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Bill Thayer

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Joining my Ship

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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The Regretted Leap

This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p12  Outward-Bound

"Majestically slow before the breeze

In silent pomp she marches on the seas."

On the twentieth of May the cry of "All hands up anchor," was vociferated in a stentorian voice by our boatswain, and the same reverberated along the different decks from the hoarse throats of his several mates. This is an announcement that causes a more than ordinary bustle on board a man-of‑war: every one from the first lieutenant down to the most diminutive side‑boy, is immediately on the alert — all business and pastime are forthwith thrown aside — and even the disciples of the lower regions, viz. holders, wardroom and steerage boys, galley cooks, and sick‑bay assistants, who seldom save in cases of sheer necessity see the bright canopy of heaven, have at this summons to show their smoke-dried physiognomies in the open air. Our departure was a "consummation devoutly to be wished" by all on board; for when the tar once enters the gangway of the ship that is to be his habitation for a three years' cruise, he is all anxiety to leave behind the shores of his native land, the sight of which colours the joyous scenes he had but some few weeks before participated in, and which he knows are completely beyond his reach. He therefore hails with delight the movement that is about to place him on the "deep blue sea," and calls imagination to his aid by conjuring up the fairy visions that await him in the far foreign clime to which he is bound, but which with all its numerous attractions cannot estrange one particle of his affections from the land of his childhood — the country that gave him birth.

Our naval saplings, too, the greater part of whom had never been out of sight of land, were in a complete ferment to make a commencement of their cruise, that they might behold some of those wonders of the ocean, which had been described to them in the most glowing colours by some "old salt," who between the guns of an  p13 evening surrounded by an all‑attentive group of those youngsters, dealt out so many twisters of the wild and the wonder­ful as to completely absorb their enthusiastic imaginations. All was now a scene of life and bustle. Carpenters shipping their capstan bars — tierers and holders getting their hook-ropes and chain-hooks in readiness — the indefatigable topmen passing the nippers around the chain — quarter gunners and idlers stretching the messenger along — the marines too with buoyant spirits rendering all the assistance in their power towards weighing our ponderous anchor — in fact every one throughout the ship, young and old, officers as well as men, might be perceived hurrying to and fro on every deck, their countenances plainly intimating that it was the general wish to see "Old Ironsides" once more "cleaving her foamy track."

"Man the bars," now sonorously resounded from the speaking trumpet of our first lieutenant. The word was electric. Each one was at his station in a moment; the fifer thrilled off two or three notes to show that his instrument was in complete order for the occasion — the after-guard stationed at the capstan bars, took up their positions with distended arms, to give the greater force to their first movement — the mizen-topmen seated themselves comfortably upon deck close to the messenger, blessing their stars for having such a sinecure, and every one was awaiting as impatiently for a commencement of the busy scene, as an audience at Bowery or Park before the rising of the curtain ever waited for the appearance of the inimitable Forrest, when anticipating his entréº in one of his favourite characters. The order to "heave round" was now given; the fifer made the gun deck re‑echo with the lively and applicable tune of "off she goes," the men at the bars kept unerring time with their feet, as they made the capstan obey the impulse of their vigorous nerves, the incessant clink of the chain was heard, as it flew through the hawsehole with a quickness scarcely to be equalled, and in as short a time as can well be imagined our ponderous anchor was short apeak.

"All hands make sail," was now thrillingly proclaimed by the boatswain and his mates, and a scene rife with bustle and liveliness  p14 immediately took place; the several sail-loosers were already in the rigging, panting with eagerness for a display of their agility; the topmen watching each other with jealous eyes, to see that no advantage was taken on either side: at the next order all were in motion, scrambling aloft with the dexterity and nimbleness of monkeys, and spreading themselves along the several yards at the word "lay out," with exact regularity, forming altogether a pleasing and imposing picture. The topsail-sheets and halliards were stretched along and manned, and the first lieutenant enquired if they were all ready aloft? "all ready, sir," was the response from half-a‑dozen eager voices: "stand by; let fall." The heavy sails, as if by magic, now burst forth from the gaskets that had held them in such secure and graceful folds, and as the merry notes of the shrill life re‑echoed amongst the adjacent hills, sail after sail was made, the anchor was calted​a and fished, the yards were trimmed to the wind; our old frigate began to feel its influence — and she was soon "walking the waters like a thing of life," leaving the happy shores of Columbia in the distance.

The lofty studding-sails were now set to the inspiring breeze, and many of our youthful adventurers, as they perceived from their exalted stations aloft, the land that contained, perhaps, some fond doating mother or loving affectionate sister, disappear from before their "longing, lingering gaze," hove a desponding and heavy sigh at this first (for aught any of them knew,) perhaps last departure from the home of their infancy, the country they held most dear.

"Well," remarked my loquacious friend Bill Garnet, whilst engaged coiling down nippers, preparatory to stowing them in the hold, addressing a green Vermonter, who had but a few weeks before sold his milk wagon and donned the sailor rig. "I guess, Nathan, our cruise has commenced at last, we'll have a pleasant weather enough as far as the line, and then look out for a scorching." "What," enquired our green horn, "is it tarnation hot then?" — "Hot?" continued Garnet, who knowing the simplicity of his auditor, was now determined to fling the hatchet, as sailors call it; "why I've seen the  p15 buttons melt on the marines' jackets, and run on the deck like hot lead, and a messmate of mine at the maintopsail-halliards one day, happened to fall asleep with his hat off, the sun shone on his cocoanut with such a power­ful focus as to set his hair in a complete blaze, and if not for the captain of the after-guard passing along with a bucket of water, which he immediately threw over him, ten to one if he would'nt have been burned up; so keep a sharp look out Nathan, when we're on the line, how you lay down to caulk in the sun with your hat off." — "I will that, I warrant you; but 'taint as hot as that about this here Cape Horn, is it?" enquired the Vermonter. — "No, no," replied Bill with a grin. "I reckon you'll find it aint by a long chalk, for by a bit of calculation I've made, we'll double the cape in October or November I'm thinking, and if you don't smell h–––ll, then my name aint Garnet." — "Why how do you mean," eagerly interrogated our green-mountain‑boy, "does it storm almighty hard there?" — "I reckon you'll find it does," continued Garnet, "if the old cape is in the same place it was when I doubled it last; if we did'nt have some screamers off there then, I don't know what a gale of wind is: why one night, clapping a close reef in the foretopsail, it blew so infernal hard as to whip the large brass buttons with one shot, slap off the starboard side of my pea‑jacket; one of them hit old Crout, the Dutchman, who was at the lee dog's‑ear bim in the eye, and knocked it out as slick as if he was gouged by a Kentuckian, for which he gets a pension to this day; Jack Billings, the captain of the top at the earing, enquiring what the matter was, received another one slap down his throat, which makes him speak thick ever since; that's what I call blowing."

Garnet would have dished up our Vermonter half-a‑dozen other yarns equally wonder­ful, did not the unceremonious voice of the boatswain's-mate, calling his name, coupled with an epithet or two quite common in sailor phraseology, summon him hastily to the spar-deck, so that our ex‑wagoner was left to his own cogitations, weighing perhaps in his mind the perils of sunshine and storm he had to encounter ere long, and which the pragmatical Garnet, in his own  p16 peculiar style, had so elegantly embellished. Our old frigate was now walking off under a crowd of sail, and we all had an opportunity of observing, from the velocity with which she moved through the water, that "Old Ironsides" was as quick on the heel as ever.

Thayer's Note:

a calted, sic; also in the original 1841 edition. I have no idea what this means; no verb calt is to be found in the Oxford English Dictionary. The printed book was very well proofread, but I suspect, very tentatively, a mistake for called. I find no idiom "to call an anchor", either; but surely the writer is telling us that the anchor was lifted.

If you are conversant with sailing or marine terminology, however, and can provide the explanation or make the correction, please drop me a line — and thank you.

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Page updated: 5 Oct 21