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Bill Thayer

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Soiree on the Forecastle

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

by
a Fore‑top-man


published by
Houghton Mifflin Company
Boston and New York
1927

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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Fourth of July
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p227  The Rowing Match

"The hardy crew now bent their brawny backs —

With vigorous force the oars are swiftly plied;

And like a falcon cleaving through the air,

The boats with foaming speed did onward glide."

It is an old saying, and I believe no less true, that a sailor is never satisfied. How far this observation is verified in the character of one in the merchant service, I will not presume to say; but this much I will adduce, and I know it from experience, that a man-of‑war's‑man is one of the most restless, and dissatisfied of God's creatures; there is always a desideratum which he is never in possession of — a certain something which he never can attain; — give him roast mutton, he will proclaim it tough; and hint how splendidly he could dine had he but a fillet of veal — regale him with rich old crusted port, or sparkling champaign, he will turn up his nose with loathing, and wish for his favourite beverage, rum; — place before him plump partridges, or well‑fed geese, or turkeys steaming with savoury richness, he will soon tire of them, and sign for his salt junk, hot scouse, and plum-duff once more. Even the ship he may chance to be an inmate of, he is never perfectly satisfied with, though she were a paradise; if she is strict with regard to discipline, he curses his hard fortune for being at the nod and beck of such tartars, as he considers her officers to be composed of, and contrasts the usage with that which he experienced on board last ship; if, on the other hand, she is lucky enough to be commanded by some of our mild, unassuming captains — their breasts flowing with the milk of human kindness, (plenty of whom are to be found in our Navy,) and the ship in consequence of the kind treatment becomes a mark for other crews to point at with envy — even then, some of our old stagers are discontented; and as they perceive the current of affairs on board gliding along smoothly and peacefully, they condemn her for being so easy, and break forth with the snarling expression of — "they hope they'll get in a man-of‑war next cruise." When on shore, they are all anxiety to try the  p228 blue water again, and often seek the rendezvous long before their last ·whack is expended; and to keep up their character for restlessness and disquietude, they scarcely arrive on their station, ere the prevailing topic is, what ship will be their relief, and how soon they will possibly start for home; — such is the true character of a Yankee man-of‑war's‑man.

Whilst lying at Callao in the latter end of April, rumour with her hundred tongues proclaimed through the ship, that in spite of every obstacle to the contrary, our captain was determined to start for home an early day in June, although we had been scarcely twenty months in the waters of the Pacific; nay, some of our lads went so far as to enumerate the number of days we would take to re‑double the dreaded Cape, and wound up their calculations by mentioning the identical week in September they would be in possession of their cheques and discharges; but alas! they were counting somewhat fast; would we depart from the coast without leaving a sufficient squadron behind us to protect our commerce, — and the aspect of things in Peru and Chili so unsettled? The St. Louis was away on the coast of California, and our only consort was the little schooner Shark: but then we had news that two sloops of war had left the United States for this station; that was some satisfaction, however, and as the topic of homeward-bound began in some measure to subside, waxing gradually less and less fervent, sure enough our eyes were greeted with the pleasing sight of the Yorktown, the Dale, and the store-ship Relief, dropping anchor in our vicinity.

The first boat's crew that came over our gangway, from those ships, were taken forward on the forecastle nolens volens; and a no small number of tars were gathered together there, who with hearty shakes of the hand, congratulated them upon their safe arrival; and who assailed them with such a multiplicity of enquiries respecting "matters and things in general," in our beloved country, that the poor fellows scarcely knew which question to respond to first. "Does mother Flint keep that precious boarding-house of hers in Cherry street yet?" enquired a tall raw‑boned maintop‑man of one of the store-ship's crew. "She does indeed," replied the man addressed.  p229 "I have good reason to know it too; I boarded with her myself, and if she did'nt put the leek into me, when she sent me off on this five years' cruise, I wonder at it." "Five years' cruise!" repeated twenty different tars, — opening their eyes in astonishment — "You don't mean to say they ship men on the five years' act, in Uncle Sam's Navy now?" "They do indeed!" responded one of the Dale's — "I'm on the same scale myself, and plenty more besides me; but you get thirty‑six dollars bounty, besides your three months' advance, that's something to look at." "Aye, and so is five years something to look at also," remarked Flukes; "damme, mates, by the time a fellow would make a couple of them ere long tailed cruises on this station, amongst the San Lorenzo fogs and the Peruvian dew, he'd want upon his return home his measure taken for a wig; for curse me, but he'd have as few hairs left between him and the clouds, as old Quoin the quarter-gunner. On the first Sunday a complete interchange of visits took place between the several ships; some going on board the Dale, some to the Yorktown, and others to the Relief, to pass the afternoon away in friendly chat, and also as a matter of course to imbibe potations of the glorious nectar, without which Jack considers no assemblage complete, in his opinion of things, however sociable they might otherwise be. Each Sunday afternoon, the like visits were paid and returned with due punctilio; and a feeling friendly in the extreme, existed between our ship's company and the crews of those vessels; nay, don't smile reader at this remark, for where four or five American men-of‑war lay in port together, this is not always the case I assure you; there are many little differences which arise, frivolous perhaps in themselves, but which often lead to serious disputes; such as one ship sailing faster than another; another one being more expert at loosing and furling, or crossing topgallant and royal yards. Those affairs cause black looks to take place between the several crews; and when on liberty together, many a time brings them to blows; even we did not part from our friends of the Dale and Relief, without a small touch of emulation springing up between us.

Amongst our boats, we had a regular rough looking one, goose- p230 rumped, and strong as wood and iron could possibly make her, known by the name of the "life-boat;" she was as sailors term it, a "running boat;" — now I don't mean by this term to insinuate, that she was of that clipping character, as to bid defiance to anything that wore a keel, although as Firehawk, the foretop‑man observed, with one of his knowing winks, "she was something like his old tarpawling jacket, not much to look at, but on hand like Day & Martin's blacking, when put to the push." No, no, the correct meaning of a "running boat" with us, is one that is kept continually on the move from morning till night; at one time decorated with flashy cushions in the sternsheets, to accommodate some blushing daughters of Eve who might chance to pay our ship a visit; and the next, loaded down to the water's edge with sweet potatoes, fresh beef, cabbages, and all the other et ceteras that comprise the ingredients of a man-of‑wars-man's Sunday dinner in port; — such was our life-boat. In her intercourse with the shore, of course her crew had frequent opportunities of falling in with some of the boats belonging to the other ships, and occasionally a little contest would take place as to their speed, when returning on board; and after one or two of these trials, they all agreed that our life-boat "pulled well."

One morning a crowd was seen to assemble around the pumps on the main-deck, listening with great attention to one of our literary characters, who with a loud voice read the following flaunting challenge, which had just been brought on board by one of the market boys.

"United States Store-Ship Relief,

Callao, 16th June, 1841.

We the crew of the United States Ship Relief's first Cutter, challenge the United States Frigate Constitution's Life-boat, to run to‑morrow at 4 P.M.; for the amount of eleven dollars. Our Commander has granted us his permission.

Marshall Garth, Coxswain."

As soon as this bold defiance had been promulgated through the ship, betting commenced, as far as their means went, with an earnestness  p231 and avidity scarcely to be surpassed on the Union Course — upon the competition of the two favourite horses. The Relief's first Cutter, was by far the crack boat as to looks, for poor "goose-rump" (so was our life-boat familiarly styled by her crew,) looked like any thing else but a racer; and many of our connoisseurs, with a grave and portentous shake of the head, gave it as their opinion, that they thought she would come off second best. "Never mind that, mates!" cried Bill Garnet, who in this, as well as every other affair going forward, took an active part — "Worse than lose we can't, and for sake of the old boat I pulled the stroke oar in eight long months; aye, and though she's been the means of getting me more than one quilling; here's plank ten dollars on her carcass — whose game to take me up?"

"I can't raise exactly ten dollars, Garnet," replied Tubbs, a broken down whaleman, and an efficient after-guard loafer; "but I've seen the Relief's boat pull, and I reckon I ought to know something about a boat this time of my life; and I'll bet every piece of clothes in my bag, and I imagine you'll find some things there not to be sneezed at, that the Store-ship's first Cutter takes the stakes." "From what I've seen of you, old fellow," replied Garnet, somewhat testily, completely put out at the bare idea of his favourite being worsted; "I think you're a much better judge of a pan of bean soup, or a chunk of duff, than you are of the qualities of a boat; and as for staking all your donnage, I imagine your bag is something like that foolish brain pan of yours, precious little in it." This remark of Garnet's caused a laugh at the expense of poor Tubbs, and he was fain to walk away and seek some other person to take him up. Garnet's ten dollars however were quickly covered, for there were plenty of speculative customers on board, who had an idea of the challenging boat's superiority, and thought this an opportunity, too good to be lost, to augment their fund of cash, consequently planked their money on the issue of the contest, without a moment's hesitation.

The day of trial arrived, and sometime previous to the appointed hour, the store-ship's boat was observed pulling around the bay with a vigorous stroke, and as she passed in the vicinity of our ship, her crew made divers motions to attract our attention to her speed —  p232 but "nothing loath," our boat was at the starting point at the time appointed, ponied up, and every thing ready for a start. Simple as this little affair was, there was scarcely an individual in our ship, from the soot-begrimmed, greasy darkie, to the flippant ward-room, steerage, and cockpit boys, proud of their cast off high-healedº boots and once fashionable pantaloons, but what presented their forms on the spar-deck, and from some exalted station fastened their eyes upon the rival boats. The trunk on the forecastle, the lower rigging, the booms, hammock nettings, poop, and the outside of the ship from the mizen to the fore-chains, were literally swarmed with bright-hearted tars, anxious to witness the coming contest, and the majority of whose bosoms palpitated strongly, fearing their favourite should unfortunately become worsted; — now the boats draw near each other bow to bow, the crews place themselves in a favourite position, with their oars in the rullocks ready for the signal; they eye each other with keen and emulative glances; — Away! one vigorous simultaneous stroke, and they are cleaving through the waters of the placid bay with the speed of a greyhound loosed from the slip. What a confusion there was now amongst the spectators on board "Old Ironsides," every one talking at once; and those who had staked their money upon the store-ship's first cutter, rubbed their hands with delight, as they perceived that boat taking the lead at the onset. "I say, Bill," enquired a pragmatical mizentop‑man of our friend Garnet, who, perched upon the sheer pole of the larboard fore-rigging, appeared somewhat cast down at perceiving his darling life-boat a little behind — "Ain't you sorry now you bet on old goose-rump; what would you give to draw the stakes." "Look here, my little sea fencible," replied the now irritated foretop‑man, "you had better button your lip, or keep a civil tongue in your head, for if I strike soundings upon that half-starved carcass of yours with this hard lead of mine," shaking his fist at the mizentop‑man, "I'll make you think a Rhode Island horse kicked you, with four shoes on one hoof." "But she is ahead though, by jolly," chimed in Nathan Dobbs, "I thought that 'ere boat was a peeler the first time I saw  p233 her, — aha!" he continued, jumping about on the trunk in complete ecstacy, "I'll win my soap and tobacco next month as sure as my name is Dobbs; I'm sorry I did'nt bet my tea and sugar also, and I should have done the thing slick." "If you depend upon the soap you've bet on her to wash your donnage with, Nathan," remarked Flukes, the maintop‑man, "I reckon you'll be cramped many a time at quarters for want of a clean frock; the life-boat's are just playing their cards as they ought, they are laying back till the other boat's crew are somewhat fagged out, take my word for it." "You are right, Flukes," cried an old sheet-anchor‑man; "look at her now, if she is'nt walking ahead every stroke, I don't know one boat from the other." The old forecastle-man was correct, the life-boat's certainly were laying their strength back, as Flukes had observed, whereas on the contrary the crew of the Relief's first-cutter gave way with all their might in a short, quick stroke, which any one at all versed in the art of rowing, knew was sufficient to exhaust in a little time the most athletic frame. As they neared our ship, the life-boat's at a preconcerted signal, struck out in a manner that done them credit; and now was the superiority of our boat observable to every one, as she passed us foaming along with the speed of a race horse, every dip of the oars in the water leaving her competitor further and further astern; our lads in the rigging and on the booms in the height of their transport hailed her approach with a loud clapping of hands, and some even so far infringed upon the etiquette of the ship, as to proclaim their delight with a hearty shout.

The challengers, at this juncture of affairs, hearing the enthusiastic manner in which the crew of the rival boat answered the applause with which their delighted shipmates greeted them, and observing at the same time they relaxed not one jot of their speed, became disheartened; they saw with grief it was no use to contend longer, therefore slackened their pace, and our life-boat reached the goal, and pocketed the stakes. As soon as the spectators on board "Old Ironsides" saw how the race had terminated, the fortunate individuals who had won on the occasion, quickly ferreted out the stake-holders, and with a smile of triumph, clutched their fists upon the amount.  p234 "Look here, Cylinder," cried Garnet, with a malicious grin, giving a hearty slap on the back to an old quarter-gunner who stood at his elbow, and whose chop-fallen visage was alone sufficient to betoken that he had not been a winner, "what do you think of your flash boat now, eh?" — if you've got another ten dollars you are anxious to stake against the life-boat, just give me a wink, I'm at your service any moment; come Binnacle," he continued, turning around to a ruddy looking quartermaster in the crowd, who held the stakes, "fork me over that 'ere trifle of chink, and if there's any steam to be had for love or money, in the course of the evening, you and I will smash three pesos at all events, in drinking success to the winning boat."

A few days after, the crew of the beaten boat had the presumption to send another challenge for double the amount, which was quickly taken up; but upon the day appointed, it was found that two of her oarsmen had met with a slight accident, which rendered them unfit to pull the race; but the launch of the United States Ship Dale, took this opportunity of trying her speed with the bully boat of the Constitution, (so they were pleased to term our poor goose-rump,) and accordingly shoved off from the ship with a corn broom stuck in her bows, the most flaunting of all emblems to the eye of a tar, indicating that she considered herself "cock of the walk." But alas! her triumph was of short duration, for our boat as on the former occasion left her in the distance, reached the goal sometime before her, amidst the acclamations of our delighted ship's company, took possession of the broom which they erected as conspicuously as possible — swept their way on board the ship, and retained until the day of our departure for home, the laurels she had thus twice won.


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Page updated: 5 Oct 21