A merchant seaman was required to serve a minimum of four years at sea either as an apprentice or "before the mast" before being eligible to take the Board of Trade examination for 2nd Mate. By the turn of the twentieth century this was regarded as quite a difficult examination, and frequently necessitated two or three months cramming at a Navigation School in addition to study throughout the period of training. Cramming meant expenditure on tuition fees as well as loss of earnings during the time ashore under instruction. How much cramming depended on not just the ability of the seaman but also on the willingness and effectiveness of instruction he had received during his time at sea. Instruction at sea was very variable; from excellent to non-existent. After another year at sea in charge of a watch, a Second Mate was eligible to sit for Mate's Certificate. Again, extra coaching was often needed, so more fees, further loss of earnings. A further 1½ years qualifying time at sea in charge of a watch was required before being able to sit the Master Mariner's examination. According to Coombs, the pass rate in 1924 for Master's, 1st and 2nd Mate's was 44%.
After WW1 and the effective demise of sail, there were some European countries that continued to insist that officer training had either wholly or in part to be undertaken in sailing ships. This was not the case in Britain where both Royal and Merchant navies considered training in a steam ship to be sufficient but the point was much debated and much criticised at the time. Coomb's disapproval was palpable when he wrote The last few years has witnessed the influx of a large number of senior officers who have never served in sail. According to Villiers The British Admiralty was one of the first to abandon sail-training, and to declare that it had no place in modern scientific seamanship, yet during the war practically all boarding work connected with the blockade, one of the riskiest jobs in the whole struggle, was allotted to R.N.R. men who had been trained in sail...Unlike the British, the Germans and Scandinavians still insist that those of their countrymen who wish to take charge of ships at sea must have deep water sailing experience; and deep water sailing experience is very difficult to get. "Very difficult to get" because by the time Villiers was writing, 1927, there was a great scarcity of sailing ships. On the same theme; Practically every maritime nation recognises the value and the importance of training in sail. [apart from England!] Every German sailing ship is a training ship. The German Government is keen on its merchant service, and it insists that those who are to be its officers must be trained in sail. Nor is Germany alone in her awakening to the value of sail training.
Villiers goes on to enumerate the Danes who commissioned the five masted barque Köbenhavn from Ramage and Ferguson in Leith in 1921; Belgium had the five masted barque L'Avenir as a training ship; the Swedish government subsidised two sail training ships, the Beatrice and the C.B.Pedersen; the Russians bought the British ship the Lauriston and renamed her the Tovaristch as a training ship; the Japanese had the four masted barque the Taisei Maru as a cadet ship which sailed as far afield as Australia. Italy, France, Spain, Peru, Chile - all had sailing ships for their ‘boys’ whereas England had none. The ironic situation arose in WW1 where a number of German officers had trained in British sailing ships which ultimately proved of considerable advantage to the German Navy in general and Graf Felix von Luckner in particular. After the windjammer the Pass of Balmaha was captured and taken to Cuxhaven, Von Luckner, who had trained aboard Norwegian and British sailing ships, conceived of the idea of converting the vessel to a warship or ‘wolf’, which he renamed the See-Adler and continued to sail her disguised as a Norwegian ship, the sheep. After a number of extraordinary adventures, in 1917 the Pinmore was sighted off South America which von Luckner easily recognised having served aboard her in 1902 and carved his initials on her to prove it.
Although the Royal Navy abandoned its insistence on sail training for officers, they continued to use sailing ships for longer than might have been expected, certainly well beyond the advent of reliable and efficient steam propulsion. In ‘Round Cape Horn In Sail’ Captain Fred Ellis wrote of events in Chile 1891; The Esmeralda put to sea, followed shortly after by H.M.S. Acorn, a steel corvette. She was barque rigged, but also engined and they used both; for in those days they still believed in sail. In fact, sail died hard in the Royal Navy.
The general consensus seemed to be that training in sail was superior to steam as it was a tougher, more character-building experience which engendered courage, initiative, self reliance, pride of workmanship and a general spirit of adventure which is anathema to today's health-and-safety mentality that has the media and public bleating every time the life boats or mountain rescue are called out. Villiers, Ellis, Lubbock and all the other writers I have read who had actual first hand experience of sail training were unanimous in their view that it was the experience of a lifetime. Villiers wrote; What an experience for a boy a voyage like that would be! [Europe to the Far East in about 1904.] At that time the sailer still was a frequent sight in San Francisco harbour - not the fore-and-after of the American type, but the tall Cape Horner of masts and spars, deep laden out with coal and in with wheat - and some very good voyages are recorded for this long passage, 16,000 miles around the Horn, across the line twice, and through four Trade-winds. It was a passage to try out any ship; yet they did it, barques, ships, four-masted-barques, generally in the same time that an Australian sailing-ship voyage is made to-day - about four months each way.
Unsurprisingly it was pre-eminently an adventure for the comparatively young. Fifteen or sixteen was old enough to go to sea and a keen lad willing to learn could get his masters ticket by the time he was twenty-five. There were old salts of over sixty but the mere fact of their presence and age was usually remarked upon as somewhat unusual. Even though crews were seemingly very young and often with no previous experience, they were none the less efficient for all that. As Villiers wrote after comparing notes with the apprentices aboard the Swedish training ship C.B. Pedersen; We weren't at all surprised when they informed us casually that when the ship left Liverpool with her cargo of rock salt for Sydney some nine months before, the only member of her fo'c'sle who had ever been in a sailing ship before was the nineteen-year-old sail maker.
For more on training see ‘Last of the Wind Jammers’ by Basil LUBBOCK [2nd ed. 1935] vol 2 p. 316 et seq.