As I began to learn my sailor duties, and show activity in running aloft, the men, I observed, treated me with a little more consideration, though not at all relaxing in a certain air of professional superiority. For the mere knowing of the names of the ropes, and familiarizing yourself with their places, so that you can lay hold of them in the darkest night; and the loosing and furling of the canvas, and reefing topsails, and hauling braces; all this, though of course forming an indispensable part of a seaman’s vocation, and the business in which he is principally engaged; yet these are things which a beginner of ordinary capacity soon masters, and which are far inferior to many other matters familiar to an
What did I know, for instance, about
The business of a thorough-bred sailor is a special calling, as much of a regular trade as a carpenter’s or locksmith’s. Indeed, it requires considerably more adroitness, and far more versatility of talent.
In the English merchant service boys serve a long apprenticeship to the sea, of seven years. Most of them first enter the Newcastle colliers, where they see a great deal of severe coasting service. In an old copy of the Letters of Junius, belonging to my father, I remember reading, that coal to supply the city of London could be dug at Blackheath, and sold for one half the price that the people of London then paid for it; but the Government would not suffer the mines to be opened, as it would destroy the great nursery for British seamen.
A thorough sailor must understand much of other avocations. He must be a bit of an embroiderer, to work fanciful collars of hempen lace about the shrouds; he must be something of a weaver, to weave mats of rope-yarns for lashings to the boats; he must have a touch of millinery, so as to tie graceful bows and knots, such as
A sailor, also, in working at the rigging, uses special tools peculiar to his calling-
The estimation in which a ship’s crew hold the knowledge of such accomplishments as these, is expressed in the phrase they apply to one who is a clever practitioner. To distinguish such a mariner from those who merely
Now, alas! I had no chance given me to become initiated in this art and mystery; no further, at least, than by looking on, and watching how that these things might be done as well as others, the reason was, that I had only shipped for this one voyage in the Highlander, a short voyage too; and it was not worth while to teach
Often furnished with a club-hammer, they swung me over the bows in a bowline, to pound the rust off the anchor: a most monotonous, and to me a most uncongenial and irksome business. There was a remarkable fatality attending the various hammers I carried over with me. Somehow they
At other times, they set me to picking oakum, like a convict, which hempen business disagreeably obtruded thoughts of halters and the gallows; or whittling belaying-pins, like a Down-Easter.
However, I endeavored to bear it all like a young philosopher, and whiled away the tedious hours by gazing through a port-hole while my hands were plying, and repeating Lord Byron’s Address to the Ocean, which I had often spouted on the stage at the High School at home.
Yes, I got used to all these matters, and took most things coolly, in the spirit of Seneca and the stoics.
All but the
Consider that after walking the deck for four full hours, you go below to sleep: and while thus innocently employed in reposing your wearied limbs, you are started up-it seems but the next instant after closing your lids-and hurried on deck again, into the same disagreeably dark and, perhaps, stormy night, from which you descended into the forecastle.
The previous interval of slumber was almost wholly lost to me; at least the golden opportunity could not be appreciated: for though it is usually deemed a comfortable thing to be asleep, yet at the time no one is conscious that he is so enjoying himself. Therefore I made a little private arrangement with the Lancashire lad, who was in the other watch, just to step below occasionally, and shake me, and whisper in my ear-
But notwithstanding all these contrivances, the dreadful sequel could not be avoided. Eight bells would at last be struck, and the men on deck, exhilarated by the prospect of changing places with us, would call the watch in a most provoking but mirthful and facetious style.
“Starboard watch, ahoy! eight bells there, below! Tumble up, my lively hearties; steamboat alongside waiting for your trunks: bear a hand, bear a hand with your knee-buckles, my sweet and pleasant fellows! fine shower-bath here on deck. Hurrah, hurrah! your ice-cream is getting cold!”
Whereupon some of the old croakers who were getting into their trowsers would reply with-“Oh, stop your gabble, will you? don’t be in such a hurry, now. You feel sweet, don’t you?” with other exclamations, some of which were full of fury.
And it was not a little curious to remark, that at the expiration of the ensuing watch, the tables would be turned; and we on deck became the wits and jokers, and those below the grizzly bears and growlers.