In London, in 1938, there was an agency called Dorland’s where a young man named Eric, had been employed for two years as a Trainee Account Executive. In September of that year, the agency lost a major account and as agencies do when a major piece of business walks, they started laying off staff.
Eric fully expected to be fired -- and when he wasn’t, he felt strangely disappointed.
So he did what disappointed young men have done since time immemorial.
He went to sea.
And not just on any old tub, he signed papers as an apprentice on a windjammer, with the Conradesque name of Moshulu.
At the time, Moshulu was one of thirteen vessels still powered entirely by sail, engaged in the South Australian grain trade.
Owned by Swedish owners and governed by Finnish maritime law, Moshulu’s working practices were rather traditional.
Hence, upon boarding the ship in Belfast’s York Dock, Eric was simply ordered “Op the rigging” and told to keep going.
When he could go no further, he found himself clutching the cap of the main mast, 198 feet above the keel.
Having proved his head for heights, Eric was given a berth in the Fo’castle and Moshulu set sail.
So began the shipboard adventures of a raw boy of 18 learning the trade of an Ordinary Seaman.
Three months later…Moshulu put in at Port Victoria, South Australia.
Once bargains had been struck and contracts drawn up, she was loaded with 4,875 tons of grain.
The cargo was made up of 59,000 sacks which were manhandled into ketches at dockside, ferried to Moshulu and manually loaded into the ship’s holds.
This backbreaking work took a month.
On March 11, 1938 Moshulu set sail on the return leg.
91 days later she was lying off the entrance to Queensland Harbour in Ireland.
The crew didn’t know it, but they had won the last grain race.
In 1956 Eric Newby published a wonderful book about the voyage aptly called: The Last Grain Race.
Apt it may be, but not accurate.
The title is simply untrue.
It was not the last grain race.
It was not even the penultimate grain race.
It was actually the second to last grain race.
Consciously or not, Eric had learnt something from his time at Dorland’s.
Because, what kind of title would The Second to Last Grain Race, or Almost The Last Grain Race have made?
But he understood the value of smart positioning.
So The Last Grain Race it was.
And the book was a hit.
It launched Eric Newby’s career as a travel writer.
It’s still in print today.
And you can’t argue with that.