Saturday, July 31, 2010

Book Review: The Last Grain Race

This is such a classic tale that it is hard to know what to say about it without repeating it word for word.

The book tells the true story of how Eric Newby signed on to the four masted barque the Moshulu on the traditional trading route from Belfast in Northern Ireland to Port Victoria in Australia. Here they load with grain and join a small but select fleet of tall ships racing back to Britain.

It was to be the last ever such race, for they arrived back in June 1939 just weeks before war started, and the world was never the same. Never again did these great ships sail the trade winds across the wild seas of the southern ocean.

One thing was certain: it was a very hard life, and very badly paid. If (say) a bucket was dropped overboard it would come out of the sailors wage, which were pretty meagre. An apprentice like Newby was on just 10 shillings a month, and out of that he had to pay for a lost hammer and cigarettes bought on-board.

The food sounded awful, the bed bugs huge and hungry, the company rough to the point of aggressive, the watches relentless, the rigging dangerously high, the work backbreaking, and the boats riding potentially lethal storms without any insurance.

But it was a moment in history, the last in the line of oceanic voyages by sail that goes back through the history of Dampier and Hawkins, an era that has come and gone.

Ironically I read recently that in order to cut costs and CO2 emissions, shipping lines are reducing their speeds until they are less than the average that Moshulu and her sister's achieved on their last great race.

As to who won that last ever race? Well if you've read the book you'll know and if you haven't I won't spoil it for you. For The Last Grain Race is one of the classics of sailing history.


O Docker said...

Some shipping lines have apparently mothballed their fastest ships because it's no longer profitable to run them.

The first steamships often carried some sail in case of mechanical trouble or just to help the weak engines.

I wonder how far away we are from seeing 'hybrid' ships again.

Pat said...

There has been talk of using para-sails to help propel ships.

A source of the brutality and danger of the iron tall ships in the interwar era was short staffing. Owners cut crew numbers to the bone and beyond to try to make some profit from the grain haulers. The ships were big but had little mechanization.

JP said...

There should be potential to do modern design tall ships which through mechanization can sail safely with small crews.

With fuel prices heading up and CO2 emissions to consider this must be a good idea