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Bill Thayer

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Eau de Cologne

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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Burial at Sea
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p72  Doubling the Cape

––––– "If by your art you have

Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them."

What a dreaded name Cape Horn has to those who have never braved its dangers and difficulties: long before I ever thought of becoming a wanderer upon the expanse of the boundless Ocean, I had oft‑times listened with palpitating bosom and fearful delight, to some old‑furrowed and weather-beaten Triton, describe the tempestuous gale; the chilling sleet; the vivid lightning, and the hoarse reverberating voice of "Heaven's own artillery;" all of which the fearless and intrepid mariner had to encounter, ere his frail bark would reach the mild and salutary waters of the Pacific; but the march of improvement in the grand science of navigation, has made our maritime adventurers more familiar with this dreaded head-land and its terrors, which in by‑gone times have chilled the hearts of Ocean's sons, and are considerably diminished in the eyes of the tars of the present day.

In the winter months, no one can for a moment deny that "doubling the cape" is a job not at all desirable; yet I have heard many old sea‑dogs assert, that they would rather encounter the cape, with all its piercing sleet; its howling storms and chilling snows; than attempt our American coast in a severe winter. Providence favoured us with a delightful breeze for a length of time after our departure from Rio; in fact we carried it so far, that we all began to flatter ourselves with the pleasing hope that we would make our passage to the Pacific in as short a time as any other ship ever accomplished it; and as our good old craft, with a cloud of canvass, urged onward like a greyhound from the slip, pleasure filled every bosom and delight beamed in every eye. On the twenty-seventh of September we made Staten Island,​a and on the twenty-ninth the dreary and snow-capped summit of Cape Horn broke upon our view. The spar-deck was now literally crowded with the components of every part of the ship,  p73 who, with no little trouble, ascended the hammock-nettings and rigging, to feast their eyes upon this celebrated and much-talked‑of cape. There it was, quite as cold and comfortless as it ever was represented: there was the goal we had been long striving to reach; there was the cheerless head-land, the thoughts of encountering which had caused many to feel disheartened; and there was the barrier that had yet to be passed ere the pleasing scenes of Chili or Peru would glad our sight.

"And is that Cape Horn, that we've been making such a fuss about?" remarked one of the galley cooks, popping his wooly head above the forecastle netting, a sneer curling his ebony proboscis. "Hell, I thought 'twas twice the place it is — they talked so much about it, I imagined we'd get a regular peeling 'afore we'd round it." "Don't hollo before you're out of the wood, Mr. Snowball," cried an old sheet-anchor man" — "I've been as close as this to the Cape, and yet smelled hell before I doubled it. I wouldn't be afraid to bet a small trifle, but what we'll have to take some of the old lady's muslin off before supper; believe me, I don't like the looks of it yonder." "What, don't you think this fair wind will carry us round, Sam?" enquired one amongst the crowd. "I do not, indeed," replied the man addressed, "just look off there — the old Cape appears to be preparing to put on his night cap, and that's a sure sign of a snorter, take my word for it; every eye was now cast in the direction pointed out by the forecastleman, and it was perceptible that a change of weather was about to take place — large black masses could be perceived, as if rising from out the horizon, following each other in rapid succession — the heavy mist that at first was scarcely discernable, had now completely enshrouded the snow-topped summit of the Cape; the frighted sea‑birds flitted along the surface of the water with ominous scream, and the luminary of day, surrounded by a fierce and blood‑red zone as it was about to depart angrily into the western waters, plainly betokened the brewing of a storm. We were not deceived — the predictions of the forecastleman were realized, for it came on sudden and fierce, scarcely giving us time to make the necessary preparations for its unwelcome visit;  p74 and instead of the auspicious breeze of the preceding evening, to which every sail was spread, and under the influence of which we had moved swiftly and gracefully along, our gallant ship was next morning struggling against the tempestuous elements, almost under her bare poles. The gale continued without intermission for sixteen or eighteen days, buffeting which "Old Ironsides" proved herself the sturdy and efficient sea‑boat she was always celebrated for: no ship was ever more comfortably secured against the bitter blasts and drenching billows than was ours on this occasion; the gun‑deck ports were tightly shut in and caulked with masterly judgment, and made completely water-tight by the application of several thicknesses of tarred canvass on the outside, rendering our main-deck in this boisterous weather a warm and comfortable shelter to its inmates. The hammocks were kept below during the continuance of the gale, and were duly occupied by their proprietors in their several watches, for which our Commodore and Captain received the heartfelt thanks and warm panegyrics of a grateful ship's company; in a word, nothing was left undone that could in any measure add to our comfort and security, or serve to dissipate the sadness of the chilling and dreary scene by which we were surrounded.

Our main-deck was so darkened from the effects of the closely shut ports, and heavy tarpawling which enveloped every hatch, that our lads were obliged to mess on the lower deck; and I assure you that the ludicrous scenes that might be observed almost every meal-time, as the rolling and pitching of the ship brought them in collision with each other, would distort the risible muscles of the most austere. One day in particular, our frigate under close-reefed storm-sails laboured dreadfully, rolling almost her spar-deck guns under — dinner was piped, and our lads were huddled together around their several messes, endeavouring as they best could to transmit the contents of a pan well filled with bean-soup to the inner man. Each one as he received his quantum, placed himself in some solid and secure position to commence his meal, taking advantage of the interval between every roll of the ship to bring a portion of the delicious liquid to his impatient lips; a fellow on the forward part of the deck,  p75 sung out lustily, "look out for your beans;" the words were scarcely uttered, then, before any body could make a second preparation, she gave one of the most tremendous rolls I think I ever experienced; I actually thought she would never right again; my eyes, what a scene now presented itself — away went simultaneously with one movement — in one confused mass, kettles of hot‑water — baskets of small biscuit — pans of soup — pots — kettles — frying pans — gridirons — and all the etceteras of the galley; here might be seen a poor fellow struggling against a heap of clothes-bags — spit boxes — pots — pans and spoons, endeavouring to regain his feet, which the well-greased slippery deck almost rendered an impossibility; further along, you might observe two or three marines well besmeared with soup, trying with rueful countenances to gain possession of the paraphernalia of their mess chest, which, as well as themselves had been tumbled into the main-hold at the first onset, with but little ceremony. In the midst of the uproar, the bon‑mot and repartee flew round with rapidity, (for at what time will not Jack enjoy his joke,) and though many lost their dinners on the occasion, and several got sore heads and pummeled ribs from the effects of their falls, yet all with one accord joined in the laughter that this affair occasioned.

We encountered the "peltings of the pitiless storm" for about seventeen days, but without an accident of any kind taking place; — the spirit of the tumultuous gale began to tire, and as we dragged our way almost imperceptibly to the westward, a bounti­ful Providence favoured us once more with fair winds and delightful weather; the light spars were got aloft — topgallant and royal yards crossed, the lofty studding-sails again spread to the inspiring breeze; and as our skimmer of the seas danced merrily onward towards the Chilian shores, our lads in their present lightheartedness forgot the rough reception they met with when doubling the Cape.

Thayer's Note:

a Now known by its Spanish name, Isla de los Estados. The island marks the eastern tip of Tierra del Fuego, at which point a ship rounding Cape Horn would from a southward course make a sharp turn eastward.

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Page updated: 5 Oct 21