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Bill Thayer

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Progress Homeward

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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This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p285  The Happy Return

"Now to her berth the ship draws nigh,

With slackened sail she feels the tide;

Stand clear the cable is the cry,

The anchor's gone — we safely ride."

After we bid farewell to the Boston barque, we experienced a succession of head-winds and calms for four or five days, which caused every countenance heretofore beaming with delight to look downcast and chop-fallen. "How does she head?" was the first enquiry of the tar upon jumping from his hammock in the morning; the same was repeated and re‑repeated during the day — it could be heard amongst young and old on every deck, and the direction the ship was pointed in was generally the last remark that passed their lips, as sleep threw its influence over them. Who could for a moment blame them for their impatience, three years and upwards having elapsed since the greater part of them had beheld the faces of their wives, their parents, or their brethren, and many perhaps in that time not receiving a single line, that might help to clear the doubts which will naturally force themselves upon the minds of those alienated from their homes; — who could condemn them then, if they chid the inconstant wind for not hurrying them towards the spot, wherein was centered their every hope! After we entered the thirty-third degree of latitude, slowly, unfortunately slowly was our progress; in fact the thoughts of a long passage haunted every mind. "What is she in to‑day?" asked Bowser, the forecastle‑man, addressing a member of the afterguard, who had just heard the latitude reported to the officer of the deck. "Thirty-three, forty-nine," was the answer. "Good," returned the sheet-anchor‑man, "we've made all of six miles the last twenty-four hours." The next day the old forecastle‑man intercepted the messenger boy on his way to strike the bell eight; — "well Job, what news, what's the latitude?" "Thirty-three, thirty-four." "Capital!" returned Bowser, "the old ship is doing wonders; if we look sharp we'll be in thirty‑two to‑ p286 morrow." The noon following, Bill Garnet met him at the grog‑tub, "she's in thirty-three, forty-three, to‑day, Frank," intimated Garnet, watching the sheet-anchorman's countenance as he conveyed the information to him; but the old sea‑dog with a short laugh, not a muscle of his face proclaiming the chagrin and mortification he felt at the intelligence, exclaimed, "damme, if she ain't nine miles further to the northward than she was yesterday." But the next forenoon, when he heard the cursed thirty-third degree of latitude and thirty-five miles again ring in his ears, he could contain himself no longer, but broke forth with a hearty malediction upon himself, and (as he beautifully expressed it) upon every body and everything an inch high and a minute old. "There's a Jonah on board," he loudly and emphatically broke forth; "some confounded piratical scoundrel, who committed murder in the same latitude, that's the reason we can't get out of it." "I should'nt wonder," chimed in Flukes, smiling at Bowser's superstitious fears; "and believe me 'tis the same fellow that hove the dog Dick overboard, stole the carpenter's gin, and put the bucket of salt water in the coppers the other evening; he ought to be found out and pitched overboard, or we'll never see Cape Henry." How far Bowser's wrath might have carried him, there is no telling, but that evening his fears were quieted, for a bounteous Providence favoured us with a fair wind, and the next meridian he had the pleasing satisfaction of hearing the sailing-master report to the officer of the watch, as the latitude observed, thirty-five, nine.

Before we left Rio, we filled up with water, at least the first day out; the ship's log‑book told in black and white, that there were forty-seven thousand gallons on board, quite a sufficiency one would imagine to make a passage from Brazil to the United States, for at our average expenditure daily of five hundred gallons, by a rough calculation 'twould last something like ninety-four days; but judge our astonishment on the twenty-sixth of October, when we knew we ought to have on hand twenty‑six thousand six hundred gallons, it was intimated by the master's mate of the hold, that ten thousand was the aggregate number of gallons on board. That this news astonished  p287 every body, from the captain down, I scarcely need mention; but how came the deficiency? "Aye, there's the rub." The captain as a matter of course laid every thing at the first lieutenant's door, being the executive officer of the ship, and consequently ought to be everywhere and know every thing. The first lieutenant saddled the sailing-master with the burden; the sailing-master transferred the load to the shoulders of the master's mate; he laid all the blame upon the holders; they swore the men had stole it, and the men proclaimed them all root and branch a parcel of damn'd fools. They all however arrived at one conclusion, that sixteen thousand gallons of water were lacking; but whether it leaked out, or the men stole it, or the mice drank it, or the tanks were ever filled, is to this day a mystery. Captain T––––– deemed it expedient to put officers and men on an allowance of five pints per diem, and at the request of the crew, who trembled for their night's tea‑water (a burned child dread'sº the fire,) breakers were supplied all the messes, and they found that by husbanding their allowance, they had quite a sufficiency to supply every want.

On the twenty-ninth, we took a fair wind, and "Old Ironsides" was once more herself, dividing as if conscious of our anxiety, the crested billows that separated us from our happy home. She made good use of the favourable breeze, for in twenty-four hours more we got soundings; and the first particle of anything like American soil, that we had gazed on for thirty long and tedious months, now greeted our sight. Who that bent his eyes upon the reddish sand and small shells, of course a part and parcel of our beloved country, brought up by the lead, and were not delighted — aye, doubly delighted? — don't sneer, reader, 'tis a weakness I know, but certainly a pardonable one, and such as angels would not blush at. On the thirtieth of October at nine o'clock, in the first watch, we took a pilot on board, and at five o'clock Cape Henry Light arose to view. The wind coming out from the westward, and the ebb tide making, the pilot deemed it advisable to anchor, which we did, and when the starboard watch came on deck at seven-bells, many a look was cast ere they stowed their hammocks in the netting, upon the land of their delight, that  p288 soil their hearts had so long yearned to behold. At eleven, we weighed anchor again, and stood up Chesapeake Bay, and in the Roads perceiving the Ship‑of-the‑Line Delaware at anchor, we saluted the flag of Commodore Morris with thirteen guns, and at six o'clock in the evening once more came to. The next day we sent a batch of our jolly lads whose times were expired, on shore, they not having patience to wait till pay‑day; but poor fellows, who could blame them — they were surfeited with their three years' thraldom, and glad to throw off the yoke, that perhaps some of them thought galled too severely. We lay at Hampton Roads about thirty hours, when the Steamer Poinsett took us in tow, and that evening we moored ship off the Naval Hospital, after being absent from the same spot about thirty months; and every one on board returned thanks to the Supreme One, when they called to mind this "Happy Return."


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Page updated: 5 Oct 21