Song Notes & Lyrics

Crossing the Line

1 On the Middle Ground 2 The Wind and the Waves
3 Assisted Passage (Whaling Barque) 4 Molymauk
5 Nantucket Girls’ Song 6 Packet Ship (Bounty Shanty)
7 Let the Lower Lights Be Burning 8 Sailors’ Consolation
9 Bob Marney10 Whaling Wife
11 Ship Repairing Men12 Ocean Liner
13 Blood Red Roses14 Birchgrove Park
15 A Nautical Yarn16 The Ballad of the Catalpa
17 Bringing the Beer to Broome18 Nets Below the Gangway
19 At Sea (John Smith AB)20 Rose Bay Ferry
21 South Australia22 Across the Line (The Sailor’s Way)


Lyrics © Don Brian; Music: John Warner (2013)

The Middle Ground refers to a whaling region between New Zealand, Lord Howe and Norfolk Islands. Don wrote the song on Norfolk while researching the many visits of American whaling ships between 1790 and 1907. Norfolk was popular for watering and recruiting, and safer than the sailor towns of Sydney, Hobart Town or Russell where captains risked losing their crew. Captains’ wives often stayed for prolonged periods, giving birth there and sharing their domestic skills with local women.

I left New Bedford and my home
Whaling in the South Pacific
After sperm whales we did roam
On the Middle Ground
I left my family and my friends
The Californian now sends me
To the ocean’s furthest ends
On the Middle Ground

From Rio south around Cape Horn …
New set sails in tatters torn …
The work is hard, the pleasures few
The water cold, the food is too
They feed us slush and call it stew …

From New Zealand’s icy gales …
Northward then we bend our sails …
Until we reach that rocky pile
The thought of it still makes me smile
Landed safe on Norfolk’s Isle …

Wettles there we took on board …
Salted beef and bacon stored …
Plaintain, porpai, figs a treat
Guava, corn and taties sweet
Better food you’ll never eat …

The captain’s wife has gone ashore …
We’ll be here a few weeks more …
Cruising in the winter sun
Right whales on their northern run
The largest bull tryed out twelve ton …

The Norfolk men have joined the crew …
Better boat steerers are few …
We say farewell to the girls on shore,
Their open smiles we’ll see no more
We’ll be gone three years or four
From the Middle Ground
From the Middle Ground


Lyrics and Music © Simon Cocker / Matt Woolley (2010)

From Loveless in Hobart Town, a folk-song cycle about the trials and tribulations of George Loveless, written and produced by the Tasmanian Grassroots Union Choir. Loveless, a methodist preacher and Tolpuddle Martyr, was transported to Van Diemens Land in 1834.

Farewell to my native shore
I’m leaving you today
Farewell to the woman that I adore
Van Diemen’s Land awaits me
Love and home lie to the rear
I’m leaving you today
The William Metcalf is so drear
Van Diemen’s Land awaits me

Oh the wind and the waves
The deep ocean swell
The winds are of change and
The waves are farewell

Now my lot is five-foot square …
Five men my misery to share …
Blessed relief of time on deck …
Clinking chains keep us in check …

God’s wonders are on display …
Turtles, whales and dolphins play …
On the Roaring Forties albatross glide …
Creation’s joys leave me inspired …

One hundred days and still 12 more …
At last we sight Van Diemen’s shore …
Mountain towers o’er Hobart Town …
Sullivan’s Cove my journey’s done …

Repeat chorus

ASSISTED PASSAGE (The Whaling Barque)

Lyrics and Music © Harry Robertson (1971)

The Third Fleet of convict transport ships to Australia was mostly vessels with approval to go whaling after disposing of their human cargo. Seal skins, whale oil and bone were the first significant exports from the infant colony.

Don’t take a trip like this me boys
don’t sail across the sea,
For to Botany Bay I’m headed
and I’m chained in misery.

Oh the whaling barque is rolling bad
it makes our irons clang,
As we pitch across the ocean
for to join the prison gang.

It was on a cold and moonlit night
the frost lay all around,
His lordship’s keepers beat me ’til
I fell upon the ground.

They took the rabbit I had caught
to feed me child at home,
For fourteen years the judge he said
my sins I must atone.

They took me from the dungeon
on to a whaling barque,
And with rats and roaches now I sail
and savage bureaucrats.

Oh Mother England’s clever
and her business methods stark,
For the ships that take the convicts out
will bring her whale oil back.


Lyrics and Music © Bob Watson (1987)

The song has become universally popular among singers of maritime songs. Its haunting tune and imagery emphasise the vastness of the southern oceans. The Mollymauks are group of albatross species found only in the Southern Hemisphere with wingspans ranging between 1.8 and 2.6 metres. Bob Watson wrote in Readifolk in 2012, “The ability of these birds to navigate in such inhospitable places gave rise to wonderment and also much legend and superstition”.

Oh, the Southern Ocean is a lonely place,
Where the storms are many and the shelter’s scarce.
Down upon the southern ocean sailing,
Down below Cape Horn
On the restless water and the troublin’ skies
There you’ll see that Mollymauk wheel and fly.
Down upon the southern ocean sailing,
Down below Cape Horn

Won’t you ride the wind and go, bright seabird.
Won’t you ride the wind and go, mollym
Down upon the southern ocean sailing,
Down below Cape Horn.

See the Mollymauk riding on his wide, white wings,
And, lord, what a lonely song he sings …
And he’s got no compass and he’s got no gear,
And there’s none can tell ya how the Mollymauka steer …

He’s the ghost of a sailor-man, so I’ve heard say.
Whose body sank, and his soul flew away …
And he’s got no haven and he’s got no home,
He’s bound evermore for to wheel and roam …

When I gets too weary for to sail no more,
Let my bones sink better far away from shore …
You can cast me loose and leave me driftin’ free,
And I’ll keep that big bird company …


Words: Eliza Spencer Brock (1855); Tune: Traditional

A whimsical look at the lives of sailors’ wives from the journal of Eliza Spencer Brock. Eliza’s husband was the master of the Nantucket ship Lexington on a Pacific whaling voyage (1843-56). The words were written by Martha Ford, wife of Dr Samuel Hayward Ford, first surgeon in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand.

I have made up my mind now to be a Sailor’s wife,
With a purse full of money and a very easy life,
For a clever sailor husband is so seldom at his home,
That his wife can spend the dollars with a will that’s all her own
His wife can spend the dollars with a will that’s all her own

Then I’ll haste to wed a sailor, and send him off to sea,
For a life of independence is the pleasant life for me,
Though, every now and then, I should like to see his face,
Because it always seems to me to beam with manly grace
Because it always seems to her to beam with manly grace

With his brow so nobly open, and his dark and kindly eye,
Oh my heart beats fondly towards him whenever he is nigh,
But when he says “Goodbye my love, I’m off across the sea”
First I cry for his departure, then I laugh because I’m free
First she cries for his departure, then she laughs because she’s free

Yet I’ll welcome him most gladly, whenever he returns
And share with him so cheerfully the money that he earns
For he is a loving husband, though he leads a roving life
And well I know how good it is to be a Sailor’s Wife.
And well she knows how good it is to be a sailor’s wife.

I have made up my mind now to be a Sailor’s wife,
With a purse full of money and a very easy life,
For a clever sailor husband is so seldom at his home,
That his wife can spend the dollars with a will that’s all her own
His wife can spend the dollars with a will that’s all her own


Traditional (pre 1820)

First published in Danish in Internationale Sømands-Opsange: “Chanties” med danske Variationer, Oscar Jensen, 1923. It is a very early pump shanty predating the discovery of the Bounty mutineers at Pitcairn in 1808. This
version from Stan Hugill gives a jaunty account of the 1789 Mutiny on the Bounty and the notorious Captain William Bligh, “Billy Blight”.

Bounty was a packet ship
Pump ship, packet ship
Sailing on a cruisin’ trip
In the South Pacific

Billy Blight, that silly man …
Was the master in command …

He was growling day and night …
Whether he was wrong or right …

There were troubles every day …
Many sailors ran away …

An’ at last that Billy Blight …
With his crew began to fight …

Mates and sailors in the night …
Overpowered Billy Blight …

They put Billy Blight afloat …
With his madness in a boat …

Bounty then went out of sight …
Left alone was Billy Blight …

Billy Blight he reached the coast …
But the Bounty, she was lost …

Never was there ever heard …
Of the crew that stayed on board …


Philip P. Bliss (1871)

This American composition has become part of Norfolk Island’s maritime hymn tradition. We imagine whalers singing it as they rowed back to shore, their way lit by fires on the cliffs, as described in Harry Robertson’s song, ‘Norfolk Whalers’.

Brightly beams our Father’s mercy
From His lighthouse evermore,
But to us He gives the keeping
Of the lights along the shore.

Let the lower lights be burning!
Send a gleam across the wave!
Some poor fainting, struggling seaman
You may rescue, you may save.

Dark the night of sin has settled,
Loud the angry billows roar;
Eager eyes are watching, longing
For the lights, along the shore.

Trim your feeble lamp, my brother,
Some poor sailor, tempest tossed,
Trying now to make the harbour,
In the darkness may be lost.


Words: William Pitt (1826); Tune: Traditional

First published in the Universal Songster, 1826 and set to the tune ‘Miss Tickle Toby’s School’ (also used for ‘Jog Along ‘til Shearing’). The song is also called ‘Jack Tar’s Yarn’ in the whaling Journal of R.E. Buffett, a Norfolk Islander sailing on the whaler Canton II in 1884. It is often attributed to Charles Dibden, who did publish this with other songs, and who also wrote a different song with the same title.

The night came on a hurricane, the seas were mountains rolling,
When Barney Buntline turned his quid, and says to Billy Bowline:
“A strong Nor’ Wester’s blowing Bill, hark can’t you hear it roar now?
Oh Lordy, how I pities them unhappy folks ashore now.”

And it’s Bow wow wow
Rum toddy, rum toddy, Bow wow wow

“Foolhardy chaps as lives in towns, what dangers they are all in,
Now lie a-quaking in their beds, for fear their roofs might fall in,
Poor creatures, how they envies us and wishes, I’ve a notion,
For our good luck, in such a storm, to be out on the ocean.”

“And as for them who’re out all day on business from their houses,
And late at night returning home to cheer their babes and spouses,
While you and I, Bill, on the deck are comfortably lying,
My eyes – what tiles and chimney pots about their heads are flying.”

“And very often have we heard how men are killed – and undone,
By overturns of carriages, by thieves and fires in London,
We knows what risks all landsmen run, from noblemen to tailors,
So Bill, let us thank Providence – that you and I are sailors!”


Traditional (c.1890s)

Bob Marney was lost from the Grecian in 1853. Having harpooned a whale off Macquarie Harbour on Tasmania’s West coast, his boat was taken on a “Nantucket sleigh ride” and never seen again. This is a composite of versions from the singing of Jack Davies, a Hobart Town whaler recorded in 1961, printed verses from Harry O’May, and from Capt. Cracknell who recorded a version in 1926. His uncle had captained the Grecian. The tune is ‘Lady Franklin’s Lament’.

Far outward bound, far o’er the deep
Slung in my hammock, I fell asleep
I dreamed a dream that I thought was true
Concerning Bob Marney and his boat’s crew.

It was in the Grecian brig, that brig of fame,
In which Bob Marney, he sailed the main;
He was outward bound on a tedious route
To find out where those sperm whales do spout.

On yon green island not far from here
Where we lost Bob Marney and his boat’s gear.

There’s Captain Kennedy of Hobart Town
There’s Captain Reynolds of high renown,
There’s Captain Robertson and many, many more
Have all been cruising MacQuarrie shore.

They cruisèd East and they cruised West
Round South West Cape that they knew the best
No sight nor sign could they see nor hear
Concerning Bob Marney, nor his boat’s gear.

In Recherche Bay where the black whales blow
This tale of Marney they all do know
They says he’s gone, like so many, many more
He’s left his home to return no more

As I drew nearer to the Hobart shore
I heard a fair maid in deep deplore.
She was sobbing sighing, saying “Pity me
I’ve lost my brother, poor Bob Marney

I’ve lost my brother, never more to see
I’ve lost my brother, poor Bob Marney”


Lyrics and Music © Harry Robertson (1971)

Harry wrote “A great number of people connected with the Whaling Industry never go whaling. In 1950-51 some twelve thousand men of various nationalities operated in the Antarctic season… So we find, scattered throughout the world, thousands of people who know of, and depend upon, the return of whaling men and the result of a good catch – such is the Whaling Wife.”

Aye! I’m waiting here at hame and I always feel the same
Whenever my guid man goes tae the whaling,
Seven months he’ll be awa’ doon amongst the ice and snow
And there’s times my lonely heart is nearly breaking.

Now it’s time the kids were fed, and I’ll put them into bed,
And to them a story then I might be telling,
That their Daddy’s gone tae sea, to buy food for them and me,
And it’s many whales we hope he will be catching.

If the whaling catch is fine, we will have an easy time,
New clothes and food we ought to have in plenty,
But if the blubber’s thin on the Blue Whale and the Fin,
Then for us between the seasons could be scanty.

So it’s waiting that I am, and I’m thinking of my man,
And the pleasure when I know that he’s returning,
But in case ye should forget — he hasna’ come hame yet,
And wi’ tears my eyes at times are fairly burning.


Lyrics and Music © Harry Robertson (1995)

Harry came to Australia from Scotland around 1952. He was a ships engineer in the 20th century mechanised whaling industry in the South Atlantic, then out of Moreton Bay, Ballina and Norfolk Island. He later worked at Brisbane’s Kangaroo Point dockyard. The song represents an often-overlooked side of the maritime industry.

From the workshop off we go, toolkits heavy in our hands,
To a big ship that’s come in, from a trip to foreign lands,
Salty streaks of rust have marked her, but her moorings hold her tight,
And we’ll work to fix her engines, all today and half the night.

Don’t wait up for me this evening — I’ll be out all night again
Working on the Brisbane River with the ship repairing men.

Oil-fired boilers throb with power, drinking up the furnace heat,
Water turns to driving steam to make the engines beat,
But the feed pump’s sighing wail to us cuts through all other sound,
As it sings a song of triumph, for the valves that we have ground.

Engine bearings that knocked and hammered through the wild and stormy seas,
Will be machined and fitted ’til they run with silent ease,
And that winch that rattles every time the piston turns the shaft,
Will hum along and sing its song, to men skilled in their craft.

When you see an ocean liner, glide between the river banks,
And the Captain in his gold braid orders men of lesser ranks,
Have you thought perhaps this stately craft might never sail again,
If it wasn’t for the toil and sweat, of ship repairing men.


Words & Music © Barry Skipsey (1979)

An autobiographical tale, written on a prawning trawler in Exmouth Gulf, 1270km north of Perth, West Australia. As a lad seeking adventure, Barry found work on a twenty-one metre Learmonth K trawler. He now lives in land-locked Alice Springs, almost as far away from water as is possible in Australia.

When I was fishing back in the west
and rolling on the foaming sea.
I’d dream of them pretty girls back on the shore
and I wish they were here with me.

So step on board me Ocean Liner
Step on board without delay me lads
Step on board there’s nothing finer
And together we’ll sail away

I made up my mind to take to the wave
on hearing of good return.
So the very next morning I found myself prawning
and my stomach it began to churn.

Working twenty-four hours a day,
with me eyes hanging out of my head.
Twenty-four hours barely making a wage
and I wish I was back in my (her) bed.

Seven cents a kilo for Kings they said,
eight cents a kilo Endeavour’s.
And it’s ten cents a kilo for Tiger prawns,
but for that they want the best out of you.

I’m a long way from mother out here on the wave,
a long way from family.
And a bloody long way from being a tap dancer,
that me mother oh so wanted me to be.

The skipper a big man he stands so high,
his head pokes up through the rigging.
And the crew, they’re all druggo’s and they’re so high,
I think they’ve left the land of the living.

So I’m eating and thinking and sorting prawns,
till they flaming well come out of my ears.
And the cook gives me the shits in more ways than one
So I think I’m on me very last run.


Traditional (1830s)

Neil Colquhoun says this song was collected by John Leebrick from “the dau­ghter of a former captain of an American whaleship which had operated around the New Zealand coast during the 1830s”. The shanty is commonly reported to be used for hauling down on stays’l halliards. It was noted in Captain R.C. Adams in On Board the Rocket (1879) as ‘Come down you bunch of roses’.

Come all you sealers and listen to me
Come down you blood red roses, come down.

A lovely song I’ll sing to thee.
Come down you blood red roses, come down.

Oh, you pinks and posies
Come down you blood red roses, come down

It was in eighteen hundred and three
That we set sail for the southern sea

Our captain he has set us down
And he’s set sail for Sydney town.

And he has left us with some grub
Oh one split pea in a half gallon tub

And here we are, all covered with fur
And we’ve grown tails like Lucifer

When our captain he returns for a spell
We’ll treat him well, like bloody hell!


Poem © Merv Lilley (1963); Tune: Bill Berry

The Birchgrove Park, a ‘Miller’s Sixty Miler’ of 640 tons, was carrying coal from Newcastle to Sydney in July 1956 but foundered off the Barrenjoey Light in a southerly buster. At the time eight bodies were recovered but two others also drowned; four were saved. The hatches were not properly covered and let water in; the coal moved in the swell increasing the list from uneven loading.

The night fell dark on the quiet sea
The Birchgrove Park rode restlessly
A collier on the short run down
Of nineteen men there were eight men who drowned

A sudden lurch as she slid below
The way that all the colliers go
If home bound men had battened down
There’d be eight good men who would not have drowned

Oh Sydney waters are green and cold
Take life from men with a freezing hold
They say that men on the colliers drown
When the cargo rolls – not battened down

Oh beckoning lights of Sydney Town
Still beckoning men as the ship goes down
It is for the love of your winking lights
That colliers drown on lonely nights


Poem: Keighley Goodchild (1883) Tune: Traditional (The Dreadnought)

From Who Are You, a volume of poems by Keighley Goodchild, an editor at the Echuca Advertiser. Ian Mudie in his book, Riverboats, suggests “it is so different from the rest of Goodchild’s work that it seems quite likely that he heard it on the riverboats or in the pubs of Echuca – and wrote it down as his own”. Well-known Murray River Captain, Gus Pierce may have been the inspiration.

“I sing of a captain not unknown to fame;
A naval commander, Bill Jinks was his name,
Who sailed where the Murray’s clear waters do flow,
Did this freshwater shellback, with his Yeo heave a ho.”

With his Yeo ho, yeo heave a ho
With his Yeo ho, yeo heave a ho

To the Port of Wahgunyah his vessel was bound
When night came upon him and darkness around;
Not a star on the waters its clear light did throw;
But the vessel sped onward with a Yeo heave a ho.

“Oh! Captain, oh! Captain, let’s make for the shore,
For the seas they do rage and the winds they do roar!”
“Nay, nay,” said the captain, “though the fierce winds may blow
I’ll stick to me vessel with a Yeo heave a ho.”

“Oh! Captain, oh! Captain, the waves sweep the deck,
Oh Captain, oh! Captain, we’ll soon be a wreck
To the river’s deep bosom each seaman will go!”
But the Captain laughed lightly, with his Yeo heave a ho.

“Farewell to the maiden, the girl I adore;
Farewell to my friends, I shall see them no more!”
The crew shrieked in terror, the Captain he swore.
We had stuck on a sandbank, so the men walked ashore.
With a Yeo, ho, Yeo heave a ho
With a Yeo, ho, Yeo heave a ho
With a Yeo, ho, Yeo heave a ho


Traditional (c.1876)

This ballad, telling of the intrepid rescue of six Irish prisoners from Fremantle Gaol by an American ship in the guise of a whaler, was collected by Russel Ward from Victor Courtney, for many years editor of the Perth Sunday Times. As a young reporter Courtney heard the Catalpa in a Fremantle waterside pub sung (perhaps at the risk of gaol time for sedition) to the ‘Botany Bay’ tune. Other tunes are ‘Tarpaulin Jacket’ and, more commonly, to ‘Rosin the Bow’.

A noble whale ship and commander
Called the Catalpa, they say
Came out to Western Australia
And took six poor Fenians away

So – come all you screws, warders and jailers
Remember Perth Regatta Day
Take care of the rest of your Fenians
Or the Yankees will steal them away

Seven long years had they served here
And seven long more had to stay
For defending their country, Old Ireland
For that, they were banished away

You kept them in Western Australia
Till their hair it began to turn grey
When a Yank from the States of America
Came out here and stole them away

Now all the Perth boats were a-racing
And making short tacks for the spot
But the Yankee tacked into Fremantle
And took the best prize of the lot

The Georgette, well-armed with bold warriors,
Went out the poor Yanks to arrest
But she hoisted her star-spangled banner
Saying you will not board me, I guess.

So remember those Fenians colonial
And sing o’er these verses with skill
Remember the Yankee that stole them
And the home that they left on the hill

Now they’ve landed safe in America
And there will be able to cry
“Hoist up the green flag and the shamrock
Hurrah for old Ireland we’ll die.”


Lyrics and Music © Peter Lenne (1966)

Peter says he wrote the song after reading about a seafarer, Andy, who delivered beer to Broome and mysteriously disappeared at sea. In the folk tradition we take him at his word. It was first performed at the Melbourne University Song Contest in 1968.

I’ll sing you a tale of a long lost ship
Bringing the beer to Broome
About it’s last and fateful trip
Bringing the beer to Broome
Well it was sailed by Andy Jones
But never again you’ll hear his moans
On the ocean floor he rests his bones
Bringing the beer to Broome

Bringing the beer to Broome boys
Bringing the beer to Broome
Andy’s ships coming round the point
Bringing the beer to Broome

Now Andy was a sailor …
Started on a whaler …
Now he’s got his very own boat
Does everything to keep it afloat
And the only hand is a drunken goat …

Soon he’ll try to cross that reef …
T’was there he finally came to grief …
But his cargos what we all admire
Temperature is getting higher
Throats becoming even drier …

Well, the wind arose and blew aloud …
The sky was covered thick with cloud …
And Andy’s boat began to sink
T’was right above the reef I think
And the beer was left for the fish to drink …

Now Broome was dry for quite a while …
It underwent a heavy trial …
But all’s well now in Broome you see
The town’s now got its own brewery
T’was built in 1923 …


Poem: E.J. Brady (1909); Tune: Traditional

Published in The Ways of Many Waters. In the shanty ‘South Australia’ she-oak is the term used in the 1890s for bush beer and around this time the safety nets below the gangway were known as ‘she-oak nets’.

They cast ’em down at Plymouth where the water’s deep and cool
And they drop ’em round from Melbourne to the wharves of Liverpool
There are nets for shallow waters where the brown sand-mullet be
But the net below the gangway is the net for you and me

So ye rowdy, roaring devils with your roaring, rowdy song
When we’ve rolled for recreation with our sweethearts round the town;
When a sailor’s had a skinful and he staggers back from shore
There’s a net below the gangway for to catch you if you fall

So they “shoot” them in the Hudson, in the Thames and at the Tay
They’re “cast” in Sydney Harbour and in San Francisco Bay.
Oh, the net below the gangway it is sweeter for our togs
Than the slush about the Bridges, or around the Isle of Dogs

Oh, ’tis better that we gather in the meshes of the trawls”
Where a drunken shellback flounders, where a swearing man-crab crawls
Than the bubbles at the surface, than a splashing in the dark
Than a drag-hooked, bloated boozer, or a picnic for John Shark.

So ye rowdy, roaring devils with your roaring, rowdy song
When we’ve rolled for recreation with our sweethearts round the town;
’tis pleasant to remember when we’re blind and cannot see
That the net below the gangway will be kind to you and me

AT SEA (John Smith AB)

Words: D.H. Rogers (1904); Tune: N. Colquhoun

The entries in ships’ logs, listing only the time and place of a sailor lost at sea, are the basis of this song, published in The Bulletin under the pen-name of Taiwa M.L. (taiwa means ‘spud’ or ‘foreigner’ in Māori & M.L. is Maori Land.) Rogers was a Dunedin accountant, writing for Sydney papers at the same time as Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson. The last verse is omitted in previously recorded versions. The tune is from Neil Colquhoun’s New Zealand Folksongs, 1956.

When the southern gale is blowing hard,
And the watch are all on the topsail yard.
When five come down where six went up,
There’s one less to share the bite and sup.

Instead of the stone and carven verse,
This is his epitaph, curt and terse:
“John Smith, A. B.,
Drowned in latitude fifty-three,
A heavy gale and a following sea.”

A name is missed when the roll they call.
A hand the less for the mainsail haul.
They steal his rags and they dump his bed,
Little it matters to him who’s dead.

We lost the way to the open sea,
We have missed the doom we thought to dree.
For the big ships running their eastings down
Are far from the din of Sydney town.

Instead of the clean blue sunlit wave,
Our bones will lie in a darksome grave.
For the means to live we barter life.
Would I were back in the old-time strife.

For the means to live we barter life.
Would I were back in the old-time strife.
Once more at sea,
Reefing topsails in fifty-three,
In the blinding drift from the angry sea.


Lyrics and Music © Bernard Bolan (1973)

The imaginary lives of ‘city sailors’ still resonates in the TikTok shanty generation. This song reached #1 on the charts in 1974. The Nicholson Brothers operated ferries on Sydney Harbour at that time. The ferries and the fares may have changed but the morning commute remains as enjoyable today.

Every morning at eight-twenty-five
Down to the Rose Bay wharf I drive
Park my Humber underneath a tree
Pop along the gangplank and then I’m free
Free says you, but how can that be?
For you always finish up at Circular Quay
So doubting Tom, let me explain
When I get on board I sing this sweet refrain

Where are we going today, Mr. Nicholson?
Where is it going to be?
Don’t turn left, turn right down the harbour
And out to the open sea
Throw away your compass, right hand down
And it’s out through the Heads we go
So ho! let’s be merry on the Rose Bay ferry
If we run out of petrol we’ll row Yo Ho!
If we run out of petrol we’ll row

Monday Java, Tuesday Spain
Wednesday it’s Tokyo and back again
The only trouble is, there isn’t any Gents
But what do you want for twenty cents?
Off with me raincoat and me woolly vest
See the naked ladies on my chest
Today is Friday, so hold on tight
’Cause we’re off to Trinidad and back tonight

Where are we going today, Mr. Nicholson?
Where is it going to be?
Don’t turn left, turn right down the harbour
And out to the open sea
Pull up your anchor, pull your finger out
And wave goodbye to your home
We’re off to Nantucket, so give that man a bucket
‘Cause it’s choppy when you’re out on the foam, Heave Ho!
It’s choppy when you’re out on the foam

Sometimes when I get up late
I only reach the jetty at half past eight
But that doesn’t ruin my world-wide trip
’Cause the eight thirty-seven is a battleship
Off on the dot with our guns on high
Mince up Manly as we pass by
If you run out of rockets, just pop upstairs
You can get ’em from the chappy who collects the fares

Where are we going today, Mr. Nicholson?
Where is it going to be?
Don’t turn left, turn right down the harbour
And out to the open sea
For though we look like dudes and doctors
At heart we are men of the sea
So Ho! Let’s be merry on the Rose Bay ferry
Until we get to Circular Quay, you see
We finish up at Circular Quay

So Ho! Let’s be merry on the Rose Bay ferry
Until we get to Circular Quay, you see
We finish up at Circular Quay


Traditional (1876)

As collected by Fredrick Pease Harlow in 1876. Harlow was on the Akbar at Melbourne and recorded his reminiscences in The Making of a Sailor (Salem Research Society, 1928). The term ‘she-oak’, for ‘bush beer’ dates this song to the 1880s. The Sandridge Railway Pier is now the Port Melbourne Pier.

South Australia is my land
Heave away, heave away
Mountains rich in quartz and sand
We’re bound for South Australia!

Heave away, heave away,
Oh, heave away you ruler king
We’re bound for South Australia!

There’s a packet lying off the pier …
And a bar ashore with foaming beer …

I see Julia standing on the quay …
With a girl for you and a girl for me …

At the head of Sandridge Railroad Pier …
To Mother Shilling’s we will steer …

She serves the she-oak at the bar …
And welcomes sailors from afar …

In the arms of girls we’ll dance and sing …
For she-oak will be Ruler King …

The she-oaks gone straight to our head …
The girls can put us all to bed …

ACROSS THE LINE (The Sailor’s Way)

Traditional (c.1890s)

Our final song is a love song to the sea and inspired the album title. Recalled by James Cowan in the New Zealand Lyttleton Times 1912 and developed by Neil Colquhoun, the poem had ‘the land where they grow mate’ (a South American herb tea), to rhyme with ‘sailors fate’. Other versions of the song were collected by James Madison Carpenter in Dundee in 1928/29 from Mr George Simpson, who sailed in the 1890s. Collectors Hugill and Doerflinger have different versions.

I’ve traded with the Yankees, Brazilians and Chinese
I’ve courted Maori beauties, sailed the seven seas
I’ve travelled along with a laugh and a song
In the land where they call you mate
Around the Horn and back again, that’s the sailor’s fate

Across the line, the Gulf Stream,
I’ve been in Table Bay
Around the Horn and back again
That’s the sailor’s way

I’ve run aground in many a sound without a pilot on board
Long boats lowered by lantern light, slipped off and gently oared
With its rowlocks creaking and a rolling swell
And a wind that’d make you ache
Oh, who would sail the seven seas and share a sailor’s fate?

I’ve hauled away to northward, I’ve beat away to east
Trimmed our sails in the teeth of a gale, stood in the calmest seas
We have set our course by a southern star
From Stewart through the straits
Westward round by Milford sound, for that’s the sailor’s fate

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