Seafaring pastimes

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An old man with a cat on his knee

Arthur 'Jo' Dashwood-Howard and cat

I've always believed that practice makes perfect and I'm sure time spent making things at sea for pleasure made countless crew members very happy. I particularly enjoy looking at scrimshaw work evoking the sailing ship era with depictions of graceful ships set on strange seascapes or anchored off exotic shores. I love those spouting whales.

The crews of sailing ships turned their seafaring skills to making many different kinds of gifts and ornaments. Work on board sailing ships was physically hard and often very dangerous. Team work was vital for keeping the ship on course and afloat in all weather conditions.

Any crew member who did not "know the ropes" or could not work aloft was of little use. The able (or experienced) seaman had the pick of berths and food. They expected the lower grades to sweep decks and tar rigging.

"Idlers" were the cook, steward and carpenter who, except on small ships, worked daylight hours. The seaman on watch was always occupied, except at night or on Sundays, setting or furling (rolling up) sails, at the wheel, washing and holystoning (scrubbing) decks, replacing or repairing sails and rigging.

Seafarers on sailing ships often used their working tools and skills during their brief periods of leisure. They used knives and other tools to make gifts and ornaments out of wood, bone, rope, canvas, twine and similar materials. The skills and materials used in producing these items were distinctively those of the sailing ship seaman. The products concerned are among the most appealing relics of life under sail.

In the Life at Sea gallery at Merseyside Maritime Museum there are examples of what were produced, including remarkable scrimshaw work on horns. They are pieces of art that originated on sailing vessels but became a popular pastime among many sailors. Traditionally, teeth and bones from whales were engraved with decorative images. The outline of the engraving was emphasised using black ink, tar, soot and lampblack.

Another exhibit is a painted toolbox lid from about 1898. It shows a three-masted sailing ship called the Hugh and Mary in full sail passing a lighthouse and two steam ships. The image is flanked by pictures of two saucy young women.

For many seafarers handicrafts became a lifelong hobby. There are examples of the work of Arthur "Jo" Dashwood-Howard (he's shown here and you can see his work on our main site) who perfected the craft of ships in bottles. He left seafaring in 1936 but continued his interest in the sea right up to his death in 1998.

You may remember that my post from last week concerned the Athenia, a passenger ship that was controversially sunk by a German U-boat in the first hours of World War II. Antiques Roadshow on Sunday featured an SOS Marconigram (basically a telegram) sent from the sinking ship at 22.10 on 3 September 1939. There was also a shore to ship message notifying ships of the outbreak of war. If you missed the programme you can catch it on the BBC iplayer - the Marconigram feature begins at 41 mins 19 secs.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback - Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website(£1.50 p&p UK).