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Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, Volume 1, Issue 3, November 1983

Memories of Life on the Coastal Scows

page 20

Memories of Life on the Coastal Scows

Working and living in Scows and the way things were done aboard them during World War I and the following ten years.

(Mr Williams writes about the scows as they were when he first knew them in the early 1920's. He started his sea-going career in the mid 1920's about the time that most of them had an engine or engines fitted. The engines were low powered but the scows started to fade away as the masts were cut down. The old scow hands faded with them. Its doubtful if there would be a dozen men alive who were in the scows before engines were put in them and not many people would remember these craft with three or four headsails and gaff topsails making a beautiful sight as they came up the bay in a fresh breeze with everything set and a bone in their teeth.)

Sailing a scow was an art of its own which could only be learned by experience and some I know never did learn it properly. There were more tricks than a magician had up his sleeve. Some scows had to have a reef in the mizzen when running before the wind wing and wing otherwise they would broach to. Some have taken a mast out by jibing. On a board lead some would round up and almost come about– against the helm. Close hauled most of them sailed quite nicely with some a lot faster than others. Most had to be watched closely at all times but some in light weather would hold a course with the wheel on a bucket, so making an easy watch for the helmsman. In some of them when there was no wind the lifeboat was put over the side and used to row and tow the scow. If lucky a couple of miles was made during a watch. The lifeboat was usually about fourteen feet long, clinker built, with two pair of oars and rowlocks. There was food and signal gear, tanks, and a five gallon water barrel. Mostly these boats were fairly easy to row. The lifeboat on most scows was slung on davits across the transom and could be dangerous in a big following sea. I saw one scow in Auckland that got caught and the boat was smashed through between the davits and came down on the wheel and nearly caught the helmsman. The boat was a complete wreck.

Some scows were never fitted with wheelhouses and the man at the wheel was out in all weathers while steering. The compass was fitted inside the cabin above the Skipper's bunk and had glass at top and bottom so that he could see the course at any time without getting out of his bunk. There was a porthole in the aft side of the cabin so the helmsman could see the course while still at his place at the wheel. For night work there was a small oil lamp fitted to shine on the compass. This had to be filled and trimmed every four hours by the man going off watch duty. On some scows the light was only a piece of candle and this also was replaced every watch.

The rudder was a massive affair about six feet square and always seemed out of proportion for the size of the vessel. It was built with a hoisting gear to lift it above the heel of the vessel while working in shallow water and this also dropped the lower edge about a foot below the keel while at sea. In dirty weather the wheel had more kick than a mad beast when a big sea hit the rudder. I once saw a man of about fifteen stone thrown right over the wheel and into the lee scuppers, but luckily without injury. After a four hour watch in bad weather the helmsman knew he had been working. Since then the scows have been fitted with motors and a purchase gear fitted to the rudder making steering much easier but it did mean more turns of the wheel to get the rudder hard over.

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Cargo of all sorts was carried on scows and some of the worst loads were the big blocks of marble that were shipped from the Bays to Wellington for the construction of Parliamant Buildings. Some of the blocks weighed 25 tons. On deck, scows carried perishable cargoes such as cement or other bagged goods, or fruit, a grating floor was first laid and then a canvas cover put down and the cargo stowed on it. After finishing loading the sides and ends of the cover were folded up as far as they would reach and then more covers were put around and over so that the cargo was completely folded in canvas. Only very rarely did cargo get wet. Coal cargoes were never covered but shifting boards were put across the deck at both forward and after end of the centre case and the coal loaded in an open topped box and, unless exceptionally heavy weather was encountered, none was lost. Limestone was another cargo never covered and, when loaded, the stone was wheeled aboard in barrows up a ten inch plank. It was discharged with the ship's cargo gear but every piece was picked up by hand and put in an iron bucket to be hoisted ashore. It was really hard work loading some cargoes. One place where we went to load potatoes they were brought to the ship in drays. We had to carry the chaff sacks full of potatoes on our backs and place them on the ship where they were to be stowed. Three of us loaded 25 tons of potatoes in four hours. When winches were installed on scows they were usually powered with a four or five horsepower engine and cargo work then was a dream. We would load apples at seventeen cases to a tray and then only have to pick them up and put them in the required position. Timber was a cargo that was hard on the hands as every plank of it was picked up and put into place to make sure of getting the maximum on board in the space for it. One method used for power for the discharge of cargoes was a 'burton purchase' which I saw used once when a winch engine had broken down. This was operated by a horse which was harnessed with collar, hames, and trace chains and swingle tree and hooked to a wire for the purchase. The horse was taken forward to hoist the sling of cargo and backed up when it was landed and the hook let down for the next sling. One scow I saw had a small donkey boiler and steam winch fitted. It worked very efficiently.

Most of the crews in the scows were hard workers and hard drinkers but were always on the job when required and at most times did their jobs properly at the right time. At most of the small Bay ports the crew loaded the cargo and at the bigger ports helped with loading and discharging.

Some of the scows capsized quite a few times in their lifetime and some drowned their crews. Often this was caused by the lifting of the weather bilge out of water in a stiff breeze. When the wind got under the bottom of the ship she "lost her grip and fell over".

Before the mid 1920's each crew man had to carry his own mattress, blankets, plate, mug, knife and fork. Most knives were sheath knives and sometimes if the knife had not been cleaned properly one could taste the job it last had been used for. The plate and mug were enamel. There were no sheets or pillow slips. The pillow was a twenty five pound flour bag filled with straw and the mattress a calico bag also filled with straw. Usually it cost sixpence for the straw and it would last three or four months but it was the dampness that ruined most mattresses and pillows. The mattress was appropriately called a donkey's breakfast. The wages in the 1920's was one pound per month for seamen so I do not think that crews were over paid. The Skipper received six pounds per month. There were no springs to bunks as the whole thing was built of one inch timber planking with two by two inch cross members.

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The only ventilation to the cabin was through the entrance scuttle which in dirty or wet weather was closed. The lighting was one or two kerosene lamps and when the weather was bad one would wake up full of fumes from the lamps. There was no table for meals and in bad weather each sat on his respective bunk with his plate of food on his knee in the cabin and in good weather we would mostly have our meals on deck wherever we could find a good spot.

There was no galley (kitchen) and no cooking range ever fitted to some of the scows. Cooking was done on a five gallon oil drum placed on a concrete slab or a flat stone with a cast iron pot to fit it. Meat and vegetables were all cooked together. The meat was mainly corned beef but at times some fish were caught and they made a change of diet. In bad weather the whole arrangement was taken into the cabin, usually three steps down, and the place would be filled with smoke and fumes. There was never a sweet course and there was only one hot meal a day. The other two meals consisted of bread and butter with sometimes a slice of cold meat while in the fruit season there was fresh fruit (if the scow went into port to load fruit).

The water supply was a one hundred gallon tank in some, while in others wooden casks were used. As these were on deck it was a case of picking the right moment to get water or you might finish up with it half salt from the slop that climbed aboard.

A lot of skippers in the scows only had Servitude tickets which they had gained through serving on vessels in an area for a certain number of years but it was of no use in certain areas. Others had extended river limit tickets which also covered certain areas. Some skippers had twenty ton coasting tickets which meant that a man with one of these could take a vessel of that gross tonnage anywhere around the coast. They were all done away with round about the time of the second world war.

There was no toilet in the early scows and even in the last of them it was only a bucket under the seat and after use this was emptied over the side and then half-filled with sea water again to be ready for the next person. In the olden times it was a case of sitting on the rail and getting a really good grip in case she slopped a good sea over or dipped a bit deeper than usual. If either happened one was literally caught with his pants down.

Most of the scows and other small trading vessels were fore and aft rigged but some of the bigger ones were topsail schooners and crossed one or two yards on the foremasts. They looked beautiful under full sail. Some scows had nice lines with a nice lift to the sheer strake fore and aft and also to the bulwark capping rail. Others were very ugly and sometimes made one wonder what had gone wrong with the builder to make one like it. Some were very fast, some were slow, some wet in a seaway, and some hardly shipped water unless it was really dirty. All worked hard and they made the crew work hard but they were the makings of a lot of good seamen ashore and afloat.

It brings back a few memories and a few sad moments when I think of the men who have long since done their last trick at the wheel of the overloaded and undermanned flat-bottomed crates.

God bless them wherever they be sailing now and for evermore.