A sea pilot remembers

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A sea pilot remembers



This article was first published in the 1966 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise


Captain F B Renouf, a Jerseyman and Master Mariner, Square Rig, who in 1921 took out to South Africa the former 3rd Class Cruiser HMS Thames of the Royal Navy which the late T B Davis, another Jerseyman, had purchased and presented to the South African Government for use as a training ship for sea cadets, draws on his memory in this article to tell of some of his experiences as an apprentice Jersey Pilot.

We hope in some future issue to tell of his experiences in taking over in the river Thames the vessel which was later to become well-known as the General Botha training ship, and his adventurous voyage to South Africa where he handed her over. Captain Renouf now resides at Durban.

Havre Grace, Newfoundland

First voyage

I went to sea in 1901, when I was 15, as cook and OS in the 75-ton ketch Spitfire for the large wage of ten shillings a month, and I certainly earned it. We left Jersey on 24 May 1901, in company with another ketch, Her Majesty, both bound for Cadiz to load salt for Harbour Grace, Newfoundland. Our crew consisted of the Captain, J Bond; the Mate, J Bond; AB Ste Croix and OS Winter Giot from St Ouen.

We were away six months, and sailed from Harbour Grace in September, with a load of cod-fish in bulk for Bristol. But a few days out, with a north-west gale behind us, we took a heavy sea over the quarter, which ran up the reefed mainsail and broke the masthead off just under the main rigging. Luckily the storm died down the next day, so we managed to get the top of the mast on board and to rig gear at the broken head. With the mainsail rolled well down, we made for St John, Newfoundland, where we had a new foremast shipped - an operation which meant shifting about 30 tons of fish.

We sailed eventually about the middle of October, and experienced north-west gales all the way across until we picked up the coast of Ireland. After Bristol, we went to Swansea, loading coal for St Malo, but, as it was Christmas week, I paid off there and returned to Jersey on the ss Victoria.

Pilot cutter Rival

It was in January 1902 that I joined the Pilot Cutter Rival. As apprentice, I had to do the cooking for her five pilots - Thomas Roberts, the captain, Frank Renouf, George Renouf (my father), Phil Roberts and Jack Allix. The other Cutter, the Yacht, was manned by P C Renouf, the captain, Edward Larbalestier, Jack Larbalestier, George Roberts and Ernest Keeping. In those times each cutter was out on duty for three days, and brought ships in as they were sighted off Corbière. In fine weather during the summer months we generally anchored in St Brelade's Bay, off Beauport, and when a ship appeared outside we got under weigh and put a pilot on board. If we got rid of all our five pilots before the three days were up, we hoisted a large Pilot flag and sailed for home. This meant that the other cutter had to come on duty for three days - generally much to the crew's disgust, or ours, if the position was reversed.

Around Christmas week it was anyone's chance of having Christmas Day at home. The cutter that was on duty for the three days had to put all ships out - generally clear of the breakwater - and the pilot came back in one of the yawls. These were good seaworthy boats with mast and lugsail and centre-board, clinker built by the Allix brothers of Havre des Pas. They were 16-foot boats, and they cost £1 a foot. What a difference today.

We had a tough time in the winter months. We had to be on duty, no matter what the weather. When it was blowing hard from the west or south-west, we used to shelter under Belcroute in the lee of Noirmont, beyond St Aubin's Fort. Then, when a ship appeared outside Noirmont Point, we would get under weigh, meet her and put the pilot on board out there, but, if the weather was too bad, she would have to sail on into the bay to get smoother water before this could be done. In the summertime, on the other hand, life in the cutter was ideal. Sometimes we would cruise all day with the mackerel lines out - down to St Ouen's Bay and as far as Grosnez. If it was our third day out, we all went home with a good feed of mackerel. And on a Sunday morning, anchored in St Brelade's Bay, we went around the lobster pots, and always had a good helping of lobsters and spider crabs. What would I not give now to have a feed of them.

Fooled by a whistle

I remember one winter night when we were anchored under Noirmont, I was sitting in the companionway, keeping a look out. Our time was up the next morning, and I knew that if the cutter had to get under weigh now we should carry on and go to our moorings in the old harbour. It happened that I had a mouth organ with a low deep note on it that could sound like the whistle of a steamer coming around the Point. I blew. Then I listened for a movement down below. I blew again. Then I heard Jack Allix sing out to my uncle: "Do you hear that, Frank?" I blew again and they all fell for it. We got under weigh in a strong wind, opened the Point and could see the Corbière light flashing. No sign of any steamer. My uncle said: "We might as well run off home". So I gained an extra night home -at Pilot View, beyond Commercial Buildings - which suited me as I was courting at the time.

I remember when the steamer Fairway sank across the pierheads. They were building up the Albert Pier head at the time, and the Fairway was coming in at night on high water with the tide running strong across the pierheads towards the Castle bridge, as it always did on the flood, when the causeway to the Castle was covered. The pilot, Phil Roberts, did not port in time and so ran into the pierheads. The Fairway was holed in the forehold and sank there with a full cargo of coal. That meant that all ships inside could not get out, including two mailboats, and ships arriving had to anchor out in the big roads. The two morning mailboats had to lower their lifeboats and row the passengers and their baggage ashore, passing on the inside of the steamer where there was just enough room. At low water work started on discharging the coal cargo - about 300 tons of it - into some old harbour barges and they were beached in London Bay, where, after they had got her afloat, they beached the Fairway too. This must have been about 1898, for I remember I was still at school - at Burt's High School, Colomberie, now the Ritz Hotel.

The Fanny Breslauer

Fanny Breslauer

It was mostly sail in those days-ketches, schooners and topsail schooners. In the Pilot Service we were obliged to do six months square-rig time, so we used to go in one of the Robin Collas ships to Paspebiac and Gaspé, then down to Brazil with dried cod in tubs, to Rio Janeiro and to Santos. This usually lasted the winter and one was back in Jersey the following spring. Just right, I thought, for my square-rig time. So I joined the barquentine, Fanny Breslauer, as OS at £2 a month, the same wage that I was getting as a pilot apprentice. I could easily have done an AB's duties, but was glad of the opportunity to get my time in.

As it happened, instead of six months, we were away for three years and one month. Our itinerary was Gaspé, Paspebiac, Rio and Santos, back in ballast to Barbados where we loaded molasses in large puncheons for Halifax, Nova Scotia (as we could not get up the St Lawrence in the winter time), and then back, loaded once more with fish for Brazil. I can remember that one spring, when we were on our way back to Gaspé, we ran into field ice off Cape Race, Newfoundland, and were there for about ten days, kept busy during the day scraping down spars and in the evening, after supper, playing a rough game of football on the ice. Not far from us were three sealers, auxiliary barques from St John's, whose crews were occupied clubbing seals.

We arrived back in Jersey one Saturday, 7 April 1907, and ran into the Old Harbour on the mud. After three years away, we Jersey lads naturally swanked through King Street that night, but all the same we were all down to moor ship at 10 pm, as we had been ordered; a very good record for a sailing ship. Indeed, we paid off the same as we signed on - and no man missing.

Pilot's exam

I joined the Pilot Cutter that same month, and passed Jersey Pilot on 17 March in the following year. The candidate in those days was called to the Harbour Master's Office for the Orals. A large scale chart of Jersey was spread on the table and the Harbourmaster, Capt F John Renouf, was the examiner, with Thomas Blampied assisting. The next day we had to go out on the Duke of Normandy for the practical part. With Capt Renouf and Blampied on the bridge I was told to take her out in the various channels, and point out the shore marks as we passed certain rocks - most of them under water at that state of tide. The candidate had to supply a lunch for the Pilots' Committee, so I placed my orders with Le Riche, a catering firm in St Helier. With about a dozen of the committee, we anchored in St Catherine's Bay and, after champagne and a good meal, the president got up and announced that I had passed a very satisfactory examination and was duly qualified to act as a Jersey pilot. My health was drunk, and we steamed around the island, back to town.

The names of those on the Pilots' Committee then were as follows - much the same as they were when my father passed Pilot in 1878:- Thomas Blampied, Canon Edward Luce, Deputy E B Renouf, W A Bertram, J E Le Boutillier, John Blampied, G Roy, W T Pugsley, George Noel (Harbourmaster, Gorey), F J Renouf (Harbourmaster), and Claude De La Perrelle.
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