The Seven Young Captains.
WHEN I was about 17, I consulted with various elders in my native village as to what I should do for a living. Some advised one course, some another, and on finding that none of their recommendations would result in an immediate fortune, I resolved to go to sea.
1 shipped on a clipper bound from New York to San Francisco, and thence to China. Six other boys from the village, schoolmates and acquaintances, shipped with me. None of us were ultra “greenhorns.” Having been bred in a seaport town, we were tolerably familiar with vessels, could pull an oar after a fashion, knew which end of the vessel went first, and did not at sea expect milk in our coffee, or umbrellas when we went aloft.
When I went over the ship’s side as she lay at a New York East River pier, I felt instinctively that I was a slave. I saw what was then always seen on the sailing of a California clipper. Men were lying drunk about the forecastle, cargo was still rattling up over the side, and the mates were ordering everybody about and swearing faster than ordering. I was at once detected by an under officer as one of the “ boys ” and set to work learning to be a sailor at cleaning out the ship’s hog-pen. To this I had no objection. I knew even then that the duty of a sailor was to obey orders. Rut the wretch who commanded me seemed, judging by his language, to be inculcating me into a sense of my low and ignoble state as a “greenhorn.” I was perfectly willing to do the work and could have performed it just as well had all the stronger expressions of Water Street not been hurled at me.
This was the educational maritime style of the mates from the start. It seemed their system to swear and kick seamanship into the “ boys.” They told us that their nautical acquirements had been “ kicked into them ” and they intended to “ kick them into us.” They did not kick them into the seven prospective Captains of whom T was one, for The Captain was a fellow townsman and protected us to that extent. They did, ere the voyage was up, kick the life nearly out of some unfortunate boys not similarly favored. Those mates, however, never forgave us for being proteges of the Captain, and consequently not kickable.
Kick ? I have seen the second mate angry at something while his watch was reefing the fore-topsail, come down from the yard, dash into the group of boys whose business it was to remain on deck and manage the reef tackles, and singling out the one whom he knew he could kick, knock him down and beat his features into an unrecognizable black and blue mass with his heavy seaboots. And why ? Because the First Mate’s watch were a minute or two ahead in moving their sail. There was a rivalry between the two watches.
The boys whom he took particular delight in kicking were innocents, not many degrees above idiocy, who had shipped as “able seamen.” They had only sailed on “ fore-and-aft ” coasting vessels, and were not up in all the duties required of an able seaman on a “ squarerigger.” They could not “steer their watch properly,” didn’t know the ropes and were of little use on a yardarm stowing sail. So they were hazed during the entire voyage. A man who has been thoroughly “ hazed ’’ during a four month’s voyage should thereby have expiated a goodly share of his earthly offenses.
There are, or were in 1855, three grades jof sailors in our merchant service, to wit: “ boys,” “ ordinary seamen,” and “ able seaman.” A boy is not supposed to know anything nautically ; he expects to be taught his duty and will be known as a “ boy ” though he be twentyfive years’ old. An “ ordinary seaman ” is required to “hand, reef and steer.” That is to say, he is expected to know every rope and how to handle it; to do something useful on a yard-arm, other than cling to it, and to steer either by the wind or the compass ; and steering one ot those big ships of the California trade, especially when the wind is aft and she is covered with a cloud of studding sails projecting from the extremities of both yardarms, is sometimes a very delicate and watchful matter for if she get the least off her course, the sails may be taken aback and there may be a terrible smashing and tearing of booms and canvass. The “able seaman’s ” is a trade as much as is that of the tailor’s or shipwright’s. He must be proficient in all the arts of knotting, splicing, parcelling, sail-mending, repairing strained or broken masts, and a thousand other things. He is a man, whoin case of the death of a third or second mate, can immediately fill his place. The great trouble and excuse for brutality at sea on the part of the officers, comes of men shipping as ordinary or able seamen for the sake of increased pay, being quite incompetent for their duties. An officer finding half his watch made up of these ineflicients has a heavy strain on his patience, for he is entirely responsible for the short-comings of his department.
Historically, in this narrative, 1 left off at the ship’s hog-pen. Watching my labors was my old chum Hus H., attired in his best, lie had come on board to see me off. Hus and myself had been for years growing up toward manhood; had entered upon many of the more important duties of youth together; such as hiring teams, taking our girls to parties and pie-nics, smoking, shooting, and even conferring seriously together on possible matrimonial prospects, and here was I under his pitying and sympathetic inspection starting at the very bottom round of the nautical ladder, arranging the boudoir of the ship’s pigs. It was but the previous evening we had smoked our Havanas together in a stylish Broadway restaurant, and inspired by a parting bottle of champagne, 1 had seriously talked of the time when I should command “ my ship.”
The official wretch, who bossed me, the Fourth Mate, and who, ere the voyage was up, proved more competent to the charge of a pig-pen than a ship’s watch, took an inexpressible delight in making me go over and over again every inch of that pen with broom and scraper. I had the satisfaction of pitching him overboard a few minutes afterward by means entirely accidental, and, as to the authorship, never known to him. He had jumped into the mizen chains to assist in passing the end of a hawser to a tug coming alongside. The hawser led along the ship’s side and through into the waist near where I stood. Somebody ordered me to “ haul on that rope,” I did haul on the rope nearest at hand, which happened to be the one whose end my pig-pen commander in the chains was holding. It hauled pretty heavily at first, which was little wonder seeing that he was hauling back with all his might, and swearing to boot. He couldn’t see me, for I was within the bulwarks. I gave one v igorous tug, there was a splash, the rope now hauled with great ease; 1 heard the cry of “ Man overboard! ” 1 peeped over the rail and there was my official friend floundering among rotten oranges and pine-apples, and the muddy waters of the slip churned to a dirty foam by the tug’s paddles. When fished out, there was a spirited request made for the person who “hauled on that rope.” He was never found. 1 did not allow myself to think of the occurrence for a month afterward.
By dint of a steam-tug, a pilot, and tons of profanity, we got out of the slip into the harbor and there anchored for the night. Everybody turned in more or less drunk.
At a very early hour in the morning all was again bustle and confusion on deck. I had barely put my head out of the forecastle, when the Third Mate, a gentleman of Teutonic birth, came along and grabbing me by the collar, dragged me like a criminal towards the wet hawser which a long line of men were marching aft with, remarking, “ There ! I puts you to vork ! ” Well, I expected to be put to work; I had never made any objection ; but there was no need of his dragging me about in that way, 1 would have worked just as well and quite as willingly without it. There was a sense of indignity and degradation in being handled in this way. This was the style. These officers seemed to feel the necessity of permeating us from top to toe with a sense of inferiority. It was not enough for them to order, but we must be dragged to an order, or the order must be accompanied with a sneering reflection on our ignorance.
The second night out, we had the usual “ blow in the Gulf.” The Captain did not say it was the hardest blow he ever saw, as he usually does when there are passengers on board to entertain. One of our seven young gentlemen who had enlisted to become a Captain, asked the skipper “what kind of weather he thought it was going to be ? ” He never interrogated that functionary again on the plane of presumed colloquial equality. Nor did he ever become a Captain, lie left the ship in San Francisco and become a restaurant waiter, where he could at least speak to the boss of the establishment without being expletively blown to attorns.
l was dreadfully sick, and in the height of the gale resigned myself to indifference, disgust, despair, and laid down on the deck to die. The sailors, roused to enthusiasm by the tempest, joyously tramped to and fro over me as well as the six other young Captains, bestowing on us kicks of more or less vigor as they passed. As a particular favor we were allowed to retire to our berths. The “ boy’s house ” was on deck ; it contained but four berths, into which the seven young Captains were tumbled “ heads and points;” that is, in that fashion where in one bunk the head of one young Captain lay on the same pillow with the heels of the other.
Not being skilled marine housekeepers, we had not secured our plates’and pans, containing meat, duff, “lobseouse,” etc. We also left the door open, into which occasionally flew a flirt of water over the waist, amounting to a barrel or so ol the Atlantic Ocean. The pans,water-kegs, and jam pots given us on leaving home,which of course we opened the first day out, slid in clattering platoons off the shelves and on the floor at each roll. At last our clothes being jerked off the pegs fell down also, and the whole eventually resolved itself into a saturated combination of overcoats, jackets, trowsers, pots, pans, spoons, mugs, knives, folks, bread, duff, meat, jam pots, and occasionally a young Captain, over two leet in depth.
About daylight the next morning the Second Mate called on us to know how we were. He lifted us like so many drowned rats from our berths, set us on deck and put us to work. He seemed to enjoy his mission thoroughly as wet-nurse, lie inquired of us with an average of two profane expletives between each respectable word, if we intended to lay there all day ; if we expected to be brought up on a bottle and if we would have breakfast brought to our rooms. The seven young captains were presented each with an iron hook about a foot in length and requested to assist in “ rousting ” in the cable.
The sky looked gray and angry, the waves of a corresponding hue were angry and did not give the vessel a moment’s peace; only a solitary sail was spread in place of all the canvas of the previous day, the officers in “ souwesters ” and oil-skin jackets were the angriest of the lot, and the men, not yet fully recovered from their Water street debauch moved about with a dogged surliness. My spirit was very willing to work, but my legs trembled very’ much at the knees, and refusing utterly to accommodate themselves to the frequent changes of position assumed by the ship, gave me a great deal to do in addition to ‘ rousting ” the cable, while my stomach made frequent demands of a most peremptory and disagreeable nature which were not attended with any visible result. The symptoms of the other six young Captains were very similar. Occasionally a disagreeable old salt would ask us, “ What we came to sea for?” “Why didn’t we stay ashore when we could get a living there ?” “ Why set up for sailors and take the bread out of their mouths ?” These conundrums were repeated at intervals during the four months’ voyage.
This discipline was hard but very beneficial. In thirtysix hours the sea-sickness was gone. Had the seven young Captains been allowed to remain in their berths, their indisposition would have continued for a week. Four nights afterward I made my first essay at going aloft. I had soon perceived that it was very necessary to one’s peace of body and mind on that vessel to show a willing spirit. So when an order came to loose the main royal, I was ready and sprang into the rigging. I hated the job, didn’t know exactly where I was going and didn’t know exactly what to do when I got there. The night was pitch dark, and the further I went up the darker it seemed to get above and below. I thought I should never get to the royal yard. It seemed in the clouds, and I began to suspect that it might be lost in the Astronomical regions. Finally I found myself on it. I ventured for the first time out on the foot-rope. It wobbled about in an exceedingly disagreeable manner. Besides it caved, as it were, continually under my feet. But there was no time for hesitation ; I was on the horns of a terrible dilemma. One horn was the apparent personal risk of venturing in these unknown and shaky regions aloft, the other horn I already heard from the unseen deck below in the voice of the savage Second Mate, counselling me to “ Be lively there and loose that sailso I proceeded to loose. A sympathizing sailor had previously partly instructed me as to my duties. 1 was to cast off the starboard, larboard and bunt gaskets, tie them up in a ship shape knot and then call out to the watch to hoist away I will here inform the terrestial reader that the “ gaskets ” are the ropes which bind the sails to the yard when they are not in use. They are simply clothes-lines for tying up these packages. Well, I unrolled in much fear and with great labor the two end “ gaskets ” and left them flying too at the yard’s ends without making them up in a seamanlike package ; but the “ bunt gasket ” bothered me. The “ bunt gasket ” is the little clothes-line tying the sail to the middle of the yard. The knot “ jammed.” Some lubber had been up before me, and tied it in a “ granny knot;” A “ granny knot ” never unties easily. A “ square knot ’’ does. It took me a week to learn to tie a square knot. I admit 1 was stupid in the matter of knots. I was three weeks learning to tie a “ bowline.” It cost me more time, patience and study than the full conjugation of the Latin verb Arno, and a great deal more may depend upon a bowline than upon Amo, Amare, Amavi, Amatum.
I left off at the “ bunt gasket,” I could not untie it and consequently the sail could not be loosed. The gentleman on deck, the Second Mate, was from time to time repeating his inquiries in a manner which, however well calculated to hasten my efforts, did not promote my peace of mind. This gentleman did most of the “ rope’s ending.” Rope’s ending for the time being is a very unfortunate end for any man. He was frequently in the habit of thrashing nautical knowledge and vigilance into men with the end of the main brace. The main brace on our clipper was a rope which in diameter and weight was equivalent to a club or a “cord wood stick.” 1 couldn’t untie the bunt gasket and I didn’t knowwhat to do. I was alone in the darkness of a Gulf Stream stormy night, not a cherub aloft, but sadly in need of one. What to do ? I dared not come down and tell my story, for I knew if I did it would be received at the end of the mam brace. I tried to call out what was the matter, but my voice on its way down to the deck met the admonitions, profanity and objugations of that Second Mate coming up and mine hadn’t sufficient specific gravity to overcome his.and reach he deck. So I hung to the yard and wondered what would come next. The watch on deck commenced hoisting, I went up with the yard and the still furled sail.
1 digress here to say that any nautical man of common sense and humane tendencies would know, were his heart in the work, that all this trouble for a poor boy, who was able and willing to do whatever was required of him, could easily be avoided were vessels in charge of those who took a real vital interest in making sailors, and whose instructions at sea were free from all the iiritation and lack of patience consequent on the process of getting over a shore “ spree.”
I resume. The yard went up. I went up with it. The sail was still furled. I knew everything was wrong and couldn’t help it. Suddenly a head appeared above the cross-trees. It was that of the sailor friend who had given me counsel and advice as to the proper casting off of the gaskets. He took in the situation at a glance, ” Why don’t you cut the rope?” said he. In a second his sheath knife was out and the rope was cut. For myself I would no more have taken the responsibility of cutting that miserable rope than I would that of another man’s throat.
I descended expecting an interview with the main brace. To my surprise, our watch had gone below, and I escaped without even being abused or cursed.
I stop here, the main royal now being loosed. The system of nautical education for the Seven Young Captains was precisely similar during the entire voyage. None of them became captains. All left the ship eventually. Now, one third, possible one half, of these young gentlemen might with different treatment have been made good sailors. Hut the average American boy can’t be enticed into a service where the least dereliction is liable to bring him such brutal treatment. I refer not only to the lash applied at the end of a rope but that at the tongue’s end of the low, coarse men in command. It simply drives the best boys out of the service and leaves the worst in it. There’s no reason why the education fitting for the sea should not be taught with as much decency and dignity as that for the land. All this abuse is simply the barbarism of the pirate of two centuries ago, handed down through a succession of pirates.-[From the Christmas Number of the Daily Graphic.]