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A Matter of Terms

As Far as the Greenhorns Were Concerned the Mate Spoke Esperanto

 

By A. F. RAYNAUD - THE RUDDER 1950

BENDING sail with a green crew was not easy. After a harrowing week the men finally were allowed to rest as the vessel was towed from Port Townsend to sea. Their brief respite had come to an end off Swiftsure light vessel where sails were set and the tug cast off. The mates had driven the crew unmercifully, making no allowance for their ignorance, until the last bit of gear had been coiled up, the watches set and the day's work was over.

It was late in the fall and the sun was low on the horizon at four o'clock in the afternoon. The long fingers of evening were beginning to reach out and pluck the last shreds of daylight from a thickly clouded sky. A heavy sea slashed against the ship's side and a steadily increasing wind flung cold spray across the deck. This was the first day at sea and already bad weather had set in. To most of the crew, the change meant nothing more than getting cold and wet, or at worst seasick, but they were soon to learn the second lesson.

Watching the sails and gear, carefully judging the force of the wind and sea, the mate concluded it was time to shorten sail. He reached into a pocket, took out his whistle and blew a hard blast to summon the watch. The men had taken shelter in the midship house, but at the sound of the whistle stumbled out on deck, wondering what would happen next. The mate paused by the group and bellowed, "Clew up the fore royal!"

The men stood about staring stupidly at the mate, for the order had no meaning to them. The only experienced seaman of the watch was at the wheel.

"Come on, come on. Don't stand there picking your ears. Follow me!" the mate shouted again at the bewildered group. "Clew up the royal! Don't you know where the foremast is yet?"

They could follow him, but what clewing up the fon royal meant not one of them had the least idea. The mate took the halliards off the belaying pin and carefully laid it on deck.

"Break those buntline stops, you! Here, you! And you! Stand by the buntlines. When I tell you to haul away, you pull! Savvy ?

"What are you doing, you thickhead? Royal bunt-lines I said. Leave the stays'l halliards alone! Here! Here! Pull on this. Pull hard!"

The mate blasted at first one and then another. Putting the right gear in their hands, he hoped they would be able to get the sail in without tearing or losing it alto-, gether. Looking the men over quickly, he saw they were at least holding onto the ropes he had given them. Would they have the sense to pull together as he began to slack away the halliards? Slowly the yard descended. As the sail slacked in the wind it began to thrash about and the buntlines jerked in the men's hands. With one accord they all let go and stood with open mouths, their heads tilted far back to see what was going on above them.

The mate was furious and shouted at them, "Haul away those buntlines ! Haul Away! You'll have the whole blasted yard on your heads I"

The men grabbed for the wildly jerking ropes, pulling them awkwardly and with unnecessary effort, and the sail was once more brought under control.

"Haul away, you on the lee side! Snug that sail up to the yard! Belay the weather buntlines! Haul the lee brace taut!" The mate gave the orders and at the same time led the way to each piece of gear and showed the men what to do. There was no time for explanations and he was in no mood to give any.

The yard was down and the gear belayed, but the bunts of the sail were lifting and slapping about in the wind. "Here, you two, get up there and make it fast! Shake a leg now and don't be all night!" The mate grabbed the men nearest him and headed them for the weather rigging.

"Sir," said one, "what shall we do?"

"Make it fast, make it fast! Get up there before we lose that sail!" The mate was not the patient type and he gave the only answer he knew. He had learned the hard way.

Staring helplessly at each other, the two luckless greenhorns started up the rigging, each hoping the other knew what this last order meant. It was getting quite dark by now and the two cautiously made their way aloft, clinging so hard to the ratlines they left fingerprints on every one of them. At the foretop they stopped, thoroughly frightened, and hung on. The bellowing voice of the mate seemed to run up the rigging and blast in their ears.

"Get up there and make it fast! What are you lallygagging for? Keep going!"

They went on, their feet leaden and uncertain, fingers still gripping the rigging. Over the futtock shrouds, up the topmast rigging, up the topgallant rigging they went with the mate's voice ringing out right beside them. A sudden rush of night closed in on the two figures in the rigging. Looking down they could hardly see the ship, and looking aloft there was the big sail, lifting and slatting about, making a swishing flopping noise.

With a supreme effort born of fright and desperation the two made the royal yard and cautiously reached out to grasp the jackstay. They clung to it harder than ever. The yard jumped with the billowing sail and the two fought back a desire to return to the deck. Neither wanted to be a coward, and besides, the mate was down there waiting.

The minutes flew by. Still they made no move, but hung on to their precarious perch. It was very dark now and the deck was no longer visible. Lights splashed forth from the galley ports and trickled off into the shadows with every roll of the vessel. A heavy sea broke and a rushing sound reached their ears as a big patch of white foam spread over the black water. Red and green drops shone in the rays of the colored side lights as spray flew across the bow at every plunge of the vessel.

Two bells rang, supper time, still they clung together. The mate went below for his meal, the rest of the watch got theirs, yet no one volunteered to go up and help. When the mate returned to the deck and saw they were still aloft, the sail not yet secured, he walked to the foot of the mast and, taking a deep breath, shouted, "What's wrong up there ? Why don't you make that sail fast and come down? Get out on the yard. Get the gaskets round that sail! Oh, you poor miserable greenhorns !"

At the change of the watch an old round shouldered seaman, on his way aft to relieve the wheel, passed close to the mate who reached out, grasped him by the shoulder and growled, "Go up there and see what ails those two."

The seaman went. His long years of experience had taught him to obey without question. Within a few minutes he returned to the deck, leaving the two still aloft.

"What was wrong with them, Winters?" asked the mate.

"They're just greenhorns, mister," replied Winters. "They didn't understand what you meant by 'making it fast'. One of 'em said they went aloft as fast as they could." Chuckling at his little joke, Winters relieved the wheel.

The mate looked up. They were making a slow bungling job of stowing the sail, but they were learning—learning after the fashion of seamen.

 

 

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