Who can truly know what a seafarer’s life is like? Surely, none but a person who has spent some time at sea and worked his ass off on board a ship. But thanks to nautical writers, the curious landlubber can have an insight into that life and perhaps feel a bit of empathy with seafarers.
The following are excerpts from some of these writers. Although they describe conditions faced by sailors in earlier times, the quoted passages should resonate with present-day readers. The truth is that the sea is still a dangerous place, and life is still hard for many mariners — notwithstanding all the noise about their rights as workers and as human beings.
I can utter a true song about myself, tell of my travels, how in toilsome days I often suffered a time of hardship, how I have borne bitter sorrow in my breast, made trial of many sorrowful abodes on ships; dread was the rolling of the waves. There the hard night watch at the boat’s prow was often my task, when it tossed by the cliffs.
— from ‘The Seafarer’ (prose translation by R. K. Gordon of the old Anglo-Saxon poem, 1926)
Nothing is more common than to hear people say, “Are not sailors very idle at sea? What can they find to do?” This is a natural mistake and, being frequently made, is one which every sailor feels interested in having corrected. In the first place, then, the discipline of the ship requires every man to be at work upon something when he is on deck, except at night and on Sundays. At all other times you will never see a man, on board a well-ordered vessel, standing idle on deck, sitting down, or leaning over the side. It is the officer’s duty to keep every one at work, even if there is nothing to be done but to scrape the rust from the chain cables. In no state prison are the convicts more regularly set to work, and more closely watched.
— Richard Henry Dana, Jr., from ‘Two Years Before the Mast’ (1899)
To a man locked up in a steel ship all the time, the sea is too much like a woman. Things like her lulls and storms, or her caprice, or the beauty of her breast reflecting the setting sun, are all obvious. More than that, you’re in a ship that mounts the sea and rides her and yet is constantly denied her. It’s the old saying about miles and miles of lovely water and you can’t quench your thirst. Nature surrounds a sailor with all these elements so like a woman and yet he is kept as far as a man can be from her warm, living body. That’s where the problem begins, right there – I’m sure of it.
— Yukio Mishima, from ‘The Sailor who Fell from Grace with the Sea’ (translated from the Japanese by John Nathan, 1966)
Lhootse Station on the North Sea, no date
Albert Rieger (Austrian, 1834–1905)
Courtesy of Dorotheum auction house via Wikimedia Commons
…then the wind went round to the sou-west and began to pipe up. In two days it blew a gale. The Judea hove to, wallowed on the Atlantic like an old candleboc. It blew day after day: it blew with spite, without interval, without mercy, without rest. The world was nothing but an immensity of great foaming waves rushing at us, under a sky low enough to touch with the hand and dirty like a smoked ceiling. In the stormy space surrounding us there was a much flying spray as air. Day after day and night after night there was nothing round the ship but the howl of the wind, the tumult of the sea, the noise of water pouring over her deck. There was no rest for her and no rest for us.
— Joseph Conrad, from ‘Youth’ (1898)
Miserable dog’s life is this of the sea! commanded like a slave, and set to work like an ass! vulgar and brutal men lording it over me, as if I were an African in Alabama. Yes, yes, blow on, ye breezes, and make a speedy end to this abominable voyage!
— Herman Melville, from ‘Redburn: His First Voyage’ (1855)
A French Sailor, 1897
Christian Krohg (Norwegian, 1852 – 1925)
Courtesy of Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo