Sailing-ship captain and maritime author Alan Villiers was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1903, and went to sea at the age of 15 in the barque Rothesay Bay. After a difficult voyage, during which the Rothesay Bay's captain died, Villiers left her for the James Craig, a 640-ton iron barque built in 1874 as the Clan McLeod, and still existing today in Sydney, Australia.

The James Craig was laid up in 1921, and Villiers then sailed in the British four-masted barque Bellands, on a 151-day passage from Williamstown, Australia, to St. Nazaire, France. Villiers spent several months in France and England searching for another ship, before signing on as an able seaman in the Finnish four-master Lawhill. The Lawhill was owned by Gustaf Erikson and crews were sent overland from Finland; Villiers got around this by meeting the arriving crew at the train station and following them on board. Lawhill sailed to Australia in ballast in only 74 days, but ran aground near Port Lincoln, Australia. Villiers fell from aloft and was seriously injured in the accident; the accident would indirectly lead to his second career.

Villiers went to sea again in a wooden ketch named Hawk and a steamer. He found the steamer not to his liking at all, and the wounds from his fall still bothered him (he was lucky to have survived-- most sailors who fell out of the rigging didn't, either dying from the impact or drowning if they missed the deck), and found employment as a proof-reader for a newspaper in Hobart. Soon he found himself writing a column on horse racing, which he knew nothing about. In the winter of 1923, the whaling steamer Sir James Clark Ross sailed for Antarctica, and Villiers signed on. The whaling voyage was a failure, but for Villiers it led to a newspaper article and eventually a book.

Villiers went back to sea again in 1928, in the Herzogin Cecilie, a large four-masted barque of 3,242 tons, owned by Gustaf Erikson and captained by Reuben de Cloux. The Cecilie won the 1928 "grain race", with a passage of 96 days, and Villiers wrote the book Falmouth For Orders about the voyage. A year later, he sailed in the Erikson Line's full-rigger Grace Harwar, on a 138-day passage that killed Villiers' photographer, Ronald Walker, and drove the ship's second mate mad. The book By Way of Cape Horn followed.

His next book was a maritime history of Tasmania called Vanished Fleets, and with the proceeds from these books, formed a partnership with Captain de Cloux to buy the German four-masted barque Parma. Villiers and de Cloux sailed two Europe-Australia round trips in her; the first voyage brought back her entire purchase price. Villiers sold his shares in the Parma in 1934 and bought a small full-rigged ship which he renamed Joseph Conrad and sailed around the world as a school-ship. The Conrad was operated at a loss, and Villiers was forced to sell her in 1936. The Conrad still survives today at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut.

Villiers' Grain Race chronicles the voyages in the Parma, and his Cruise of the Conrad chronicles, well, the cruise of the Conrad. After leaving square-rigged sail, Villiers sailed on Kuwaiti dhows, joined the British Navy, captained the reproduction of the Mayflower across the Atlantic Ocean, and continued to crank out books. Most of his titles are currently out of print, except for a biography of James Cook, and a posthumously released (Villiers died in 1982) coffee-table book called Last of the Wind Ships, which features extensive photography from Villiers' voyages in the Australian grain trade between 1928 and 1933.

Recommended but hard-to-find titles include Falmouth for Orders, The War With Cape Horn (an overview of the decline of square-rigged sail), and The Set of the Sails, which is Villiers' autobiography-in-sail.

Source: The Set of the Sails, Alan Villiers. Originally published 1949.

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