From Boatsheds to Battlefields 42 The Romance of Sail

Cape Town slept peacefully beneath the sheltering mass of grey old Table Mountain. Now and again a belated cab or a wagon of farm produce clattered, or rumbled noisily through deserted streets – the tramp of policeman sounded eerily in the stillness. The yellow flashes of his lantern cutting long beams through the air laden with sea and valley mists.

Below Adderley Street, the city’s main thoroughfare, some two hundred heavily built fishing boats lay massed on the tiny beach of Rogge Bay and though midnight had not long passed dark figures singly and in pairs, in little groups were already appearing from the town and gathering in knots around their craft.

Rogge Bay.

Soon a move was made – sixteen wiry powerful fishermen collected round one boat – stout poles were slipped through rope nooses in bow and stern – the men lined out four on either side of the bow and four on either side of the stern, bending they got their shoulders under the poles and on a sharp order from the boat’s skipper lifted the heavy boat and staggered down to the water’s edge.

Once the work started it progressed rapidly three or four crews combining to carry each other’s craft down. The co-workers tally of boats complete mast and sail wrapped in stout tarpaulin, heavy stone anchors, anchor rope, oars, line boxes, cudgels for stunning fish and other gear were swiftly brought down and stowed – oars were slipped and soon boat after boat rowed into the dark covered night.

Two of the fishing craft, ‘Violet’ and ‘Alice’ seemed strangers amongst the rest of the fleet, and no helping hands appeared to be extended to their crew. ‘Alice’ a lighter type than the standard fishing boat presented no difficulty to the two crews easily carrying her down. ‘Violet’ on the other hand was an exceptionally heavy, five-oared craft, and the air around her was sulphurous as seven men and a white youth vainly endeavoured to half carry, half drag her.

“Damn these Malays” ejaculated Mick “they wouldn’t help an outsider if he was starving – I’m not going to strain my back or heart – say, Jack, what about cadging a bit of help from one or other of the boats?”

“You can try Mr. Osmond” answered the other powerful, bearded white man – “mebbe hearing your winning tongue a miracle might happen, but I ain’t bettin’ on it.”

Explaining his intentions to the others, a wild looking lot of Cape Coloured men, Mick dived into the mass of busy fisherfolk and in the dim light sought for one of the old pureblood Malay skippers. A white-bearded turbaned man, short, stout and evidently of importance was soon found.

Gravely the skipper listened to Mick’s tale of woe and answered in a merry full voice “Young Gentleman my people do not like these Clifton people – they are drunken scoundrels and it is not good for young white gentlemen to be with them. However, for your sake, I will give help” and in a few words sent half a dozen Malays to Mick’s help.

“Proper gentlemen the old Malay people are” remarked Mick to Jack as they helped stow away the boat’s gear after thanking the helpers.

“Aye Mr. Osmond” answered the fisherman, “Malays, Blacks, Chinese, and South Sea Islanders, they are all gentlefolk with manners and morals, until white man’s religion and white man’s civilisation spoils ’em.”

The two boats soon pushed off – their own fishing station was some six miles by land from Cape Town but the previous week a howling North West gale had caught them at sea, and the skipper after a stern battle had turned and run for Three Anchor Bay only to find the surf running too heavily to venture in. Cape Town then remained the only resource so squaring away the two boats went tearing down before the strong wind and heavy following sea.

Mick had been in ‘Alice’ the lighter of the two and had found all the thrills he wanted. This time he was pulling the bow in the ‘Violet’ and it wasn’t long before he was cursing freely for the boat was as heavy to pull as to carry. The ‘Alice’ had taken three men beside the skipper, leaving the ‘Violet’ the same number which made her two short for a full crew.

Slowly the fishing boat was pulled across Table Bay passing by many sparred Sailing Ships, rolling slowly at their anchorage, under the towering sides of huge cargo steamers, in amongst dainty racing yachts until a mile from the beach they rounded the gates of Cape Town’s docks and entered into a world of ghostly creakings, manifold smells and weird shapes and shadows.

Here the fishing fleet gathered under the skeleton arms of monstrous cranes, besides great ocean liners, next to sea battered sailing craft, beside slimy green coated wharvers, and began to reap a harvest of small fish to be used as bait for bigger relations.

Holding candles and lanterns close to the surface of the water and liberally sowing breadcrumbs, the fishermen soon had shoal after shoal of a small type of herring swimming up to the lights – a large scoop net on the end of a pole was then brought into play and before long the boat’s flooring boards were covered with beautifully tinted fish. As each boat satisfied its’ wants it began to move off to the far distant fishing grounds.

There was no wind so as the boats gathered way, crews settled into the long Cape Stroke each man rising to his feet and with all his weight pulling slowly and steadily until his body sat once more on the thwart and the oar loom was against his breast – the skipper reversing the process and pushing against his oar.

The sea, black and noiseless, heaved slowly in mountain-like rollers and deep hollows, but as the oars dipped into the dark water and rose back into the air, molten streams of violet fire ran from the blades.

“Terrible lot of phosphorous to-night Jack” called Mick from the bows.

“Aye, it will have been that Nor’ Wester done that” answered Jack spitting overboard – “tis a good sign for fish and a spell o’ quiet at sea – it’s pretty stuff. Wish to blazes we could get a breeze though – it’s about ten miles to the Stockfish banks and from there ’bout fourteen to Clifton – Blast fishing I say ’tis a crool hard life – but there’s wuss.” he ended emphatically.

“What’s worse, Jack?” asked Mick laughingly.

“Afore the mast on a windbag” answered the other. “Foolish folk make pictures and write books and poems about the romance of sail, and weep ‘cos it’s days are passing. Damn good job says I – them that likes sailing ships let them vige with ’em” says I “it’ll learn them not to be foolish minded I reckon. Three pun ten a month and that stolen at the end – a body full o’ sores – a constitution ruined by wet – all crippled and broken with work and livin’ on stuff what writers and poets and suchlike wouldn’t give their dorgs they wouldn’t, and if they did the dorgs wouldn’t eat it not they. Blast sailing ships I say.”

Three hours of hard work brought the ‘Violet’ to her fishing ground an hour before dawn – all around the night was alive with the splash of oars and creak of hole pins whilst muffled voices sounded faintly from the dark. It was too deep to anchor so two men gently held the boat against the drift of current as the other three dropped their thick cotton lines overboard – each line was weighted by a heavy cone-shaped sinker of lead above which there were three immense barbed hooks baited with whole Cape Herring.

There seemed no bottom to the sea – fathom after fathom of line ran out – however the rush of line at last slackened and gently hauling in the fishermen got the true depth and slowly raising and lowering their lines kept the baited hooks a foot or two from the ground.

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