‘Bessie Ellen’ 9/10 – thoughts on being a master mariner in the 19th Century

I have been wondering about the term ‘master mariner’.  An official definition is:  “A Master Mariner is the professional qualification required for someone to serve as the Captain of a commercial vessel of any size, of any type, operating anywhere in the world.”

I’m not thinking of the official qualification, designed to satisfy a regulating authority, I’m thinking of what it takes to be a master mariner in sailing vessels like ‘Ceres’ and ‘Bessie Ellen’.


For instance, take the above photograph, reputed to be of ‘Ceres’ entering Bude sometime in the mid to late 1880s. I want you to imagine you are the master of this vessel and you are at the wheel.

The rock you are rounding is called Barrel Rock, although the barrel is missing and its post is bent following a recent storm. It is important to keep fairly close to the rocks here. Shortly after passing them, you are going to make a 60 degree turn to starboard (to the right).

Bude, on the north coast of Cornwall, faces Newfoundland on the east coast of Canada. Besides the seas caused by local weather, local weather, there is a long swell, which varies according to storms far out in the Atlantic.  In the days of sail it was a particularly dangerous place to be, especially in a North West gale. Between Trevose and Hartland Point, a laden sailing vessel could quickly get into difficulty and far too many ended on the rocks.

So here you are on this difficult coast. The wind is about force 4 from the south west. You have sailed down the Bristol Channel, passing between Lundy Island and Hartland Point, the tidal stream in your favour.  The leeway (the amount the vessel is being pushed sideways by the wind) is fairly high on these vessels and you made a judicious tack away from the coast early after passing Hartland Point. The tide carried you in the right direction and the extra couple of miles out to sea before tacking back allowed you to arrive at Bude far enough off to give you room to maneuver.

An hour or so ago, you were standing off, watching the harbour entrance. It’s now half an hour before high tide, and there is a bit of a groundswell around the Barrel. The amount of groundswell is significant when turning to starboard past Barrel Rock. If the wind drops or you loose speed as you turn the wheel, the Atlantic swell can reverse the current over the rudder and push you in the wrong direction – landing you on the beach, or, worse, on the rocks.

The ‘tide-waiter’, the man onshore whose job it is to warn you if it is too dangerous to enter has set the ‘go ahead’ flag. You have checked all your lines, are confident that you have the right combination of sails to keep you sailing, and are pleased with the preparations your crew of two have made. This vessel is a source of profit for you and your family. There is 82 tons of coal in the hold that is already sold.  Moreover, you have faithfully promised the mother of the younger lad that you will keep him out of harms way. All this is your full responsibility.

You commit yourself and, at the moment this photograph is taken, there is no turning back.

Imagine this moment. Out of the corner of your right eye, you are watching the rocks pass – (seemingly too slowly). They are about thirty feet or so away. Out of the corner of your left eye, you are watching the sails, making sure they are still filled. A wave has lifted your stern and you have just lost sight of the leading marks you were aligned on. Below and in front of you, your crew are holding on and watching the sails, ready to adjust if necessary. In about one minute, you are going to turn to starboard, at precisely the right spot.

Records I have for 1837/38 show that ‘Ceres’ entered this harbour 49 times. Sometimes, the water was smooth. (In this photograph, taken after 1913, she has an engine).

09. Ceres entering Bude

My point is this:

As master of this vessel, you know implicitly what you are doing at this moment, and in the back of your mind you have a series of alternatives should things begin to go wrong. On top of this, you fully understand that you are working with elements – the weather and the sea, that are far more powerful than you and that there may come a situation when you can do nothing whatever to save yourself or your crew. Because of this, you work with the weather and sea and not against them – and you do this through practical experience.

Courses and qualifications may be a start and may please the authorities, but only practical experience will make you a master mariner . . .  or a master anything. There is a point at which you become confident in your competence and, at the same time, know there is always more to learn.

And where these days will potential sailing masters get the the experience of working this close to the elements? Vessels like ‘Bessie Ellen’ seem a very good start.

Did I feel the above was reflected in our skipper? Absolutely.

(To be continued)

Images from family records