This piece was written at the request of some friends, to give an insight into the experience of sailing on a square rigger. It has been published in several specialist journals and was well received so I thought I would include it here. I hope you enjoy it.
The words, which I had been both longing for and terrified of hearing, came at last in a great bellow from the Sailing Master at the back of the ship. I took a deep breath and leapt for the ratlines and what was to become one of the most petrifying and thrilling experiences of my life. Seconds later I was climbing the violently shaking rope ladder that led up to the swaying mast platform of a real square rigger under sail.
Now you may well wonder how I found myself in that position – and indeed, that was the very question that I asked myself as the vertigo took over and my knuckles turned white on the ropes level with my face. And this, slightly enlarged, is the answer.
You may have had this experience, you may not. It may all depend on whether you ever read a Hornblower novel, or a Captain Aubrey tale, or any of those nautical sagas that launched us into action packed adventure on the storm-torn seas of the Napoleonic Wars. I have to confess, with a slight blush, that I read all of Patrick O'Brian's novels, and then read them again before turning to Hornblower, or the more recent Sean Thomas Russell books. Armchair seafaring is great fun. I loved it, but the more that I read the books the more uneasy I became. What was it really like to be at sea in a square rigged sailing ship? What was it like to be one of the men who climbed aloft in the heavy storms to rake in the heavy canvas sails which tore at their finger nails and beat into their faces harder than the fists of any alehouse bruiser?
As I closed each finished book, the longing to know more grew and grew; as did the sense of unease. Could I come to terms with the fact that I, the supposed descendant of a maritime and island race, could never do what they did? Ah, vanity is a terrible thing.
It was this desire to know more – plus a very unsatisfactory career - that eventually provoked me into studying for a doctorate in naval history. This, and encouragement from one of our greatest naval historians, charted a course of study into the frigate commanders of Nelson's navy, the glamour boys of their day, the Napoleonic equivalent of the fighter pilot. And so, with a hefty notebook and good reading glasses, I set off for the Admiralty Records in the National Archive at Kew, and began what turned out to be a ten year study of the men who commanded the frigates of the period. By the end of that time, the notebook had turned into two computers and the glasses had got a tad stronger! But I had a book with the publishers and an intimate knowledge of the naval officers themselves.
But there was still something missing. I still didn't know what it was those men experienced – those men who clambered aloft. I knew more about them and, in fact, my respect for them had grown. On a Napoleonic warship, there were different classes of men. But among the hands, the able seamen were the most highly prized by their officers – and among this group, the 'topmen' or yardsmen, were special. Fitter and braver, these were the men who made a sailing ship work. These were the men who could save her in a storm; these were the men who clambered aloft under fire to repair shot-torn rigging or jury-rig broken spars. And in a frigate, they really were an elite.
Fortunately, much of the old mythology about Nelson's navy has now been dispelled by rigorous research. We know, for example, that the infamous Press Gangs weren't actually interested in knock-kneed tailors or rickety landsmen. They were hunting for the skilled seamen, the able hands and yardsmen; men who knew their worth and who could often pick and choose which ships to join or which officers to serve under. Such men flocked to join Edward Pellew, for example, one of the navy's finest frigate commanders. The word soon got round that the bold and enterprising Pellew would hunt down French prizes and fill his crew's purses with much welcomed prize money. After such cruises the seamen would be allowed on shore to release pent-up energy and fling their money without caution. As observer James Silk Buckingham noted: The seamen would sometimes hire three or four coaches to remain on the stand, and in groups of three or four on the roofs of each, dance hornpipes and reels to a violin player seated on the box; and when the dance was over, drive a furious race against each other for ten or twenty guineas a side, till the horses became exhausted.
Young midshipman Abraham Crawford recalled on joining a new frigate that the men who came from the frigate service were the smartest and the proudest of the mixed crowd that assembled to hear their new Captain read his commission. They held themselves aloof from the rest, and dressed more ostentatiously in ribbons and silver buckles. And although Crawford also maintained they were less profane it is probably safer to assume they were more select about the occasion! These were the men who swaggered ashore to the alehouses and the bagnios of Portsmouth, Plymouth, Falmouth and Chatham.
But what was it that made them so self confident, so full of self-respect? They were physically tough, there was no doubt about that. Archaeological excavations of naval cemeteries quickly reveals the graves of the able seamen, by the indications of well developed upper body strength, as well as the occasional injury. But there was more to it than this. Something subtle , yet powerful. And I wanted to know what that was.
It was the chance discovery of a notice in a National Maritime Museum leaflet that pointed me in the way of discovery. The museum had organised a weekend trip in the small square-rigged brig Royalist. The little two-master had been designed to teach sea cadets how to handle sails and rigging, and during the school exam period, she was often available for special charter. The Museum had arranged one of these and, upon payment of a reasonable sum, I joined them.
With a mixture of trepidation and excitement I joined the ship in the Albert Dock at Liverpool on a blisteringly hot Friday evening. The crew of thirty consisted of half a dozen professionals, - the captain, engineer, sailing master etc. - and twenty-four hands, of it must be said, mixed ability. Standing on deck for the first time I gazed about me with bewilderment. Even for a two masted brig, the number of ropes coiled neatly onto belaying pins, or running through complicated networks of blocks, was just overwhelming. Yet, within the next two days I was hoping to understand what they were and what they did. It seemed an impossible task. And then, rocking slightly from heel to toe as the deck heaved gently, I looked up. Royalist is a tall ship, but not very tall. Her topgallant yards are probably only as high as the main yard of HMS Victory. But these things are proportionate – and the highest yard looked a long way up to me.
I didn't have long to think about it. The sailing master was keen to assess who had the ability to work aloft and so began the now familiar ritual of the 'up and over'. That is, climbing up one side of the mast, crossing the platform, and descending to the deck by the opposite rope ladder or 'ratlines'. Now, I have never been too bad with ladders though I hated heights. But I clambered up the shaking ratlines with a healthy confidence that made me quite proud of myself. At the platform, though, I hit a snag. The platform extended out over the top of the narrowing ratlines. Gaining access meant climbing an additional ten feet at an inverted angle – hanging out backwards while struggling to pull my weight up over the edge of the platform itself. I began the task and as I did, the round, beaming face of the sailing master appeared above me.
“Steady on , lad!” he grinned, (I was over forty at the time). “Take your time, there's a knack to this”.
And so there was. It involved sticking your posterior out into space and allowing your legs to do all the work. Feeling even prouder of myself I clambered up onto the platform and stood, puffing and shaking, to gaze down at the revellers on the quayside below. Suddenly I felt taller, and my grin probably said it all, despite the fingers clamped firmly to the nearest reassuring bit of rigging. By the time I had reached the deck again I felt so elated that when, a few hours later we all strolled to a nearby pub, I fell into a proper, seamanlike swagger. But, as the saying goes, pride comes before a fall.
Shortly after dawn the next morning we slipped through the dock gates and headed out into the Mersey. The wind was light, and the ship began to lift and roll. Fortunately I haven't suffered that bane of sailors, the dreaded seasickness and so, when the Sailing Master called for hands to go aloft to cast off the sails, I bounded into the ratlines like a cat possessed. Predictably, the Sailing Master himself was quicker. He led the way up onto the platform and then with a reassuring nod, he clipped his safety harness onto the running stay at the back of the yard, and stepped sideways, placing his feet on the thin lines suspended under the yards themselves. Without a pause he shimmied out over the sparkling waves a long, long way below until he was some fifteen or twenty feet away, at the far end of the yard, seemingly suspended in space. I turned, put one foot out onto the footrope, and put one hand out onto the yard. As I shifted my balance, the footrope swayed away from me, threatening to topple me backwards. The harness pulled me back, but I was seriously shaken. I tied again, one foot on the platform, the other on the footline. I edged sideways. My foot shot forwards, my posterior shot back. My heart shot into my mouth. I looked down. A dozen faces were looking up at me expressionlessly. At the end of the yard, the Sailing Master was serving me a quizzical expression. His voice shouted helpful advice over the buffeting of the wind. I tried again. Hand outstretched onto the yard, leg out, foot on the rope. And the same thing happened. Frustration rose within me, and tears of rage threatened to expose me. I knew I couldn't do it. Couldn't slide out onto that yard.
In utter misery I crept slowly back down to the deck and stood shaking, feeling as though I wanted to slip forever between the planking and not be seen again.
My misery deepened as others I thought less able, scrambled up and slid out onto the yard, laughing and calling to each other with a heroic jocularity that tore at my heart. I was a failure. And that night as we lay at anchor, I rolled sleeplessly in my bunk, damning myself. Bitterly lamenting the fact that I had travelled all that way for a unique experience which I might never come my way again. I tried to sleep, but I woke moments later in a sweat, as panic and misery overwhelmed me. But there was friendly help at hand.
As I sat at the mess table the next morning, too ashamed to meet anyone's gaze, my neighbour nudged me with his elbow.
“You've got another chance, you know” he murmured. I glanced sideways and he nodded with a smile. “They'll want us aloft again after breakfast. You've come all this way for this. Do you really want to miss the chance? To go home again without having made it out onto the yard?”
And he was right, of course, I didn't. I finished my tea and climbed onto the deck. We were somewhere off the mouth of the Mersey in a bright, crystal clear morning. There was a fresh smelling breeze that cleared the head and made tired eyes tingle. And around the masts, gulls wheeled on silent wings. I tried not to look up. Tried not to think. But already my stomach was boiling, and I felt sick.
And then it came. The voice of the Sailing Master. 'Yardsmen aloft!' My breakfast companion leapt for the ratlines and turned to look at me. With out breathing I too leapt up onto the gunwhale and clambered up the shaking ladder. My heart was thudding so loud I thought my head would split. But I gritted my teeth and fought the panic that grew as I rose above the deck. We reached the platform and stood there, panting, drawing in lungfulls of cool air. We clipped on. He nodded, smiled and slid out onto the yard. I stretched out a foot, found the footrope, grasped the top of the yard and threw my torso over the yard itself. All of a sudden I was looking down at a dozen, interested faces. I pushed sideways, and my other foot found its place on the foot rope. I pushed again and suddenly I was floating, balanced high above the deck with my legs stretched out behind, feet hooked onto the footrope, my tummy pressed down onto the firmness of the yard itself. I looked back at the platform and realised I was eight or nine feet from it. I turned the other way and my friend was grinning. He lifted both hands and gave me a double thumbs up. And then we both began to laugh. We untied the gaskets holding the sail on the yard, and cast it off. And then we hung there relaxing, balanced high over the sea, seeing the world as those Napoleonic seamen had seen it. And suddenly I knew what it was that made those men so special. They had, each and everyone of them, conquered their fear and they had conquered it together.