ASTROLOGICALLY, Fate dealt me a one-colored hand. She blessed and badgered my parents in Derry on the 6th day of March in 1893 with a restless lad.
I was born under the Zodiacal sign of Pisces, the southern constellation denoting a wanderer. It is governed by the planet Neptune in conjunction with Jupiter. Pisces, if you will consult your almanac, governs the feet, and in truth mine were on the move from the very day I learned to walk. Aquamarine is the birth-stone for March. . . . But why pile up further testimony to prove my pre-natal influence was for the sea?
And there is even stronger evidence accounting for my .nautical ambition. My father was a sea-captain and harbor-master. Before him three generations commanded ships and followed the trade-routes of the world. My mother was Margaret Hernand, a direct descendant of family of Hernandos, who came to Ireland with the Spanish King’s army in 1601, under the picturesque leadership of the gallant Don Aquila. Another member of the Hernandos commanded a ship of the line in the ill-fated Armada. He lost his vessel off the Galway coast when the forces of nature conspired with the British to defeat Philip II, and the sailors who escaped drowning found shelter in the Irish hills. There are many Irish girls with dark eyes and swarthy skins, and Irish lads with jet-black hair and furious tempers, to prove their kinship to the shipwrecked Castilians. Among the others who have helped to populate the south and east of Ireland were the Danes and Normans. Dublin and Limerick were the Danish strongholds. The swaggering Normans are traced in the FitzGeralds, Barrys, Lynches, and Darcys; while there was once a large colony of Palatinate Germans absorbed in the south. Later, an emissary of Cromwell complained that the Irish girls tamed the vicious soldiery and made them speak Gaelic.
With horizons mirrored in my eyes, and an itch for distance in my feet I set out upon my first adventure at the age of four. It was, as it deserved to be, an abortive. attempt. At six I made a second, this time accompanied by my younger brother, Hugh.
Moville, a transatlantic port of call twenty miles away, was our immediate ambition, with America, the modern Irishman’s ” Hi Brazil,” or land of dreams, as the final destination. Alasl Our journey ended at eight and a half miles. We were adrift and worried, and, I remember, mightily relieved when a neighbor with a horse and cart took us in tow to a wayside “pub” owned by one Unity Bradley. The kind old lady washed and put us to bed, and the following day we were brought back home, crestfallen and repentant.
A year or two later I stowed away in the hold of the Norwegian bark Ajax of Arundel, bound to St. John’s, New Brunswick; but once more fortune was against me. I was discovered and put ashore in the pilot-boat. My tearful mask must have struck the soft spot in the skipper’s calloused heart, for he promised in a cheerful lie to take me along on his next voyage. I did not give him the doubtful opportunity. A few months later I slipped aboard a steamer and got as far as Liverpool. Youth was still against me and I was forced to return.
But everything comes to him who waits. At the age of fifteen I ran away on the schooner Vixen, and the day the old tub pushed away from the wharf at Londonderry was the real beginning of my career as a sailor. As the land flattened out and dimmed behind our wind-filled sails, the vista of the whole world seemed to open out to my fervid imagination. I was drugged by the salty perfume of the spray and tang of the wind.
How soon stones came crashing through the windows of childish illusions!
My job on the ninety-ton schooner was officially rated as “cook,” though I never boiled a “spud” in my life.
The galley, or kitchen, was an old stove lashed to the rail, and I’m sure that even on a Carthaginian trireme there was nothing quite as primitive. Our menu was as varied as a Kafir’s vocabulary: salt beef or pig’s cheek, cabbage, potatoes, and fish. The captain was a gourmet with rather severe limitations. He rated the ports he visited, not by the volume of freight handled, nor by the depth of the harbor, nor yet by the beauty of the women, but by the succulence of the pigs’ cheeks raised in the port’s environs. On land I disliked the awful dish: hanging over the cauldron in a lurching ship this morsel of a swine’s anatomy epitomized all that was loathsome.
My method of washing dishes would not have qualified under the Board of Health Regulations in London or New York, or, for that matter, in Shanghai. The procedure for washing the plates, taught me by the mate after boxing my ears for wasting time and water, was simple yet surprisingly effective. He grabbed the skipper’s plate, wiped off the greasy remnants with a piece of paper, spat on the disk, and gave it a high lustre with an old rag! The same trick was repeated with the captain’s tea-basin, and I was threatened, under penalty of a yardarm lynching, to use water on his platters. Later on the skipper caught me washing the mate’s dishes, and duplicated the mate’s instruction with the added economy of using his sleeve instead of a cloth. Thereafter I was quite impartial in following the text of their method.
In our port-to-port relays along the British and Irish coast the captain and mate would dispatch their business at the wharf in a few minutes, and proceed to ship a heavy cargo of ale and porter. Thereafter the two of them would return in a maudlin and paternal mood. For an hour, sometimes, the skipper would harangue eloquently on the opportunity that was being given me as a member of the crew of the Vixen. But as I had seen half a dozen seamen seize the same opportunity and as quickly relinquish it when the ship docked, I can be forgiven if I was skeptical and only waiting for the sight of an Irish harbor to follow their example.
Drunk or sober, the officers of the ship said their prayers each night, thus following the pious custom to be observed on all Irish vessels. Liquor always incited a brand of public piety that could be heard throughout the ship, and the prayer that wafted heavenward reeked with the odor of stale brew. One night, with his Plimsoll awash with a mixed variety of liquors, the mate exhorted Heaven to mend the errant habits of the skipper. There was a sudden pause. The mate, remembering something that Heaven could not remedy, turned his shouts to the ,devil, the gist of his plea being that the skipper should be crucified with red-hot spikes.
Since those raw days I have seen a great deal of the world, from the copper seas of the Indian Ocean to the empty wastes of the Arctic and Antarctica, but there is no picture etched so vividly in my memory as the stormy six months I sailed on the Vixen through the winter seas around Great Britain and Ireland. It was a test of mettle; it was trial by ordeal; it was the elimination of the weak and fearsome; it hardened my muscles, crisped my mind, and stiffened my spine. It was in December, 1908, that I left my little training-ship at Cork and went back to Derry.
Wiser in experience but unchastened in spirit, the prodigal returned home. My parents were now convinced that I was determined to follow the sea, and even when I crossed to England to look for a berth on a ship bound to ports beyond the confines of the British Isles they showed no opposition.
Weeks of fruitless wandering around the docks of Liverpool followed, when I plagued the mates of every square-rigger in the port. I would have taken a job of any sort. I panhandled meals from cooks and sailors, and at last was reduced to begging the watchman on the gangway to let me sleep in a sail locker; or, when luck came my way, actually got a night’s flop on a donkey’s discarded breakfast in a bunk in the forecastle. This was my plight when, one morning, standing dejectedly outside the shipping office in Canning Place, I read with longing the list of ships that were signing on crews. I saw that the bark Cedarbrook was up to sign on at two o’clock.
“Can you tell me in which dock the Cedarbrook is lying? ” I asked politely, turning to an old sailor standing alongside. In a pleasant Irish voice he answered, ” She’s not in any dock around here, me lad. She’s loading in Port Talbot for Iquique.”
My heart dropped; one disappointment after another was breaking down my resistance.
“Why don’t you go up to Maloney’s Boarding-house on Dennison Street? ” the old sailor added helpfully. “He’s shipping hands for that ship; maybe he wants a boy.”
I thanked him and hastened off to Maloney’s, praying to my patron saint with every step, saying the rosary, and feverishly fingering the beads in my pocket.
Maloney’s was a hard-looking dive in a dingy street full of slatterns and sailors. Without knocking I walked through the open door and asked a tough-looking individual if Mr. Maloney was at home.
“I believe he’s in the office,” he said, pointing to a door on my right. “Walk right in.”
I knocked and entered, confronting an overdressed gent in grey checks and tan shoes.
“What’s up, kid?” was his facetious greeting. “Hiding from the truant officer?”
“I’d like to sign on the Cedarbrook as ordinary seaman, sir,” I faltered.
“H’m, got a discharge-book?
No, sir. I’ve got a good discharge from a schooner”; then, thinking a lie justifiable in such an emergency, added: ” I lost another one just as good!”
Maloney looked at the proffered discharge, frowned, then asked: ” Got any clothes?”
Briefly, I explained that I had pawned my sea-bag for a shilling.
“Got the ticket on you? ” he snapped, and with alacrity I gave him the ticket. I felt St. Anthony was right behind me. “Well,” he continued, with great effect, “I’ll not guarantee anything, but be back here at one o’clock and I’ll let you know if the captain’ll take you.”
I thanked him effusively and withdrew, my heart pounding madly with hope.
I signed on the four-masted bark Cedarbrook as ordinary seaman for the voyage from Port Talbot in South Wales to Iquique, Chile, and such other ports as the master might decide, voyage not to exceed two years, etc., etc., wages thirty shillings per month and what rations the Board of Trade outlined in the scale of provisions for the merchant sailor.
Maloney, since elevated in my mind to something approaching a deity, collected a month’s wages in advance for his services, which included retrieving my sea-bag and adding to its sparse contents a lady’s dirty corset, two used left hobnailed boots, a bar of soap, and a sweat rag. These stray additions I discovered only when we had passed the Smalls Light outward bound some two days later. The other sailors had even weirder contributions from Maloney: ladies’ underwear, sleeveless gowns, all in an advanced state of disrepair. For the reader’s benefit I will explain that by law the boarding-house masters must provide seamen with clothes and board in exchange for their advance notes. Maloney’s interpretation of “clothes” was pretty liberal. However, the ship carried a slop-chest, so before the voyage started another month’s wages was mortgaged in procuring oilskins, dungarees, and such sundries which the captain had in stock.
But all this meant little to me. Crazy with excitement at the thought of being on board a real square-rigged sailing-ship, I eagerly began to master the ropes and learn all the tricks of a deep-water sailor. There were sixteen A.B.’s before the mast and two ordinary seamen. As was usual on British ships, the forward crowd represented all nationalities, the after-guard being exclusively British. The captain was Welsh, the two mates belonged to Liverpool. Food was scarce and extremely bad. Breakfast consisted of weak, tepid coffee and porridge or salt fish; dinner of salt beef or pork and pea-soup with gluey dried vegetables; supper of a kettle of tea and hard sea-biscuits, usually full of maggots. It was a meagre ration, and in the strong sea air we were always hungry. I hated this, but as compensation I loved the work aloft, and was always happy to be sent up to loose or furl the royals and the other lofty sails. I literally drank in all the conversation in the fo’c’sle, listening avidly to yarns of other voyages, ships, shipwrecks, mutinies, and all the manly, tough, red-blooded incidents that make up the life of a square-rigged sailor.
My greatest pleasure perhaps when lying aloft after loosing an upper topsail or to’gallant sail, overhauling the buntlines as the yard went up, was to hear the watch on deck singing a real chanty as they pulled on the halyards. Often I begged the mate to let me stay on deck sometimes, so that I too could join in the chorus. With the wind whistling through the rigging, and the swish and slap of the sea on the sides of the bark for accompaniment, the effect of these full-throated charities on my youthful imagination was powerful. For all the different styles of hauling on a rope we had separate chanties: quick ones for short pulls on jib and staysail halyards; slower ones for the two long pulls on topsail and topgallant halyards; and then the more detailed and musical alternatives sung while walking round the capstan or heaving up anchor. There are usually a couple of good chantymen on every ship. On the Cedarbrook we had Taffy Jones and Paddy Quirke, two encyclopedias of nautical lore, and from these I learned the real art, so that in later years I could stand fore-hand as they did on the halyards, and lead off a chanty with the long drawn-out nasal tone of the real deep-water chantyman.
We weren’t long slipping into the northeast trades in 35 degrees north latitude. Here life was passable, although to a shore-dweller existence on a windbag is unbelievable. With two watches, it means four hours on deck and four hours below. Eating, sleeping, and recreation are done in the watch below, and it is never possible to have more than three hours in your bunk at a stretch.
In the trades, however, when everything is set and drawing, it is possible in the fine steady breeze for the watch on deck to lie on the main hatch and snatch a few winks of sleep.
In the trades there is also the chance to harpoon porpoises. They make palatable eating and a welcome variant from the leathery salt beef and pork and fibrous preserved meat. We caught lots of bonita by jigging a hook baited with a white rag over the surface of the water, lying away out on the end of the bowsprit far ahead of the ship’s cutwater. There are always flying-fish, but seldom enough to meet the demand. They are a tasty morsel and a great source of nourishment for the ship’s cat-who usually gets at them first.
Down to Cape Horn we had all the changes of weather from flat calms to howling gales; but nowhere is there such a combination of elements as off Cape Stiff, where mountainous seas pile high and winds batter with hurricane force. For weeks we slogged around off this desolate point trying to make westing, encountering rain, sleet, and blizzards one after the other without intermission. The ship was full of water from rail to rail; fo’c’sle and bunks were sodden wet. A dozen times our galley was washed out. In my youthful fancy I thought we were doomed to spend the remainder of our lives battling the unconquerable-another case of the Flying Dutchman, substituting Cape Horn for the Cape of Good Hope. Eventually we got a break, and made enough westing to lay a course to the norrard. In the ensuing good weather we soon forgot, as sailors quickly do, the bleak Cape and the awful buffeting we had received.
One hundred and one days out from Port Talbot we dropped anchor in Iquique, and without much enthusiasm made preparations to discharge our cargo. This unpleasant duty was performed by the crew, and in the tropical heat of that and coast it was no labor of love. The town was scorching hot, lifeless, and uninteresting, but these drawbacks did not damp my feelings. I promised myself I would see plenty of the world now that I was properly started. A month later, our cargo discharged, we moved down the coast to Antofagasta to load nitrate for New York.
Scenically, Antofagasta was worse than Iquique. It was a torrid town, squatting in sand at the base of verdureless mountains. With great pleasure I mounted the fo’c’sle head the day we were fully loaded, ready to cast adrift from the buoys. With even more pleasure I scampered aloft to help loose the topsails and foresails – the first definite move in the direction of abandoning Chile for the dazzling prospect of New York City. As one trip is so much like another, looking back through the vista of years I cannot recall any outstanding incident. We flew around the Horn with a fair wind and following sea, headed up for the southeast trades, and with a phenomenal run of luck scarcely had our yards on the backstays all the way, until finally we made the coast of the United States, eighty-nine days out from Antofagasta. In the middle watch the man on the lookout picked up the strong flash of the Highland Light marking the southern entrance to New York Harbor. We hove to for the night under shortened sail, ready to pick up the pilot at daybreak.
In the morning the graceful pilot-cutter skimming alongside soon transferred the Yankee pilot. I stood by the pilot ladder eager to get a look at a bona fide Yank and hear the real American twang. I must have been hypnotized or have dreamed a little, for soon I got the real thing in a nasal snarl: ” Hey, you kid! wake up an’ haul that God damned grip aboard.” Thus I first met and heard the representative of a land which has been the goal and grave of many honest Irish ambitions.
I ran away from the Cedarbrook in Brooklyn a week later, with ten American dollars in my pocket and a fund of youthful optimism to try my luck in the land of opportunity.