Gareth Jones

[bas relief by Oleh Lesiuk]

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THE OLD CAPTAIN

In Search of News Contents 

By

Gareth Jones

“WHAT times they were!' The old captain stopped on his slow morning walk from the house of his retirement, with the flagstaff in the garden, and looked at the port.

The hush which reigned there was to him like a ghostly dream of death. Was it not like those Near Eastern sea towns, ravaged by plague, which he had visited in his youth? Not a soul was walking along the quay, and, apart from one small yacht and three rowing boats, there were that morning no vessels either mid-stream or along-shore. Captain Jones shook his head mournfully. If only he could again see the port as it was when he went off to sea as a boy. Great days those! The quays throbbed with life. You could not go down there without meeting old friends, men who had roamed the seven seas, who had shouted Welsh songs in Buenos Aires cafes, had prayed in Welsh chapels in Patagonia, and had vaunted Welsh wrestling and boxing in low-down saloons in New York or San Francisco. You would not have come and stood lonely near the water’s edge had you come fifty years ago. You might have seen old Hughes, who sailed with you on your first voyage. That jolly fighter, Davies—a rare one with his fists—might be describing to a Caernarvonshire crowd of idlers how he’d struck down five negroes in New Orleans. Thomas—what a fine yarn Thomas could tell 1— might, perhaps, be home after a trip and narrating how he’d met a sea serpent striped like a zebra who played “Hen Wlad fy Nhadau” on a harp near the Equator. You might have come across Parry, whose drinking bouts were always followed by fits of religious fervour and a crescendo of heart­rending prayer. But that was nearly half a century ago, and now there was nobody to greet the old captain and the stillness was piercing.

In those days nearly all your friends went to sea. They even ran away from places like Llanrwst and Blaenau Festiniog and sailed on vessels where hardily a word of English—apart from the curses— was heard, and on some boats even the curses were Welsh. The boys of Caernarvon, of Pwllheli, of Portdinorwic, and of Portmadoc—did they hesitate and chop and change about their careers and wonder whether they would like to be bank clerks or commercial travellers ? No; they went to sea and did a man’s work. How easy it was to find a crew! And now a good young sailor from Caernarvonshire was rare. The old captain spat. He was disap­pointed in the younger generation of his county. Why, they all wanted to wear a collar and tie, push a pen, ride a motorcycle, and go to the cinema, instead of facing the hurricanes and clambering up the masts when the sleet cut your flesh.

Caernarvon and Pwllheli, Portmadoc and Port­dinorwic were rich in those days, and it was the sailor who made them rich. Today the sailors had gone and the Welsh coast towns existed for the flabby-handed English from the Midlands who could hardily tell fishing smack from a Transatlantic liner! Pah!

The captain’s thoughts went back to the traditions of his county’s seamen. There was Captain Pritchard, of the “ Mauritania,” who was once on the brig “ Sybil Wynn.” There was Captain Jones, of the “ City of Melbourne,” who carried passengers to Australia for the gold rush. Great men those! Yes, Caernarvonshire could he proud of her sailors. And the old captain drew himself together. He thought of the training he had gone through and recalled the small sailing coasters on which they all went first to sea.

The old captain sat down and looked again at the port and, as if a miracle occurred, he saw vividly the scene of fifty years ago. The river was crowded with ketches and smacks loaded with slates. Five beautiful schooners were on the stocks all at the same time. Cattle were being loaded and a panicky lowing echoed down the quays. Everywhere there were sails, sails, sails. How busy the sail makers, the ship-builders, the stevedores, and the biscuit-makers must be, the captain reflected. Sailing vessels, two or three deep in the river, lined the quays, which were full of the finest slates in the world ready to be dispatched to America.

Another scene flashed before the captain’s eyes. He saw the coming of the first steamer into the port. It was a tragic day for those who loved the sailing vessel, and he could not help attributing the downfall of the Caernarvonshire ports to the arrival of that ugly steam-belching monster, so different from the graceful sailing vessels. But, he reflected, he was unfair, because it was really the railway which had dealt the greatest blow to Welsh sailors. He cursed the railway for carrying the slates and for robbing the sailors of their coastwise trade.

“But, chwarae teg, I must be fair,” thought the captain. A few auxiliary motor sailing ships were still taking slates to Ireland. All the cement which came to the port was carried by steamers, usually from London. Vessels also brought timber to Caernarvonshire and steamers still carried Welsh slates to England and to distant lands. All was not yet lost for the Caernarvonshire sailor.

With this consolation, the retired captain rose and slowly walked home to the house with the flagstaff in the garden.

 January 10th, 1934.

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