Books by willis j. Abbot

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The revenue service stands midway between the merchant service and the navy. It may almost be said that the officers engaged in it suffer the disadvantages of both forms of sea service without enjoying the advantages of either. Unlike navy officers, they do not have a "retired list" to look forward to, against the time when they shall be old, decrepit, and unfit for duty. Congress has, indeed, made provision for placing certain specified officers on a roll called "permanent waiting orders," but this has been but a temporary makeshift, and no officer can feel assured that this provision will be made for him. Promotion, too, while quite as slow as in the navy, is limited. The highest officer in the service is a captain, his pay $2500 a year--but a sorry reward for a lifetime of arduous labor at sea, during which the officer may have been in frequent peril of his life, knowing all the time that for death in the discharge of duty, the Government will pay no pension to his heirs unless the disaster occurred while he was "cooperating with the navy." In one single year the records of the revenue service show more than one hundred lives saved by its activity, without taking into consideration those on vessels warned away from dangerous points by cutters. Yet neither in pay, in provision for their old age, or for their families in case of death met in the discharge of duty, are the revenue officers rewarded by the Government as are navy officers, while public knowledge and admiration for the service is vastly less than for the navy. It is a curious phenomenon, and yet one as old at least as the records of man, that the professional killer--that is to say, the officer of the army or navy--has always been held in higher esteem socially, and more lavishly rewarded, than the man whose calling it is to save life.

To a very considerable degree the life-saving service of the United States is an outgrowth of the revenue marine. To sojourners by the waterside, on the shores of either ocean or lake, the trim little life-saving stations are a familiar sight, and summer pleasure-seekers are entertained with the exhibition drills of the crews in the surf. It is the holiday side of this service as a rule that the people chiefly know, but its records show how far from being all holiday pleasure it is. In 1901 the men of the life-saving corps were called to give aid to 377 wrecked ships. Of property in jeopardy valued at $7,354,000, they saved $6,405,035 worth. Of 93,792 human beings in peril of death in the waters, all save 979 were saved. These are the figures relating only to considerable shipwrecks, but as life-saving stations are established at nearly every harbor's mouth, and are plentiful about the pleasure cruising grounds of yachts and small sailboats, hundreds of lives are annually saved by the crews in ways that attract little attention. In 1901 the records show 117 such rescues.

The idea of the life-saving service originated with a distinguished citizen of New Jersey, a State whose sandy coast has been the scene of hundreds of fatal shipwrecks. In the summer of 1839 William A. Newell, a young citizen of that State, destined later to be its Governor, stood on the beach near Barnegat in a raging tempest, and watched the Austrian brig "Count Perasto" drift onto the shoals. Three hundred yards from shore she struck, and lay helpless with the breakers foaming over her. The crew clung to the rigging for a time, but at last, fearing that she was about to go to pieces, flung themselves into the raging sea, and strove to swim ashore. All were drowned, and when the storm went down, the dead bodies of thirteen sailors lay strewn along the beach, while the ship itself was stranded high and dry, but practically unhurt, far above the water line.

"The bow of the brig being elevated and close to the shore after the storm had ceased," wrote Mr. Newell, in describing the event long years after, "the idea was forced quickly upon my mind that those unfortunate sailors might have been saved if a line could have been thrown to them across the fatal chasm. It was only a short distance to the bar, and they could have been hauled ashore in their small boat through, or in, the surf.... I instituted experiments by throwing light lines with bows and arrows, by rockets, and by a shortened blunderbuss with ball and line. My idea culminated in complete success, however, by the use of a mortar, or a carronade, and a ball and line. Then I found, to my great delight, that it was an easy matter to carry out my desired purpose."

Shortly after interesting himself in this matter Mr. Newell was elected to Congress, and there worked untiringly to persuade the national Government to lend its aid to the life-saving system of which he had conceived the fundamental idea. In 1848 he secured the first appropriation for a service to cover only the coast of New Jersey. Since then it has been continually extended until in 1901 the life-saving establishment embraced 270 stations on the Atlantic, Pacific, and lake coasts. The appropriation for the year was $1,640,000. For many years the service was a branch of the revenue marine, and when in 1878 it was made a separate bureau, the former chief of the revenue marine bureau was put at its head. The drill-masters for the crews are chosen from the revenue service, as also are the inspectors.


The methods of work in the life-saving service have long been familiar, partly because at each of the recurring expositions of late years, the service has been represented by a model station and a crew which went daily through all the operations of shooting a line over a stranded ship, bringing a sailor ashore in the breeches-buoy or the life-car, and drilling in the non-sinkable, self-righting surf-boat. Along the Atlantic coast the stations are so thickly distributed that practically the whole coast from Sandy Hook to Hatteras is continually under patrol by watchful sentries. Night and day, if the weather be stormy or threatening, patrolmen set out from each station, walking down the beach and keeping a sharp eye out for any vessel in the offing. Midway between the stations they meet, then each returns to his own post. In the bitter nights of winter, with an icy northeaster blowing and the flying spray, half-frozen, from the surf, driven by the gale until it cuts like a knife, the patrolman's task is no easy one. Indeed, there is perhaps no form of human endeavor about which there is more constant discomfort and positive danger than the life-saving service. It is the duty of the men to defy danger, to risk their lives whenever occasion demands, and the long records of the service show uncounted cases of magnificent heroism, and none of failure in the face of duty.

A form of seafaring which still retains many of the characteristics of the time when Yankee sailors braved all seas and all weather in trig little wooden schooners, is the pilot service at American ports, and notably at New York. Even here, however, the inroads of steam are beginning to rob the life of its old-time picturesqueness, though as they tend to make it more certain that the pilot shall survive the perils of his calling, they are naturally welcomed. Under the law every foreign vessel entering an American port must take a pilot. If the captain thinks himself able to thread the channel himself, he may do so; but nevertheless he has to pay the regular pilot fee, and if the vessel is lost, he alone is responsible, and his owners will have trouble with the insurance companies. So the law is acquiesced in, perhaps not very cheerfully, and there have grown up at each American port men who from boyhood have studied the channels until they can thread them with the biggest steamship in the densest fog and never touch bottom. New York as the chief port has the largest body of pilots, and in the old days, before the triumph of steam, had a fleet of some thirty boats, trim little schooners of about eighty tons, rigged like yachts, and often outsailing the best of them. In those days the rivalry between the pilots for ships was keen and the pilot-boats would not infrequently cruise as far east as Sable Island to lay in wait for their game. That was in the era of sailing ships and infrequent steamers, and it was the period of the greatest mortality among the pilots; for staunch as their little boats were, and consummate as was their seamanship, they were not fitted for such long cruises. The marine underwriters in those days used to reckon on a loss of at least one pilot-boat annually. Since 1838 forty-six have been lost, thirteen going down with all on board. In late years, however, changes in the methods of pilotage have greatly decreased the risks run by the boats. When the great ocean liners began trying to make "record trips" between their European ports and Sandy Hook, their captains became unwilling to slow up five hundred miles from New York to take a pilot. They want to drive their vessels for every bit of speed that is in them, at least until reported from Fire Island. The slower boats, the ocean tramps, too, look with disfavor on shipping a pilot far out at sea, for it meant only an idler aboard, to be fed until the mouth of the harbor was reached. So the rivalry between the pilots gave way to cooperation. A steamer was built to serve as a station-boat, which keeps its position just outside New York harbor, and supplies pilots for the eight boats of the fleet that cruise over fixed beats a few score miles away. But this change in the system has not so greatly reduced the individual pilot's chance of giving up his life in tribute to Neptune, for the great peril of his calling--that involved in getting from his pilot-boat to the deck of the steamer he is to take in--remains unabated.


Professional pride no less than hope of profit makes the pilot take every imaginable risk to get to his ship. He draws no regular salary, but his fee is graduated by the draft of the vessel he pilots. When a ship is sighted coming into port, the pilot-boat makes for her. If she has a blue flag in her rigging, half way up, by day, she has a pilot aboard. At night, the pilot-boats show a blue flare, by way of query. If the ship makes no answer, she is known to be supplied, and passes without slowing up; but if in response to signal she indicates that she is in need of a pilot, the exciting moment in the pilot's trade is at hand. Perhaps the night is pitchy dark, with a gale blowing and a heavy sea on: but the pilot slips on his shore clothes and his derby hat--it is considered unprofessional to wear anything more nautical--and makes ready to board. The little schooner runs up to leeward of where the great liner, with her long rows of gleaming portholes, lies rolling heavily in the sea. Sharp up into the wind comes the midget, and almost before she has lost steerage way a yawl is slid over the side, the pilot and two oarsmen tumble into it, and make for the side of the steamship. To climb a rope-ladder up the perpendicular face of a precipice thirty feet high on an icy night is no easy task at best; but if your start is from a boat that is being tossed up and down on a rolling sea, if your precipice has a way of varying from a strict perpendicular to an overhanging cliff, and then in an instant thrusting out its base so that the climber's knees and knuckles come with a sharp bang against it, while the next moment he is dropped to his shoulders in icy sea-water, the difficulties of the task are naturally increased. The instant the pilot puts his feet on the ladder he must run up it for dear life if he would escape a ducking, and lucky he is if the upward roll does not hurl him against the side of the ship with force enough to break his hold and drop him overboard. Sometimes in the dead of winter the ship is iced from the water-line to the rail, and the task of boarding is about equivalent to climbing a rolling iceberg. But whatever the difficulty, the pilot meets and conquers it--or else dies trying. It is all in the day's work for them. Accidents come in the form of boats run down by careless steamers, pilots crushed against the side or thrown into the sea by the roll of the vessel, the foundering of the pilot-boat or its loss on a lee shore; but still the ranks of the pilots are kept full by the admission to a long apprenticeship of boys who are ready to enter this adventurous and arduous calling. Few occupations require a more assiduous preparation, and the members of but few callings are able to guard themselves so well against the danger of over-competition. Nevertheless the earnings of the pilots are not great. They come under the operation of the rule already noted, that the more dangerous a calling is, the less are its rewards. Three thousand dollars a year is a high income for a pilot sailing out of New York harbor, and even this is decreasing as the ships grow bigger and fewer. Nor can he be at all certain as to what his income will be at any time, for the element of luck enters into it almost as much as into gambling. For weeks he may catch only small ships, or, the worst ill-luck that can befall a pilot, he may get caught on an outbound ship and be carried away for a six weeks' voyage, during which time he can earn nothing. But the pilot, like the typical sailor of whatever grade, is inured to hard luck and accustomed to danger.

Such are some of the safeguards which modern science and organization have provided for the sailor in pursuit of his always hazardous calling. Many others of course could be enumerated. The service of the weather bureau, by which warning of impending storms is given to mariners, is already of the highest utility. The new invention of wireless telegraphy, by which a ship at sea may call for aid from ashore, perhaps a thousand miles away, has great possibilities. Modern marine architecture is making steamships almost unsinkable, more quickly responsive to their helms, more seaworthy in every way. Perhaps with the perfection of the submarine boat, ships, instead of being tossed on the boisterous surface of the waves, may go straight to their destination through the placid depths of ocean. But whatever the future may bring, the history of the American sailor will always bear evidence that he did not wait for the perfection of safety devices to wrest from the ocean all that there was of value in the conquest; that no peril daunted him, nor was any sea, however distant, a stranger to his adventurous sail.

Much has been said and written of the improvidence of the sailor, of his profligacy when in port, his childlike helplessness when in the hands of the landsharks who haunt the waterside streets, his blind reliance upon luck to get him out of difficulties, and his utter indifference to all precautionary provisions for the proverbial rainy day. Perhaps the sailor has been getting a shade the worse of it in the literature on this subject, for he, himself, is hardly literary in his habits, and has not been able to tell his own story. The world has heard much of the jolly Jack Tars who spend in a few days' revel in waterside dives the whole proceeds of a year's cruise; but it has heard less of the shrewd schemes which are devised for fleecing poor Jack, and applied by every one with whom he comes in contact, from the prosperous owner who pays him off in orders that can only be conveniently cashed at some outfitter's, who charges usurious rates for the accommodation, down to the tawdry drab who collects advance money on account of half a dozen sailor husbands. The seaman landing with money in his pocket in any large town is like the hapless fish in some of our much-angled streams. It is not enough to avoid the tempting bait displayed on every side. So thick are the hooks and snares that merely to swim along, intent on his own business, is likely to result sooner or later in his being impaled on some cruel barb. Not enough has been said, either, of the hundreds of American lads who shipped before the mast, made their voyages around Cape Horn and through all the Seven Seas, resisted the temptations of the sailors' quarters in a score of ports, kept themselves clean morally and physically, and came, in time, to the command and even the ownership of vessels. Among sailors, as in other callings, there are the idle and the industrious apprentices, and the lesson taught by Hogarth's famous pictures is as applicable to them that go down to the sea in ships as to the workers at the loom. It is doubtful, too, whether the sailor is either more gullible or more dissolute when in port than the cowboy when in town for a day's frolic, or the miner just in camp with a pocket full of dust, after months of solitude on his claim. Men are much of a sort, whatever their calling. After weeks of monotonous and wearing toil, they are apt to go to extremes when the time for relaxation comes. Men whose physical natures only are fully developed seek physical pleasures, and the sailor's life is not one to cultivate a taste for the quieter forms of recreation.

But the romance that has always surrounded the sailor's character, his real improvidence, and his supposedly unique simplicity have, in some slight degree, redounded to his advantage. They have led people in all lands to form organizations for his aid, protection, and guidance, hospitals to care for him in illness, asylums and homes to provide for the days of his old age and decrepitude. Best known of all these charitable institutions for the good of Jack Tar is the Sailor's Snug Harbor, whose dignified buildings on Staten Island look out across the finest harbor in the world to where New York's tall buildings tower high above the maintop-gallant mast of the biggest ship ever built. This institution, founded just one hundred years ago by the will of Captain Robert R. Randall, himself an American sailor of the old type, who amassed his fortune trading to all the countries on the globe, now has an income of $400,000 annually, and cares for 900 old sailors, each of whom must have sailed for at least five years under the American flag.

* * * * *

A new chapter in the story of the American sailor is opening as this book is closed. The period of the decadence of the American merchant marine is clearly ended, and everything gives assurance that the first quarter of this new century will do as much toward re-establishing the United States flag on the high seas as the first quarter of the nineteenth century did toward first putting it there. As these words are being written, every shipyard in the United States is busy, and some have orders that will tax their capacity for three years to come. New yards are being planned and small establishments, designed only to build pleasure craft, are reaching out after greater things. The two biggest steamships ever planned are building near New London, where four years ago was no sign of shipyard or factory. The Great Lakes and the Pacific coast ring with the sound of the steel ship-builder's hammer.

But will the American sailor share in the new life of the American ship? The question is no easy one to answer. Modern shipping methods offer little opportunity for ambitious lads to make their way from the forecastle to the owner's desk. The methods by which the Cleavelands, Crowninshields, Lows, and their fellows in the early shipping trade won their success, have no place in modern economy. As I write, the actual head of the greatest shipping concern the world has ever known, is a Wall Street banker, whose knowledge of the sea was gained from the deck of a private steam yacht or the cabin de luxe of a fast liner, and who has applied to the shipping business only the same methods of stock manipulating that made him the greatest railroad director in the world before he thought to control the ocean as well. With steam, the sailor has become a mere deckhand; the captain a man of business and a disciplinarian, who may not know the names of the ropes on a real ship; the owner a corporation; the voyages mere trips to and fro between designated ports made with the regularity and the monotony of a sleeping-car's trips between Chicago and San Francisco. Until these conditions shall materially change, there is little likelihood that the sea will again attract restless, energetic, and ambitious young Americans. Men of the type that we have described in earlier chapters of this book do not adopt a life calling that will forever keep them in subordinate positions, subject to the whims and domination of an employing corporation. A genial satirist, writing of the sort of men who became First Lords of the Admiralty in England, said:

"Mind your own business and never go to sea, And you'll come to be the ruler of the Queen's navee."

Perhaps a like situation confronts the American merchant marine in its new development.
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