It was that strange time of day, the eastern horizon had not yet begun to lighten but the stars had been chased from the night, as I stepped to the port rail to take a bearing from the Cape Fear Lighthouse and a second from the lightship marking Frying Pan Shoals. We were making 5 knots in a light breeze, with a calm sea. This was a simple trip, out of Charleston, bound for the Chesapeake and the snug Baltimore harbor. The schooner Fair Winds was not the largest of her class, nor was she rigged for the wide ocean, but she was well suited for her task, a coastal schooner carrying trade among the eastern ports. Not the most glamorous of jobs, but a necessary one, if the cotton of the South was to find its way to the mills of the North, bringing in return the manufactured goods of the New England craftsmen.
I loved this time, this place, and this life. The calm was only reinforced by the gentle creaking of the ship has it heeled easily under sail. Since it was calm, we carried the full sheets on both the main and foremasts. The boatswain’s mate made his rounds, checking the rigging and making fast any loose ends. The helmsman held the course, north by northeast, and the quartermaster’s mate checked the hold for security. Night watch, on days such as this, was always a quiet time. As first mate, I stood the watch anytime the Captain was below, and this morning was no exception. The rest of the crew swung easy in their hammocks, but would soon be rousted awake by the galley scrub as he summoned them to breakfast. But to his credit, cook brought up a tray of mugs steaming with the inviting smell of warm tea for the deck crew.
I entered the bearings in the log, plotted the position on the chart, and gave the helmsman a new course to clear the shoals. As I did, a sudden chill crossed the deck and the wind began to freshen. Aloft a flight of geese called out as they turned to the southwest, some disturbance to their flight, marking a change in their route. Little did I fathom the change in my course this chill wind would mark? But before the telling let me take a moment or two to introduce myself, and set the jib of this story.
My name is Mark, and I’ve been on the sea for what seems to be most of my life. I came first as cabin boy to a grand old man, saved from the drudgery of the tenant farm that was my family’s life. Let my brothers follow our father’s path, this was a grand and new country and if they chose to move west then so be it. But for me it was the call of the sea, what was beyond that far flat horizon? That is what I wanted to know. So from the small harbor along the Hudson I was signed as cabin boy onto a river slope named the Winter Witch. Thus would begin my apprenticeship under Captain Jon Torgenson. Captain Torgenson was hard, but fair and wise, in the running of his ship. When not fulfilling my duties as his cabin boy he had me working with the boatswain until I could tie every knot there was, and knew full and well the rigging of the boat. At each dock we tied up to the entire crew would bend their backs to carry off, and then on, the cargo it had manifest. Those were long and hot summers for sure. In the winter we would take the Witch south, into the Delaware Bay, to sail where the ice was not so thick as to choke our passage. I learned much from Captain Torgenson during the five years of my apprenticeship.
In the course of those several years I came to know how to read the wind, judge the weather, and guide the ship on safe and storm-tossed waters. I learned to find the North Star and take a bearing from the points along the shore so as to find and fix our position. I met men from other ports, and other lands and learned we had something in this new country. It became my goal to one day have a boat of my own, and believed that in this country all things were possible.
My apprenticeship over, I signed on with a Brigantine making sail to the Caribbean as third mate. Her Master was Thomas Sewall, originally from Massachusetts, who came from a seafaring family. He pushed his crew harder than most, as if to draw each ounce of profit he could from them. It was as if he was a flint and they the steel he must strike against. The years aboard were harsh, but I learned much about the trades of the region, what ports offered safe anchor, and which ones to avoid. So in the course of the three years I came back to the States with knowledge that would serve me well.
But enough about me, let’s talk about the Fair Winds and that queer October morning when a cold and evil wind crossed the deck. My first thoughts were of the ‘canes that come from the Caribbean, but it couldn’t be that as they build gradually and you see the sea’s mount well before the wind comes whipping through the lashings. Besides this wind was confused, first the north, than the east. No, it couldn’t be a ‘cane, it had to be something else.
Off to the eastern horizon the sky was lighter than before, the sun starting its rise to the heavens. There is a poem, we sailors on the sea hold to our hearts. “Red sky at night, Sailor’s delight; Red sky in morning, Sailor’s warning.” This morning the sky is blood red, with a mean and menacing look about it. I call to an able seaman and send him to fetch the Captain, begging his presence on the deck. (to be continued)