Many Norwegians and other ‘Dutchmen’ were nattier workers, better fair-weather sailors, more sober and tractable men, especially on sailing-day, than the British. But when it came to a heavy gale in a short-handed ship, to imminent danger, to a time when a man with guts was needed, then the British Merchant Service Jack stepped forward. With a foul and unnecessary oath or two he rudely shouldered the foreigner into the background and took the brunt of the work and danger on himself.
After the storm the hardy Briton retained his supremacy by reason of his superiority at growling, an art which he leavened, however, with humour. At drinking, in spite of his boasting, he was not superior to the foreigner. Few of the sailing-ship men could carry a full load of liquor. The British seaman was generally fairly good with his fists. His science was defective, but he could take any amount of punishment. This was often the undoing of a foreigner who had a smattering of science. He would sail into the Britisher, paste him right and left and generally knock seven bells out of him. Then when he was feeling a bit tired after walloping the Britisher, the latter would, most inconsiderately, make a fresh start, refuse to consider himself beaten, repay the foreigner with interest, and compel him to haul down his colours.
Worsley was not at all averse to ‘having a go’. He had at least two fights aboard the Wairoa which were mere warm-ups for what was to come once the ship docked in London. The bulk of the ships' companies dispersed on arrival but the 50-60 apprentices, being still bound to the N.Z.S.Co., were housed in the Company's hostel in Burdett Road whence they sallied forth to take on board liquor in anaesthetic quantities before engaging, en masse, in pitched battles with the Cockney natives. When lacking in native foes the apprentices resorted to internecine wars, ‘North’ Islanders being ranged against ‘South’ Islanders. One such battle resulted in the hostel being so comprehensively trashed that they were summarily expellled and threatened with prison! This did nothing to dampen their high spirits but if you want to know more you must read the book!
All the ship's complement so far described served on deck. The remainder, an utterly inferior race, served below. They consisted, in the Wairoa, of the steward, or belly-burglar or peapot jerker, and the cook, ‘Doctor’ or Slushy.
The former lived in a cabin aft, was in charge of the lazarette store and all provisions, and kept the saloon clean. He was always spoken of contemptuously by the hands and abused to his face or toadied to, according to his meanness and the amount of protection accorded to him by the Old Man.
‘Doctor’ lived in the forward deck-house, spoiled the food, boiled the coffee, stewed the tea, and would have played hell with our insides but they were ‘cast-iron.’ Sometimes he redeemed his reputation by baking eatable ‘rooty’ (bread) [Anglo-Indian, from Hindustani for bread, roti] and passable duff, so that in spite of all he was wheedled by the crew, for with seamen, duff, like charity, covers a multitude of sins. If his grub was not actually burned, or raw, he was generally allowed to blame “That bloody stooard.” Sometimes his cooking was so abominable that even that excuse was denied him. I remember how in one ship the crew revenged themselves by using the wretched inefficient cook's boots for a foul purpose that accorded well with a short chanty that seamen often sang about the cook. On the other hand, if he could make a really good plum duff, and pinched herbs and ‘manavilins’ from the steward to make tasty pea soup, he was adored by the crew, various of whom would light his fire and arrange that he was called at five instead of four-thirty in the morning watch.
It is notable that with seventeen sailing ships running round the world for thirty years, and having sailed twelve million miles, only one of the N Z.S. Co's ships, the Waitara, was ever lost by collision, and none by shipwreck or mishap.
This must have been a pretty exceptional record. In ‘Sail. The Romance of the Clipper Ships’ by Lubbock and Spurling [3 vols 1972] the histories of 89 of the finest ships of Dum's and Worsley's day are given. Of these 39 can be considered to have died of old age; 16 were lost with all hands; 17 were wrecked; 2 were sunk in collisions; 5 caught fire; 5 were sunk by the enemy in WW 1; 4 were simply abandonned at sea; and 1 still exists - the Cutty Sark. Although she caught fire on 21st May 2007 she did not sink! Some ships had more than one life. To take one at random in 1901 the Loch Vennachar was sunk in 40 ft of water in the Thames but all hands including the ship's cat and a parrot were saved. She was later salvaged and repaired at a cost of £17,000 and recommissioned and finally lost with all hands in 1905 bound for Adelaide.
In British ships boys were almost always kindly treated by the crew. In foreign ships, particularly German and Swedish, cruelty to boys was common. Our crew were kind to me because I was so small. I became very friendly with Linklater and Collins, the two biggest A.B.s in the Wairoa. Linklater was a lean young Orkney Islander. He was a six-foot-two Viking, good-looking and intelligent, with a dry quizzical expression. [Clearly a close relation.] On our arrival in London he passed for second mate and soon won his way up to command.
Almost every night watch before I fell asleep I still wetted my pillow with tears for home and loved ones. I was desperately ashamed of this, and it was not till years after that I found that many of our youngsters had been afflicted in the same way. I think Stringy [Stringer, the senior apprentice with whom he shared a cabin] suspected it; at any rate, he acted like a father to me. At the end of every watch of darkness, which in January in the Southern Ocean was only at midnight, the watch coming on deck was mustered by their own officer. I, like most lads of fifteen, found it almost impossible to waken in the dead of night. Stringy was too soft-hearted to pick me out of my bunk and seat me on the cold wet deck, as he might have done. One night I suddenly came to temporary consciousness through being pinched by Stringy, in whose arms I was held on the quarter-deck - the seas rushing round his seaboots. As I gazed dreamily up at the storm-wrack driving across the moon I heard Stringy hiss in my ear: “Say sir.” “Sir,” I squeaked obediently. A chuckle came from the second mate on the poop and I heard the watch burst into laughter, but not cease; for, oblivious of the wind whistling round my half-naked body, I was again slumbering peacefully. Stringy had not the heart to dress and take me on deck that night, so he restowed me in my bunk and kept my two hours' watch on the leeside of the poop, in addition to his own.
The greatest hardship of a youngster's first voyage in sailing ships under watch-and-watch system was having to turn out every damned four hours of the twenty-four for 90 to 120 days according to the length of the passage. At night the longest sleep was about three and three-quarter hours - after being relieved from the deck, four minutes; undressing, four seconds; turning-in, half a second; falling asleep, half a second, until awakened five minutes before going on deck by five minutes of shouts, yells and pommelling. The remaining 5 minutes were occupied in painfully dragging on clothes and preparing for rough weather on deck. The only breaks in the monotony of four hours on deck, four hours below, for what seemed an eternity, were provided by pamperos, southerly busters or any sudden violent gale. Then all hands might have to labour on deck in heavy seas and aloft in hail and snow for anything from 12 to l00 hours on end to save the ship and their lives.
I well remember the agony of being dragged, watch after watch, night after night, from dead sleep in my bunk. How I hated everyone who called me, the captain, officers, ship, routine and even the sea. Once, when they had succeeded in bringing me to life six minutes before midnight, I lay in my bunk and prayed that a sea would sweep all hands overboard and leave me to slumber peacefully until the ship foundered.