The Last Grain Race

The Last Grain Race

The Last Grain Race is a 1956 book by Eric Newby, a travel writer, about his time spent on the Moshulu's last voyage in the Australian grain trade.

Background to the book

In 1938 Eric Newby, at the age of eighteen, signed on as an apprentice of the four-masted sailing ship "Moshulu" of the Erikson line for the round trip from Europe to Australia and back, outwards via the Cape of Good Hope in ballast and homewards round Cape Horn with a cargo full of Australian grain (grain race). "Moshulu" was the largest of the dozen or so sailing ships still engaged in the grain trade which strove annually to make the shortest passage home. This was to be a historic voyage, and also a dramatic personal adventure for Newby. It also marked the debut of a man who was to become an exceptional travel writer.

Summary of content

Newby finds out that his advertising agency, The Wurzel Agency, has lost a lucrative cereal account and he decides to write to Gustav Erikson of Mariehamn for a place on one of his grain ships, having been inspired with tales of the sea by an old family friend, Mr Mountstewart. Much to his surprise, he is accepted by 'Ploddy Gustav', the owner of the largest fleet of square-rigged deep-water sailing vessels in the world at that time.

After fitting himself out with heavy-weather gear, Newby makes his way to Belfast where "Moshulu" is discharging her cargo in York Dock. He meets some of the crew and they take him out on a drinking binge, but not before the second mate has order him 'op the rigging'. As the ship waits in port, he spends his time chipping away at the rust on the ship's hull but also befriends John Sömmarström, the ship's Sailmaker, 58 years old forty-three of which were at sea, who explains all the technicalities of a square rig to the young greenhorn.

The ship has a rough passage through the Irish Sea and ten days out they are passing Gibraltar.The ship's fo'c'sle where the crew sleeps is overrun by bugs, including their beds, so they string hammocks (with practical jokers cutting the ropes they hang from). Twenty four days out, the ships picks up the Trade Wind and "Moshulu" is hit by a tornado. By now the crew are getting desperate for any food different from their staple menu and Newby shares his last can of peaches with another crewman, Kroner.

On the thirty fourth day, Moshulu crosses the equator and, along with a bottle of Akvavit from the Captain, the new crewmen undergo the Initiation Ceremony - their heads are covered in tar and red lead. It is at this stage that Newby almost kills himself by not attaching his bosun's chair correctly. He also has to undertake horrific jobs like cleaning the heads (the lavatories) and doing backstern - washing up for the twenty occupants of the three fo'c'sles. Tension rises as weather conditions worsen, and Newby finally fights Hermansonn who Newby is able to smash after ten minutes.

"Moshulu" finally reaches port and the ship is loaded with corn at Port Lincoln and all the crew go on a bender since they at last receive their measly pay. The ship sails on to Port Victoria and the crew have to offload the ballast on the outer-ballast grounds, working amidst the stench of two dead dog carcasses that the Belfast stevedores had kindly included. The ship finally leaves Australia on 11th March, 1939 and Newby's new job, given to him by the First Mate who dislikes him, is to muck out the pigsties of four large pigs - 'dose brodders'. Moshulu is prepared to meet the Southern Ocean and Newby at last experiences some real storms as the sea washes over the deck and the crew have to deal with flapping sails perched high up in the rigging. Newby manages to fall off the yard backwards, knocked off by 40 feet of canvas, but fortunately becomes entangled in the weather rigging 5 feet below the yard.

The storm finally abates but not before it enters its most impressive phase.

"We were cold and wet, and yet too excited to sleep ... watching the seas rearing up astern as high as a three-storeyed house. It was not only their height that was impressive but their length. Between the greatest of them there was a distance that could only be estimated in relation to the ship, as much as four times her entire length, or nearly a quarter of a mile."

Newby goes aloft into the fore rigging:

"At this height, 130 feet up, in a wind blowing 70 miles an hour, the noise was an arthly scream. Above me was the naked topgallant yard and above that again the royal to which I presently climbed ... the high whistle of the wind through the halliards sheaf, and above all the pale blue illimitable sky, cold and serene, made me deeply afraid and conscious of my insignificance."

As they round Cape Horn, the crew have become bored by the desolation around them and engage in a tug-of-war competition from which Newby emerges victorious. They also kill a pig to celebrate Good Friday and they also spot another four-master - the Passat - whom they pass which makes Captain Skepparen happy. Having passed Cape Horn and the Falkland Islands, the crew start to realize they are making a record-breaking passage. The crew are now becoming famished, having to eat 'Buffelo' the whole time cooked by 'the Kock'. However, life becomes easier with the return of the Trades but then "Moshulu" becomes becalmed. They finally cross the Line and are given a huge rum ration which they find difficult to get through, and spirits are lifted when they think they have caught a shark but it bends the hook. The last pig, Filamon, is slaughtered and the crew eat so much pork that it wreaks havoc with their stomachs .

Hopes of beating 'Parma's record of 83 days to Falmouth vanish as they believe the calms north of the line may have been too much for "Moshulu". As she approaches Fastnet, the ship is approached by five men in a rowing boat to whom they give presents and they also receive some lobsters from a smack. On June 10th, 1939 "Moshulu" reaches Queenstown, 91 days from Port Victoria and, as "Padua" takes 93 days to reach Falmouth, they have won the Last Grain Race. On the 27th of June the ship is warped with difficulty into Queen's Dock. Captain Skepparen, with whom Newby has had a stiffly formal relationship, asks him if he is coming again as he inks in his discharge as Ordinary Seaman, but Newby leaves through the dock gates and never sees "Moshulu" again.

The Erikson Line

Today steel, square-rigged sailing ships no longer trade the oceans of the world. Gustav Erikson of Mariehamn, Finland was the last man to own a great fleet of sailing ships and Newby relates that he never met any foremast hand who liked 'Ploddy Gustav'. Originally, as a boy of nine, he had gone to sea in a saliing vessel engaged in the North Sea timber trade. At the age of nineteen he got his first command in the North Sea, and after than spent six years in deep-water sail as a mate. From 1902 to 1913 he was master of a number of square-rigged vessels before becoming an owner.

By the 'thirties, the grain trade from South Australia to Europe was the last enterprise in which square-riggers could engage with any real hope of profit, and then only if the owner had a keen interest in reducing running costs. As Newby notes, Erikson had to pay his crews as little as possible and he could not afford to insure ships, but he also had to maintain them at such a standard that they were rated 100 A1 at Lloyd's. From Newby's own description he was a formidable character:

"He was respected and feared as a man over whose eyes no wool could be pulled by the masters whom he employed to sail his ships, and the tremors they felt were passed down to the newest joined apprentice. Of such stuff discipline is made. A now out-moded word, but sailing ships do not stay afloat and make fast passages at the pleasure of a committee of seamen."

On board "Moshulu" was a crew of twenty-eight, including officers, cook, steward etc. The work of handling large acerages of sail was very heavy, even for men and boys with strong constitutions. Bending a complete set of fair-weather canvas was no easy job, and sail changing was always done four times on a voyage as a ship entered and left the Trade Winds. In one period of twenty-four hours when the Pampero (a wind off the east coast of South America) was blowing, the port and starboard watches, eight men to a watch, took in, re-set, took and re-set again twenty-eight sails, the heaviest of which weighed 1 1/2 tons - a total of 112 operations.


*"The Last Grain Race", Picador (1990) ISBN 978-0-330-31885-3

External links

* "Time" in partnership with CNN 'Grain Race' May 4th, 2007 [,9171,745620,00.html]
* "The Guardian" 'The enduring magic of Eric Newby' March 14th, 2007 []
* British Guild of Travel Writers BGTW Lifetime Achievement Award []
* Picture of "Moshulu" []
* "The Independent" 'Eric Newby' October 23rd, 2006 []

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