Cutty Sark Voyages 1870-1922: From London to Brisbane – at sea with Captain Woodget
Clarence Ray was a young apprentice on Cutty Sark in 1894 -95. Based on letters he wrote home, this is how he might have described the voyage from London out to Brisbane.
Clarence Ray: I am Clarence Edwin Ray, apprentice on board the sailing ship Cutty Sark. This is my very first time on a proper voyage, and here I am in Brisbane, Australia. We arrived on 15th September 1894, and it looks like we’ll be here for at least a hundred days before we have a full load of wool bales to carry home.
It took us only 82 days to sail here from London, one of Cutty Sark’s fastest passages out. We would have been even quicker if we hadn’t had to stop at Gravesend to load 70 tons of gunpowder and dynamite, bound for the Australian mines. But it was a miserable time for us when the explosives were being loaded because the galley fire had to be put out, so we couldn’t get any hot grub, not even a cup of tea.
Usually, the galley cooked up pretty good food. My favourite was leu pie, which we got on Sunday: a great dish of meat and potatoes in a soup with a pastry top. I can take three helpings. On Tuesday we got salt beef, which we all call salted tram horse, because it’s so tough, and on Saturdays ‘junk’ – salted beef again, but hard, with potatoes.
On Monday, Wednesday and Friday we had pea soup and pork for dinner. Every other day for me began at 5.30 in the morning with washing the pigs…until we ate them all. I’d always heard that pigs were unclean animals – now I know it’s true. But we’ve also feasted on flying fish: they fly on board at night, then all we have to do is catch them, clean them and give them to the cook for our breakfast. One night I caught thirteen.
We need hearty food because it’s such hard work. Even though I’m a new apprentice, I’ve had to do my fair share of work on deck and aloft in the rigging. I did a jolly lot more too because one of the men in my watch said he couldn’t go aloft unless someone went with him, so the old man – Captain Woodget – always sent me. And once aloft, it was me who had to do everything, repairing and fixing the buntlines and clew lines and leech line – all the ropes that pull up the sails. This is pretty awful when the ship is rolling, like it was in the Bay of Biscay, which is that bay to the west of France and to the north of Spain. The ship rolled so much that the end of the main yard arm very nearly touched the water. I was ordered up to secure the mizzen topgallant staysail, which meant going right to the top of the main mast. When I finally got down, I couldn’t use my left arm – there was great bruise on the muscle, because I was clinging on so tightly. At one point the wind blew me so hard against the mast that all the air was knocked out of my lungs.
We had a fair run southwards but it got colder and colder until we rounded the Cape of Good Hope. Then we had three weeks of very bad weather. The deck was never dry for a single minute. It was the only time I wished I had never come to sea – hanging on to the wheel at night with the sea crashing over me. One time we were all – the entire crew – huddled up at the stern of the ship close to the wheel, where it was driest for a day and two nights. When daylight came on the second day, the ship looked a perfect wreck. The door to our deckhouse had been blown open but no one had dared to go onto the main deck to fix it. Everything was awash. I have a top bunk so it wasn’t too bad, but all the things in my storage chest were soaked through.
And that wasn’t the end of it. A few days later Captain Woodget’s son, who’s the second mate on the ship, got washed off his feet by a wave crashing over amidships and he broke his arm. Another storm hit us not long after that and we lost quite a few of the upper masts. It took us a week to lash up repairs.
It’s a hard life, but don’t think I don’t like it – I’m enjoying myself very much. And I’m getting muscle on me like a horse and I’ve not had a day’s illness of any kind, not even a headache.
I haven’t just been working on the ship. The old man has got a little steam launch on board for sailing around in harbour in style. Of course he has to pull the engine, boiler, coal bunker and everything else out of her to clean. Unluckily for me, he found out that I knew more about engine work than any of the other apprentices and so he’s had me helping him nearly all the time since we left London. I chip, repair, paint and generally do up!
Now we’re in Brisbane, the Captain has made me chief engineer, fireman, cleaner, and everything else on the launch. Wherever he goes in it, I go, to picnics and parties and that sort of thing. And afterwards, there is always something broken that I have to fix.
The sheep shearers have been on strike here so only now are the wool bales starting to be loaded. By the way the wool is coming down, we won’t be fully laden before Christmas now, and by the time I get home I will have been away nigh on nine months.
Announcer: This is just one of the many stories of Cutty Sark that you can explore on the ship. She is now permanently docked in Greenwich, just 20 minutes from the centre of London. Come on board and discover why she is one of the most famous ships in the world.