The Valiant Sailor, a powerful song of naval warfare in the 18th century

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The singing Jack Crawford

Regular readers will remember a recent post about a press-ganged keelman who became a war hero, Jack Crawford, who climbed to the top of his ship’s damaged mast under heavy fire, and nailed the Union Jack to it. This important and astonishingly brave act won him an audience with King George III and a pension.

If you followed the link in the earlier post, you will know that there’s another Jack Crawford, a singer who has recently made a CD of largely traditional songs.

By an amazing coincidence, it turns out that one of them describes being press-ganged and then forced to fight at sea, and I’m glad to say that Jack’s considered performance is timed to make every word count.

My perspective of The Valiant Sailor is that it’s an important, eye-opening song with an understandably bitter point of view, and really should be heard by anyone with a romantic view of the Royal Navy of the time, warfare in the era of the wooden walls, or of press-ganging.

However, Jack has a different view of it, and as he sings this song (and I don’t) he’s obviously given it much more thought than I have. Here’s what he had to say in an email to me earlier:

‘You write of a “song with an understandably bitter point of view” and yet, when I sing it I feel no bitterness. Consider the closing sentiment “and here I lie a-bleeding all on the deck and it’s all for her sweet safety I must die.”

‘In my view, the sailor has become reconciled to his fate and he understands the necessity to defend his country at sea – and die in the process if that’s what the Fates decree. It’s not the life he chose and thread of the song is a linear narrative of how he came to be in that situation. As such, it’s far from romantic, but I don’t think it’s bitter. Granted, we have “thousands of times I’ve wished myself home” to make it quite clear (as if we were in any doubt) that he’s not enjoying himself, and who can blame him, but there’s no bitterness there. The dominant emotion is the sadness of his longing to return to his “Polly on the shore” and the stark realization that he never will.

‘I reprise the first verse to drive home the enormity of the events and serve as a warning to other young men – not from bitterness but as sound practical advice supported by a salutary lesson. I don’t think a song based on bitterness would have endured so well through changing times.’

I think this quality of enduring is significant. This is a song that remained in oral transmission right into the 20th century: more than a century after the events it describes, ordinary people still felt it had something of value that was worth remembering, even though the author was long forgotten to them. That, of course, is the real meaning of the term ‘folk song’.

Click here to hear an MP3 of Jack’s version of The Valiant Sailor (it’s a biggish file, but well worth the short wait) from the CD Pride of the Season, and click here to buy a copy.

Stirling & Son build a yawl for HMS Victory

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A yawl for HMS Victory, build by Stirling & Son. Even the supports

Boatbuilder Will Stirling of Morewellham has sent us these photo of the striking yawl his company Stirling & Son has just built for HMS Victory. She was built to a Ministry of Defence contract using drawings dating back to 1793 supplied by the National Maritime Museum, and a specification from David Steel’s book Naval Architecture published in 1805. So it should be authentic!

One question I feel is particularly relevant, however: how did men manage when they had to wear hats like that?

Will is perhaps best known in the boating world for having designed and built the 18th century style lugger Alert, which is now back from a trip to Iceland and is for sale: read about her here.

The news on Alert is that Will has dropped the price a little to £67,500, as he’d like to get on with a new project – if you’re in the market for a magnificent boat like this, it would be well worth taking a look also at the Stirling & Son website for more information. Alert is an outstanding piece of floating history, and the kind of boat that would be noticed and admired anywhere.

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18th century-style lugger Alert back from Iceland – and for sale

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Alert at Sedisfjordur, Iceland

Alert at Sedisfjordur, Iceland

Father fishing at anchor Alert at Sedisfjordur, Iceland Alert at the Customs pontoon, Sedisfjordur

Will’s father fishing at anchor; Alert sailing in Sedisfjordur, Alert at the Customs pontoon in Sedisfjordur

Seaman Hingley collecting firewood for the Alert Alert in the Shiant Islands, with her dinghy well hauled up against rising tide Alert dried out at Tobermory

Seaman Hingley collecting driftwood to burn; Alert in the Shiant islands; Alert dried out at Tobermory

Will Stirling and his outstanding 18th century-style lugger Alert are back from their trip to Iceland. They’ve brought back some smashing photos, and some good stories. Here’s an excerpt from something he wrote about the trip that he’s been kind enough to share with readers:

‘Once understood, the Faeroese Tidal Atlas proved invaluable as the Atlantic squeezes through the narrow channels between the sheer sided islands at up to 10 knots.

‘At this time of year in above this latitude it didn’t really get dark. We set off from Torshaven for Iceland in the early evening. Seaman Hingley, remembering it was his birthday after three quarters of the birthday had passed, served an admirable supper just as we got sucked into overfalls whilst exiting a channel into the open sea.

‘As the evening drew on the wind increased and Alert leapt across the North Atlantic waves, making distance between the Faeroes and Iceland. The wind increased on the starboard quarter so the reefed mizzen came down. Once dropped and tied to the yard the weather helm eased. The wind continued to build until it stabilised at Force 6.

‘The reefed jib was bagged and the boat roared along under double reefed fore sail at approximately 7 knots, with the crew nervously hoping the wind wouldn’t increase further. Continue reading “18th century-style lugger Alert back from Iceland – and for sale”