Two Years Before the Mast, by Richard Henry Dana

Chapter 30

At eight o’clock all hands were called aft, and the watches set for the voyage. Some changes were made; but I was glad to find myself still in the larboard watch. Our crew was somewhat diminished; for a man and a boy had gone in the Pilgrim; another was second mate of the Ayacucho; and a fourth, Harry Bennett, the oldest man of the crew, had broken down under the hard work and constant exposure on the coast, and, having had a stroke of the palsy, was left behind at the hide-house, under the charge of Captain Arthur. The poor fellow wished very much to come home in the ship; and he ought to have been brought home in her. But a live dog is better than a dead lion, and a sick sailor belongs to nobody’s mess; so he was sent ashore with the rest of the lumber, which was only in the way. He had come on board, with his chest, in the morning, and tried to make himself useful about decks; but his shuffling feet and weak arms led him into trouble, and some words were said to him by the mate. He had the spirit of a man, and had become a little tender, perhaps weakened in mind, and said, “Mr. Brown, I always did my duty aboard until I was sick. If you don’t want me, say so, and I’ll go ashore.” “Bring up his chest,” said Mr. Brown, and poor Bennett went down into a boat and was taken ashore, with tears in his eyes. He loved the ship and the crew, and wished to get home, but could not bear to be treated as a soger or loafer on board. This was the only hard-hearted thing I ever knew Mr. Brown to do.

By these diminutions, we were short-handed for a voyage round Cape Horn in the dead of winter. Beside Stimson and myself, there were only five in the forecastle; who, together with four boys in the steerage, the sailmaker, carpenter, cook, and steward, composed the crew. In addition to this, we were only four days out, when the sailmaker, who was the oldest and best seaman on board, was taken with the palsy, and was useless for the rest of the voyage. The constant wading in the water, in all weathers, to take off hides, together with the other labors, is too much for men even in middle life, and for any who have not good constitutions. (Beside these two men of ours, the second officer of the California and the carpenter of the Pilgrim, as we afterwards learned, broke down under the work, and the latter died at Santa Barbara. The young man, too, Henry Mellus, who came out with us from Boston in the Pilgrim, had to be taken from his berth before the mast and made clerk, on account of a fit of rheumatism which attacked him soon after he came upon the coast.) By the loss of the sailmaker, our watch was reduced to five, of whom two were boys, who never steered but in fine weather, so that the other two and myself had to stand at the wheel four hours apiece out of every twenty-four; and the other watch had only four helmsmen. “Never mind — we’re homeward bound!” was the answer to everything; and we should not have minded this, were it not for the thought that we should be off Cape Horn in the very dead of winter. It was now the first part of May; and two months would bring us off the Cape in July, which is the worst month in the year there; when the sun rises at nine and sets at three, giving eighteen hours night, and there is snow and rain, gales and high seas, in abundance.

The prospect of meeting this in a ship half manned, and loaded so deep that every heavy sea must wash her fore and aft, was by no means pleasant. The Alert, in her passage out, doubled the Cape in the month of February, which is midsummer; and we came round in the Pilgrim in the latter part of October, which we thought was bad enough. There was only one of our crew who had been off there in the winter, and that was in a whale-ship, much lighter and higher than our ship; yet he said they had man-killing weather for twenty days without intermission, and their decks were swept twice, and they were all glad enough to see the last of it. The Brandywine frigate, also, in her recent passage round, had sixty days off the Cape, and lost several boats by the heavy seas. All this was for our comfort; yet pass it we must; and all hands agreed to make the best of it.

During our watches below we overhauled our clothes, and made and mended everything for bad weather. Each of us had made for himself a suit of oil-cloth or tarpaulin, and these we got out, and gave thorough coatings of oil or tar, and hung upon the stays to dry. Our stout boots, too, we covered over with a thick mixture of melted grease and tar. Thus we took advantage of the warm sun and fine weather of the Pacific to prepare for its other face. In the forenoon watches below, our forecastle looked like the workshop of what a sailor is — a Jack-at-all-trades. Thick stockings and drawers were darned and patched; mittens dragged from the bottom of the chest and mended; comforters made for the neck and ears; old flannel shirts cut up to line monkey-jackets; southwesters were lined with flannel, and a pot of paint smuggled forward to give them a coat on the outside; and everything turned to hand; so that, although two years had left us but a scanty wardrobe, yet the economy and invention which necessity teaches a sailor soon put each of us in pretty good trim for bad weather, before we had seen the last of the fine. Even the cobbler’s art was not out of place. Several old shoes were very decently repaired, and with waxed ends, an awl, and the top of an old boot, I made me quite a respectable sheath for my knife.

There was one difficulty, however, which nothing that we could do would remedy; and that was the leaking of the forecastle, which made it very uncomfortable in bad weather, and rendered half of the berths tenantless. The tightest ships, in a long voyage, from the constant strain which is upon the bowsprit, will leak more or less round the heel of the bowsprit and the bitts, which come down into the forecastle; but, in addition to this, we had an unaccountable leak on the starboard bow, near the cat-head, which drove us from the forward berths on that side, and, indeed, when she was on the starboard tack, from all the forward berths. One of the after berths, too, leaked in very bad weather; so that in a ship which was in other respects unusually tight, and brought her cargo to Boston perfectly dry, we had, after every effort made to prevent it, in the way of calking and leading, a forecastle with only three dry berths for seven of us. However, as there is never but one watch below at a time, by “turning in and out,” we did pretty well. And there being in our watch but three of us who lived forward, we generally had a dry berth apiece in bad weather.1

All this, however, was but anticipation. We were still in fine weather in the North Pacific, running down the northeast trades, which we took on the second day after leaving San Diego.

Sunday, May 15th, one week out, we were in latitude 14° 56’ N., lon. 116° 14’ W., having gone, by reckoning, over thirteen hundred miles in seven days. In fact, ever since leaving San Diego, we had had a fair wind, and as much as we wanted of it. For seven days our lower and topmast studding-sails were set all the time, and our royals and top-gallant studding-sails whenever she could stagger under them. Indeed, the captain had shown, from the moment we got to sea, that he was to have no boy’s play, but that the ship was to carry all she could, and that he was going to make up by “cracking on” to her what she wanted in lightness. In this way we frequently made three degrees of latitude, besides something in longitude, in the course of twenty-four hours. Our days we spent in the usual ship’s work. The rigging which had become slack from being long in port was to be set up; breast backstays got up; studding-sail booms rigged upon the main yard; and royal studding-sails got ready for the light trades; ring-tail set; and new rigging fitted, and sails made ready for Cape Horn. For, with a ship’s gear, as well as a sailor’s wardrobe, fine weather must be improved to get ready for the bad to come. Our forenoon watch below, as I have said, was given to our own work, and our night watches were spent in the usual manner — a trick at the wheel, a lookout on the forecastle, a nap on a coil of rigging under the lee of the rail; a yarn round the windlass-end; or, as was generally my way, a solitary walk fore and aft, in the weather waist, between the windlass-end and the main tack. Every wave that she threw aside brought us nearer home, and every day’s observation at noon showed a progress which, if it continued, would, in less than five months, take us into Boston Bay. This is the pleasure of life at sea — fine weather, day after day, without interruption — fair wind, and a plenty of it — and homeward bound. Every one was in good humor; things went right; and all was done with a will. At the dog watch, all hands came on deck, and stood round the weather side of the forecastle, or sat upon the windlass, and sung sea-songs and those ballads of pirates and highwaymen which sailors delight in. Home, too, and what we should do when we got there, and when and how we should arrive, was no infrequent topic. Every night, after the kids and pots were put away, and we had lighted our pipes and cigars at the galley, and gathered about the windlass, the first question was —

“Well, Dana, what was the latitude today?”

“Why, fourteen, north; and she has been going seven knots ever since.”

“Well, this will bring us to the line in five days.”

“Yes, but these trades won’t last twenty-four hours longer,” says an old salt, pointing with the sharp of his hand to leeward; “I know that by the look of the clouds.”

Then came all manner of calculations and conjectures as to the continuance of the wind, the weather under the line, the southeast trades, &c., and rough guesses as to the time the ship would be up with the Horn; and some, more venturous, gave her so many days to Boston Light, and offered to bet that she would not exceed it.

“You’d better wait till you get round Cape Horn,” says an old croaker.

“Yes,” says another, “you may see Boston, but you’ve got to ‘smell hell’ before that good day.”

Rumors also of what had been said in the cabin, as usual, found their way forward. The steward had heard the captain say something about the Straits of Magellan, and the man at the wheel fancied he had heard him tell the “passenger” that, if he found the wind ahead and the weather very bad off the Cape, he should stick her off for New Holland, and come home round the Cape of Good Hope.

This passenger — the first and only one we had had, except to go from port to port, on the coast — was no one else than a gentleman whom I had known in my smoother days, and the last person I should have expected to see on the coast of California — Professor Nuttall, of Cambridge. I had left him quietly seated in the chair of Botany and Ornithology in Harvard University, and the next I saw of him, he was strolling about San Diego beach, in a sailor’s pea-jacket, with a wide straw hat, and barefooted, with his trousers rolled up to his knees, picking up stones and shells. He had travelled overland to the Northwest Coast, and come down in a small vessel to Monterey. There he learned that there was a ship at the leeward about to sail for Boston, and, taking passage in the Pilgrim, which was then at Monterey, he came slowly along, visiting the intermediate ports, and examining the trees, plants, earths, birds, &c., and joined us at San Diego shortly before we sailed. The second mate of the Pilgrim told me that they had an old gentleman on board who knew me, and came from the college that I had been in. He could not recollect his name, but said he was a “sort of an oldish man,” with white hair, and spent all his time in the bush, and along the beach, picking up flowers and shells and such truck, and had a dozen boxes and barrels full of them. I thought over everybody who would be likely to be there, but could fix upon no one; when, the next day, just as we were about to shove off from the beach, he came down to the boat in the rig I have described, with his shoes in his hand, and his pockets full of specimens. I knew him at once, though I should hardly have been more surprised to have seen the Old South steeple shoot up from the hide-house. He probably had no more difficulty in recognizing me. As we left home about the same time, we had nothing to tell each other; and, owing to our different situations on board, I saw but little of him on the passage home. Sometimes, when I was at the wheel of a calm night, and the steering required little attention, and the officer of the watch was forward, he would come aft and hold a short yarn with me; but this was against the rules of the ship, as is, in fact, all intercourse between passengers and the crew. I was often amused to see the sailors puzzled to know what to make of him, and to hear their conjectures about him and his business. They were as much at a loss as our old sailmaker was with the captain’s instruments in the cabin. He said there were three — the chro-nometer, the chre-nometer, and the the-nometer. The Pilgrim’s crew called Mr. Nuttall “Old Curious,” from his zeal for curiosities; and some of them said that he was crazy, and that his friends let him go about and amuse himself in this way. Why else a rich man (sailors call every man rich who does not work with his hands, and who wears a long coat and cravat) should leave a Christian country and come to such a place as California to pick up shells and stones, they could not understand. One of them, however, who had seen something more of the world ashore, set all to rights, as he thought; “O, ‘vast there! You don’t know anything about them craft. I’ve seen them colleges and know the ropes. They keep all such things for cur’osities, and study ’em, and have men a purpose to go and get ’em. This old chap knows what he’s about. He a’n’t the child you take him for. He’ll carry all these things to the college, and if they are better than any that they have had before, he’ll be head of the college. Then, by and by, somebody else will go after some more, and if they beat him he’ll have to go again, or else give up his berth. That’s the way they do it. This old covey knows the ropes. He has worked a traverse over ’em, and come ‘way out here where nobody’s ever been afore, and where they’ll never think of coming.” This explanation satisfied Jack; and as it raised Mr. Nuttall’s credit, and was near enough to the truth for common purposes, I did not disturb it.

With the exception of Mr. Nuttall, we had no one on board but the regular ship’s company and the live stock. Upon the stock we had made a considerable inroad. We killed one of the bullocks every four days, so that they did not last us up to the line. We, or rather the cabin, then began upon the sheep and the poultry, for these never come into Jack’s mess.2 The pigs were left for the latter part of the voyage, for they are sailors, and can stand all weathers. We had an old sow on board, the mother of a numerous progeny, who had been twice round the Cape of Good Hope and once round Cape Horn. The last time going round was very nearly her death. We heard her squealing and moaning one dark night after it had been snowing and hailing for several hours, and, climbing over into the sty, we found her nearly frozen to death. We got some straw, an old sail, and other things, and wrapped her up in a corner of the sty, where she stayed until we came into fine weather again.

Wednesday, May 18th. Lat. 9° 54’ N., lon. 113° 17’ W. The northeast trades had now left us, and we had the usual variable winds, the “doldrums,” which prevail near the line, together with some rain. So long as we were in these latitudes, we had but little rest in our watch on deck at night; for, as the winds were light and variable, and we could not lose a breath, we were all the watch bracing the yards, and taking in and making sail, and “humbugging” with our flying kites. A little puff of wind on the larboard quarter, and then — “larboard fore braces!”— and studding-sail booms were rigged out, studding-sails set alow and aloft, the yards trimmed, and jibs and spanker in; when it would come as calm as a duck-pond, the man at the wheel standing with the palm of his hand up, feeling for the wind. “Keep her off a little!” “All aback forward, sir!” cries a man from the forecastle. Down go the braces again; in come the studding-sails, all in a mess, which half an hour won’t set right; yards braced sharp up, and she’s on the starboard tack, close-hauled. The studding-sails must now be cleared away, and set up in the tops and on the booms, and the gear cut off and made fast. By the time this is done, and you are looking out for a soft plank for a nap — “Lay aft here, and square in the head yards!” and the studding-sails are all set again on the starboard side. So it goes until it is eight bells — call the watch — heave the log — relieve the wheel, and go below the larboard watch.

Sunday, May 22d. Lat. 5° 14’ N., lon. 116° 45’ W. We were now a fortnight out, and within five degrees of the line, to which two days of good breeze would take us; but we had, for the most part, what the sailors call “an Irishman’s hurricane — right up and down.” This day it rained nearly all day, and, being Sunday and nothing to do, we stopped up the scuppers and filled the decks with rain water, and, bringing all our clothes on deck, had a grand wash, fore and aft. When this was through, we stripped to our drawers, and taking pieces of soap, with strips of canvas for towels, we turned-to and soaped, washed, and scrubbed one another down, to get off, as we said, the California grime; for the common wash in salt water, which is all that Jack can get, being on an allowance of fresh, had little efficacy, and was more for taste than utility. The captain was below all the afternoon, and we had something nearer to Saturnalia than anything we had yet seen; for the mate came into the scuppers, with a couple of boys to scrub him, and got into a contest with them in heaving water. By unplugging the holes, we let the soapsuds off the decks, and in a short time had a new supply of clear rain water, in which we had a grand rinsing. It was surprising to see how much soap and fresh water did for the complexions of many of us; how much of what we supposed to be tan and sea-blacking we got rid of. The next day, the sun rising clear, the ship was covered, fore and aft, with clothes of all sorts, hanging out to dry.

As we approached the line, the wind became more easterly, and the weather clearer, and in twenty days from San Diego —

Saturday, May 28th, at about three P.M., with a fine breeze from the east-southeast, we crossed the equator. In twenty-four hours after crossing the line, we took, which was very unusual, the regular southeast trades. These winds come a little from the eastward of southeast, and with us they blew directly from the east-southeast, which was fortunate for us, as our course was south-by-west, and we could thus go one point free. The yards were braced so that every sail drew, from the spanker to the flying-jib; and, the upper yards being squared in a little, the fore and main top-gallant studding-sails were set, and drew handsomely. For twelve days this breeze blew steadily, not varying a point, and just so fresh that we could carry our royals; and during the whole time we hardly started a brace. Such progress did we make that at the end of seven days from the time we took the breeze, on —

Sunday, June 5th, we were in lat. 19° 29’ S., and lon. 118° 01’ W., having made twelve hundred miles in seven days, very nearly upon a taut bowline. Our good ship was getting to be herself again, and had increased her rate of sailing more than one third since leaving San Diego. The crew ceased complaining of her, and the officers hove the log every two hours with evident satisfaction. This was glorious sailing. A steady breeze; the light tradewind clouds over our heads; the incomparable temperature of the Pacific — neither hot nor cold; a clear sun every day, and clear moon and stars every night, and new constellations rising in the south, and the familiar ones sinking in the north, as we went on our course — “stemming nightly toward the pole.” Already we had sunk the North Star and the Great Bear, while the Southern Cross appeared well above the southern horizon, and all hands looked out sharp to the southward for the Magellan Clouds, which, each succeeding night, we expected to make. “The next time we see the North Star,” said one, “we shall be standing to the northward, the other side of the Horn.” This was true enough, and no doubt it would be a welcome sight, for sailors say that in coming home from round Cape Horn, or the Cape of Good Hope, the North Star is the first land you make.

These trades were the same that in the passage out in the Pilgrim lasted nearly all the way from Juan Fernandez to the line; blowing steadily on our starboard quarter for three weeks, without our starting a brace, or even brailing down the skysails. Though we had now the same wind, and were in the same latitude with the Pilgrim on her passage out, yet we were nearly twelve hundred miles to the westward of her course; for the captain, depending upon the strong southwest winds which prevail in high southern latitudes during the winter months, took the full advantage of the trades, and stood well to the westward, so far that we passed within about two hundred miles of Ducie’s Island.

It was this weather and sailing that brought to my mind a little incident that occurred on board the Pilgrim, while we were in the same latitude. We were going along at a great rate, dead before the wind, with studding-sails out on both sides, alow and aloft, on a dark night, just after midnight, and everything as still as the grave, except the washing of the water by the vessel’s side; for, being before the wind, with a smooth sea, the little brig, covered with canvas, was doing great business with very little noise. The other watch was below, and all our watch, except myself and the man at the wheel, were asleep under the lee of the boat. The second mate, who came out before the mast, and was always very thick with me, had been holding a yarn with me, and just gone aft to his place on the quarter-deck, and I had resumed my usual walk to and from the windlass-end, when, suddenly, we heard a loud scream coming from ahead, apparently directly from under the bows. The darkness, and complete stillness of the night, and the solitude of the ocean, gave to the sound a dreadful and almost supernatural effect. I stood perfectly still, and my heart beat quick. The sound woke up the rest of the watch, who stood looking at one another. “What, in the name of God, is that?” said the second mate, coming slowly forward. The first thought I had was, that it might be a boat, with the crew of some wrecked vessel, or perhaps the boat of some whale-ship, out over night, and we had run it down in the darkness. Another scream! but less loud than the first. This started us, and we ran forward, and looked over the bows, and over the sides, to leeward, but nothing was to be seen or heard. What was to be done? Heave the ship aback, and call the captain? Just at this moment, in crossing the forecastle, one of the men saw a light below, and, looking down the scuttle, saw the watch all out of their berths, and afoul of one poor fellow, dragging him out of his berth, and shaking him, to wake him out of a nightmare. They had been waked out of their sleep, and as much alarmed at the scream as we were, and were hesitating whether to come on deck, when the second sound, proceeding directly from one of the berths, revealed the cause of the alarm. The fellow got a good shaking for the trouble he had given. We made a joke of the matter; and we could well laugh, for our minds were not a little relieved by its ridiculous termination.

We were now close upon the southern tropical line, and, with so fine a breeze, were daily leaving the sun behind us, and drawing nearer to Cape Horn, for which it behooved us to make every preparation. Our rigging was all overhauled and mended, or changed for new, where it was necessary; new and strong bobstays fitted in the place of the chain ones, which were worn out; the spritsail yard and martingale guys and back-ropes set well taut; bran-new fore and main braces rove; top-gallant sheets, and wheelropes, made of green hide, laid up in the form of rope, were stretched and fitted; and new topsail clew-lines, &c. rove; new fore-topmast backstays fitted; and other preparations made in good season, that the ropes might have time to stretch and become limber before we got into cold weather.

Sunday, June 12th. Lat. 26° 04’ S., lon. 116° 31’ W. We had now lost the regular trades, and had the winds variable, principally from the westward, and kept on in a southerly course, sailing very nearly upon a meridian, and at the end of the week —

Sunday, June 19th, were in lat. 34° 15’ S., and lon. 116° 38’ W.

1 On removing the cat-head, after the ship arrived at Boston, it was found that there were two holes under it which had been bored for the purpose of driving treenails, and which, accidentally, had not been plugged up when the cat-head was placed over them. This provoking little piece of negligence caused us great discomfort.

2 The customs as to the allowance of “grub” are very nearly the same in all American merchantmen. Whenever a pig is killed, the sailors have one mess from it. The rest goes to the cabin. The smaller live stock, poultry, &c. the sailors never taste. And indeed they do not complain of this, for it would take a great deal to supply them with a good meal; and without the accompaniments (which could hardly be furnished to them), it would not be much better than salt beef. But even as to the salt beef they are scarcely dealt fairly with; for whenever a barrel is opened, before any of the beef is put into the harness-cask, the steward comes up and picks it all over, and takes out the best pieces (those that have any fat in them) for the cabin. This was done in both the vessels I was in, and the men said that it was usual in other vessels. Indeed, it is made no secret, and some of the crew are usually called to help in assorting and putting away the pieces. By this arrangement the hard, dry pieces, which the sailors call “old horse,” come to their share.

There is a singular piece of rhyme, traditional among sailors, which they say over such pieces of beef. I do not know that it ever appeared in print before. When seated round the kid, if a particularly bad piece is found, one of them takes it up, and addresses it thus:—

“‘Old horse! old horse! what brought you here?’

‘From Sacarap to Portland Pier

I’ve carted stone this many a year;

Till, killed by blows and sore abuse,

They salted me down for sailors’ use.

The sailors they do me despise;

They turn me over and damn my eyes;

Cut off my meat, and scrape my bones,

And pitch me over to Davy Jones.’”

There is a story current among seamen, that a beef-dealer was convicted, at Boston, of having sold old horse for ship’s stores, instead of beef, and had been sentenced to be confined in jail until he should eat the whole of it; and that he is now lying in Boston jail. I have heard this story often, on board other vessels besides those of our own nation. It is very generally believed, and is always highly commended, as a fair instance of retaliatory justice.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:53