‘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’.

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‘Bessie Ellen’ 8/10 – working sail

We spent a day in Fowey while the mainsail was repaired – an excellent repair by the sail loft at Toms Boatyard in Polruan, and returned to the Helford River the following day. The pub at Helford Passage was welcoming, the meal back on board the usual high standard, and the bunk . . . . well, I don’t remember.

This will be the last day of my first voyage on a trading ketch. I am comfortable with my place on the ship. I know where I stand. If I were to apply for a job, I wouldn’t employ me yet. But that’s ok, I know what I would have to do to get there.

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‘Bessie Ellen’ 5/10 – through the Irish Sea to Cornwall

It is 2300 on our second night at sea. The promised storm is two days away. It is a fine, star-lit night. We are keeping close to the Irish coast as the tide is more favourable here. The lights of Dublin are beginning to loom on the horizon ahead of us.

We had the tide through the North Channel and Beauforts Dyke. During the day we have seen the Mull of Kintyre, the Mull of Galloway, Belfast Lough and the entrance to Strangford Lough, as well as the Isle of Man. We are very approximately at the focal point between Scotland, Ireland, England, Wales and Cornwall I mentioned in the first of this series.

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‘Bessie Ellen’ 2/10 – a purpose

At breakfast the next morning I watch ‘Bessie Ellen’ glide quietly across the Sound into Oban. She looks grand – every bit as fine as I have imagined. This is why I am here.

Elsewhere on this site there are photographs of another Westcountry trading ketch, ‘Ceres’. Although this vessel has lived with me all my life, she has inevitably been a figure in my imagination. Yes, I have seen photographs – imag(in)es, read what others have written about her, listened while members of my family have told me about her, I have even spoken about her myself. But I never stood on her deck, never handed a rope, set a sail, steered a course, never felt the lift of that first wave on leaving harbour.

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The Exe – 6/6

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At the No.8 buoy the channel turns South away from the coast. These final eight buoys – (red can buoys even numbered, green conical buoys odd-numbered), lead out to the Exe Approach buoy and the sea. As I raise sail, a yacht passes, running for the channel. We raise hands, exchanging friendly waves. Ahead of me, a distant yacht is tacking along the coast towards Berry Head.

Early this morning, in the calm of the mooring at Turf Lock, I bent on the light genoa. This is now set and drawing well. The wind has got up and blows from a little West of South, the sea is choppy. The wind will increase this afternoon, but I hope not too much in the six short miles I have to cover. It will be a very close haul to Teignmouth, the contrast from this morning complete.

The yacht ahead turns off Teignmouth and heads out to sea to clear Hope’s Nose on the next tack. I watch the coast go by – Dawlish Warren, Langstone Point, Dawlish, the Parson and the Clerk, Teignmouth. The mainline trains hug the coast. The sun dips in and out behind the clouds. ‘Blue Mistress’ rides the waves with an easy motion. I concentrate on steering her towards The Ness and the entrance to the Teign.

When we get there – (in good time, around 1530), the wind has risen another notch and, if we were going further, I would have had to change the genoa for the working jib. Approaching the entrance, I feel the Captains tensing, gathering together, looking over their shoulders at me – (see ‘The Exe – 3/6’ for details of The Captains). The sea is choppier here, affected by wind over the falling tide from the estuary. Turning into the that wind to drop the sails, my usual slick procedure for dropping the genoa neatly onto the foredeck fails and the leach drops into the sea. I go forward to retrieve it, cursing mildly, my routine broken. By now the mainsail should be down. The boat is bouncing up and down in the sea, the mainsail is flapping wildly, I slip over in the cockpit like a rookie. Eventually the tangle is sorted out and the boat settles down.

In the meantime, The Captains have raised their eyebrows and looked away! But, as I say to them, when things go wrong as they will, a good sailor will deal with them quickly and calmly. So, when I get back to the mooring, (under time-pressure to be home), knowing I have to tidy ship and inflate the dinghy before I can go ashore, only to find the mooring lines tangled tightly round the buoy, you will understand my reaction. (Quickly and calmly, I say!)

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These two days have been a ‘wandering’ – some might call it a mini adventure but I don’t believe it qualifies for that. I took two days out to experience The Exe Estuary and to reflect on what it might have been like for my forebears when they took their Westcountry trading ketch up to Topsham and Exeter. I am now back in Teignmouth, which they also visited on several occasions.

For example, on 15th September 1888, the ‘Ceres’, Captain Walter Petherick, master, left Saundersoot in South Wales carrying 82 tons of coal for Teignmouth. She arrived in good time and on 29th September, she left Teignmouth for Bristol, carrying 82 tons of clay. Maybe she berthed at New Quay to offload the coal and take on clay, maybe further upstream. One day I shall find out.

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I finally get home at 1730. The day is not over. Two hours later, we are sitting in The Pavilions Teignmouth watching a simultaneous broadcast from the National Theatre. In 1966, Tom Stoppard wrote a play around two minor characters in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, namely  “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead”. Peggy and I first saw it an unbelievable fifty years ago. The word-play is as enjoyable today as it was then.

Still buzzing from my two days on the boat, I wonder how my great grandfather would have thought of this play. Was he in a position to have seen any of Shakespeare’s plays? Would he have wanted to? And what about my great-grandchildren? Will they enjoy some future production with its fast word-play? Times change. Today we are able to share laughter and sighs with audiences across the globe simultaneously, something we never even thought of in the 1960’s. How will they be viewing such plays in future – a hologram in the round perhaps?

Or will more mundane matters concern them – the erosion of tolerance, patience and respect in our political relationships; the effect on our lives of the change in weather patterns? Speak up now, there’s plenty to do.

Images by Bill Whateley