Maintenance at sea

Windjammers, like Moshulu, would spend several years abroad before returning to their homeport for an overhaul on slip. Crew maintained the ships whenever the chance arose, usually when in port or in calm weather when fewer hands were needed to sail. The sailors were kept busy for days on end, chipping and painting the vast iron hulls, taring the rigging to protect it from weather, scrubbing the decks and caulking hatches to seal them for the voyage.

Two crew members on Parma sitting aft on the starboard side of the poop, renewing the caulking or a small area of decking.

Eric Newby gained first-hand experience of the difficulties chipping rust and painting the outside of the Windjammer Moshulu’s hull with red lead before leaving port. Grabbing his hammer and paint pot Newby inspected the platform he was to work from, a plank suspended by two ropes belayed (tied) on deck. He noted, “I do not think it was by chance that the platform I inherited was in the most difficult position right over the bows, about two feet above the water.”

A system of ropes used to lower and shift the platform sideways got the better of the inexperienced Newby, who released a clove hitch that was holding his platform in place and he swung sideways into his neighbour, Sedelquist. Newby dropped his hammer into the dirty water of Belfast harbour and spilt red paint over Seldequist’s overalls. The infuriated Seldequist sent for the mate, who called down to Newby, “Jesus, because you are English you think you can lose my hammers. I’ll take it off your pay”.

Later that day, dinner was called and the agile, experienced Sedelquist left Newby behind, where he struggled with the ropes until he eventually swung a foot into a hawsepipe and clambered over the rail, well after dinner was over.

The Pre-teen Crews of the Windjammers


At thirteen, many of us would have been looking for a bit of freedom from our parents, and perhaps a little adventure. Taking off on a bike for most of the day with little or no forewarning, school camping trips or travelling alone on an interstate bus to visit friends or family are common experiences of early teenage independence. How about rounding Cape Horn in a square-rigger? Probably not, although apparently, no one mentioned this to Alan Rogerson who sailed in the Pamir at the age of thirteen, or ‘Moses’ who sailed on the 1932 voyage of Parma.

Alan Rogerson, Frank Gardiner and Stanley Bliss on the ‘Pamir’, 1949

Allan Villiers who owned a share in the Parma described Moses as very childlike with an unbroken voice. He claimed to be 15 and was suspected of being 12. Villiers later learned there was more to Moses than his innocent appearance suggested, he had been to sea before with German smugglers. Moses and his Baltic shipmates were apprehended by the Swedish coast guard and imprisoned.

Rogerson and Moses were among the youngest to sail Windjammers although most ships sailed with boy apprentices somewhere between 15 and 17. Aged 17, David Davy’s parents gave him a letter of permission to sail on Viking in 1948, a requirement for South Australian’s under the age of 21.

David Davy’s permission form from his parents

As the youngest and least experienced crew, apprentices did the most menial and least desirable jobs on the ship. Of course, they were learning to be seafarers too and had to learn the names of all the yards, sails and ropes used to sail the ship. Apprentices would climb the rigging shadowing more experienced sailors, carrying their gear.

Generally, windjammer crews were very young with most of the crew aged about 18 years. The mates and captains were older, usually about 30 – 40 years old. Young Alanders and Australians joined windjammers to gain experience in sail. The Aland Government required time in a large sailing ship before a sailor could qualify for a master’s certificate. Many of the young South Australian’s including Rogerson and Davy went on to have a career at sea in steam or the coastal ketch trade.

The infamous ‘Crossing the Line’ ceremony

Approaching the equator, windjammer crews could look forward to a short break in the endless cycle of work. Sailors who had never ‘crossed the line’ before— called ‘Greenhorns’ or ‘Polliwogs’— were hauled before King Neptune and his court; his wife Aphrodite, a Judge, Doctor, Barber, and guards, all played by the more experienced crew.

Costumes and props added to the spectacle, Jocelyn Palmer, travelling on Viking in 1947 recalled preparations for the ceremony.

I had a two-piece bathing suit, it was before the time of bikinis, but it was a two-piece, and I leant that to the man who was going to play Queen Neptune. He was very glamorous; he had nice long golden hair, a trident and a crown on his head. He wore the top part of my swimsuit and a skirt.

The Polliwogs were tried for their ‘crimes’ and sentenced — lathered in messy concoctions of tar paint, or grease. The doctor gave them medicine; on Moshulu in 1936 Howard peacock was given ‘a concoction of pepper vinegar and mustard’, for others it was a large ball of tar with ‘god knows what in it’.

Initiates sailing on Pamir in 1949 were handed binoculars made from two bottles with a line taped across the bottom. Keith McCoy and the other polliwogs looking through the bottles soon realised the joke; the bottles were full of saltwater and when upended they got an eye full!

Lathered in soap the barber shaved them, with a novelty cut-throat razor and large shears. Finally, they were dunked in a bath of seawater, christened and accepted into King Neptune’s realm, as ‘Shellbacks’. The initiates received certificates, sometimes with their new name.

Usually, the day ended with a riotous party, given a helping hand with rare treats of alcohol and fresh food.

Near misses and tragic losses – sailing the last commercial wind ships


Built to carry bulk cargo across oceans, windjammers were able to weather all but the most ferocious of storms. The enormous iron and steel ships reveled in strong winds, carrying them to their destination all the faster. Windjammers were not immune to the perils of the seas – age, design flaws and sometimes mistakes made under pressure in treacherous conditions, would lead to disaster.

In 1932, Hougomont was dismasted in a storm 950 kilometres south of Cape Borda, South Australia. A passing steam ship telegraphed to Adelaide and alerted the authorities to the ships distress. Captain Ragnar Lindholm, and his crew had set to work removing the enormous masts and building a makeshift rig and by the time the tug Wato reached them they were sailing slowly toward Port Adelaide. Captain Lindhom refused the offer of a tow because he did not want to pay salvage fees. No doubt, his thriftiness was appreciated by his employer Gustaf Erikson who was renowned for saving money wherever he could. After 19 days of slow sailing, they reached the anchorage at Semaphore. The ship was stripped of any useful fitting and the hull was towed to Stenhouse Bay where it was scuttled as a breakwater. The wheel from the helm is on display in the SA Maritime Museum and the figurehead, a lady dressed in a white gown, is displayed in Åland Maritime Museum in Mariehamn.

The sailors on board the Dutch sail training ship the København, were not so lucky. Known as the “Big Dane”, it was the largest sailing ship in the world when launched in 1921 and was used to train cadet sailors. The five-masted barque made several successful voyages including two circumnavigations. In 1926, the crew and young cadets visited Port Germein touring nearby farms and welcoming locals on board the ship. Tragically, two years later all 75 crew were lost in the Southern Atlantic without a trace. For several years afterwards, there were sightings of a mysterious five-masted ship and fragments of evidence including a piece of stern board bearing the name København slowly came to light. It was thought the ship had either struck an iceberg in the night or perhaps, capsized in a storm rendering lifeboats useless.

A ship of great renown Herzogin Cecilie also met a disastrous fate although tragedy was averted. ‘The Duchess’, as the ship was known, was one of the fastest windjammers ever built, logging 21 knots at Skagen, Denmark. It was the pride of the Erikson fleet, winning the Great Grain Race from South Australia to Europe more than any other ship. The final passage of 86 days was the second-fastest ever. The crew celebrated after reaching Falmouth and the young captain Sven Eriksson, fatefully chose to sail for Ipswich, through the foggy night. The Duchess ran aground on Ham Stone Rock, Devon. Pamela Eriksson, who had sailed with her new husband, spearheaded a fundraising campaign to save the ship, although ultimately it was never salvaged.

Herzogin Cecilie at what would become its final resting place


Sea Shanties on the High Seas

On Sunday 23 February 1936 Harry Andrewartha wrote in his diary “The weather today is fine and we have the gramophone out on the deck and we are all having a fine old time.” There were few records and the same tunes played on repeat. Harry sailed with his accordion and visited the starboard forecastle, where most of the Swedish speaking crew were accommodated, for a singsong.

Walter King, Royden Jenkins and John Cawley enjoying some music on the Pamir.

His shipmate Howard Peacock fondly remembered sailing through the night hearing “the gay accordion music … accompanied by a lone violin and lusty singing voices in a variety of languages.” According to Howard, “One young Aland Islander was surprised to know that we also knew ‘Old faithful’. He thought it was a Swedish song ‘Gamla Svartan’ (Old Black).”

Howard Peacock

‘Lili Marlene’, a German song made famous during the Second World War, was a favourite among Passat’s crew sailing from Port Victoria, South Australia to Falmouth, United Kingdom in 1948-9. Each time he heard ‘Lili Marlene’ in the years that followed, South Australian Maurice Corigliano, was reminded of a summer’s night with the crew on Passat’s deck singing in their own language.

Singalongs were one of the most popular ways for windjammer crews to pass the time, socialise and raise their spirits.

Rounding Cape Horn in a Windjammer


The Cape Horn passage, at the southern tip of South America is renowned for frigid weather and monstrous seas. Unimpeded by large landmasses, winds at Cape Horn reached gale force and 15-metre waves loomed above 100-metre long windjammers – the largest commercial sailing ships ever built.  They carried South Australian grain to Europe.

Lookouts were doubled to warn of the threat of icebergs, safety nets were rigged around the deck and lifelines used. Helmsmen, wrestling with the ships wheels were lashed to the poop deck so waves crashing across the stern would not wash them overboard.

Sailing toward Cape Horn on Moshulu in 1936, Harry Andrewartha wrote in his diary that he had been wet for 48 hours and that water sloshed around the forecastle (crews quarters). Harry was swept off his feet by a wave and was lucky to escape with only a sprained ankle.


Sailors larking aloft. Photo by Harry Andrewartha


The young journalist Ronald Gregory Walker, sailing on the Grace Harwar in 1929, was not so lucky. He was struck by a falling yard, while freeing sails frozen in place and died instantly. His companion, Alan Villiers wrote about the lasting effects on the crew, especially the second mate, who felt responsible for Walkers death and was driven mad by the guilt.

Despite the hardships, Australian recruits nostalgically recalled their time under sail, forming the Australian Cape Horner’s association in 1959. A Cape Horner is a sailor who has rounded Cape Horn in a sailing vessel. Cape Horners were divided into three ranks: those who had captained a sailing vessel were ‘Albatrosses’, those who served on a sailing ship and later captained a motor vessel were ‘Mollyhawks’, while cooks, stewards and passengers were ‘Cape Pigeons’.


The windjammer ‘Garthsnaid’ off of Cape Horn. Image courtesy of State Library of Queensland.