That day in 1910, when I arrived in Wellington to join the Amokura, a northerly gale was blowing across the wide harbour. Acres of spindrift torn from the curling wave tops scudded away in misty clouds to dissipate on the southern shore. In the harbour'st nor west corner, hurricane force winds funnelled down through the valley in the hills at Kaiwarra onto the ships below in their track. The old-time sailing ships now refitted as coal hulks stretched their cables as taut as steel bars from their wave-washed buoys.
Straining at a buoy closer to the Thorndon shore and almost opposite Kaiwarra, the white-painted auxiliary barquentine cadet ship Amokura also rode out the gale. Drenching spume flew high across her fo'c'sle head as the wind-whipped waves crashed against her bows.
It was across the storm-tossed bay that I caught my first sight of the ship that was to transform me from a country lad of fourteen-and-a-half into a follower of the sea.
To become a sailor, I had travelled on the inter-island steamer Maori through a rough boisterous night from my home via Lyttelton on the South Island of New Zealand to Wellington and was met on arrival by an oilskin clad youth with "N.Z.S. Amokura" standing out in gold lettering on his cap-ribbon.
Contact made, we set off to Thorndon Esplanade where the duty boat was waiting to ferry us across the half mile of bay to the cadet ship. Too many years have passed to remember our conversation en route, but I do have recollections of being told when we came to the waiting boat at Thorndon Bath's pier, "Good job they sent the whaler. Never get back in the cutter."
I was to learn that the cutter was a beamy carrier, mostly used for ferrying liberty boys ashore, whilst the narrower whaler was the heavy weather boat.
Eight barefoot boys of fifteen and sixteen, clad in oilskins and sou'westers, were sitting on the thwarts of the waiting boat. They gave me a good look-over as I awkwardly stepped aboard. The coxswain was a tall, rangy, long-jawed lad. He wore a turned-up sou'wester and answered to the name of Ned. He wasn't happy.
"Thought you'd never get here. She's blowing harder all the time. Look at it howling out there. Any minute the old ship could break away and go to a skate. Done it before, you know." And then to his crew, "You got to pull, me sons, or we're here for the day. First one to catch a crab gets a wallop with the tiller. Reg," to the lad who had met me, you double bank the lee stroke."
Rugged sixteen-year-old Ned sat in the stern sheets holding the tiller and intently looking out across the bay, searching for the least lull in the gale. Then his eyes turned to me. I was seated in the stern sheets a couple of feet from him.
"Where do you come from?" He wasn't interested in my name.
"Temuka. South Canterbury," I told him, glad to have him speak to me.
Ned turned his head as if speaking to all in general, "Another South Island fowl." He was a North Islander and there was great rivalry between the two islands. Time was to tell me that fowl was an "out" word.
"Better take my oilskin, Temuka. We got dry clothes onboard. Not like you," said he, peeling off. "Stick this on, might keep out some wet." I had been advised not to bring spare clothes as I would soon be in uniform.
The eight boys, between watching their coxswain and the gale screeching across the bay, sat awaiting orders.
At last one came. "Toss oars!" Eight oars came to the vertical with their looms held tightly just above the knees.
"Shove off! Give way together!" and the whaler bounced out from the shelter of Thorndon Baths into the fury. "Up! Up!" his strong voice called as his upper body swayed back and forth to the rhythm of the oars as they noisily hit the rowlocks at each stroke. He endeavoured to make a course at an acute angle across the wind, clawing to windward as much as possible. The whaler crashed into the short, strong waves and almost bounced off them. Spray flew, hitting the oil-skinned backs with sharp cracks. We caught most of the flying water in the stern sheets. Ned, in khaki jumper and rolled up trousers, was drenched, but he imperturbably urged his boat's crew to greater effort.
"Feather your oars! Lay back on them! Up! Up!" he called, demanding greater effort. A squall howled down through the gale. It blew the whaler bodily to leeward. Almost turned her bow.
"Up! Up! Up starboard!" But the wind was too fierce, and the boat for a few moments hung dangerously broadside on the waves. By super effort, the lee oars managed to head her up again, only for a while, for another squall came down and the boat was again broadsided and in danger.
"No good! Going too far to leeward," shouted Ned, water pouring from his face. "Up port, back starboard. Back to the pier.
In shelter once more, the crew boated their oars and rested. They had done their best, but the wind was too strong for the fifteen-year-olds.
Coxswain Ned rediscovered the new boy. "What you want to come to sea for? Suppose you sold your farm to come, or did you get caught making love to the maid? Change your mind, go buy your farm back or tell them you'll promise to lay off the maid. Only fools go to sea. There's a boat-load here. Look at them. All wish they were back with Mum again."
Ned was one of the older boys, hardened by the rigorous cadet ship training so he could afford to rib a new chum.
The borrowed oilskin shed most of the flying spray, but gallons seemed to have gotten down my neck. So far I had no yardstick by which to measure, but it was more rugged than I ever thought the sea could be, and this was in a harbour. Alongside the pier the boat surged back and forth, at times being nearly lifted up onto the broadwalk. The boat's crew were standing up after the long back-breaking pull.
"Look!" called one of the bow boys, "They're floating down a life-buoy."
The one sided battle had been watched from the ship, and it was plain to see that assistance had to be given to help the boat back. No boat even though manned by men could fight to windward through the sizzling hurricane force squalls that ripped across the bay. So, as was often done in windy Wellington, a life-buoy attached to a long floating coir rope was drifted down for the boat to pick up when it managed to get out as far as the ship.
Ned decided to get going again. I'm sure he would have taken on a tornado.
"Stand by with the boat-hook and we'll haul along the breastwork well up to wind'ard and before we shove off."
It was dangerous work hauling the boat along with the crashing swells threatening to lift her bodily onto the stone wall, but the coxswain wanted to be far enough up even though she nearly smashed a dozen times. Only the skill of the eight kids bearing off with their oars prevented it.
I was really getting a stormy introduction to a sailor's life. I had never read the like in the books. It was a real initiation or baptism, if you like.
At last Ned called, "Bear her off! This time we don't go back. Up starboard! Bend those oars! Crouch low, Temuka; catch less wind!"
The sprays whip-lashed on oilskins again. Sheets of water came over as if by huge bucketfuls, mostly over the stern sheets, as the whaler hit the oncoming waves, but the imploring, threatening, cajoling coxswain at last worked his boat out to meet the floating life-buoy. With the coir made fast to for'd thwart, the battle was over. Quickly, the whaler was hauled through the crashing waves up to the Jacob's ladder hanging over the Amokura's stern. Everybody shed his tenseness. A drenched Ned brushed aside my awkward thanks for the loan of his oilskin.
"Better take Temuka over again, Reg. Seems he still wants to got to sea. Damn fool!"
The ladder swayed as the nimble, bare-footed boys swarmed up. I followed awkwardly up onto the poop.
And that's how I joined my first ship - up over the stern in a howling gale. Reg half hauled me up over the poop railing into a new world. The northerly seemed even stronger higher from the water. New sounds hit me. Cordage flapping against the masts, seas hissing along the ship's side. The rise and fall of the gale through ropes and rigging as against fiddle strings produced the eerie, wailing wind-howl so familiar to sailing-ship men.
The voice alongside telling me, "I'll take you down to the Chief Officer", sounded different against this background.
Scurrying down a poop ladder and along a companionway from the main deck to the officers' quarters, we brought up against a curtained doorway above was the sign "Chief Officer". A knock brought a sharp "Yes!" from within.
"Wagstaff here, Sir. Brought a new boy from the Maori."
The curtain was flicked aside, and a small dark man at a desk almost in the doorway took over. In a few minutes I was climbing the companionway ladder having been enrolled and entered in the ship's ratings register as "Number 3: First Class boy; Starboard watch; wages one penny [not quite a cent] a day," would rise to twopence by eighteen months hence when I would have completed my training.
Wagstaff," said the Chief Officer, handing over a small chit bearing my official number, "take Gaby down to Mr. Penman."
Yes, Sir," answered my guide with a salute.
We found Mr. Penman, the Chief Instructor, in a small dark cabin in the after of the main mess deck smoking a cut-off clay pipe charged with rank Navy plug tobacco.
He was a broad-shouldered, balding man with a tight-fitting khaki jacket unbuttoned over a navy singlet, which all but hid the wings of a tattooed eagle covering the width of a hairy chest.
He took the chit. "Number Three you are. Wel-ll, let's see," and from the pipe came almost choking tobacco smoke whilst a big mess book was opened. A finger ran over mess information. There was a pause, but on again until he came to Number Ten mess.
"Number Ten. That's where we'll put you. That's it across the deck."
I followed the direction the clay was pointing and saw a table on collapsible steel legs standing in the opposite corner of the mess deck. It was then too I noticed the instructor's legs. The trousers were rolled inches above two huge bare feet.
His elbow was resting on his desk with the clay grasped in outsized hands as he took a good summing-up look at me. "So, me son, you want to be a sailor. Where do you come from?" I told him.
"A country boy, eh? Plenty of good sailors come from the country. We'll do our best to make one of you an' as they used to say in the brigs, 'If we can't make you, we'll break you.' " He must have read my worried look, for he added, "Don't worry, we make nearly all. Do as you're told an' do it smartly, that's all we ask. Wagstaff, take this boy along to get 'is 'ammick, mess gear and towel." To me, "You get your uniform in seven days. Wagstaff will set your 'ammick up for you an' show you 'ow to lash an' stow it. Ee'll be with you all day today. Tomorrow is another day."
Mr. Penman was outwardly one of the gruffest and most frightening characters a boy ever came up against, but time and better acquaintance spelled him as one of the fairest of men. Although a strict disciplinarian, he was one of the kindliest, and a cut across the backside with a single stick from him was never vicious.
And so my first day was spent with the old ship in the gale, rolling slightly and noisily tugging at her buoy with the slight rise and fall of her bows. Every tick of the clock, you could almost say, opened up new vistas of my cadet life to follow. I was one of sixty, and the remaining fifty-nine, except for Reg, were all purposely going about routine with scant regard for the new chum.
During that day too, after my hammock was securely lashed and stowed, I learnt much about Amokura.
"How old do you think she is?" Reg asked.
"No idea. How old is she?"
'Older than us. Built in 1886 as H.M.S. Sparrow. That makes her twenty-four. She's iron-framed and wooden-planked. Barquentine rigged, and wait till you see the big tops'l set. It's a whopper. Lot of her is old navy Victory style. Like the wheel set under the break of the poop, and it's a double wheel too. And can't it kick! One of the instructors told us that's because she has old-fashioned tiller ropes winding and unwinding over a barrel. That's why she kicks. Believe they have wheel screws in merchant ships. Takes all the kick, so he told us. Come on, I'll take you for a walk around."
I followed Reg along the main deck. Amidships at either side she had a four-inch manual gun on a raised platform. We stepped up. Reg slapped the gun, "You know, this old hooker took part in the siege of Zanzibar. Bet this old gun was busy that day. They never fire these, but they do the two six-pounders aft there, one each side of the quarter deck."
I have vivid recollections of their loud CRACKS!! as they were fired a few times during my cadetship. One occasion was memorable and historical. Amokura had led Captain Scott's deeply laden Terra Nova from Port Chalmers right down through Taiaroa Heads on his departure in 1910 for his disastrous trip to the Antarctic and the South Pole. Outside the Heads, we waited until the extra deeply laden polar ship wallowing along astern came up to us and then, with an instructor and a cadet gun crew at each six-pounder, we fired a Captain's salute and gave the famous man and his crew three hearty cheers. Believe me, we put all we could into those cheers. Then we watched her slowly heading away southwards to the ice whilst Amokura changed course for Bluff.
I was told that we head-quartered in Wellington from May to August when everybody attended Wellington Technical School. Early September, she was away again for her training cruise and bi-annual trips in search of castaway sailors on New Zealand's Sub-Antarctic Islands and the Kermadec Group to the north. When the occasion arose and she was available, she was sent out into the Tasman or Pacific, as the case may be, to search for overdue ships. To keep her running costs down, Amokura spent most of her sea time under sail, thus giving an abundance of in-sail training to the sixty boys who, in addition to fifteen men including the Captain, made up her crew.
Discipline was strict old navy even to the six or a dozen lashes on the bare backside whilst spread-eagled over three pyramided hammocks on the sail hatch on the quarter deck. All hands were mustered to witness the punishment, each watch lining up on its respective side of the quarter deck.
During my eighteen month's cadetship, there were no more than six occasions when "Everybody aft!" was piped. Stealing, swearing or smoking were the transgressions that carried the extreme penalty. Captain Hooper delivered the punishment with a rope's end whilst the Chief Instructor counted the strokes.
This, however, is not my only memory of the Amokura. There is the memory of Captain Hooper with his austerity but also his fairness and regard for his boys and the four instructors who ruled us with strict and impartial discipline. Twice a year we circumnavigated New Zealand gaining fond memories of the liberty days ashore at each port of call.
But the finest memory is the blooding of the starboard watch in mountainous seas when we were away to the south east of Campbell Island just a hundred miles or so north of the latitude of Cape Horn. This was on the ship's voyage south before the winter lay-up. Usually she got away from the Bluff in March, but owing to the intervention of a search out towards the Chatham Islands for a missing ship, it was mid-April when we sailed. Down over the same track, first the Snares or Traps just to the south of Stewart Island where "Old Jack" the bull sea lion of previous trips still bossed the herd. He was so big, you couldn't mistake him. The depot checked over, we steamed round the rocky bush-clad islands with the siren loudly whoop-whooping whilst every inch of shore was examined through binoculars for signs of castaways.
Everything in order at the Snares, on further south to the Auckland Group. After steaming round the Aucklands searching every bay and landing and checking over the two depots, we anchored at Port Ross on Enderby Island whilst a painting party, of which I was one, was sent across the island to give "Lady Derry" a new frock of white paint. "Lady Derry" was the name we gave the figurehead of the ship Derry Castle wrecked in the late 1800's. She was found amongst the flotsam that came ashore and was placed on the headland over the grave of eleven of the crew of the ill-fated ship.
Her unseeing eyes stared out at the exact spot near the tip of the island where the ship had struck. Unlucky Derry Castle! Just one hundred yards further north and she would have sailed past into clear water all the way to Cape Horn.
We had the usual sea lion chases on Enderby. Once up in the scrub we would get between a bull or a cow and the sea. We made the lives of those poor animals as miserable as we could whacking them on their sensitive noses and teasing their pups.
It was much colder this voyage, and watering at Camley Harbour in the Aucklands, we dammed a stream and passed the water from the hose at the water's edge by a bucket brigade. It was emptied into a canvas tank under the lifeboat thwarts and taken out to the ship. The voyage always lasted a month so domestic water supplies had to be replenished at this stream. Yes, it was cold standing bare-legged for two or three hours passing the buckets from hand to hand.
On then, further south to Campbell Island and our first taste of southern winter weather. On the way, we reefed the tops'l, foresail and the big fore and aft main trys'l.
With a high-beam sea running and a half gale blowing, we were glad to come to anchor in Perseverance Harbour in the Campbells. Icy white squalls blew across the bay and the boats' crews all wore oilskins to protect them from the flying scud whipped from the oar blades and wave crests.
The shepherds who lived on the island and combined shepherding with whaling hailed us as long lost younger brothers whilst the cook put on his famous batch of scones. It was dismal and damp outside, but these men had everything cosy in the large Sub-Antarctic hut even to the homely tang of a smokey peat fire. We stayed at this anchorage over the weekend and had our weekly cold baths in wooden tubs on the upper deck on the Sunday morning, Sub-Antarctic temperature notwithstanding. Using the engines only to steam out of harbour, we set the reefed tops'l along with the fore and aft sails and ploughed along with the wind and sea on the starboard quarter, bound for Antipodes Islands to the east. Amokura hadn't been built for these high latitudes, and we were now fifty-four degrees south, just over one hundred miles north of the latitude of Cape Horn.
The old gunboat didn't have the long unbroken decks of the Cape Horners which had no companionways to let the water down into the lower regions. Our main deck companionway to the after mess-deck, which was also our sleeping quarters, was covered against the seas by a tightly screwed-down steel lid; thus the only access down was by a similar stairway under the fo'c'sle head. But so much came up through the hawse pipe plugs and through the old fashioned gun-ports that torrents poured down into the mess-decks to drain away into the chain lockers on the after end.
The many weaknesses in the port-hole rubbers made things worse by flooding our clothes lockers which were built like amphitheatre seats in a double tier round the sides of the mess decks. Away aft the conditions were just as bad. Many times boys were sent aft to bale out an officer's cabin. Lifelines were rigged along the decks, and for a while the morning division parade was abandoned. Watch musterings were held on the mess-deck. They were wet days and cheerless nights. We all envied the engine-room boys who could at least find a dry spot in the bunkers. Through it all, the little eight hundred tonner rolled and pitched along in the high Cape Horn seas. Wet clothes, soaked hammocks, you couldn't have raised a laugh in the whole dismal crew of youngsters for all the tea of the China Clippers.
At muster for duty tricks on the second day out, my name was one of the three called for the eight to ten a.m. wheel trick.
It was obvious even to the new boys that the gale was getting stronger; our old ship was burying herself more often in the huge rollers.
We were ready to dash aft from under the fo'c'sle head to the wheel when eight bells struck, but the instructor made us wait until he judged it safe.
At last, "Away you go, me sons. Keep a good grip on the lifeline." Just as well we did, for half way along over came half the southern ocean, knocking our feet from under us, forcing us to cling for dear life until our feet hit the deck again.
"Didn't think you'd make it," said one of the boys we were relieving. "Thought the three of you had gone to Davy Jones. We lost sight of you."
"Think we'll get any breakfast? The old galley looks as if its been washed out. Saw some of cook's pans floating round the quarter deck."
"We had burgoo, so there should be some left for you," we told them.
We took off our knife halyards and hung them well away from the compass.
"She's kicking like a mule. Watch yourself, or she'll have you over the top. Don't leave the lashings off for a moment," warned the senior boy of the trick we were relieving.
But the ship had to be steered and the wheel moved frequently so the boy at either side had to make his wheel lanyard fast again as quickly as possible.
The senior boy in our trick had been told off for weather wheel. He actually steered the ship, and it was my job as "lee" wheel to assist him in holding the wheel. The third boy had to stand on the quarter deck out from under what you would call the little verandah that sheltered the wheel into the view of the officer on monkey island on the poop so that he could pass on steering orders.
Our old retired wool-clipper master who came away each year as Second Officer often had occasion from above to tell us, "Watch your 'hellum'."
When the bows lifted, the water streamed aft like a wave, slapping up against the bulkhead a couple of feet behind the wheel. Then she'd point her bows down into the watery valley, sending the wave in reverse.
Through it all, three kids, two fifteen and the third just sixteen, battled to do a full-sized man's job with antiquated steering gear.
With the rising sea, we found the ship becoming harder to steer, and the wheel kicks were getting more vicious. When a following sea hit the rudder, the wheel gave a tremendous kick, and if both lashings hadn't been taut, it would just have spun like a thing gone mad. We were in for bruised knuckles when we tried to catch the spinning spokes again.
We struggled manfully and thought we were doing fairly well. Her head swung wildly at times, but we always managed to get her steadied and back on course even though "Watch your 'hellum'!" came down frequently.
Two bells, marking off the first hour, had just struck when Joe, the senior boy, had asked for the helm to be eased a spoke or two.
Our lashings were off when the big sea hit the rudder. That was fatal. With the ensuing kick, a spoke caught under the front of Joe's blue jumper whanging him up and nearly over the wheel. His nose smashed against a beam under the poop deck overhead, and as the wheel kicked in the opposite direction, he was flung unconscious up against the ward-room pantry door.
The sight of blood hit me right in the stomach, and all my strength went with a violent retching. The third wheel boy rushed in to help steady the spinning wheel and, risking broken knuckles, we managed to get the lashings on again.
Mr. Penman and the other watch instructor took over from us after Joe had been carried down into the sick bay. The other boy and I were sent for'd to shelter under the fo'c'sle head.
The weather had turned very cold, so cold that you'd have thought there was an iceberg just over the horizon. There could have been, too.
The ship seemed to be wallowing in the growing seas. Huge squirts came up through the hawse pipes, in through the gun ports from which the guns had long been removed, flooding the fo'c'sle and sending torrents like waterfalls down into the fore mess deck amongst the sleeping watch below.
Standing bare-footed in the flooded fo'c'sle with trousers rolled up to knees, swaying to the movements of the ship as they grouped around the windlass, the starboard watch bunched in their silent misery as the squalls hit the vessel.
One moment we would be looking down hill over the poop with the back-drop of angry southern ocean as Amokura climbed the westerly seas, then up would come her stern as she plunged with crashes of green seas rolling over the bulwarks on her way down into the hollows.
The brave little ship seemed to writhe in the torments and tortures of the wild southern ocean.
Our two instructors were at the wheel, but following an extra severe hail squall, Mr. Penman came for'd to us. Looking back, it is plain that the Captain realised that his ship could take no more and that it was time to "heave to" or risk courting disaster.
To me, the approach of our old instructor felt like the protective return of a shepherd to his sheep. He looked worried as he named the heftiest boy to go aft to assist the other instructor at the wheel. Usually he had a quip or an observation to make, but this time he was seriously silent. For a moment, as if appraising us, his eyes ran over the watch before he gave the order. We read the signs, and even before he spoke, we knew that something serious was in the wind.
"Old Josh" as we affectionately spoke of him had never looked so worried.
"We're going to double reef the spanker, take in the main trys'l. Now, me sons, I can't 'ang on for you, so don't for a moment forget, one 'and for yourself, one for the ship. We'd never get you alive out of this sea if you go over.
Aft to the poop we followed in single file, one hand sliding along the lifeline, gripping tightly past the bulwarks amidships where seas were coming over.
Up onto the poop to lower the spanker gaff and gather the superfluous canvas onto the spanker boom before we tied the second row of reef points that would leave but a pocket handkerchief spanker.
We clung, grim and watchful while we worked, lest we should slide away on the big rolls through the open poop railing into the sea.
Throat and peak stretched aloft again by the halyards and boom sheet tended, the watch left the shrunken spanker for the big reefed main trysail that reared above the quarter deck.
Old Josh's job must have been heart-breaking. Out of a watch of twenty boys, the other ten being on duty tricks, he had only a dozen or so of us second trippers who comprehended and were of any assistance. The first voyage boys, so distrustful and perhaps frightened of that southern ocean, clung like mutton birds to whatever came up against their hands, refusing to let go and assist between the whiles the green seas poured over the bulwarks.
But Amokura was a training ship, and we were there to learn to stand up to whatever came along. The only way to teach the timid was to make them face it. Captain Hooper and the old Second Officer watched from the poop. Mr. Penman, like a hen in a flood with its drenched chicks, worked and watched amongst us.
In came the big trys'l, disputing every inch with its brails, until it was gathered and hung lifeless against the full length of the mainmast.
Gear cleared up and triced to pins to keep it from being washed away, we clawed for'd past a galley in shambles to the hardest job of all.
What a tops'l! And what primitive gear for handling it. Amokura had indeed been rigged in the "wooden ship and iron men days. Under the same circumstances, even a watch of strong men would have found that big tops'l a challenge. But here were twenty kids taking it on.
As soon as the sheets were slacked, the fight started. Kicking with the force of a pack of mules, rearing and slamming down like a bucking horse trying to tear clear, it shook the foremast as it slammed and banged in the gale.
At last, after much shouting of instructions and the help of Old Josh who despite his bulk seemed to be everywhere at once, we finally had it hanging under the yard, trussed in as well as the old navy gear permitted, with most of the viciousness hauled out of it.
With the last spilling line belayed, our instructor ordered "Away aloft and furl! Don't forget, one hand for yourself, one hand for the ship. Up you go, me sons!"
Sixteen of us sprang into the weather rigging, literally blown up the ratlines as far as the fore-top on the lee roll. On then over the futtock shrouds, almost horizontal over our heads on the weather roll. Up into the topmast rigging and across onto the tops'l yard about seventy feet above the deck.
We struggled out, one at a time, crouched along the yard while the big cold sail flapped and banged and bellied above the yard and us: cautiously to windward and to leeward, new boys and old boys until the sixteen were clinging full length of the yard.
It was cold round the decks, but when we started aloft past the shelter of the high bulwarks, we felt the full force of the cutting wind on our bare legs. The steel shrouds almost numbed our hands after the hail squalls pelted past them.
The top'l flapped in a big stiff mass. We older boys tried to lead the way to gather the heavy canvas onto the yard, but we weren't strong enough. We heeded the instructor's advice, but most of the newer boys just clung hard as they could with both hands. It would have been better if some of them had stayed on deck. They'd never been aloft in a sea like this before. Neither, for that matter, had any of us.
The yard vibrated and jerked, and the foot-ropes swayed frighteningly as they were levered out when we leaned over the rounded spar to try to lift the sail.
Now and then as a squall hit it, it would go beserk in its flapping as if determined to shed the lot of us. Then we flattened on the yard, hanging on for all we knew, to escape being swept backwards off the yard.
The strength of the old boys and what little we could get from the first voyagers made no impression. It had us beaten. Solid decks seemed but a memory. I felt I had been up on the yard for hours, clinging and dodging and trying to grab the canvas to haul it up.
A darkness came over with the next hail squall, and our bare legs felt as though they were being attacked by a swarm of bees. The tops'l reacted to the fury and shook the mast until we were sure that something had to go. We clung like leeches. Down, down the yard arm dipped with the roll; young hands gripped tighter to prevent our slipping off the deeply slanting yard into the sea. Up, up again! Just as all seemed lost, we were hurled by the weather roll through the pelting hail, bracing strongly, hanging on the jackstay to keep from being thrown off the yard.
My thoughts were far ahead as I just clung, wondering how it would all end, when the voice of the boy next to windward came down, "They're going down! Move in! I'm going too!"
"So am I!" I yelled uselessly, for not a soul to windward would hear me as the fury snatched all sound away to leeward. I followed along the bucking yard to wait my turn to get into the topmast rigging.
Down over the futtock shrouds, more perilous to descend than climb, at last to the weather sheerpole and solid deck to join the frozen group under the fo'c'sle head.
Old Josh whanged into us for leaving a job undone, but his rage fell on deaf ears. We were too cold and miserable and many of us too frightened to bother about what he said, when in through the fo'c'sle door stepped the Captain.
"What are you boys doing down here? Why did you come down before that sail was furled?" he demanded with that peculiar tilt of the chin that always warned, "Stand clear!" "It's too cold, Sir!" spoke up one brave soul through chattering teeth.
And another. "We can't get the sail up, Sir."
"What nonsense is that? Away aloft the lot of you, and you'll stay there until it's furled. Mr. Penman, come aloft with me and see they do it."
The squall that chased us down had passed, but away high up that tops'l sullenly flapped at the yard as though awaiting the next challenge. Disobedience of the Captain's command was unthinkable, so we moved to obey. Out and up into the weather rigging again to be met and re-drenched by a breaking sea. Up over the same old heaving track, climb a few ratlines, hang on. The Captain and Mr. Penman followed up. Onto the yard once more and out to windward and leeward, some of us unashamedly howling with the cold, but we had been warned, "You'll stay until it's furled."
Captain Hooper stood at the centre of the yard holding on to the chain tie, while Mr. Penman gathered six of us older boys alongside him on the weather yard, and with our instructor doing the lion's share we managed before the next squall struck to get so much secured that most of the viciousness had been trussed out of the sail. As soon as we had the weather side furled, the Captain instructed the boys on the lee yard arm where the job was much easier. We still had to cling for dear life when the ship rolled, but the Captain seemed to have brought good luck up with him. No squalls came down whilst he was with us. In fact, it was the almost miraculous easing in the force of the wind which gave us the chance to make the furl. As soon as the sail was fast on the yard, the Captain went down whilst Old Josh, God bless him!, helped get the heavy bunt up to complete the furl. After what seemed ages after we first started to try to furl, we made our way down again as the noon eight bells were striking. We had been three hours shortening sail, three hours drenched through and through in the Sub-Antarctic seas. Most of us were frightened as hell up on the yard, but the job was there to be done, and we were the only ones to do it. Added to that, I had my sickening wheel experience, but looking back, I always counted myself a sailor from that watch on.
Down to a dinner of bully beef and a boiled potato in its jacket - the sago pudding had been washed out of the galley. Then into a soaking wet hammock to sleep until one bell, a quarter to four.
The decks were cleared after we came down from aloft whilst the ship was brought to the wind and "hove to" under close reefed spanker and strong inner jib. From then on she rode out the storm like a duck. It could only have been the tenacious pull of self-preservation that kept some of those kids from falling off the yard. You could also say that they went up boys and came down men, for they'd done a man-sized job. If ever a watch was blooded, that starboard watch was in that forenoon in altitude fifty-four and a half south.
There is the inevitable end to every road. My Amokura road ended eighteen months of intensive sea training: seamanship, signalling, small boat work - every boy was drilled until he was proficient in all. Boys also had ample opportunity to prove whether they were officer material when they were sent away as coxswains of boats in all weather and conditions, besides being appointed sectional leaders in ship routine. Boxing, fencing and intensive physical training sent them out into the world able, as the boxing instructor used to say, "to stand on your own two feet without being propped up.
Along with my own particular friend, Bill Jenkins, I was anxious to continue in sailing ships. We made this known to Captain Hooper, and he immediately set the idea working to find us berths in one of the sailing ships still on the seas.
Within a month we were summoned aft to his stateroom to be told that he had arranged to have us join the barquentine Alexa. I was to be an ordinary seaman and Bill, because he was a much smaller lad, was signing on as deck boy.
With the usual farewell send-off from a bulwark-lined crew, we were rowed ashore in the cutter to take an express train to Wanganui where the Alexa was completing her timber loading for Sydney.