Having served long enough, as I thought, before the mast, I made up my mind to go before the Board of Trade examiner, and endeavour to pass as second mate. A few weeks at a Navigation School in Glasgow gave me the final drill in the subject of navigation which I needed. I had no doubt of being able to pass in practical seamanship. The room of the Board of Trade examiner has more terrors for poor Jack than the centre of a cyclone. A dozen of us went up, all in a state of extreme trepidation. For the first hour or so, the mental tension was extreme, and by the end of the day one felt as if reduced to a state of imbecility. The same questions if tackled on board ship would have cost us very little mental effort, but under the excitement of the occasion, the strain was enormous. I mention this as a possible explanation of the large number of failures of seamen going up for the first time – they are not used to it. However, I had the satisfaction of being one of four who passed. I felt very proud of it. The gaining of my first certificate gave me, I think, more gratification than any other distinction I may afterwards have earned.
My next business was to find a ship. I considered myself fortunate in getting an appointment in a first- class line, and went to work with right good will on board the ship at Glasgow. When Saturday afternoon came, I asked leave of the superintendent of line to go to Greenock to fetch up my clothes, and he granted my request, telling me to be sure to be at work on Monday morning. The weather for several days had been bitterly cold, and on Saturday night I was fairly knocked up. On Monday morning I was no better, and was just able to sit up in bed and write a note to the superintendent explaining my non-appearance. the whole week I was confined to my room, but as soon as I was able I set off to Glasgow. The ship Was still there, I found, and I met the superintendent. He told me very gruffly to clear out – he would listen to no explanation – any man who disappointed him once never got a chance of doing it a second time.
So I lost my first appointment. I felt that rough measure had been meted out to me, but I knew that the superintendent was acting under a total misapprehension of the circumstances. It taught me, however, the lesson never to condemn a man without some evidence of delinquency, even though appearances were against him. Long years after, the same gentleman and I were brought frequently in contact, and he used to defer to my opinion in many important matters. I thought often of asking him if he remembered dismissing me from his service on that bleak December day. I knew he did not, so I abstained from giving the old gentleman any pain by recalling an unpleasant episode.
At the time, it was to me a very bitter experience. I knew the advantage of starting as an officer in a good line of ships ; and it was with something of the feeling of recklessness that I accepted the appointment of second mate on board an American barque. I joined her, and we sailed from Glasgow, but brought up at the Tail o’ the Bank, with the crew in rebellion, the captain and mate pacing the quarter-deck with loaded revolvers, and the police-signal flying from the masthead. The police boat came off, and fifteen of the sailors who had mutinied were sent ashore in irons. They were afterwards tried and sent to prison for six months for refusing to proceed to sea.. The scene arose entirely from the want of a little tact and forbearance on the part of those in command of the vessel. The sailors, as is too often the case, had come on board the worse of liquor. The Yankee mate would make no allowance for their condition. “We never speak to a sailor twice on board an American ship – we knock him down if he doesn’t obey the first order!” And certainly he was an adept at that business. The British tar, drunk though he was, would not stand that sort of treatment, and hence the row, which ended in their removal from the ship to prison. We got a second crew on board, but they were very little better than the first lot, and having got wind of what had happened to the first crew, they seemed bent on mischief.
The mate did not relax in the least the severity of his treatment. When things had arrived at a critical point, I went up to the mate and told him that if he did not desist, I would go ashore and report him. He raised his revolver to fire at me, but as I looked him straight in the face without flinching he lowered his arm. With one spring I caught him, knocked his weapon out of his hand, and kicked it into the lee scupper. Some of the sailors saw what I had done, and they rushed to back me up. I had been but a very short time aft, but I knew sufficiently of the discipline of a ship that the last thing an officer ought ever to do is to join the side of insubordination. The authority of the officers, right or wrong, must be maintained, otherwise all discipline is at an end. “Look here,” I said to the mate, “don’t let us make fools of ourselves before these men. Come into the cabin and let us settle it there.” I knew I was now completely in his power if he liked to exercise it, and I was quite conscious that interfering as I had my conduct had been of the gravest character. I spoke to him quietly and firmly, and told him that if he did not desist from his rough treatment of these men, it would end in mutiny and murder. He was no coward this Yankee mate. He surveyed me with a cool, contemptuous look, and would at that moment have liked nothing better than to have had a fair-and-square fight with me. “Give me these men for half-an-hour to get underweigh,” I said, “and then you may do as you like.” “All right “he replied, “we will settle our little accounts afterwards.” I jumped out, and shouted out, “Heave up the anchor l” “Aye, aye, sir,” was the ready response. Each man flew to his work with a will. I fancy they supposed that I had done for both the skipper and mate and was now in full command. The ship was underweigh in a trice, and we went sailing away as if we were the smartest ship that ever left the Clyde. The angry passions subsided, and within twenty four hours the whole ship’s company, both fore and aft, was on the most cordial terms.
I found my chief officer to be a splendid fellow, highly educated, well-mannered, and kind-hearted to a degree – in short, one of the best of men I have ever sailed with, but he had an extraordinary contempt for a common sailor. In talking over the matter with him, I learned that the kind of discipline he was enforcing on the vessel prevailed universally in American ships. “We have to establish a rule of terror over the sailor before we can command obedience,” he said. “What right have these sailors to come on board drunk, imperilling the lives and property entrusted to my care? They have a duty to perform, and it is my business to see that they do it.” I admitted he was perfectly right in principle, but a man must be guided by circumstances as to how he is to enforce discipline among a lot of men who have rendered themselves incapable of work by drink.
The mate was himself a strict abstainer, and I found that a large majority of the American skippers and officers I afterwards came to know in all parts of the world were, like him, teetotallers. As to the crew, they were on the whole an excellent set of men when sober, and the voyage which began so inauspiciously turned out very pleasantly for all. I have said nothing of the captain thus far, He was a type of man exceedingly rare at sea – a perfect aristocrat. Had he been the Admiral in command of the American Navy he could not have been more dignified and impressive in his demeanour. It was entirely beneath his notice to take any cognisance of the ship’s affairs. At stated times, the chief officer made reports to him of the distance run and the course steered, but beyond that he took no concern with the navigation of the ship. He left all these matters to his chief officer. He dressed regularly for dinner, and, in short, conducted himself as if he was a man of regal rank who happened to be a passenger on board. Though probably not carrying it to the pitch which the captain of this barque did, I gathered that this style of thing is greatly affected by the captains in American ships. The chief officer is really the sailing-master, and the captain is there merely to be consulted should any difficulties arise. He was certainly the grandest swell I ever sailed under. I believe the explanation of all this style is that the American captain is generally the principal owner of the ship, or it belongs to his family.
One of the most singular incidents in my experience happened on this voyage across the Atlantic. We were sailing to the westward with the wind SW., and were nearing the Banks of Newfoundland, when suddenly the wind came away furiously from the NW. So sudden was the blast, the sails were frozen stiff to the yards from truck to deck and could not be taken in. It was very odd to see the sailors beating the sails with handspikes and pouring hot water into the blocks and fair leads for the braces. Fortunately the gale lasted only a few hours. By daybreak, however, we were surrounded on all sides as far as the eye could reach by huge blocks of field ice, and we remained in this icy prison for over ten days. Some sixteen of the crew were frost- bitten while engaged cutting the ice into blocks on the deck and launching them overboard, and several of them had to have their fingers amputated on arrival at Halifax, Nova Scotia. A frozen ship at sea has a strange ghostly appearance. Instead of being a thing of life, she looks like a stiffened corpse. Her elasticity is gone. Every spar, rope, chain, and line is encased by a covering of rigid ice. Huge icicles hang pendant from the yards, the bowsprit bends with the heavy mass of ice adhering to it and ever accumulating as she dips. When the fresh comes, the water pours overhead in a thousand rills, like a shower bath. It is grand to see every hour giving fresh life and vigour to the paralysed and stiffened limbs, until she bounds once more, free and unfettered, on her onward course.
As soon as I got the chance, I exchanged the “Stars and Stripes” of the United States for the British flag, and found myself second mate of an emigrant ship bound for New South Wales. From an officer’s point of view, an emigrant vessel is, on the whole; the best he can sail with. Any extra work is more than compensated for by the social intercourse he enjoys with the passengers. It has a civilising effect on a man who has spent most of his years away from the society of friends. In the course of a long voyage, life on board a passenger ship becomes very much a representation of life in a small town, with all the social incidents magnified in interest.
A week’s good running with a smart ship takes us beyond the range of the stormy Atlantic gales. Having passed Madeira, we get the NE trade winds. All sail is set. Indeed we set sails here which are never seen on ships near the land. The vessel becomes a little cloud of canvas. A sail is set in every opening to catch every breath of air. Hundreds of yards of canvas are laced on to the ordinary standing sails. Booms are rigged out on both sides on almost every yard. Under this press of canvas we go gaily along, never shifting sheet or tack for days and weeks on end: There is no change in the weather, nor in the sky, nor in the colour of the water. Land, of course, we see none. One day is as like another as possible.
This part of the voyage is always pleasant, and passengers enjoy themselves immensely, getting up all sorts of games and amusements, such as judge and jury trials, debating societies, amateur newspapers, concerts, dances, theatricals and the like. These winds carry us within a few hundred yards of the Equator, and end in a dead calm. The scene certainly changes. All the fair wind sails are now taken down, Our object now is to have the yards clear for swinging in order to catch every puff of wind which may blow from either side. But with it all we make little or no progress. On this voyage, we lie becalmed for fourteen days. The sea is like a sheet of glass, and the sun pours out its scorching rays. The sky may be clear or dark, but there is not a breath of wind stirring. The surface of the water teems with animalculæ, but no sound breaks the stillness in sea or sky. Our feathered friends have deserted us, and even the flutter of the flying-fish is awanting. Nature seems profoundly asleep. The sound of one’s voice is like an echo from a ghostly vault. A creak from a rusty yard-sling is a welcome relief from the terrible monotony. We are alone, yet we are in company, for here and there at the distance of a mile or two, sometimes nearer, sometimes further off, are vessels similarly becalmed in the Doldrums. It is too tempting not to make a call on our neighbours, and as second officer the duty falls to me to take charge of one of the boats. Visits are paid and civilities exchanged. A queer scene of shopping on the principle of barter goes on. We give a bag of potatoes and a bundle of newspapers in exchange for a monkey, a parrot, Or a cage of turtle-doves. It is astonishing the number of acquaintances one makes on the high seas. We meet unexpectedly, and take our departure hurriedly. For one evening dark heavy clouds bank up in huge masses – a welcome sign.
The lightning darts in every conceivable form, and the thunder rolls in dreadful majesty. An impenetrable wall of cloud, black as ink, has formed from sea to sky. A loud noise, like the howling of the wind in a forest, is heard. But, strangely enough, not a breath of wind reaches us. By and bye two huge horns are thrown out as feelers from this mountain of cloud. In a moment the ship is heeling to the breeze. The idle sails are now strained to their utmost. The whole mass of cloud passes over us, so close and heavy that you feel as if the very heavens had descended and were enveloping you in a shroud of vapour. It lasts only an hour or two, but we chance to get a fair wind from another quarter – a breeze which carries us across the Equator. The old practices connected with crossing the line were duly observed. The sailors get an hour or two of good fun, and the passengers appear to enjoy it.
Two babies were born in the steerage shortly after we had crossed the Equator. They became a never ending source of interest and delight. The little creatures had a good deal to endure in the circumstances into which they were ushered, but the discomforts were mitigated to some extent by the kindly interest manifested in their welfare by everyone on board. The cabin passengers contended with the sailors of the focs’le for possession of the babies. An understanding was ultimately arrived at by the one baby being kept aft and the other forward, week about. It is very amusing to see Jack acting as dry nurse to the baby, as he sits on the forecastle head, and meditates as to what ought to be the name of the ship’s baby. One suggests the name of the ship, another the nearest headland. It ended by the girl being christened Victoria, and the boy Sydney! A baby born at sea is supposed by the sailors to have a charmed life against all the dangers of the deep.
Love-making on board ship goes on very merrily, and engagements become quite the rule. In one instance, it led to a marriage. We had a gentleman on board of the name of John Knox (doubtless a descendant of the great Reformer) who fell deeply in love with a lady passenger who was going out to be married to a Colonial gentleman and was in charge of his brother. John Knox was anxious to be married right off, and the lady was nothing loth, and accordingly, to the great consternation of the would-be brother-in-law, the couple appeared before the captain one morning, and were married by him in orthodox fashion. This function “old man” had frequently performed before, but this was probably the last time, as the power to celebrate marriages at sea was withdrawn from masters of vessels shortly after. When we arrived at our destination, the expectant bridegroom came off to the ship to meet his intended, only to find that she had left by boat five minutes before as the wife of our gallant friend John Knox.
While such happy events occur to enliven life on board ship, we are called on to perform the saddest of all duties. The news that a shipmate is dead fills every heart with sorrow and gloom. A funeral at sea is one of the most solemn scenes. The last offices are performed at dead of night. The body is carried to the gangway, and a broad plank is placed on the rail. The ship is hove to, and the crew mustered, and in the darkness of night, with the sea surging and boiling as if anxious for its victim, the wind wailing through the rigging, and the ship pitching and straining, impatient to be released from the check of the mainyard aback, the funeral service is begun and read by the light of a few flickering oil lamps. At the close, the plank is raised, and the body slides gently into the deep. No stone marks the sailor’s grave, but we live in the blessed hope of a resurrection, when the sea shall give up its dead.
The mainyard is filled and we speed along on our voyage. Happy as a ship’s company is on a long voyage, the knowledge that we are approaching land awakens the imagination and stirs the emotions of passenger and sailor alike. Our good ship has carried us through gales and storms. The wind is light but fair. The lookout shouts “Land O!” Ahead and stretching along the leeside is a dark blue line visible above the horizon, As we near it, the little hilltops show their heads over the level country, proudly proclaiming land. It is midsummer weather, though by the calendar it is the month of December. The trees and grass are beautifully green, affording a pleasing prospect to the eye weary with scanning only sea and sky. Many a prayer is breathed on such occasions, acknowledging God’s goodness to us poor mortals.
We are steering straight for the land, which is becoming sharper in outline every minute. Our interest is excited by the jagged appearance of the coast on the one side and the smooth contour of the cliffs on the other. We hear the sea breaking on the shore – a welcome sound. An entrance now opens up, and we sail boldly in betwixt two almost perpendicular headlands, having deep water close in at their base. In a moment, a splendid scene bursts on our view. Right ahead only a few miles distant is a magnificent city, basking in a flood of sunshine. It stretches as far as the eye can reach land wards, and slopes gently towards the shore, with a fringe of gardens along the water-side. Towers, churches, and noble-looking edifices mark it as an old city. Around us on all sides are lovely spots – an island here, an islet there, the banks covered with greenest verdure, and the nooks studded with tall tree-ferns. A smart-looking pilot boards us from a cutter, and he steers our good ship close by each point. To our right we have a public garden crowded with gaily dressed people promenading amidst a wealth of floral beauty – it looks to us a perfect paradise. On the left are innumerable bays and promontories. Between us and the city is a pretty little island bristling with cannon, while lying off are several ships-of-war at anchor flying the British flag, which we salute by dipping our ensign.
Our sailors are busily taking in sail, one by one. The pilot shouts “Starboard!” “Port!” “Steady!” We pass through a fleet of splendid merchant ships. The helm is put down. The ship is brought head to wind. The anchor is let go. We are in Sydney Harbour the most beautiful and picturesque in the wide world. Our passengers bid us kindly adieus, and in half-an-hour the ship’s company is broken up.