Historia y Arqueología Marítima


Indice  Grandes Veleros


De la Revista Yachting, 1950

ONE OF THE best things, perhaps the best thing, that ever happened to me was the bursting of my appendix. It happened in Sausalito, across the Bay from San Francisco, and before I was delivered f.o.b. the operating table in St. Luke's Hospital my bilge was full of gurry and the doctor had to work fast. Weeks later I teetered out of the hospital and Doc said, "Don't get on a horse for six months. Maybe after a few weeks a sea voyage might do you good, if you lie in a deck chair and don't walk around too much."

Since my job at the time was forest ranger, and this was before the day of Fords, and I didn't have more than a couple of months pay in hand, I was properly on the beach. I had done considerable sailing, coastwise and baywise, so, with a couple of canes, I started to haunt the waterfront. Standing on the Matson Line pier one morning, I saw a hard-looking bark barging down from Benicia way under sail. She shortened down, rounded to, hove out lines and, amid considerable profanity and wear and tear on bumpers and dolphins, she finally moored to the Matson pier. "R. P. Rithet, San Francisco," I read on her stern. When the dust had settled down and the hands had coiled the gear I sang out,

"Captain aboard?" "Aye," said a hand. "Permission to come aboard?" I asked. "Aye. I reckon," said the hand. I climbed painfully over the rail and went aft and through a short passage under the quarterdeck into the main cabin which filled the round of the stern. There, at a table littered with papers, sat a small, cross-looking man, Captain Grew, the autocrat of this ancient hooker.

"Captain," I said, "I want to sail with you on your next trip—as passenger."

As I expected, he hit the deck beams and damned me for a missionary, a school teacher, an insurance bug and everything he wouldn't have aboard his ship. When I told him that I was a laid-up forest ranger ruled off a horse and would rather sail than eat and didn't care where he was going or how long it took him to get there and that I'd take orders and keep my mouth shut and eat ship's grub and like it, he 'began to relax a little. (I didn't know then that sailing skippers got all passage money and that this one was tight as the bark on a second growth hickory.)

"You'll have to go up on California Street," he said, "and see them birds in the office."

"I know that," I replied, "and if I did that first they'd say, 'What does Captain Grew say?'"

"And what would you be thinking of paying for the trip to Hilo?" he said.

"I haven't got much," I said, "how about $30?"

"Forty," he said.

"Done," I said, "Forty dollars to Hilo. Bunk aft. Cabin grub and no work and you're clear of me when I go ashore in Hilo."

"O.K." he said, "I'm shipping no third mate and you can have his bunk. Now go up and square the office. We sail in about five days, as soon as I load general cargo."

The office was amenable and four days later I went aboard the R. P. Rithet, to be ready to sail at daybreak. I had very scanty gear and, I remember, two books— Richard Henry Dana's "Seaman's Friend" and George Meredith's "Egoist." I read both on the trip but threw the latter overboard at about 130° W.

I was wakened in a foggy dawn by bawlings and tramp-lings, and dressed and went out to find a horrid confusion on deck. A tug was backing in and a line was being passed forward. Standers-by on the dock were slipping mooring lines off bollards, a noisy group in the waist were lashing down a narrow-gauge locomotive which, it seemed, was part of our deck cargo. Gear was ankle deep all over the place. Hands were aloft in the murk and every once in a while a sail would fall—swish-h-h—like a stage curtain, while the tug took us out at a fairly good clip through the chop toward the Golden Gate. The Rithet yawed at the end of her towline and I noticed the helmsman weaving from side to side, blind drunk. Captain Grew gave one look at the wake and bawled, "Mister Peterson, put this Thing in its bunk and send a Man aft to the wheel!"

And he took the helmsman by the back of his collar and the seat of his pants and "walked him Spanish" to the break of the poop, where he gave him a shove which landed him in a heap on the main deck without touching a step of the ladder on the day down.

I had seen most of the crew come aboard the night before. Some were lit, some were thoroughly plastered and a few were practically non-navigable. Some had brought bottles aboard and when we sailed I dare say there wasn't a completely sober man in the fo'castle. One in particular, a good-looking, lean young Irishman, was having a hard time standing to the buntlines, sheets and braces without holding onto something. I saw him start aloft and thought, ""Oh-oh. Here comes tragedy No. 1."

Not at all! He went up to the main royal yard like a squirrel with a blue jay after it, shinned up the pole, stood on the main skysail yard and hailed, "On deck! Will I loose the pickaninny?"

This R. P. Rithet was a three masted bark with double tops'ls, double to 'gans'ls and royals. On her main she crossed a skys'l yard. Her mizzen carried a leg-o'mutton spanker with a long hoist. She had a full complement of fore-and-aft sails from the three head sails to the mizzen topmast and to'gallan' staysails—of which more anon. She had a neat little donkey engine just abaft the mainmast with big ring holts in the deck for snatch blocks for the topsail halyards. But there was no fuel for the donkey engine.

"Me buy coal for that coffee pot?" said Captain Grew, "Haven't I got sixteen hands to haul up them yards?"

Off the Farallones the tug cast off, gave three good-bye toots and turned back for the Gate. A light offshore breeze gave us a fair wind on the port quarter. AH hands made sail until everything was set and drawing from the outer jib to the spanker. When the hands came down from aloft and had coiled the gear, they were summoned aft and gathered just forward of the break of the poop and watches were picked.

The second mate, Mr. Swenson, acting for the Captain, had first pick and pointed to an old shellback—

"You there! Tell your name and step to starboard."

"Williams, zur," he said with a Cornwall burr and stepped over to the starboard bulwarks and stood facing inboard.

Mr. Peterson said, "You, Irish, step to port."

"Mickey Flynn, sor," said Irish and moved to the port bulwarks. Soon eight hard looking pirates were ranged along each bulwark and the Mate said,

"Chips, lay forward and overhaul their duffle."

The carpenter passed into the fo'castle, which was in the forward house abaft the foremast, and reappeared in a few moments to toss over the rail two bottles of whiskey and four sheath knives the blades of which were too long for his taste.

"All hands forward! Starboard watch below! Port watch to the main braces!" bawled the Mate, and the voyage to Hilo was begun.

Sixteen A. Bs there were to handle a 1000-ton bark setting nine fore-and-aft sails and 11 square sails, with no power except arms and backs in the ship. Three idlers, Chips, the Doctor, a Bahama black, and Manuel, the Portuguese cabin hoy, bunked in the after house, the forward half of which was the galley. There were three coffin-size staterooms between the break of the poop and the Old Man's quarters where Mr. Peterson, Mr. Swenson and I bunked. The breeze held NNE and all day Rithet rolled on her course, "south by west," over the long Pacific ground swell.

The Great Circle steamer track, San Francisco to Honolulu, is about 2100 miles. Our destination was Hilo on the big island of Hawaii in 18° 30' North Latitude, a degree and a half south of Honolulu. The sailing route in April was S by W till you picked up the Northeast Trades at about 27° N and then W by S—a total distance of around 2600 miles.

Before long the ship had shaken down and the day's routine took shape. The morning watch, after relieving the wheel and lookout at four bells, would noisily swab down the decks with a hose from the hand pump, sand from the sand box and mops and squilgees. Breakfast was at six bells, the Captain and the passenger at first table in the after cabin, the mates and Chips after and the hands carrying their mess kids to the fo'castle. At eight bells the watch changed and the various tasks of the forenoon began — tarring down and setting up the standing rigging, slushing the masts where the movable yards rode, scraping and painting, bowsing home the sheets with watch tackles. On the voyage out we cut, sewed, bolt-roped and bent a new fore upper to'ga'ns'l—an exacting job that lasted through many forenoon watches.

Often the tasks were interrupted with a shout to "Man the fore braces" for the yards were trimmed for every slight change in wind direction. Then, dropping everything, one hand would run to the lee fore brace and throw the gear off the pin and stand by to hold the turn. The rest of the watch, except of course the wheel and lookout, would tail <m\p the weather brace and sing out "Ah-hey! Oh-ho! Ah-hi! A-way!" until the Mate bellowed, "Well the fore brace. Bull-ay" then, "Take the fore lower tawps'l brace!" and so on through the fore upper topsail, the to'ga'ns'ls to the fore royal. Then they would drop back to the main and repeat.

Toward eight bells the Old Man would appear on the quarterdeck, looking wise and toting his sextant. The Mate would leave whatever job he had in hand, go below and reappear topside with his sextant—a rusty hock-shop job with a really remarkable index error. Each of them would solemnly take a meridian altitude of the sun and go below and guess the elapsed time from the sight to the chronometer, there being no stop watch aboard and, after much sweating and consulting a huge volume, "The Ephemeris of the Sun' and Bowditch's "Practical Navigator," each would arrive at a noon position—generally miles apart. Since it was plotted on the "Pilot Chart of the North Pacific" gridironed in 10-degree squares with a degree of latitude equal to about a quarter of an inch, who was going to worry about minutes? Anyway, the caterpillar progress across the chart indicated that we were making westing at an average of some six knots. Sometimes in the afternoon watch she would get up to nine—what the Second called "Giving the barnacles a ride."

The afternoon watch generally finished up the chore of the morning watch. Then came the first dog watch. The watch below took bucket baths on the fo'castle head or cleaned up below. The watch on deck was allowed to lazy off and smoke and gam on the fore hatch. At four bells the Doctor called chow and the cabin folk went solemnly in to their tongues and sounds, rising powder biscuits, coffee and dried apple pie. After supper came, for me, the best time of day—the second dog watch.

Both mates stayed on deck and I foregathered with them at the foot of the quarterdeck ladder. The hands were smoking, playing the concertina or talking low on the fore hatch. Manuel was running with the dirty dishes and Doctor was clattering about in the galley. The evening twilight was waning and star after star popping out. It was then the two. Mates ground seamanship into me, or else traded wild tales of previous voyages. Perhaps they would lead me to the pin rail in the weather main rigging and lay my hand on the aftermost pin.

"Don't look up," they'd say, "what you got hold off?"

"The starboard skysail clewlines," I'd venture.

"Goot. Goot. And vat's dis?" as Mr. Swenson moved my hand three pins forward.

"The upper t'gall'n buntline."

"Loussy," "he'd say, "It's de main royal clewline. You have to know 'em in the dark."

After many second dog watches I did, for nobody ever had better teachers.

Then we'd go ah and hang our elbows on the weather bulwarks at the break of the poop and stare off at the long swells to windward rolling up through the moonglade. Peterson or Swenson would start, "I vas in one ship once—" and would follow a long, circumstantial tale replete with facts, figures and geographical data and battle, murder and sudden death all told in a. sing-song Scandinavian accent without intonation or emphasis in a way that would make the hair prickle on the scalp.

"And the Captain he vas a-drinkin' and a-drinkin' the night and the day and he never took the sun and I couldn't navigate and I didn't know vere ve vas. And finally he come a-roaring down the deck after me with a great Army sabre screaming I vas a Finn and vas leading the ship into the ice and I trips him up and lashed him in his bunk and sailed blind for a week and him a-screaming all the time. Then through the fog I hear the surf and we piled up on a black cobble beach with little dark men in furs and lots of seals. . . ."

As we drew south into the Twenties the air became softer, the flying fish more numerous, the feeling of wellbeing more and more pronounced. I came on deck in the morning and saw the sun shining from behind the morning bank onto the flat bottoms of the Trade Wind clouds and I began to wonder why men lived north of 30 N. I used to lie out on the butt of the bowsprit during the forenoon watch and look down at the forefoot, slowly rising on a swell and then burying itself in the next surge with the bow wave creaming off on both sides.

I had long since chucked my canes overboard and had ventured as far as the fore top—through the lubber hole, it's true. There I could watch the life of the ship as from a seat in a theater—the cook kneading bread on a plank on the main hatch; a couple of hands on the fo'castle head re-stropping the inner jib downhaul block; Manuel inviting the ship's cat into his sand box in the lee scuppers and, to-lift my eyes, the endless blue Pacific surges with white crests of foam and the goonies soaring and swooping on our quarters and astern.

Captain Grew was hard to suit. He would mooch all over the ship, an eye aloft for something wrong.

"Mister Mate," he'd say, "Can't you overhaul that bunt-line so it don't cut the foot of the t'gan's'l?" or, "Mister Mate, ain't that a bit of chafe in that pendent on the main brace bumpkin?"

All of which didn't endear him to Mr. Peterson. One bright morning the Old Man was weaving aft down the lee alleyway and the Mate, who was on watch, was leaning on the quarterdeck rail. The Captain came to the mizzen topmast staysail sheet, the standing part of which ended in sister hooks in a ring bolt through the lee rail just forward of the poop ladder. The wind was puffy and the sail was alternately filling and spilling. The Old Man grabbed the sheet with both hands and gave it a shake. Just then a puff of wind filled the sail, the sister hooks opened and the Skipper was raised squealing to the level of the rail. The Mate, resting one hand on his hip, looked calmly on and said, "Comes maybe we'll have to get a new Cap'n."

So far the Trade had held true without a break. Then one morning I came on deck to find the sails flattened to the masts, the sun a brass disk above the eastern horizon and the sea undulating liquid glass. That was the beginning of a three-day calm when the Rithet rolled and swished and banged and squeaked, and if the gear chafed, it had nothing on Captain Grew! A bear with an impacted wisdom tooth was a social success alongside of our Captain. He ran me off the quarterdeck for even mentioning that the Pilot Chart showed no calms in this area. When he took the sun at noon and went through his calculations, the point of his dividers went through the same hole in the chart it made yesterday. I honestly believe he would have bitten chunks out of the spanker boom that third day if a catspaw hadn't brushed the sea to windward, the sails filled and, in half an hour, the good old Trade was back on the job.

There were nights after the Rithet had reached down to the lower Twenties that I'll never forget. The mates taught me the Pointers and the Southern Cross, Procyon and Fomalhaut and other low latitude stars I'd never known before. One black night as we were elbowing the lee rail a long, glistening, black something broke water close alongside with a long-drawn whistling sigh. A whale going our way— but it was a second or two before the mind which jumped to the uncanny came back to the obvious.

The caterpillar line across the chart began at last to inch up on the island of Hawaii and an undercurrent of excitement ran through the fo'castle. Doubt was expressed as to whether the Old Man would hit the Islands at all or carry right on to the French Frigate Shoals. Bets were laid as to how far he'd miss Hilo on the landfall. One bright morning a hand working on the fore upper to'gall'n yard sang out, "Land h-o-o-o-o!"

There was a scurry for the fo'castle head and I climbed half way up the mizzen shrouds.

"I see nothing," I said.

The Mate, below me in the rigging, said, "Rub your eye slow along the horizon and when you see a difference, that's it."

I have found since that that is an excellent prescription for picking up distant objects at sea. Pretty soon we could plainly make out a mountain, Haleakala, they said it was, and in a few hours we began to close with the land. Captain Grew came out of his cabin, walked forward and slowly climbed the weather fore rigging and inch-wormed himself out on the foot rope of the lee fore yardarm. He stared and stared through his long, old-fashioned, double-barreled sea glasses, climbed down, came aft and said with awe in his voice, "I'm a son of a bitch if it ain't Hilo."

We scarcely had to change course to make the harbor. Hands sprang to the sheets, the bunt, leach arid clew lines and the Rithet lost way. The anchor chain roared through the hawsepipe, the hands swarmed cheerfully aloft to furl and the voyage was over.

In a minute I was a landsman again. My companionship with these seamen, officers and hands, was over. As I went over the side into the agent's launch I felt as lonesome and homesick as a kid at his first boarding school. I never saw any of them again and that was a long, long time ago.



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