Sailmaker on Board

If you had asked me, “When did the Age of Sail end?” I would have thought about it a while, guessing that since steamboats were invented about 1803, sailing ships must have been completely gone about 1870.  But I would have been very far wrong.

I came across a book from 1956, called The Last Grain Race: Around the Horn in a Four-Master in the Last Days of the Age of Sail.  Show me the person who could resist that title.  I couldn’t.

Eric Newby of London was a young man who couldn’t stand his pointless office job in 1938, and decided to follow the advice of an elderly neighbor and seek adventure at sea.  He ended up on a four-masted steel-hulled barque called Moshulu, part of “the largest fleet of square-rigged deep-water sailing vessels in the world,” owned by a Swedish captain named Gustav Erikson. 

Newby’s gift of description made this an amazing read.  He takes a miserable event like climbing frozen rigging while being shouted at in (to him) incomprehensible Swedish; and serves it up with lots of sensory detail, enough exposition to clarify events to any land lubber, and a twist of typical understated British humor. 

Here is Moshulu’s picture so you can see how far up he has to climb the rigging, the very first day he comes aboard the ship:

The ship Moshulu. By (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

What I saw was very impressive and disagreeable… I was right out at the starboard yardarm, 160 feet above the sheds in which Moshulu’s 62,000 sacks of grain were being unloaded.  The rooftops of these sheds were glass and I remember wondering what would happen if I fell.  Would I avoid being cut to pieces by the maze of wires below, or miss them and make either a large expensive crater in the roof or a smaller one shaped like me?

There were two or three very rotten ratlines seized across the royal backstays.  The lowest broke under my weight so I used the backstays alone to climb up… Above this was nothing.  Only six feet to the truck.  I was past caring whether I fell or not.

I embraced the royal mast and shinned up…I stretched out my arm and grasped the round hardwood cap 198 feet above the keep and was surprised to find it was not loose or full of chocolate creams as a prize.  Now the bloody man below me was telling me to sit on it, but I ignored him.  I could not think of one emergency that would make that necessary.  So I slid down to the royal halliard and to the yard again.

Location 511 in the e-book version

Here is his summary of how these sailing ships managed to hang on in the era of steamships:

There were still in 1938 thirteen vessels entirely propelled by sail, engage in carrying grain from South Australia to Europe by way of Cape Horn.  There were other cargoes for these ships; timber from Finland to East Africa, guano… from Mauritius and the Seychelles to New Zealand…But for the most part the outward voyages from Europe to South Australia round the Cape of Good Hope and across the Southern Indian Ocean were ballast passages.  Grain was the staple cargo.

Grain was not dependent on season, neither was it perishable.  In the primitive ports of the Spencer Gulf, were the grain was brought down from the back blocks in sacks, steamers found it difficult to load a cargo in an economical time…But a sailing ship run with utmost economy and a low-paid crew could still in 1938 take six weeks to load her cargo of 4,000 tons of grain, reach Falmouth or Queenstown for orders after 120 days passage and still make a profit on a round voyage of about 30,000 miles, the outward 15,000 have been made in ballast.

Location 298

And finally, after all the sea and ship history books I have been reading that had no mention at all of sails, I was grateful for Newby’s detailed description of sailmaking.  I will just give a small excerpt, and then if you are a person as fascinated with this process as I am, you will know where to go for more details:

As I entered the sail loft I had an impression of a solid chunky man with spectacles set on a rather snub nose and a face covered with grey stubble.  He was sitting in his shirt sleeves reading The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

‘I’ll tell you something about square sails.  First, they’re not square at all, they’re four-sided and square at the head but the foot’s cut on an arc…Most people seem to think that a sail’s cut in one piece.  A sail’s cut cloth by cloth…

‘That’s the material over there.’  He pointed his pipe at a heavy bolt of canvas.  ‘Webster’s 24″ Standard Flax Canvas from Arbroath.  The finest stuff in the world and expensive.’

‘How much would it cost to make a complete new set for the ship?’

‘About £2,500….’∗

‘I said that a sail is cut cloth by cloth and before I start the actual cutting I have to calculate the number of cloths the width requires, allowing for seams, tabling on the leeches and slack.  The leeches are the perpendicular edges, and you have to allow some slack when sewing on the bolt ropes, otherwise when the bolt rope stretches in wear, the sail might split.’

‘What is tabling?’

‘Tabling is a broad hem made on the skirt of the sail by turning the edge and sewing it down.  It strengthens the sail for sewing on the bolt rope….In the depth I’ve got to allow for tabling at the head and the foot.  There are gores in a sail too, they’re the angles cut at the ends of the cloth to increase the width or depth.  The canvas for the gores is cut on the cross, the longest gored side of one cloth makes the shortest side of the next.  After the first gore is cut the rest are cut by it.’

‘If you’re interested,’ went on the Sailmaker, ‘I’ll tell you something about sail-making.  This is my sail-loft.’ He waved his hand to indicate the austere and cramped quarters in which he worked.  ‘And these are my tools: palm and needles, a sail-hook.’  He held up a small iron hook with a cord spiced to an eye in the shank.  ‘Used for holding still the work.  Marline-spikes for opening rope strands when I splice.  A wooden fid for the same purpose.  A pinker, like a marline-spike but straight, and a heaving mallet.’  This was a hammer with a small cylindrical head used as a lever to haul tight the cross-stitches when sewing the bolt ropes on the sail.

Eric Newby took hundreds of photos during his voyage, and some of them are in the book. This is not one of them, but it is similar to his. By Australian National Maritime Museum on The Commons [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

Next morning, in spite of consultations between the Mates and the Sailmaker the utmost confusion prevailed.  For winter in the North Atlantic we needed a complete suite of thirty-one storm sails.  Some of then were in the sail-loft but the rest were in the ‘tween-decks mixed up with tropical sails we would need later and old blown-out rags too rotten to mend.  None of the crew seemed to know which sails were wanted or where they were to be found.  The sails were three and four feet deep in the darkness and as heavy and intractable as lead.  The Mates flashed electric torches and groped for the lower leeches of the square sails on which were stencilled the name of the sail, together with the initials of the maker.  There were some very old sails amongst the newer ones. One or two, of American cotton, must have been made for her before she was laid up in Seattle after the 1927 voyage to Melbourne; others were out of a well-known ship, the Star of England.  There was also a mainsail with reef-points in it from Herzogin Cecilie, which must have been made before 1921 when she was passed to the Finns, and was probably made long before 1914…. Some sails were marked in Swedish, some in English, other in German and, as each sailmaker had his own system of marking, the Mates tied themselves in tri-lingual knots.

After about half an hour of sweating and swearing, they sent for the Sailmaker… Very soon we were heaving the chosen sails on deck: long, sausage-shaped bundles which cut into our shoulders as we tottered along the flying bridge with them.

Location 965

Here is a sail of the Herzogin Cecilie (mentioned in the paragraphs above) being repaired in 1928. By National Maritime Museum from Greenwich, United Kingdom [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

Newby explains in the introduction, that there were usually 28 sails used, the largest of which weighed a ton and a half, and that they had to change out the whole set whenever entering or leaving the Trade Winds, four times on a round-the-world voyage.  Her sail area was about 45,000 square feet.

Moshulu is still with us!  She is serving as a restaurant at Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia, and she appeared in the movies Rocky and Godfather Part II!  And at least one other of the ships that sailed in the Grain Race with Moshulu is still in existence.  It is the Pommern, currently undergoing renovation at its home at the Ålands Maritime Museum in Mariehamm, Åland, Finland.

∗£2500 would have been about $3345; a dollar in 1938 was worth about $17 in 2016; so that gives us a price of about $57,000, which really doesn’t seem like near enough.  However, Newby had to pay £50 as a premium to be bound as an apprentice, and only received 10 shillings, or half a pound, a month as wages.