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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 5 (August 1, 1938)

The Grog Schooner

page 13

The Grog Schooner

Our modern navigators, coastwise and deep-sea, are generally understood to be the most abstemious fellows alive. Once upon a time, as this story will remind you, there were bibulous doings afloat; nowadays, of course, Mercantile Marine Jack is a changed man. As for our Navy, they tell me that half the lower-deck ratings of the New Zealand and Australian cruisers will not touch their grog.

Cast your imagination back a little matter of eighty-four years and picture the scenes aboard this coastwise passenger carrier of early New Zealand—one of the precursors of our inter-island liners—described by a certain Captain F. W. Mackenzie, whose diary I have just been reading. Fill in the details in this jerky but eloquent little journal story of the schooner Wellington and her alcoholic crew, and thank Heaven for the liners of to-day.

Captain Mackenzie—he was a young lieutenant then, a subaltern of the 8th Regiment, Bombay Native Infantry—walked and canoe'd from Auckland to Wellingon via the Waikato and the Wanganui Rivers in 1853, and went on to the South Island, looking for a suitable place for settlement. Some years later he became a sheepfarmer at Pomahaka, in Otago, but at the time of this episode he was returning from Canterbury to Wellington, rather disappointed with the look of the Southern country. He felt worse before the ship reached Wellington. That ferry passage occupied sixteen days. Now our ferry liners do it in twelve hours or less.

Mackenzie took passage at Lyttelton for Wellington in a schooner called the Wellington, tonnage and skipper's name not given. Let his diary tell the groggy tale:—

“Thursday, Jan. 19, 1854.—Hanging about all day in hopes of the wind changing. The Captain is drunk.

“Friday.—The same as yesterday.

“Sunday.—Wind came fair towards evening. We weighed anchor and stood out. The Captain still drunk. Wind came stronger and we lay-to all night off Motunau.” (The small island on the North Canterbury coast).

Here, under Motunau, the schooner had to take in wool from a mainland station, managed by Mr. Coverhill, and all hands set to work—all except the captain, who apparently was never sober. Entry on Wednesday: “I went off to the schooner and found the captain and men all drunk.”

The Wellington had a narrow escape from going ashore there, in a shift of wind. The men, now “pretty sober,” slipped the cable and got clear of the reef at Motunau only just in time.

A few days later the schooner was hove to in a northerly gale somewhere off Kaikoura—nobody knew exactly where. Diary entry: “Our water is nearly done. The captain and crew use nearly four bottles of grog a day. They say the captain has never been sober, when he could help it, for the last twelve years.”

“February 1.—Gale still holds. Some of the men got grog up out of the hold, and at half-past 1 o'clock Johnston and the captain were quite drunk. The passengers (another man and myself) are obliged to look after the ship. We can only show a small corner of the mainsail. The sea is all white, but our little vessel rides it like a cork, and the deck is seldom wet.

“Feb. 2.—Saw the Kaikouras to the west and land in sight north. We think it is Cape Palliser. The captain is too drunk to know what it is, and the men are of different opinions. Our water is nearly done.

“Feb. 3.—Calm all night; breeze from S.W. We stand in towards the land, which I think is Cape Palliser. The captain came up to-day and ordered the vessel to be steered N.W. (which will just clear the Cape. He thinks it is the Kaikouras. While I was below one of the men took upon himself to alter the course and steer N., by which we have lost the day, for when we again steered in and made the land night had come on again and we could not make it out, and had to lie-to all night.”

Next day's entry, February 4, began: “The captain came on deck and declared the land to be Cape Palliser. We see the Kaikouras and the low land on the opposite side, so there is no doubt now as to our position. Had the captain been sober we should have got into Wellington last night; as it is we have the prospect of being here some days without water. Calm and light winds all day, so we have made no progress.

“February 5.—Thick weather and light rains. Land is in sight—Port Nicholson Heads. We have no water—not a drop. On making the land said to be Port Nicholson Heads it was declared to be Cape Palliser. Last night one of the men let go the anchor. Fortunately one part of it was fast, or it would have been run out and lost. I was in my bunk at the time and thought the ship had run against a rock.

“We steered for the Heads, but owing to the thick weather we passed them and continued west until we sighted Cape Terawhiti. A small schooner which followed us discovered the mistake and put about. We followed and lay-to all night.” (There was no Pencarrow Lighthouse at the entrance to Wellington in those days).

“February 6.—This morning Port Underwood land (in the South Island) in sight. The captain, who is suffering from want of water, wants to put in to the former; but, as Port Nicholson is near and the wind is equal for both places, we steered for Port Nicholson and soon sighted land, which, after looking at my map and an old Port Cooper (Lyttelton) Almanac, I make out to be Cape Terawhiti. We steer more east, and sight Cape Sinclair, and soon after see the Heads. Wind is S.E., so we hope soon to be in.

“Johnston and the captain are drunk this morning. John (the other passenger) is at the helm. He knows the entrance well, and, as the wind is east, takes us in through Chaffers' Passage (the inside channel, used only by small coasters). As soon as we got within the Heads I called up the men, who were sleeping off the effects of the grog they had taken” (they got it out of the cargo in the hold, apparently with the captain's acquiescence)” and made them get up the chain (to anchor). I went down and told the captain we were in. He seemed quite delighted, and said he would rather hear that than get a hundred pounds.”

* * *

Apparently there was no marine authority to whom complaint could be laid against that remarkably hard-boiled skipper, at any rate Lieutenant Mackenzie seems to have considered it useless to do so. But he commented thus: “It is disgraceful that such a man should be allowed to sail a ship. He told me that about 14 years ago he was whaling at Queen Charlotte Sound, and that his employers sent from Sydney large quantities of grog, which was sold by him to the men at high rates, and that it was then he first took to drinking.”

I do not know what vessel Mackenzie chose to make his next inter-island voyage in, but I am tolerably certain it was not the schooner Wellington. A passage to Lyttelton might have landed him at the Chatham Islands.