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An essay by James Runciman

Voyaging At Sea

Title:     Voyaging At Sea
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

A philosopher has described the active life of man as a continuous effort to forget the facts of his own existence. It is vain to pin such philosophers to a definite meaning; but I think the writer meant vaguely to hint in a lofty way that the human mind incessantly longs for change. We all crave to be something that we are not; we all wish to know the facts concerning states of existence other than our own; and it is this craving curiosity that produces every form of social and spiritual activity. Yet, with all this restless desire, this uneasy yearning, only a few of us are ever able to pass beyond one piteously narrow sphere, and we rest in blank ignorance of the existence that goes on without the bounds of our tiny domain. How many people know that by simply going on board a ship and sailing for a couple of days they would pass practically into another moral world, and change their mental as well as their bodily habits? I have been moved to these reflections by observing the vast amount of nautical literature which appears during the holiday season, and by seeing the complete ignorance and misconception which are palmed off upon the public. It is a fact that only a few English people know anything about the mightiest of God's works. To them life on the ocean is represented by a series of phrases which seem to have been transplanted from copy-books. They speak of "the bounding main," "the raging billows," "seas mountains high," "the breath of the gale," "the seething breakers," and so on; but regarding the commonplace, quiet everyday life at sea they know nothing. Strangely enough, only Mr. Clark Russell has attempted to give in literary form a vivid, veracious account of sea-life, and his thrice-noble books are far too little known, so that the strongest maritime nation in the whole world is ignorant of vital facts concerning the men who make her prosperity. Let any one who is well informed enter a theatre when a nautical drama is presented; he will find the most ridiculous spectacle that the mind of man can conceive. On one occasion, when a cat came on to the stage at Drury Lane and ran across the heaving billows of the canvas ocean, the audience roared with laughter; but to the judicious critic the real cause for mirth was the behaviour of the nautical persons who figured in the drama. The same ignorance holds everywhere. Seamen scarcely ever think of describing their life to people on shore, and the majority of landsmen regard a sea-voyage as a dull affair, to be begun with regret and ended with joy. Dull! Alas, it is dull for people who have dim eyes and commonplace minds; but for the man who has learned to gaze aright at the Creator's works there is not a heavy minute from the time when the dawn trembles in the gray sky until the hour when, with stars and sea-winds in her raiment, night sinks on the sea. Dull! As well describe the rush of the turbulent Strand or the populous splendour of Regent Street by that word! I have always held that a man cannot be considered as educated if he is unable to wait an hour in a railway-station for a train without _ennui_. What is education good for if it does not give us resources which may enable us to gather delight or instruction from every sight and sound that may fall on our nerves? The most melancholy spectacle in the world is presented by the stolid citizen who yawns over his _Bradshaw_ while the swift panoramas of Charing Cross or Euston are gliding by him. Men who are rightly constituted find delight in the very quietude and isolation of sea-life; they know how to derive pure entertainment from the pageant of the sky and the music of winds and waters, and they experience a piquant delight by reason of the contrast between the loneliness of the sea and the eager struggling life of the City. Proceeding, as is my custom, by examples, I shall give precise descriptions of specimen days which anybody may spend on the wandering wastes of the ocean. "All things pertaining to the life of man are of interest to me," said the Roman; and he showed his wisdom by that saying.

Dawn. Along the water-line a pale leaden streak appears, and little tremulous ripples of gray run gently upwards, until a broad band of mingled white and scarlet shines with cold radiance. The mystery of the sea is suddenly removed, and we can watch the strange serpentine belts that twine and glitter all round from our vessel to the horizon. The light is strong before the sun appears; and perhaps that brooding hour, when Nature seems to be turning in her sleep, is the best of the whole day. The dew lies thickly on deck, and the chill of the night hangs in the air; but soon a red arc looms up gorgeously at the sea-line; long rays spread out like a sheaf of splendid swords on the blue; there is, as it were, a wild dance of colour in the noble vault, where cold green and pink and crimson wind and flush and softly glide in mystic mazes; and then--the sun! The great flaming disc seems to poise for a little, and all around it--pierced here and there by the steely rays--the clouds hang like tossing scarlet plumes.

Like a warrior-angel sped
On a mighty mission,
Light and life about him shed--
A transcendent vision!

Mailed in gold and fire he stands,
And, with splendours shaken,
Bids the slumbering seas and lands
Quicken and awaken.

Day is on us. Dreams are dumb,
Thought has light for neighbour;
Room! The rival giants come--
Lo, the Sun and Labour!

After witnessing that lordly spectacle, who can wonder at Zoroaster? As the lights from east and west meet and mingle, and the sky rears its blue immensity, it is hard to look on for very gladness.

I shall suppose that we are on a small vessel--for, if we sail in a liner, or even in an ordinary big steamer, it is somewhat like moving about on a floating factory. The busy life of a sailor begins, for Jack rarely has an idle minute while he is on deck. Landsmen can call in help when their house needs repairing, but sailors must be able to keep every part of _their_ house in perfect order; and there is always something to be done. But we are lazy; we toil not, neither do we tar ropes, and our main business is to get up a thoroughly good appetite while we watch the deft sailor-men going about their business. It is my belief that a landsman might spend a month without a tedious hour, if he would only take the trouble to watch everything that the men do and find out why it is done. Ages on ages of storm and stress are answerable for the most trifling device that the sailor employs. How many and many lives were lost before the Norsemen learned to support the masts of their winged dragons by means of bull's-hide ropes! How many shiploads of men were laid at the mercy of the travelling seas before the Scandinavians learned to use a fixed rudder instead of a huge oar! Not a bolt or rope or pulley or eyelet-hole has been fixed in our vessel save through the bitter experience of centuries; one might write a volume about that mainsail, showing how its rigid, slanting beauty and its tremendous power were gradually attained by evolution from the ugly square lump of matting which swung from the masthead of Mediterranean craft. But we must not philosophise; we must enjoy. The fresh morning breeze runs merrily over the ripples and plucks off their crests; our vessel leans prettily, and you hear a tinkling hiss as she shears through the lovely green hillocks. Sometimes she thrusts away a burst of spray, and in the midst of the white spurt there shines a rainbow. It may happen that the rainbows come thickly for half an hour at a time, and then we seem to be passing through a fairy scene. Go under the main-yard and look away to leeward. The wind roars out of the mainsail and streams over you in a cold flood; but you do not mind that, for there is the joyous expanse of emerald and snow dancing under the glad sun. There is something unspeakably delightful in the rushing never-ending procession of waves that passes away, away in merry ranks to the shining horizon; and all true lovers of the sea are exhilarated by the sweet tumult. Remember I am talking about a fine day; I shall come to the bad weather in good time. On this ineffable morning a lady may come up and walk briskly in the crisp air; but indeed women are the best and coolest of sailors in any weather when once their preliminary troubles are over. The hours fly past, and we hail the announcement of breakfast with a sudden joy which tells of gross materialism. I may say, by-the-way, that our lower nature, or what sentimental persons call our lower nature, comes out powerfully at sea, and men of the most refined sort catch themselves in the act of wondering time after time when meals will be ready. For me I think that it is no more gross to delight in flavours than it is to delight in colours or harmonies, and one of my main reasons for dwelling on the delights of the sea lies in the fact that the voyager learns to take an exquisite, but quite rational, delight in the mere act of eating. I know that I ought to speak as though dinner were an ignoble institution; I know that the young lady who said, "Thanks--I rarely eat," represented a class who pretend to devote themselves to higher joys; but I decline to talk cant on any terms, and I say that the healthy, hearty hunger bestowed by the open sea is one of God's good gifts.

The sweet morning passes away, and somehow our thoughts run in bright grooves. That is the strange thing about the sea--its moods have an instant effect on the mind; and, as it changes with wild and swift caprice, the seafarer finds that his views of life alter with tantalizing but pleasant suddenness. Just now I am speaking only of content and exhilaration; but I may soon see another side of the picture. The afternoon glides by like the morning; no churlish houses and chimney-pots hide the sun, and we see him describe his magnificent curve, while, with mysterious potency, he influences the wind. Dull! Why, on shore we should gaze out on the same streets or fields or trees; but here our residence is driven along like a flying cloud, and we gain a fresh view with every mile! I confess that I like sailing in populous waters, for indeed the lonely tropical seas and the brassy skies are not by any means to be regarded as delightful; but for the present we are supposing ourselves to be in the track of vessels, and there is some new and poignant interest for every hour. Watch this vast pallid cloud that looms up far away; the sun strikes on the cloud, and straightway the snowy mass gleams like silver; on it comes, and soon we see a superb four-masted clipper broadside on to us. A royal fabric she is; every snowy sail is drawing, and she moves with resistless force and matchless grace through the water, while a boiling wreath of milky foam rushes away from her bows, and swathes of white dapple the green river that seems to pour past her majestic sides. The emigrants lean over the rail, and gaze wistfully at us. Ah, how many thousands of miles they must travel ere they reach their new home! Strange and pitiful it is to think that so few of them will ever see the old home again; and yet there is something bright and hopeful in the spectacle, if we think not of individuals, but of the world's future. Under the Southern Cross a mighty state is rising; the inevitable movement of populations is irresistible as the tides of mid-ocean; and those wistful emigrants who quietly wave their handkerchiefs to us are about to assist in working out the destiny of a new world. Dull! The passing of that great vessel gives matter for grave thought. She swings away, and we may perhaps try to run alongside for a while, but the immense drag of her four towers of canvas soon draws her clear, and she speedily looms once more like a cloud on the horizon. Good-bye! The squat collier lumbers along, and her leisurely grimy skipper salutes as we near him. It is marvellous to reflect that the whole of our coal-trade was carried on in those queer tubs only sixty years ago. They are passing away, and the gallant, ignorant, comical race of sailors who manned them has all but disappeared; the ugly sordid iron box that goes snorting past us, belching out jets of water from her dirty side--that is the agency that destroyed the colliers, and, alas, destroyed the finest breed of seamen that ever the world saw! So rapidly do new sights and sounds greet us that the night steals down almost before we are aware of its approach. The day is for joy; but, ah, the night is for subtle overmastering rapture, for pregnant gloom, for thoughts that lie too deep for tears! If a wind springs up when the last ray of the sun shoots over the shoulder of the earth, then the ship roars through an inky sea, and the mysterious blending of terror and ecstasy cannot be restrained. Hoarsely the breeze shrieks in the cordage, savagely the water roars as it darts away astern like a broad fierce white flame. The vessel seems to spring forward and shake herself with passion as the sea retards her, and the whole wild symphony of humming ropes, roaring water, screaming wind, sets every pulse bounding. Should the moon shine out from the charging clouds, then earth has not anything to show more fair; the broad track of light looks like an immeasurable river peopled by fiery serpents that dart and writhe and interwind, until the eye aches with gazing on them. Sleep seems impossible at first, and yet by degrees the poppied touch lulls our nerves, and we slumber without heeding the harrowing groans of the timbers or the confused cries of the wind.

So much for the glad weather; but, when the sky droops low, and leaping waves of mournful hue seem to rear themselves and mingle with the clouds, then the gladness is not so apparent. Still the exulting rush of the ship through the gray seas and her contemptuous shudder as she shakes off the masses of water that thunder down on her are fine to witness. Even a storm, when cataracts of hissing water plunge over the vessel and force every one to "hang on anywhere," is by no means without its delights; but I must candidly say that a ship is hardly the place for a woman when the wild winds try their strength against the works of man. On the whole, if we reckon up the pains and pleasures of life on board ship, the balance is all in favour of pleasure. The sailors have a toilsome life, and must endure much; but they have health. It is the sense of physical well-being that makes the mind so easy when one is on the sea; and refined men who have lived in the forecastle readily declare that they were happy but for the invariable dirt. Instead of trooping to stuffy lodgings, those of my readers who have the nerve should, if not this year, then next summer, go right away and take a cheap and charming holiday on the open sea.

_October, 1887._

[The end]
James Runciman's essay: Voyaging At Sea