Voyage of a lifetime
In 1947 16-year-old Bob Howard was in the right place when his life’s course changed forever. His chance to complete a mechanic’s apprenticeship was dashed by the return of many, ready-qualified war veterans. So he followed in his brother Wally’s footsteps and ran away to sea.
Back in Nelson, before Bob had caught the old Arahura ferry to Wellington via French Pass, his father had grudgingly acknowledged this unexpected bout of sea fever. “Make sure it’s only a coaster though!” he instructed sternly.
“I don’t want you going foreign.”
The Wellington waterfront, when Bob arrived at Aotea Quay, was dominated by the four lofty masts and 18 yards of the New Zealand government’s war prize Pamir, seized at her Wellington berth when Finland was invaded by Germany five years earlier. After a lingering look at the magnificent barque, Bob was about to turn his attention to two of the Anchor Company’s nearby nuggety coasters, Totara and Taupata, which looked far less significant alongside the nearby docks.
Meanwhile, in the crew-mess aboard Pamir, one of the deckboys had made the inexcusable mistake of pouring lantern oil on the coal stove. The resultant flare-up had him packing his bags with a flea in his ear, resulting in a last-minute order for the mate to find an urgent replacement.
The mate must have recognised a strength of character in the nearest young greenhorn with his hand up, despite his total inexperience. Bob was given two hours to buy himself a ‘schooner rig’ outfit of sea-boots and oilskins before reporting aboard. He hit the jackpot with this trip – Voyage Ten was to be a complete circumnavigation via England, rounding the five Great Capes.
“It all happened so fast,” recalls Bob. “No time to send a telegram to Dad to let him know I was off around the world! I was sent aloft to the main royal yard before I had time to draw breath, and I was pretty scared hanging under the futtock shrouds, but it was just something I knew I had to do! I guess it was a good way to get to know the ship.”
It was a steep learning curve for young Bob and the 11 other inexperienced deck-boys, who had signed articles on a monthly wage of £12 10s and were to become indispensable cogs in the day-to-day running of the ship.
Next in the pecking order were the five ‘buckos’ – ordinary seamen – who were rewarded for their experience with a wage nearly double that of Bob’s. Their mentors were the eight ABs (able bodied seamen) who were split up across the two fourhour watches and were waged at a monthly rate of £32 2s 6d. Every crew member was expected to work hard, but the value of experience was clearly reflected in the wages.
Bob had a huge amount of information to learn by heart – and quickly – much of it being imparted by the qualified seamen in his watch. Each of the 32 sails had its own complex set of running rigging to memorise – halyards, buntlines, clewlines and braces, all with dedicated belaying pins which needed identifying in darkness or gale-lashed conditions.
As Pamir’s warps were being cast off to clear Aotea Quay, there was a call from the mate: “Howard to the wheel.”
“I couldn’t believe it! Here I was on my first day at sea, steering a square-rigger longer than a rugby field,” recalls Bob. “Of course, I was sharing the helm with an AB, but I was certainly thrown in at the deep end.”
Helming Pamir was a potentially brutal job, usually requiring two men and sometimes four, heaving on the tandem, 10-spoked wheels. On this first day though, the wind was only a light northerly, and the rest of the crew was aloft setting almost every stitch of canvas as they rounded Somes Island for the Wellington heads.
It was three days before Bob had the chance to send a radio-telegram home, by which time the ship was already past the Chatham Islands, on the great circle route towards Cape Horn: “JOINED PAMIR STOP ON WAY TO ENGLAND STOP.”
Watch-keeping duties, four hours on, four off, dominated every aspect of Bob’s life as Pamir plunged through the Roaring Forties. Shipboard dynamics among the crew and officers was quickly established. The first mate, Andy Keyworth (known as Keyworthy to the crew), left a lasting impression on Bob for his sarcastic discipline.
“We were scrubbing the decks one day when Keyworthy told Jimmy Green to go fetch a hammer. As soon as Jimmy returned, Keyworthy used it to smash the bristly end off the broom and handed Jimmy back just the handle – ‘you might find it easier this way Green!’ For the rest of the voyage Jimmy was much more energetic about his maintenance duties.
“Keyworthy wasn’t brutal or vindictive, but he certainly got his expectations across,” says Bob. “One day in the South Atlantic after we’d rounded the Horn, I was on the helm and Keyworthy asked me if I liked New York. I told him I didn’t know – ‘Never been there sir!’ … ‘Then get back on your course, Howard!’” Ship’s boys were treated well, in accordance with the Union
Company policies, unlike many such youngsters a few decades earlier. Crossing the equator brought the usual high-jinks, with some ‘pretty awful’ stuff rubbed onto their hair and faces.
But Bob speaks highly of the officers – Captain Collier had his wife aboard for the voyage – and he kept a close eye on the running of the ship. One fairly lively day Bob was on the helm when the captain spotted a loose buntline and came across to relieve him at the wheel so he could belay it.
“I warned him – you’d better watch it, Sir – she’s kicking a bit. I looked over my shoulder a moment later and saw him knocked to the deck. When I got back he looked at me a bit ruefully – ‘Go below lad and get an extra hand on the wheel.’” Bob has plenty of good words for the ship’s other senior members too. “The bosun, Jack Carey, was a good guy and the bosun’s mate too. The cooks did us proud, and George Gunn the sailmaker looked after us pretty well too.”
Even Keyworthy, despite his cutting temperament, was highlyrespected for his competency. “He was tough,” says Bob, relating an incident when the mate caught a big sea and was washed into the scuppers, badly cutting his eyebrow. “When the Old Man started to stitch him up, Keyworthy just pushed him away – ‘I’ll do it myself!’”
The finer details of this epic circumnavigation – largely drawn from the ship’s log – can be read from Jack Churchouse’s definitive volume The Pamir Under the New Zealand Ensign. But hearing Bob talking of the voyage from first-hand memories brings a fresh dimension to the tale.
Still vivid in his memory is the huge fanfare on their arrival even before being towed up the Thames and discharging the cargo of tallow and wool. “We’d made a smart trip of only eighty days,
and we were filmed for all the newsreels. Then we had to set to work getting her spotless before Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh were welcomed aboard.” Bob even got to briefly speak to the future Queen and has some black and white footage to prove it.
While docked in London, much political manoeuvring was under way to determine whether Pamir should be returned to her pre-war Finnish owners. But after nearly four months and several crew changes, she was part-loaded with British white cement, and towed across the English Channel to Antwerp.
“Nobody told us why we weren’t crossing under canvas,” says Bob. “But we found out afterwards that the channel was still littered with mines, and we were being towed through a swept section.” In Belgium there was also huge media interest during the fortnight that the barque was being loaded with her remaining cargo – basic slag from the steel mills, destined for the fertiliser works.
The return trip, through the notorious mid-Atlantic doldrums and around the Cape of Good Hope, was significantly longer than the outbound one. Sail changes from heavy weather canvas to light, and then back again, were a major task, with nearly an acre of canvas being spread under full sail.
By now Bob was a thoroughly competent young crewmember, and he has vivid memories of the huge shark that was caught in the doldrums, and the mean sea they encountered crossing the Australian Bight.
After a 109-day trip from Antwerp (logged as 106 from abeam of Dover), Pamir rounded Auckland’s North Head under full sail (the first full-rigged ship ever to have done so, according to Captain Collier), providing a spectacle watched by thousands of Aucklanders from every vantage point.
Bob’s eyes shine with pride as he finishes talking and we admire several framed paintings and photographs of Pamir that adorn his living-room walls. A spare room is filled with the dozens of ship models he has spent much of his spare time creating over the last 70 years.
Among them are four of Pamir, ranging in size from bottles to metre-long masterpieces. We linger to admire an enormous radio-controlled model of Huia, and to photograph various mementos of his time aboard Pamir – ships’ articles, discharge papers and various photographs of a strikingly fit young man aboard a huge sailing ship.
Bob Howard is one of the very last Cape Horners in the world – men who have rounded the notorious cape under square rig carrying a full cargo. The international Cape Horner’s Association has effectively ceased to exist, and New Zealand’s Pamir Association was disbanded when its membership had dwindled to barely a soul.
We are very conscious as we drive away that we have been privileged to hear his first-hand description of the type of experience that we have previously only savoured from the written accounts of men such as Alan Villiers and Joseph Conrad.
He has lived a voyage that most can now only dream about.