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Captain Donald L. Garnham: Cape Horner

Captain Donald L. Garnham is one of the few remaining ‘Cape Horners’, an association of those who have rounded Cape Horn on a non-stop journey under sail of at least 3,000 nautical miles. Sometimes called the Mount Everest of sailing, it is thought more people have climbed to the summit of Mount Everest than have qualified as full members of the International Association of Cape Horners.

Captain Donald L. Garnham

Captain Donald L. Garnham

Cape Horn, at the tip of South America, is renowned still for its treacherous seas, strong winds, currents and icebergs. Don, at ninety-eight, remembers his journeys around the Cape as though they happened yesterday.

Don first rounded Cape Horn as a nineteen-year-old in 1935 aboard the four-masted barque Herzogin Cecilie. As a paid crew member, he sailed from Port Lincoln in South Australia to Falmouth in Cornwall, United Kingdom. Don took the place of one of the five deserters who had left the ship.

I went on board and was met by a savage Alsatian dog ‘Pike’[i] that belonged to the ship’s Master[ii], Captain Sven Erikson. I met the Master in his beautiful saloon, and signed on as a seaman, and was then shown the apprentices’ quarters in the fore port side of the long poop deck. It had wooden bunks in tiers and a long wooden central table with backless bench seats on either side. A small oil lamp that swung overhead was the only night lighting. There was a cupboard for dishes and a small tank for our daily ration of fresh water. Six bunks were already occupied, so I chose a bare vacant top one near the door. As there was no bedding or anything else there I asked the steward if there was a mattress and he said, ‘We don’t supply bedding’. Any rate he kindly got me a mattress. I got an empty flour bag from the cook, which I filled with chaff from the sheep’s feed, and that was my pillow. I got an old piece of canvas from the sail maker to put on top of the mattress as a sheet. Luckily some bedding and an oilskin suit from the chap who had deserted had been hidden by the crew from the Mate. So I used his rug, a thin blanket and luckily my heavy overcoat for the whole trip around Cape Horn for warmth.

The barques and other square-rigged sailing ships were called ‘windjammers’, and many were used to carry wheat from the grain ports in Australia to Europe. They were the last of the great sailing ships to take cargo across the seas but were rapidly being replaced with steam ships that could carry more cargo and keep to a schedule without relying on the wind. The windjammers, in contrast, could wait for their cargos at anchor and were cheaper to run. They could sail from Australia to ports in the United Kingdom in about a hundred days. Some of these ships were able to do so in less time, such as the record-setting 83-day journey of the Parma from Port Victoria to Falmouth in 1933. Thus, the legend of the ‘Grain Race’ began, as the public took an interest in the fast-sailing ships and an unofficial race was reported on each grain season. Don disagrees with calling it a grain race.

They called it a grain race but they weren’t really races. The newspapers said that. They had an official prize in just one year for a two-ship race on different routes! The reality was that the grain ships left different ports, at different times and had different final destinations for discharge orders; Queenstown in Ireland or Falmouth in England. How can you call it a race? But the ship that made the fastest passage and ‘tall ship stories’ were what the newspaper used to write about.

By the time of the last Grain Race in 1949 the Herzogin Cecilie held the record with the most victories at six.

Don’s journey aboard the Herzogin Cecilie was his first on a windjammer and it was also nearly his last. When called upon to climb out to the edge of the main sail to unhook a line, the ship went a bit off course, causing the sail to lift in the wind: ‘The sail just lifted me up and over the edge of the sail. I was hanging on with two hands for dear life! That was nearly my last day at sea as the ship could not turn back and the albatrosses would have pecked me to death.’ This moment is immortalised in a painting by Australian maritime artist Dennis Adams, showing Don clinging to the ship’s sail above the rough seas. The First Mate aboard the ship, Elis Karlsson[iii], sketched the incident and the sketch was later sent to Dennis who painted it. Dennis had been aboard the Herzogin Cecilie as a paying passenger at the time of the incident.

Passing Cape Horn and getting to European waters was no guarantee that the hard sailing was over. Don recalls losing about half the sails on the ship in the English Channel:

We worked our way nicely up through the doldrums[iv] and we then picked up the north-east trade winds, that meant we were close-hauled[v]. Our first steam ship since leaving Australia was sighted. We got up to the English Channel in a couple of very good days sailing in the westerlies. There was a strong wind and I am down in the starboard fo’c’sle doing the dishes and I feel this very strong squall hit the ship.[vi] The porthole starts to go under the water and the dishes start  falling off the table. I was up on deck before they blew the ‘three whistles’ for all hands on deck. The wind sails are flying to pieces and we were almost on beam ends. Any rate, we lost twenty-three sails or more, some brand new sails also; straight out of the ropes, the wind was that strong. We had sleet and snow and poor visibility. Then I had to put the end of the rope over my shoulder and take a block pulley and climb up the main mast to the top, make fast a gantline pulley, and reeve the gantline rope through (used for replacing sails). We were cutting loose the very torn sails and sending them down and then sending up new replacement sails. We worked ‘til about 4 o’clock in the morning in very poor visibility. You couldn’t see hardly anything, ships suddenly coming very close to us, bit of a worry at times. Then we went below at 4 o’clock for a couple of hours rest in the sail locker and then up again, bending on more sails until we got every sail back on replaced. We sailed past the Lizard Lighthouse[vii] next day in beautiful weather, every sail set and our flag flying. We were there for orders, Falmouth for orders, as to which port we were to discharge our grain cargo at. After a weeks wait, anchors aweigh, and we were sailing to Belfast.

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[i] The Alsatian was also known as Paik.

[ii] Sven Erikson, the Captain of the ship, is referred to as the ship’s Master. Sven was nephew to the ship’s owner, Gustaf Erikson (from Villiers, AJ 1947, Voyage of the Parma, Hazell, Watson & Viney, London, p. xii).

[iii] Many of Elis Karlsson’s sketches from this period are published in the Oxford University Press book, Pully-haul: The story of a voyage (1966).

[iv] Colloquially refers to parts of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans where the Intertropical Convergence Zone becalms ships in a low pressure area near the equator. This results in calm winds and periods of no wind at all. When the winds return to the equator as the Trade Winds, this can cause unexpected weather, such as squalls and thunderstorms, in the doldrums.

[v] Close-hauled refers to having the sails flat, thus sailing close to the wind.

[vi] The Lizard Lighthouse keeper recorded the squall at over 80 miles per hour (128 kilometres per hour).

[vii] The lighthouse at Lizard Point, Cornwall, United Kingdom. It marks the most southerly point of mainland Britain.

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