By Jack London
Author of "The Call of the Wild," "The Sea Wolf," etc.
Whatever you do, make westing! make westing!—Sailing
directions for Cape Horn
FOR seven weeks the Mary Rogers had been between
fifty degrees south in the Atlantic and fifty degrees south in the Pacific,
which meant that for seven weeks she had been struggling to round Cape Horn.
For seven weeks she had been either in dirt, or close to dirt, save once, and
then, following upon six days of excessive dirt which she had ridden out under
the shelter of the redoubtable Terra Del Fuego coast, she had almost gone
ashore during a heavy swell in the dead calm that had suddenly fallen. For
seven weeks she had wrestled with the Cape Horn graybeards, and in return had
been buffeted and smashed by them. She was a wooden ship, and her ceaseless
straining had opened her seams, so that twice a day the watch took its turn at
The Mary Rogers was strained, the crew was
strained, and big Dan Cullen, master, was likewise strained. Perhaps he was
strained most of all, for upon him rested the responsibility of that titanic
struggle. He slept most of the time in his clothes, though he rarely slept. He
haunted the deck at night, a great, burly, robust ghost, black with the sunburn
of thirty years of sea and hairy as an orangutan. He, in turn, was haunted by
one thought of action, a sailing direction for the Horn: Whatever you do,
make westing! make westing! It was an obsession. He thought of nothing
else, except, at times, to blaspheme God for sending such bitter weather.
Make westing! He hugged the Horn, and a
dozen times lay hove to with the iron cape bearing east-by-north, or
north-northeast, a score of miles away. And each time the eternal west wind
smote him back and he made easting. He fought gale after gale, south to
sixty-four degrees, inside the Antarctic drift ice, and pledged his immortal
soul to the Powers of Darkness for a bit of westing, for a slant to take him
around. And he made easting. In despair, he had tried to make the passage
through the Straits of Le Maire. Half way through, the wind hauled to the
north'ard of northwest, the glass dropped to 28.88, and he turned and ran
before a gale of cyclonic fury, missing, by a hair's breadth, piling up the
Mary Rogers on the black-toothed rocks. Twice he had made west to the
Diego Ramirez rocks, one of the times saved between two snowsqualls by sighting
the gravestones of ships a quarter of a mile dead ahead.
Blow! Captain Dan Cullen instanced all his thirty
years at sea to prove that never had it blown so before. The Mary Rogers
was hove to at the time he gave the evidence, and, to clinch it, inside half an
hour the Mary Rogers was hove down to the hatches. Her new maintopsail
and brand new spencer were blown away like tissue paper, and five sails, furled
and fast under double gaskets, were blown loose and stripped from the yards.
And before morning the Mary Rogers was hove down twice again, and holes
were knocked in her bulwarks to ease her decks from the weight of the ocean
that pressed her down.
On an average of once a week Captain Dan Cullen
caught glimpses of the sun. Once, for ten minutes, the sun shone at midday, and
ten minutes afterward a new gale was piping up, both watches were shortening
sail, and all was buried in the obscurity of a driving snowsquall. For a
fortnight, once, Captain Dan Cullen was without a meridian or a chronometer
sight. Barely did he know his position within half of a degree, except when in
sight of land; for sun and stars remained hidden behind the sky, and it was so
gloomy that even at the best of the horizons were poor for accurate
observations. A gray gloom shrouded the world. The clouds were gray; the great
driving seas were leaden gray; the smoking crests were a gray churning; even
the occasional albatrosses were gray, while the snow flurries were not white,
but gray, under the somber pall of the heavens.
Life on board the Mary Rogers was gray,
gray and gloomy. The faces of the sailors were blue-gray; they were afflicted
with sea-cuts and sea-boils, and suffered exquisitely. They were shadows of
men. For seven weeks, in the forecastle or on deck, they had not known what it
was to be dry. They had forgotten what it was to sleep out a watch, and all
watches it was "all hands on deck!" They caught snatches of agonized
sleep, and they slept in their oilskins ready for the everlasting call. So weak
and worn were they that it took both watches to do the work of one. That was
why both watches were on deck so much of the time. And now shadow of a man
could shirk duty. Nothing less than a broken leg could enable a man to knock
off work; and there were two such, who had been mauled and pulped by the seas
that broke aboard.
One other man who was the shadow of a man was
George Dorety. He was the only passenger on board, a friend of the firm, and he
had elected to make the voyage for his health. But seven weeks of Cape Horn had
not bettered his health. He gasped and panted in his bunk through the long,
heaving nights; and when on deck he was so bundled up for warmth that he
resembled a peripatetic old clothes shop. At midday, eating at the cabin table
in a gloom so deep that the swinging sea-lamps burned always, he looked as
blue-gray as the sickest, saddest man for'ard. Nor did gazing across the table
at Captain Dan Cullen have any cheering effect upon him. Captain Cullen chewed
and scowled and kept silent. The scowls were for God, and with every chew he
reiterated the sole thought of his existence, which was to make westing. He was
a big, hairy brute, and the sight of him was not stimulating to the other's
appetite. He looked upon George Dorety as a Jonah and told him so, once each
meal, savagely transferring the scowl from God to the passenger and back
Nor did the first mate prove a first aid to a
languid appetite. Joshua Higgins by name, a seaman by profession and pull, but
a pot-walloper by capacity, he was a loose-jointed, sniffling creature,
heartless and selfish and cowardly, without a soul, in fear of his life of Dan
Cullen, and a bully over the sailors who knew that behind the first mate was
Captain Cullen, the lawgiver and compeller, the driver and the destroyer, the
incarnation of a dozen bucko mates. In that wild weather at the southern end of
the earth, Joshua Higgins ceased washing. His grimy face usually robbed George
Dorety of what little appetite he managed to accumulate. Ordinarily this
lavatorial dereliction would have caught Captain Cullen's eye and vocabulary,
but in the present his mind was filled with making westing, to the exclusion of
all other things not contributory thereto. Whether the first mate's face was
clean or dirty had no bearing upon westing. Later on, when fifty degrees south
in the Pacific had been reached, Joshua Higgins would wash his face very
abruptly. In the meantime, at the cabin table, where gray twilight alternated
with lamplight while the lamps were being filled, George Dorety sat between the
two men, one a tiger and the other a hyena, and wondered why God had made them.
The second mate, Matthew Turner, was a true sailor and a man, but George Dorety
did not have the solace of his company, for he ate by himself, solitary, when
they had finished.
On Saturday morning, July 24th, George Dorety
awoke to a feeling of life and headlong movement. On deck he found the Mary
Rogers running off before a howling south-easter. Nothing was set by the
lower-topsails and the foresail. It was all she could stand, yet she was making
fourteen knots, as Mr. Turner shouted in Dorety's ear when he came on deck. And
it was all westing. She was going around the Horn at last
. . . if the wind held. Mr. Turner
looked happy. The end of the struggle was in sight. But Captain Cullen did not
look happy. He did not want God to know that he was pleased with that wind. He
had a conception of a malicious God, and believed in his secret soul that if
God knew it was a desirable wind God would promptly efface it and send a
snorter from the west. So he walked softly before God, smothering his joy down
under scowls and muttering curses, and, so, fooling God, for God was the only
thing in the universe of which Dan Cullen was afraid.
All Saturday and Saturday night the Mary
Rogers raced her westing. Persistently she legged her fourteen knots, so
that by Sunday morning she had covered three hundred and fifty miles. If the
wind held, she would make around. If it failed, and the snorter came from
anywhere between the southwest and north, back the Mary Rogers would be
hurled and be no better off than she had been seven weeks before. And on Sunday
morning the wind was failing. The big sea was going down and running smooth.
Both watches were on deck setting sail after sail as fast as the ship could
stand it. And now Captain Cullen went around brazenly before God, smoking a big
cigar, smiling jubilantly, as if the failing wind delighted him, while down
underneath he was raging against God for taking the life out of the blessed
wind. Make westing! So he would, if God would only leave him alone.
Secretly, he pledged himself anew to the Powers of Darkness, if they would let
him make westing. He pledged himself so easily because he did not believe in
the Powers of Darkness. He really believed only in God, though he did not know
it. And in his inverted theology God was really the Prince of Darkness. Captain
Cullen was a devil worshiper, but he called the devil by another name, that was
At midday, after calling eight bells, Captain
Cullen ordered the royals on. The men went aloft faster than they had gone in
weeks. Not alone were they nimble because of the westing, but a benignant sun
was shining down and limbering their stiff bodies. George Dorety stood aft,
near Captain Cullen, less bundled in clothes than usual, soaking in the
grateful warmth as the watched the scene. Swiftly and abruptly the incident
occurred. There was a cry from the fore-royal-yard of "Man
overboard!" Somebody threw a life buoy over the side, and at the same
instant the second mate's voice came aft, ringing and peremptory:
"Hard down your help!"
The man at the wheel never moved a spoke. He knew
better, for Captain Dan Cullen was standing alongside of him. He wanted to move
a spoke, to move all the spokes, to grind the wheel down, hard down, for his
comrade drowning in the sea. He glanced at Captain Dan Cullen, and Captain Dan
Cullen gave no sign.
"Down! Hard down!" the second mate
roared, as he sprang aft.
But he ceased springing and commanding, and stood
still, when he saw Dan Cullen by the wheel. And big Dan Cullen puffed at his
cigar and said nothing. Astern, and going astern fast, could be seen the
sailor. He had caught the life buoy and was clinging to it. Nobody spoke.
Nobody moved. The men aloft clung to the royal-yards and watched with
terror-stricken faces. And the Mary Rogers raced on, making her westing.
A long, silent minute passed.
"Who was it?" Captain Cullen
"Mops, sir," eagerly answered the
sailor at the wheel.
Mops topped a wave astern and disappeared
temporarily in the trough. It was a large wave, but it was no graybeard. A
small boat could live easily in such a sea, and in such a sea the Mary
Rogers could easily come to. But she could not come to and make westing at
the same time.
For the first time in all his years, George
Dorety was seeing a real drama of life and death—a sordid little drama in
which the scales balanced an unknown sailor named Mops against a few miles of
longitude. At first he had watched the man astern, but now he watched big Dan
Cullen, hairy and black, vested with power of life and death, smoking a
Captain Dan Cullen smoked another long, silent
minute. Then he removed the cigar from his mouth. He glanced aloft at the spars
of the Mary Rogers, and overside at the sea.
"Sheet home the royals!" he cried.
Fifteen minutes later they sat at table, in the
cabin, with food served before them. On one side of George Dorety sat Dan
Cullen, the tiger, on the other side, Joshua Higgins, the hyena. Nobody spoke.
On deck the men were sheeting home the skysails. George Dorety could hear their
cries, while a persistent vision haunted him of a man called Mops, alive and
well, clinging to a life buoy miles astern in that lonely ocean. He glanced at
Captain Cullen, and experienced a feeling of nausea, for the man was eating his
food with relish, almost bolting it.
"Captain Cullen," Dorety said,
"you are in command of this ship, and it is not proper for me to comment
now upon what you do. But I wish to say one thing. There is a hereafter, and
yours will be a hot one."
Captain Cullend did not even scowl. In his voice
was regret as he said:
"It was blowing a living gale. It was
impossible to save the man."
"He fell from the royal-yard," Dorety
cried hotly. "You were setting the royals at the time. Fifteen minutes
afterward you were setting the skysails."
"It was a living gale, wasn't it, Mr.
Higgins?" Captain Cullen said, turning to the mate.
"If you'd brought her to, it'd have taken
the sticks out of her," was the mate's answer. "You did the proper
thing, Captain Cullen. The man hadn't a ghost of a show."
George Dorety made no answer, and to the meal's
end no one spoke. After that, Dorety had his meals served in his stateroom.
Captain Cullen scowled at him no longer, though no speech was exchanged between
them, while the Mary Rogers sped north toward warmer latitudes. At the
end of the week, Dan Cullen cornered Dorety on deck.
"What are you going to do with me when we
get to 'Frisco?" he demanded bluntly.
"I am going to swear out a warrant for your
arrest," Dorety answered quietly. "I am going to charge you with
murder, and I am going to see you hanged for it."
"You're almighty sure of yourself,"
Captain Cullen sneered, turning on his heel.
A second week passed, and one morning found
George Dorety standing in the coach-house companionway at the for'ard end of
the long poop, taking his first gaze around the deck. The Mary Rogers
was reaching full-and-by, in a stiff breeze. Every sail was set and drawing,
including the staysails. Captain strolled for'ard along the poop. He strolled
carelessly, glancing at the passenger out of the corner of his eye. Dorety was
looking the other way, standing with head and shoulders outside the
companionway, and only the back of his head was to be seen. Captain Cullen,
with swift eye, embraced the main-staysail block and the head and estimated the
distance. He glanced about him. Nobody was looking. Aft, Joshua Higgins was
pacing up and down, had just turned his back and was going the other way.
Captain Cullen bent over suddenly and cast the staysail sheet off from its pin.
The heavy block hurtled through the air, smashing Dorety's head like an
eggshell and hurtling on and back and forth as the staysail whipped and slatted
in the wind. Joshua Higgins turned around to see what had carried away, and met
the full blast of the vilest portion of Captain Cullen's profanity.
"I made the sheet fast myself,"
whimpered the mate in the first lull, "with an extra turn to make sure. I
remember it distinctly."
"Made fast?" the Captain snarled back,
for the benefit of the watch as it struggled to capture the flying sail before
it tore to ribbons. "You couldn't make your grandmother fast, you useless
hell's scullion. If you made that sheet fast with an extra turn, why didn't it
stay fast? That's what I want to know. Why didn't it stay fast?"
The mate whined inarticulately.
"Oh, shut up!" was the final word of
Half an hour later he was as surprised as any
when the body of George Dorety was found inside the companion way on the floor.
In the afternoon, alone in his room, he doctored up the log. He wrote:
Captain Dan Cullen read over his literary effort
with admiration, blotted the page and closed the log. He lighted a cigar and
stared before him. He felt the Mary Rogers lift, and heel, and surge
along, and knew that she was making nine knots. A smile of satisfaction slowly
dawned on his black and hairy face. Well, anyway, he had made his westing and
Ordinary seaman Karl Brun, lost
overboard from fore-royal-yard in a gale of wind. Was running at the time, and
for the safety of the ship did not dare come up to the wind. Nor could a boat
have lived in the sea that was running.
On another page, he wrote:
Had often warned Mr. Dorety about
the danger he ran because of his carelessness on deck. I told him, once, that
some day he would get his head knocked off by a block. A carelessly fastened
main-staysail sheet was the cause of the accident, which was deeply to be
regretted because Mr. Dorety was a favorite with all of us.
From the April 1909 issue of Sunset magazine.
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