THE age of sail still radiates romance. Why else would the Tall Ships’ Race remain so popular?
So this is rather a spine-tingling picture which has come to me from John Bage.
It goes back more than 90 years to when these two sailing vessels were lying at Smith’s Dock’s pontoons at North Shields.
Says John: “They are beautifully finished ships, but look at those painters on the planks suspended by ropes. No back rails to stop them falling off!”
He’s right, though the taking of risks like that were common in the shipyards and docks of the period.
But as beautiful as this class of ships was, they trailed danger in other ways.
If you were reading the shipping intelligence in the Gazette on either side of the turn of last century, for instance, there was reassurance in noting, for example: “Brigantine Donse, (Capt) Malaburn, arrived Honfleur on the 17th. All well.”
But sometimes things weren’t well at all.
Shields had its share of sailing ships that were traded by local owners.
One was the barque Palestine, for instance, of which there’s a note of when, in passage from Quebec to the Tyne laden with timber, she became waterlogged in the North Sea.
Her crew spent 80 hours in the rigging before they were finally taken off by a steamer and the ship abandoned.
There was a worse fate, however, for a vessel owned by South Shields man John Lawes.
His vessel, the brigantine George, set out from Sunderland four days before Christmas in 1894, bound for Southampton.
By January 9, great anxiety as to her fate was being reported.
“She has not been heard of and grave fears for the ship are entertained.”
And here’s a killer: “She was not insured.”
Another, different, tragedy had occurred just a few years earlier, this time involving another brigantine, the Bittern, of Poole.
On a day in late summer she had to put back to Shields harbour, under command of her mate, who reported that while the ship was off Sunderland, with a strong sea running, her skipper, Captain George Scarff, while standing on the quarter-deck, was thrown overboard when the vessel gave a sudden lurch.
Heartbrakingly, it was noted: “His wife and two children were onboard.”