Chris Farrington: Able Seaman
by Jack London
"If you vas in der old country ships, a liddle shaver like you vood pe
only der boy, und you vood wait on der able seamen. Und ven der able
seaman sing out, 'Boy, der water-jug!' you vood jump quick, like a shot,
und bring der water-jug. Und ven der able seaman sing out, 'Boy, my
boots!' you vood get der boots. Und you vood pe politeful, und say
'Yessir' und 'No sir.' But you pe in der American ship, and you t'ink
you are so good as der able seamen. Chris, mine boy, I haf ben a
sailorman for twenty-two years, und do you t'ink you are so good as me?
I vas a sailorman pefore you vas borned, und I knot und reef und
ven you play mit topstrings und fly kites."
"But you are unfair, Emil!" cried Chris Farrington, his sensitive face
flushed and hurt. He was a slender though strongly built young fellow of
seventeen, with Yankee ancestry writ large all over him.
"Dere you go vonce again!" the Swedish sailor exploded. "My name is
Mister Johansen, und a kid of a boy like you call me 'Emil!' It vas
insulting, und comes pecause of der American ship!"
"But you call me 'Chris'!" the boy expostulated, reproachfully.
"But you vas a boy."
"Who does a man's work," Chris retorted. "And because I do a man's work
I have as much right to call you by your first name as you me. We are
all equals in this fo'castle, and you know it. When we signed for the
voyage in San Francisco, we signed as sailors on the Sophie Sutherland
and there was no difference made with any of us. Haven't I always done
my work? Did I ever shirk? Did you or any other man ever have to take a
wheel for me? Or a lookout? Or go aloft?"
"Chris is right," interrupted a young English sailor. "No man has had to
do a tap of his work yet. He signed as good as any of us and he's shown
himself as good—"
"Better!" broke in a Novia Scotia man. "Better than some of us! When we
struck the sealing-grounds he turned out to be next to the best
boat-steerer aboard. Only French Louis, who'd been at it for years,
could beat him. I'm only a boat-puller, and you're only a boat-puller,
too, Emil Johansen, for all your twenty-two years at sea. Why don't you
become a boat-steerer?"
"Too clumsy," laughed the Englishman, "and too slow."
"Little that counts, one way or the other," joined in Dane Jurgensen,
coming to the aid of his Scandinavian brother. "Emil is a man grown and
an able seaman; the boy is neither."
And so the argument raged back and forth, the Swedes, Norwegians and
Danes, because of race kinship, taking the part of Johansen, and the
English, Canadians and Americans taking the part of Chris. From an
unprejudiced point of view, the right was on the side of Chris. As he
had truly said, he did a man's work, and the same work that any of them
did. But they were prejudiced, and badly so, and out of the words which
passed rose a standing quarrel which divided the forecastle into two
The Sophie Sutherland was a seal-hunter, registered out of San
Francisco, and engaged in hunting the furry sea-animals along the
Japanese coast north to Bering Sea. The other vessels were two-masted
schooners, but she was a three-master and the largest in the fleet. In
fact, she was a full-rigged, three-topmast schooner, newly built.
Although Chris Farrington knew that justice was with him, and that he
performed all his work faithfully and well, many a time, in secret
thought, he longed for some pressing emergency to arise whereby he could
demonstrate to the Scandinavian seamen that he also was an able seaman.
But one stormy night, by an accident for which he was in nowise
accountable, in overhauling a spare anchor-chain he had all the fingers
of his left hand badly crushed. And his hopes were likewise crushed, for
it was impossible for him to continue hunting with the boats, and he was
forced to stay idly aboard until his fingers should heal. Yet, although
he little dreamed it, this very accident was to give him the
One afternoon in the latter part of May the Sophie Sutherland rolled
sluggishly in a breathless calm. The seals were abundant, the hunting
good, and the boats were all away and out of sight. And with them was
almost every man of the crew. Besides Chris, there remained only the
captain, the sailing-master and the Chinese cook.
The captain was captain only by courtesy. He was an old man, past
eighty, and blissfully ignorant of the sea and its ways; but he was the
owner of the vessel, and hence the honorable title. Of course the
sailing-master, who was really captain, was a thorough-going seaman. The
mate, whose post was aboard, was out with the boats, having temporarily
taken Chris's place as boat-steerer.
When good weather and good sport came together, the boats were
accustomed to range far and wide, and often did not return to the
schooner until long after dark. But for all that it was a perfect
hunting day, Chris noted a growing anxiety on the part of the
sailing-master. He paced the deck nervously, and was constantly sweeping
the horizon with his marine glasses. Not a boat was in sight. As sunset
arrived, he even sent Chris aloft to the mizzen-topmast-head, but with
no better luck. The boats could not possibly be back before midnight.
Since noon the barometer had been falling with startling rapidity, and
all the signs were ripe for a great storm—how great, not even the
sailing-master anticipated. He and Chris set to work to prepare for it.
They put storm gaskets on the furled topsails, lowered and stowed the
foresail and spanker and took in the two inner jibs. In the one
remaining jib they put a single reef, and a single reef in the mainsail.
Night had fallen before they finished, and with the darkness came the
storm. A low moan swept over the sea, and the wind struck the Sophie
Sutherland flat. But she righted quickly, and with the sailing-master
at the wheel, sheered her bow into within five points of the wind.
Working as well as he could with his bandaged hand, and with the feeble
aid of the Chinese cook, Chris went forward and backed the jib over to
the weather side. This with the flat mainsail, left the schooner hove
"God help the boats! It's no gale! It's a typhoon!" the sailing-master
shouted to Chris at eleven o'clock. "Too much canvas! Got to get two
more reefs into the mainsail, and got to do it right away!" He glanced
at the old captain, shivering in oilskins at the binnacle and holding on
for dear life. "There's only you and I, Chris—and the cook; but he's
next to worthless!"
In order to make the reef, it was necessary to lower the mainsail, and
the removal of this after pressure was bound to make the schooner fall
off before the wind and sea because of the forward pressure of the jib.
"Take the wheel!" the sailing-master directed. "And when I give the
word, hard up with it! And when she's square before it, steady her! And
keep her there! We'll heave to again as soon as I get the reefs in!"
Gripping the kicking spokes, Chris watched him and the reluctant cook go
forward into the howling darkness. The Sophie Sutherland was plunging
into the huge head-seas and wallowing tremendously, the tense steel
stays and taut rigging humming like harp-strings to the wind. A buffeted
cry came to his ears, and he felt the schooner's bow paying off of its
own accord. The mainsail was down!
He ran the wheel hard-over and kept anxious track of the changing
direction of the wind on his face and of the heave of the vessel. This
was the crucial moment. In performing the evolution she would have to
pass broadside to the surge before she could get before it. The wind was
blowing directly on his right cheek, when he felt the Sophie
Sutherland lean over and begin to rise toward the sky—up—up—an
infinite distance! Would she clear the crest of the gigantic wave?
Again by the feel of it, for he could see nothing, he knew that a wall
of water was rearing and curving far above him along the whole weather
side. There was an instant's calm as the liquid wall intervened and shut
off the wind. The schooner righted, and for that instant seemed at
perfect rest. Then she rolled to meet the descending rush.
Chris shouted to the captain to hold tight, and prepared himself for the
shock. But the man did not live who could face it. An ocean of water
smote Chris's back and his clutch on the spokes was loosened as if it
were a baby's. Stunned, powerless, like a straw on the face of a
torrent, he was swept onward he knew not whither. Missing the corner of
the cabin, he was dashed forward along the poop runway a hundred feet
or more, striking violently against the foot of the foremast. A second
wave, crushing inboard, hurled him back the way he had come, and left
him half-drowned where the poop steps should have been.
Bruised and bleeding, dimly conscious, he felt for the rail and dragged
himself to his feet. Unless something could be done, he knew the last
moment had come. As he faced the poop, the wind drove into his mouth
with suffocating force. This brought him back to his senses with a
start. The wind was blowing from dead aft! The schooner was out of the
trough and before it! But the send of the sea was bound to breach her to
again. Crawling up the runway, he managed to get to the wheel just in
time to prevent this. The binnacle light was still burning. They were
That is, he and the schooner were safe. As to the welfare of his three
companions he could not say. Nor did he dare leave the wheel in order to
find out, for it took every second of his undivided attention to keep
the vessel to her course. The least fraction of carelessness and the
heave of the sea under the quarter was liable to thrust her into the
trough. So, a boy of one hundred and forty pounds, he clung to his
herculean task of guiding the two hundred straining tons of fabric amid
the chaos of the great storm forces.
Half an hour later, groaning and sobbing, the captain crawled to Chris's
feet. All was lost, he whimpered. He was smitten unto death. The galley
had gone by the board, the mainsail and running-gear, the cook, every
"Where's the sailing-master?" Chris demanded when he had caught his
breath after steadying a wild lurch of the schooner. It was no child's
play to steer a vessel under single reefed jib before a typhoon.
"Clean up for'ard," the old man replied "Jammed under the fo'c'sle-head,
but still breathing. Both his arms are broken, he says and he doesn't
know how many ribs. He's hurt bad."
"Well, he'll drown there the way she's shipping water through the
hawse-pipes. Go for'ard!" Chris commanded, taking charge of things as a
matter of course. "Tell him not to worry; that I'm at the wheel. Help
him as much as you can, and make him help"—he stopped and ran the
spokes to starboard as a tremendous billow rose under the stern and
yawed the schooner to port—"and make him help himself for the rest.
Unship the fo'castle hatch and get him down into a bunk. Then ship the
The captain turned his aged face forward and wavered pitifully. The
waist of the ship was full of water to the bulwarks. He had just come
through it, and knew death lurked every inch of the way.
"Go!" Chris shouted, fiercely. And as the fear-stricken man started,
"And take another look for the cook!"
Two hours later, almost dead from suffering, the captain returned. He
had obeyed orders. The sailing-master was helpless, although safe in a
bunk; the cook was gone. Chris sent the captain below to the cabin to
change his clothes.
After interminable hours of toil day broke cold and gray. Chris looked
about him. The Sophie Sutherland was racing before the typhoon like a
thing possessed. There was no rain, but the wind whipped the spray of
the sea mast-high, obscuring everything except in the immediate
Two waves only could Chris see at a time—the one before and the one
behind. So small and insignificant the schooner seemed on the long
Pacific roll! Rushing up a maddening mountain, she would poise like a
cockle-shell on the giddy summit, breathless and rolling, leap outward
and down into the yawning chasm beneath, and bury herself in the smother
of foam at the bottom. Then the recovery, another mountain, another
sickening upward rush, another poise, and the downward crash. Abreast of
him, to starboard, like a ghost of the storm, Chris saw the cook dashing
apace with the schooner. Evidently, when washed overboard, he had
grasped and become entangled in a trailing halyard.
For three hours more, alone with this gruesome companion, Chris held the
Sophie Sutherland before the wind and sea. He had long since forgotten
his mangled fingers. The bandages had been torn away, and the cold, salt
spray had eaten into the half-healed wounds until they were numb and no
longer pained. But he was not cold. The terrific labor of steering
forced the perspiration from every pore. Yet he was faint and weak with
hunger and exhaustion, and hailed with delight the advent on deck of the
captain, who fed him all of a pound of cake-chocolate. It strengthened
him at once.
He ordered the captain to cut the halyard by which the cook's body was
towing, and also to go forward and cut loose the jib-halyard and sheet.
When he had done so, the jib fluttered a couple of moments like a
handkerchief, then tore out of the bolt-ropes and vanished. The Sophie
Sutherland was running under bare poles.
By noon the storm had spent itself, and by six in the evening the waves
had died down sufficiently to let Chris leave the helm. It was almost
hopeless to dream of the small boats weathering the typhoon, but there
is always the chance in saving human life, and Chris at once applied
himself to going back over the course along which he had fled. He
managed to get a reef in one of the inner jibs and two reefs in the
spanker, and then, with the aid of the watch-tackle, to hoist them to
the stiff breeze that yet blew. And all through the night, tacking back
and forth on the back track, he shook out canvas as fast as the wind
The injured sailing-master had turned delirious and between tending him
and lending a hand with the ship, Chris kept the captain busy. "Taught
me more seamanship," as he afterward said, "than I'd learned on the
whole voyage." But by daybreak the old man's feeble frame succumbed,
and he fell off into exhausted sleep on the weather poop.
Chris, who could now lash the wheel, covered the tired man with blankets
from below, and went fishing in the lazaretto for something to eat. But
by the day following he found himself forced to give in, drowsing
fitfully by the wheel and waking ever and anon to take a look at things.
On the afternoon of the third day he picked up a schooner, dismasted and
battered. As he approached, close-hauled on the wind, he saw her decks
crowded by an unusually large crew, and on sailing in closer, made out
among others the faces of his missing comrades. And he was just in the
nick of time, for they were fighting a losing fight at the pumps. An
hour later they, with the crew of the sinking craft were aboard the
Having wandered so far from their own vessel, they had taken refuge on
the strange schooner just before the storm broke. She was a Canadian
sealer on her first voyage, and as was now apparent, her last.
The captain of the Sophie Sutherland had a story to tell, also, and he
told it well—so well, in fact, that when all hands were gathered
together on deck during the dog-watch, Emil Johansen strode over to
Chris and gripped him by the hand.
"Chris," he said, so loudly that all could hear, "Chris, I gif in. You
vas yoost so good a sailorman as I. You vas a bully boy und able
seaman, und I pe proud for you!
"Und Chris!" He turned as if he had forgotten something, and called
back, "From dis time always you call me 'Emil' mitout der 'Mister'!"