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The Voyage Alone in the Yawl Rob Roy
By John MacGregor, Arthur Ransome
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2001 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Project—On the stocks—Profile—Afloat alone—Smart lads—Swinging—Anchors—Happy boys—Sea reach—Good looks—Peep beiow—Important trines—In the well—Chart—Watch on deck—Eating an egg—Storm sail.
IT was a strange and pleasant life for me all the summer, sailing entirely alone by sea and river fifteen hundred miles, and with its toils, perils, and adventures heartily enjoyed.
The two preceding summers I had paddled alone in an oak canoe, first through central Europe, and next over Norway and Sweden; but though both of these voyages were delightful, they had still the drawback, that progress was mainly dependent on muscular effort, that food must be had from shore, and that I could not sleep on the water.
In devising plans to make the pleasure of a voyage complete then, many cogitations were had last winter, and these resulted in a beautiful little sailing-boat; and once afloat in this, the water was my road, my home, my very world, for a long and splendid summer.
The perfect success of these three voyages has been due mainly to the careful preparation for them in the minute details which are too often neglected. To take pains about these is a pleasure to a man with a boating mind, but it is also a positive necessity if he would ensure success; nor can we wonder at the fate of some who get swamped, smashed, stove in, or turned over, when we see them go adrift in a craft which had been huddled into being by some builder ignorant of what is wanted for the sailor traveller, and is launched on unknown waters without due preparation for what may come.
I resolved to have a thoroughly good sailing-boat—the largest that could be well managed in rough weather by one strong man, and with every bolt, cleat, sheave, and rope well-considered in relation to the questions: How will this work in a squall ?—on a rock?—in the dark?—or in a rushing tide?—a crowded lock; not to say in a storm?
The internal arrangements of my boat having been fully settled with the advantage of the canoe experiences, the yacht itself was designed by Mr. John White, of Gowes—and who could do it better? She was to be first safe, next comfortable, and then fast. If, indeed, you have two men aboard, one to pick up the other when he falls over, then you may put the last of the above three qualities first, but not prudently when there is only one man to do the whole.
The Rob Roy was built by Messrs. Forrest, of Limehouse, the builders for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, and so she is a lifeboat to begin with. Knowing how much I might have to depend on oars now and then, my inclination was to limit her length to about eighteen feet, but Mr. White said that twenty-one feet would "take care of herself in a squall." Therefore that length was agreed upon, and the decision was never regretted; still I should by no means advise any increase of these dimensions.
One great advantage of the larger size was that it enabled me to carry in the cabin of my yawl, another boat, a little dingey or punt, to go ashore by, to take exercise in, and to use for refuge in last resource if shipwrecked, for this dingey also I determined should be a lifeboat, and yet only eight feet long. The childhood of this little boat was somewhat unhappy, and as she grew into shape she was quizzed unmercifully, and people shook their heads very wisely, as they did at the first Rob Roy canoe. Now that we can reckon about two hundred of such canoes, and now that this little dingey has proved a complete success and an unspeakable convenience, the laugh may be forgotten. However, ridicule of new things often does good if it begets caution in changes, and stimulates improvement. Good things get even benefit from ridicule, which may shake off the plaster and paint, though it will not shiver the stone.
Thoroughly to enjoy a cruise with only two such dumb companions as have been described, it is of importance that the man who is to be with them should also be adapted for his place. He must have good health and good spirits, and a passion for the sea. He must learn to rise, eat, drink, and sleep, as the water or winds decree, and not his watch. He must have wits to regard at once the tide, breeze, waves, chart, buoys, and lights; also the sails, Pilot-book, and compass; and more than all, to scan the passing vessels, and to cook, and eat, and drink in the midst of all. With such pressing and varied occupations, he has no time to feel "lonely," and indeed, he passes fewer hours in the week alone than many a busy man in chambers. Of all those I have met with who have travelled on land or sea alone, not one has told me it was "lonely," though some who have never tried the plan as a change upon life in a crowd, may fear its unknown pleasures. As for myself, on this voyage I could scarcely "get a moment to myself," and there was always an accumulation of things to be done, or read, or thought over, when a vacant half-hour could be had. The man who will feel true loneliness, is he who has one sailor with him, or a "pleasant companion" soon pumped dry, for he has isolation without freedom all day (and night too), and a tight cramp on the mind. With a dozen kindred spirits in a yacht, indeed, it is another matter; then you have freedom and company, and (if you are not the owner) you are not slaves of the skipper, but still you are sailed and carried, as passive travellers, and perhaps after all you had better be in a big steamer at once—the Cunard's or the P. and O., with a hundred passengers—real life and endless variety. However, each man to his taste; it is not easy to judge for others, but let us hope, that after listening to this log of a voyage alone you will not call it "lonely."
The Rob Roy is a yawl-rig, so as to place the sailor between the sails for "handiness." She is double-skinned to make her staunch and dry below, and she is full-decked to keep out the sea above. She has an iron keel and kelson to resist a bump on rocks, and with four water-tight compartments to limit its effects if once stove in. Her cabin is comfortable to sleep in, but only as arranged when anchored for the purpose:—sleep at sea is forbidden to her crew. Her internal arrangements for cooking, reading, writing, provisions, stores, and cargo, are quite different from those of any other yacht; all of them are specially devised, and all well done; and now on the 7th of June, at 3 p.m., she is hastily launched, her ton and a half of pig-iron is put on board for ballast, the luggage and luxuries for a three months' voyage are loaded in, her masts are stepped, the sails are bent, the flags unfold to the breeze, the line to shore is slipped, and we are sailing from Woolwich, never to have any person aboard in her progress but the captain, until she returns to the builders' yard.
Often as a boy I had thought of the pleasure of being one's own master in one's own boat; but the reality far exceeded the imagination of it, and it was not a transient pleasure. Next day it was stronger, and so to the end, until at last, only duty forced me reluctantly from my floating freehold to another home founded on London clay, sternly immovable, and with the quarter's rent to pay.
At Erith next day the Canoe Club held its first sailing match, when five little paddling craft set up their bamboo masts and pure white sails, and scudded along in a rattling breeze, and twice crossed the Thames. They were so closely matched that the winner was only by a few seconds first. Then a Club dinner toasted the prizemen, and "farewell," "bon voyage" to the captain, who retired on board for the first sleep in his yawl.
The Sunday service on board the Training-ship Worcester, at Erith, is a sight to see and to remember. The bell rings and boats arrive, some of them with ladies. Here in the 'tween decks, with airy ports open, and glancing water seen through them, are 100 fresh-cheeked manly boys, the future captains of Taepings and Ariels, and as fine specimens of the gentleman sailor-lad as any Englishman would wish to see. Such neatness and order without nonsense or prim awe. Health and brightness of boyhood, with seamen's smartness and silence: I hope they do not get too much trigonometry. However, for the past week they have been skurrying up aloft "to learn the ropes," skylarking among the rigging for play, and rowing and cricketing to expand muscle and limb; and now on the day of rest they sing beautifully to the well-played harmonium, then quietly listen to the clergyman of the "Thames Mission," who has been rowed down here from his floating church, anchored at present in another bay of his liquid parish.
The Royal National Lifeboat Institution had most kindly presented to the Rob Roy one of its best lifeboat compasses. The card of this compass floats in a mixture of spirits, so as to steady its oscillations in a boat, and a deft-like lamp alongside will light it up for use by night. Only a sailor knows the peculiar feeling of regard and mystery with which the compass of his craft becomes invested, the companion in past or unknown future perils, his trusty guide over the wide waste of waters and through the night's long blackness.
Having so much iron on board, and so near this wondrous delicate needle, I determined to have the boat "swung" at Greenhithe, where the slack tide allows the largest vessels conveniently to adjust their compasses. This operation consumed a whole day, and a day sufficed for the Russian steamer alongside; but then the time was well bestowed—it was as important to me to steer the Rob Roy straight as it could be to any Muscovite that he should sail rightly in his ship of unpronounceable name.
While the compass was thus made perfect for use at one end of the boat, her anchors occupied my attention at the other.
It was necessary to carry an anchor heavy enough to hold well in strong tides, in bad weather, and through the long nights, so that I could sleep then without anxiety. On the other hand, the anchor must be also light enough to be weighed and stowed by one man, and this too in that precious twenty seconds of time, when in weighing anchor, the boat, already loosed from the ground but not yet got hold of by the sails, is swept bodily away by the tide, and faces look cross from yachts around, being sure you will collide, as a lubber is bound to do.
After considering the matter of anchors a long time, and poising too the various opinions of numerous advisers, the Rob Roy was fitted with a 50lb. galvanized Trotman anchor and 30 fathoms of chain, and also with a 20-lb. Trotman and a hemp cable.
The operation of anchoring in a new place and that of weighing anchor are certainly among the most testing and risky in a voyage like this, where the circumstances are quite new on each occasion, and where all has to be done by one man.
You sail into a port where in less than a minute you must apprehend by one panoramic glance the positions of twenty vessels, the run of the tide, and set of the wind, and depth of the water; and this not only as these are then existing, but, in imagination, how they will be six hours hence, when the wind has veered, the tide has changed, and the vessels have swung round, or will need room to move away, or new ones will have arrived.
These being the data, you have instantly to fix on a spot where there will be water enough to float your craft all night, and yet not so deep as to give extra work next morning; a berth, too, which you can reach as at present sailing, and from which you can start again to-morrow; one where there are no moorings of absent vessels to foul your anchor, and where the wind will not blow right into your sleeping-cabin when the moonlight chills, and where the dust will not blind you from this lime barge, or the blacks begrime you from that coal brig as you spread the yellow butter on your morning tartine.
The interest felt in doing this feat well is increased by seeing how watchfully those who are already berthed will eye the stranger, often speaking by their looks, and always feeling "hope he won't come too near me"; while the penalty on failure in the proceeding is heavy and sharp, a smash of your spars, a hole in your side, or a sleepless night, or an hour of cable clearing tomorrow, or all of them; and certainly in addition, the objurgations of every yachtsman within the threatened circle.
Undoubtedly the most unpleasant result of bad management is to have damaged any other man's boat; and I cannot but mention with the greatest satisfaction, that after so often working my anchors—at least two hundred times—and so many days of sailing in crowded ports and rivers, on no one occasion did the Rob Roy even brush the paint off any other vessel.
Not far from my yawl there was moored a fine old frigate, useless now for war, but invaluable for peace—the "Chichester Training-ship, for homeless boys of London." It is for a class of lads utterly different from those on the Worcester, but they are English boys still, and every Englishman ought to do something for English boys, if he cares for the present or the future of England.
Pale and squalid, thin, heartless, and homeless, they were; but now, ruddy in the river breeze, neat and clean, alert with energy, happy in their wooden home, with a kind captain and smart officers to teach them, life and stir around, fair prospects ahead, and a British seaman's honest livelihood to be earned instead of the miserable puling beggardom of the streets, or the horrid company of the prison cell; which, that they should lie in the path of any child of our land, adrift on the rough tide of time at ten years old, is a glaring shame to the millions of sovereigns in bankers' books, and we shall have to answer heavily if we let it be thus still longer.
The burgee flag of the Canoe Club flew always (white with our paddle across [??] C in cipher), and another white flag on the mizen-mast had the yawl's name inscribed. Six other gay colours were used as occasion required. These all being hoisted on a fine bright day, and my voyage really begun, the Chichester lads "boyed" the rigging, and gave three ringing cheers as they shouted, "Take these to France, sir!" and the frigate dipped her ensign in salute, my flag lieutenant smartly responding to the compliment as we bade "good-bye."
The Thames to seaward looks different to me every time I float on its noble flood. I have seen it from on board steamers large and small, from an Indiaman's deck, the gunwale of a cutter, and the poop of an iron-clad, as well as from rowboat and canoe, and have penetrated almost every nook and cranny on the water, some of them a dozen times, yet always it is new to see.
Thames river life is a separate world from the land life in houses. The day begins on the water full an hour before sunrise. Cheery voices and hearty faces greet you, and there seems to be no maimed, or sick, or poor. From the simple fact that you are on the river, there is a brotherhood with every sailor. The mode is supple as the water, not like the stiff fashion of the land. Ships and shipmen soon become the "people." The other folks on shore are, to be sure, pretty numerous, but then they are ashore. Undoubtedly they are useful to provide for us who are afloat the butter, eggs, and bread they do certainly produce; and we gaze pleasantly on their grassy lawns and bushy trees, and can hear the lark singing on high, and peacocks screaming, and all are very pretty, and we are bound to try to sympathize with people thus pinned to the soil, while we are free in the fine fresh breeze, and glide on the bounding wave. N. B.—These very people are all the while regarding us with humane pity, as the "poor fellows in that little ship there, cabined, cribbed, confined." Perhaps it is well for all of us that the standpoint of each, be it ever so bleak, becomes to him the centre of creation.
As the country lane has charms for the botanist which will sadly delay one in a summer stroll with such a companion, so to the nautical mind every reach on a full river has a constant flow of incidents quite unnoticed by the landsman. In the crowd of ships around us, no two are quite the same even to look at, nor are they doing the same thing, and there are hundreds passing. What a feast for the eye that hath an appetite! The clink of an anchor-chain, the "Yo-ho!" of a well-timed crew, the flapping of huge sails—I love all these sounds, yes, even the shrill squeal of a pulley thrills my ear with pleasure, and grateful to my nostrils is the odour of tar.
Excerpted from The Voyage Alone in the Yawl Rob Roy by John MacGregor, Arthur Ransome. Copyright © 2001 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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