Posted by: Blue Lou Logan | October 21, 2012

Logan, Pt. IV: Out to Sea


We return again to Logan’s tale.  What follows is somewhere between fact and imagination. The facts are largely gleaned from Rediker’s Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, from which I have generalized and borrowed the occasional phrase.  There’s probably some debt as well to Dana’s Two Years Before The Mast, certainly O’Brian, and even a little Moby Dick.  The rest comes from my head.  This is historical fiction in a raw form…a writer’s warm up.

Liverpool’s Old Dock and Custom House, 1773

Logan has managed to slip, relatively unnoticed, into the dirty streets by the docks of Liverpool.  He was free of at least the immediate attention of English authorities, but he was ready to be away from here, too, knowing that he had a new set of dangers.  Like any crowded city, pickpockets came out of shadows and sidled up quietly, tho’ they would have been sore disappointed with this bedraggled Scottish fugitive, who had no purse at all.  He was far more worried about the crimps.  These unscrupulous men preyed on the down and out, the sailors whose pay had already been spent on ale and women, or were still too drunk to know that they had been shanghaied.  They might have been working for some equally amoral captain who needed whatever crew he could get, but the crimps were most interested in their cut than who they got or how they got them–a little bribery, a quick knock to the head, it didn’t matter.  The unlucky seaman could suddenly find himself signed to a wicked vessel with a vicious commander for next to no pay.  More insidious were the “spirits,” who lured the vulnerable with immediate cash and the promise of good wages but were actually indenturing their careless prey.  Finally, there was the ever-present risk of the press gang.  This was less of a concern, as there was no war going on; the War of the Spanish Succession had just ended, and in fact many soldiers at sea were out of work…and turning pirate.   Nevertheless, there were many reasons for Logan to not linger in port.

Early 18th century sailor

Ideally, captains were looking for sailors to crew their vessels at the same time that sailors were looking for work.  Logan, unfortunately, had two major disadvantages.  One, he was a stranger.  Although he was sailor, his experience was limited to the Firth of Forth and trading voyages across the North Sea.  He would be totally unknown to captains of trans-Atlantic ships.  Two, it was winter, essentially the off season, when merchants were less likely to do business and captains were less likely to brave the elements.  Liverpool would have been filled with unemployed seamen, as there were simply less ships going out.

Logan, then, had to do his own footwork.  Having no papers, he offered only his first name and kept his background vague.  He hit the taverns, learning what ships were hiring and the reputations of their captains…and dodging the crimps that considered each pub their territory.  Then he walked the docks themselves, looking for likely vessels and going on board to inquire with the first mate.  Foremost in Logan’s mind was the destination.  If possible, he wanted to avoid a voyage to Africa, which had the reputation of being a death sentence by disease or at the hands of its involuntary human cargo.  Europe would have done, but Logan wanted to disappear into the New World, whether to the supposed opportunities of the colonies or to the West Indies, where, he heard, anything goes.  He had no hope for decent pay.  Not only was the labor market saturated, but also Logan’s desperation would have been apparent to everyone he talked to.  His freedom to negotiate was next to nothing.  He would be lucky to get a monthly wage of 20 shillings; one shilling was perhaps the value of a decent meal.  An advance on his pay was imperative, so he could get fed, get outfitted, and maybe get a pint.  Somewhere in the back of his mind he wanted a captain that was not a despot.  But Logan would take whatever he could get and as soon as he could get it.

The brig La Grace, similar to a common type of 18th century merchant vessel

What Logan got was a mixed blessing.  He found a brig bound to Virginia but whose captain was a driver of both ship and man, determined to make one last trip to America and maybe back before the cold and the sea ice were intolerable to all but whales.  Only the most hardy–or perhaps foolhardy–of tars would sign with him, and some of them hadn’t, shall we say, signed of their own free will.  The cargo was as mixed as the crew, a dozen men in all.  There were Englishmen, a couple of Americans, an Irishman or three, and a few from scattered places in Europe.  Most were in their twenties, some younger, and there was the inevitable old salt that everyone respected and protected.  What they all had in common was the language that they used, the rock in their step, the leathery tan of their skins, and the fundamentally practical way that they looked at the world.  They were paupers, but they were men of the sea.

“Gale Coming On” by John Michael Groves

Logan did not have to wait long to get to work.  Soon enough he was helping to get the last of the goods on board and carefully arranged and secured below.  All the deals had been made, and all the supplies were stowed.  Every hand was at the capstan to warp out as the great gate opened and the tide was right.  The watch rotation began and soon became an endless cycle, except for those emergencies when disaster was averted only by the concentrated effort of every soul aboard.  Logan had never been out this far on the blue water or on a boat of this size.  Sure, he could steer, rig, and sail, but he was at the bottom of the pecking order and had a lot to learn, and that with a first mate who wanted everything done his way right away.

His messmates were his partners, his teachers, his saviors.  Not only did they teach him the ropes, but they also gave him an education in the “seven liberal sciences of Old Nick:”  swearing, drinking, thieving, whoring, cheating, and backbiting.  They quickly became Logan’s friends and his best means by which to make the voyage survivable, even tolerable.  They were an irreligious lot, but then God had no use out here.  There was nothing really to distinguish blaspheming from telling it how it really was.  Nature was Lord here, and Logan learned that pragmatism, with heavy portions of skepticism and superstition passed down through the ages, kept you alive and sane.

Hammocks below decks on the USS Constitution

There was no romance in the middle of the Atlantic.  The world he could see was an infinite expanse, but the world at hand was limited in every conceivable way.  He slept, when he could sleep, in a hammock barely as big as himself, slung within inches of his mates, dangling and swaying in the tight quarters of the fo’c’sle.  There was bad food and little of it, while rats, cockroaches, and maggots usually got to his meal before he did.  Down below, the air was damp and musty and reeked of seasickness.  Logan wondered sometimes if he had only escaped one prison for another of his own choosing.

In the fo’c’sle, an illustration from 1848, via the Liverpool Museums blog

When Logan was off watch, and if he hadn’t collapsed into hard sleep, joy could be found.  Cards or dice came out of some one’s chest, which then became a gambling table.  Songs were sung, happy and sad, some of the land and some of the sea.  Tales were spun:  ghosts, women, adventures past.  Small beer was more common than water and tasted better, and there was rum.  Men toasted each other, legends of the sea, wives, lovers, and whores.  Once, unexpectedly, one of Logan’s mates even toasted the Pretender, but Logan wasn’t sure whether that was serious or just another way to damn the establishment.  The sailor had no use for society, largely because he was invisible to it.  If anything, this attitude made Logan feel more at home than he had ever felt.  Sometimes Logan thought he was exactly where he was meant to be.

And other times, when the wind wasn’t threatening to blow you over the side, when the deck wasn’t tilted at some impossible angle, when the cold was just tolerable enough, Logan would just go to the windward rail and stare out.  Somewhere behind was Scotland, ever farther away, ever less likely to be seen again.  The bowsprit pointed to a future no one could foretell, a mystery with no clues.  Logan:  his there gone, his somewhere unknown, and his here a fleeting, tiny moment in a timeless nothing.  Logan:  citizen of nowhere else but nowhere, living minute by minute and day by day in a boundless expanse where hope and sadness could no longer be distinguished.  Cycles of the sand in the hourglass.  Cycles in the troughs and the crests of the water.  Endless…

painting by Alberta Martin

This will be the last post in the Logan series for a while, as the research has, for now, run out, and I must get and/or read new books before I can continue.  I mean to get back to Far Side of the World, which I set aside while I had this creative stretch.  There is also prep to be done for my next gig.  But stay tuned–ye never know when inspiration will strike…

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