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Alan Villiers

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Alan Villiers

Alan Villiers aboard the Grace Harwar in 1929

Captain Alan John Villiers (23 September 1903 – 3 March 1982) was an author, adventurer, photographer and Master Mariner.

Born in Melbourne, Australia, Villiers first went to sea at age 15 and sailed all the world's oceans on board traditionally rigged vessels, including the full-rigged ship Joseph Conrad. He commanded square-rigged ships for films, including Moby Dick and Billy Budd. He also commanded the Mayflower II on its voyage from the United Kingdom to the United States.[1]

Villiers wrote 25 books, and served as the Chairman of the Society for Nautical Research, a Trustee of the National Maritime Museum, and Governor of the Cutty Sark Preservation Society. He was awarded the British Distinguished Service Cross as a Commander in the Royal Naval Reserve during World War II.

Early history

Alan John Villiers was the second son of Australian poet and union leader Leon Joseph Villiers. The young Villiers grew up on the docks watching the merchant ships come in and out of the Port of Melbourne and longed for the day on which he too could sail out to sea.

Leaving home at the age of 15, he joined the barque Rothesay Bay as an apprentice. The Rothesay Bay operated in the Tasman Sea, trading between Australia and New Zealand. Villiers was a natural seaman. He learned quickly and gained the respect of his shipmates.

An accident on board the barque Lawhill beached Villiers in 1922, by then a seasoned Able seaman. He sought employment as a journalist at the Hobart Mercury newspaper in Tasmania while he recovered from his wounds.

Writer and adventurer

The call of the sea was strong, and soon Villiers was back at sea when the great explorer and whaler Carl Anton Larsen and his whaling factory ship, the Sir James Clark Ross came to port with five whale chasers in tow in late 1923. His accounts of the trip would eventually be published as Whaling in the Frozen South. Named for the Antarctica explorer James Clark Ross, the Ross was the largest whale factory ship in the world, weighing in at 12,000 tons. She was headed for the southern Ross Sea, the last whale stronghold left. Villiers writes: "We had caught 228, most of them blues, the biggest over 100 feet long. These yielded 17,000 barrels of oil; we had hoped for at least 40,000, with luck 60,000."

Villiers' passage on board the Herzogin Cecile in 1927 would result in his publication of Falmouth for Orders. Through it he met the de Cloux family, who later became his partners in the barque Parma. He wrote By Way of Cape Horn after his harrowing experiences on board the Grace Harwar in 1929.

The full-rigged ship Grace Harwar was beautiful as the "wind in her rigging called imperiously as she lay at the pier at Wallaroo". As Villiers stood on the dock, a wharf laborer warned "Don't ship out in her! She's a killer." The warning would prove true, as Villiers' friend Ronald Walker was lost by the time Grace Harwar made Ireland. More than 40 years old at the time, the ship had barnacles and algae growing along her waterline. "Dirty bottoms make slow ships, and slow ships make hard passages." Villiers had a desire to document the great sailing ships before it was too late, and Grace was one of the last working full-riggers. With a small ill-paid crew and no need for coal, such vessels undercut steam ships, and maybe 20 ships were still involved in the trade. The ill-fated voyage took 138 days, the Grace the last of the fleet for the year.

The voyage was filmed in both movie (6,000 feet) and still form, serving as a record of significant images of that period. Delta Productions, Hollywood, California has the original audio recordings and the 16mm film footage obtained from Lt. CMNDR,Dwight Stanley Long (The Fighting Lady)Last of the Great Seadogs, Square Riggers of the Past originally as an Armchair Adventures lecture series at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. He showed it as a motion picture with Alan narrating circa 1976. Delta has archived this rare glimpse of history with cinematography by Alan Villiers. (Delta Productions and "Square Riggers of the Past" are represented by Getty Images, New York, New York.

Ship owner and circumnavigator

Villiers reunited with the de Cloux family in 1931, becoming a partner with them in the four-masted barque Parma. Continuing in the grain trade, he proved an able shiphandler. In 1932 he won the unofficial "grain race" between the ships of the trade, arriving in 103 days despite broaching in a gale. In 1933, he made it in 83 days.

After selling his shares back to the de Cloux family, Villiers went on to purchase the Georg Stage in 1934. A scrapyard, Villiers renamed her the Joseph Conrad, after the author of The Nigger of the 'Narcissus', Typhoon, and The Shadow-Line, who was also an accomplished seaman.

A sail training pioneer, Villiers circumnavigated the globe with an amateur crew. He used the unique environment of the sea to build character and discipline in his young crew and, with his contemporaries Irving and Exy Johnson, he helped form the modern concept of sail training. It is used not to teach youth for a life at sea, but to use the sea to teach youth for life.

Returning almost two years later, Villiers sold the Joseph Conrad to George Huntington Hartford. He published two books of his adventures, Cruise of the "Conrad" and Stormalong. The Joseph Conrad is maintained and operated as a museum ship at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, USA, where she continues to educate the youth of today in the rich history of the age of sail. In 1938 Alan Villiers embarked as a passenger / deckhand on an Arab Dhow for an eventful and picaresque trade round trip from Oman to the Rufiji delta and depicted the somewhat unruly way of life of arab sailors, and their ancestral navigation techniques in a book called Sons of Sindbadillustrated with his own photographs (recently republished with full set of photographs ISBN 0-948065-73-7).

World War II

A LCI(L) during the Invasion of Sicily - 1943

With the outbreak of World War II, Villiers was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve in 1940. He served in Operation Dynamo at Dunkirk; as Stukas dived in on the weary troops, a great variety of British vessels evacuated the troops across the Channel.

Villiers was assigned to a convoy of 24 LCI(L)'s, or Landing craft, Infantry (Large). Ordered to deliver them across the Atlantic, with a 40 percent loss rate expected, Villiers got all but one safely across. He commanded "flights" of LCI(L)'s on D-Day in the Battle of Normandy, the Invasion of Sicily, and the Burma Campaign in the Pacific. By the end of the War, Villiers had been promoted to Commander, awarded the British Distinguished Service Cross, and made a Commander of the Portuguese Order of St. James of the Sword for his gallant conduct.

Later years

Married in 1940 to his second wife Nancie, Villiers settled in Oxford, England, and continued to be active in sailing and writing. He was the Captain of the Mayflower II in her 1957 maiden voyage across the Atlantic, 337 years after the original Mayflower, and beating her predecessor's time of 67 days by 13 days. He has been involved in almost every large historical sailing ship still in existence including the Balclutha, the USCGC Eagle, the Falls of Clyde, the Gazela, the Sagres II, and would also prove instrumental in the restoration of the Star of India. Cadets at the Outward Bound Sea School in Wales remember him as skipper of their training ship Warspite. He was also involved in the creation of the HM Bark Endeavour replica and advised on the 1962 MGM movie Mutiny on the Bounty. Villiers was a regular contributor to the National Geographic Magazine throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

A J Villers produced a travel lecture film, Last of the Great Sea Dogs, which ran at the Dorothy Chandler pavilion in 1976. The film contains 16mm color, filmography of his adventures. There is a digital restored master of the performance with an audio track, narrated by A J Villers. Archived with Delta Productions, Los Angeles, Getty Images, N.Y.,New York.

In 1951, the Portuguese Ambassador in Washington, Pedro Teotónio Pereira, a sailing enthusiast and also a man of the sea, invited Villiers to get on board of the schooner Argus, a fine cod fishing four-masted schooner, and to record the last commercial activity ever to make use of sails in ocean-crossings. Villiers ended up publishing a book, "The Quest Of The Schooner Argus: A voyage to the Grand Banks and Greenland on a modern four masted fishing schooner".[2] The book was a great success in North America and Europe and was later published in sixteen languages. The Quest of the Schooner Argus made news on the BBC, in the main London newspapers, the National Geographic Magazine, and the New York Times and the Portuguese government made Villiers Commander the Military Order of Saint James of the Sword of Portugal.[3]

Villiers served as Chairman of the Society for Nautical Research, a Trustee of the National Maritime Museum, and Governor of the Cutty Sark Preservation Society. He died on 3 March 1982.

In 2010, the Society for Nautical Research, the Naval Review, and the Britannia Naval Research Association jointly established the annual Alan Villiers Memorial Lecture at St Edmund Hall, Oxford.[4]


  1. ^ "Alan Villiers". Oxford Index. Retrieved 2013-07-13. 
  2. ^ Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons; First American Edition (January 19, 1951)
  3. ^ "CIDADÃOS ESTRANGEIROS AGRACIADOS COM ORDENS PORTUGUESAS" (in Portuguese). Presidência da República Portuguesa. Retrieved 3 December 2014. 
  4. ^ "The 1st annual Alan Villiers Memorial Lecture" (pdf).  




External links

  • Alan Villiers at the Internet Movie Database
  • National Maritime Museum archive of Centenary exhibit and bio
  • papers and oral history interview of Alan Villiers in the National Library of Australia
  • Archives & Collections Society List of books published by Alan Villiers
  • Rounding Cape Horn in a Windjammer by Alan Villiers, National Geographic Magazine, February 1931
  • Alan Villiers Resource Page Villiers writings and more.
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