Race Off Gloucester: A True Story

Son of New Bedford and heir of her best seafaring tradition, LLEWELLYN HOWLAND makes his anchorage at Padanaram.where, between cruises, he writes about shippers and ships,the islands off the rocky coast,and the fare which sailors thrive on. Atlantic readers who enjoyed his earlier storiesClambake J Journey Cakes,and “Man of Iron,”which were eventually published in his book, Sou’west and By West of Cape Cod — will be eager to see his latest volume. Triptych, which is as savory as the best New England chowder.


EARLY in the 1920s my business brought me into close association with a man of sixty or over, a Captain (by courtesy) Wright. By profession he was a marine engineer who on his retirement from the United States Navy with the rank of petty officer had accepted an appointment to superintend a department of the government of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

On the occasion of my first meeting with the Captain I became aware that he was as tough as a balk of well-seasoned Burma teak — a hard-boiled product of long service in a disciplined organization. But as time passed and the work in hand compelled an ever closer collaboration, J began, in spite of the Captain’s hard shell and unpliancy, to admire him, first as an able and trustworthy associate and then, after two years, as a friend within the limits of our mutual undertaking, beyond which he seemed unable, or at least unwilling, to venture.

Therefore I was surprised, late in the autumn, to receive a nole from him inviting me to spend the coming weekend aboard his command, a small, outdated steam yacht, at that time maintained by the State to facilitate the longshore inspections called for by the department of which he was the head. Knowing this little vessel well, 1 did not fancy the prospect of a cruise in her at this season of the year, when boisterous weather might be expected.

But when 1 presented myself at the Captain’s headquarters in the State House with the intention of declining his invitation on the plea of prior engagements, he made it evident that he had not asked for the pleasure of my company alone, but rather that he was requisitioning me for my advice and assistance in carrying out his assignment to act as judge of a match race to be sailed off Cape Ann on the coming Saturday between two fishing schooners — the one representing New England, the other Nova Scotia. As he presented his case 1 had no choice other than to accede to his orders with what heartiness I could muster.

The little voyage to Gloucester on that Friday afternoon more than fulfilled my gloomiest forebodings. There was a half-a-gale of pcrishingly cold wind; a heavy sea on the quarter before which Aida ran rolling rails under; a sky of low-lying, leaden clouds racing to leeward and speeding the oncoming night, so that we groped our way in utter darkness to a berth alongside an evil-smelling wharf in the old fishing port, only to find that it still lacked an hour of being suppertime; and worse, the Captain and I were talked-out and marrowcold; the one deck hand had been pitched against a bridge stanchion and was nursing a painfully bruised arm; everything in the galley had gone adrift and soured the cook; the engineer-stoker was swearing mad from the smart of several burns he had acquired in that unmentionubly condemned engineroom-stokehold filled with hot coils ol pipe, whirling machinery, and searing heat. In fact, our case was a regular “lashup” of Job’s torments with, so it appeared to me, an interminable stretch of boredom and discomfort in the offing.

Having nothing to do while the Captain was busy administering first aid, reordering his ship, and stiffening the morale of his crew, I turned in to my berth for an hour or so in an attempt to thaw out, until at last the cook-steward lit the hanging lamp in the cuddy, slapped the crockery and silver onto the table, and beat a tattoo on a tin pie dish announcing supper. “First Table” — the Captain, the Engineer, and I — were soon hard at it stowing away a fried rump steak, boiled potatoes, baked beaus, and whisky grog for drink. For a while the sauce of conversation was lacking and despondency seemed about to gain the upper hand, when, in desperation, I said, “Well, anyhow, Aida’s engine didn’t fetch away this afternoon — it must be well ‘backed, bolted, braced, an’ stayed”; whereat, both my table companions dropped their knives and forks, first to stare at me as if I were a ghost and then, as one man, to exclaim, “Do you know it — the song of steam?”

“ Know it! Of course I know it — every word of it. Do you?”

“You can bet your life we do,” replied the Captain as he smacked the table with his palm and nodded to the Engineer—a signal producing most unexpected results; for without preamble, even the clearing of a throat, these two mcn-of-theirhands, the Captain leading, broke into song to chant antiphonally “M’Andrew’s Hymn” from beginning to end, in cadences attuned to the ponderous beat of “My seven thousand horse-power here.”

As for me, I sat there in the stuffy little saloon enthralled by a music and a perfection of execution such as only long practice, a complete understanding of the theme, and a true spiritual exaltation could achieve.

Thereafter this meal, which had had about it a dead-fish flavor, was transmuted by Euterpe’s magic into a symposium — a symposium that, running into the small hours of the morning, was a feast of technicalities sauced and seasoned by songs, recitations, and tales of adventure, both gay and somber, and the whole of it instinct with admiration and love for The Interpreter of those legions of inarticulate souls “that serve and understand.”

And, had il not been for the sudden reek of charring wicks and the consequent dimming of the lamp overhead, I have no doubt our celebration would have continued till sunup. But on the instant of that first whiff of burning cotton the Engineer, after swiveling on his seat to glance at the clock, bounced from his chair, to capsize it with a crash as he bolted for the cuddy door, on his way to the stokehold and the long-neglected fire under the boiler, leaving the Captain and me to grope our way to our berths and turn in all standing in the gloom of the dying lamp.

At the first stroke of four bells Captain Wright turned out of his berth to exchange a battered old derby hat—an ill-chosen protection for his bald head at night, 1 thought — for his immaculate gold-laced service, cap. Thereupon, as if ashamed of his emotion of the previous evening — an unfaithfulness to his command — he assumed a manner most autocratic and unapproachable, a drawing taut of the bonds of discipline — all of which, combined with the same cold and boisterous weather of yesterday, extinguished my last spark of hope that the day ahead might provide some moments of pleasurable relaxation.


IN DUE course there was an early breakfast, the grim and greasy character of which Kipling alone could have depicted — which was immediately followed by the bustle of getting Aida underweigh for a jog down to the breakwater and beyond to have a look at the weather. The “look” of perhaps two hours had its dramatic moments when the Captain, after jingling for full speed ahead, swung his little vessel round on the return course to meet, full on the blufF of her port bow, the first three of a long procession of oncoming whitecapped seas, the two leaders of which drenched us with heavy spray, while the third, coming aboard green, caused an eruption in the stokehold, resulting in a blinding cloud of steam from which, when it had thinned a little, emerged the Engineer to announce to the bridge in blistering terms that unless half speed were instanlly rung up he would be forced to abandon his post. And here again, only the author of that song of steam so movingly rendered a few hours before could have made manifest the valor of that master craftsman when, his case stated, he dove into that still-murky crater to carry on in spite of slippery steel floor plates awash in a baiter of oil and water and the frequent dislodging scends of Aida as she slowly worked her way to windward in the teeth of that cold, spray-laden breeze.

Back at last in the smooth at the mouth of the harbor, the Captain berthed his command neatly alongside the big ocean tug Wrestler, just arrived from Boston with the Race Committee on board. The two skippers, shouting through megaphones, decided that owing to stress of weather the Aida and her more powerful consort should reverse functions — Aida becoming Committee Boat and II restler Mark Boat flying the judge’s flag: the emblem of the Commonwealth. Presently, by means of Olaf, the deck hand, and our well kept and appointed dory, 1 found myself with this flag (my badge of authority) and with the committee’s written instructions in my pocket in the comparative warmth and shelter of the Wrestlers wheelhouse, whence I watched the three members of the Itace Committee board Aida with their broad blue pennant marked R.C. in bold white letters. Out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of two big schooners — Gloucester’s Defender and Nova Scotia’s Challenger — standing out of the harbor under foresails and jumbos, their fore and main topmasts on end and their decks alive with hands preparing to pile sail on her when the time came. It was then that I realized that through the plotting of “that downy old bird,” Captain Wright, the moment had come for me — the sole representative of my country in an international contest — to act, and to do so without a moment’s delay, inasmuch as the advertised hour for the start of the race was just in the offing.

“Captain Crocker,” said I to the tug master, “will you kindly get underweigh at once and log off ten miles on a safe course, — sou’ by west I figure it — that with the wind as it is will put us as near as maybe ten miles to leeward of Boston Light — and give her the jot, for if we re to be on station before those schooners get ihere, we’ve got to hustle.”

Heavy vessel as she was, Captain Crocker soon had the Wrestler away on her course and rapidly picking up speed, and as my flag, rose to the head of the foremast he called attention to it by three prolonged blasts of the deep-throated chime whistle while a column of black smoke shot with steam and writhing out of the funnel still further advertised our course and purpose.

But as 1 began to dry out and feel warmer it dawned on me that my office aboard the Wrestler was strictly unofficial, that of a. mere guest of Captain Wright—a situation without liability other than that of recording both any infractions of the rules of this race and the clock times at which each of the contestants rounded two of the marks (Wrestler on station and a specified buoy off Boston Light), the two outer angles of the triangular course of roughly forty sea miles they were to sail. In fact, my spirits began to rise as I undertook to work out the only immediate problem: the number of minutes, if any, by which the Wrestler might hope to anticipate the two schooners after running off her prescribed distance.

Rolling and surging along, as we were now, through quartering seas, with an occasional shower of spray coming aboard as a whitecap slapped the guardrail, I could see from Captain Crocker’s frequent glances at the clock and the tachometer that he too was deeply concerned with the problem of the Wrestler’s race against time, and that he was quite aware that with this breeze Challenger and Defender could outpace us.

“What do you figure we’re doing?” I asked him.

“Call it nine point five,” came the answer, and as an afterthought: “If you’ll take these glasses, Judge, and keep me posted on what’s goin’ on astern of us, 1 shan’t be so hot and bothered about them windbags overtakin’ us as 1 am this minute.”

Lowering the upper sash of the after lee window and adjusting those most excellent binoculars, I tried to sort out the salient features of the clump of vessels hovering about a point of common interest astern of us. But owing to smoke and dust blowing offshore, I found it impossible to clear my vision for some minutes, until suddenly, as two shimmering spires of canvas, heeling at a sharp angle, broke clear into view, I could report, “They’re away,” and, after a quick look at the clock, continue to watch those oncoming sails — avenging Furies on the wing. And now for a while I felt that time and the Wrestler’s speed were synchronized in a steady decline; while, looming higher and higher, and clearer and clearer, those sharp-winged Erinyes, soaring and dipping, drove down on us, their dark thrusting beaks white with foam.

But I’d set’n enough of this inspiring spectacle; it was more than time to work out the answer to our problem — four fifths of it guesswork and the balance simple arithmetic. The wind’s force and nature, the course to be sailed in relation to the wind’s direction, the length and rig of the contestants, the sail they were carrying, the character of the sea, the supposed time of the start —all these and other minor considerations were the imponderables entering into the equation to be solved.

“Captain,” I finally announced, “I figure they’re doing a plump eleven and a half knots and that when we’ve logged our distance you’ll have approximately four minutes to come to and lie before they’re abreast of us.”

A grunt of satisfaction was the Captain’s only comment on my findings as he wiped the sweat band of his pot hat — the universal badge of the tug master of that period — with the sleeve of his coat and thus refreshed adjured the engine-room through the speaking tube to continue to “cram her — if yer lay any store by yer jobs.”

By this time, while the Captain, having accepted my four minutes of grace, might feel less jumpy than before, I found that the pumping of my own barometer between the high of hope and the low of despair was on the increase as, with eyes glued to the binoculars, I watched Challenger — the bigger of the two schooners — finally sail through the lee of her rival and come on, hand over fist, in our wake. Furthermore, she’d accomplished this under her four lowers and two gaff topsails only, while Defender, besides these, sported a whopping big jib topsail which, by the whipping of her fore topmast, evidently was pulling like a horse. It looked as if, perhaps, I’d underestimated the speed at which these two racers were sailing, in which event our margin of four minutes might soon be nil. And presently it was on the tip of my tongue to suggest that we cook our records of the distance run and take stalion forthwith, when Tyche, in the guise of a sunbeam slabbing through the gray ceiling of cloud, produced a “soft spot”—a decrease of wind — to save me, an honorable judge, from involving a sea captain of stainless reputation in a disgraceful conspiracy to deceive the public. And it was by the favor of that blessed but transitory lull that we not only maintained our lead bul actually gained a modicum of extra time before Captain Crocker rang down his engine and whirled his wheel hard astarboard to place Wrestler head to wind on station while the now unwanted steam roared and tbuttered out of the exhaust pipe triumphantly. A minute later Tyche had vanished, leaving the sky as dark as ever, while the breeze, as if rejuvenated by the rest, was heartier, if anything, than before.

No need now for the glasses to see the fun; for there they were, those two hard-driven schooners, almost within hailing distance of us, their lee decks awash up to the hatch coamings, as inch by hardearned inch, all hands and the cook hauling for dear life, those bar-taut sheets were trimmed in for the beat to windward. And it was Defender, given a lift through the lull by that jib topsail, that had crept up abreast and to windward of her rival and now was making her bid for the lead — a bid to which Challenger responded by breaking out her own jib topsail. Scissors and thumbscrews, how they lay down to it while I noted their respective times as they passed us! And then, as Defender buried her bow deep in the smother of the first head sea she met on her course upwind, we were treated to the spectacle of the sudden parting of her fore topmast backstay, as if it were an overkeyed banjo string, and the buckling of the topmast before it snapped short offal the upper cap, to hang up to leeward like the broken wing of a bird — an hurrah’s nest of twitching gear and slatting canvas, the clearing away of which might well dismay even that seasoned crew. Vet cleared away it was in the best tradition of Gloucestermen and in such short order that by the time U restler was bruising her way through head seas at an easy seven and a half knots on a course for Boston Light, Defender was slashing along on an inshore port tack, while her rival, still on the starboard tack, rapidly melted into the lowering gray of the southwest.


IT WAS during the following spell — an hour and twenty minutes of relaxed freedom that the Wrestler’s cook of happy memory served Captain Crocker and me the dinner he had fixed for those, “Big Sliols” the Race Committee: a twelve-pound roast, of prime beef, pan-basted potatoes, boiled onions in milk, and lemon meringue tarts, the brown crusts of which, beaded with t iny drops of caramel, crackled softly in one’s mouth to add zest to the delicious flavor of the filling. And it was the clang of the stand-by bell in the engineroom as we were discussing coffee and cigars that sent us on the jump from the Captain’s quarters in the deckhouse up to the pilothouse again to find Wrestler drawing in toward the Light and the breeze tending to haul to the north, in which quarter the sky showed signs of clearing. Not long afier, speed was reduced to bare stccrageway, and there we were, head to wind, within a cable’s length of the buoy prescribed for the second turn of the course.

And it was then, as we lay waiting for that always dramatic moment in a race, the turning of a mark, and while I was searching the northerly quadrant with the aid of the binoculars, that Tyche — not in the guise of a fleeting sunbeam as before, but now as Old Sol himself, routing the rear guard of that host of sullen gray clouds — chose to reappear and alight on the lofty main topmast head of Defender on the starboard tack and coming on fast; and what was more, favored as she was by that little shift in the direction of the still strong breeze, she was fetching the mark as she lay.

Facing about I discovered Challenger just emerging from the murk still thick to the sou’west, to realize that she would be forced to tack twice to Defender’s once before rounding the buoy and starting on the reach for home. As I laid down the glasses to report this good news to the Captain, I distinctly heard, from somewhere below, the strains of a harmonica rendering “Yankee Doodle” — full confirmation of my opinion that Gloucester’s cock still had a crow left in him; and when, shortly after Defender surged past our stern to set the buoy rocking in her quarter wave as she shaved it close and then tacked all standing in a shower of sunlit spray to stand away with eased sheets on a course for the finish line, there was indeed cause sufficient for all hands aboard Wrestler to crow their loudest.

Six minutes later Challenger rounded the mark, broke out her balloon jib topsail, and like her rival set her main topmast — “Fisherman”—staysail, to leave a wake behind her suggesting that of an ocean liner — a challenge of speed to which Wrestler promptly responded by orders to the engineroom for lavish stoking, in an attempt to overtake the racers. This attempt would have failed had it not been that as the sun declined the breeze became unsteady — puffs and gradually lengthening lulls — a condition in which we slowly but surely, foot by foot, overhauled Challenger as she as surely forereached on Defender; until, within a scant mile of the finish line, between Aida and a whistling buoy, we were able to crowd by the two schooners, as first one and then the other of them held the lead by the favor of that faltering breeze. Then again, on her final appearance that day, it was Tyche who, in the nick of time, befriended our champion with the broken wing by herding a lusty puff in her direction to waft her across the line a bare three lengths ahead of her competitor, while all the Gloucester whistles, horns, and bells combined in a stupendous “crow” just as the sun sank below the horizon.

But even before the dispersal of that vocal flotilla around the finish line, Olaf in his boat had come alongside the Wrestler with orders from Captain Wright that I, my records of the race, and the judge’s flag were all to be “letdied at once” aboard Aida. Soon after f had hastily said good-by to Captain Crocker and his crew, including the provider of those delectable lemon tarts, I found myself in the stern sheets of the glistening white dory, clutching my sheaf of memoranda in one hand and with the other vainly attempting to pluck my way out of the voluminous folds of my emblem of office, which had been tossed aboard on top of me just as Olaf unrestrainedly gave way on the oars — a somewhat undignified exit that inexplicably brought to mind the painting of “Washington Crossing the Delaware.”

However, by the time Aida, slowly forging ahead, had come alongside to pick us up, I had worked myself out from under that smothering flag and was able to scramble aboard without loss of face and without dropping overboard any item of my official belongings. Then, while we steamed at half speed into the harbor, Captain Wright and t he Committee checked my report and finally endorsed it, relieving me of further responsibility; and what was more, they granted my prayer that I might be excused from attendance that evening at the banquet “dinner for five hundred and drinks for ten thousand” — which was to be the windup of the Race; and finally, when Aida, as on the evening before, had snuggled into her berth at the wharf in total darkness and the all-pervading smell of codfish, I stretched myself out on the leather-covered transom to wait until such time as supper might be announced, with a sense that though I could be charged with having run away, I might reasonably hope to live to fight another day.

No doubt there was supper that evening; but it is the twelve hours of sleep that I remember, and the coming-to after it, to be greeted by an Indian Summer morning, warm and hazy with a gentle southerly breeze. The eight o’clock breakfast of fried cod tongues and sounds, hot corn bread, and tea “as black as y’r hat,” although a somewhat austere and battle-scarred Captain Wright presided, fasted supremely good and sustained us all while Aida, after a late morning start, quietly steamed through sunny hours and a gently undulating sea toward Boston, where, in the glow of sunset, she finally came to in her regular berth in Fort Point Channel.

Then it was, when it seemed to me the time had come for me to “leave her, Johnny — leave her" (a tame exit after an eventful cruise), that the Captain and the Engineer, each with a hand on one of my arms, steered me into the cuddy, where broiled live lobsters and a pail of chipped ice from which protruded the golden tinfoiled neck of a champagne bottle, smuggled aboard from the banquet, I strongly suspect, were set forth — a glorified stirrup cup it seemed to me, which, by the time we had partaken of if, had quite dissolved the lingering dregs of my distaste at being dragooned aboard Aida. Feeling sure the moment for parting had now come, I was about to stand up and attempt to express my appreciation for past and present entertainment when suddenly my companions, anticipating my move, jumped from their chairs and pulling me from mine joined hands with me to form a trio, and for the moment a spiritual trinity, as that tough-fibered master of a craft, Captain Wright, responding to the alchemy of a master of an art, quoted a verse at the end of “Banquet Night”:—

“So it was ordered and so it was done,
And the hewers of wood and the Masons of Mark,
With foc’sle hands of the Sidon run
And Navy Lords from the Royal Ark,
Came and sat down and were merry at mess
As Fellow-Craftsmen — no more and no less.”

And I knew then, as 1 know now from later experience, that at last I had been accepted unreservedly by the Captain and his mate as a friend — “no more and no less.”