1857 | Mississippi River

Water Reading

Mark Twain learns to steer.

I had often seen pilots gazing at the water and pretending to read it as if it were a book; but it was a book that told me nothing. A time came at last, however, when Mr. Bixby seemed to think me far enough advanced to bear a lesson on water reading. So he began: “Do you see that long slanting line on the face of the water? Now, that’s a reef. Moreover, it’s a bluff reef. There is a solid sandbar under it that is nearly as straight up and down as the side of a house. There is plenty of water close up to it, but mighty little on top of it. If you were to hit it, you would knock the boat’s brains out. Do you see where the line fringes out at the upper end and begins to fade away?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, that is a low place; that is the head of the reef. You can climb over there and not hurt anything. Cross over, now, and follow along close under the reef—easy water there—not much current.”

I followed the reef along till I approached the fringed end. Then Mr. Bixby said, “Now get ready. Wait till I give the word. She won’t want to mount the reef; a boat hates shoal water. Stand by—wait—wait—keep her well in hand. Now cramp her down! Snatch her! Snatch her!”

He seized the other side of the wheel and helped to spin it around until it was hard down, and then we held it so. The boat resisted, and refused to answer for a while, and next she came surging to starboard, mounted the reef, and sent a long, angry ridge of water foaming away from her bows.

“Now watch her; watch her like a cat, or she’ll get away from you. When she fights strong and the tiller slips a little, in a jerky, greasy sort of way, let up on her a trifle; it is the way she tells you at night that the water is too shoal; but keep edging her up, little by little, toward the point. You are well up on the bar, now; there is a bar under every point because the water that comes down around it forms an eddy and allows the sediment to sink. Do you see those fine lines on the face of the water that branch out like the ribs of a fan? Well, those are little reefs; you want to just miss the ends of them, but run them pretty close. Now look out—look out! Don’t you crowd that slick greasy-looking place; there ain’t nine feet there; she won’t stand it. She begins to smell it; look sharp, I tell you! Oh blazes, there you go! Stop the starboard wheel! Quick! Ship up to back! Set her back!”

The engine bells jingled and the engines answered promptly, shooting white columns of steam far aloft out of the ’scape pipes, but it was too late. The boat had “smelt” the bar in good earnest; the foamy ridges that radiated from her bows suddenly disappeared, a great dead swell came rolling forward and swept ahead of her, she careened far over to larboard, and went tearing away toward the other shore as if she were about scared to death. We were a good mile from where we ought to have been when we finally got the upper hand of her again.

During the afternoon watch the next day, Mr. Bixby asked me if I knew how to run the next few miles. I said, “Go inside the first snag above the point, outside the next one, start out from the lower end of Higgins’ wood yard, make a square crossing and—”

“That’s all right. I’ll be back before you close up on the next point.”

But he wasn’t. He was still below when I rounded it and entered upon a piece of river which I had some misgivings about. I did not know that he was hiding behind a chimney to see how I would perform. I went gaily along, getting prouder and prouder, for he had never left the boat in my sole charge such a length of time before. I even got to “setting” her and letting the wheel go, entirely, while I vaingloriously turned my back and inspected the stern marks and hummed a tune, a sort of easy indifference which I had prodigiously admired in Bixby and other great pilots. Once I inspected rather long, and when I faced to the front again my heart flew into my mouth so suddenly that, if I hadn’t clapped my teeth together, I should have lost it. One of those frightful bluff reefs was stretching its deadly length right across our bows! My head was gone in a moment; I did not know which end I stood on; I gasped and could not get my breath; I spun the wheel down with such rapidity that it wove itself together like a spider’s web; the boat answered and turned square away from the reef, but the reef followed her! I fled, and still it followed, still it kept—right across my bows! I never looked to see where I was going, I only fled. The awful crash was imminent—why didn’t that villain come! If I committed the crime of ringing a bell, I might get thrown overboard. But better that than kill the boat. So in blind desperation I started such a rattling “shivaree” down below as never had astounded an engineer in this world before, I fancy. Amid the frenzy of the bells, the engines began to back and fill in a furious way, and my reason forsook its throne—we were about to crash into the woods on the other side of the river. Just then Mr. Bixby stepped calmly into view on the hurricane deck. My soul went out to him in gratitude. My distress vanished; I would have felt safe on the brink of Niagara, with Mr. Bixby on the hurricane deck. He blandly and sweetly took his toothpick out of his mouth between his fingers, as if it were a cigar—we were just in the act of climbing an overhanging big tree, and the passengers were scudding astern like rats—and lifted up these commands to me ever so gently: “Stop the starboard. Stop the larboard. Set her back on both.”

The history of the land has been written very largely in water.

—John Hodgdon Bradley Jr., 1935

The boat hesitated, halted, pressed her nose among the boughs a critical instant, then reluctantly began to back away.

“Stop the larboard. Come ahead on it. Stop the starboard. Come ahead on it. Point her for the bar.”

I sailed away as serenely as a summer’s morning. Mr. Bixby came in and said, with mock simplicity, “When you have a hail, my boy, you ought to tap the big bell three times before you land, so that the engineers can get ready.”

I blushed under the sarcasm, and said I hadn’t had any hail.

“Ah! Then it was for wood, I suppose. The officer of the watch will tell you when he wants to wood up.”

I went on consuming, and said I wasn’t after wood.

“Indeed? Why, what could you want over here in the bend, then? Did you ever know of a boat following a bend upstream at this stage of the river?”

“No, sir—and I wasn’t trying to follow it. I was getting away from a bluff reef.”

“No, it wasn’t a bluff reef; there isn’t one within three miles of where you were.”

“But I saw it. It was as bluff as that one yonder.”

“Just about. Run over it!”

“Do you give it as an order?”

“Yes. Run over it.”

“If I don’t, I wish I may die.”

“All right; I am taking the responsibility.”

I was just as anxious to kill the boat, now, as I had been to save her before. I impressed my orders upon my memory, to be used at the inquest, and made a straight break for the reef. As it disappeared under our bows I held my breath; but we slid over it like oil.

“Now don’t you see the difference? It wasn’t anything but a wind reef. The wind does that.”

“So I see. But it is exactly like a bluff reef. How am I ever going to tell them apart?”

“I can’t tell you. It is an instinct. By and by you will just naturally know one from the other, but you never will be able to explain why or how you know them apart.”

It turned out to be true. The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book—a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice.

Contributor

Mark Twain

From Life on the Mississippi. In 1859, two years after signing on as a pilot’s apprentice in New Orleans, a twenty-three-year-old Samuel Clemens received his steamboat pilot’s license, then worked on the Mississippi until the Civil War put an end to commercial riverboat traffic. “When I was a boy,” Twain writes elsewhere in this book, “there was but one permanent ambition among my comrades in our village on the west bank of the Mississippi River. That was to be a steamboatman.”