Two Years Before the Mast, by Richard Henry Dana

Chapter 35

From the latitude of the West Indies, until we got inside the Bermudas, where we took the westerly and southwesterly winds, which blow steadily off the coast of the United States early in the autumn, we had every variety of weather, and two or three moderate gales, or, as sailors call them, double-reef-topsail breezes, which came on in the usual manner, and of which one is a specimen of all. A fine afternoon; all hands at work, some in the rigging, and others on deck; a stiff breeze, and ship close upon the wind, and skysails brailed down. Latter part of the afternoon, breeze increases, ship lies over to it, and clouds look windy. Spray begins to fly over the forecastle, and wets the yarns the boys are knotting; — ball them up and put them below. Mate knocks off work and clears up decks earlier than usual, and orders a man who has been employed aloft to send the royal halyards over to windward, as he comes down. Breast back-stays hauled taut, and a tackle got upon the martingale back-rope. One of the boys furls the mizzen royal. Cook thinks there is going to be “nasty work,” and has supper ready early. Mate gives orders to get supper by the watch, instead of all hands, as usual. While eating supper, hear the watch on deck taking in the royals. Coming on deck, find it is blowing harder, and an ugly head sea running. Instead of having all hands on the forecastle in the dog watch, smoking, singing, and telling yarns, one watch goes below and turns-in, saying that it’s going to be an ugly night, and two hours’ sleep is not to be lost. Clouds look black and wild; wind rising, and ship working hard against a heavy head sea, which breaks over the forecastle, and washes aft through the scuppers. Still, no more sail is taken in, for the captain is a driver, and, like all drivers, very partial to his top-gallant-sails. A top-gallant-sail, too, makes the difference between a breeze and a gale. When a top-gallant-sail is on a ship, it is only a breeze, though I have seen ours set over a reefed topsail, when half the bowsprit was under water, and it was up to a man’s knees in the lee scuppers. At eight bells, nothing is said about reefing the topsails, and the watch go below, with orders to “stand by for a call.” We turn-in, growling at the “old man” for not reefing the topsails when the watch was changed, but putting it off so as to call all hands, and break up a whole watch below — turn-in “all standing,” and keep ourselves awake, saying there is no use in going to sleep to be waked up again. Wind whistles on deck, and ship works hard, groaning and creaking, and pitching into a heavy head sea, which strikes against the bows, with a noise like knocking upon a rock. The dim lamp in the forecastle swings to and fro, and things “fetch away” and go over to leeward. “Doesn’t that booby of a second mate ever mean to take in his top-gallant-sails? He’ll have the sticks out of her soon,” says Old Bill, who was always growling, and, like most old sailors, did not like to see a ship abused. By and by, an order is given; “Aye, aye, sir!” from the forecastle; rigging is thrown down on deck; the noise of a sail is heard fluttering aloft, and the short, quick cry which sailors make when hauling upon clew-lines. “Here comes his fore top-gallant-sail in!” We are wide awake, and know all that’s going on as well as if we were on deck. A well-known voice is heard from the mast-head singing out to the officer of the watch to haul taut the weather brace. “Hallo! There’s Ben Stimson aloft to furl the sail!” Next thing, rigging is thrown down directly over our heads, and a long-drawn cry and a rattling of hanks announce that the flying-jib has come in. The second mate holds on to the main top-gallant-sail until a heavy sea is shipped, and washes over the forecastle as though the whole ocean had come aboard; when a noise further aft shows that that sail, too, is taking in. After this the ship is more easy for a time; two bells are struck, and we try to get a little sleep. By and by — bang, bang, bang, on the scuttle — “All ha-a-ands, aho-o-y!” We spring out of our berths, clap on a monkey-jacket and southwester, and tumble up the ladder. Mate up before us, and on the forecastle, singing out like a roaring bull; the captain singing out on the quarter-deck, and the second mate yelling, like a hyena, in the waist. The ship is lying over half upon her beam-ends; lee scuppers under water, and forecastle all in a smother of foam. Rigging all let go, and washing about decks; topsail yards down upon the caps, and sails flapping and beating against the masts; and starboard watch hauling out the reef-tackles of the main topsail. Our watch haul out the fore, and lay aloft and put two reefs into it, and reef the foresail, and race with the starboard watch to see which will mast-head its topsail first. All hands tally-on to the main tack, and while some are furling the jib and hoisting the staysail, we mizzen-top-men double-reef the mizzen topsail and hoist it up. All being made fast — “Go below, the watch!” and we turn-in to sleep out the rest of the time, which is perhaps an hour and a half. During all the middle, and for the first part of the morning watch, it blows as hard as ever, but toward daybreak it moderates considerably, and we shake a reef out of each topsail, and set the top-gallant-sails over them; and when the watch come up, at seven bells, for breakfast, shake the other reefs out, turn all hands to upon the halyards, get the watch-tackle upon the top-gallant sheets and halyards, set the flying-jib, and crack on to her again.

Our captain had been married only a few weeks before he left Boston, and, after an absence of over two years, it may be supposed he was not slow in carrying sail. The mate, too, was not to be beaten by anybody; and the second mate, though he was afraid to press sail, was still more afraid of the captain, and, being between two fears, sometimes carried on longer than any of them. We snapped off three flying-jib-booms in twenty-four hours, as fast as they could be fitted and rigged out; sprung the spritsail yard, and made nothing of studding-sail booms. Beside the natural desire to get home, we had another reason for urging the ship on. The scurvy had begun to show itself on board. One man had it so badly as to be disabled and off duty, and the English lad, Ben, was in a dreadful state, and was daily growing worse. His legs swelled and pained him so that he could not walk; his flesh lost its elasticity, so that if pressed in it would not return to its shape; and his gums swelled until he could not open his mouth. His breath, too, became very offensive; he lost all strength and spirit; could eat nothing; grew worse every day; and, in fact, unless something was done for him, would be a dead man in a week, at the rate at which he was sinking. The medicines were all, or nearly all, gone, and if we had had a chest-full, they would have been of no use, for nothing but fresh provisions and terra firma has any effect upon the scurvy. This disease is not so common now as formerly, and is attributed generally to salt provisions, want of cleanliness, the free use of grease and fat (which is the reason of its prevalence among whalemen), and, last of all, to laziness. It never could have been from the last cause on board our ship; nor from the second, for we were a very cleanly crew, kept our forecastle in neat order, and were more particular about washing and changing clothes than many better-dressed people on shore. It was probably from having none but salt provisions, and possibly from our having run very rapidly into hot weather, after our having been so long in the extremest cold.

Depending upon the westerly winds which prevail off the coast in the autumn, the captain stood well to the westward, to run inside of the Bermudas, and in the hope of falling in with some vessel bound to the West Indies or the Southern States. The scurvy had spread no further among the crew, but there was danger that it might; and these cases were bad ones.

Sunday, September 11th. Lat. 30° 04’ N., lon. 63° 23’ W.; the Bermudas bearing north-northwest, distant one hundred and fifty miles. The next morning about ten o’clock, “Sail ho!” was cried on deck; and all hands turned up to see the stranger. As she drew nearer, she proved to be an ordinary-looking hermaphrodite brig, standing south-southeast, and probably bound out from the Northern States to the West Indies, and was just the thing we wished to see. She hove-to for us, seeing that we wished to speak her, and we ran down to her, boom-ended our studding-sails, backed our main topsail, and hailed her: “Brig ahoy!” “Hallo!” “Where are you from, pray?” “From New York, bound to Curaçoa.” “Have you any fresh provisions to spare?” “Aye, aye! plenty of them!” We lowered away the quarter-boat instantly, and the captain and four hands sprang in, and were soon dancing over the water and alongside the brig. In about half an hour they returned with half a boat-load of potatoes and onions, and each vessel filled away and kept on her course. She proved to be the brig Solon, of Plymouth, from the Connecticut River, and last from New York, bound to the Spanish Main, with a cargo of fresh provisions, mules, tin bake-pans, and other notions. The onions were fresh; and the mate of the brig told the men in the boat, as he passed the bunches over the side, that the girls had strung them on purpose for us the day he sailed. We had made the mistake, on board, of supposing that a new President had been chosen the last winter, and, as we filled away, the captain hailed and asked who was President of the United States. They answered, Andrew Jackson; but, thinking that the old General could not have been elected for a third time, we hailed again, and they answered, Jack Downing, and left us to correct the mistake at our leisure.

Our boat’s crew had a laugh upon one of our number, Joe, who was vain and made the best show of everything. The style and gentility of a ship and her crew depend upon the length and character of the voyage. An India or China voyage always is the thing, and a voyage to the Northwest coast (the Columbia River or Russian America) for furs is romantic and mysterious, and if it takes the ship round the world, by way of the Islands and China, it out-ranks them all. The grave, slab-sided mate of the schooner leaned over the rail, and spoke to the men in our boat: “Where are you from?” Joe answered up quick, “From the Nor’west coast.” “What’s your cargo?” This was a poser; but Joe was ready with an equivoke. “Skins,” said he. “Here and there a horn?” asked the mate, in the dryest manner. The boat’s crew laughed out, and Joe’s glory faded. Apropos of this, a man named Sam, on board the Pilgrim, used to tell a story of a mean little captain in a mean little brig, in which he sailed from Liverpool to New York, who insisted on speaking a great, homeward-bound Indiaman, with her studding-sails out on both sides, sunburnt men in wide-brimmed hats on her decks, and a monkey and paroquet in her rigging, “rolling down from St. Helena.” There was no need of his stopping her to speak her, but his vanity led him to do it, and then his meanness made him so awestruck that he seemed to quail. He called out, in a small, lisping voice, “What ship is that, pray?” A deep-toned voice roared through the trumpet, “The Bashaw, from Canton, bound to Boston. Hundred and ten days out! Where are you from?” “Only from Liverpool, sir,” he lisped, in the most apologetic and subservient voice. But the humor will be felt by those only who know the ritual of hailing at sea. No one says “sir,” and the “only” was wonderfully expressive.

It was just dinner-time when we filled away, and the steward, taking a few bunches of onions for the cabin, gave the rest to us, with a bottle of vinegar. We carried them forward, stowed them away in the forecastle, refusing to have them cooked, and ate them raw, with our beef and bread. And a glorious treat they were. The freshness and crispness of the raw onion, with the earthy taste, give it a great relish to one who has been a long time on salt provisions. We were ravenous after them. It was like a scent of blood to a hound. We ate them at every meal, by the dozen, and filled our pockets with them, to eat in our watch on deck; and the bunches, rising in the form of a cone, from the largest at the bottom, to the smallest, no larger than a strawberry, at the top, soon disappeared. The chief use, however, of the fresh provisions, was for the men with the scurvy. One of them was able to eat, and he soon brought himself to, by gnawing upon raw potatoes and onions; but the other, by this time, was hardly able to open his mouth, and the cook took the potatoes raw, pounded them in a mortar, and gave him the juice to drink. This he swallowed, by the teaspoonful at a time, and rinsed it about his gums and throat. The strong earthy taste and smell of this extract of the raw potato at first produced a shuddering through his whole frame, and, after drinking it, an acute pain, which ran through all parts of his body; but knowing by this that it was taking strong hold, he persevered, drinking a spoonful every hour or so, and holding it a long time in his mouth, until, by the effect of this drink, and of his own restored hope (for he had nearly given up in despair), he became so well as to be able to move about, and open his mouth enough to eat the raw potatoes and onions pounded into a soft pulp. This course soon restored his appetite and strength, and in ten days after we spoke the Solon, so rapid was his recovery that, from lying helpless and almost hopeless in his berth, he was at the mast-head, furling a royal.

With a fine southwest wind we passed inside of the Bermudas, and, notwithstanding the old couplet, which was quoted again and again by those who thought we should have one more touch of a storm before our long absence —

“If the Bermudas let you pass,

You must beware of Hatteras,”—

we were to the northward of Hatteras, with good weather, and beginning to count, not the days, but the hours, to the time when we should be at anchor in Boston harbor.

Our ship was in fine order, all hands having been hard at work upon her, from daylight to dark, every day but Sunday from the time we got into warm weather on this side the Cape.

It is a common notion with landsmen that a ship is in her finest condition when she leaves port to enter upon her voyage, and that she comes home, after a long absence —

“With over-weathered ribs and ragged sails;

Lean, rent, and beggared by the strumpet wind.”

But so far from that, unless a ship meets with some accident, or comes upon the coast in the dead of winter, when work cannot be done upon the rigging, she is in her finest order at the end of the voyage. When she sails from port, her rigging is generally slack; the masts need staying; the decks and sides are black and dirty from taking in cargo; riggers’ seizings and overhand knots in place of nice seamanlike work; and everything, to a sailor’s eye, adrift. But on the passage home the fine weather between the tropics is spent in putting the ship in the neatest order. No merchant vessel looks better than an Indiaman, or a Cape Horn-er, after a long voyage, and captains and mates stake their reputation for seamanship upon the appearance of their ships when they haul into the dock. All our standing rigging, fore and aft, was set up and tarred, the masts stayed, the lower and topmast rigging rattled down (or up, as the fashion now is); and so careful were our officers to keep the ratlines taut and straight, that we were obliged to go aloft upon the ropes and shearpoles with which the rigging was swifted in; and these were used as jury ratlines until we got close upon the coast. After this, the ship was scraped, inside and out, decks, masts, booms, and all; a stage being rigged outside, upon which we scraped her down to the water-line, pounding the rust off the chains, bolts, and fastenings. Then, taking two days of calm under the line, we painted her on the outside, giving her open ports in her streak, and finishing off the nice work upon the stern, where sat Neptune in his car, holding his trident, drawn by sea horses; and retouched the gilding and coloring of the cornucopia which ornamented her billet-head. The inside was then painted, from the skysail truck to the waterways — the yards, black; mast-heads and tops, white; monkey-rail, black, white, and yellow; bulwarks, green; plank-shear, white; waterways, lead-color, &c., &c. The anchors and ring-bolts, and other iron work, were blackened with coal-tar; and the steward was kept at work, polishing the brass of the wheel, bell, capstan, &c. The cabin, too, was scraped, varnished, and painted; and the forecastle scraped and scrubbed, there being no need of paint and varnish for Jack’s quarters. The decks were then scraped and varnished, and everything useless thrown overboard; among which, the empty tar barrels were set on fire and thrown overboard, of a dark night, and left blazing astern, lighting up the ocean for miles. Add to all this labor the neat work upon the rigging — the knots, flemish-eyes, splices, seizings, coverings, pointings, and graffings which show a ship in crack order. The last preparation, and which looked still more like coming into port, was getting the anchors over the bows, bending the cables, rowsing the hawsers up from between decks, and overhauling the deep-sea lead-line.

Thursday, September 15th. This morning the temperature and peculiar appearance of the water, the quantities of gulf-weed floating about, and a bank of clouds lying directly before us, showed that we were on the border of the Gulf Stream. This remarkable current, running northeast, nearly across the ocean, is almost constantly shrouded in clouds and is the region of storms and heavy seas. Vessels often run from a clear sky and light wind, with all sail, at once into a heavy sea and cloudy sky, with double-reefed topsails. A sailor told me that, on a passage from Gibraltar to Boston, his vessel neared the Gulf Stream with a light breeze, clear sky, and studding-sails out, alow and aloft; while before it was a long line of heavy, black clouds, lying like a bank upon the water, and a vessel coming out of it, under double-reefed topsails, and with royal yards sent down. As they drew near, they began to take in sail after sail, until they were reduced to the same condition; and, after twelve or fourteen hours of rolling and pitching in a heavy sea, before a smart gale, they ran out of the bank on the other side, and were in fine weather again, and under their royals and skysails. As we drew into it, the sky became cloudy, the sea high, and everything had the appearance of the going off, or the coming on, of a storm. It was blowing no more than a stiff breeze; yet the wind being northeast, which is directly against the course of the current, made an ugly, chopping sea, which heaved and pitched the vessel about, so that we were obliged to send down the royal yards, and to take in our light sails. At noon, the thermometer, which had been repeatedly lowered into the water, showed the temperature to be seventy; which was considerably above that of the air — as is always the case in the centre of the Stream. A lad who had been at work at the royal-mast-head came down upon deck, and took a turn round the long-boat; and, looking pale, said he was so sick that he could stay aloft no longer, but was ashamed to acknowledge it to the officer. He went up again, but soon gave out and came down, and leaned over the rail, “as sick as a lady passenger.” He had been to sea several years, and had, he said, never been sick before. He was made so by the irregular pitching motion of the vessel, increased by the height to which he had been above the hull, which is like the fulcrum of the lever. An old sailor, who was at work on the top-gallant yard, said he felt disagreeably all the time, and was glad, when his job was done, to get down into the top, or upon deck. Another hand was sent to the royal-mast-head, who stayed nearly an hour, but gave up. The work must be done, and the mate sent me. I did very well for some time, but began at length to feel very unpleasantly, though I never had been sick since the first two days from Boston, and had been in all sorts of weather and situations. Still, I kept my place, and did not come down, until I had got through my work, which was more than two hours. The ship certainly never acted so before. She was pitched and jerked about in all manner of ways; the sails seeming to have no steadying power over her. The tapering points of the masts made various curves against the sky overhead, and sometimes, in one sweep of an instant, described an arc of more than forty-five degrees, bringing up with a sudden jerk, which made it necessary to hold on with both hands, and then sweeping off in another long, irregular curve. I was not positively sick, and came down with a look of indifference, yet was not unwilling to get upon the comparative terra firma of the deck. A few hours more carried us through, and when we saw the sun go down, upon our larboard beam, in the direction of the continent of North America, we had left the banks of dark, stormy clouds astern, in the twilight.

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