Two Years Before the Mast, by Richard Henry Dana

Chapter 36

Friday, September 16th. Lat. 38° N., lon. 69° 00’ W. A fine southwest wind; every hour carrying us nearer in toward the land. All hands on deck at the dog watch, and nothing talked about but our getting in; where we should make the land; whether we should arrive before Sunday; going to church; how Boston would look; friends; wages paid; and the like. Every one was in the best spirits; and, the voyage being nearly at an end, the strictness of discipline was relaxed, for it was not necessary to order in a cross tone what all were ready to do with a will. The differences and quarrels which a long voyage breeds on board a ship were forgotten, and every one was friendly; and two men, who had been on the eve of a fight half the voyage, were laying out a plan together for a cruise on shore. When the mate came forward, he talked to the men, and said we should be on George’s Bank before tomorrow noon; and joked with the boys, promising to go and see them, and to take them down to Marblehead in a coach.

Saturday, 17th. The wind was light all day, which kept us back somewhat; but a fine breeze springing up at nightfall, we were running fast in toward the land. At six o’clock we expected to have the ship hove-to for soundings, as a thick fog, coming up, showed we were near them; but no order was given, and we kept on our way. Eight o’clock came, and the watch went below, and, for the whole of the first hour the ship was driving on, with studding-sails out, alow and aloft, and the night as dark as a pocket. At two bells the captain came on deck, and said a word to the mate, when the studding-sails were hauled into the tops, or boom-ended, the after yards backed, the deep-sea-lead carried forward, and everything got ready for sounding. A man on the spritsail yard with the lead, another on the cat-head with a handful of the line coiled up, another in the fore chains, another in the waist, and another in the main chains, each with a quantity of the line coiled away in his hand. “All ready there, forward?”— “Aye, aye, sir!”— “He-e-ave!”— “Watch! ho! watch!” sings out the man on the spritsail yard, and the heavy lead drops into the water. “Watch! ho! watch!” bawls the man on the cat-head, as the last fake of the coil drops from his hand, and “Watch! ho! watch!” is shouted by each one as the line falls from his hold, until it comes to the mate, who tends the lead, and has the line in coils on the quarter-deck. Eighty fathoms and no bottom! A depth as great as the height of St. Peters! The line is snatched in a block upon the swifter, and three or four men haul it in and coil it away. The after yards are braced full, the studding-sails hauled out again, and in a few minutes more, the ship had her whole way upon her. At four bells backed again, hove the lead, and — soundings! at sixty fathoms! Hurrah for Yankee land! Hand over hand we hauled the lead in, and the captain, taking it to the light, found black mud on the bottom. Studding-sails taken in; after yards filled, and ship kept on under easy sail all night, the wind dying away.

The soundings on the American coast are so regular that a navigator knows as well where he has made land by the soundings, as he would by seeing the land. Black mud is the soundings of Block Island. As you go toward Nantucket, it changes to a dark sand; then, sand and white shells; and on George’s Banks, white sand; and so on. As our soundings showed us to be off Block Island, our course was due east, to Nantucket Shoals and the South Channel; but the wind died away and left us becalmed in a thick fog, in which we lay the whole of Sunday. At noon of —

Sunday, 18th, Block Island bore, by calculation, N.W. 1/4 W. fifteen miles; but the fog was so thick all day that we could see nothing.

Having got through the ship’s duty, and washed and changed our clothes, we went below, and had a fine time overhauling our chests, laying aside the clothes we meant to go ashore in, and throwing overboard all that were worn out and good for nothing. Away went the woollen caps in which we had carried hides upon our heads, for sixteen months, on the coast of California; the duck frocks for tarring down rigging; and the worn-out and darned mittens and patched woollen trousers which had stood the tug of Cape Horn. We hove them overboard with a good will; for there is nothing like being quit of the very last appendages, remnants, and mementos of our hard fortune. We got our chests all ready for going ashore; ate the last “duff” we expected to have on board the ship Alert; and talked as confidently about matters on shore as though our anchor were on the bottom.

“Who’ll go to church with me a week from today?”

“I will,” says Jack; who said aye to everything.

“Go away, salt water!” says Tom. “As soon as I get both legs ashore, I’m going to shoe my heels, and button my ears behind me, and start off into the bush, a straight course, and not stop till I’m out of the sight of salt water!”

“Oh! belay that! If you get once moored, stem and stern, in old Barnes’s grog-shop, with a coal fire ahead and the bar under your lee, you won’t see daylight for three weeks!”

“No!” says Tom, “I’m going to knock off grog and go and board at the Home, and see if they won’t ship me for a deacon!”

“And I,” says Bill, “am going to buy a quadrant and ship for navigator of a Hingham packet!”

Harry White swore he would take rooms at the Tremont House and set up for a gentleman; he knew his wages would hold out for two weeks or so.

These and the like served to pass the time while we were lying waiting for a breeze to clear up the fog and send us on our way.

Toward night a moderate breeze sprang up; the fog, however, continuing as thick as before; and we kept on to the eastward. About the middle of the first watch, a man on the forecastle sang out, in a tone which showed that there was not a moment to be lost — “Hard up the helm!” and a great ship loomed up out of the fog, coming directly down upon us. She luffed at the same moment, and we just passed each other, our spanker boom grazing over her quarter. The officer of the deck had only time to hail, and she answered, as she went into the fog again, something about Bristol. Probably a whaleman from Bristol, Rhode Island, bound out. The fog continued through the night, with a very light breeze, before which we ran to the eastward, literally feeling our way along. The lead was heaved every two hours, and the gradual change from black mud to sand showed that we were approaching Nantucket South Shoals. On Monday morning, the increased depth and dark-blue color of the water, and the mixture of shells and white sand which we brought up, upon sounding, showed that we were in the channel, and nearing George’s; accordingly, the ship’s head was put directly to the northward, and we stood on, with perfect confidence in the soundings, though we had not taken an observation for two days, nor seen land; and the difference of an eighth of a mile out of the way might put us ashore. Throughout the day a provokingly light wind prevailed, and at eight o’clock, a small fishing schooner, which we passed, told us we were nearly abreast of Chatham lights. Just before midnight, a light land-breeze sprang up, which carried us well along; and at four o’clock, thinking ourselves to the northward of Race Point, we hauled upon the wind and stood into the bay, west-northwest, for Boston light, and began firing guns for a pilot. Our watch went below at four o’clock, but could not sleep, for the watch on deck were banging away at the guns every few minutes. And indeed, we cared very little about it, for we were in Boston Bay; and if fortune favored us, we could all “sleep in” the next night, with nobody to call the watch every four hours.

We turned out, of our own will, at daybreak, to get a sight of land. In the gray of the morning, one or two small fishing smacks peered out of the mist; and when the broad day broke upon us, there lay the low sand-hills of Cape Cod over our larboard quarter, and before us the wide waters of Massachusetts Bay, with here and there a sail gliding over its smooth surface. As we drew in toward the mouth of the harbor, as toward a focus, the vessels began to multiply, until the bay seemed alive with sails gliding about in all directions; some on the wind, and others before it, as they were bound to or from the emporium of trade and centre of the bay. It was a stirring sight for us, who had been months on the ocean without seeing anything but two solitary sails; and over two years without seeing more than the three or four traders on an almost desolate coast. There were the little coasters, bound to and from the various towns along the south shore, down in the bight of the bay, and to the eastward; here and there a square-rigged vessel standing out to seaward; and, far in the distance, beyond Cape Ann, was the smoke of a steamer, stretching along in a narrow black cloud upon the water. Every sight was full of beauty and interest. We were coming back to our homes; and the signs of civilization and prosperity and happiness, from which we had been so long banished, were multiplying about us. The high land of Cape Ann and the rocks and shore of Cohasset were full in sight, the light-houses standing like sentries in white before the harbors; and even the smoke from the chimneys on the plains of Hingham was seen rising slowly in the morning air. One of our boys was the son of a bucket-maker; and his face lighted up as he saw the tops of the well-known hills which surround his native place. About ten o’clock a little boat came bobbing over the water, and put a pilot on board, and sheered off in pursuit of other vessels bound in. Being now within the scope of the telegraph stations, our signals were run up at the fore; and in half an hour afterwards, the owner on ‘Change, or in his counting-room, knew that his ship was below; and the landlords, runners, and sharks in Ann Street learned that there was a rich prize for them down in the bay — a ship from round the Horn, with a crew to be paid off with two years’ wages.

The wind continuing very light, all hands were sent aloft to strip off the chafing gear; and battens, parcellings, roundings, hoops, mats, and leathers came flying from aloft, and left the rigging neat and clean, stripped of all its sea bandaging. The last touch was put to the vessel by painting the skysail poles; and I was sent up to the fore, with a bucket of white paint and a brush, and touched her off, from the truck to the eyes of the royal rigging. At noon we lay becalmed off the lower light-house; and, it being about slack water, we made little progress. A firing was heard in the direction of Hingham, and the pilot said there was a review there. The Hingham boy got wind of this, and said if the ship had been twelve hours sooner he should have been down among the soldiers, and in the booths, and having a grand time. As it was, we had little prospect of getting in before night. About two o’clock a breeze sprang up ahead, from the westward, and we began beating up against it. A full-rigged brig was beating in at the same time, and we passed each other in our tacks, sometimes one and sometimes the other working to windward, as the wind and tide favored or opposed. It was my trick at the wheel from two till four; and I stood my last helm, making between nine hundred and a thousand hours which I had spent at the helms of our two vessels. The tide beginning to set against us, we made slow work; and the afternoon was nearly spent before we got abreast of the inner light. In the meanwhile, several vessels were coming down, outward bound; among which, a fine, large ship, with yards squared, fair wind and fair tide, passed us like a race-horse, the men running out upon her yards to rig out the studding-sail booms. Toward sundown the wind came off in flaws, sometimes blowing very stiff, so that the pilot took in the royals, and then it died away; when, in order to get us in before the tide became too strong, the royals were set again. As this kept us running up and down the rigging, one hand was sent aloft at each mast-head, to stand by to loose and furl the sails at the moment of the order. I took my place at the fore, and loosed and furled the royal five times between Rainsford Island and the Castle. At one tack we ran so near to Rainsford Island that, looking down from the royal yard, the island, with its hospital buildings, nice gravelled walks, and green plats, seemed to lie directly under our yard-arms. So close is the channel to some of these islands, that we ran the end of our flying-jib-boom over one of the outworks of the fortifications on George’s Island; and had an opportunity of seeing the advantages of that point as a fortified place; for, in working up the channel, we presented a fair stem and stern, for raking, from the batteries, three or four times. One gun might have knocked us to pieces.

We had all set our hearts upon getting up to town before night and going ashore, but the tide beginning to run strong against us, and the wind, what there was of it, being ahead, we made but little by weather-bowing the tide, and the pilot gave orders to cock-bill the anchor and overhaul the chain. Making two long stretches, which brought us into the roads, under the lee of the Castle, he clewed up the topsails, and let go the anchor; and for the first time since leaving San Diego — one hundred and thirty-five days — our anchor was upon bottom. In half an hour more, we were lying snugly, with all sails furled, safe in Boston harbor; our long voyage ended; the well-known scene about us; the dome of the State House fading in the western sky; the lights of the city starting into sight, as the darkness came on; and at nine o’clock the clangor of the bells, ringing their accustomed peals; among which the Boston boys tried to distinguish the well-known tone of the Old South.

We had just done furling the sails, when a beautiful little pleasure-boat luffed up into the wind, under our quarter, and the junior partner of the firm to which our ship belonged, Mr. Hooper, jumped on board. I saw him from the mizzen-topsail yard, and knew him well. He shook the captain by the hand, and went down into the cabin, and in a few minutes came up and inquired of the mate for me. The last time I had seen him I was in the uniform of an undergraduate of Harvard College, and now, to his astonishment, there came down from aloft a “rough alley” looking fellow, with duck trousers and red shirt, long hair, and face burnt as dark as an Indian’s. We shook hands, and he congratulated me upon my return and my appearance of health and strength, and said that my friends were all well. He had seen some of my family a few days before. I thanked him for telling me what I should not have dared to ask; and if —

“The first bringer of unwelcome news

Hath but a losing office; and his tongue

Sounds ever after like a sullen bell,”—

certainly I ought ever to remember this gentleman and his words with pleasure.

The captain went up to town in the boat with Mr. Hooper, and left us to pass another night on board ship, and to come up with the morning’s tide under command of the pilot.

So much did we feel ourselves to be already at home, in anticipation, that our plain supper of hard bread and salt beef was barely touched; and many on board, to whom this was the first voyage, could scarcely sleep. As for myself, by one of those anomalous changes of feeling of which we are all the subjects, I found that I was in a state of indifference for which I could by no means account. A year before, while carrying hides on the coast, the assurance that in a twelvemonth we should see Boston made me half wild; but now that I was actually there, and in sight of home, the emotions which I had so long anticipated feeling I did not find, and in their place was a state of very nearly entire apathy. Something of the same experience was related to me by a sailor whose first voyage was one of five years upon the Northwest Coast. He had left home a lad, and when, after so many years of hard and trying experience, he found himself homeward bound, such was the excitement of his feelings that, during the whole passage, he could talk and think of nothing else but his arrival, and how and when he should jump from the vessel and take his way directly home. Yet, when the vessel was made fast to the wharf and the crew dismissed, he seemed suddenly to lose all feeling about the matter. He told me that he went below and changed his dress; took some water from the scuttle-butt and washed himself leisurely; overhauled his chest, and put his clothes all in order; took his pipe from its place, filled it, and, sitting down upon his chest, smoked it slowly for the last time. Here he looked round upon the forecastle in which he had spent so many years, and being alone and his shipmates scattered, began to feel actually unhappy. Home became almost a dream; and it was not until his brother (who had heard of the ship’s arrival) came down into the forecastle and told him of things at home, and who were waiting there to see him, that he could realize where he was, and feel interest enough to put him in motion toward that place for which he had longed, and of which he had dreamed, for years. There is probably so much of excitement in prolonged expectation that the quiet realizing of it produces a momentary stagnation of feeling as well as of effort. It was a good deal so with me. The activity of preparation, the rapid progress of the ship, the first making land, the coming up the harbor, and old scenes breaking upon the view, produced a mental as well as bodily activity, from which the change to a perfect stillness, when both expectation and the necessity of labor failed, left a calmness, almost an indifference, from which I must be roused by some new excitement. And the next morning, when all hands were called, and we were busily at work, clearing the decks, and getting everything in readiness for going up to the wharves — loading the guns for a salute, loosing the sails, and manning the windlass — mind and body seemed to wake together.

About ten o’clock a sea-breeze sprang up, and the pilot gave orders to get the ship under way. All hands manned the windlass, and the long-drawn “Yo, heave, ho!” which we had last heard dying away among the desolate hills of San Diego, soon brought the anchor to the bows; and, with a fair wind and tide, a bright sunny morning, royals and skysails set, ensign, streamer, signals, and pennant flying, and with our guns firing, we came swiftly and handsomely up to the city. Off the end of the wharf, we rounded-to, and let go our anchor; and no sooner was it on the bottom than the decks were filled with people: custom-house officers; Topliff’s agent, to inquire for news; others, inquiring for friends on board, or left upon the coast; dealers in grease, besieging the galley to make a bargain with the cook for his slush; “loafers” in general; and, last and chief, boarding-house runners, to secure their men. Nothing can exceed the obliging disposition of these runners, and the interest they take in a sailor returned from a long voyage with a plenty of money. Two or three of them, at different times, took me by the hand; pretended to remember me perfectly; were quite sure I had boarded with them before I sailed; were delighted to see me back; gave me their cards; had a hand-cart waiting on the wharf, on purpose to take my things up; would lend me a hand to get my chest ashore; bring a bottle of grog on board if we did not haul in immediately; and the like. In fact, we could hardly get clear of them to go aloft and furl the sails. Sail after sail, for the hundredth time, in fair weather and in foul, we furled now for the last time together, and came down and took the warp ashore, manned the capstan, and with a chorus which waked up half North End, and rang among the buildings in the dock, we hauled her in to the wharf.1 The city bells were just ringing one when the last turn was made fast and the crew dismissed; and in five minutes more not a soul was left on board the good ship Alert but the old ship-keeper, who had come down from the counting-house to take charge of her.

1 [Sept. 21, 1836.]

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