SOUTH STREET, Manhattan, that Mecca of all sailors, has lost much of its glamor since the saloons were driven from the sidewalks into the cellars. In those days sailors reeled from bar to bar with the pavement swaying under their feet like the deck of a ship. They were strenuous times, with men of loud voices and large opinions monopolizing the conversation at bars. Sailors wrangled with rowdies, and crooks pushed their way forcibly to the mahogany.
My money had now dwindled from ten dollars down to fifty cents, and I thought it high time to look seriously for another ship. I had not yet acquired a taste for alcohol, and most of the sailors had sense enough not to force a lad into a habit that he could acquire any time at his own volition. So if I tagged around the saloons it was only because of the excitement brought me in the shape of bright mirrors, dazzling lights, and the skill of soap artists who sketched innumerable square-riggers on the vast expanse of Dempsey’s saloon glass.
I remember standing on the corner in front of Dempsey’s readjusting my original estimate of El Dorado when a voice lifted me from the fog of self-pity.
“Hello, Paddy! Looking for a ship?
Turning, I saw a friendly-faced fellow leaning over me. To complete the introduction, the good-natured bruiser tapped me on the shoulder.
“Come in and have a drink,” said he. “We’ll talk it over.”
He ordered rye and washed it down with lager. That was an indication of a sportive affluence, and I was highly impressed. My order of lemonade drew a laugh from him and the bystanders, but I stood my ground. Then my host told the others to “mind their own God damned business,” which they promptly did, giving him full possession of that sector of the saloon. I crammed in some food at the steaming free-lunch counter, and made a gesture of spending my half buck for a return drink. Fortunately the bluff worked. Mulligan introduced himself and said I might eat and drink of the best in the house at his expense. That day I drank enough carbonated water to fill my veins with bubbles; but it justified the heavy traffic in free lunch, for the bartender kept a weather eye on me during my frequent sorties to the hash-counter.
Mulligan waxed confidential. His uncle, it appeared, ran a high-class boarding-house on Cherry Street. It was also a clearing-house for sailors. And what a motley crew babbled and quarreled until the voice of Mulligan senior or the dinner-bell interrupted. My confidant told me a glowing tale of the deep-water men, of which they had the exclusive shipping rights. ” You’ve got your choice of a square-rigger to China, or Australia, or round the Horn.”
“That’s fine,” I said, shuddering at the thought of another wrestling-match with the devil off Cape Stiff. ” I’d like to ship to Australia.” The ports of Australia, I had heard, are filled with Irishmen, many of them the grandsons of political prisoners. Besides, I was eager to see the continent where the seasons are reversed and high wages paid to all who worked. My host promised to give me a bag of clothes and sign me on the very next day.
I have a vivid picture of my meeting with the dour-masked Mulligan senior. The room was crowded with barroom casuals, many of whose heads and faces were taped and bandaged; but the pain of their recent hurts dimmed none of their pugnacity. Only a snarl from Mulligan would quiet them for a few minutes until the spleen in their boozy bodies surged to the surface. Mulligan, however, was not half as vicious as his underslung jaw indicated. He treated me with a rough, paternal kindness.
“Think you’re sailor enough, kid, to do an A. B.’s job on a square-rigger?”
“Sure, I am,” answered I, swelling my chest with pride.
He pinched my muscle, but I looked him in the eye without wincing, though his grip paralyzed me.
“You’ve got lots of nerve, kid. What part of the old country are you from?”
“Derry!” said I, knowing full well he was a Corkonian by his accent.
“You must have been raised in a tough section, boy. Do all the McGuinnesses run away to sea so early?” He laughed heartily, and added: “You’ll be living plenty aloft, but I guess you goat-chasers from Derry won’t mind a few hours in the rigging!”
He gave me a choice of three ships-the Queen Elizabeth, a full rigger, the Kircudbrightshire, and the Pilgrim, the two latter four-masted barks. The first was taboo by the name alone. I chose the Pilgrim, for she was signing on a crew the following day and bound for Australia; besides, I was anxious to get to sea as soon as possible.
The following morning Mulligan mustered a dozen of us together, and we straggled after him, like a pack of mules on a long leash, down to a shipping office on South Street. The shipping-master mumbled the articles for the voyage, we signed our names on the ship’s articles, got an advance note for a month’s wages, and tendered it to Mulligan for services rendered. He gave us a dollar apiece, and told us to be at the Battery at eight o’clock next morning, where the tug would be waiting to put us aboard the Pilgrim.
An icy mist hung over the harbor that cold morning. Shivering, I stood among the crew, which came from Mulligan’s and other sailors’ boarding-houses in Brooklyn and Hoboken. Down the bay dozens of square-riggers and schooners were vaguely outlined, but I could not identify the Pilgrim. Flasks were being passed around by the boarding-house runners to fortify the candidates for the crew, but actually there was little danger of their backing out. Most of them were too drunk. As the tug steamed down the harbor, heading into a stiff breeze, she shipped a sea over her pug nose and gave us all a shower bath. An unexplainable nausea swept over me. I felt the most lonely boy in the whole world; the dismal sky and mournful whistles seemed to be auguries of my doom.
As the tug wallowed and slopped alongside the Pilgrim, men jumped, clambered, and tumbled on the deck of the sailing-ship amid the barrage of sea-bags, beds, and bundles. Two burly, nasty-looking mates stood at the gangway, each with a hip gun well in evidence.
“Come on, you God damned beachcombers. Hurry up, you lousy bums. Get aft and don’t budge till we tell you.”
We paraded to the break of the poop and lined up like prisoners. It was a terrible disillusionment after the dreams I had conjured up on the Cedarbrook. The mate counted us, checked the tally with the boarding-house runner, then roared: “Away forrard. Man the capstan. A couple of ye lay aloft an’ loose the tops’ls and foresail.”
Some worrysome members of the crew tried to retrieve their sea-bags before going to work, but were checked with a snarl.
“Never mind that junk; if you touch a bag I’ll heave it overboard.”
Like rabbits we scampered away. We hove the anchor short, made fast the towline of the tug, catted and fished the anchors, and at eleven o’clock were on our way down the Narrows. Off the Ambrose Lightship we made all sail, the tug cut us loose, and the passage to Sydney began.
Bully Newman, master of the Pilgrim, had a just claim to his sobriquet. A vicious brute, he was ably abetted in venom and bile by two adjutants named Corbett and Fowler.
The second day out all hands were summoned aft for the purpose of handing over our sheath-knives to the mate. These were given to the carpenter, with instructions to cut the points off square, a grim insurance against a back-stab on a dirty night. Nevertheless, we circumvented this maneuver later by filing new points on our sadly abbreviated cutchillos.
Profanity or obscenity were indispensable to orders. Haul away on that God damned brace,” or “Slack the God damned sheet ” was a mild and calm order. Every man was a “bastard,” or there were daily reminders that our mothers were “bitches.” The crew of the Pilgrim did not deserve such abuse. They were good, square-rigged sailors, many of them holding mates’ tickets on ships of their own flags. We represented many nationalities, with Scandinavians, Finns, English, French, South Americans, and Irish to the fore. The toughest member of the crew was a New York Irish-American by the name of Paddy Doyle. He was nimble-footed, and exceptionally fast with his fists, and, from the commencement of the voyage, itched for a chance to have a crack at the second mate.
Mulligan’s prophecy came true. I got all the lofty work, and did most of it alone, except in heavy weather, when another seaman would be sent aloft to help. It was my job to loose and furl the foreroyal, and the fore upper topgallant sail, when such was necessary during my watch on deck.
Running into the northeast trades we made good time, and life became easier on the night watches. The volcanoes of profanity belched less frequently but the silence was more ominous. A sailor fears a calm, even in the emotions of his superiors. Day after day we scudded along, and the members of the crew became nervous and apprehensive at the lack of abuse.
We were now twenty-five days out. That morning, when we were washing down the decks, we noticed that water in the scuppers was running forward. By noon there was a visible cant in that direction. The sailors were an experienced lot and they began to speculate. The skipper never bothered to come forward, though the ,dip grew worse by the hour. At five bells, the bewildered crew were bunched forward with the ship yawing about like a dog trying to dig his head in a hole. We could hear the water swishing around in the forepeak and knew that the ship was doomed unless the pumps were manned at once. The two mates strolled forward, leering at the crew with the arrogance of Caligula and his twins.
“Take off the forepeak hatches, you scared bastards,” said the first mate. The second mate, snarling like a wolf, pushed his way through the crowd, taking up his stand behind the mate. It wasn’t at all necessary to take off the hatch covers. We could hear the water sloshing below in the peak and chain locker. When the hatches were removed, the mate squinted into the black void below, and ordered the deck pump rigged. “Come on, you lousy bums; pump or drown.”
We pumped with a will, but the leak gained headway. Then our efforts grew frantic and the mate’s language vituperous. The captain secluded himself in the cabin. Strange, we thought, that we should founder without having struck anything to spring a plate; also, if it were a leak of long standing, why had the peak filled in a single day?
The Swedish carpenter and myself were detailed to rig up a block and fell to augment the feeble pump, and with monotonous regularity we took turns in hoisting two huge iron drums up and down into the peak-a full one up, an empty one down. After that we held our own against the incoming water for a time, but the pace was sickening. Our hands were cut and blistered with the thin, tarred rope and the salt water. In each man’s mind was one question: “How long would we keep afloat?” Just so long as the watertight bulkhead withstood the pressure of the water. This steel partition separated the forward compartment from the main hold. It did noble work, but it could not withstand for long the weight of tons of sea-water. A sudden squall or a change in the weather in such trim would mean dismasting in quick order.
Night came on and the light of Cape Frio blinked its ray of hope on the Brazilian coast, but there was little chance of reaching port. We were just making headway under three upper and lower topsails and enough fore and aft sail to steady the ship.
Suddenly, the skipper abandoned the security of his cabin and came on deck. He cast an almost benign smile on his exhausted crew. “The situation is serious,” he said, with a “Gilbert and Sullivan admiral” attitude Has any man a suggestion to offer to save the ship?
There was a significant silence.
“Very well, men. If there is no improvement by to-morrow morning, we remove enough cases out of Number One Hatch to drill holes in the bulkhead. That will permit the water to run to the main pumps.” He rubbed his chin for a moment. “And if that doesn’t help, we’ll have to abandon the ship.” He turned to the mates. “Mr. Corbett and Mr. Fowler, you’ll see that the boats are provisioned and clear for launching.”
With that pontifical oration he again sought the solitude of his cabin. We looked at each other in amazement. “Drill the bulkheads!” Why, that meant practically scuttling the ship!
The pumping crew resumed their task at a more leisurely pace. Johnson, a dour Norwegian with a mate’s certificate, leaned over the rail in deep thought. Suddenly he beckoned to me, and then to Paddy Doyle, whose fists were winning him the respect of the crew.
“Come, I show you something!”
We followed him. He kicked off his shoes, and handed Paddy a coil of ratline stuff. “I go down and find out!” he suggested.
We fixed the rope under his armpits, and lowered him over the hatch coaming right down into the water-filled compartment. After a few moments he gave the line a double tug, the signal to hoist him up. When we got him over the coaming he spluttered: “Ya, yust like Ay say; the sea-cock is half-open!”
Doyle went down next, and was absent for several minutes. When we pulled him out he was laughing, grimly.” The joke’s on them guys, now,” he said. ” I closed the sea-cock!”
We agreed to keep our secret, cherishing the moment of surprise when the leak was under control. Then would we brand the captain and the mate as marine criminals and take possession of the ship in a benevolent form of mutiny.
The boats were overhauled and made ready for launching. The pump crews kept a moderate pace throughout the night. At the last sounding, the water had been close to the edge of the coaming, and our sweat and muscle were of little avail. But suddenly there was a drop of six inches, then six inches more, and steady progress was continued throughout the night.
At eight bells the second mate came along and made a sounding. Astonishment is a pale word to describe his expression. Immediately he went aft to report. By morning the forepeak was sucked dry, and a cry of victory brought the first mate running to learn the cause.
He cursed the men to silence and went down into the peak.
When he came up his face was beet-colored. “Wait till we get to Sydney Heads,” he bellowed. “If I find the swine who did this I’ll tear out his gizzard with my hands.”As he advanced the cowed men retreated. Doyle alone stood his ground itching for a fight, but the chance never came.
It was a miserable run down to Tristan da Cunha. The weather and sea conspired to make it so. The whole crew suffered from raw nerves, while I had an additional trouble in the form of salt-water boils on the back of my neck. They grew worse and my neck developed running sores, aggravated by the chafing of oilskins.
One morning I was dozing in the sail locker when the voice of the second mate boomed out: “Loose the upper t’ga’nt s’ls.” This was a special assignment to me, and I enjoyed it. But now I was a cripple, and every movement of head and shoulders gave excruciating pain.
As I did not answer at once, Fowler, the second mate, came searching for me. “What the hell are you hiding here for, you Irish son of a bitch? Git aloft and loose them God damned t’ga’nt s’ls, all three of them, and don’t come down till you’ve overhauled every God damned buntline. Now get a move on, you!”
Roused, I jumped to my feet, and, passing him, received a back-hand blow on the neck that made me crazy with pain. Without thinking, I hauled out my sheath-knife, and made a savage lunge for the bully’s breast, but he shielded the thrust with a huge arm and took the blade deep into his muscle.
“I’m stabbed! ” he screamed, rushing aft. No one ventured any sympathy, or assistance, and someone chided me for my lack of aim. All the same, as the wound put Fowler out of action for some time, they were delighted. My stock went up to a high degree.
I was called aft to meet the skipper. His first order was “Put him in irons. I’ll charge this Irish with attempted murder.” Then I began to explain and showed him my neck, which was a mass of blood and corruption. Bully Newman, the captain, was tough at heart, but he knew that the second mate had overreached himself. He called the steward, and ordered warm water from the galley. My neck thus received some medical attention for the first time, and I was told to lie up for a few watches until the inflammation subsided. Later, with my neck swathed in bandages, I encountered the second mate. He snarled a threat about wringing my damned neck the next time, but I smiled secretly at his bandaged arm. I knew that he required two hands to put his threat into execution, and he would be hors de combat for some time to come. I suggested that he stay aboard at Sydney, or a thousand Irishmen in that town would quarter him. He swallowed the bombastic threat, and gave me plenty of room for the rest of the voyage. However, the advice proved a boomerang, as I shall explain in another chapter.
The skipper had abandoned his plan to scuttle the ship, for he gave orders to make sail. After that scarcely a word, civil or profane, passed between the mates and the crew. We squared our yards at Tristan da Cunha and ran the easting down to Cape Leewin on the west coast of Australia, with strong westerly gales and a mountainous sea forever rushing after us, roaring and boiling under our counter. Sometimes it looked as if the whole Indian Ocean had reared up a mighty wall of thundering water that was booming along to engulf the tiny chip fleeing before it. If the men at the wheel had lost their nerve, released their control of the helm for a second, the Pilgrim would have broached to, and everything would have been swept overboard.
A few weeks later we sighted Sydney Head. Sydney Harbor never looked so beautiful as in the dawn when we met our towboat. It took us one hundred and twelve days from the morning we left Sandy Hook until we cast anchor on the Paramatta River. There we furled all sail with a harbor stow, and cleared up the ropes in preparation to a swift adieu. During the voyage the men suggested dire plots of revenge on the mates, but they were children talking in the dark against the bogy man. In their hearts they were decent chaps and quickly forgot the grievances that seem inseparable from the life of a sailor.
But I was determined to leave the ship as soon as we reached port. The skipper, however, refused to pay me off. On Saturday night we lined up to get the customary five shillings. Early on Sunday morning I came back on board for my clothes, and without the slightest regret abandoned the three months’ wages due to me, preferring to be a temporary beachcomber than remain on the Pilgrim for another day.
With my sea-bag on my shoulder I walked to the ferry in Rushcutters’ Bay, crossed over to Sydney, and for the second time in my life resolved to try conclusions with Fate. In this new land my capital was even smaller than on the former occasion. But I was bravely backed by a larger fund of optimism and decidedly more experience.
I worked my way on a steam-collier to Newcastle, a busy coal port in New South Wales, sixty miles north of Sydney. There I found the port a veritable forest of masts with ships from every part of the globe. I can recall some that were lying there at that time. The Yankee clippers Shenandoah and W. F. Babcock and the British barks, Loch Torridon and Port Jackson-all well known vessels with fascinating maritime histories written in their logs. However, I turned my back on the sea and ships, heading inland. Near West Maitland, I halted and was lucky enough to get a job on an orange plantation run by an Irish-Australian named Tracy. Orange-growing and eating was then a novelty. I stuck the job for four weeks, until the call of the sea dragged me back to Newcastle and voluntary slavery.