The Sailmaker


THE four-masted ship Washaway lay rolling in the trough of the sea, in a calm gap in the Pacific Ocean, walled in by the westerly winds and the Northeast Trades.

The flapping of the sails had started a seam in the main lower topsail; the Sailmaker was aloft trying to sew it together. He looked like a black, hairy pig stretched out on the yard.

‘Take a pull on the lee buntlines,’ he called; ‘what d’ya expect a man to do up here — pull his soul-case out?’

‘Is it a bad tear?’ roared the Captain, from the midship bridge; ‘herringbone it if it is, and put a patch on later. If it is n’t make a quick job of it; we ‘re going to get the wind soon.’

An orange cat sat miaowing on the fore hatch, her eyes aloft on the man on the yard. He, unconscious of her calls, turned the upper half of himself around and sniffed twice as he saw the Captain walk aft, apparently at ease as to the fate of the sail. He suffered from what he called a dryness of the nose, and his sniff was habitual and expressive, being always denunciatory when his ability was in question. Nevertheless it worried him a good deal, and he wore an electric belt to cure himself. It had been recommended to him for all kinds of diseases and was a nickel-plated affair, with a pool-table-cover lining, and bare buttons next the skin. In cold weather one had to get used to it, he said. Nevertheless the current was there, sending its healing thrills ‘to strengthen the system.’

As he swung around now to face his work again, he gave his trousers a hitch, settling the belt into place, fixed the sewing-palm in his hand, and shouted down below, —

‘Belay them buntlines!’

The upper topsail flapped wind against the Sailmaker, and blew his sandy beard into his face. He fanned it away; but it kept coming back, and in desperation he buttoned his coat over it. He was angry, for he sniffed and sniffed; his long thin legs warped around the stirrup that held the footrope. He looked the picture of distress.

‘This is what a man has to put up with,’ he hissed through his teeth; ‘and for him down there to tell me what to do! Herringbone it, eh? He don’t know a bloody thing, that ‘s what he don’t. It’s a ripped seam, damn it!’

He rubbed the sail-needle through the hair on his head to get oil to pierce the canvas. ‘Happiness has gone from the sea,’ he said; ‘old sails, old junk, and expect a man to keep the wind from blowing through ‘em — me that’s sailed on the finest ships!’

The needle grated against the palm. As he forced it through the seam: ‘I ‘ll tell him what I thinks when I gets down there — working like a coolie for three pound ten!’

‘Hurry up, there, Sailmaker,’ shouted the Captain; ‘there’s a breeze coming away off the starboard quarter. It’s the Trades. We must get that sail set.’

The Sailmaker called back: ‘When I does a job, I does it, Captain’; and his sniff sounded afar.

‘But the wind, man, the wind,’ pleaded the Captain.

The man on the yardarm was silently stubborn. He sewed on with the neatness of a seamstress. He finished finally, but not hurriedly, and remained on the yardarm to admire his work, while the crew stood by ready to sheet home the topsail; then, carefully tucking the needle into his coat and winding the unused twine around it, he shouted, ‘The job ‘s done, Captain.’

The Captain, for lack of an answer, spat over the side, his eyes blinking savagely.

The next day the Washaway was reaching away north for Puget Sound, with a six-knot breeze. The Captain went into the sail-room with a tune on his lips. The Sailmaker was sewing a new length of cloth into an old flyingjib. On account of a curve in his back caused by his work, he had some difficulty in raising his head. He paid not the slightest, heed to the whistling Captain, who stood surveying the sail.

Presently the Master spoke: ‘We ‘ll make that new sail now. In these latitudes the winds are light and we need every rag to push us north.’

He waited for the Sailmaker to speak. The orange cat was playing with the beeswax ball on the bench beside the sewer.

‘Now, Lucy,’ said the Sailmaker kindly, ‘don’t be getting yourself all waxed up; you ‘re the worst I ever did see for getting things tangled.’

He took the wax away from her, and stroked her with his big calloused hand.

‘There, now, play with something else.’

The Captain, who had started another tune, must have been getting angry, for he suddenly slopped whistling. The Sailmaker with dignity unfastened the hook that held the sail close to him, reached in his pocket for a short-shanked clay pipe, lit it, and when it was pulling well, sniffed, and asked,—

What sail is that you mentioned making?’

‘It’s the sail for the placery boom.’

‘Oh, that one,’ said the smoker; ‘you have been talking about that for three years. You ‘re going to make it this voyage, eh?’

‘Yes,’ said the Captain; ‘you ‘ll make it, and I want you to get to work on it right away.’

‘Don’t be in a hurry, Captain, there’s a lot of work on that sail. The making of it is n’t where the work lays; it ‘s the measuring of it that ‘ll take the time.’

The Sailmaker was n’t at all good at figures. He had his own way of doing things, and felt that he could point to the successes of years to uphold his resentment of interference.

‘There’s nothing to measuring that sail,’ said the Captain; ‘it’s made like a trysail, you know. Get the hoist first, then the angle from the peak to the tack, give it a long sheet and have plenty of fullness in the after-leach — don’t you see that ‘s easy cut from figures; then I ‘ll give you a hand sewing it together and we ‘ll have it on her in a jiffy.’

The cat jumped up on the Sailmaker’s shoulder and rubbed her head in his beard. He took the pipe out of his mouth and turned to her with a deep sniff.

‘Lucy, you keep out of this, or I ‘ll take you away to your box.’

‘It can’t be made that way,’ he went on, turning to the Captain; ‘in the first place you ‘re not allowing for the roping and the splices, to say nothing about your grummets. Where would your angles come in these? Captain, when I makes a sail, I makes a sail to catch wind. Figures I ‘ll not say there ain’t something to, but they ‘ll foul ye on a sail every time. It just can’t be done, and that settles it.’

The Captain looked puzzled. He was n’t much of a sailmaker, and the other knew it; it was n’t becoming to his dignity, however, to surrender so easily.

‘I know it can be done, and we ‘ll do it my way. Figures never lie.’

‘Ships never leak, neither,’ said the Sailmaker, shaking with inward malice, but with never a quiver of his bronzed face.

Few men of the sea, even in the canvas days, have been shipmate with a placery boom. To say the least about its sail, it is a clumsy contrivance, and can be used only on one side of the ship, when the wind is light and abaft the beam. It takes skill to get out the boom, and there is more or less danger in fitting it for a sail to bend to. The boom is from thirty to forty feet long, and projects like an outrigger forward of the fore rigging and out from the ship’s side, at right angles. It is held by a wire topping lift that runs from the foremast to the end of the boom. It also has two guys, fore and aft, to keep it straight and steady.

The Sailmaker knew what he was up against to build a sail for this, and was terribly upset that the Captain should think it so simple. He could not look to the crew for sympathy, for it is well known that wind-jammer sailors are entirely lacking in feeling for the sailmaker. They regard him as an idler and a snob, necessary, but despicable. The sailmaker does not improve matters often, for his feeling is for his art, and he considers them beyond the pale of appreciation of such as he.

So the Sailmaker of the Washaway, for want of human sympathy, turned with all his heart to Lucy, the cat; and she purred comfort in his ear, and he grew very fond of her. He trained her to have nothing to do with the rest of the crew. Let one of them touch her, if he dare! Even the Master. The ship might be his to command; not so the cat.

One morning everything was right for measuring the new sail. The weather was pleasant, with a warm sun, and the ship lugged away under a full spread of canvas.

‘We ‘ll measure that sail to-day,’ said the Captain.

‘Have it your way; it ‘s not for me to tell you your business,’ said the Sailmaker, ‘only don’t blame me when the figures goes wrong.’

‘I ‘ll take the responsibility,’ answered the Captain crossly; ‘there ‘s been enough argument about this thing. Get to work now.’

The Sailmaker blew his nose; this time it sounded like a whistle. The cat was playing with loose rope-yarns on the deck.

‘You get out of harm’s way,’ he said, moving her and her rope-yarns to the lee of the main hatch; ‘this is no place for a cat, with a new sail to make.’ Then, looking scornfully at the Captain, ‘I ‘m not a man that don’t see a thing when I looks at it.’

‘Take this tape and go aloft,’ said the Captain; ‘get the head length first.’

The Sailmaker buttoned his coat over his beard, and took to the rigging cautiously. The cat, who, in spite of all his pains, had followed him forward, went mewing in his wake. This disgusted the Captain, who gave her a slap with his hand, and pulled her off the bulwark rail. The Sailmaker saw it out of the tail of his eye, and, still climbing, waved the Captain off with his hand. A sailor shinned out to the end of the boom, and held the measuring-tape.

The Captain stood on deck with a businesslike air, ready to jot down the figures.

‘You ‘re high enough,’ he shouted; ‘measure from there.’

The Sailmaker looked down at him. ‘High enough, eh?’

‘Yes, pull the tape tight now; what have you got?’

‘Don’t be in a hurry, Captain, remember your figures.’

A snicker ran through the group of sailors who hung around watching the performance. The Captain felt it bitterly.

‘You do what you ‘re told,’ he barked up the mast, ‘and do it in a hurry.’

The back wind from the foresail blew his beard from under the buttoned coat into the Sailmaker’s eyes and mouth, and muffled his reply. While the Captain waited, he fought to tie it up again.

‘Some time to-day, some time today,’ the Master roared up; ‘I’d think you ‘d cut it off.’

If the Sailmaker had words, he did n’t use them. His sniffing could be heard all over the ship. When it had almost come to the breaking-point for the Captain, he called down in an exaggerated way, —

‘Five and fifty.’

‘That ‘s too long, entirely; come down a bit. There, measure from where you are. Now what have you?’

A long wait, in which the ship herself seemed to feel the suspense. Then, —

‘For-ty fe-et!’

‘That’s fine; come down; I got it all now.’

When the Sailmaker reached the deck, the cat boarded him, and the Captain handed him a slip of paper.

‘Here you are,’ he said, proudly; ‘cut to the figures and here’s your sail. The head forty; foot thirty; after-leach twenty-five.’

The Sailmaker looked long at the paper, while the cat rubbed her head against his beard.

‘Do you get it?’ inquired the Captain, with a disdainful look.

‘The figures? Why, of course, man, what else would I be thinking about? Well, in the first place your sheet is too long; it ‘ll foul the forward house.’

‘Tut, tut, you don’t know what you are talking about.’

‘I don’t eh? When I looks at a boom, I cuts the sail from my eye, and it fits, it does.’

Another ‘Kee-hee!’ from the sailors.

‘Make it my way,’ said the Captain, angrily walking aft to the poop.


That afternoon, while the Captain was taking his nap, the weather side of the main deck was swept clean. The Sailmaker was down on his knees, drawing a pattern of a new sail with white chalk. From the trouble he was taking, it was obvious that he intended it to smash the Captain’s creation. An occasional dash of spray over the side would wash away his marks. He would put them in again, sniffing with pleasure over his task.

The Captain awoke, and thinking happily of his new sail, which by now should be well along toward completion, stepped down on to the main deck, rubbing his eyes.

‘What the devil have you got here?’ he said to the Sailmaker, scenting delay and disappointment.

‘What have I got here, did you say?’ The Sailmaker rose to his feet. ‘I ‘ve got what it looks like. Hem!’

‘He’s spent the whole afternoon laying out the new sail, sir,’ explained the mate, spitefully. He had just been trying to pet the cat.

The Captain looked over the chalklined deck. As nearly as his nautical eye could discern, the tracings seemed to be the design of some queer animal. Yes, that was it. It was a perfect representation of the Great Bear, and in spite of himself, he was interested in locating the position of the stars. Then he sternly put aside the fancy.

‘So this is what you’d like to hoist on my ship,’ he said scathingly.

‘I ‘ll bet a plug of black twist,’ volunteered one sailor to another in an undertone, ‘that Sails ‘ll have his way.’

‘Why,’ said another, ‘the old bloke don’t know wot ‘e talks about. Watch the Marster get arfter ‘im.’

‘Hi ‘opes,’said a third, ‘that the blarsted quoit carn’t be myde. Wot the ‘ell does ‘e know about the bloomin’ syle?’

‘What are you fellows doing, gaping around here?’ said the Captain. ‘Get to work; get brooms and buckets and scrub these chalk-lines off the deck.’

‘’E ‘s never the syme after a sleep,’ the gossip continued. ‘ ‘E ‘as n’t ‘ad ‘is bloody Java this afternoon.’ And they shuffled forward to obey the Master’s command.

‘Hold on,’ said the Sailmaker, ‘before you do anything with my lines.’

‘Hold nothing,’ shouted the Captain; ‘you had it from me to make the sail, did n’t you?’

‘I ‘m not denying that,’ sniffed the Sailmaker, ‘but your measurements are away out and I ‘ll prove it to ye.’

‘Prove it, damn it, prove it! Belay scrubbing the deck for a bit.’

‘Aye, aye, sir.’ And the crew giggled again, and kept clustering a little closer, for this was one of the moments when discipline makes for familiarity.

‘Stand where you are,’ the Sailmaker commanded the Captain, while he pulled a rule from his hip-pocket; ‘I ‘ll show ye.’

He walked forward till he was abreast of the boom, and taking twenty-five steps down the deck, he stopped and faced forward.

‘Come here, and watch,’ he said.

He held out the rule and closed one eye. The sailors kept edging closer.

‘Can you see the middle of the stay?’

‘I can,’ said the Captain nervously.

‘Well now, keep your eye level. You see the rule in front of your eyes — the top touches the bottom of the stay. Well, now, let your eye drop down the rule till it’s on a level with the boom. Aye, now, that’s six inches where my hand is.’

‘Well?’ said the Captain.

‘Well?’ said the Sailmaker.

‘I ‘m damned if I get it.’ For a moment the Captain seemed to be losing ground.

‘There’s three feet to the inch on the rule; six times three was eighteen, when I went to school; eighteen feet from the middle of the head to the clue — that makes the head thirty-six feet long, and that ‘ll fit her, yes, sir, that ‘ll fit her! Them ‘s the measurements on deck.’

The Captain could feel the sailors rub shoulders with him, so close were they, as he stooped over the deck-chart. This reminded him that this was a terrible breach of discipline. Who was Master on this ship anyway?

‘Who ever heard of making a sail that way?’ he said aloud; then continued, ‘I want this made my way, d’ ye understand, Sailmaker?’ And to the crew, ‘Get to work and scrub the deck!’

‘Will you have your coffee on deck, sir?’ asked the steward, advancing obsequiously.

‘No, no, in the cabin.’ And the Captain betook himself to his refreshment.

The Sailmaker sat down on the hatch.

‘You just can’t make some people see anything,’ he said, mournfully, addressing the cat, who had crawled up into his lap and seemed to be his only friend. The sailors were making fun of him.

‘The old cove knows he carn’t stand up in front of the Marster.’

‘ ‘E knows syle, ‘e does.’

So ran their slurs; and the Sailmaker, feeling it keenly, got up and wandered off to the sail-room.

The sail was made according to the Captain’s plan, and under his supervision. The Sailmaker used his best skill in sewing and roping it. He seldom spoke, except to the orange cat. The crew kept up their insinuations, but he just sat and sniffed, apparently lost to all but his work. He was none the less deeply humiliated, and at night, within the confines of his narrow room, he held conversations with himself.

‘I ‘ll leave her, that’s what I ‘ll do, and me here going on nine year. They don’t need a sailmaker. They don’t know one when they see ‘im.’

One morning, when the wind was blowing fresh from abaft the beam, the Sailmaker put away his fids, needles, wax, and twine.

‘Your sail is ready,’ he sniffed to the Captain.

‘Here you fellows, lay aft here, get hold of this sail and bend it on her!’ shouted the Captain excitedly.

The crew, greatly interested, carried the sail forward and bent it.

‘She ‘ll make another knot an hour,’ said the Master to the mate.

The Sailmaker took a position against the weather main-rigging. The cat was asleep on the snug side of the forward house. According to the Sailmaker’s predictions the sheet of the new sail should come somewhere there. No one thought that the sail might be dangerous to the sleeping cat, and those of the men who saw her paid no attention to her.

‘All ready to hoist away!’ shouted the bo’sun.

‘Up with her!’ roared the Captain. As he passed the Sailmaker, he said with a sardonic grin, ‘Now you ‘ll see what figures can do.’

What the Sailmaker said was lost in the noise of the flopping sail.

‘Belay the halyards and aft to the sheet! Hurry, men, before she strips herself and tears the gear down atop of your heads.’

The Captain was becoming agitated. The Sailmaker did n’t budge an inch. His eyes were fastened to the sail, his lips were moving, but who could hear him now? Was that the faint flicker of a smile showing through the parted strands of his beard? A malicious man might have smiled. The sail was far, far too large.

With a noise to which the roar of cannon would be mere poppings, the sail ballooned and caught aback in the wind. It was even dangerous for a sailor to get near the sheet to flatten it aft. The crew were running wild, everyone talking and swearing. The bo’sun vainly tried to restore order.

It was easy to see the fault in the sail. It looked like the pocket in a seine net. The halyards were up two blocks, and wads of slack were still in the luff.

The Captain saw his mistake with anguish.

‘It ‘s all wrong, men,’ he cried; ‘get it down before somebody gets hurt.’

About this time the orange cat, awake now and curious to investigate the noise, stretched herself and crossed the house-deck. The Sailmaker saw her and started running toward her, calling, ‘Get out of there, Lucy, get out of there!’

Too late. Along came the ruthless sheet, and with its swirling tail picked her up and whirled her into the sea.

‘Save the cat! ‘ begged the Sailmaker.

‘What?’ exploded the Captain, ‘save a cat and lose my sail? I should say not! ‘

‘You won’t save my cat?’ The Sailmaker had a strange look in his eyes.

‘No, no—a cat? No!’

The ship was easily making eight knots. The drowning cat was astern.

‘He ‘d have to save a man, and he knows it,’ muttered the Sailmaker, as he shed his coat.

‘Man overboard, man overboard!’

‘Let go the weather braces. Hard a-lee-e-e! ‘

The man at the wheel saw the Sailmaker jump. Well he knew his duty. He threw a lifebuoy after him by spontaneous action.

The new sail was forgotten in the rush for the lee braces; and as the ship came up, the wind took it away, and the boom with it.

Far astern, and rove through a lifebuoy, rode the Sailmaker quite calmly, the orange cat perched on his shoulder.

‘I told you that sooner or later you’d get into trouble. Now let this be a lesson to ye.’

When the boat’s crew rowed him alongside the Washaway, he sent the cat up first.

When he climbed over the side and reached the deck, the crew were so overcome that they wanted to hug him. The Captain had nothing to say. He just stood wondering, with his hand on his Adam’s apple.

The Sailmaker unbuttoned his shirt, and with the water still dripping from him, he reached around his waist, unbuttoning the electric belt, and pitching it on to the hatch.

‘The salt water ‘s ruined ye,’ he said, with a real smart sniff.