Home  »  A Library of American Literature  »  Tacking Ship Off Shore

Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Tacking Ship Off Shore

By Walter Mitchell (1826–1908)

[Born in Nantucket, Mass., 1826. Died at Poughkeepsie, N. Y., 1908.]

THE WEATHER-LEECH of the topsail shivers,

The bowlines strain, and the lee-shrouds slacken,

The braces are taut, the lithe boom quivers,

And the waves with the coming squall-cloud blacken.

Open one point on the weather-bow,

Is the light-house tall on Fire Island Head.

There’s a shade of doubt on the captain’s brow,

And the pilot watches the heaving lead.

I stand at the wheel, and with eager eye

To sea and to sky and to shore I gaze,

Till the muttered order of “Full and by!”

Is suddenly changed for “Full for stays!”

The ship bends lower before the breeze,

As her broadside fair to the blast she lays;

And she swifter springs to the rising seas,

As the pilot calls, “Stand by for stays!”

It is silence all, as each in his place,

With the gathered coil in his hardened hands,

By tack and bowline, by sheet and brace,

Waiting the watchword impatient stands.

And the light on Fire Island Head draws near,

As, trumpet-winged, the pilot’s shout

From his post on the bowsprit’s heel I hear,

With the welcome call of “Ready! About!”

No time to spare! It is touch and go;

And the captain growls, “Down helm! hard down!”

As my weight on the whirling spokes I throw,

While heaven grows black with the storm-cloud’s frown.

High o’er the knight-heads flies the spray,

As we meet the shock of the plunging sea;

And my shoulder stiff to the wheel I lay,

As I answer, “Ay, ay, sir! Ha-a-rd a-lee!”

With the swerving leap of a startled steed

The ship flies fast in the eye of the wind,

The dangerous shoals on the lee recede,

And the headland white we have left behind.

The topsails flutter, the jibs collapse,

And belly and tug at the groaning cleats;

The spanker slats, and the mainsail flaps;

And thunders the order, “Tacks and sheets!”

’Mid the rattle of blocks and the tramp of the crew,

Hisses the rain of the rushing squall:

The sails are aback from clew to clew,

And now is the moment for “Mainsail, haul!”

And the heavy yards, like a baby’s toy,

By fifty strong arms are swiftly swung:

She holds her way, and I look with joy

For the first white spray o’er the bulwarks flung.

“Let go, and haul!” ’Tis the last command,

And the head-sails fill to the blast once more:

Astern and to leeward lies the land,

With its breakers white on the shingly shore.

What matters the reef, or the rain, or the squall?

I steady the helm for the open sea;

The first mate clamors, “Belay, there, all!”

And the captain’s breath once more comes free.

And so off shore let the good ship fly;

Little care I how the gusts may blow,

In my fo’castle bunk, in a jacket dry.

Eight bells have struck, and my watch is below.