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The Great Days of the Cape Horners

Yves Le Scal

Reviewed by Paul M. Clayton

What small boat sailor doesn't consider with awe the last of the square rigger mariners, who kept the tradition of the sea alive until well into the 20th century? They sailed the big, muscular (and very fast) windjammers round the southern capes in search of a cargo of wheat or Chilean phosphate, often short crewed and often in atrocious weather, the last holdouts against the new technology of steam.

Yves Le Scal worked from papers provided by the widow of the great French windjammer captain Henri Briend to produce his book, The Great Days of the Cape Horners, first published in French in 1964 and later translated and released in English. The French government heavily subsidized the merchant fleet in order to breed sailors for the navy, and the French flag was common in all the ports of the world. While the British built ships by the hundreds in Clydesdale and the German Rickmers and Laeisz Lines built some notable windjammers, the French shipyards in Nantes, Le Havre, Rouen and Dunkirke kept up the pace. Between 1896 and 1904 these yards constructed 150 big steel four masted windjammers which would provide the bulk of the sailing fleet until the last days, at the outbreak of World War II. After 1904 the French built just one more windjammer, the massive five masted France II, in direct response to the two German five masters, R.C. Rickmers and Preussen.

These big ships could take advantage of the southern winds to make fast passages. With their steel hulls, masts and rigging they were technologically far in advance of the earlier wooden ships, and could carry all plain sail while running at 20 knots or more in front of 40 knot winds. The four masters commonly exceeded 300 feet in length and had a displacement of 4,000 to 5,000 tons. France II, the longest of them all, stretched 422 feet, and Preussen displaced over 8,000 tons.

The work, of course, was hard and dangerous, as waves would regularly wash the decks of heavily laden homeward bound vessels, and any work aloft was made doubly difficult by the huge arc that the masts would describe as the ship rolled and pitched in a following sea. The run up the Atlantic was usually less dramatic, and might allow for a favorite pursuit of the crew, harpooning of porpoises. In the usual idiosyncratic Gallic manner, the first porpoise taken on a French ship was cooked and presented to the captain, who then ordered an extra ration of red wine all around.

The last of the square riggers were gathered in by Swedish and Finnish interest in the 1920s and 1930s, to sail into a lingering twilight that ended in the general wartime destruction of Europe. We are greatly indebted to Yves Le Scal and the Australian Alan Villiers for preserving something of the heritage of the sailing ship.

I found my copy of The Great Days of the Cape Horners at a used bookstore, but it is readily available through Amazon.

Here is a sample page from the book.