Voy­age of a life­time

Boating NZ - - Contents - BY JON TUCKER

At 16, Bob Howard joined the four-masted bar­que Pamir.

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

Each of the 32 sails had its own com­plex set of run­ning rig­ging to mem­o­rise – hal­yards, bunt­lines, clew­lines and braces...

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. BNZ

FAR LEFT The ship’s ar­ti­cles promised Bob “a lib­eral scale of ra­tions”. MID­DLE LEFT Six­teen-year-old Bob Howard after join­ing the ship. He didn’t take long to learn the ropes. LEFT The ship’s boys en­joy time out on the bowsprit in the At­lantic dol­drums.

TOP LEFT Princess El­iz­a­beth watches as Bob Howard demon­strates how to back­splice.

BE­LOW Bob’s mem­ber­ship card of the Cape Horners’ As­so­ci­a­tion and mem­bers of New Zealand’s Pamir As­so­ci­a­tion, now dis­banded.

LEFT Bob Howard to­day at his home.

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