The Life of
the Sail


THE progress of steamship building, the increase in size and speed of ships, and in the use of iron and steel in their construction, startling and revolutionary as they appear to be, have yet very little altered the conditions of life for many hundreds of thousands of human beings who follow the sea. Notwithstanding the introduction of iron steamers in the trawling and drift-net fisheries of our own coasts, and the increasing use of steam in handling nets, the sail still holds its own bravely. The sailing fishing-boats of the world, and the coastwise traders, those cradles of maritime strength, still perform their part, almost untouched by the roar and rush of this age of machinery, still following the laws which have brought about their various developments. To them the romance of the sea is not past; rather it is infinitely increased by the presence of that new monster the iron steamship, roaming the seas and leaving sudden death so often in its wake. The old romance which made great and simple the hearts of sailor men, and marked them with its own impress, is still alive, still potent, pure, apart.

What is it in the sea life which is so powerful in its influence? What is it which one meets there with such certainty, and which is not in crowded places nor in men's applause, not printed in newspapers nor telegraphed by Reuter? It is in the laugh of the little child, in that look of the woman you love. It is on the bosom of the great river, in the breast of the wide moorland. It whispers in the wind of the veldt it hums in the music of the tropical night. To some, it is borne on the booming night-notes of the deep forest, to others it speaks on the silent snow-peaks But above all it is there to the man who holds the night watch alone at sea. It is the sense of things done, of things endured, of meanings not understood; the secret of the Deep Silence, which is of eternity, which the heart cannot speak.

It was the same to Ulysses and Columbus as it is to-day to the barge's skipper or the young fourth officer of a Liverpool tramp. The Northland fisherman, the Arab, or the young Malay have felt its extraordinary depth and intensity, and many a black coated city man is the happier and sounder for having heard its silent eloquence. He has felt the tie that binds all seamen of different nationalities and climes and ages; he has looked on the same mysteries, has heard the same music of the deeps; and he has found the rest to his soul which the great silence of Nature brings to the seeker at all times, whatever his race or creed. I know that some of my old shipmates have met it, whether their skins were white or brown.


Yet even in the steamship this spirit still prevails. Indeed, no more remarkable survival into this age of steam of the old sea spirit, unstained, untouched by modern undisciplined ideas, can be quoted than the British Navy. Notwithstanding all the influence of modern scientific development, with which, in all its branches, the Navy is more familiar than any other profession it yet preserves intact the old naval traditions, and it is this fact which makes the navy as it exists the most priceless jewel of the British Empire. Beware, all landsmen who would meddle with that spirit of the sea! It cannot be intelligible to those who are not bred of salt water, for it is a product of the great ocean, and like it, unfathomable. It has created there a greatness scarcely realised, an efficiency and discipline which in the nature of things are impossible on shore, but at sea are put daily, hourly, to the test. For in the navy, direct, prompt, cheerful, and fearless action are the first conditions of existence; simplicity of life, hardship and duty--a word too likely to be forgotten in high states of civilisation are breathed with the very air; incompetence is never excused, and means certain ruin.

And that spirit goes shipmate with steam elsewhere too upon the seas, to the credit of steam and modern shipbuilding. The landsman, travelling by an ocean liner, may get a glimpse of it if he pauses to consider the steadfast figure on the bridge, or listens to the meaning of the patient screws beating out the knots astern. A thrill of pride in his own race may go through him when he sees the wallowing tramp slouch by, burrowing like a mole in the huge ocean banks and kicking the icy clouds of spray aloft to fatten her frozen decks. His heart may feel a genuine glow to bear the stories of the deeds of the twenty thousand ton monster upon whose deck he stands.

But, if he be of understanding mind, something bigger will glow within him as he casts his eye toward the little coaster that rises now and then into under reefed canvas, or the tiny fishing-lugger, not long as the smoking-saloon in which he sits, that meets a hundred miles from land riding like a young gull over the ridges of the seas.

'You see often enough a fisherman's humble boat away from all shores, with an ugly black sky above an angry sea beneath; you watch the grisly old man the helm carrying his craft with strange skill through the turmoil of waters, and the boy, supple-limbed, weather-worn already, and with steady eyes that look through the blast; you see him understanding commandments from the jerk of his father's white eyebrow now belaying and now letting go, now scrun himself down into mere ballast, or bailing out death with a pipkin. Familiar enough is the sight, and when I see it I always stare anew, and with a kind Titanic exultation, because that a poor boat with brain of a man, and the hands of a boy on board, match herself so bravely against black heaven ocean.' [Kinglake's Eothen]

But the ordinary man is probably hurried on some great city, forgetful of that other world of men which he just touched the fringe, not knowing that he is passing by a quite other side of life, replete with human interest, characterised by unrewarded courage and unsung heroism, and rich in all the fruits which are ripened in men in constant contact with the greatest forces of Nature. For it is above all in the men who handle sails that the self-reliance which is bred by tempest, darkness, and the shadow of the Angel of Death reaches its highest point. The seriousness, from this point of view, of the loss of masts and yards to the Navy has been fully recognised, and it has only been reluctantly acceded to on account of the pressing importance of other more essential forms of training. But among the coasters and fishermen of the world the mast and sail more than hold their own, and here the student of the sea will find himself in a by-path of the modern world, among the old thoughts, the old traditions, the old methods, and the old virtues of the great seas. And when this civilisation shall have condemned itself and passed the way of others, the lugsail and the lateen will still be navigating the deep, conned by other races, but the same grim, great-hearted sailor men.

Combined with the strong conservatism which characterizes it, there is along every coastline a singular ability to modify custom to meet new requirements, and a power of adaptation to different conditions which is perhaps unsurpassed in any pursuit of man. The study of the types of craft and rig which have been developed by different races under varying conditions becomes, from this point of view, one of absorbing interest and value.

There is nothing sordid, cramped, or unhealthy for body or mind in what a man may learn from sailing boats. It is a subject, beyond most, shrouded about by the immensities which are the 'vesture of the Eternal.' Leading into the solitudes of Nature, and into the presence of the Immeasurable, it must needs enlarge men's natures, in a degree impossible in much of modern Western life.

The man who handles sails must think for himself and act for himself. When the fisherman starts for his fishing grounds or the pilot turns homeward again, there is no coach-road along which he can drive a straight course. From the moment he begins to get his anchor, he must be tide-dodging and sail-trimming; his way he finds for himself across shoals and currents, by day with the aid of keen eyesight and good memory, and by night by the addition of an instinct for direction and a power for estimating relative speeds of wind, tide, and boat, which to the uninitiated are meaningless, and are only attained by long practice and possession of the sea-instinct.

Apart from the mere physical triumph which man has in handling tackle, there is for the sailing men the additional glory which is known to the explorer, the soldier, and the huntsman, which has made the wild nature life of the great continents exercise the enduring attraction which it does to the men who have lived the life--the glory, namely, of the pathfinder, the man who must seek the road, dare the experiment, keep a clear head, and understand a map more early than a picture, which things are hidden for ever from the man 'who is carried.'

But more than these others, while all his faculties are bent on picking up indications that help to whereabouts, which at sea are ever less easy of discernment than in any mountain country, he must be able to detach one eye for the direction of the ever-shifting wind, one hand for the constantly needed handling of his ropes, and an added faculty or two for cheating or utilising the tide or the breaking seas, as the case may be.

And more than those others, too, he must be prepared to blow up his own fire, get his own meal, and make every one of a hundred possible necessary repairs, amid darkness, tossing, and cold flying spray, if called upon.

If any one would know to the full the meaning of these things, let him ship on board a Bawley boat from Leigh or Whitstable on an autumn morning, and with no chart, but with a lead-line and with the astounding memory of the skipper of the little boat, find his way down to the Gunfleet and back. In all that intricate network of sands and channels, given the hour of the tide, the depth and the character of the bottom as disclosed by the lead, a Bawley man will tell you exactly where you are, although, as in the case of an old friend of my own, he can neither read nor write, and has never seen a chart.

In such scenes you may know the glory of the pathfinder as truly as on the veldt, in the deep jungle, or in the wide north-west. In this desolation of the waters men find their brotherhood, as in all scenes where they grip hand to hand with great Nature.

The sailing-boat is one of the simplest and most universal of human machines-cleanliest, most delicate, most gentle, and amenable. It is a simple reduction to practical uses of the highest and most beautiful laws of physics, towards which all nations have contributed, according to their abilities and the local conditions to which they are subject. The man, be he Chinaman or Malay, in the Mediterranean or Atlantic, who beats to windward through intricate channels against a lee-going tide, is staking his hand, eye, and brain, his whole concentrated intelligence, against Nature herself, turning against her own laws. There is no 'as you were' at sea. A fathom too far, a little indecision, a mistake of judgment, or ignorance of a single detail, whether of the conditions of things beneath the water, or in the sky to windward, or in the rigging overhead, or whether of the eccentricities and behaviour under existing conditions of the boat, may result in disaster, with any result from a little loss of time and temper, to total loss of ship and life. The punishment for inefficiency and ignorance, even though they be excusable or inevitable, never fails in Nature. But at sea it comes remorseless, fierce, and sudden ; for the sea is a hard taskmistress, and teaches her lessons with no sparing hand.

The wide differentiation of type which is observable in boat-building has been the result of the efforts of different nationalities, and differently constituted minds, to meet the peculiar requirements of their own nautical surroundings.

A journey of a hundred miles along any fairly populated coast will disclose some variation in rig, or in build, or in both, prompted by some curious tradition, or necessitated by some meteorological or physical condition prevailing in the locality, and affected almost invariably by other considerations of an historical or practical kind.

Thus the directions and force of the prevailing winds, the character of the shelter available, the depth of water, the character of the 'sea' to be generally encountered, and of the waters navigated, the length of the voyages, the materials to be had for building, the character of cargoes or methods of fishing, are all factors in the development of characteristic types. Though development and individual departure from strict type are always going forward, there generally remain certain well-marked peculiarities common to the type, sufficiently distinctive to enable the student to trace their descent back for at least several generations, and in some cases to a comparatively ancient date.

It is curious how many logs and cruises, written by otherwise observant persons, are barren of information on this subject. The traveller is at pains to describe at length the arts and crafts and histories of the peoples whom he meets with, but boat-building and native seamanship he passes by as of no importance and little interest.

The sailor relates in detail what he eats and what he does in his own ship; how he is wet or dry, or sleeps or wakes, sets sail or reefs; but so far generally as his narrative goes, his own vessel appears to be the only one upon the face of the waters, unless he happens to meet a pilot or a lightship or a yacht.

Yet the history of Mohammedanism, with its extraordinary influence on Asia and its tremendous consequences to Europe, is unintelligible without the dhow and the lateen-yard; while the Malay race as it is to-day without the prau could not have been.

These old-time vessels, the same to-day as they have been for centuries, have altered the history the world. It has yet to be seen whether the age of steam will leave such permanent results upon the distribution of race and thought as have these simple sailing boats, which have carried the crescent and the sword, and navigated and deeply influenced all the quarters of the Old World.

Not less have the long clinker built boats of the Northmen, and the strong, bluff-lined Dutch craft, been part and parcel of the history of modern Europe. Each in turn they have conferred that 'command of the sea' which was essential to enable the races who manned them to make and leave their mark on history. They each have helped to build up that empire of the seas which this country has inherited, and must retain, with mankind. As long as she is to wield influence - they will probably outlive our fleets and our empire, as they have outlived the history which they made.

When our tall steamships are scrap-iron and our cities, our literature, and our race are unknown except to a few learned savants, the Arab baggara and the Indian pattamar will be still thrusting their long snouts through the blue of the Indian Ocean, as they have done for two thousand years already.

Surely, then, the reeling Red Sea baggara, foaming before a fair wind, becomes a thing of living interest, to which any man may well doff his hat in reverence for the things it has accomplished, and the history it has yet to see.

The individuality of the sailing vessel is one of its most remarkable attributes. It is seen to a lesser ; the steamship, the locomotive, or automobile, and in the stationary engine; but in none is it so developed as in the sailing-boat, and of all the works of man none has served him so long, or ever wins so pre-eminently the confidence and love of its master and creator.

See her upon the stocks, in a Malay builder's shed, in Canton or on the Clyde -- how helpless in her own creation, a mere mass of material, a thing to all seeming inert and dead. Yet from the moment when she rides at anchor in the tide she begins, even in the way in which she snubs her chain, to show individual traits of character which are peculiar to herself, and which go on developing to the last day of her life. Storm and sunshine, wind and calm, breaking sea and rolling swell, go to make her, be she junk or barge, schuyt or lugger, and to build up that confidence and intimate knowledge of one another which lies between a skipper and his vessel, and upon which may at any moment depend their very existence. And so the boat goes on 'gaining continually in grace, strength, audacity, and beauty, until at last it has reached such a pitch of all these that there is not, except the very loveliest creatures of the living world, anything in nature so absolutely notable, bewitching, and according to its means and measure heart-occupying, as a well-handled ship on a stormy day.' *1*

The keynote of sea-life is the suddenness of its emergencies, the indescribable swiftness of its catastrophes, and the intensity of its calls upon the presence of mind and swift action of those who follow it. It is with a view to emergency, in the understanding of the certainty of Nature's passions, that every capable sea-going boat is designed, built, rigged, and sailed by every race. It is not the long summer evening or the steady trade-wind that the sailing-boat is built for. At sea, more than in any life of man, more even than in time of warfare, it is the worst that must be anticipated and prepared for. It is this certain knowledge of impending struggle which makes the sailor-man the alertest of mankind and the most patient; and it is the fatalism bred of the constant sense of danger which gives him the cheerfulness which shines most brilliantly in emergency, and must ever be a source of wonder and respect to those who are privileged to know it. Not only by the moment of danger, but also by those long hours of enduring struggle and watchfulness which are nowhere longer drawn out than they are at sea, man and boat are moulded.

*1* Ruskin in Turner's Harbours of England

It is for such that the sailing-boat is built; it is in darkness, when plunging into the unknown sea valleys, heeling to the shrieking winds, that the true and living nature of a boat is manifested. It is then that man gains a new sense, exulting in the staunch bravery, the true spirit of duty, the unerring pluck with which the small fabric of man's making climbs the threatening crests, and steps up to the heavy-fisted squalls.

Truth, beauty, power, and obedience -- they are all there, all necessary. That worn little boat with her coat of tar and her patched brown sails follows laws as true and as majestic in every line of softly-turning plank or bowing spar, as those by which the great cathedral stands noble evidence of man's best aspirations or the solid pier bars back the waters in proud witness of his highest achievement.

It is probably true that the degree of civilisation of any race is remarkably reflected in its boat architecture. The variety of its adaptations to the peculiar requirements of its waters is a measure of its appreciation of the value of the cheapest and most certain method of communication known to man, and it is evidence of its ability to use materials at hand and fit them to its needs. The highest degree of civilisation in maritime races has always been marked by activity in boat-building, and by variety of design and rig. In no case has this been more notable than in the history of China and of Holland, and in the Adriatic in the fifteenth century, in Europe during the last two centuries, and in the United States since 1780.

The Negro, the American Indian, and the Slav, on the other hand, have never designed a sea-going boat or cut a sail. It has not been for want of waterways or of opportunity. It has been simply owing to a lower class of intelligence, and to that want of originality and enterprise which is the despair of the Negro race, has been the death of the American Indian, and will probably prevent the Slav from ever attaining to that influence in the world's history which at one time seemed likely to be his.

The navigation of the Northern and Eastern coasts of Africa has been in the hands of the Arabs from time immemorial. The dhow and the lateen-sail which are seen south as far as Zanzibar, are Asiatic, and not African. The defects which render it impossible that the Negro will ever attain to any degree of true civilization, and which doom him to remain for ever on a lower scale than the most primitive race of Asia, have also prevented his ever raising a noble building, thinking an original thought, producing any work of art -- or building or sailing a boat of his own. The measure of his intelligence is the fact that he has never tamed the elephant, the most docile of living beasts, which no race of Asia, be it the lowest, has not tamed to its uses long ago.

The Indian of America, although a fine canoe man, second to none upon swift rivers, has died without ever having hoisted a sail or got beyond the canoe paddle.

The Slav has less the makings of a sailor than either of the others, and though he may build land empires, the island races will always defy him to the end of time.

And for the reverse of the picture, take the finest sailing coasters, the most powerful fishing-craft and you will find that the inhabitants of the coastline they navigate are preeminent in courage or endurance, or in some branch of thought, or art, or manufacture, by which they will leave their mark among the races of the earth.

It is the sum of these things which goes to make harbours in many ways the most interesting places of the earth. Here the land and sea, the shore-life and the shipping-life, meet and mingle. Here may be read the character, the history, and the potentialities of the race; here may be gauged the extent of their enterprise and prosperity, in a way which can be done nowhere so well, not even in the capitals themselves. Who should discourse of the Harbours of the World will have a subject worthy of his pen, not less than of his brush. For he will deal with all history and the lives of the nations; and he may paint scenes second to none for beauty of form and colour. If here is no place so full of ever-changing life and physical activity as a great harbour, or more replete with interest and suggestion to the mind. The coming and going of ships, linking it with ends of the earth; the endless incident and the changes and chances of wind, tide, and sky, all go to make harbour life unique, and to explain the fascination which it contains for every Englishman and boy.

In the lives of most who have felt that fascination, deeper than all else beside, has generally sunk the recollection of some small fishing or coasting craft come in for rest and shelter from out the stormy horizon. The big-booted crew seemed to take on the shapes of old Viking heroes, and the dripping little vessel herself, with her clean lines and brave high bow, is glorified in the memory by the mysterious air of power and daring which seemed to cling to her as she staggered in under reefed sails out of the wildness beyond.

Ruskin, in a notable passage which is too seldom read, has well nigh touched the soul of the Boat Spirit :--

'One object there is still which I never pass without renewed wonder of childhood, and that is the bow of a boat. Not of a racing wherry, a revenue cutter, or clipper yacht; but the blunt head of a common, bluff, undecked sea-boat, lying aside in its furrow of beach sand. The sum of Navigation is in that. You may magnify it or decorate as you will: you do not add to the wonder of it. I lengthen it into hatchet-like edge of iron, strengthen it with complex tracery of ribs of oak, carve it and gild it till a column of light, moves beneath it on the sea, you have made no more of it than it was at first. That rude simplicity of bent plank, that can breast its way through the death that is in the deep sea, has in it the soul of shipping Beyond this we may have more work, more men, more money; we cannot have more miracle.

'For there is an infinite strangeness in the perfect of the thing as work of human hands. I know nothing else which man does, which is perfect, but, that. All his other doings have some sign of weakness, affectation, or ignorance in them. They are over-finished or under-finished; they do not answer their end, or they show a mean vanity answering it too well. But the boat's bow is naively perfect; complete without an effort. The man made it knew not he was making anything beautiful as he bent its planks into those mysterious, changing curves. It grows under his hand into image of a sea-shell ; the seal, as it were, of the flow of the great tides and streams of ocean, stamped on delicate rounding. He leaves it, when all is done without a boast. It is a simple work, but it will keep out water. And every plank thenceforth is a fate and has men's lives wreathed in the knots of it, as the cloth-yard shaft had their deaths in its plumes.

'Then also, it is wonderful on account of the of the thin accomplished. No other work human hands ever gained so much. Steam-engines and telegraphs indeed help us to fetch and carry and talk; they lift weights for us, and bring messages with less trouble than would have been needed otherwise; this saving of trouble, however, does not constitute a new faculty, it only enhances the powers we already possess. But in that bow of the boat is the gift of another world. Without it, what prison wall would be so strong as that "white and wailing fringe" of sea? What maimed creatures were we all, chained to our rocks, Andromeda like, or wandering by the endless shores, wasting our incommunicable strength, and pining in hopeless watch of inconquerable waves! The nails that fasten together the planks of the boat's bow are the rivets of the fellowship of the world. Their iron does more than lead lightning out of heaven, it leads love round the earth.

'Then also it is wonderful on account of the greatness of the enemy that it does battle with. To lift dead weight, to overcome length of languid space, to multiply or systemise a given force, this we may see done by the bar, or beam, or wheel without wonder. But to war with that living fury of waters, to bear its breast moment after moment against the unweaned enmity of ocean, the subtle, fitful, implacable smiting of the black waves, provoking each other on, endlessly, all the infinite march of the Atlantic rolling on behind them to their help, and still to strike them back into a wreath of smoke and futile foam, and win its way against them, and keep its charge of life from them; does any other soulless thing do as much as this ?'

*1* Turner's Harbours of England.

The pleasure boat and the yacht form no part of the subject of these pages. Modern yachting has developed along special lines into a science in which quite new factors than those usually prevailing in shipbuilding have been gradually introduced. As was natural, a considerable literature has grown up with it, and the yachtsman will find no lack of capable books dealing with those sea-queens of steel, lead, and aluminium in which the modern yacht has culminated.

Nor in these pages is it intended to deal with modern square-rigged sailing, for this subject is an engrossing one by itself and needs to be treated by a square-rig sailor. Modern square-rigging may be said to have come into existence with the development of the topmast and topgallant mast, which was a result of the adventurous and extensive voyages in the tiny vessels of the time by Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Cabot, and others in the early sixteenth century, which made an end of the monopoly of the seas by the Venetian galleys. It developed constantly through the period of the Dutch naval supremacy, through the wars which won for England the mastery of the seas against France and Spain, and through the period of the American competition for the carrying-trade which immediately preceded the introduction of steam and of iron ship-building. In fact, its development has scarcely yet ceased, inasmuch as double topsails and topgallant sails, and steel yards and masts, are an outcome of the later steel age, and are a production essentially of the last quarter of the nineteenth century. From the caravel of three hundred tons to the four masted steel sailing-ship of six thousand tons measurement is a long step, and its history would be an instructive and thrilling record of the enduring patience, the uncomplaining fearlessness, and the resourceful ingenuity in the face of difficulty, privation, and danger which have always characterised, above all men, the deep-water sailor.

We tread a humble road and sail with the lowly worker. We turn where the modest coaster and the patient fisher-craft ply in the forgotten corners of the seas; whose homes are behind the rough stone piers and the lonely, wind-swept banks. Their hard-won wake we follow, not in the ocean highways, but by rockbound cape and snarling, far-stretched shoal; not in the bright noonday, but in the bleak watches of the long night; not in the summer breeze, but in the fury of hammering gale and rearing sea. With them we hear the 'longshore seagulls' wail and the sad curlews' whistle. In their worn shrouds the cold land wind harps to us; the thunder of the waiting breakers is about us. Their music, the singing of the coastwise tides, is ours too. There is death in that symphony, but it holds the great secrets in its keeping.






Contents: Mast & Sail

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