I like brand new, shiny books as much as anyone. But every now and again an old, scruffy paperback a minute away from the rubbish bin proves to be a real gem. Such was ‘The Set of the Sails’, the 1949 autobiography of Alan Villiers (1903- 1982).
Alan Villiers was the second son of Australian poet and union leader Leon Villiers. The young Villiers grew up on the docks watching the merchant ships come in and out of the Port of Melbourne and longed for the day on which he too could sail out to sea.
“Truly the voyage of the deep-sea sailing ship is a triumph of circumstance, an achievement of the apparently impossible, an adventure, and an outlet for romance in a world in which there exists too few of either”
Leaving home at the age of 15, he joined the barque Rothesay Bay as an apprentice. The Rothesay Bay operated in the Tasman Sea, trading between Australia and New Zealand. Villiers was a natural seaman. He learnt the ropes quickly and gained the respect of his shipmates.
He served altogether five years in square-rigged ships. At the age of seventeen, sailing out of Bordeaux on the Lawhill , the ship collided with a buoy off Port Lincoln and he was pitched off the yard, striking the rigging all the way in his fall to the deck. On his return to Australia, he spent time as a journalist in Hobart, Tasmania, but in 1931 he became part-owner of the four-masted barque Parma, which twice won the grain race from Australia to England. In 1934 he purchased the Danish sail training ship George Stage, renamed her Joseph Conrad, manned her with cadets, sailed round the world in her, logging 92,800 kilometres (58,000 mls.), and then wrote an account of his experiences in The Cruise of the Conrad (1937). Before the Second World War (1939–45) he sailed in Arab dhows on the Persian Gulf–Zanzibar run.
Married in 1940, Villiers settled in Oxford, England, and continued to be active in sailing and writing. He was the Captain of the Mayflower II in her 1957 maiden voyage across the Atlantic, and beating her predecessor’s time of 67 days by 13 days. He has been involved in almost every large historical sailing ship still in existence including the Balclutha (1886) , the USCGC Eagle , the Falls of Clyde , the Gazela, the Sagres II, and he would also prove instrumental in the restoration of the Star of India. Cadets at the Outward Bound Sea School in Wales remember him as skipper of their training ship Warspite. He was also involved in the creation of the HM Bark Endeavour replica, and advised on the 1962 movie Mutiny on the Bounty. Villiers was a regular contributor to the National Geographic Magazine throughout the 1950s and 1960s, recording the passing of the age of sail and contemporary maritime heritage.
Describing one of his more difficult voyages, on board the Grace Harwar:
Villiers wrote 25 books, and served as the Chairman of the Society for Nautical Research, a Trustee of the National Maritime Museum, and Governor of the Cutty Sark Preservation Society. The photographic work of Alan Villiers is arguably the most important photo-historical record of early 20th-century maritime history. He was awarded the British Distinguished Service Cross as a Commander in the Royal Naval Reserve during World War II. He commanded landing craft squadrons during the invasions of Italy and Normandy, and afterwards in the Far East.
He was fourteen when he lost his father. The powerful way he recalls that time is as fitting a tribute to son as to father:
In short, this is a book by a real enthusiast describing a life full of drama and combat with the “savage, endless enmity” of the wind and the waves. I will be looking out for more books by Alan Villiers.