The Spring 2012 issue is here, with battle, square rig, skulduggery and oysters.
Jonathon Green and a new kind of alphabet
There is an ancient tradition of sailor’s alphabets – songs learned by new hands as mnemonics for the unfamiliar vocabulary of sailing ships. There is to date no equivalent for the sailor attempting to find his way round the treacherous labyrinths of the shore. We are therefore pleased to bring you extracts from the first Lubber’s Alphabet, designed to keep honest seafarers out of the hands of crimps and shanghai artists, or at least free from embarrassment in complex shoreside social situations.
Roger Taylor sails west
We struggled slowly towards the Lizard through a mix of light airs and calms, within plain sight of idle ships spread loosely at anchor off the Helford River. A stubby on-edge carpenter’s pencil of a ship passed close by, heading east. Two guillemots dived and chattered almost alongside, their pied markings turned orange by a fiery sunset. I set the light-weather jib. Towards midnight on our second day, in the faintest of breaths from the north, helped by the ebb tide and my own efforts at the steering lines, we finally left the Lizard’s sweeping light astern.
Tony Ditcham hunts the ‘Scharnhorst’ in the Arctic night
About noon, when we had our brief twilight, I was standing facing aft and steadying my back against the compass binnacle, ready to give the helmsman a note of caution if a big wave looked likely to cause him a problem. Suddenly, a bigger than normal wave reared up astern. I turned and bent down to the wheelhouse voicepipe,
‘Big one coming up astern, Quartermaster.’
‘Aye, aye, Sir.’
As the wave overtook us our stern started to lift until I swear it was higher than the bridge. At this point the screws and the rudder were in the crest of the wave which was like boiling water, giving nothing for screws and rudder to act against. I saw the stern start to swing to port, with the bows, obviously, going to starboard. I spoke again.
‘Watch your helm, Quartermaster.’ As I spoke I saw the helm indicator was already hard-a-port.
Captain Richard Woodman summarises the lives and duties of tea clipper masters:
It was customary for a clipper to load a general cargo on her outward passage: manufactures, woven cotton goods, luxuries, even on occasion a bulk cargo of coal – for ‘freight was the mother of wages’, and without a cargo even a sailing ship, with her free motive power, ran at a loss. This was anathema not only to her owners but also to her master. Even if he did not have a financial stake in his ship, his future depended upon the good opinion of his employers.
The outward cargo might be consigned to a destination far from the tea-loading ports of Foochow, Amoy or Shanghai. Depending on the time of year a clipper arrived on the coast, and the likely delivery time of the freshly-picked crop of tea, a shrewd commander might put in several coasting voyages, often with rice from Hong Kong to Singapore, Bangkok or Yokohama. Such cargoes were arranged either through his owner’s agents or on his own initiative, and were often of considerable personal benefit to the master himself.
It begins to emerge that in addition to his expertise in seamanship, navigation and business, a tea clipper master needed considerable energy, self-discipline and single-mindedness, as well as qualities of leadership that could encourage a similar devotion to the common task among his officers and ship’s company.
Ernest Gann tries not to wrap up in San Francisco Bay:
To gain experience in a square rig of any size you must either be a foreign cadet (Japanese, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Spanish, Chilean, Portuguese, or German), or serve in the US Coast Guard’s Eagle. So I had to depend heavily on Holcomb, who caressed his dolphin‑striker jaw and allowed as how there were enough menaces to navigation in the bay without turning me loose in a rig which at least looked complicated. To serve as crew I had assembled a heterogeneous group of people who believed that as I had managed to captain the Albatross all the way from Rotterdam without calamity, certainly an afternoon in the Bay should be a lark. I did not bother telling them how little I knew during a sort of rehearsal just before leaving the dock. It was easier demonstrating what I did know. I lectured slowly and with manyrepetitions, since I was aware that as soon as my supply of book learning was exhausted we would be obliged to sail.
Trevor Robertson gives useful advice on spending the winter in Antarctica:
On arrival in Antarctica, finding a winter site is urgent. The ideal cove has an entrance only a little deeper than the vessel’s draft (to keep out the bigger bits of drift ice), is small enough to run lines to shore in all directions, and is surrounded by rocks to hold the winter ice in place. It must be deep enough not to freeze to the bottom, and big enough to moor clear of the tide crack close to the shore, which becomes a powerful shear zone as the ice thickens. If possible the cove should also have interesting wildlife and scenery and a northern outlook.
Alastair Robertson tells a tale of Cold War skulduggery:
Focussing his binoculars on the strange vessel pitching fitfully on the grey swell of Newfoundland’s Grand Banks, Captain Jim Cheater of the FV Fairtry got the surprise of his long seafaring career. Caught in his 7×50 lenses that July morning was a replica of his own vessel: ‘She was the Fairtry exactly. Only the name was different. She was called the Pushkin.’ The Pushkin was the first indication that the Soviet Union had somehow ‘acquired’ the plans for the revolutionary Fairtry, the world’s first purpose-built factory stern trawler.
James Long investigates an attempt at regicide by shipwreck:
On 3 May 1682, at the mouth of the Thames, [the Duke of York, the future James II] went aboard the Gloucester, commanded by the vastly experienced Sir John Berry and accompanied by five other frigates and three of the royal yachts. In James’s entourage of more than eighty courtiers was another man for whom this was the first step in a possible rehabilitation. A loyal servant of James’s from the time when the Duke had run the Admiralty, this man had been imprisoned in the Tower on a trumped-up charge of treason, accused of selling naval secrets to France, and had only escaped execution thanks to his brilliant defence. He had been targeted by the Duke of Buckingham because of a close relationship with James. Both the King and his brother knew his value as a skilful administrator, and this was their first gesture of thanks after his ordeal. He was Samuel Pepys.
Andrew Cockburn explains how Vineyard Haven remains a working harbour:
Only a day before, Hurricane Irene had threatened Martha’s Vineyard. The waterfront had battened down, with nothing moving but the blue surge thundering on the beach. Now, crisis past, the entire lagoon, framed and sheltered by the low green headlands of the Chops, was bursting with life. A big schooner with raking masts and a sleek clipper bow crept back to her inshore moorings; another, the dazzling white of her wooden hull matching her sails, was tying up at the jetty in front of us. The water behind the protective breakwater was a moving forest of masts as day-sailors ventured out into a gentle breeze. Hulking mainland ferries hooted their way to and from the terminal, a tanker laden with overpriced gasoline headed for the tank farm a few hundred yards away, and a tugboat with a gravel barge in tow rumbled shorewards.
Michael Bender raises an eyebrow at yacht club histories:
They arean odd bunch, these histories. No two are alike. Some show signs that the Commodore took pity on a widowed ancient moping around the clubhouse and gave him access to the committee minutes, which he then flatly summarised. Others, like that of the Royal Burnham, have chapters written by different members, including, for no apparent reason, two by an anonymous ‘Special Correspondent’. There is no blueprint. Some, like Aldeburgh YC have been using photographs since the Club’s founding in 1897. Some relay committee minutes. Others are like West Mersea YC, which rather oddly maintains that ‘it would be invidious to comment, and recount the action of members still alive’ – a scruple that rather truncates the narrative.
Emily Painter prises open the private life of the Oyster:
Away they go, those eggs, dancing motes in the summer plankton. The next half moon but one they are larvae, baby oysters but shell-less, still drifting. Then a sort of solemnity comes upon them, and they sink, settle, and anchor themselves thick as thieves on the gritty culch. Now they have become spat, and they will grow.
Keith Jacobsen explores the relationship between Benjamin Britten and the sea:
In March 1942 Benjamin Britten, with his partner in life and music, Peter Pears, sailed from America in a small Swedish cargo ship after a self-imposed exile of nearly three years. It must have been a dreadful voyage. Crossing the Atlantic at that stage of the war was particularly hazardous. A passage which would normally have taken only twelve days took five weeks. Britten passed the voyage in a tiny cabin next to the refrigerating plant. It was enough to put anyone off the sea for life.