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Bill Thayer

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Aquatic Theatricals

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.
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The Galley Politicians
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p130  The Melancholy Excursion

"Death finds us 'mid our playthings — snatches us

As a cross nurse might do a wayward child,

From all our toys and baubles."

Upon what a fragile and uncertain thread hangs the life of mortals! Whilst going our round of pleasure amid the scenes of gaiety and delight, surrounded by the laughter-loving sons and daughters of mirth and gladness, with all apparent health glowing upon their cheeks; who can tell but what at this moment, the relentless and unerring shaft of death is levelled with cruel aim to snatch some individual from those enjoyments, which he is indulging in with so much zest! Truly doth the Scriptures say "In the midst of life we are in death;" for how many daily instances have we brought before our eyes, of mortals in all the bloom of ripening manhood, cut off from their circle of friends and acquaintances without a moment's forewarning!

No class of persons stand so near the verge of eternity, as those who traverse the wide unfathomable ocean for a livelihood. In the midst of the howling storm, when the hapless bark has to contend against the clash of the fierce and angry elements, the duty of the mariner at this trying time places his life in the utmost jeopardy; and whilst "bending o'er the rocking yard," the foaming gulf beneath him becomes many a time and oft his insatiate sepulchre.

In the course of my wanderings on the mighty deep I have witnessed many of these bereavements, sudden and afflicting. I have seen the light-hearted tar, prosecuting his duty upon the "high and giddy mast," his unsophisticated countenance beaming with health and gaiety, perhaps too joining in the laugh of his merry comrades — in one short moment of time hurled from his dizzy situation, and the next presenting to the gaze of his affectionate shames, a frightful, mangled mass on the blood-stained deck. I have beheld a beloved three years' associate snatched from before my eyes in one  p131 instant, whirled with cruel haste into the angry element, ere yet the tone of his last response had died upon my ear — have seen his hands raised in a supplicating posture, and gazed with aching eye‑balls upon his dying struggle ere assistance could reach him.

Our old frigate since her arrival on the station, had cruised but little; in the month of April we had just returned from a small jaunt to Talcahuana,º where we remained but long enough to give our lads a run on liberty; and were lying in Callao in our usual dull way — nothing to do throughout the day but wash the decks, clean the bright-work, and spread the awnings. To help to beguile the time, which hung so uncommonly heavy upon our hands, fishing excursions were occasionally got up (for the bay of Callao swarms with the finny tribe); and the different messes groaned under the fruits of those piscatory expeditions; it was fish! fish! fish! every meal, three times a day; and as one of our ship's wags expressed it, "he had eat so much mackerel and perch, he expected to see scales and fins making their appearance upon some part of his body very soon." — One delightful morning a boat's crew of volunteers, accompanied by an officer, repaired to the dreary Island of San Lorenzo in search of seal, the rocks and caverns around this lonely spot abounding with those amphibious creatures. Upon their arrival at the scene of action they found the surf was so severe as almost to preclude the possibility of landing at the place where the animals resorted; they made several attempts to gain the beach but without success; they at last determined to return to the other and more placid side of the Island, where they had left two of their companions to prepare the evening meal, and remain there all night, not doubting but what the morrow would be more favourable for the amusement. Previous to their starting for this purpose, two adventurous individuals, named Martin and Lowe, observing two or three seal in a cavern a few yards from the beach, at all hazards, and in spite of their boatmates' entreaties to the contrary, cast themselves into the roaring surf, and gained the interior of the cavern in safety.

The animals that had caused them to make this hazardous attempt were quickly killed; but to regain the boat was now the object;  p132  they found the longer they remained the more fierce and tumultuous the breakers became. Martin, at a fearful risk, took advantage of a moment when the turbulence of the foaming waters appeared in some measure to abate, dashed once more into the briny element, and reached the boat in safety. They called loudly upon Lowe to make a like attempt, knowing him to be an expert and daring swimmer, but for reasons best known to himself he declined doing so, and retired amongst the recesses of the rocks to find a fitting place to ascend the rugged and fearful declivity. The inmates of the boat perceiving his intention, pulled away lustily for the regular landing, and returned to the aperture of the cavern with ropes, &c., to aid him in his ascent. Upon their arrival at this dismal spot they could no where perceive him; his name was bellowed forth repeatedly, but the only response they received was the startling echo of their own voices, which loudly reverberated amongst the chill and dreary rocks. After remaining a considerable time without perceiving a single vestige of their missing shipmate, they returned gloomy and sorrow­ful to the spot where they had made their arrangements to pass the night, and where some of their indefatigable companions had a cheering supper in readiness. Little did they sleep that night — whilst huddled around their small fire, which threw its sickly glare upon their melancholy visages, the probable fate of poor Lowe became the topic of discourse; the most dreadful fears were entered for his safety; which were anything but diminished when one of the party, to beguile the time, told a similar adventure which had proved fatal to almost a whole boat's crew.

As soon as the first gleam of dawn broke through the haze in the eastern firmament, they again repaired to the mouth of the cavern, to have a more scrutinous search for their lost comrade; and as the damp vapours gradually dispersed before the cheering rays of the rising sun, their unfortunate shipmate was discovered on the beach at the foot of the precipice, lying on his face; and from the appearance of the body as the surf occasionally touched it, no doubt whatever remained but that life was long since extinct. They now with precipitate haste embarked on board the boat, and repaired to the  p133 spot where the unfortunate fellow had the evening before landed, for the purpose of obtaining even his dead body, but the weather was if possible worse than that of the preceding day, and though they tried their utmost they could not obtain a landing. Finding all their endeavours of no avail they returned on board the ship and made known the circumstance, which as soon as related caused ten or a dozen fearless and enterprising individuals to volunteer their services, despite every obstacle, to obtain the body of their shipmate. They started with as little delay as possible, accompanied by our first lieutenant, taking with them life preservers, coils of rigging, &c., to aid them in their undertaking; but when they arrived at the fatal spot, not a vestige was to be seen of the unfortunate Lowe, the surf no doubt having carried him away; and they returned to the ship brooding deeply over the melancholy excursion of the day before, that was the means of consigning the body of a lamented friend to the fierce rapacity of the ravenous birds of prey, that continually however with ominous scream about the drear and arid Isle of San Lorenzo.

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Page updated: 26 Aug 21