When I was in Oslo last month for the If I Were the Ocean there was, as you'd expect, much talk of ships and sailing.
One of the conversations I had reminded me of a book I read a few years back, lent to me by my uncle. The Last Grain Race is a wonderfully written account by Eric Newby on what it was like to sign up as an apprentice on one of the last big sailing ships to make a round-the-world cargo trip.
Deciding, two years into his career in advertising at the age of eighteen, that there was more excitement to be had at sea, Newby signed on board with no sea experience, not able to speak Swedish - the language of the ship - and with his first voyage the eight months to Australia and back.
I bought another copy to send on to one of my fellow exhibitors in Oslo, but re-read it again first. There aren't many dog-eared sections, but hopefully they'll give a flavour of the prose in the rest of the book, which I heartily recommend.
'Two bells, vessel to port; three bells, vessel ahead; one bell, vessel to starboard,' intoned Tria, very like a great bell himself.
All through the night the south-west wind hurled us out into the Atlantic. From aloft came the great roaring sound that I heard for the first time, and will perhaps never hear again, of strong winds in the rigging of a good ship.
[On receiving news]
I decided from the beginning that if there was a wireless then it was only picking up German stations which in 1938 were making the ether hideous on all wavelengths. We were not anxious for news. As time passed, the ship possessed us completely. Our lives were given over to it. A hundred times a day each one of us looked aloft at the towering pyramids of canvas, the beautiful deep curves of the leeches of the sails and the straining sheets of the great courses, listened to the deep hum of the wind up the height of the rigging, the thud and judder of the steering gear as the ship surged along, heard the helmsman striking the bells, signalling a change of watch or a mealtime, establishing a reoutine so strong that the outside world seemed unreal.
That night I learned what it meant to take in the outer jib near the end of a sixty-foot steel bowsprit, with no safety netting under it, alternately pointing to the sky and dipping to the tremendous boiling sea. The foot-rope on the weather side was fearfully slippery, the sail a lunatic wet thing. The wire leech of the sail was battering my head and shoulders and the sheet block was lashing about like a great conker on a string and threatening to brain us.
Page 176, preparing the ship for the journey "round the Horn"
The hatches too needed reinforcing. As soon as the last bags had been stowed below at Port Victoria, hatchway beams of seasoned oak were fitted in the grooves in the coamings and heavy 3-inch hatch covers put on top of them. The spaces between the covers were tightly caulked with oakum. Over each hatch two new tarred canvas covers were stretched, cut and sewn by the Sailmaker to fit one on top of the other. These had been secured to the coamings by flexible steel bands, tightly wedged, the wedges being nailed together.
Now the real labour began. On top of the canvas covers great baulks of timber 20 feet long and 4 inches think were laid length-ways; and at right angles to them, across the ship, three heavier pieces 14 feet long and 4 inches thick. The whole lot was lashed down with wire ropes to ringbolts in the hatch coamings and hauled taut with the capstan. Frequently the wire strops broke under the strain, and the work began all over again.