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Bill Thayer

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Reefing Topsails

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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Address to an Old Coir-Brush
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p30  The Unwelcome Veto

"These things which now seem frivolous and slight,

Will prove of serious consequence."

We dropped anchor the eighteenth of June abreast of the Island of Sacrificios, about six miles from Vera Cruz, and the next morning landed the Minister Plenipotentiary to Mexico, under a salute of seventeen guns, with the yards manned. This nautical evolution is one of as grand and imposing a nature as any that occurs on board a vessel of war in a three years' cruise, and at this particular time doubly so, with such exactitude and regularity was it conducted, under the directions of our systematic first lieutenant. It was a beauti­ful morning; our tars were dressed in their mustering suits of snowy white; they laid aloft with orderly and graceful motion, remaining in the slings of the several yards, until the signal for laying out. As soon as the boat containing the Minister shoved off from the ship's side, the thunder of our ponderous twenty-four pounders on the main deck boomed along the silent waters and reverberated amongst the distant hills. At the sound our watchful tars spread themselves along the several yards, with extended arms, a regular parallel line of living beings, neatly and uniformly dressed, stationary as chiseled statues, broke upon the sight, they formed a tout ensemble scarcely to be equalled.

Early the next morning we weighed anchor and bid farewell to Vera Cruz, and with a delightful and enchanting breeze shaped our course for Havana. In the evening our tars were gathered together in their accustomed little groups along the spar-deck, feasting their eyes upon the gorgeous splendour of the setting sun, who with a halo of brilliancy appeared to be sinking into a sea of molten gold; — many perhaps casting retrospective glances to the endearing scenes they had left behind in Columbia's fertile, happy land. It had been intimated, and was expected without a matter of doubt, that the  p31 watch would scrub hammocks the ensuing morning, and many of those belonging thereto were scrutinously o'erhauling their ditty-bags, to ascertain what quantity of soap they were in possession of, or getting their coir-brushes in readiness for this expected occasion. Men-of‑war's‑men, when outward-bound, endeavour to procure a quantity of the much esteemed article coir at whatever ports they may chance to touch; the business of brush making soon commences, and every one on board who can possibly "raise the wind," becomes the owner of one of those invaluable articles in a sailor's estimation.

On board of a tight ship where they are fastidiously nice in regard to snow-white hammocks, the coir is the thing itself to accomplish this object, and God help the poor unlucky wretch that is not in possession of one; he may work till his joints ache with a brush of hair, he will find it almost a moral impossibility to eradicate those stains which a few applications of the coir would make disappear like snow before the genial sun of spring. Some first lieutenants, studying the interest of the Navy Department, may imagine this article too severe to come in collision with hammocks, inasmuch as it will commit ravages thereon, and help to shorten their duration; — this is bad policy. Which, I would ask, makes the greatest havoc on canvas, a smooth, well-made, nicely-trimmed coir-brush, or the stump of an old hickory broom or hand holystone? the sailor's resource when the article to be scrubbed is sufficiently dirt-stained as to baffle and set at defiance anything of as soft a texture as hair. Answer this, some of you nautical philosophers, who are daily withering your brains (if possessed of such an article) contemplating projects upon projects for the salutary benefit of our Navy, many of which, when acted upon, verify the old adage of "penny wise and pound foolish."

boatswain's-mate now thundered forth at the highest pitch of his voice, the following: "D'ye hear there, fore and aft? remember you are not to use any coir-brushes on your hammocks to‑morrow morning." Here was petrifying news; the culprit when he first receives intimation that he is to be incarcerated within the dreary confines of Sing-Sing for a term of three years, never looked with more  p32 astonishment and dejection than did our tars at this unprecedented and unlooked‑for intelligence — countenances that before were all smiles, now looked blank and discomfited. "I wonder what will come next on the carpet?" broke forth a rough-spun fore-topman, holding one of the articles just vetoed in his right hand, which he was getting in readiness for severe execution on the morrow; "this beats cock-fighting; I laid in a stock of coir to make into brushes to speculate on, so as to raise a little cash for liberty time, but I'm afraid that calculation is knocked completely in the head — here's a poor old brush I've used all last cruise: aye, and many a great right and left dozen it has saved me from; and damme, it's hard to think I must chuck an old friend like this away, before he's half wore out — no, no, I'll keep him for the good he has done — this scrape will soon blow over depend upon it — he'll then come in play again." "Do you know the reason of this here?" remarked a talkative sheet-anchor man, a regular quidnunc, who appeared to know the ins and outs of every incident that chanced to transpire on board, — "you see the purser has a log of whalebone brushes which he wants to get clear of, I saw him showing one to the captain on the poop yesterday, and produced at the same time a rough-looking coir, which he said was enough to tear a hammock to pieces in short order; this is the cause of the veto, take my word for it." "He's got whalebone brushes to serve out, eh!" spoke up Pat Bradley, a true-born son of the land of potatoes, "faith, then, they may whale every bone in my carcass till they fag the colt out, before I'll draw any of them, no, no, indeed, not while we have any holystones or hickory-brooms in the main-topman's gangway, and maybe those little fellows can't work roots on the stiffest hammock that ever came from the hands of a sail-maker."

"How is it possible for me to get my hammock white without a coir?" exclaimed a member of the after-guard with a rueful countenance, "you know what a delightful billet I've got of it on the berth-deck, just in the wake of the galley — "I'm sure a soft brush will never do it." "But a good stiff scrub-broom will," responded Bradley; there's plenty of sand in the sand-locker, and use them  p33 with a little elbow-grease, and I warrant, you'll bring it to a colour." "I'll fix them any how," cried the quarter-gunner. "I've got a noble brush made out of stumps of grass, stiffer than ever a coir durst be, and 'twill give a hammock clear hell; even if they catch me with it they can't do me beans, for there's no order against grass-brushes you know." Simple as this little affair may appear, it caused many to look dejected and cast down, and if they didn't express themselves aloud, they thought unutterable things. The next morning when the scrubbing commenced, two or three young gentlemen were, as some of our wags expressed it, working "Tom Cox's Traverse" up one ladder, and down the other, prowling round, all eye and ear (for the peculiar harsh sound of those brushes when operating on a hammock, was tell-tale sufficient) to endeavour to detect some stubborn inveterate tar who dared to set at defiance this veto. Our lads worked legerdemain on the occasion. You might perceive some case-hardened "old salt" driving away with a coir-brush as if for a wager, and the moment the signal was given of an officer being in sight (for, be it known, telegraphic information passed and repassed instantaneously between them,) the prohibited article was quickly put out of sight, and he drove ahead with a hair-brush as if nothing had occurred, and as the midshipman turned his back, resumed his darling coir once more. Some, in spite of their watchfulness, were "catched foul," and received a wholesome chastisement for their temerity; but 'twas no use, they could not stop the evil; our lads would use those prohibited articles despite corporal punishment and everything else, and I don't see that the hammocks were a jot the worse for it; but, on the contrary, they appeared in my eyes (but perhaps it was vanity) of a more dazzling whiteness than those of any other ship that ever lay in port with us.

They began to relax gradually in their search after oppositionists on scrub mornings, and in a few months it died a natural death, and coir became once more the order of the day.

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Page updated: 5 Oct 21