Small Boat Sailing
The following was written by JACK LONDON On Board 'Roamer',
Sonoma Creek, on April 15, 1911
Excerpted from Ocean
A sailor is born, not made. And by "sailor" is meant,
not the average efficient and hopeless creature who is found to-day
in the forecastle of deepwater ships, but the man who will take
a vessel compounded of wood and iron and rope and canvas and compel
it to obey his will on the surface of the sea. Barring captains
and mates of big ships, the small-boat sailor is the real sailor.
He knows--he must know--how to make the wind carry his craft from
one given point to another given point. He must know about tides
and rips and eddies, bar and channel markings, and day and night
signals; he must be wise in weather-lore; and he must be sympathetically
familiar with the peculiar qualities of his boat which differentiate
it from every other boat that was ever built and rigged. He must
know how to gentle her about, as one instance of a myriad, and
to fill her on the other tack without deadening her way or allowing
her to fall off too far.
The deepwater sailor of to-day needs know none of these things.
And he doesn't. He pulls and hauls as he is ordered, swabs decks,
washes paint, and chips iron-rust. He knows nothing, and cares
less. Put him in a small boat and he is helpless. He will cut
an even better figure on the hurricane deck of a horse.
I shall never forget my child-astonishment when I first encountered
one of these strange beings. He was a runaway English sailor.
I was a lad of twelve, with a decked-over, fourteen-foot, centre-board
skiff which I had taught myself to sail. I sat at his feet as
at the feet of a god, while he discoursed of strange lands and
peoples, deeds of violence, and hair-raising gales at sea. Then,
one day, I took him for a sail. With all the trepidation of the
veriest little amateur, I hoisted sail and got under way. Here
was a man, looking on critically, I was sure, who knew more in
one second about boats and the water than I could ever know.
After an interval, in which I exceeded myself, he took the tiller
and the sheet. I sat on the little thwart amidships, openmouthed,
prepared to learn what real sailing was. My mouth remained open,
for I learned what a real sailor was in a small boat. He couldn't
trim the sheet to save himself, he nearly capsized several times
in squalls, and, once again, by blunderingly jibing over; he didn't
know what a centre-board was for, nor did he know that in running
a boat before the wind one must sit in the middle instead of on
the side; and finally, when we came back to the wharf, he ran
the skiff in full tilt, shattering her nose and carrying away
the mast-step. And yet he was a really truly sailor fresh from
the vasty deep.
Which points my moral. A man can sail in the forecastles of big
ships all his life and never know what real sailing is. From the
time I was twelve, I listened to the lure of the sea. When I was
fifteen I was captain and owner of an oyster-pirate sloop.
By the time I was sixteen I was sailing in scow-schooners, fishing
salmon with the Greeks up the Sacramento River, and serving as
sailor on the Fish Patrol. And I was a good sailor, too, though
all my cruising had been on San Francisco Bay and the rivers tributary
to it. I had never been on the ocean in my life.
Then, the month I was seventeen, I signed before the mast as
an able seaman on a three-top-mast schooner bound on a seven-months'
cruise across the Pacific and back again. As my shipmates promptly
informed me, I had had my nerve with me to sign on as able seaman.
Yet behold, I WAS an able seaman. I had graduated from the right
school. It took no more than minutes to learn the names and uses
of the few new ropes. It was simple. I did not do things blindly.
As a small-boat sailor I had learned to reason out and know the
WHY of everything. It is true, I had to learn how to steer by
compass, which took maybe half a minute; but when it came to steering
"full-and-by" and "close-and-by," I could
beat the average of my shipmates, because that was the very way
I had always sailed. Inside fifteen minutes I could box the compass
around and back again. And there was little else to learn during
that seven-months' cruise, except fancy rope-sailorising, such
as the more complicated lanyard knots and the making of various
kinds of sennit and rope-mats. The point of all of which is that
it is by means of small-boat sailing that the real sailor is best
And if a man is a born sailor, and has gone to the school of
the sea, never in all his life can he get away from the sea again.
The salt of it is in his bones as well as his nostrils, and the
sea will call to him until he dies. Of late years, I have found
easier ways of earning a living. I have quit the forecastle for
keeps, but always I come back to the sea. In my case it is usually
San Francisco Bay, than which no lustier, tougher, sheet of water
can be found for small-boat sailing. It really blows on San Francisco
Bay. During the winter, which is the best cruising season, we
have southeasters, southwesters, and occasional howling northers.
Throughout the summer we have what we call the "sea-breeze,"
an unfailing wind off the Pacific that on most afternoons in the
week blows what the Atlantic Coast yachtsmen would name a gale.
They are always surprised by the small spread of canvas our yachts
carry. Some of them, with schooners they have sailed around the
Horn, have looked proudly at their own lofty sticks and huge spreads,
then patronisingly and even pityingly at ours.
Then, perchance, they have joined in a club cruise from San Francisco
to Mare Island. They found the morning run up the Bay delightful.
In the afternoon, when the brave west wind ramped across San Pablo
Bay and they faced it on the long beat home, things were somewhat
One by one, like a flight of swallows, our more meagrely sparred
and canvassed yachts went by, leaving them wallowing and dead
and shortening down in what they called a gale but which we called
a dandy sailing breeze. The next time they came out, we would
notice their sticks cut down, their booms shortened, and their
after- leeches nearer the luffs by whole cloths.
"Smash! There goes your topmast
As for excitement, there is all the difference in the world between
a ship in trouble at sea, and a small boat in trouble on land-locked
water. Yet for genuine excitement and thrill, give me the small
boat. Things happen so quickly, and there are always so few to
do the work--and hard work, too, as the small-boat sailor knows.
I have toiled all night, both watches on deck, in a typhoon off
the coast of Japan, and been less exhausted than by two hours'
work at reefing down a thirty-foot sloop and heaving up two anchors
on a lee shore in a screaming south-easter.
a heavy tide-way just as you are sailing your little sloop through
a narrow draw-bridge. Behold your sails, upon which you are depending,
flap with sudden emptiness, and then see the impish wind, with
a haul of eight points, fill your jib aback with a gusty puff.
Around she goes, and sweeps, not through the open draw, but broadside
on against the solid piles. Hear the roar of the tide, sucking
through the trestle. And hear and see your pretty, fresh-painted
boat crash against the piles. Feel her stout little hull give
to the impact. See the rail actually pinch in. Hear your canvas
tearing, and see the black, square-ended timbers thrusting holes
through it. Smash! There goes your topmast stay, and the topmast
reels over drunkenly above you. There is a ripping and crunching.
If it continues, your starboard shrouds will be torn out. Grab
a rope--any rope--and take a turn around a pile. But the free
end of the rope is too short. You can't make it fast, and you
hold on and wildly yell for your one companion to get a turn with
another and longer rope.
Hold on! You hold on till you are purple in the face, till it
seems your arms are dragging out of their sockets, till the blood
bursts from the ends of your fingers. But you hold, and your partner
gets the longer rope and makes it fast. You straighten up and
look at your hands. They are ruined. You can scarcely relax the
crooks of the fingers. The pain is sickening. But there is no
The skiff, which is always perverse, is pounding against the
barnacles on the piles which threaten to scrape its gunwale off.
It's drop the peak! Down jib! Then you run lines, and pull and
haul and heave, and exchange unpleasant remarks with the bridge-tender
who is always willing to meet you more than half way in such repartee.
And finally, at the end of an hour, with aching back, sweat-soaked
shirt, and slaughtered hands, you are through and swinging along
on the placid, beneficent tide between narrow banks where the
cattle stand knee-deep and gaze wonderingly at you. Excitement!
Work! Can you beat it in a calm day on the deep sea?
I've tried it both ways. I remember labouring in a fourteen days'
gale off the coast of New Zealand. We were a tramp collier, rusty
and battered, with six thousand tons of coal in our hold. Life
lines were stretched fore and aft; and on our weather side, attached
to smokestack guys and rigging, were huge rope-nettings, hung
there for the purpose of breaking the force of the seas and so
saving our mess-room doors. But the doors were smashed and the
mess-rooms washed out just the same. And yet, out of it all, arose
but the one feeling, namely, of monotony.
In contrast with the foregoing, about the liveliest eight days
of my life were spent in a small boat on the west coast of Korea.
Never mind why I was thus voyaging up the Yellow Sea during the
month of February in below-zero weather. The point is that I was
in an open boat, a sampan, on a rocky coast where there were no
light-houses and where the tides ran from thirty to sixty feet.
My crew were Japanese fishermen. We did not speak each other's
language. Yet there was nothing monotonous about that trip. Never
shall I forget one particular cold bitter dawn, when, in the thick
of driving snow, we took in sail and dropped our small anchor.
The wind was howling out of the northwest, and we were on a lee
shore. Ahead and astern, all escape was cut off by rocky headlands,
against whose bases burst the unbroken seas. To windward a short
distance, seen only between the snow-squalls, was a low rocky
reef. It was this that inadequately protected us from the whole
Yellow Sea that thundered in upon us.
The Japanese crawled under a communal rice mat and went to sleep.
I joined them, and for several hours we dozed fitfully. Then a
sea deluged us out with icy water, and we found several inches
of snow on top the mat. The reef to windward was disappearing
under the rising tide, and moment by moment the seas broke more
strongly over the rocks. The fishermen studied the shore anxiously.
So did I, and with a sailor's eye, though I could see little chance
for a swimmer to gain that surf-hammered line of rocks.
I made signs toward the headlands on either flank. The Japanese
shook their heads. I indicated that dreadful lee shore. Still
they shook their heads and did nothing.
My conclusion was that they were paralysed by the hopelessness
of the situation. Yet our extremity increased with every minute,
for the rising tide was robbing us of the reef that served as
buffer. It soon became a case of swamping at our anchor. Seas
were splashing on board in growing volume, and we baled constantly.
And still my fishermen crew eyed the surf-battered shore and
At last, after many narrow escapes from complete swamping, the
fishermen got into action. All hands tailed on to the anchor and
hove it up. For'ard, as the boat's head paid off, we set a patch
of sail about the size of a flour-sack. And we headed straight
for shore. I unlaced my shoes, unbottoned my great-coat and coat,
and was ready to make a quick partial strip a minute or so before
we struck. But we didn't strike, and, as we rushed in, I saw the
beauty of the situation. Before us opened a narrow channel, frilled
at its mouth with breaking seas. Yet, long before, when I had
scanned the shore closely, there had been no such channel.
I HAD FORGOTTEN THE THIRTY-FOOT TIDE!
And it was for this tide that the Japanese had so precariously
waited. We ran the frill of breakers, curved into a tiny sheltered
bay where the water was scarcely flawed by the gale, and landed
on a beach where the salt sea of the last tide lay frozen in long
curving lines. And this was one gale of three in the course of
those eight days in the sampan. Would it have been beaten on a
ship? I fear me the ship would have gone aground on the outlying
reef and that its people would have been incontinently and monotonously
There are enough surprises and mishaps in a three-days' cruise
in a small boat to supply a great ship on the ocean for a full
year. I remember, once, taking out on her trial trip a little
thirty- footer I had just bought. In six days we had two stiff
blows, and, in addition, one proper southwester and one ripsnorting
southeaster. The slight intervals between these blows were dead
calms. Also, in the six days, we were aground three times. Then,
too, we tied up to the bank in the Sacramento River, and, grounding
by an accident on the steep slope on a falling tide, nearly turned
a side somersault down the bank.
In a stark calm and heavy tide in the Carquinez Straits, where
anchors skate on the channel-scoured bottom, we were sucked against
a big dock and smashed and bumped down a quarter of a mile of
its length before we could get clear. Two hours afterward, on
San Pablo Bay, the wind was piping up and we were reefing down.
It is no fun to pick up a skiff adrift in a heavy sea and gale.That
was our next task, for our skiff, swamping, parted both towing
painters we had bent on. Before we recovered it we had nearly
killed ourselves with exhaustion, and we certainly
had strained the sloop in every part from keelson to truck.
And to cap it all, coming into our home port, beating up the
narrowest part of the San Antonio Estuary, we had a shave of inches
from collision with a big ship in tow of a tug. I have sailed
the ocean in far larger craft a year at a time, in which period
occurred no such chapter of moving incident.
"After all, the mishaps are almost
best part of small-boat sailing"
After all, the mishaps are almost the best part of small-boat
sailing. Looking back, they prove to be punctuations of joy. At
the time they try your mettle and your vocabulary, and may make
you so pessimistic as to believe that God has a grudge against
you--but afterward, ah, afterward, with what pleasure you remember
them and with what gusto do you relate them to your brother skippers
in the fellowhood of small-boat sailing!
A narrow, winding slough; a half tide, exposing mud surfaced
with gangrenous slime; the water itself filthy and discoloured
by the waste from the vats of a near-by tannery; the marsh grass
on either side mottled with all the shades of a decaying orchid;
a crazy, ramshackled, ancient wharf; and at the end of the wharf
a small, white-painted sloop. Nothing romantic about it. No hint
of adventure. A splendid pictorial argument against the alleged
joys of small-boat sailing. Possibly that is what Cloudesley and
I thought, that sombre, leaden morning as we turned out to
cook breakfast and wash decks.
The latter was my stunt, but one look at the dirty water overside
and another at my fresh-painted deck, deterred me. After breakfast,
we started a game of chess.
The tide continued to fall, and we felt the sloop begin to list.
We played on until the chess men began to fall over. The list
increased, and we went on deck. Bow-line and stern-line were drawn
taut. As we looked the boat listed still farther with an abrupt
jerk. The lines were now very taut.
"As soon as her belly touches the bottom she will stop,"
Cloudesley sounded with a boat-hook along the outside. "Seven
feet of water," he announced. "The bank is almost up
and down. The first thing that touches will be her mast when she
turns bottom up."
An ominous, minute snapping noise came from the stern-line.
Even as we looked, we saw a strand fray and part. Then we jumped.
Scarcely had we bent another line between the stern and the wharf,
when the original line parted. As we bent another line for'ard,
the original one there crackled and parted. After that, it was
an inferno of work and
We ran more and more lines, and more and more lines continued
to part, and more and more the pretty boat went over on her side.
We bent all our spare lines; we unrove sheets and halyards; we
used our two-inch hawser; we fastened lines part way up the mast,
half way up, and everywhere else. We toiled and sweated and enounced
our mutual and sincere conviction that God's grudge still held
Country yokels came down on the wharf and sniggered at us. When
Cloudesley let a coil of rope slip down the inclined deck into
the vile slime and fished it out with seasick countenance, the
yokels sniggered louder and it was all I could do to prevent him
from climbing up on the wharf and committing murder.
By the time the sloop's deck was perpendicular, we had unbent
the boom-lift from below, made it fast to the wharf, and, with
the other end fast nearly to the mast-head, heaved it taut with
block and tackle. The lift was of steel wire. We were confident
that it could stand the strain, but we doubted the holding-power
of the stays that held the mast.
The tide had two more hours to ebb (and it was the big run-out),
which meant that five hours must elapse ere the returning tide
would give us a chance to learn whether or not the sloop would
rise to it and right herself.
The bank was almost up and down, and at the bottom, directly
beneath us, the fast-ebbing tide left a pit of the vilest, illest-
smelling, illest-appearing muck to be seen in many a day's ride.
Said Cloudesley to me gazing down into it: "I love you as
a brother. I'd fight for you. I'd face roaring lions, and sudden
death by field and flood. But just the same, don't you fall into
that." He shuddered nauseously. "For if you do, I haven't
the grit to pull you out. I simply couldn't. You'd be awful. The
best I could do would be to take a boat-hook and shove you down
out of sight."
We sat on the upper side-wall of the cabin, dangled our legs
down the top of the cabin, leaned our backs against the deck,
and played chess until the rising tide and the block and tackle
on the boom-lift enabled us to get her on a respectable keel again.
Years afterward, down in the South Seas, on the island of Ysabel,
I was caught in a similar predicament. In order to clean her copper,
I had careened the Snark broadside on to the beach and outward.
When the tide rose, she refused to rise. The water crept in through
the scuppers, mounted over the rail, and the level of the ocean
slowly crawled up the slant of the deck. We battened down the
engine-room hatch, and the sea rose to it and over it and climbed
perilously near to the cabin companion-way and skylight.
We were all sick with fever, but we turned out in the blazing
tropic sun and toiled madly for several hours. We carried our
heaviest lines ashore from our mast-heads and heaved with our
heaviest purchase until everything crackled including ourselves.
We would spell off and lie down like dead men, then get up and
heave and crackle again. And in the end, our lower rail five feet
under water and the wavelets lapping the companion-way combing,
the sturdy little craft shivered and shook herself and pointed
her masts once more to the zenith.
There is never lack of exercise in small-boat sailing, and the
hard work is not only part of the fun of it, but it beats the
San Francisco Bay is no mill pond. It is a large and draughty
and variegated piece of water.
I remember, one winter evening, trying to enter the mouth of
the Sacramento. There was a freshet on the river, the flood tide
from the bay had been beaten back into a strong ebb, and the lusty
west wind died down with the sun.
It was just sunset, and with a fair to middling breeze, dead
aft, we stood still in the rapid current. We were squarely in
the mouth of the river; but there was no anchorage and we drifted
backward, faster and faster, and dropped anchor outside as the
last breath of wind left us. The night came on, beautiful and
warm and starry.
My one companion cooked supper, while on deck I put everything
in shape Bristol fashion. When we turned in at nine o'clock the
weather-promise was excellent. (If I had carried a barometer I'd
have known better.) By two in the morning our shrouds were thrumming
in a piping breeze, and I got up and gave her more scope on her
Inside another hour there was no doubt that we were in for a
It is not nice to leave a warm bed and get out of a bad anchorage
in a black blowy night, but we arose to the occasion, put in two
reefs, and started to heave up. The winch was old, and the strain
of the jumping head sea was too much for it. With the winch out
of commission, it was impossible to heave up by hand. We knew,
because we tried it and slaughtered our hands.
"It was heart-breaking. And
I know we were both
near to crying from the hurt and the exhaustion"
Now a sailor hates to lose an anchor. It is a matter of pride.
Of course, we could have buoyed ours and slipped it. Instead,
however, I gave her still more hawser, veered her, and dropped
the second anchor. There was little sleep after that, for first
one and then the other of us would be rolled out of our bunks.
The increasing size of the seas told us we were dragging, and
when we struck the scoured channel we could tell by the feel of
it that our two anchors were fairly skating across. It was a deep
channel, the farther edge of it rising steeply like the wall of
a canyon, and when our anchors started up that wall they hit in
Yet, when we fetched up, through the darkness we could hear the
seas breaking on the solid shore astern, and so near was it that
we shortened the skiff's painter. Daylight showed us that between
the stern of the skiff and destruction was no more than a score
of feet. And how it did blow! There were times, in the gusts,
when the wind must have approached a velocity of seventy or eighty
miles an hour.
But the anchors held, and so nobly that our final anxiety was
that the for'ard bitts would be jerked clean out of the boat.
All day the sloop alternately ducked her nose under and sat down
on her stern; and it was not till late afternoon that the storm
broke in one last and worst mad gust. For a full five minutes
an absolute dead calm prevailed, and then, with the suddenness
of a thunderclap, the wind snorted out of the southwest--a shift
of eight points and a boisterous gale.
Another night of it was too much for us, and we hove up by hand
in a cross head-sea.
It was not stiff work. It was heart-breaking. And I know we were
both near to crying from the hurt and the exhaustion. And when
we did get the first anchor up-and-down we couldn't break it out.
Between seas we snubbed her nose down to it, took plenty of turns,
and stood clear as she jumped.
Almost everything smashed and parted except the anchor-hold.
The chocks were jerked out, the rail torn off, and the very covering-board
splintered, and still the anchor held. At last, hoisting the reefed
main-sail and slacking off a few of the hard-won feet of the chain,
we sailed the anchor out. It was nip and tuck, though, and there
were times when the boat was knocked down flat.
We repeated the manoeuvre with the remaining anchor, and in the
gathering darkness fled into the shelter of the river's mouth.
I was born so long ago that I grew up before the era of gasolene.
As a result, I am old-fashioned. I prefer a sail-boat to a motor-
boat, and it is my belief that boat-sailing is a finer, more difficult,
and sturdier art than running a motor.
Gasolene engines are becoming fool-proof, and while it is unfair
to say that any fool can run an engine, it is fair to say that
almost any one can.
Not so, when it comes to sailing a boat. More skill, more intelligence,
and a vast deal more training are necessary. It is the finest
training in the world for boy and youth and man.
If the boy is very small, equip him with a small, comfortable
skiff. He will do the rest.
He won't need to be taught. Shortly he will be setting a tiny
leg-of-mutton and steering with an oar. Then he will begin to
talk keels and centreboards and want to take his blankets out
and stop aboard all night.
But don't be afraid for him. He is bound to run risks and encounter
accidents. Remember, there are accidents in the nursery as well
as out on the water.
More boys have died from hot-house culture than have died on
boats large and small; and more boys have been made into strong
and reliant men by boat-sailing than by lawncroquet and dancing-school.
And once a sailor, always a sailor.
The savour of the salt never stales.
The sailor never grows so old that he does not care to go back
for one more wrestling bout with wind and wave. I know it of myself.
I have turned rancher, and live beyond sight of the sea. Yet
I can stay away from it only so long. After several months have
passed, I begin to grow restless.
I find myself day-dreaming over incidents of the last cruise,
or wondering if the striped bass are running on Wingo Slough,
or eagerly reading the newspapers for reports of the first northern
flights of ducks.
And then, suddenly, there is a hurried pack of suit-cases and
overhauling of gear, and we are off for Vallejo where the little
Roamer lies, waiting, always waiting, for the skiff to come alongside,
for the lighting of the fire in the galley-stove, for the pulling
off of gaskets, the swinging up of the mainsail, and the rat-tat-tat
of the reef-points, for the heaving short and the breaking out,
and for the twirling of the wheel as she fills away and heads
up Bay or down.
On Board Roamer,
April 15, 1911