Sea Stories

A Man Overboard

Sailors are men of rough habits, but their feelings are not by any means so coarse: if they possess little prudence or worldly consideration, they are likewise very free from selfishness; generally speaking, too, they are much attached to one another, and will

make great sacrifices to their messmates or shipmates when opportunities occur. I remember once, when cruising off Terceira in the Endymion, that a man fell overboard and was drowned. After the usual confusion, and long search in vain, the boats were hoisted up, and the hands called to make sail. I was officer of the forecastle and on looking about to see if all the men were at their station, missed one of the fore-top men. Just at that moment I observed some one curled up, and apparently hiding himself under the bow of the barge, between the boat and the booms. 'Hillo!' I said, 'who are you? What are you doing there, you skulker? Why are you not at your station?' 'I am not skulking,' said the poor fellow, the furrows in whose bronzed and weatherbeaten cheek were running down with tears. The man we had just lost had been his messmate and friend, he told me, for ten years. I begged his pardon, in full sincerity, for having used such harsh words to him at such a moment, and bid him go below to his birth for the rest of the day--'Never mind, sir, never mind,' said the kind hearted seaman, 'it can't be helped. You meant no harm, sir. I am as well on deck as below. Bill's gone sir, but I must do my duty.' So saying, he drew the sleeve of his jacket twice or thrice across his eyes, and mustering his grief within his breast, walked to his station as if nothing had happened. In the same ship and nearly about the same time, the people were bathing along side in a calm at sea. It is customary on such occasions to spread a studding-sail on the water, by means of lines from the fore and main yard arms, for the use of those who either cannot swim, or who are not expert in this art, so very important to all seafaring people. Half a dozen of the ship's boys were floundering about in the sails, and sometimes even venturing beyond the leech rope. One of the least of these urchins, but not the least courageous of their number, when taunted by his more skilful companions with being afraid, struck out boldly beyond the prescribed bounds. He had not gone much further than his own length, however, along the surface of the fathomless sea, when his heart failed him, poor little man; and along with his confidence away also went his power of keeping his head above the water. So down he sank rapidly, to the speechless horror of the other boys, who of course, could lend the drowning child no help. The captain of the forecastle, a tall, fine-looking, hard-a-weather fellow, was standing on the shank of the sheet anchor with his arms across, and his well varnished canvass hat drawn so much over his eyes that it was difficult to tell whether he was awake or merely dozing in the sun, as he leaned his back against the fore-topmast backstay. The seaman, however, had been attentively watching the young party all the time, and rather fearing that mischief might ensue from their rashness, he had grunted out a warning to them from time to time, to which they paid no sort of attention. At last he desisted, saying they might drown themselves if they had a mind, for never a bit would he help them; but no sooner did the sinking figure of the adventurous little boy catch his eye, than, diver fashion, he joined the palms of his hands over his head, inverted his position in one instant, and urging himself into swifter motion by a smart push with his feet against the anchor, shot head foremost into the water. The poor lad sunk so rapidly that he was at least a couple of fathoms under the surface before he was arrested by the grip of the sailor, who soon rose again, bearing the bewildered boy in his hand, and calling to the other youngsters to take better care of their companion, chucked him right into the belly of the sail. The fore-sheet was hanging in the calm, nearly into the water, and by it the dripping seaman scrambled up again to his old birth on the anchor, shook himself like a great Newfoundland dog, and then jumping on the deck, proceeded across the forecastle to shift himself. At the top of the ladder he was stopped by the marine officer, who had witnessed the whole transaction, as he sat across the gangway hammocks, watching the swimmers, and trying to get his own consent to undergo the labor of undressing. Said the soldier to the sailor, "That was very well done of you, my man, and right well deserves a glass of grog. Say so to the gun-room steward as you pass; and tell him it is my orders to fill you out a stiff nor-wester." The soldier's offer was kindly meant, but rather clumsily timed, at least so thought Jack: for though he inclined his head in acknowledgment of the attention, and instinctively touched his hat when spoken to by an officer, he made no reply till out of the marine's hearing, when he laughed, or rather chuckled out to the people near him, "Does the good gentleman suppose I'll take a glass of grog for saving a boy's life."

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