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Bill Thayer

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The Sailor's Drill

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Life in a Man-of‑War

a Fore‑top-man

published by
Houghton Mifflin Company
Boston and New York

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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Pat Bradley's Yarn

This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p40  Bill Garnet's Yarn

"Some tell what they have heard, or tales devise."

Each fiction still improved with added lies."

It was upon a delightful evening in July; we had just left Havana, where we remained but long enough to take in a small supply of wood and water, and were now making all the haste that occasional calm weather and head winds would admit of, towards Rio de Janeiro, expecting to meet at that place with our consort, the sloop-of‑war St. Louis, which vessel it was arranged was to accompany us to the Pacific Ocean. — We were moving along under the influence of an inspiring breeze, topmast, top‑gallant and royal-studding-sails set; supper had just been concluded; and as usual at this hour, and in such serene weather, almost every individual on board, from the hoary, dilapidated mast‑man of some seventy winters, to the light-hearted, frolicksome apprentice‑boy of twelve years old, were assembled on the spar-deck, watching with feelings of wonder and delight the radiant splendour of the heavenly-tinted clouds in the western horizon, as the glorious orb of day was retiring in gorgeous majesty.

In the larboard gangway, and adjacent to the rack, in which were systematically and neatly coiled the different halliards, ready to be let go at a second's warning, a crowd was huddled together around our friend Bill Garnet and two or three others famous for "spinning twisters," urging them with sundry promises and entreaties, to commence a narration of the wild and the wonder­ful. "Come Garnet," cried half-a‑dozen eager voices, "let us have a yarn — don't you remember when you went in the top last night to keep a look out, you promised to spin us something nice this dog‑watch." — "Don't you see I'm at the halliards," replied Bill, who not feeling in a gossiping humour, endeavoured to back out, despite all their coaxing; "and you know I must keep my weather‑eye open, for you see what a lot of flying kites we've got aloft, and on the least puff of wind we'll be  p41 for doucing them I'm thinking." — "have that's all in my eye and Betty Martin," remarked a mizen-topman, who was all anxiety for a display of Garnet's story-telling abilities. — "You know very well the royal and topgallant stunsail-halliards are here at your elbow, and should they even take them in, (which I don't think they will this fine night,) you need not put yourself to any trouble, any of us here will be on hand to let them go while you can say Jack Robinson." — "Damme mates, if I can think of anything this evening," replied our story-teller, "and another thing, when I do spin you a twister as true as the book of Job, not a soul of you will believe it; so what's the use of me wasting my breath." From the tone that this was delivered in, together with sundry shiftings of the speaker's position on the gun‑slide, as if his seat was not as comfortable as it might have been, the all‑impatient group were well aware that Garnet was about to make a commencement, as all his yarns had generally a similar prelude.

"Come, Bill, heave a‑head," cried Bradley, "the dog‑watch is going fast, I'll spell you when you get tired." — "Well then, I suppose if I must I must; give us a chew of tobacco some of you, to moisten my mouth a little, I have none out of my bag myself." This article was quickly tendered by half-a‑dozen hands at the same time, together with a spare pea‑jacket as a soft seat for our story-teller. Garnet cleared his throat for a second or two, inserted the Virginia wood in his mouth, looked up aloft to see that every thing was all right in that quarter, and thus commenced:

"Well mates, I suppose you all remember the summer of the cholera; that same summer I shipped in a brig at New‑York, belonging to the Spanish main: she was an American built craft, though she sailed under Columbian colours; well, I went to Hamburgh in her, and like a fool took my discharge there; yes, I say like a fool; I was often sorry for it afterwards, for better usage, since or before, I never had on board of a vessel, than I had in that same Columbian: — Now Hamburgh is a fine place for fun certainly, but it is'nt the best place in the world to get a ship at; and I found it so I assure you. I was paid off with something like seventy-eight dollars, and that's  p42 considered a pretty little sum there, and would last a careful fellow the whole winter. — Well shipmates, sailor-like, I went the whole figure whilst the cash lasted, not even buying myself a fit‑out of clothes; and in a little time I was hard up. I somehow or another got into the good graces of my old landlady, perhaps by doing little chores around the house; but any how I never lacked my schnaps any time I thought proper to call for it, and I hung on in the boarding-house until the latter end of November, when, the weather beginning to grow somewhat chilly, I thought to myself I'd make a start, before the winter set in. I tramped to the city in company with ten or a dozen other chaps, in the "outward bound box" like myself, twice a day for a fortnight on a stretch, and hailed every captain that hove in sight — but 'twas no go, they all had their full complement of men; and when I found I could not raise any advance, I hopped on board a smack and worked my passage to London. After a tolerably good run of six days we went up the river Thames, and brought the old craft to anchor abreast of Tower-stairs, and of course I had to marvel ashore on my own hook like Mullins's dog, and in an hour or two I found coming from Hamburgh to London to look for a ship, was out of the frying‑pan into the fire — or like fetching coals to New Castle. Well, mates, what was I to do? I never was in any part of England before that time in my life. All the donnage that I owned was on my back, for as I came away without my landlord's knowledge, I left my other clothes behind. I did not like to mention my departure to him as I owed him a pretty heavy bill. To make things still worse there was but one American ship in London when I arrived, and she sailed for New York before I had a chance to look at her, much less ask for a passage. Now you see you can't whip into a boarding-house in that place, and eat and drink of the best on the strength of a month's advance, as you can in any of our sea‑ports. No, no, you must first bring your chest to the house, and it must be filled with pretty decent clothes, too, before they will give you a meal of victuals. Well, here was poor pill-garlick like a snail, all my moveables on my back; how was I to work it. I first tried the Consul — he asked me for my Protection — I  p43 had'nt it to produce — he swore I was not an American and turned me adrift; and that night hungry and cold I had to walk the street, and if the policemen did'nt keep me moving there's no snakes; of course I could'nt stand this long, so the next day with a stiff upper‑lip, I went to the straw-house and asked for shelter till I could find a vessel."

"What, were you in the straw-house, Garnet?" innocently enquired a main‑top boy. "Aye, that I was, youngster; and precious glad I was to get there, too; they may talk as they like about that same place, but believe me, mates, the two basins of soup, and the two biscuits they serve out there, keep many as smart a sailor as ever stepped between stem and stern of a ship, from famishing in the streets, or from committing a crime that would swing him on a gallows.​a There's no use in my telling you how I dodged about the different docks every day looking for whatever chance might throw in my way, either in the shape of tobacco or victuals. But, to cut the yarn short, after a fortnight's struggling with cold and misery, I got a ship at last. She was a large wall-sided thing, hailing from St. John's, New Brunswick. She lay in the East India dock, all ready for sea. I happened to meet the captain, who was then looking for a hand, I offered myself, and the bargain was clinched right off the reel. I was to get twenty dollars for the run to New Orleans. The captain took me to a second-hand clothing store, where I got a tolerable fit‑out considering every thing; and with my bundle of donnage, a small stock of tobacco, a dozen or so of pipes, and about half a gallon of rum, I went on board the old Ardent.

"We hauled out of dock that same evening and went down the river with a beauti­ful breeze; and in a few days we were far enough away from the shores of Old England, and, I assure you, mates, I bid the land good‑bye with a light heart. Our old ship was a dull sailer, and as for steering, why she'd turn right round and look you in the face, and before the wind, the man that could keep her a point and a half each way, was doing wonders, I tell you. Take her altogether, she was as clumsy and overgrown a piece of furniture as ever carried a rudder. We had sixteen men before the mast; and a  p44 curious mixture we were. There were Dutch, Swedes, Spaniards, English, Irish, Scotch, and one more American besides myself, and out of those sixteen there were two or three green hands, who shipped for seamen but could'nt steer their trick. I suppose, poor fellows, something like myself, they were glad to get clear of London any fashion. One of these, a stout young Dutch chap by the name of Krants, was in the mate's watch along with me, — he had never been in a square-rigged vessel before, and of course every thing came very awkward to him; he was turned away from the wheel two or three times when we first came out, by the mate, who appointed to have taken a complete dislike to him; and many and many a time in his watch below, has he kept him shinning aloft with a tar or slush bucket in his hand for hours on a stretch, and used to kick and cuff him about for every little trifle, whether he was in the fault or not — he had the poor fellow completely cowed down, and we all pitied him; if we'd had a crew that would have stuck together why we might have done something to prevent all this — but as it was, each one thought it best to see and hear and say nothing.

"Now Mr. Godfrey, the mate, was as great a rascal as ever hove a log chip over a ship's quarter. He had something in his very looks that would make a fellow dislike him — he was broad-shouldered, bandy-legged, and beetle-browed, with his starboard glim shut up, and an ugly gash down one of his cheeks; in fact, he had the appearance of a man who would stand at nothing to gain his ends. We had a dull, tedious run of it, for eight knots was as much as we could get out of the thing, set what sail we might. One afternoon (I shall never forget the day as long as I live) we were about in the latitude of Jamaica, and with a pretty stiff breeze were running off about seven knots, we had a fore-topmast and two topgallant studding-sails set, and the captain put his head up the companion (for he did'nt often make his appearance, being pretty much all the passage three sheets in the wind) and desired the mate to set a main-topmast studding-sail; I was at the wheel at the time. Krants was soon sung out for — he was in the fore-topmast-crosstrees doing something or other, and immediately came on center. 'Here,' cried  p45 Godfrey, hitting him over the shoulders with the end of a coil of new rigging that lay near him, 'take this up aloft and reeve it for a pair of main-topmast studding-sail halliards, and be damn'd quick about it too, or by ––––– (swearing a tremendous oath) I'll open that cabbage-head of yours;' at the same time giving the poor devil a kick that sent him slam up against the weather-rail. Oh! I could have bit my tongue with rage at seeing the poor fellow receiving this treatment; he never said a word, but laid hold of the halliard, giving Godfrey a look that almost pierced him through; as the tears streamed down his cheeks, he jumped in the rigging and began to ascend leisurely. Godfrey went below for a moment, and by the time he came on deck again Krants had rove the halliards in the span-block at the mast-head, and was now on the topsail-yard pointing them through the jewel-block; in his hurry he had taken them foul of a piece of running-rigging about the topmast, which the mate perceiving, he cut about a fathom off the other end of the same coil that Krants was now about to reeve, and with the speed of lightning, and fire flashing from his eyes, darted aloft and was soon on the yard by the side of the terrified Dutchman. Poor Krants let go the halliard through fear, they unrove and came down on deck, and Godfrey seizing him by the collar of his red shirt, laid on him with all his might over his head and face with this heavy piece of rope, until the blood fairly trickled down the main-topsail; and as the poor fellow tried to escape the blows, he lost his balance, and overboard he went.

"I gave the alarm, and we hove the ship to as quick as possible — Godfrey, with a face as pale as death, exerting himself all he knew how. Krants was in sight about a quarter of a mile astern, but did not appear to make any effort to save himself. We soon got our jolly-boat in the water, and four of us, with the mate, pulled away lustily for the poor Dutchman, and soon came along side of him. I never saw a sight before in my life that made my flesh creep as did this — he appeared to be breast-high out of water — his teeth fiercely clenched together, and his eyes — Oh, God! how wild and devilish they looked. As we laid in our oars to lift him into the boat,  p46 he raised one hand above his head, shook it fiercely at Godfrey, went down, and never rose again. We lay round there some time, but he never made his appearance; so we pulled on board, hoisted the boat up, filled away, and proceeded on our course again; the crew appeared to be very melancholy that evening after this accident; but as for the mate, he was, if possible, worse than before, cursing the poor fellow that had just met a watery grave, in terms that I, hard a swearer as I am, would almost shudder to mention; and bidding the rest of us to look out, as our turn might come next. I had the first watch on deck that night, and between eleven and twelve o'clock our main-topgallant studding-sail parted, and Godfrey cursed and raved like a very devil for being obliged to rig the boom in, to reeve another, and started a green hand by the name of Webber aloft for this purpose. Whilst he was ascending the main-rigging Godfrey went below, perhaps to freshen the nip, for he appeared to be boucingº his jib pretty taught ever since the accident. Somehow or another Webber could not cast the heel-lashing of the boom adrift, and came on deck for a marlinspike to assist him. I was standing on the weather-side just aloft the main-mast, and of course had a good chance of seeing every thing that happened. As soon as Godfrey came out the cabin he looked aloft, and seeing the boom was not yet rigged in, gnashed his teeth with rage, and sprung up the rigging like a madman, for the purpose, no doubt, of giving Webber a hammering, who, he thought, was in the top. As he was going over the futtock-shrouds — it was'nt fancy, mates — but there sat a man on the topsail-yard, just inside the lift; it was a pretty dark night, too dark for me to distinguish a person's face at that distance; but I could see his figure as plain as I can see any of you now. I at first thought it was Webber, who might possibly have gone up the lee‑rigging without my perceiving him, but I soon found out different.

"Godfrey run out on the foot rope as quick as lightning, and in a moment was clasped in the arms of the person that sat on the yard — the shriek that he gave, I think I hear it in my ears now. I never heard one so chilling and death-like since or before; but his cries  p47 were in vain, his time was come, he was now about to pay for all his cruelty — the figure appeared to lift him from the yard as if by main strength, and at that moment a gleam of light shone along the topgallant-sail, as if it were wrapped in flames, and discovered, plain as the noon‑day, the wretched Godfrey struggling in the fiend-like grasp of Krants. In another moment all was dark as the grave, and a heavy plunge in the water and a faint struggle, told but too plainly the fate of this cruel blasphemous wretch; and so ends my yarn."

As Garnet ceased speaking, a silence of some minutes ensued, so completely were his auditors wrapped up in this fearful recital — at length one of the group reminded Bradley of his promise, "oh, aye, true enough," spoke up Garnet; remember Pat, you said you'd spell me, so come, as it's a fine night, its not worth while turning in this dog‑watch." Bradley after a few preliminaries commenced as follows:

Thayer's Note:

a This seems as good a place as any for me to tender a very belated thanks to the Bahnhofsmission of (then West-)Berlin for their help to me in 1971; I perfectly concur.

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Page updated: 5 Oct 21