Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Setting sail for Australia in 1938

The Last Grain Race, Eric Newby

I have been reading Eric Newby's books a bit randomly.  I started with Round Ireland in Low Gear, about a trip in 1985.  Then I read A Traveller's Life, an autobiography that takes him from his birth in 1919 up to 1973.  The third book I read was Love and War in the Apennines, an account of his experiences as a POW in Italy in the Second World War.  I've decided to read the other books that I've collected in order following the chronology of his life, which also means reading them more or less in order of publication.  The first of these, chronicling his first great travel adventure, is The Last Grain Race (published in 1956).

When Newby was 16, his father took him out of school and found him a position at a London advertising agency, Wurzel's, which could have served as a model for Pym's, where Peter Wimsey works in Murder Must Advertise.  Two years later, in August 1938, Wurzel's lost a major account and large sections of the agency were laid off.  Newby found to his mortification that his job was safe, in part because his salary was so insignificant.
"I was furious . . . I was perhaps the only member of the staff who would have actively welcomed the sack. Wurzel's was a prison to me. All the way home in the Underground I seethed ... too unimportant to be sacked ..."
He left the next day for two weeks' holiday, and he never went back to Wurzel's.  Instead, he applied for an apprenticeship with a Finnish shipowner.  Gustav Eriksson owned a fleet of sailing ships that ran the "Grain Race," carrying ballast out to Australia and bringing back tons of grain to Europe.  Newby was accepted as an apprentice, on payment of a £50 premium, and ordered to report to the Moshulu in Belfast harbor on September 26th. There he began his education as a sailor on a four-masted ship, an education hampered by the fact that he was the only English-speaker sailing with a crew of Finns and Swedes.  He had been on the ship less than two hours when the Second Mate sent him "Op the rigging!" to the very top of the mainmast, 160 feet above the deck.

In the two weeks before the ship sailed, Newby struggled to learn the parts of the ship, the sails and rigging, translated into the mix of languages the polyglot crew used.  Writing twenty years later, he went into great detail in describing these, perhaps because ships like the Moshulu, rare in 1938, were disappearing completely.  He did helpfully identify one "Technical interlude," with the note, "Surface on page 47."  Reading these sections reminded me so strongly of Patrick O'Brian that I started to wonder if O'Brian had himself read Newby.  My copy even includes a very familiar-looking ship's diagram identifying the masts and sails.  Newby, like Stephen Maturin, was a complete landlubber when he first stepped on board, but unlike Maturin he sailed before the mast.  He was lucky to find an ally, his own Barrett Bonden, in Jansson, one of the "donkeymen" who ran the small diesel engines.

The voyage out, which took almost three months, was south and around the Horn of Africa, in the great Roaring 40s (below the 40th parallel of south latitude).
"At midnight on [December] 4th, the wind was north-north-east, force 7 [30 mph]. Down to topsails now, her upper and lower yards naked, gleaming yellow like great bones in the moonlight, she was a terrible wild stranger to us.  At the wheel a Swede and a Dane were fighting to hold her as she ran 13 and 14 knots in the gusts. I knew then that I would never seen sailing like this again. When such ships as this went it would be the finish. The windbelts of the world would be deserted and the great West Wind and the Trades would never blow on steel rigging and flax canvas again."
The Moshulu made landfall at Port Lincoln in South Australia on January 8, 1939.  On March 11th she set sail on the return voyage with almost 5000 tons of grain in her holds.  Her homeward course was eastward along the 40s, to pass the tip of South America and then turn north.  This part of the trip was even more dangerous, with gale-force winds and wild seas:
"Moshulu was running ten knots in the biggest seas I had ever seen. As I watched, the poop began to sink before my eyes and the horizon astern was blotted out by a high polished wall, solid and impenetrable like marble. The poop went on dropping until the whole ship seemed to be toppling backwards into the deep moat below the wall of water that loomed over her, down and down to the bottom of the sea itself. At the moment when it seem that this impregnable mass must engulf us, a rift appeared in its face and it collapsed, burrowing beneath the ship . . ."
Newby was nearly washed overboard twice, as the crew struggled to set sails.  I cringed every time the captain sent them aloft in the storms, out along the icy yardarms to wrestle with the tons of heavy sodden canvas.  Miraculously, none of the crew was lost at sea.  The ship returned to Belfast on June 27th, having won what would turn out to be the last Grain Race.

In between these frantic hours of danger were days of boredom, with routine chores around the ship, some familiar from O'Brian's novels like polishing brass and chipping rust.  The crew, many of them younger men, were chronically short on sleep and constantly hungry.  I don't know how they survived on a diet based on pickled beef and pork. Just reading about it made me a little nauseous, as did the bathroom arrangements.

Newby struggled to learn his way around the ship, and to fit in with a crew who did not welcome an Englishman.  On this voyage he set a pattern for his future travels: making connections, finding friends, opening himself to new experiences, observing and learning all he could, never hesitating to ask questions, and keeping his sense of humor about it all.  I have enjoyed every trip I've taken with him, and I'm glad to have several more ahead.

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Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!