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Ocean Echoes - Salmon Fishing

( Originally Published 1922 )

IT was now a little over four years that I had been away from home. I was twenty-two years old. In less than a year I should be a citizen of the United States of America, and with that would come promotion from the fore-castle.

My letters came regularly from Ireland, always with my mother's thoughtfulness for her son. There were many questions to answer. Did I keep my feet dry, and did I wear red flannels to keep the rheumatism away? Always her letters contained the assurance that her prayers were being said for me, and through them she felt sure that no harm could befall me. Some-how I began to feel so, too; so many adventures did I have, and narrow escapes. I cannot but believe that some good force works to preserve those of us who are innocent, or not too bad, though what that force is I cannot pretend to say.

One instance more of this I may mention here. Some months after I took the hare lipped Captain's schooner to port, I found myself on the Fraser River, British Columbia. It was summer, the salmon season was on, I got a boat and a net from a cannery, and went gill-netting for salmon.

A young married man, who had a wife and child living in New Westminster, was my boat-puller. He was a sober, steady, hard-working man. It was towards the close of the salmon run, and we were thinking of giving up fishing, that is, it would hardly pay for the physical wear and tear with so few salmon in the river. But he prevailed on me to fish for another week, and I consented.

That Sunday afternoon before we put out to fish, I took a nap, and when I awoke I was somewhat troubled by a dream I had had. I dreamed that I saw my dead self being lowered into a grave, and I was amused at the mourners, as I stood there by the grave, watching them cover my dead self up. They didn't use earth to cover the coffin. Each one had a pail, and in the pail was water, and this they dumped into the open grave. When it was full to the top, the water-carriers disappeared.

I told this to my boatman. He enjoyed the story, and we had a good laugh, especially at the water part of it.

"Come on," said he then, "let us go down and get the net off the rock and into the boat. When that is done it will be time to go out to fish."

The law in British Columbia is that there shall be no nets in the water from sunrise Saturday Until sunset Sunday evening. When we were ready, we put up the sail and sailed out into the Gulf. When the sun went down I cast the net, intending as usual to drift all night, pick it up in the morning light, and sail home with the salmon to market.

This night it was different. With the after-glow of the sun came black clouds, and the night set in like a monstrous shadow, shutting out all but the aurorean gleam from the lighthouse. Uhushered, the wind came in stormy gusts, and lashed the sea to rage. That was the end for seventy-two fishermen that night. Thirty-six seaworthy boats went down before its hungry onslaught like cockle-shells.

I gathered the net aboard, hoping to make Stevestown at the mouth of the Fraser River before the worst of the storm overtook me. Even before I got the net in it was hard to keep the boat from turning over. She was a large fishing-boat, twenty-four feet overall, with a six-foot beam, a round bottom, and bowed at both ends. Yet that night she had all the motion of a canoe adrift in a waterfall.

I put the mast up, and tied two reefs in. the sail. I caught a glimmer from the lighthouse, and shaped a course for the river. There were dangers I knew, in crossing the bars, shallow with the sea running wild. Should I strike one I knew that nothing could save me.

My dream of the afternoon appeared to me vividly, and I crowded it away, for it was my intention to fight the wind and wave for the injustice of their sudden attack. I ground my teeth and grabbed the tiller, eased the sheet, and we were away to safety or death.

I called to my boat-puller to get forward to the bow, and keep a sharp lookout to avoid running into another fisherman. The wind and waves fairly lifted the boat out of the water, we made such speed. One could scarcely see a finger before one's eyes. The danger of allowing the boat to broach to the sea was as great as striking a sandbar, and between the two dangers, and with my dream pushing into my mind, I sailed on.

Half an hour later there were screams, dying screams, screams from drowning men: the call to Buddha from the sinking Japanese; the wail for the Happy Hunting-Ground from the Indian, and the shouted word from the white man to his Christian God these louder than the elements of the night.

To sail on amidst capsized fishing-boats was playing quoits with fate. Realizing this new danger, I called out to my boat-puller to look out for himself. I determined to come up into the wind and sea. If I could, my best chance lay in the open sea. If not well there would be one more fishing boat lost.

I hauled in the sheet, and put the tiller over. Like a race-horse she rounded into the waves, swamped herself full to the gunwales, but did not, as I expected, turn bottom up. I called to the boat puller : "Throw the anchor overboard." I got no response.

Fearing the worst, that he had been pitched into the sea, I repeated the order. Then I realized that I was alone, and my heart began to pound. I realized that I, too, was doomed. But the time had not come yet to pray. If I could manage to get forward and get the anchor out she'd swing head on to the storm. This would help to prolong the end, for we carried a sea-anchor with seventy-five feet of rope.

The water in the boat was nigh up to my waist. I wallowed through it, and got out the anchor. Then I heaved the net overboard, and bailed the water out, and she swung bow on to the waves with the strain on the anchor rope. I bailed, and the storm roared, unceasingly, until day-break.

With the morning sun came calmer waves. The wind took flight to some distant sea, and I gave thanks for another day. Could it be mother's prayers that saved a son, or just a freak of fate? The bloated bodies of seventy-two fishermen beached on the sands. I hunted for my puller and found him, took the body to the wife who loved him, and to the child who chattered and smiled and wondered why Daddy slept so long. I had made some money fishing that I need not use, and the widow thanked me.

A few months later I got my citizenship papers. I had been in the United States Ave years, from 1894 to 1899, when I graduated forever from the fo'c'sle, with the receipt of my naturalization papers. I took an examination and passed for mate.

My first ship as an officer was bound for Australia. I knew all the tricks of sailors, their hatreds, their sympathies, their childish joys and youthful egotisms. The old saying holds good in every instance : "You've got to camp with a man to know him."

It is a common saying at sea, especially among the officers and masters who graduated from apprentice seamen to their commands, that few men who start in the forecastle ever reach the bridge. But I am convinced that those of the men who work their way up know how to handle men to get the best work out of them, if they have the mind to.

Kindness and appreciation is what they require. You've got to know them and be one of them, Iisten to their petty grievances, praise them even when they make mistakes. Then there is nothing they won't do for you.

And I have found out that this rule works as well on land as on the sea. The man who is not in close touch with his employees is usually in trouble with them. Often the master prefers to remain aloof from his men, issuing his orders through some prejudiced superintendent or fore-man, and trusting to welfare-work to stand for good-will. If he did not do this, there would be fewer unions in the world today.

During the World War I was a superintendent at the Submarine Boat Corporation's yard the second largest shipyard in the United States. We had as many as twenty-five thousand men working there. It was astonishing the number of men who were fired every day, it seemed to me for no other reason than that their foreman did not understand or want to know them; and the men they got in return were worse than those they had sent away. For more than a year as Superintendent of Ship Rigging and Outfitting.

I had no occasion to fire a man, and all that time my department was above standard in efficiency. To choose a man you have got to know him, and he should be treated like a man, once you put him to work.

The voyage to Australia was a pleasant one, although it seemed disappointing to the Captain. He shipped me as mate more on my physical appearance, than for any other reason, for he Wanted a man who could fight. I understood from the ship's carpenter, who had sailed many voyages with him, that there was usually trouble on board his ship. That voyage there was no fighting and very little growling, and yet the men were the average types that are picked up in any seaport.

"Don't get too friendly with them," the Captain told me. "I know them. One of these days they will be kicking you into the lee scuppers. That's the way they repay kindness."

"We'll see," said I, and dismissed the subject. I was young, but I knew the sailor's temperament, and when I spoke to them it was to call them by their names, and not by some manufactured names with an oath.

The crew was musical. There were a baritone, trombonist, and cornettist in the forecastle. One of them made a triangle out of a chain hook, and the orchestra was complete. During the dog-watches in the tropics, and on Sundays, we played new pieces. At times I would spell the cornet-player off, and play with them.

It was all a bit hard on the Captain, who had no ear for music, and so made no allowance for varied harmonies. When the notes reached him on the poop deck he'd pull at his pipe and pull his beard, and pace the deck on the double-quick. One evening while we were sailing south of the Samoas, we ran into a head wind. It seemed unusual. The Southeast Trades should have held for at least another five degrees farther South.

We were playing that evening when the wind hauled ahead, and pushed the ship off her course. The Captain came running from the poop for-ward. "Now see what you've done," he roared. "Cut that music out, and cut it out for good. I knew something would happen with that clabbering going on."

He said a whole lot more, words that were jerky and explosive. He blamed the forecastle orchestra for the head wind, and the instruments had to be put away. The sailor who beat time on the chain-hook triangle hung it up over his bunk for his socks to dry on. That settled music for that voyage. They wouldn't even sing a capstan chantey when they were heaving up the anchor. It took nine months to make the voyage, and at the end I left the ship and so did the crew. It would have been cheaper in the end to have kept us contented with a little innocent music.

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