At the wheel
Writing about a day at sea was perhaps the most difficult writing in my book. Such writing tells of everyday things that log-books and narratives ignore because everyone (seamen) knows about them. A decent formality has always been observed in ships at sea. the watches are changed and the tiller or wheel is relieved according to formula, solar and stellar observations are made at fixed hours, and any departure from the settled custom is resented by mariners. These formalities were observed with almost quasi-religious ritual, which lent them a certain beauty and served to remind the seamen at each bell (every half-hour) of the day and night that their ship depended for safety, not only on her staunchness and their own skill, but on the grace of God.
Seamen of the past thought of time less in terms of hours than of bells and watches. The system of half-hourly ship’s bells that we are familiar with began as a means of accenting the turning of the hour-glass. Drake’s flagship, ‘Golden Hind,’ carried no bells, but his men “liberated” one from the church at Guatulco, Mexico, in 1579. They huntg it in an improvised belfry on board, where a Spanish prisoner reported that it was “used to summon the men to pump.” Since pumping ship was the first duty of every watch, it is evident that the bell was used for summoning, and that this use of the bell was new to Spaniards, if not to englishmen.
In the great days of sail, before man’s inventions and gadgets had given him a false confidence in his power to conquer the ocean, seamen were the most religious of all workers on land or sea. The mariner’s philosophy he took from the Vulgate‘s 107th Psalm: “They that go down to the sea in ships and occupy their business in great waters; these men see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.” The Protestant Reformation did not change the old customs of shipboard piety, only ritual; Spanish prisoners on Drake’s ‘Golden Hind’ reported a daily service that featured the singing of psalms. During my sailing days on board the ‘Vigilant’ when the decks were dry, when the sun was yardarm-high, and the ship was dancing along before the trades with a bone in her teeth, the Captain, whose steward had brought him a bucket of sea water, a cup of fresh water, and a bit of breakfast in his cabin, came on deck, looked all around the horizon, ejaculated a pious prayer for continued fair weather, and only then did he chat with his first mate.
Vigilant Crewmen (1937)
Relatively few seamen have written an account of their lives at sea. It is something of a myth that this is because they were generally illiterate. It is my personal experience that most (those of my acquaintance) could certainly read and write, but it is a long step from there to a taste for literature and the opportunity to indulge it. Very few writers, let alone seamen, are born with even a semblance of literary style. By literary style I mean Poe, Parkman, Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, Robert frost, and E.B. White. I proved it only twenty years back by reading a short prose piece in St. Nicholas magazine (of more than sixty years ago). I had come on a few paragraphs signed respectively Edna St./ Vincent Millay, Cornelia Otis Skinner, Robert Hillyer, and was suddenly struck by a prose passage much more earthy and natural in voice than what I had been glancing through. Then I looked at the signature: Elwyn Brooks White, age 11.
Moreover, there is the question of whether the reading public had an interest in the experiences of common seamen, as opposed to their interest in the experiences of the common cowboy. I would argue that the common cowboy was every bit as coarse, ignorant and rude as the common seaman. The cowboy’s depiction in literature is for the most part quite shallow, I credit this factor to his being of such recent invention as to be without credible tradition. A part of the difficulty is that a cowboy’s vocabulary is a recitation of humdrum expletives, whereas the seaman’s vocabulary, while being every bit as obscene, is colorful, spicy, and has a literary validity given it by millenniums of usage. And I will admit that while cowboy music has certain popular appeal it has none of the classicism of the sea shanty, none whatsoever. Without continuing ad nauseam I am sure you grasp my thought. I fear, however, that it is just possible that you might suspect from the foregoing that my attitude is somewhat biased in favor of seamen, let me assure you that it is not. My attitude is as unbiased as a sheet of paper that is, as yet, unprofaned by a single written word.
Vigilant at sea
My latest book ‘Windjamming to China’, is about sailing on the fringes of history. It’s about sailing in the first half of the twentieth century, a time when almost all of the wind driven vessels of the Golden Age of Sail had been thoughtless discarded to be replaced by the era of steam and steel. And too, in the larger sense it’s about the American sailor, a folk character (hero?) who speaks through the mists of 200 years shouting for recognition. The American sailor was born on the icy shores of Plymouth, he was rocked upon the waves of the atlantic, and he cut his teeth on New England codfish. He built his muscles at the halyards of New Bedford whalers and gained his sea legs atop the mizzen of Yankee Clippers.
Tell your children of him, he has spread the mantel of his nation over the oceans, he is the inheritor of a proud tradition.
I am a retired person who is now writing books, thus fulfilling an aspiration that reaches back to the careless days of my childhood. I was born on Decatur Island in the San Juan Archipelago of Puget Sound. The San Juan Archipelago is an island paradise, reminding me of the Greek Aegean, in that both are sunny and incomparably serene. I was forced to leave that islanded Eden, under a cloud, at the mature age of fourteen, exiled to sail as a ‘ship’s boy’ on the last of the great windjammers, the five masted schooner Vigilant engaged in timber trade with the Orient. My experience in the Orient while not academic, was certainly (of a kind) educational. My China experience occurred at the time of the Japanese incursion into the Chinese mainland. This was during the Kumintang era of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek’s regime. However, I was not much concerned with political issues; my experience (adventures and misadventures) were confined almost exclusively, to Guangzhou’s (Canton) Pearl River waterfront. In 1942 I was drafted into the army. I fought in Europe as a member of the 515th Airborne, participating in some of the bitterest fighting of the war in both Belgium and Germany.
After my discharge I married and spent a little more than twenty-five adventurous years in Alaska. I divorced, remarried and moved to San Francisco. I spent some years as skipper of a Greek yacht, and later went into property management as receiver for the Marin Superior Court and also for private interests. To date I have published one book, Shadow of the Imago (memoir of a wondrously happy childhood in the San Juans, terminated by a cataclysmic meltdown). I have a second book coming out later this year, Windjamming to China, about my sailing experiences with piratical-type shipmates in the North Pacific. And too, it’s about some of my youthful adventures (those that I admit to) on the seamy side of Canton’s waterfront.
In writing I use my Swedish ancestral name, Gustav af Tjgaard, as a penname. I only sometimes use the nobiliary particle ‘af’. In modern Swedish ‘af’ corresponds to the German ‘von’, in fact the Swedish form of ‘af’ and the German form of ‘von’ are used interchangeably in both Sweden and Finland.