Two Years Before the Mast
By Richard Henry Dana
Public Domain Books
Chapter II. First Impressions–"Sail Ho!”
The first day we passed at sea was the Sabbath. As we were just from port, and there was a great deal to be done on board, we were kept at work all day, and at night the watches were set, and everything put into sea order. When we were called aft to be divided into watches, I had a good specimen of the manner of a sea captain. After the division had been made, he gave a short characteristic speech, walking the quarter deck with a cigar in his mouth, and dropping the words out between the puffs.
“Now, my men, we have begun a long voyage. If we get along well together, we shall have a comfortable time; if we don’t, we shall have hell afloat.–All you’ve got to do is to obey your orders and do your duty like men,–then you’ll fare well enough;–if you don’t, you’ll fare hard enough,–I can tell you. If we pull together, you’ll find me a clever fellow; if we don’t, you’ll find me a bloody rascal. –That’s all I’ve got to say.–Go below, the larboard watch!”
I being in the starboard or second mate’s watch, had the opportunity of keeping the first watch at sea. S––-, a young man, making, like myself, his first voyage, was in the same watch, and as he was the son of a professional man, and had been in a counting-room in Boston, we found that we had many friends and topics in common. We talked these matters over,–Boston, what our friends were probably doing, our voyage, etc., until he went to take his turn at the look-out, and left me to myself. I had now a fine time for reflection. I felt for the first time the perfect silence of the sea. The officer was walking the quarter deck, where I had no right to go, one or two men were talking on the forecastle, whom I had little inclination to join, so that I was left open to the full impression of everything about me. However much I was affected by the beauty of the sea, the bright stars, and the clouds driven swiftly over them, I could not but remember that I was separating myself from all the social and intellectual enjoyments of life. Yet, strange as it may seem, I did then and afterwards take pleasure in these reflections, hoping by them to prevent my becoming insensible to the value of what I was leaving.
But all my dreams were soon put to flight by an order from the officer to trim the yards, as the wind was getting ahead; and I could plainly see by the looks the sailors occasionally cast to windward, and by the dark clouds that were fast coming up, that we had bad weather to prepare for, and had heard the captain say that he expected to be in the Gulf Stream by twelve o’clock. In a few minutes eight bells were struck, the watch called, and we went below. I now began to feel the first discomforts of a sailor’s life. The steerage in which I lived was filled with coils of rigging, spare sails, old junk and ship stores, which had not been stowed away. Moreover, there had been no berths built for us to sleep in, and we were not allowed to drive nails to hang our clothes upon. The sea, too, had risen, the vessel was rolling heavily, and everything was pitched about in grand confusion. There was a complete “hurrah’s nest,” as the sailors say, “everything on top and nothing at hand.” A large hawser had been coiled away upon my chest; my hats, boots, mattress and blankets had all fetched away and gone over to leeward, and were jammed and broken under the boxes and coils of rigging. To crown all, we were allowed no light to find anything with, and I was just beginning to feel strong symptoms of sea-sickness, and that listlessness and inactivity which accompany it. Giving up all attempts to collect my things together, I lay down upon the sails, expecting every moment to hear the cry of “all hands, ahoy,” which the approaching storm would soon make necessary. I shortly heard the rain-drops falling on deck, thick and fast, and the watch evidently had their hands full of work, for I could hear the loud and repeated orders of the mate, the trampling of feet, the creaking of blocks, and all the accompaniments of a coming storm. In a few minutes the slide of the hatch was thrown back, which let down the noise and tumult of the deck still louder, the loud cry of “All hands, ahoy! tumble up here and take in sail,” saluted our ears, and the hatch was quickly shut again. When I got upon deck, a new scene and a new experience were before me. The little brig was close hauled upon the wind, and lying over, as it then seemed to me, nearly upon her beam ends. The heavy head sea was beating against her bows with the noise and force almost of a sledge-hammer, and flying over the deck, drenching us completely through. The topsail halyards had been let go, and the great sails filling out and backing against the masts with a noise like thunder. The wind was whistling through the rigging, loose ropes flying about; loud and, to me, unintelligible orders constantly given and rapidly executed, and the sailors “singing out” at the ropes in their hoarse and peculiar strains. In addition to all this, I had not got my “sea legs on,” was dreadfully sick, with hardly strength enough to hold on to anything, and it was “pitch dark.” This was my state when I was ordered aloft, for the first time, to reef topsails.
How I got along, I cannot now remember. I “laid out” on the yards and held on with all my strength. I could not have been of much service, for I remember having been sick several times before I left the topsail yard. Soon all was snug aloft, and we were again allowed to go below. This I did not consider much of a favor, for the confusion of everything below, and that inexpressible sickening smell, caused by the shaking up of the bilge-water in the hold, made the steerage but an indifferent refuge from the cold, wet decks. I had often read of the nautical experiences of others, but I felt as though there could be none worse than mine; for in addition to every other evil, I could not but remember that this was only the first night of a two years’ voyage. When we were on deck we were not much better off, for we were continually ordered about by the officer, who said that it was good for us to be in motion. Yet anything was better than the horrible state of things below. I remember very well going to the hatchway and putting my head down, when I was oppressed by nausea, and always being relieved immediately. It was as good as an emetic.
This state of things continued for two days.
Wednesday, Aug. 20th. We had the watch on deck from four till eight, this morning. When we came on deck at four o’clock, we found things much changed for the better. The sea and wind had gone down, and the stars were out bright. I experienced a corresponding change in my feelings; yet continued extremely weak from my sickness. I stood in the waist on the weather side, watching the gradual breaking of the day, and the first streaks of the early light. Much has been said of the sun-rise at sea; but it will not compare with the sun-rise on shore. It wants the accompaniments of the songs of birds, the awakening hum of men, and the glancing of the first beams upon trees, hills, spires, and house-tops, to give it life and spirit. But though the actual rise of the sun at sea is not so beautiful, yet nothing will compare with the early breaking of day upon the wide ocean.
There is something in the first grey streaks stretching along the eastern horizon and throwing an indistinct light upon the face of the deep, which combines with the boundlessness and unknown depth of the sea around you, and gives one a feeling of loneliness, of dread, and of melancholy foreboding, which nothing else in nature can give. This gradually passes away as the light grows brighter, and when the sun comes up, the ordinary monotonous sea day begins.
From such reflections as these, I was aroused by the order from the officer, “Forward there! rig the head-pump!” I found that no time was allowed for day-dreaming, but that we must “turn-to” at the first light. Having called up the “idlers,” namely carpenter, cook, steward, etc., and rigged the pump, we commenced washing down the decks. This operation, which is performed every morning at sea, takes nearly two hours; and I had hardly strength enough to get through it. After we had finished, swabbed down, and coiled up the rigging, I sat down on the spars, waiting for seven bells, which was the sign for breakfast. The officer, seeing my lazy posture, ordered me to slush the main-mast, from the royal-mast-head, down. The vessel was then rolling a little, and I had taken no sustenance for three days, so that I felt tempted to tell him that I had rather wait till after breakfast; but I knew that I must “take the bull by the horns,” and that if I showed any sign of want of spirit or of backwardness, that I should be ruined at once. So I took my bucket of grease and climbed up to the royal-mast-head. Here the rocking of the vessel, which increases the higher you go from the foot of the mast, which is the fulcrum of the lever, and the smell of the grease, which offended my fastidious senses, upset my stomach again, and I was not a little rejoiced when I got upon the comparative terra firma of the deck. In a few minutes seven bells were struck, the log hove, the watch called, and we went to breakfast. Here I cannot but remember the advice of the cook, a simple-hearted African. “Now,” says he, “my lad, you are well cleaned out; you haven’t got a drop of your ’long-shore swash aboard of you. You must begin on a new tack,–pitch all your sweetmeats overboard, and turn-to upon good hearty salt beef and sea bread, and I’ll promise you, you’ll have your ribs well sheathed, and be as hearty as any of ’em, afore you are up to the Horn.” This would be good advice to give to passengers, when they speak of the little niceties which they have laid in, in case of sea-sickness.
I cannot describe the change which half a pound of cold salt beef and a biscuit or two produced in me. I was a new being. We had a watch below until noon, so that I had some time to myself; and getting a huge piece of strong, cold, salt beef from the cook, I kept gnawing upon it until twelve o’clock. When we went on deck I felt somewhat like a man, and could begin to learn my sea duty with considerable spirit. At about two o’clock we heard the loud cry of “sail ho!” from aloft, and soon saw two sails to windward, going directly athwart our hawse. This was the first time that I had seen a sail at sea. I thought then, and always have since, that it exceeds every other sight in interest and beauty. They passed to leeward of us, and out of hailing distance; but the captain could read the names on their sterns with the glass. They were the ship Helen Mar, of New York, and the brig Mermaid, of Boston. They were both steering westward, and were bound in for our “dear native land.”
Thursday, Aug. 21st. This day the sun rose clear, we had a fine wind, and everything was bright and cheerful. I had now got my sea legs on, and was beginning to enter upon the regular duties of a sea-life. About six bells, that is, three o’clock, P.M., we saw a sail on our larboard bow. I was very anxious, like every new sailor, to speak her. She came down to us, backed her main-top-sail, and the two vessels stood “head on,” bowing and curvetting at each other like a couple of war-horses reined in by their riders. It was the first vessel that I had seen near, and I was surprised to find how much she rolled and pitched in so quiet a sea. She lunged her head into the sea, and then, her stern settling gradually down, her huge bows rose up, showing the bright copper, and her stern, and bresthooks dripping, like old Neptune’s locks, with the brine. Her decks were filled with passengers who had come up at the cry of “sail ho,” and who by their dress and features appeared to be Swiss and French emigrants. She hailed us at first in French, but receiving no answer, she tried us in English. She was the ship La Carolina, from Havre, for New York. We desired her to report the brig Pilgrim, from Boston, for the north-west coast of America, five days out. She then filled away and left us to plough on through our waste of waters. This day ended pleasantly; we had got into regular and comfortable weather, and into that routine of sea-life which is only broken by a storm, a sail, or the sight of land.