Two Years Before the Mast, by Richard Henry Dana

Chapter 33

It is usual, in voyages round the Cape from the Pacific, to keep to the eastward of the Falkland Islands; but as there had now set in a strong, steady, and clear southwester, with every prospect of its lasting, and we had had enough of high latitudes, the captain determined to stand immediately to the northward, running inside the Falkland Islands. Accordingly, when the wheel was relieved at eight o’clock, the order was given to keep her due north, and all hands were turned up to square away the yards and make sail. In a moment the news ran through the ship that the captain was keeping her off, with her nose straight for Boston, and Cape Horn over her taffrail. It was a moment of enthusiasm. Every one was on the alert, and even the two sick men turned out to lend a hand at the halyards. The wind was now due southwest, and blowing a gale to which a vessel close hauled could have shown no more than a single close-reefed sail; but as we were going before it, we could carry on. Accordingly, hands were sent aloft, and a reef shaken out of the topsails, and the reefed foresail set. When we came to mast-head the topsail yards, with all hands at the halyards, we struck up “Cheerly, men,” with a chorus which might have been heard half-way to Staten Land. Under her increased sail, the ship drove on through the water. Yet she could bear it well; and the captain sang out from the quarter-deck, “Another reef out of that fore topsail, and give it to her!” Two hands sprang aloft; the frozen reef-points and earings were cast adrift, the halyards manned, and the sail gave out her increased canvas to the gale. All hands were kept on deck to watch the effect of the change. It was as much as she could well carry, and with a heavy sea astern it took two men at the wheel to steer her. She flung the foam from her bows, the spray breaking aft as far as the gangway. She was going at a prodigious rate. Still everything held. Preventer braces were reeved and hauled taut, tackles got upon the backstays, and everything done to keep all snug and strong. The captain walked the deck at a rapid stride, looked aloft at the sails, and then to windward; the mate stood in the gangway, rubbing his hands, and talking aloud to the ship, “Hurrah, old bucket! the Boston girls have got hold of the tow-rope!” and the like; and we were on the forecastle, looking to see how the spars stood it, and guessing the rate at which she was going, when the captain called out “Mr. Brown, get up the topmast studding-sail! What she can’t carry she may drag!” The mate looked a moment; but he would let no one be before him in daring. He sprang forward. “Hurrah, men! rig out the topmast studding-sail boom! Lay aloft, and I’ll send the rigging up to you!” We sprang aloft into the top; lowered a girt-line down, by which we hauled up the rigging; rove the tacks and halyards; ran out the boom and lashed it fast, and sent down the lower halyards as a preventer. It was a clear starlight night, cold and blowing; but everybody worked with a will. Some, indeed, looked as though they thought the “old man” was mad, but no one said a word. We had had a new topmast studding-sail made with a reef in it — a thing hardly ever heard of, and which the sailors had ridiculed a good deal, saying that when it was time to reef a studding-sail it was time to take it in. But we found a use for it now; for, there being a reef in the topsail, the studding-sail could not be set without one in it also. To be sure, a studding-sail with reefed topsails was rather a novelty; yet there was some reason in it, for if we carried that away we should lose only a sail and a boom; but a whole topsail might have carried away the mast and all.

While we were aloft the sail had been got out, bent to the yard, reefed, and ready for hoisting. Waiting for a good opportunity, the halyards were manned and the yard hoisted fairly up to the block; but when the mate came to shake the catspaw out of the downhaul, and we began to boom-end the sail, it shook the ship to her centre. The boom buckled up and bent like a whip-stick, and we looked every moment to see something go; but, being of the short, tough upland spruce, it bent like whalebone, and nothing could break it. The carpenter said it was the best stick he had ever seen. The strength of all hands soon brought the tack to the boom-end, and the sheet was trimmed down, and the preventer and the weather brace hauled taut to take off the strain. Every rope-yarn seemed stretched to the utmost, and every thread of canvas; and with this sail added to her, the ship sprang through the water like a thing possessed. The sail being nearly all forward, it lifted her out of the water, and she seemed actually to jump from sea to sea. From the time her keel was laid, she had never been so driven; and had it been life or death with every one of us, she could not have borne another stitch of canvas.

Finding that she would bear the sail, the hands were sent below, and our watch remained on deck. Two men at the wheel had as much as they could do to keep her within three points of her course, for she steered as wild as a young colt. The mate walked the deck, looking at the sails, and then over the side to see the foam fly by her — slapping his hands upon his thighs and talking to the ship — “Hurrah, you jade, you’ve got the scent! — you know where you’re going!” And when she leaped over the seas, and almost out of the water, and trembled to her very keel, the spars and masts snapping and creaking — “There she goes! — There she goes — handsomely? — As long as she cracks she holds!”— while we stood with the rigging laid down fair for letting go, and ready to take in sail and clear away, if anything went. At four bells we hove the log, and she was going eleven knots fairly; and had it not been for the sea from aft which sent the chip home, and threw her continually off her course, the log would have shown her to have been going somewhat faster. I went to the wheel with a young fellow from the Kennebec, Jack Stewart, who was a good helmsman, and for two hours we had our hands full. A few minutes showed us that our monkey-jackets must come off; and, cold as it was, we stood in our shirt-sleeves in a perspiration, and were glad enough to have it eight bells, and the wheel relieved. We turned-in and slept as well as we could, though the sea made a constant roar under her bows, and washed over the forecastle like a small cataract.

At four o’clock we were called again. The same sail was still on the vessel, and the gale, if there was any change, had increased a little. No attempt was made to take the studding-sail in; and, indeed, it was too late now. If we had started anything toward taking it in, either tack or halyards, it would have blown to pieces, and carried something away with it. The only way now was to let everything stand, and if the gale went down, well and good; if not, something must go — the weakest stick or rope first — and then we could get it in. For more than an hour she was driven on at such a rate that she seemed to crowd the sea into a heap before her; and the water poured over the spritsail yard as it would over a dam. Toward daybreak the gale abated a little, and she was just beginning to go more easily along, relieved of the pressure, when Mr. Brown, determined to give her no respite, and depending upon the wind’s subsiding as the sun rose, told us to get along the lower studding-sail. This was an immense sail, and held wind enough to last a Dutchman a week — hove-to. It was soon ready, the boom topped up, preventer guys rove, and the idlers called up to man the halyards; yet such was still the force of the gale that we were nearly an hour setting the sail; carried away the outhaul in doing it, and came very near snapping off the swinging boom. No sooner was it set than the ship tore on again like one mad, and began to steer wilder than ever. The men at the wheel were puffing and blowing at their work, and the helm was going hard up and hard down, constantly. Add to this, the gale did not lessen as the day came on, but the sun rose in clouds. A sudden lurch threw the man from the weather wheel across the deck and against the side. The mate sprang to the wheel, and the man, regaining his feet, seized the spokes, and they hove the wheel up just in time to save the ship from broaching to, though as she came up the studding-sail boom stood at an angle of forty-five degrees. She had evidently more on her than she could bear; yet it was in vain to try to take it in — the clew-line was not strong enough, and they were thinking of cutting away, when another wide yaw and a come-to snapped the guys, and the swinging boom came in with a crash against the lower rigging. The outhaul block gave way, and the topmast studding-sail boom bent in a manner which I never before supposed a stick could bend. I had my eye on it when the guys parted, and it made one spring and buckled up so as to form nearly a half-circle, and sprang out again to its shape. The clew-line gave way at the first pull; the cleat to which the halyards were belayed was wrenched off, and the sail blew round the spritsail yard and head guys, which gave us a bad job to get it in. A half-hour served to clear all away, and she was suffered to drive on with her topmast studding-sail set, it being as much as she could stagger under.

During all this day and the next night we went on under the same sail, the gale blowing with undiminished violence; two men at the wheel all the time; watch and watch, and nothing to do but to steer and look out for the ship, and be blown along; — until the noon of the next day —

Sunday, July 24th, when we were in lat. 50° 27’ S., lon. 62° 13’ W., having made four degrees of latitude in the last twenty-four hours. Being now to the northward of the Falkland Islands, the ship was kept off, northeast, for the equator; and with her head for the equator, and Cape Horn over her taffrail, she went gloriously on; every heave of the sea leaving the Cape astern, and every hour bringing us nearer to home and to warm weather. Many a time, when blocked up in the ice, with everything dismal and discouraging about us, had we said, if we were only fairly round, and standing north on the other side, we should ask for no more; and now we had it all, with a clear sea and as much wind as a sailor could pray for. If the best part of a voyage is the last part, surely we had all now that we could wish. Every one was in the highest spirits, and the ship seemed as glad as any of us at getting out of her confinement. At each change of the watch, those coming on deck asked those going below, “How does she go along?” and got, for answer, the rate, and the customary addition, “Aye! and the Boston girls have had hold of the tow-rope all the watch.” Every day the sun rose higher in the horizon, and the nights grew shorter; and at coming on deck each morning there was a sensible change in the temperature. The ice, too, began to melt from off the rigging and spars, and, except a little which remained in the tops and round the hounds of the lower masts, was soon gone. As we left the gale behind us, the reefs were shaken out of the topsails, and sail made as fast as she could bear it; and every time all hands were sent to the halyards a song was called for, and we hoisted away with a will.

Sail after sail was added, as we drew into fine weather; and in one week after leaving Cape Horn, the long top-gallant-masts were got up, top-gallant and royal yards crossed, and the ship restored to her fair proportions.

The Southern Cross and the Magellan Clouds settled lower and lower in the horizon; and so great was our change of latitude that each succeeding night we sank some constellation in the south, and raised another in the northern horizon.

Sunday, July 31st. At noon we were in lat. 36° 41’ S., lon. 38° 08’ W.; having traversed the distance of two thousand miles, allowing for changes of course, in nine days. A thousand miles in four days and a half! This is equal to steam.

Soon after eight o’clock the appearance of the ship gave evidence that this was the first Sunday we had yet had in fine weather. As the sun came up clear, with the promise of a fair, warm day, and, as usual on Sunday, there was no work going on, all hands turned-to upon clearing out the forecastle. The wet and soiled clothes which had accumulated there during the past month were brought up on deck; the chests moved; brooms, buckets of water, swabs, scrubbing-brushes, and scrapers carried down and applied, until the forecastle floor was as white as chalk, and everything neat and in order. The bedding from the berths was then spread on deck, and dried and aired; the deck-tub filled with water; and a grand washing begun of all the clothes which were brought up. Shirts, frocks, drawers, trousers, jackets, stockings, of every shape and color, wet and dirty — many of them mouldy from having been lying a long time wet in a foul corner — these were all washed and scrubbed out, and finally towed overboard for half an hour; and then made fast in the rigging to dry. Wet boots and shoes were spread out to dry in sunny places on deck; and the whole ship looked like a back yard on a washing-day. After we had done with our clothes, we began upon our persons. A little fresh water, which we had saved from our allowance, was put in buckets, and, with soap and towels, we had what sailors call a fresh-water wash. The same bucket, to be sure, had to go through several hands, and was spoken for by one after another, but as we rinsed off in salt water, pure from the ocean, and the fresh was used only to start the accumulated grime and blackness of five weeks, it was held of little consequence. We soaped down and scrubbed one another with towels and pieces of canvas, stripping to it; and then, getting into the head, threw buckets of water upon each other. After this came shaving, and combing, and brushing; and when, having spent the first part of the day in this way, we sat down on the forecastle, in the afternoon, with clean duck trousers and shirts on, washed, shaved, and combed, and looking a dozen shades lighter for it, reading, sewing, and talking at our ease, with a clear sky and warm sun over our heads, a steady breeze over the larboard quarter, studding-sails out alow and aloft, and all the flying kites abroad — we felt that we had got back into the pleasantest part of a sailor’s life. At sunset the clothes were all taken down from the rigging — clean and dry — and stowed neatly away in our chests; and our southwesters, thick boots, Guernsey frocks, and other accompaniments of bad weather, put out of the way, we hoped, for the rest of the voyage, as we expected to come upon the coast early in the autumn.

Notwithstanding all that has been said about the beauty of a ship under full sail, there are very few who have ever seen a ship, literally, under all her sail. A ship coming in or going out of port, with her ordinary sails, and perhaps two or three studding-sails, is commonly said to be under full sail; but a ship never has all her sail upon her, except when she has a light, steady breeze, very nearly, but not quite, dead aft, and so regular that it can be trusted, and is likely to last for some time. Then, with all her sails, light and heavy, and studding-sails, on each side, alow and aloft, she is the most glorious moving object in the world. Such a sight very few, even some who have been at sea a good deal, have ever beheld; for from the deck of your own vessel you cannot see her, as you would a separate object.

One night, while we were in these tropics, I went out to the end of the flying-jib-boom upon some duty, and, having finished it, turned round, and lay over the boom for a long time, admiring the beauty of the sight before me. Being so far out from the deck, I could look at the ship as at a separate vessel; and there rose up from the water, supported only by the small black hull, a pyramid of canvas, spreading out far beyond the hull, and towering up almost, as it seemed in the indistinct night air, to the clouds. The sea was as still as an inland lake; the light trade-wind was gently and steadily breathing from astern; the dark blue sky was studded with the tropical stars; there was no sound but the rippling of the water under the stem; and the sails were spread out, wide and high — the two lower studding-sails stretching on each side far beyond the deck; the topmast studding-sails like wings to the topsails; the top-gallant studding-sails spreading fearlessly out above them; still higher, the two royal studding-sails, looking like two kites flying from the same string; and, highest of all, the little skysail, the apex of the pyramid, seeming actually to touch the stars, and to be out of reach of human hand. So quiet, too, was the sea, and so steady the breeze, that if these sails had been sculptured marble they could not have been more motionless. Not a ripple upon the surface of the canvas; not even a quivering of the extreme edges of the sail, so perfectly were they distended by the breeze. I was so lost in the sight that I forgot the presence of the man who came out with me, until he said (for he, too, rough old man-of-war’s-man as he was, had been gazing at the show), half to himself, still looking at the marble sails — “How quietly they do their work!”

The fine weather brought work with it, as the ship was to be put in order for coming into port. To give a landsman some notion of what is done on board ship, it may be truly said that all the first part of a passage is spent in getting a ship ready for sea, and the last part in getting her ready for port. She is, as sailors say, like a lady’s watch, always out of repair. The new, strong sails, which we had up off Cape Horn, were to be sent down, and the old set, which were still serviceable in fine weather, to be bent in their place; all the rigging to be set up, fore and aft; the masts stayed; the standing rigging to be tarred down; lower and topmast rigging to be rattled down, fore and aft; the ship scraped inside and out, and painted; decks varnished; new and neat knots, seizings and coverings, to be fitted; and every part put in order, to look well to the owner’s eye, and to all critics, on coming into Boston. This, of course, was a long matter; and all hands were kept on deck at work for the whole of each day, during the rest of the voyage. Sailors call this hard usage; but the ship must be in crack order; and “We’re homeward bound” was the answer to everything.

We went on for several days, employed in this way, nothing remarkable occurring; and, at the latter part of the week, fell in with the southeast trades, blowing about east-southeast, which brought them nearly two points abaft our beam. They blew strong and steady, so that we hardly started a rope, until we were beyond their latitude. The first day of “all hands” one of those little incidents occurred, which are nothing in themselves, but are great matters in the eyes of a ship’s company, as they serve to break the monotony of a voyage, and afford conversation to the crew for days afterwards. These things, too, are often interesting, as they show the customs and states of feeling on shipboard.

In merchant vessels, the captain gives his orders, as to the ship’s work, to the mate, in a general way, and leaves the execution of them, with the particular ordering, to him. This has become so fixed a custom that it is like a law, and is never infringed upon by a wise master, unless his mate is no seaman; in which case the captain must often oversee things for himself. This, however, could not be said of our chief mate, and he was very jealous of any encroachment upon the borders of his authority.

On Monday morning the captain told him to stay the fore topmast plumb. He accordingly came forward, turned all hands to, with tackles on the stays and backstays, coming up with the seizings, hauling here, belaying there, and full of business, standing between the knight-heads to sight the mast — when the captain came forward, and also began to give orders. This made confusion, and the mate left his place and went aft, saying to the captain:—

“If you come forward, sir, I’ll go aft. One is enough on the forecastle.”

This produced a reply, and another fierce answer; and the words flew, fists were doubled up, and things looked threateningly.

“I’m master of this ship.”

“Yes, sir, and I’m mate of her, and know my place! My place is forward, and yours is aft.”

“My place is where I choose! I command the whole ship, and you are mate only so long as I choose!”

“Say the word, Captain Thompson, and I’m done! I can do a man’s work aboard! I didn’t come through the cabin windows! If I’m not mate, I can be man,” &c., &c.

This was all fun for us, who stood by, winking at each other, and enjoying the contest between the higher powers. The captain took the mate aft; and they had a long talk, which ended in the mate’s returning to his duty. The captain had broken through a custom, which is a part of the common law of a ship, and without reason, for he knew that his mate was a sailor, and needed no help from him; and the mate was excusable for being angry. Yet, in strict law, he was wrong, and the captain right. Whatever the captain does is right, ipso facto, and any opposition to it is wrong on board ship; and every officer and man knows this when he signs the ship’s articles. It is a part of the contract. Yet there has grown up in merchant vessels a series of customs, which have become a well-understood system, and have somewhat the force of prescriptive law. To be sure, all power is in the captain, and the officers hold their authority only during his will, and the men are liable to be called upon for any service; yet, by breaking in upon these usages, many difficulties have occurred on board ship, and even come into courts of justice, which are perfectly unintelligible to any one not acquainted with the universal nature and force of these customs. Many a provocation has been offered, and a system of petty oppression pursued towards men, the force and meaning of which would appear as nothing to strangers, and doubtless do appear so to many “‘long-shore” juries and judges.

The next little diversion was a battle on the forecastle, one afternoon, between the mate and the steward. They had been on bad terms the whole voyage, and had threatened a rupture several times. Once, on the coast, the mate had seized the steward, when the steward suddenly lowered his head, and pitched it straight into Mr. Brown’s stomach, butting him against the galley, grunting at every shove, and calling out “You Brown!” Mr. Brown looked white in the face, and the heaviest blows he could give seemed to have no effect on the negro’s head. He was pulled off by the second mate, and Mr. Brown was going at him again, when the captain separated them; and Mr. Brown told his tale to the captain, adding “and, moreover, he called me Brown!” From this time “moreover, he called me Brown,” became a by-word on board. Mr. Brown went aft, saying, “I’ve promised it to you, and now you’ve got it.” But he did not seem to be sure which had “got it”; nor did we. We knew Mr. Brown would not leave the thing in that equivocal position all the voyage, if he could help it. This afternoon the mate asked the steward for a tumbler of water, and he refused to get it for him, saying that he waited upon nobody but the captain; and here he had the custom on his side. But, in answering, he committed the unpardonable offence of leaving off the handle to the mate’s name. This enraged the mate, who called him a “black soger,” and at it they went, clenching, striking, and rolling over and over; while we stood by, looking on and enjoying the fun. The darkey tried to butt him, as before, but the mate got him down, and held him, the steward singing out, “Let me go, Mr. Brown, or there’ll be blood spilt!” In the midst of this, the captain came on deck, separated them, took the steward aft, and gave him half a dozen with a rope’s end. The steward tried to justify himself, but he had been heard to talk of spilling blood, and that was enough to earn him his flogging; and the captain did not choose to inquire any further. Mr. Brown was satisfied to let him alone after that, as he had, on the whole, vindicated his superiority in the eyes of the crew.

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