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Bill Thayer

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Preparations for Home

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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Dialogue between a Sailor and a Mouse
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p253  Homeward-Bound

"Bright flag at yonder tapering mast,

Fling out your field of azure blue,

Let star and stripe be homeward cast,

And point where freedom's Eagle flew;

Strain home, oh! lithe and quivering spars,

Point home my country's flag of stars."

The long anticipated day of sailing at length came round, that day which our hardy tars had for months before been bringing to their vivid imaginations, and for the arrival of which many an ardent aspiration was poured forth; — that day, one of the three proud and felicitous ones a man-of‑war's‑man can lay claim to during a cruise, had at last arrived, and the Frigate Constitution was about to bid farewell to the placid waters of the Pacific, and the rich and luxurious shores of Chili and Peru, and urge her way onward towards that country which had so long been the constant theme of every assembled group; which had so often thrown its influence over the waking thoughts and night dreams of the Ocean wanderer, and served to relieve in some measure his thraldom, which monotony had long made irksome. Home! Oh there is a magic influence in that little word, which no one but him who has been an alien from its joys and comforts can truly appreciate; some caustic individual may perhaps curl his lip with scorn and say that a sailor finds a home in every port, — pshaw! some old dotard's yarn. The veriest wretch that breathes, who follows the impulse of every fickle breeze that hurries him along on the tumultuous ocean of life, has still treasured up in his bosom the remembrance of some "green spot," humble though it should be, towards which his heart will yearn, and which will arise to his imagination in spite of himself, and amidst all his recklessness a flattering hope is left, that he will possibly see the scenes of his innocent childhood again. So with the sons of Ocean; rude and uncouth, though they are represented to be, no class of mortals possess the amor patriae to a greater extent than do those fearless, though much neglected individuals.

 p254  The eleventh of July was our appointed sailing day, and the morning previous, one member of each mess was permitted to go on shore in the market boat to make whatever purchases his messmates were anxious for, in the shape of sweet potatoes, sugar, tea, pepper, &c., besides having an opportunity at the same time of filling up the inward man with delicious pisco; bumper after bumper of which was swallowed by those caterers in rapid succession, to the safe arrival of our ship in the United States. The morning of the eleventh, was indeed one rife with interest and excitement; you could perceive no countenance but what was lit up with a ray of delight or stamped with the mark of business of some sort or other, from the grumbling quarter-gunner dragging the cat and fish gear along, chafing the shins of any and every person who chanced to stand in the way; or the bustling ward-room steward, giving his orders to Jemmy Ducks, concerning the accommodation of his poultry, sheep and pigs, the cackling, bleating and grunting of which chimed in musically with all the other noises attending our preparation; to the master-at‑arms with serious face and hawkish eye, overhauling a bag or two of sweet potatoes, just made their appearance in the larboard gangway, to see there was no liquor there secreted; or the young apprentice hurrying to the bum‑boat for the last time, to expend perhaps his only twenty-five cents in the purchase of a few cakes of something resembling our maple sugar, which the aquatic hawkers of Callao are celebrated for, to keep his gums in operation during some of his coming night-watches. On the berth-deck was the neat, prim little-body, who had the sinecure of doing all the washing for the officers and marines, surrounded by piles of shirts, trowsers, sheets, napkins, &c., which she was endeavouring in her usual smiling way to distribute to the rightful owners clear of mistakes, occasionally lisping forth the number of pesos or reals she considered the several young gentlemen were then indebted to her, which gentle hints some pretended not to understand perfectly, and others pocketed with all the nonchalance of a modern exquisite conning over the items in his tailor's bill.

By twelve o'clock every thing was in readiness; boats hoisted in,  p255 studding-sail gear rove, the messenger passed, capstan-bars in their places, ready for shipping at a moment's warning, and when dinner was piped our delighted ship's company sat down to their meal with the full assurance that it was the last they would partake of at anchor on the coast of Chili or Peru; for ere the shrill call of the boatswain​a would summon them to another, they had every reason to believe they would be urging their way towards dreaded Cape Horn, whose chilling terrors at this season of the year were enlarged on by many who had before braved its wintry tempests. The officers of the ward-room had invited a few choice friends from shore, and some from the vessels of war in port, to partake of a farewell snack, and help to discuss a few bottles of prime port or sherry, which circulated pretty freely, if one might judge from the sallies of wit, hearty peals of laughter, and a straggling verse or so of some popular song, which ever and anon arose upon the ear from the open skylight. On the booms, between the guns, in the boats, and every other piece where a comfortable couch could be attained, (and a sailor is not very choice in this particular,) our tars were strewed about in delightful confusion. Some "wooing the gentle goddess," and others cursing every body and every thing, for the tardiness which they thought at this particular time too protracted, for a delightful breeze was blowing from the wished for point.

At length the joyful cry of "all hands up anchor," from the voice of our worthy boatswain, bellowed forth in a style more than usually sonorous, re‑echoed along the decks, and ere the sound of his mates' voices reiterating the same had died away, all were in motion; they needed no incentive, for in one moment every man was at his station. "Bring to — man the bars," cried the first lieutenant through the speaking trumpet; but the order was anticipated, for the foretop‑men had already brought the riding-chain and messenger in close contact with their nippers and selvagees; and the afterguard and marines proved by the fierceness with which they clutched each capstan‑bar, that they were determined to strain every sinew and muscle in raising our ponderous anchor from its oozy bed. "Heave round;" — both fifers struck up a favourite air, to which the men at  p256 the bars kept time with their feet, and made the capstan whirl round with a vengeance, keeping the foretop‑men as busy as could be, applying fresh nippers and selvagees. "Come, my hearties," cried one of our favourite lieutenants as he perceived the capstan relaxing a little in its revolutions — "heave with a will my lively fellows, we're homeward-bound; heave and break his hold, (remember, in nautical language they apply to inanimate things all genders but the neuter.) "High die," sung out Jack Snugg a wild devil‑may-care member of the afterguard; this cant term being in general use throughout the ship amongst the gamblers, of which class Snugg was no inefficient compeer; and "high die" was repeated by fifty willing voices, and had the effect of urging the capstan around with its former velocity. "The anchor is apeak, sir," sung out the second lieutenant on the bowsprit. "Heave and pawl then" replied the executive officer from the horse-block; "unship the bars and send the men on deck to make sail — it was done; in a moment bar‑men, nipper‑men, tierers, veerers, idlers, and all who had been lending their assistance in divers ways towards heaving up, were pushing, jostling, elbowing, and scrambling their way towards the ladders; each one appearing to have for his motto "the devil take the hindmost." Full quick were our topsails, topgallant-sails and royals, let fall, sheeted home, and expanded their full extent; the yards braced opposite ways; the bars once more shipped; — one vigorous effort — we've broke ground; a few more clatters of the pawls, our anchor is at the bows, and in as short a time as I have been endeavouring to describe it, the ponderous machine was catted and fished, the yards trimmed to the inspiring and auspicious breeze, and our trim sea‑boat, accompanied by the sloop-of‑war Dale and schooner Shark began to gather headway, and ere the sun sank in the western horizon, the sandy hillocks of lonely San Lorenzo were fast disappearing from our gaze.

The next day, a transfer having taken place between our ship, the Dale and schooner Shark, the latter vessel crowded all possible sail and made her way to Valparaiso, with orders to take on board any dispatches that might be awaiting us there, and follow us to  p257 Talcahuanaº with the same. Many of her crew whose terms of service had nearly expired, were quite sanguine that when they again fell in with us, they would have a chance of exchanging the confined and cramped up space allotted to them in their tiny craft, for the large and roomy decks of the Constitution; but poor fellows, they were sadly disappointed; the two vessels never met since. The following evening the Dale prepared for her leave-taking, having accompanied us thus far as much to try the speed of the two ships as any thing else. As she trimmed her yards and stood toward Callao again, her crew mounted the rigging and gave us three deafening cheers, which our ship's company returned in proper style. I cannot possibly say how many hats were launched overboard, (a common practice in similar cases,) but when the men jumped upon the deck, and gave a glance towards the pretty little craft that was every moment lessening upon the sight, each sparkling eye, each smiling countenance spoke as plainly as possible —"now we're homeward bound."

Merrily the Old Constitution sped onward, as if conscious that every mile brought her nearer to that country where her bygone achievements are appreciated as they ought, and whose sons have ever heard her time-honoured name mentioned with feelings of rapturous pride. More than ordinary preparations had been made by every one on board for doubling the Cape; and sou‑westers, painted trowsers, tarpawling jackets, boots, woolen shirts, &c., met the eye at every turn; many a good warm blanket was by dint of scissors, thread and needle, transformed into comfortable drawers; many a pair of old trowsers, long before condemned as unfit for further service, was now brought forth, and patch upon patch applied to keep out the dreadful inclemency of the weather, which all thought was in store for them, for that well-written work "Two Years before the Mast" had gone the rounds of the ship; and the vivid though fearful and chilling account given there of doubling Cape Horn in the month of July, brought to our mind's eye nothing but pinnacles of ice, hail, sleet, frost, snow, adverse gales, and all the other etceteras that serve to make the description of a sea‑passage so peculiarly  p258 thrilling and delightfully interesting to the folks on shore; but we were most agreeably disappointed, for our ship arrived at and rounded that dreaded head-land with a fair and delightful breeze; and had we but crowded sail we would have accomplished it in as short time as perhaps been yet recorded. As I mentioned in the foregoing Sketch, we were quite sanguine we would not reach Rio without some hostility, for it was the general opinion on board that war had been declared; and we were well aware if such was the case, plenty of English armed vessels would be cruising between the mouth of the river La Plateº and the coast of Brazil; and consequently we'd have to stand our hand with them, which thank Heaven we were well prepared for, as far as a good staunch sea‑boat, a cool, determined commander, and a crew of young, willing hearts could go in repelling the attack of any craft of the same mettle, or to stretch a point I don't think we'd turned tail to a larger one.

A few nights after we had bid farewell to our friends of the Dale, sometime between eleven and twelve o'clock, when the gun‑deck was as still and noiseless as a sick chamber, the watch below to a man being sunk in profound slumber, and the watch on the spar-deck, with the exception of the looks‑out and men at the wheel, &c., stretched at full length busily engaged in what sailors technically term caulking, which in the language of folks on shore would amount to sound sleeping, the drum and fife were heard to break the silence that prevailed, by beating vehemently to quarters; here was a sudden surprise, every one was in motion instantly; the occupants of the hammocks below jumped upon their feet in a moment, and "lash and carry" was every person's object, for all thought as a matter of course that a British man-of‑war was about to give us a broadside; but no, Captain T––––– took this method of ascertaining how quick we would get ready for action, should occasion require us to do so at night; and in this instance he had the pleasing satisfaction of seeing every hammock on deck, every man at his quarters, every gun cast loose and ready to belch forth their deadly contents, in as short a space a time as could be expected, from the choicest picked crew that ever manned a Yankee frigate. Our reefers were put to the  p259 greatest straits of any on this night, to endeavour to get their cots and hammocks on deck in due season, for at a time like this every one has to stand his own hammock‑boy, the men being too engaged with their own affairs to cast a single thought towards the perplexities of the inmates of the steerage. Here might be seen one of the young gentlemen, puffing and blowing from more than ordinary exertion, pushing his way up one of the ladders, dragging his swinging-couch after him by one of the clews, which was lashed up so seaman-like, as to have as some of our wags beauti­fully expressed it, "half the guts hanging out," (meaning the bed‑clothes,) and no doubt cursing to himself every thing connected with the Navy and General Quarters, from the Honourable Secretary himself to the match‑tub over which he stumbled in his flurry. After him came three or four aspirants for epaulets, their sour countenances forcibly bespeaking their grief and mortification for having their anticipated comfortable night's rest so unseasonably and unceremoniously broke in upon, urging up the ladder by their united strength something, which, from the fuss created during its transportation, and the loud respirations of the persons transporting it, would lead one to believe it was of as weighty a nature as one of our main-deck guns; but which proved as it made its appearance above the combings to be but a cot, one which contained no great superfluity in bedding either; the lads of the third division ranged up in front of their guns, had a hearty laugh at their expense.

After we passed the latitude of Talcahuana a stopper was put upon our evenings' tea‑water, which caused no little sensation. It was not exactly the scarcity of water that brought this veto in force for we had nearly a six months' supply of that article on board; it was our firewood we were fearful of falling short, for our captain had made up his mind if by speaking a vessel he could ascertain that England and the United States were at war, he would make no stoppage until he arrived at some American port; and we not having an over-plentiful stock of wood, it was deemed advisable to have the fire extinguished as soon as the cabin and ward-room dinners were cooked. As I have said before, it caused something of a ferment  p260 and our sea lawyers, as usual on such occasions, talked the affair over from berth-deck to the gangways, from the gangways to the forecastle, and one and all put it down as "a damn'd hard case." At the instigation of the ship's company, a few of the petty officers waited on Captain T–––––, to be made acquainted with his ideas on the subject, who informed them that as soon as he spoke a vessel, to ascertain with more accuracy the state of affairs at home, their tea‑water at night would be again restored them. This satisfied all parties, and to see a sail was now the universal wish. Day succeeded day, and week followed week, our ship staggering along with the wind dead aft, but still no vessel gladdened our sight. Often was the captain chid for not carrying more sail, but he had a capital barometer on board, in which he put implicit confidence, and which caused him to reef and furl many a time when our tars thought there was but little necessity for so doing, but ere twelve hours would elapse we'd have it "in piping hot;" this taking place two or three times, brought the "tell-tale," as they termed it, into good repute.

Thus, without falling in with even a single particle of ice, did we double the Cape that we had so much dreaded to encounter, and for the fierceness of which every one had made some preparation; — passed the Falkland Islands, the mouth of the La Plate, still no vessel greeted the eyes of the men at the mast heads, and we began to think in right down earnest something more than common had occurred, for we were now in the very track of ships; but at last, on the twenty-fourth of August, about five o'clock in the evening, "Sail ho!" re‑echoed loudly and emphatically. All eyes were turned in the direction pointed out by the men aloft, and a brig was just discernible a long way to the eastward. To make more sail and tack ship was but the work of a moment and by half-past twelve o'clock that night we bore down and spoke her. She proved to be a Brazilian brig but a few days from Rio, and her captain (interrogated in the Portuguese language by a Brazilian Minister taking passage with us) gave us the joyful intelligence that things were as tranquil in the United States as when we left, and that war was talked of only.

During the colloquy, not only the watch on deck, but the greater  p261 part of the watch below, who left their hammocks at the first hail, crowded upon the poop; for they all felt interested, and though scarcely one of them understood a single word of the conversation, it was construed fifty different ways ere they reached the gangways; but this much they harped on, they had spoken a vessel, and "tea‑water" was the cry from the break of the poop to the confines of the forecastle; — they were not deceived — the captain was as good as his word — for the next evening they had the gratification of beholding the galley pipe sending up its accustomed clouds of smoke to be dispersed by the cheering breeze.

About eleven o'clock in the forenoon of the twenty-eighth, we discovered a large sail on our starboard bow, standing to the westward; it proved to be the Marion, one of our small class sloops-of‑war, who, as soon as she made out our number, ran down for us, and corroborated the intelligence we had already received from the Brazilian brig, viz. that the aspect of affairs at home was as yet quiet. We now made sail, the Marion accompanying us some distance in shore, and at nine o'clock dropped anchor in the truly beauti­ful harbour of Rio de Janeiro; returning thanks to the Supreme Ruler for having brought us through our difficulties thus far on our passage homeward-bound.

Thayer's Note:

a It will be useful for some to point out here that "the shrill call of the boatswain" refers to the use of the pipe, the bo's'ns call.

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Page updated: 5 Oct 21