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Bill Thayer

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The Three Dogs

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 Happy Return
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p274  Progress Homeward

"Away, away, before the breeze

Our gallant sea‑boat swiftly flies,

Around us gleam the diamond seas,

Above us bend the sapphire skies."

Upon coming to anchor in Rio, we perceived the Frigate Potomac and Schooner Enterprise there, and the next morning saluted the flag of Commodore Ridgely with the customary thirteen guns. During our stay we crossed topgallant-yards, each morning at eight o'clock, with the "flag ship," and proved to the lads of the Potomac, from the dexterity evinced during the performance of those nautical movements, that our young crew had not tarnished the reputation "Old Ironsides" always held for precision, accuracy, and nimbleness in naval tactics. Nothing of any great moment took place during our stay, except indeed that we were greeted one forenoon with a sight of His Imperial Majesty Don Pedro Segundo, a fine, chubby-cheeked lad about seventeen years old, who passed around the harbour in a steamer, receiving a salute of twenty‑one guns from each vessel of war in port, and a little shindy which took place one evening whilst starting whiskey, five or six barrels having been broached on the sly, and some score of our lads becoming gloriously intoxicated; but this last affair is one of so common every‑day a nature on board a man-of‑war as to be scarcely worth adverting to; for no person who is at all conversant with the character of a sailor, would for one moment imagine that four or five hundred tars, their hearts elate at the prospect of soon reaching home, would be in the vicinity of such stuff as whiskey at night, and the decks but dimly lit with one or two lanterns, and not try every scheme to test its quality.

After taking in a sufficient quantity of wood, water and provision, we made preparations for weighing our anchor for the last time, knowing that at its next descent, if no unforeseen occurrence intervened, the shores of America would glad our eyes. On the fourteenth  p275 of September we received on board Commodore Charles G. Ridgely, labouring under severe indisposition,

"High living and the gout

Had so knocked his hull about

As to make him most unfit for sea."

together with his Secretary, George P. Stephenson, Esq., Mr. Girard, acting Chaplain, two or three reefers, and eighteen or twenty common Jacks, some invalided, and others their terms of service having expired, all to take passage with us to the United States; and on the fifteenth, at sunrise, we hoisted Commodore Ridgely's broad pennant, which the Potomac, Marion, and Enterprise saluted, hauled it down again and resumed our coach-whip, hove our anchor to the bows, and commenced backing and filling out the harbour; the frigate sloop-of‑war, and schooner giving us three fervent cheers as a parting tribute. During our progress towards the harbour's mouth, we ran foul of a ketch belonging to Her British Majesty Queen Victoria; the fault however rested not with us, for we were obeying the impulse of the tide and current, which swept us, spite of ourselves, towards her; we hailed them two or three times, requested they would pay away chain, which they did so slowly and carelessly that the loss of their jib and flying‑jib booms, and one of our larboard davits was the consequence.

"There," cried Bowser the forecastleman, as he heard the crash, "damme if 'Old Ironsides' can start for home without having a rap at a British vessel some fashion or another; that little hooker's spars can't stand a heavy chafe as well as they imagined." "Serves her right," returned Bill Garnet, "I reckon John Bull's small craft will give our frigates elbow room the next time we ask them; a complete lubberly piece of business on their part altogether; they knew devilish well that we could'nt stop our old ship, and the tide sweeping her on that fashion." "I bet when they come to clear away the wreck," remarked Old Quoin, the quarter-gunner, "they'll give the Constitution many a hearty curse." "Aye," chimed in Flukes, "and when their carpenters come to make new spars in the room of those we have spoiled so prettily for them, each chip and shaving they take  p276 off they'll wish it was off our Yankee ships." In a short time we passed the forts, cleared the mouth of the harbour, and ere we sat down to breakfast we had the pleasing satisfaction of perceiving our "skimmer of the seas" moving along under a crowd of sail, and the sugar-loaf becoming gradually smaller and smaller to the eye.

We were once more at sea, breasting the broad blue waters of the Atlantic, every mile shortening the distance between us and the home of our affections, and every hour shortening the period that would free us from our monotonous thraldom, and place us with palpitating bosoms in the presence of friends and kindred, whom long absence made doubly dear to us. The great and important question now was, "what port we were bound to." Norfolk was spoken of — Boston was mentioned, and New York slightly hinted at; but no one knew certain. From the quantity of water we made, requiring a good spell at the pumps every watch, together with the decayed and ragged state of our copper, we had every reason to suppose the Constitution would go into dry‑dock — consequently the New York party had but a glimmering hope; and between Boston and Norfolk, lay the momentous, all‑absorbing point; — but, as I said before, no one except the "fountain-head" could give their opinion with any degree of certainty. Thus, that point still unsettled, did we pursue our way northward; at one time all our flying kites spread to a light favourable breeze, and at another braced sharp up, our head pointed any where but in the right direction, until we struck the trade, then we began to lessen our south latitude to every person's satisfaction.

As we drew near the equator, all our tars who had savey enough to know how many miles made a degree of latitude, were on the alert, displaying their abilities in the grand science of navigation every forenoon; and many of them, with the help of a lump of chalk or piece of charcoal for a pencil, and the flat of the armourer's bellows, or the corner of a ditty‑box for a slate, and a well-thumbed ancient epitome, worked out (how correctly I shant say) hours before the sailing-master took his observation, the exact distance tock would place us from the shores of America. By seven bells, twenty  p277 small bets would be pending in the shape of pieces of tobacco, gin‑slings, tumblers of whiskey-punch, plates of oysters &c., on the distance run the previous twenty-four hours; and as the master mentioned his observation to the officer of the deck, fifty eager ears were open to catch the degrees and miles, and in a moment the information was spread through the ship like watchfire, and talked over and descanted on by the old Tritons of the forecastle, the light-hearted inmates of both gangways, the marines on and off post, the cooks on the berth-deck, the ebony disciples of the range, and the old sick‑bay stationers; — in fact our latitude was the all‑engrossing topic, in the messes and at the grog‑tub, and the only subject harped on for hours after dinner. We carried the south-east trades chock up to the equator, which we crossed about midnight on the third of October, agreeably surprising many who were fearful of having the passage protracted by calms, which often prevail here sometimes for weeks together; and taking a north-east wind to the northward of the line, veering and hauling occasionally two or three points, we continued our way, increasing our north latitude at least one degree daily.

One meridian the murkiness of the atmosphere prevented the sailing-master from getting the sun, and crowds awaiting on the quarter-deck on the qui vive to hear the latitude notified to the officer of the watch, were sadly disappointed; and all the bets made that day were drawn. The next forenoon more than usual anxiety pervaded the breasts of our navigators, and as twelve o'clock drew near, every ear was open to catch the desired information. "I say Bill," dried Nathan Dobbs, addressing our friend Garnet, who was seated on the barber's chest, his eyes intently bent on the grog‑tub, which old Bunting the quartermaster was fixing in its location, and his mind at that precise time appearing to be more intent on whiskey than on either latitude or longitude — "I say Bill, what do you think she'll be in to day, I've bet a plug of tobacco she'll overrun nine, don't you think I'll win it?" "I can't say, Dobbs," returned Garnet, "but just step over to Joe Millet, he'll tell you to a ravelling, I saw him working it up just now." The person Garnet referred him to, Joe Millet, was  p278 boatswain's mate of the gun‑deck, a hard-weather son of Neptune, and possessed of as great a fund of dry humour as any old salt that ever faced a north-wester; and upon this day, knowing how anxious every one was with regard to the ship's run, he procured a small slip of paper with some figures on it, (a piece of old mess‑bill for all Joe knew to the contrary,) and persuaded all who approached him, that on it was worked up the exact latitude twelve o'clock would find us in: to him then Dobbs hastened. "Well Joe, can you let me have a peep at that paper? I've got a bet on it." "Well now you must think I'm a damn'd old fool," replied Joe with a serious face, which he could put on at any time — "here I've been all morning working this out, almost lost my breakfast-grog through it, and you think I'm going to let you see it, eh! I've got a bet on it myself." "What did you bet she'd be in?" enquired Nathan, expecting by putting the question that fashion he'd gain the information he was so anxious for. "Why let me see," replied old Joe, glancing his eye over the paper, "she ought to be in, — this is duff‑day ain't it?" What difference does it make what we have for dinner?" cried Dobbs, "What's the use of my telling you the difference?" replied Millet; "you would'nt understand it — is this duff‑day?" "Yes," answered Nathan, "it is." "And how does the grog go?" enquired our boatswain's mate. "Why backwards at dinner time." "Ah! then she ought to be in, if I ain't made a mistake in that 'ere upper figure, I'm afraid I have too, but I'll allow for it, she ought to be in — being duff‑day, and the grog going forwards twice during the twenty-four hours — somewhere about fourteen, eight." "Fourteen, eight!" returned Nathan; lord, Joe, there must be a mistake, I thought as how she'd be in nine, or thereabouts." Hold on, hold on a bit," cried Millet, perceiving the messenger boy coming down the ladder to strike the bell eight, and knowing as a matter of course the exact latitude was ascertained by the master. "Here you boy," he continued, calling to the youngster, in his official voice — "have you seen Mr. –––––?" — the boy here came close to him. "What's the latitude?" enquired Joe in a whisper, not wishing Dobbs to hear the conversation. "Eight, fourteen," returned the naval apprentice,  p279 and started off to strike the bell. "Aha!" continued the old whistler, returning to Dobbs, and appearing with a piece of pointed stick as if he were correcting the figures on the paper, "I told you fourteen, eight, did'nt I? I knew I made a small mistake; but after all 'there was only putting the cart before the horse; the true latitude if I know any thing about logarithms, is eight, fourteen, and you'll find it so, or I'll never work out a day's work again." By this time fifty were descending the ladders leading to the gun‑deck, and in a moment eight, fourteen, was in every body's mouth, from the orderly at the cabin-door, to the bone-polishers in the ward-room, steerage, and cockpit; and Joe Millet, gained with Nathan Dobbs at least, the character of a profound arithmetician and correct navigator.

Our ship was truly fortunate with regard to fair winds; and still retained her luck in that particular, for since we crossed the line, a favourable breeze never for six hours together ceased to fan us along. The horse latitudes, a great eye‑sore to many a ship coming from the southern hemisphere, troubled not us with its sickening calm and perverse variables; we walked proudly past them, studding-sails alow and aloft, leaving a sheet of foam behind to tell the speed that urged us homeward. We communicated with no vessel since we left Rio, and the evening of the eighteenth of October, as we wore ship and stood towards a sail that we perceived on the starboard bow, all on board, officers and men, greenhorns, and old salts, soot-begrimmed cooks at the galley and rusty looking holders, flippant officers' servants and pert apprentices, precise rigid marines, and the individuals who helped fill up the Doctor's list, from the hard working tar, tired of his inactivity, regaining strength enough to ascend the ladders, to the shameless, work detesting sick‑bay loafer, his face proclaiming any thing but disease; were all assembled on the spar deck, anxiously waiting to hear the information this strange sail would put us in possession of.

"I wonder what port that 'ere fellow will be from?" enquired Spindle the steady-sweeper, addressing Bradley, Garnet, Flukes, Bowser, and a parcel more of our smartest top‑men, assembled on the forward part of the boom. "I can tell in a moment, at the first guess," replied Flukes. "I hardly believe that,"  p280 said Spindle, "I've got as good an eye as the common run, and I can't tell yet whether she's a brig or a brigantine." "Are you game to bet any thing," asked Flukes, winking at his top‑mates, "that I can't tell you what port she's from, eh?" "Well I will bet you this chunk of tobacco," responded the sweeper, producing nearly the fourth of a pound from the inside of his capacious hat. "Done," cried the maintop‑man, producing an equal quantity — "here Garnet, hold the stakes; now, Mr. Deckwollopper, she is from the port she left last;" and Flukes accordingly possessed himself of the weed, although the gun‑deck sweeper loudly proclaimed that it was a take‑in. We soon perceived the strange sail to be a fore-and‑aft schooner, and upon sending a boat on board, ascertained she was from Wilmington, North Carolina, thirteen days out, bound to the Island of Trinidad. As soon as the boat returned and was again secured at the davits, her crew were eagerly sought for, and twenty questions at once put to them respecting the news. "Has the Ohio got home?" enquired one. "Yes, and paid off in Boston," was the response. "Then as sure as I've got two watches out to‑night," broke forth Garnet, "and that's pretty certain, for I believe I had this morning's watch in my hammock, we're bound for Norfolk." "Did'nt I say so all along," cried Bowser; "you boatswains are sucked in most confoundedly." "Aye! and there's another yarn," remarked one of the boat's crew; they say all that have three months to stop, have to go on board the Receiving Ship." "A damn'd hard case that," cried Binnacle the quartermaster, who at this moment joined the group — "I never heard of the like before in my life; a parcel of poor fellows just returning from a distant station such as the Pacific, to be sent to join in the drudgery of a navy-yard." "Well, I've four months to remain yet," said Flukes; "and if they send me aboard of a guardo to finish my time, I'll say it above board, all the work they'll get out of me wont benefit Uncle Sam much; 'twill take all the boatswain's-mates in the ship to keep me from working Tom Cox's traverse."

"Did you hear nothing about us?" timidly enquired one of our naval apprentices, addressing himself to the boatman who had mentioned  p281 the last piece of news; "do you think we'll stand any chance of getting our discharge?" "Po, po! nonsense, you're talking foolish youngster," rejoined Pat Bradley; "you get your discharge, eh? no! no! they'll serve you boys the same as they would a coil of rigging, a bundle of scrapers, or any other of Uncle Sam's property, send you out another cruise; and if your next sea‑going ship is but as good as the Old Constitution with all her faults, you'll have cause to bless your good fortune." Here the order to fill away and make sail put an end to the conversation, and in a little time we were pursuing our course with topmast and topgallant studding-sails expanded to the delightful breeze.

I must not here omit to mention a circumstance that took place some few days after we crossed the equator. I believe Captain Marryatt, much as he has chronicled the wild antics of the sailor, cannot produce any thing like a parallel to it. The weather was excessively warm, and in the mornings whilst washing decks our lads were in the habit of filling the capacious main-deck tubs with water, and converting them into bathing machines, wherein they would have a glorious duck; thereby imparting a refreshing coolness to the body during the day. Now two wild, harum-scarum mizentop fleets, always ripe for a lark whatever would be the consequence, took it into their heads one forenoon to try the effect of a bathe over the side; it perhaps not entering their brain-boxes at the moment that we were moving through the water at the rate or four or five knots; but a bathe they were intent on, and a bathe they must have. In the mizen-chains they therefore jumped; procured a small sized rope, which was securely made fast under the arm‑pits of one of them; and overboard he went, his companion holding on to the end of the line to veer away, or haul in, as occasion might require. The poor devil over the side, soon found what he had at first not the slightest idea of, viz. that the ship was moving much too fast; and there he was, floundering about like a harpooned porpoise, the line as taut as a harp-string. "Come, come," cried his top‑mate in the chains, quite unconscious of his critical situation, and feeling anxious of trying the temperature of the briny element himself; "come, I think you've  p282 bathed long enough, you've got all the fun to yourself, let me have a chance;" at the same time trying his strength to haul in the slack of the line, but he could'nt budge it an inch. How the scrape might have terminated I cannot possibly say, but the captain from the quarter-gallery hearing an unusual noise under the counter, popped his head over the quarter and saw how matters stood; quickly called for assistance; and our mizen-topman, by the united efforts of two or three of his shipmates was hauled in, his arms and loins none the better for his nonsensical prank.

On the night of the twentieth when the watch went below at eight o'clock, our old ship was staggering along under topgallant-sails and topmast-studding-sail, at the rate of at least twelve knots; and our light-hearted ship's company as they perceived the sheet of foam she left behind her, had the most sanguine expectations that four or five days would see her at anchor; but the Fates did not ordain it so, for that night we were visited by a squall of more severity, in every sense of the word, than any we experienced since we left the United States. During the first watch, the weather looking unpromising, three reefs were put in the topsails, and one in the courses; and in the mid‑watch, the weather becoming more threatening in its appearance, the mizentop-sail was furled, the foretop-sail clewed up, and the men on the yard endeavouring to hand it, when this squall struck us sudden and fierce, as if the stormy spirits of Cape Hatteras and Bermuda were in conjunction; our ship felt its terrific force, and bowed to its influence as a sapling would before the mountain breeze. "Hard up the helm," was the first order; but the united efforts of three or four could not get more than two turns of the wheel. The cry of "all hands shorten sail," brought the ship's company on deck, and the confusion became general. "If she comes to the wind, or parts the wheel-ropes," cried our boatswain, "we'll have a woful tale to tell to‑morrow morning." But an all‑bounteous Providence interfered, she paid off; and at that moment the foresail with the report of a loud clap of thunder, was split to shreds; which occurrence had it taken place some seconds before, ere the ship began to feel her helm and pay off, nothing could have saved her from  p283 broaching to; and the consequences, God only knows how dreadful they might have been. By the time we got the foretop-sail furled, and the fragments of the foresail secured on the yard, the fierceness of the squall relaxed; but it still blew a gale, and whilst endeavouring to get our top‑sails reefed and a fore-storm staysail in readiness to set, another deafening report told but too plainly the infuriated tempest had made more ravages; and upon looking aloft there was the three-reefed maintop-sail, which up to this time had power­fully withstood the wrath of the maddened elements, literally split to pieces, the heavy canvass streaming in the air like a gossamer, and defying like an enraged tiger the most determined to dare approach it.

I must not fail to give praise where it is due; our first lieutenant remained firm at his post, giving his orders with that determined coolness, which plainly proved to even those who were not otherwise prepossessed in his favour, that he was an officer in whom implicit confidence might be placed in extreme danger; — and our boatswain, his loud, commanding voice was distinctly heard amidst the confusion that prevailed; he was everywhere, displaying that practical information and nautical knowledge which places him second to none in his capacity. All hands were kept on deck until six o'clock as busily employed as could be; by that time the spirit of the gale began to tire; our top‑hamper was all on deck, our ship snugly secured under storm-sails, the watch was permitted to go below; and when again the shrill pipe aroused them from their hammocks, a few wild-looking clouds drifting along the horizon, and a heavy sea tumbling about like a cock-boat, were the only indications that remained of the previous night's heavy blow. Two days after we fell in with and boarded the barque Sarah of Boston, bound to New York from Rio Janeiro, having left that port eleven days before us. She had felt the effects of the squall of the twenty-first severely, losing her foretop-mast and maintop-gallant-mast, and having her sails torn to atoms. At the request of her captain, we supplied her with canvass, twine, needles, and other necessary articles; bid her farewell, made sail, and stood on our course again; and as we moved smoothly  p284 and gracefully along, many a tongue in its rude, uncouth style offered thanks to Him who "tempers the wind to the shorn lamb," and whose outstretched hand guides the hapless bark of the mariner, for sheltering us in his mercy from the wrath of the furious tempest, which otherwise might have consigned us to one common tomb.

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