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Sailing Round the Horn

A vivid first-hand account of the voyage of an apprentice in a large sailing ship the round “the world’s worst corner” at beginning of this century

CAPE HORN, where the Atlantic and Pacific meet

CAPE HORN, where the Atlantic and Pacific meet, has always been a terror to seamen sailing round it. It is situated at the southern extremity of South America, on a Chilean island in the Tierra del Fuego Archipelago. The Dutch navigator Schouten discovered the cape in 1616 and named it after his birthplace Hoorn, in Holland. Cape Horn consists of steep black rocks rising to a height of 1,390 feet.

THERE are still a number of men left who, in the first few years of the present century, made the passage in sail round the Horn — the last of a generation to do so. I do not count the few sailing ships built after the war of 1914-18, which were only a sort of flicker of the old-time trade. In the early days nearly everybody who went to sea went into sail, and the majority in the course of their time, made the passage round the Horn once if not more often.

The barque in which I served my time was of a well-known line. From under the coal tips at Cardiff we hauled, one murky morn at daybreak, outward-bound round the Horn. We had a mixed crowd on board, but every one of them was a first-class seaman. I can see every individual member of that crew now, although it is more than thirty years since we were shipmates together.

Our Old Man was a weather-beaten Scot with a white beard. He had “got religion” and was described by the crew as that “Psalm-singing old blighter”. The young mate was a tough nut from Aberdeen. The second mate was an elderly man who had lost his master’s certificate. Among the crew was a seventy-years-old A.B. who was carried on board in Cardiff with a nasty gaping wound in his head. Old Cassey — as he was called — had been a Bengal Branch pilot, earning his 2,500 rupees (about £166) a month, but drink had brought him from, that eminent station in life to the fo’c’sle of our barque.

Never have I seen so much remorse and bitterness in a man. Life was simply not worth living for him, and as we neared the Horn, and the cold began to bite into even us youngsters, I used to watch old Cassey in his thin, worn oilskins, borrowed from somebody, as he crept round the decks, a pitiable picture.

Then there was Brown, a magnificent young seaman, the leader of the starboard watch, and Ohlsen, a Swede, who led the port watch. There were six of us apprentices in the half deck, and long before we had sighted the Falklands in a flurry of snow, we were alarmed by the yarns that the old sailors used to pitch us about the terrors and rigours of the Horn.

It was, certainly cold. We had bent on a new suit of Number One canvas and had taken the precaution of overhauling all the running gear.

We soon ran into bad weather but, instead of letting the watch on deck huddle under the fo’c’sle head, or under the break of the poop, the Old Man made us clean brightwork on the poop with sand and water. It was the coldest job I have ever had to do.

What made us feel the cold so much was the lack of sufficient hot food. As the days grew shorter and the temperature lower, the bad weather increased, and soon we were shipping it green over the weather bulwarks. Unfortunately, the after part of the iron deck-house was the galley, and it was placed at that precise position in the waist where she shipped all the big seas. The weather door was therefore always locked. Then, as the weather became worse, the galley was continually being flooded out, and finally, when one big sea stove in the weather door, the cook, from Harlem, New York, was told to get out and to keep out. Looking back, I see now that the Old Man was scared that the whole galley would be swept away with the cook inside, but we in the half-deck were equally exposed.

Nothing can exceed the squalid misery of those days. Our half-deck was an iron house which was a furnace in the tropics and an ice house down south. It was continually being battered by the seas which crashed on board so that a foot or two of water was always slopping to and fro under our bunks.

These six bunks were our cells in which we lay when off watch, shivering with wet and cold while the water slopped and gurgled beneath us. Unfortunately, my bunk was six inches too short and I could never straighten my knees.

To be frozen is sheer misery; to be sleepy and yet be unable to sleep because one is on watch is sheer misery too. But to be both frozen and sleepy is indescribable. I do not think any one can realize what a miserable time it was, and the only comparison I can think of is the winter in the trenches on the Western front during the war of 1914-18.

The Worst Cry of All

There a man had a good chance of being killed, while we ran the risk of being drowned or swept overboard; but anybody who has spent a winter in the trenches in France will have a good idea of a long passage round the Horn in winter time in a square-rigger.

We six apprentices were all growing lads, and the one thing needful was food. But she was a Scots “barkey” and there was never enough for our ravenous appetites, sharpened by wind and wet. When, in addition, it became impossible to get any hot food or drink owing to the galley being out of action, even some of the tough nuts in the fo’c’sle began to lose the smile off their faces.

The struggle with Cape Stiff — as the Cape is known to the old sailingship man — found us ill-equipped for the task. Half the men had no proper clothes or oilskins and were always wet through The continual watch and watch, the constant “pully hauley” and the long hours spent aloft in reefing or furling canvas took it out of us. We dreaded the worst cry of all, which

always seemed to come at midnight: “All hands reef the foresail”. Then the watch on deck, already stiff and frozen, would wait its chance until the watch below, also waiting its chance, jumped out of the fo’c’sle door and made for the fore rigging. Up we would go, wearily climbing aloft, to spread ourselves out along the yard, our feet on the foot-ropes so that we lay on our bellies horizontally, feebly clutching at the canvas in the darkness.

This Number One canvas was wet through, icy and as hard as iron. Our frozen fingers could never get hold of it. The wind blew our oilskin coats over heads; the lee yard arm surged swayed close down to the foaming below which seemed to be leaping up at us. Occasionally an extra gust would belly out the canvas, tearing it from our feeble grasp so that we had to begin all over again.

Our able seamen — and superb tradesmen they were — received three pounds a month or fifteen shillings a week for this super-human existence. As for the apprentices, our parents paid thirty pounds a year for the doubtful privilege of sending their sons to sea.

Sometimes, after two hours or so on the yard, the Old Man, gloomily watching our efforts from the poop, would bellow through his megaphone to the second mate to leave it and bring the men down. Sometimes, if he thought he would lose a sail unless we got it safe under the gaskets, he would just leave us there, hour after hour, until we had no more fight left in us. Even if we did manage to save his-canvas for him, when we reached deck again there was not even a hot drink, though I remember one occasion, after a particularly bad night, when the old skinflint told the steward to serve out half a tot of rum to us frozen wretches.

That is where the meanest tramp had the advantage over us. In a tramp steamer there was always a fire somewhere, even if you had to go to the furnaces for it, but in that old iron tub. a mere floating warehouse, there was no heat at all except in the cabin, and no apprentice or A.B. dare show his nose in there.

The effect of this exposure and lack of hot food began to show itself. One of the men went sick with salt-water boils; another got his leg broken when he was thrown against the lee scuppers, and one night the old Bengal pilot failed to answer the roll call.

A HEAVY ROLL during a squall when rounding Cape Horn

A HEAVY ROLL during a squall when rounding Cape Horn. This photograph, taken in the Garthsnaid, one of the last of the famous British sailing ships, shows in a remarkable way the angle to which a vessel may roll in a heavy sea.

The rest of us must have looked miserable creatures that night. We had been nearly three weeks in this condition, beating against a southwesterly gale that seemed to have no end. Sea after sea would come roaring up, rearing its ugly head as it swept down on us. It was not safe to be on the main deck, so that the watch on deck spent its time on the poop, where we lashed ourselves to the lee rail with the braces.

Against the sky our goose-winged main topsail looked as if it were a gigantic quill pen. Overhead black clouds scudded past and the biting blast from the ice down south seemed to make our poor threadbare oilskins as ineffective as muslin.

Daylight came about nine, and occasionally we could catch a glimpse of a pale watery sun which rose above the horizon after ten o’clock and set before three.

Then, suddenly, one morning the whisper ran round the ship: Cassey was dead. The Rajah, as they called him, had put up a good fight, hut cold and exposure working on his enfeebled frame had laid him low. The sail-maker sewed him up that afternoon, and at the change of watch they brought his body along to the break of the poop and laid it on a couple of planks. We were hove-to; the ship was rising and falling to the sea; the Old Man stood on the poop, with his white whiskers straggling in the wind, and we could see his lips moving, though the wind bore the sound of the words away.

The mate had called out to me to hoist the ensign on the gaff halyards at half mast, but the skipper stopped him, He didn’t want his flag blown to ribbons in that gale, he said.

Then, as we stood there, keeping our feet with difficulty, I suddenly caught sight of a big steamer about a mile away. She was coming down before the wind at a great pace, lifting and plunging into the following sea, the wind blowing her smoke far ahead of her.

“A Pleasant Voyage!”

Suddenly a string of bunting was run up on her foremast and the Old Man called to me to run into the cabin and get the signal book. He shouted down to me through the companionway: “It’s T C Z.” He had been looking through his telescope.

I hastily ran my finger down the three-letter signals, T C Z. I shut the book and called up to him:

“It means a pleasant voyage, sir!”

The irony of the signal was lost on me, but as I watched my chance and came out at the break of the poop on to the deck, I caught my last glimpse of old Cassey.

Either the death of the Rajah, or the sight of that great big comfortable steamer going the right way, or the two events combined, served to cast a gloom over the ship. Furthermore, there were not now enough men on deck to handle the ship properly. We had only five men in each watch, and these, with three apprentices and the mate, made up a total of nine hands in each watch to man a fairly big barque in the worst of weather.

Of these nine hands one was required at the wheel and sometimes two; another man was on the lookout forward, though it always seemed to me absurd to waste an able-bodied seaman on that job, since he could see little or nothing, and spent his time dodging the seas. One of the apprentices was supposed to stand by the bell and act as mate’s messenger, so that, all told, there were only five or six of us to tally on the halyards or fore-sheet, and to go aloft and handle the sails.

When all plain sail was set, we carried twenty-two sails, from the big mainsail to the flying jib. Now, with the increasing toll of sickness, our numbers were still further reduced, and the night watches became a positive nightmare to me — and I think they must have been so to the others too.

GOING ALOFT on board the Archibald Russell

GOING ALOFT on board the Archibald Russell, one of the famous square-riggers under the Finnish flag. A steel four-masted barque of 2,354 tons gross, the Archibald Russell was built at Greenock, Renfrewshire, in 1905. She has a length of 291 ft 4 in between perpendiculars, a beam of 42 ft 11 in and a depth of 24 feet. Registered at Mariehamn, in the Aland Islands of the Baltic Sea, the Archibald Russell belongs to Gustaf Erikson, and is one of the vessels of his famous grain fleet. The men are taking a gantling aloft which will be used to hoist the sails from the deck to the various yards on which they will be bent. Since the weight of the rope is too much for one man, other men follow him at intervals to bear the weight.

To turn out at midnight in wet oilskins after little or no sleep in a wet bunk, and to go up on to the poop and take over the wheel was no joke. There was some sort of a weather cloth abaft of the wheel, designed to keep some of the icy wind off the man at the wheel. I believe, also, that its purpose was to prevent the helmsman from looking over his shoulder and seeing the big seas coming up astern. A watch at the wheel was an anxious and harrowing time. The utmost care was required.

In daylight you could see what you were doing, but on a pitch dark nigh-t it was a different matter. One of the most trying experiences was to go to the wheel at midnight and to find that orders were “Full and bye”, or “By the wind”. This meant that you had to cock your eye up at the weather leech of the main top-gallant sail and so steer the ship that the leech was kept just lifting all the time.

I remember one night which was pitch dark. A heavy squall was coming down on us from the weather side. The mate, who was standing alongside of me, was evidently anxious. “Keep her well up”, he warned me, and to the best of my ability I kept her well up. The flapping of the sail must have wakened the Old Man, who was asleep down in his cabin.

Down came the squall with the suddenness of a thunderclap, and up came the Old Man. His white whiskers appeared in the gloom of the companionway. I had my eye fixed on that weather leech, keeping the ship well up to the wind, a rather risky situation, since, with a slight shift in the wind or a slight error on my part, she would have been caught all aback.

Although a moment earlier he had been asleep in his bunk, the Old Man sized up the situation instantly. He was a wonderful seaman. By instinct, he saw that the mate had given me the wrong order — to keep her up to it. Better to let her have the full benefit of the wind, even if she was lying half a point or so off her course.

“Let her have it!” he called out, and I let her have it. I eased her off a point, the sails filled, and away she went snoring through the water, roaring through the inky darkness with the lee bulwarks in a smother of foam.

Cape Stiff’s Second Victim

She was no flier, this good barque of Aberdeen, but that night, with the wind on her quarter, she tore along at a good 14 knots. The speed was afterwards certified to by the mate who brought up one of the apprentices with him to heave the log.

It looked as though the worst were over, but old Cape Stiff was not done with us yet. He meant to have one more victim, and that the smallest and youngest of us — the junior apprentice, whom we all knew as “Tommy”. With the coming of a fair wind, the Old Man ordered the top-gallant sails to be shaken out, and Tommy, aged 15, was sent aloft to cast off the gaskets on the main.

Nobody knows what happened, but there is no doubt that Tommy, while on the lee side of the yard, missed his grasp and fell. He had his oilskins and seaboots on. The sea was running high, and there was no question of getting out a boat. Some minutes, too, elapsed before anybody realized what had happened.

The ship was brought to, but by that time she must have been a mile or more past the spot where the youngster had gone overboard. The Old Man was in a terrible predicament. He made a show of searching, but he, and we, knew that there was nothing to be done.

A little later the barque was put on her course again, and off we went. With daylight, the murk overhead cleared away and a pale, watery sun appeared low on the horizon. The wind drew aft, and away we went. Later in the day the cook got into the galley and we had our first hot drink and meal.

When we arrived in port some weeks later there was nothing to be done except to lash up and hand Tommy’s sea-chest over to the Vice-Consul to be sent to his parents, who had paid a premium for Tommy to go to sea.

DECKS AWASH IN A SQUALL, a view forward from the mainmast of the Invercauld. This photograph shows the type of weather which constantly besets a sailing ship when rounding the Horn. The sea is scarcely ever calm in this region. The Invercauld and her sister ship the Inversnaid were vessels of about 1,300 tons gross, with a length of 233 feet.

You can read more on “Handling the Sailing Ship”, “In the Sailing Ships Forecastle” and “Rigs of Sailing Ships” on this website.