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The Dismasting of the Dallam Tower - by Basil Lubbock
Note: The Dallam Tower was an iron hulled passenger clipper, built by Clover of Birkenhead in 1866. Tonnage 1,449. Owners Lancaster Shipowners Co. Chartered by Shaw, Savill & Co. Left London May 19, 1873. Story opens on July 5 in 40 S 30 E at the commencement of a Nor'-west gale.
The sun set behind a lowering bank of copper-coloured cloud, through which came piercing shafts of yellow light - Apollo's 'backstays,' as the sailor's call them.
The great southern ocean ran to the eastward in long, rounded hills of water, whose unbroken crests were a sheen of light and hollows the deepest purple.
In the midst of a whirling, swooping flock of albatross, black hens, mollyhawks and Cape pigeons, the tall sparred Dallam Tower rose and fell with a slow, dignified motion as she ran slowly before the westerlies.
What wind there was blew fitfully, scarce filling her sails. At each sudden lull the canvas fell in and flogged the masts, the blocks rattled and crashed, and the deck-ports clanged, as the long seas gushed in and flooded the main-deck. Yet the log showed five to six knots; the Dallam Tower had the true Clipper's attribute, of sailing along by the mere flap of her sails.
Aft on the poop, Captain Davies and his mate, Donald McDonald, stumped steadily up and down to windward. At each turn by the taffrail, the long bearded skipper glared at the rising cloud-bank with anxious eyes, whilst the Mate took the opportunity to glance at the compass bowl.
The helmsman, with the sweat dripping from his brow, spun the wheel viciously in his effort to keep the ship steady on her course.
"East a half south!" said the Mate, looking sternly at the toiling helmsman.
"East a half south, it is, sur," responded the man, meeting her with the spokes as she swung back from east a half north.
"Keep her so," ordered the Mate curtly.
"She'll soon be reeling off the knots," remarked the captain as he turned to resume their quarter deck tramp.
"Ay, that's so, sir, " returned the Mate, looking sharply at his superior. The sailor is a good judge of men. McDonald was a good sailor.
At this moment a steward in a white drill jacket stepped out from under the break of the poop and, putting a bugle to his lips, blared out a call to supper. At the first note an apprentice appeared suddenly from nowhere, bounded up the poop ladder and struck four notes on the after bell.
The Dallam Tower was a first-class, up to date, passenger ship - the liner of her day. Think of the change those bare sixty two years have brought about in 'sea life' both for the passenger and the seaman.
The clipper had no lifts or lounges, no smoke-rooms, no bathrooms, no cafes or cocktail bars, no covered decks or cosy corners. If you wanted to smoke you lit your Manila cheroot or your Havana cigar under the break of the poop and puffed the smoke into the indignant face of a goat or a disapproving gander.
If you wanted a swim there was always the main deck in the Roaring Forties: but the only bath to be had was on the forecastle head before eight bells, where an obliging seaman would sluice you down with water drawn from overside in a bucket.
The accomodation for first class passengers consisted of a saloon, or cuddy, running the length of the poop, into which opened the doors of the state rooms. Right aft, where in the days of oak and hemp there had been stern windows in the old East Indiamen with quarter galleries beyond, aboard the iron passenger cliiper there were padded seats over lockers - these with an easy chair or two gave a place where the ladies could sit and knit and gossip - where no man except the Captain dared intrude.
The rest of the saloon was taken by a long dining table, clamped firmly to the deck, with a bottle rack and a couple of oil lamps swinging above it.
Hardly had the notes of the bugle died away before men and women began to appear from the side berths. The men, even the youngest, were bearded or whiskered. The women wore shawls over voluminous, rustling, black silk dresses. The men wore pegtop trousers of some check material and black coats in deference to the ladies.
Each man bowed to his neighbour of the fair sex on either side before taking his seat. When all were seated the Captain took the head of the table abd the Purser the foot. A robust, big boned clergyman - probably a missionary bound for the Cannibal Islands - said grace, the Captain boomed "Amen" and immediately a spurt of small talk broke out.
Then in bustled the head steward wqith a steaming bowl of soup, which he set down in front of the Skipper, who immediately began to ladle it out as if for a wager.
Our grandfathers and grandmothers were good trenchermen, nor were they behind with their appreciation of good liquor. Champagne corks were speedily popping, claret followed; and when the ladies discreetly retired to their cabins, brandy and seltzer ushered in a jovial evening.
Supper, it must be admitted, was a cold meal, with the exception of the soup, but the saloon passengers had already done themselves pretty well at their midday dinner, of which this was the menu:
SOUPS. Vermicelli and mutton broth.
FISH. Cod and oyster sauce.
MEATS. Boeuf a la mode, boiled mutton, roast veal, roast fowl, roast goose, minced escallops, veal and ham pie, haricot mutton, ham.
SWEETS. Plum pudding, rice pudding, jam roll, tarts, orange fritters, small pastry.
DESSERT. Oranges, figs, Barcelona raisins, almonds, nuts.
WINES. Champagnes, sparkling Hock (Both supplied by the ship. Many passengers brought their own store of wine aboard, along with cases of whisky and brandy. Corkage was beneath a gentleman's consideration).
As the Captain had prophesised, it was soon blowing hard from the nor'- west and the swift Dallam Tower began to reel off the miles. Ten knots were scratched on the log slate, then 11, 12, 14, 141/2, 15 and 151/2. By this time the main-deck had been converted into a swimming pool. "Labouring heavily and shipping large quantities of water" wrote the Mate in the ship's log, then went in search of his superior officer.
"Will you be heaving her to at eight bells?" he demanded.
It was July 14. The clipper had had a splendid week's run of over 2000 miles. The 'Old man', as the Captain is always called at sea, was jubilant. Yet there was a look of anxiety in the eyes of the crew and something very like terror in those of the more gentle sex among the passengers. The ship had been battened down for the last two days. The roar of the wind, the hiss and crash of the foam-capped seas, and the groaning and creaking of the ship were attended by screams from both cabin and 'tween decks. Children were crying. the doctor was busy. The stewards were more then busy. The crew were standing by on the poop. Lifelines were strung above the seething flood which hid the planks of the main-deck and washed in over one rail, out over the other, and back again as the straining ship rolled.
On the fore-hatch a house containing three live bulls was lashed to the combings.
The moanings and bellowing of the bulls, the bleating of the ships and goats in the long boat, the squawking of hens and chattering of ducks in their coops, and the quick grunting of the pigs in their pens mingled with the oratorio of the storm with the deep humming of the wire shrouds and stays, the higher violin notes of the running rigging and the ceaseless crash and swish of the seas.
Yet the Captain replied in a somewhat halting fashion to the Mate's query: "Let her bide a wee bit longer."
He had run her too long and he knew it. And now he dared not bring her to the wind.
"Ay, its a'most too late." muttered McDonald under his breath, "and he a'int got the sand to do it," with a shake of his head. Then, "Bosun," he called aloud, "I'll take the wheel and give me a strong-muscled lee-wheel."
"Ay, ay, sir."
Everything now depended upon the steering. "Its all right until things begin to go," once said an old Cape Horner.
The ship's officers had done their best to prevent this contingency. Before it fell dark they had gone round the ship, the three mates, the senior apprentice, the bosun, carpenter and sailmaker. Every lay, every lead, every chafe, had been examined. The hatches had been re-wedged, the spare spars re-lashed, extra yarns added to the rovings of the upper and lower topsails, lashing them to the jack stays. Everything that seamanship could foresee had been done to help the ship in her fight with the storm fiend. Yet the wind was breezing up and the glass falling with every passing minute.
At three bells - 9.30pm - came the first sign of "things going." A terrific squall straight out of the west struck the ship with a screech which drowned everything - the moaning of the bulls, the cries of the children, the screams of the women, the creaking ship and hissing seas. Then, as the screech faded out, there came the sound of banging about aloft: and the sorely tried Dallam Tower began to shake and quiver as if in pain. From what appeared to be a long, long way off sounded a small thin voice; it came from the Second Mate, clinging for dear life to the mizzen stay, onto which he had swung himself from the main fife-rail in order to escape a heavy dollop of water.
"The crane of the mail lower topsail-yard has carried away - the yard has fallen across the mainstays - it's raising Cain - the stay may go ----"
"Let it bide - we can do nothing. Look out for yourself on that main deck," roared back Captain Davies from the break of the poop.
An hour later came the next alarm. A sudden terrific bellowing burst forth from the bull-pen mingled with the rending and cracking of breaking timber.
"Now what's gone?" burst forth the thoroughly daunted Captain of the Dallam Tower.
Again the Mate ventured his life on the main-deck. "The fore lower topsail-yard has fallen across the bulls' house and smashed it up," was his report. "One bull's lying dead, jammed in the wreckage; I guess the others are over the side."
Hardly had he spoken, before that greatest of all terrors, a 'pooper,' arrived. In a roaring maelstrom of foam it swept over the taffrail, and high over the heads of the Mate and the lee-wheel. Luckily the wheel held and the men were lashed. But both steering and standard compasses were uprooted and taken overboard and the saloon skylight burst in.
At midnight the barometer reading was 28.95 and it was blowing 'great guns.' This is no far fetched description, for at the height of a cyclonic storm there is a deep booming, which is very like the sound of heavy gunfire.
All through the middle watch the pounding seas looted the main-deck. Every head of livestock went swimming, coops and pens being torn from their lashing and broken to bits.
One of the bulls was actually seen at daybreak the following morning, swimming strongly, by the crew of the fine London ship, Superb, which hove to - with her head under her wing, as some sailor expressed it - rode out the blow without recieving any hurt.
At three bells - 1.30am - the heavy water on the main-deck burst in the saloon doors and filled up the saloon, waist deep.
It should be realised that when a sailing ship is running before a big sea, she scoops up the tops of the chasing seas as she rolls - these pour on board - often on both sides at once - and fill the deck to the rails so that nothing can be seen from the poop but a flood of white, rushing water. This, as the vessel scends, roars aft with the force of a battering ram; then, as she pitches, the torrent goes hurtling forward again. And so it goes on, out over one rail, in over the other as she rolls: aft as she scends, forward as she pitches.
Whilst the stewards and men passengers bailed for dear life, the carpenter and apprenticees set about nailing boards across the broken doorway. But in the midst of it, with the lamps flickering and threatening to blow out at any moment from the draught through the skylight and broken doors, there came a clatter and a crash.
"Jump for your lives," squealed a youthful apprentice as he leaped for the poop rail. But it was too late for those inside. In rushed the wolfish sea, looted the saloon and nearest berths, then roared forward again taking with it dazed passengers, worn out stewards, the Captain's desk with £80 in cash, his charts and nautical instruments and even clothing.
There were many unknown acts of heroism that night. It was no longer safe to stay below under the poop - there was danger of being drowned in your bed.
Wild-eyed women and whimpering children were somehow or other got along that terrible main deck and placed for safety in the forecastle, right in the bows under the head.
And now things began to go with a vengeance. The lifeboats on the skids fell apart like so much matchwood, the paint and lamp locker doors burst in and the lockers were swept bare. The fore-sheet parted and the sail speedily took to itself wings.
At 4am - eight bells - and the change of the watch, the Captain nerved himself to the task of rounding her to, for the ship, running like a frightened stag, was more under water than above it.
As the word was passed round the poop that the skipper meant to heave her to, each man began lashing himself to the weather rail.
Minutes passed. Still the 'Old man' hesitated, waiting for a smooth. Three monsters fell upon the main-deck in succession. Now was his chance. Taking his courage in both hands, he motioned to the Mate.
"Down with the helm! Down with it!" roared the latter, as he and his hefty lee-wheel fought for every spoke. Over went the Dallam Tower - over and yet over - would she never stop lying down? Steadily she lay down on her beam ends, until her lower yards were dragging in the raging flood to leeward, and the sea and wind came flooding right abeam.
"We're done," muttered the 'Old Man,' with a despairing gesture.
"We must cut away the topgallant masts," cried the indomitable Mate.
"Do what you can," returned the Captain.
The wheel was no longer the post of danger and responsibility. It might well have been lashed. The fight was now on to save the ship by sacrificing the topgallant masts and spars in order to lessen the top weight which was helping to keep the ship on her beam ends.
"Follow me, you and you," cried the Mate, picking his best men, as he clambered along the weather rail. The Second Mate and two senior apprentices went up the mizzen. The Third Mate, boatswain and two hands up the main, and the Mate himself took the carpenter and two hands up the fore, where they also cut away the fore-topmast.
The process of cutting away masts, it should be explained, is not a case of laying the axe to the mast itself, it generally being quite sufficient to cut the lanyards of the rigging.
The brave little ship was no sooner released of her top hamper than she dragged her lee rail out of the water and brought her decks level.
Again, the tension was removed for a short spell, but at daylight the scene revealed was sufficient to terrify the stoutest-hearted of the passengers. The sky was low and threatening; the air was full of flying scud, stinging to the cheek and salt to the taste. The horizon was close aboard, looking like a range of snow clad Alpine peaks. The sea birds, except for an occasional petrel, were all gone. The ship, lying well over on her side, was set in a ring of soap-suds, whilst continual sprays and even heavier water poured in a cascade over her weather rail. Occasionally a monster sea swept over her, when the hearts of all stood still, for fear of the clipper being rolled keel out.
One such sea, at three bells in the forenoon watch, fell upon the after hatch and burst it in, flooding into the store-room and ruining the provisions. An hour later the lanyards of the main and mizzen back-stays went and down fell both top-masts. They went over the side and lay battering against the ship in the yellow froth to leeward.
As the day went on, the first fury of the gale began to take off. The carpenter sounded the well with some difficulty and announced 1 ft 8 in. of water. By this time every soul aboard was dead beat, so the fire of the donkey boiler was lit, only to be promptly put out by the invading seas. All day the ship lay like a half tide rock, rolling in the trough of the sea. Things were still carrying away. Soon after dark the lower yards - the only yards still aloft - broke adrift from their cranes and the work of securing them proved a fine test of seamanship, in which the 'won't be beat' attribute of the true tarpaulin seaman was at leat able to prevail.
At 4am on July 16 the wind began to howl and scream once more. At daylight a foresail was got up from the sail locker, and bent on the foreyard. The Mate's idea was to get the ship out of the trough of the sea and to steady her way with the wind abaft the beam, but the wind was piping up too strongly and before it could be set the sail blew to tatters.
All that day a most dangerous sea hurled the Dallam Tower about in a way which no gear could withstand. At 5pm the heavy mainyard again broke adrift and after bashing about for two hours and defying every effort to secure it, at length brought the lower mast crashing down across the port rail. The mast, an iron one, buckled up and broke in three pieces. A gang of passengers who were working the starboard pump brakes when the mast fell had a lucky escape, for the pump to port was crushed beneath the huge spar.
At 10pm came the mizzen's turn. At that hour the crossjack yard broke adrift, and again the yard brought down the mast, which fell across the starboard side of the poop, tearing up the deck, smashing what was left of the great saloon skylight and breaking through the teakwood poop rail. Again, not a soul was hurt!
The wind dropped the following morning, but it was now a case of all hands to the pumps, which the carpenter had managed to repair. There was 2 ft 9 in. of water in the well. Yet strong, sturdy foremast hands could hardly stand upright from sheer muscle fatigue. It is not easy for the landsman to realise the wearing effect of a long, drawn out gale at sea. To sit down one had to hold on till one's arm roots drew: to move about was the feat of an acrobat, yet without sleep and with very little sustaining food the most muscle-demanding work had to be carried on - and in this fight with the elements limb and life had to be risked time and again without the thought of self.
"The ship! The ship! body and soul for the ship!" was the cry of the true sailor.
It is not to be wondered that in the days of sail every seaman was an athlete, with muscles of whipcord, with eyes wide open and fearless from continually facing danger, and with an endurance of soul that not even those two furies, the sea and wind, could break.
Aboard the Dallam Tower the passengers, too, played their part with valour - squire, farmer and ploughman, parson, laywer and doctor, bank-clerk, grocer's boy and chimney-sweep, they all shared the brakes: saloon and steerage, puffing and blowing in their shirt sleeves and doing their broken winded best to join in the stirring pumping chanties such as 'Santy Anna', 'Rio Grande' and 'Stormalong'. And when a lean, sunburnt son of the sea broke into:-
"Oh! Southern Australia is my 'ome:
'Eave away, yu rollin' king!"
every sundowner aboard put double weight on the pumps.
Yet, in the very midst of the brightening weather and the inspirating work, the storm fiend still worked havoc. The forestay carried away and down came the fore lower mast, falling towards the midship house and the forward boats. The house gave way, the side of the starboard boat fell in, the fresh-water tank on the top of the house was flattened out, and lastly, the head of the mast went through the main hatch, letting the heads of seas, which still fell aboard, down into the 'tween decks.
This, however, was the gale's last effort. It now remained for the battered ship's company to get their dismasted vessel into port. The nearest, Melbourne, was 2,000 miles away. There was now a need for that old-time seamanship such as few present-day crews could put into practice.
Sheers were rigged and jury masts got up. Yards were shaped by that grand weapon the adze and clothed - to use the old sea term.
In order to make a mainsail of sufficient size, stunsail booms were scarfed and frapped together; every piece of timber in the ship was used up. With the jury foremast up and stayed, two topmast stunsails were set, but it was still blowing too hard for such light canvas to stand. And a topgallant sail, bent at 8am, had split to pieces by noon.
Finally, an upper and lower topsail were laced together and set at the fore, and the ship got away on a course for Port Phillip, the navigation being carried on by means of a passenger's almanac. The main jury mast could not be got on end till July 26, owing to the violent rolling in the heavy sea.
It was on this day that the ship Cape Clear, of Liverpool, hove in sight. From her Commander, Captain Davies managed to borrow a track chart. Twelve saloon and four steerage passengers, heroic women with naught but the clothes they stood up in, were transferred to the Cape Clear, which then filled away for her port with a promise to report.
Two days later a spanker boom was got up as a mizzen jury mast and a topgallant sail set. The wind continued strong and fair; and the Dallam Tower, under a proper lash up of four makeshift sails, made good progress, showing wonderful speed under such short canvas. These early iron ships were hard to beat and the little clipper proved herself worthy of being bracketed with the best of her breed. All through the worst of the gale she had behaved splendidly - and she was as tight as a bottle, for when once the pumps had sucked not another drop of water was found in her.
She made the run to Melbourne in 36 days from the date of her dismasting. If her arrival was a cause for admiration, her appearance and that of her passengers and crew was one for astonishment. If the ship seemed to be an utter wreck, her passengers, even the half dozen children, looked the picture of health; though they had had to subsist on a scanty fare of salt junk, hard tack and rusty water. That not a soul had been injured, except the Second Mate, who had a crushed hand, was little short of marvellous. all aboard declared that they owed their salvation to Donald McDonald, who on one occasion remained at the wheel for thirty hours, at the end of which he had to be carried below.
It only remains to add that the Dallam Tower, after being re-rigged in Melbourne, proudly sailed away, looking like a queen in her new suit of canvas, and reached Dunedin on March 4, 1874.
Published in 'All Clear Aft - episodes at sea' by Cassell & Co Ltd on behalf of the Seaman's Hospital Fund, 1936.
Last edited by HMS Bergamot : 21-06-2009 at 20:21.
Re: The dismasting of the Dallam Tower - by Basil Lubbock
Great story Richard. Tough people in those days Huh!!!!
Non illigitamus carborundum!
Re: The dismasting of the Dallam Tower - by Basil Lubbock
Nothin' like an old sea tale to get your imagination going. Not that we could really appreciate it unless one has been there. Good one Richard.
Re: The dismasting of the Dallam Tower - by Basil Lubbock
What an incredible story and what marvellous seamanship. Thanks for posting that Richard.
Re: The dismasting of the Dallam Tower - by Basil Lubbock
I'm a bit late finding this one but thanks for the story Richard.
My interest in the Dallam Tower is that my grandfather and his parents came out to Sydney on that ship 10 years after episode related above. Grandfather was a few weeks short of his 1st birthday when the ship arrived at Port Jackson.
A few stats:
Voyage dep. Plymouth 9 Aug 1883 Arr. Sydney 1 Nov 1883, 16113nm, 84 days. Captain Gilmour, 34 crew. Number of days logging 300nm or more 7, best run 2 days of 324nm.
I hope this is of interest.