Cabin Boy to Captain
by Robert Wyatt
In the pearly light of dawn the S.V. Wathara under topsails only with the tide and the land breeze behind her moved slowly down Sydney Harbour and out to sea bound for the New Zealand Port of Auckland.
Onboard, cabin boy David Munro ignoring the taunts of some of the older hands, “of you’ll be sorry”, set about his duties in the crew’s mess room and the officers’ quarters. He hoped that he wouldn’t be seasick or be afraid of heights when he had to go aloft. The food on board was very different to his mother’s cooking, and would take some getting used to. The meals lacked variety, porridge for breakfast, lunch a stew made from salt beef with hash and potatoes, dinner was salt beef again with batter and potatoes and for pudding a soup of currents and raisins. For those still hungry, there were ship’s biscuits, sometimes full of weevils. Butter was usually rationed along with the condensed milk and sugar. Water was from casks which after several days was almost undrinkable as it mostly contained ‘green living organisms’.
Cabin boy David Munro’s first trip to sea on S.V. Wathara, across the notoriously rough Tasman Sea was blessed with fine weather for the fast passage of 12 days. He was able to get his sea legs and confidence in his new surroundings. On his first time aloft he was appalled at the distance to the main deck far below him. Remembering the saying from some of the younger crew members, “one hand for yourself, and one hand for the ship”, he managed to complete the task he had been given. This was a confidence boost in working aloft that served him well for his time in sailing vessels. However confidence in one skill at sea often leads to over confidence in other areas as David was soon to find out.
Loading in the New South Wales Port of Newcastle for his next trip across the Tasman Sea, David along with other crew members were engaged in putting double lashings on the ship’s boats and the other deck fittings. This was a sure sign the Master expected rough weather for the voyage.
As soon as the Wathara reached the open sea outside of the harbour breakwater, the storm was waiting for her. Under storm canvas and with the ship rolling heavily it was a practical lesson in the art of secure cargo stowage by a very determined Mate who had insisted on all items in the hold to be tightly packed. It was a lesson that would influence David for the rest of his life in the shipping industry.
The next lesson was a hard one with unfortunate consequences. With the ship’s extravagant motion during the storm his setting of the table for the officers’ meals allowed a beautiful cruet set to be thrown off the table and smashed. David was given a severe dressing down by a furious Master and to rub the lesson in he was sent aloft for the 4 hours on his watch below. This meant he had been on deck for 8 hours without rest. When he finally reached his hammock, he could hardly believe it when the bosuns call came for all hands to shorten sail. He hoped he would not be missed on deck, until the bosun shook him awake, and told him to “obey orders young man!” Another 4 hours work awaited him and then his 4 hour watch as well. He was almost stupefied with fatigue after 20 hours on deck. His next 4 hours off duty were treated as sacrosanct.
Wathara’s next destination, after loading in several Australian ports, was to be San Francisco, U.S.A. Before sailing from Australia the ship’s articles of engagement had to be re-signed, so that any of the crew who wanted to leave the ship could do so without having ‘to jump ship’. After David’s initiation to the sea, the Mate felt he would be one of those who had had enough and would return to his life ashore. He was astounded when David re-signed for the next voyage. To reward him for his persistence and dedication, he was to be rated as an Ordinary
Seaman, with the appropriate increase in pay. The ship reached San Francisco in 77 days sailing from Australia’s East Coast, with good weather and favourable winds all the way a fast passage by the standards of the day. This meant there was time for David to learn the skills necessary for the rating as ordinary Seaman in a sailing ship.
This included knotting and splicing, mending the sails, handling the wheel, lookout duties and basic navigation alongside being able to appreciate the beauty of a ship under full sails to the royals with the stun sails set. Good weather and a fast voyage meant that bad weather with all its privations and hardships became but a distant memory. The crew with some eager helpers ashore quickly discharged the cargo.
The crew then set to work cleaning and washing down the holds ready for their return cargo to Adelaide South Australia. This cargo was to be army trucks and case oil in billets. The Mate as usual was meticulous in the loading and stowing of the cargo. Some of the crew actually shook their heads in frustration at his insistence on the careful wedging and lashings of the army trucks in the hold. It took several attempts before he was satisfied with the result.
Once loading had been completed and there was no outstanding maintenance to be done, the crew were allowed ashore, one watch at a time. A small sub of their wages was paid, with the bulk of their money held on board as a guarantee that they would return to their ship and not join the gold rush to Alaska that had just restarted on the West Coast of the U.S.A.
David was part of the first watch to be paid and given shore leave. It was his first foreign port and he was anxious to stretch his legs and explore the city. Before he set foot ashore, his first problem was that his feet had out grown his only shoes due to the constant need for bare feet on board especially working aloft. The first stop outside the wharf gates was a shoe shop. Other items of his clothing had to be replaced as he had out- grown them. All sailors have tattoos he was told by the older hands that were ashore with him. Next stop was a local tattoo parlour and now, sporting a tattoo on his left arm, he was one of the boys. Not a thought of what his mother would say when, and if, he returned to Sydney That was too far into the future. Once back onboard his ship with his new wardrobe the clothes he had gone to sea with went over the side.
Wathara sailed from San Francisco in benign weather fully loaded with her cargo on a direct run to Adelaide, South Australia. Her track to that port would be by the 140 degrees longitude meridian, thus avoiding major islands and their associated reefs. At 50 degrees south latitude course would be altered to the west for the run to the Investigator Strait and the entrance the St. Vincent’s Gulf and Port Adelaide.
The voyage south would see the ship leaving summer in the Northern Hemisphere, and sailing into winter after she crossed the Equator. An old sailors’ superstition, “enjoy good weather while you can, as you will pay for it with interest later in the voyage.”
The further south they sailed the colder it became. Those on the middle watches now had to wear jackets and other warmer clothing when they went on duty. The days grew noticeably shorter black clouds and frequent rain squalls covered the horizon. Sun and star sights became difficult to obtain with navigation mainly by D.R. positioning. Lookouts frequently returned to the deck with ice covering the fronts of their jackets. Then the dreaded call by the bosun, “at night all hands shorten sail”, with a cold wind blowing making it difficult to hang on to the vibrating yard arms and attach the sail grommets with icy fingers.
As the seas became heavier, the sails were changed to storm canvas with double lashings on all deck fittings and the ships boats. Wathara began to labour often taking green water over her bows which in turn flooded the crews forecastle accommodation. Worse still, the cook was having trouble in keeping the galley fire alight and the crew had to accept salt beef half cooked in brackish water. A serious discovery made during the Master’s rounds was that some of their fresh water had been contaminated by sea water.
The Master was all too aware that in her present condition his ship was in no condition to face the high seas in latitude 50 degrees South that were very likely at this time of the year. If they had not received such a battering already there wouldn’t have been a problem. But with an exhausted, hungry and thirsty crew and his storm sails mostly in tatters and some provisions running low, especially fruit juices, which were essential for the prevention of scurvy, the situation was getting desperate. The only thing he could be thankful for was the cargo had not shifted at all even with the extreme motion of the ship. This was another important lesson for Ordinary Seaman David Munro and justification of the Mate’s attention to detail when they were loading in San Francisco.
The Master had run out of options. The only possible decision was to run for shelter. His ship needed repairs and possibly a dry dock. The nearest accessible one in the prevailing conditions was in Sydney, New South Wales. The decision made, they would alter course to make a landfall near Stewart Island at the southern tip of the South Island of New Zealand. The officers were acutely aware that this area had a reputation as a graveyard of ships. The light on the island was fuelled by kerosene only and was visible in good weather of 2 miles at best.
There was no shortage of lookouts as they neared land, hoping to sight the lighthouse before they approached the island to enable them to avoid the lee shore. With few star or sun sights over the previous week, it would take only a minor error in navigation for a disaster.
Late in the morning, through the rain which had turned to sleet making work aloft extremely hazardous as it stung the faces of those working on the yards trying to repair some of the storm sails in case they had to go about without any warning. The light on Stewart Island was sighted and the relief was palpable for all hands. The course could now be altered to the North East close the New South Wales coast.
As they entered the Tasman Sea conditions very surprisingly started to moderate. More sails could be set and the crew could now look forward to a hot meal and be able to dry their clothes and bedding which had been soaked in sea water when the ship was gunnel deep in green water.
With the wind moderating still further to nothing more than a stiff breeze, there was genuine fear from the Master and officers that should it abate altogether and they become becalmed, still out of sight of land, they may run out of drinkable water altogether.
As it turned out, on the sixth day after clearing Stewart Island they sighted the loom of the Macquarie light that guarded the entrance to Sydney Harbour. However, it was still a near run thing with only one day’s water left, They had been on half rations for fourteen days previously.
After making their number to the signal station and confirming their urgent need for drinking water, the crew could at last shorten what sails they had left and clear away their anchor. The ship was directed to the quarantine anchorage for the usual customs and health checks.
A night’s rest with only an anchor watch set, then the serious business of repairing the storm damage so Wathara could resume her voyage to Adelaide. It was also the opportunity to provision the ship, especially their fresh water. The water casks had to emptied, scrubbed clean and then refilled from the water lighters alongside. The crew at that stage, after drinking their fill from the new supplies were soon thirsty again, they were more interested in the fresh water than rum.
After 7 days dedicated work by the crew, the mate could report to the Master that the ship was indeed ready in all respects to go to sea, and they could leave harbour at his discretion. Because the repairs had progressed much quicker than anticipated, it was felt that this justified some limited shore leave for the crews a reward for their hard work. The watch system would be used as was the case in San Francisco, once again a limited sub on their wages as an inducement for them to return to the ship and complete the voyage. David was in the second watch this time, and decided to visit his family instead of the local hotels with the rest of his watch. The first problem he encountered when dressing to go ashore was the shoes he had bought in San Francisco had rotted when the sea had flooded their accommodation during the recent pounding the ship had received, these then followed their predecessors over the side. Some of the other clothes he had bought at the same time had shrunk when they became wet by the same deluge. He had no other option but to go with what he had and be prepared for the inevitable explosion from his mother.
Isabella Munro was preoccupied with the usual round of housework, when a tall barefooted male knocked at her door. On answering the knock she didn’t recognise her second eldest son, even with his greeting of, “hello Mum”. After the initial shock her parental instincts took over. Where were his shoes? Why were his clothes in such a state? Then what was the tattoo she could see. It was only when David produced a tobacco pouch and started to roll his own cigarette that it lit the fuse for the explosion he had expected. Much later in the day after a home cooked meal his mother had ‘wound down enough’ to escort him to a local clothing shop where his limited money was to be spent on new shoes that fitted him, as well as the other items that he was told he lacked.
With her full crew onboard, provisioned and watered, the S.V. Wathara under newly repaired top sails and with the aid of the land breeze left Sydney Harbour and turned South for Bass Strait, before heading west for Port Adelaide. The last part of their delayed voyage was largely uneventful, except for the usual fog in the Bass Strait, where double lookouts were needed in that heavy traffic area, that were mostly steam ships from the Port of Melbourne.
On arrival in Adelaide the crew set to work discharging their cargo. Nothing had shifted in the holds during the long voyage of 123 days, even allowing for the heavy weather they had suffered, the number of days at sea were more than double the days of their outward voyage. The undamaged state of their cargo was further testament to the diligence of the mate whilst loading in the U.S.A. a point not lost on David Munro.
After cargo work had been completed the crew were informed the ship had been sold to a Norwegian ship owner who would provide his own sailors to man the ship and sail it out of Australian waters. All those remaining on board were paid off.
With little prospect of further work at sea available in Adelaide, David paid his own fare to return to Sydney, where he hoped to find another ship. He had a good discharge from the Wathara and was rated as a senior ordinary seaman. Working in some job ashore was not now an option.
The train trip to Sydney took 5 days as all states in Australia at that time had their own rail gauges which meant he had to change trains 5 times before reaching his destination.
A chance meeting on the train to Sydney with a crew member from the sailing ship S.V. Whitepine returning from his shore leave allowed David to visit that ship and ask for a job onboard. Whitepine did in fact need more crew and he was signed on that day in January 1919.
Whitepine had just finished discharging her cargo of timber from New Zealand and was ready to sail for Newcastle N.S.W. to load coal for her return voyage, just as soon as she was able to complete her stores. This was this ships regular run and David could see at a glance Whitepine had been worked hard and the maintenance was sadly lacking. The passage to Wanganui, New Zealand was fast by sailing ship standards of that day, 10 days, and the return passage to Sydney, also fast, 10 days with a cargo of timber. It was a fairly raw crew and David’s sea time so far gave him some seniority with more time at the helm. David found the ship very hard to steer, especially in a following sea, where he had to lash himself to the wheel in case a wave kicked the rudder and threw him over the side which would allow the ship to fall off into a wave trough and be completely rolled over, as had happened to several sailing ships in the past.
David remained on Whitepine for 6 months, until the owners lost the contract to a company that had steamships on the run, and faster crossings. The crew were paid off and new owners took over. David’s wages amounted to £3 a month ($6.00), not enough to live on ashore.
Talk in the forecastle of the Whitepine was about the very different wages and conditions available for crews on some of the newer steamships that were now being built for their Australian owners. One week after paying off from the Whitepine and with little money left, David was able to join the S.S. Moira as ordinary seaman when she was in Sydney, picking up a new crew. He was a little apprehensive, as it had been the happiest time of his life so far. Working on sailing ships there was excitement, challenges and glamour and the sailor was totally responsible for the ship’s progress. Wages on the Moira were £8 ($16.00) per month, big money compared to that available on a sailing ship. The food for the crews was the antithesis to what he had accepted during his time on the Wathara. These new steamers usually had some form of refrigeration so food could be stored for longer periods.
The British Board of Trade had set out guide lines for the three meals per day for all ships in their jurisdiction. One such item was chicken for Sunday’s lunch, it referred to by all “as board of trade chicken” this still applies today.
Moira had relocated from the A.U.S.N. Western Australian sailings to the Queensland rivers run. This was due to her shallow draft and newer and more powerful engines. It was a popular run with crews as it was mostly in calm waters and warm weather for most of the year. Sailing from Sydney, her ports were Brisbane on the way North then Rockhampton, Bowen, Mourilyan, and terminating in Townsville where she would load bagged sugar for Sydney. Moira was one of the early A.U.S.N. company ships to carry two marine apprentices. David being of similar age to them, got on well and was able to pass on some of his knowledge of seamanship which he had learned the hard way on sailing ships. They reciprocated by showing him some of the navigation work they had to learn for their second mate’s exams at the end of their apprenticeship. Many years later when David was ashore working for the B.H.P. company in Newcastle he was able to renew the friendship when they called into the port as Masters of their own ships.
A.U.S.N. Company was part of the P.&.O. Group and was going through a period of rapid expansion with several new ships being built in U.K. yards. The Company was looking to the not too distant future and knew it would need more watch keeping officers. To this end, they had on offer to interested crew members with sufficient sea time and a desire to progress further in the industry, company support whilst ashore sitting for their Second Mates Foreign Going Certificates, providing they agreed to return to the company at the completion of their exams with a pass.
David was interested but felt his sea time would be short of the requirement, but something to think about for the future.
Townsville, where Moira would load her return cargo, was popular with crews for the night life, and with most nights off duty, due to little cargo work after dark, the sailors made the most of their time ashore. It was also an army post, where soldiers from Queensland returning from the first world war, were demobilised before returning to their civilian lives. Death on Europes battlefields, was being eclipsed by a flu strain that swept through the Northern Hemisphere in the last days of that hideous conflict, called the Spanish flu pandemic. Millions of people died, and many more were left disabled, in countries ravaged by war. Australia should have been immune because of her distances from those countries, but it was not to be. Soldiers returning home from Europe’s Battlefields brought this infection back with them to the disembarkation ports. Townsville happened to be one of these ports.
Moira left Townsville on her usual direct run to Sydney fully loaded. On the second day at sea, the Master heard from the Bosun that three members of the deck crew were complaining of flu like symptoms, and had been confined to their bunks. Having been made aware of the infection and its consequences, the master radioed the company for advice of what he should do. The reply came through Queensland Health in The Port of Brisbane. He was to pull into the entrance of the Brisbane River and await the port’s pinnace, which would collect the three crew members and transport them to the infectious diseases hospital in that city.
This was the very first time David had been seriously ill in his life. Worse still he was in a city he had never visited, or knew anything about. He was being cared for by people he didn’t know, and was in a large hospital ward with seriously ill patients all around him, some of whom were obviously going to die. As the shock of his surroundings started to wear off, his thoughts were of his family in Sydney. They would be unaware of what had happened to him, what if he were to die here, what then? What had happened to the other two sailors from the Moira that had been sent ashore with him? He had one thing in his favour, and that was he was very healthy after two years at sea in sailing ships. It was not long before he was well enough to be moved to a rehabilitation ward where he could enjoy being looked after until the last seeds of the infection that had hit him were eliminated.
It occurred to him that this was the first time in more that six years that he had experienced quality time to himself. All he had to do was lie still and get better, so he was able to think about his future at sea. He had only two more steps to reach the rank of Bosun. Would this be sufficient to last him for forty years until he retired? This did not seem like the way he should go, because it was a deadend job much like the law office he was happy to leave. If he was to remain in the industry, and this was where was happiest, then he should look further. That would mean Second Mate’s Qualifications, and then see where that took him. Firstly he would have to have a look at what he would need to know to sit for the exams. Could he cope with his limited schooling? He now had an aim in life, and something to be involved with in the near future. After a month in hospital, David was released into the care of the A.U.S.N. Company who would arrange his repatriation to his home port Sydney.
The S.S. Moira had given him an insight into where the future of Australian shipping was heading. The crew’s accommodation on her was still located in the focastle, but in two berth cabins with bunks instead of hammocks, and mattresses replacing straw filled canvas bags. There were enclosed toilets and a shower room with hot running water. Working conditions had changed from four hours on, and four hours off, to four hours on, and eight hours off and with no sails to look after, nor having to turn out on a blustery cold night, at the call of all hands, a crew member could usually be assured of six hours unbroken rest. Work on deck was limited to general maintenance, mainly chipping and painting, and servicing the cargo gear. David found that work on steamships was eagerly sought after, and returning to Sydney after his stay in hospital, the only jobs at sea were on sailing ships, where he had to accept less money, but it was work after all, and he had been the happiest on sailing ships where the crews worked together, and where the beginnings of the union involvement he disliked on the Moira, were not yet evident.