A sailor is born, not made. And by "sailor" is meant, not the
average efficient and hopeless creature who is found to-day in the
forecastle of deepwater ships, but the man who will take a fabric
compounded of wood and iron and rope and canvas and compel it to
obey his will on the surface of the sea. Barring captains and
mates of big ships, the small-boat sailor is the real sailor. He
knows--he must know--how to make the wind carry his craft from one
given point to another given point. He must know about tides and
rips and eddies, bar and channel markings, and day and night
signals; he must be wise in weather-lore; and he must be
sympathetically familiar with the peculiar qualities of his boat
which differentiate it from every other boat that was ever built
and rigged. He must know how to gentle her about, as one instance
of a myriad, and to fill her on the other tack without deadening
her way or allowing her to fall off too far.
The deepwater sailor of to-day needs know none of these things.
And he doesn't. He pulls and hauls as he is ordered, swabs decks,
washes paint, and chips iron-rust. He knows nothing, and cares
less. Put him in a small boat and he is helpless. He will cut an
even better figure on the hurricane deck of a horse.
I shall never forget my child-astonishment when I first
encountered one of these strange beings. He was a runaway English
sailor. I was a lad of twelve, with a decked-over, fourteen-foot,
centre-board skiff which I had taught myself to sail. I sat at
his feet as at the feet of a god, while he discoursed of strange
lands and peoples, deeds of violence, and hair-raising gales at
sea. Then, one day, I took him for a sail. With all the
trepidation of the veriest little amateur, I hoisted sail and got
under way. Here was a man, looking on critically, I was sure, who
knew more in one second about boats and the water than I could
ever know. After an interval, in which I exceeded myself, he took
the tiller and the sheet. I sat on the little thwart amidships,
open-mouthed, prepared to learn what real sailing was. My mouth
remained open, for I learned what a real sailor was in a small
boat. He couldn't trim the sheet to save himself, he nearly
capsized several times in squalls, and, once again, by
blunderingly jibing over; he didn't know what a centre-board was
for, nor did he know that in running a boat before the wind one
must sit in the middle instead of on the side; and finally, when
we came back to the wharf, he ran the skiff in full tilt,
shattering her nose and carrying away the mast-step. And yet he
was a really truly sailor fresh from the vasty deep.
Which points my moral. A man can sail in the forecastles of big
ships all his life and never know what real sailing is. From the
time I was twelve, I listened to the lure of the sea. When I was
fifteen I was captain and owner of an oyster-pirate sloop. By the
time I was sixteen I was sailing in scow-schooners, fishing salmon
with the Greeks up the Sacramento River, and serving as sailor on
the Fish Patrol. And I was a good sailor, too, though all my
cruising had been on San Francisco Bay and the rivers tributary to
it. I had never been on the ocean in my life.
Then, the month I was seventeen, I signed before the mast as an
able seaman on a three-top-mast schooner bound on a seven-months'
cruise across the Pacific and back again. As my shipmates
promptly informed me, I had had my nerve with me to sign on as
able seaman. Yet behold, I WAS an able seaman. I had graduated
from the right school. It took no more than minutes to learn the
names and uses of the few new ropes. It was simple. I did not do
things blindly. As a small-boat sailor I had learned to reason
out and know the WHY of everything. It is true, I had to learn
how to steer by compass, which took maybe half a minute; but when
it came to steering "full-and-by" and "close-and-by," I could beat
the average of my shipmates, because that was the very way I had
always sailed. Inside fifteen minutes I could box the compass
around and back again. And there was little else to learn during
that seven-months' cruise, except fancy rope-sailorising, such as
the more complicated lanyard knots and the making of various kinds
of sennit and rope-mats. The point of all of which is that it is
by means of small-boat sailing that the real sailor is best
And if a man is a born sailor, and has gone to the school of the
sea, never in all his life can he get away from the sea again.
The salt of it is in his bones as well as his nostrils, and the
sea will call to him until he dies. Of late years, I have found
easier ways of earning a living. I have quit the forecastle for
keeps, but always I come back to the sea. In my case it is
usually San Francisco Bay, than which no lustier, tougher, sheet
of water can be found for small-boat sailing.
It really blows on San Francisco Bay. During the winter, which is
the best cruising season, we have southeasters, southwesters, and
occasional howling northers. Throughout the summer we have what
we call the "sea-breeze," an unfailing wind off the Pacific that
on most afternoons in the week blows what the Atlantic Coast
yachtsmen would name a gale. They are always surprised by the
small spread of canvas our yachts carry. Some of them, with
schooners they have sailed around the Horn, have looked proudly at
their own lofty sticks and huge spreads, then patronisingly and
even pityingly at ours. Then, perchance, they have joined in a
club cruise from San Francisco to Mare Island. They found the
morning run up the Bay delightful. In the afternoon, when the
brave west wind ramped across San Pablo Bay and they faced it on
the long beat home, things were somewhat different. One by one,
like a flight of swallows, our more meagrely sparred and canvassed
yachts went by, leaving them wallowing and dead and shortening
down in what they called a gale but which we called a dandy
sailing breeze. The next time they came out, we would notice
their sticks cut down, their booms shortened, and their after-
leeches nearer the luffs by whole cloths.
As for excitement, there is all the difference in the world
between a ship in trouble at sea, and a small boat in trouble on
land-locked water. Yet for genuine excitement and thrill, give me
the small boat. Things happen so quickly, and there are always so
few to do the work--and hard work, too, as the small-boat sailor
knows. I have toiled all night, both watches on deck, in a
typhoon off the coast of Japan, and been less exhausted than by
two hours' work at reefing down a thirty-foot sloop and heaving up
two anchors on a lee shore in a screaming south-easter.
Hard work and excitement? Let the wind baffle and drop in a heavy
tide-way just as you are sailing your little sloop through a
narrow draw-bridge. Behold your sails, upon which you are
depending, flap with sudden emptiness, and then see the impish
wind, with a haul of eight points, fill your jib aback with a
gusty puff. Around she goes, and sweeps, not through the open
draw, but broadside on against the solid piles. Hear the roar of
the tide, sucking through the trestle. And hear and see your
pretty, fresh-painted boat crash against the piles. Feel her
stout little hull give to the impact. See the rail actually pinch
in. Hear your canvas tearing, and see the black, square-ended
timbers thrusting holes through it. Smash! There goes your
topmast stay, and the topmast reels over drunkenly above you.
There is a ripping and crunching. If it continues, your starboard
shrouds will be torn out. Grab a rope--any rope--and take a turn
around a pile. But the free end of the rope is too short. You
can't make it fast, and you hold on and wildly yell for your one
companion to get a turn with another and longer rope. Hold on!
You hold on till you are purple in the face, till it seems your
arms are dragging out of their sockets, till the blood bursts from
the ends of your fingers. But you hold, and your partner gets the
longer rope and makes it fast. You straighten up and look at your
hands. They are ruined. You can scarcely relax the crooks of the
fingers. The pain is sickening. But there is no time. The
skiff, which is always perverse, is pounding against the barnacles
on the piles which threaten to scrape its gunwale off. It's drop
the peak! Down jib! Then you run lines, and pull and haul and
heave, and exchange unpleasant remarks with the bridge-tender who
is always willing to meet you more than half way in such repartee.
And finally, at the end of an hour, with aching back, sweat-soaked
shirt, and slaughtered hands, you are through and swinging along
on the placid, beneficent tide between narrow banks where the
cattle stand knee-deep and gaze wonderingly at you. Excitement!
Work! Can you beat it in a calm day on the deep sea?
I've tried it both ways. I remember labouring in a fourteen days'
gale off the coast of New Zealand. We were a tramp collier, rusty
and battered, with six thousand tons of coal in our hold. Life
lines were stretched fore and aft; and on our weather side,
attached to smokestack guys and rigging, were huge rope-nettings,
hung there for the purpose of breaking the force of the seas and
so saving our mess-room doors. But the doors were smashed and the
mess-rooms washed out just the same. And yet, out of it all,
arose but the one feeling, namely, of monotony.
In contrast with the foregoing, about the liveliest eight days of
my life were spent in a small boat on the west coast of Korea.
Never mind why I was thus voyaging up the Yellow Sea during the
month of February in below-zero weather. The point is that I was
in an open boat, a sampan, on a rocky coast where there were no
light-houses and where the tides ran from thirty to sixty feet.
My crew were Japanese fishermen. We did not speak each other's
language. Yet there was nothing monotonous about that trip.
Never shall I forget one particular cold bitter dawn, when, in the
thick of driving snow, we took in sail and dropped our small
anchor. The wind was howling out of the northwest, and we were on
a lee shore. Ahead and astern, all escape was cut off by rocky
headlands, against whose bases burst the unbroken seas. To
windward a short distance, seen only between the snow-squalls, was
a low rocky reef. It was this that inadequately protected us from
the whole Yellow Sea that thundered in upon us.
The Japanese crawled under a communal rice mat and went to sleep.
I joined them, and for several hours we dozed fitfully. Then a
sea deluged us out with icy water, and we found several inches of
snow on top the mat. The reef to windward was disappearing under
the rising tide, and moment by moment the seas broke more strongly
over the rocks. The fishermen studied the shore anxiously. So
did I, and with a sailor's eye, though I could see little chance
for a swimmer to gain that surf-hammered line of rocks. I made
signs toward the headlands on either flank. The Japanese shook
their heads. I indicated that dreadful lee shore. Still they
shook their heads and did nothing. My conclusion was that they
were paralysed by the hopelessness of the situation. Yet our
extremity increased with every minute, for the rising tide was
robbing us of the reef that served as buffer. It soon became a
case of swamping at our anchor. Seas were splashing on board in
growing volume, and we baled constantly. And still my fishermen
crew eyed the surf-battered shore and did nothing.
At last, after many narrow escapes from complete swamping, the
fishermen got into action. All hands tailed on to the anchor and
hove it up. For'ard, as the boat's head paid off, we set a patch
of sail about the size of a flour-sack. And we headed straight
for shore. I unlaced my shoes, unbottoned my great-coat and coat,
and was ready to make a quick partial strip a minute or so before
we struck. But we didn't strike, and, as we rushed in, I saw the
beauty of the situation. Before us opened a narrow channel,
frilled at its mouth with breaking seas. Yet, long before, when I
had scanned the shore closely, there had been no such channel. I
HAD FORGOTTEN THE THIRTY-FOOT TIDE. And it was for this tide that
the Japanese had so precariously waited. We ran the frill of
breakers, curved into a tiny sheltered bay where the water was
scarcely flawed by the gale, and landed on a beach where the salt
sea of the last tide lay frozen in long curving lines. And this
was one gale of three in the course of those eight days in the
sampan. Would it have been beaten on a ship? I fear me the ship
would have gone aground on the outlying reef and that its people
would have been incontinently and monotonously drowned.
There are enough surprises and mishaps in a three-days' cruise in
a small boat to supply a great ship on the ocean for a full year.
I remember, once, taking out on her trial trip a little thirty-
footer I had just bought. In six days we had two stiff blows,
and, in addition, one proper southwester and one ripsnorting
southeaster. The slight intervals between these blows were dead
calms. Also, in the six days, we were aground three times. Then,
too, we tied up to the bank in the Sacramento River, and,
grounding by an accident on the steep slope on a falling tide,
nearly turned a side somersault down the bank. In a stark calm
and heavy tide in the Carquinez Straits, where anchors skate on
the channel-scoured bottom, we were sucked against a big dock and
smashed and bumped down a quarter of a mile of its length before
we could get clear. Two hours afterward, on San Pablo Bay, the
wind was piping up and we were reefing down. It is no fun to pick
up a skiff adrift in a heavy sea and gale. That was our next
task, for our skiff, swamping, parted both towing painters we had
bent on. Before we recovered it we had nearly killed ourselves
with exhaustion, and we certainly had strained the sloop in every
part from keelson to truck. And to cap it all, coming into our
home port, beating up the narrowest part of the San Antonio
Estuary, we had a shave of inches from collision with a big ship
in tow of a tug. I have sailed the ocean in far larger craft a
year at a time, in which period occurred no such chapter of moving
After all, the mishaps are almost the best part of small-boat
sailing. Looking back, they prove to be punctuations of joy. At
the time they try your mettle and your vocabulary, and may make
you so pessimistic as to believe that God has a grudge against
you--but afterward, ah, afterward, with what pleasure you remember
them and with what gusto do you relate them to your brother
skippers in the fellowhood of small-boat sailing!
A narrow, winding slough; a half tide, exposing mud surfaced with
gangrenous slime; the water itself filthy and discoloured by the
waste from the vats of a near-by tannery; the marsh grass on
either side mottled with all the shades of a decaying orchid; a
crazy, ramshackled, ancient wharf; and at the end of the wharf a
small, white-painted sloop. Nothing romantic about it. No hint
of adventure. A splendid pictorial argument against the alleged
joys of small-boat sailing. Possibly that is what Cloudesley and
I thought, that sombre, leaden morning as we turned out to cook
breakfast and wash decks. The latter was my stunt, but one look
at the dirty water overside and another at my fresh-painted deck,
deterred me. After breakfast, we started a game of chess. The
tide continued to fall, and we felt the sloop begin to list. We
played on until the chess men began to fall over. The list
increased, and we went on deck. Bow-line and stern-line were
drawn taut. As we looked the boat listed still farther with an
abrupt jerk. The lines were now very taut.
"As soon as her belly touches the bottom she will stop," I said.
Cloudesley sounded with a boat-hook along the outside.
"Seven feet of water," he announced. "The bank is almost up and
down. The first thing that touches will be her mast when she
turns bottom up."
An ominous, minute snapping noise came from the stern-line. Even
as we looked, we saw a strand fray and part. Then we jumped.
Scarcely had we bent another line between the stern and the wharf,
when the original line parted. As we bent another line for'ard,
the original one there crackled and parted. After that, it was an
inferno of work and excitement.
We ran more and more lines, and more and more lines continued to
part, and more and more the pretty boat went over on her side. We
bent all our spare lines; we unrove sheets and halyards; we used
our two-inch hawser; we fastened lines part way up the mast, half
way up, and everywhere else. We toiled and sweated and enounced
our mutual and sincere conviction that God's grudge still held
against us. Country yokels came down on the wharf and sniggered
at us. When Cloudesley let a coil of rope slip down the inclined
deck into the vile slime and fished it out with seasick
countenance, the yokels sniggered louder and it was all I could do
to prevent him from climbing up on the wharf and committing
By the time the sloop's deck was perpendicular, we had unbent the
boom-lift from below, made it fast to the wharf, and, with the
other end fast nearly to the mast-head, heaved it taut with block
and tackle. The lift was of steel wire. We were confident that
it could stand the strain, but we doubted the holding-power of the
stays that held the mast.
The tide had two more hours to ebb (and it was the big run-out),
which meant that five hours must elapse ere the returning tide
would give us a chance to learn whether or not the sloop would
rise to it and right herself.
The bank was almost up and down, and at the bottom, directly
beneath us, the fast-ebbing tide left a pit of the vilest, illest-
smelling, illest-appearing muck to be seen in many a day's ride.
Said Cloudesley to me gazing down into it:
"I love you as a brother. I'd fight for you. I'd face roaring
lions, and sudden death by field and flood. But just the same,
don't you fall into that." He shuddered nauseously. "For if you
do, I haven't the grit to pull you out. I simply couldn't. You'd
be awful. The best I could do would be to take a boat-hook and
shove you down out of sight."
We sat on the upper side-wall of the cabin, dangled our legs down
the top of the cabin, leaned our backs against the deck, and
played chess until the rising tide and the block and tackle on the
boom-lift enabled us to get her on a respectable keel again.
Years afterward, down in the South Seas, on the island of Ysabel,
I was caught in a similar predicament. In order to clean her
copper, I had careened the Snark broadside on to the beach and
outward. When the tide rose, she refused to rise. The water
crept in through the scuppers, mounted over the rail, and the
level of the ocean slowly crawled up the slant of the deck. We
battened down the engine-room hatch, and the sea rose to it and
over it and climbed perilously near to the cabin companion-way and
skylight. We were all sick with fever, but we turned out in the
blazing tropic sun and toiled madly for several hours. We carried
our heaviest lines ashore from our mast-heads and heaved with our
heaviest purchase until everything crackled including ourselves.
We would spell off and lie down like dead men, then get up and
heave and crackle again. And in the end, our lower rail five feet
under water and the wavelets lapping the companion-way combing,
the sturdy little craft shivered and shook herself and pointed her
masts once more to the zenith.
There is never lack of exercise in small-boat sailing, and the
hard work is not only part of the fun of it, but it beats the
doctors. San Francisco Bay is no mill pond. It is a large and
draughty and variegated piece of water. I remember, one winter
evening, trying to enter the mouth of the Sacramento. There was a
freshet on the river, the flood tide from the bay had been beaten
back into a strong ebb, and the lusty west wind died down with the
sun. It was just sunset, and with a fair to middling breeze, dead
aft, we stood still in the rapid current. We were squarely in the
mouth of the river; but there was no anchorage and we drifted
backward, faster and faster, and dropped anchor outside as the
last breath of wind left us. The night came on, beautiful and
warm and starry. My one companion cooked supper, while on deck I
put everything in shape Bristol fashion. When we turned in at
nine o'clock the weather-promise was excellent. (If I had carried
a barometer I'd have known better.) By two in the morning our
shrouds were thrumming in a piping breeze, and I got up and gave
her more scope on her hawser. Inside another hour there was no
doubt that we were in for a southeaster.
It is not nice to leave a warm bed and get out of a bad anchorage
in a black blowy night, but we arose to the occasion, put in two
reefs, and started to heave up. The winch was old, and the strain
of the jumping head sea was too much for it. With the winch out
of commission, it was impossible to heave up by hand. We knew,
because we tried it and slaughtered our hands. Now a sailor hates
to lose an anchor. It is a matter of pride. Of course, we could
have buoyed ours and slipped it. Instead, however, I gave her
still more hawser, veered her, and dropped the second anchor.
There was little sleep after that, for first one and then the
other of us would be rolled out of our bunks. The increasing size
of the seas told us we were dragging, and when we struck the
scoured channel we could tell by the feel of it that our two
anchors were fairly skating across. It was a deep channel, the
farther edge of it rising steeply like the wall of a canyon, and
when our anchors started up that wall they hit in and held.
Yet, when we fetched up, through the darkness we could hear the
seas breaking on the solid shore astern, and so near was it that
we shortened the skiff's painter.
Daylight showed us that between the stern of the skiff and
destruction was no more than a score of feet. And how it did
blow! There were times, in the gusts, when the wind must have
approached a velocity of seventy or eighty miles an hour. But the
anchors held, and so nobly that our final anxiety was that the
for'ard bitts would be jerked clean out of the boat. All day the
sloop alternately ducked her nose under and sat down on her stern;
and it was not till late afternoon that the storm broke in one
last and worst mad gust. For a full five minutes an absolute dead
calm prevailed, and then, with the suddenness of a thunderclap,
the wind snorted out of the southwest--a shift of eight points and
a boisterous gale. Another night of it was too much for us, and
we hove up by hand in a cross head-sea. It was not stiff work.
It was heart-breaking. And I know we were both near to crying
from the hurt and the exhaustion. And when we did get the first
anchor up-and-down we couldn't break it out. Between seas we
snubbed her nose down to it, took plenty of turns, and stood clear
as she jumped. Almost everything smashed and parted except the
anchor-hold. The chocks were jerked out, the rail torn off, and
the very covering-board splintered, and still the anchor held. At
last, hoisting the reefed main-sail and slacking off a few of the
hard-won feet of the chain, we sailed the anchor out. It was nip
and tuck, though, and there were times when the boat was knocked
down flat. We repeated the manoeuvre with the remaining anchor,
and in the gathering darkness fled into the shelter of the river's
I was born so long ago that I grew up before the era of gasolene.
As a result, I am old-fashioned. I prefer a sail-boat to a motor-
boat, and it is my belief that boat-sailing is a finer, more
difficult, and sturdier art than running a motor. Gasolene
engines are becoming fool-proof, and while it is unfair to say
that any fool can run an engine, it is fair to say that almost any
one can. Not so, when it comes to sailing a boat. More skill,
more intelligence, and a vast deal more training are necessary.
It is the finest training in the world for boy and youth and man.
If the boy is very small, equip him with a small, comfortable
skiff. He will do the rest. He won't need to be taught. Shortly
he will be setting a tiny leg-of-mutton and steering with an oar.
Then he will begin to talk keels and centreboards and want to take
his blankets out and stop aboard all night.
But don't be afraid for him. He is bound to run risks and
encounter accidents. Remember, there are accidents in the nursery
as well as out on the water. More boys have died from hot-house
culture than have died on boats large and small; and more boys
have been made into strong and reliant men by boat-sailing than by
lawn-croquet and dancing-school.
And once a sailor, always a sailor. The savour of the salt never
stales. The sailor never grows so old that he does not care to go
back for one more wrestling bout with wind and wave. I know it of
myself. I have turned rancher, and live beyond sight of the sea.
Yet I can stay away from it only so long. After several months
have passed, I begin to grow restless. I find myself day-dreaming
over incidents of the last cruise, or wondering if the striped
bass are running on Wingo Slough, or eagerly reading the
newspapers for reports of the first northern flights of ducks.
And then, suddenly, there is a hurried pack of suit-cases and
overhauling of gear, and we are off for Vallejo where the little
Roamer lies, waiting, always waiting, for the skiff to come
alongside, for the lighting of the fire in the galley-stove, for
the pulling off of gaskets, the swinging up of the mainsail, and
the rat-tat-tat of the reef-points, for the heaving short and the
breaking out, and for the twirling of the wheel as she fills away
and heads up Bay or down.
On Board Roamer,
April 15, 1911