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If There Were Two Ships, It Was a Race
Alan Villiers
July 20, 1964
It seems doubtful that any man alive today knows more about square-rigged sailing ships than Alan Villiers, a single-minded sailor man who has loved windjammers, thought about them, written about them and sailed in them since he was a boy of 16. Villiers, who arrives in New York Harbor this week as guest of honor aboard the Portuguese school ship Sagres, began his sailing career as an apprentice seaman aboard an Australian windjammer in 1919. With the exception of three years spent on the beach as a reporter in Tasmania, he has been following the sea pretty steadily ever since. In the early 1920s Villiers sailed to Antarctica with Carl Anton Larsen's first Ross Sea Expedition. In 1931, in company with Finnish Captain Ruben de Cloux, he bought a four-masted bark of his own. Together they had established what came to be known as the Australian Grain Race. As a commander in the British navy in World War II, Villiers won a D.S.M. for conspicuous gallantry during the Normandy invasion. He has sailed Arab dhows in the Persian Gulf and Portuguese schooners in the Arctic. Seven years ago, as part of a transatlantic goodwill gesture, he sailed a replica of the Pilgrims' Mayflower from Plymouth, England to Plymouth, Mass. And on the other side of the North American continent he has protected the reputations of Captain Ahab, John Paul Jones and a host of other great sailors by seeing that their ships were properly sailed across Hollywood's screens. For Villiers' reminiscences of great sporting days at sea, turn the page.
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July 20, 1964

If There Were Two Ships, It Was A Race

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There never was another race quite like that. Cheap tea grown by Scots in India and Ceylon put the tea clippers out of business and ended their contests. Nobody cared when cheap tea got to port. But the tradition of the race didn't die. So long as there were two Cape Horners left that chanced to load at the same port, bound in the same direction, they raced. Like the ex-German bark Herzogin Cecilie and the Swedish Beatrice, back in 1928, when I was aboard the former. The Herzogin Cecilie was a big steel four-poster with a waterline of 330 feet and masts 180 feet high, and she could set over 60,000 square feet of canvas. You could have put the entire cargoes from the Ariel, Serica and Taeping aboard and still not have been half loaded. The Beatrice was a thousand tons smaller, but she had a snug rig and fleet lines.

Loaded with grain, the two of us sailed together from South Australia bound for England, but after the first day we never saw the Beatrice again. We were a month negotiating the 6,000 miles to the Horn, and 96 days more to Falmouth. The Beatrice took another 20 days, and we soon found out why. There had been an easterly slant along the coast of South Australia when we sailed, and the other ship decided to take advantage of it and beat us to England by going around the world the other way! Both ways were about the same in distance, but we headed for the Horn because you stood a far better chance of strong winds to help you that way.

The men of the Beatrice ruefully conceded the victory. But if we'd gone around the Cape of Good Hope way as they did, they said, the Beatrice would have won. "I'd like to see the ship that could have bettered us on our tracks," said Mate Sam Svensson.

Every southern summer after that all the sailing ships in the Australian grain trade began to race each other. Each year 20 or more of them set out for the English Channel determined to make the fastest passage. Sometimes three or four would sail together. More often they would meet up in a calm on the Line. The race was to the ship with the best time, not first in, for they sailed from scattered outports up Spencer Gulf, went eastward or westward for Good Hope or the Horn according to the master's hunch, and each sailed as she was loaded, regardless of the others. They called it the Grain Race, and my friend, Captain Ruben de Cloux of the Herzogin Cecilie, showed an unusually consistent ability in winning.

A few years after the Herzogin-Beatrice race, I joined De Cloux in buying a ship for ourselves—a great lump of a bark named the Parma, not much to look at but she could shift five-and-a-half-thousand-ton cargoes. And she was ours for $10,000. There were no other bidders.

We manned her with good mates and a crew of boys, and we sailed—first run, nonstop from Hamburg to South Australia in ballast.

It was taking on a bit of a job to sail such a ship around the world by Good Hope and the Horn with half a crew. The first week out, in the North Sea, a lot of the cadets were seasick. With less than 2,000 tons of ballast in her, the big ship rolled heavily. The wind howled and it rained. Cold, miserable North Sea rain, continuously. Most of the cadets, staggering seasick about the scuppers or fighting their way slowly aloft, would have been glad to be home. But in due course we came to the trade-winds run, with steady fair winds week after week, the decks dry and the barebacked boys singing happily in the sun. By the time we reached Australia they were all excellent young seamen.

It was as well they were, for we very nearly lost our ship in the race home with another four-poster called the Pamir. The Parma was a good sailer, with a sort of friendly personality, which by no means all sailing ships possessed. She seemed to like to do her best. Once down in the high latitudes where the great gales blow and the sea has an uninterrupted "fetch" right 'round the world, she was like a big half-tide rock. The seas could roar over her, spilling in from the sides as she rolled and ran. But she always shook herself free of them again and ran out.

Then, in the middle of one night, close to the Horn, an enormous sea that no one saw suddenly rushed down at her from astern. Over the poop it came like a blown-away piece of Niagara Falls, washing the two steering compasses over the side ( Parma's hand wheel was so big she had a compass on each side), sweeping away the lashed helmsmen, knocking in the saloon skylight, smashing at the boats, falling on the main deck and sweeping forward the whole length of the pitching ship. The next great sea, coming in an instant, picked up the stern and flung it out of its way, sending the ship on her side in the trough of the sea.

There were two grave dangers. One, the sea could just overwhelm us, there and then. The other, wind pressure on the wrong side of the sails could bring the masts down. They were steel. The decks were wood. Steel masts smashing in the wooden decks would let the sea in. and within minutes the ship would sink.

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