Ocean Echoes - The Hare-lipped Captain
( Originally Published 1922 )
I'M going to take a liberty, and bunch together seven years of sea experience from the time of my discharge from the F. S. Thompson, putting these memories, as it were, into a ground-swell from the deep, and letting them wash ashore, and, from amongst the kelp in the nooky inlet where the driftwood lies, gathering together the pieces that are worth salvaging, carrying them to the high-water mark, and dropping them there.
These seven years had crowded out the over-serious thoughts of youth, and developed in me the more harmonious side of the man. I could laugh at life and its drawbacks now. If I happened to be without a ship, or without money in my pocket, I felt that it was all in the day's work, and so lost nothing through worry. The smiling seas were mine today lee shores belonged to yesterday.
I had a great ambition to become a master of ships, as well as a master of men; but I had to wait, first to become a citizen of the country, and then to get the necessary sea experience to qualify. Nautical astronomy and the rules of sailing I was thoroughly familiar with. Long before I became an officer aboard ship, I once with this knowledge saved a ship from going on the rocks. I was still a sailor in the forecastle.
I was in a Puget Sound port, and money was getting low with me when I met the hare-lipped captain. He was loading lumber for San Francisco. He held a half-interest in a three topmast schooner, the other half being held by a Dutch-man in San Francisco who ran a coffee royal house for the benefit of sailors who liked to mix brandy with the Dutchman's black coffee.
When I met the Captain he was coming out of a saloon on his way to the schooner. He was making short tacks on the sidewalk, and had great difficulty in shaping a straight course for the wharf.
"Do you need any sailors?" I asked him.
"I do," he said, with a hiccough; "but if I stop now to tell you what I want, I'll fall down. Come on, take me by the arm, and steer me to the schooner."
The job was not an easy one. He was heavy, and not easy to keep on an even keel. But I got him on board, and in his cabin he invited me to remain for supper. It was unusual for a sailor to eat with the master of a ship, but I allowed for his condition, for when a man is drunk he will take up with anyone who will listen to his boasting.
The ship's cook, who had one eye and a drooping mustache, brought in the supper, which he spread noisily, and with a nervous glance at me bounded forward to the galley. I learned afterward that even the mates were afraid to face the captain that night.
It seemed to me, as I sat opposite to him, that if things didn't go right he would be a hard man to handle. But he treated me very well, and told me to come down in the morning, and he would ship me as a sailor.
Now it seemed to me, who had so often been a victim of leaky ships, that I asked a justifiable question :
"How is this ship for leaking, Captain?" But it proved to be my undoing.
"What did you say?" he inquired fiercely. "Just say that again. Just say that again, if you dare. My ship leaky!" And without hesitation, with a single gesture, he picked up and flung at me a large platter of fried steak, just missing my face. His language was startling even to me, and before I could move he was up and peeling off his coat.
Discretion seemed the thing just then, and I made a leap for the deck, where the two mates stood snickering at me as I shot by them to the wharf. I did manage to call to the mate, "I'll be with you in the morning, sir," before I ducked behind a lumber pile. None too soon, for the Captain's head showed above the companion-way. He told the poor mates what he thought of them, and treated them to the language intended for me.
Bright and early next morning I was aboard the hare-lipped Captain's ship. He didn't remember having hired me, but hired me over again, and I helped load ship for the four days we were in port. The Captain was drunk all the time, and was very disagreeable, especially to the mate. The result was that the mate left, and we sailed without any first officer.
There were six men in the fo'c'sle, big, raw-boned, Scandinavian sailors, and the second mate was apparently a good sailor, but not a navigator. Plying in coastwise trade he did not re-quire a second mate's license. Two days out at sea, the Captain, who did all his drinking ashore, and did not carry rum with him, became delirious for the want of it. He was having domestic trouble with one of his lady-loves. I thought whoever she was she could not be as bad as he, and Heaven help her !
The sailors were uneasy and scented disaster. When the topsails blew away, they held a consultation, and decided that the Captain must be locked up if we were ever to reach port. But the question was, who amongst us had the nerve to seize him and tie him up.
The cook was called into conference. The others thou ht that he, being in close touch with the raving aptain, could coax him into his cabin and quickly lock the door. I'll never forget the expression on the cook's face when this proposition was made to him.
As I said before, he had one eye. The loss of this member had a tendency to protrude the good one, which seemed to bulge out on his cheek. He had a three day growth of sandy beard. The drooping mustache, which was about three shades darker, covered his mouth, and when he spoke, it was self-consciously, with one dough-spattered finger to his mouth. But there was nothing hesitating about his words. He could not, and would not, lock up the Captain.
It was six o'clock in the afternoon of the third day at sea. The wind was coming stronger, and the spanker should be reefed. The topsails, what was left of them, were flying in long strips at the masthead. The Captain was sitting on a mooring bitt, alongside the man at the wheel, counting and counting something on his fingers. Often he would spring to his feet, clawing at some imaginary bug crawling on his coat-collar. No one dared to speak to him, least of all the second mate. He was doubly scared of the Captain, and of what was going to happen to the ship; for he knew enough to dread many things, and not enough to save the ship from one of them.
Suddenly, and quietly, the Captain sprang for the helmsman, and started to beat him up. He was a stout man, but the attack was too sudden, and he had no show at all. He began to cry murder.
Two Swedish sailors and I went on the run for the poop-deck. We didn't get there a moment too soon. We pulled the Captain away from the poor helmsman, just in time to prevent him throwing him overboard. Then he turned on me with unabated fury. But the three of us soon mastered him, and buckled him down the companionway and into his room, where we locked him in, after first removing anything that might injure him. He was raving and prancing like a wild animal.
On deck I asked the second mate if he knew his position of ship, or where he was on the ocean. He didn't know any more about it than did the sailors in the forecastle.
We called a council again, and I told the crew that while I held no license I felt sure that I could make San Francisco, since I could navigate the ship. They agreed that I should command her, and I took the Captain's sextant. The following day I got our position, and headed her for the Golden Gate.
For two days the Captain howled and raged. He was so vicious that we dared not go into his room, but fortunately his anger was misdirected, and he did not try to escape. The cook fed him through the port-hole, with a long-handled dip-per full of gruel, strongly flavored with Lea and Perrin's sauce. When I asked why he did this, he laughed at my ignorance of the sobering-up properties of this sauce. I discovered later that longshoremen and mule-skinners have also discovered this valuable secret.
After the second day the Captain grew better and slept more. On the sixth day we sailed into San Francisco Bay, and I was just about to come to anchor, when he 'demanded to be released, and to be allowed on the deck of his own schooner. I refused his demand, thinking that he was weak, and should have a doctor. Without more argument he withdrew his head from the porthole, threw his strength against the door, smashed it to splinters, and came up on deck as if nothing had happened.
He surveyed the harbor with a sweep of his eye, and inquired with a flame of oaths what I was doing with his ship.
"I'm going to anchor her," I said, frightened.
"Never mind the anchor, I'm going to take her alongside the wharf. Lower the jibs down and drop the spanker."
I was about to protest, thinking that if he tried to sail alongside the wharf he would tear the sides out of her. But discipline held me in its iron grip, and I wondered if really he could possibly do it. He did. He sailed up to Mission Flats, and abreast the Fourth Street bridge. He pointed the schooner in towards the wharf as if she were alone on the water.
There were tug-boats, ferry-boats, bay-scows, and sailing-craft of all kinds and descriptions tooting and shouting and screaming for the right-of-way. Our Captain if he saw them did not notice them, but took his wheel, and with his eye on the wharf sailed in. It so happened that there was a vacant berth at the end of the pier, ahead of which lay a number of Greek fishing-boats. They saw us coming, and got out of the way like a flock of sheep, for it looked as if there would be a nasty crash.
"Drop the peak of the fore and mainsail, and let the jib go by the run!" shouted the Captain. When this was done the wind fluttered out of our sails, and the schooner crept lazily in, gliding alongside, harmlessly squashing the barnacles on the piles, to the amazement of the crew, and the crowd gathered on the dock.
"Make her fast, and lower the fore and main-sail. Then get ashore and get your money," ordered the Captain; and that was his acknowledgement to us for our help and our silence.
But in the Dutchman's coffee house where we were paid off, we were all friends together, and there the Captain was once more able to get drunk, as drunk could be. When I left them the Captain was surrounded by his loving crew, who chanted his praises in cognac whispers, while the cook reclined against the hare-lipped one, with one arm entwined about his neck.