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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 3

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Yarns of a Kentucky Admiral

Hugh Rodman, USN

published by
The Bobbs-Merrill Company

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 5
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p68  Chapter IV
A Bit of Nautical Talk

Having mentioned some of the discomforts of the early days, let us note by contrast the accommodations in a modern battle-ship.

Comforts, Even Luxuries There is the greatest abundance of living space for enlisted personnel. It requires an enormous tonnage or, if you like, floating platform, for the emplacement of our turret guns, though the turrets themselves do not occupy much of it. Many other utilities also require protective shelter without occupying much of the space. In consequence there is more than ample berthing, messing and living space for the men. Their food is abundant, excellent, wholesome and palatable, and served in a sanitary and inviting way. In point of fact, in these days, they have all of the necessities, many of the comforts and some of the luxuries. Every effort is made to keep them happy and contented.

The young graduate, on joining his ship, will be assigned to a room with probably one other to share it. The room is well ventilated, artificially and otherwise, well above the water-line, where the ports can generally be kept open both at sea and in port; it will be electrically lighted, with modern toilet facilities conveniently located, including hot and cold showers of fresh and salt water and with ample stowage for his belongings. The latter was a convenience which never obtained in my early seagoing days.

He will have fresh food the year around, owing to  p69 cold-storage facilities, and a separate mess-room from his own living-room, both perfectly sheltered in every kind of weather. Electric fans for hot days and nights, steam heat for the cold, all of the comforts and some of the luxuries which never obtained in the old days.

In addition to which, if assigned to a battle-ship, he will not only be free from the excessive motion of the old wooden ships, but when on duty will have more or less protection from the elements in rough or stormy weather, which was not formerly the case. When off duty there will be various forms of amusement available: athletic sports, in which he may take part, moving-pictures, radio-music and other forms of entertainment which are in vogue.

Formerly there was not even a reading-room on board, nor recreation space for officers or men. The few books carried were more often kept in the captain's cabin and were not generally accessible to the men, and none too much so to the officers.

In the early days, when passage was made mostly under sail, the time of arrival at our destination was problematic; from the time we left port until our arrival, the weather was the all‑absorbing topic, and necessarily so. The height of the barometer, any change in the force or direction of the winds or the weather in general, had to be taken into consideration and studied, and sail carried accordingly; and the course and speed had to be constantly changed to meet the varying conditions.

Creating Amusement On such long voyages, means had to be devised to pass an idle hour when off duty. I am sorry to say that many of the old‑time wooden ships were infested with rats, and nearly always with cockroaches, which  p70 seemed to be in evidence everywhere. One means of amusement consisted in racing cockroaches.

On our red table-cloth a white chalk-line would be drawn lengthwise of our mess-table. Those having entries would have captured their bug and, according to rule, have it in visible confinement under a wine-glass, which was to be deposited on the starting-line. After wagers had been made, at the word "Go!" the glasses were raised vertically, the bug shaken loose if necessary, and the race was finished when the first roach reached the edge of the table, "tail end up," or when its body was in the vertical. We had "free for all," "obstruction," "hurdle" and other races, but the "straight-away" was by far the most popular.

One day one of our messmates claimed to have a real sprinter, a roach which he offered to back against the field and all comers, but on condition that he would not be compelled to expose his bug to view, but keep it hidden under a china teacup until the start. At such odds there was a full attendance and practically every one had an entry. When the signal was given for the start, and covers removed, what was our surprise to see an immense land roach drop from under the teacup. He was of a variety found in the tropics, so we were spellbound — but not for long. His owner had reckoned without his host, for instead of making a break for the edge of the table and liberty, after spinning around in its tracks several times, evidently to get its bearings, it deliberately flew straight up in the air and disappeared in a crack overhead.

For days there were arguments about the winner, for so intent had we all been in watching the big bug that none could establish satisfactorily to the others  p71 which roach did win. But one fact was certain — the big fellow did not win, and his backers' stake was divided among the others.

There was still another way of creating amusement. Some one would write a rhyme, submit it to the mess and allow a stated number of minutes, say five or ten, for all present to comment upon it in rhyme, no matter what might be the meter, and the best answer would be awarded the prize. I remember this one:

"Mary stood in the water

For just an hour and a quarter,

With a piece of soap in her hand.

And when she seen

That she was clean

She walked out on the land."

And the prize-winner's comment was as follows:

"Mary stood in the water

An hour longer'n she oughter,

And if she hadn't been dopey

She'd have made herself soapy,

And got out before any one caught her."

All of this may seem very silly and a poor way to find amusement, and maybe it was; yet it served to while away an hour or so in the evenings when we were cooped up below, were tired of reading and yarn-spinning, and found any diversion acceptable, no matter how trivial it might seem.

In the days of sailing ships, voyages of thirty, forty and fifty days were not uncommon. Out of sight of land, with no radio, little or no physical recreation, one day was very much like another. Once in a single year, out of the three hundred and sixty-five days, I  p72 was actually at sea two hundred and sixty-five days — nearly all under sail, in a ship of one thousand six hundred tons displacement.

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In this ship we were making passage from Honolulu to San Francisco, and it was generally understood that she was top‑heavy, with none too much stability. Our crew was composed largely of young apprentices and there were very few regular officers on board, which made it advisable to shorten sail promptly on the approach of a squall.

One of these officers was notoriously inefficient and had been reproved repeatedly by the commanding officer for lack of initiative and forethought. Looking out of his cabin port on one occasion, the captain noticed an unusually heavy squall approaching, but hearing no orders to shorten sail, he strolled on deck and seeing this officer calmly pacing the poop, said, "Mr. X–––––, that looks like an exceptionally heavy squall coming; have you made any preparation for it?" "Yes, sir," he said, "I have sent below for my rain clothes." Whereupon he was told he could go below and take ten days to put them on, his term of suspension from duty. The captain, taking the deck himself, shortened sail as rapidly as possible.

Strange as it may seem, there are few seamen in the navy to‑day, as we understand the term as applied in sailing-ship days. Then a man was rated in accordance with his ability to "hand, reef, or steer," or in other words, his qualifications as a real sailor in a sailing ship, depended upon his ability to perform all of the required duties on deck and aloft.

In modern ships, except for steersmen and those handling the ground-tackle winches and performing other similar duties, we have but little use for the old- p73 time sailor. Mechanicians are more in our line. Formerly man‑power prevailed throughout; then we required seamen in abundance for every operation, both for their knowledge and physical strength. The installation of mechanical power appliances has obviated the necessity for hand-power. A modern ship is a mass of machinery with a multiplicity of mechanical devices which require brains to handle them, not brute strength.

One example may serve for many others. In a sailing ship, on the wind, blowing fresh under short sail, four men would be stationed at the steering wheel aft on the quarter-deck, without shelter, with heavy seas breaking over them at times and the rain coming down in torrents. Not infrequently, from the sudden strains on the tiller ropes, they might be tossed over the wheel and receive severe bodily injuries — and this in a vessel from two thousand to three thousand tons displacement.

To‑day a super-dreadnought of thirty‑two thousand tons, more than ten times as large as the old sailing ships, is steered electrically by one man who has sufficient strength in one hand to control the whole ship. This control is located on the bridge, under shelter, forty feet above the water-line. This is in no wise an exceptional comparison.

Reason for Nautical Terms When most of our cruising was done under sail, one's ability as an officer was judged largely by his proficiency in relation to his handling both the ship itself under way and the sails and gear as well.

Our language was of necessity nautical, by reason of the multiplicity of sails, spars, ropes of the standing and running rigging, various fittings and parts of the  p74 ship, which were frequently referred to in orders and commands when handling sail, or in the ordinary routine of every‑day life.

Such orders, unintelligible to the landsman, were issued under established custom, with the same accuracy and precision as that which would be expected from a captain drilling his company of infantry.

If an officer would carry out his duties without exciting a subdued and sometimes, under cover of darkness, a pronounced ridicule, it was necessary to have a thorough familiarity, not only with the names of every article and piece of gear on board ship, but an intimate knowledge of the lead or ramifications of the multitudinous ropes, and be in instant readiness to issue and execute the proper order, using the conventional nautical terms.

It became second nature in our ordinary conversation to apply nautical terms to matters which had no relation to the sea. Some of these terms were very expressive. Nor was our etymology in accordance with that in general use on shore among educated people, for not only were many words abbreviated or fore-shortened, but others had an entire different pronunciation from that in common use. Perhaps this was because these sea terms had been handed down from generation to generation, many of the seamen were uneducated, an appreciable percentage were foreigners and since for centuries sails had been the motive power of ships, the old names and phrases had been perpetuated.

Orders for Tacking If my memory serves me right, something like the following orders were given by the officer of the deck when it became necessary to tack a square-rigged ship, though they may not be in the exact order:

 p75  "Ready about; stations for stays."

"Ready, ready. Man the weather fore and main, lee cross-jack braces."

"Rise tacks and sheets."

"Helm's alee; let fly the head sheets."

"Set taut; mainsail haul."

"Set well taut, let go and haul."

"Ease the helm, bring her by the wind."

"Ease down the clew garnets."

"Sheet home the fore and main sails."

"Haul aft the head sheets."

"Steady out the bowlines."

As the maneuver progressed and conditions arose with reference to the sails and gear which required attention, multitudinous orders, not only from the officer of the deck, but from the junior officer, were given to meet and rectify them, not one of which would be intelligible to any one who was not a seafaring man.

To‑day, in contrast to this, to change the course of the largest battle-ship, which is designated by the degrees on the compass card, it is only necessary to say to the helmsman, "Change course to . . . degrees." As has been stated, the helmsman alone, with one hand, can execute the order which formerly required the labor of at least half of the ship's company.

In sailing days there was little or no incentive to an officer to do more than qualify himself to be a good deck officer, for the navy was completely stagnated in material and personnel. For years there was scarcely an important improvement in construction or material, until, some time during the 'eighties, a new era dawned, which has resulted in our efficient modern navy.

In the early 'eighties I was attached to the Hartford,  p76 which had been the flag-ship of Admiral Farragut at the battle of Mobile Bay in the Civil War, twenty years before. She was a wooden ship, square-rigged and could spread about one acre of canvas when all sail was set, including studding-sails. In a long passage, under favorable conditions, she would average a speed of eight knots. She had auxiliary steam, generally used in coasting and on entering and leaving port, under which she could make about nine knots.

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Her main battery consisted of eight‑inch, smooth-bore, cast-iron guns and two eight-inch rifles, the latter having been converted by lining an old eleven‑inch gun with rifled tubes. All of the guns were muzzle-loaders, using black powder. The old eleven‑inch guns were mounted on pivot carriages, twenty‑two men to the gun's crew; they were manipulated by rope tackles and man‑power like the other guns, and required several minutes to shift their fire from one side to the other. As to their range or frequency of fire, I have no data at hand, but assume that their limit would not exceed two miles and a half and that there would be from five to ten minutes between shots at the very best, with little or no accuracy in relation to hitting.

During our drills at general quarters, which means the whole crew at battle stations, it was then customary to "call away boarders, or riflemen," the former armed with boarding pikes or cutlasses as their weapons of offense against the crew of an antagonist, the latter with rifles, as their designation indicated. This was done under the supposition that during action the combatant ships might draw alongside of each other and a hand-to‑hand fight of the crews determine the victor.

 p77  In the early 'eighties the Hartford sailed from Boston, Massachusetts, for the Pacific Station. Had she made the usual necessary stops on her way to San Francisco, the voyage would have consumed, in all probability, about five months.

Wonderful Strides since 1908 In 1908, the American Battle-ship Fleet, consisting of sixteen battle-ships, steamed around the world under command of Admiral "Fighting Bob" Evans. The voyage from Hampton Roads to San Francisco via the Straits of Magellan, consumed over two months. In 1919, eleven years later, another American fleet under my command left Hampton Roads for its new station on the California coast, going via the Panama Canal, and made the journey in eighteen days. Practically the same rate of cruising speed was maintained for both the voyages, but the Panama Canal enabled us to chop off seventy per cent of the time consumed by Admiral Evans' fleet.

Wonderful strides have been made in the years intervening between these two voyages, and it may be stated without exaggeration that any one of the super-dreadnoughts of which the latter fleet was composed could, owing to its superior speed and vastly greater gun‑power, have taken a position out of range of the other fleet and destroyed every vessel in it without running the slightest risk of being hit a single time.

To‑day our latest battle-ships carry sixteen‑inch guns, hurling armor-piercing shells weighing over two thousand pounds. All the guns in the main battery are automatically fired simultaneously, and only forty seconds are supposed to elapse between salvos. Their secondary battery should average at least eight shots per minute per gun. If all the guns on one of our latest battle-ships were firing at their estimated  p78 working capacity, they would hurl over thirty thousand pounds of steel shells per minute and use over seven thousand five hundred pounds of smokeless powder.

Just one example to show the improvement in gunnery in comparatively later years: At the battle of Manila Bay in 1898, it took six ships two hours to destroy the Spanish fleet. To‑day one ship of the average strength of Admiral Dewey's fleet, could do the work in thirty minutes, making an improvement of two thousand four hundred per cent in gunnery in the last twenty‑odd years.

And now, contrast this with the old Hartford of forty years ago, when she was considered as good as any ship in our navy! Can you realize the years of thought, study, training and labor that it has taken to accomplish this end?

Formerly each gun was loaded and fired independently, and little or no information reached the crew as to the effect of its shots, or necessary corrections to promote accuracy; it was largely every gun for itself, and "devil take the rest."

To‑day all this is changed and battery fire is under the control of the gunnery officer who directs it, and is dependent upon the most intricate and efficient teamwork of any set of men in or out of athletic sports of which I have ever heard. For gunnery in the navy to‑day is sporty to the highest degree. There is nothing that is more fiercely competitive between the ships of like class — nothing that excites more interest and enthusiasm and requires more hard work, preparation, pep, cool-headedness, accuracy and close and intelligent brain-work than battery practise.

There is just as much interest and rivalry among the ships to win the official gunnery pennant as there  p79 is among the professional baseball teams for the honor of the world's champion­ship.

Improvements in the U. S. M. C. If within the past fifty years there have been marked changes and improvements in the navy, the marines, who constitute an integral part of it, have been all but metamorphosed.

Formerly the officers were appointed solely from civil life. Many of them had failed to qualify at West Point or Annapolis, and then entered the Marine Corps. It used to be said that U. S. M. C. stood for "Useless Sons Made Comfortable." There were no post-graduate schools, and but little incentive or opportunity for one to better himself professionally, even if he had the ambition.

The duties were generally those of policing the navy yards, and like duty on board ship. Not that the old Marine Corps had not on numerous occasions rendered valiant service, for it had; but forty‑odd years ago it was decidedly stagnated and far from being smart or efficient.

Marine officers were formerly automatically retired on reaching a prescribed age — sixty-four, if my memory serves me correctly. One day one of the officers of a ship to which I was attached marked in red ink opposite each of his messmates' names the date of his prospective retirement, if the age limit should be reached. Later one of the marine officers, who was not noted for his brilliancy, came to me smiling and said:

"Rodman, I want to call your attention to a most remarkable coincidence; I am going to be retired on my birthday."

"Why, Major," as we called the senior marine officer, "it is most remarkable that such is the case.  p80 You had only one chance in three hundred and sixty-five, unless you were born in leap-year, which would add one more to it."

"No, no, I'm not born in leap-year."

Just think of it! He was actually going to reach the age of sixty-four on his birthday!!​b As a matter of fact, he wasn't retired on his birthday after all — he failed to qualify for promotion to the next higher grade.

Formerly the corps was small — barely sufficient to guard the navy yards and send detachments to cruising and station ships. There was no major organization into regiments or larger units, and little if any thought given to putting the corps on a permanent and efficient war basis, as it is to‑day — ready at a moment's notice to embark for foreign service. There was bad blood between the blue-jackets and the marines on board ship, and the marines were not over-popular.

None Better Now all of this is changed, and to‑day there is no better, finer, smarter or more efficient force in the United States Army and Navy than the marines, and the navy is proud to claim them as part of its own.

In my opinion the changes and improvements were largely attributable to the fact that the corps was primarily leavened by placing graduates of the Naval Academy in it, who engendered the wonderful esprit de corps which now exists, and through whose efforts the whole corps has attained its enviable reputation. The selection of officers from civil life and from the corps itself has been more carefully made than formerly, and undesirables, both in the commissioned and enlisted personnel, have been weeded out.

To‑day on board ship the marines work hand in glove with the blue-jackets, man a part of the battery,  p81 assist in cleaning ship, enter into all athletic sports and, except for the difference in uniform and certain special duties, for which they are eminently qualified, are as much part and parcel of the ship's company as the blue-jackets.

When parties are landed abroad to preserve law and order, and protect our national rights and the lives and property of our citizens and suppress disorder, the marines form the nucleus of our force and are indispensable from every standpoint. They are efficient and versatile, a highly trained body of men, and one that can always be relied upon in an emergency to do the right thing in the right place.

Witness the account they gave of themselves in the World War! There was none better. And for that matter, they have done equally well wherever their services have been required.

Don't for a moment suppose that all of this is due solely to those officers in the corps who graduated from Annapolis, for such is not the case, and there is many a fine officer who has risen from the ranks or been appointed from civil life. But I do believe that the original inspiration came from those graduates who entered the corps in the early 'eighties.

Speaking of the change from sail to steam recalls one of the oldest of the navy's stock yarns. In the days of sail alone it was a difficult feat to work a ship into the Mediterranean through the Straits of Gibraltar against a strong headwind and adverse current.

When the first steam-propelled American war‑ship entered the harbor of Gibraltar, she found at anchor there the flag-ship of the commodore of the European Station, an old sailing frigate. The steamer was  p82 directed to take the flag-ship in tow and carry her through the straits, but in the midst of the worst part found that little or no headway was being made, owing to her low power and the adverse conditions. This continued for some time, when the captain of the steamer, not intentionally using rhyme, sent the following signal to the commodore:

"If wind and tide do not abate,

I can not tow you through the strait."

The commodore, doubtless suspicious of the captain's motive, and somewhat incensed, sent back the following:

"As long as you have wood and coal

You go ahead, g––––– d––––– your soul!"

Improved, Simplified Navigation Like other nautical sciences which have made advanced strides, navigation has been very much improved and simplified. Formerly we obtained our rate of speed by the chip log; that is, each hour, on the stroke of the bell, we "hove the log," which consisted of a sector of wood weighted slightly on the arc and held upright by bridles. This was cast overboard and the log‑line allowed to run freely from the reel. As the first knot passed the taffrail a sand-glass was started, and when the sand had all run into the lower chamber, the knot in the line than at the rail was read, and by the proportion of time to the amount of line run out one could calculate the distance.

But unfortunately the ship did not move at a uniform rate of speed for the whole hour; hence it was necessary after all to approximate the result. When sailing close to the wind we made leeway, which was  p83 also estimated as a correction against the compass course apparently steered. The compass itself was magnetic, which, particularly on iron ships, had a double error to be applied — that due to the earth's variation from the true notion, and the deviation due to the ship itself. Later, in our early battle-ships, the magnetic compasses required so much compensation that they were very slow to act when the ship's course was changed, making accurate fleet tactics a very uncertain quantity at times.

Now automatic logs register true speed; the gyrocompass instantly gives the true direction. When near land, instead of the old method of taking cross-bearings with the slow-moving magnetic compass, we can use the range-finder in conjunction with the gyrocompass and get an accurate result almost instantaneously.

Formerly, when we carried three chronometers to keep Greenwich mean time, we were dependent upon our comparisons in port for their corrections and rates. These we used until we reached some other port, where we could get comparisons or take observations. To‑day we get correct time at sea by radio twice a day, and it is far simpler and more accurate to navigate by using any good standard watch and the time signals, than it was when we depended upon chronometers alone.

Astronomical methods of finding position at sea have been simplified and shortened, so that to‑day they are far easier and infinitely more accurate.

Much greater strides have been made in other activities, particularly in connection with signals and communication. Pages might be written on this subject alone, but let it be said that forty‑odd years ago,  p84 if one ship made a flag-hoist to another, it would take minutes to make the signal and many more to read and answer it. To‑day it can be done in seconds, much more accurately and intelligently, and above all, dependably.

Thayer's Notes:

a The U. S. S. Essex, the last known ship designed by Donald McKay. Full details of her history, construction, and remains are given in several photoillustrated pages at the Minnesota Historical Society. It's curious that nowhere in his book does Adm. Rodman ever name her. She's not the ship he has just mentioned, either: the Essex only displaced 1375 tons.

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b The law at the time provided that military officers, in all the services, retired at age 64.

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