1890 — The Barque George Thompson
1890 — The Barque George Thompson
by Susan Marie Brown, © 2014
Do you want to waste your life in the dungeon of a steamer, shoveling coal in deafening darkness hour after hour, day after day, chugging back and forth between the same old ports on the same old coast in an ugly iron box? Or would you rather be a sailor who climbs high as a bird flies and stands in the wind on the rigging of a beautiful ship, lit by a dawning sun or setting moon, sailing round the world, like Captain Cook?
George Smith’s favorite elder brother, Richard, worked the steamers. This was Richard’s quandary, his questions. George had rowed him from Whitby’s harbor into the North Sea to fish for cod. He kept working the oars while Richard drank rum, sprawling on the hull of the stern, waving his bottle with one hand and the fishing pole with the other, lecturing.
Winds are unpredictable, Richard said. Sailing ships move too slow, till they’re blown away by storms. They’re all made of wood. It rots and falls apart. Their days are numbered. They’re all slowly sinking. Iron is stronger. In a few years every cargo will be shoved into the hold of a steamer with an iron hull. Every passenger will ride a ship fueled by coal, not wind. You’ll never have a chance to sail round the world, if you don’t go now.
George listened. It was springtime, breezy, with puffy clouds soaring by, the kind of day that makes boys restless, ready to go anywhere, eager for adventure. The tide changed. He turned the boat round and rowed back toward the harbor.
Richard sang a traditional sailors’ shanty, one of those melancholy songs that can’t be heard amid the noise of a steamer, as he climbed onto the dock and staggered toward the pubs.
George pulled the boat from the water, turned it over, carried the oars and fishing pole home, packed his bag and slung it over his shoulder, imitating his big brothers. He walked back down the hill and strolled along the docks using his best imitation of a sailor’s gait. He lied about his name, his age. Said he was his cousin, Frank, already sixteen, and yes, he’d be glad to crew on a schooner down the coast to Scarborough.
From Scarborough he went to Dover. Then on to Lisbon, Gibraltar, Malta, Tunis, Tripoli, Cypress, and finally, through Egypt via the Suez Canal and south on the Arabian Sea to Kenya, India, Burma, and Indonesia, arriving in Sydney after a full year at sea. He stepped onto Australian soil walking with the graceful gait of a real sailor. He was brown and blonde and strong, six inches taller than he stood when he left. He felt transformed in a thousand ways. He was manly now, not a boy. He was training a parrot. It liked to stand on his shoulder, bobbing, and say ‘fifteen men!’ George would finish the line, ‘on a dead man’s chest! Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!’ He wanted his mother to see that. When he was a kid she read Treasure Island aloud on winter nights. In retrospect, he realized those were rare and precious hours: the sort of memories that made him homesick.
He had his portrait taken at a studio, there in Sydney, with the bird on his shoulder shaking its wings. It looked like a blur with scrawny legs. He sent his mother the photograph, along with the lengthiest letter he ever wrote. Two full pages. He included a picturesque description of the last voyage — minus mention of the storm that almost sank the ship and the fever he feared would kill him — followed by a series of personal messages. Tell Richard he’s smart as an ass. Tell Thomas the Mediterranean needs him. Tell Jane to come here: it’s warm and dry. Tell Father he’s now shorter than me.
He missed them all. Would it take another year to get home? He didn’t know. He hoped not.
The next day a Captain, James Barneson, hired George, who was still masquerading as cousin Frank, to sail across the Pacific in a barque bound for North America with a load of coal. That wasn’t a direct route home to England, but George always wanted to see snowy volcanoes and giant redwood trees. Maybe he’d ride a train across the Rockies and plains and sail home from New York. Maybe he’d get off the barque in San Francisco and go pan for gold. Either way, he’d have a great adventure.
The ship sailed east from Sydney into horrible weather. Terrifying gales and hurricanes, one after the other, rocked the ship, sent waves crashing over the deck, tore the sails to bits, and broke the rigging. Every storm taught George more about strength and courage, gave him more skills for facing danger, taking swift actions, holding ropes tight to resist the pull of waves, climbing high and fast to change the sails, defying what looked like certain death to obey orders and do what had to be done to keep the boat afloat.
After sailing toward Tahiti in a broken ship the sight of those islands felt miraculous. To walk on solid land after you nearly sink and die is always dose of bliss. The next six weeks changed George’s life. They felt like an earthly eon, a moment of Paradise.
The parrot introduced him to a young Tahitian woman who found the bird beautiful and charmingly silly. George waited for her on the beach every morning after that. They both knew a bit of French. They fished and swam and fed the parrot and fell in love. She taught him some of her language. He taught her the basics of his. She helped him complete his transition to manhood.
When repairs readied the ship to go further north, George wept. He didn’t want to leave his love. He didn’t want to leave the land, to ride another hurricane, to die at sea.
But his beloved wanted him to go, to learn more about the world, to study his heart and only return when he could be certain he would always truly, truly, love her and never wish to leave again. She said he was brave and strong and would be safe at sea — the storms were gone.
He boarded the ship, despite his dreads. The Barque George Thompson sailed forth with good winds through mild weather, swiftly passing north through the tropics, arriving at Puget Sound in the temperate autumnal days of November. The climate was much like fall would be in Whitby. It was a season of long cool nights between chilly short days dimmed by fog and rain. But it didn’t feel like home. George had grown to be a man whose heart belonged in the tropics. He shivered and froze until he bought woolly thick new clothes and boots.
Puget Sound’s water felt nearly cold as ice. Whenever the clouds parted, volcanoes loomed on the horizon like great pyramids of snow. Dripping wet forests covered the low hills and valleys with straight tall evergreens: trees as tall as castles. Every cove seemed full of oysters, otters, giant fish, seals, and whales. Yes, America was beautiful, but no, it was not where George belonged. His heart ached for Tahiti. So did the parrot.
The coal was unloaded from the barque. The former first mate, Albert Ransom, took the job of Captain. He told George the hold would soon be full of lumber bound for Sydney. He asked — Will you stay on the crew?
By then George knew panning for gold in California would be twelve kinds of futile. Winter in the Rocky Mountains would freeze him to death. Everything he needed, everything he wanted, waited in the South Pacific. He said — Yes. He wanted to stay on the crew, at least until they reached Tahiti again.
Captain Ransom smiled as they shook hands. He said — Good, good, we need you, you’re a brave man, a good sailor.
Their journey west from Puget Sound began in mid-December, and crashed into a furious storm loaded with snow blown by wind so cold it turned the sea spray to ice. They fought the gale. It tore whole sails away and blew the ship toward rocky cliffs and reefs and islands, day after day after day.
The chill was killing them. Waves flooded the deck and crushed the cabin.
They sailed by a mess of wreckage: the masts and spars and boards and beams of another ship that had capsized and was torn apart, crushed, by the storm.
There was no refuge they could anchor in, no safe harbor within reach.
The topgallant sail needed bending. George climbed the main mast to reach the top spar in fear and ice, determined to see Tahiti again. He worked the ropes and the sail with stiff numb hands as the blasting snow blinded him, till a gust of wind pushed him so hard he slipped and fell down, down, down to break against the icy rail and fall a little further, to lose his last breath and blood in that cold, cold water.