Two Years Before the Mast
From Strong Language
Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana, Jr.
“Tarring Down”—Daily Life—“Going Aft”—California
AS we saw neither land nor sail from the time of leaving Juan Fernandez until our arrival in California, nothing of interest occurred except our own doings on board. We caught the south-east trades, and ran before them for nearly three weeks, without so much as altering a sail or bracing a yard. The captain took advantage of this fine weather to get the vessel in order for coming upon the coast. The carpenter was employed in fitting up a part of the steerage into a trade-room; for our cargo, we now learned, was not to be landed, but to be sold by retail from on board; and this trade-room was built for the samples and the lighter goods to be kept in, and as a place for the general business. In the mean time we were employed in working upon the rigging. Everything was set up taut, the lower rigging rattled down, or rather rattled up, (according to the modern fashion,) an abundance of spun-yarn and seizing-stuff made, and finally, the whole standing rigging, fore and aft, was tarred down. This was my first essay at this latter business, and I had enough of it; for nearly all of it came upon my friend S—— and myself. The men were needed at the other work, and M——, the other young man who came out with us, was laid up with the rheumatism in his feet, and the boy Sam was rather too young and small for the business; and as the winds were light and regular, he was kept during most of the daytime at the helm; so that nearly all the tarring came upon us. We put on short duck frocks, and taking a small bucket of tar and a bunch of oakum in our hands, went aloft, one at the main royal-masthead and the other at the fore, and began tarring down. This is an important operation, and is usually done about once in six months in vessels upon a long voyage. It was done in our vessel several times afterwards, but by the whole crew at once, and finished off in a day; but at this time, as most of it came upon two of us, and we were new at the business, it took us several days. In this operation they always begin at the mast-head and work down, tarring the shrouds, back-stays, standing parts of the lifts, the ties, runners, etc., and go out to the yard-arms, and come in, tarring, as they come, the lifts and foot-ropes. Tarring the stays is more difficult, and is done by an operation which the sailors call “riding down.” A long piece of rope—topgallant-studding-sail halyards, or something of the kind—is taken up to the masthead from which the stay leads, and rove through a block for a girt-line, or, as the sailors usually call it, a gant-line; with the end of this a bowline is taken round the stay, into which the man gets with his bucket of tar and a bunch of oakum, and the other end being fast on deck, with some one to tend it, he is lowered down gradually, and tars the stay carefully as he goes. There he “swings aloft ’twixt heaven and earth,” and if the rope slips, breaks, or is let go, or if the bowline slips, he falls overboard or breaks his neck. This, however, is a thing which never enters into a sailor’s calculation. He only thinks of leaving no holydays, (places not tarred,) for in case he should, he would have to go over the whole again; or of dropping no tar upon the deck, for then there would be a soft word in his ear from the mate. In this manner I tarred down all the headstays, but found the rigging about the jib-booms, martingale, and spritsail yard, upon which I was afterwards put, the hardest. Here you have to hang on with your eyelids and tar with your hands.
This dirty work could not last forever, and on Saturday night we finished it, scraped all the spots from the deck and rails, and, what was of more importance to us, cleaned ourselves thoroughly, rolled up our tarry frocks and trowsers and laid them away for the next occasion, and put on our clean duck clothes, and had a good comfortable sailor’s Saturday night. The next day was pleasant, and indeed we had but one unpleasant Sunday during the whole voyage, and that was off Cape Horn, where we could expect nothing better. On Monday we commenced painting, and getting the vessel ready for port. This work, too, is done by the crew, and every sailor who has been on long voyages is a little of a painter, in addition to his other accomplishments. We painted her, both inside and out, from the truck to the water’s edge. The outside is painted by lowering stages over the side by ropes, and on those we sat, with our brushes and paint-pots by us, and our feet half the time in the water. This must be done, of course, on a smooth day when the vessel does not roll much. I remember very well being over the side painting in this way, one fine afternoon, our vessel going quietly along at the rate of four or five knots, and a pilot-fish, the sure precursor of a shark, swimming alongside of us. The captain was leaning over the rail watching him, and we went quietly on with our work. In the midst of our painting, on—
Friday, Dec. 19th, we crossed the equator for the second time. I had the feeling which all have when, for the first time, they find themselves living under an entire change of seasons; as, crossing the line under a burning sun in the midst of December, and, as I afterwards was, beating about among ice and snow on the Fourth of July.
Thursday, Dec. 25th. This day was Christmas, but it brought us no holiday. The only change was that we had a “plum duff” for dinner, and the crew quarrelled with the steward because he did not give us our usual allowance of molasses to eat with it. He thought the plums would be a substitute for the molasses, but we were not to be cheated out of our rights in this way.
Such are the trifles which produce quarrels on shipboard. In fact, we had been too long from port. We were getting tired of one another, and were in an irritable state, both forward and aft. Our fresh provisions were, of course, gone, and the captain had stopped our rice, so that we had nothing but salt beef and salt pork throughout the week, with the exception of a very small duff on Sunday. This added to the discontent; and a thousand little things, daily and almost hourly occurring, which no one who has not himself been on a long and tedious voyage can conceive of or properly appreciate—little wars and rumors of wars,—reports of things said in the cabin,—misunderstanding of words and looks—apparent abuses,—brought us into a state in which everything seemed to go wrong. Every encroachment upon the time allowed for rest, appeared unnecessary. Every shifting of the studding-sails was only to “haze”1 the crew.
In the midst of this state of things, my messmate S—— and myself petitioned the captain for leave to shift our berths from the steerage, where we had previously lived, into the forecastle. This, to our delight, was granted, and we turned in to bunk and mess with the crew forward. We now began to feel like sailors, which we never fully did when we were in the steerage. While there, however useful and active you may be, you are but a mongrel,—a sort of afterguard and “ship’s cousin.” You are immediately under the eye of the officers, cannot dance, sing, play, smoke, make a noise, or growl, (i. e. complain,) or take any other sailor’s pleasure; and you live with the steward, who is usually a go-between; and the crew never feel as though you were one of them. But if you live in the forecastle, you are “as independent as a wood-sawyer’s clerk,” (nauticé,) and are a sailor. You hear sailors’ talk, learn their ways, their peculiarities of feeling as well as speaking and acting; and moreover pick up a great deal of curious and useful information in seamanship, ship’s customs, foreign countries, etc., from their long yarns and equally long disputes. No man can be a sailor, or know what sailors are, unless he has lived the forecastle with them—turned in and out with them, eaten of their dish and drank of their cup. After I had been a week there, nothing would have tempted me to go back to my old berth, and never afterwards, even in the worst of weather, when in a close and leaking forecastle off Cape Horn, did I for a moment wish myself in the steerage. Another thing which you learn better in the forecastle than you can anywhere else, is to make and mend clothes, and this is indispensable to sailors. A large part of their watches below they spend at this work, and here I learned that art which stood me in so good stead afterwards.
But to return to the state of the crew. Upon our coming into the forecastle, there was some difficulty about the uniting of the allowances of bread, by which we thought we were to lose a few pounds. This set us into a ferment. The captain would not condescend to explain, and we went aft in a body, with a Swede, the oldest and best sailor of the crew, for spokesman. The recollection of the scene that followed always brings up a smile, especially the quarter-deck dignity and eloquence of the captain. He was walking the weather side of the quarter-deck, and seeing us coming aft, stopped short in his walk, and with a voice and look intended to annihilate us, called out, “Well, what the d——l do you want now?” Whereupon we stated our grievances as respectfully as we could, but he broke in upon us, saying that we were getting fat and lazy, didn’t have enough to do, and that made us find fault. This provoked us, and we began to give word for word. This would never answer. He clenched his fist, stamped and swore, and sent us all forward, saying, with oaths enough interspersed to send the words home,—“Away with you! go forward every one of you! I’ll haze you! I’ll work you up! You don’t have enough to do! If you a’n’t careful I’ll make a hell of the ship!…. You’ve mistaken your man! I’m F—— T——, all the way from ‘down east.’ I’ve been through the mill, ground, and bolted, and come out a regular-built down-east johnny-cake, good when it’s hot, but when it’s cold, sour and indigestible;—and you’ll find me so!” The latter part of this harangue I remember well, for it made a strong impression, and the “downeast johnny-cake” became a by-word for the rest of the voyage. So much for our petition for the redress of grievances. The matter was however set right, for the mate, after allowing the captain due time to cool off, explained it to him, and at night we were all called aft to hear another harangue, in which, of course, the whole blame of the misunderstanding was thrown upon us. We ventured to hint that he would not give us time to explain; but it wouldn’t do. We were driven back discomfited. Thus the affair blew over, but the irritation caused by it remained; and we never had peace or a good understanding again so long as the captain and crew remained together.
We continued sailing along in the beautiful temperate climate of the Pacific. The Pacific well deserves its name, for except in the southern part, at Cape Horn, and in the western parts, near the China and Indian oceans, it has few storms, and is never either extremely hot or cold. Between the tropics there is a slight haziness, like a thin gauze, drawn over the sun, which, without obstructing or obscuring the light, tempers the heat which comes down with perpendicular fierceness in the Atlantic and Indian tropics. We sailed well to the westward to have the full advantage of the northeast trades, and when we had reached the latitude of Point Conception, where it is usual to make the land, we were several hundred miles to the westward of it. We immediately changed our course due east, and sailed in that direction for a number of days. At length we began to heave-to after dark, for fear of making the land at night on a coast where there are no light-houses and but indifferent charts, and at daybreak on the morning of
Tuesday, Jan. 13th, 1835, we made the land at Point Conception, lat. 34š 32′ N., long. 120š 06′ W. The port of Santa Barbara, to which we were bound, lying about fifty miles to the southward of this point, we continued sailing down the coast during the day and following night, and on the next morning,
Jan. 14th, 1835, we came to anchor in the spacious bay of Santa Barbara, after a voyage of one hundred and fifty days from Boston.
Note 1. Haze is a word of frequent use on board ship, and never, I believe, used elsewhere. It is very expressive to a sailor, and means to punish by hard work. Let an officer once say, “I’ll haze you,” and your fate is fixed. You will be “worked up,” if you are not a better man than he is.