Mont Blanc[…] Conrad took to Marseille, and the Mediterranean, from the start. It was the first real experience of freedom he had had, in life; and in a glorious and friendly setting.
The very first whole day I ever spent on salt water was by invitation, in a big half decked pilot boat, cruising under close reefs on the look-out, in misty, blowing weather, for the sails of ships and the smoke of steamers... And many a day and night too did I spend cruising with these rough, kindly men ... Their sea-tanned faces, whiskered or shaved, lean or full, with the intent wrinkled sea-eyes of the pilot-breed, and here and there a thin gold loop at the lobe of a hairy ear, bent over my sea infancy. (A Personal Record, page 123)Conrad made the acquaintance of the Marseille pilots through a young Frenchman named Baptistin Solang, a friend of the Delestangs charged to look after the even younger Conrad. He was most fortunate to begin his seafaring with such good friends, for beginnings could otherwise be rough. The cruising pilots provided him with a pleasant and interesting introduction to the sea. They were good seamen in their own cruising cutters and small schooners. Their livings depended on reaching a sufficient number of inbound ships before anyone else, and so getting the piloting job inwards, and (they hoped) outwards too. So they cruised far offshore night and day, racing for the distant smoke-smudge or the horizon-breaking pyramid of sail indicating the homeward bounder: or by night the flare or light showing the same. After two months in Marseille, and his introduction to the life of the sea through the pilots’ cutters, Conrad made his first voyage in a Delestang-owned ship; his first ocean-passage, and the real beginning of his sea-apprenticeship. He signed on the articles of the Delestang 400 ton barque Mont Blanc. She was also called a barquentine and schooner at various times, so what her real rig was appears unclear. However, when Conrad signed on she was registered as a barque. A barque or bark is a three-masted sailing ship, square-rigged on her foremast and mainmast and fore-and-aft-rigged on her mizzen mast, to make her more manoeuvrable. It is also possible to have a four masted or even a five masted barque, such as the twentieth-century German ship Potosi, one of the greatest sailing ships ever built. Whether the barque has three, four or five masts, it is only the aftermost mast that is rigged fore and aft. A barquentine and brigantine, by contrast are square rigged only on the foremast, the most forward mast, and may be fore-and-aft-rigged on one or more following masts. A schooner is not square-rigged at all, but is rigged wholly fore-and-aft, like a modem yacht (unless she be a tops’l schooner – see the glossary at the end of this book for further terms and information). A word about signing on. The Mont Blanc was a registered cargo-carrying vessel, and by law all persons carried aboard such a ship in whatever capacity were required to sign the ship’s articles of agreement. These accounted for their presence on board, gave a proper contractual status to those who were crew, and prevented (in theory, at least) masters from assisting wanted criminals or other escapers from leaving Marseille or any other port by sea. Conrad, who had no maritime experience and who was very far from the average merchant naval recruit, was signed on the articles of the Mont Blanc as a passenger. Thus any time he spent on this ship would be of no value to him as a professional seaman, since it could not be used to count towards sea-time. Sea time was time spent at sea (or even in port) on the articles of a ship in a recognised capacity as apprentice, ordinary seaman or able bodied seaman. The British merchant service required four years’ sea-time to be achieved before one could sit for the second mate’s ticket, and the French had a similar system. There was no requirement for the aspiring ship’s officer to serve an apprenticeship, and many successful candidates did not do so. What was essential was practical experience in working a ship. Formal study, or rather cramming, came later. Conrad at this stage may simply have been experimenting with the sea, or unaware of the requirements of sea-time: whichever the case, his status on the Mont Blanc was in fact to cause him difficulties when he did sit for his second mate’s ticket. But that was very much in the future. The Mont Blanc sailed from Marseille for Martinique on 11 December 1874 with Conrad aboard as passenger, and her arrival there is recorded on 26 February of the following year, 1875. This is an ocean passage of 67 days: she was 21 years old and in no hurry. Once clear of the Mediterranean and the Straits of Gibraltar, this was almost an ideal trade winds run for the first voyager, for northerly winds could be relied on to blow the little barque to the zone of the northeast trades in the tropics which, with any luck, took her right to the West Indies in that most pleasant of all sailing – the trade winds. Day after day the silent, shapely vessel skimmed along with the warm wind filling all her sails and the whisper of the roll-over sea at her cutwater rising to song as the sun climbed slowly and the wind strengthened, her speed picked up and her wake increased, and the great seabirds soared on the up draughts from her sails. This was exhilarating and extremely pleasant, the ideal introduction to the seafaring life – perhaps misleading too, for ships do not stay in trade winds. The very effectiveness of the northeast trade in sending the little ship hurrying to the westwards was equally effective in preventing her return that way to Europe: for this, she had to go by another, much harder way. She had to get to the north beyond the trade-wind belt to pick up westerlies – working across the baffling zones of variables in the process and often finding the westerlies most uncertain, for the circulatory movement of the equatorial air which gave such a measure of constancy in the trades did not apply further north. No matter there was the Gulf Stream to help shove ships from the Caribbean towards the north, and a useful drift of the same warm water eastwards towards Europe. The Atlantic’s westerlies could be (and often were) very strong when they blew: the six-knot grace of the trades became a headlong, ten-knot rush, the barque wet, pitching, rolling, and hard to hold. Usually she had a heavy cargo of West Indies logs, which filled much of the hold and main deck alike, heavily chained down but making the gear more difficult to work and the decks hard to get round. The Mont Blanc was 55 days sailing back to Marseille, where she arrived on 23 May 1875. This compared with 67 days outwards in the quieter trade winds. The whole voyage, to the West Indies and back, must have been a near-perfect introduction for Conrad to the deep-sea sailing-ship sea life, and the six weeks at Martinique were pleasant too. After a month or so in Marseille, Conrad signed on the Mont Blanc again for another West Indies voyage, this time as an apprentice – pilotin, as the French had it. Any apprentice lived aft, acted as a junior member of the afterguard, had clearly defined duties including the care of food and wines (real care of these things, not perfunctory supervision of the allocation of pound and pint of trash and the limejuice issue), made his own contribution to the crew’s welfare and had a good opportunity to learn, too. For he observed the ship from aft, the place of command; he mixed with and was accepted by the officers as one of them, at least in aspiration. Such young officer-aspirants were called pilotins, and were not normally greatly respected by the tough mariners for’ard, reared to the sea. These often called them fils-de-Papa – sons of a Somebody (privileged young gentlemen) – or, more familiarly, ‘captains of the fowl house’. The afterguard of French sailing ships took their food seriously, like sensible men, and a good ship’s fare at sea included chicken for the midday meal aft on Thursdays and Sundays (and reasonable food properly prepared on other days, too). It took a good chicken ranch to keep the standard going, and a reliable man (or boy) to look after so important a matter. Conrad’s second voyage, which was to Martinique again, and Haiti, took six months -much the same pleasant westward trade-wind romp as on the first voyage. But homewards was a very different matter. The ship was deeply laden with a logwood cargo (dye-woods, probably) bound for Le Havre, and it was winter. She did not sail from Cap Haitian until 1 November and reached Le Havre two days before Christmas. November and December are rough months in the North Atlantic and the 23-year-old wooden barque leaked - ’fully, generously, over-flowingly, like a basket,’ wrote Conrad – and the heavy logs were a straining cargo. Having to sail to the English Channel instead of the Straits of Gibraltar made a big difference too, for obviously the ship had to sail much further to the north, make a difficult landfall and sail up-channel in poor visibility with hell’s own wind behind her. When she reached Le Havre (for she was a strong old barque and could scarcely have leaked quite as much as Conrad said or she would have been fitted with a windmill pump) he was in such a hurry to leave that he left his trunk at Le Havre station – not the first pilotin to do that! Conrad stayed ashore six months before shipping out again. […]
Peter Villiers – Joseph Conrad: Master Mariner (Based on a Previously Unpublished Study by Alan Villiers). Illustrated by Mark Myers. Rendlesham, Suff., UK : Seafarer Books, 2006.