Murdo Macdonald’s Obituary, from the Queenslander, Brisbane, May 18th 1938



CAPTAIN Murdo Stewart MacDonald, whose death occurred in Mauritius on March 4, was known to the whole of the nautical world, and to very many thousands of ship lovers, as the last of the sea-barons, and for some years he was the only man left alive who had commanded a China Tea clipper, one of those swift and stately sea-queens whose marvellous achievements thrilled the world over a generation and  more, when ocean speed was in the making. His ship, the famous Sir Lancelot, was the fastest of them all, and. perhaps, the swiftest all-round White Wings ship the world has seen .

Captain Mac Donald was born on the edge of Old Ocean itself, on the Isle of Lewis, in the Western Isles, guardians of the storm begirt western coast of Scotland. It may be said that he was born with an instinct of navigation, the gift of a hundred seamen ancestors stretching in a long and unbroken line right from the earliest Vikings.

He went to sea at the age of eighteen as an apprentice in the Glasgow ship Assaye,  and served for four years in the Calcutta and New Zealand trades. At an early age he gained a reputation as a consummate seaman, and a ship driver. As first mate in the May Queen, once, when the captain was injured, he drove the ship to her last gasp for 33 days and nights on end, remaining on the storm-swept deck throughout, a rare feat of endurance for an untried man of 24. The second mate was washed overboard by the same sea that had incapacitated the captain.

When he took command of the Sir Lancelot, there came together an ideal seaman and an ideal ship, but it was a great pity that the two had not become one 10 years before, when the ship was still in the first flush of her pride, and her pristine rig—that of a full-rigged ship, carrying 46,800 square feet of canvas, with her ultimate “gossamer” nearer to heaven than any other sail of its day.

In the nine-year association, the young commander came to know his ship, and be bound up in her, to sense her every mood. Sir Lancelot by this time was a barque, her former skipper having dismasted her, and when she emerged from the re-rigging she was without yards on the mizzen mast, while all her great spars had been razed, until her sail area had been reduced almost 30 per cent. Yet under Mac Donald, she maintained and even exceeded her marvellous turn of speed. She went out to Anjer in 65 days, beating her previous best by eight days, and the record which had been put up by the Ariel by three days. Under Mac Donald the ship was on the sugar and rice trade, and a money-maker.  Sugar from Mauritius to the Indian coast or the Gulfs; salt round to Calcutta or Rangoon, and race back; six cargoes a year, when speed meant money, and when almost every passage saw the breaking of a record.

Then Persian charterers made a tempting offer for the ship, and it was sold. Mac-Donald preferred not to sail for the Persians, so he left the noble ship, coiled down his ropes, and “swallowed the anchor.” He was offered commands in both steam and sail, but he “was not a steamerman,” and he cared not to sail a lesser White Wings ship than his previous command. He became a Lloyd’s surveyor, and held down the post for 29 years, vacating it only to make way for his son—present holder of the post—in 1923. Asked a little time ago to give his opinion to present-day trends, he said: “The change-over from sail to steam has resulted only in the recasting of methods of application of principles that are in themselves, let us hope, eternal.” surely the man who could entertain such kindly sentiments as these deserved a quiet evening to his days. His friends of the seven seas will be pleased to learn that he enjoyed this in good measure. “Sleepe after toyle.Port after stormie seas.”

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