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White Wings Vol I. Fifty Years Of Sail In The New Zealand Trade, 1850 TO 1900

A 6500-Mile Race

A 6500-Mile Race.

A thrilling tale of a voyage made by the City of Auckland from Auckland to London in 1877 is told by Captain Albert Duder, who for a long while was Harbourmaster in Auckland, and is now enjoying well-earned leisure over at Devonport. None of the stories that I have heard about the "City" are so absorbingly interesting as that told by Captain Duder, who at the time the voyage in question was made, was a young man before the mast, just beginning his career. Captain Ralls was in command, and Captain Duder has the liveliest admiration for his old skipper. "Captain Ralls was a fine specimen of a British seaman," writes Captain Duder, "perfect in seamanship and in the art of commanding a sailing ship. Well it was that he was all that, and more, or our voyage would not have ended as auspiciously as it did."

"The City," loaded with wool, kauri gum, etc., was a full ship and in good ocean-going trim, when she left Auckland in the beginning of February, 1877. The first three weeks passed pleasantly away. One afternoon at two o'clock, when about 1200 miles west-north-west of Cape Horn the ship ran into a fairly thick fog, and at 2.45 the look-out man reported ice right ahead—a small berg forty to fifty feet high. "Luff, luff!" was the order yelled to the helmsman, and then came "All hands on deck!" Answering her helm immediately the little ship came up into the wind and cleared the weather end of the berg, but still was well into the small or broken ice which clattered along the side. The watch below turned out in good style and were at once ordered to take in royals and all light staysails, outer jib and crossjack, while the watch on deck was hard at it, trimming yards. And the stewards, cooks, and the few men passengers, under the chief steward were put on to provision and water the boats.

Then, "Ice on the lee bow!" reported the lookout, and what seemed like a mountain of it rose up right alongside, the crevices being filled with frozen snow—a beautiful, but awful sight.

"Hard down the helm!" and like a yacht the ship went round on the other tack. Every man, stripped to singlet and trousers, was working for dear life. The captain stood by the man at the wheel, the chief officer with the look-out man on the fo'c'sle-head, and every man keen at his post.

Once more ice was reported, this time on the weather bow. "Hard up the helm!" was the order this time, and then "Square the yards!" and the ship paying off ran away from a small berg fifty to seventy feet high, with broken and small ice all around.

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There was a few minutes breathing space, and then ice was reported on port and starboard bows, but fortunately it was not so close as to prevent the ship getting through. And thus the ship went on; now ice ahead, then to port and then to starboard, and always the yacht-like craft obeyed every order as though she were alive. Captain Ralls, quick in decision, rapped out his orders promptly, always right; and every man of the crew was quick to jump at the word of command, every ounce of strength and seamanship being thrown into the work.

At about 5.30 p.m. the fog lightened and soon the ship ran out of it into clear sky with no ice in sight. The large cluster of bergs and broken ice, together with the warmer water, had caused the fog through which the ship had been passing, and once beyond their influence the atmosphere grew clear. As Captain Duder says, "There must have been three little birds sitting aloft on our trucks that afternoon, looking after 'the City' and the lives of her crew."

"Make all sail!" was soon the order, and after that came "grog-oh," every man polishing off his half-tumbler of good old Jamaica rum. Then there was a word of praise and thanks from the captain to all hands for the way they had worked, followed by "Tea-oh" for all but the officer of the watch, and a couple of A.B.'s to keep the wheel and look-out.

Other ships on the run to Cape Horn that summer saw more ice than the City of Auckland did, and two—a Loch line vessel loaded with wheat from Melbourne, and one of Patrick Henderson's ships from Timaru—were never heard of again, having, it was assumed, collided with ice and foundered. Had it been night time when the City of Auckland got among the ice she would no doubt have joined the ranks of the "missing."

After that battle with the bergs the City of Auckland had an average autumn passage to the Horn, off which she came across the ship Timaru (Captain Taylor) 28 days out from Dunedin. The signal flags were soon speaking and before they parted they arranged a 6500 miles race to London—a notion that was right into Captain Taylor's hands, as his ship had a great reputation and he was a noted hard-driver. Next night at about half past nine the City was due to pass, on the weather bow, a small cluster of rocky islets about fifty miles south-east of Staten Island, and the look-out man was told to keep a good look-out to windward.

At ten o'clock the cook and one of the passengers were having a smoke and a yarn in the lee waist, and the passenger remarked that there was land right ahead. "No," said the cook, "that's a cloud," and went on with his yarn. But on looking again they both agreed it was land and just on the lee bow, and the cook ran aft calling the attention of the mate, who at once ordered the helmsman to luff and shouted for a hand to jump aloft and report. Captain Duder was handy to the forerigging and was soon on the lower topsail yard. Plain enough below was a long line of breakers on a reef running out to windward of the group The yards were braced sharp up, and the smart little ship sailing a couple of points more into the wind cleared the end of the reef and breakers by about two hundred and fifty yards! The ship had been carried in towards the mainland by an unknown ocean current and she was eight or nine miles off her course from noon that day.

When the ship had passed the Falkland Islands and left behind the worst of the stormy latitudes, orders were given to bend extra sails—main middle staysail, mizzen topgallant staysail, a second flying jib (over the lower flying jib), the jib-topsail, and a "Jimmy Green," or "bull-driver," as it was sometimes called—a square sail fitted and rigged to set under the jib-boom and bowsprit. One seldom passed a ship with a "Jimmy Green" set, says Captain Duder, but it was quite a helpful sail in moderate weather, and as we intended to give the Timaru a run for it, we wanted all the sail we could set. Day and night it was a case of trim yards and set sail, swig and set still better, and crack on until the ship was lee-rail under.