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Bill Thayer

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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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please let me know!


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The Discontented Marine
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p17  The Regretted Leap

"Lord, Lord methought, how hard it was to drown."

Reader have you ever een at sea in a man-of‑war on a delightful sunny day, with the yard braced sharp up; if you have, you are certainly aware of the different scenes of idleness and industry, seriousness and foolery, that present themselves to the observation, fore and aft on every deck; and if you have not, perhaps the following simple sketch may give you some little idea of the same.

Since the fruitful and happy shores of Columbia disappeared in the horizon, nothing of importance occurred on board our "trim sea boat," save now and again the job of taking in and making sail, as occasion might require, or the exercising our great guns and small arms, to initiate our novices in the use of those war‑like engines: — As a matter of course, some of our landsmen and boys felt the sickly effect of Neptune's highway, and many a prime piece of pork and tempting plum-duff remained untasted in consequence; but three or four days' experience, together with the incessant "orders to start" of the boatswain's-mates and master-at‑arms, (for those worthies, despite sea sickness, or the decomposition of the stomach, must have their commands obeyed,) worked a more radical cure than all the medicines in the dispensary could; and they can now masticate a piece of salt junk, or dispossess a tin pan of its contents of savoury beans, as quick as any "son of the ocean" that ever obeyed a quid.

It was on the first of June, we were about four or five days sail from the Islands of Grand Caymans, and with our yards braced up sharp, our ship was moving along with as much speed as any other craft on the wind possibly could. It was one of those delightful afternoons peculiar to the latitude we were now in, scarcely a cloud floated in the horizon, but the firmament was one uninterrupted tint of beauti­ful azure; all on board took advantage of this lovely weather, and almost the whole of the ship's company were scattered  p18 about on the spar-deck, enjoying in various ways the beauteous serenity of the scene. When a vessel-of‑war is sailing "on the wind," her crew have the finest times imaginable, almost verifying the old woman's remark of "sitting down and letting the wind blow them along;" they have no studding-sails to set, no bracing to do, (for the yards are expected to be as sharp as they can well get them) and save once in a while "a slight pull of this bowline," or "a small haul aft of that sheet," they scarcely touch a rope for days or perhaps weeks together.

The hands had just been turned to after dinner, and the sweepers had but laid by their brooms after skimming them slightly over the different parts of the deck allotted to them. In the gangways you might perceive groups of industrious ones with their clothes-bags lying near them, calculating with serious face what quantity of frocks and trowsers would be sufficient to serve them the three years' cruise. That long cadaverous looking customer, with such a roguish twinkle in his eye, who you may observe with a half-worn jacket in his hand, that is a thorough-bred "down easter" up to every move in a man-of‑war, he is trying to shove that same jacket off to the young fellow near him for three dollars when grog money is paid.

Perceive that old quartermaster, whose florid cheeks and rotund paunch plainly demonstrate that "Uncle Sam's" beef and pork, which he has eat for the last eighteen years, are capable of raising as respectable a corporation as your dainty viands ashore; he is surrounded by five or six green-horns, and with a small piece of nine thread is endeavouring to knock the principle of stopper-knots and Matthew Walker's into the thick heads of his all‑attentive pupils. Under the refreshing shade of the boats a crowd of worthies are stretched out, who despite the noise and outcry on every side, are transporting on the balmy breeze the mellifluous music of their nasal organs, they appear like many of Adam's sons on terra firma, to take the course of time just as it comes, never torturing themselves concerning what the future may bring forth, but in the words of the old rhyme

 p19  "They eat, and drink, and sleep — what then,

They sleep, and drink, and eat again!"

Groups of light-hearted apprentice boys, with the roseate tint of health o'erspreading their youthful countenances, their eyes sparkling with jocund delight, and their buoyant hearts unoppressed with care, pursuing their antic gambols throughout every part of the deck, without one solitary thought of the disquietudes and perplexities that may possibly intervene to mar their pleasures and cloud their brows, ere their term of servitude is expired. Some sons of poetry and romance are imbibing the balmy influence of the weather on the booms, taking perhaps a painful glance at the past, or their souls wrapped up in some delightful revery of the future, thinking of bygone scenes with heartfelt regret, and contrasting them in their imagination with those that await them in the rich and luxurious lands of Chili or Peru.

The lieutenant of the watch, with his well polished speaking trumpet in hand, is walking with measured stride the weather side of the quarter-deck, paying scarcely any attention to the scene around him, appearing to be completely absorbed in his own meditations. Old Bunting, the quartermaster in the boat, is scanning with half-closed eyes the weather leech of the main top‑gallant sail, letting the officer of the deck know he is awake by occasionally singing out to the man at the wheel "no higher," when the ship is two or three points off the wind, and "luff you may," when the sails are lifting. Whilst this numerous and motley crowd were thus variously engaged the cry of "a man overboard," thrilled through every part of the ship, and in a moment all was bustle and confusion: — On board a vessel containing four or five hundred souls, this sound creates an uncommon sensation, every one is on the qui vive in the first place to ascertain who the luckless individual may be, and as there are generally a dozen different reports of the occurrence, and a dozen different persons named as the one missing, even before a boat is lowered, doubts and fears take possession of every breast for the safety of those endeared to them by the ties of friendship and love; "clear away the bowlines, man the after braces, be lively my lads,  p20 jump some of you and clear away the life-boat." These orders were given in rapid succession by the officer of the deck, and needed not repeating, for an eager crowd flew to secure them instanter, with that promptitude which invariably characterizes the tar in the hour of trouble or danger.

Our main-topsail was quickly laid to the mast, the life-buoys cut away, and the life-boat, with a bold and determined crew, under the direction our flag lieutenant, Mr. B–––––, (who in this as well as similar instances during our cruise has always been one of the first individuals to jump into a boat when a shipmate was about to meet a watery grave, and by his prompt and energetic action, setting an example to the crew)​a were now pulling vigorously towards the person in the water, who could be perceived some short distance from the life-buoys striking out for the ship with "might and main." The poop, hammock-nettings, rigging, and booms, were literally crowded with human beings, watching the boat with breathless anxiety, and endeavouring to accelerate her speed by eager gestures and encouraging expressions. "Who can it possibly be?" was now the question asked by every one; — no person could answer it satisfactorily. "I heard the captain of the hold say," remarked a Johnny Raw belonging to the afterguard, "that the wardroom cook said as how Patterson the barber told him that Flukes the steady cook on the berth-deck when he was washing his kettle out in the head, saw Pat Bradley the main-topman sitting on the bumpkin, so it must be him as is overboard." "Avast heaving there, my honey," interrupted Bradley himself, who at this moment elbowed his way amongst the group, "just go and give my compliments to Mr. Flukes, and desire him to acquaint that fashionable barber of ours, that its my wish he should step down to the galley and inform the "colored gemman" wot cooks for the wardroom, that I would thank him to tell the captain of the hold that I'm worth three drowned men yet — so because a fellow happened to be sunning himself a little on the bumpkin you must have him diving overboard whether or not."

"They've got him! they've got him!" cried out twenty voices at  p21 the same time. "Yes, and who do you think it is?" cried Bill Garnet, who now made his appearance — "as I live, a marine; he jumped out of the lee gangway after a dolphin that was playing alongside. Poor foolish fellow, I reckon he found the fish was too quick on the heel for him." "He's a little luny ain't he, Garnet?" enquired one of the crowd. "Well, I believe he is somewhat touched that way, for I heard him say yesterday when old Bowser the forecastle man was telling about a fellow that went across the harbour of Malta at the tail of a kite,​b that all those things were sufficacious or efficacious, or some such big dictionary word, and that in a little time a person might even walk dry‑footed on water." "Aye," chimed in a waggish mizen-topman, "and I suppose he was reducing that theory to practice when he started to chase the dolphin, but I think he's found the error of his doctrine by this time."

The crowd now rushed to the gangway as the boat neared the ship, elbowing their way along with as much eagerness as if some rare curiosity was about to greet their sight. It was a marine, as Garnet had said, but whether he came to taste of the watery element accidentally or purposely is not known, but the latter appears to be the prevailing opinion, having been observed for two or three days previous to labour under some severe fit of despondency. Perhaps, "crazed with care or crossed in hopeless love," he took this short method of riding himself of trouble, but when he felt the nauseous effects of the briny waters he found drowning was not so pleasant as he first imagined.

The life-boat was once more hoisted up and secured at the davits — the yards trimmed again to the wind — our ship began to gather headway, and in a few minutes she was dancing merrily over the waste of waters.

Thayer's Notes:

a The flag lieutenant on the Constitution during this cruise was Franklin Buchanan, who a few years later would become the first Superintendent of the Naval Academy. He is identified in Charles Lewis's biography of him (which is onsite in its entirety), Admiral Franklin Buchanan, p78.

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b The earliest mention of parasailing known to me. Even allowing for sailors' yarns, this has the ring of an eyewitness account: the old salt's story is mentioned only in passing and with no emphasis, as contrasted with the science-fiction prediction by the other man; and the place is plausible: the bay of Malta is only 400 m to 600 m wide.

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Page updated: 5 Oct 21