Eric Newby’s The Last Grain Race

In the Penn’s Landing port of Philadelphia harbour, there is docked a beautiful, four-masted ship, one of the last remaining “windjammer” commercial sailing ships that traversed the world’s oceans bringing grain and other goods. Today, she is a floating restaurant, having been decommissioned in the early 1970s, but for half a century, she was the Moshulu, a final holdout from the now-forgotten age of sail. In 1938, a young Eric Newby, 18 and eager for adventure, enlisted to the crew of the Moshulu with almost no prior sailing experience. Eighteen years later, he would launch his writing career with The Last Grain Race, his account of the ship’s journey from Belfast to Port Victoria and back to Ireland. It is an adventure book, detailing the travails of life on the high seas in what, even in 1938, was an antique ship, but it is also a study of the men aboard, and a testament to what feats of strength and daring are required to navigate the open ocean by sail.

As an absolute novice, with no real sailing experience, Newby is well poised to describe for us the difficulties posed by sailing, beginning with the very basics: what should he bring aboard, how should he dress, and what will be his responsibilities? There is an added difficulty, which is that the captain of the Moshulu and much of its crew are Swedish, and while they all speak a little English, the language of command onboard is not Newby’s native tongue. A diagram of the sails and rigging of the Moshulu gives us some clue as to what this means, for not only are there fully 31 named sails, ranging from the “gaff topsail” and the crojack to the fore royal and the flying jib, but a further 79 names for the various riggings. In the early pages, I endeavoured to refer back to this diagram, to help locate the characters on the ship, but impatience quickly got the better of me. Newby needed to know all of this terminology, in English and Swedish. And, of course, the nomenclature itself is the least of your worries, for the masts of the Moshulu reach nearly 200 feet into the air, and they must be climbed day and night, in fair and foul weather. On his first nervous trip “op the rigging,” Newby describes his view from the topmost crosstrees: “I stood gingerly on this slippery construction; the soles of my shoes were like glass; all Belfast spread out below. I looked between my legs down to a deck as thin as a ruler and nearly fell from sheer funk.”

Life aboard ship is no less exciting. Bug infestations take over the bunk area every time the ship passes through warmer climates; the crew play pranks on one another, steal food from each other, and occasionally explode into violence when the close proximity wears everyone down to the last nerve. Worse still, every new port brings word of the coming war, in whispers at first and finally in confident declarations and propagandistic radio broadcasts. This is to be “the last grain race” because for nearly six years the waters of the Atlantic will be controlled by battleships and U-boats, and when their guns are finally silenced, sailing ships will seem as anachronistic as horse-drawn carriages.

That, surely, is part of the enduring appeal of Newby’s first book. Sailing is romantic, and the experience of hoisting sails, battling the elements, living in a constant state of attention to the wind and the stars and the weather, offers something that safe, steady, indoor office work can never hope to replace. After surviving a hurricane and days of gale-force winds, during which the very bedchamber of the crew took on water, Newby comes to a painful realization: “I knew then that I would never see sailing like this again. When such ships as this went it would be the finish. The windbelts of the world would be deserted and the great West Wind and the Trades would never blow on steel rigging and flax canvas ever again.” Ultimately, Newby’s fun, funny adventure novel is an elegy, both for his youthful adventure and for the charms of a life now lost to history.