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.
Except for the school ships pictured here and a handful of others preserved as shrines or museum pieces, the big square-rigged sailing vessels of yore have disappeared from the sea routes, and with them a wonderful sporting tradition. On the face of it, the game played by today's yachtsmen and the life led by the men who worked these vessels across the oceans of the world may seem to have little in common. Yet for the oldtime sailorman, no matter how great his hardships, there was a challenge and a zest in the business of handling ships during the last years of sail that had much of sport in it. This was particularly true in the era of the tall clipper ships.
Far different from the lumbering East Indiamen or the hulking men-of-war that preceded them, the Yankee clippers gave to the sea-lanes a tradition of speed and grace that had never been known before. Long, lean racing vessels that blended hulls of perfect symmetry and balance with tremendous sail plans, the clippers had that indefinable loveliness which, now and again, inventive man has achieved in his efforts to use natural resources for the performance of work.
When I first went to sea, well into the second decade of the 20th century, the clippers were long since gone, but there were still men about who had sailed in them and who yarned about them. And so stirring were those yarns that even in those late days our forecastles were filled with men and boys who refused to go in steam. They wouldn't admit it, and I don't know that the thought ever occurred to them, but I suspect that the real reason lay in the fact that sailing those ships, which would one day disappear from the sea, was in a way the greatest, grandest sport there ever was. There was exultation in the fight with the gale and a sense of team triumph when, along with your mates, you muzzled a lashing, writhing, wind-maddened sail high aloft on a yard reeling and pitching over a tormented sea.
And for master and seaman alike there was always the challenge of the other vessel. I remember one old boy, well over 70 and still as fast as any youngster in the race aloft, telling about his ship, the Ariel, when she sailed against the clippers Serica and Taeping back in 1866 in one of the most famous China tea races. "We were bound for the London tea sales," the old boy said. "A race like that was tough. It went on a long time—16,000 miles of it. Across the China Sea, full of reefs; then through the Sunda Strait and over the Indian Ocean. Get around the Cape best way you could, then right up the whole length of the South and North Atlantics. After that, it was work your way across the Line through the doldrums, and in the end fly before the westerlies north of 50� in the North Atlantic and upchannel with all you'd got.
"Those yarns about mad clipper captains driving their ships along with a wake of busted spars, blown-out sails and dead sailors," the old man told us, "don't believe 'em, boy. There might have been a few who started out like that, but they didn't last long. Or their ships either. Our captain never went below the whole way from China to London. He slept on deck in a deck chair the carpenter built for him, when he slept at all. Day and night he was on deck, always getting the last bit out of that ship. You don't do that by just driving! No, son. Lock-halyards Joes and Belaying-pin Jacks belong in the books. A ship'll stand just so much. A captain's job is to get the best out of her, not to strain her."
For three weeks the Ariel sailed alone, out of sight of her rivals. Then the three met off Anjer in the straits between Java and Sumatra. "The three of us came through together," said the old boy. "All our crew had bets on our ship, of course. The captains, mates, owners—everybody used to bet, and the odds were known, like in the Derby. It was exciting to see those other ships. We'd reckoned they couldn't keep up with us. But the race wasn't properly started then. We'd still the Indian Ocean to cross and a lot more besides."
The Ariel had been at it for three whole months when she reached the English Channel. "It was a wild day," said the old sailor, "but the wind was fair—good fresh southwesterly, the kind that lasts. We couldn't set any more sail. We were carrying all we had. The dawn light showed another tea clipper out on our starboard quarter. One look and we all knew what ship it was: the bloody Taeping. Neck and neck then we drove along, and the hell with the risks. Stuns'ls and everything. We streaked along like cut greyhounds all morning. There wasn't only the bets, there was a bonus on the freights, too, for the first ship in, and real money for the captain.
"Midmorning there's another clipper out to wind'ard, over by the French coast where the Channel narrows, almost abeam. One look at that one and we all know who she is: the Serica. So that's the three of us together again. Our captain flings his deckchair over the side. He's on his feet now all the time. We are doing 14 knots against a five-knot tide, and the spume and the spray wetting you on the t'gallant yards, and the stuns'l booms bent like a poacher's rod landing a 30-pound salmon, and those three ships leaping across the water like they loved it.
"Son, that was a sight. We sailed past every steamship going up-channel that day. Those fellers in the steamships lined the rails as we came past and they cheered. The cliffs of Dover were black with people, all come to see the sight. Nothing passed the Ariel that day but birds. We won the race by 20 minutes—20 minutes in 16,000 miles!"