Part 1 – Cadets
Chapter 3 – Learning the Ropes
‘What the hell is that?’
The morning drum roll got louder and louder.
‘Cover your ears till he’s finished,’ Bowen advised.
The marine drummer found a comfortable place at the bottom of the stairs to make a stand; heads went under the blankets. The duty corporal went round pulling blankets off.
‘Alright then! Who was it, sicking it up all night and stinking the place out?’
Stollman had seen the wash bowls.
‘Was it you Browne? Why have you got two wash bowls on your floor Browne? Fine sailor you are going to make – hope you don’t get on my ship.’
‘An aspiration we both share,’ thought Ephraim, slamming down the lid of his chest.
Stollman was hungry. It was a couple of hours until breakfast and they had to muster for drill first. He had observed yesterday that young Gail had some tuck hidden in the corner of his chest.
‘Hey, Carrots, you’ll not be wanting to keep a stale bit of old biscuit in your chest.’
He launched himself at Gail’s chest and grabbed the piece of shortbread. He started to eat it.
The boy struggled to reach the bully with flailing fists There were laughs from some, sounds of disapproval from others. Richard Polwhele came up with a roar and knocked the biscuit from Stollman’s mouth.
‘You rotter! Put that back.’ But there was no time for further activity, Sergeant Bose appeared, he removed Stollman from Gail with one sweep of his huge hand and left Polwhele punching the air.
‘You two will report to the Commander for defaulter’s at eleven! Now clean all this up and get over to Briton for morning drills,’ Sergeant Bose took no prisoners.
Ephraim helped Gail repack his chest.
When the cadets arrived on deck, enthusiastic in their monkey jackets the dawn light had barely arrived and the slippery ice and debris left by the storm was still being cleared away by the bluejackets. ‘Hey, look at this,’ said Gail sailing down in a slalom, arms wide. He cannoned into Polwhele.
‘No skylarking!’ yelled the petty officer. ‘Get mustered into your ranks.’
The cadets pushed into their places. Stollman found his view obscured by the tall Browne who was standing in front of him. He hooked his foot around the narrow heel of the cadet’s boot and brought him down. Browne sprawled awkwardly on the deck. The cadets laughed. Stollman exchanged a grin with his toadies. But the officer in charge was not amused.
‘A cadet who cannot stand on the deck is hardly likely to be able to stand on the yards. Name?’
‘Perhaps, Mister Browne, you would like to pay attention – or perhaps you know everything, already?’
Browne was not used to sarcasm. He felt publicly and unfairly humiliated. He also felt angry, a sensation he was unused to. ‘Now gentlemen,’ the officer continued, ‘ this is a Training Ship. We train you to sail a ship. That means understanding masts, yards, standing and running rigging and how to work a ship under sail. A sailing ship can be lost at the hands of incompetent officers and Admiralty doesn’t like that. An officer has to feel at home on the yards and understand the way of a sail at sea, the reefing and furling of the canvas in response to the wind. He must know his ship, be one with it, serving its success, knowing its need. You can have all your gentlemen officers but an officer who has not learned to be a good seaman, will never make a good Captain. He will not be able to handle a crew or command a ship unless he has mastered the drills of a sailing ship, the evolutions, that make for a successful and happy ship. We all remember Drake’s immortal words, don’t we?… ‘The gentlemen must haul with the mariners and the mariners with the gentlemen’…’
‘Not much hauling for a Captain these days,’ Fitzmaurice drawled, ‘That’s what he has the mariners for.’
‘Don’t you believe it, mister. Wait till you’re rounding Cape Horn in a force ten gale with a leaky ship and a sick crew. Then you will haul. And I’ll have you reported for impudence for that interruption! Defaulters tomorrow at eleven. Now’, the officer turned to a bluejacket who had just come up from the lower deck, ‘Here is an expert mariner to teach you the ropes – and I use the word advisedly. Able Seaman Birkett will demonstrate the skills of climbing the rigging for the attention of Mr Browne – and the rest of you young greens. Show them, Birkett.’
Birkett stood for a moment on the lowest rattling. His muscles rippled, and he was off; hands and feet effortlessly taking him up the yards, through the futtocks, and down again, before cadets could take breath.
‘Now explain it to them and show them how to do it.’
Birkett demonstrated; he stood front of the lowest ratline and pointed out the various elements of the rigging, ‘These rattlings are the ropes attached to the shrouds. The shrouds are the vertical, strong wires that hold the mast up. The yards are the large wooden or metal spars crossing the masts of the ship horizontally or diagonally from which the sail is set. You climb to get to the yards and the tops, the platforms at the mast heads. They used to be used as fighting tops in the old days when marines manned them, but no such fun now. The cross trees are the light timber trestles which support the tops. When you climb, balance the weight of the body through your feet from the start of the climb and keep it throughout, you’ll get used to it. Adjust it by whatever movement of the knees is necessary, and never lift a hand to the rope above until that balance is secure, and never for any reason, even when leaning back on a ratline to fix a gasket on a sail, take both hands off the ropes. The first hurdle for most of you will be the futtock shrouds just below the first platform. This does need a bit of arm strength and commitment, as the futtock shrouds make you lean backwards for about 4-6ft to access the platform, but you’ll get the hang of it. Any questions?’
Bowen, next to Ephraim, was entranced by the demonstration of the magnificently athletic seaman but Ephraim was still smarting.
‘Now, Mr Browne’, said the officer, ‘Let us see you copy that then!’
Ephraim was nothing if not able to follow instructions and he had been sailing with Captain Pullen and his father since he was six. He was half way up the rigging before the officer had a chance to stop him,
‘That will do Mister, that will do….’
Stollman was furious at having given Browne a chance to show off. It was now common knowledge that the tall, quiet, pale looking cadet had passed in at number one. It was uncommon knowledge that Stollman had passed in number forty two. He wanted to keep it that way.
‘Up the shrouds and over the futtocks, in double quick time to the topmast, Birkett, give us a last demonstration of what can be done.’ The jury rigged Briton had no top gallant masts but this time, Birkett shinned up the rigging almost on his back over the futtocks, running out on a topsail yard to stand on the truck, hands aloft in the air. Gail felt sicker than ever.
Having shown the cadets the first essentials of yard arm work, the officer told the cadets that they would soon be like seasoned tars on the yards. ‘And don’t let me catch any of you knocking each other off the ropes!’
The drill over, the cadets went thankfully to breakfast; cocoa with some sort of hash and biscuit which abated hunger but did not satisfy. The hungry boys devoured it, some again managing to get more than their fair share. But breakfast was a quieter affair with Corporal Melrose on duty again.
‘There is punishment for boys scrambling for biscuit, oh yes, and my eye is on you, oh yes. Punishment for boys arriving late for classes. So you had better get going.’ A trick of the light caught the corporal’s glass eye and it shined momentarily.
They raced off to the novelty of a schoolboy routine on board ship. Sebold thought the curriculum looked pretty good on the whole, he was glad to have Greek and Latin behind him and he didn’t mind the mathematics. Polwhele dreaded the mathematics; the Euclid and Algebra were new to him but he relished the opportunities for field sports and beagling and paper chases. Gail couldn’t wait for the lessons in seamanship and the practical instruction promised. He hoped he would get to sit next to Sebold in the classes. Browne took at once to the Rev. Falwell who actually seemed enthusiastic about the Bible; he took evening prayers which were not compulsory, and obviously had a fine command of mathematics. Also, he showed a genuine interest in the wellbeing of the cadets in his charge. He invited them to meet him out of class when they wished. Ephraim thought this might provide a good occasion for some discussion about the Christian duties of a naval officer – how they got round the command not to kill, for instance. Fitzmaurice resolved to do as little as possible in the knowledge that his ‘interest’ would provide him with a good berth when the time came. Bowen and Fraser just hoped they would make it through the exams.
It was the work on the rigging that proved to be the problem. There were few officers to patrol what happened on the yards.
‘Need some help?’ was a common cry from older cadets who then proceeded to push, hit and generally try to dislodge the struggling younger ones from the shrouds. To climb the ropes with fellows above you deliberately standing on your hands, and niners below rapping the backs of your legs with their togies was bad enough but when you stood in fear on the top yard and some cad tried to dislodge your feet, it was hard not to lose your temper and fetch him a blow on the way down. Polwhele told Fraser,
‘Apparently a ‘nine’ tried to kick his feet from under him, the ‘new’ wasn’t going to stand for it – and he didn’t, poor chap – he fell thirty feet to the deck! Had to be invalided out at end of the year. Never the same again. The ‘nine’ was only reported for bullying on the top yard and only got ten cuts. The ‘news’ talked of complaining to Their Lordships! Nothing happened, of course.’
One tormentor solicitously leaning on Bowen, increased his pressure so much that the nervous Bowen, grasping the top rope till his hands bled, slipped his footing and fell backwards. Fitzmaurice, nearby, who had found a surprising liking for this exercise reached out for him just in time and stopped him from falling. He grasped the offender’s hand,
‘Terribly kind of you to try and help young Bowen. My father, the Earl of Harden will be delighted to know of your helpfulness. I am sure he will want to bring it to the notice of the Captain at once.’
The discomfited bully grunted and took off quickly.
Polwhele also had a near miss. He had tried for the climb over the futtocks, had got to the top but had not allowed for the weakness and exhaustion of his leg muscles unused to such exercise. He collapsed honourably on the truck. ‘Not bad!’ said a niner coming up behind him and would have pushed him over the edge had not Polwhele found a last ounce of strength to hold on.
Sebold found the climbing surprisingly difficult. It wasn’t the bullying; he could easily cope with that; it was a game two could play and he was strong. But his old fear of vertigo returned. It hit him when he was a quarter of the way up. It was like that day on the Alps. Nausea overtook him, he sweated profusely and if he looked down, the world swam before him and his body froze on the rigging. So he learned to climb by keeping his eyes shut mostly and registering like a blind man the weight of his feet on the rattlings and the feel of the various ropes and shrouds as he ran the textures of them through his hands, and hazarding the occasional open eye as he came up to the futtocks. He hadn’t been over them yet, but he would.
Ephraim had a naturally athletic capacity; climbing was something he truly enjoyed and he was fast; being tall seemed an advantage and he was quick and wiry enough to evade most of the bullies on the yards. And he enjoyed being aloft; to sit on the truck and look down on the world, be it just for a few minutes, was to be a bit nearer to God and rejoice in a moment of reflection. It was up on the truck that he noticed another superb climber on the yards, a cadet he had not noticed earlier. What term was he? As for Stollman, he surprised Ephraim on the rigging; for such an unprepossessing weighty figure he was remarkably agile and cat like and had learned to pounce unnervingly on lesser climbers.
William Gail, so enthusiastic in other respects, found this business of climbing the rigging was ruining his life. He confided to Browne,
‘It’s so unfair! I’ve always wanted to be in the Navy,and I love ships but I hate being sea sick, and I’m scared of climbing the rigging. As soon as I get my feet up a few rattlings, it seems some wicked spirit is at my elbow saying,
‘Why are you doing this,
it only makes you piss,
you’ll kill yourself you know you will,
you simply haven’t got the skill.’
Then you’d better get it, ‘said Ephraim, shocked.
‘Go down! go down! It says, and I do, despite the jeering and the others thinking I am useless. I just go shaking back down the short distance to the ground. Now they think its clever to call me ‘windy Gail’ and make whooshing hurricane noises. I keep having dreams of bivouacking on the top truck, inviting you all to picnic with me, but in the morning my fantasies fail, and I see myself again falling overboard and drowning. I can’t go on like this, I must do something, or I will be sacked.’
He wrote to his mother,
I was not alright the first two or three days, it was scary. I am alright now…. I am going to make myself climb the rigging to the tops. Stollman is a very fat, horrible fellow and rather an ass. I found him out when I first came on board. I will try and sweat though it is very hard but one good thing the fellows let a chap sweat if he likes and you can go in the studies.
Your loving son,
Sunday, was letter writing day. Cadets reassured anxious parents:
I am writing this in my hammock before lights out. Please excuse execrable writing…. There are a decent lot of fellows here and I think you can feel the Navy will be in good hands when we all get out.
Your future Admiral son,
I am wondering if this is really the right thing for me but I am endeavouring to make the best it. And I am praying about it so please you do the same. A few quiet moments now to continue reading the Newman you gave me. I find it surprisingly challenging and nothing like I have ever read before. I will give you my opinion when I reach the end of it. Remember me to Mr Moulton and tell him the mathematics here, are very easy.
Amantes filius tuus
Not bad here! …I like sleeping in a hammock…..and the gigs are great…behave yourself and look after the silly sisters and get mother to send me my fishing rods…..and tell me about Eustace. I know he is getting old but he still has some good rides in him.
Your best brother, Richard
Anxious parents replied:
I envy you at the start of your career. I was not fortunate enough to have a proper naval training as you know – just thrown in at the deep end as a ship’s boy. Make sure you make the best of it as I have done. I wish to see you as a First Lord of the Admiralty one day. But don’t forget ‘the tricks of the trade’ – I always found them useful. Write and keep me informed of your progress, my son.
I trust all is well with you and that the Lord is lifting up the light of his countenance upon you and giving you his unique peace. I know you were dubious about this next step, but I am sure the Service will provide you with all you need in the way of light upon your path, and I hope you will enjoy it as I did once….. I shall be interested in discussing the Newman with you. I feel myself it is a mistaken attitude.
Your loving father, Albert
I miss you. It is not the same around here with only the silly sisters. We beat Charters on Saturday. Mother says she hopes you are eating alright. I have got a new pony called Fizz and your new stallion is waiting for you. I cannot wait to join you.
Your envious brother, Alfred
Dear Mr. Browne,
I write to thank you for your kindness to my son, William. He has told me of your help in the matter of his sickness. I wish to extend an invitation for you to visit us whenever you wish.
Lady Jane Gail
Browne was surprised by Gail’s parentage,
‘Doesn’t that make you an Honorable, Gail? You didn’t say!’
‘I suppose so, – who cares?’ Ephraim was flattered by Lady Gail’s invitation. He wondered what his father would make of it.
William Gail’s abortive attempts to climb the rigging continued. It was in another try that he fell through the lower rattlings and barked his shins. It produced contusions and earned him a spell in bed with a leg infection but it was a short lived respite from worry.
Browne was allowed to visit him in the sick bay.
‘What’s the matter with your eye?’
‘Stollman got me – just before I fell.’
‘How’s your leg?’
‘I got Stollman but nothing hurts him. Not bad, you can hardly see it now.’ Gail stretched out a spindly limb.
‘Your legs don’t look up to much. You’ll have to use your arms. Build up your muscles.’ Ephraim started demonstrating,
‘Stretch out your hands, make a fist facing upwards and pretend you are pulling something heavy towards you.’ Browne’s thin arms produced noticeably strong, round, bunching muscles above his elbows. Gail was impressed.
‘Keep tightening your fists and exercising. Build up your arms. Climbing depends on the strength of the pull. The stronger you are, the quicker you will be and the quicker you are, the sooner you will be down. Come on Gail, you’ve got to do it, and you can!’
Gail watched Browne leave, ‘What a good fellow, he was!’ He decided that the first morning’s drill practice when his legs were healed, would see him, Will Gail, sitting on top of the main mast or dead below it. However, it was to take some time before the infection he had contracted healed.
Meanwhile the cadets got into the routine of the training ship. They rarely saw an executive officer; they seemed to exist solely for the purpose of inspecting divisions. It was life at the hands of the bullies and the more bullying corporals which presented the problem. The boys were familiar with the various initiations of school life, but some of the traditional rites of the training ship were hard to take: ‘News’ were asked, on arrival, if they had been weighed? ‘No?’ So they were seated in the bight of the crupper chain on the bow sprit to ascertain weight. At the crucial moment the chain was slipped, and the cadet sustained a nasty bump, if not serious damage, when he fell. They had all come in for it: Polwhele was badly bruised and breathed fire and slaughter for some time but dared not at this stage challenge the perpetrators. Some of the niners presented problems with the use of their togies. The togies were the lanyards senior cadets wore with heavy knots on the end of them for dishing out instant punishment for unknown offences by juniors, names you were not supposed to say, innocuous words you were not supposed to speak. Ephraim complained of the bullies to Rev Falwell at evening prayers,
‘Some of these Cadets are horrendous and the Corporals are no better.’
‘They are not necessarily vicious,’ said the Reverend, ‘but they have to handle ebullient young gentlemen and often resent having their older experience relegated to inferiority, in the face of you young Misters.’
‘They just rely on their power over us to provide status,’ declared Fitzmaurice after he had had a run in with ‘Fish’ over slacking at drill.
‘It’s that Melrose I cannot bear – what a horror he is. He’ll get you for anything, oh yes he will. I wouldn’t put anything past him. Told the Commander he had found an indecent note in Palethorpe’s pocket. Bet oh yes wrote it! Now P’s got defaulter’s table – and he loves butter!’
Then there was the ‘humbugging’: the sudden craze of older, bigger cadets to link arms and go rushing down the deck knocking everything and everybody out of their way.
Polwhele was holding forth:
‘I say, you fellows. Haven’t we had enough of this humbugging? Two of our lot got knocked down in that last one and it takes something to knock down Mason. Bowen cracked his elbow. When they rush down the deck at you like that, there is nothing you can do to escape. It’s time we stopped letting them have all their own way. Stollman is always in the middle of that scrum you notice. He and that horror, Staines! He’s only a New. How’s he got in with Staines and his lot?
‘He doesn’t like to be left out of anything that might hurt someone,’ Ephraim observed.
‘It’s because he’s Staines’s fag’ said Mason. He’ll do anything Staines tells him. He worships the monster.’
‘That makes two then. Stollman is just an early prototype for Staines. I reckon there are several monsters being bred here.’
Bowen joined in, ‘Some of those second termers are throwing their weight around and you want to watch out for that ‘niner’ Newman. I reckon he’s got the biggest Walker knot I’ve ever seen on the end of his togie; always waving it about ready to strike someone down. I’ve been watching him. And it’s not what he does, it’s what he gets others to do. He starts talking to one of the juniors and they think he’s doing them a favour and while he’s distracting them, he has one of his toadies creep up and crouch down behind the junior. Then Newman gives him a push and the poor chap does an involuntary backward somersault over the body behind him and nearly breaks his neck – looks like an accident if any officer asks. When I get my togie I’ll show him a thing or two.’
‘Don’t think you’re really the type, Bowen’, and Sebold gave him a thump. Bowen smiled.
‘Where’s Gail?’asked Sebold, ‘Have you seen his black eye? I reckon that was Stollman. He’s got it in for young Gail but I don’t want to be around when the youngster decides he’s had enough.’
‘Didn’t you hear? Young Gail’s out of action – he’ll be out altogether if he can’t manage on the shrouds!’
‘Sometimes, I think being a bully must be the mark of a naval officer, part of the training,’ Ephraim reflected, ‘Do you think Stollman will make Admiral of the Fleet?’ Polwhele was outraged,
‘What a thing to say! No decent cadet goes in for bullying and if you are going to be Admiral of the Fleet, you had better start as a decent Cadet.’
‘I would not have believed there were so many prospective naval officers willing to hurt each other. Do you think it is meant to be part of the training? Hurt fellows here, then you’ll know how to hurt the enemy?’
‘Oh, it is just because you’ve never been to public school, Browne’ Fraser chipped in, ‘Never known how bad it can be – not so bad here.’
‘Glad I never went to one then.’
Bullying was not the only subject of conversation.
‘What about this business with Cheviot?’ said Fraser, ‘You fellows heard the rumours? I believe he’s going to be sacked – a warning to us all, I suppose. Whatever he did they seem to have dealt with him pretty quickly.’ ‘Yes,’ Bowen chimed in, ‘Halbert was telling me – seems a Corporal reported him for spooning or something of that sort – though how they both got into the same hammock beats me!’
‘I heard it was back of the cricket pavilion – with a cadet from Marlborough.’
‘They actually both came from Marlborough, so at least Briton is not responsible!’ Didn’t have anything like that at Stubbingtons and I wouldn’t like to see it here!’
‘See what?’ inquired a young cadet who had been edging in.
‘Never you mind – stop earwigging!’ said Fraser and walloped him.
It was not long before Gail’s ‘now or never’ day came. The mast looked higher than ever.
‘Great morning for climbing.’ Browne was encouraging. Gail was shaking. Other Cadets were on the yards,
‘What’s the matter, windy?’
‘Want your ma to hold your hand?’
‘They’re all looking at me!’
‘Of course they’re not.’
‘Oh, don’t go Browne. I will. I will’
‘Well, just relax then. Take a deep breath. Get a good footing to start with and I’ll come up behind you. And remember what they say, never let go of one rope before you have hold of another! Try and get a steady rhythm, pull on your arms but keep an eye on the balance of your feet, and relax your knees. Don’t think of anything but the next step, don’t think of the top, just keep going.’
Gail vowed that he would do just that. He would keep going or die in the attempt. He regretted the days in bed now. He would have been out of bed earlier if Doctor Stern had not been so obsessed with using the snake oil he’d got from America, it had weakened his legs and softened his hands. He flexed his feet in preparation and made fists of his hands. He stretched his fingers. It was time to start.
He put one foot on the bottom rattling and it moved slightly! No! – he couldn’t do it! Yes, he could! He brought up his other foot and allowed his weight to fall into his knees to steady them. One hand went to the rope above. It was thick and scratchy. He lifted his foot and started to climb, carefully moving hand over hand on each rope. He made good speed on the lower ratlines but his eyes were distracted by the movement of the men on the shrouds around him. He narrowed them to the fraying, yellow thickness of the next rope above him, nausea gripped his stomach and paralysis was grasping for his legs,
‘Don’t look down
Or you’ll fall and drown!
There was only one thing for it – Pray! He put his head against the rope,
‘God make me brave.
If my life you will save,
And bless my endeavour
I’ll love you forever.’
Suddenly, incredibly, the scorching of the rope on his unused hands, the sores on his legs, the sickness, became as nothing to his determination to ‘climb this d—d ship’. He sensed Browne behind him, willing him up. Hand after hand, step after step, the deck fell away below him and the blue sky, back lit by sunshine,came nearer. His heart began to lift and the safety valve of his rhyming returned,
‘This heavenly blue.
To me is quite new,
Never again, to climb will I rue’
He saw the short, high, pyramid of the shrouds under the futtock band in front of him and he was ready for them. Dimly aware of the voices and figures of other climbers around him, he started to rejoice at his progress,
‘I’ll sing aloud.
on that damn futtock shroud’….
He reached up and grasped the ropes of the cross trees; his legs would be over and on to them any minute, his new muscles bulged, pistons pushed his legs. Browne was safely behind him and one more pull would bring him over the cross trees. His slight body gave him all it had, one mighty heave.
‘All fear past.
Done at last.’
He had attained the futtocks platform. He was at rest!
‘Aha! What have we here! I do believe it is the little vomiter!’
Gail’s sudden access of strength and joy left him. Stollen’s grinning face was standing over him. His new blue sky spun round. He fainted and fell backwards.
As he fell, his armpit caught in the futtock hole long enough for Browne to reach out, grab him, and signal down for help. Three bluejackets were sent up from below but not before that expert unknown, climber of a cadet that Browne had noticed earlier, arrived beside them.
‘You get one arm around him on that side. I’ll stop him falling further on this side, then we’ll leave him to the bluejackets to carry him down.’
‘It’s a good job you were here,’ said Browne, ‘I didn’t see you coming up.’
‘I was behind you. It was Gail, wasn’t it? I was watching him. I knew he was nervous.’
‘Didn’t every one? I say, you are pretty good on the ropes, what is your name, what term, I haven’t seen you before.’
‘Name of Falwell – Tom Falwell. We should get Gail to climb again straight away, he was just getting his nerve back. I saw that beastly Stollen. He and Staines were waiting for him. Staines was egging him on.’
The blue jackets arrived and Falwell disappeared. They lifted Gail back on to the cross trees before carrying him down. He opened his eyes – no sign of Stollen – his confidence returned.
‘I’m alright now. I’m going up again.’
The bluejackets made no attempt to argue.
‘Alright then mister, off you go as quickly as you can. Follow us.’
Gail started to negotiate the first few ratlines, but a wave of nausea made his legs give way. He was going to faint! The bluejackets caught him and held him to steady him. ‘Off you go, mister.’ He climbed again. They watched him for a few minutes and then disappeared. It had been a good ‘christening’. The rigging never held its terrifying hold over Gail again. He was back on the yards next day and knew it would not be long before he was going upside down over the futtocks to the top mast.
He wanted to thank the other cadet who had so unexpectedly shown up to help him but he did not see him again. He went to find Ephraim.