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Indice  Grandes Veleros

 

Fuente: Revista Yachting, 1951

THOSE TWO -words "Watch and Watch" still bring back memories of the good old days of "wooden ships and iron men." I had just finished a voyage in a Lime-juicer which had loaded nitrates at a Chilean port and was sailing next day. Late that night I slipped over the side with my little bundle of clothes on my back and headed for shore. There were sharks in those waters, but I preferred them to the "hunger and ease" of that Limejuice hooker. I went to a boarding house and laid low until she had gone, then I left that boarding house between two days myself.

There were plenty of jobs going. The nitre mines were running full blast, and all water used there was condensed sea water, packed up the mountains in skin bags on the back of mules. I got a job in a pack train and was saving money for a passenger trip to 'Frisco when fate took a hand. High up in the Andes, my partner and I got into a poker game with some natives. It didn't take long to find out just how crooked that game was. After one particularly raw deal, my pal accused the dealer outright. A knife appeared from somewhere in that Dago's hand, and my partner got about six inches of it in his heart.

It needed only a glance to see there was nothing I could do. They were heading my way. There was a window behind me. I went through it head first, knocking the oil lamp from the table as I went. The mule corral was close by. I got there before they did and jumped a razor-backed mule, cutting the hackamoor with my sheath knife. Flames were already fighting up the cabin. Down that 40 miles of mountain trail I went as fast as that critter could travel. I beat them to the coast somehow—I had to. I was the only Gringo witness. I left that mule right there and hit the water. The nearest craft was a big four-masted schooner and I headed for her.

Once more I was in shark waters, but once again I preferred the sharks to the Dagos on shore. I was swimming quietly along when to my consternation a burst of cheering came from the most distant ship. This was taken up by ship after ship, until I was almost surrounded by cheering. Had I been spotted, and were they cheering me? I later learned of the old custom on the Chile coast of cheering each ship when she was fully loaded and going to sea next day. I swam quietly to the cables of the schooner.

Luckily for me, the crew was on the other side watching as ship after ship loosed its cheers. I swarmed up the cables to the hawsepipe, and worked my way up to the fo'c'sle head. For a long time I lay there, hoping no one would spot me. There was no cover except a capstan, anchor cable, bitts, and a litter of running gear. I was wet through, ragged and sore.

Just how long I crouched there I don't know. It seemed ages before I heard the sound I dreaded, footsteps coming up to *he fo'c'sle head. A few seconds later a blond giant stood looking down at me. He sort of nudged me with his foot as if to turn me over, then quietly said, "What in hell are you doing here? Where did you come from?" Somehow his tone was reassuring. I haltingly told him my story, begging him to hide me until we got to sea.

He laughed shortly at that, and to my amazement said, "Son, if you're a sailorman you couldn't get off this craft. You're the answer to the maiden's prayer. Come along with me." He took me aft to the cabin and shoved me through a door. In that cabin were a man—evidently the Skipper—and the toughest looking one-eyed woman I had ever seen.

The Skipper barked a series of rapid fire questions at me. "Was I a sailorman? What was my last ship? What was the trouble ashore?" I answered truthfully—I was a square-rig sailor, had never sailed in a fore-and-after, and wanted to go to 'Frisco. He eyed me steadily for a moment, then shot a question—in what sounded to me like Norwegian— at the woman, who nodded her head vigorously and exclaimed in English, "Yah! Yah! With him we can sail, don't wait for any more. Maybe we lose those we got."

The Skipper reached in a drawer and picked out a paper which he placed on the table with a curt, "Sign here." I signed. This time the old saying "For when you sign the articles, the articles are read" did not apply.

I was an A.B. in a four-masted, baldheaded Yankee schooner. The mate, my captor, hustled me forward to the deck house and curtly informing the rest of the crew I was another hand. He told me I was in his watch, adding that there was no roorrr'for soldiers on that ship and when he gave an order I'd better jump to it or he'd know the reason why. He added, "Don't ever forget you're not in a Lime-juicer now."

The other hands eyed me pityingly as I crawled into a bunk, I couldn't sit down after that ride. One of them kindly threw me a blanket and asked me what I had done ashore that I had to board a ship like that hooker. They had been shanghaied—no sailorman who knew that craft would sign on. They had been on board two days, but were under constant watch and couldn't get off. To make it worse we were short-handed and looked like sailing that way. I had signed on a hell ship.

We towed out next day, hoisting our canvas while under tow, and ran into the first and last spot of fun we had on that voyage. Just as our sails were set, a ten-knot breeze sprang up. With all our canvas drawing nicely we quicklv overhauled and passed our tug which ended up being towed by us. The towboat skipper stood in the stern waving his arms and cursing, but to our afterguard it was a huge joke. In the end we cut the towline and he headed for home minus towing shackle, howling Dago imprecations. We had no more use for towboats. We were headed for 'Frisco, loaded to the Plimsoll line and shorthanded.

The breeze was freshening and both watches were still on deck, coiling down and getting shipshape. The officers made no bones as to how that ship would be run. The mailed fist was quickly in evidence. Every order ended with a curse. Being a square-rig man who didn't know the running gear on a fore-and-after, I was a bit slow in obeying an order from the Mate and he handed me a beauty. My head struck the bitts and I passed out in the scuppers. My shipmates evidently had orders to leave me where I lay, for that is where I came to, some time later. From then on my one ambition was to even up with that mate. I did!

That night, to our surprise, the bosun was ordered to move his belongings aft. We were now six A.Bs, and a sail-maker who couldn't speak English, against a well-armed afterguard of Skipper, two mates, bosun, steward and one apprentice. Right then, to borrow a present-day phrase, the cold war started. Everything that could be done wrong was done so. Running gear was coiled on the wrong belaying pins, or left in a mess on deck, and no one knew who did it.

To make matters worse, the Gunner, as the Skipper's one-eyed wife was quickly named, decided to take a hand. It happened to be my trick at the wheel when she strolled onto the poop, coming to a halt between the binnacle and me, completely blocking my view of the compass. There was already muttering about the Gunner. A woman of any kind was bad medicine, but a tough-looking one-eyed female was a certain hoodoo, as this one proved for sure.

When she strolled up, I was dead on rny course. She evidently intended to test my steering ability, but the seas were quite steady and I steered by them. She stuck it awhile, then turned to me saying, "O.K., sailor." She had accepted me. She tried that trick on the rest of the hands and oaught two of them. Hansen, a young Dane in the Second's watch, got by with a warning, but Scottie caught it. He was a poor helmsman anyway, and when she blocked off his compass he started cruising. He was about three points off the course, when at a signal from her, the mate grabbed him from behind, while the Skipper hauled off and gave him a haymaker, putting most of his teeth down his throat.

The Gunner coolly told him to try to remember that the ship was not a bloody pirate. He was then sent forward with a message to me to go aft and relieve the wheel, which was being attended to by none other than the Gunner herself. As I took the wheel from her and repeated the course, she said "You saw what Scottie got? Get a point off your course and you'll get the same." The Skipper and Mate were watching me. I slid my sheath knife from the back to the front and made sure it was loose.

"What's that for?" said the Skipper.

"That Sir," said I, "Is for anyone who tries to give me what Scottie got, and I don't care a tinker's damn who it is." For a space he glared at me, as if unable to believe what I had dared to say. The mate took a step towards me but was halted as the Skipper burst out laughing.

"I believe the Limejuice Kid would do it too. Leave him alone," he said. From that moment my status seemed to change. I got a sort of grudging respect from the afterguard. If there were any easy jobs I got them, much against mv will. I didn't relish sitting on the after hatch sewing sail while my messmates were hounded to every dirty job the mates could find.

That was how it was on that ship. There were rffi smiles. Orders were carried out in silence. The mates didn't turn their backs on the crew unless they had to, and on more than one occasion the Skipper came on deck with a Winchester rifle. The routine duties were done. They had to be. Sails had to be trimmed, gear overhauled, and repairs made where needed, but this was grudgingly done. There was no gathering round the galley in the dog watches, no singing to the music of a "Fu Fu" band. Our officers killed all that early in the game. There were no chanteys on that ship. Every day brought forth some incident which made matters worse.

The climax came one calm, black night. There was no wind, but the mate kept us on the go trimming sails, first on one tack and then on the other, trying to catch an imaginary breeze. We carried fisherman staysails between the masts. These had to be sent up and down every time we tacked, and each time the staysail halyards had to be dipped under the spring stay. On one of these tacks Scottie forgot to dip the halyard and the staysail jammed as we hoisted it.

With a roar of rage the Mate floored Hansen—who was not even on watch—and I saw red. I grabbed an iron belaying pin from the rail and headed for the Mate. He turned to meet me just as the rest of the crew rolled out of the fo'c'sle with any weapon they could lay their hands on, and the fight was on. That was some scrap! The pent-up feelings of weeks broke loose. Any weapons went, belaying pins, capstan bars, knives, or bare hands. In the darkness I don't think any of us knew who was fighting whom.

The second mate came up from below in his night attire. I remember handing him a beauty, just as the Skipper appeared on the poop with his Winchester. Behind him was the Gunner, her one eye gleaming with savagery, a rifle in her hand also. He fired one round in the air and bellowed, "The next one will hit somebody." We silently faded away to the fo'c'sle to lick our wounds. The afterguard ran the ship that night. None of us turned to. It would have me a massacre if they had attempted to haul us out. By morning we had cooled off and were approaching normal. An uneasy truce took over the ship.

We were running into fast freshening wind with every indication that a real blow was coming up. It came, all right! We were soon down to double-reefed fore and main, wing and wing. For three days we ran before that blow. For three days we had no dry clothing or bunks. We turned in wet and we turned out steaming. Seas went in one side of the deckhouse and out the other. Both doors had carried away. The Doctor had no fire in his galley, and we had no grub except hardtack. Both watches were on deck most of the time. It eventually blew itself out and we settled down to the same old uneasy oalm, wondering when and how the next flare-up would come.

It took the Gunner to start things rolling. She was taking a walk on the poop deck and paused to rest leaning against the rail. Scottie was aloft shackling on a pennant. What caused the lanyard of his marlinspike to suddenly fray we never knew, because we didn't ask, but fray it did and the spike came hurtling down point first. It struck the deck right between the Gunner's feet and penetrated a full inch. -' An inch or two to one side and it would have split her head.

Scottie did the only possible thing. He came down from aloft right away. He knew he was in the clear. It's a second mate's job to make sure all marlinspike lanyards are in perfect shape before being taken aloft. Scottie simply exhibited his frayed lanyard. For the rest of that trip he was the fo'c'sle idol. He not only had thrown a scare into the enemy camp, but had so arranged it that another of our foes had got it in the neck. That second mate was a cowed man when the Skipper got through with him. The more he pro-* tested innocence the more the Skipper lit into him. I don't think the Gunner fell for Scottie's yarn. The look she gave him would have fried an egg.

We were nearing 'Frisco, and had a good idea what would happen to us when we got there. Shipping Commissioners of those days had no use for foremast hands. That fight had settled our hash. It had also ended my easy times, though that didn't bother me. I was happier with the gang. About that time I accidentally discovered a way to further irritate the Gunner. I hadn't many clothes, but among those I did have was a Scotch tam-o-shanter, guaranteed to stay put in any wind. We had no wind. Some days before it had just faded away, which was dynamite to an ambitious skipper.

Then the Gunner sent for me. She produced a wintry smile from somewhere—we didn't think she knew how—and suggested I trade my 'tarn' for the best hat in the slop chest, hinting that it was a woman's hat anyway and I couldn't go ashore in 'Frisco with a thing like that. I figured there was a nigger in the woodpile somewhere and refused. At that she came out in the open. "I'll either get your hat or you," she said. "So long as that thing is on board we get no wind."

That is just what happened. For days we lay in the "Doldrums." Not a breath of wind, sails flapping, and all hands fed up with constant trimming, hoping to catch a stray breeze. During one of these trimming spasms I jumped up onto the rail to get a better purchase on a staysail sheet. The Gunner snatched that poor old tarn off my head and into the sea it went. There were shark fins all round the ship, so I left it where it fell. In less than 30 minutes we were doing seven knots with a spanking breeze on our quarter, everything set and drawing. I was mustered aft to the Skipper's cabin and roundly lectured on the evils of hoodoo wearing apparel. I also got my new hat, plus another facial contortion.

We were nearing port and all hands seemed to be inclined to let feuds die, though constant watchfulness still reigned. Sand and canvas and holystones were the order of the day. Brass work was polished, hemp and marlin tarred and the whole ship spruced up. Eyes constantly strayed to where land should be for a glimpse of. the California coast or perhaps the Farralone Islands off San Francisco. We made our landfall one morning, but no cheering came from that crew. We were too busy figuring how we could get clear of that mess when we dropped anchor. If we delayed, the harbor police would get us, and it's no fun facing a mutiny charge.

As we neared the "Golden Gate" I was told the Skipper wanted me aft. I went into the cabin, once again wondering what was in the wind. A bottle of whisky and a glass were on the table. To my amazement the Skipper said, "Have a drink."

"Thank you, sir," I said, and had one.

"Have another," said he. I had another.

"Have another," he said, but as I reached once more for the bottle he said, "No you don't. You're going to the wheel when we enter the 'Golden Gate' and you are staying there till we drop anchor. Don't forget, son, we're watching you. If you make a wrong move you'll go overside fast. As far as I can figure out we make four legs of it with the wind blowing straight out of the bay like it is. I'm not taking.a tow, and I'm not risking my ship with any of the others. When I say 'Hard a Lee' I want to see that wheel spin, and don't forget to steady her before she goes too far. I'll be right beside you. Now go and relieve the wheel."

To me that trip through the Golden Gate narrows was a nightmare. The wind was right in our teeth and any one of the boys forward would glady have put her on the rocks.

To make things worse the Gunner had come up and fixed her baleful glare on me at every command. Before we got through it was pitch dark, but we made it. The tide at least favored us and round about midnight we let go the anchor.

When morning came, there were two of us left in the fo'c'sle—Hansen, the Dane, and myself. The rest had quietly slipped into the water with their kits on their backs and vanished. I didn't intend to lose my pay if I could help it, and was too young to worry anyway. I got paid off without any fuss. I learned round the waterfront that she was a marked ship as far as the Commissioners were concerned.

A few days later I met the Skipper on Market St. and to my surprise he offered me a second mate's job for a run to Shanghai with lumber and ballast back. I told him with well-chosen words just where he and his ship could go. He must have gone there, for after leaving Shanghai in ballast they were never heard of again. He probably sailed her under. He was a fool for carrying sail. I felt sorry for the Gunner. I hope she can use that smile of hers on Davy Jones, and I hope they don't have tam-o-shanters where she went. If they do she's sunk—a sailor without a breeze.

 

 

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