into the trough of the sea.

Under the circumstances nothing could be done until daylight came, as the night was black as pitch except for vivid flashes of lightning which left one momentarily blinded afterwards. When the clock indicated that it should be daylight and the pitch black night changed to a leaden grey, cheerless sky we struggled down into the sail locker and hauled out a brand new main lower topsail on to the poop.

You can imagine the dismay of the captain and all hands when we discovered that rats had chewed big holes out of both clews of the sail. While one watch worked aloft unbending the remains of the blown out sail the others worked on patching the new one to be sent aloft. When the time came to do so all hands sent the sail aloft and bent it and set it in the vilest conditions. Once she had the sail upon her the ship came up closer to the wind and made things more comfortable all round.

It is the recollection of instances like this that makes me think with respect of the type of real seamen these men were. After this event the captain told us to see what could be done in trying to get the galley fire going to make a cup of tea, as the galley had been completely gutted and washed out. It fell to myself and Colin Goss – now retired as a senior pilot of the Port Phillip Pilot Service – to get the keys of the storeroom off the cook and try to get what food we could.

The cook was paralysed with fright and on his knees praying when I got the keys off him so was not of much use or assistance to anybody. The storeroom was the lazarette down under the cabin deck and we had been given strict instructions not to take a light in or strike a match in case of fire. Things seemed to be a shambles down there so we groped around in the dark and put into a canvas bag what tins of food we could lay our hands on.

When we got up on to the poop deck and examined what tins we had we discovered we had a good supply of sheep’s tongues and black currants. Other shipmates had got the galley fire going and before long we all had a pannikin of hot tea with the aforesaid sheep’s tongues and black currants. Although this would not be considered a good menu in the best of circles, to a pack of cold, wet and hungry sailors it tasted like the nectar of the gods. After this good dusting the weather moderated somewhat and hauled around to the south, which enabled us to work more to the westward.

We arrived off Port Phillip Heads 49 days out from Auckland and picked up our pilot late in the afternoon. After sailing in through the heads the wind fell light and thick fog settled down, and we narrowly avoided being run down by a coastal steamer. On Saturday 9th July 1921 we anchored off the Gellibrand Light at the entrance to the Yarra River, 50 days out from Auckland.

After passing the port health authorities the tug Maitland towed us up the river and berthed us at South Yarra, commonly known in those days as Siberia. The crew paid off in Melbourne but three of us signed on again to overhaul gear, etc. After discharging cargo and going into dry dock at Williamstown we were towed back up the river and berthed in Victoria Dock.

After lying there for some weeks with regular daily rumours of where our next voyage was to be to – news which is usually referred to as “Galley Gazette” – we finally heard a rumour that we were to load wheat “Falmouth for Orders”.

I had the job of attending the boat to take Lloyd’s Surveyor around the outside of the hull. He certainly gave the old girl a good thrashing with his hammer and when I rowed him around under the counter he gave one solid blow and knocked a hole in her. After this he became really enthusiastic and found a few more weak places and then ordered me to take him back to the ladder hanging over the side.

The next day the captain sent for me and told me rather sadly that the old ship was finished and had been condemned. She was to be taken to Hobart and there dismantled for a coal hulk. When she was to depart was uncertain, but if I wished I could remain and go with her. This was rather uncertain, so I decided to pay off in Melbourne.

I have always felt that I did not leave the James Craig – she left me.