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The Mirror of the Sea by Joseph Conrad

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Transcribed by David Price, email ccx074@coventry.ac.uk

The Mirror of the Sea


I. Landfalls and Departures
IV. Emblems of Hope
VII. The Fine Art
X. Cobwebs and Gossamer
XIII. The Weight of the Burden
XVI. Overdue and Missing
XX. The Grip of the Land
XXII. The Character of the Foe
XXV. Rules of East and West
XXX. The Faithful River
XXXIII. In Captivity
XXXV. Initiation
XXXVII. The Nursery of the Craft
XL. The Tremolino
XLVI. The Heroic Age


"And shippes by the brinke comen and gon,
And in swich forme endure a day or two."
The Frankeleyn's Tale.

Landfall and Departure mark the rhythmical swing of a seaman's life
and of a ship's career. From land to land is the most concise
definition of a ship's earthly fate.

A "Departure" is not what a vain people of landsmen may think. The
term "Landfall" is more easily understood; you fall in with the
land, and it is a matter of a quick eye and of a clear atmosphere.
The Departure is not the ship's going away from her port any more
than the Landfall can be looked upon as the synonym of arrival.
But there is this difference in the Departure: that the term does
not imply so much a sea event as a definite act entailing a
process--the precise observation of certain landmarks by means of
the compass card.

Your Landfall, be it a peculiarly-shaped mountain, a rocky
headland, or a stretch of sand-dunes, you meet at first with a
single glance. Further recognition will follow in due course; but
essentially a Landfall, good or bad, is made and done with at the
first cry of "Land ho!" The Departure is distinctly a ceremony of
navigation. A ship may have left her port some time before; she
may have been at sea, in the fullest sense of the phrase, for days;
but, for all that, as long as the coast she was about to leave
remained in sight, a southern-going ship of yesterday had not in
the sailor's sense begun the enterprise of a passage.

The taking of Departure, if not the last sight of the land, is,
perhaps, the last professional recognition of the land on the part
of a sailor. It is the technical, as distinguished from the
sentimental, "good-bye." Henceforth he has done with the coast
astern of his ship. It is a matter personal to the man. It is not
the ship that takes her departure; the seaman takes his Departure
by means of cross-bearings which fix the place of the first tiny
pencil-cross on the white expanse of the track-chart, where the
ship's position at noon shall be marked by just such another tiny
pencil cross for every day of her passage. And there may be sixty,
eighty, any number of these crosses on the ship's track from land
to land. The greatest number in my experience was a hundred and
thirty of such crosses from the pilot station at the Sand Heads in
the Bay of Bengal to the Scilly's light. A bad passage. . .

A Departure, the last professional sight of land, is always good,
or at least good enough. For, even if the weather be thick, it
does not matter much to a ship having all the open sea before her
bows. A Landfall may be good or bad. You encompass the earth with
one particular spot of it in your eye. In all the devious tracings
the course of a sailing-ship leaves upon the white paper of a chart
she is always aiming for that one little spot--maybe a small island
in the ocean, a single headland upon the long coast of a continent,
a lighthouse on a bluff, or simply the peaked form of a mountain
like an ant-heap afloat upon the waters. But if you have sighted
it on the expected bearing, then that Landfall is good. Fogs,
snowstorms, gales thick with clouds and rain--those are the enemies
of good Landfalls.


Some commanders of ships take their Departure from the home coast
sadly, in a spirit of grief and discontent. They have a wife,
children perhaps, some affection at any rate, or perhaps only some
pet vice, that must be left behind for a year or more. I remember
only one man who walked his deck with a springy step, and gave the
first course of the passage in an elated voice. But he, as I
learned afterwards, was leaving nothing behind him, except a welter
of debts and threats of legal proceedings.

On the other hand, I have known many captains who, directly their
ship had left the narrow waters of the Channel, would disappear
from the sight of their ship's company altogether for some three
days or more. They would take a long dive, as it were, into their
state-room, only to emerge a few days afterwards with a more or
less serene brow. Those were the men easy to get on with.
Besides, such a complete retirement seemed to imply a satisfactory
amount of trust in their officers, and to be trusted displeases no
seaman worthy of the name.

On my first voyage as chief mate with good Captain MacW- I remember
that I felt quite flattered, and went blithely about my duties,
myself a commander for all practical purposes. Still, whatever the
greatness of my illusion, the fact remained that the real commander
was there, backing up my self-confidence, though invisible to my
eyes behind a maple-wood veneered cabin-door with a white china

That is the time, after your Departure is taken, when the spirit of
your commander communes with you in a muffled voice, as if from the
sanctum sanctorum of a temple; because, call her a temple or a
"hell afloat"--as some ships have been called--the captain's state-
room is surely the august place in every vessel.

The good MacW- would not even come out to his meals, and fed
solitarily in his holy of holies from a tray covered with a white
napkin. Our steward used to bend an ironic glance at the perfectly
empty plates he was bringing out from there. This grief for his
home, which overcomes so many married seamen, did not deprive
Captain MacW- of his legitimate appetite. In fact, the steward
would almost invariably come up to me, sitting in the captain's
chair at the head of the table, to say in a grave murmur, "The
captain asks for one more slice of meat and two potatoes." We, his
officers, could hear him moving about in his berth, or lightly
snoring, or fetching deep sighs, or splashing and blowing in his
bath-room; and we made our reports to him through the keyhole, as
it were. It was the crowning achievement of his amiable character
that the answers we got were given in a quite mild and friendly
tone. Some commanders in their periods of seclusion are constantly
grumpy, and seem to resent the mere sound of your voice as an
injury and an insult.

But a grumpy recluse cannot worry his subordinates: whereas the
man in whom the sense of duty is strong (or, perhaps, only the
sense of self-importance), and who persists in airing on deck his
moroseness all day--and perhaps half the night--becomes a grievous
infliction. He walks the poop darting gloomy glances, as though he
wished to poison the sea, and snaps your head off savagely whenever
you happen to blunder within earshot. And these vagaries are the
harder to bear patiently, as becomes a man and an officer, because
no sailor is really good-tempered during the first few days of a
voyage. There are regrets, memories, the instinctive longing for
the departed idleness, the instinctive hate of all work. Besides,
things have a knack of going wrong at the start, especially in the
matter of irritating trifles. And there is the abiding thought of
a whole year of more or less hard life before one, because there
was hardly a southern-going voyage in the yesterday of the sea
which meant anything less than a twelvemonth. Yes; it needed a few
days after the taking of your departure for a ship's company to
shake down into their places, and for the soothing deep-water ship
routine to establish its beneficent sway.

It is a great doctor for sore hearts and sore heads, too, your
ship's routine, which I have seen soothe--at least for a time--the
most turbulent of spirits. There is health in it, and peace, and
satisfaction of the accomplished round; for each day of the ship's
life seems to close a circle within the wide ring of the sea
horizon. It borrows a certain dignity of sameness from the
majestic monotony of the sea. He who loves the sea loves also the
ship's routine.

Nowhere else than upon the sea do the days, weeks and months fall
away quicker into the past. They seem to be left astern as easily
as the light air-bubbles in the swirls of the ship's wake, and
vanish into a great silence in which your ship moves on with a sort
of magical effect. They pass away, the days, the weeks, the
months. Nothing but a gale can disturb the orderly life of the
ship; and the spell of unshaken monotony that seems to have fallen
upon the very voices of her men is broken only by the near prospect
of a Landfall.

Then is the spirit of the ship's commander stirred strongly again.
But it is not moved to seek seclusion, and to remain, hidden and
inert, shut up in a small cabin with the solace of a good bodily
appetite. When about to make the land, the spirit of the ship's
commander is tormented by an unconquerable restlessness. It seems
unable to abide for many seconds together in the holy of holies of
the captain's state-room; it will out on deck and gaze ahead,
through straining eyes, as the appointed moment comes nearer. It
is kept vigorously upon the stretch of excessive vigilance.
Meantime the body of the ship's commander is being enfeebled by
want of appetite; at least, such is my experience, though
"enfeebled" is perhaps not exactly the word. I might say, rather,
that it is spiritualized by a disregard for food, sleep, and all
the ordinary comforts, such as they are, of sea life. In one or
two cases I have known that detachment from the grosser needs of
existence remain regrettably incomplete in the matter of drink.

But these two cases were, properly speaking, pathological cases,
and the only two in all my sea experience. In one of these two
instances of a craving for stimulants, developed from sheer
anxiety, I cannot assert that the man's seaman-like qualities were
impaired in the least. It was a very anxious case, too, the land
being made suddenly, close-to, on a wrong bearing, in thick
weather, and during a fresh onshore gale. Going below to speak to
him soon after, I was unlucky enough to catch my captain in the
very act of hasty cork-drawing. The sight, I may say, gave me an
awful scare. I was well aware of the morbidly sensitive nature of
the man. Fortunately, I managed to draw back unseen, and, taking
care to stamp heavily with my sea-boots at the foot of the cabin
stairs, I made my second entry. But for this unexpected glimpse,
no act of his during the next twenty-four hours could have given me
the slightest suspicion that all was not well with his nerve.


Quite another case, and having nothing to do with drink, was that
of poor Captain B-. He used to suffer from sick headaches, in his
young days, every time he was approaching a coast. Well over fifty
years of age when I knew him, short, stout, dignified, perhaps a
little pompous, he was a man of a singularly well-informed mind,
the least sailor-like in outward aspect, but certainly one of the
best seamen whom it has been my good luck to serve under. He was a
Plymouth man, I think, the son of a country doctor, and both his
elder boys were studying medicine. He commanded a big London ship,
fairly well known in her day. I thought no end of him, and that is
why I remember with a peculiar satisfaction the last words he spoke
to me on board his ship after an eighteen months' voyage. It was
in the dock in Dundee, where we had brought a full cargo of jute
from Calcutta. We had been paid off that morning, and I had come
on board to take my sea-chest away and to say good-bye. In his
slightly lofty but courteous way he inquired what were my plans. I
replied that I intended leaving for London by the afternoon train,
and thought of going up for examination to get my master's
certificate. I had just enough service for that. He commended me
for not wasting my time, with such an evident interest in my case
that I was quite surprised; then, rising from his chair, he said:

"Have you a ship in view after you have passed?"

I answered that I had nothing whatever in view.

He shook hands with me, and pronounced the memorable words:

"If you happen to be in want of employment, remember that as long
as I have a ship you have a ship, too."

In the way of compliment there is nothing to beat this from a
ship's captain to his second mate at the end of a voyage, when the
work is over and the subordinate is done with. And there is a
pathos in that memory, for the poor fellow never went to sea again
after all. He was already ailing when we passed St. Helena; was
laid up for a time when we were off the Western Islands, but got
out of bed to make his Landfall. He managed to keep up on deck as
far as the Downs, where, giving his orders in an exhausted voice,
he anchored for a few hours to send a wire to his wife and take
aboard a North Sea pilot to help him sail the ship up the east
coast. He had not felt equal to the task by himself, for it is the
sort of thing that keeps a deep-water man on his feet pretty well
night and day.

When we arrived in Dundee, Mrs. B- was already there, waiting to
take him home. We travelled up to London by the same train; but by
the time I had managed to get through with my examination the ship
had sailed on her next voyage without him, and, instead of joining
her again, I went by request to see my old commander in his home.
This is the only one of my captains I have ever visited in that
way. He was out of bed by then, "quite convalescent," as he
declared, making a few tottering steps to meet me at the sitting-
room door. Evidently he was reluctant to take his final cross-
bearings of this earth for a Departure on the only voyage to an
unknown destination a sailor ever undertakes. And it was all very
nice--the large, sunny room; his deep, easy-chair in a bow window,
with pillows and a footstool; the quiet, watchful care of the
elderly, gentle woman who had borne him five children, and had not,
perhaps, lived with him more than five full years out of the thirty
or so of their married life. There was also another woman there in
a plain black dress, quite gray-haired, sitting very erect on her
chair with some sewing, from which she snatched side-glances in his
direction, and uttering not a single word during all the time of my
call. Even when, in due course, I carried over to her a cup of
tea, she only nodded at me silently, with the faintest ghost of a
smile on her tight-set lips. I imagine she must have been a maiden
sister of Mrs. B- come to help nurse her brother-in-law. His
youngest boy, a late-comer, a great cricketer it seemed, twelve
years old or thereabouts, chattered enthusiastically of the
exploits of W. G. Grace. And I remember his eldest son, too, a
newly-fledged doctor, who took me out to smoke in the garden, and,
shaking his head with professional gravity, but with genuine
concern, muttered: "Yes, but he doesn't get back his appetite. I
don't like that--I don't like that at all." The last sight of
Captain B- I had was as he nodded his head to me out of the bow
window when I turned round to close the front gate.

It was a distinct and complete impression, something that I don't
know whether to call a Landfall or a Departure. Certainly he had
gazed at times very fixedly before him with the Landfall's vigilant
look, this sea-captain seated incongruously in a deep-backed chair.
He had not then talked to me of employment, of ships, of being
ready to take another command; but he had discoursed of his early
days, in the abundant but thin flow of a wilful invalid's talk.
The women looked worried, but sat still, and I learned more of him
in that interview than in the whole eighteen months we had sailed
together. It appeared he had "served his time" in the copper-ore
trade, the famous copper-ore trade of old days between Swansea and
the Chilian coast, coal out and ore in, deep-loaded both ways, as
if in wanton defiance of the great Cape Horn seas--a work, this,
for staunch ships, and a great school of staunchness for West-
Country seamen. A whole fleet of copper-bottomed barques, as
strong in rib and planking, as well-found in gear, as ever was sent
upon the seas, manned by hardy crews and commanded by young
masters, was engaged in that now long defunct trade. "That was the
school I was trained in," he said to me almost boastfully, lying
back amongst his pillows with a rug over his legs. And it was in
that trade that he obtained his first command at a very early age.
It was then that he mentioned to me how, as a young commander, he
was always ill for a few days before making land after a long
passage. But this sort of sickness used to pass off with the first
sight of a familiar landmark. Afterwards, he added, as he grew
older, all that nervousness wore off completely; and I observed his
weary eyes gaze steadily ahead, as if there had been nothing
between him and the straight line of sea and sky, where whatever a
seaman is looking for is first bound to appear. But I have also
seen his eyes rest fondly upon the faces in the room, upon the
pictures on the wall, upon all the familiar objects of that home,
whose abiding and clear image must have flashed often on his memory
in times of stress and anxiety at sea. Was he looking out for a
strange Landfall, or taking with an untroubled mind the bearings
for his last Departure?

It is hard to say; for in that voyage from which no man returns
Landfall and Departure are instantaneous, merging together into one
moment of supreme and final attention. Certainly I do not remember
observing any sign of faltering in the set expression of his wasted
face, no hint of the nervous anxiety of a young commander about to
make land on an uncharted shore. He had had too much experience of
Departures and Landfalls! And had he not "served his time" in the
famous copper-ore trade out of the Bristol Channel, the work of the
staunchest ships afloat, and the school of staunch seamen?


Before an anchor can ever be raised, it must be let go; and this
perfectly obvious truism brings me at once to the subject of the
degradation of the sea language in the daily press of this country.

Your journalist, whether he takes charge of a ship or a fleet,
almost invariably "casts" his anchor. Now, an anchor is never
cast, and to take a liberty with technical language is a crime
against the clearness, precision, and beauty of perfected speech.

An anchor is a forged piece of iron, admirably adapted to its end,
and technical language is an instrument wrought into perfection by
ages of experience, a flawless thing for its purpose. An anchor of
yesterday (because nowadays there are contrivances like mushrooms
and things like claws, of no particular expression or shape--just
hooks)--an anchor of yesterday is in its way a most efficient
instrument. To its perfection its size bears witness, for there is
no other appliance so small for the great work it has to do. Look
at the anchors hanging from the cat-heads of a big ship! How tiny
they are in proportion to the great size of the hull! Were they
made of gold they would look like trinkets, like ornamental toys,
no bigger in proportion than a jewelled drop in a woman's ear. And
yet upon them will depend, more than once, the very life of the

An anchor is forged and fashioned for faithfulness; give it ground
that it can bite, and it will hold till the cable parts, and then,
whatever may afterwards befall its ship, that anchor is "lost."
The honest, rough piece of iron, so simple in appearance, has more
parts than the human body has limbs: the ring, the stock, the
crown, the flukes, the palms, the shank. All this, according to
the journalist, is "cast" when a ship arriving at an anchorage is
brought up.

This insistence in using the odious word arises from the fact that
a particularly benighted landsman must imagine the act of anchoring
as a process of throwing something overboard, whereas the anchor
ready for its work is already overboard, and is not thrown over,
but simply allowed to fall. It hangs from the ship's side at the
end of a heavy, projecting timber called the cat-head, in the bight
of a short, thick chain whose end link is suddenly released by a
blow from a top-maul or the pull of a lever when the order is
given. And the order is not "Heave over!" as the paragraphist
seems to imagine, but "Let go!"

As a matter of fact, nothing is ever cast in that sense on board
ship but the lead, of which a cast is taken to search the depth of
water on which she floats. A lashed boat, a spare spar, a cask or
what not secured about the decks, is "cast adrift" when it is
untied. Also the ship herself is "cast to port or starboard" when
getting under way. She, however, never "casts" her anchor.

To speak with severe technicality, a ship or a fleet is "brought
up"--the complementary words unpronounced and unwritten being, of
course, "to an anchor." Less technically, but not less correctly,
the word "anchored," with its characteristic appearance and
resolute sound, ought to be good enough for the newspapers of the
greatest maritime country in the world. "The fleet anchored at
Spithead": can anyone want a better sentence for brevity and
seamanlike ring? But the "cast-anchor" trick, with its affectation
of being a sea-phrase--for why not write just as well "threw
anchor," "flung anchor," or "shied anchor"?--is intolerably odious
to a sailor's ear. I remember a coasting pilot of my early
acquaintance (he used to read the papers assiduously) who, to
define the utmost degree of lubberliness in a landsman, used to
say, "He's one of them poor, miserable 'cast-anchor' devils."


From first to last the seaman's thoughts are very much concerned
with his anchors. It is not so much that the anchor is a symbol of
hope as that it is the heaviest object that he has to handle on
board his ship at sea in the usual routine of his duties. The
beginning and the end of every passage are marked distinctly by
work about the ship's anchors. A vessel in the Channel has her
anchors always ready, her cables shackled on, and the land almost
always in sight. The anchor and the land are indissolubly
connected in a sailor's thoughts. But directly she is clear of the
narrow seas, heading out into the world with nothing solid to speak
of between her and the South Pole, the anchors are got in and the
cables disappear from the deck. But the anchors do not disappear.
Technically speaking, they are "secured in-board"; and, on the
forecastle head, lashed down to ring-bolts with ropes and chains,
under the straining sheets of the head-sails, they look very idle
and as if asleep. Thus bound, but carefully looked after, inert
and powerful, those emblems of hope make company for the look-out
man in the night watches; and so the days glide by, with a long
rest for those characteristically shaped pieces of iron, reposing
forward, visible from almost every part of the ship's deck, waiting
for their work on the other side of the world somewhere, while the
ship carries them on with a great rush and splutter of foam
underneath, and the sprays of the open sea rust their heavy limbs.

The first approach to the land, as yet invisible to the crew's
eyes, is announced by the brisk order of the chief mate to the
boatswain: "We will get the anchors over this afternoon" or "first
thing to-morrow morning," as the case may be. For the chief mate
is the keeper of the ship's anchors and the guardian of her cable.
There are good ships and bad ships, comfortable ships and ships
where, from first day to last of the voyage, there is no rest for a
chief mate's body and soul. And ships are what men make them:
this is a pronouncement of sailor wisdom, and, no doubt, in the
main it is true.

However, there are ships where, as an old grizzled mate once told
me, "nothing ever seems to go right!" And, looking from the poop
where we both stood (I had paid him a neighbourly call in dock), he
added: "She's one of them." He glanced up at my face, which
expressed a proper professional sympathy, and set me right in my
natural surmise: "Oh no; the old man's right enough. He never
interferes. Anything that's done in a seamanlike way is good
enough for him. And yet, somehow, nothing ever seems to go right
in this ship. I tell you what: she is naturally unhandy."

The "old man," of course, was his captain, who just then came on
deck in a silk hat and brown overcoat, and, with a civil nod to us,
went ashore. He was certainly not more than thirty, and the
elderly mate, with a murmur to me of "That's my old man," proceeded
to give instances of the natural unhandiness of the ship in a sort
of deprecatory tone, as if to say, "You mustn't think I bear a
grudge against her for that."

The instances do not matter. The point is that there are ships
where things DO go wrong; but whatever the ship--good or bad, lucky
or unlucky--it is in the forepart of her that her chief mate feels
most at home. It is emphatically HIS end of the ship, though, of
course, he is the executive supervisor of the whole. There are HIS
anchors, HIS headgear, his foremast, his station for manoeuvring
when the captain is in charge. And there, too, live the men, the
ship's hands, whom it is his duty to keep employed, fair weather or
foul, for the ship's welfare. It is the chief mate, the only
figure of the ship's afterguard, who comes bustling forward at the
cry of "All hands on deck!" He is the satrap of that province in
the autocratic realm of the ship, and more personally responsible
for anything that may happen there.

There, too, on the approach to the land, assisted by the boatswain
and the carpenter, he "gets the anchors over" with the men of his
own watch, whom he knows better than the others. There he sees the
cable ranged, the windlass disconnected, the compressors opened;
and there, after giving his own last order, "Stand clear of the
cable!" he waits attentive, in a silent ship that forges slowly
ahead towards her picked-out berth, for the sharp shout from aft,
"Let go!" Instantly bending over, he sees the trusty iron fall
with a heavy plunge under his eyes, which watch and note whether it
has gone clear.

For the anchor "to go clear" means to go clear of its own chain.
Your anchor must drop from the bow of your ship with no turn of
cable on any of its limbs, else you would be riding to a foul
anchor. Unless the pull of the cable is fair on the ring, no
anchor can be trusted even on the best of holding ground. In time
of stress it is bound to drag, for implements and men must be
treated fairly to give you the "virtue" which is in them. The
anchor is an emblem of hope, but a foul anchor is worse than the
most fallacious of false hopes that ever lured men or nations into
a sense of security. And the sense of security, even the most
warranted, is a bad councillor. It is the sense which, like that
exaggerated feeling of well-being ominous of the coming on of
madness, precedes the swift fall of disaster. A seaman labouring
under an undue sense of security becomes at once worth hardly half
his salt. Therefore, of all my chief officers, the one I trusted
most was a man called B-. He had a red moustache, a lean face,
also red, and an uneasy eye. He was worth all his salt.

On examining now, after many years, the residue of the feeling
which was the outcome of the contact of our personalities, I
discover, without much surprise, a certain flavour of dislike.
Upon the whole, I think he was one of the most uncomfortable
shipmates possible for a young commander. If it is permissible to
criticise the absent, I should say he had a little too much of the
sense of insecurity which is so invaluable in a seaman. He had an
extremely disturbing air of being everlastingly ready (even when
seated at table at my right hand before a plate of salt beef) to
grapple with some impending calamity. I must hasten to add that he
had also the other qualification necessary to make a trustworthy
seaman--that of an absolute confidence in himself. What was really
wrong with him was that he had these qualities in an unrestful
degree. His eternally watchful demeanour, his jerky, nervous talk,
even his, as it were, determined silences, seemed to imply--and, I
believe, they did imply--that to his mind the ship was never safe
in my hands. Such was the man who looked after the anchors of a
less than five-hundred-ton barque, my first command, now gone from
the face of the earth, but sure of a tenderly remembered existence
as long as I live. No anchor could have gone down foul under Mr.
B-'s piercing eye. It was good for one to be sure of that when, in
an open roadstead, one heard in the cabin the wind pipe up; but
still, there were moments when I detested Mr. B- exceedingly. From
the way he used to glare sometimes, I fancy that more than once he
paid me back with interest. It so happened that we both loved the
little barque very much. And it was just the defect of Mr. B-'s
inestimable qualities that he would never persuade himself to
believe that the ship was safe in my hands. To begin with, he was
more than five years older than myself at a time of life when five
years really do count, I being twenty-nine and he thirty-four;
then, on our first leaving port (I don't see why I should make a
secret of the fact that it was Bangkok), a bit of manoeuvring of
mine amongst the islands of the Gulf of Siam had given him an
unforgettable scare. Ever since then he had nursed in secret a
bitter idea of my utter recklessness. But upon the whole, and
unless the grip of a man's hand at parting means nothing whatever,
I conclude that we did like each other at the end of two years and
three months well enough.

The bond between us was the ship; and therein a ship, though she
has female attributes and is loved very unreasonably, is different
from a woman. That I should have been tremendously smitten with my
first command is nothing to wonder at, but I suppose I must admit
that Mr. B-'s sentiment was of a higher order. Each of us, of
course, was extremely anxious about the good appearance of the
beloved object; and, though I was the one to glean compliments
ashore, B- had the more intimate pride of feeling, resembling that
of a devoted handmaiden. And that sort of faithful and proud
devotion went so far as to make him go about flicking the dust off
the varnished teak-wood rail of the little craft with a silk
pocket-handkerchief--a present from Mrs. B-, I believe.

That was the effect of his love for the barque. The effect of his
admirable lack of the sense of security once went so far as to make
him remark to me: "Well, sir, you ARE a lucky man!"

It was said in a tone full of significance, but not exactly
offensive, and it was, I suppose, my innate tact that prevented my
asking, "What on earth do you mean by that?"

Later on his meaning was illustrated more fully on a dark night in
a tight corner during a dead on-shore gale. I had called him up on
deck to help me consider our extremely unpleasant situation. There
was not much time for deep thinking, and his summing-up was: "It
looks pretty bad, whichever we try; but, then, sir, you always do
get out of a mess somehow."


It is difficult to disconnect the idea of ships' anchors from the
idea of the ship's chief mate--the man who sees them go down clear
and come up sometimes foul; because not even the most unremitting
care can always prevent a ship, swinging to winds and tide, from
taking an awkward turn of the cable round stock or fluke. Then the
business of "getting the anchor" and securing it afterwards is
unduly prolonged, and made a weariness to the chief mate. He is
the man who watches the growth of the cable--a sailor's phrase
which has all the force, precision, and imagery of technical
language that, created by simple men with keen eyes for the real
aspect of the things they see in their trade, achieves the just
expression seizing upon the essential, which is the ambition of the
artist in words. Therefore the sailor will never say, "cast
anchor," and the ship-master aft will hail his chief mate on the
forecastle in impressionistic phrase: "How does the cable grow?"
Because "grow" is the right word for the long drift of a cable
emerging aslant under the strain, taut as a bow-string above the
water. And it is the voice of the keeper of the ship's anchors
that will answer: "Grows right ahead, sir," or "Broad on the bow,"
or whatever concise and deferential shout will fit the case.

There is no order more noisily given or taken up with lustier
shouts on board a homeward-bound merchant ship than the command,
"Man the windlass!" The rush of expectant men out of the
forecastle, the snatching of hand-spikes, the tramp of feet, the
clink of the pawls, make a stirring accompaniment to a plaintive
up-anchor song with a roaring chorus; and this burst of noisy
activity from a whole ship's crew seems like a voiceful awakening
of the ship herself, till then, in the picturesque phrase of Dutch
seamen, "lying asleep upon her iron."

For a ship with her sails furled on her squared yards, and
reflected from truck to water-line in the smooth gleaming sheet of
a landlocked harbour, seems, indeed, to a seaman's eye the most
perfect picture of slumbering repose. The getting of your anchor
was a noisy operation on board a merchant ship of yesterday--an
inspiring, joyous noise, as if, with the emblem of hope, the ship's
company expected to drag up out of the depths, each man all his
personal hopes into the reach of a securing hand--the hope of home,
the hope of rest, of liberty, of dissipation, of hard pleasure,
following the hard endurance of many days between sky and water.
And this noisiness, this exultation at the moment of the ship's
departure, make a tremendous contrast to the silent moments of her
arrival in a foreign roadstead--the silent moments when, stripped
of her sails, she forges ahead to her chosen berth, the loose
canvas fluttering softly in the gear above the heads of the men
standing still upon her decks, the master gazing intently forward
from the break of the poop. Gradually she loses her way, hardly
moving, with the three figures on her forecastle waiting
attentively about the cat-head for the last order of, perhaps, full
ninety days at sea: "Let go!"

This is the final word of a ship's ended journey, the closing word
of her toil and of her achievement. In a life whose worth is told
out in passages from port to port, the splash of the anchor's fall
and the thunderous rumbling of the chain are like the closing of a
distinct period, of which she seems conscious with a slight deep
shudder of all her frame. By so much is she nearer to her
appointed death, for neither years nor voyages can go on for ever.
It is to her like the striking of a clock, and in the pause which
follows she seems to take count of the passing time.

This is the last important order; the others are mere routine
directions. Once more the master is heard: "Give her forty-five
fathom to the water's edge," and then he, too, is done for a time.
For days he leaves all the harbour work to his chief mate, the
keeper of the ship's anchor and of the ship's routine. For days
his voice will not be heard raised about the decks, with that curt,
austere accent of the man in charge, till, again, when the hatches
are on, and in a silent and expectant ship, he shall speak up from
aft in commanding tones: "Man the windlass!"


The other year, looking through a newspaper of sound principles,
but whose staff WILL persist in "casting" anchors and going to sea
"on" a ship (ough!), I came across an article upon the season's
yachting. And, behold! it was a good article. To a man who had
but little to do with pleasure sailing (though all sailing is a
pleasure), and certainly nothing whatever with racing in open
waters, the writer's strictures upon the handicapping of yachts
were just intelligible and no more. And I do not pretend to any
interest in the enumeration of the great races of that year. As to
the 52-foot linear raters, praised so much by the writer, I am
warmed up by his approval of their performances; but, as far as any
clear conception goes, the descriptive phrase, so precise to the
comprehension of a yachtsman, evokes no definite image in my mind.

The writer praises that class of pleasure vessels, and I am willing
to endorse his words, as any man who loves every craft afloat would
be ready to do. I am disposed to admire and respect the 52-foot
linear raters on the word of a man who regrets in such a
sympathetic and understanding spirit the threatened decay of
yachting seamanship.

Of course, yacht racing is an organized pastime, a function of
social idleness ministering to the vanity of certain wealthy
inhabitants of these isles nearly as much as to their inborn love
of the sea. But the writer of the article in question goes on to
point out, with insight and justice, that for a great number of
people (20,000, I think he says) it is a means of livelihood--that
it is, in his own words, an industry. Now, the moral side of an
industry, productive or unproductive, the redeeming and ideal
aspect of this bread-winning, is the attainment and preservation of
the highest possible skill on the part of the craftsmen. Such
skill, the skill of technique, is more than honesty; it is
something wider, embracing honesty and grace and rule in an
elevated and clear sentiment, not altogether utilitarian, which may
be called the honour of labour. It is made up of accumulated
tradition, kept alive by individual pride, rendered exact by
professional opinion, and, like the higher arts, it spurred on and
sustained by discriminating praise.

This is why the attainment of proficiency, the pushing of your
skill with attention to the most delicate shades of excellence, is
a matter of vital concern. Efficiency of a practically flawless
kind may be reached naturally in the struggle for bread. But there
is something beyond--a higher point, a subtle and unmistakable
touch of love and pride beyond mere skill; almost an inspiration
which gives to all work that finish which is almost art--which IS

As men of scrupulous honour set up a high standard of public
conscience above the dead-level of an honest community, so men of
that skill which passes into art by ceaseless striving raise the
dead-level of correct practice in the crafts of land and sea. The
conditions fostering the growth of that supreme, alive excellence,
as well in work as in play, ought to be preserved with a most
careful regard lest the industry or the game should perish of an
insidious and inward decay. Therefore I have read with profound
regret, in that article upon the yachting season of a certain year,
that the seamanship on board racing yachts is not now what it used
to be only a few, very few, years ago.

For that was the gist of that article, written evidently by a man
who not only knows but UNDERSTANDS--a thing (let me remark in
passing) much rarer than one would expect, because the sort of
understanding I mean is inspired by love; and love, though in a
sense it may be admitted to be stronger than death, is by no means
so universal and so sure. In fact, love is rare--the love of men,
of things, of ideas, the love of perfected skill. For love is the
enemy of haste; it takes count of passing days, of men who pass
away, of a fine art matured slowly in the course of years and
doomed in a short time to pass away too, and be no more. Love and
regret go hand in hand in this world of changes swifter than the
shifting of the clouds reflected in the mirror of the sea.

To penalize a yacht in proportion to the fineness of her
performance is unfair to the craft and to her men. It is unfair to
the perfection of her form and to the skill of her servants. For
we men are, in fact, the servants of our creations. We remain in
everlasting bondage to the productions of our brain and to the work
of our hands. A man is born to serve his time on this earth, and
there is something fine in the service being given on other grounds
than that of utility. The bondage of art is very exacting. And,
as the writer of the article which started this train of thought
says with lovable warmth, the sailing of yachts is a fine art.

His contention is that racing, without time allowances for anything
else but tonnage--that is, for size--has fostered the fine art of
sailing to the pitch of perfection. Every sort of demand is made
upon the master of a sailing-yacht, and to be penalized in
proportion to your success may be of advantage to the sport itself,
but it has an obviously deteriorating effect upon the seamanship.
The fine art is being lost.


The sailing and racing of yachts has developed a class of fore-and-
aft sailors, men born and bred to the sea, fishing in winter and
yachting in summer; men to whom the handling of that particular rig
presents no mystery. It is their striving for victory that has
elevated the sailing of pleasure craft to the dignity of a fine art
in that special sense. As I have said, I know nothing of racing
and but little of fore-and-aft rig; but the advantages of such a
rig are obvious, especially for purposes of pleasure, whether in
cruising or racing. It requires less effort in handling; the
trimming of the sail-planes to the wind can be done with speed and
accuracy; the unbroken spread of the sail-area is of infinite
advantage; and the greatest possible amount of canvas can be
displayed upon the least possible quantity of spars. Lightness and
concentrated power are the great qualities of fore-and-aft rig.

A fleet of fore-and-afters at anchor has its own slender
graciousness. The setting of their sails resembles more than
anything else the unfolding of a bird's wings; the facility of
their evolutions is a pleasure to the eye. They are birds of the
sea, whose swimming is like flying, and resembles more a natural
function than the handling of man-invented appliances. The fore-
and-aft rig in its simplicity and the beauty of its aspect under
every angle of vision is, I believe, unapproachable. A schooner,
yawl, or cutter in charge of a capable man seems to handle herself
as if endowed with the power of reasoning and the gift of swift
execution. One laughs with sheer pleasure at a smart piece of
manoeuvring, as at a manifestation of a living creature's quick wit
and graceful precision.

Of those three varieties of fore-and-aft rig, the cutter--the
racing rig par excellence--is of an appearance the most imposing,
from the fact that practically all her canvas is in one piece. The
enormous mainsail of a cutter, as she draws slowly past a point of
land or the end of a jetty under your admiring gaze, invests her
with an air of lofty and silent majesty. At anchor a schooner
looks better; she has an aspect of greater efficiency and a better
balance to the eye, with her two masts distributed over the hull
with a swaggering rake aft. The yawl rig one comes in time to
love. It is, I should think, the easiest of all to manage.

For racing, a cutter; for a long pleasure voyage, a schooner; for
cruising in home waters, the yawl; and the handling of them all is
indeed a fine art. It requires not only the knowledge of the
general principles of sailing, but a particular acquaintance with
the character of the craft. All vessels are handled in the same
way as far as theory goes, just as you may deal with all men on
broad and rigid principles. But if you want that success in life
which comes from the affection and confidence of your fellows, then
with no two men, however similar they may appear in their nature,
will you deal in the same way. There may be a rule of conduct;
there is no rule of human fellowship. To deal with men is as fine
an art as it is to deal with ships. Both men and ships live in an
unstable element, are subject to subtle and powerful influences,
and want to have their merits understood rather than their faults
found out.

It is not what your ship will NOT do that you want to know to get
on terms of successful partnership with her; it is, rather, that
you ought to have a precise knowledge of what she will do for you
when called upon to put forth what is in her by a sympathetic
touch. At first sight the difference does not seem great in either
line of dealing with the difficult problem of limitations. But the
difference is great. The difference lies in the spirit in which
the problem is approached. After all, the art of handling ships is
finer, perhaps, than the art of handling men.

And, like all fine arts, it must be based upon a broad, solid
sincerity, which, like a law of Nature, rules an infinity of
different phenomena. Your endeavour must be single-minded. You
would talk differently to a coal-heaver and to a professor. But is
this duplicity? I deny it. The truth consists in the genuineness
of the feeling, in the genuine recognition of the two men, so
similar and so different, as your two partners in the hazard of
life. Obviously, a humbug, thinking only of winning his little
race, would stand a chance of profiting by his artifices. Men,
professors or coal-heavers, are easily deceived; they even have an
extraordinary knack of lending themselves to deception, a sort of
curious and inexplicable propensity to allow themselves to be led
by the nose with their eyes open. But a ship is a creature which
we have brought into the world, as it were on purpose to keep us up
to the mark. In her handling a ship will not put up with a mere
pretender, as, for instance, the public will do with Mr. X, the
popular statesman, Mr. Y, the popular scientist, or Mr. Z, the
popular--what shall we say?--anything from a teacher of high
morality to a bagman--who have won their little race. But I would
like (though not accustomed to betting) to wager a large sum that
not one of the few first-rate skippers of racing yachts has ever
been a humbug. It would have been too difficult. The difficulty
arises from the fact that one does not deal with ships in a mob,
but with a ship as an individual. So we may have to do with men.
But in each of us there lurks some particle of the mob spirit, of
the mob temperament. No matter how earnestly we strive against
each other, we remain brothers on the lowest side of our intellect
and in the instability of our feelings. With ships it is not so.
Much as they are to us, they are nothing to each other. Those
sensitive creatures have no ears for our blandishments. It takes
something more than words to cajole them to do our will, to cover
us with glory. Luckily, too, or else there would have been more
shoddy reputations for first-rate seamanship. Ships have no ears,
I repeat, though, indeed, I think I have known ships who really
seemed to have had eyes, or else I cannot understand on what ground
a certain 1,000-ton barque of my acquaintance on one particular
occasion refused to answer her helm, thereby saving a frightful
smash to two ships and to a very good man's reputation. I knew her
intimately for two years, and in no other instance either before or
since have I known her to do that thing. The man she had served so
well (guessing, perhaps, at the depths of his affection for her) I
have known much longer, and in bare justice to him I must say that
this confidence-shattering experience (though so fortunate) only
augmented his trust in her. Yes, our ships have no ears, and thus
they cannot be deceived. I would illustrate my idea of fidelity as
between man and ship, between the master and his art, by a
statement which, though it might appear shockingly sophisticated,
is really very simple. I would say that a racing-yacht skipper who
thought of nothing else but the glory of winning the race would
never attain to any eminence of reputation. The genuine masters of
their craft--I say this confidently from my experience of ships--
have thought of nothing but of doing their very best by the vessel
under their charge. To forget one's self, to surrender all
personal feeling in the service of that fine art, is the only way
for a seaman to the faithful discharge of his trust.

Such is the service of a fine art and of ships that sail the sea.
And therein I think I can lay my finger upon the difference between
the seamen of yesterday, who are still with us, and the seamen of
to-morrow, already entered upon the possession of their
inheritance. History repeats itself, but the special call of an
art which has passed away is never reproduced. It is as utterly
gone out of the world as the song of a destroyed wild bird.
Nothing will awaken the same response of pleasurable emotion or
conscientious endeavour. And the sailing of any vessel afloat is
an art whose fine form seems already receding from us on its way to
the overshadowed Valley of Oblivion. The taking of a modern
steamship about the world (though one would not minimize its
responsibilities) has not the same quality of intimacy with nature,
which, after all, is an indispensable condition to the building up
of an art. It is less personal and a more exact calling; less
arduous, but also less gratifying in the lack of close communion
between the artist and the medium of his art. It is, in short,
less a matter of love. Its effects are measured exactly in time
and space as no effect of an art can be. It is an occupation which
a man not desperately subject to sea-sickness can be imagined to
follow with content, without enthusiasm, with industry, without
affection. Punctuality is its watchword. The incertitude which
attends closely every artistic endeavour is absent from its
regulated enterprise. It has no great moments of self-confidence,
or moments not less great of doubt and heart-searching. It is an
industry which, like other industries, has its romance, its honour
and its rewards, its bitter anxieties and its hours of ease. But
such sea-going has not the artistic quality of a single-handed
struggle with something much greater than yourself; it is not the
laborious absorbing practice of an art whose ultimate result
remains on the knees of the gods. It is not an individual,
temperamental achievement, but simply the skilled use of a captured
force, merely another step forward upon the way of universal


Every passage of a ship of yesterday, whose yards were braced round
eagerly the very moment the pilot, with his pockets full of
letters, had got over the side, was like a race--a race against
time, against an ideal standard of achievement outstripping the
expectations of common men. Like all true art, the general conduct
of a ship and her handling in particular cases had a technique
which could be discussed with delight and pleasure by men who found
in their work, not bread alone, but an outlet for the peculiarities
of their temperament. To get the best and truest effect from the
infinitely varying moods of sky and sea, not pictorially, but in
the spirit of their calling, was their vocation, one and all; and
they recognised this with as much sincerity, and drew as much
inspiration from this reality, as any man who ever put brush to
canvas. The diversity of temperaments was immense amongst those
masters of the fine art.

Some of them were like Royal Academicians of a certain kind. They
never startled you by a touch of originality, by a fresh audacity
of inspiration. They were safe, very safe. They went about
solemnly in the assurance of their consecrated and empty
reputation. Names are odious, but I remember one of them who might
have been their very president, the P.R.A. of the sea-craft. His
weather-beaten and handsome face, his portly presence, his shirt-
fronts and broad cuffs and gold links, his air of bluff
distinction, impressed the humble beholders (stevedores, tally
clerks, tide-waiters) as he walked ashore over the gangway of his
ship lying at the Circular Quay in Sydney. His voice was deep,
hearty, and authoritative--the voice of a very prince amongst
sailors. He did everything with an air which put your attention on
the alert and raised your expectations, but the result somehow was
always on stereotyped lines, unsuggestive, empty of any lesson that
one could lay to heart. He kept his ship in apple-pie order, which
would have been seamanlike enough but for a finicking touch in its
details. His officers affected a superiority over the rest of us,
but the boredom of their souls appeared in their manner of dreary
submission to the fads of their commander. It was only his
apprenticed boys whose irrepressible spirits were not affected by
the solemn and respectable mediocrity of that artist. There were
four of these youngsters: one the son of a doctor, another of a
colonel, the third of a jeweller; the name of the fourth was
Twentyman, and this is all I remember of his parentage. But not
one of them seemed to possess the smallest spark of gratitude in
his composition. Though their commander was a kind man in his way,
and had made a point of introducing them to the best people in the
town in order that they should not fall into the bad company of
boys belonging to other ships, I regret to say that they made faces
at him behind his back, and imitated the dignified carriage of his
head without any concealment whatever.

This master of the fine art was a personage and nothing more; but,
as I have said, there was an infinite diversity of temperament
amongst the masters of the fine art I have known. Some were great
impressionists. They impressed upon you the fear of God and
Immensity--or, in other words, the fear of being drowned with every
circumstance of terrific grandeur. One may think that the locality
of your passing away by means of suffocation in water does not
really matter very much. I am not so sure of that. I am, perhaps,
unduly sensitive, but I confess that the idea of being suddenly
spilt into an infuriated ocean in the midst of darkness and uproar
affected me always with a sensation of shrinking distaste. To be
drowned in a pond, though it might be called an ignominious fate by
the ignorant, is yet a bright and peaceful ending in comparison
with some other endings to one's earthly career which I have
mentally quaked at in the intervals or even in the midst of violent

But let that pass. Some of the masters whose influence left a
trace upon my character to this very day, combined a fierceness of
conception with a certitude of execution upon the basis of just
appreciation of means and ends which is the highest quality of the
man of action. And an artist is a man of action, whether he
creates a personality, invents an expedient, or finds the issue of
a complicated situation.

There were masters, too, I have known, whose very art consisted in
avoiding every conceivable situation. It is needless to say that
they never did great things in their craft; but they were not to be
despised for that. They were modest; they understood their
limitations. Their own masters had not handed the sacred fire into
the keeping of their cold and skilful hands. One of those last I
remember specially, now gone to his rest from that sea which his
temperament must have made a scene of little more than a peaceful
pursuit. Once only did he attempt a stroke of audacity, one early
morning, with a steady breeze, entering a crowded roadstead. But
he was not genuine in this display which might have been art. He
was thinking of his own self; he hankered after the meretricious
glory of a showy performance.

As, rounding a dark, wooded point, bathed in fresh air and
sunshine, we opened to view a crowd of shipping at anchor lying
half a mile ahead of us perhaps, he called me aft from my station
on the forecastle head, and, turning over and over his binoculars
in his brown hands, said: "Do you see that big, heavy ship with
white lower masts? I am going to take up a berth between her and
the shore. Now do you see to it that the men jump smartly at the
first order."

I answered, "Ay, ay, sir," and verily believed that this would be a
fine performance. We dashed on through the fleet in magnificent
style. There must have been many open mouths and following eyes on
board those ships--Dutch, English, with a sprinkling of Americans
and a German or two--who had all hoisted their flags at eight
o'clock as if in honour of our arrival. It would have been a fine
performance if it had come off, but it did not. Through a touch of
self-seeking that modest artist of solid merit became untrue to his
temperament. It was not with him art for art's sake: it was art
for his own sake; and a dismal failure was the penalty he paid for
that greatest of sins. It might have been even heavier, but, as it
happened, we did not run our ship ashore, nor did we knock a large
hole in the big ship whose lower masts were painted white. But it
is a wonder that we did not carry away the cables of both our
anchors, for, as may be imagined, I did not stand upon the order to
"Let go!" that came to me in a quavering, quite unknown voice from
his trembling lips. I let them both go with a celerity which to
this day astonishes my memory. No average merchantman's anchors
have ever been let go with such miraculous smartness. And they
both held. I could have kissed their rough, cold iron palms in
gratitude if they had not been buried in slimy mud under ten
fathoms of water. Ultimately they brought us up with the jibboom
of a Dutch brig poking through our spanker--nothing worse. And a
miss is as good as a mile.

But not in art. Afterwards the master said to me in a shy mumble,
"She wouldn't luff up in time, somehow. What's the matter with
her?" And I made no answer.

Yet the answer was clear. The ship had found out the momentary
weakness of her man. Of all the living creatures upon land and
sea, it is ships alone that cannot be taken in by barren pretences,
that will not put up with bad art from their masters.


From the main truck of the average tall ship the horizon describes
a circle of many miles, in which you can see another ship right
down to her water-line; and these very eyes which follow this
writing have counted in their time over a hundred sail becalmed, as
if within a magic ring, not very far from the Azores--ships more or
less tall. There were hardly two of them heading exactly the same
way, as if each had meditated breaking out of the enchanted circle
at a different point of the compass. But the spell of the calm is
a strong magic. The following day still saw them scattered within
sight of each other and heading different ways; but when, at last,
the breeze came with the darkling ripple that ran very blue on a
pale sea, they all went in the same direction together. For this
was the homeward-bound fleet from the far-off ends of the earth,
and a Falmouth fruit-schooner, the smallest of them all, was
heading the flight. One could have imagined her very fair, if not
divinely tall, leaving a scent of lemons and oranges in her wake.

The next day there were very few ships in sight from our mast-
heads--seven at most, perhaps, with a few more distant specks, hull
down, beyond the magic ring of the horizon. The spell of the fair
wind has a subtle power to scatter a white-winged company of ships
looking all the same way, each with its white fillet of tumbling
foam under the bow. It is the calm that brings ships mysteriously
together; it is your wind that is the great separator.

The taller the ship, the further she can be seen; and her white
tallness breathed upon by the wind first proclaims her size. The
tall masts holding aloft the white canvas, spread out like a snare
for catching the invisible power of the air, emerge gradually from
the water, sail after sail, yard after yard, growing big, till,
under the towering structure of her machinery, you perceive the
insignificant, tiny speck of her hull.

The tall masts are the pillars supporting the balanced planes that,
motionless and silent, catch from the air the ship's motive-power,
as it were a gift from Heaven vouchsafed to the audacity of man;
and it is the ship's tall spars, stripped and shorn of their white
glory, that incline themselves before the anger of the clouded

When they yield to a squall in a gaunt and naked submission, their
tallness is brought best home even to the mind of a seaman. The
man who has looked upon his ship going over too far is made aware
of the preposterous tallness of a ship's spars. It seems
impossible but that those gilt trucks which one had to tilt one's
head back to see, now falling into the lower plane of vision, must
perforce hit the very edge of the horizon. Such an experience
gives you a better impression of the loftiness of your spars than
any amount of running aloft could do. And yet in my time the royal
yards of an average profitable ship were a good way up above her

No doubt a fair amount of climbing up iron ladders can be achieved
by an active man in a ship's engine-room, but I remember moments
when even to my supple limbs and pride of nimbleness the sailing-
ship's machinery seemed to reach up to the very stars.

For machinery it is, doing its work in perfect silence and with a
motionless grace, that seems to hide a capricious and not always
governable power, taking nothing away from the material stores of
the earth. Not for it the unerring precision of steel moved by
white steam and living by red fire and fed with black coal. The
other seems to draw its strength from the very soul of the world,
its formidable ally, held to obedience by the frailest bonds, like
a fierce ghost captured in a snare of something even finer than
spun silk. For what is the array of the strongest ropes, the
tallest spars and the stoutest canvas against the mighty breath of
the infinite, but thistle stalks, cobwebs and gossamer?


Indeed, it is less than nothing, and I have seen, when the great
soul of the world turned over with a heavy sigh, a perfectly new,
extra-stout foresail vanish like a bit of some airy stuff much
lighter than gossamer. Then was the time for the tall spars to
stand fast in the great uproar. The machinery must do its work
even if the soul of the world has gone mad.

The modern steamship advances upon a still and overshadowed sea
with a pulsating tremor of her frame, an occasional clang in her
depths, as if she had an iron heart in her iron body; with a
thudding rhythm in her progress and the regular beat of her
propeller, heard afar in the night with an august and plodding
sound as of the march of an inevitable future. But in a gale, the
silent machinery of a sailing-ship would catch not only the power,
but the wild and exulting voice of the world's soul. Whether she
ran with her tall spars swinging, or breasted it with her tall
spars lying over, there was always that wild song, deep like a
chant, for a bass to the shrill pipe of the wind played on the sea-
tops, with a punctuating crash, now and then, of a breaking wave.
At times the weird effects of that invisible orchestra would get
upon a man's nerves till he wished himself deaf.

And this recollection of a personal wish, experienced upon several
oceans, where the soul of the world has plenty of room to turn over
with a mighty sigh, brings me to the remark that in order to take a
proper care of a ship's spars it is just as well for a seaman to
have nothing the matter with his ears. Such is the intimacy with
which a seaman had to live with his ship of yesterday that his
senses were like her senses, that the stress upon his body made him
judge of the strain upon the ship's masts.

I had been some time at sea before I became aware of the fact that
hearing plays a perceptible part in gauging the force of the wind.
It was at night. The ship was one of those iron wool-clippers that
the Clyde had floated out in swarms upon the world during the
seventh decade of the last century. It was a fine period in ship-
building, and also, I might say, a period of over-masting. The
spars rigged up on the narrow hulls were indeed tall then, and the
ship of which I think, with her coloured-glass skylight ends
bearing the motto, "Let Glasgow Flourish," was certainly one of the
most heavily-sparred specimens. She was built for hard driving,
and unquestionably she got all the driving she could stand. Our
captain was a man famous for the quick passages he had been used to
make in the old Tweed, a ship famous the world over for her speed.
The Tweed had been a wooden vessel, and he brought the tradition of
quick passages with him into the iron clipper. I was the junior in
her, a third mate, keeping watch with the chief officer; and it was
just during one of the night watches in a strong, freshening breeze
that I overheard two men in a sheltered nook of the main deck
exchanging these informing remarks. Said one:

"Should think 'twas time some of them light sails were coming off

And the other, an older man, uttered grumpily: "No fear! not while
the chief mate's on deck. He's that deaf he can't tell how much
wind there is."

And, indeed, poor P-, quite young, and a smart seaman, was very
hard of hearing. At the same time, he had the name of being the
very devil of a fellow for carrying on sail on a ship. He was
wonderfully clever at concealing his deafness, and, as to carrying
on heavily, though he was a fearless man, I don't think that he
ever meant to take undue risks. I can never forget his naive sort
of astonishment when remonstrated with for what appeared a most
dare-devil performance. The only person, of course, that could
remonstrate with telling effect was our captain, himself a man of
dare-devil tradition; and really, for me, who knew under whom I was
serving, those were impressive scenes. Captain S- had a great name
for sailor-like qualities--the sort of name that compelled my
youthful admiration. To this day I preserve his memory, for,
indeed, it was he in a sense who completed my training. It was
often a stormy process, but let that pass. I am sure he meant
well, and I am certain that never, not even at the time, could I
bear him malice for his extraordinary gift of incisive criticism.
And to hear HIM make a fuss about too much sail on the ship seemed
one of those incredible experiences that take place only in one's

It generally happened in this way: Night, clouds racing overhead,
wind howling, royals set, and the ship rushing on in the dark, an
immense white sheet of foam level with the lee rail. Mr. P-, in
charge of the deck, hooked on to the windward mizzen rigging in a
state of perfect serenity; myself, the third mate, also hooked on
somewhere to windward of the slanting poop, in a state of the
utmost preparedness to jump at the very first hint of some sort of
order, but otherwise in a perfectly acquiescent state of mind.
Suddenly, out of the companion would appear a tall, dark figure,
bareheaded, with a short white beard of a perpendicular cut, very
visible in the dark--Captain S-, disturbed in his reading down
below by the frightful bounding and lurching of the ship. Leaning
very much against the precipitous incline of the deck, he would
take a turn or two, perfectly silent, hang on by the compass for a
while, take another couple of turns, and suddenly burst out:

"What are you trying to do with the ship?"

And Mr. P-, who was not good at catching what was shouted in the
wind, would say interrogatively:

"Yes, sir?"

Then in the increasing gale of the sea there would be a little
private ship's storm going on in which you could detect strong
language, pronounced in a tone of passion and exculpatory
protestations uttered with every possible inflection of injured

"By Heavens, Mr. P-! I used to carry on sail in my time, but--"

And the rest would be lost to me in a stormy gust of wind.

Then, in a lull, P-'s protesting innocence would become audible:

"She seems to stand it very well."

And then another burst of an indignant voice:

"Any fool can carry sail on a ship--"

And so on and so on, the ship meanwhile rushing on her way with a
heavier list, a noisier splutter, a more threatening hiss of the
white, almost blinding, sheet of foam to leeward. For the best of
it was that Captain S- seemed constitutionally incapable of giving
his officers a definite order to shorten sail; and so that
extraordinarily vague row would go on till at last it dawned upon
them both, in some particularly alarming gust, that it was time to
do something. There is nothing like the fearful inclination of
your tall spars overloaded with canvas to bring a deaf man and an
angry one to their senses.


So sail did get shortened more or less in time even in that ship,
and her tall spars never went overboard while I served in her.
However, all the time I was with them, Captain S- and Mr. P- did
not get on very well together. If P- carried on "like the very
devil" because he was too deaf to know how much wind there was,
Captain S- (who, as I have said, seemed constitutionally incapable
of ordering one of his officers to shorten sail) resented the
necessity forced upon him by Mr. P-'s desperate goings on. It was
in Captain S-'s tradition rather to reprove his officers for not
carrying on quite enough--in his phrase "for not taking every ounce
of advantage of a fair wind." But there was also a psychological
motive that made him extremely difficult to deal with on board that
iron clipper. He had just come out of the marvellous Tweed, a
ship, I have heard, heavy to look at but of phenomenal speed. In
the middle sixties she had beaten by a day and a half the steam
mail-boat from Hong Kong to Singapore. There was something
peculiarly lucky, perhaps, in the placing of her masts--who knows?
Officers of men-of-war used to come on board to take the exact
dimensions of her sail-plan. Perhaps there had been a touch of
genius or the finger of good fortune in the fashioning of her lines
at bow and stern. It is impossible to say. She was built in the
East Indies somewhere, of teak-wood throughout, except the deck.
She had a great sheer, high bows, and a clumsy stern. The men who
had seen her described her to me as "nothing much to look at." But
in the great Indian famine of the seventies that ship, already old
then, made some wonderful dashes across the Gulf of Bengal with
cargoes of rice from Rangoon to Madras.

She took the secret of her speed with her, and, unsightly as she
was, her image surely has its glorious place in the mirror of the
old sea.

The point, however, is that Captain S-, who used to say frequently,
"She never made a decent passage after I left her," seemed to think
that the secret of her speed lay in her famous commander. No doubt
the secret of many a ship's excellence does lie with the man on
board, but it was hopeless for Captain S- to try to make his new
iron clipper equal the feats which made the old Tweed a name of
praise upon the lips of English-speaking seamen. There was
something pathetic in it, as in the endeavour of an artist in his
old age to equal the masterpieces of his youth--for the Tweed's
famous passages were Captain S-'s masterpieces. It was pathetic,
and perhaps just the least bit dangerous. At any rate, I am glad
that, what between Captain S-'s yearning for old triumphs and Mr.
P-'s deafness, I have seen some memorable carrying on to make a
passage. And I have carried on myself upon the tall spars of that
Clyde shipbuilder's masterpiece as I have never carried on in a
ship before or since.

The second mate falling ill during the passage, I was promoted to
officer of the watch, alone in charge of the deck. Thus the
immense leverage of the ship's tall masts became a matter very near
my own heart. I suppose it was something of a compliment for a
young fellow to be trusted, apparently without any supervision, by
such a commander as Captain S-; though, as far as I can remember,
neither the tone, nor the manner, nor yet the drift of Captain S-'s
remarks addressed to myself did ever, by the most strained
interpretation, imply a favourable opinion of my abilities. And he
was, I must say, a most uncomfortable commander to get your orders
from at night. If I had the watch from eight till midnight, he
would leave the deck about nine with the words, "Don't take any
sail off her." Then, on the point of disappearing down the
companion-way, he would add curtly: "Don't carry anything away."
I am glad to say that I never did; one night, however, I was
caught, not quite prepared, by a sudden shift of wind.

There was, of course, a good deal of noise--running about, the,
shouts of the sailors, the thrashing of the sails--enough, in fact,
to wake the dead. But S- never came on deck. When I was relieved
by the chief mate an hour afterwards, he sent for me. I went into
his stateroom; he was lying on his couch wrapped up in a rug, with
a pillow under his head.

"What was the matter with you up there just now?" he asked.

"Wind flew round on the lee quarter, sir," I said.

"Couldn't you see the shift coming?"

"Yes, sir, I thought it wasn't very far off."

"Why didn't you have your courses hauled up at once, then?" he
asked in a tone that ought to have made my blood run cold.

But this was my chance, and I did not let it slip.

"Well, sir," I said in an apologetic tone, "she was going eleven
knots very nicely, and I thought she would do for another half-hour
or so."

He gazed at me darkly out of his head, lying very still on the
white pillow, for a time.

"Ah, yes, another half-hour. That's the way ships get dismasted."

And that was all I got in the way of a wigging. I waited a little
while and then went out, shutting carefully the door of the state-
room after me.

Well, I have loved, lived with, and left the sea without ever
seeing a ship's tall fabric of sticks, cobwebs and gossamer go by
the board. Sheer good luck, no doubt. But as to poor P-, I am
sure that he would not have got off scot-free like this but for the
god of gales, who called him away early from this earth, which is
three parts ocean, and therefore a fit abode for sailors. A few
years afterwards I met in an Indian port a man who had served in
the ships of the same company. Names came up in our talk, names of
our colleagues in the same employ, and, naturally enough, I asked
after P-. Had he got a command yet? And the other man answered

"No; but he's provided for, anyhow. A heavy sea took him off the
poop in the run between New Zealand and the Horn."

Thus P- passed away from amongst the tall spars of ships that he
had tried to their utmost in many a spell of boisterous weather.
He had shown me what carrying on meant, but he was not a man to
learn discretion from. He could not help his deafness. One can
only remember his cheery temper, his admiration for the jokes in
Punch, his little oddities--like his strange passion for borrowing
looking-glasses, for instance. Each of our cabins had its own
looking-glass screwed to the bulkhead, and what he wanted with more
of them we never could fathom. He asked for the loan in
confidential tones. Why? Mystery. We made various surmises. No
one will ever know now. At any rate, it was a harmless
eccentricity, and may the god of gales, who took him away so
abruptly between New Zealand and the Horn, let his soul rest in
some Paradise of true seamen, where no amount of carrying on will
ever dismast a ship!


There has been a time when a ship's chief mate, pocket-book in hand
and pencil behind his ear, kept one eye aloft upon his riggers and
the other down the hatchway on the stevedores, and watched the
disposition of his ship's cargo, knowing that even before she
started he was already doing his best to secure for her an easy and
quick passage.

The hurry of the times, the loading and discharging organization of
the docks, the use of hoisting machinery which works quickly and
will not wait, the cry for prompt despatch, the very size of his
ship, stand nowadays between the modern seaman and the thorough
knowledge of his craft.

There are profitable ships and unprofitable ships. The profitable
ship will carry a large load through all the hazards of the
weather, and, when at rest, will stand up in dock and shift from
berth to berth without ballast. There is a point of perfection in
a ship as a worker when she is spoken of as being able to SAIL
without ballast. I have never met that sort of paragon myself, but
I have seen these paragons advertised amongst ships for sale. Such
excess of virtue and good-nature on the part of a ship always
provoked my mistrust. It is open to any man to say that his ship
will sail without ballast; and he will say it, too, with every mark
of profound conviction, especially if he is not going to sail in
her himself. The risk of advertising her as able to sail without
ballast is not great, since the statement does not imply a warranty
of her arriving anywhere. Moreover, it is strictly true that most
ships will sail without ballast for some little time before they
turn turtle upon the crew.

A shipowner loves a profitable ship; the seaman is proud of her; a
doubt of her good looks seldom exists in his mind; but if he can
boast of her more useful qualities it is an added satisfaction for
his self-love.

The loading of ships was once a matter of skill, judgment, and
knowledge. Thick books have been written about it. "Stevens on
Stowage" is a portly volume with the renown and weight (in its own
world) of Coke on Littleton. Stevens is an agreeable writer, and,
as is the case with men of talent, his gifts adorn his sterling
soundness. He gives you the official teaching on the whole
subject, is precise as to rules, mentions illustrative events,
quotes law cases where verdicts turned upon a point of stowage. He
is never pedantic, and, for all his close adherence to broad
principles, he is ready to admit that no two ships can be treated
exactly alike.

Stevedoring, which had been a skilled labour, is fast becoming a
labour without the skill. The modern steamship with her many holds
is not loaded within the sailor-like meaning of the word. She is
filled up. Her cargo is not stowed in any sense; it is simply
dumped into her through six hatchways, more or less, by twelve
winches or so, with clatter and hurry and racket and heat, in a
cloud of steam and a mess of coal-dust. As long as you keep her
propeller under water and take care, say, not to fling down barrels
of oil on top of bales of silk, or deposit an iron bridge-girder of
five ton or so upon a bed of coffee-bags, you have done about all
in the way of duty that the cry for prompt despatch will allow you
to do.


The sailing-ship, when I knew her in her days of perfection, was a
sensible creature. When I say her days of perfection, I mean
perfection of build, gear, seaworthy qualities and case of
handling, not the perfection of speed. That quality has departed
with the change of building material. No iron ship of yesterday
ever attained the marvels of speed which the seamanship of men
famous in their time had obtained from their wooden, copper-sheeted
predecessors. Everything had been done to make the iron ship
perfect, but no wit of man had managed to devise an efficient
coating composition to keep her bottom clean with the smooth
cleanness of yellow metal sheeting. After a spell of a few weeks
at sea, an iron ship begins to lag as if she had grown tired too
soon. It is only her bottom that is getting foul. A very little
affects the speed of an iron ship which is not driven on by a
merciless propeller. Often it is impossible to tell what
inconsiderate trifle puts her off her stride. A certain
mysteriousness hangs around the quality of speed as it was
displayed by the old sailing-ships commanded by a competent seaman.
In those days the speed depended upon the seaman; therefore, apart
from the laws, rules, and regulations for the good preservation of
his cargo, he was careful of his loading,--or what is technically
called the trim of his ship. Some ships sailed fast on an even
keel, others had to be trimmed quite one foot by the stern, and I
have heard of a ship that gave her best speed on a wind when so
loaded as to float a couple of inches by the head.

I call to mind a winter landscape in Amsterdam--a flat foreground
of waste land, with here and there stacks of timber, like the huts
of a camp of some very miserable tribe; the long stretch of the
Handelskade; cold, stone-faced quays, with the snow-sprinkled
ground and the hard, frozen water of the canal, in which were set
ships one behind another with their frosty mooring-ropes hanging
slack and their decks idle and deserted, because, as the master
stevedore (a gentle, pale person, with a few golden hairs on his
chin and a reddened nose) informed me, their cargoes were frozen-in
up-country on barges and schuyts. In the distance, beyond the
waste ground, and running parallel with the line of ships, a line
of brown, warm-toned houses seemed bowed under snow-laden roofs.
From afar at the end of Tsar Peter Straat, issued in the frosty air
the tinkle of bells of the horse tramcars, appearing and
disappearing in the opening between the buildings, like little toy
carriages harnessed with toy horses and played with by people that
appeared no bigger than children.

I was, as the French say, biting my fists with impatience for that
cargo frozen up-country; with rage at that canal set fast, at the
wintry and deserted aspect of all those ships that seemed to decay
in grim depression for want of the open water. I was chief mate,
and very much alone. Directly I had joined I received from my
owners instructions to send all the ship's apprentices away on
leave together, because in such weather there was nothing for
anybody to do, unless to keep up a fire in the cabin stove. That
was attended to by a snuffy and mop-headed, inconceivably dirty,
and weirdly toothless Dutch ship-keeper, who could hardly speak
three words of English, but who must have had some considerable
knowledge of the language, since he managed invariably to interpret
in the contrary sense everything that was said to him.

Notwithstanding the little iron stove, the ink froze on the swing-
table in the cabin, and I found it more convenient to go ashore
stumbling over the arctic waste-land and shivering in glazed
tramcars in order to write my evening letter to my owners in a
gorgeous cafe in the centre of the town. It was an immense place,
lofty and gilt, upholstered in red plush, full of electric lights
and so thoroughly warmed that even the marble tables felt tepid to
the touch. The waiter who brought me my cup of coffee bore, by
comparison with my utter isolation, the dear aspect of an intimate
friend. There, alone in a noisy crowd, I would write slowly a
letter addressed to Glasgow, of which the gist would be: There is
no cargo, and no prospect of any coming till late spring
apparently. And all the time I sat there the necessity of getting
back to the ship bore heavily on my already half-congealed spirits-
-the shivering in glazed tramcars, the stumbling over the snow-
sprinkled waste ground, the vision of ships frozen in a row,
appearing vaguely like corpses of black vessels in a white world,
so silent, so lifeless, so soulless they seemed to be.

With precaution I would go up the side of my own particular corpse,
and would feel her as cold as ice itself and as slippery under my
feet. My cold berth would swallow up like a chilly burial niche my
bodily shivers and my mental excitement. It was a cruel winter.
The very air seemed as hard and trenchant as steel; but it would
have taken much more than this to extinguish my sacred fire for the
exercise of my craft. No young man of twenty-four appointed chief
mate for the first time in his life would have let that Dutch
tenacious winter penetrate into his heart. I think that in those
days I never forgot the fact of my elevation for five consecutive
minutes. I fancy it kept me warm, even in my slumbers, better than
the high pile of blankets, which positively crackled with frost as
I threw them off in the morning. And I would get up early for no
reason whatever except that I was in sole charge. The new captain
had not been appointed yet.

Almost each morning a letter from my owners would arrive, directing
me to go to the charterers and clamour for the ship's cargo; to
threaten them with the heaviest penalties of demurrage; to demand
that this assortment of varied merchandise, set fast in a landscape
of ice and windmills somewhere up-country, should be put on rail
instantly, and fed up to the ship in regular quantities every day.
After drinking some hot coffee, like an Arctic explorer setting off
on a sledge journey towards the North Pole, I would go ashore and
roll shivering in a tramcar into the very heart of the town, past
clean-faced houses, past thousands of brass knockers upon a
thousand painted doors glimmering behind rows of trees of the
pavement species, leafless, gaunt, seemingly dead for ever.

That part of the expedition was easy enough, though the horses were
painfully glistening with icicles, and the aspect of the tram-
conductors' faces presented a repulsive blending of crimson and
purple. But as to frightening or bullying, or even wheedling some
sort of answer out of Mr. Hudig, that was another matter
altogether. He was a big, swarthy Netherlander, with black
moustaches and a bold glance. He always began by shoving me into a
chair before I had time to open my mouth, gave me cordially a large
cigar, and in excellent English would start to talk everlastingly
about the phenomenal severity of the weather. It was impossible to
threaten a man who, though he possessed the language perfectly,
seemed incapable of understanding any phrase pronounced in a tone
of remonstrance or discontent. As to quarrelling with him, it
would have been stupid. The weather was too bitter for that. His
office was so warm, his fire so bright, his sides shook so heartily
with laughter, that I experienced always a great difficulty in
making up my mind to reach for my hat.

At last the cargo did come. At first it came dribbling in by rail
in trucks, till the thaw set in; and then fast, in a multitude of
barges, with a great rush of unbound waters. The gentle master
stevedore had his hands very full at last; and the chief mate
became worried in his mind as to the proper distribution of the
weight of his first cargo in a ship he did not personally know

Ships do want humouring. They want humouring in handling; and if
you mean to handle them well, they must have been humoured in the
distribution of the weight which you ask them to carry through the
good and evil fortune of a passage. Your ship is a tender
creature, whose idiosyncrasies must be attended to if you mean her
to come with credit to herself and you through the rough-and-tumble
of her life.


So seemed to think the new captain, who arrived the day after we
had finished loading, on the very eve of the day of sailing. I
first beheld him on the quay, a complete stranger to me, obviously
not a Hollander, in a black bowler and a short drab overcoat,
ridiculously out of tone with the winter aspect of the waste-lands,
bordered by the brown fronts of houses with their roofs dripping
with melting snow.

This stranger was walking up and down absorbed in the marked
contemplation of the ship's fore and aft trim; but when I saw him
squat on his heels in the slush at the very edge of the quay to
peer at the draught of water under her counter, I said to myself,
"This is the captain." And presently I descried his luggage coming
along--a real sailor's chest, carried by means of rope-beckets
between two men, with a couple of leather portmanteaus and a roll
of charts sheeted in canvas piled upon the lid. The sudden,
spontaneous agility with which he bounded aboard right off the rail
afforded me the first glimpse of his real character. Without
further preliminaries than a friendly nod, he addressed me: "You
have got her pretty well in her fore and aft trim. Now, what about
your weights?"

I told him I had managed to keep the weight sufficiently well up,
as I thought, one-third of the whole being in the upper part "above
the beams," as the technical expression has it. He whistled
"Phew!" scrutinizing me from head to foot. A sort of smiling
vexation was visible on his ruddy face.

"Well, we shall have a lively time of it this passage, I bet," he

He knew. It turned out he had been chief mate of her for the two
preceding voyages; and I was already familiar with his handwriting
in the old log-books I had been perusing in my cabin with a natural
curiosity, looking up the records of my new ship's luck, of her
behaviour, of the good times she had had, and of the troubles she
had escaped.

He was right in his prophecy. On our passage from Amsterdam to
Samarang with a general cargo, of which, alas! only one-third in
weight was stowed "above the beams," we had a lively time of it.
It was lively, but not joyful. There was not even a single moment
of comfort in it, because no seaman can feel comfortable in body or
mind when he has made his ship uneasy.

To travel along with a cranky ship for ninety days or so is no
doubt a nerve-trying experience; but in this case what was wrong
with our craft was this: that by my system of loading she had been
made much too stable.

Neither before nor since have I felt a ship roll so abruptly, so
violently, so heavily. Once she began, you felt that she would
never stop, and this hopeless sensation, characterizing the motion
of ships whose centre of gravity is brought down too low in
loading, made everyone on board weary of keeping on his feet. I
remember once over-hearing one of the hands say: "By Heavens,
Jack! I feel as if I didn't mind how soon I let myself go, and let
the blamed hooker knock my brains out if she likes." The captain
used to remark frequently: "Ah, yes; I dare say one-third weight
above beams would have been quite enough for most ships. But then,
you see, there's no two of them alike on the seas, and she's an
uncommonly ticklish jade to load."

Down south, running before the gales of high latitudes, she made
our life a burden to us. There were days when nothing would keep
even on the swing-tables, when there was no position where you
could fix yourself so as not to feel a constant strain upon all the
muscles of your body. She rolled and rolled with an awful
dislodging jerk and that dizzily fast sweep of her masts on every
swing. It was a wonder that the men sent aloft were not flung off
the yards, the yards not flung off the masts, the masts not flung
overboard. The captain in his armchair, holding on grimly at the
head of the table, with the soup-tureen rolling on one side of the
cabin and the steward sprawling on the other, would observe,
looking at me: "That's your one-third above the beams. The only
thing that surprises me is that the sticks have stuck to her all
this time."

Ultimately some of the minor spars did go--nothing important:
spanker-booms and such-like--because at times the frightful impetus
of her rolling would part a fourfold tackle of new three-inch
Manilla line as if it were weaker than pack-thread.

It was only poetic justice that the chief mate who had made a
mistake--perhaps a half-excusable one--about the distribution of
his ship's cargo should pay the penalty. A piece of one of the
minor spars that did carry away flew against the chief mate's back,
and sent him sliding on his face for quite a considerable distance
along the main deck. Thereupon followed various and unpleasant
consequences of a physical order--"queer symptoms," as the captain,
who treated them, used to say; inexplicable periods of
powerlessness, sudden accesses of mysterious pain; and the patient
agreed fully with the regretful mutters of his very attentive
captain wishing that it had been a straightforward broken leg.
Even the Dutch doctor who took the case up in Samarang offered no
scientific explanation. All he said was: "Ah, friend, you are
young yet; it may be very serious for your whole life. You must
leave your ship; you must quite silent be for three months--quite

Of course, he meant the chief mate to keep quiet--to lay up, as a
matter of fact. His manner was impressive enough, if his English
was childishly imperfect when compared with the fluency of Mr.
Hudig, the figure at the other end of that passage, and memorable
enough in its way. In a great airy ward of a Far Eastern hospital,
lying on my back, I had plenty of leisure to remember the dreadful
cold and snow of Amsterdam, while looking at the fronds of the
palm-trees tossing and rustling at the height of the window. I
could remember the elated feeling and the soul-gripping cold of
those tramway journeys taken into town to put what in diplomatic
language is called pressure upon the good Hudig, with his warm
fire, his armchair, his big cigar, and the never-failing suggestion
in his good-natured voice: "I suppose in the end it is you they
will appoint captain before the ship sails?" It may have been his
extreme good-nature, the serious, unsmiling good-nature of a fat,
swarthy man with coal-black moustache and steady eyes; but he might
have been a bit of a diplomatist, too. His enticing suggestions I
used to repel modestly by the assurance that it was extremely
unlikely, as I had not enough experience. "You know very well how
to go about business matters," he used to say, with a sort of
affected moodiness clouding his serene round face. I wonder
whether he ever laughed to himself after I had left the office. I
dare say he never did, because I understand that diplomatists, in
and out of the career, take themselves and their tricks with an
exemplary seriousness.

But he had nearly persuaded me that I was fit in every way to be
trusted with a command. There came three months of mental worry,
hard rolling, remorse, and physical pain to drive home the lesson
of insufficient experience.

Yes, your ship wants to be humoured with knowledge. You must treat
with an understanding consideration the mysteries of her feminine
nature, and then she will stand by you faithfully in the unceasing
struggle with forces wherein defeat is no shame. It is a serious
relation, that in which a man stands to his ship. She has her
rights as though she could breathe and speak; and, indeed, there
are ships that, for the right man, will do anything but speak, as
the saying goes.

A ship is not a slave. You must make her easy in a seaway, you
must never forget that you owe her the fullest share of your
thought, of your skill, of your self-love. If you remember that
obligation, naturally and without effort, as if it were an
instinctive feeling of your inner life, she will sail, stay, run
for you as long as she is able, or, like a sea-bird going to rest
upon the angry waves, she will lay out the heaviest gale that ever
made you doubt living long enough to see another sunrise.


Often I turn with melancholy eagerness to the space reserved in the
newspapers under the general heading of "Shipping Intelligence." I
meet there the names of ships I have known. Every year some of
these names disappear--the names of old friends. "Tempi passati!"

The different divisions of that kind of news are set down in their
order, which varies but slightly in its arrangement of concise
headlines. And first comes "Speakings"--reports of ships met and
signalled at sea, name, port, where from, where bound for, so many
days out, ending frequently with the words "All well." Then come
"Wrecks and Casualties"--a longish array of paragraphs, unless the
weather has been fair and clear, and friendly to ships all over the

On some days there appears the heading "Overdue"--an ominous threat
of loss and sorrow trembling yet in the balance of fate. There is
something sinister to a seaman in the very grouping of the letters
which form this word, clear in its meaning, and seldom threatening
in vain.

Only a very few days more--appallingly few to the hearts which had
set themselves bravely to hope against hope--three weeks, a month
later, perhaps, the name of ships under the blight of the "Overdue"
heading shall appear again in the column of "Shipping
Intelligence," but under the final declaration of "Missing."

"The ship, or barque, or brig So-and-so, bound from such a port,
with such and such cargo, for such another port, having left at
such and such a date, last spoken at sea on such a day, and never
having been heard of since, was posted to-day as missing." Such in
its strictly official eloquence is the form of funeral orations on
ships that, perhaps wearied with a long struggle, or in some
unguarded moment that may come to the readiest of us, had let
themselves be overwhelmed by a sudden blow from the enemy.

Who can say? Perhaps the men she carried had asked her to do too
much, had stretched beyond breaking-point the enduring faithfulness
which seems wrought and hammered into that assemblage of iron ribs
and plating, of wood and steel and canvas and wire, which goes to
the making of a ship--a complete creation endowed with character,
individuality, qualities and defects, by men whose hands launch her
upon the water, and that other men shall learn to know with an
intimacy surpassing the intimacy of man with man, to love with a
love nearly as great as that of man for woman, and often as blind
in its infatuated disregard of defects.

There are ships which bear a bad name, but I have yet to meet one
whose crew for the time being failed to stand up angrily for her
against every criticism. One ship which I call to mind now had the
reputation of killing somebody every voyage she made. This was no
calumny, and yet I remember well, somewhere far back in the late
seventies, that the crew of that ship were, if anything, rather
proud of her evil fame, as if they had been an utterly corrupt lot
of desperadoes glorying in their association with an atrocious
creature. We, belonging to other vessels moored all about the
Circular Quay in Sydney, used to shake our heads at her with a
great sense of the unblemished virtue of our own well-loved ships.

I shall not pronounce her name. She is "missing" now, after a
sinister but, from the point of view of her owners, a useful career
extending over many years, and, I should say, across every ocean of
our globe. Having killed a man for every voyage, and perhaps
rendered more misanthropic by the infirmities that come with years
upon a ship, she had made up her mind to kill all hands at once
before leaving the scene of her exploits. A fitting end, this, to
a life of usefulness and crime--in a last outburst of an evil
passion supremely satisfied on some wild night, perhaps, to the
applauding clamour of wind and wave.

How did she do it? In the word "missing" there is a horrible depth
of doubt and speculation. Did she go quickly from under the men's
feet, or did she resist to the end, letting the sea batter her to
pieces, start her butts, wrench her frame, load her with an
increasing weight of salt water, and, dismasted, unmanageable,
rolling heavily, her boats gone, her decks swept, had she wearied
her men half to death with the unceasing labour at the pumps before
she sank with them like a stone?

However, such a case must be rare. I imagine a raft of some sort
could always be contrived; and, even if it saved no one, it would
float on and be picked up, perhaps conveying some hint of the
vanished name. Then that ship would not be, properly speaking,
missing. She would be "lost with all hands," and in that
distinction there is a subtle difference--less horror and a less
appalling darkness.


The unholy fascination of dread dwells in the thought of the last
moments of a ship reported as "missing" in the columns of the
Shipping Gazette. Nothing of her ever comes to light--no grating,
no lifebuoy, no piece of boat or branded oar--to give a hint of the
place and date of her sudden end. The Shipping Gazette does not
even call her "lost with all hands." She remains simply "missing";
she has disappeared enigmatically into a mystery of fate as big as
the world, where your imagination of a brother-sailor, of a fellow-
servant and lover of ships, may range unchecked.

And yet sometimes one gets a hint of what the last scene may be
like in the life of a ship and her crew, which resembles a drama in
its struggle against a great force bearing it up, formless,
ungraspable, chaotic and mysterious, as fate.

It was on a gray afternoon in the lull of a three days' gale that
had left the Southern Ocean tumbling heavily upon our ship, under a
sky hung with rags of clouds that seemed to have been cut and
hacked by the keen edge of a sou'-west gale.

Our craft, a Clyde-built barque of 1,000 tons, rolled so heavily
that something aloft had carried away. No matter what the damage
was, but it was serious enough to induce me to go aloft myself with
a couple of hands and the carpenter to see the temporary repairs
properly done.

Sometimes we had to drop everything and cling with both hands to
the swaying spars, holding our breath in fear of a terribly heavy
roll. And, wallowing as if she meant to turn over with us, the
barque, her decks full of water, her gear flying in bights, ran at
some ten knots an hour. We had been driven far south--much farther
that way than we had meant to go; and suddenly, up there in the
slings of the foreyard, in the midst of our work, I felt my
shoulder gripped with such force in the carpenter's powerful paw
that I positively yelled with unexpected pain. The man's eyes
stared close in my face, and he shouted, "Look, sir! look! What's
this?" pointing ahead with his other hand.

At first I saw nothing. The sea was one empty wilderness of black
and white hills. Suddenly, half-concealed in the tumult of the
foaming rollers I made out awash, something enormous, rising and
falling--something spread out like a burst of foam, but with a more
bluish, more solid look.

It was a piece of an ice-floe melted down to a fragment, but still
big enough to sink a ship, and floating lower than any raft, right
in our way, as if ambushed among the waves with murderous intent.
There was no time to get down on deck. I shouted from aloft till
my head was ready to split. I was heard aft, and we managed to
clear the sunken floe which had come all the way from the Southern
ice-cap to have a try at our unsuspecting lives. Had it been an
hour later, nothing could have saved the ship, for no eye could
have made out in the dusk that pale piece of ice swept over by the
white-crested waves.

And as we stood near the taffrail side by side, my captain and I,
looking at it, hardly discernible already, but still quite close-to
on our quarter, he remarked in a meditative tone:

"But for the turn of that wheel just in time, there would have been
another case of a 'missing' ship."

Nobody ever comes back from a "missing" ship to tell how hard was
the death of the craft, and how sudden and overwhelming the last
anguish of her men. Nobody can say with what thoughts, with what
regrets, with what words on their lips they died. But there is
something fine in the sudden passing away of these hearts from the
extremity of struggle and stress and tremendous uproar--from the
vast, unrestful rage of the surface to the profound peace of the
depths, sleeping untroubled since the beginning of ages.


But if the word "missing" brings all hope to an end and settles the
loss of the underwriters, the word "overdue" confirms the fears
already born in many homes ashore, and opens the door of
speculation in the market of risks.

Maritime risks, be it understood. There is a class of optimists
ready to reinsure an "overdue" ship at a heavy premium. But
nothing can insure the hearts on shore against the bitterness of
waiting for the worst.

For if a "missing" ship has never turned up within the memory of
seamen of my generation, the name of an "overdue" ship, trembling
as it were on the edge of the fatal heading, has been known to
appear as "arrived."

It must blaze up, indeed, with a great brilliance the dull
printer's ink expended on the assemblage of the few letters that
form the ship's name to the anxious eyes scanning the page in fear
and trembling. It is like the message of reprieve from the
sentence of sorrow suspended over many a home, even if some of the
men in her have been the most homeless mortals that you may find
among the wanderers of the sea.

The reinsurer, the optimist of ill-luck and disaster, slaps his
pocket with satisfaction. The underwriter, who had been trying to
minimize the amount of impending loss, regrets his premature
pessimism. The ship has been stauncher, the skies more merciful,
the seas less angry, or perhaps the men on board of a finer temper
than he has been willing to take for granted.

"The ship So-and-so, bound to such a port, and posted as 'overdue,'
has been reported yesterday as having arrived safely at her

Thus run the official words of the reprieve addressed to the hearts
ashore lying under a heavy sentence. And they come swiftly from

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