Australian Folk Songs

songs | books | records | articles | glossary | links | search | responses | home

"Shellbacks" and "Pantiles" (1925)

(By "Araunah.")

In these days of mechanically propelled ships and paint-washing, deck scrubbing, striking seamen the ancient and honourable craft
of seamanship is in fare, danger of being utterly forgotten. Here and there, in a rigger's loft or a canvas awning factory, one
may still find a few tough old men who believe a knowledge of wire-splicing, serving and parceling, an essential of the sailor's
trade : here and there, incongruously garbed and incredibly clean, one may even find in the quartermaster's room of an ocean liner
a grizzled old shellback who knows one end of a deep sea lead line from the other and has heard the sound of slatting canvas. But,
rare exceptions not withstanding, the race is practically extinct. True, the gold-braided blue of many a dignified liner captain
adorns a man who has known the fierce joy of battling with frozen canvas while a ninety-mile gale whipped hail into his face and
the foot rope swayed sickeningly beneath him, but he is of a school that is passing rapidly, and years of pacing comfortably glassed-in
bridges have rendered him flabby and forgetful of the rigours of other days.

Time was, only a short 15 or 20 years ago, when none but a square-rigged ticket (certificate of competency, to handle a square-rigged vessel)
was considered by shipowners sufficient guarantee of the seaman like qualities of master or mate, but nowadays a majority of the "captains
and officers", (they are still masters, and first and second, mates in view of a conservative Board of Trade, which issues certificates of
competency), hold nothing more impressive than a "steam" certificate. There is, therefore, some interest in remembering just what the old
training was like; what qualities of physique and head and heart were demanded of those tough and hearty men who aspired, in the days of
real seamanship, to proficiency in a many-sided craft. "Tough" is an adequate adjective in this connection, since no frail boy could hope
to survive the rigours of his first two or three voyages. Boys went to sea in their early teens--sometimes even earlier--and it was from
the beginning a case of kill or cure. At twenty, they had either become iron-hard in body and resilient in mind, or they lay comfortably
at the bottom of the sea, sharing a hammock with half a hundred weight of shot or cable's end.

No fresh meat, vegetables or bread, for months on end; a daily pint and a half of fresh water for all purposes (less on a long passage,
when supplies ran low) ; indifferent sleep a great deal of the time ; exposure to torrid suns and rattllng hail ; dizzying fights with
frozen canvas in clumsy oil-skins ; frequent buffetings round the deck by crashing tons of green water ; experiences such as these are
not calculated to bring joy to the heart of a milksop, or to result in benefit to his poor nerves. Salt beef of an incredible hardness
made an excellent medium for which to carve models of ships (I have seen them almost perfect, and with a wonderfully bright polish), but
it mvsteriously lacked every vestige of nutritious and eupeptic qualities.

Salt pork of a delicate shade of green may be aesthetically satisfactory, but when it advertises its ripe maturity ordoriferously to the
very royal yard itself, one has to be hungry indeed property to appreciate it as a comestible. We were. Ship's biscuits (known for some
obscure reason as Liverpool pantiles), were excellent weapons of offence--I have seen one thrown with all the force of a muscular arm
against iron bitts without even denting or flaking--but teeth and jaw muscles need to be good before they merit consideration as articles
of diet. Particularly when an especially heroic breed of weevil begins to put in its fell work. Then, it is as well to turn the half-deck
lamp low and reflect that: fresh meat is a luxury. There is. of course, no question of refusing to eat these things : one may eat them,
in strict moderation, or one may starve. I have never heard of a cast of starvation aboard a "windjammer" of this nature, although
semi-starvation is of course chronic.

Water is a precious fluid, and no man who has ever completed a sailing-ship voyage will think otherwise thereafter. If you doubt it, try,
for a period of three, four, or five months, to make a pint and a half serve for washing, drinking and tea and soup making--to say nothing
of an incredibly bitter concoction derisively, labelled "coffee," which is yet, by reason of its heat amazingly grateful at three bells
in the morning watch (5.30 a.m.), in a gale off "Cape Stiff." The keen edge of the bitterness is of course taken off by the trifling fact
that yesterday's pea soup, was boiled in the same pot, and that the cook disdains as menial a task as pot-scouring.

More of this cook anon : at the moment we are considering the inestimable value of water. Washing, on the allowance, is a luxury one may
not permit oneself with much frequency, and tar has a most reprehensible habit, of sticking to the arms and hands. Hence there are times--long,
periods--when one's hands are indistinguishable from those of a nigger. There is no help for it, unless one cares to forgo the pea soup which
is the only nourishing and satisfying item on the entire menu. Yet is there one bright ray of hope on the horizon of the individual who is
eccentric enough to love cleanliness. Once in almost every passage one must cross the "doldrums." that strange area of perpetual rainfall,
that hovers close to the "line," north or south of it, according to season, but always accompanied by flat calms.

Sooner or later one blows into it and drifts through it, and then there is a blessed orgy of drinking and washing and clothes-washing and
the replenishing of tanks and receptacles of many and diverse kinds. Your "windjammer" sailor cannot be accused of prudery. He hasn't the
smallest delicacy about exposing his magnificent anatomy in its entirety. Consequently, the deck of a sailing vessel in the doldrums would
delight the eye of an artist with a flair for the nude.

The entire ship's company rolls out stark naked, each unit bearing a bar of soap that commonly resembles gorgonzola cheese. (I have never
seen this soap elsewhere, and must hazard the conjecture that it was manufactured expressly for the use of the tarry "shellback." It had a
marbled appearance and bit even as the adder breath.) Followed public bathing and clothes scrubbing until the scuppers spouted soapy water.
I suppose a "windjammer" "Old Man" is about the only being able to maintain an appearance of authoritative dignity while prancing about naked;
at all events he made of himself no exception to the general rule. I have seen one of the species, indeed, clad coyly in a sou'-wester and
nothing else whatsoever, bawling commands to a crowd of completely nude men. He was very bold, and whether he feared the effect of tropical
rain on his shining pate or whether he considered bareheadedness the ultimate indecency must remain a mystery; in any case the effect was quaint.

Work often interrupts the orgy of cleanliness, since only light airs stir in the doldrums, and the yards must be frequently trimmed. It was
therefore a usual thing to witness the spectacle of twenty naked men pulling on a rope. with, rippling muscles gleaming under wet skin.
One cook we had who might have sat for a study of Punehinello. He was a little dried up wisp of a man whose chin came up to meet his nose.
It was a very long and pointed chin meeting a very long and pointed nose, and the nut cracker effect was perfect. He was not much of a cook
(they never were !) but he had a positive genius for malediction.

He used to roll out of his bunk and go to his galley at 4.30 am., and if one chose to listen one might hear premonitor mutterings of the coming
storm. He would stump up and down the exiguous confines of his cockroach infested galley, muttering endless curses. As he warmed to his task
(particularly in bad weather, when his heavy pots began to career round tbe stove-top) his cracked old voice would rise in an exasperated crescendo,
until his torrents of blasphemy cascaded out of the doors, drowning in the ears of the toiling watch the sound of slatting canvas and cranking
cordage, crashing water and howling wind. Dinner out of the way, the diminuendo would begin, dying away to a sullen, muttering monotone about
teatime. Strangely, he did not curse in his sleep .....

Our misguided parents having paid considerable sums far the privilege of permitting us to starve for four years, we apprentices naturally came
in for all the work that was too dirty, too objectionable, or too unimportant to give an able seaman at three whole pounds a month. That, in
those days, was able seamen's pay; and after an eighteen months' or a two years' voyage he would have enough left, with luck, to keep him drink
for three whole days. At the expiry of that period he would have no money left, whether he had spent it or not; the parasites known as "boarding
house masters" would see to that. And then he would be shanghaied again.

. . . But that, as Kipling would say, is another story.


From the Perth Newspaper the West Australian 24 Oct 1925 p. 9.


australian traditional songs . . . a selection by mark gregory