Tristan Jones vividly and colorfully describes his childhood as a Welsh boy growing up by the sea. The story of his boyhood in pre-World War II England is strikingly charming and nostalgic. The challenges and adventures he encounters will have you seeing, smelling, feeling, hearing, and tasting the sea as you travel with him through this coming-of-age story.
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About the Author
Jones wrote many books about his remarkable life, including Saga of a Wayward Sailor and The Incredible Voyage. He passed away in 1995. In 2003, Ragged Mountain Press published an unauthorized biography, Wayward Sailor: In Search of the Real Tristan Jones.
Read an Excerpt
A Steady Trade
A Boyhood at Sea
By Tristan Jones
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1982 Tristan Jones
All rights reserved.
There's almost always a westerly wind over Merioneth. On winter days it's a wet west wind, whistling under clouds black and funereal, like a hundred hearses bringing back home the ghosts of the drowned sailors of Wales to weep over their mountains. The west wind sighs in from the Celtic Sea, driving before it a billion charging white horses, sending them smashing to their deaths on the shores of Gwynned. The escaped seas scoot frothing, eventually subsiding on the long sands of Tywyn. The west wind, insistent, tenacious, tendentious, scores the black, lonely peak of Cader Idris. Fat wool sheep bleat under the shelter of low walls built before Rome, old when the Norsemen were beaten back from them, well-mossed when the Normans flung up their grim, gray castles on the shores of Wales.
In the patched sunlit summer, though, with the wind tame and temperate, almost kind, the tiny hamlet of Llangareth—a chapel, three cottages, and our house—nestled, chimneys smoking, hidden in a little valley so green that the golden rocky outcrops of the Ffestiniog mountains looked from the heights to us children like the claws of an eagle outsplayed on well-brushed green baize.
Three miles up and down this valley my sister, Angharad, and I rode our pony, Caradoc. He was now so old that he needed no guidance but frequent rest as he clambered down to and from the brew, or hill, to the Barmouth-Harlech road, a narrow ribbon of sandy tar threading the ocher and emerald hollows along the coastal hinterland.
In 1935 I was almost eleven, Angharad was seven. She was attending the elementary school a few miles away. One of my jobs, now that I was grown, was to see that she met the rickety little bus that took her to and from the school. In the mornings, with Angharad safely onboard the bus, I waited for Rhys-the-Post, who, in his blue serge cape and double-peaked, flat-topped helmet with its great brass-horn badge, rode his pony, Powis, on the rural mail round winter and summer. On joyful occasions there would be a letter from my dad, far away in England, where God directed the railway lines and telegraph poles from Dolgellau. There, it was said, the folk were strange and many and did not know each other's names. England, the homeland of Mister Jeffreys-Geography, our thin, baldheaded, bespectacled teacher, who spoke English so lispingly and strangely that only Educated Evans, the fat boy from Aran Fawddwy, could understand more than three words he said in any one sentence. England was Lloegr, "the Land of the Moonrise," in our language, the tongue of the Cymry. "A language ancient when Homer was a lad," my dad used to observe.
Dad was a master mariner, a Trinity House (British Port Authority) relief pilot in the slump of the twenties. He guided great liners and cargo steamers into and out of the ports of Britain. Now he was the first mate in a tug. He was the son, the grandson, and the great and great-great-grandson of master mariners going back, so family legend had it, through Christopher Jones, master of the Mayflower on her epic voyage from Plymouth, England, to Massachusetts in 1620. Certainly he could trace his line back to William Jones, born in 1749 at Beddgelert, who was master of Harlech Castle, a brig of eighty-five tons, which was at St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1795. The next year, Harlech Castle was captured by a French frigate. Captain William and two of his crew were taken to France and lodged in Arras prison. They escaped the following year, 1797, and crossed the stormy English Channel in a rowboat. When they eventually landed at Hythe, Kent, they were greeted—to their delight and surprise—in Welsh by men of the Flintshire Militia, stationed there against an expected Napoleonic invasion.
William's son, Emrys, born in 1800, was lost off the coast of Madagascar in 1844, sunk by pirates, it was said.
Emrys's son, Cadwaladr, born in 1843, went down off Brazil in a great storm in 1896. He was one of the few men ever to have a ship named after him while he was still alive. She was the 103-ton schooner Cadwaladr Jones, built in Borthygest in 1878. She sailed the hard North Atlantic passage to and from Newfoundland and the Mediterranean for more than four decades; then she was sold to someone in Argentina and was finally lost off the Scilly Isles in 1933, while under the command of a retired Royal Navy officer.
Cadwaladr's son, John Jones (my grandfather), was known as "Johnny Star" and gained the reputation of being the crackerjack skipper of the Western Ocean Yachts, as the Welsh tops'l schooners were known. He made the fastest run ever from Portmadoc to Harburg, Germany, where Welsh slate was unloaded. That was in five days. Almost seven hundred miles of some of the most difficult seas in the world for a sail-craft, what with the shifting winds, strong tides, and hidden hazards of the Celtic Sea, the English Channel, and the North Sea. That was around 1902.
Johnny Star went down in the schooner Alpha in the Irish Sea, bound from Dublin to Amlch in 1906. Not as well known as Johnny Star, perhaps because he was a less colorful character, was his brother (my uncle) Evan Lewis Jones of Barmouth. Evan Lewis was the master of one of the Lister vessels, Cariad, and in about 1896 he made the fastest-over transatlantic passage for a small merchant sailing vessel. That was from Eurges, Newfoundland, to Oporto, Portugal. The voyage lasted just under ten days; the cargo was salted codfish.
My dad had been at sea since 1909, and, like most of the Welsh master mariners, he had worked his way up from cook/deckboy to master, under sail until 1916, in voyages as far as Seattle and Calcutta. Then, when the German U-boats found small, defenseless sailing craft to be easy pickings and sank one-third of the British sail tonnage in the first eighteen months of World War I, he went into steam. From 1920 to 1924 my mam accompanied him the world over in the eight-thousand-ton tramp steamer Western Star. The tramp ships were so called because they sailed no particular or regular route, but picked up their cargoes where and when they could.
It was onboard the S.S. Western Star, on one of these tramping voyages, from Perth, Australia, to Halifax, Nova Scotia, that I was born on May 8, 1924. The ship was approximately 150 miles northeast of the remote island of Tristan Da Cunha, in the southern South Atlantic Ocean. The cargo was a strange one by any standard. It consisted of about a thousand tons of sheep bones and the first roller-skating rink exported from Australia, where that pastime was, I understand, invented.
My mother, in later years, often told me the story of my birth, although my dad was almost always silent, and shook his head and pursed his lips whenever the episode was mentioned. I was a breech birth; in other words, I was upside down in my mother. It was ten hours of pure hell for her, in a ship bucking crazily in a full storm, with her hanging onto the deckhead (ceiling) of the master's cabin, one foot on Dad's desk and the other on the sofa, which the mate, Ebenezar Roberts, had ripped away from the ship's side. The wireless operator, Owen Thomas of Nevin, tried to contact the resident doctor on the island of Tristan Da Cunha, but the weather conditions were such that very little of what that gentleman instructed could be understood. My dad told me that it was exactly at sunrise that he and the mate finally got my shoulders away from my poor mam, then my head last. It was covered with a caul—a membrane. Ebenezar ripped it off and slapped me on the back. I squawled, and Ebenezar said to my dad: "By God, this one will always land on his feet! He may be a candidate for a hanging one day, but he'll never drown!" Dad grinned when he told me that.
Now, almost sixty years later, the resident doctor of Tristan Da Cunha, Jones by name, has named his son, born in England, after me. So goes the wheel.
The ship was ostensibly bound for Halifax, Canada. In those days, when the British Empire was still far-flung, the law was that if a person was born onboard a British-registered vessel at sea, he or she became a citizen of the country of the parents and of the first British Empire land the ship touched. If the ship had gone to Canada, then I would have been a Canadian citizen as well as British. But a week after my birth a radio signal was received onboard from the owners in Liverpool, changing the ship's destination to that port. Later, it turned out that the reason for this was that the proprietors of the New Brighton Palace, a dance hall near Liverpool, had agreed to try out the roller-skating rink, with an option to buy it if it was a success. I am probably the only British subject ever made so by a telegram and a roller-skating rink. It was rather a pity in a way. If I'd been in the Royal Canadian Navy instead of the Royal Navy, my invaliding pension would have been about ten times the amount it is today. But then, I might not have been propelled into sailing and writing, and my life in the past thirty years would most likely not have been anywhere near as rewarding, and surely not as much fun.
My mother never moaned about my birth, nor did she ever resent it. She seemed to treat it as an exercise in affection—and of that she had more than her share. She was a Roberts, and her grandfather, Hugh, master of the 216-ton brig Evelyn, son of Hugh, master of the 142-ton Constance, had been one of the most renowned Welsh seafarers of the nineteenth century. In Evelyn great-grandpa Hugh Roberts made voyages to every port on the east coast of South America, and he took many hundreds of emigrants from Wales to the Falkland Islands and Porto Madryn, in Patagonia, Argentina. After sailing Evelyn for thirty-six years, without ever once having a serious illness or accident onboard, Hugh Roberts finally lost her in a tremendous mid-Atlantic hurricane in May 1914. He and the crew of three were saved by a steamer minutes before the Evelyn surrendered to the ocean. Hugh said afterward that they would have died anyway, as they had fresh water left for only one more day. For thirty-six years Evelyn had plied the oceans from St. Petersburg to the Horn and had carried hundreds of thousands of tons of freight— fertilizer, slate, phosphate, fish, salt, coal—over the whole Atlantic. Bear in mind that Evelyn was only 109 feet long, had no engine, and was manned by only three men and a boy; she paid for herself hundreds of times over, and did it gracefully.
After we reached Liverpool, Mam took me to Llangareth while Dad continued plying his craft on the oceans. That lasted until 1926, when hundreds of cargo ships were laid up because of a shipping slump. Dad went to work as an assistant supervisor on the Liverpool docks for two years. Then he landed the relief pilot's post. That meant that he traveled from port to port in the British Isles, filling in for men sick or dead, and for pilots on vacation—which in those days meant about the same thing. Then, in 1931, he was laid off and was lucky to find the job on the tugs. He came home for a few days every six months or so to Llangareth and an excited family, in his bowler hat, pea jacket, corduroy trousers, and black boots, and always with some money, toys, books, and wonderful tales told in gusts of laughter.
The only clear memories I have of between 1924 and 1930 are of being chased by a hen, gigantic to me at three, across a farmyard; and of staring through the front window through the drizzle in the valley at the sea, gray and beckoning, a half mile away; and of cold and wet rides on the pony, Caradoc, to the one-room church school two miles away. There, Jeffreys-Geography tried to ram into us what was, as he put it, "entirely for your own benefit."
Another early memory is of being in chapel. I must have been six or seven at the time. My parents were liberals in the old British tradition of self-sufficiency and hard work. Mam packed my sister Angharad and me off to chapel every Sunday. Angharad was three years younger than I was and a lot more romantic, so she took much more notice of the preacher, while I tended to daydream and itch to get out into the fresh air, even in winter. I don't recall who the preacher was on this particular occasion; I vaguely remember the fire and brimstone bit coming out, and I clearly recollect suddenly asking myself, "Who gave him the right to tell us what we should do or not do?" I've been asking myself that question ever since, every time I encounter anyone who exercises, or tries to exercise, power over anyone else. But then I kept my thoughts to myself. I was, with my family, on to far too good a thing. There was no point in upsetting the status quo. I became a secret rebel. With my mother and sister, and Dad too when he was home, there was very little imposition. It was more a case of their helping me to grow from the inside out than of pushing their thoughts and beliefs onto me. "He will be what he will be," Mam used to say. Whether it would be right for other parents to have that attitude is not for me to say. I know that for me it was exactly right. I was never pushed toward classical music or literature, for example. Hints were given, examples were made, but I was never led by the nose, and for that I have always been grateful to my family. If I had been forced into those things, I am sure I would have rebelled and lost interest in them, and my life would have been much the poorer for having missed a great deal of the wonderful human heritage that has been passed on to us.
The world that I first knew as a child was vastly different from the one we know now, fifty-odd years later. West Wales, particularly the rural areas, was—apart from the odd bus, steam engine, and motorcar—still, in effect, in the mid-nineteenth century. It had been touched very little by the Industrial Revolution. For the majority of people, communications were difficult. For example, our mail was delivered by a pony rider. He had collected it from a horse-drawn coach which, complete with horn blower perched atop, had delivered it from a steam-engined train in Dolgellau. I do not recall seeing any airplanes. The first man-made thing I ever saw in the sky was, I think, the German Graf Zeppelin, with the great Nazi swastikas on its rudders. That must have been in 1937.
Practically everything we had in Llangareth had been made in the area, by hand. The furniture was highly polished, with gracefully carved chairs for the drawing room and sturdy, solid ones for the kitchen, where we usually lived. The drawing room was used only when there were special guests visiting us. There were also a sofa and intricately carved china dressers in the drawing room. The only things in that room, and probably in the whole house, that had not been made in Merioneth were the carpet, brought back from India by Grandfather Johnny Star; the grandfather clock, brought from France by Grandfather Roberts; and the piano (every Welsh dwelling in those days had a piano—and people who could play it and accompany it superbly). The piano had been brought from Germany by Grandfather Hugh Roberts. The tale was that as his ship Evelyn bounced and bucketed her way through a full gale in the North Sea, the piano was heard playing itself down in the hold—"Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah" ("Ciom Rhondda") was the tune, according to some accounts. Grandpa Roberts is supposed to have told the scared helmsman, Hugh Parry of Talsarnau, "That's all very well, but I'd rather get a sight of the North Foreland light!" For a deeply religious man he had a great sense of humor.
The wooden-handled knives and forks, the china plates and tea service (they are great tea-drinkers in West Wales), even the brass-bound wooden water buckets hanging on their iron hooks on the whitewashed kitchen wall—everything had been made locally. The materials we lived with were wood of all kinds (some brought from as far away as California and Burma), brass, iron (beautifully worked by Velog Hammer, the local blacksmith), steel, copper, bronze, tin, stone, lace, linen, wool, and cotton.
Excerpted from A Steady Trade by Tristan Jones. Copyright © 1982 Tristan Jones. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
- Part I - Boyhood
- Chapter 1 - Llangareth
- Chapter 2 - Blind Johnny
- Chapter 3 - Goodness Gracious
- Chapter 4 - Cadell Rum
- Chapter 5 - Something for Wales
- Chapter 6 - To England and to the Sea
- Part II - Tricks of the Trade
- Chapter 7 - Ships of the Trade
- Chapter 8 - Second Apprentice
- Chapter 9 - A Wet Shirt and a Happy Heart
- Chapter 10 - Underway
- Chapter 11 - Magic Moments
- Chapter 12 - In My Element
- Chapter 13 - Ted
- Chapter 14 - Bert
- Chapter 15 - Tansy
- Chapter 16 - Home for Christmas
- Part III - The Crucible
- Chapter 17 - The Last Spring
- Chapter 18 - A Cup of Tea
- Chapter 19 - Off to War
- Chapter 20 - Personal Effects