John “Sharkey” Keen served as crewmember aboard the barque James Craig in the year 1920. His fascinating memoirs have been included as a special part of our web site.
The photographs used to highlight the text are from his own album, for the 1920’s saw the dawning of the age of the mass-produced camera, and Sharkey was quick to record his experiences using this medium.
Featured as one of the more colourful characters in Alan Villiers book “The Set of the Sails” (see the extract), “Sharkey” Keen was born in 1900 and died in October 1981. Aware of the resurrection of his former ship, he sat down in the months preceding his death, to pen his recollections of life on board.
These memoirs reveal a man of lively intelligence, who wrote with a descriptive ease and a natural flair for storytelling . . .
I had spent a few years in steamships before deciding to go elsewhere–life in the Island Steamers of Burns Philp Company seemed too easy and monotonous. Much was happening in the world–territories were changing hands due to the defeat of Germany after the wind-up of the Great War to end wars (we were told); the Samoan group of Islands was put under control of the New Zealand Government and the many islands of the Marshall and Caroline Islands were given to the Japanese to govern.
They had entered the war on our side but this proved to be a short-sighted exercise as we found out later.
As there were still a few sailing ships being operated by various owners and under several flags, I decided there would be a more interesting life in sail. so after looking around for what I thought might suit me I joined James Craig (ex Clan Macleod) in Newcastle, New South Wales.
Captain Murdo Murchison was the Master–a very able man in his profession, blunt and forthright, a real man’s man with the ability to command respect and to get things done. He had served in the Royal Navy during the war in command of an armed merchant ship, a small sailing craft armed and manned by the naval crew with which he distinguished himself by sinking a German submarine in the North Sea.
The War ended and he was demobilised from the Navy and came back to his family.
His wife Fannie had three children when they joined the James Craig in Hobart. Kathie was a beautiful little girl about seven, little Jock was nearly two years old and the baby was only a few weeks old.
In Newcastle a cargo of coal was loaded for Hobart. The ship was not in good repair as it turned out very soon; she had been a hulk for many years and had been used to store copra at Port Moresby, Papua.
The rigging was all new, masts and yards renewed where necessary so everything aloft was in first class order. All the sails were new, made of good white cotton canvas by the leading sailmakers Brett of Balmain. But we found as the ship was being loaded she settled deeper in the water, weeps showed up that unfortunately did not take up. However, the ship left Newcastle and for the first few days the weather was favourable. We were helped by the south flowing East Australian current but as we got further south towards Bass Strait the weather deteriorated and gave us the usual Gabo Island dusting.
It was during this spasm of bad weather that we found the ship was making considerable water. There was ten feet of water in the fore-peak and quite a depth in the hold so it was all hands to the pumps. We worked in relays; that way the water level was reduced in good time but it was a different matter with the fore-peak–there was no pump so we had to bale it out with a bucket on the end of a piece of rope.
The weather did not improve so Captain Murchison decided to try and make the run back to Sydney as it was feared the ship might founder. With constant use of the pumps and baling the fore-peak we managed to keep the water down. We were lucky to get away from the boisterous weather and make fair progress north towards Sydney, the light south westerly giving us a good slant.
Just north of Port Kembla the tug Hero hailed us and after some bargaining between Captain Murchison and the skipper of the tug we were taken in tow and towed to an anchorage in Johnsons Bay in sight of the Rob Roy Hotel at Balmain, a famous haunt of sailors at that time. We were all paid off.
I was the only one of the original crew to rejoin; all the others said they had had enough but the cook stayed for a few days.
Surveyors came aboard and after tarpaulins and hatches had been removed they went below to see what had to be done in the way of repairs. After lengthy discussions between the surveyors, owners representatives, and Captain Murchison it was decided that before any repairs could be carried out, some of the cargo would have to be discharged. So two men were engaged to give me a hand to rig gear to do the discharging.
In these ships there were not any derricks and steam winches as there are in a steamer so a span had to be rigged between the fore and main masts with a gin block centred over the middle of the hatch. the main yard was swung out of the way, the two topsail yards lashed together and a block fastened to the lower topsail yard through which a bullrope is rove. This gear was used to discharge some 300 tons of coal into a hulk that was brought alongside.
The hulk happened to be Daniel, put out of service some months previously and in sailors language “rigged down”, (ie. all the
yards are sent down, the top gallant masts and topmasts struck and as the Daniel was of wooden construction the jib boom was also “sent-in”). Built in Denmark in the last century the owners had decided it was no longer economical to try and compete against steamers so she was “hulked”, as many other sailing craft had been after they had outlived their usefulness. There were many in Australian ports, in fact in many ports worldwide.
The work of discharging was done by waterside workers and a gang of shipyard workers came aboard and effected repairs where necessary; caulking seams, removing and renewing concrete in the waterways on both sides of the ship. When all the repairs had been completed and passed by the surveyor, the coal was reloaded from Daniel. It took some days as this method of loading and discharging was slow. We did have a winch run by petrol engine but the load capacity was not great hence the slow rate of loading and discharge.
When this was completed a full crew was engaged. There were 10 of us and we were kept busy making preparations for sea. The first job was to wash down. This is done by drawing water from over the side with a “draw-bucket” a specially made one consisting of well sewn canvas with an iron ring at the mouth for tipping and flat sennit sewn on the sides connecting the handle part of the bucket. Then a light strut is lashed fast to the bulwarks, a block at the top end of the strut has a rope rove through it and hitched to the “draw-bucket”. This is the way water was hoisted up for “washing down decks”, the water being tipped into a bucket for the second mate to slosh on deck, the men in the meantime keeping busy with their brooms and so in this manner the process of washing decks was done.
Then we come to the job of cleaning the paintwork. Men are given a bucket of fresh water and a “soojee wad”, a big piece of cloth and told where to clean the paint. So before long all hands are busy round the ship restoring her to a state of cleanliness. James Craig being a comparatively small ship this job did not take long. It was all done in one day.
The following day, all hands turned to after breakfast and proceeded to prepare running gear, send down cargo gear, unlash top sail yards and bring the main yard back into position and shackle on lower topsail sheets and see that everything is in order. Hatches on and tarpaulins battened down, all ready for another attempt to reach Hobart.
There were some old timers among the crew. One a big Scot, Dan Murchison, said to be a distant relation of the captain; an old Finn, a Swede and a young lad who was to write books on seafaring, Alan Villiers. The mate was a lanky Tasmanian, Jimmy Carver, who had been in sailing craft for some considerable time. He was a quiet spoken man but knew how to get things done.
We left Sydney quietly and made our way south towards Hobart. The run was good until we got close to Gabo. It blew a bit but James Craig soon slipped away from this well known bad weather spot and on down the east coast of Tasmania. She handled well and steered like a yacht and with favourable slants entered Storm Bay and up the Derwent River sailing right up to the wharf opposite Ocean Pier which is close to the big Henry Jones IXL Jam factory and preserving complex.
This was in 1920, the year HRH The Prince of Wales visited Australia. He had travelled in the battleship Renown and we were to be in the box seat as it were, to see him land from the barge of HMS Renown. The wharf where the ship was moored was crowded with sightseers, anxious to get a closer look when he stepped ashore, and a dozens requested to be allowed on James Craig in order that they get a good view.
Before we could let anyone on board we had to get permission from the captain, all decked in his naval uniform and displaying medals he had won through his war service. He told us to let so many on board but we were to charge them two shillings each for the privilege. That was to be our beer money; we got enough out of it for a good party which we had by buying a few bottles of Cascade ale and some crayfish which could be bought then for one shilling each.
The Prince was entertained very extensively by the authorities of the day, being called “Prince Charming”, mainly by adoring ladies and the female section of the community. Of course he was popular with everyone but the ladies were the most ardent admirers. He was kept very busy attending functions in his honour and had little time to himself.
Our coal cargo had been discharged and so we lay for a few days at this berth. There was plenty to be done so we were kept busy on routine work. In the meantime, the ship’s owners had been arranging for the ship to proceed to a little place on the Huon River and take on a cargo of timber for Port Adelaide. so under tow we were moved to the loading berth at a sawmill near Port Huon. The scenery was most beautiful as we were towed up the river with its apple orchards and well timbered hills and ridges.
There had been a few changes in the crew while we were at Hobart and we were sorry to see old Sandy McNab the bosun go. He was one of the genuine old sailors. There were not many of them left. He was replaced by a Tasmanian called Dimple Smart who had spent most of his time at sea in the roaring forties, and a young chap named Johnny Gleeson joined too. He had just returned to Tasmania after a voyage with Captain Finlay Murchison which took them to London. Finlay was our captain’s brother and he had been awarded a medal for bravery during that voyage and afterwards became Harbourmaster of the Port of Sydney.
We loaded our cargo of hardwood, beautifully milled it was, and a consignment of IXL jams and other preserves in tins. Well cased, it was all carried without undue incident and soon we were ready for another battle with the elements. so under tow again, we left the pleasant though sparely settled little village of Port Huon, leaving the schooner Amelia J still at the port and loading her cargo.
Tragedy struck this beautiful little craft some time later. She was lost with all hands. The Southern Cross had gone the same way, as did the Handa Isle all in the space of a few months.
It was a battle against the strong Westerlies to Adelaide, and the heavy seas they can kick up, but we finally made it through Backstairs Passage and on up to anchorage off what is called “Outer Harbour”. The ship was not there long. A tug came and moved us to a berth just up river from the Jervois bridge where the cargo was discharged. It was while we were there that our cat had decided he’d had enough of seafaring so, after galloping forward and then aft to the taffrail and jumped overboard. we watched to see if he came up swimming again as we fully expected to effect a rescue but no, we never saw our cat again. One of our bright sparks chalked on the deck where Tommy had jumped from, “Missing–believed drowned”.
The ship lay at this berth for some days after the cargo had been discharged, which gave us plenty of time to go to shows and visit the missions to seamen. We could also take a walk round the docks and see other ships. There was a big four-master at one of the wharves. It was Mariechen. She flew the Finnish flag, a pale blue cross on a white ground. To us she was a great ship manned by young men with blonde hair and they spoke a language that was strange to us. Her port of registry was Mariechamn, in the O’land Islands, the name on her bell was Glenericht–she had been a Scot. There were other sailing craft in port at the time, one the American schooner Elinor H whose captain was the notorious Dan Kilman. He always carried a gun but was not popular with other captains.
Our agents had been busy and had secured a cargo to New Zealand for the ship but we had to move around to Port Pirie in order to load it, so a tug moved our ship from Adelaide and then let us go just outside the river entrance and she was sailed from there and rounded Althorpe Island light to enter Spencers Gulf and on to Germein Bay.
When we arrived there a small tug came out and towed us to our loading berth. There was another sailing ship there Kirkcudsbrightshire, a full-rigged ship hailing from Glasgow. She had arrived from Norway with a load of timber. Port Pirie was a quaint little town with the trains running in the main street. There is a big smelting works there too.
After making the necessary preparations we started loading our cargo, and it was here that we got rid of the food spoiler/cook. He was a very poor cook by any standards, so one of the lads resorted to the old deepwater trick of stuffing an empty corn sack down the galley funnel. Of course, this blocked up the funnel would not allow the fire in the galley stove to “draw”, and so, could not become hot enough to do the cooking and prepare meals for the officers and crew. Also, the captain had his family on board and they could not get anything either. It ended up with the cook being put in gaol for refusing duty, and one of the lads taking on the job as cook, on a temporary basis. so for a few days we had passable food to eat. We were lucky to get rid of the big Irish loafer.
A few days before sailing, the captain asked the stand-in cook if he would stay in that capacity. His answer was “I can’t make bread”. At that remark the captain nearly jumped off the deck and shouted “bugger the bread”, give’em ‘hard tack’ (hard biscuits), but he could see that he had to find another cook. He was told there was a man looking for the job, so this man was found and brought to the ship, and interviewed by the captain, who engaged him.
He had made a wise choice, everything was made ready for the new cook. the galley was nice and clean, the coal bin full, the freshwater tank full, vegetables in the ready box, everything we could think of that would make him welcome. He came, and turned out to be a champion in that galley. He really spoilt us with good food, even to the extent of making hot rolls for breakfast, on all occasions, excepting in bad weather, and when the ship did a lot of rolling.
It is indeed most difficult to cook when a ship is experiencing a spell of bad weather. Frequently while working on deck, we were waist high in water, and at these times we had problems with our clothes, and very often could not dry them properly. We could not dry them in the galley, for the fire was allowed to go out after the evening meal had been cooked. This could go on for several days, then, as the weather fined up, life gradually got back to normal. Resolutions were made and generally forgotten. The sailing ship sailor usually was a forgiving type, very seldom a bearer of malice.
In Port Pirie we saw what happened to thousands of tons of wheat, that was brought to the port with the idea that it would be shipped to Europe, to help feed people in the countries ravaged by war. But it was due to shortage of shipping space that the wheat was, in the meantime attacked by a plague of mice. The mice made holes in the bags, which allowed the good grain to spill out, and with exposure to weather, became quite unfit for food. There were no vermin proof silos in which the wheat could have been stored.
Our cargo had been loaded, and again we made preparations for sea, all hands were kept busy putting all the gear in order, washing down and battening down hatches and securing everything on deck.
This is done to preserve moveable items of gear, such as spare parts, cargo gaffs and anything that could move in bad weather, and be a danger to men working round the decks. We were ready for sea, a small tug towed us from the wharf and clear of the harbour entrance, where all sails were set, and the tug cast off.
We did not get far the first night. The wind was very light and as the tidal stream carried us past Port Germein, it looked a bit close to the beach where the ship was drifting. But we managed to clear the land, and with a freshening breeze, made our way south towards Kangaroo Island, and on into the Great Australian Bight where the prevailing wind is westerly or sou’westerly, which gave us a good slant towards Bass Strait and the Tasman Sea.
After leaving port, watches were set and we settled down to a routine of four hours on duty and four hours off, with the exception of the period between 4 pm and 8pm, which is divided into tow 2-hour watches, called dog watches. By this means watches rotated, and so, were changed every day, so if one watch had the “graveyard” watch one day, the other watch would have it next day.
By doing this one watch would be on duty ten hours one day, and fourteen the next, that is, providing the weather was favourable. But there were times we had to work ship, such as change of tacks, or shorten sail. These jobs were usually carried out at change of watches, when all hands worked together, and got the job over as quickly as possible.
We were clear of Kangaroo Island, and the Neptunes, and with a strong westerly wind, made south to clear Cape Nelson before we could square away, and sail through Bass Strait. There were not many ships in sight here, but we expected to see a few as the Straits were negotiated. A big American five-masted schooner made her way towards Backstairs Passage, it was probably bound for Adelaide.
At sea, in fine weather, life was quite pleasant, we all had set times of duty, and free times in which we were at liberty to do as we pleased, bearing in mind that after four hours “watch below”, we had to go on watch again, so if a person was inclined to be on the tired side, it was best to get as much sleep as possible. But there was usually other things to do also, clothes had to be washed, there were no washing machines, everything was done by hand, then if there was mending or darning to be done, we couldn’t just turn the job over to mother, so we got our gear, and did whatever was to be done ourselves. Some lads do these jobs very well.
Most seafarers had a hobby of some sort, making models was one. I saw many beautiful ship models turned out. Then, there was usually one among the crew who was able to play some sort of musical instrument, an accordion or violin was most common. We would congregate on the main hatch and listen to whatever was offered in the way of music.
Sometimes we would get a song from one of the boys, it all helped to pass the time pleasantly, and we could contain ourselves until we arrived at the next port. There we could take our fun where we found it, some would go to church, some to pubs, others would take a fishing line and catch a few fish. So, all in all, we had, in our little community, the usual cross-section of human life, which brings us back to the age-old saying, “we can’t all be alike”.
With a good following wind and moderately rough sea, the ship was headed towards the bottleneck between South East Cape and Redondo Island. It could be dangerous there, everyone was watchful, the captain was on deck often, but he did not seem to be unduly perturbed, occasionally he glanced at the compass just to satisfy himself that the ship was on her course and being properly steered. At the rate we were going, the ship should have been past South East Cape before nightfall.
We were past South East Cape and expected to clear Cliffy Island shortly, and the Mogan’s that lay to the south. From there would be a good stretch before we finally left Bass Strait and into the Tasman Sea. Some very notable runs have been done in the Tasman, the little schooner Huia had made some very good runs there. She was a bit wet on occasions, and one rough crossing she made, had the misfortune to lose a man overboard.
Our crossing of the Tasman was without incident, the winds were mainly light but favourable, and in due course we sighted the Three Kings, islands that lie to the north of New Zealand’s north island. It was not a great distance from the Kings to Auckland, actually less than two hundred nautical miles. We were looking forward to seeing Auckland, quite a lot of us had not been there before. Big Dan Murchison said, “It’s a grand place laddie”. So after rounding these islands our course was set south, towards Auckland on the Waitamata River.
The coast was clear until we came to the many islands that lay eastward of the north island. However, we made a good run, and sailed nearly up to Rangitote Island, where we were taken in tow by the tug Teriwhiti, and towed to a berth at Kings wharf. We had made contact with Cape Brett light-house as we passed. Our run across the Tasman had been pleasant.
We found Auckland to be quite a pleasant city, there were plenty of attractions, and the people were very friendly. Some very good catches of fish were caught at the wharf. They were mainly schnapper, some quite sizeable, up to 12 or 15 lbs. There were quite a number of sailing craft in port, we visited a few, they were mainly small, the little Ysabel, and the barquentine Wanganui were the biggest, the barques Dartford and Gladbrook, being overseas on voyages.
Our cargo was discharged, and we had been told a cargo of white pine was to be loaded for Melbourne. Nicholson had decided he would stay in New Zealand, he was paid off, and his place was taken by another New Zealander Duncan McKenzie, who was desirous of getting more time in sail, in order that he would be able to sit for a square rig certificate later on.
Before all the cargo was discharged, we took in what was called “stiffening”. This was ballast to give the ship stability, which would help in that direction when the comparatively light timber was loaded. Such a light cargo had a tendency to render a ship to what is known as “tender trim”, so an amount of ballast was loaded first to counteract this situation. In the meantime, the inward cargo had been discharged, and the loading of New Zealand white pine was commenced.
There was some trimming to be done on the ballast, to give a more even surface, on which to stow the timber cargo. We had plenty to do while the cargo was being loaded, deck lashings had to be placed in readiness to lash the deck cargo. It was not very high as New Zealand loading regulations limit the height of deck loads to the height of the ships bulwarks, usually 3’6″. Some American ships are seen to carry very high deck loads, some even carry as much on deck, as is carried in the hold.
Our cargo was loaded, and we were kept busy lashing the deck cargo, rigging safety lines at the ship’s sides, and fastening pin rails in the fore and main rigging, and on heavy wooden rails, so that the braces and other gear could be made fast. The pin rails where all the gear was normally made fast were covered by the deck load, so we must necessarily improvise other means, the anchors were left hanging in the “ring stoppers” and “shank painters”, in case they were required before we cleared land. They were “catted” and secured on the foc’sle head later, and the “fish tackle” sent down and stowed away until it was required again.
A few days later, as five of us from the ship were rounding the end of Kings Wharf intending to make our way up town and have a drink or two in one of the pubs we usually patronised, we met Captain Murchison and his family who were going towards where the ship was berthed. When we got within speaking distance the Captain, who was pushing the pram with little Jock and the baby in it said “Where are you going boys”, we said, “Up to have a beer”, and with that Captain Murchison said “com on missus, we’ve got to buy the boys a drink”. So off we all marched, the Captain still pushing the pram and Mrs Murchison leading Kathie by the hand.
It was not very far to the Waverly Hotel, and leaving Mrs Murchison outside with the children, we went inside and had a few drinks with our Captain. We would have done anything for that man, we had great respect for him and his wife and family. At sea Kathie would sometimes be allowed to come along and sit in our little messroom, in the dog watches. She was a little over seven years old at the time and if we sang, she would join in, I think she enjoyed herself in her little way, she was indeed a lovely little girl, we were a happy family on James Craig.
The preparations for sea were nearly completed, a sailing time had been announced and soon the tug came that was to take us to sea. I did, and was made fast on our starboard side. When the tug was fast, the skipper, sho was a friend of Captain Murchison, came aboard and went with him to his cabin, presumably to have a parting drink before we cast off. In the meantime the mate had given orders for us to single up our mooring lines, and soon Captain Murchison and the tug skipper came on deck, and with jangling of bells on the tug, and “let go fore and aft” from the Captain, were were backed away from the wharf, and into the Waitamata River.
When we were in position, the tug went ahead, and gave us his towrope, and commenced towing our ship seawards. He took us about a mile past Rangitote Island, which is about seven miles from Auckland. The sails had been loosed on the way, we set our sails, and let go the tug. We were on our way again, this time towards Melbourne.
We experienced light favourable winds at first, just enough to take us past the scattered islands, that lie to the eastward of the north island. Then the wind fell light and later to a flat calm, so next day found us off Cape Brett, which has a light on it. We were only drifting very slowly so anyone who had a fishing line brought it out, and tried their hand at fishing.
It wasn’t long before the deck was littered with several kinds of fish, mainly schnapper and blue cod, for which New Zealand is famous. We caught what could be used in a reasonable time as we had no way of keeping them from going bad. There was no refrigeration and no ice boxes in these ships.
In the afternoon a light south-easterly wind sprang up, giving us a good slant towards North Cape, at the northern tip of the island. So, bowling along steadily we were able to clear North Cape, and head towards the Tasman Sea. As the weather was fine, and the wind favourable, Capt. Murchison decided he would sail between the “Three Kings” and the mainland. This manoeuvre went off all right, and soon we took our departure from Cape Reinga. We were in the Tasman, and headed towards Bass Strait but Bass Strait is a long way off and much could happen before we get there, we are going nicely with all sails set.
The repair gangs in Sydney had evidently done a good job, the ship was “tight”, and frequent soundings showed no water in the bilges. Actually the bilges are sounded several times a day, in some ships it is done every watch, that is every four hours. It is the carpenter’s job to do the soundings, but in the James Craig we had no carpenter so a good reliable seaman was picked to do the soundings.
The usual weather of the Tasman prevails, and we are making fair progress. It can be very nasty in this sea, but so far the weather has been moderate. Having a deckload has advantages. Any water that comes over the rail quickly finds its way overboard again, and in this respect, we work under comparatively dry conditions, the top of the load on deck being three feet six inches above the main deck, and as I have stated earlier in his narrative, level with the top of the bulwarks.
When the deckload was being stowed, steps had to be built into it to allow access to the galley, and our quarters too. This is very important as the doors leading to our quarters, the messroom and galley, all swing outwards. If the weather is bad and there is a likelihood of water sloshing over the weather side, the weather door is closed, and we use the lee door which usually can be left open. If there is a likelihood of a “lee-railer” coming over the lee rail, we close the lee door also. It is not however, a good practice and is done only if the weather is very bad.
There were five men in each watch on James Craig, the mate having one watch, and the second mate the other. During the night watches, those who are not doing a turn of the wheel, or on the lookout, stayed either in the messroom or in the lee of the deckhouse, which as where our quarters were. Then after two hours those two men are relieved, and they take it easy for the remainder of the watch providing, of course, they are not required to do some kind of work such of taking in or setting some of the lighter sails, or trimming yards, or anything that the officer of the watch considers necessary.
Taking in the bigger sails, of course, is an all hands affair, which is usually left to do at the changing of the watches. But if this is not practicable, and it is thought necessary, the watch below is called out for the job. This is a time when everyone concerned jumps out of his nice warm bunk, into his clothes and oilskins and gets on deck as quick as possible. The job, whatever it might be, is done with our best speed, those warm bunks are calling and the watch below make all haste to get back into them.
We left Auckland six days ago and we are now well into the Tasman, we are beginning to feel the effects of the rising sea, but our ship takes it very nicely and Capt. Murchison knows how to handle her.
He started his seafaring career in the famous Loch Line. This line produced many first class seamen. He told us he had been in the Loch Torridon, one of the crack ships of that line, and also Sandy McNab had been in them too. This was natural as they were both Scots, Capt. Murchison hailing from Inverness-shire. Sandy was a Glasgow-ite, but he was a fine seaman, and he could play the bagpipes too.
We had another Scot with us, a huge man, he was another Murchison, I think a relative of Capt. Murchison. He used to play an instrument called a “chanter”, it made a noise similar to that made by the bagpipes. Some of us countered by talking “backslang”. There were several forms of this way of murdering the English language. It did have the effect of making these highlandsmen think that we were talking a foreign language. I am sure they didn’t like it a bit. It did not worry us much whether they liked it or not.
We are running into weather that seems it will get a bit rough. The wind has shifted and blowing out of the southwest, it has freshened considerably necessitating the reduction of some of the lighter sails. First to be taken in was the gaff topsail, which sets on the mizzen topmast, above the spanker. The fore and main royals are taken in and made fast.
The ship behaves a bit kinder now, and the steering is not so laborious. We are forging ahead towards Bass Strait hoping for a good slant so send us past Gabo Island and on to Wilsons Promontory. This could be hazardous as it is a bottleneck and used by both East and West bound vessels. As it narrows down to six miles from Wilsons Promontory to Redondo Island, anxious moments could be experienced if it is used by several ships at the same time.
I mention this because fogs occur at times in this vicinity, also ships have suffered damage to their masts and rigging through strong squalls. One ship I remember, the barque Garthsnaid was dismasted in the approaches to Bass Strait, however we are hoping to negotiate the passage safely. The distance from here to Pt. Nepean, that is “Melbourne Heads”, is only about one hundred miles and from Pt. Nepean to Gellibrand, about forty miles, so if we get past Wilsons Promontory safely, there will not be much further to go.
Life on a ship at sea is not all that bad, there are times when there is never a dull moment, quite amusing events take place, like the one yesterday. It appears the mate Jimmy Carver, “mister” to us gave one of the lads a job to do. Naturally, when the mate tells a man to do a particular job he expects it to be carried out in a competent and expedient manner, but this did not quite happen in this case.
When the mate looked to see if his order was being carried out, he could not see the young New Zealander anywhere. Many things must have crossed the mate’s mind, could he have fallen overboard, anything could have happened to him. So being a methodical man, he went round the ship in search of him. We found him after a short search, performing the acme of accomplishment. He was doing three jobs at one time. He was sitting on the seat of the lavatory, with a novel in one hand, and eating a slice of bread and jam with the other.
When we were told of this we thought it was quite an achievement and very funny. So after that if we saw him making his way towards the lavatory we reminded him not to forget some bread and jam and his novel. He couldn’t have gone into the bathroom, there wasn’t one.
When we wanted to have a bath, it was done on deck. Sometimes we were allowed to warm half-a-bucketful of water on the galley stove, then we usually took it to the fore side of the deckhouse and performed the operation. That was about as private as we could manage under the circumstances. The reason why we did this as because the Captain’s wife and family were aboard and they lived aft.
The windlass on James Craig was a simple old fashioned affair, hand operated by an up and down pump-like action. Letting go the anchor was not an event, it was an ordeal. The windlass barrel operated in one direction only. So quite a lot of work had to be done in preparing the anchor and chain before the anchor could be dropped.
We knew the depth of the water where this was to be carried out, so about twice the depth of water, as shown on the chart, was the length of chain that must be rendered over the windlass barrel. That is, if the water where the anchor was to be dropped was ten fathoms deep, i.e. 60 feet, twenty fathoms of chain must be rendered over the windlass barrel and ranged under the foc’s’le head, clear for dropping. The anchor in the meantime being made ready to let go and hanging in the ring stopper on the cat-head. To let the anchor go, the pin in the ringstopper is knocked out with a big hammer. After the anchor is dropped all that has to be done is tend the chain and make it secure when enough has been paid out.
It is late in November and the Captain tells us he expects a good run into, and through Bass Strait. We hope so as Gabo Island has a bad name with seamen. Many times ships have had a good run south on the way to Melbourne and ports further west, when, on rounding Gabo Island, they have run into very strong westerly gales, sometimes it being necessary to turn back and shelter in “Twofold Bay”, Eden, until the weather moderates.
Many Masters considered it was wiser to do this than trying to buck the elements. A sailing ship of course, could never attempt such an exercise. She must be hove-to, if sea-room permits, or take other action that may be necessary and practicable.
In this case we are going along nicely, the wind falling a bit light so all sails are set again. We are about five hundred miles from Melbourne. By the cloud formation and drifts, the indications point to a wind shift. The high Cirrus clouds are travelling in a westerly direction which looks good to us. Though, in the case of a sudden shift of wind we must be watchful as we are on the port tack, and if the wind suddenly shifted and came out of the north we could be “caught by the lee”, which would cause a very nasty situation indeed.
Ships have been lost by being “caught in the lee”. The four-masted barque Pamir, was lost in this way with the loss of most of her young crew, I think only about six of the crew survived. That is only one case. There have, unfortunately, been others.
However, as we know these events have happened and are still possible, we “keep the weather eye lifting”. With the wind being light, the sea is moderate and we are enjoying good conditions and making fair progress towards the eastern approaches to Bass Strait. We expect to get a glimpse of some prominent point in the eastern part of Victoria. There are one or two fairly high mountains a few miles north of Gabo Island. We keep a good lookout but know we must get closer in before we see land.
As in most sailing ships when there is fine weather we are kept busy on various jobs, making sennit, bag-a-winkle, chafing mats, overhauling running gear, in fact anything that seems necessary is done. It all easy work and is interesting. The bag-a-winkles are made on two long lengths of spun yarn, and using short lengths of rope. It is used for making chafing mats, and rounding on stays, and lifts and anywhere chafing of sails is likely to occur. Where a stay is rounded with a bag-a-winkle it looks something like an elongated golliwog. But it does prevent chafe. There is a long piece put on the fore and mainsail come in contact with the stays. They are made of hard standing rigging wire, and are double, and would soon wear a hole in a sail if some precaution wasn’t taken.
A lot of pulley-hauley work had to be done, the wind was playing rascals with itself, but we cheerfully did what had to be done and as the indications showed, the expected fair wind eventually came out of the eastward, sending us along nicely, gradually working up strength and giving us speed of about Eight knots. The Captain was in good spirits, and even climbed up the mizzen top with his binoculars, to see if he could sight any land. He did not see anything but in an hour or two something will show up he said.
So about an hour after the Captain had been aloft, one of the lads climbed up to the fore-royal yard to see if he could see anything. It was fine clear weather. He had been up there about twenty minutes when we heard the welcome shout “land ho”. He had sighted two humps that turned out to be Mount Imlay, a few miles north of Gabo Island.
When we got closer in, cross bearings could be taken. This would give the Captain a definite and reliable position, and with frequent checks, give an accurate estimate of the ships speed and course, all very necessary and appreciated by the practical navigator.
By morning we were well into the eastern basin of Bass Strait, and had seen the lights of passing steamers. Most of them were coming from a westerly direction, presumably bound for ports of the east coast and perhaps New Zealand.
We could only guess, as we had no wireless telegraph. We only had flags for daylight signalling, a signalling lamp for night signalling, this powered by a kerosene burning lamp. It was not a good lamp, as it sometimes smoked a bit, making the lens foggy, so indeed, did not give a bright clear beam like the electric signal lamps do.
The wind has freshened slightly and is right aft, so we have a good “fair” wind and logging just on ten knots, so we were able to catch up with some of the little coastal steamers and pass them. We passed the little Howard Smith’s Chillagoe, she seemed to be steaming perhaps a little better then eight knots.
We did present a most unusual spectacle, as there were not many sailing ships about this time. No doubt some of the men in the ships we passed took snapshots of our ship as she so majestically forged ahead towards the narrow part of the Bass Strait, bounded on the north side, by South East Cape (commonly known as Wilsons Promontory). This is the high land that lies to the north of South East Cape, by Redondo Island, on the south side.
It is fine clear weather, and all on board are in high spirits and looking forward to seeing Melbourne again. Which is home port for some of our crew. So these members will soon be able to go home and be with their families again. For a while at least others would probably pursue whatever intentions they had such as shopping, getting measured for a new suit and generally circulating whatever money they happened to have.
There are many ways of spending money. We have to be careful when approached by various types who might have stolen goods they wish to sell to unsuspecting individual, such as cheap gold watches, rings and other flamboyant adornments. They may not be worth much really, so it’s a case of sailor beware.
We have passed through the narrow neck of the Strait and heading up towards Cape Liptrapp there is plenty of sea-room. The weather holds fine, occasionally a steamer passes us. There is usually a fair volume of traffic here. The steamer we see are heading in an easterly direction. We have to get further west to see the Tasmanian traders and west-bound traffic which has to steam south on leaving Port Phillips Heads until they get far enough south to round Cape Otway, where they will turn west and proceed to wherever their destination may be.
Several items of gear that may be required are brought on deck and examined, the fish tackle was one. It was laid out ready to be sent aloft. The hand lead-line was another. It was stretched out and all the marks examined and renewed when thought necessary. There are nine marks on the hand lead-line, and so placed, that depths of water up to twenty fathoms can be measured. It is necessary that the man using it knows where all the marks are and what depth they signify. Without that knowledge he would be useless. Ignorance is no excuse, as we have plenty of time in which to make ourselves acquainted with such important knowledge.
The laborious task of overhauling anchor chain is also done. The ranging job has to be done in a crouching position. Under the foc’s’le head, the distance from main deck to foc’s’le head is less than three feet so it will be seen that this is a rather awkward though necessary, job.
Another important part of the Captain’s duty is to consult the Admiralty tide tables. Port Phillip Bay has a large area with a very narrow outlet. At times of flood and ebb tides the rate of flow at these times is considerable through this narrow passage called The Rip. So he must make every endeavour to adjust his ship’s arrival at the entrance to coincide with the time of what is known as “slack water”. It is then safe to make the attempt of entering the bay, if, of course, the wind is favourable.
Entering under any but favourable conditions would not only be dangerous, but foolhardy in the extreme. Several steamers have come to grief negotiating this dangerous passage. It is the time of ebb tide when we arrive off the entrance so there is some manoeuvring with the ship until it is possible to square away and enter Port Phillip Bay. All hands are on deck and ready to do whatever is required. So the yards are trimmed, the helmsman told to watch his steering, we are going in through this narrow passage between Port Nepean and Point Lonsdale.
One of the lads being told off to be night watchman he prepares his riding (anchor) lights and the rest of us have the first full night’s sleep since leaving Auckland sixteen days ago. No record passage certainly, quite and ordinary passage as a matter of fact and we settle down to spend another day here at anchor.
Sunday is a day of rest but not for everyone. The crew members are free to do as they wish when the washing down is finished. So before long, freshly washed clothes are hanging on several clothes lines, drying in the sun and wind. Suits are brought out to be aired and brushed so that we can look respectable when we grace the shore with our presence. The washing is done because sailors are generally clean people and they never like to leave a ship with an accumulation of soiled clothing. So they take the first opportunity to put their belongings in order.
I mentioned this as a day of rest, but we expect to have usual meals, consequently the cook does not get a day off. Fresh stores came out soon after we anchored yesterday so we had a good roast dinner today.
All good things come to an end, at six o’clock Monday morning we are turned to. We heave the anchor chain so that it will not take long to heave up the anchor when the tug arrives to tow us to the discharging berth. The tug arrives and we heave up the anchor. The tug is fast and we are towed past Williamstown towards the Yarra River. We notice there are several big sailing ships at the wharves, some of us said we would pay Williamstown a visit later on. We have breakfast as we go up the river, one man being at the wheel.
We are kept busy today. As soon as the ship is fast gantlines are rigged on fore and main masts and we commence unbending and sending all the sails on deck. The lighter sails are sent down first and so on until we get to the courses, that is, fore and main sails. They are all stretched on deck, made up neatly stopped at intervals with ropeyarn and stowed away in the sail locker.
The three jibs are sent in from the jib-boom, also the spanker, mizzen staysails and gaff topsail. Everything by now has a bare appearance. We tidy up the running gear and go to the job of rigging gear to discharge the cargo.
The mate keeps us busy, doing whatever he wants done and late on tells us that all hands are to be paid off the following day. This had been expected. It was the usual thing to pay off the crew at the end of the voyage. The ship was to lay up for a short period ion this case so that after tea that evening the first thought for some us was about packing our bags ready for the shore, and later to look for another ship.
We were duly paid off at about ten o’clock on that Tuesday morning at the shipping office. We received all money coming to us and a certificate of discharge on which is stated the ship’s name, official number tonnage, the seaman’s name, age, birthplace, capacity in which he served, the date of engagement and discharge, and his ability and general behaviour, usually signified by the stamping of “V. Good” on the discharge. All this is signed by the master of the ship, the seaman, and the shipping master. The ship, by this, is relieved of any further liabilities towards the crew, so we move our personal effects to shore, to a hotel of our choice.