This is the last chapter in a series of three. Back in the London Docks Peter recovers from his Wild Run. Having retired from the sea a year earlier, he manages to earn a living with the odd musical performance. But the sea keeps blowing his mind, in more ways than one…
Greenwich Pier, London, 1892.
A fence of jib booms blocks my view of the water as I admire one sleek clipper hull after another. Drugged by more or less exotic smells of fresh tea, paint, coal and greasy steam I jump away from a horse and cart, a steam whistle screams. I buy a copy of the Times, the headline reading:
Cutty Sark Docks First Again
I cannot read any further: what is going on there? A full-bearded gentleman in a top hat points at a clipper bow, surrounded by sailors who obviously have something to explain.
“…impossible! Have you any idea how much that is going to cost? You broke the record alright, but keep my ships in one piece, will you?”
Old White Hat John Willis, unmistakably. He is not amused because Cutty Sark’s figurehead is badly damaged. It occurred a year ago now, but apparently no-one dared to tell him just yet…
“Come on, Jock,” one of the sailors tries to bring him to reason, “I’ll take part in the cost. Just cut down on my premium.”
“Positive. Have it done properly.” The small group slowly spreads, Richard Woodget shakes his shipowner’s warm hand.
“Toby, you old salt! How are you?”
“Can’t complain: just got my wages!”
“Be careful, this is a posh pub!”
“Yeah, but you owe me one, remember?’
“Yeah I do. Well, what can I get you?”
“A Glenfiddich, what else!”
“Waiter! Two Glenfiddichs please, and have one yourself as well!” and with a “Weel done, Cutty Sark!” we put the bottoms up.
“Well,” Toby resumes, “getting along these days? Any ehm… girls in the offing?”
“Noh… just the odd penny for a song.” I am glad he doesn’t know anything about the latest “girl in the offing”…
“Earning something of a living, are you?”
“Not much, but I‘ll be okay.”
“Let’s hear it then! Rolling home…” he starts, I pick up the harmony right away, people stop and stare, smiling, humming along, someone takes up a violin, another one grabs his tin whistle, the whole pub resounds in the shanty, until.. an alto voice joins in the chorus which cannot possibly belong to any of the sailors present. My eyes roll, my baritone wanders way off-key, the crowded room is one big merry-go-round…
“What was that all about?” Toby asks when I wake up in Cutty Sark’s foc’sle, the dusk a blessing to my eyes. “Someone spoiled your drink, did they?”
“Don’t know…” I groan, almost confessing what happened. He goes on:
“Want of salty air, I’m telling you! Come on, sign back on outward bound!”
“Positive! Just look at me!” A friendly slap on my shoulder, before he returns to the deck.
Doldrums, Atlantic Ocean, 1893.
Our noon position reveals the smallest 24-hour run ever: 2 miles. Since dawn Woodget has been busy doing all sorts of obscure chores. When asked he smiles mysteriously while from his quarters, mainly the bathroom, a chemical mist emerges.
Eventually he shows up, carrying his latest purchase: a camera obscura. “Alright, listen up everyone!” he calls, “Back the main and clear the port boat, two men rowing!”
Toby catches my glance, he nods, and a moment later the oars squeak. The main is braced again. The ocean is like a mirror.
“Alright,” Woodget says, “three seconds’ exposure!” The camera is like a lighthouse, secured to a plank across the boat. In spite of the calm, keeping absolutely motionless for three seconds is quite an accomplishment, but Woodget looks satisfied when he pops up from under the black camera veil: “Got it! Full speed ahead!”
The smell from Woodget’s bathroom is almost unbearable when he develops the glass plate. But the result is astonishing. He proudly presents his fragile work of art. I look over Toby’s shoulder – and feel my heart skip a beat: on the photo negative – which will be printed when we dock – I spot a figure, sunbathing on the wheel case, clearly recognizable as Nannie’s wonderful body…
“Lee fore brace!” mate Selby wakes me up from my dreams: we have caught the North East Trades. At eight bells I release the helmsman, excitedly singing loudly along to the beautiful alto voice inside my head, unheard by anyone else on board:
Blow the wind southerly,
Blow, bonnie breeze,
My true love to me…
This story is based on historic facts. All the character’s names, except Peter, are not made up but represent actual crewmembers. The real figurehead was in fact lost in the storm and replaced by an inferior production. The skipper’s photographic camera as featured in part 3 is historic, too, the art of photography at the time being quite extraordinary at sea. The story contains autobiographic elements as well; the main character is deliberately named Peter. My musical hobby inspired me to mention the folk tune. Kathleen Ferrier was a famous British alto in the 1940’s and ’50’s who made a legendary recording of it (check out link below). I actually experienced the great feeling at the wheel of a three-master on board the Norwegian ship Sørlandet: to have a 60m, 70m-long full-rigger between your fingertips and feel her respond to every single helm movement while the sea rushes by and the wind makes the rigging lean over, is hard to describe properly, you should feel for yourself.
Listen to Blow the wind southerly sung by Kathleen Ferrier – or Nannie?