Before the Mast

My first start in a big ship was fairly propitious. Coming out of a small craft, whose masts would hardly make yards for the full-rigged Australian clipper I had now joined, I felt for the first twenty-four hours as if I had never been on board a ship before, everything appeared to me to be on such a gigantic scale. This feeling, however, soon wore off, and by keeping my eyes open I soon got familiar with my new surroundings. So well did I affect the role of an old hand that I passed the scrutiny of the “forecastle,” who never suspected that I was a “greenhorn.” It was well for me, as otherwise I would have been subjected to some disagreeable experiences.

The focs’le of a big ship in its own way is sometimes as companionable and enjoyable a place as any other department of the vessel – at other times it is the reverse. Thirty -six of us were crowded into a very narrow space, We were a mixed lot, and might be roughly divided into three classes- -good fellows, queer chaps, and bad characters. I think nearly all of us were strangers to each other, but sailors don’t need formal introductions. The division into watches was the first line drawn. I was picked for the mate’s watch.. The first stormy night practically settled the status of each man in the focs’le. Up till that time, the cheekiest fellows took pre-eminence and laid down the law, but the order of superiority was finally settled on the yard- arms in a squall of wind when all hands were called out to reef sail. It was then I first knew the pull I had over most of the big-ship sailors by my experience in the North Sea. 

Close beside me on the yard was a fellow about my own age from Shetland. He too knew what he was about, having had a similar training, and instead of the mate shouting to us, “Why don’t you do ” this, that, and the other thing, he paid us the compliment of saying, “Well done, lads !” – I suppose we merited it, for the mate was more given to cursing than blessing. When we next mustered on the focs’le – head every man’s qualities as a sailor were known and recognised. The tall talkers almost to a man were nowhere. Another thing happened a week or two afterwards. The captain called the Shetland lad and myself aft one day, and said- “Look here! I hate bad steering, and there has been too much of it on board this ship. Now I am going to make you quarter-masters from this time out, and see that you make a good course.” He did the same in the second mate’s watch, picking out two fine young fellows ; and, such is human nature, the four quarter-masters from that moment regarded themselves as the aristocracy of the focs’l – we did not get a separate “house ” – and formed a distinct caste by ourselves. It turned out that four of us had gone to sea from fancy rather than from any necessity or compulsion.

Away from drink and under proper discipline, the motley crew improved greatly, and with the exception of three or four incorrigible rascals, the ship’s company forward was not at all bad. This being my first foreign voyage, I used to enjoy drawing out the old sailors into telling yarns. On a fine night, when the vessel had been snugged down and was bowling along, we always gathered in a group round the long-boat. It is at such times Jack indulges most freely his innate love of romance and song. The origin of the word “yarn” has been traced back to the time when sailors spent long weary hours spinning tow in the deck-house in wet weather, and to while away the time told each other tales of the sea. The art thus acquired has not been lost, and to have been shipmates with a man on a long voyage is to qualify you to write his biography. There are long yarns and short yarns. I have known a yarn to last a whole month, though proceeding at the rate of two or three hours per day. The story which the sailor intends relating usually forms but a small part of the yarn he spins. A short yarn usually relates to something which occurred in the last voyage the long ones to some years ago. Stories of shipwreck or disasters at sea were the most common yarns, and three sailors in our ship’s company, it appeared, had been cast on a desert island, with experiences akin to those of Robinson Crusoe. Two of my shipmates, I found, had been millionaires, and one the owner of real estate of priceless value in the City of Melbourne. Their favourite yarns related to the early rush to the Gold Diggings. In every case poor Jack had been cheated by some rascal of a shoreman.

In my watch there was a peculiar-looking old sailor who was exceedingly reticent regarding his history. His name was Seth Snow. He rarely exchanged words with any of his shipmates, and kept himself very much to himself. The belief in the focs’le was that Seth had come down in the world, and he was sometimes addressed as “Cap’n Snow” to his evident annoyance. One night an extra hand was required at the wheel, and Seth was posted to the duty along with me. I could not help feeling sorry for the lonely old chap, but though our companionship at the wheel was agreeable enough, our intercourse ceased the moment we went off duty. Next night we were together again, and when relieved, Seth, to my surprise, proposed that we should spend our turn below on deck, as the night was going to be fine. I perceived he had something on his mind, and encouraged him to talk. He at length asked me with great eagerness if I knew the Clyde. I said I did. “And you know the Black Buoy at the Tail o’ the Bank ?” “Yes,” I replied, “every sailor knows it.” “Well'” he asked, “have you ever heard any story about it ? No. Well, I will tell you about it.”

“A good many years ago the captain of a barque in the port of Quebec found himself ready for sea, but his sailors had deserted his ship. His mate, cook, and boy had gone away with the rest of the crew, leaving not a soul on board but himself. They said the captain was a tyrant and swore so dreadfully that they would not sail with such a man. It was quite true – the captain did swear a bit, but only when things were not done to his mind. But what was he to do now ? The winter was drawing on, and the St. Lawrence might be frozen over any day. All the other ships had sailed – he alone was left. To be detained in Quebec over winter and his ship due at Glasgow before Christmas -his reputation as a shipmaster would be ruined. Day by day and night by night he scoured the now half-empty streets and lanes of Quebec trying to persuade seafaring men to join his ship, but in vain. Double wages would not tempt them. Going down to the wharf one night long after dark from a fruitless search for a crew, he declared to himself, with an oath, that he would sell his soul to the devil if he could only get his ship away. No sooner had he uttered the rash words than a Man in Black – tall black hat, long black coat, big black gloves – everything black-accosted him, and asked if he meant what he had just said. He spoke civilly enough, but with a slight sneer that implied a challenge of courage. The captain, being in a desperate mood, repeated the words. “Very well, captain” said the stranger, “let it be a bargain betwixt us. You will give the orders for the proper navigation of the ship to me, and I will see they are carried out.” An uneasy feeling that he had gone too far arose in the captain’s heart, and he bethought him of making one condition to safeguard his position. “Will you promise to obey my orders implicitly?” “ I will!” promptly replied the Man in Black. Then they shook hands – it was a vow. They soon reached the vessel, and in a few seconds the rustling of ropes and the grating of chains indicated that she was being unmoored. Not a living creature could the captain see. He gave the orders and an invisible crew carried them out. Sails were set, the course was steered, and the ship proceeded down the St. Lawrence. Reaching the open sea, the yards were trimmed to the breeze, and the vessel sped across the Atlantic. So perfectly was everything done, that for the first time in his life the old captain had no call to grumble, far less to swear, as he used to do at his sailors. As the voyage began to near its termination, the captain began to reflect on the awful bargain he had in a moment of despair made. With the Man in Black, he had held no conversation, beyond telling him what to do in navigating the ship. As to the identity of the personage with whom he was associated he had no manner of doubt, for had he not seen him at the cabin table, night after night, playing cards with an invisible partner. Land on the starboard bow ! He must make up his mind, now or never, how he was to escape the clutches of his adversary. A happy thought struck him, and he decided to put it into execution. “Get the anchors over the bows” he shouted, “and see that you grease the rope cable well. from end to end” “ Aye, aye, sir,’ was the reply, and the work was done in a jiffy. Stand by to let go the anchor, and let it run till I tell you to hold on “Aye, aye, sir.” The captain began to recover his spirits. He kept every stitch of canvas on the vessel, which was. going her full speed, until he was in a position to anchor. “Put the helm hard-a-port ” “Aye, aye, sir” “Now then”  shouted the captain, as he had never shouted before “Let go the anchor”The anchor was let go. The greased cable ran out at lightning speed, and when within a few fathoms of the end, the captain shouted to his companion- “Hold on!” The Man in Black did hold on. His body passed three times round the windlass, went through the hawse pipe into the water after the anchor, and he was seen no more. The Black Buoy at the Tail o’ the Bank marks the very spot” 

“You have never heard that story before, have yo?” asked my shipmate Seth Snow. ” No,” I said,  “I never have.” “Well,” he said, “I, Seth Snow, was the captain of that belated Quebec barque, and nothing on earth will ever make me take command of a ship or swear at a sailor ! It’s my only chance!” He slipped away as soon as he had finished hiș weird tale, ạnd except on one other occasion, he never told me any more yarns. We had a stowaway lad on board. He was named Jimmy Ducks. The lad was a good deal teased by the sailors, but Seth Snow and he were great friends., I was curious to know the bond of affection between them, and made boid to question Seth on the subject. He told me that he began his seafaring life as a stowaway himself, having run away from school at Boston, United States of America, and having been roughly treated, he wished to befriend as far as he could a lad in a similar plight. “Jimmy Ducks” was a born merchant. He had not been on board a week when he commenced a system of sale and barter, and when we arrived at Melbourne he was the first to clear out, with sufficient goods of a miscellaneous character to set up on shore as a ship-chandler. I think his friend Seth Snow helped him a good deal.

The singing of songs goes along with the spinning of yarns on board ship. Gathered round the focs’le-head, one shipmate after another expresses his emotions in song. We had several first-rate singers amongst us, and we could give a rattling good chorus at all times. One hears very little singing on board a small vessel, but in a big ship the sailors do most of their work to the melody of some song. Any form of words that may suggest itself at the moment will be caught up and turned into song. When the main tack requires an extra brace down, the officer of the watch will shout, “Now then, boys, strike a light!” The order will be responded to with -”Haul the bowline, so early in the morning, haul the bowline, the bowline, haul!” Or it may be, “Knock the man down, Johnnie, knock the man down!” A favourite long-pull song we had in setting up topsails was “Hanging Johnnie” the chorus being, “Hang, boys, hang!” In the matter of capstan songs we always gave a sort of full-dress rehearsal when weighing the anchor or heaving into dock, and the favourites were – “Round the Horn,” “Santa Anna,” and “Was you ever in the Rio Grande?” having as a chorus a few lines winding up with – “I am bound to the Rio Grande” The words for the most part are nonsensical, but the full chorus of male voices has a fine effect when heard amidst the actual surroundings of ship life. A good singing crew is generally a good working crew. The song enables the men to pull together, and besides cheers and enlivens them at their work.

There is no reason in the world why the forecastle of a big ship should not be an attractive place for young fellows. The sailor’s old grievances about “bad food and not enough of it” have been remedied. These things are now all regulated by Act of Parliament. Something remains to be done to give more light and space in the forecastle, and a good shelter in rough weather on deck. The rules of the Board of Trade as to tonnage measurement have, however, the effect of positively discouraging any such improvement by the shipowner – the more’s the pity for all concerned. The majority of our ships are now splendidly found in every respect, except in the matter of accommodation for the crew.

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