I’ve been bathing in the poem / Of star-infused and milky sea / Devouring the azure greens.—Arthur Rimbaud, 1871
Monday, November 19
This was a black day in our calendar. At seven o’clock in the morning, it being our watch below, we were aroused from a sound sleep by the cry of “All hands ahoy! A man overboard!” This unwonted cry sent a thrill through the heart of everyone, and hurrying on deck, we found the vessel hove flat aback with all her studding sails set; for the boy who was at the helm left it to throw something overboard, and the carpenter, who was an old sailor, knowing that the wind was light, put the helm down and hove her aback. The watch on deck were lowering away the quarter boat, and I got on deck just in time to heave myself into her as she was leaving the side; but it was not until out upon the wide Pacific, in our little boat, that I knew whom we had lost. It was George Ballmer, a young English sailor, who was prized by the officers as an active and willing seaman and by the crew as a lively, hearty fellow, and a good shipmate. He was going aloft to fit a strap round the main topmast head, for ringtail halyards, and had the strap and block, a coil of halyards, and a marlinspike about his neck. He fell from the starboard futtock shrouds, and not knowing how to swim, and being heavily dressed, with all those things round his neck, he probably sank immediately. We pulled astern in the direction in which he fell, and though we knew that there was no hope of saving him, yet no one wished to speak of returning, and we rowed about for nearly an hour, without the hope of doing anything, but unwilling to acknowledge to ourselves that we must give him up. At length we turned the boat’s head and made toward the vessel.
Death is at all times solemn, but never so much so as at sea. A man dies onshore—his body remains with his friends, and “the mourners go about the streets,” but when a man falls overboard at sea and is lost, there is a suddenness in the event and a difficulty in realizing it, which give to it an air of awful mystery. A man dies onshore—you follow his body to the grave, and a stone marks the spot. You are often prepared for the event. There is always something which helps you to realize it when it happens, and to recall it when it has passed. A man is shot down by your side in battle, and the mangled body remains an object and a real evidence; but at sea, the man is near you—at your side—you hear his voice, and in an instant he is gone, and nothing but a vacancy shows his loss. Then, too, at sea—to use a homely but expressive phrase—you miss a man so much. A dozen men are shut up together in a little bark, upon the wide, wide sea, and for months and months see no forms and hear no voices but their own, and one is taken suddenly from among them, and they miss him at every turn. It is like losing a limb. There are no new faces or new scenes to fill up the gap. There is always an empty berth in the forecastle, and one man wanting when the small night-watch is mustered. There is one less to take the wheel and one less to lay out with you upon the yard. You miss his form and the sound of his voice, for habit had made them almost necessary to you, and each of your senses feels the loss.
All these things make such a death peculiarly solemn, and the effect of it remains upon the crew for some time. There is more kindness shown by the officers to the crew, and by the crew to one another. There is more quietness and seriousness. The oath and the loud laugh are gone. The officers are more watchful, and the crew go more carefully aloft. The lost man is seldom mentioned, or is dismissed with a sailor’s rude eulogy—“Well, poor George is gone! His cruise is up soon! He knew his work, and did his duty, and was a good shipmate.” Then usually follows some allusion to another world, for sailors are almost all believers, but their notions and opinions are unfixed and at loose ends. They say, “God won’t be hard upon the poor fellow,” and seldom get beyond the common phrase which seems to imply that their sufferings and hard treatment here will excuse them hereafter—“To work hard, live hard, die hard, and go to hell after all, would be hard indeed!” Our cook, a simple-hearted old African, who had been through a good deal in his day and was rather seriously inclined, always going to church twice a day when onshore, and reading his Bible on a Sunday in the galley, talked to the crew about spending their sabbaths badly, and told them that they might go as suddenly as George had, and be as little prepared.
Yet a sailor’s life is at best but a mixture of a little good with much evil, and a little pleasure with much pain. The beautiful is linked with the revolting, the sublime with the commonplace, and the solemn with the ludicrous.
We had hardly returned on board with our sad report before an auction was held of the poor man’s clothes. The captain had first, however, called all hands aft and asked them if they were satisfied that everything had been done to save the man, and if they thought there was any use in remaining there longer. The crew all said that it was in vain, for the man did not know how to swim, and was very heavily dressed. So we then filed away and kept her off to her course.
A View of Dordrecht, by Aelbert Cuyp, c. 1650. Ascott, Buckinghamshire, England.
The laws regulating navigation make the captain answerable for the effects of a sailor who dies during the voyage, and it is either a law or a universal custom, established for convenience, that the captain should immediately hold an auction of his things, in which they are bid off by the sailors, and the sums which they give are deducted from their wages at the end of the voyage. In this way the trouble and risk of keeping his things through the voyage are avoided, and the clothes are usually sold for more than they would be worth onshore. Accordingly, we had no sooner got the ship before the wind than his chest was brought up upon the forecastle and the sale began. The jackets and trousers in which we had seen him dressed but a few days before were exposed and bid off while the life was hardly out of his body, and his chest was taken aft and used as a store chest, so that there was nothing left which could be called his. Sailors have an unwillingness to wear a dead man’s clothes during the same voyage, and they seldom do so unless they are in absolute want.
As is usual after a death, many stories were told about George. Some had heard him say that he repented never having learned to swim, and that he knew that he should meet his death by drowning. Another said that he never knew any good to come of a voyage made against the will, and the deceased man shipped and spent his advance, and was afterward very unwilling to go, but not being able to refund, was obliged to sail with us.
From Two Years Before the Mast. At the age of nineteen in 1834, Dana left Harvard College and became a common sailor aboard a ship bound for California by way of Cape Horn. He resumed his formal education two years later and was admitted to the Bar in 1840, the same year he published his account of life at sea. It was a success on both sides of the Atlantic, eventually netting some $50,000 for the Harper publishing firm—to whom Dana had sold all the rights for $250. Herman Melville called the book “unmatchable.”