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Was It All Cricket?

Chapter 11 — My Departure for England

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Chapter 11
My Departure for England

Even though I was now going to the other side of the world, I did not experience, to the same extent, the feelings of emotion of three years earlier, when leaving home for the first time. There is a big difference between 12,000 miles to England and 1,200 miles to Australia, but it savoured more of an adventure to go so far away, with but a nominal sum of money, and mainly dependent on my own resources and ability.

Out of Wellington Heads we set course for Cape Horn, on what is probably the longest run in the trade routes of the world without sighting land. The opening of the Panama Canal has completely changed the route of shipping to and from New Zealand. In those days all ships to England went via Cape Horn, and returned via Cape of Good Hope. The prevailing strong westerly winds and gales across the Southern Pacific have always, as far back as the old sailing-ship days, made it, if not impossible, at least unprofitable to sail this ocean in a westerly direction.

We were no sooner clear of land than the long, heavy swell made our ship dip into the troughs of the sea, and conditions were far from comfortable. I was not at this time a good sailor, so the Chief Engineer said that I had better go and lie down, and take time to find my sea-legs. I was thus a “passenger” for several days. It was a really nasty trip all the way to Cape Horn, but I eventually became used to the motion of the ship. My duties were not onerous, for I was on the day shift throughout the journey, starting at 8 a.m. and working till 5 p.m. My work was mainly overhauling auxiliary machinery, of which there was a great deal on this ship. Time passed pleasantly, for the engineers on the Rimutaka were a genial lot. T was not only initiated into the engineering side of the ship's life at sea, but also into the fun and enlightening conversation in the mess-room. The mess-room stories were mostly new to me; altogether we were a jolly party. I also knew a good many of the passengers and in the evenings was able to fraternize with them, although it was not until we rounded Cape Horn and reached calmer page 155 waters that there was much opportunity of enjoying life on deck.

It was more than two weeks before the most southern part of South America was sighted, and everyone was filled with excitement in anticipation of seeing the famous Cape Horn. In earlier years the New Zealand Shipping Company's ships always went through the Straits of Magellan, a route that not only shortened the journey but also gave passengers a fine view of the scenery, for the Straits, with mountains and hills on either side, resemble a great fiord. The wreck of the Mataura put an end to this short cut. I went aboard the Mataura the night before she sailed from Wellington on her ill-fated voyage, to see my cousin who was Chief Refrigerating Engineer. Many years later he told me of his experience and how the accident happened. He said he was on deck on a beautiful day and on approaching the entrance to the Straits noticed they were fairly close in. Turning to his comrades he said: “By Jove, I've never seen her in as close as this before!” The words were hardly out of his mouth when the ship crashed on an uncharted rock. Everyone got away in the boats and made for the Straits close at hand. The shores of this part of Chile, which adjoins Patagonia, are far from hospitable, but the boats were soon in the secluded waters of the channel, and thus free from the danger of the storms that so frequently rage round the Horn. They were later all landed safely. It turned out that the Captain had been persuaded by passengers to go close enough to give them a good view of the shore. It is recorded that the Master of the Mataura was so distressed and humiliated at this disaster that he never left Patagonia, and ended his days there.

The Mataura was carrying to England the New Zealand University examination papers. As all the students were given a pass, there was much good-humoured chaff meted out to those who acquired what was satirically called a “Mataura” degreé.

Cape Horn was certainly an inspiring sight, standing out in its barren ruggedness. The storms of this area would seem to have formed the character of this famous Cape, and given it a unique place in the noted landmarks of the world. In the old sailing-ship days a man was not considered to be a sailor unless he had “rounded Cape Horn,” and the thrilling tales-of the sea, as told by Conrad and other sea-writers, enable one page 156 to understand why this region acquired the reputation that it has.

No sooner had we got clear of this point and turned to a northerly course than we were in calm seas and a much warmer temperature. Out came the deck-chairs, and people who had not been seen since the ship left Wellington were soon walking the decks. It was not till then that shipboard friendships began to develop, and soon there was much gaiety on board; sports games were started, dances were held at night, and the boat-deck, known as the “pair-garden,” began to play its usual part in life at sea.

Days of warmth and sunshine brought us to Montevideo. It was my first experience of bunkering a ship, and as the junior engineers had to keep tally of the baskets of coal emptied down the bunker hatch I knew, before the night was through, what a dirty job it was. Clad in overalls, with a scarf round my neck to keep out the coal-dust, I sat there, ticking off every ten baskets as they were emptied. The coal contractor's tally-man was with me and called out in his Portugese tongue, “Uno, dos, tres, quatro, cinco, ciace, ciete, ocho, neuvo, tally!” this last in a higher pitched voice, to complete the count of each ten. All through the night it was, “Uno, dos, tres, etc.” Every now and then this cunning old devil would attempt to jump from seven to nine, or from eight to tally, so one had to be on the alert. No one got ashore at Montevideo, for we were anchored offshore and bunkered from lighters. The sea became choppy, and new passengers, arriving alongside in a lighter, had to be hoisted aboard in baskets. We were glad to get away and have the ship's decks and deck-houses washed down, and so get rid of the coal-dust.

In about five days' time we passed Rio de Janeiro. The weather became hotter each day, and as the sea was calm, life aboard was pleasant indeed. Our captain, Commander Green-street, R.N.R., was the Commodore of the New Zealand Shipping Company's fleet, and a most popular Master. Measured by the number of times he had sailed round the Horn, Greenstreet was the greatest captain on this run. He was outstanding as a host and left behind him a reputation that is still remembered by old travellers. I did not learn until after I was married that twenty years before this voyage, my wife's father, who was a clergyman, and had studied and learned to speak page 157 German, spent much time on the trip to New Zealand exchanging languages with Captain Greenstreet, who could speak French.

We were now out in the middle of the South Atlantic, and nearing the Equator. Passengers were feeling the heat, and white duck suits and light and airy frocks were the order of the day. Crossing the Line was accompanied by all the usual ritual so long associated with the passing from one hemisphere to the other.

We passed Cape Verde, and next day were at Teneriffe, in the Canary Islands, off the north-west coast of Africa, The moment we dropped anchor many islanders, of Spanish origin, swarmed on board and displayed their wares. After taking aboard some fruit cargo, and replenishing our bunkers, we were off again, this time on the last leg of our journey. We were now beginning to feel the freshness of early spring, for it was April, the month that brings with it cold and showery weather round the British Isles. Soon we were abreast of Spain and Portugal, and presently were crossing the Bay of Biscay, famous for its rough seas. We were not to be disappointed, for a strong westerly wind was blowing, and although it was a fair wind to us. it tossed the seas into white-crested waves that would have made conditions unpleasant had we been outward bound. It was easily seen how these gales, blowing into the entrance to the English Channel, raised seas that spread themselves out into the Bay of Biscay, giving it the reputation of being one of the roughest seas in the world.

At last we saw England, the Mother Country of our great Empire, and the land spoken of so affectionately by all who live under the Union Jack. Land's End could be seen in the distance, but it was the headland of The Lizard, the southern-most point of Cornwall, that gave us the first nearby view of the shores of the Homeland. As was my wont on the coast of Australia, I had recourse to the atlas, for there is no better way of fixing in one's mind the geography of a place than by studying the map. We had pointed out to us the port of Falmouth, tucked in behind The Lizard and sheltered from the steady roll of the Atlantic. “Falmouth for orders”—how many people outside the seafaring world understand what this means? In the early days of the sailing-ship, and before the cables had been laid across the ocean, it was often necessary for vessels page 158 loading in the ports of India, the Far East and Australia to proceed to Falmouth, and on arrival there receive instructions about which port they were to deliver their cargoes. There is little doubt that in those great ocean races I have referred to in an earlier chapter, Falmouth was often the winning post, and the people of that port must have got more than their share of excitement from these contests. Across the bay and past Eddy-stone lighthouse we entered the harbour of Plymouth. As we approached this old and famous port, people stood in groups on the deck and talked of Drake and the Armada, and of the Mayflower. Seeing renowned places always interests colonials visiting the Old Country, and revives memories of history learnt at school. There was a Trafalgar ship at anchor; on the terrace in the distance, was pointed out the place where Drake and his Admirals were playing bowls when the news came through of the approach of the Spanish fleet. Plymouth clearly stood out to me as one of England's historic places. A large number of our passengers disembarked here, and this brought to an end—not without regrets—some happy friendships.

Out in the English Channel again we passed the Isle of Wight before dark, then Beachy Head, Dungeness Point and on past Dover. It was the lights of Dover we saw, not the white cliffs, so famous in the coastline of England. Next morning we were in the Thames Estuary and I was to see something that astonished me. I had seen much shipping activity in the approaches to ports like Sydney and Melbourne, but London…. Well, it was unbelievable! There was everything from the great liner down to the smallest coastal ship, and innumerable barges. What great use is made of barges in big cities that have river harbours!

Next we were at Gravesend. As I gazed over the side of the ship at this Thames port, I thought of my father and mother who, in the early 'sixties, had transhipped from the Leith boat into the bigger ship about to leave for New Zealand. Imagine the term “bigger ship” being used for a vessel that did not register much more than 500 tons! They certainly were brave souls in those early days. No wonder an ocean voyage was considered an adventure! Soon we were moving up the Thames itself, and as the river narrowed the immense sea-borne traffic passing right alongside us presented a scene that was intensely page 159 interesting. My Chief Engineer told me to stay on deck, so I saw as much as the passengers. Many places were pointed out; Woolwich on the one side of the river—Purfleet on the other, then this landmark and that.

Slowly we moved up towards the docks, and at last were opposite Tilbury. We are prone, out in these parts, to refer to the far-sightedness of the pioneer settlers in Australia and New Zealand, but here one sees the great docks of London, and one must pay homage to the men who, through the ages, planned and carried out the work of constructing these great wet docks close up to the heart of the City of London. With the River Thames being affected as far up as this by the tide, the dock gates are opened only at the turn of the tide.

At last we were berthed at the wharf, with the usual excitement of friends and relatives meeting the travellers from far-distant New Zealand. As I had been signed on as an assistant engineer, I had to be signed off before I could finally leave the ship, so all the passengers had gone before we went down to the shipping office to get our discharge. I remember when being paid my one shilling and sixpence—for the voyage had taken forty-two days—an old shipping office attendant laughed and said, “Do you want the money?” I don't know whether I was expected to leave the cash for drinks, but thought I should like those two small silver pieces as a souvenir.

I have travelled many times on passenger liners since that voyage, but I do not think I ever experienced such splendid fun and entertainment as on the Rimutaka of so many years ago.