"There ain't no racin' clippers now
Nor never will be again,
And most o' the ships are gone by now,
The same as most o' the men"
We, the British, are island dwellers and the sea is in our blood, but most people are ignorant of maritime subjects. For example, I have often heard newscasters call a 'ship' a 'boat' ― a very common mistake.
It is surely time for a revival of our great nautical past and heritage. Perhaps it should be a subject for schoolchildren to learn instead of some of the rubbish pushed into their minds nowadays. The salt sleeps in our blood and must be revived to show our oneness with the spirit of our forebears who pioneered the world in their Viking longboats and the seamen in the 'wooden walls' who endured hell to save their 'hearts of oak'.
Nonetheless, it is true that times have changed and some things have changed for the better. After all, who the hell wants to be 180 feet up a mast with a force 12 gale blowing in sub-zero temperatures with finger nails being ripped out by flapping canvas, sailing around Cape Horn? But the man in the rigging going around the 'Horn' was a very special man. After all, why was he there? Was it for himself, or his family, or a greedy ship-owner?
Whatever the motivation these old salts, or 'shellbacks' as they were called, were really hard men; what men nowadays would do that job for a living? Nonetheless, they did it. Maybe the heritage of the sea was in their blood. I don't know, but when I look around me at the stereotyped Boy Georges and the disco poseurs dancing to 'Feed the World' I think we seem to have lost something somewhere.
Not the life for Boy George clones
The question we should be asking ourselves, however, is whether we can rediscover and relive that which has been lost. A look at the history of sailing vessels will, I think, offer a small ray of hope. In 1957, after 42 years of sailing, the 3,000 ton, four-masted barque, Pamir, capsized when a hurricane struck the vessel 600 miles south-west of the Azores. Only six survived out of a crew of 86.
The Pamir was built to withstand hurricane force gales but other factors contributed to the loss of this vessel. An inquiry in Germany suggested that the disaster was due to poor loading caused by a dock strike in Buenos Aires from whence the Pamir sailed on its last, ill-fated voyage. This was the death of deep-sea cargo sailing vessels. The end of an era had come, an era which stretched back to the first sailing craft dating from thousands of years BC to the capsizing of the Pamir in 1957.
The only windjammers left sailing today are to be seen in the tall ships race, a spectacular sight and a preservation of our past at sea. However, if deep sea cargo sailing vessels had been kept in commercial use, perhaps a new super windjammer could have evolved which would be easier to handle, safer to sail and faster. Furthermore, such vessels would be both pollution-free and fuel-free.
Modern technology and materials may have played a part in this development, as it did in the last century when steel masts and spars replaced timber masts and spars and wire rope and chain replaced fibre ropes for rigging. These 19th century innovations helped sail to compete with steam, so perhaps 20th century innovations may have helped sailing ships compete with pollution-producing vessels if the former had been given a chance.
Furthermore, the big four-mast barques could carry about four thousand tons of cargo, and a ship like the Prevessen with five masts could carry eight thousand tons of cargo. With all driving power and accommodation above deck the hull was free for cargo ― no engine room or bunkers taking up space.
Are these vessels now 20th century dinosaurs or could they be developed for modern day use, such as the airships which were abandoned after disasters like that which struck the Hindenberg but have now made a comeback all these years later?
In 1980 various countries around the world presented papers for various rigs and designs of wind-powered sailing vessels. These designs ranged from normal sails to aerofoils like aircraft wings and wind turbines which are said to sail straight into the wind. They were meant mainly to assist engine-powered vessels, however, and there is no suggestion of a return to a modern pollution- and fuel-free deep sea cargo carrier.
Perhaps the only answer is to start where we left off with the pure windjammer, modernised to compete with engine-power and rely on the free winds alone to power vessels thousands of miles around the globe as they did years ago. Surely only those suffering from the speed disease and the make-money-fast manipulators would be against the re-emergence of sail.
After all we need to revive a life of leisurely labour to give us what we require without massive profits and the destruction of our environment. I suppose I could be accused of living in a fantasy dream world, but it seems to me that too little effort is being put into developing and using natural power sources such as wind, wave, tide and water power, all of which are free. The problem perhaps is that it would be too awkward to put VAT on a gust of wind or excise duty on a wave; consequently, as far as the powers-that-be are concerned, where's there no profit to be made there's no action to be taken. However, surely the quality of life is more important than mere money?
Although times change and new ideas overtake obsolete designs, some day we will have to look towards Mother Nature as a source of pollution-free power. I certainly hope so because I have loved the sea ever since I was a lad.
After working on three ships, I returned to land when I was still a young man. Years later I tried desperately to get back to sea again. I never did and was doomed to the life of a land lubber. A few years later my son suddenly decided to go to sea: as a sailor in the Royal Navy he served his country during the Falklands War. As the saying goes, the salt is in our blood . . .