Two Years Before the Mast, by Richard Henry Dana

Chapter 4

After speaking the Carolina, on the 21st of August, nothing occurred to break the monotony of our life until —

Friday, September 5th, when we saw a sail on our weather (starboard) beam. She proved to be a brig under English colors, and, passing under our stern, reported herself as forty-nine days from Buenos Ayres, bound to Liverpool. Before she had passed us, “Sail ho!” was cried again, and we made another sail, broad on our weather bow, and steering athwart our hawse. She passed out of hail, but we made her out to be an hermaphrodite brig, with Brazilian colors in her main rigging. By her course, she must have been bound from Brazil to the south of Europe, probably Portugal.

Sunday, September 7th. Fell in with the northeast trade-winds. This morning we caught our first dolphin, which I was very eager to see. I was disappointed in the colors of this fish when dying. They were certainly very beautiful, but not equal to what has been said of them. They are too indistinct. To do the fish justice, there is nothing more beautiful than the dolphin when swimming a few feet below the surface, on a bright day. It is the most elegantly formed, and also the quickest, fish in salt water; and the rays of the sun striking upon it, in its rapid and changing motions, reflected from the water, make it look like a stray beam from a rainbow.

This day was spent like all pleasant Sundays at sea. The decks are washed down, the rigging coiled up, and everything put in order; and, throughout the day, only one watch is kept on deck at a time. The men are all dressed in their best white duck trousers, and red or checked shirts, and have nothing to do but to make the necessary changes in the sails. They employ themselves in reading, talking, smoking, and mending their clothes. If the weather is pleasant, they bring their work and their books upon deck, and sit down upon the forecastle and windlass. This is the only day on which these privileges are allowed them. When Monday comes, they put on their tarry trousers again, and prepare for six days of labor.

To enhance the value of Sunday to the crew, they are allowed on that day a pudding, or, as it is called, a “duff.” This is nothing more than flour boiled with water, and eaten with molasses. It is very heavy, dark, and clammy, yet it is looked upon as a luxury, and really forms an agreeable variety with salt beef and pork. Many a rascally captain has made up with his crew, for hard usage, by allowing them duff twice a week on the passage home.

On board some vessels Sunday is made a day of instruction and of religious exercises; but we had a crew of swearers, from the captain to the smallest boy; and a day of rest, and of something like quiet, social enjoyment, was all that we could expect.

We continued running large before the northeast trade-winds for several days, until Monday —

September 22d, when, upon coming on deck at seven bells in the morning, we found the other watch aloft throwing water upon the sails; and, looking astern, we saw a small clipper-built brig with a black hull heading directly after us. We went to work immediately, and put all the canvas upon the brig which we could get upon her, rigging out oars for extra studding-sail yards, and continued wetting down the sails by buckets of water whipped up to the mast-head, until about nine o’clock, when there came on a drizzling rain. The vessel continued in pursuit, changing her course as we changed ours, to keep before the wind. The captain, who watched her with his glass, said that she was armed, and full of men, and showed no colors. We continued running dead before the wind, knowing that we sailed better so, and that clippers are fastest on the wind. We had also another advantage. The wind was light, and we spread more canvas than she did, having royals and sky-sails fore and aft, and ten studding-sails; while she, being an hermaphrodite brig, had only a gaff topsail aft. Early in the morning she was overhauling us a little, but after the rain came on and the wind grew lighter, we began to leave her astern. All hands remained on deck throughout the day, and we got our fire-arms in order; but we were too few to have done anything with her, if she had proved to be what we feared. Fortunately there was no moon, and the night which followed was exceedingly dark, so that, by putting out all the lights on board and altering our course four points, we hoped to get out of her reach. We removed the light in the binnacle, and steered by the stars, and kept perfect silence through the night. At daybreak there was no sign of anything in the horizon, and we kept the vessel off to her course.

Wednesday, October 1st. Crossed the equator in lon. 24° 24’ W. I now, for the first time, felt at liberty, according to the old usage, to call myself a son of Neptune, and was very glad to be able to claim the title without the disagreeable initiation which so many have to go through. After once crossing the line, you can never be subjected to the process, but are considered as a son of Neptune, with full powers to play tricks upon others. This ancient custom is now seldom allowed, unless there are passengers on board, in which case there is always a good deal of sport.

It had been obvious to all hands for some time that the second mate, whose name was Foster, was an idle, careless fellow, and not much of a sailor, and that the captain was exceedingly dissatisfied with him. The power of the captain in these cases was well known, and we all anticipated a difficulty. Foster (called Mr. by virtue of his office) was but half a sailor, having always been short voyages, and remained at home a long time between them. His father was a man of some property, and intended to have given his son a liberal education; but he, being idle and worthless, was sent off to sea, and succeeded no better there; for, unlike many scamps, he had none of the qualities of a sailor — he was “not of the stuff that they make sailors of.” He used to hold long yarns with the crew, and talk against the captain, and play with the boys, and relax discipline in every way. This kind of conduct always makes the captain suspicious, and is never pleasant, in the end, to the men; they preferring to have an officer active, vigilant, and distant as may be with kindness. Among other bad practices, he frequently slept on his watch, and, having been discovered asleep by the captain, he was told that he would be turned off duty if he did it again. To prevent his sleeping on deck, the hen-coops were ordered to be knocked up, for the captain never sat down on deck himself, and never permitted an officer to do so.

The second night after crossing the equator, we had the watch from eight till twelve, and it was “my helm” for the last two hours. There had been light squalls through the night, and the captain told Mr. Foster, who commanded our watch, to keep a bright lookout. Soon after I came to the helm, I found that he was quite drowsy, and at last he stretched himself on the companion and went fast asleep. Soon afterwards the captain came softly on deck, and stood by me for some time looking at the compass. The officer at length became aware of the captain’s presence, but, pretending not to know it, began humming and whistling to himself, to show that he was not asleep, and went forward, without looking behind him, and ordered the main royal to be loosed. On turning round to come aft, he pretended surprise at seeing the master on deck. This would not do. The captain was too “wide awake” for him, and, beginning upon him at once, gave him a grand blow-up, in true nautical style: “You’re a lazy, good-for-nothing rascal; you’re neither man, boy, soger, nor sailor! you’re no more than a thing aboard a vessel! you don’t earn your salt! you’re worse than a Mahon soger!” and other still more choice extracts from the sailor’s vocabulary. After the poor fellow had taken this harangue, he was sent into his state-room, and the captain stood the rest of the watch himself.

At seven bells in the morning, all hands were called aft, and told that Foster was no longer an officer on board, and that we might choose one of our own number for second mate. It is not uncommon for the captain to make this offer, and it is good policy, for the crew think themselves the choosers, and are flattered by it, but have to obey, nevertheless. Our crew, as is usual, refused to take the responsibility of choosing a man of whom we would never be able to complain, and left it to the captain. He picked out an active and intelligent young sailor, born on the banks of the Kennebec, who had been several Canton voyages, and proclaimed him in the following manner: “I choose Jim Hall; he’s your second mate. All you’ve got to do is, to obey him as you would me; and remember that he is Mr. Hall.” Foster went forward into the forecastle as a common sailor, and lost the handle to his name, while young fore-mast Jim became Mr. Hall, and took up his quarters in the land of knives and forks and tea-cups.

Sunday, October 5th. It was our morning watch; when, soon after the day began to break, a man on the forecastle called out, “Land ho!” I had never heard the cry before, and did not know what it meant (and few would suspect what the words were, when hearing the strange sound for the first time); but I soon found, by the direction of all eyes, that there was land stretching along on our weather beam. We immediately took in studding-sails and hauled our wind, running in for the land. This was done to determine our longitude; for by the captain’s chronometer we were in 25° W., but by his observations we were much farther; and he had been for some time in doubt whether it was his chronometer or his sextant which was out of order. This land-fall settled the matter, and the former instrument was condemned, and, becoming still worse, was never afterwards used.

As we ran in towards the coast, we found that we were directly off the port of Pernambuco, and could see with the telescope the roofs of the houses, and one large church, and the town of Olinda. We ran along by the mouth of the harbor, and saw a full-rigged brig going in. At two P.M. we again stood out to sea, leaving the land on our quarter, and at sundown it was out of sight. It was here that I first saw one of those singular things called catamarans. They are composed of logs lashed together upon the water, the men sitting with their feet in the water; have one large sail, are quite fast, and, strange as it may seem, are trusted as good sea boats. We saw several, with from one to three men in each, boldly putting out to sea, after it had become almost dark. The Indians go out in them after fish, and as the weather is regular in certain seasons, they have no fear. After taking a new departure from Olinda, we kept off on our way to Cape Horn.

We met with nothing remarkable until we were in the latitude of the river La Plata. Here there are violent gales from the southwest, called Pamperos, which are very destructive to the shipping in the river, and are felt for many leagues at sea. They are usually preceded by lightning. The captain told the mates to keep a bright lookout, and if they saw lightning at the southwest, to take in sail at once. We got the first touch of one during my watch on deck. I was walking in the lee gangway, and thought that I saw lightning on the lee bow. I told the second mate, who came over and looked out for some time. It was very black in the southwest, and in about ten minutes we saw a distinct flash. The wind, which had been southeast, had now left us, and it was dead calm. We sprang aloft immediately and furled the royals and top-gallant-sails, and took in the flying jib, hauled up the mainsail and trysail, squared the after yards, and awaited the attack. A huge mist capped with black clouds came driving towards us, extending over that portion of the horizon, and covering the stars, which shone brightly in the other part of the heavens. It came upon us at once with a blast, and a shower of hail and rain, which almost took our breath from us. The hardiest was obliged to turn his back. We let the halyards run, and fortunately were not taken aback. The little vessel “paid off” from the wind, and ran on for some time directly before it, tearing through the water with everything flying. Having called all hands, we close-reefed the topsails and trysail, furled the courses and jib, set the fore-topmast staysail, and brought her up nearly to her course, with the weather braces hauled in a little, to ease her.

This was the first blow I had met, which could really be called a gale. We had reefed our topsails in the Gulf Stream, and I thought it something serious, but an older sailor would have thought nothing of it. As I had now become used to the vessel and to my duty, I was of some service on a yard, and could knot my reef-point as well as anybody. I obeyed the order to lay1 aloft with the rest, and found the reefing a very exciting scene; for one watch reefed the fore-topsail, and the other the main, and every one did his utmost to get his topsail hoisted first. We had a great advantage over the larboard watch, because the chief mate never goes aloft, while our new second mate used to jump into the rigging as soon as we began to haul out the reef-tackle, and have the weather earing passed before there was a man upon the yard. In this way we were almost always able to raise the cry of “Haul out to leeward” before them; and, having knotted our points, would slide down the shrouds and back-stays, and sing out at the topsail halyards, to let it be known that we were ahead of them. Reefing is the most exciting part of a sailor’s duty. All hands are engaged upon it, and after the halyards are let go, there is no time to be lost — no “sogering,” or hanging back, then. If one is not quick enough, another runs over him. The first on the yard goes to the weather earing, the second to the lee, and the next two to the “dog’s ears”; while the others lay along into the bunt, just giving each other elbow-room. In reefing, the yard-arms (the extremes of the yards) are the posts of honor; but in furling, the strongest and most experienced stand in the slings (or middle of the yard) to make up the bunt. If the second mate is a smart fellow, he will never let any one take either of these posts from him; but if he is wanting either in seamanship, strength, or activity, some better man will get the bunt and earings from him, which immediately brings him into disrepute.

We remained for the rest of the night, and throughout the next day, under the same close sail, for it continued to blow very fresh; and though we had no more hail, yet there was a soaking rain, and it was quite cold and uncomfortable; the more so, because we were not prepared for cold weather, but had on our thin clothes. We were glad to get a watch below, and put on our thick clothing, boots, and southwesters. Towards sundown the gale moderated a little, and it began to clear off in the southwest. We shook our reefs out, one by one, and before midnight had top-gallant sails upon her.

We had now made up our minds for Cape Horn and cold weather, and entered upon the necessary preparations.

Tuesday, November 4th. At daybreak, saw land upon our larboard quarter. There were two islands, of different size, but of the same shape; rather high, beginning low at the water’s edge, and running with a curved ascent to the middle. They were so far off as to be of a deep blue color, and in a few hours we sank them in the northeast. These were the Falkland Islands. We had run between them and the main land of Patagonia. At sunset, the second mate, who was at the mast-head, said that he saw land on the starboard bow. This must have been the island of Staten Land; and we were now in the region of Cape Horn, with a fine breeze from the northward, topmast and top-gallant studding-sails set, and every prospect of a speedy and pleasant passage round.

1 This word “lay,” which is in such general use on board ship, being used in giving orders instead of “go,” as “Lay forward!” “Lay aft!” “Lay aloft!” &c., I do not understand to be the neuter verb lie, mispronounced, but to be the active verb lay, with the objective case understood; as, “Lay yourselves forward!” “Lay yourselves aft!” &c. At all events, lay is an active verb at sea, and means go.

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