The Miseries of a life at Sea

The Groans and Grumblings of Jeremy Gribble[*], or The Miseries of a life at Sea.

A splenetic composition


Rundis, indigestaque moles[*]


Misery 1st. – Obliged to start for the very day when you had been told from an authentic quarter that you would certainly be detained – and on the strength of that assurance had agreed to go on a spree – or a fishing, shooting, of a driving match. Deuced sulky – all in the dumps – surly as an angry mastiff.

Misery II. – Day of departure arrived – dark gloomy weather – bucketsful of rain with a stiff Westerly breeze blowing right in your teeth – most dismal and disheartening prospect, as if the very elements had conspired together to depress your spirits and to add one more to the list of your miseries.

Misery III. –  Out at sea for the first time – sick at heart and still more sick at stomach – horrible state to loath your most favourite mess, and be tired of your very existence. And then no tear of sympathy flows for your distress – & no voice whispering consolation salutes your ear by the kindness of its accents lightens the burden of your soul, already apparently too heavy to be borne. On the contrary nothing around your birth [berth] but grinning mirthful faces mocking by their pretended contortions & wry mouths the real pangs of your woebegone face and despairing eyes. Tis most galling to be the subject of jest to those who tauntingly offer you the best & choicest part of their mess and with well simulated earnestness pres you to eat, while at the same time they are shoving their tongue into their cheek, and winking most roguishly with the off eye. Surely Sea-sickness with all its attendant circumstances may be termed the Purgatory of this life – in which you certainly suffer for your by-past sins and have still the prospect of an Elysium when freed from its horrors.

Misery IV. – Wind blowing right in your teeth for several days – knocked about like an old shuttlecock – make no way at all – in sight of your port, which you see with longing eyes but dare not enter, under the penalty of being sent off again instantly with a flea in your lug.

Misery V. – Out of channel in a tremendous gale from the NW – the poetical image of mountainous waves a mere pigmy simile compared with the reality – vessel tumbling, pitching and tossing at a great rate – no comfort in broken shins and sundry bruises, which the sudden lurching of the vessel produces upon your unfortunate carcase.

Misery VI. – Consequent upon the said gale or gales is the misery of the breakfast, dinner, and tea tables – animated cups and saucers, full of locomotive power – no miracle – the old remark that riches (or otherwise inanimate things) take to themselves wings and fly away, without the agency of human hands here fully verified. Sudden and instantaneous metastases of one dish or platter from one place to another, not intended and awkward dilemma, in which you are placed by having a cup of scalding hot coffee, or a plate of hot soup, or a mess of savoury solids, swimming in gravy, thrown right into your lap without the power of prevention, both hand being employed in looking after your own provs. This misery much lessened by being on the weather side, but there is no hope of escape to those on the lee. Determined resolution to keep a better look out for the future – exceedingly careful in all your motions – succeed for five minutes when an awful lurch, sending the vessel on her beam ends, knocks you off your guard & away goes your choice morsel, your bonne bouch – the rich turtle soup of the glass of sparkling champagne, in the very act of being conveyed to your mouth – and in their room comes a mingled mess of every thing on the table. Lucky thing, if your seats are fixed to the deck and you are fixed to your seats. Can’t after all help laughing to see the Stewards, or those luckless wights who may chance to be standing to windward, fetch away from one side of the cabin to the other with the velocity of a cannon ball & with such force as to break the framework of the Cabins – a sufficient proof, but not very desirable one of the hardness of their skulls.

                The case no better on deck – no good holding ground there – obliged to hold on by a rope or spar, or otherwise, in the twinkling of a bed post down you fall and nobody knows where you will stop. Useful thing, if sailors had three instead of two hands – Mem: to propose a reward to him who will invent one or more effective substitutes for that most indispensable member.

Misery VII. – Gale still blowing away in style – Bed-time arrived, and turn in successfully after a few bumps in unrigging yourself. No rest on this side of the grave, nor indeed on any side of your birth. Were it not for the principle of navigation, or rather were it not for the interposition of a pretty high board, no small likelihood of being jerked or chucked out of your crib by every tumble, which the vessel gives. A moments respite occurs, or you become accustomed to the motion, and instinctively suit yourself to it – try to sleep on in defiance of it, but discover another enemy to repose. The violent shaking of all the timbers has occasioned a very great strain, and the water, thro’ innumerable leaks, falls put, put, put, drop by drop on your nose & cheeks producing a most painful sensation by its continually dropping on one place – or else it comes down in a shower, wetting you through and through, and filling you with all the horror of anticipated Rheumatism and its wracking pains. This as we have it in Macbeth has murdered sleep. Your miscalled repose is followed by weariness of the limbs – heaviness of the eyelids – excruciating headache and an insupportable ennui – Place the pulling enthusiast who cannot live contented with terrestrial enjoyments but is always talking of the sublimity and grandeur of a gale – for half a day or night in a good stiff storm, and then every word for it he would speedily be cured of his philosophy, excellent specific this also for correcting the whims and fancies of the would-be Poet, who deals in inauguration and scorns the dull realities of life.

Misery VIII. – Extremes are always bad – often think of the truth of Master Ovid’s observation ‘medio tutissumus ilis.’ Can’t fancy at all either the broiling heat of a tropical sun, or the freezing atmosphere of Nova Scotia. And men suffering annoyance from the one, have often wished for the presence of the other – yet on more than one occasion when running with a fresh breeze from a warm to a cold climate, as from the West Indies to the coast of North America, you have equal reason to feel annoyed by both – ergo a little heat, and a moderate cold – a proper admixture of the two alone can be agreeable.

Misery IX. – While lounging at the gangway on a fine moonlight night you are rudely and disagreeably awakened from pleasant reveries on the green fields of dear native home, and the warm affectionate heatty-centred there by finding yourself all at once drenched with water either from a cross sea or the roguery of the helmsman. At other times even on the quarterdeck you are not safe – for the top of a tremendous sea dashes with fury over the quarter and wets to the skin the unfortunates who are there. The pleasure of such a shower bath is increased if it happens to be received on a voyage to the North pole, as the water being diffused congeals, and encases you in ice. Ice and snow, are said to afford much warmth – ergo this is an evil most devotedly to be wished for, seeing you want some air-tight covering to prevent the too rapid abstraction of heat.

Misery X. – Hope long deferred maketh the heart sick – excellent illustration of this in a voyage to Halifax. Long prevalence of Westerly winds. NW 8/10 – W 1/10 – SW 1/10 – exactly in a position, which prevents you from taking any advantage – go to the Southw.d find NW still – go to the Northw.d find SW – go wherever you will, wind still foul. Ordinary passage 18 or 21 days – 6, 8, 10, 12 weeks elapse and perhaps at the end of that time, you pop into Harbour, your masts gone, under jury masts – rigging warn to the last strand – sails showing so much mending and patching, that you can scarcely discern the original canvass,  and men and officers all so fagged, that it is almost miraculous that they are still capable of duty.

Misery XI. – Not to be able, as the old song says, to keep the spirits up by pouring spirits down – [is a] miserable condition to be reduced to. Excessive heat and nothing but water to satisfy your thirst – or freezing cold, without a drop of fire-spirit to raise the temperature of your shivering body. Some may imagine that sailors are tipplers and drunkards, who cannot do without grog – but such persons are very much out of their reckoning, as they would find if they were exposed to the same hardships – and in this they fail in not discriminating between the necessity of a stimulant and restorative to the weather-beaten tar to enable [him] to continue his work without prejudice to his health, and the practice of administering to his depraved appetite by any man who is in the worst sense of the term a drunkard.- – – Along with the grog all tobacco finished – an article as necessity to the enjoyment of a seaman as grog is in many instances, to his health. Grumble against all landlubbers, who are fit for nothing yet can always replenish, when their stock comes short.


Misery XII. – Oh dire necessity! To be roused every night from a sound sleep, for the purpose of keeping your watch on deck. Only four hours in bed one night and eight the next. Often can’t fall asleep, when your watch below before 5 or 6 bells, when you at last sink into a sweet slumber – only to be broken – at eight bells. Bitter cold night – in a warm snug birth – loth to turn out and pretend not to hear the call – but vain hope – the caller wishes to be relieved in order to turn in & will not leave you until he sees you up. On deck arrived with teeth chattering like a pair of castanets – feet cold as ice – and the sharp North wind blowing so keenly that you feel as if some cutting instrument were applied to your face. The deck is like one sheet of ice – you cannot take exercise & the impenetrable darkness around contrasts gloomily with the comfort and pleasant dreams of sweethearts and wives below, & gives rise to phantasies of the most melancholy description.

Misery XIII. – Mo-no-to-ny tiresome word the very sound in an echo to the sense. To live in such a state may be compared to being in a prison – to a fever going round a circle – to a state as tedious as the rolling storm was to Silyphus, or the never ending labours of the Danaides. However much one day may differ from another in respect to wind and weather, your mode of life undergoes no change. Your sphere of vision and of society is so contracted that most of the passions which are the fountains of delight, when called into exercise, here lie dormant, alike useless to the individual, and to mankind. An unconquerable listlessness – an unwanted heitaeum vitae – a deadly lethargy of the imagination and reasoning facilities are scarcely to be described – ennui clogs and deadens our corporeal and mental powers – or very often the fancy, thus left to luxuriate and run wild in the world of nonentities or nonexistents becomes [?] and perverse and conjures up a host of supercilious feelings and peopling both sea & air with ideal forms and figures. No man perhaps in the universe is so credulous or superstitious as your real seaman, and few possess such real powers of imagination all resulting from that mo-no-to-ny or absence of objects so common in large communities for the exercise of a rational mind, and that abundance of time which he has, combined with the peculiar situation in which he is placed..

                It is hardly possible for a landsman to conceive the difficulty the seaman has to dispose of his superfluous time, or in other words to relieve  the monotony of his existence. When on duty or busily engaged time passes unheeded away. But then he has much leisure and to beguile the weary hours he sleeps, he eats, he jokes, laughs & spins a yarn – and yet after all he is unable to dispel the Blue Devils. No wonder then that any even however trifling excites an interest utterly disproportionate to its real importance, as the sight of a sail – fish – birds – or of a land he does not touch at. And even then the relief experienced by the break in the monotony of every day is merely temporary, & like the cheerful excitement of opium leaves when it is gone but a deeper despondency behind.

                Surely then the Monotony of a sea life is a great misery.

Misery XIV. – Out of sight of land for many weeks and months and at last have the prospect of reaching your port. When near land foul wind arises – such has not for many days, that you can have no observation to ascertain your position – thick hazy weather prevails, wrapping every thing around as in a funeral pall – and you have let your Chronometer run down, or have but too much reason to suspect that it is considerably out. What an agreeable situation for a man to be placed in, where you are not assured of your safety for a single moment, and where you may consider it solely as a providential circumstance that you have so long escaped knowing as you do that there are these reefs and rocks every where around you & strong currents driving right upon these. Who would be a sailor, who considered of these things? Or who would talk of the pleasures of the sea? Well, the weather clear up, the wind blows a gale, when lo you find yourself on a lee shore, and are only saved from impending destruction by some lucky fortunate circumstance, or rather let me say by the special interjection of Providence.

Misery XV. – First and last misery – to part with our friends – the first when we set out on a voyage and the last, when we cast anchor in the Harbour of Eternity, far away from our parents our wives and our children. Sailors are supposed to be amphibious animals, living with equal pleasure or equal indifference on shore or on board. Most egregious misreckoning this. Sailors too much bound to the land, to give the sea the preference. There some have sweet hearts – some have wives and different ties of relationship or friendship, which no time can ever destroy. Far different from theirs and far more enviable in their estimation is the condition of the landsman, who being in the constant society of his friends, and I’ll venture to say that if the prospect were held to most seamen before they were too old, of obtaining their livelihood at home, they would cheerfully embrace the opportunity of quitting the sea, and of becoming one of those landlubbers they profess to despise. When a man has been bred to the sea, or the sea has been bred to him – when all his thoughts and feelings are forced to run in one channel – when he has been almost all his life afloat, knocking about in different quarters of the globe without the opportunity or the time to become attached to any one part which he could call his home – then, I admit such a man might prefer his ship to a house – the green fields of the ocean to the verdant meadows of the shore – and the monotonous indifference of a sea life to the discomfort and neglect he would experience on the land. But there are few of this description – the majority being connected by the most sacred and enduring ties to their homes, ties which embitter many a day, when forced to fore go for an uncertain season – and with this Majority I Jeremy Gribble, most willingly coincide as in duty bound, seeing that the many are more likely to be in the right than the few. Nor am I ay all ashamed to confess that one of the greatest miseries I have experienced in a Sae life, is to part with friends – and that I am not quite Stoic enough to suppress those natural feelings of sorrow & regret, which nature causes to rise in our bosoms on such a melancholy occasion.

                I shall not mention at large the numerous and more serious miseries which result from want of water – of provisions – from a leaky ship requiring all hands to be kept constantly at the pumps in order to keep her afloat – from the breaking out of a fatal epidemic, where there is no medicine on board and no physician to prescribe or administer the proper remedies – from the fury of a hurricane, when you are obliged to scud before the wind under bare poles and every moment are in danger of foundering –

                These I say I shall pass with this slight allusion, since, thank heaven, I have never yet witnessed nor experienced them, and being spared from these, all the other miseries in comparison elicit only the ebullitions and grumblings of a discontented temper such as that of Jeremy Gribble while they ought to be borne up against as the trifling evils which try the excellence of humanity, as gold is tried by fire.