No. 16.—Becalmed in the Doldrums, Part 1.
ALTHOUGH THE LAND-BOUND often imagine that a tempest must be the most terrifying thing a sailor can face, in fact the most terrifying thing a sailor in Her Majesty’s navy ever has to face is the No. 4 Standard Naval Salt Biscuit. Tempests are actually sixteenth on the list of things that terrify sailors, just below maiden aunts.
Second on the list is a tropical calm. Any sailor will tell you that he had rather endure a dozen cyclones laid end to end than one dead calm in the tropics.
It was therefore not without some trepidation that I approached the equator, under strict instructions from the Admiralty to claim it for Her Majesty before the Spanish, with whom we were still at war, could make a prior claim. Not to try your patience with excessive prefatory matter, I shall simply say that my worst fears were realized. The wind died down to a complete calm, and our sails fell lifeless against the masts. We were becalmed in the doldrums. The crew blew and blew into the sails until they hyperventilated themselves, but to no avail, as I could have told them, having tried the same experiment on numerous occasions myself. I did not tell them, however, since their efforts kept the men entertained for several hours, and thus kept them out of the sort of mischief into which a bored crew can easily fall.
Any good sea captain knows that, in a dead calm, the most important thing is to keep the crew occupied. I therefore issued each member of my crew a box of sanitary cotton swabs and set them to work swabbing the deck, which gave them several days of good, wholesome fun. Eventually, however, the cotton swabs ran out, and every corner and crevice of the deck was polished to a crystalline sparkle. Since there was little useful labor to be performed, I divided the crew arbitrarily into several teams and set them to playing charades, which occupied them for several more days while the ship slowly drifted on the lazy, aimless currents.
By the third day, there was some grumbling among the crew, and I was forced to resort to stern naval discipline in order to keep the charades going. Loud indeed were the groans of the men who were sent to bed without supper, but such extreme measures were necessary to save the lives of all the crew, who in such a calm can be preserved only by rigorous obedience.
But the near-mutiny of my crew was not more worrisome than a discovery we made on the morning of our ninth day. Our lookout, who spent nearly every moment of the day scanning the horizon with his spyglass because such employment exempted him from the onerous charade duty to which the other crew members were subject, descried a sail in the distance.
At once he came and reported his discovery to me privately, and I myself confirmed the sighting with my keen eye (which is the left one).
“You will say nothing of this to the rest of the crew,” I told him. “But you will keep your spyglass trained on that sail, even at the cost of missing your turn at charades.”
“It’s all right, cap’n,” replied the honest old salt. “Charades is a young man’s game anyhow.”
He departed for the crow’s nest, which he had agreed to tend to while the mother crow was on a fishing expedition, and resumed his careful watch.
The rest of the crew, whom I saw no point in disturbing for the moment, continued their wholesome games, and toward noon I joined them, as was my wont. But my heart was not in it; cruel care had taken up residence in my mind and would not be evicted. For I had not only seen a sail on the horizon, but I had also made out, with my keen eye (which is the left one), the Spanish colors dangling limp from the mast.