Having served at sea for a period of forty-two years, I began to have thoughts of retiring, and in 1885 I finally resolved to come ashore for good. I had been master of sailing vessels for fourteen years and in command of steamships for a dozen years, and never lost a ship. I had minor mishaps no doubt, but I never had a serious accident or lost a life at sea. I had not been very long ashore when I received an appointment from the Home Secretary to act as Nautical Assessor in Board of Trade Investigations throughout the United Kingdom. The appointment did not carry very large remuneration, but it was very gratifying to me, as I was the first Scottish sailor who had up to that time been appointed. work was very congenial, and I had now the opportunity of investigating the facts and circumstances of many a tale of the sea. The attitude of mind I brought to bear in these cases was that of friendliness to the shipmaster. I never could forget the innumerable perils with which the course of the most careful navigator is constantly beset, and if an error in judgement only had been … Read the rest

Moral Improvement of the Sailor

Sunday at Sea! Strangely enough I have to date most of my greatest trials and troubles on the ocean on Sundays, and yet the memory of Sundays at sea comes back upon me as a time of singular peace and happiness. There is a peculiar beauty and simplicity in a religious service on the deck of a ship at sea. Ever since I had command, I have insisted on Sunday being observed on board my ship, as far as possible, by the curtailment of work and by a religious service being held. If we had no parson on board, I conducted the service myself; if we were fortunate in having a clergyman, then I was content to take up the collection. I have heard some shipmasters say that such services tend to relax discipline. I never found it so. On the contrary, I think the existence of a regular Sunday service adds moral weight to the captain’s authority, and has a distinctly humanising and otherwise salutary effect on the ship’s company. In passenger steamers it is never omitted, and in sailing ships it is common enough to be made universal, if examples were wanted. 

If the sailors do not come … Read the rest

Animals at Sea

Amongst one’s shipmates at sea one has to include animals of many sorts, and one gets to know their habits on board ship better even than on shore. 

Leaving Calcutta for London on one occasion, we had four elephants on board. It was exceedingly difficult to coax them over the gangway, but this accomplished, our troubles only began. The elephants were securely tied in stalls on the quarter-deck, but ere we had got clear of the Sand Heads they had smashed up the whole fabric, and roamed about the decks loose. They showed abject terror of the sea. They were evidently sea-sick, and nearly broke down our deck houses by pressing against them in their struggle to get away from the sight of the sea, all the time howling frightfully. Night came on, and they were still at liberty. I spent a very anxious time. As soon as day broke, sailor after sailor tried his hand at securing them, but as soon as Jack had given the last professional turn to the cross-lashing, and remarked, “Now then, old boy, that will hold you,” the elephant simply relaxed his muscles and the fastenings fell off. We had to give it up … Read the rest

In the Transport Service

The part which our first-class merchant steamers will probably play in the exigencies of a great war is a subject of considerable public interest. My little experience in the transport service may be regarded as a practical experiment. 

In 1882, my steamer was chartered by the Indian Government for the conveyance of Indian troops to the Egyptian War, and I had the honour of carrying the 2nd Belooches, some 750 strong, from Karachi to Ismalia,

The harbour of Karachi is a very fine one, and encloses about half-a-dozen miles of smooth water. It probably never looked better or gayer than it did the morning we embarked our men and mules. Of the latter we had 280, chiefly intended for the transport of baggage. Europeans and natives in thousands were afloat early to bid us farewell. The appearance of the Belooches on the Mereweather Pier, as they stood with their arms at the order, just as the sun rose that morning, was as pretty a sight as I had ever seen. In their blue tunics and red breeches they made a grand picture.

Long before noon, every man and mule were in their places, baggage stowed away, and the officers waiting … Read the rest

The Ocean Highway

The types of character one meets on board a passenger steamer between England and India are extremely varied. Passengers as a rule endeavour to be on pleasant terms with the captain, and one forms many agreeable acquaintanceships and some lasting friendships. 

On one occasion I had a gentleman from Glasgow, of the name, I shall say, of Black. Along with Mr Black was Miss Sarah Parker, a lady ot considerable notoriety. Both were going out to join the Theosophists under Madame Blavatzki, at Madras. Sarah Parker had played many a role in her day. She had met Madame Blavatzki in America when lecturing on spiritualism, and so mpressed was the latter with her talents that she repeatedly urged her to come out to India. Miss Sarah had accepted the invitation, and was now on her way to Madras. She was in charge of Mr Black, if a lady of her mature experience could be said to be under the protection of any one. Though they were co-religionists they did not get on particularly well. and before half the voyage was accomplished, they were not on speaking terms. Mr Black was rich and had paid Miss Surah Parker’s passage out. The … Read the rest


My last sailing ship was named the “County of Nairn” my native shire. One becomes excessively fond of a good ship which has borne you along in safety through many a stormy sea. A sailor can never believe but that his ship is an intelligent creature, full of life and spirit, willing to do his utmost for him under his direction. I had sailed the “County of Nairn” for a good many years, making many a prosperous voyage with her. She was one of the smartest sailing vessels of the time. It was therefore with some regret that I learned that I was to be removed from command of her. I could not complain, however, as it was in the way of very considerable promotion. I was to get the command of a large steamer being built on the Clyde – the pioneer of a projected line of steamers to Java. I had some right to regard the appointment as a mark of confidence in me, as I knew nothing whatever of steamships. All my experience had hitherto been in sailing vessels. All shipmasters regard steamer captains as decidedly inferior to them as sailors. Without saying how far I shared … Read the rest

In Command

In good ships sailing from one part of the world to another, I served my time as second mate, then took first mate’s certificate, and finally passed as master and got a command.

A young fellow on taking command of a large vessel for the first time has very mixed feelings. He has a certain pride, no doubt, in his position, but the sense of responsibility weighs upon his mind. He is in absolute charge of precious lives and valuable property, and if anything goes wrong he alone will be to blame. It sometimes happens that it is on one’s first voyage the greatest trials come.

It was so in my case, at least. I had made a good run out to Java, but on the homeward passage I was caught in a cyclone. We were standing across the variable space which lies between the Island of Java and the Trades. One day we had a succession of squalls, chiefly from SW. About sunset the sky appeared to change for the better, and as far as I could read the indications, a squall we saw coming down on us would probably be lighter and possibly the last. I was mistaken. … Read the rest

As Mate

Having served long enough, as I thought, before the mast, I made up my mind to go before the Board of Trade examiner, and endeavour to pass as second mate. A few weeks at a Navigation School in Glasgow gave me the final drill in the subject of navigation which I needed. I had no doubt of being able to pass in practical seamanship. The room of the Board of Trade examiner has more terrors for poor Jack than the centre of a cyclone. A dozen of us went up, all in a state of extreme trepidation. For the first hour or so, the mental tension was extreme, and by the end of the day one felt as if reduced to a state of imbecility. The same questions if tackled on board ship would have cost us very little mental effort, but under the excitement of the occasion, the strain was enormous. I mention this as a possible explanation of the large number of failures of seamen going up for the first time – they are not used to it. However, I had the satisfaction of being one of four who passed. I felt very proud of it. The gaining … Read the rest

Before the Mast

My first start in a big ship was fairly propitious. Coming out of a small craft, whose masts would hardly make yards for the full-rigged Australian clipper I had now joined, I felt for the first twenty-four hours as if I had never been on board a ship before, everything appeared to me to be on such a gigantic scale. This feeling, however, soon wore off, and by keeping my eyes open I soon got familiar with my new surroundings. So well did I affect the role of an old hand that I passed the scrutiny of the “forecastle,” who never suspected that I was a “greenhorn.” It was well for me, as otherwise I would have been subjected to some disagreeable experiences.

The focs’le of a big ship in its own way is sometimes as companionable and enjoyable a place as any other department of the vessel – at other times it is the reverse. Thirty -six of us were crowded into a very narrow space, We were a mixed lot, and might be roughly divided into three classes- -good fellows, queer chaps, and bad characters. I think nearly all of us were strangers to each other, but sailors … Read the rest