About That Towed Ship . . .

Donald Tunnicliff Rice

"Coming out beyond the Cork was one of the last of the old sailing ships, a four-masted barque,
being towed out clear of the shoals before setting sail for the Baltic.

"'In ballast,' said Daddy. 'See how high she is out of the water. She'll have left her grain at Ipswich.
She'll have come around the Horn from Australia, and now she's going home.'"

For me, and I'm sure for many other Tars, those two short paragraphs in WDMTGTS spoke volumes – and the volumes were written by Alan Villiers. If you haven't already read this well-known Australian's Grain Race Trilogy, I envy you because you have a special treat to look forward to.*

The earliest of the three books, published in 1929, is entitled Falmouth for Orders: The Story of the Last Clipper Ship Race around Cape Horn and has since been reprinted. In the book, published when he was still a relative lad of 26, Villiers documents the 1928 voyage of the Herzogin Cecilie from Port Lincoln in South Australia to Falmouth. It was a 96-day undermanned journey of some 14,000 miles, battling gales, being becalmed, and getting lost in fog. More than a journey, it was a race with the British ship, Beatrice – a race the Herzogin Cecilie won. Winning a grain race was more a matter of gaining prestige than anything else, there being no economic advantage unless you'd placed a wager on the outcome. The cargo was usually wheat, but it might also have been barley for distilleries in Scotland. Villiers spared no details in his retelling of the voyage. How he acquired so much knowledge at such an early age I can't even guess, but the book is packed with an enormous amount of information about the sea and sailing ships. One of the many incidents he relates was reported in newspapers around the world – the discovery of a stowaway. What's so newsworthy about a stowaway, you may ask. Well, the stowaway was Jennie Day, a 22-year-old woman – referred to alternatively in the press as a "girl" and a "brunette" in those benighted times. You can still buy a photo of her online.

Villiers shares the credits for the second book in the trilogy, By Way of Cape Horn (1930), with his friend, Ronald Walker. They signed on with the Grace Harwar to film what life was like aboard one of the last of the old full-rigged ships, hoping to capture "something of the glory of their wanderings and the courage of their battles with the sea." It was a good idea, but the Grace Harwar was a poorly maintained ship. The journey was a horror, and Walker was killed by a falling yard. There were other mishaps as well, but the book remains a readable and important addition to 20th-century deep sea literature.

The third installment in the trilogy, Voyage of the Parma: The Great Grain Race of 1932 from Australia to Falmouth by Way of Cape Horn (US title: The Great Grain Race) was written, according to Villiers, to complete the picture he "set out to give of the graceful wind ships before the last of them departed." You might think there would have been little left to say on the subject of carrying grain, but you'd be wrong. His ship this time, the 4-masted barque, Parma, made the Australia-Falmouth journey in just 83 days, the fastest ever to be achieved on that route by a sailing vessel.

It would have been a nice coincidence indeed if this had been the ship seen by Commander Walker and his children, but it wasn't. As many will remember, it was the Pommern, which, like the Parma, was at one time part of the famous Flying P-Line. There's long been a controversy surrounding the Pommern's timeline vis-à-vis the ages of the Walker children. I'll stay out of that and mention only that today the ship, preserved in the same state as it would have appeared to the Walkers, is a floating museum in the port of Mariehamn in the Åland Islands.

Like AR, Villiers was a man of many parts, but in his case nearly all the parts had something to do with ships, even when he was ashore. He first went to sea when he was 15 and never really came back. As a youngster he learned quickly, yet he once wrote, "No man takes to the sea life naturally." As Able Seaman, ship-owner, training ship captain, and in many other capacities, he sailed the seven seas and circumnavigated the globe. Among his notable voyages was the 1957 crossing of the Mayflower II on which he served as captain. Always a competitor, he beat the original Mayflower's time by 13 days.

During WWII he served with valor during a number of exploits and was promoted to Commander, following which he was awarded the British DSC. Ashore he served as the Chairman of the Society for Nautical Research, as Trustee of the National Maritime Museum, and as Governor of the Cutty Sark Preservation Society. And all the while he was writing, writing, writing – 25 books in all along with many pieces for the National Geographic.

Did AR read any of Villiers's works, particularly the three books in the trilogy? I've found no such evidence, but it would hardly be a surprise if he had. I wondered, too, if Villiers was familiar with Ransome's works. Both authors' books are found again and again in the same catalogs and reading lists. I got in touch with Villiers' son, Peter, and put the question to him. He didn't think his father "ever met Arthur Ransome or was especially fond of his writings." This makes sense. After all, Villiers was an Aussie who reveled in sailing around the Horn in a gale. It's unlikely he'd get any special pleasure reading about some middle-class English kids messing about in boats on a big pond. Peter Villiers did note, though, that his mother enjoyed the S&A stories set in the Lake District.

In his mid-forties Alan Villiers wrote an autobiography, The Set of the Sails. He would live to be 79, however, and there were still many years and many adventures to account for. I suppose you could consider his entire oeuvre a good summation of his life, but that's a lot of reading, and he didn't always tell everything about himself. Fortunately, in 2009 the National Maritime Museum published Kate Lance's biography, Alan Villiers: Voyager of the Winds. I haven't read it yet; it's one of those books I'm saving for exactly the right moment.

*If after reading Villiers's three books – or if you've already read them and are still thirsting for knowledge about carrying grain from Australia to Europe – you can turn for help to Eric Newby, the long-time travel writer for the Observer. In 1938 at age 18 Newby joined the crew of the 4-masted barque Moshulu and later used his considerable writing skills to describe the experience in his 1956 book, The Last Grain Race. Unlike Villiers, a career sailor who was also a writer, Newby was a writer first and, near as I can tell, a professional seaman on just this one voyage. His writing is more personal – and saltier – than Villiers's. Copies of the original are kind of pricey, but inexpensive paperback reprints abound on the Internet.

Originally published in Signals from TARSUS, January, 2013, and revised by the author

This article is ©2013 by Donald Tunnicliff Rice, and posted on All Things Ransome with permission.

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