By J. Groothoff, late Captain in the Royal Packet Navigation Company*.
It is a strange and wonderful experience for one who has commanded liners and spent thirty years at sea entirely “in steam” or in motor ships, to find himself suddenly a passenger in a windjammer. Let me add at once that my 83 days’ voyage from Copenhagen to Port Victoria, a small place in the Spencer Gulf, South Australia, proved a delightful venture. It was made in the four-masted Finnish bark “Passat”, a big ship as sailing ships go, for on her previous homeward trip she had loaded 5700 tons of wheat.
In addition to a crew of twenty-eight, all told, she carried four passengers. These were most comfortably housed in good cabins, situate in the poop, and provided with their own smoking and dining rooms. The food, though simple and not such as the pampered passengers of a liner would have passed, was wholesome and good. Even the occasional hard ship’s biscuits seemed toothsome enough, since they brought back memories of one’s breezy apprentice days – thirty odd years ago – in the good old Soembawa, one of the stout cargo vessels of the ‘Nederland’ that have long since been scrapped and forgotten.
Our first warning of what a passage in sail may entail came when we waited patiently for eight long days in the roads off Copenhagen for a favourable wind before we could as much as start. When we eventually did, however, the “Passat” presented a glorious sight as, with all her thirty-three sails set, she forged ahead at a steady twelve knots.
The next events which brought home the difference between a power-propelled and a sail-driven ship occurred when we ran into adverse winds and gales in trying to make our passage round the north of Scotland. First, for two whole days, we tacked miserably up and down under four storm sails between the Orkneys and the Shetlands without making any headway against the westerly gales. No sooner had we made good our passage into the Atlantic, than we ran into the worst storm that we were to experience throughout the whole of this voyage. For three more days we tacked uncomfortably under two storm sails, one of which soon carried away, between the Faroes and the coast of Sutherland in the teeth of westerly gales which at times rose to hurricane force. The sensation was novel to a steamship skipper.
When the commander of a power-driven liner runs into a gale, and seas starts breaking unpleasantly over his ship, all he has to do is to slacken speed, and if things get really bad, heave to and keep the vessel’s head on to the sweeping seas. Not so the master of a square-rigged sailing ship. He knows that his crew is never excessive, and in fact barely adequate to cope with a sudden emergency. He must, therefore, anticipate the event. In the leisurely days of the old East Indiamen sail was shortened every evening, that the night might be snugly spent. Since the days of the racing clippers no master would consider himself worthy of a good ship who did not keep as much canvas aloft up to the last moment as his ship could safely carry. Yet to furl huge sails when a gale has already gripped them, is for the eight men clinging to a yard always an arduous, at times insuperable task. The art of timing the shortening of sail with precision between the moment when it would come to soon, and that when it would be too late, is not the least among the attainments by which a sailing captain stands out among his peers.
In accordance with usual practice the master of the ‘’Passat’ had at just the right moment reduced her sails to the fore staysail and three lower topsails which were as much as the masts were likely to stand. In fact soon even this canvas proved too much in the teeth of the rising gale, and two more topsails had only just been furled when, with a report like a gun shot, the third blew to ribbons. The salving of as much of this sail as was left proved an arduous task for the almost exhausted seamen. Under our sole remaining sail the ship was kept head on the mountainous seas that were driven before the gale which had grown into a full-blown hurricane. Here came another surprise. In a steamer riding out such weather the propellors would at frequent intervals have suddenly risen above the waves and, churning in air instead of water, would have sent a vibrant shudder throughout the length and breadth of the ship, while seas would have washed her decks from forecastle head to poop.
Not so in this sailing ship. With steady, undulating movements she climbed one wave after another, or slid smoothly down into the troughs between them, shipping very little water and vibrating not at all. Most curious in fact was the stillness of the ship in the midst of this roaring sea when the wind was shrieking through the bare rigging. Even to this hardened mariner t seemed as if for the first time he saw the full beauty of the ocean when lashed by a gale.
Our subsequent experience was on the whole of a more placid and pleasant kind. There were leisurely intervals of light winds, such as those which kept us four days within sight of the Canary Islands, without bringing us perceptibly nearer; and lazy times in the Doldrums when, as we lay becalmed and with listless sails, shark fishing proved the only excitement.
Having crossed the Line and received Father Neptune with the appropriate ritual, we sailed pleasantly along until in latitude 23 degrees South the South East trade winds forsook us. For the next nine days we worked our way with variable breezes down to latitude thirty-three South where westerly winds began to favour our eastwards passage.
Having crossed the meridian of the Cape of Good Hope in latitude forty-three, the strong westerly winds of the “Roaring Fortis” sped us briskly on our way. With the regularity of steam-driven ship we maintained a speed of elven to twelve knots, at times touching thirteen, with 318 miles as the best run for twenty-four hours. Then was the occasion to observe and enjoy this grand sailing vessel at her best, and passengers and crew grew equally elated. Not even a fairly severe storm at Christmas marred our good mood, and the festive day was celebrated in great style and the happiest spirit.
All too soon for the liking of most of us we dropped anchor in the sheltered roadstead of Port Victoria, in the northern nook of Hardwicke Bay where, with regret and gratitude, we took leave of the able captain and the splendid officers and men of the good bark “Passat”.
[Article from The Nederland mail, vol.4 (1937), no.1]
* The voyage was made in November, December 1934, January 1935.
There is also an article about Johann Groothoff in The Telegraph (Brisbane, QLD), 4 Feb 1935. See “Sea captain’s vow”.
Johann Groothoff was born in 1885 in Manggar, Dutch Indies. He was the second son in the family of Johann senior and Johanna Dorotheia Deinges. Johann senior died in 1894. The family remigrated to the Netherlands. Johann followed a marine career. In 1905 he became 3rd mate, graduated in Rotterdam. He served the Royal Packet Navigation Company since then. He became captain of a steamer in 1913. In 1926 he commanded the brand new motor ship the Van Heutsz. He retired in 1930 at an age of 45. He lived in Dublin, Ireland, till his death in 1964.
See his story in Dutch.
P.S. You can still visit this four-masted steel barque. The Passat is moored firmly on the Priwall shore in Lübeck-Travemünde. Official website.