How Old Wiggins Wore Ship

by Captain Roland T. Coffin


Well, sir,” said the old sailor, “here we are ag’in. I ain’t been round here much lately, and atwixt you and me, she’s put the ‘kybosh’ onto it, holdin’ that comin’ round here and hystin’ are promotin’ of rheumatics, which, as are well known, they come of long and various exposures in all climates, to say nothin’ of watchin’ onto a damp dock night arter night continual. But what’s the use? Everybody knows as a quiet home are better than silver and fine gold, which it stands to reason are to be obtained in two ways. Wimmin are like sailors in some respects; whoever has anythin’ to do with ’em must either be saddled and bridled, leastwise, or else booted and spurred. You’ve got to ride ’em, or else they’ll ride you. Bein’ a sailorman myself, it ain’t likely as I’d say anythin’ ag’in ’em; but if the truth must be told, I’ll say this—that while it’ll never do, not at no price, for to let sailors git the upper hand, there’s many a man as has giv’ the helm into the hands of his old woman and made a better v’yage thereby; and I don’t mind sayin’, sir, that havin’ while follerin’ the water got into the habit of allowin’ her for to be skipper in the house durin’ my short stoppin’s on shore, it got for to be so much the custom, that since comin’ home for a full due I ain’t never tried for to break away from it; and though human natur’ is falliable, and she does make mistakes, especially about the hystin’, on the whole, and by and large, I judges I’ve been a gainer by it, as I believes at least eight men out of ten would be if they took the hint accordin’ and went and done likewise.

“I don’t go for to say as she ever goes to go to say I ain’t a-goin’ for to let you go there; but it are terrible aggrivokin’ when the rheumatics twinges awful, and as it might be that this saw-mill don’t want no more splinters laid onto it, to have her feelin’ly remark, ‘Well, if you will go round a-guzzlin’ ale with your swell friends and a-leavin’ your lawful wife to home alone you must expect to pay for it,’ whereas I know it are the dock and other causes long gone by; but that knowledge don’t ease the pain a morsel, and the last time I were that way tantalized I swore I wouldn’t come here no more. But whatever are the use? Man resolves and reresolves and then takes another snifter, and so here I are, and bein’ as its cold, as so she sha’n’t have no basis for her unfeelin’ remark about guzzlin’ ale, we’ll let him make it hot rum, and arter the old receipt, neither economizin’ in the rum or the sugar, but givin’ a fair drink for honest money.

“Well, well (just mix another afore the glass cools off), to think how the time goes. Here it are autumn ag’in, and in a few weeks ’twill be winter. It reminds me (I’ll take one more, if you please, with one lump less of sugar and the space in rum) that I’m gittin’ old, and I feels it. My eyes ain’t so good and my legs ain’t so good, and I ain’t so good all over. When I goes down to the dock my lantern are heavier than it used to were, and the distance ain’t so short as it used to seem from the dock to the house. Afore many years I’ll be put quietly away, and though I’d prefer bein’ beautifully sewed up and launched shipshape in blue water, with a hundred pound weight for to keep me down, I s’poses it won’t make much difference, nohow. Anyhow, if I lives as long as old Wiggins, I hopes I may go as well at the end. I don’t think I ever told you about him, and if you’ll let him fill ’em up ag’in—for it’s one of the vartues of hot rum that the more you drinks the thirstier you gits—I’ll reel you the yarn right off.

“Old Wiggins had been all his life into the Liverpool trade and had got well fixed, so far as cash were consarned; and so when he came for to be seventy or seventy-two years old he were persuaded for to knock off for a full due and spend the balance of his life ashore. Goin’ up to some place in Connecticut, he buys hisself a place there and settles down. Well, for a time he were all right, a-fixin’ up his house, a-buildin’ new barns and hen-coops and fences and the like, and I’ve heerd tell that the house where he kep’ his pigs were better than any dwellin’-house in that region, and the whole place were the wonder of the country roundabout; but arter he had fixed his house all up like a ship, with little staterooms all through the upper part of it, and had got everythin’ inside and out in shipshape order, and there weren’t nothin’ else he could think of for to do, he gits terribly homesick and discontented, and times when he’d come to the city for to collect his sheer of the profits of ships as he had a interest in, he’d sit for hours on the wharf a-watchin’ the vessels on the river, and it were like drawin’ teeth for to git him to leave and go up to his home. His eyes had giv’ out sometime afore he quit the sea, and his legs was shaky, so as he had to walk with a settin’ pole, and his hand were tremblin’ and unsteady; but aloft he were still all right, and his head were as clear as a bell.

“Arter bein’ ashore a matter of seven year, he comes to town one day to see a ship off what he had been in afore he quit, and in which he had a half interest. The skipper of that ship, which her name were the Vesuvius, he bein’ called Perkins, in comin’ from the Custom House arter clearin’, got athwart-hawse of a dray and were knocked down, the wheels passin’ over his legs and breakin’ of ’em, and whatever do old Wiggins do—the home-sickness bein’ strong onto him—but says to the agents, ‘It are a pity for to lose a day’s fair wind; I’ll go aboard and take her out myself;’ and, sure enough, he done it, never lettin’ on to the folks at home, but leavin’ the agents to tell ’em arter he were gone.

“Into that ship I were shipped, she bein’ 830 tons or thereabout, with three royal yards across, and loaded with flour and grain, there bein’ sixteen of us afore the mast, with two mates, carpenter and cook, and steward, leavin’ on the 16th of November, and, unless I’m mistakened, in the year 1843.

“We towed down to the Hook and out over the bar, and then put the muslin on to her with a fine breeze from sou’west, and I supposes there weren’t a happier man in the world than old Wiggins when he discharged the pilot and steamer and took charge.

“‘I’ve giv’ ’em the slip,’ says he to the mate. ‘I’ve giv’ ’em the slip; they thought I were too old for to go to sea, but I’ll show ’em thar’s plenty of life into me yet; git out all the starboard stunsails and see to it that she’s kep’ a-movin’ night and day, for in sixteen days I expects to walk the pierhead in Liverpool.’ Well, sure enough, a-movin’ she were kep’, and I never seen harder carryin’s on than I seen that passage; but we never lost a stitch of canvas, ’cause the old man not only knowed how to carry it, but he knowed how to take it off of her when it be to come off, and in a gale of wind he’d ’liven up wonderful, whereas in light weather he’d show his age. It were funny for to see him takin’ the sun and tryin’ to read her off, which he weren’t able for to do, not by no means.

“‘What d’ye stand on?’ he’d say to the mate arter screwin’ his eye to the glass and tryin’ to make it out; and when the mate would tell him, he’d say, ‘I believe that agrees with me; just take a squint at my instrument; my eyesight ain’t just as good as it used for to be, and I don’t quite make it out.’ Then the mate would read him off his instrument, and arter he’d made it eight bells he’d go down and work it up and prick her off. The fourteenth day out we made the light on Fastnet Rock, off Cape Clear, and went bowlin’ along the coast, passin’ Tuskar next day, and swingin’ her off up channel and round Hollyhead past the Skerries and takin’ a pilot off P’int Lynas. It were a sight worth seein’ for to watch the old man handle her in takin’ a pilot. The wind were fresh from west-nor’west, and we passed the Skerries with all three royals set and lower topmast and to’gallan’ stunsails on the port side. As soon as ever we passed the rocks we kep’ off for Lynas, and as soon as the stunsails got by the lee they was hauled in. Then with the wind about two p’ints on the starboard quarter we went bilin’ along for the boat which we seen standin’ off shore just to the east’ard of the P’int. There were a pretty bubble of a sea on, and afore we gits to him he goes about standin’ in to the bay and givin’ sheet. We follers along arter him, goin’ two feet to his one, still carryin’ all three royals, with hands at halliards and clewlines. Just afore we gits to him the old man sings out, ‘Clew up the royals, haul down the flyin’ jib, haul up the crochick and mainsail.’ By this time we was well under the land and in smooth water. Keepin’ his eye onto the pilot-boat, which were a couple of p’ints onto our weather bow, the old man no sooner seen her come to than he sings out, ‘Hard up the helm!’ And as we swung off afore the wind we runned up the foresail and laid the head-yards square; then mannin’ the port main braces we let the to’gallan’ yards run down on the caps and let her come to ag’in, and so nicely had the old man calculated the distance that as she come to the wind she shot up alongside of the pilot-boat, stoppin’ just abreast of her and not over twenty foot away.

“‘That was well done, Mr. Mate,’ said the pilot, as he come over the side; ‘some of these galoots makes us chase ’em half a day afore we can board ’em. Fill away the head-yards, put your helm up, run up the flyin’ jib, brail up the spanker check in the arter yards,’ and as she swung off he comes aft to the wheel where I was a-steerin’, and says, ‘Keep her east-sou’east, my man; giv’ us a chew of terbacker.’ We soon had the muslin piled onto her ag’in, and sure enough, as old Wiggins had said, the sixteenth day out he walked the pierhead in Liverpool.

“I understood as old Wiggins was made a good deal on in Liverpool as bein’ the oldest skipper that had ever come there, and the Board of Trade and what not giv’ him dinners, and so on—which, considerin’ his age, he oughtn’t to have took—and by other skippers at the hotel he were much honored, bein’ giv’ the head of the table and treated with great deference—and all this dinin’ and winin’ and feastin’ weren’t no good to him—and, arter a stay of three weeks, when we ag’in went down the river with full complement of passengers and a good freight, he weren’t not by no means as well as when we went in. We had, too, a tough time down channel, a stiff sou’wester, with rain and thick weather, and it told onto the old man, so that when arter bein’ out a week we at last got clear of Tuskar and had the ocean open, the relief from the strain fetched him, and he were took down sick.

“Whether it were to punish him for comin’ to sea at his time of life or not I don’t know; but from this on we did have the devil’s own weather. Gale after gale from the west’ard, shiftin’ constant from sou’west to nor’west, and tryin’ constant to see from which quarter it could blow the hardest.

“The mate were a plucky and a able young feller, by the name of Graham, and he kep’ her a-dancin’ as well as the old man would have done. Constant she had everythin’ put to her that she’d bear, and always were she kep’ on the tack where she’d make the most westin’, and so she struggled along till we was as far as thirty degrees west, we bein’ thirty days out and not yet half way. Every day we asked the steward how old Wiggins were a-gittin’ on, and every day he’d shake his head and say ‘no better;’ and it come to be understood, fore and aft, that it were as much as a toss-up if the old man ever smelled grass ag’in. We had a little let-up arter gittin’ into the thirties, and for a day or so had fine weather and a chance to dry our dunnage. Fine days, however, is scarce in January on that herrin’ pond—I’ll take just another; mentionin’ herrin’s makes me dry—and when you gits ’em they are most always weather-breeders. I went up on to the main royal yard when our side come up at 8 o’clock one mornin’ for to sew on the leather on the parral, and it were like a day in May. Afore I got the leather sewed on I be to look out for myself, ’cause they was goin’ to clew up the sail, and from that time on it breezed on from the sou’ard, keepin’ us constantly takin’ the sail off of her, till at four bells we was under double-reefed topsails and reefed courses, with jib, crochick, and spanker stowed. We hammered away under this, carryin’ on very heavy, ’cause she were headin’ west-nor’west, which were a good course, till eight bells in the arternoon watch, when the sea gittin’ up so tremendiously we had to furl the reefed mainsail and mizzen topsail and close reef the fore and main topsails.

“You’d think that were snug enough for any ship, now, wouldn’t you? and sartin it are; no ship ever ought to have less canvas than this, till it blows away, ’cause she’s safer with it onto her than with it off, the reefed foresail supportin’ the yard. Well, we’d had gales and gales, but this here gale beat anythin’ that I’d ever seen, and at seven bells in the first night watch, with a tremendious surge, the weather leech rope of the foresail giv’ way, and in a jiffy away went the foreyard in the slings—the foresail and fore-topsail goin’ into ribbons. All hands, of course, was busy for’ard, tryin’ for to git some of this wreck stuff tranquillized, when all of a suddint from the poop come the old man’s voice, full and round and clear, and not shrill and pipin’ as we’d heerd it last, and above all the roarin’ of the gale and the din of the slattin’ canvas, we heerd him shout: ‘Stations for wearin’ ship. We must git her head round to the sou’ard,’ he bawled in the ear of the mate, as Mr. Graham struggled aft; ‘the shift will come in less than half a hour, and its goin’ to be tremendious; if it catches us aback it won’t leave a stick into her; but it ain’t a-goin’ to catch us, sir; I’ve brung her through many and many a time like this. I’ll bring her through this one, and then you must do the rest. Now, then,’ says he, ‘stand by, put your helm just a few spokes a-weather, don’t check her at all with the rudder, slack a foot or two of the lee braces and check in to wind’ard; keep your eye constant on that sail, Mr. Clark’—that were the second mate—‘and don’t let it shake; keep it good full and give her away; lay the crochick yard square, and come up to the main-braces, all of you.’ And so, gently, as if she’d been a sick child, he coaxed her to go off, and she begin to gather way. As soon as she done so the helm were put hard up, and the main-yard rounded in, just keepin’ the topsail alift, but not permittin’ it to shake. As she went off till she got the sea on the quarter, a mighty wave came a-rollin’ along, boardin’ us about the main riggin’, floodin’ the decks and dashin’ out the starboard bulwarks. The minnit we got the wind onto the starboard quarter we braced the main-yard sharp up with the port-braces and bowsed the weather ones as taut as a harp string. ‘Now, then,’ says the old man, ‘never mind that trash for’ard, let that go; git a jumper on to the main-yard and a preventer main-topsail brace aloft; lay aloft for your lives, and clap preventer gaskets on everythin’ that’s furled; we’ll have it soon from the north’ard fit to take the masts out of her.’ He were right. In a short time there were a instant’s lull, and then with a roar that were almost deafenin’ came the cyclone from the north. Thanks to the old man’s sagacity and experience, howsever, we was a-headin’ sou’-southeast when it hit us, and it struck us right aft.

“‘Steady as you go,’ shouts the old man, and then, a minnit arter, as she gathered way, he says ag’in to the mate, ‘We must let her come to, Mr. Graham, we can’t run her in the teeth of the old s’utherly sea; ease down the helm and let her smell of it.’ It was a powerful whiff she took, for as she come to and felt the force of the wind, all three to’gallan’ masts went short off at the cap, the main-topsail sheets parted, and in an instant there wasn’t a piece of the sail left big enough for a lady’s handkerchief.

“‘That’s all it can do,’ said the old man to the mate, bitterly; ‘git this trash on deck as soon as possible, and git her a-waggin’ once more; I’ve brung her through it safe, and am goin’ home,’ and with that he dropped onto the poop as dead as mutton. He had come on deck bare-headed and with nothin’ on but his drawers and shirt, just as he had laid in his bunk for a fortnight, and the exposure had carried him off. However, he knowed that the shift were so near nobody ever could tell. There were no doubt, however, but that his gittin’ her weared round were our salvation. If that gust had a-struck us aback our masts would have gone sartin, and it’s a toss-up but what we’d a-gone down starn fust afore she’d a-backed round. Next day we giv’ old Wiggins a funeral fit for the Emperor of Rooshy, and he well desarved it. I don’t know as ever I seen a prettier sew-up than we done on him, wrappin’ him first in the American ensign and then kiverin’ him with brand-new No. 4 canvas. Considerin’ the sails we’d lost and how much we needed the canvas, I think he must have been satisfied that we done the handsome thing by him. The day was beautiful and clear, although the wind still blowed a gale. We hadn’t been able to do much with the wreck stuff, except git lashin’s onto it for to keep it from swingin’ about, and we hadn’t dared for to try for to send up another main-topsail. We had set the reefed mainsail for to steady her, and that were all. The three to’gallan’ masts was still a-hangin’ over the side, and the ribbons of the foresail and fore-topsail was still a-flutterin’ in the breeze, when at eight bells, at midday, all hands was called for to bury the dead. Everythin’ that we had in the way of nice clothes we had put on for to do honor to our captain, and most of us was able to sport white shirts and broadcloth. We laid the old man onto a plank and kivered him with the union jack, and all hands gathered round him, while Mr. Graham read the sarvice. Everythin’ went lovely, and just at the proper time we tilted the plank, and he slipped off without a hitch of any kind. Arter the mate finished the readin’, he said, ‘Men, there’s a good man gone arter a long life of great usefulness. He were a sailor and a gentleman. I don’t think as we ought for to cry over sich a man, and I propose we giv’ him three cheers and God bless him’; and heartier cheers was never giv’ than we giv’ that day, arter which all hands got dinner.”