I have never been so unfortunate as to see a man bitten by a shark, though, in calm weather, it is usual to allow the people to swim about the ship. It would seem that they are disturbed by the splashing and other noises of so many persons, and keep at a distance; for although they are often observed near the ship both before and after the men have been bathing, they very rarely come near the swimmers. I remember once, indeed, at Bermuda, seeing a shark make a grab at a midshipman's heel, just as he was getting into the boat alongside. This youngster, who, with one or two others, had been swimming about for an hour, was the last of the party in the water. No shark had been seen during the whole morning; but just as he was drawing his foot into the boat the fish darted from the bottom. Fortunately for my old messmate, there was no time for the shark to make the half-turn of the body necessary to bring his mouth to bear; and he escaped, by half an inch, a fate which, besides its making one shudder to think of, would have deprived the service of an officer now deservedly in the higher ranks of his profession.
A MAN OVERBOARD!
The strange and almost savage ceremonies used at sea on crossing the equator have been so often described that a voyager, at this time of day, may be well excused for omitting any minute account of such wild proceedings. The whole affair, indeed, is preposterous in its conception, and, I must say, brutal in its execution. Notwithstanding all this, however, I have not only permitted it to go on in ships which I commanded, but have even encouraged it, and set it agoing, when the men themselves were in doubt. Its evil is transient if any evil there be, while it certainly affords Jack a topic for a month beforehand and a fortnight afterwards; and if so ordered as to keep its monstrosities within the limits of strict discipline, which is easy enough, it may even be made to add to the authority of the officers, instead of weakening their influence.
In a well-regulated ship, within one hour from the time when these scenes of riot are at their height, order is restored, the decks are washed and swabbed up, the wet things are hung on the clothes' lines between the masts to dry; and the men, dressed in clean trousers and duck frocks, are assembled at their guns for muster, as soberly and sedately as if nothing had happened to discompose the decorous propriety of the ship's discipline. The middies, in like manner, may safely be allowed to have their own share of this rough fun, provided they keep as clear of their immediate superiors as the ship's company keep clear of the young gentlemen. And I must do the population of the cockpit the justice to say, that, when they fairly set about it, maugre their gentleman-like habits, aristocratical sprinklings, and the march of intellect to boot, they do contrive to come pretty near to the honest folks before the mast in the article of ingenious ferocity. The captain, of course, and, generally speaking, all the officers keep quite aloof, pocketing up their dignity with vast care, and ready, at a moment's warning, to repress any undue familiarity. As things proceed, however, one or two of the officers may possibly become so much interested in the skylarking scenes going forward as to approach a little too near, and laugh a little too loud, consistently with the preservation of the dignity of which they were so uncommonly chary at first starting. It cannot be expected, and indeed is not required, that the chief actors in these wild gambols, stripped to the buff, and shying buckets of water at one another, should be confined within very narrow limits in their game. Accordingly, some mount the rigging to shower down their cascades, while others squirt the fire-engine from unseen corners upon the head of the unsuspecting passer-by. And if it so chances (I say chances) that any one of the "commissioned nobs" of the ship shall come in the way of these explosions, it is served out to him like a thunder-storm, "all accidentally," of course. Well; what is he to do? He feels that he has indiscreetly trusted himself too far; and even if he has not actually passed the prescribed line, still he was much too near it, and the offence is perhaps unintentional. At all events, it is of too trifling a nature; and, under the peculiar circumstances of the moment, to make a complaint to the captain would be ridiculous. Having, therefore, got his jacket well wet, and seeing the ready means of revenging himself in kind, he snatches up a bucket, and, forgetting his dignity, hurls the contents in the face of the mid who has given him a sousing but two seconds before! From that moment his commission goes for nothing, and he becomes, for the time being, one of the biggest Billy-boys amongst them. The captain observing him in this mess, shrugs his shoulders, walks aft, muttering, "It's all your own fault, Mr. Hailtop; you've put yourself amongst these mad younkers; now see how they'll handle you!"
Nothing, I confess, now looks to me more completely out of character with our well-starched discipline than a "staid lieutenant" romping about the booms, skulling up the rigging, blowing the grampus, and having it blown upon him by a parcel of rattle-pated reefers. But I remember well in the Volage being myself so gradually seduced by this animating spectacle of fun, that, before I knew where I was, I had crossed the rope laid on the deck as a boundary between order and disorder, and received a bucket of cold water in each ear, while the spout of a fire-engine, at the distance of two feet, was playing full in my eyes. On turning my head round to escape these cataracts, and to draw breath, a tar-brush was rammed half-way down my throat!
Far different was the scene, and very different, of course, my deportment, four or five years afterwards on the same spot, when, instead of being the junior lieutenant, I was the great gun of all, the mighty master-nob of the whole party, that is to say, the captain himself. I was then in command of the Lyra, a ten-gun sloop-of-war; and after the shaving operations were over, and all things put once more in order, I went on board the Alceste frigate to dine with my excellent friend and commanding officer, the late Sir Murray Maxwell. Lord Amherst, the ambassador to China, was on board, and in great glee with the sight of what had been enacted before him; for although, as I have always said, these scenes are not of a nature to bear agreeable description, they certainly are amusing enough to see—for once.
We soon sat down to dinner; and there was, of course, a great deal of amusement in telling the anecdotes of the day, and describing Father Neptune's strange aspect, and his still stranger-looking family and attendants. I ventured to back one of my figures against all or any of theirs, if not for monstrosity, at least for interest of another kind. Our dripping Neptune in the Lyra was accompanied, as usual, by a huge she-monster representing Amphitrite, being no other than one of the boatswain's mates dressed up with the main-hatchway tarpaulin for a cloak, the jolly-boat's mizen for a petticoat, while two half-wet swabs furnished her lubberly head with ringlets. By her side sat a youth, her only son Triton, a morsel of submarine domestic history ascertained by reference previously made to Lempriere's Dictionary. This poor little fellow was a great pet amongst the crew of the brig, and was indeed suspected to be entitled by birth to a rank above his present station, so gentle and gentleman-like he always appeared. Even on this occasion, when disfigured by paint, pitch, and tar, copiously daubed over his delicate person, to render him fit company for his papa old Neptune, he still looked as if his ill-favoured parents had stolen him, and were trying in vain to disguise their roguery by rigging him up in their own gipsy apparel.
It was very nearly dark when I rowed back to the Lyra, which had been hanging for the last half hour on the frigate's weather-quarter, at the distance of a cable's length, watching for my return. The wind was so light, and the brig so close, that no signal was made to heave to; indeed I had scarcely rowed under the Alceste's stern, on my way back, before it was necessary to call out, "In bow!" The rattle of the oar on the thwarts gave the earliest notice of my approach to the people on board the little vessel, and I could hear the first lieutenant exclaim in haste, "Attend the side! Where are the sides-men?"
Scarcely had these words been spoken, when I heard a splash in the water, followed by a faint cry of distress and despair. In the next instant the brig was hove about, and the stern-boat lowered down, accompanied by all the hurried symptoms of a man having fallen overboard. I made the people in the boat tug at their oars towards the spot; but though we pulled over and over the ship's wake twenty times, the water was everywhere unruffled and unmarked by any speck. At length I rowed on board, turned the hands up to muster, to ascertain who was gone, and found all present but our poor little Triton! It appeared that the lad, who was one of the sides-men, fatigued with the day's amusement, had stretched himself in the fore-part of the quarter-deck hammock-netting, and gone to sleep. The sharp voice of the officer, on seeing the gig almost alongside, had roused the unhappy boy too suddenly; he quite forgot where he was, and, instead of jumping in-board, plunged into the sea, never to rise again!
There are few accidents more frequent at sea than that of a man falling overboard; and yet, strange to say, whenever it happens, it takes every one as completely by surprise as if such a thing had never occurred before. What is still more unaccountable, and, I must say, altogether inexcusable, is the fact of such an incident invariably exciting a certain degree of confusion, even in well-regulated ships. Whenever I have witnessed the tumultuous rush of the people from below, their eagerness to crowd into the boats, and the reckless devotion with which they fling themselves into the water to save their companions, I could not help thinking that it was no small disgrace to us, to whose hands the whole arrangements of discipline are confided, that we had not yet fallen upon any method of availing ourselves to good purpose of so much generous activity.
Sailors are men of rough habits, but their feelings are not by any means coarse; and, generally speaking, they are much attached to one another, and will make great sacrifices to their messmates or shipmates when opportunities occur. A very little address on the part of the officers, as I have before hinted, will secure an extension of these kindly sentiments to the quarter-deck. But what I was alluding to just now was the cordiality of the friendships which spring up between the sailors themselves, who, it must be recollected, have no other society, and all, or almost all, whose ordinary social ties have been broken either by the chances of war, or by the very nature of their roving and desultory life, which carries them they really know not where, and care not wherefore.
I remember once, when cruising off Terceira in the Endymion, that a man fell overboard and was drowned. After the usual confusion, and a long search in vain, the boats were hoisted up, and the hands called to make sail. I was officer of the forecastle, and on looking about to see if all the men were at their stations, missed one of the foretop-men. Just at that moment I observed some one curled up, and apparently hiding himself under the bow of the barge, between the boat and the booms. "Hillo!" I said, "who are you? What are you doing here, you skulker? Why are you not at your station?"
"I am not skulking, sir," said the poor fellow, the furrows in whose bronzed and weather-beaten cheek were running down with tears. The man we had just lost had been his messmate and friend, he told me, for ten years. I begged his pardon in full sincerity, for having used such harsh words to him at such a moment, and bid him go below to his berth for the rest of the day.
"Never mind, sir, never mind," said the kind-hearted seaman, "it can't be helped. You meant no harm, sir. I am as well on deck as below. Bill's gone, sir, but I must do my duty."
So saying he drew the sleeve of his jacket twice or thrice across his eyes, and mastering his grief within his breast, walked to his station as if nothing had happened.
In the same ship, and nearly about the same time, some of the people were bathing alongside in a calm sea. It is customary on such occasions to spread a studding sail on the water, by means of lines from the fore and main yard-arms, for the use of those who either cannot swim, or who are not expert in this art, so very important to all seafaring people. Half-a-dozen of the ship's boys, youngsters sent on board by that admirable and most patriotic of naval institutions, the Marine Society, were floundering about in the sail, and sometimes even venturing beyond the leech rope. One of the least of these urchins, but not the least courageous of their number, when taunted by his more skilful companions with being afraid, struck out boldly beyond the prescribed bounds. He had not gone much further than his own length, however, along the surface of the fathomless sea, when his heart failed him, poor little man! and along with his confidence away also went his power of keeping his head above water. So down he sank rapidly, to the speechless horror of the other boys, who, of course, could lend the drowning child no help.
The captain of the forecastle, a tall, fine-looking, hard-a-weather fellow, was standing on the shank of the sheet anchor, with his arms across, and his well-varnished canvas bat drawn so much over his eyes that it was difficult to tell whether he was awake, or merely dozing in the sun, as he leaned his back against the fore-topmast backstay. The seaman, however, had been attentively watching the young party all the time, and, rather fearing that mischief might ensue from their rashness, he had grunted out a warning to them from time to time, to which they paid no sort of attention. At last he desisted, saying they might drown themselves if they had a mind, for never a bit would he help them; but no sooner did the sinking figure of the adventurous little boy catch his eye, than, diver-fashion, joining the palms of his hands over his head, he shot head-foremost into the water. The poor lad sunk so rapidly that he was at least a couple of fathoms under the surface before he was arrested by the grip of the sailor, who soon rose again, bearing the bewildered boy in his hand, and, calling to the other youngsters to take better care of their companion, chucked him right into the belly of the sail in the midst of the party. The fore-sheet was hanging in the calm, nearly into the water, and by it the dripping seaman scrambled up again to his old berth on the anchor, shook himself like a great Newfoundland dog, and then, jumping on the deck, proceeded across the forecastle to shift his clothes.
At the top of the ladder he was stopped by the marine officer, who had witnessed the whole transaction, as he sat across the gangway hammocks, watching the swimmers, and trying to get his own consent to undergo the labour of undressing and dressing. Said the soldier to the sailor, "That was very well done of you, my man, and right well deserves a glass of grog. Say so to the gun-room steward as you pass; and tell him it is my orders to fill you out a stiff norwester."
The soldier's offer was kindly meant, but rather clumsily timed, at least so thought Jack; for though he inclined his head in acknowledgment of the attention, and instinctively touched his hat, when spoken to by an officer, he made no reply, till out of the marine's hearing, when he laughed, or rather chuckled out to the people near him, "Does the good gentleman suppose I'll take a glass of grog for saving a boy's life?"
It is surely very odd that there should ever be such a thing as a sailor who cannot swim. And it is still more marvellous that there should be found people who actually maintain that a sailor who cannot swim has a better chance than one who can.
This strange doctrine, as may well be supposed, derives but slender support from any well-established facts. It is merely asserted that, on some occasions of shipwreck, the boldest swimmers have been lost in trying to reach the shore, when they might have been saved had they stayed by the ship. This may be true enough in particular cases, and yet the general position grounded upon it utterly absurd. The most skilful horsemen sometimes break their necks, but this is hardly adduced as an argument against learning to ride. I suppose there is not an officer in the service, certainly not one who has reached the rank of captain, who has not seen many men drowned solely from not being able to swim; that is, because they had not learned a very simple art, of which, under his official injunctions, and aided by due encouragement, they might readily have acquired a sufficient knowledge. My own conscience is not quite clear on this score, whatever that of my brother officers may be; and certainly, should I again take the command of a ship, I shall use every exertion, and take advantage of every opportunity, to encourage the men and officers to acquire this invaluable accomplishment. Would it be unreasonable to refuse the rating of A.B. (able seaman) on the ship's books to any man who could not swim? If it be our duty to ascertain that a sailor can "hand, reef, and steer," before we place against his name these mystical letters, might we not well superadd, as a qualification, that he should also be able to keep his head above water, in the event of falling overboard, or that he should have it in his power to save another's life, if required to leap into the sea for that purpose by the orders of his superior? At present, in such an emergency, an officer has to ask amongst a dozen persons, "Which of you can swim?" instead of saying to the one nearest him, "Jump overboard after that man who is sinking!"
This, then, seems the first material step in the establishment of an improved system in that branch of seamanship which relates to picking up men who fall overboard. There can be no doubt that highly-excited feelings always stand in the way of exact discipline, and especially of that prompt, hearty, and thoroughly confiding obedience to the officer under whose orders we are serving. Such obedience is necessary on this occasion, above all others, and is essentially required, in order to accomplish the purpose in view.
Different officers will, of course, devise different plans for the accomplishment of the same end. Every one who has been exposed to the misery of seeing a man fall overboard must remember that by far the greatest difficulty was to keep people back, there being always ten times as many persons as are required, not only ready, but eager to place themselves in the situations of greatest risk. In executing the duties of a ship-of-war, there should be no volunteering allowed. Every man ought to have a specific duty, or a set of duties, to perform at all times. But these duties, in the case of a man falling overboard, must, of course, vary with the hour of the day or night, with the circumstance of its being the starboard or the larboard watch on deck, with the weather being fine or tempestuous, or with the course the ship is steering relatively to the wind, the quantity of sail, and so on. The crew of every ship should be exercised or drilled, if not as frequently, at least specifically, in the methods of picking up a man, as they are trained in the exercise of the great guns and small arms, or in that of reefing topsails.
Every one who has been much at sea must remember the peculiar sounds which pervade a ship when a man is known to have fallen overboard. The course steered is so suddenly altered, that as she rounds to the effect of the sails is doubled; the creaking of the tiller-ropes and rudder next strike the ear; then follows the pitter-patter of several hundred feet in rapid motion, producing a singular tremor, fore and aft. In the midst of these ominous noises may be heard, over all, the shrill startling voice of the officer of the watch, generally betraying in its tone more or less uncertainty of purpose. Then the violent flapping of the sails, and the mingled cries of "Clear away the boats!" "Is the life-buoy gone?" "Heave that grating after him!" "Throw that hen-coop over the stern!" "Who is it, do you know?" "Where did he fall from?" "Can he swim?" "Silence!" An impetuous, and too often an ill-regulated rush now succeeds to gain the boats, which are generally so crowded that it becomes dangerous to lower them down, and more time is lost in getting the people out again than would have manned them twice over, if any regular system had been prepared, and rendered familiar and easy by practice beforehand.
I could give a pretty long list of cases which I have myself seen, or have heard others relate, where men have been drowned while their shipmates were thus struggling on board who should be first to save them, but who, instead of aiding, were actually impeding one another by their hurry-skurry and general ignorance of what really ought to be done. I remember, for example, hearing of a line-of-battle-ship, in the Baltic, from which two men fell one evening, when the ship's company were at quarters. The weather was fine, the water smooth, and the ship going about seven knots. The two lads in question, who were furling the fore-royal at the time, lost their hold, and were jerked far in the sea. At least a dozen men, leaving their guns, leaped overboard from different parts of the ship, some dressed as they were, and others stripped. Of course, the ship was in a wretched state of discipline where such frantic proceedings could take place. The confusion soon became worse confounded; but the ship was hove aback, and several boats lowered down. Had it not been smooth water, daylight, and fine weather, many of these absurd volunteers must have perished. I call them absurd, because there is no sense in merely incurring a great hazard, without some useful purpose to guide the exercise of courage. These intrepid fellows merely knew that a man had fallen overboard, and that was all; so away they leaped out of the ports and over the hammock-nettings, without knowing whereabouts the object of their Quixotic heroism might be. The boats were obliged to pick up the first that presented themselves, for they were all in a drowning condition; but the two unhappy men who had been flung from aloft, being furthest off, went to the bottom before their turn came. Whereas, had not their undisciplined shipmates gone into the water, the boats would have been at liberty to row towards them, and they might have been saved. I am quite sure, therefore, that there can be no offence more deserving of punishment, as a matter of discipline, and in order to prevent such accidents as this, than the practice of leaping overboard after a man who has fallen into the water. There are cases, no doubt, in which it would be a positive crime in a swimmer not to spring, without waiting for orders, to the rescue of a fellow-creature whom he sees sinking in the waves, at whatever hazard to himself or to others; but I speak of that senseless, blindfold style in which I have very often witnessed men pitch themselves into the water, without knowing whether the person who had fallen overboard was within their reach or not. Even in highly-disciplined ships this will sometimes take place; and the circumstances which increase the danger seem only to stimulate the boldest spirits to brave the risk. I conceive there is no method of putting a stop to the practice but by positively enjoining the people not to go overboard, unless expressly ordered; and by explaining to them on every occasion when the ship's company are exercised for this purpose, that the difficulty of picking a man up is generally much augmented by such indiscreet zeal.
The following incidents occurred in a frigate off Cape Horn, in a gale of wind, under close-reefed main-topsail and storm-staysails. At half-past twelve at noon, when the people were at dinner, a young lad was washed out of the lee fore-channels. The life-buoy was immediately let go, and the main-topsail laid to the mast. Before the jolly-boat could be lowered down, a man jumped overboard, as he said, "promiscuously," for he never saw the boy at all, nor was he ever within half-a-cable's length of the spot where he was floundering about. Although the youth could not swim, he contrived to keep his head above water till the boat reached him, just as he was beginning to sink. The man who had jumped into the sea was right glad to give up his "promiscuous" search, and to make for the life-buoy, upon which he perched himself, and stood shivering for half-an-hour, like a shag on the Mewstone, till the boat came to his relief.
At four o'clock of the same day a man fell from the rigging; the usual alarm and rush took place; the lee-quarter boat was so crowded that one of the topping lifts gave way, the davit broke, and the cutter, now suspended by one tackle, soon knocked herself to pieces against the ship's side. Of course, the people in her were jerked out very quickly, so that, instead of there being only one man in the water, there were nearly a dozen swimming about. More care was taken in hoisting out another boat, and, strange to say, all the people were picked up, except the original unfortunate man, who, but for the accident, which ought to have been prevented, would in all probability have been saved. Neither he nor the life-buoy, however, could be discovered before the night closed.
The life-buoy at present in use on board his Majesty's ships, and, I trust, in most merchant ships, has an admirable contrivance connected with it, which has saved many lives, when otherwise there would hardly have been a chance of the men being rescued from a watery grave.
This life-buoy, which is the invention of Lieutenant Cook of the Navy, consists of two hollow copper vessels connected together, each about as large as an ordinary-sized pillow, and of buoyancy and capacity sufficient to support one man standing upon them. Should there be more than one person requiring support, they can lay hold of rope beckets fitted to the buoy, and so sustain themselves. Between the two copper vessels there stands up a hollow pole, or mast, into which is inserted, from below, an iron rod, whose lower extremity is loaded with lead, in such a manner, that when the buoy is let go the iron rod slips down to a certain extent, lengthens the lever, and enables the lead at the end to act as ballast. By this means the mast is kept upright, and the buoy prevented from upsetting. The weight at the end of the rod is arranged so as to afford secure footing for two persons, should that number reach it; and there are also, as I said before, large rope beckets, through which others can thrust their head and shoulders, till assistance is rendered.
On the top of the mast is fixed a port-fire, calculated to burn, I think, twenty minutes, or half-anhour; this is ignited most ingeniously by the same process which lets the buoy down into the water. So that a man falling overboard at night is directed to the buoy by the blaze on the top of its pole or mast, and the boat sent to rescue him also knows in what direction to pull. Even supposing, however, the man not to have gained the life-buoy, it is clear that, if above the surface at all, he must be somewhere in that neighbourhood; and if he shall have gone down, it is still some satisfaction, by recovering the buoy, to ascertain that the poor wretch is not left to perish by inches.
The method by which this excellent invention is attached to the ship, and dropped into the water in a single instant, is perhaps not the least ingenious part of the contrivance. The buoy is generally fixed amidships over the stern, where it is held securely in its place by being strung, or threaded, as it were, on two strong perpendicular iron rods fixed to the taffrail, and inserted in holes piercing the framework of the buoy. The apparatus is kept in its place by what is called a slip-stopper, a sort of catch-bolt or detent, which can be unlocked at pleasure, by merely pulling a trigger. Upon withdrawing the stopper, the whole machine slips along the rods, and falls at once into the ship's wake. The trigger which unlocks the slip-stopper is furnished with a lanyard, passing through a hole in the stern, and having at its inner end a large knob, marked "Life-Buoy;" this alone is used in the day-time. Close at hand is another wooden knob, marked "Lock," fastened to the end of a line fixed to the trigger of a gunlock primed with powder: and so arranged, that, when the line is pulled, the port-fire is instantly ignited, while, at the same moment, the life-buoy descends, and floats merrily away, blazing like a lighthouse. It would surely be an improvement to have both these operations always performed simultaneously, that is, by one pull of the string. The port-fire would thus be lighted in every case of letting go the buoy; and I suspect the smoke in the day-time would often be as useful in guiding the boat, as the blaze always is at night.
The gunner who has charge of the life-buoy lock sees it freshly and carefully primed every evening at quarters, of which he makes a report to the captain. In the morning the priming is taken out, and the lock uncocked. During the night a man is always stationed at this part of the ship, and every half-hour, when the bell strikes, he calls out "Life-buoy!" to show that he is awake and at his post, exactly in the same manner as the look-out-men abaft, on the beam, and forward, call out "Starboard quarter!" "Starboard gangway!" "Starboard bow!" and so on, completely round the ship, to prove that they are not napping.
After all, however, it must be owned, that some of the most important considerations, when a man falls overboard, have as yet scarcely been mentioned. These are,—
First, the quickest and most effectual method of arresting the ship's progress, and how to keep her as near the spot where the man fell as possible.
Secondly, to preserve entire, during these evolutions, the general discipline of the ship, to maintain silence, and to enforce the most prompt obedience, without permitting foolhardy volunteering of any kind.
Thirdly, to see that the boat appointed to be employed on these occasions is secured in such a manner that she may be cast loose in a moment, and, when ready for lowering down, that she is properly manned, and fitted, so as to be efficient in all respects when she reaches the water.
Fourthly, to take care in lowering the boat neither to stave nor to swamp her, nor to pitch the men out.
And, lastly, to have a sufficient number of the sharpest-sighted men in the ship stationed aloft in such a manner as to give them the best chance, not only of discovering the person who is overboard, but of pointing him out to the people in the boat, who may not otherwise know in what direction to pull.
It is conceived that all these objects may be accomplished with very little, if any, additional trouble, in all tolerably well-disciplined ships.
Various opinions prevail amongst officers as to the first point; but, I think, the best authorities recommend that, if possible, the ship should not merely be hove aback when a man falls overboard, but that she ought to be brought completely round on the other tack. Of course, sail should be shortened in stays, and the main-yard left square. This plan implies the ship being on a wind, or from that position to having the wind not above two points abaft the beam. But, on one tack or the other, this will include a large portion of the sailing of every ship.
The great merit of such a method of proceeding is, that, if the evolution succeeds, the ship, when round, will drift right down towards the man; and, although there may be some small risk in lowering the boat in stays, from the ship having at one period stern-way, there will, in fact, be little time lost if the boat be not lowered till the ship be well round, and the stern-way at an end. There is more mischief done, generally, by lowering the boat too soon, than by waiting till the fittest moment arrives for doing it coolly; and it cannot be too often repeated, that almost the whole depends upon the self-possession of the officer of the watch. This important quality is best taught by experience, that is to say, by a thorough and familiar practical knowledge of what should be done under all circumstances. The officer in command of the deck ought to let it be seen and felt, by his tone of voice, and by the judicious promptness of his orders, that he, at least, is perfectly master of himself, and knows distinctly what course it is best to adopt.
If the ship be running before the wind, or be sailing large, and under a press of sail, the officer must exercise his judgment in rounding to, and take care in his anxiety to save the man, not to let the masts go over the side, which will not advance, but defeat his object. If the top-gallant-sheets, the topsail, and top-gallant-haulyards, be let fly, and the head-yards braced quickly up, the ship when brought to the wind will be nearly in the situation of reefing topsails. Under these circumstances, it will hardly be possible to bring her about, for, long before she can have come head to wind, her way will be so much deadened that the rudder may have ceased to act. Still, however, I am so strong an advocate for the principle of tacking, instead of merely lying-to, when a man is overboard, that, even under the circumstances above described, as soon as the boat is lowered down and sent off, and the extra sail gathered in, I would fill, stand on till the ship had gained head-way enough to render the evolution certain, and then go about, so as to bring her head towards the boat. It must be recollected, that when a ship is going well off the wind, in the manner here supposed, it is impossible to round her so quickly as to replace her on the spot where the man fell; to reach which a great sweep must always be made. But there seems to me no doubt, that, in every possible case, even when going right before it, the ship will always drift nearer and nearer to that spot, if eventually brought to the wind on the opposite tack from that on which she was luffed up.
It will conduce greatly to the success of these measures, if it be an established rule, that, whenever the alarm is given of a man being overboard, the people, without further orders, fly to their appointed stations for tacking ship; and that only those persons who shall be specifically selected to man and lower down the boats, and for other duties, shall presume to quit the places assigned to them on going about. It so happens that when the men are in their stations for tacking, they are almost equally in their stations for shortening sail, or for performing most other evolutions likely to become necessary at such moments.
The excepted men should consist of at least two boats' crews in each watch, and of others whose sole duty it should be to attend to the operation of lowering the boats, into which no men but those expressly appointed should ever be allowed to enter. These persons, selected for their activity, strength, and coolness, should belong to the after-guard, main and mizen-top, and gunner's crew, men whose duties lie chiefly abaft or about the mainmast. Midshipmen in each watch should also be named to the different boats; and their orders ought to be positive never to allow more than the proper crew to enter, nor on any account to permit the boat to be lowered till fully and properly manned. I grant that it requires no small nerve to sanction the delays which an attention to these minute particulars demands; but the adequate degree of faith in their utility will bring with it the requisite share of decision, to possess which, under all circumstances, is, perhaps, one of the most characteristic distinctions of a good commanding officer.
There ought, in every ship, to be selected a certain number of the sharpest-sighted persons, who should be instructed, the instant the alarm is given, to repair to stations appointed for them aloft. Several of these ought to plant themselves in the lower rigging, some in the topmast shrouds, and one, if not two, might advantageously be perched on each of the cross-trees. Those persons, whose exclusive duty is to discover the man who is overboard, should be directed to look out, some in the ship's wake, some on either side of it, and to be particularly careful to mark the spot near which the ship must have been when he fell, in order that when she comes about, and drifts near the place, they may know where to direct their attention, and also to take care that the ship does not forge directly upon the object they are seeking for. The chief advantage of having look-out-men stationed aloft in this manner consists in their commanding a far better position compared to that of persons on deck, and still better when compared to the people in the boat; besides which, having this object alone to attend to, they are less likely to be unsuccessful. Moreover, from their being in considerable numbers, and scattered at different elevations, their chances are, of course, much increased of discovering so small an object as a man on the surface.
The people in the boat possess no such advantages, for they are occupied with their oars, and lose between the seas all sight of the surrounding objects near them, while they can always see the ship's masts; and as soon as they detect that any one of the look-out-men sees the person who is overboard, and points in the proper direction for them to pull, they can shape their course accordingly. Presently another look-out, instructed by the first where to direct his eyes, also discovers the man; then another sees him, then another, and so on, till all who are aloft obtain sight of the desired object, and join in pointing with their hands to where it is to be found. The officer in the boat, thus instructed by innumerable pointers, rows at once, and with confidence, in the proper direction, and the drowning man is often rescued from his deep-sea grave, when, had there been no such look-outs, or had they been fewer in number or lower down, he must have perished.
It is curious to observe the electric sort of style in which the perception of an object, when once pointed out, flashes along from man to man. As each in succession catches sight of his shipmate, he exclaims, "There he is! there he is!" and holds out his hand in the proper direction for the guidance of the boat. Indeed, I have seldom witnessed a more interesting sight than that of eighty or a hundred persons stationed aloft, straining their eyes to keep sight of a poor fellow who is struggling for his life, and all eagerly extending their hands towards him, as if they could clutch him from the waves. To see these hands drop again is inexpressibly painful, from its indicating that the unfortunate man is no longer distinguishable. One by one the arms fall down, reluctantly, as if it were a signal that all hope was over. Presently the boat is observed to range about at random; the look-out-men aloft, when repeatedly hailed and asked, "if they see anything like him?" are all silent. Finally, the boat's recall-flag is hoisted, sail is again made on the ship, the people are piped down, and this tragical little episode in the voyage being concluded, everything goes on as before.
SUNDAY ON BOARD A MAN-OF-WAR.—MUSTERING BY DIVISIONS.
The first article of war runs as follows:—"All commanders, captains, and officers, in or belonging to any of His Majesty's ships or vessels of war, shall cause the public worship of Almighty God, according to the Liturgy of the Church of England established by law, to be solemnly, orderly, and reverently performed in their respective ships; and shall take care that prayers and preaching, by the chaplains in holy orders of the respective ships, be performed diligently, and that the Lord's day be observed according to law."
The precision with which these injunctions are attended to will depend chiefly on three things:—The personal disposition of the captain; the nature of the service upon which the ship is employed; and the state of the weather. It is nearly always in the captain's power to make the Sunday a day of rest to the people committed to his charge. Sooner or later he is sure to reap the fruits of his conduct in this matter, and is made to feel, that, to command the respect or to win the regard of his crew, he must show them, on all ordinary occasions, that he is himself under the guidance of right principles. In the same spirit, his authority will be strengthened by every touch of consideration with which the inevitable sternness of his rule is softened; and the more he manages to impart to all such indulgences the character of routine, or matters of course and constant usage, so much the better. We feel obliged to a person who confers almost any favour upon us; but if this favour be one of daily or weekly occurrence, and, at each time of its concession, we are reminded of the weight of our obligation, all kindliness is in danger of being removed from it, and we would sometimes rather go without than hold the advantage by a tenure thus avowedly capricious.
A captain of sense and feeling, therefore, makes it his business, in the first place, to find out what is right and proper, consistently with the rules of the service, and then to ascertain how far the peculiar nature of the employment upon which the ship is engaged will admit of indulgences. Having settled with himself what is possible to be done with propriety, he should grant it not as a matter of personal favour, but simply because it is fitting in itself.
It is not possible, at sea, to comply to the letter with the fourth commandment; but we have no right on that account to dispense with its spirit, which is at all times and in all places within every man's reach. The absolute necessity, however, of performing some work, appears a sufficient reason with many people for doing away with the ordinance of Sunday altogether, and converting it into a day of hard and irksome toil, instead of a season of at least comparative rest. On the other hand, some officers either allow essential public interests to be neglected which ought to be attended to, or they harass their people by exacting more attention to religious observances than the poor sailors can bestow with any chance of profit. Which of these courses is the worst, I really cannot say. If Sunday be made a working day, and no attention is paid to its appropriate duties, the crew are by no means satisfied, and but too readily contract, by degrees, the habit of neglecting their obligations both to God and man. On the contrary, if the day be entirely taken up with devotional exercises, to the fatigue of their minds and bodies, they are exceedingly apt, after a time, to vote the "whole concern," as they call it, a bore, and to make up for this forced attention by the most scandalous indecencies, when out of sight of their "psalm-singing captain."
I would accordingly recommend every officer in command of a ship to bring as many of the arrangements of his Sunday as possible into a jog-trot order, not to be departed from unless there should arise an absolute necessity for such deviation. Nineteen Sundays might, indeed, pass over without any apparent advantage being gained from this uniformity, but on the twentieth some opportunity might occur, of infinite value to all concerned, which opportunity might, in all probability, prove unavailing but for the previous preparation. To borrow a professional illustration of the most familiar kind; it may be asked, how many hundred times do we exercise the great guns and small arms, for once that we fire them in real action? And why should it be supposed that, for the useful application of our mental energies to the most important of all warfare, habitual training is less necessary?
Without going needlessly deep into these speculations, I may observe that, even in the least regularly disciplined ships, there is now a marked difference between Sunday and any other day in the week. Although the grand object seems to be to have everything as clean as possible, and in its most apple-pie order, great part of the labour employed to produce this result is over before Sunday arrives. The decks, for instance, receive such a thorough allowance of holy-stoning and scrubbing on Saturday, that a mere washing, with perhaps a slight touch of the brushes and sand, brings them into the milk-white condition which is the delight of every genuine first lieutenant's heart. All this is got over early in the morning, in order that the decks may be swabbed up and the ropes nicely flemished down before seven bells, at which time it is generally thought expedient to go to breakfast, though half-an-hour sooner than usual, in order to make the forenoon as long as possible. I should have mentioned that the hammocks are always piped up at seven o'clock. If they have been slung overnight, they are as white as any laundress could have made them; and, of course, the hammock-stowers take more than ordinary care to place them neatly in the nettings, with their bright numbers turned inwards, all nicely lashed up with the regulated proportion of turns, each hammock being of a uniform size from end to end.
While the people are at breakfast, the word is passed to "clean for muster," in any dress the commanding officer may think most suitable to the climate or weather. Between the tropics, the order for rigging in frocks and trousers is generally delivered in these words:—
"Do you hear, there! fore and aft! Clean for muster at five bells—duck frocks and white trousers!"
In colder regions, it is "Blue jackets and trousers;" and in rainy, cold, or blowing weather, the following order is sung out along the lower deck, first by the husky-throated boatswain, and then in a still rougher enunciation by his gruff satellites, the boatswain's mates:—
"D'ye hear, there! Clean shirt and a shave for muster at five bells!"
Twice a week, on Thursdays and Sundays, the operation of shaving is held to be necessary. These are called "clean-shirt days." Mondays and Fridays are the days appointed for washing the clothes.
It is usual to give the men three quarters, instead of half-an-hour to breakfast on Sundays, that they may have time to rig themselves in proper trim before coming on deck. The watch, therefore, is called at a quarter-past eight, or it may be one bell, which is half-past. The forenoon watch bring their clothes-bags up with them, in order that they may not be again required to leave the deck before muster. The bags are piled in neat pyramids, or in other forms, sometimes on the booms before the boats, and sometimes in a square mass on the after part of the quarter-deck of a frigate. It strikes my recollection that in most ships there is a sort of difficulty in finding a good place on which to stow the bags.
As soon as the forenoon watch is called, the between decks, on which the men live, is carefully cleaned, generally by what is called dry holy-stoning. This is done by rubbing the deck with small smooth pieces of freestone, after a layer of well-dried sand has been sprinkled over it. This operation throws up a good deal of dust; but it makes the deck white, which is the grand point aimed at. The wings, the store-rooms, and the cockpits, undergo a similar dose of rubbing and scrubbing; in short, every hole and corner of the decks, both above and below stairs, as folks on shore would say, is swept, and swept, and swept again, on a Sunday morning, till the panting sweepers are half dead; indeed, the rest of the ship's company are worried out of all patience, from eight o'clock to half-past ten, with the eternal cry of "Pipe the sweepers!" followed by a sharp, interrupted whistle, not unlike the note of a pet canary.
What with cleaning the decks and cleaning themselves, the watch below have fully enough to do to get all ready by five bells. It must be remembered, too, that they have had the morning watch to keep, since four o'clock, and the whole trouble of washing the upper decks, shaking out the reefs, stowing the hammocks, and coiling down the ropes; all easy matters of routine, it is true, but still sufficiently tiresome when multiplied so often.
At the appointed hour of half-past ten, to a single stroke of the bell, the mate of the watch, directed by the officer on deck, who again acts in obedience to the captain's orders, conveyed to him by the first lieutenant, calls out,—
"Beat to divisions!"
It should have been stated, that, before this period arrives, the mate of the decks and the mate of the hold, the boatswain, gunner, and carpenter, have all severally received reports from their subordinates that their different departments are in proper order for inspection. Reports to the same effect being then finally made to the first lieutenant by the mates and warrant-officers, he himself goes round the ship to see that all is right and tight, preparatory to the grand inspection. I ought also to have mentioned that the bags of the watch below are piped up at ten o'clock, so that nothing remains between decks but the mess-tables, stools, and the soup and grog kids. Long before this hour, the greater number of the whole ship's company have dressed themselves and are ready for muster; but the never-ending sweepers, the fussy warrant-officers' yeomen, the exact purser's steward, the slovenly midshipmen's boy, the learned loblolly boy, and the interminable host of officers' servants, who have always fifty extra things to do, are often so sorely pressed for time, that at the first tap of the drum beating to divisions, these idlers, as they are technically much miscalled, may often be seen only then lugging their shirts over their heads, or hitching up their trousers in all the hurry-scurry of a lower-deck toilet. I should have recorded that in the ship's head, as well as on the fore-part of the main-deck, and likewise between the guns, chiefly those abreast of the fore-hatchway, there have been groups assembled to scrape and polish themselves ever since breakfast-time, and even before it. Some are washing themselves; others cutting, and combing, and trimming their hair; for, now-a-days, there are none of those huge long tails, or club ties, which descended along the back of the sailors who fought with Benbow and Rodney. The dandyism of Jack has now taken another turn, and the knowing thing at present is to have a parcel of ringlets hanging from the temples almost to the collar-bone. Some of the youngest and best-looking of the foretop-men would also very fain indulge in the feminine foppery of ear-rings; but in the British Navy this is absolutely forbidden.
I remember once, on the beach of Madras, witnessing an amusing scene between Sir Samuel Hood, then commander-in-chief in India, and the newly-promoted boatswain of a sloop-of-war belonging to the squadron. The Admiral, who was one of the bravest, and kindest, and truest-hearted seamen that ever trod a ship's decks, was a sworn foe to all trickery in dress. The eye of the veteran officer was directed earnestly towards the yeast of waves, which in immense double rows of surf, fringe and guard the whole of that flat coast. He was watching the progress of a Massullah boat, alternately lost in the foam, and raised in very uncertain balance across the swell, which, though just on the break, brought her swiftly towards the shore. He felt more anxious than usual about the fate of this particular boat, from having ordered on shore the person alluded to, with whom he wished to have some conversation previous to their parting company. This boatswain was a young man, who had been for some years a follower of the Admiral in different ships, and to whom he had just given a warrant. The poor fellow, unexpectedly promoted from before the mast to the rank of a warrant-officer, was trigged out in his newly-bought, but marvellously ill-cut uniform, shining like a new dollar, and making its wearer, who for the first time in his life had put on a long coat, feel not a little awkward.
As soon as the boat was partly driven up the beach by the surf, and partly dragged beyond the dash of the breakers by the crowd on shore, this happiest of warrant-officers leaped out on the sand, and seeing the Admiral above him, standing on the crest of the natural glacis which lines the shore, he took off his hat, smoothed down the hair on his forehead, sailor fashion, and stood uncovered, in spite of the roasting sun flaming in the zenith.
The Admiral, of course, made a motion with his hand for the boatswain to put his hat on; but the other, not perceiving the signal, stood stock-still.
"I say, put on your hat!" called the commander-in-chief, in a tone which made the newly-created warrant start. In his agitation he shook a bunch of well-trimmed ringlets a little on one side, and betrayed to the flashing eyes of the Admiral a pair of small round silver ear-rings, the parting gift, doubtless, of some favoured and favouring "Poll or Bess" of dear, old, blackguard Point Beach. Be this as it may, the Admiral, first stepping on one side, and then holding his head forward, as if to re-establish the doubting evidence of his horrified senses, and forcibly keeping down the astonished seaman's hat with his hand, roared out,—
"Who the devil are you?"
"John Marline, sir!" replied the bewildered boatswain, beginning to suspect the scrape he had got himself into.
"Oh!" cried the flag-officer, with a scornful laugh. "Oh! I beg your pardon; I took you for a Portuguese."
"No, sir!" instinctively faltered out the other, seeing the Admiral expected some reply.
"No! Then, if you are not a foreigner, why do you hoist false colours? What business has an English sailor with these d——d machines in his ears?"
"I don't know, sir," said poor Marline. "I put them in only this morning, when I rigged myself in my new togs to answer the signal on shore."
"Then," said Sir Samuel, softened by the contrite look of his old shipmate, and having got rid of the greater portion of his bile by the first explosion, "you will now proceed to unrig yourself of this top hamper as fast as you can; pitch them into the surf if you like; but never, as you respect the warrant in your pocket, let me see you in that disguise again."
When the drum beats the well-known "Generale," the ship's company range themselves in a single line along both sides of the quarter-deck, the gangways, and all round the forecastle. In a frigate, the whole crew may be thus spread out on the upper deck alone; but in line-of-battle ships the numbers are so great that similar ranges, each consisting of a division, are likewise formed on the opposite sides of the main-deck. The marines, under arms, and in full uniform, fall in at the after-part of the quarter-deck; while the ship's boys, under the master-at-arms, with his ratan in hand, muster on the forecastle.
In some ships the men are sized, as it is called, the tallest being placed at the after-end, and so on down to the most diminutive, who is fixed at the extremity. But this arrangement, being more of a military than of a naval cast, is rarely adopted now-a-days. It will seldom happen, indeed, that the biggest and burliest fellows in a ship's company are the leading men. They may chance, indeed, to be poulterers, cook's mates, or fit only to make sweepers of; personages who after a three years' station barely know the stem from the stern, and could no more steer the ship than they could take a lunar distance. Officers, however, on first joining a ship, are very apt to be guilty of some injustice towards the people by judging of them too hastily from appearance alone. We are insensibly so much prepossessed in favour of a fine, tall, good-looking sailor-lad, and prejudiced against a grizzled, crooked, little wretch, that if both happen to be brought before us for the same offence, we almost instinctively commit the injustice of condemning the ugly fellow, and acquitting the smart-looking one, before a tithe of the evidence has reached our ears.
Leaving these speculative questions, however, for the present, let us return to the divisions, which are arranged along the deck, not, as formerly, by sizes, but, in the proper way, by the watch-bill. The forecastle-men, of course, come first, as they stand so in the lists by which they are mustered at night by the mate of the watch; then the foretop men, and so on to the gunners, after-guard, and waisters. Each division is under charge of a lieutenant, who, as well as the midshipmen of his division, appears in full uniform. The people are first mustered by the young gentlemen, and then carefully inspected by the officer of the division, who sees that every man is dressed according to order, and that he is otherwise in proper trim. It is also usual in hot climates for the surgeon and his assistants to pass along the lines, to ascertain, partly by the men's looks, and partly by an examination of their limbs, that no traces of scurvy have begun to show themselves.
While the mustering and inspecting of the divisions is going on, the captain paces the quarter-deck, in company with the first lieutenant. No other voices are heard except theirs, and that of the midshipmen calling over the names of the men, or the officers putting some interrogatory about a spot of tar on a pair of duck trousers, or an ill-mended hole in the sleeve of a shirt. In a few minutes even these sounds are hushed, and nothing is distinguishable fore and aft but the tread of the respective officers, on their way aft to report to the captain on the quarter-deck that all are present, properly dressed, and clean, at their different divisions. The marine officer likewise makes a report of his party and their equipments. The first lieutenant now turns to the captain, takes off his hat, and says,—
"All the officers have reported, sir."
To which the other replies,—
"We'll go round the ship, then, if you please;" and off they trudge, after leaving the deck in charge of the second lieutenant, or the master, as may be determined upon at the moment.
As the captain approaches the first division, he is received by the officer commanding it, who touches his hat, and then falls into the train behind. Of course, the moment the skipper appears, the men along the whole line take off their hats, smooth down their locks, make many clumsy efforts to stand erect, fumble interminably with the waistband of their trousers, and shuffle, to more or less purpose, according to the motion of the ship, to maintain their toes exactly at the line or seam in the deck along which they have been cautioned twenty times they are to stand. The captain, as he moves slowly past, eyes each man from head to foot, and lets nothing pass of which he disapproves. The officer of the division is ready to explain, or to take a note of what alteration is required; but supposing all to be right, not a syllable is spoken, and at the end of the division the captain again touches his hat to the officer, who returns the salute, and remains with his people.
He then proceeds to the forecastle, at the break of which he is received by the three warrant-officers, the boatswain, gunner, and carpenter, in their best coats, cut after the fashion of the year one, broad-tailed, musty, and full of creases from bad packing and little use, and blazing from top to bottom with a double-tiered battery of buttons of huge dimensions. Behind these worthy personages, who seldom look much at home in their finery, stands the master-at-arms, in front of his troop of troublesome small fry, known by the name of the ship's boys, destined in good time to be sailors, and perhaps amongst the best and truest that we ever number in our crews.
In this way, in short, it is a most important, and almost an imperative duty, on the officers of every man-of-war, to ascertain, by actual investigation, how far their people are entitled to the ratings they claim. If we do not see to this, we are perpetually misapplying the resources of the nation, by mistaking their true quality.
I should have mentioned, that before leaving the upper deck the captain proceeds to inspect the marines, who are drawn up across or along the quarter-deck abaft. Most captains think it both judicious and kind to visit the marines first, and I have never seen this practice adopted without manifest advantage. The marines are excellent fellows, well-trained, hardy, cheerful, duly respecting themselves, and proud of their service: while, from belonging to a fixed corps, and from not being liable to be perpetually disbanded and scattered, they acquire a permanent interest, or an inherent esprit de corps, as well as a permanent footing in the Navy. In like manner, the marine officers constitute one of the most gentleman-like bodies of men in the King's service. They are thoroughly imbued with all the high sentiments of honour belonging to the military character; and they possess, moreover, in a very pleasant degree, the freedom of manner and versatility of habits peculiar to those who go down to the sea in ships.
The utility of this important body of men on board a man-of-war is so great, that it becomes the duty of every lover of the profession to support all its ranks and classes, and to render their situation when afloat one of respectability, happiness, and contentment. In speaking of the utility of the jolly marines, as they are kindly enough called by the sailors, who, in spite of all their quizzing, really esteem their pipe-clayed shipmates, I refer less to their services in action, than to their inestimable value in sustaining the internal discipline of the service. The manner in which this is brought about forms one of the most interesting peculiarities in the whole range of naval affairs; but it deserves to be treated of separately, and at length.
The two divisions ranged along the main-deck, supposing the ship's company so distributed, next engage the captain's attention. I think it is usual to take that first which stands on the starboard side of the deck, with the after-end, or its left, as military men would say, close against the bulkhead of the captain's cabin, while the foremost men of the division extend under the forecastle. On arriving at the galley or kitchen, the captain is received by the cook (or as much as may be left of him, according to the Greenwich Hospital joke), behind whom stands his mate, generally a tall, glossy, powerful negro, who, unlike his chief, has always a full allowance of limbs, with a round and shining face, about as moist as one of the tubful of huge suet puddings, tied up in bags alongside of him. The cook, aided by "Quamino," lifts the lids off the coppers, that the captain may peer into them, and ascertain whether or not all is clean and nice. With the end of his wooden leg the cook then gives a twist to the cock of the coppers, to let some of the pease-soup in preparation run off and show itself to the noble commander's inspection. The oven-doors are next opened, the range or large fire stirred up, and every hole and corner exposed to view; the object of the grand visitation being to see that this essential department of the ship is in the most perfect state of cleanliness and good order.
Still further forward, before the galley, in the very nose of her, as the foremost nook or angle of the ship is called, and a little on one side, lies the sick-bay, or hospital; at the door of which the surgeon, backed by his assistants, receives the captain and his double the first lieutenant, and his double the mate of the main-deck. In they march, all in a row. The captain takes care not to pass any invalid's hammock without dropping a word of encouragement to its pale inmate, or begging to be informed if anything further can be done to make him comfortable. Only those men who are very unwell, however, are found in their beds; the rest being generally seated on the chests and boxes placed round the bay, a part of the ship which, I need scarcely mention, is kept, if possible, more clean, airy, and tidy than any other. If a speck of dirt be found on the deck, or a gallipot or phial out of its place, woe betide the loblolly-boy, the assistant-surgeon's assistant, and the constant attendant upon the hospital. This personage is usually a fellow of some small knowledge of reading and writing, who, by overhearing the daily clinical lectures of the doctor, contrives to pick up a smattering of medical terms, which he loses no opportunity of palming off upon his messmates below as sublime wisdom sucked in at Alma Mater.
Just before leaving the sick-bay, the captain generally turns to the surgeon, and says, as a matter of course, "Doctor, mind you always send aft at dinner-time for anything and everything you require for the sick;" and I have frequently remarked that his whole tone and manner are greatly softened during this part of the rounds, perhaps without his being conscious of any difference. A very small share of attention on the part of a commanding-officer on such occasions, if kindly and unaffectedly exercised, leaves a wonderfully favourable impression, not only among the invalids to whom it is more particularly addressed, but seldom fails to extend its salutary influence over the rest of the ship's company, and thus, of course, contributes materially to strengthen and to maintain his authority. Such expressions of sympathy never fail to act like drops of oil on the machinery of discipline, making all its wheels work smoothly and sweetly.
The lower deck is next examined. The bags have been carried on deck, so that, as I mentioned before, nothing remains but the people's mess-tables and mess things, their kids, and crockery. As Jack is mighty fond of a bit of show in his way, many of the berths or mess-places exhibit goodly ranges of tea-cups and regiments of plates worthy of the celebrated Blue Posts Tavern, occasionally flanked by a huge tea-pot, famously emblazoned with yellow dragons and imitation Chinese. The intervals between the shelves are generally ornamented with a set of pictures of rural innocence, where shepherds are seen wooing shepherdesses, balanced by representations of not quite such innocent Didos weeping at the Sally Port, and waving their lily hands to departing sailor-boys. On the topmost-shelf stands, or is tied to the side, a triangular piece of a mirror, three inches perhaps by three, extremely useful in adjusting the curls of our nautical coxcombs, of whom one at least is to be found in every berth.
The mess-tables, which are kept so bright you would suppose them whitewashed, are hooked to the ship's side at one end, while the other is suspended by small ropes covered with white canvas. Against these lines rest the soup and grog kids, shining in a double row along the deck, which is lighted up, fore and aft, for the captain's visit, by a candle in each berth. In frigates it is usual, I believe, to let the people have a certain number of chests, besides their bags. These not only form convenient seats for the men at meals, and couches on which to stretch their worn-out limbs during the watch below, but they afford a place in which the sailors may stow away some part of their best attire, deposit their little knick-knacks, and here and there a book, or mayhap a love-letter, or some cherished love-token. A chest, in short, or the share of a chest, even though it be only a quarter, or a sixth part, is always so great a comfort that this indulgence ought to be granted when it can possibly be allowed. In single-decked ships, I conceive it may generally be permitted: in a line-of-battle ship hardly ever. In a frigate, as there are no guns on the lower deck, where the people mess and sleep, there is nothing to clear away on coming into action; but in a ship of the line the men pass their whole lives amongst the guns, by night as well as by day, and as it is absolutely necessary to keep every part ready for action at an instant's warning, nothing can be allowed to remain between the guns but such articles as may be carried out of the way in a moment. It is sometimes nonsensical, and even cruel, to carry this system into a frigate, where the same necessity for keeping the space unencumbered does not exist. Doubtless the mate of the lower deck, and often enough the first lieutenant, and sometimes even the captain, will be anxious to break up all the men's chests, in order to have a clear-looking, open, airy, between-decks, to make a show of; but with proper care it may be kept almost as clear and quite as clean with a couple of chests in each berth as without. Even were it otherwise, we ought, I think, rather to give up a little appearance to secure so great a share of comfort to those who, at best, are not overburdened with luxuries.
As the captain walks aft, along the lower deck, he comes to the midshipmen's berth, or room, in which the youngsters mess. It is the foremost and largest of a range of cabins built up on each side, and reaching as far aft as the gun-room, or mess-place of the commissioned officers. It is only in line-of-battle ships that the mids mess in the cockpit; while in frigates they not merely mess but sleep in the part of the lower deck called, I know not why, the steerage. I ought to have mentioned that before the cabins of the officers, and abaft those of the sailors, lie the berths of the marines; but, of course, those mess-places of the men are not partitioned off, being merely denoted by the tables and shelves. The boatswain, gunner, and carpenter, have their cabins in the steerage.
The captain peeps into each of these dens as he moves along. In that of the midshipmen he may probably find a youth with the quarantine-flag up; that is, in the sick-list. His cue, we may suppose, is always to look as miserable and woe-begone as possible. If he have had a tussle with a messmate, and one or both his eyes are bunged up in consequence, it costs him no small trouble to conceal his disorderly misdeeds. It would be just as easy, in fact, to stop the winds as to stop the use of fisty-cuffs amongst a parcel of hot-blooded lads between thirteen and nineteen, although, of course, such rencontres are held to be contrary to the laws and customs used at sea, and are punishable accordingly. The captain, pretending ignorance, however, merely grins; and, without exposing the boy to the necessity of getting up a story, remarks:—
"I suppose, Master Peppercorn, you fell down the after-hatchway ladder, and struck your eye against the corner of a chest? Didn't you? And, what is odd enough, I dare say, when I cross to the starboard berth, I shall find Mr. Mustardseed, who has met with exactly the same accident about the same time. What do yo think? Eh?"
"I don't know, sir," answers the badgered youngster; "Mr. Mustardseed and I are not on speaking terms."
"Very likely not," chuckles the skipper, as he proceeds to thrust his nose curiously into the warrant officers' little boxes. On arriving at the gun-room, he merely glances, with a well-bred air of assumed indifference, at the apartment of the officers, with whose habits and arrangements he scarcely ever ventures to meddle. He next dives into the cockpit, which in a frigate is used only for the purser's store-room, leading to the bread-room, both of which he examines carefully. The spirit-room hatchway, too, is lifted up for his inspection, as well as that of the after-hold. He then takes a survey of the cable tiers, which are lighted up for the occasion; as also different store-rooms of the boatswain, gunner, and carpenter; all of which ought to be objects of his particular care, for it is of great consequence that every article they contain should not only have an assigned and well-known place, but that it should actually be kept in that place. It is, indeed, quite wonderful how much may be done in the way of stowage by dint of good management. In a well-regulated ship, there is not a bolt or a bar, nor any kind of tool belonging to the carpenter, nor a single rope great or small; canvas fine as duck, or coarse as No. 1, belonging to the boatswain; nor any description of warlike store in charge of the gunner, which cannot instantly be laid hold of, and conveyed in half-a-minute to any part of the ship, alow or aloft.
At length, when every square inch of the holds, tiers, sail-rooms, and all the cabins and berths below, have been examined, the visitation party return to the quarter-deck, after a full half-hour's ramble. As the captain re-ascends to the different decks in succession, the men, who have never budged from their divisions, again pluck off their hats, the marines carry arms the moment his head shows above the coamings, and all the officers stop instantaneously in the middle of their walk to salute their commander, as he once more treads the quarter-deck.
"And now, sir," says the captain, turning to the first lieutenant, "if you please we will rig the church."
THE SHIP CHURCH.
The carpenters and the watch on deck soon carry aft their benches and mess-stools; but these not being sufficient to afford accommodation for all hands, as many capstan-bars as may be required are likewise brought up and placed athwart the quarter-deck, with their ends resting on match-tubs and fire-buckets, or on the carronade-slides. These seats occupy the whole of the space from the break of the quarter-deck and the belaying bits round the mainmast, as far as the companion-hatchway. Chairs from the cabin and gun-room are also placed abaft all, for the captain and officers, and on the lee side for the warrant-officers and mids; for it need scarcely be mentioned that due subordination is made to keep its place even in our church.
The pulpit stands amidships, either on the after-gratings, or on the deck immediately before the hatchway. In some ships, this part of the nautical church establishment consists of a moveable reading-desk, made expressly for the occasion, but brought up from the carpenter's store-room only when wanted; sometimes one of the binnacles is used for this purpose; and I remember a ship in which the prayer-book was regularly laid on a sword-rack, or stand, holding six dozen naked cutlasses. The desk is covered over with a signal-flag, as well as the hassock for the chaplain to kneel upon, which is usually a grape or canister shot-box, surmounted by a cheese of great-gun wads, to make it soft.
All this implies that the weather is fine, the awnings spread overhead, and the curtains stretched fore and aft, to keep out the heat and glare. In rainy or blustering weather the church is rigged under the half-deck, much in the same way, except that the pulpit is placed between two of the guns, and generally on the larboard side, as nearly abreast of the quarter-deck ladder as may be.
When all is ready, the bell is tolled by one of the quarter-masters; and the crew, quietly clustering aft, occupy the bars, stools, planks, and gun-slides, prepared for their accommodation. The marines range themselves on the front seats; while the officers take their places, of course not avowedly in the order of date in their commissions, but, more or less, they do fall into their respective stations according to seniority. The chaplain is now informed that every one is assembled; or, if there be no clergyman on board, the report is made to the captain, who generally officiates in that case. When the service begins, if there be any other ship in company, a pendant, such as men-of-war carry at their mast-head to distinguish them from merchant-ships, is hoisted at the mizen peak, to show that the ship's company are at prayers. This signal, which is kept flying during the performance of divine service, is respected by every other ship, whether commanded by a superior officer or not.
Besides the prayers, which, as I have already mentioned, are "according to the Liturgy of the Church of England, established by law," the chaplain gives a short discourse, not exceeding at most twenty or twenty-five minutes in length. Some captains are in the habit of reading a sermon; but more commonly, when there is no clergyman on board, the prayers are deemed sufficient. These points, as may be supposed, become frequent matters of discussion in the fleet. I shall not enter into them further just now than by observing that the majority of right-thinking officers appear to agree, that, if the church service on board ship be not "solemnly, orderly, and reverently performed," according to the terms and in the spirit of the first article of war, it is either useless or worse than useless. It ought therefore to take place as regularly and habitually as the nature of the ship's duties will allow of. In the next place, it seems clear, that if the service be rendered so long, or be otherwise so conducted, as not to arrest the attention of the crew, or not to maintain it alive when once fixed, it is too long.
I will venture to say, there is rarely to be met with anywhere a more orderly or a more attentive congregation, in all respects, than on board a man-of-war.
But, notwithstanding all Jack's decorum and his discipline, to say nothing of his natural inclination, when duly encouraged, to reflect seriously and properly on any subject, as he is made of ordinary flesh and bones, his eyes will sometimes refuse to keep open under the infliction of a dull or ill-delivered discourse; so that if the person who officiates happens not to read very well, his best chance for securing any useful attention consists in the brevity of his prelections. If the quality, rather than the quantity, of instruction be his object, he should be exceedingly careful not to fatigue his hearers. The inverse rule of proportion obtains here with such mortifying regularity, that the longer he makes the church service beyond the mark of agreeable and easy attention, the more certain will he be of missing his point.
The analogy, not to speak it profanely, between overloading a gun and overloading a discourse applies especially to ship-preaching. Sailors are such odd fellows that they are nowise moved by noise and smoke; but they well know how to value a good aim, and always love and honour a commanding-officer who truly respects their feelings, nor by means of long-winded and ill-timed discourses, or what they irreverently call psalm-singing, interferes too much with their religious concerns.
It would be easy, though perhaps rather invidious, to point out in what other respects many officers are apt, besides the protracted length of the church service on Sunday, to err in excess in these matters. I am very sorry to say it would be still easier to show in what respects all of us err in defect. I should rejoice much more in being able to make officers who have not sufficiently reflected on these things, duly sensible that it is quite as much to their immediate professional advantage that the religious duties of their ship should form an essential part of the discipline of the crew, and be considered not less useful in a moral point of view, than rigging the masts properly is to the nautical department of their command.
If, indeed, religion, when applied to the ordinary business of life, should be found inconsistent with those moral obligations which are dictated to us by conscience; or even were we to discover that the ablest, most virtuous, and most successful person, amongst us were uniformly despisers of religion, then there would certainly be some explanation, not to say excuse, for young and inexperienced men venturing to dispute on such subjects, and claiming the bold privilege of absolutely independent thought and action. But surely there is neither excuse nor explanation, nor indeed any sound justification whatsoever, for the presumption of those who, in the teeth of all experience and authority, not only trust themselves with the open expression of these cavils, but, having settled the whole question in their own way, take the hazardous line of recommending their daring example to those around them. It is also material to recollect that there is not a single point of duty in the whole range of the naval profession, which, when well understood, may not be enforced with greater efficiency by a strict adherence to the sanctions of religion, than if it were attempted single-handed; so that most of the objections which one hears made to the due performance of the church service on board ship, on the score of its interfering with the discipline, are quite absurd, and inapplicable to the circumstances of the case.
The captain of a man-of-war, therefore, if his influence be as well-founded as it ought, may, in this most material of all respects, essentially supply the place of a parent to young persons, who must be considered for the time virtually as orphans. He may very possibly not be learned enough to lay before his large nautical family the historical and other external evidences of Christianity, and, perhaps, may have it still less in his power to make them fully aware of the just force of its internal evidences; but he can seldom have any doubt as to his duty in this case more than in any other department of the weighty obligations with which he is charged; and if he cannot here, as elsewhere, make the lads under his care see distinctly, in the main, what course it best becomes them to follow, he is hardly fit for his station. I freely own that it is far beyond his power to make them pursue that line, if they choose to be perverse; but he will neglect an important, I might add, a sacred and solemn part of his business, if he leaves their minds more adrift on the score of religion than he can possibly help. Their steering in this ticklish navigation, it is true, depends upon their own prudence; but it is his bounden duty to provide them with both a rudder and a compass, and also, as far as he is able, to instruct them, like a good pilot, in the course they ought to shape. The eventual success of the great voyage of life lies with themselves; the captain's duty, as a moral commander-in-chief, is done if he sets his juvenile squadron fairly under weigh. It is in vain to conceal from ourselves, that, unless both officers and men can be embodied more or less as a permanent corps, every ship that is commissioned merely furnishes a sort of fresh experiment in naval discipline. The officers are brought together without any previous acquaintance with one another; and many of them, after a long residence on shore, have lost most of their naval habits. The sailors, being collected how and where we can get hold of them, are too frequently the off-scourings and scum of society. With such a heterogeneous crew, the first year is employed in teaching them habits of cleanliness and common decency; and it is only in the third year of their service that the ship becomes really efficient. Just as that point has been reached, all hands are turned off, to make room for another experiment. If a few active men of the crew have become better sailors, they generally go into the merchant-service for higher wages; while the officers are again laid on the shelf. Something has been done lately to retain the petty officers in the navy, but perhaps not enough. It has been suggested that, instead of giving men pensions for long servitude, it might be more useful to allow their wages to increase gradually year by year, at some small rate, and at the end of fourteen years give them half-pay of the rating to which they had reached, if they chose to retire.
In returning to the subject of the church, it must be remembered that the circumstances of wind and weather will often interfere with the regularity of our Sunday service. In some parts of an Indian voyage, for instance, it may be safely calculated that no interruption will take place; while there occur other stages of the passage when Divine service must of necessity be stopped, to shorten sail or trim the yards. In peace-time, or in harbour, or in fine weather at sea, no such teasing interference is likely to arise; but in war, and on board a cruising ship, the public service frequently calls a ship's company to exchange their Bibles and Prayer-books for the sponges and rammers. The collect in which they have petitioned to be defended from the fear of their enemies, and that their time might be passed in rest and quietness, may hardly have passed their lips, before they are eagerly and joyfully scampering up the rigging to shake the reefs out in chase of an enemy, with whom, in the next hour, they will perhaps be engaged in hot fight!
I remember once in a frigate, cruising deep in the Bay of Biscay, just as the captain had finished the Litany, and the purser, whose greatest pleasure it was to officiate as clerk, had said Amen, that the man at the main royal-mast head screamed out,—
"A strange sail, broad on the lee bow!"
The first effect of this announcement was to make the commander turn round involuntarily to the man at the wheel and exclaim, "Put the helm up!" He then closed the book, with a degree of energy of which he was made somewhat ashamed when the sound was echoed back by that of the rapidly closing volumes all around him.
"My lads," said he quickly, but not without solemnity, "our duty to our King is our duty to God; and if, as I hope, this sail turn out to be the ship we have been so long looking after, you will not give a worse account of her to the country, I am sure, for having applied in good earnest for assistance from aloft." After which, suddenly changing his tone and manner, he sung out loudly and clearly,—