A Day at Sea

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.

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