One day long long ago, in the bloom of youth, I was at the seaside, tarrying on a pier, fresh from a game of crazy golf and sucking an ice lolly. The sky was overcast and seabirds were screeching. I had decided, when once I was done with my lolly, to return to the dilapidated boarding house where I was staying with my parents and siblings, to fetch my swimming trunks and a towel, and then to go a-splashing in the sea. But as I leaned against the railings on the pier, sucking away, I was accosted by an elderly gent. He gave off a stink of kippers and brine and his huge hairy beard was riddled with fishbones. He leaned against the railings next to me, and pointed out to sea.
“Look, sonny,” he said, “What do you see?”
I looked in the direction of his pointing finger and could just make out, in the sea-mist, the shape of a ship, half way to the horizon.
“I see a ship,” I said.
“Aye, ’tis a ship indeed,” said the old sea dog, “And can you tell me the basic constituent parts of, say, a wooden ship?”
“I’ll try my best,” I said, for I was biddable and eager to please, “Sternpost, keel, false keel or shoe, fore foot or gripe, stem, headpiece, garboard strake, bottom planking, side planking, wale, sheer strake, covering board, bulwark, rough-tree rail, topgallant bulwark, rudder, counter, stern, chain plates, cathead, figurehead, mizzenmast, mainmast, foremast, and… oh… there’s one part on the tip of my tongue.”
The old tar stuffed a gobbet of salt taffy into his mouth and chewed on it, looking at me with a twinkle in his eye.
“Bowsprit!”, I cried, triumphantly.
“Good lad,” he said, “But what if I asked you to name three different types of parrel and their constituent parts?”
“Golly!”, I said, and after a moment’s thought, babbling, I listed what I could recall. “Well, first, a parrel with cleats on a wooden yard, you’d have topmast, yard, wooden cleats, a half-iron hoop served with leather, pins forming hinges to open the parrel, an iron band to take the tie, and iron straps and bolts securing the parrel to the yard. But if you had a tub parrel for an iron yard, then there would be topmast, yard, tub divided in halves, iron binding for same, gooseneck bolt, iron bands to take parrel and tie, yoke for the parrel, yoke for the tie, and eye bolt for the quarterblock. Thereagain, with a parrel sliding on a T-bar in a big ship, I would say topmast, topsail yard, T-bar, slide, two-way coupling, tie, connecting chain keeping slide in place, and last but by no means least, eye bolts for quarterblocks, captain. Should I call you captain?”
“It is many a long year since I served as a captain, my boy,” he said, “But tell me, if you cobbled together a topsail yard, parrel, rolling spar, iron drum end of the rolling spar, yardarm hoop, arm carrying the reefing halliard block, cheek block for topgallant sheet, parrel crutch with lignum vitae rollers, lignum vitae rollers, topsail, lead block for reefing halliards, and topsail yardarm, what would you have?”
I rubbed my chin to demonstrate that I was thinking carefully, as Darbyshire does, in imitation of Mr Carter, in the books by Anthony Buckeridge.
“I think,” I said, “No, I know… you’d have Colling’s and Pinkney’s patent self-reefing topsail, would you not?”
“You would indeed,” said the ancient mariner, and he spat his salt taffy into the sea.
I waited for his next question.
“I wonder if you can tell me,” he said, “About a four-masted barque.”
“Easy peasy,” I said, but too quickly, because with a glint of impatience, he snapped:
“Not just any four-masted barque, lad, but a particular one! Tell me everything you know about the Herzogin Cecilie!”
I gulped, and took a last suck on what was left of my ice lolly.
“Well,” I began, haltingly, “The Herzogin Cecilie, the Herzogin Cecilie… Ah, I think that was a four-masted barque built in 1902 by Rickmers shipyard at Bremerhaven for the Norddeutscher Lloyd at Bremen. It was a big sailing vessel of three thousand, two hundred and forty-two gross tons or four thousand, three hundred and fifty dw. She was a good sailer and made many excellent voyages. During World War One she was interned at Coquimbo in Chile. After the war, she brought a cargo of bauxite to Ostend, and… no, not bauxite, it was a cargo of nitrate. At Ostend she was allocated to the French government. In November 1921 she was purchased by Gustaf Erikson, Mariehamn, Finland, and under his flag was employed chiefly in the Australian grain trade. She foundered on 25 April 1936 off Salcombe in Devonshire, after running aground in heavy fog.”
“Tiptop Herzogin Cecilie information,” said the sea dog, beaming at me, “Now, just one more question. How many jibs did she have?”
“I would say three,” I replied, “An inner jib, an outer jib, and a flying jib.”
“And you would be right to say so,” he said, “But now our conversation is at an end.”
“Oh,” I said, a little downcast, “I think that must be the first time I have had a ship-related conversation with no mention at all of poop or orlop decks.”
“Don’t you worry,” he said, “You will be having plenty more ship-related conversations in the decades to come, for you have passed my rigorous tests and I am going to press-gang you into the service of the king’s navy.”
And so saying, he suddenly gave me a great shove and pushed me over the railings and I splashed into the sea. I was picked up by a rowing boat sent from the wooden ship he had pointed out to me, in the distance, now wholly enshrouded in sea-mist. And into that mist I was rowed, by a crew of hefty silent rowers, until the ship loomed huge ahead, and looking back I could no longer see any trace of the the pier, and the shore, and the dilapidated boarding house where my parents and siblings waited for me.