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Ocean Echoes - On The Psychology Of Captains

( Originally Published 1922 )

CAPTAINS of sailing ships have time to be superstitious, and sometimes they are more so than sailors before the mast. While they are supposed to have a higher degree of intelligence, they come in contact with more traditions of the sea, and it seems are very susceptible to them.

Once I was mate with a Swede captain who believed that to see whales was a bad omen; he claimed that gales of wind would follow, and I have to admit that when I was with him this was more or less true.

Another, a Dane, believed that when he dreamed of white horses we were sure to have a blow, and as he seemed always to be dreaming of them and predicting disaster in the mildest of weather, I did not stay long with him. There was no barometer on board, nor would he allow any, for some reason known best to himself.

I made two voyages with another old twisted warp of a man, before we finally lost the ship. He was afraid of his shadow. He would never allow another shadow to cross it. To avoid this gave him some nifty footwork to do, especially around noon when we would be taking the sun together, and I out of devilment would throw my shadow across his.

"See what you are doing now," he would roar, "what can you expect with this kind of work going on?"

I'd excuse myself, and separate the shadows, but he would be deeply depressed for a long time.

He had queer ideas about booms and ladders, being afraid to pass under them, and so kept continually dodging; and when the sea was afire with phosphorescent glow, and the spray would lift up tiny diamond-blue bulbs to the deck, he'd murmur : "Yes, by Heavens, there's something back of this !"

The ship he commanded was old, and, by reason of its lack of buoyancy, only fit to carry lumber, which can stand more water than any other cargo. We were loading at Garden City, Oregon, and had just shipped a new crew, when the men discovered they were aboard a leaky ship.

They beat it, the next crew also, and before we had the ship loaded we had had six crews. The last, you might say, was shanghaied. These men came from Portland, Oregon, and were lime-juice sailors. The moment they put their bags on board the tugboat pulled us out to anchor. There we could hold them until we were ready for sea.

When the anchor was down I called on them to pump her out, saying to encourage them "She hasn't been pumped out for several days, and you may find a little water in her."

This wasn't true, for while we were at the wharf I had kept two longshoremen busy pumping at her most of the time, and it was hard even to get them to do it, so bad was her reputation.

There was a tall slim Irishman in the crew, who became at once spokesman for the others.

"Ah," said he, with a smile, "and shure, it won't take us no time at all, at all, to pump her out for ye."

I smiled too, a different smile, and looked out at the bar that we were soon to cross on our way to the open sea. The lime-juice crew pumped for an hour with never a suck from the pump. I could hear them growling and swearing. Presently the Irishman stuck his head above the deck load and shouted to me:

"Bejasus and has the bottom dropped out of her? Is it a ship we're on, at all, at all, or is it just a raft of lumber? The divil himself wouldn't go to sea on her !"

It wasn't so much what the Irishman said that made me roar with laughter, it was the expression on his face that of an abandoned castaway; and I nearly lost all my new-made dignity of coastwise mate then and there.

Struggling for seriousness, I told him I thought that the little water that washed in the bilges was a small matter, and that a few strokes more of the pump would settle it. He crawled down to the pump again, but not before he had said a few words :

"It's perpitool motion ye'd ought to have on the pumps. As God is me judge, I balaye ye could see the fish in the ocean through th' bottom av her!"

They were still pumping when the superstitious captain came aboard. His expression was a good deal like the Irishman's, clabby and clearing.

"Did you hear the news before you left the wharf?" he murmured nervously.

"Hear what?" I asked.

He put his hand to his mouth. "Hush, listen; the rats left the ship this morning between four and five o'clock."

"Did you see them leave?" I asked, trying hard to suppress a giggle.

"I didn't, but there were others that saw them. Swarming off in droves they were...."

"Oi'll tell yez," came a furious voice as the Irishman's head appeared again, "Oi'll tell yez 'again and once for all, there isn't any bottom in the bloody auld hooker. It's murrder ye'd be doing to have daycint min sign articles on a rotten auld hulk widout ribs or annything to hauld her together !"

The Captain wet his lips with his long red tongue. He looked at me sort of puzzled, then his eyes shifted to the Irishman, and he sighed heavily, and self-consciously. For a moment there was a lull in the conversation even the pumps stopped. The breakers that broke on the sprits of the bar had an echo-gnawing sound, noticeable in that moment of intense rat-superstition. Then the Irishman spoke again, solemnly :

"There isn't wan of us will sail wit yez. We're sailors, ivery wan av us, but behivins we're not web-footed. Did yez hear that now? And the divil foot will we put on your ship !"

The ultimatum seemed to be as terrible to the captain as if it had been possible for the crew to do otherwise than sail, seeing that they were already on the way.

"Is she leaking any worse?" he asked.

"I think she is," I answered cruelly, at the same time turning my back on the Irishman, for it would never do to let him hear about the rats.

"I know where it is," and the captain looked wildly about him. "It's that damned stern-post again. I've been calking it off and on for the last ten years."

He removed his hat and rubbed his bald head. He seemed to be thinking deeply. There was reason to think. Undoubtedly the rats knew about that old leak in the stern-post. Why then should they desert their old nests after all these years? It was an old leak with anew aspect.

The lime-juice crew had stopped pumping, and stood around the mainmast talking, their voices having a raspy twang.

Toot, toot, toot ! came the tugboat, none too soon.

At once the Captain put ship's dignity into a bad situation.

"I'll put her on the dry-dock next trip," he promised, "but we'll have to get to sea with her now. I'll talk to the crew."

He walked forward bravely, for he didn't want to go to sea any more than the crew did, but for him it was a choice between the risk and giving up his command, not to mention undergoing the jibes of other captains, his drinking-mates ashore. With the crew it was simply risk, and it is always a pity to take discontented men forcibly to sea.

He talked to them kindly, singing the praises of his ship, and their argument was fortunately cut short by the tug-boat captain, who unfeelingly demanded why he should be forced to wait all day on a bunch of good-for-nothing loafers.

So we heaved up the anchor, taking the towine aboard, and soon the tugboat let go of us. We put sail on her and headed for the open sea.

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