Excerpt from Tales of the Seven Seas:
The Escapades of Captain
Dynamite Johnny O’Brien
Chapter One - Early Sea Days
“Aloft with ye, Paddy, and clew that fore royal!” Kicked hard
in the ribs with that order, sixteen-year-old Johnny O’Brien
awoke with a start. Half-starved and sore, he had tried to
sleep on the deck that night, the crown of the starboard
anchor as a pillow. When he jumped to his feet, the youth
was now shoeless and didn’t know if he had misplaced them
or if they had been stolen.
O’Brien stared up the soaring foremast of the Marlborough,
a square-rigged tall-sail ship. He couldn’t put his hands
around the trunk of this thick pole, the high mast closest
to the ship’s bow, and it seemed to disappear through the
stretched, moonlit sails into the stars. He hesitated at first,
knowing that climbing up the tallest sail by the clew rope to
its yardarm under these conditions was difficult at best. The
seaman yelled, “Get going, boy!” and the disapproving look
of the bulky, whiskered mate drove him into action.
O’Brien grabbed the weblike rope shrouds to the massive pole
and began pulling himself up. He climbed into the silhouetted
darkness on the crossed ratlines, while the taut sails about him
pulled or noisily flapped with the ever-changing winds. The higher he went, the more he became aware of the surrounding noises from the ship’s creaking, ropes pulling tighter, and the vessel’s rolls into the sea.
Before he was halfway up the rigging, the lad found he was holding on tighter as he neared a cross-tree, the short bars across the mast that spread the rigging—all used to support the heavy pole, canvas sails, and yardarms.
Continuing upward, past more yardarms and sails, he finally stopped in front of the highest sail and clung to the ropes while the royal flapped in front. The wind gusted stronger with the rising sea, while the large sail ship heeled over sickeningly toward the rolling, white-capped ocean. He now looked straight down at the churning sea stories below, and O’Brien felt the mast bend from the strain. When the vessel righted, he tried to pull the sail up and then to smother the wind from the shaking canvas. A roll to windward and the ship’s pitch forward threw the sail full of wind; the vessel’s rise on the next wave tossed the sail around his head as he clung with clenched fists to the ropes. The next roll carried the sail back, slapping it coarsely against his head and scraping his face.
O’Brien tried to use his weight, feet, and legs against the sail. By pulling and hauling blindly, he nearly succeeded in spilling the wind from it when a big sea carried him high in the air. The tall ship dove forward again, and a gust of wind caught the sail and tore it from his grasp, at the same time ripping off a fingernail. The deck seemed chasms below, and the Marlborough threw noisy spray high over the bow as the ship plowed through the frothing water. Everything about the vessel was streaked with white foam. When he glanced below, the wet decks seemed to shimmer in the moonlight with a surrealistic look that he
This was his first windstorm on top of the sails, and he was high in the skies trying to take in an unheeding one. With the wind came the first spatters of rain, making the sail even more difficult to handle and the rigging harder to hold onto. While he struggled to control the royal, a strange vibration of the sail shook his arms, frightening him.
Another dip to the leeward and he understood. The wheelman was keeping the schooner into the wind; and the foresail, or lowest sail, flapped back and forth when too near the wind, shaking the foremast from trunk to keel. While the ship bounded through harsh waves, he tried his best to pull up the clew lines, the ropes attached to the free corner of the high sail. With turns of the mooring lines, he gradually smothered the wind and secured the sail fast to the masthead.
O’Brien slowly inched down the slippery mast, clinging fretfully to the rigging. It was always easier to climb up than down. Johnny didn’t know how long he had been aloft, but no sooner was he back on the safety of the wet deck when the mate called Lawrence cursed, “Get aloft again and loosen it!” He again crept up the mast and this time put his feet on the yard and began letting the heavy sheet of canvas down. The work was hard, the windy and wet conditions precarious, the night suffocating, and the sea stories below. O’Brien finally loosened the sail from its bindings to the yard, with the wind blasting into his face.
The short, lithe teenager worked his way carefully down to the pitching deck. His feet had barely touched the planks when the mate yelled for him to go aloft once more to “clew and furl it.” Without shoes, Johnny’s bare feet and shins were cut up and bleeding by now as he again inched his way up the ratlines. The skin was chafed from his shins.
After completing again what he had done on his first climb, O’Brien began the dangerous descent down. Exhausted and losing focus, he slipped halfway down, skidding into the dark abyss. He felt a crack to the back of his head and lost consciousness.
Later, a bucket of saltwater splashed over his face, and he looked up into the face of another seaman. He was alive—bruised and hurting, but alive. The cross-trees of a lower sail had broken his fall.
The year was 1866, the place somewhere in the Pacific, and the English ship’s final destination was India. Lawrence was the chief mate and did what he could to break down the young man in the manner of the times. A “boy” started out friendless and could be unmercifully picked on. He did the dirtiest work, even at times the most dangerous. This brutality was calculated to “put the fear of God into us,” as one survivor said, and “to strengthen discipline, to add snap and vigor to our movements.”
These “boys” weren’t the cabin boys, who worked inside the ship and attended to the needs of the captain, passengers, and crew. They would do the duties everyone else avoided and as directed by the chief mate. The relative youngsters were the ones who brought the food to the seamen’s quarters and then brought the dirty dishes back. If the food wasn’t plentiful or mainly poor—as on this voyage— the boys ate the least. These “green hands” had to learn fast, whether the task was pulling up sails with a myriad of ropes, scaling to the top, or furling sails. Their labors were tortured until their “outraged” muscles finally adjusted to the unaccustomed work.
Like all initiates, O’Brien’s hands on his first voyage were raw, red, and bloody from working the ropes. A time-honored approach was to hold your raw hands in saltwater. If you could stand the pain, the hands seemed to heal faster—or at least, the pain was less afterwards. Over time, a seaman’s hands could become so calloused, scarred, and ugly that men would look for gloves to wear when they left on shore leave.
Chief mate Lawrence, the seamen, and O’Brien lived together in the small fo’c’sle (or forecastle) at the forward part of the deck. The high break of the fo’c’sle head sheltered this billet from sea and wind. Running fore and aft, a bulkhead could divide the quarters to separate the different watches. Plain wooden bunks lined the sides, and above a few bunks were rough calendars marked on the woodwork, some from past voyages. Small shelves rigged above the bunks held tobacco, matches, ditty bags, well-thumbed books, old newspapers, and assorted bric-a-brac. Small lines were stretched above the bunks for drying clothes, and hooks for hanging clothes, sea boots, and oil skins were screwed into the wall planks.
The fo’c’sles were bitterly cold in winter and uncomfortable no matter when. Crewmen usually didn’t have the luxury of a small stove; it was nearly impossible to read inside, even though the men would have a flickering “slush” lamp—made from an old tin can half filled with slush (fat from salt beef or pork) or oil, with a floating wick made from a bit of rag. The furniture was sparse, if at all: a long narrow table with hard, crude benches on each side. Small lockers were sometimes present where each man could stow a horse blanket, spare clothing, and his mess gear of a mug, plate, knife, fork, and spoon.
The short half deck forming the fo’c’sle head was not high enough for a man to stand upright, and the bosun’s lockers, if there, were arranged along the sides into the bow—along with the paint locker and oil stores. In the very nose of the fo’c’sle were the crew’s toilets, which were very wet and uncomfortable during storms, noxious in all weather. Large oil tanks with leaking seal or whale oil were put above these and fitted with small copper tubes for discharge.
Whether he was taunting the lad in the fo’c’sle or on deck, Lawrence seemed to live his life every hour of the day with a hatred of O’Brien. He seemed infuriated at his inability to break the lad down. When it was Johnny’s morning watch and the weather fine, Lawrence ordered him to clean up the pigsty under the deck. The mate would wait until O’Brien was working there and then lock him inside the smelly, rotten enclosure for two hours with its three large pigs. Johnny was not afraid of this and didn’t mind the time when he could leisurely clean the area, although he was careful not to let Lawrence know. At night, the sadistic bosun forced him during the watch to walk the quarterdeck with a heavy capstan bar on his shoulder, shouting that he was going to make a soldier of O’Brien yet.
“I suppose he thought I would throw down the capstan bar and that would be the reason for more humiliation,” O’Brien wrote later. “Oh, how I love the memory of that. Some brute was that Lawrence and I despised him.” But he would later exact his revenge.
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