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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
this consolation, the retired captain rose and slowly walked home to the
house with the flagstaff in the garden.
January 10th, 1934.