Extraordinary life of Captain John Isbester recalled in new book

Captain John Isbester
Captain John Isbester
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The extraordinary life of Captain John Isbester, who went to sea aged 14 and spent the following 47 years sailing the world before losing his life off the coast of Chile in 1913, is told in a new book by his grandson, Captain Jack Isbester

I suddenly heard a loud roaring sound of wind … The Captain, at the same moment, looked up … The next instant he made one bound out of the cabin, ran up on deck, and shouted Hard down! Hard down!’

Dalgonar's bows and bowsprit

Dalgonar's bows and bowsprit

In 1913 the foundering of the great three-masted square-rigged sailing ship Dalgonar off the coast of Chile was headline news worldwide, and the dramatic story of the saving of most of her crew has been retold many times over the years, often inaccurately. Commanding Dalgonar at the time was my grandfather, Captain John Isbester, who lost his life when boats were launched. As the only seafaring descendant of Captain John – I served at sea for 35 years – I welcomed the chance to explore the circumstances of the event and the 47 years that he spent at sea before his death.

Of considerable help to me were the substantial collection of family letters, postcards, photos and documents that my father, eighth child of John, had carefully preserved. In addition I have been able to draw on a wide range of log books, articles of agreement, casualty reports and other official documents preserved in archives in Britain and overseas. The official documents provide the framework for my book while the letters bring the events to life and provide flashes of humour.

My grandfather was raised in Shetland, his home for most of his life, and his seagoing career started with a summer season fishing for herring when aged 14. That was followed by four seasons with the Faroe smacks, fishing for cod in the stormy waters around Faroe, Iceland and Rockall and learning the skills of seamen in one of the toughest of schools. By this time John’s mother had died of tetanus and his father was gold mining in New Zealand. John based himself in Liverpool and found work as a seaman on big square-rigged sailing ships on voyages to such colourful and interesting ports as Montreal, New York, New Orleans, Buenos Aires, Portland, Calcutta, Bombay and Sydney. He sat and passed all his exams and at the age of 30 was qualified to command big sailing ships.

He decided then that he was also ready to marry. After a whirlwind courtship he married Susie Irvine, the local laird’s daughter, at home in Shetland. Susie was later to accompany her husband on four of his year-long voyages to Sydney, NSW and San Francisco. While waiting for the birth of their first child, he took command of a schooner for a short voyage to the Baltic which he describes in interesting detail in his first letters to his new wife. Inexperienced in writing to a wife his letter starts with an account of the voyage from Lerwick to the mouth of the Baltic, with courses steered, distance run and wind direction. We also learn of the fish, eggs and potatoes bought from bumboats, how many pairs of wet socks he had accumulated and which week he changed his underwear!

John Isbester soon found work as master of the barque Centaur where he spent the next 11 years making annual voyages to San Francisco. Susie accompanied him on two of those voyages having to return home overland to New York then by steamer to Liverpool when her childminding mother died. On one voyage, Captain Isbester picked up the 26-man crew of the Norwegian ship Fjeld, lost to a coal fire, and kept most of them aboard for three months, by which time provisions were running very low, despite having called at Pitcairn Island for whatever stores they could provide. On their passage through the Atlantic towards Europe, other ships they met were asked to accept some of the Fjeld survivors and three ships did so, ensuring that Isbester and his crew did not starve.

During the following voyage John suffered a fire aboard his own ship when a crew member stumbled below decks when carrying a lighted oil lamp. The ship’s company fought the fire for 24 hours but were forced to abandon ship in stormy conditions in the middle of the Pacific Ocean where they made an eight-day, 800-mile passage to Hilo in the Hawaiian Islands. Captain Isbester was commended by the British Vice Consul in Honolulu for the ‘excellent discipline and conduct which appear to have prevailed throughout your crew under the very trying conditions which you and they have had to encounter.’

John was interested in people, enjoyed discussion and the telling of stories. It is fortunate that a passenger on one of his ships, a Scots solicitor named Arnold Franz McJannet, enjoyed his stories and, during a 15-week voyage from Liverpool to Sydney NSW, wrote a number of them down. Thus we have the benefit of John’s colourful description of the trials of eight days in an open boat, untrammelled by the need for formal reporting.

His employers, the Australasian Line, quickly found him another big square-rigged sailing ship and he was soon back at sea in command of the barque Rossdhu, bound for the fascinating African/Arab port of Zanzibar. In the following months, calling at Newcastle NSW and Tocopilla, Chile before returning to the UK, John completed his first circumnavigation of the globe. While on a similar circumnavigation the following year, Rossdhu was wrecked at Copper Cove on the coast of Chile. While no lives were lost the experience must have been a devastating one and it is fascinating to read John’s draft account of the circumstances, written for the owners and preserved amongst family papers. He may have feared that he would never work again but after 18 months one of the Australasian Line’s masters retired and John was given command of the company’s flagship, the mighty Dalgonar.

For the final 13 years of his life, Captain Isbester commanded Dalgonar. Susie and two of their sons made two round-the-world voyages aboard the ship and they were joined by the other children for the second voyage. They were given some schooling by family and friends and appear to have suffered no serious damage from the disruption to their education.

These years embrace the family’s move from their beloved Shetland to the London suburbs, the wedding of daughter Kathleen to chief mate Lewis Davies, the birth of John and Susie’s ninth child aboard ship in Australia and friendships with other Shetland folk in distant parts of the Commonwealth.

While writing Hard Down! Hard Down! I have tried to follow my grandfather’s family and professional lives as closely as possible. I have been interested in what he did and in why and how he did it. What was the life of a Shetland fisherman like? What was it like to be employed as a seaman on big sailing ships? Was he a caring husband and father? Was he a competent seaman and a good shipmaster?

In the years before the First World War, about 100 British ships were lost each year to wrecking, sinking, fire and collision. Readers learning of the loss of the Dalgonar may conclude that John’s luck finally ran out but will find some consolation in the skill and heroism displayed by the Dalgonar’s survivors and the captain and crew of the French barque, Loire, which came to their rescue.

Hard Down! Hard Down! The Life and Times of Captain John Isbester from Shetland by Captain Jack Isbester is out now published by Whittles Publishing at £18.99