Make Westing by Jack London
Whatever you do, make westing! make westing!
—Sailing directions for Cape Horn.
For seven weeks the Mary Rogers had been between 50 degrees south in the
Atlantic and 50 degrees south in the Pacific, which meant that for seven
weeks she had been struggling to round Cape Horn. For seven weeks she had
been either in dirt, or close to dirt, save once, and then, following upon
six days of excessive dirt, which she had ridden out under the shelter of
the redoubtable Terra del Fuego coast, she had almost gone ashore during a
heavy swell in the dead calm that had suddenly fallen. For seven weeks she
had wrestled with the Cape Horn graybeards, and in return been buffeted
and smashed by them. She was a wooden ship, and her ceaseless straining
had opened her seams, so that twice a day the watch took its turn at the
The Mary Rogers was strained, the crew was strained, and big Dan Cullen,
master, was likewise strained. Perhaps he was strained most of all, for
upon him rested the responsibility of that titanic struggle. He slept most
of the time in his clothes, though he rarely slept. He haunted the deck at
night, a great, burly, robust ghost, black with the sunburn of thirty
years of sea and hairy as an orang-outang. He, in turn, was haunted by one
thought of action, a sailing direction for the Horn: Whatever you do, make
westing! make westing! It was an obsession. He thought of nothing else,
except, at times, to blaspheme God for sending such bitter weather.
Make westing! He hugged the Horn, and a dozen times lay hove to with the
iron Cape bearing east-by-north, or north-north-east, a score of miles
away. And each time the eternal west wind smote him back and he made
easting. He fought gale after gale, south to 64 degrees, inside the
antarctic drift-ice, and pledged his immortal soul to the Powers of
Darkness for a bit of westing, for a slant to take him around. And he made
easting. In despair, he had tried to make the passage through the Straits
of Le Maire. Halfway through, the wind hauled to the north'ard of
north-west, the glass dropped to 28.88, and he turned and ran before a
gale of cyclonic fury, missing, by a hair's-breadth, piling up the Mary
Rogers on the black-toothed rocks. Twice he had made west to the Diego
Ramirez Rocks, one of the times saved between two snow-squalls by sighting
the gravestones of ships a quarter of a mile dead ahead.
Blow! Captain Dan Cullen instanced all his thirty years at sea to prove
that never had it blown so before. The Mary Rogers was hove to at the time
he gave the evidence, and, to clinch it, inside half an hour the Mary
Rogers was hove down to the hatches. Her new maintopsail and brand new
spencer were blown away like tissue paper; and five sails, furled and fast
under double gaskets, were blown loose and stripped from the yards. And
before morning the Mary Rogers was hove down twice again, and holes were
knocked in her bulwarks to ease her decks from the weight of ocean that
pressed her down.
On an average of once a week Captain Dan Cullen caught glimpses of the
sun. Once, for ten minutes, the sun shone at midday, and ten minutes
afterward a new gale was piping up, both watches were shortening sail, and
all was buried in the obscurity of a driving snow-squall. For a fortnight,
once, Captain Dan Cullen was without a meridian or a chronometer sight.
Rarely did he know his position within half of a degree, except when in
sight of land; for sun and stars remained hidden behind the sky, and it
was so gloomy that even at the best the horizons were poor for accurate
observations. A gray gloom shrouded the world. The clouds were gray; the
great driving seas were leaden gray; the smoking crests were a gray
churning; even the occasional albatrosses were gray, while the
snow-flurries were not white, but gray, under the sombre pall of the
Life on board the Mary Rogers was gray—gray and gloomy. The faces of
the sailors were blue-gray; they were afflicted with sea-cuts and
sea-boils, and suffered exquisitely. They were shadows of men. For seven
weeks, in the forecastle or on deck, they had not known what it was to be
dry. They had forgotten what it was to sleep out a watch, and all watches
it was, "All hands on deck!" They caught snatches of agonized sleep, and
they slept in their oilskins ready for the everlasting call. So weak and
worn were they that it took both watches to do the work of one. That was
why both watches were on deck so much of the time. And no shadow of a man
could shirk duty. Nothing less than a broken leg could enable a man to
knock off work; and there were two such, who had been mauled and pulped by
the seas that broke aboard.
One other man who was the shadow of a man was George Dorety. He was the
only passenger on board, a friend of the firm, and he had elected to make
the voyage for his health. But seven weeks of Cape Horn had not bettered
his health. He gasped and panted in his bunk through the long, heaving
nights; and when on deck he was so bundled up for warmth that he resembled
a peripatetic old-clothes shop. At midday, eating at the cabin table in a
gloom so deep that the swinging sea-lamps burned always, he looked as
blue-gray as the sickest, saddest man for'ard. Nor did gazing across the
table at Captain Dan Cullen have any cheering effect upon him. Captain
Cullen chewed and scowled and kept silent. The scowls were for God, and
with every chew he reiterated the sole thought of his existence, which was
make westing. He was a big, hairy brute, and the sight of him was not
stimulating to the other's appetite. He looked upon George Dorety as a
Jonah, and told him so, once each meal, savagely transferring the scowl
from God to the passenger and back again.
Nor did the mate prove a first aid to a languid appetite. Joshua Higgins
by name, a seaman by profession and pull, but a pot-wolloper by capacity,
he was a loose-jointed, sniffling creature, heartless and selfish and
cowardly, without a soul, in fear of his life of Dan Cullen, and a bully
over the sailors, who knew that behind the mate was Captain Cullen, the
law-giver and compeller, the driver and the destroyer, the incarnation of
a dozen bucko mates. In that wild weather at the southern end of the
earth, Joshua Higgins ceased washing. His grimy face usually robbed George
Dorety of what little appetite he managed to accumulate. Ordinarily this
lavatorial dereliction would have caught Captain Cullen's eye and
vocabulary, but in the present his mind was filled with making westing, to
the exclusion of all other things not contributory thereto. Whether the
mate's face was clean or dirty had no bearing upon westing. Later on, when
50 degrees south in the Pacific had been reached, Joshua Higgins would
wash his face very abruptly. In the meantime, at the cabin table, where
gray twilight alternated with lamplight while the lamps were being filled,
George Dorety sat between the two men, one a tiger and the other a hyena,
and wondered why God had made them. The second mate, Matthew Turner, was a
true sailor and a man, but George Dorety did not have the solace of his
company, for he ate by himself, solitary, when they had finished.
On Saturday morning, July 24, George Dorety awoke to a feeling of life and
headlong movement. On deck he found the Mary Rogers running off before a
howling south-easter. Nothing was set but the lower topsails and the
foresail. It was all she could stand, yet she was making fourteen knots,
as Mr. Turner shouted in Dorety's ear when he came on deck. And it was all
westing. She was going around the Horn at last... if the wind held. Mr.
Turner looked happy. The end of the struggle was in sight. But Captain
Cullen did not look happy. He scowled at Dorety in passing. Captain Cullen
did not want God to know that he was pleased with that wind. He had a
conception of a malicious God, and believed in his secret soul that if God
knew it was a desirable wind, God would promptly efface it and send a
snorter from the west. So he walked softly before God, smothering his joy
down under scowls and muttered curses, and, so, fooling God, for God was
the only thing in the universe of which Dan Cullen was afraid.
All Saturday and Saturday night the Mary Rogers raced her westing.
Persistently she logged her fourteen knots, so that by Sunday morning she
had covered three hundred and fifty miles. If the wind held, she would
make around. If it failed, and the snorter came from anywhere between
south-west and north, back the Mary Rogers would be hurled and be no
better off than she had been seven weeks before. And on Sunday morning the
wind was failing. The big sea was going down and running smooth. Both
watches were on deck setting sail after sail as fast as the ship could
stand it. And now Captain Cullen went around brazenly before God, smoking
a big cigar, smiling jubilantly, as if the failing wind delighted him,
while down underneath he was raging against God for taking the life out of
the blessed wind. Make westing! So he would, if God would only leave him
alone. Secretly, he pledged himself anew to the Powers of Darkness, if
they would let him make westing. He pledged himself so easily because he
did not believe in the Powers of Darkness. He really believed only in God,
though he did not know it. And in his inverted theology God was really the
Prince of Darkness. Captain Cullen was a devil-worshipper, but he called
the devil by another name, that was all.
At midday, after calling eight bells, Captain Cullen ordered the royals
on. The men went aloft faster than they had gone in weeks. Not alone were
they nimble because of the westing, but a benignant sun was shining down
and limbering their stiff bodies. George Dorety stood aft, near Captain
Cullen, less bundled in clothes than usual, soaking in the grateful warmth
as he watched the scene. Swiftly and abruptly the incident occurred. There
was a cry from the foreroyal-yard of "Man overboard!" Somebody threw a
life-buoy over the side, and at the same instant the second mate's voice
came aft, ringing and peremptory—
"Hard down your helm!"
The man at the wheel never moved a spoke. He knew better, for Captain Dan
Cullen was standing alongside of him. He wanted to move a spoke, to move
all the spokes, to grind the wheel down, hard down, for his comrade
drowning in the sea. He glanced at Captain Dan Cullen, and Captain Dan
Cullen gave no sign.
"Down! Hard down!" the second mate roared, as he sprang aft.
But he ceased springing and commanding, and stood still, when he saw Dan
Cullen by the wheel. And big Dan Cullen puffed at his cigar and said
nothing. Astern, and going astern fast, could be seen the sailor. He had
caught the life-buoy and was clinging to it. Nobody spoke. Nobody moved.
The men aloft clung to the royal yards and watched with terror-stricken
faces. And the Mary Rogers raced on, making her westing. A long, silent
"Who was it?" Captain Cullen demanded.
"Mops, sir," eagerly answered the sailor at the wheel.
Mops topped a wave astern and disappeared temporarily in the trough. It
was a large wave, but it was no graybeard. A small boat could live easily
in such a sea, and in such a sea the Mary Rogers could easily come to. But
she could not come to and make westing at the same time.
For the first time in all his years, George Dorety was seeing a real drama
of life and death—a sordid little drama in which the scales balanced
an unknown sailor named Mops against a few miles of longitude. At first he
had watched the man astern, but now he watched big Dan Cullen, hairy and
black, vested with power of life and death, smoking a cigar.
Captain Dan Cullen smoked another long, silent minute. Then he removed the
cigar from his mouth. He glanced aloft at the spars of the Mary Rogers,
and overside at the sea.
"Sheet home the royals!" he cried.
Fifteen minutes later they sat at table, in the cabin, with food served
before them. On one side of George Dorety sat Dan Cullen, the tiger, on
the other side, Joshua Higgins, the hyena. Nobody spoke. On deck the men
were sheeting home the skysails. George Dorety could hear their cries,
while a persistent vision haunted him of a man called Mops, alive and
well, clinging to a life-buoy miles astern in that lonely ocean. He
glanced at Captain Cullen, and experienced a feeling of nausea, for the
man was eating his food with relish, almost bolting it.
"Captain Cullen," Dorety said, "you are in command of this ship, and it is
not proper for me to comment now upon what you do. But I wish to say one
thing. There is a hereafter, and yours will be a hot one."
Captain Cullen did not even scowl. In his voice was regret as he said—
"It was blowing a living gale. It was impossible to save the man."
"He fell from the royal-yard," Dorety cried hotly. "You were setting the
royals at the time. Fifteen minutes afterward you were setting the
"It was a living gale, wasn't it, Mr. Higgins?" Captain Cullen said,
turning to the mate.
"If you'd brought her to, it'd have taken the sticks out of her," was the
mate's answer. "You did the proper thing, Captain Cullen. The man hadn't a
ghost of a show."
George Dorety made no answer, and to the meal's end no one spoke. After
that, Dorety had his meals served in his state-room. Captain Cullen
scowled at him no longer, though no speech was exchanged between them,
while the Mary Rogers sped north toward warmer latitudes. At the end of
the week, Dan Cullen cornered Dorety on deck.
"What are you going to do when we get to 'Frisco?" he demanded bluntly.
"I am going to swear out a warrant for your arrest," Dorety answered
quietly. "I am going to charge you with murder, and I am going to see you
hanged for it."
"You're almighty sure of yourself," Captain Cullen sneered, turning on his
A second week passed, and one morning found George Dorety standing in the
coach-house companionway at the for'ard end of the long poop, taking his
first gaze around the deck. The Mary Rogers was reaching full-and-by, in a
stiff breeze. Every sail was set and drawing, including the staysails.
Captain Cullen strolled for'ard along the poop. He strolled carelessly,
glancing at the passenger out of the corner of his eye. Dorety was looking
the other way, standing with head and shoulders outside the companionway,
and only the back of his head was to be seen. Captain Cullen, with swift
eye, embraced the mainstaysail-block and the head and estimated the
distance. He glanced about him. Nobody was looking. Aft, Joshua Higgins,
pacing up and down, had just turned his back and was going the other way.
Captain Cullen bent over suddenly and cast the staysail-sheet off from its
pin. The heavy block hurtled through the air, smashing Dorety's head like
an egg-shell and hurtling on and back and forth as the staysail whipped
and slatted in the wind. Joshua Higgins turned around to see what had
carried away, and met the full blast of the vilest portion of Captain
"I made the sheet fast myself," whimpered the mate in the first lull,
"with an extra turn to make sure. I remember it distinctly."
"Made fast?" the Captain snarled back, for the benefit of the watch as it
struggled to capture the flying sail before it tore to ribbons. "You
couldn't make your grandmother fast, you useless hell's scullion. If you
made that sheet fast with an extra turn, why in hell didn't it stay fast?
That's what I want to know. Why in hell didn't it stay fast?"
The mate whined inarticulately.
"Oh, shut up!" was the final word of Captain Cullen.
Half an hour later he was as surprised as any when the body of George
Dorety was found inside the companionway on the floor. In the afternoon,
alone in his room, he doctored up the log.
"Ordinary seaman, Karl Brun," he wrote, "lost overboard from
foreroyal-yard in a gale of wind. Was running at the time, and for the
safety of the ship did not dare come up to the wind. Nor could a boat have
lived in the sea that was running."
On another page, he wrote
"Had often warned Mr. Dorety about the danger he ran because of his
carelessness on deck. I told him, once, that some day he would get his
head knocked off by a block. A carelessly fastened mainstaysail sheet was
the cause of the accident, which was deeply to be regretted because Mr.
Dorety was a favourite with all of us."
Captain Dan Cullen read over his literary effort with admiration, blotted
the page, and closed the log. He lighted a cigar and stared before him. He
felt the Mary Rogers lift, and heel, and surge along, and knew that she
was making nine knots. A smile of satisfaction slowly dawned on his black
and hairy face. Well, anyway, he had made his westing and fooled God.