The Sailors: Amateur British & Irish Yachtsmen Before World War One
By NORMAN S. CARR.
THE summer had passed, and a little leisure enabled me to satisfy cravings for the life outside by taking a ramble round that part of London where its river begins to tell of the great sea beyond. As I passed through odoriferous Billingsgate and emerged on the river front my attention was arrested by a couple of Dutch eel boats riding to those historic moorings that Good Queen Bess gave the bold foreigners the right to have and to hold, on condition they never left them unoccupied. True to their part of the bargain, the steadfast Dutchmen have never vacated the berth, and the boats which ride there to-day might very well be the originals, for, judging by the work of the Dutch school of marine painting of that period, the schuyt has changed very little in either hull or rig since those stirring times when England was busy making history on the high seas.
As I saw them that afternoon they made a fine scheme of colour, the winter sun shining on their nutbrown hulls, with here and there a touch of barbaric green paint about their fittings. How the sight of those buxom, homely-looking old hulls gladdens the eyes and takes one in thought to the happy land of windmills and dykes. Again I seemed to be standing on the lofty tower of the Groote Kerk at Veere, with the Island of Waleheren spread like a map at my feet. My eyes go cruising about the many mazy creeks, with the fairway shown with such dark-green water and the shoals marked by patches of discoloration; and always there comes a chubby old barge, beating up that narrow gutter, pushing a frill of white foam in front of her bluff bows but, when she nears that patch in the water which looks as if a lot of condensed milk had been spilt there, round she swings, and you can almost hear the clang and rattle as her flogging foresail jerks backwards and forwards along the horse. Up here, though far removed from men. one seems to he nearer to and more conscious of the poetry of their living. The smell of peat fires is fragrant to your nostrils, and there floats up to you the sweet sounds of-
"Goin' t' tike my photo, guvner?"
This question, delivered in the harsh voice of a fish-porter, tore me off that tower, hurled me out of Holland, and brought me back to Billingsgate, with so little time to make the passage that I fear my retort was hardly as civil as it should have been.
C'ette rencontre desagréle drove me on board a small Norwegian steamer, to get away from all things cockney.
I had not been long at work sketching the Dutchmen when a tall figure came towards me. The flaxen hair and long, drooping moustache proclaimed him to be a hardy Norseman; but, what was more to the point, I soon gathered that he was skipper of this vessel, the same which I had boarded all unbidden. So, by way of introduction, I pulled out a photograph of my little boat. He was all smiles at once, and dived below and got a photo of his ship, which he showed me with pride. It was truly quite unique, for it had been taken just after she lurched into a German port with more on board than appeared on his bills of lading, the little steamer being "iced up" forward in a surprising manner. He told me in excellent English how he had to drive her through a freezing gale, and a lot of what came aboard stayed there, as shown in the photograph.
While chatting with the Viking (he only needed a winged helmet to make a perfect model for the part) I saw that a boy off one of the schuyts had sculled over to see what I was doing. The chance was too good to be missed, so, wishing good-bye and bon voyage to the Norseman, I dropped into the Dutchman's boat, and soon found I had to use sign talk, for young Holland knew very little English.
On drawing near to the schuyts one is struck by the elaborate arrangement of guys to their enormous rudders (the illustration will show how these are fitted) but a matter worthy of some explanation is the purchase leading from the sternpost to a chain which passes down through a slot in the rudder itself and then leads up to the other side of the post, where it is made fast. The rudder can be lifted bodily off its bearings by means of this tackle, or partly raised - often necessary when the schuyt has to take the ground, or when she is lying hove-to - by sweating on this useful purchase and taking up the slack on the rudder guys. Then, by easing up on the tricing or tripping tackle, the weight of the rudder is thrown on the guys, and, as these lead in a downward direction away from the boat, not only is the rudder held quite firmly in position and prevented from wagging to and fro, but it is also pressed hard against the sternpost, thus getting rid of those irritating noises produced by the pintles working in the gudgeons, which one knows from bitter experience that no amount of helm lashing will prevent.
It will be noticed that the tillers are very short to control such large rudders, but by leading a line through the two sheaves which are let into the end of them and back to blocks on the ouarters a purchase is obtained that enables a man to govern the helm in heavy weather.
These vessels are completely decked, but there is a shallow steering-well at a convenient place below the helm (shown covered with hatches in the illustration); forward of this is the deckhouse or, rather, a very-much-raised cabin top. This not only gives extra headroom, but light and ventilation in the after cabin, and it acts as an excellent "never blow out" binnacle, for there is a little window in the after-end through which the helmsman can see the compass, fixed just inside, and which has a special lamp at one side of it for night work.
On walking forward one has to step over a great beam which goes athwart the boat and projects some eight inches above the deck. This modest stiffener is to support the lee-boards. Forward of the great tapering mast there are two more bollards, one on each bow, like those on the quarters. The presence of these proclaims the boat to be a user of canals, as do also the great rubbing strakes. The winch is a huge affair, with a great wooden drum worked by handspikes, and in some cases provided with several pawls. Then there is the brightly painted green stove-pipe, generally of wood, and built up in sections, which are held together simply by a lashing rove through two eye-bolts. The cowls used on the top of these smoke stacks are very curious. One pattern, when viewed at some distance, looks like a very massive boom crutch.
The fore-hatch is worthy of note, for under the usual hinged cover there is a light frame covered with white canvas, which is rain but not light proof. Down below one enters a realm of burnished brass and copper work and a cleanliness which positively obtrudes itself. One would think that the Dutchman's motto might be "No fireplace, no fo'c'sle!" - for the heating apparatus is truly magnificent - all a-wink with polished metal, and so generous in size that it suggests a farmhouse rather than a fore-peak.
The sketch will show the general arrangement of the crew's quarters; but there are also several notable things which were brought to my notice by a little adventure. While sketching down below some vagrant eddy of the wind blew down the stove-pipe, and the fo'c'sle began to fill with smoke. Now I am very fond of the smell of burning peat, but too much of a good thing is bad, and I was in danger of becoming surfeited if not suffocated.
My young friend, who, by the way, was the ship's cook, soon showed signs of distress and rushed on deck, putting the cowl on top of the smoke-stack. But there was very little improvement, so with a grunt of disgust he pulled out a most interesting-looking pot, all-glorious with copper embellishments. Quickly removing the polished cover and then an inner lid of iron, he seiized some tongs and picked up each flaming piece of peat, and, dropping it into the pot, clapped on the two covers. The fire was extinguished, and I blessed that "ill wind," for if it had not persistently puffed down that chimney I should have missed that excellent demonstration of how completely under control these open and "un-shippy"-looking fires really are. Even if I had noticed the "doofpot," as he called it I doubt if the boy's limited English and my still more limited Dutch would have sufficed to explain the mystery of its use.
So I restrained the hand of the energetic lad, who was about to put away the interesting pot, and sketched it. It was curious to note the effect of my action on this disciple of the religion of cleanliness. No sooner had he grasped my intention than he dashed to a locker, yanked out a cloth, and proceeded to give the parts of the pot which did not come up to his standard a very vigurous application of elbow grease.
My evident interest in all these matters caused the cook to show me some more advantages of a peat fire. We have seen how easy it is to put it out; he also showed me how readily it could be started again. By taking one of the pieces of half-burnt, and therefore perfectly dry, peat out of the doofpot and pouring a little paraffin upon it you have a splendid fire-lighter.
When making tea or coffee the "feurpot" is brought into action. This is simply an iron vessel, into which is placed a piece of peat which has got to the right stage of combustion and is all one glowing mass. This being carefully taken from the fire with the tongs, the tea or coffee pot, having been charged with its leaves or grounds and filled with boiling water, is placed on a framework which rests on a ledge in the feurpot in such a way as to keep the tea or coffee pot the right distance above the peat. This keeps the temperature up to that desirable brewing pitch which is so important, especially in the case of coffee. Before leaving the subject of the fireplace I must mention the "treeft." This, as will be seen from the illustration, is simply a long steel arm or bracket at one end of which is a ring made to fit the kettle; the other end is constructed to slip up and down a rod which is attached to the side of the fireplace. This is all simple enough, but the point worthy of note is the ease with which it can be fixed at various heights. The part of the bracket which engages on the rod being made not only an easy fit, but also slightly conical, on releasing the arm at the level required the weight of the kettle causes it to bind on the rod and so grip it that no other means of securing it is necessary, except a guy rod to prevent it wagging to and fro horizontally.
The locker seats run round three sides of the fo'c'sle, and the table is simply a plank long enough to stretch right across from side to side, and rests on two of these lockers. When not in use it is stowed away between the deck-beams, engaging into chocks which keep it close up to the underside of the deck.
As to sleeping arrangements, there would be no chance of getting rolled out of bed, for the bunks are completely closed in, entrance being made through a sliding panel. Even then there is a very high bunk board across the opening.
There are very roomy lockers on each side of the fireplace, one of which is fitted as a crockery locker; the door of this is trophied all over on the inside, suggesting an armoury, for it is covered with knives, forks, etc., thrust through straps and battens.
The cook was very keen about teaching me the Dutch names for all their fittings, so I tried to absorb as much as possible amid great laughter. We became such good friends, indeed, that at last he drew out from the innermost recesses of his bunk a leather cigar-case, which he handled with such reverent care that I thought it must contain most valuable cigars. But no! When the cover was off it seemed to be empty, till he gently tilted it and there slid out three photographs. These he handed to me. One was a matronly woman, looking so bonny in her picturesque Dutch costume. "My mother," he said. The others were of young men in uniform, which he introduced in turn as "My brother," "My comdrade." A stillness had fallen upon us like the hush one is consious of when entering a catheral. And, I ask you, had we not made entrance to a sacred ediface? For surely my young companion, by drawing back the curtain of his reserve and opening the doors of his heart, had allowed me to peep into, if not to actually pass, the threshold of that shrine where burns the pure flame of home-love.
I must have drifted into a brown study, for the clatter of cups brought me back to the present. I found the young cook was making active preparations for a meal, and I gathered that the "After Captain" was expected for tea. So I made a break for the shore, but while crossing the deck of our next abreast I met a man who was so evidently one in authority that I concluded he must be one fo the "After Captains," and as he greeted me in a pleasant way I begged to have a look at his part of the ship. He was most kind, and took me below at once. Pulling out my sketch-book, I asked permission to make a few jottings. This was granted but his manner had become somewhat distant. He asked what newspaper I represented. Hastily telling him exactly what my intentions were, I finished up by showing him a photograph of my little cruiser. We were brothers at once.
"One bit of boat-love makes seamen all akin!"
We then fell to yarning about the sea and ships. Of course the conversation drifted to Holland. Out came a large-scale chart of the Zuyder Zee; and he showed me his home away in Friesland, told me of quaint eddies, and gave me wrinkles which one will not find in books on navigation, but which are invaluable when all your scientific gadgets fail, either because the necessary heavenly body is obscured or the "wee barkie" is kicking up her heels in such a wild dance that one finds it impossible to take serious observations of anything except one's dainty partner. Then it is that the seaman becomes conscious of a sixth sense, and that is how he may begin to learn the maritime equivalent of "woodcraft," which is worth more to him away outside there in a blow than the possession of any number of certificates - aye, or an extra master's ticket to boot!
As our talk brought us over seas and near home the worthy skipper gave our bargees high praise, saying they were the finest sailormen on the London River, and not only were they good seamen, but they are good men in other ways. Of course there are black sheep in every flock, he added, but it was his good fortune to know some of the white ones, who had stood by him and rendered assistance when his particular little cherub seemed to have got tired, or, more likely, been blown or jerked off.
Then an interruption occurred. There was a tap at the cabin-door, and in came the cook with two cups of coffee. And such coffee! Better has never passed my lips.
Now let us take a look round this after-cabin. It is panelled throughout, and there are seat lockers, one on each side, with a roomy bunk behind. The headroom is a bit restricted; one only gets about 4ft. 6in. below the deck beams, but under the cabin top there is a good 7ft.
The stove may, perhaps, look more usual than the fo'c'sle fire proved to be, and the very fact of it burning anthracite tends to rob it of the romance which lurks about a peat fire; but one can trust a Dutchman for having a very good reason for every bit of gear he has aboard. It is therefore wise to seek for that reason if it is not at once apparent.
It will be seen that the stove is a cylinder inside a perforated iron framework, the gates of which are shown open in my illustration. The inner part, or stove proper, is provided with the necessary sliding doors for stoking, adjusting draught, etc., and also the usual ashtray, or drawer, at the bottom. Being built of very thin iron it is so light that it can be readily lifted out of the surrounding framework by means of the handle in front, then taken up on deck and the fire dumped overboard. So when the skipper says he is going to put the fire out he speaks literally! Of course such prompt extinction is not often required, but after the fire has been allowed to burn itself out this is an excellent and absolutely clean way of getting rid of the ashes.
The portable part of the stove has a short length of flue which pockets into a larger pipe; in fact, the whole length of this smoke-stack is in two parts, the inner being an ordinary iron tube, outside which there is a copper pipe enamelled a glossy jet black. The stove was put through its paces for my benefit, and in a remarkably short space of time it began to get red hot; but, being made of such thin metal, the temperature was very quickly reduced to the normal state by adjusting the draught. The perforated framework not only protects the stove, but also acts as an excellent radiator.
At last I had to tear myself away. So, wishing my host good-by, I climbed up into the night and groped my way forward, where a tap on the forehatch brought my friend the cook on deck. He got his boat alongside, I dropped into it, and we were soon speeding back to Billingsgate. By the way, these boats are worthy of note. They are a wee bit crank, having a fine entrance and delivery - quite a departure from what is generally understood as a Dutch model - but above water they flare out and carry their beam well forward. A sudden tumble home of the top strake gives them a family likeness to their big, beamy, apple-bowed sisters to whome they have to tender tehir services.
Right forward they are decked for some 3ft. or 4ft., which makes a very handy platform for stepping on when boarding. The two sculling notches in the transoms of these boats are very handy when warping, for the rope can render through one while the oar is being worked in the other.
Standing a while on the wharf, I let my eyes follow the cook, who was driving his boat back with a fine swing to his broad shoulders which made her fairly hop along. Lucky lad! Back to those beamy beauties, ringed round with whisps of sweet-smelling smoke from their turf fire, making a charmed circle, cutting them off from their dismal surroundings - a picturesque oasis of cleanliness in the midst of a desert of dirtiness.