Appendix 8. Instructions to a Ship-Master

From The Way of a Ship – The History of the Square-Rigged Sailing Ship by Alan Villiers and published by White Lion Publishers in 1974 and first published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1954.

Instructions to a Ship-Master

The following, given here by permission of the Trident, are the owners’ instructions to the master of a Cape Horn tramp.  The master was Captain T C Fearon, the ship the full-rigged ship FitzJames  (which later was to become the Laeisz Line’s Pinnas), the owners W Montgomery and Company of London, who also owned the Grace Harwar, the Eva Montgomery, and the Ladye Doris.  Captain Fearon was a most experienced and highly respected shipmaster who had distinguished himself by sailing the Grace Harwar from Chile to Falmouth without her bowsprit.  The bowsprit had been shorn off in a collision.  No spars were available for replacements.  Nothing daunted, Fearon took the deep-loaded full-rigger home round the Horn with the head-stays taken to the stump of the bowsprit, and temporary jibs rigged on them.  To repair the ship in Chile would have meant waiting for a new bowsprit to be shipped out from England.


63, Mark Lane
London, E.C.
May 12, 1902

Capt. T C Fearon
Ship FitzJames,

Dear Sir, 

We may preface the General Instructions we are about to record by stating that in appointing you to the command of the FitzJames we have done so in the firm conviction that you are in every way fitted for the responsibilities devolving upon you, and we beg to assure you that you enjoy to the fullest extent, as far as we are concerned, that confidence which should always exist mutually between employer and employed.

Care of Ship and Navigation in Channel.  You will at all times conduct the business of the ship as if she were your own and uninsured; in case of accident you can never be wrong in acting on that principle.  You will give your whole attention to the navigation of the ship in Channel, keep a good look out and, on approaching land, we particularly impress upon you the necessity of keeping the lead going; also your sidelights  must be well attended to  at all times  as in case of accident these are very important points both as regards the owners and yourself.

Condition and Maintenance of Ship.  You are now in command of an exceptionally fine vessel and we are sure that you will take pride in her and do all that lies in your power to keep everything connected with her, inside and outside, in first-rate order. We need not remind you that a new ship on her first voyage requires a very exceptional amount of care, especially with regard to caulking decks, in view of which you are carrying a carpenter'’ mate.  Always remember that a steel ship requires much more care than an iron one and, if neglected, soon sustains damage which is irremediable, or at any rate terribly expensive to repair.

Inside from limbers to deck should be kept perfectly clean and free from dirt, and where there is any sign of rust thoroughly scrape and paint at once.  Give special attention to the reverse frames  and take every opportunity of raising the ceilings and examining the state of the floors, cleaning and re-cementing, whenever necessary.  It is always better to do this abroad, as if left for a home port, the expense incurred is very great.  Take great care as to condition of peaks, and whenever it is time to take out the mast wedges do not fail to do so and scrape and paint the masts where the wedges have been.  When painting your  holds, for which purpose we always supply a sufficiency of material, take care that careful supervision is exercised and that every inch of metal is thoroughly well coated.

Outside. It is hardly necessary for us to recapitulate many points which were dealt with in our letter of March 5th, which no doubt you have by you, but we would specially urge upon you the necessity of keeping all movable iron-work in order so that it does not get “froze”.  Great care has been exercised with regard to brass bushing wherever possible, but none the less all such moveable parts must be constantly looked to.  Look well after your boats and see that everything whether lowering tackles or equipment is kept in readiness and thorough repair.  Always keep topsides well cleaned and painted, also the hull as low down as possible.  This last should be done by your own men as the ship lightens during discharge.

Provision.  These have been provided on a very liberal scale and you are doubtless well acquainted with the system of feeding your crew, which we recommend.  In cold weather more food is consumed than in hot and as long as there is no waste the men need not be tied to the fixed scale.  Although we are aware that same is sufficient, a very strict account of all stores used must be kept by your steward who must regularly, say once a week, submit his books for your inspection.  The mate must also rate in his log the beef and pork as it is broached and the depth of water in the tanks.  Beef and pork must be kept as cool as possible and we recommend that you have the bungs out during the voyage to examine the state of the pickle and if it appears poor or at all stale run it off and have fresh pickle put in; this will only involve trifling labour and will greatly improve the meat.

Care of Cargo.  This so important that we must urge upon you to see to it personally as far as you can possibly can.  Every care and precaution that experience can suggest must be taken of cargo when loading and discharging.  When you have general cargo on board it is almost certain to include intoxicants and strict watch must invariably be kept on the stevedores to prevent pillage and the vexatious claims subsequent thereon.  It is unnecessary for us to warn an experienced shipmaster like your self to take every means you can to devise to prevent broaching by the crew, an occurrence far too common and fraught with terrible consequences.  If you load coals always see that temperatures tubes are properly fixed and used, and that shifting boards are not overlooked.

Nitrate of soda is a cargo you are almost certain to carry and requires the greatest of care.  Always look well after the weighing of your cargo and see that you get good weights and good bags.  Every particle of loose nitrate whether in lighters alongside or on board must be picked up.  When bags are lifted from lighters, canvas or tarpaulin should be placed over the side and on to the lighter so that if any bags break in the slings the contents may be saved.  Good and reliable men must be placed in the hatchways to gather up and bag any spilt nitrate and if any broken bags come on board they must be needled up at once.  This work, especially the picking up, is always shirked and not constantly looked after.  The bottom of the hold should be well and carefully dunnaged and all beams and stancheons protected by old canvas and wooden battens.  Never allow bags to be in contact with the sharp edges of beams, as the natural settlement of the cargo will cut them to pieces, and on no account allow mats of any description to be used either under or on beams.

When the loading is completed the hatches must not be taken off except in case of absolute necessity.  All ventilators should be fitted with canvas covers so that nothing can be thrown down them.  There is also the necessity of avoiding the slightest risk of fire, which has been the finish up of many of the nitrate ships, including one of our own.  All smoking in the hold must be prevented, nor must lighted pipes be allowed near open hatchways, or any naked lights below.

Ventilation must be carefully attended to, especially when coming into cold weather.  Your ship is amply provided with permanent ventilators, and in addition you must use every opportunity of allowing heated air to escape from your holds.

Ballasting.  In ballasting your ship, always be careful that you have enough.  You will no doubt have discussed this very important question with your predecessor and are perfectly certain in your own mind as to the quantity she requires to stand in dock and how much more is necessary for moving in river, stream or tideway.  Always take too much rather than too little, it is always best to be on the safe side.  Never forget that for a voyage in ballast (or with coal) shifting boards are an absolute necessity and you are never on any account whatever to dispense with them.  The ship should never have less than 250 tons of stiffening in her to be quite safe, even in dock.

Draft of Water.  You must never fail to advise us of the draft fore and aft on arrival at a port, and of the loaded draft, when you finish taking in cargo, also your draft when you leave any port in ballast.  You are, of course, aware of the Act of Parliament at present in force with regard to the draft of ships.  The marks, showing the depth to which your ship may be loaded, are clearly marked on her side and you will always take care that under no circumstances whatever is the line across the disc to be submerged.

Accident.  Should you unhappily meet with an accident bear in mind that it is your duty to act as if the whole venture, the ship and cargo, were your own and uninsured.  You will not give up command of your ship to Lloyd’s Agents, coastguard people or anybody else.  Should you find it advisable to secure their assistance, you will consider them your servants and be held responsible for their acts.  Make a special bargain for all assistance from steamers or others in writing, if practicable on the “no cure no pay” principle.  Claims for salvage often arise when a little foresight anf presence of mind would prevent all dispute.

When, however, time will permit, you will advise us by cable and await instructions from us, and in the event of repairs to the ship being absolutely necessary you will telegraph giving the best estimate you can of the probable cost.  But we trust you will never go into any port for either supplies or repairs unless absolutely compelled to do so, and you know that repairs done abroad have almost always to be done over again at home.

Reporting and Speaking.  Whenever in the English Channel and the opportunity offers do not fail to report yourself to the signal stations, and at sea, whenever possible to homeward-bound vessels.  If requested, as sometimes happens, by a disabled ship, or indeed any vessel to report them, do not fail to do so immediately on your arrival at your first port, giving as full details as you can.

Telegrams.  You will see that a cablegram is invariably sent us advising your arrivals and departures from port.  This is very important and we wish you always to see to it yourself and not leave it to agents or anyone else.  You will always use Scott’s Code, 1896 edition, of which a copy is supplied to the ship, and we shall use the same code in telegraphing to you.

Abstract Log.  We have provided you with forms for making this out.  It will give you but little trouble to keep it up day by day when at sea and we should always like one sent us in your first letter after arriving at a port whether at home or abroad.

Negligence Clause. When signing Bills of Lading or Charter parties always take care that it is inserted in both.  We append a copy of its provisions:

“The Act of God, Perils of the Sea, Fire, Barratry of the Master and Crew, Enemies, Pirates, assailing Thieves, arrest and restraint of Princes, Rulers and Peoples, Collisions, Stranding, and other accidents of navigation excepted; even when occasioned by the negligence, default or error in judgement of the Pilot, Master, Mariners, or other Servants of the Shipowner.” 

 Contracts.  You will be duly notified of any existing at ports where you may be going.  We enclose copy of one with Messrs. T. and A. Brown of Newcastle, N.S.W., for towage; also another for stevedoring with Mr. -----. Sydney.  We did not quite like another of our master’s accounts of ……’s proceedings and it will be as well for you to keep a good look out in any dealing with him.  If you think it is desirable to employ a surveyor at Sydney, you cannot do better Captain Vine Hall.

Officers are sometimes rather difficult to find.  It is best never to be in a hurry over the selection of them.  We always prefer that the first mate should be in possession of a Master’s certificate.  Always be extremely careful whom you take and make thorough sobriety a sine qua non, both as regards mates and tradesmen.

Apprentices.  We wish you to make them your especial care.  You are starting with six, all green, although four of them have served two years in training ships.  Be very particular as to their conduct, especially when in foreign ports.  Do all you can to inculcate a system of thorough and steady discipline; give them every opportunity and all the assistance you can in the study of their profession, whenever you perceive a willingness to learn.  Try and turn them out smart and efficient young officers by the time they are due to pass their examinations, so that if we are able to continue to employ them we may find them of real use to us and a credit to their captain and themselves.

Crew.  We leave their number entirely to your discretion so long as the ship is thoroughly and efficiently manned.  We prefer always your carrying a sailor too many, rather than one short.  Whenever possible we prefer a British crew.  If, however, you find it impossible to obtain really good and efficient Britishers and have to take foreigners, Scandinavians appear to answer as well as any.  All our ships are entered in the Shipping Federation and their agents at the various British ports are always willing and able to assist you.  As a rule, men holding the Federation tickets are the most desirable.  A crew well treated will generally work well and be more likely to complete the voyage in the ship.  If you have to replace deserters abroad, you will hardly be likely to get better seamen than at home and the rate of pay is sure to be higher.

Advance as little as possible to your sailors and apprentices that they have less inducement to leave the ship and in the event of your discharging any of your crew abroad, be careful where an allotment note has been given, to keep back a sufficient sum to cover two month’s allotments; should it not be required the man or his relations can get the balance afterwards.  No allotments should be given to the crew except in the case of officers or petty officers, and only when required.  In discharging men abroad, after showing in your wages book the balance due to each of them and paid over, state at foot the amount in currency and the rate of exchange to assist us in checking your account.  In cases of desertion, be particular to give us timely notice by cable to stop allotments (see Scott’s Code,p.236), and when writing advise us of the names of any men who have quitted the ship to enable us to reply to enquiries.

The health of your sailors is a matter of great importance and we trust you will be watchful and careful with them and insist on cleanliness, which is the mainspring of health.  A bathroom for the use of the crew is provided and arrangements should be made so that it is always accessible at suitable times to men who wish to use it.

Everything should be done to enable the men to get their meals in decency and comfort.  Proper dishes for the food are provided and must be regularly used.  We have also supplied a plate, mug, knife, fork and spoon for each of the foremast hands, to be issued to them free and returned when they leave the ship.  Yopu are already in possession of our wishes as regards supplying milk to the crew in their tea and coffee.

Crew List. When leaving a port never omit to send us a list of everyone on board with their rating and pay.

Economy and Disbursements. Be as strict and as rigid on this point as is consistent with keeping the vessel in a sound state of safety and efficiency.  A shipmaster is, we need not remind you, in a position of great trust and cannot be too careful in regard to money matters.  Make a bargain for everything you find it necessary to buy and always take care, that the price includes delivery free on board.  Never deal with any but first-class and thoroughly respectable tradesmen.  You will allow your consignees to pay all bills after you have examined and signed same, excepting in cases where a commission is charged to us on disbursements.  You will then, if directed by us to do so, draw the money yourself for your crew and other expenses.  You must get all accounts rendered in duplicate and retain a copy yourself, but have all vouchers sent home at once either by yourself or the consignees.

Also, before leaving port be very particular to examine the consignees’ accounts carefully and minutely before you sign it as correct; render us an account of all cash drawn and disbursed or received and take care that the rate of exchange, should be one, is clearly stated.  Be especially careful that before leaving port you have everything on board of provisions and stores which you require for the voyage.  We have an especial objection to stores of any description, save in cases of actual necessity, being purchased from other vessels on the high seas.

We have on this occasion nothing further to add save to assure you of our best wishes for your new command.


We remain, dear sir,
Yours very truly,