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Bill Thayer

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The Discontented Marine

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 Unwelcome Veto
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p25  Reefing Topsails

"When bending o'er the rocking yard,

While seas in mountains rise,

He takes a spell, however hard,

And danger e'er defies."

On the tenth of June land was reported from the mast-head; it proved to be the "Caymans," three small islands, the largest of which we soon neared and hove our main-topsail to the mast, to procure some refreshments. In a few minutes five or six canoes came alongside with various kinds of fruit and some enormous turtle; three or four of the largest of these creeping delicacies were purchased for the ship's company, and a glorious tuck out of rich turtle soup was eagerly anticipated the coming day by every epicure on board. The creatures were quickly consigned to the "murderous knife," and twenty willing tars were soon busily engaged in cutting the quivering flesh into pieces of a suitable size for the approaching mess. Old Jack Ford, the boatswain's-mate, (a hoary disciple of Neptune, and one who has braved the "battle and the breeze" under our spangled banner for thirty or forty years without intermission,) here took upon himself the all‑important situation of "inspector-general" of this savoury affair, and when I inform you that six or seven gallons of as pure and unadulterated whiskey as the spirit-room could possibly produce, was presented by our considerate captain to season this cheer with, you must needs think that Jack's billet was one considerably enviable: you might perceive this veteran tar with sleeves rolled up to his shoulders, his weather-beaten furrowed cheeks o'erspread with a smile of happy delight, his joyous countenance considerably flushed, perhaps from the effects of the more than ordinary pressure of steam that was now under the capacious coppers, or perhaps from the effects of the pressure of more invigorating steam, taken inwardly, or perhaps from frequent tastings of this delicious soup so well seasoned with whiskey — or perhaps, but never mind the reason; — there stood our old Triton, sole  p26 lord and master of the galley and its environs, ordering his several locum tenens about with an authority not to be called in question; giving the woolly headed gemmen at the range to understand that their remarks must be like angel visits, "few and far between," and keeping at an awful distance, with sundry flourishes of a ponderous ladle, all who dared to approach the precincts of his present location.

We filled away again and soon run the Island out of sight: — The next day old Ford's impatiently-expected turtle soup made its appearance in the several messes, and indeed it was excellent, and for which he got his meed of praise from every person on board. "Why Jack," remarked one of his messmates to him, smacking his lips with delight as he shoved the tin pan that he had just seen the bottom of, to be re‑filled with the savoury liquid, "damme, if I were in your place, salt water should never wet my feet again; why man, you might get head cook in the Astor House or Holt's Hotel, I've tasted worse soup than this in those places. — "Why," continued Jack, flattered not a little by the encomiums bestowed on him, "this aint a circumstance to what I can knock up; had I not a few gallons more of whiskey, and two or three little 'gredients, I'd make a mess that ne'er a cook in Paris, London, or New York, could come within a cable's length of."

We had an elegant run and delightful weather until the sixteenth, and that evening the fierce and fiery appearance of the sun when about to sink into the western horizon, augured plainly that an increase of wind might reasonably be expected: — The old tars on the forecastle were scanning the firmament with eager eyes, and watching closely the large black masses that now might be perceived congregating to windward; and by a few intelligible shakes of the head, they led all those near them, novices at the prognostics they were studying so intently, to believe that every thing was as right as it should be. "I wouldn't be afraid to wager my breakfast-grog to‑morrow morning," remarked old Flyblock, the captain of the forecastle, but that we'll have to tie a point or two before the midwatch; I've cruised about in these latitudes considerable, and  p27 whenever I see the sun setting with such a face on as he has now, I say see your topsail-halliards and reef-tackles clear, that's all. "Aye Ben," chimed in another hard-weather son of the Ocean, "and do you see that bit of a three-corned dark cloud off here about a point and a half on the weather‑bow, I don't mean that big black looking customer yonder, he's like one of those overgrown bully-ragging chaps you meet with once in a while ashore, he looks fierce, but he'll finish in smoke; now if there aint a scorcher brewing in that same little fellow I am speaking about, I don't know where north-east is on the compass card."

This conversation was cut short by the thrilling sound of the boatswain and his several mates, calling, "all hands reef topsails;" and in a moment the spar-deck was crowded with a complete mass of human beings, elbowing their way unceremoniously along to reach that part of the ship they chanced to be stationed in; — Save the general muster on Sundays around the capstan, there is no one time that the lower decks are so clear, or the upper deck so thronged with individuals, as when a "reefing-match" takes place, for God help the poor unfortunate wight not on the sick list, whom the hawkish glance of the master-at‑arms or ship's corporal should chance to perceive below on one of these occasions; he would immediately become a marked man in the eyes of the officers, and an object amongst the men for scorn to point its finger at. "Man the top‑gallant clew-lines, and jib down-haul," vehemently vociferated our first lieutenant, who had now the speaking-trumpet; "stand by to furl topgallant-sails; keep down, keep down there forwards; not a man of you lay aloft 'till I give the order," he continued, addressing his discourse to the fore-topmen, who, despite every thing, were scrambling up the lee fore-rigging, as they thought, unperceived.

"Man the topsail clew-lines and buntlines, and weather-braces — settle away the topsail halliard;" the topsail-braces were manned instantly by an eager crowd, and after a few vigorous and simultaneous efforts, the yards were laid in proper form, and the halliards being now let go, they came down on the caps with a rattling din which made every thing tremble. "Aloft topmen;" the order was  p28 scarcely necessary, they were already on the yards. "Stand by to take two reefs in the topsails." Now then commenced a scene of rivalry and opposition amongst our tars. Mizen-topmen vieing with the main — main-topmen straining every nerve to outdo the fore in dexterity and nimbleness; every one in this instance strives his utmost for the honour of the top he belongs to, and exerts every fibre and muscle to gain the pre‑eminence. "Hurry there, fore-topmen," cried the second lieutenant, stationed on the forecastle, the components of that part of the ship being his favourites, and of course it being his wish to see them excel — "hurry and lay in, don't let the main or mizen beat you;" at this gentle reminder the persons addressed worked with redoubled efforts and soon passed the word on deck that they were "all ready for hoisting." "Very well, very well, mizen-topmen," commenced the first lieutenant from the quarter-deck, casting a withering glance upward as he spoke; — "what are you all about on that mizen topsail-yard? You're making a fine fist of it there to be sure. Why don't you haul out to leeward? — the main-topmen are all laid in and you have scarcely three points knotted yet, keep a bright look out for yourselves; if you don't work smarter I'll exercise you a little to keep the scurvy out of your bones."

These gentle hints of the first lieutenant had the desired effect, viz. that of making those alluded to move with greater expedition, particularly the mention of a little exercise (a sailor's detestation) for they well knew when he promised anything he punctually performed it, though I believe in this instance he overlooked it, for he was pleased at the expedition with which this double reef was taken in — it being completed in something like three minutes and a half — and this too with a crew one‑third youngsters. Well done, "Old Ironsides," I'm sure this cruise will put no dishonoured spot on the wreath that already encircles your time-honoured name. The men now laid hastily down from aloft, the topsail-halliards were manned, the fifer struck up a merry tune, the order was given to "walk away" — the topsails were once more aloft and trimmed to the breeze, though somewhat curtailed of their former dimensions, and  p29 as the boatswain was heard to pipe down, many of our lads belonging to the watch that had the first four hours below, chuckled with delight to think that sail was shortened; and they imagined they might now turn in without a foreboding of being aroused from their pleasant slumbers to reef topsails.

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Page updated: 3 Oct 21