These days, of course, you can climb up the ratlines and out along the main yard in perfect safety; there are harnesses to keep you fixed in place and Topmen on hand to help and encourage you. However, it wasn’t always so safe. In fact, when the ss Great Britain was making her way through hell and high water to ferry passengers to America and Australia, the sailors who crewed her would have to scale the rigging in wind and rain while the ship pitched and rolled amongst the waves in order to haul in or set the sails.
Imagine going to work every day knowing it could quite possibly be your last; a wrong foot or a lapse in concentration and a Victorian sailor could find himself overboard. This wasn’t an infrequent occurrence and as John Gray, who later became the ship’s most famous captain found out, chances of survival were slim.
Passenger diaries and the ship’s log show records of accidents that sailors had whilst working aloft. In 1852, a sailor called Ramsey slipped from the main yard and plunged into the sea. Ramsey was the cousin of John Gray, who was First Mate at the time. Of course, everybody wanted to send out the lifeboat, but for Captain Mathews there was to be a very difficult decision.
Travelling at up to 12 knots and with a huge turning circle and stopping distance, the ss Great Britain was not as easy vessel to manoeuvre. By the time she was brought to a halt and a lifeboat deployed, the unlucky sailor would have surely been lost amongst the waves never to be seen again. Despite John Gray’s attempts to help, the ship didn’t stop and his cousin was lost.
Taking a decision of that magnitude was all part of the job fo a Victorian ship’s Captain. And while he may have only been First Mate at the time, John Gray would eventually take over from Matthews at the helm and before long would find himself in the same horrendous predicament; with a similar tough call to make.