Square Rigger Days: Charles Domville-Fife



This book, subtitled “Autobiographies of Sail” was originally compiled in 1938 by Charles Domville-Fife to record the final days of commercial sail but unlike the wonderful books produced by Basil Lubbock which recorded in detail the ships and their trades, this book is the stories of those who actually sailed on them.


They say that truth is stranger than fiction and the last days of sail underpin this statement. Hell ships, coffin ships, scurvy (even 100 years after Captain Cook it was still claiming seafarers), starvation, mutiny and murder, it is all documented in this book from first hand accounts. Even on board the well run ships the conditions were worse than basic and the seamen spent most of the voyage cold, wet and hungry and life for the officers was little better. 


The nostalgic glow of history concentrates on the beauty and romance of the last sailing ships but the reality was far removed from this idyll! The irony is that despite the fact that these magnificent “windjammer” cargo carrying ships marked the culmination of centuries of evolution in sailing ships they were doomed just as their design reached the peak of efficiency. Consequently the so called golden age of sail only lasted a mere 60 years between 1850 and 1910. The competition from steamships had a devastating impact on the way in which sailing ships could be operated and as crews were tempted away from sail by the higher wages, shorter voyages and the greater comfort offered by steamships, manning and operating these ships became increasingly difficult with the result that many sailed seriously overloaded and undermanned. Commercial pressures also required them to be sailed to the limits of their design and this in turn required a special breed of Captain who would carry the maximum amount of sail at all times. Tragically, coasts around the world are littered with the wreckage of the ships lost to such practices and many more disappeared without a trace in the vast expanse of the World’s oceans.

Reading this book, the biggest mystery is how they managed to survive so long when those sailing them had the option of transferring to the relatively easy life on steam ships? Whereas many of the crew were the victims of “crimping” having been poured on board in a drunken stupor and only woke up when it was too late to “escape”, the Captains and officers, after a short spell of leave, frequently returned for voyage after voyage.


The answer can only be the indefatigable human spirit, still evident today in endurance yacht racing, which by means of a few bits of rope and canvas harnesses the wind to push man and boat to the limits. Square Rigger Days therefore provides a valuable record of those final days of commercial sail and this edition is lavishly illustrated with photographs, many of which have been sourced from private collections and have not previously been published. 

An essential addition to any mariner’s bookshelf.


Square Rigger Days.

“Autobiographies of Sail”

Edited by Charles Domville-Fife.


  Hardcover: 256 pages 

  Publisher: Seaforth Publishing (18 Oct 2007) 

  ISBN-10: 1844156958 Price: £25.00

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