Ocean Echoes - My First Voyage With The Swede
( Originally Published 1922 )
THE sloop was about thirty tons. She had one mast that was stuck forward on her. The main boom was about thirty-five feet long. The sails were old, and had many patches. The small cabin aft in her was filthy and full of rats. The deck was so old that you could see through the seams, and young as I was, I was fully aware of the risk I was taking sailing in her. But the Clyde never got very rough, and knowing that, and believing that I should get back my five pounds, I felt like taking the chance.
So one morning we set sail myself, another penniless sailor, and the proprietor of the Scandinavian sailor's boarding-house, late bosun of a Black Ball liner.
The Swede wasn't much of a sloop sailor. I could see that by the way he handled her.
Between drifting and sailing we made Greenock, eighteen miles below Glasgow. Here he put in, saying that he needed water. But it was whiskey he wanted. He sold practically everything that was movable on the deck to a junk man. He did leave an anchor on board. Then for two more days he drank, and spent the junk money, while the "broke" sailor and I stayed on board and waited.
On the morning of the third day he came on board broke and sick, and we set sail again for Broderick. We made it in twenty-four hours; that is, we made the beach where the sand was, and dropped the anchor about a quarter of a mile from the surf. We put the boat over, and commenced loading sand by the simple process of loading the small boat, rowing off, and shoveling the sand into the sloop.
The sloop was better than half loaded, when one morning the Swede rushed out to tell us that we were caught in a storm.
"Hurry boys," he shouted, "and get the main-sail on her."
It was a storm, all right, but not a bad one just then. There was a good breeze coming from the southwest, and with it a long ground-swell. The Swede was pale with fear. The sloop was on a lee shore, and he didn't know how to beat her off. We set the mainsail and started to heave up on the anchor.
I told him that was not the way to get off a lee shore. The old Irish fishermen had taught me in their fishing-smacks how it was done. Shoot up the jib, slip the cable, give her the mainsail, and away, close-hauled, to fight for sea-room till you get a good lead off shore. But the Swedish bosun would not listen to a boy.
She started to drag her anchor, and was headed straight for a spit of rocks. As she dragged he prayed, then started to swear, and said that he wouldn't give a damn if the sloop belonged to him.
"Who does she belong to?" I shouted, as we were nearing the rocks.
"My wife and brother-in-law," he cried, and with death staring us in the face went on to tell me how she happened to be theirs. I forget the intricacies of the ownership at this distance, but I can still hear the shrill tones of his high-pitched voice rising in trivialities above the solemn tones of nature. Before he got through, however, I felt that the grave would be preferable to an interview with his wife once the sloop was lost.
She struck the rocks. The mast went over-board, the sea lashed over her. The undertow would pull away from the rocks, only to get a good start with the next sea, and slam her up against them. We clung to her like leeches, the Swede crying in bitter anguish :
"I wouldn't give a damn if she belonged to me I wouldn't give a"
Young and fearless as I was, I had but little hope that any of us would get off with our lives.
The sloop gave a hard thump, and the stern-post was sprung from its rusty fastenings and floated alongside. Another sea like the last one and she would smash into firewood, and the bosun of the Black Ball liner and his crew would be found bloated and bruised on the high-water line.
But the God of the Deep was not ready as yet to destroy my dream of the sea. I was to find worse than this before he was through with me. The sloop, what was left of her, by some strange freak of the waves, swung through head on, with the jibboom reaching over the rocks. The sailor was quick to seize this heaven-sent opportunity. He crawled out on the jibboom end, and when the sea lurched back dropped to the sloppy rock and to safety.
I wasn't so fortunate. When I let go the jibboom the undertow caught me and I got pretty badly mauled a cut head, skinned shins, a few sore ribs; and I was gorged with salt water.
The Swede was doomed; that seemed a fore-gone conclusion. We were powerless to help him, and the thought made me cold with horror. Years afterwards, hundreds of miles from land, I saw men drown in sight of the ship, and felt the same overpowering misery.
A short distance to the right of where the sloop was pounding against the rocks lay a small sand patch between two reefs. It wasn't over twenty feet wide, and here the waves swept high on the sandy beach. The Swede was destined to live. He was yet to drink ale out of pewter mugs, and watch where the homeward-bounder hung his trousers.
While I looked, with my thoughts going heavenwards, a sea struck the sloop and she broke in two. I turned my head away. I couldn't watch a human being drown. Then a curious thing happened. The Swede still clung to the cabin hatch, and that part of the sloop was carried out and away from the rocks, and washed high and dry upon the patch of sandy strand. He was none the worse, aside from being soaked, while I was bruised and bleeding. Who shall know the ways of Fate !
Some time later the life-savers came, and with them a dignified and portly-looking man, the wreckmaster. Very important he was. As we stood there shivering, wet and cold, with not a shilling among us, the world looked dark to me. Then I remembered what my father had once said :
"If he goes to sea, he'll soon come home again."