THE CAPTAIN AND THE MATE - A Nantucket Tale of 1848

[There was a Captain] Phillips, who belonged on the island here. He was a mighty old fellow, every way; strong in head and limb. He never drank anything but water, nor ate (from choice) anything but fish and hard biscuit. He could read the sun, the moon, and the face of the sea, as plainly as I can the commandments, and they always brought him out right; just as the commandments would me, if I kept in their wake. In clear weather, he never thought of sounding; there was something in the shape and color of every wave, that told him the nature of the bottom, and the depth of the water. I made one trip with him when I was quite a youngster; and although he was somewhat to the leeward of 60, he possessed wonderful judgment and coolness.

I shall never forget that homeward passage. It was late in November, and we judged ourselves seven leagues southeast of Nantucket. The old man was below, on his beam ends, with a cruel rheumatism, when the wind, which had been flowing hard from the north, hauled to the east. The mate, whose name was Salter, had not thought of running under circumstances so unfavorable, and went below.

"Captain Phillips," said he, "the wind has canted to the eastward, but it is awful foggy -- so thick that you canít see across the deck."

"Sound!" said the old man, "and pass the lead below."

They did so, and after a glance at it, he turned to the mate, and said, "shake out all the reefs, keep her northwest two hours, then sound again, and let me see the lead."

"Yes sir," said the mate, and he passed up the companionway, not pleased with the prospect. In two hours, soundings were again had, and the lead passed to the skipper. "Five fathoms, with sand, and a cracking breeze," said Salter.

"Donít you mean seven fathoms, Mr. Salter?" asked the old man, scraping the sand with the nail of his right forefinger.

"There may have been about seven, sir,íí said the mate. "I allowed pretty largely for the drift; but it is best to be on the safe side.

"Right, Mr. Salter, right. I am glad to find you so particular. We are close in with the land and canít be too careful. You may keep her northwest, half west; I donít expect you can see much, but if you donít hear anything in the course of fifteen minutes, let me know it. An open ear for breakers, Mr. Salter! We must be cautious, very cautious, sir!"

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The mate, although a fellow of considerable grit, was somewhat staggered at the last orders. He, however, nodded a respectful assent, and made his way to the forward part of the vessel. The wind had freshened, and the "Little Mary" (as the schooner was called) was doing her prettiest. Salter leaned over the larboard bow, and was pondering upon the folly of running before a gale of wind through a fog, to make the land, with no other guide than a few particles of gray sand, in which he had no more confidence than he would have had in a piece of drift seaweed.

Eight or nine minutes only had passed, when the roar of breakers struck the ear of the mate. "Luff, luff, and shake her!" cried he. The schooner was brought to the wind in an instant. The foam from the receding waves was visible under her lee, but in a moment the dark line of Seconset head, in the southwest, told the mate that everything was right.

"We are clear of the scrape, so far," growled Salter; "but I donít think a handful of sand is a thing to run by in a time like this. Iíll know if there is any difference between the bottom here, and the last we had. Sam, heave the lead, while I keep her steady."

The lead came up, and the mate declared not only the bottom, but the depth of water to be the same. "I think,íí continued he, "all the sand within forty miles of this spot is alike. "Sam, pass me some of that [sand] which the cook brought on board to clean his things with, while we are lying in Seconset. There,íí he said, comparing the two, "there is no difference, even in this, except what the water makes;" and he proceeded to prove his position by putting fresh tallow on the lead, and covering it with the sand which had been brought from the uplands of Seconset.

"Sam," said Salter, "you may wet the lead. Iíll try it on the old man."

The lead was washed in the sea for a moment, and the mate took it below, chuckling at the thought of snaring the old veteran."

"Captain Phillips,"said he, with counterfeit anxiety, "the fifteen minutes are gone -- it blows spitefully in flaws, and spits thick."

"Mr. Salter," returned the old man, raising himself in his berth to take the lead, "northwest half west should have brought you within ear-shot of the breakers some minutes ago. I am afraid you have not kept her straight." He raised the lead, and the first glance at the soundings seemed to shake his very soul -- but the flush on his high pale forehead passed away in an instant. Ordering the skylight to be removed, he placed the lead in a better position, and riveting his clear blue eye upon it for a full minute, he turned to the mate, with the utmost coolness, and said "Mr. Salter, I am glad to say that there has been no fault in your steering; the schooner has run northwest, half west, as straight as a gun-barrel; at the same time I am very sorry to tell you that Nantucket has sunk, and that we are just over Seconset ridge!"

 

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