A collection of interesting and evocative quotes compiled by David Salter


Then it hit us

Syd Fischer – recalling the tragic 1979 Fastnet Race (interviewed in 2016)

“We didn’t know much about it because we’d turned the radio off as soon as we’d given any information we had to give. But then someone put it on again and there were helicopters taking people off boats and all kinds of things. Apparently I got on the radio as team captain to encourage the other boats to keep going. They reckon I said ‘Don’t give up’. I don’t remember doing that but I do remember hanging on for grim death. We went over a big green one and then out the back of it. There was another big one coming like a dumper in the surf. I said to the crew, ‘This bastard’s going to break!’ Then it hit us and we were under water for a while. When we came up there were no sails on deck. The headsail we had up and the reefed main were all gone. But we were still there, thank Christ!”

(The storm that overtook the fleet in the Irish Sea on the third day of the race saw winds of up to 80 knots and waves topping 50 feet. Fifteen sailors perished, 75 yachts capsized and 24 were abandoned. Of the 303 yachts that started only 86 finished. All three Australian entries completed the course, clinching the Admiral’s Cup.)

I am prepared to meet difficulties

Captain Arthur Phillip RNCaptain Arthur Phillip – Letter to Lord North, on the provisioning of the First Fleet (1787)

“I have repeatedly pointed out the consequences that must be expected of the men’s being crowded on board such small ships, and from victualling the marines according to the contract which allows no flour. This must be fatal to many, and the more so as no anti-scorbutics are allowed on board. I am prepared to meet difficulties, and I have only one fear – I fear, my Lord, that it may be said hereafter that the officer who took charge of the expedition should have known that it was more than probable he lost half the garrison and convicts, crowded and victualled in such a manner for so long a voyage. And the public may impute to my ignorance or inattention what I have never been consulted in, and which never coincided with my ideas.”

(Lord North, the Home & Colonial Secretary, had originally only approved provisions equal to those for a six-week Atlantic crossing. Phillip used a one-month stop at Capetown to replenish the fleet’s stocks and build up the health of everyone on board. Only 48 people from the 1,480 who had set out from Plymouth died during the 252-day voyage to Botany Bay.)

A desire to pit their skills, wits and courage against the oceans

Eric Hiscock WandererEric C. Hiscock – Voyaging Under Sail (1959)

“It might seem to the uninitiated that a long passage out of sight of land in a small vessel must be a dull business; but that is not so. Everyone who has made such a passage will surely agree that it was one of the most memorable and satisfying things he has ever done. All small-boat voyagers have two things in common: a love of freedom – for they can go where they will almost unhampered by rules or restrictions, except those which are part of the seaman’s lore – and a desire to pit their skills, wits and courage against the oceans in every mood. The mainspring of this activity is, I believe, not the desire to be well thought of by others, but the desire to think well of oneself.”

(Eric and Susan Hiscock made three circumnavigations in their small yachts, all named Wanderer. Their meticulously detailed books on passage-making became the standard reference for long-distance cruising. Eric died aboard Wanderer V in Whangarei, New Zealand, in 1986.)

Its victims show no desire to recover

Mr Christian CrewPeter Stuart-Heaton – Sailing (1949)

“There are few things in the world so fascinating, so rewarding, or so productive of the good in man as the art of sailing. John Masefield calls it ‘sea fever’ and it is rather like an incurable disease. You cannot tell the exact moment you catch it; the infection is gradual. Its symptoms are many and varied, but if, when the sun shines through your office window, you have a vision of sunlit waters and a forest of slender masts continually blotting out the work in front of you, or if, while making conversation to some acquaintance, you find yourself wondering whether that new chain bobstay will be ready, or whether you’ll have the sails tanned this year, you’ve got it and you’ll never get rid of it! There is one important point about sea fever: its victims show no desire to recover.”

(Stuart-Heaton was a classic Royal Navy officer. Educated at Broadstairs and Charterhouse he had a ‘good war’ serving in corvettes, armed merchant cruisers and torpedo boats. His book on sailing is crammed with light-hearted humour, useful instruction and sound advice.)

A whole show when he was mad

Irving Johnson – The Voyage of the Peking from Hamburg to Chile via Cape Horn (1929)

“One of the men didn’t steer well, and the captain took a poke at his jaw to encourage him to do better. But the poke missed the mark, and the captain’s other fist bent the fellow up by hitting him in the stomach. The captain was a whole show when he was mad – yelling, cursing, stamping the deck and waving his arms. If ever there was a real, husky old sea-dog, he was one, standing six feet and two inches, weight 240 pounds, hands the largest I have ever seen, and his thumbs nearly two inches wide. He knocked thunder out of two or three boys who didn’t steer properly. A boy who was looking on said, ‘Ven I see zee captain, I travel a beeg circle so I vill not meet him.’”

(After serving on square-riggers as a young man Johnson and his wife circumnavigated the world seven times in their yachts, all called Yankee. He joined the US Navy as an adviser to the Pacific Fleet in WWII and finished the war as a commanding officer. In later life he was a leading figure in sail training.)

The dictates of natural laws

Walter Reeks – The Illustrated Sydney News (1888)

The 88-foot steam yacht Ena designed by Walter Reeks and launched in 1900
The 88-foot steam yacht Ena designed by Walter Reeks and launched in 1900

“The thoughts of our yacht-builders appear to have been mainly aimed at an attempt to create a new set of natural laws. We find excrescences of every conceivable form added: straight flat-sided keels, outrageous dead-woods aft, and deep fore-feet, to say nothing of all the floating power being bunched up into one place. The last two or three years have, however, brought us back once more to our senses, and instead of trying to batter the water into our way of thinking, we have succumbed to the dictates of natural laws, and build accordingly. There is good prospect of several new craft for next season, and with the improvements shown in the yachts themselves there is little doubt that Australia is about to come to the fore in this direction, as she has in all other kinds of sports.”

(Reeks, born in England in 1861, trained as a naval architect but then migrated to Australia seeking a warmer climate. He soon established himself as the leading – and, for some, time only – qualified naval architect in the colony. Reeks often pursued highly unconventional ideas in his designs for both yachts and steam-powered craft.)

This trial of speed

John Cox Stephens – Letter to Lord Wilton, Commodore, Royal Yacht Squadron (1851)

“Commodore Stevens presents his respects to Lord Wilton, and begs to present for his consideration the enclosed proposition. The New York Yacht Club, in order to test the relative merits of the different models of schooners of the old and new world, propose to the Royal Yacht Squadron to run the yacht America against any number of schooners belonging to any of the Yacht Squadrons of the Kingdom, to be selected by the Commodore of the Royal Yacht Squadron, the course to be over some part of the English Channel outside the Isle of Wight, with at least a six knot breeze. This trial of speed to be made at an early day to be selected by the Commodore.”

(The challenge was accepted, America won, and so began the most famous contest in the sport of yacht racing.)

A wild and magnificent jumble

Mark Twain – Following the Equator – Mark Twain’s Adventures in Australia. (1897)

Phosphor dolphins“The passengers were sent for, to come up in the bow and see a fine sight. It was very dark. One could not follow with the eye the surface of the sea more than fifty yards in any direction. But if you patiently gazed into the darkness a little while there was a sure reward for you. You would see a blinding flash or explosion of light on the water – a flash so sudden and so astonishingly brilliant that it would make you catch your breath. It was porpoises – porpoises aglow with phosphorescent light. They presently collected in a wild and magnificent jumble under the bows, leaping and frolicking and carrying on, never making a miscalculation, though the stem missed them only about an inch, as a rule.”

(Mark Twain – real name Samuel Langhorne Clemens – embarked on a lecture tour of Australia to stave off bankruptcy after his disastrous investment in a typesetting machine. He wrote that Australian history is “like the most beautiful lies, but they are all true.”)

If she did wild or wicked things

Ernest Hemingway – The Old Man and the Sea, (1952)

“He always thought of the seas as la mar which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things about her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motor-boats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as el mar which is masculine. They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them.”

The Old Man and the Sea

(The Old Man and the Sea was Hemingway’s last full-length work released in his lifetime. The short novel, simultaneously published by Life magazine, was written in Cuba and made the author an international celebrity.)

Whitening all the sea road

Henry David Thoreau – Cape Cod (1865)

Henry David Thoreau – Cape Cod mackerel fleet

“As we plodded along, either by the edge of the ocean, where the sand was rapidly drinking up the last wave that wet it, or over the sandhills of the bank, the mackerel fleet continued to pour round the Cape north of us, ten or fifteen miles distant, in countless number, schooner after schooner, till they made a city on the water. They were so thick that many appeared to be afoul of one another; now all standing on this tack, now on that. Still, one after another, the mackerel schooners hove in sight ‘whitening all the sea road’, and we watched each one for a moment with undivided interest. It appeared as if every able-bodied man and helpful boy in the Bay had gone out.”

(Thoreau lived most of his life in Concord, Massachusetts, but was fascinated by the sea. His more than 20 volumes of essays, articles, poetry and journals contain the essence of a nature-based philosophy that we recognise today as environmentalism.)

I didn’t know much about sailing

Vic Meyer – owner/skipper of Solo (1985)

Vic Meyer's yacht Solo“In 1953 I did the relay mother ship job in the Sydney-Hobart race. I had at that time a big motor sailer, Lauriana. I was so impressed with sailing that when I came back I got the idea I would build a boat. I didn’t know anything about wood but I had a foundry and all the equipment so it had to be in steel. So I got Alan Payne, the naval architect, to design me a boat – a cruising boat for V Meyer. It wasn’t a racing boat. I had the idea of cruising in the Pacific, from all the stories I had heard about coloured girls in Tahiti and what not. So we built a boat. The reason why I started racing was that I didn’t know much about sailing. That was my apprenticeship to go cruising.”

(Meyer’s “apprenticeship” included Sydney-Hobart handicap wins in 1956 and 1962, second place in 1957 and line honours in 1958 and 1959.)

Beken of Cowes photographThey know the mood and movement of each

Tim Jefferey – Sailing Thoroughbreds, (1998)

“Beken photographs are portraits without equal and they owe much of that to the close relationship of a remarkable family dynasty to the sea and the vessels that used it as both highway and playground. Fashion photographers urge their models to see the camera as an extension of the photographer. They build up a relationship so that the model projects straight off the page, as if the camera wasn’t there at all. The Bekens have no means of cajoling, coaching and animating their subject. Their art comes from an innate knowledge of boats and the sea. They know the mood and movement of each and have the skill to combine them in a way which unfailingly pleases the eye.”

(Alfred Beken, a pharmacist, moved his business from Kent to the Isle of Wight in 1888. Inspired by the sight of the great yachts sailing from Cowes his son Frank developed a special large-plate wooden camera adapted for photography on the water. He sold the prints from the chemist shop, and a tradition was born.

This anxious and boisterous life

Admiral Lord Collingwood – Letter to his wife (1806)

Admiral Lord Collingwood
Admiral Lord Collingwood

“I have lived now so long in a ship, always engaged in serious employments, that I will be unfit for any thing but the quiet society of my family. I have scarcely laughed these three years. I look for happiness, if ever I am relieved of this anxious and boisterous life. Tell me how do the trees which I planted thrive? Is there shade under the three oaks for a comfortable summer seat? My bankers tell me that all my money in their hands is exhausted by fees on the peerage, and that I am in their debt, which is a new epoch in my life, for it is the first time I was ever in debt since I was a Midshipman.” 

(Collingwood, who was Nelson’s second-in-command at Trafalgar, was at sea for most of the 50 years he served in the Royal Navy. For one period he went 22 months without going ashore. Collingwood joined the Royal Navy aged 12, died at sea aged 62, and was laid to rest beside Nelson in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral. The suburb in Melbourne was named after him, or after a local pub, the Collingwood Hotel, named in his honour.) 

Wait till I get out on the ocean

Jack London – The Cruise of the Snark (1911)

Jack London's Snark
Jack London’s Snark

“The rig of the Snark is to be what is called the ‘ketch’. The ketch rig is a compromise between the yawl and the schooner. Of late years the yawl rig has proved to be the best for cruising. The ketch retains the virtues of the yawl, and in addition manages to embrace a few of the sailing virtues of the schooner. The foregoing must be taken with a pinch of salt. It is all theory in my head. I’ve never sailed a ketch, or even seen one. The theory commends itself to me. Wait till I get out on the ocean, then I’ll be able to tell more about the cruising and sailing qualities of the ketch. And, oh, there is one other excellence of the Snark, upon which I must brag, namely her bow. It laughs at the sea, that bow does; it challenges the sea; it snorts defiance at the sea. To touch the bow is to rest one’s hand on the cosmic nose of things.”

(The Snark was 55 feet LOA and 45 feet LWL with a 70hp auxiliary. Jack London’s romantic dream of a leisurely South Seas cruise became a cautionary tale for novice seafarers, but the experience did yield an entertaining travel book.)

The main thing’s having fun

Vanessa Dudley – Offshore veteran and Laser Radial Grand Master World Champion

Vanessa Dudley – Offshore veteran and Laser Radial Grand Master World Champion
Vanessa Dudley – Offshore veteran and Laser Radial Grand Master World Champion

“Everyone does things wrong in a race but it’s important not to dwell on it – to stay in what you’re doing now. Keep focused on what’s happening now. It’s really easy to get distracted by things that don’t actually matter. The main thing’s having fun, really. If you have fun sailing, you’re a winner. I really hate yelling even though I started as a complete martinet as a kid. Now I don’t want to yell. Crew harmony is really important. Keeping your head out of the boat. Having a plan. I love the cut and thrust of racing, but as I’ve got older I think more and more about sportsmanship – and how important it is. It’s just more important to be a nice person on the course, and not such a bugger!”

(Vanessa Dudley’s contribution to the advancement of women in the sport is immense. She has crewed in 24 Sydney-Hobarts, including a 2nd and 3rd place overall. As a dinghy sailor she was World Junior Moth Champion in 1975 and in the Laser class Dudley won the Radial Grand Master world championship in 2013 and 2016.)

She took her time

Kay Cottee – First Lady (1989)

Kay Cottee adjusting the vane steering equipment in the Indian Ocean
Adjusting the vane steering equipment in the Indian Ocean

“I was brought sharply out of my trance by yet another knockdown. My life flashed before my eyes for the second time in an hour as I was washed just over the top of the leeward safety railing before my harness lines pulled me up short. I held my breath under water until my lungs felt like they would burst, willing my lovely Lady to right herself and praying that the two harness lines did not give way. She took her time, but true to form gracefully rose again, this time with me dangling over the side. It was a mammoth effort to heave myself up, and I don’t think I could have managed without the help of the next breaking wave that half washed me back on to the boat.”

(In 1988, at the age of 34, Kay Cottee became the first woman to sail around the world alone, non-stop and unassisted. Her voyage took 189 days and raised more than $1m for the Rev Ted Noffs Life Education Program.)

The accident distressed those who witnessed it

The Australia Day Regatta – Report of an unfortunate incident, 28 January, 1864

Cannon firing“By far the most bizarre accident to befall a spectator occurred on board the flagship, SS Lady Jocelyn, towards the end of the racing. It was customary in those days for a gun to be fired when the winner of a race crossed the finishing line. Just as the order to fire was given, a young man moved into the line of fire unnoticed by the gunner who was watching the umpire for his signal. Despite the efforts of the ship’s medical officer and two local doctors the young man died 20 minutes later. The accident distressed those who witnessed it but had no effect on future demand for tickets to the flagships, which were undoubtedly the most popular vantage point for views of the regatta.” 

(The Australia Day Regatta, first known as the ‘Anniversary Regatta’, is the oldest continuously-conducted sailing regatta in the world. Held annually on Sydney Harbour it celebrates the proclamation of the colony on January 26, 1788. Held since 1837 it originally also included rowing races for whaleboats, gigs and waterman’s skiffs but today is confined to sailing craft.)

Things are not so simple at sea

Norman Dahl – The Yacht Navigator’s Handbook, 1983

Sextant“For the newcomer, navigation can be a trial and a disappointment. Fresh from the winter navigation classes, where dead reckoning, estimated positions and fixes march in ordered progression across the chart, he finds that things are not so simple at sea. His observations never seem to match up with his estimated position; landfalls never appear when and where expected; and conspicuous objects on shore might be printed on a different chart for all the help they are to him. And whilst it is easy to stop a car and ask the way of a passing stranger, it is more difficult (and embarrassing) to do the same at sea. There are few navigators who can truthfully claim never to have experienced the sickening feeling of being lost.”

(Norman Dahl served in the Royal Navy on destroyers, cruisers and submarines. On retirement he was President of the Royal Institute of Navigation. An active offshore yachtsman he later moved to Australia and died in Brisbane in 2018.)

Three crosses of red ink

Robert Louis Stevenson – Treasure Island (1881-83)

“The doctor opened the seals with great care, and there fell out a map of an island, with latitude, longitude, soundings, names of hills, and bays and inlets, and every particular that would be needed to bring a ship to safe anchorage upon its shores. There were several additions of a later date; but, above all, three crosses of red ink – two on the north part of the island, one in the southwest, and, beside this last, in the same red ink, and in a small, neat hand, very different from the captain’s tottery characters, these words:– ‘Bulk of treasure here.’”

(The son of a prosperous lighthouse engineer, Stevenson rebelled against his conservative Scottish upbringing to become a writer. Treasure Island began as a serial titled “The Sea-Cook” in Young Folks magazine. That one short adventure novel has defined the “pirate story”.)  

All the happy and strenuous days

Alain Gerbault – The Fight of the Firecrest (1924)

“It was on the morning of the 10th of September that I sighted land, Nantucket, for the first time since leaving the African coast, a few days out from Gibraltar. But I cannot say I gave a cheery cry of ‘land-ho’. On the contrary, I felt a little sad, for I realized that it stood out there forecasting the end of my cruise; that it meant that all the happy and strenuous days I had spent on the open seas would soon be over, and that I should be obliged to stay ashore for several months. No longer would I be king of all I surveyed, but amongst human beings and a sharer in civilization once more.”

(Gerbault had crossed the Atlantic solo, east-to-west, taking 101 days in a 39-foot snub-nosed pilot gaff cutter built in 1892. The feat earned him the Legion d’honneur. He’d previously been a flying ace during WWI and French tennis champion. He died in East Timor in 1941 but is buried at Bora Bora.)

Devised by the restless mind of man

E.B. White – The Sea and the Wind that Blows, 1977

Smoky LHI Ian Hansen
Ian Hansen – Smoky Cape homeward bound from Lord Howe Island

 “If a man must be obsessed by something, I suppose a boat is as good as anything, perhaps a bit better than most. A small sailing craft is not only beautiful, it is seductive and full of strange promise and the hint of trouble. If it happens to be an auxiliary cruising boat, it is without question the most compact and ingenious arrangement for living ever devised by the restless mind of man – a home that is stable without being stationary, shaped less like a box than like a fish or a bird or a girl, and in which the homeowner can remove his daily affairs as far from shore as he has the nerve to take them, close-hauled or running free – parlor, bedroom, and bath, suspended and alive.”

Diving still deeper into their pockets

The Sydney Morning Herald – Letter to The Editor, signed ‘Sail Your Own Boat’ (1876)

“Sir; I have always been under the impression that our regattas were intended to develop and encourage seamanship, and a love for aquatic pursuits. How is it that in the yacht and sailing-boat races the amateur element is passed by, and we find boat-owners who have already been put to very heavy expense in building and fitting out their craft, diving still deeper into their pockets to pay a crack crew, and a professional to steer for them? Why should this be? I do not think there is one yacht or sailing boat owner that would object to the restriction, if placed upon them, to steer their own boats. It is not yet too late to alter this, and I hope to see it done. I know of several boats whose owners cannot and will not go to the expense of a professional crew and skipper.”

J P Morgans yacht Corsair
J P Morgans yacht Corsair


JP Morgan – Millionaire, philanthropist, yachtsman (1837-1913): “I will do business with anyone; I choose only to sail with gentlemen.”

18 foot skiff crew

The Sydney Morning Herald – exchange of Letters to The Editor on 18-footer racing during WWI

From: H.C.Bell, Vice-President of the Sydney Flying Squadron (16 September 1916):

“Sir; I consider that, in face of the serious aspect of the war, the boat owners and crews should reconsider their intention to continue the season’s sailing programme. The yacht clubs, the Sydney Amateur Sailing Club, and other aquatic bodies have cancelled all events, and as 250 to 300 smart young fellows engaged in the 18 footers can be more seriously employed in the naval reserve, or otherwise, let them enlist. I appeal to the boat owners and crews to recognise their duty to the Empire.”

From: Sapper Fisher, who returned fire the following day – and didn’t miss:

“Sir; Mr Bell insinuates that the boats are to be manned by young fellows who would be better at the war, and tries to make out they are all shirkers. Well, in defence of those who cannot go, I would like to say that out of the Sydney there are 11 of us who are either in camp or at the front. Now, the Sydney is going to race this season (with rejects and men over age), and I suppose he likes to term her a shirker’s boat, which I think would be an insult to the two dead and two wounded of the crew.”

(More than 150 of the 18-footer sailors served in WWI. Of them, 27 died – seven at Gallipoli – and 49 were wounded.)

Blessed are the cabbage-planters

Francois Rabelais – The Histories of Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532-4)

Rabelais Storm & wrecks“Tempests and squalls, whirlwinds and hurricanes were lighted up all around us by thunderbolts, flashes, forked lightning and other manifestations. Our looks expressed horror and dismay, as the hideous tempests whipped the mountainous waves of the sea.  Believe me, we felt that ancient Chaos had come again; that fire, earth, sea, air and all the elements were in rebellious confusion. How blessed, blessed and four times blessed are those men who plant cabbages in solid earth. Why, O fates, did you not spin me a cabbage-planter’s lot? Few and signally blessed are those whom Jupiter has destined to be cabbage-planters. For they’ve always one foot on the ground and the other not far from it.”

(For a man who began adulthood as a Franciscan novice, then became a Benedictine monk, then a doctor, then an anatomy teacher and finally a country curate, Rabelais had a delightfully bawdy and irreverent talent for satire. From him we have the terms ‘Rabelaisian’, and ‘Gargantuan’ – after the name of the giant in his story.)

You settle for what you get

The crew of Mistral II (1947-1950)
The crew of Mistral II (1947-1950)

Bill Snaith – skipper of Figaro in ‘On the Wind’s Way’ (1973)

“The ideal crew member is a rare creature indeed. He has the coolness, courage, and derring-do of James Bond; the inventiveness and mechanical skills of Tom Swift; the agility and strength of an Olympic decathlon winner. He has a fund of new stories, is a good listener, and is as neat in his cabin habits as Mr Clean. A crew should be skillful enough to reassure a captain in the fastness of his heart. The captain must know that when all hell breaks loose and he doesn’t know what it’s all about, someone aboard does and, what’s more, will do something about it. You start with these requirements and settle for what you get.”

(An architect by training and industrial designer by trade, Bill Snaith campaigned four yachts, all named Figaro. He won the Transatlantic race, competed in the Bermuda race seven times and captained the winning 1961 US Admiral’s Cup team.)

There would be fewer mouths to feed

Ernest Shackleton – South (1919)

“A boat journey in search of relief was necessary and must not be delayed. The nearest port where assistance could certainly be secured was Port Stanley, in the Falkland Islands, 540 miles away, but we could scarcely hope to beat up against the prevailing north-westerly wind in a frail and weakened boat with a small sail area. South Georgia was over 800 miles away, but lay in the area of the west winds, and I could count on finding whalers on the east coast. I calculated that at worst the venture would add nothing to the risks of the men left on the island. There would be fewer mouths to feed during the winter and the boat would not require to take more than one month’s provisions for six men, for if we did not make South Georgia in that time we were sure to go under.”

 (The successful rescue voyage of the James Caird remains one of the great small-boat epics.) 

I did not think it was consistent with safety

Commander James Cook – Journal of the Second Voyage (1772-1775)

“At 4 o’Clock we discovered from the Mast head thirty eight Islands of Ice extending from the one Bow to the other, that is from the SE to the West, and soon after we discovered Field or Packed Ice in the same Direction and had so many loose pieces about the Ship that we were obliged to luff for one and bear up from another. From the Mast head I could see nothing to the Southward but ice. I did not think it was consistent with the safety of the Sloops or any ways prudent for me to persevere in going farther South, even supposing this to have been practicable, which however is doubtful.”

(Cook’s position in the Resolution that day was at 64º18’S. He eventually turned back at 71°10’S.)

The taste of these animals very disagreeable

Sir Joseph Banks – The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks (1769)

“Our bread indeed is but indifferent, occasioned by the quantity of Vermin that are in it. I have often seen hundreds, nay thousands shaken out of a single bisket. We in the Cabbin have however an easy remedy for this by baking it in an oven, not too hot, which makes them all walk off, but this cannot be allowed to the private people who must find the taste of these animals very disagreeable, as they are every one taste as strong as mustard or rather spirits of hartshorn.” 

(Hartshorn was a solution derived from powdered deer antlers, then the main source of ammonia.) 

Followed by a milky train

Charles Darwin – The Voyage of the Beagle (1831-36)

“While sailing a little south of the Plata on one very dark night, the sea presented a wonderful and most beautiful spectacle. There was a fresh breeze, and every part of the surface, which during the day is seen as foam, now glowed with a pale light. The vessel drove before her bows two billows of liquid phosphorus, and in her wake she was followed by a milky train. As far as the eye reached, the crest of every wave was bright, and the sky above the horizon, from the reflected glare of these livid flames, was not so utterly obscure as over the vault of the heavens. I am inclined to consider that the phosphorescence is the result of the decomposition of organic particles, by which process the ocean becomes purified.”

(Reflecting on how the long voyage changed his personality and view of the world, Darwin said “My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts.”)

These took a negligible toll…

Naval physician treating sick sailorsDudley Pope – Life in Nelson’s Navy (1981)

“In the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), the Royal Navy lost 133,700 men by disease and desertion, but only 1,512 were killed in battle. In the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, which lasted with a short break for twenty-two years, the Royal Navy lost 1,875 killed in the six major and four minor battles fought by its fleets and four by its squadrons, compared with more than 72,000 who died from disease or accident on board, and another 13,600 who died in ships lost by accident or weather. A musket ball, the slash of a cutlass or the jab of a pike – these took a negligible toll of men’s lives compared with scurvy, typhus and yellow fever.”

Do not forget to show your enjoyment during a race

The Spirit of Sailing and The Sea - Paul Elvstrom –The Spirit of Racing, 1965Paul Elvstrom –The Spirit of Racing, 1965

“A race is, and always must be, a game. The racing rules must be observed but you must also be reasonable about this. Hard competition only gives more excitement to the game, and it is really exciting to find out who can win. We all ought to be friends, and be glad we are sailing together. When you feel that none of your competitors are afraid to lose to you then you will also not mind losing to them. When your competitors are happy to see you win, you are naturally happy when their turn comes to win. Also, do not forget to show your enjoyment during a race. You only need to make just the smallest friendly gesture when you pass near one of your competitors, such as when crossing on port or starboard. If you do not show that you are enjoying the competition you can spoil the pleasure for your competitors.” 

A cap full of wind…

The Spirit of Sailing and The Sea - Robinson Crusoe - ships in stormDaniel Defoe – Robinson Crusoe, 1719

“I had slept well in the night, and was now no more sea-sick but very cheerful, looking with wonder upon the sea that was so rough and terrible the day before, and could be so calm and so pleasant in so little time after. And now, least my good resolutions should continue, my companion, who had indeed entic’d me away, comes to me. ‘Well, Bob,’ says he, clapping me on the shoulder, ‘how do you do after it? I warrant you were frighted, wa’n’t you, last night, when it blew but a cap full of wind.’ ‘A cap full d’you call it?’ said I, ‘’twas a terrible storm.’ ‘Do you call that a storm? Why, it was nothing at all; give us a good ship and sea room and we think nothing of such a squall. But you’re but a fresh water sailor, Bob; come, let us make a bowl of punch and we’ll forget all that.’”

(While commonly thought to be based on the true story of Scottish castaway Alexander Selkirk, more recent scholarship indicates multiple sources for Defoe’s famous novel, claimed to be the world’s most translated book after the Bible.)

The Spirit of Sailing and The Sea - American Packet Ship DevonshireHow quietly they do their work

Richard Henry Dana – Two Years Before the Mast, 1840

“One night, while we were in the tropics, I went out to the end of the flying jib-boom, upon some duty, and having finished it, turned round, and lay over the boom for a long time, admiring the beauty of the night before me. I could look at the ship as a separate vessel – and there rose up from the water, supported only by a small black hull, a pyramid of canvas towering up, as it seemed in the indistinct night air, to the clouds. The sea was as still as an inland lake; the light trade wind was gently and steadily breathing from astern. The sails were spread out wide and high. Not a ripple upon the surface of the canvas; not even a quivering on the extreme edges of the sail. I was so lost in the sight that I forgot the presence of a man who came out with me until he said, half to himself, still looking at the marble sails, ‘How quietly they do their work!’” 

Like the king of the world

Tchaikovsky 1812 OverturePeter Mounsey – circumnavigator, solo racer, delivery skipper (1986)

“In the last single-handed race I did there was one incident I will never forget. It was very calm on the ocean – the water was like glass – and there was perfect silence. I mean, how many people have heard nothing? There was not a sound on the boat, there was no swell. I thought to myself ‘I can’t hear anything’. No birds around – it was absolutely quiet. And I sang out, real loud, ‘Hey!’ I had a tape recorder and I went and put on the 1812 Overture and had it on real loud and poured myself a scotch and sat down like the king of the world! It was a wonderful feeling.”

(It seems doubtful whether Tchaikovsky’s famous blast of orchestral bombast has enjoyed many such replays at sea since.)

A little cup of metho…

Ragamuffin 1964
Ragamuffin 1964

Phil Eadie – the veteran Ragamuffin navigator remembers some more forgetful days racing offshore (2016)

 “Just about every Hobart we’d leave something behind. Once we left the blankets on the dock. Once we didn’t have any milk. Another time we didn’t have any matches to light the stove. We pulled the cabin lights apart and shorted the wires over a little cup of metho to make a flame and get the stove going. And once we even left the spinnaker pole behind and someone had to come roaring out with it in a dinghy. Another time we were doing a coastal race through the night and it turned out that all there was for breakfast was toast and Bonox. I remember Syd saying, ‘Fuck! I’ve spent a fucking fortune on this boat and that’s the only fucking thing they can bring – toast and Bonox!’”

The boat must be a pleasure


Russell Slade – Owner/Skipper Janzoon II, 1966

 “I don’t care what the boat is, or how old. But she must be soundly designed, have good lines, and represent a beautiful design of her era. It doesn’t matter if you sail a VJ or a 12-metre. If you love the boat you will be down to her every Saturday and Sunday. You will watch her carefully. But the boat must all the time be a pleasure. She must never become a burden in time or money – or you lose your affection for her. This is completely impersonal. It is love for the boat, not yourself. The pleasure and satisfaction come when you make it go well. There is satisfaction also in being part of a team, among crewmen who can sustain the effort of sailing and navigating to win.”

Pleasuring on the bay

Joshua Slocum – Sailing Alone Around the World, 1899

Glass-plate photograph of Slocum sailing the Spray on Sydney Harbour, 1896
Glass-plate photograph of Slocum sailing the Spray on Sydney Harbour, 1896

“Summer was approaching, and the harbour of Sydney was blooming with yachts. Some of them came down to the weather-beaten Spray and sailed round her at Shelcote, where she took a berth for a few days. The typical Sydney boat is a handy sloop of great beam and enormous sail-carrying power; but a capsize is not uncommon, for they carry sail like Vikings. In Sydney I saw all manner of craft, from the smart steam launch and sailing-cutter to the smaller sloop and canoes pleasuring on the bay. Everybody owned a boat. If a boy in Australia has not the means to buy him a boat he builds one, and it is usually one not to be ashamed of.”

(In 1909 Slocum set off on another solo voyage in the Spray and was never seen again.)

The last line sends a chill up my spine every time…

Samuel Taylor Coleridge – The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 1798

Albatross“A good south wind sprung up behind;

The Albatross did follow,

And every day, for food or play,

Came to the mariners’ hollo!


In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud,

It perched for vespers nine;

Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke white,

Glimmered the white Moon-shine.


‘God save thee, ancient Mariner!

From the fiends, that plague thee thus!

Why look’st thou so?

“With my crossbow, I shot the albatross.”

(Full poem available here)

No place for “bodgies or bludgers”…

The Spirit of Sailing and The Sea - No place for bodgies or bludgers - Hard running

Merv Davey – Owner/Skipper Trade Winds, CYC Commodore 1949-51, 1957-59

 “The type of person that goes ocean racing is self-selective. You are living in close proximity with others, and there is no way in the world a man can cover up his faults. This means that the bodgie or the bludger is just not there, because one trip and you’d find him out and you wouldn’t take him again. And the word would get around, so no one else would take him either. So any person who will not pull his weight or gets scared in an emergency or has personality defects is completely missing. And that enables you to say that a fellow – even if you haven’t any personal experience of him – who has sailed with ‘Joe Blow’ for three years can’t be a bad sort of bloke, otherwise he wouldn’t be there”.

Drunkenness is most likely to prevail …

The Spirit of Sailing and The Sea - Drunk sailorCharles Burland – The Ship Captain’s Medical Guide (1868)

“Drunkenness is a fruitful cause of many diseases. Most ships now sail on teetotal principles, but if alcoholic stimulants are entirely withdrawn, an extra allowance of coffee of cocoa should be given in their place. It is on shore, and more especially at foreign ports, that drunkenness is most likely to prevail, and the bad quality of liquor sold is as much to blame as the quantity consumed. Make the ship as comfortable as possible for the men so as to lessen the inducements for them to go on shore where they are liable to become drunk and useless, and to fall into the hands of undesirable persons.”

Big is grand, but not always best…

The Spirit of Sailing and The Sea - Adlard Coles – Sailing Days, 1944 - Adix-waveAdlard Coles – Sailing Days, 1944

“The big and very lovely yachts are, it is true, owned by rich men. They are an indication that some rich men, at any rate, know how to spend their incomes wisely. The owners of the eight-metre and twelve-metre craft must be fairly well off too because the cost of racing in such classes is high. But although these yachts stand out in the foreground of the yachting picture, they are few in number compared with the great array of miscellaneous craft in the background. The fact is that the great majority of sailing folk have but average means, and not a few are downright poor. Yachting depends on the spirit in which it is entered and zest for the sea rather than upon the possession of a deep pocket. ‘The smaller the ship the greater the sport,’ and I guarantee that the purchase of a boat is the best investment a man can make, if he values sun and fresh air, happiness and freedom.”

(In 1947 Adlard Coles founded a nautical publishing house that now lists 300 titles and still bears his name. He died in 1985.)

She would not come around …

The wreck of the Peter Iredale in the Fort Stevens State Park, Oregon, USA, at sunset ROBERT BRADSHAW, WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Jeremy Seal – The Caledonia driven ashore in 1842, from The Wreck at Sharpnose Point

“‘Lee shore!’ shouted Tasker as he scrabbled aft. The storm grew to a pitch of violence that none of the men had known. The mainsail was first to go, splitting from head to foot with a sharp crack. For an instant, the wind streamed through the gap it had made. Then the sail dissolved into ribbons that streamed from the boltrope along its base before the wind tore them away leaving only the reefs and the sheets that had held the sail, cracking like insane whips until they were hauled tight. Then the foresail blew. Now only the spanker, the two topsails, and the jib were left. Together they lent their weight on the helm one last time to bring the ship to windward. But she would not come around. They were singing when she grounded. There was a brief screech from her coppered hull before the rocks bit into her timbers.”

Heaving the lead…

Richard Gordon – The Captain’s Table (1954)

“‘You see, this Captain, sir, was one of the old school and always heaved the lead when his ship was coming into port, like in the old days before echo-sounders and all that. He prided himself he could tell what port they was in just by looking at the lead and seeing the mud what was brought up from the bottom. But one day the Chief Engineer grabs the lead, sir, on its way to the bridge, takes it to his cabin, and wipes his best boots on it. The Captain takes one look at it, you see, and says to the mates: ‘Gentlemen,’ he says, ‘I have the honour to inform you that the ship is now situated at the corner of Sauchiehall Street and Argyll Street.’”

Arthur Beiser – The Sailor’s World, 1967 Compass at NightOnly the ship remains faithful …

Arthur Beiser – The Sailor’s World, 1967

“At nightfall the world shrinks to a sphere a boat length across whose centre is the red glow of the compass. Stars appear, lights flicker along a distant shore, yet the feeling of isolation persists. The air is suddenly chilly, its texture different. The wind is no longer friendly, but instead full of subtle menace. The senses become more acute in darkness. Every sound carries a message. The flap of a sail invites its sheet to be trimmed. A creak somewhere forward, a change in tempo of water rushing past the counter. The sea, barely visible, gives no hint of its intentions. Only the ship remains faithful, a steadfast ally whatever lies in store.”

Small ships evacuation from Dunkirk during World War II

To sail into the inferno …

J. B. Priestly – Radio broadcast after the Dunkirk evacuation (BBC London, 1940)

“To my mind what was most characteristically English about it – so typical of us, so absurd and yet so grand and gallant – was the part played in the difficult and dangerous embarkation by the little pleasure steamers. We’ve known them and laughed at them, these fussy little steamers, all our lives. They seemed to belong to the same ridiculous holiday world as piers, sand castles, and crowded, sweating promenades. But when they were called out of that world those ‘Brighton Belles’ and ‘Brighton Queens’ left that innocent foolish world of theirs to sail into the inferno – to defy bombs, shells, mines, torpedoes, machine-gun fire – to rescue our soldiers. Some of them – alas – will never return.”

The America’s Cup is a peculiarly ugly trophy — and it lacks a bottom, so you can’t even drink from it — yet some of the richest men in history have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in an attempt to own it.
The America’s Cup is a peculiarly ugly trophy — and it lacks a bottom, so you can’t even drink from it — yet some of the richest men in history have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in an attempt to own it.

Bob Miller/Ben Lexcen – after committing to the 1987 America’s Cup defence

“I’m already asking myself why I’m checking into this madhouse yet again. It’s like hitting myself on the head with a bloody great hammer. All I get is headaches. When you analyse this whole 12-metre thing you have to wonder why people subject themselves to all those hassles. There has to be an element of madness in there. But then if you look at the mega-millionaires involved, there aren’t many things in the world that can pander to their egos as much as the America’s Cup summer does. They’re on the world stage for three months. Even the richest guys can’t get that sort of attention unless they cause a bloody war. Nothing else allows them to command so much world attention so easily and so cheaply. That’s what the America’s Cup comes down to in the end, a huge ego trip. Why else would you do it? But now my ego is saying I’ve got to go on and defend the damned thing – to show the Yanks that it wasn’t just a fluke.”

A motivational broadside from the early days of Australian offshore racing

The crew of Mistral II in 1950
The crew of Mistral II in 1950

Colin Haselgrove – letter to his crew on Nerida before their 1950 Sydney-Hobart win

“The first duty of the crew is to drive the ship and themselves to the limit of endurance and safety. All this implies hard work which produces fatigue. Therefore, when not on duty rest every minute you can. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. The general morale of the crew is extremely important. Remember to be prompt and quick to respond to watchkeeping or ‘all hands’ calls, no matter how lousy you feel. If you feel like grumbling save it until after the race. Remember that a race is never won or lost until it is finished, and that a slow boat sailed hard will beat a fast boat not driven. Every man must be particularly keen to get the last fraction of a knot out of the boat – and in the right direction.”

(The picture isn’t the Nerida crew – it’s some of the 1950 crew of Mistral II – but how evocative of the era)

Moby DickThe first encounter

Herman Melville – Ahab sights the Great White Whale, Moby Dick, 1851

“But suddenly as he peered down and down into its depths, he profoundly saw a white living spot no bigger than a white weasel, with wonderful celerity uprising, and magnifying as it rose, till it turned, and then there were plainly revealed two long crooked rows of white, glistening teeth, floating up from the undiscoverable bottom. It was Moby Dick’s open mouth and scrolled jaw; his vast, shadowed bulk still half blending with the blue of the sea. The glittering mouth yawned beneath the boat like an open-doored marble tomb; and giving one sidelong sweep with his steering oar, Ahab whirled the craft aside from this tremendous apparition.”

(The famous climax of the book is based on the sinking of the whaleship Essex in 1820 after it was rammed by a sperm whale.)

A joyous feeling

Guy de Maupassant – Sur l’eau (‘Afloat’) (1876)

Guy de Maupassant – Sur l’eau (‘Afloat’) (1876)“Then the men shipped the anchor. I seized the helm, and the boat, like a big ghost, glided through the still waters. In order to get out of the port, we had to tack between the sleeping tartans and schooners. We went gently from one quay to another, dragging after us our little round dinghy, which followed us as a cygnet, just hatched from its shell, follows the parent swan. As soon as we reached the channel between the jetty and the square fort the yacht became livelier, quickened its pace, and seemed more alert as though a joyous feeling had taken possession of her. She danced over the countless short waves – moving furrows of a boundless plain. Quitting the dead waters of the harbour, she now felt under her the living sea.”

More to come …