“THE WAY OF A SHIP”
Solomon had, among the many mighty qualities of mind which have secured his high eminence as the wisest man of the world, an attribute which does not always accompany abundant knowledge. He was prompt to admit his limitations, as far as he knew them, frankly and fully. And among them he confesses an inability to understand “the way of a ship in the midst of the sea.” It may be urged that there was little to wonder at in this, since the exigencies of his position must have precluded his gaining more than the slightest actual experience of seafaring. Yet it is marvellous that he should have mentioned this thing, seemingly simple to a shore-dweller, which is to all mariners a mystery past finding out. No matter how long a sailor may have sailed the seas in one ship, or how deeply he may have studied the ways of that ship under apparently all combinations of wind and sea, he will never be found to assert thoughtfully that he knows her altogether. Much more, then, are the myriad idiosyncrasies of all ships unknowable. Kipling has done more, perhaps, than any other living writer to point out how certain fabrics of man’s construction become invested with individuality of an unmistakable kind, and of course so acute an observer could not fail to notice how pre-eminently is this the case with ships.
Now, in what follows I seek as best I may to show, by a niggardly handful of instances in my own experience, how the “personality” of ships expresses itself, and how incomprehensible these manifestations are to the men whose business it is to study them. Even before the ship has quitted the place of her birth, yea, while she is yet a-building, something of this may be noted. One man will study deepest mathematical problems, will perfectly apply his formulæ, and see them accurately embodied in steel or timber, so that by all ordinary laws of cause and effect the resultant vessel should be a marvel of speed, stability, and strength. And yet she is a failure. She has all the vices that the sailor knows and dreads: crank, slow, leewardly, hanging in stays, impossible to steer satisfactorily. Every man who ever sails in her carries in his tenacious sea-memory, to the day of his death, vengeful recollections of her perversities, and often in the dog-watch holds forth to his shipmates in eloquent denunciation of her manifold iniquities long after one would have thought her very name would be forgotten. Another shipbuilder, innocent of a scintilla of mathematics, impatient of diagrams, will begin apparently without preparation, adding timber to timber, and breast-hook to stem, until out of the dumb cavern of his mind a ship is evolved, his inexpressible idea manifested in graceful yet massive shape. And that ship will be all that the other is not. As if the spirit of her builder had somehow been wrought into her frame, she behaves with intelligence, and becomes the delight, the pride, of those fortunate enough to sail in her.
Such a vessel it was once my good fortune to join in London for a winter passage across to Nova Scotia. Up to that time my experience had been confined to large vessels and long voyages, and it was not without the stern compulsion of want that I shipped in the Wanderer. She was a brigantine of two hundred and forty tons register, built in some little out-of-the-way harbour in Nova Scotia by one of the amphibious sailor-farmers of that ungenerous coast, in just such a rule-of-thumb manner as I have spoken of. When I got on board I pitied myself greatly. I felt cramped for room; I dreaded the colossal waves of the Atlantic at that stormy winter season, in what I considered to be a weakly built craft fit only for creeping closely along-shore. We worked down the river, also a new departure to me, always accustomed hitherto to be towed down to Beachy Head by a strenuous tug. The delicate way in which she responded to all the calls we made on her astonished our pilot, who was loud in his praises of her “handiness,” one of the most praiseworthy qualities a ship can have in a seaman’s eyes. Nevertheless, I still looked anxiously forward to our meeting with the Atlantic, although day by day, as we zigzagged down Channel, I felt more and more amazed at the sympathy she showed with her crew. At last we emerged upon the wide, open ocean, clear of even the idea of shelter from any land; and as if to show conclusively how groundless were my fears, it blew a bitter north-west gale. Never have I known such keen delight in watching a vessel’s behaviour as I knew then. As if she were one of the sea-people, such as the foam-like gulls or wheeling petrels, next of kin to the waves themselves, she sported with the tumultuous elements, her motion as easy as the sway of the seaweed and as light as a bubble. And even when the strength of the storm-wind forbade us to show more than the tiniest square of canvas, she answered the touch of her helm, as sensitive to its gentle suasion as Hiawatha’s Cheemaun to the voice of her master. Never a wave broke on deck, although she had so little free-board that a bucket of water could almost be dipped without the aid of a lanyard. That gale taught me a lesson I have never been able to forget. It was, never to judge of the seaworthy qualities of a ship by her appearance at anchor, but to wait until she had an opportunity of telling me in her own language what she could do.
Then came a spell of favourable weather—for the season, that is—when we could carry plenty of sail and make good use of our time. Another characteristic now revealed itself in her—her steerability. Once steady on her course under all canvas, one turn of a spoke, or at most of two spokes, of the wheel was sufficient to keep her so; and for an hour I have walked back and forth before the wheel, with both hands in my pockets, while she sped along at ten knots an hour, as straight as an arrow in its flight. But when any sail was taken off her, no matter which, she would no longer steer herself, as if the just and perfect balance of her sail area had been disturbed; but she was easier to steer then than any vessel I have ever known. Lastly, a strong gale tested her powers of running before it, the last touch of excellence in any ship being that she shall run safely dead before a gale. During its height we passed the Anchor liner California, a huge steamship some twenty times our bulk. From end to end of that mighty ship the frolicsome waves leaped and tumbled; from every scupper and swinging-port spouted a briny flood. Every sea, meeting her mass in its way, just climbed on board and spread itself, so that she looked, as sailors say, like a half-tide rock. From her towering hurricane-deck our little craft must have appeared a forlorn little object—just a waif of the sea, existing only by a succession of miracles. Yet even her muffled-up passengers, gazing down upon the white dryness of our decks, looked as if they could dimly understand that the comfort which was unmistakably absent from their own wallowing monster was cosily present with us.
Another vessel, built on the same coast, but three times the size of the Wanderer, was the Sea Gem, in which I had an extended experience. Under an old sea-dog of a captain who commanded her the first part of the voyage, she played more pranks than a jibbing mule with a new driver. None of the ordinary manœuvres necessary to a sailing-ship would she perform without the strangest antics and refusals. She seemed possessed of a stubborn demon of contrariness. Sometimes at night, when, at the change of the watch, all hands were kept on deck to tack ship, more than an hour would be wasted in futile attempts to get her about in a seamanlike way. She would prance up into the wind gaily enough, as if about to turn in her own length, and then at the crucial moment fall off again against the hard-down helm, while all hands cursed her vigorously for the most obstinate, clumsy vessel ever calked. Or she would come up far enough for the order of “mainsail haul,” and there she would stick, like a wall-eyed sow in a muddy lane, hard and fast in irons. With her mainyards braced a-port and her foreyards a-starboard, she reminded all hands of nothing so much as the old sea-yarn of the Yankee schooner-skipper who for the first time found himself in command of a bark. Quite scared of those big square sails, he lay in port until, by some lucky chance, he got hold of a mate who had long sailed in square-rigged vessels. Then he boldly put to sea. But by some evil hap the poor mate fell overboard and was drowned when they had been several days out; and one morning a homeward-bounder spied a bark in irons making rapid signals of distress, although the weather was fine, and the vessel appeared staunch and seaworthy enough. Rounding to under the sufferer’s stern, the homeward-bound skipper hailed, “What’s the matter?” “Oh!” roared the almost frantic Yankee, “for God’s sake send somebody aboard that knows somethin’ about this kind er ship. I’ve lost my square-rigged mate overboard, an’ I cain’t git a move on her nohow!” He’d been trying to sail her “winged out,” schooner fashion. So disgusted was our skipper with the Sea Gem that he left her in Mobile, saying that he was going to retire from the sea altogether. But we all believed he was scared to death that she would run away with him some fine day. Another skipper took command, a Yankee Welshman by the name of Jones. The first day out I heard the second mate say to him deferentially, “She’s rather ugly in stays, sir.” “Is she?” queried the old man, with an astonished air. “Wall, I should hev surmised she was ez nimble ez a kitten. Yew don’t say!” Shortly after it became necessary to tack, and, to our utter amazement, the Sea Gem came about in almost her own length, with never a suggestion that she had ever been otherwise than as handy as a St. Ives smack. Nor did she ever after betray any signs of unwillingness to behave with the same cheerful alacrity. Had her trim been different we could have understood it, because some ships handy in ballast are veritable cows when loaded, and vice versâ. But that reasoning had here no weight, since her draft was essentially the same.
Not without a groan do I recall a passage in one of the handsomest composite barks I ever saw. Her name I shall not give, as she was owned in London, and may be running still, for all I know. My eye lingered lovingly over her graceful lines as she lay in dock, and I thought gleefully that a passage to New Zealand in her would be like a yachting-trip. An additional satisfaction was some patent steering-gear which I had always longed to handle, having been told that it was a dream of delight to take a trick with it. I admit that she was right down to her Plimsoll, and I will put it to her credit that she was only some dozen miles to leeward of the ill-fated Eurydice when that terrible disaster occurred that extinguished so many bright young lives. But the water was smooth, and we had no long row of lower-deck ports open for the sea to rush in when the vessel heeled to a sudden squall. It is only her Majesty’s ships that are exposed to such dangers as that. In fact, for the first fortnight out she was on her extra-special behaviour, although none of us fellows for’ard liked a dirty habit she had of lifting heavy sprays over fore and aft in a whole-sail breeze. Presently along came a snifter from the south-west, and every man of us awoke to the fact that we were aboard of a hooker saturated with every vicious habit known to ships. There was no dryness in her. You never knew where or when she would bow down to a harmless-looking sea and allow it to lollop on board, or else, with a perversity almost incredible, fall up against it so clumsily that it would send a blinding sheet of spray as high as the clues of the upper topsails. Words fail me to tell of the patent atrocity with which we were condemned to steer. Men would stand at the wheel for their two hours’ trick, and imagine tortures for the inventor thereof, coming for’ard at four or eight bells, speechlessly congested with the volume of their imprecations upon him. Yet I have no doubt he, poor man, considered himself a benefactor to the genus seafarer. In any weather you could spin the wheel round from hard up to hard down without feeling the slightest pressure of the sea against the rudder. And as, to gain power, speed must be lost, two turns of the wheel were equal to only one with the old-fashioned gear. The result of these differences was to a sailor simply maddening. For all seamen steer as much by the feel of the wheel as by anything else (I speak of sailing-ships throughout), a gentle increase of pressure warning you when she wants a little bit to meet her in her sidelong swing. Not only so, but there is a subtle sympathy (to a good helmsman) conveyed in those alterations of pressure which, while utterly unexplainable in words, make all the difference between good and bad steering. Then, none of us could get used to the doubling of the amount of helm necessary. We were always giving her too much or too little. As she was by no means an easy-steering ship, even had her gear been all right, the consequence of this diabolical impediment to her guidance was that the man who kept her within two points and a half, in anything like a breeze, felt that he deserved high praise.
Still, with all these unpleasantnesses, we worried along in fairly comfortable style, for we had a fresh mess and railway-duff (a plum at every station) every Sunday. Every upper bunk in the was leaky, and always remained so; but we rigged up water-sheds that kept us fairly dry during our slumbers. So we fared southward through the fine weather, forgetting, with the lax memory of the sailor for miserable weather, the sloppy days that had passed, and giving no thought to the coming struggle. Gradually we stole out of the trade area, until the paling blue of the sky and the accumulation of torn and feathery cloud-fields warned us of our approach to that stern region where the wild western wind reigns supreme. The trades wavered, fell, and died away. Out from the west, with a rush and a roar, came the cloud-compeller, and eastward we fled before it. An end now to all comfort fore and aft. For she wallowed and grovelled, allowing every sea, however kindly disposed, to leap on board, until the incessant roar of the water from port to starboard dominated our senses even in sleep. A massive breakwater of two-inch kauri planks was fitted across the deck in front of the saloon for the protection of the afterguard, who dwelt behind it as in a stockaded fort. As the weather grew worse, and the sea got into its gigantic stride, our condition became deplorable; for it was a task of great danger to get from the to the wheel, impossible to perform without a drenching, and always invested with the risk of being dashed to pieces. We “carried on” recklessly in order to keep her at least ahead of the sea; but at night, when no stars were to be seen, and the compass swung madly through all its thirty-two points, steering was mental and physical torture. In fact, it was only possible to steer at all by the feel of the wind at one’s back, and even then the best helmsman among us could not keep her within two points on each side of her course. We lived in hourly expectation of a catastrophe, and for weeks none of us forward ever left off oilskins and sea-boots even to sleep in. At last, on Easter Sunday, three seas swept on board simultaneously. One launched itself like a Niagara over the stern, and one rose on each side in the waist, until the two black hills of water towered above us for fully twenty feet. Then they leaned toward each other and fell, their enormous weight threatening to crush our decks in as if they had been paper. Nothing could be seen of the hull for a smother of white, except the forecastle-head. When, after what seemed an age, she slowly lifted out of that boiling, yeasty whirl, the breakwater was gone, and so was all the planking of the bulwarks on both sides from poop to forecastle break. Nothing was left but to heave to, and I, for one, firmly believed that we should never get her up into the wind. However, we were bound to try; and watching the smooth (between two sets of seas), the helm was put hard down and the mizen hauled out. Round she came swiftly enough, but just as she presented her broadside to the sea, up rose a monstrous wave. Over, over she went—over until the third ratline of the lee rigging was under water; that is to say, the lee rail was full six feet under the sea. One hideous tumult prevailed, one dazzling glare of foaming water surrounded us; but I doubt whether any of us thought of anything but how long we could hold our breath. Had she been less deeply loaded she must have capsized. As it was, she righted again, and came up into the wind still afloat. But never before or since have I seen a vessel behave like that hove to. We were black and blue with being banged about, our arms strained almost to uselessness by holding on. Beast as she was, the strength of her hull was amazing, or she would have been racked to splinters: for in that awful sea she rolled clean to windward until she filled herself, then canted back again until she lay nearly on her beam-ends; and this she did continually for three days and nights. At the first of the trouble the cabin had been gutted so that neither officers nor passengers had a dry thread, and of course all cooking was impossible. I saw the skipper chasing his sextant (in its box) around the saloon-table, which was just level with the water which was making havoc with everything. And not a man of us for’ard but had some pity to spare for the one woman passenger (going out with her little boy to join her husband), who, we knew, was crouching in the corner of an upper bunk in her cabin, hugging her child to her bosom, and watching with fascinated eyes the sullen wash of the dark water that plunged back and forth across the sodden strip of carpet.
In spite of all these defects in the ship, she reached Lyttelton in safety at last; and I, with more thankfulness than I knew how to express, was released from her, and took my place as an officer on board a grand old ship three times her size. Unfortunately for me, my sea experience of her extended only over one short passage to Adelaide, where she was laid up for sale; and of my next ship I have spoken at length elsewhere, so I may not enlarge upon her behaviour here. After that I had the good fortune to get a berth as second mate of the Harbinger, to my mind one of the noblest specimens of modern shipbuilding that ever floated. She was lofty—210 feet from water-line to skysail truck—and with all her white wings spread, thirty-one mighty sails, she looked like a mountain of snow. She was built of steel, and in every detail was as perfect as any sailor could wish. For all her huge bulk she was as easy to handle as any ten-ton yacht—far easier than some—and in any kind of weather her docility was amazing. No love-sick youth was ever more enamoured of his sweetheart than I of that splendid ship. For hours of my watch below I have sat perched upon the martingale guys under the jib-boom, watching with all a lover’s complacency the stately sheer of her stem through the sparkling sea, and dreamily noting the delicate play of rainbow tints through and through the long feather of spray that ran unceasingly up the stem, and, curling outward, fell in a diamond shower upon the blue surface below. She was so clean in the entrance that you never saw a foaming spread of broken water ahead, driven in front by the vast onset of the hull. She parted the waves before her pleasantly, as an arrow the air; graciously, as if loath to disturb their widespread solitude.
But it needed a tempest to show her “way” in its perfection. Like the Wanderer, but in a grand and gracious fashion, she seemed to claim affinity with the waves, and they in their wildest tumult met her as if they too knew and loved her. She was the only ship I ever knew or heard of that would “stay” under storm-staysails, reefed topsails, and a reefed foresail in a gale of wind. In fact, I never saw anything that she would not do that a ship should do. She was so truly a child of the ocean that even a bungler could hardly mishandle her; she would work well in spite of him. And, lastly, she would steer when you could hardly detect an air out of the heavens, with a sea like a mirror, and the sails hanging apparently motionless. The men used to say she would go a knot with only the quartermaster whistling at the wheel for a wind.
Then for my sins I shipped before the mast in an equally large iron ship bound for Calcutta. She was everything that the Harbinger was not—an ugly abortion that the sea hated. When I first saw her (after I had shipped), I asked the cook whether she wasn’t a razeed steamboat—I had almost said an adapted loco-boiler. When he told me that this was only her second voyage I had to get proof before I could believe him. And as her hull was, so were her sails. They looked like a job lot scared up at ship-chandlers’ sales, and hung upon the yards like rags drying. Our contempt for her was too great for words. Of course she was under water while there was any wind to speak of, and her motions were as strange as those of a seasick pig. A dredger would have beaten her at sailing; a Medway barge, with her Plimsoll mark in the main-rigging, would have been ten times as comfortable. Somehow we buttocked her out in 190 days with 2500 tons of salt in her hold, and again my fortunate star intervened to get me out of her and into a better ship as second mate.
Of steamers I have no authority to speak, although they, too, have their ways, quite as non-understandable as sailing-ships, and complicated, too, by the additional entity of the engines within. But everything that floats and is built by man, from the three-log catamaran of the Malabar coast, or the balsa of Brazil, up to the latest leviathan, has a way of its own, and that way is certainly, in all its variations, past finding out.