On Board a Collier

Any one looking at a collier vessel as she lies in the harbour, her decks blackened and her rigging smutty with coal dust, and the sailors and shore-labourers heaving wearily all day long at the winch, might well think there was very little to attract in the life on board such a vessel. But wait till she clears the pier-heads, and sets her sails to the breeze. Then come in all the pleasure and exhilaration of yacht-sailing. He is a dull fellow who is not wakened up by the freshness and buoyancy of the first hour’s sail from port. Then the watch is set. Duties are assigned, and the sense of responsibility arising from allotted work comes into play, and there is just the same feeling of rank and rating in the small schooner as in the biggest ship afloat. The captain, as befits him, stands aloof ; the mate has his own distinct position; and the crew – well, they feel that if they are a step or two below the status of the captain and mate, they are vastly superior to the lad who does the cooking. Discipline and order prevail in the smallest craft. And so the collier goes on her passage from port to port, manned by an organised ship’s company, who regard the navigation of their little vessel as the most. important concern in the universe. 

My first voyage as a sailor was from Nairn to Newcastle, in a coasting smack. The start was to me discouraging and disappointing. The weather was fearfully rough, and I was dreadfully sick. For a week or more I suffered from the mal de mer, and when my watch on deck was up there was little inducement to go below to the wretched little foc’sle, with its, to me, abominable smell of tobacco and tar. My experience during these days convinced me that I had chosen a rough road in life. Sunday morning was ushered in with a perfect tempest. The little craft was tossed about like a fleck of foam on the ocean. At daybreak we got inshore close to Berwick-on-Tweed, where the water was smooth. The scene I beheld a few hours later caused me more sinking of heart than even the tossing of the angry waves of the North Sea. There was the land, the town, the hills – a picture of perfect peace and repose. I could, hear the church bells ringing, and could see the people in groups wending their way thither, and my thoughts went back to home – to the church and the Sunday school – every detail of the quiet, happy life I had left behind me came flashing back.

I confess if I could have got ashore that morning I would have abandoned a seafaring life for ever. But there was no way of escape, and I presently found myself lending a hand in getting the smack to go about and face the restless, raging sea. It was the only time I ever had any regret at having chosen a sailor’s life. The feeling of despondency and depression never recurred again, even in the most trying circumstances. 

I served my regular apprenticeship in a Banff schooner. I had an advantage as a sailor in having had a hand in rigging out the vessel. For some months, off and on, we were engaged setting up the rigging, and one forms a peculiar attachment to a ship whose every rope, sail, and spar you have seen prepared and placed in the craft The Lady Abercromby” – -such was her name- – was one of the smartest schooners on the coast, and Captain Yell who sailed her as good a coasting skipper as one could possibly have served under. He inspired me with the true sailor’s ideal to have everything on board one’s vessel ship-shape, never forgetting the importance of doing little things well. On my apprenticeship being up, I left the “Lady Abercromby” Not very long after, she was wrecked on the Aberdeenshire coast, and poor Captain Yell and my old shipmates were drowned. 

My apprenticeship finished, I counted myself a smart sailor, able to hold my own with most in practical seamanship, but I was quite conscious that if ever I was to get on in my profession I must give some time to the study of navigation. Accordingly I returned to school in my native town. A full-fledged sailor, entitled to write the letters “A.B.” after his name, was regarded by the schoolboys somewhat as a rara avis. They used to gather round my corner, listening to my yarns, to the decided detriment of the prosecution of their school lessons. There was no regular class to go into, but the schoolmaster arranged that I should study trigonometry and mathematics with the senior pupil who was preparing for the entrance examination for the Royal Engineers. Of navigation the worthy schoolmaster knew nothing, and I had to teach myself anything I learned of that subject. The few months spent in this way were not wasted, and when some years later I had seriously to tackle navigation as a subject of examination, I found myself quite familiar with the technical formulæ. Curiously enough, my fellow-student in trigonometry and I met at the opening of the Manchester Canal – he a Colonel in the Royal Engineers, and holding an important post at the War Office, and I, an Ancient Mariner holding an appointment from the Home Office. 

My intention was to have joined a foreign going vessel as soon as I had finished my little spell at school, but I was drawn into one of the most reckless and foolhardy enterprises imaginable. I made the acquaintance of a young fellow named James Wilson, who was mate of one of the schooners belonging to Nairn. Although we were town fellows, I had never happened to come across him before. Wilson was one of the most fascinating characters I have ever met in my career. Small in stature but very shapely in build, and of a clear bright complexion, he had a most winning manner, and, as I came to know afterwards, an indomitable spirit. His yellow wavy hair and incipient moustache made him look younger than he was, but there was nothing effeminate about him. 

Wilson one day informed me that he had been offered the command of a ship, and asked me if I would go with him as mate. He explained that while he would be master, the mate and man who joined him would share equally with him in the venture. In short, his proposal was that three of us should man the schooner “Speedwell,” and divide the profits with the owner. I suggested that we would probably be laid hold of by the law and committed as lunatics, as the ship to be properly manned would require five hands at least. Wilson would accept no refusal : – were we not equal singly to any two ordinary seamen? he would ask. The end of it was that he became the captain, I the mate, and Daniel Main the crew of the good ship “Speed well.” And a rare time we had of it. There was certainly a spice of romance and adventure in the affair. How we knocked about the old craft was wonderful. Our madcap proceedings, as many were pleased to regard our way of sailing the “Speedwell,” became the talk of all the seafaring folk of the Moray Firth. They re-christened the vessel  “The Three Boys”. It pretty well hit the mark, for we were not out of our teens, any of us. Amused crowds used to meet us on our arrival, especially at the smaller ports, but they stopped their jeering when they discovered that “the three boys” were uncommonly good fighters as well as plucky sailors. We made a point of dressing smartly when we went ashore of an evening, so as to show no traces of the hard work we had to perform. 

The coasting sailor’s life is full of temptations to drink, at least it was so at that time Except at his own home, he has no friends at the ports he visits. He cannot remain all the time by his ship and the public-house is the only open door for him. I daresay if some moralist saw the “captain, mate, and crew” of the “Speedwell ” going into the “Ship Inn,” as they sometimes did, he would conclude that they were young men on the highway to ruin. But the fact was we did not drink. What happened generally was this. We entered the public room and found several old skippers at their grog and pipes. Waiting only to exchange views about the weather, and declining proffered hospitality, we passed into the landlady’s private parlour, and there we spent the evening in social enjoyments. Remember, reader, we were three jolly young tars to whom music and dancing had irresistible charms. Our shipmate, “Dan,” I recollect, did not quite emulate his officers in their devotion to such amusements, and when the social party was fairly underweight he used to slip out, to see, he said, that all was right with the craft. It was at such times, I believe, that he told the wonderful stories of the doings of “The Three Boys ” which gained us so much notoriety. I must say a good word for those landladies. I never knew one of them who encouraged young fellows to drink. On the contrary, I have known them do all they could to restrain excess – in fact, were really very kind, good friends to the young sailor. To make up for their hospitality to us, though that was not wanted on their part, we usually gave a grand return supper to wind up with before sailing. I have seen us many a time the light-hearted leaders of the dance at eleven at night, and before midnight out in the stormy North Sea battling for dear life. “The Three Boys ” made a point of sailing whatever kind of weather was outside. 

Though a good sea-boat, our ship was not a particularly fast sailer, and we had to make up for it by “carrying on.” The old skippers after their grog went comfortably to bed in port, in the hope of a change of weather in the morning. We slipped out with the tide, and had a try for it. We had rare luck sometimes. I remember once our giving the collier fleet who were storm-stayed in the Firth of Forth the slip in this way. It was blowing a gale outside, but we took advantage of a lull and went out to sea. We had a splendid run all the way to Inverness, where we discharged our cargo, loaded, sailed for Sunderland, discharged and loaded again, and came up on the wind-bound vessels just as they were emerging out of the shelter of their haven of rest, where they had been for a full fortnight. On one occasion we lost the ship. It was a beautiful evening, and we lay becalmed about a mile off the shore, somewhere near the Firth of Forth. Wilson had exhausted his feats of diving and swimming. He was the boldest swimmer I have ever met. His dog one day was swept off the deck by a heavy sea. Instantly he jumped overboard after it. Before we could round-to, the vessel had to make a circuit of a mile or two. We could just see him, a dark object on the crest of a wave.

When we came up to rescue him, there was he patting his dog on the head, much more concerned for his dog’s safety than for his own. But on this particular summer evening, the water was so smooth that, as he said, there was no fun to be got out of it. “What do you say to our going ashore and getting a fresh supply of milk from that farm up there ?” he asked. “All right,” I replied and we out boat and away ashore, leaving “Dan” in full charge. We reached the farm-house, got into the good graces of the farmer’s* wife, and accepted an invitation to tea with the good woman and her two pretty daughters. It was a delightful break in the monotony of our existence, and we parted from our fair entertainers at sun-down, promising to return next day if the wind did not waft us away. When we got to the brow of the hill we looked about for the craft, but she was nowhere to be seen. She was gone from her anchorage. We hurried down’ to the boat, and pulled off in the faint hope that a ship’s hull just discernible on the horizon might be the “Speedwell.” It was the longest pull I ever had at the oar. By dawn of next morning, we came up to the vessel – it was our own lost ship. A breeze had sprung up, and filled her sails shortly after we had gone ashore. She tripped her anchor, and to the despair cf “Dan” went scudding off before the breeze. He, poor fellow, made fast the helm, paid out all the chain, and took in some sail, but all in vain. Fortunately for us the wind had died away again, enabling us to come up to her, and we thus got out of a very awkward scrape. 

I am sorry we never had an opportunity of explaining to our friends on the hill why we did not pay them another visit, though we more than once passed under the shadow of the cliff. The most serious mishap which occurred to us was entirely due to Wilson’s perversity in disregarding a Moray Firth tradition. He refused to “salute the Laird of Troup.” One day as we were making Troup Head, the highest land on the Banffshire coast, I was telling him the story of a Yankee skipper who was told by his Banff mate that it was the recognised custom in the Moray Firth to salute the Laird of Troup in passing his house, and that any omission of this civility was resented and punished by the Laird. The Yankee captain replied ” I guess as a freeborn American I ain’t goin’ to salute any laird or lord in this tarnation country”. “rAll right,” said the mate. The ship came up to Troup Head with a light breeze, and had just passed the bold headland by a quarter of a mile, when off came a squall which carried away both the Yankee’s topmasts “I told you the Laird would be displeased” said the mate. “Well, now,’ said Wilson, “I am of the same mind as the Yankee skipper, and will decline this afternoon to salute the Laird of Troup.” “All right,” said I. Wilson took the helm himself, so that the steering would not be at fault. 

We had a fine fair wind and all sail set. We came abreast of Troup Head, and sure enough off came a sudden squall, which struck down our fore top mast and split two of our sails! “I told you the Laird would be displeased” was all I said. The consequence was that we had to go into Aberdeen for repairs. All the time I was on the coast I never once omitted “saluting the Laird of Troup.” Wilson also thought better of it and never objected. How long we might have continued our reckless performance with this undermanned ship, I don’t know. We were no doubt making better than ordinary wages, but I think it was the element of adventure in it which kept us at it. 

It turned out, however, that the owner of the craft in Newcastle had got into financial difficulties, and when we arrived there one morning we were informed that the ship was under arrest for debt, and was to be handed over to a Dutchman. So we had to leave and find our way north, with just as much money and no more as paid our passages. Wilson and I were together in another ship, “Lord Hill,” but finally we parted, never to meet again. He eventually became captain of a barque on the coast of Australia, and paid the penalty of his reckless daring by keeping his ship at sea until she foundered, though a harbour of refuge lay close at hand to which he could have run. I also left the coast, but not before I had one experience I was not likely soon to forget. 

I became mate of the schooner “Albion,” and on a voyage from the Moray Firth to Newcastle we were caught in a tremendous gale after rounding Peterhead. For three weeks we were battered about in the North Gale succeeded gale, and we lost our reckoning. Our spars were carried away, and nearly all the sails split into ribbons. To make matters worse, our provisions ran done. In the midst of a terrific gale on a good Sunday morning we saw a bright light to leeward. We took it to be a shore light. We were driving helplessly towards it, and felt there was no escape for us. We had struggled in vain. In an hour hence, we would be dashed against the rocks. We fancied we heard the surge of the sea booming against the iron-bound coast. It was a dreadful thing one’s end being so near, but somehow perfect peace filled one’s heart. We calmly prepared for the end. After flattening out the try sail, we went below, a company of five doomed sailors. I dressed myself in my Sunday clothes. I wrote a few words saying who I was, and fastened the paper inside my coat, wondering all the while when and where and by whom I would be picked up. I also put a few lines in a bottle, stating our condition, sealed it up, and committed it to the mercy of the waves. We spent the next half-hour silently reading our Bibles. Every man dropped on his knees to his devotions. These over, we went up on deck ready for the fatal stroke. We had arranged to bid each other good-bye at the last moment. One poor fellow, the youngest of the crew, placed his hand affectionately on my shoulder as I had my foot on the companion ladder, and said with intense feeling – “I am awfully sorry for you, Jack, with your home ties. I have none, and it does not matter for me. My father and grandfather were lost at sea, and it seems natural I should too, but I am awfully sorry for you”. 

He was a rough lad, but he had a brave heart, thinking of another and not of himself at that moment. A minute later, this youth was frantic with joy, shouting “The light has moved ! the light has moved ! Look, look, the bearance has shifted ! It can’t be a shore light Hurrah, we are not going to be lost!” And sure enough the light had travelled. It was not a shore light. We were in God’s mercy reprieved. It was probably the light of a steamer stopped on account of the head sea. The sea continued very heavy, but when daylight came the dreaded land was not to be seen. We rode out the storm, and a few days later when the ragged, tattered, battered little craft was towed up the Tyne, with her crew of starving sailors brought back from the verge of despair, we got a hearty cheer from the shore people. We learned that scores of far finer vessels had gone down in the disastrous gale, and that we had been given up for lost two weeks before the eventful Sunday morning. 

At home, prayers had been offered up in the churches for the safety of the “Albion” and her crew. The news of our safe arrival reached home, strangely enough; in the postscript of a letter of condolence. The coal merchant was in the act of closing a letter of sympathy to the sorrowing friends at Nairn, when a clerk rushed in with the news that we were coming up the river. There was no time to write a fresh lettter, but he added a P.S – ” Thanks. be to the Almighty, our friends have this moment arrived in safety!”

One can imagine the joy that postscript gave. The bottle to which I had  committed the tale of our apparently impending doom turned up on the coast of Norway some months after, and I had the peculiar pleasure of reading my own message from the sea. Experiences such as I have described are not uncommon on the coast. The little schooners encounter many a fierce gale, and the crews which man them display endurance and courage of no ordinary degree. 

I never regretted that my experience began on the coast. There is no better school for a sailor than the stormy North Sea. The best sailors I have ever known were bred on the East Coast of Scotland. To learn to beat up the Moray Firth is a good lesson in ship-sailing. The great draw back in beginning in a coaster for a youth who has an ambition to rise in the seafaring profession is the shortness of the voyages, which, along with the undoubted hardships he endures, makes him disinclined to put forth any serious effort to qualify himself for a higher service. There is the further disadvantage that a young fellow brought up on the coast must almost of necessity go before the mast when he joins a big ship – not the best of schools as things go nowadays. Still there is nothing to prevent any coaster lad, who has the pluck and the capacity, to attain the position of commander of the biggest steamer afloat. He is generally a good sailor to begin with; – the rest depends upon himself; at least I found it so.

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