To take her [The Wairoa - length 220 ft., breadth 32 ft., weight 1057 tons and thus slightly small than British Princess - length 246 ft., breadth 36 ft., weight 1480 tons] on her round voyage of 27,000 miles [from Akaroa, New Zealand to London] she was manned by a captain and crew of twenty-seven. There were three mates, the first of whom was known officially as ‘the mate,’ the second unofficially as ‘the greaser,’ while the third was sometimes described as ‘like the fifth wheel of a coach - neither use nor ornament.’
The captain, officially the master, behind his back was, young or old, the ‘Old Man’ or, alternatively, the ‘Skipper’ or ‘That old ——’ but was answered to his face with a salute and an “Aye, aye, sir.”
There were, speaking broadly, two types of master in British sailing ships. One was a splendid seaman but rough, uncouth and almost illiterate, so that you marvelled at the dogged perseverance he must have had to pass even the comparatively easy examinations of the eighties. He knew nothing outside of his profession, and generally addressed his officers as “Mister” and his men as “Hi, you.” He gravitated mainly to the rougher trades and slower ships of second-rate lines.
The other type, intelligent, educated and generally a gentleman, was found, with some exceptions, as master in Green's, Money Wigram's, the New Zealand Shipping Co., Devitt & Moore's and other such famous lines. He was a better navigator and generally quite as good a seaman as his rougher confrère.
It was only with the 1850 Merchant Shipping Act that any sort of examination system became compulsory. Existing ‘masters’ and ‘mates’ were not expected to undertake the Board of Trade tests, so many unqualified but not necessarily unskilled men continued in work, and indeed there were some who, as Worsley mentions, were illiterate. Their numbers dwindled through natural wasteage as the century wore on. The 1850 Act meant some masters were certificated for any type of vessel which included square rigged sailing ships. This was the most prestigeous, the ne plus ultra ‘Masters’ ticket. Lesser tickets enabled men to command steamers and some were limited to the command of fore and aft rigged vessels.
In sailing ships the watch-and-watch system prevailed - four hours on and four hours off - for the whole passage of 100 days or more, unvaried except for an occasional spell of three or four days without any watch below owing to heavy weather.
This was the British system. Other countries had other systems whose merits were compared with the British system and hotly debated by those on board. The British watch-and-watch system allowed for some variety by splitting the evening watch from 4 till 8 into two 2-hour watches, the ‘dog watches’. This meant that the watches kept varied each day.
The mate and the second mate took charge of the port and starboard watches respectively, the theory being that the starboard watch was the captain's but was delegated to the second mate in normal weather; practically he kept it always. From this came the time-honoured query of: “Why is the second mate the worst thief aboard?” The reply was: “Because he takes the captain's watch — and keeps it.”
The third mate kept watch with the mate. In fine weather he kept part of the mate's watch and relieved the poop (i.e. took charge) for meals. Through the tropics, the N.Z.S. Co. [New Zealand Shipping Co.] and other first-class lines, he took charge of the 8-12 watch, thereby breaking up the two-watch system into three watches and so forming a pleasant change for the officers in the middle of the passage.
As the third mate generally had his ‘ticket,’ meaning his second mate's certificate, the month or so that he took charge of a watch counted towards the necessary twelve months' sea-going time in charge of a watch before he could go up for his mate's certificate. The mate and second mate generally held the certificate of a grade higher than that in which they were serving.
Belonging to the afterguard, but living in the fore deck-house, were the three petty officers or ‘idlers,’ who had all night in, except in very heavy weather. The boatswain, or Tom Pipes, turned to with the other petty officers at 6 a.m. He carried on the work of the ship all day for the mate.
The carpenter, or ‘Chips,’ was generally a Scot, dour, proud of his work, and often religious. Unlike the rest of the crew he generally took his orders from the master. Much of his time was often taken up in making furniture for the latter's house or toys for his children, but if the ship's hull was damaged, spars lost, or she was dismasted, he became, for the time, the most important man on board.
The sailmaker, or ‘Sails,’ was a busy man, repairing sails blown away, repairing and overhauling the second-best or fine-weather suit of sails ready to bend in the tropics, and making a few new sails. In the Wairoa he had, including boat sails, eighty sails to look after, thirty of which were set at once when the wind and weather were favourable. The rest were in the sail locker awaiting their turn. Sometimes when Sails had a spare hour or two he made a sea-bag for the master or the mate. In the six sailing ships in which I have served and all the the other merchant vessels, I have never been shipmates with a foreigner for captain, officer, apprentice, or petty officer except one, a German sailmaker. Incidentally, he was a very good man at his work.
Next in importance - in their own estimation - came the apprentices or boys, called midshipmen ashore, and young beggars - or something like it - at sea. The Wairoa, like the other ships in the Company, carried four New Zealand ‘gentlemen rope-haulers’ or budding officers, who lived in the half-deck. They were apprenticed to the Company for a term of four or five years, according to their age. A premium of £50 was paid, which the apprentice received back - £6 the first year, £8, £12, £18 and £25 for the second, third, fourth and fifth years. I was, therefore, earning my living for the first year at the princely rate of ten bob a month and found; but as the third mate and the A.B.s only got £3 a month, I could not complain. The Company paid for our washing, one suit of uniform and one pair of seaboots a year.
The various masters under whom we served were supposed to teach us navigation. Some did, some did not. At the end of the four years we were entitled to be examined for navigation and seamanship by the Board of Trade and if found competent were granted a second mate's certificate of competency to serve in that grade in any British merchant ship, sail, steam or motor. This was the proud ‘square-rigged ticket.’ A man could not go up for this exam. who had not served four years, on deck, in deep-sea square-rigged ships, barques, barquentines, brigs or brigantines. Coasting ships would not do, deep-sea fore-and-afters would not do, and as for steamers - pooh! If a man going up for this examination passed in his navigation but failed in his seamanship, he could, if he so desired, apply for the lower grade of a second mate's steam certificate, which would be granted to him if his seamanship passed this easier test. This is still the law. [writing ca. 1938]
When one of their apprentices obtained his second mate ticket, it was understood that the Company would promote him to third mate of one of their ships, junior officer of one of their mail-boats, or, if there was no vacancy, obtain him a third mate's berth in some other Company. Failing any of these, he could take a temporary berth as A.B. until a vacancy for an officer occurred. The N.Z.S. Co. turned a lenient eye on the wildness of their apprentices, [oh boy! did they need to. ] but once they were promoted to be officers they had to mind their steps.
The foremast hands lived under the forecastle head - the starboard and port watches in the starboard and port forecastles. One wall of each forecastle was the curved steel side of the bows, the other the wooden bulkhead that divided each forecastle from the central space allotted to the windlass, the men's oilskins and the entrance to the forepeak below, where coals and stores were kept. Down both sides of each forecastle ran double tiers of bunks. The smartest of the shellbacks, whales or turtles, as the A.B.s nicknamed themselves, occupied the upper bunks. Our shellbacks were, like those of most British ships, a motley crew. Half were English, Scots and Irish, and the remainder Norwegian, with the exception of one Swede and one 'Portugee.'
Other crews that I have sailed with have comprised about 40 per cent foreigners. This included many Norwegians, several Finns and Danes, a few Frenchmen and Portuguese, an occasional nigger, German, Italian, Spaniard, Pole or Hollander, an accidental Nova Scotian, Newfoundlander, and a Yank or two. Whitewashed Yanks (Europeans who had served a voyage in American ships or spent a short period in the States) were numerous. At first they tried to swank and would talk in overdone nasal accents about “Gordam limejuicers,” until they found that this type of conversation was dangerous.
Fo'c'sle hands' names for the strangers within their doors were as follows: North of Europe, including Germany, Dutchmen or squareheads, but Scandinavians were often Skandihoovians, Scouwegians or Skandiwegians; Russians were Rooshians; Frenchmen, Froggies or Johnny Crapauds; the rest of the Latin races were Dagoes, except the Portuguee. Nova Scotians were Blue Noses, Yankees were Yanks or Down Easters, all coloured men were Niggers, Coolies or Kanakas, while yellow men were Chinks or Japs.