Windjammers: The Last Grain Races

“There were English, Finns, Irishmen, Welshmen, Germans and a Canadian aboard; but the largest contingent was from Australia.  Their motive for making the trip was – adventure”, seafarer, Martin Tunstall,

The new exhibition Windjammers: The Last Grain Races, which opens this weekend, tells the story of the men and women lucky enough to take part in the last days of sail.  Desperate to experience the romance of sail, prospective sailors flew from around the world just to be considered on the last grain race between Pamir and Passat in 1949.   

With the advent of steam, there were few trade routes left for sailing ships. Gustaf Erikson of Finland owned the last windjammer fleet.  He purchased square-rigged ships and barques second hand for the Australian grain trade.  These voyages from wheat ports on the Yorke Peninsula to Europe were celebrated around the world.  In Britain, punters bet on which ship would make the fastest voyage of the year, coining the expression ‘The Grain Races’. 

Pamir and Passat left SA’s Port Victoria in 1949 creaking with thousands of bags of grain.  There was public frenzy surrounding the voyage: Pamir received 100 fan letters a day and newspapers and magazines closely tracked each voyage.  There was widespread recognition that for these impressive sailing ships, the days were numbered. 

Of the young South Australians who signed on as seafarers, many had spent little, if any, time at sea.  Most were seeking adventure. The voyages covered 18,500 kilometres and took about three months.  New recruits clambered up the swaying rigging, suffered saltwater blisters, atrocious food and the bitter chill of sailing in the southern latitudes.  And yet they all fondly remember their time on a windjammer.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is a striking collection of staged publicity photographs of sailors aboard Pamir prior to its departure from Port Victoria.  Three of those photographed didn’t make it out of Port, convicted of disorderly behaviour at the Port Victoria Hotel and left to cool their heels in the local lockup.

Windjammers: The Last Grain Races evokes the last days of commercial sail in Australia and the thrill and terror of those who faced the mountainous seas of Cape Horn.