NONE OF THEM KNEW THE COLOR OF THE SKY.
Their eyes glanced level, and remained upon the waves that swept
toward them. These waves were gray, except for the tops, which were
white, and all the men knew the colors of the sea. The line between
sky and water narrowed and widened, and fell and rose.
A man likes to take a bath in a bigger area than this boat could
provide. These waves were frightfully rapid and tall; and each boiling,
white top was a problem in the small boat.
The cook sat in the bottom, and looked with both eyes at the six
inches of boat which separated him from the ocean. He had bared his
fat arms as he worked to empty the water from the boat. Often he said,
“God! That was a bad one.” As he remarked it, he always looked toward
the east over the rough sea.
The oiler, guiding with one of the two oars in the boat, sometimes
raised himself suddenly to keep away from the water that poured in. It
was a thin little oar, and it often seemed ready to break.
The correspondent, pulling at the other oar, watched the waves
and wondered why he was there.
The hurt captain, lying in the front, was feeling defeat and despair.
It was despair that comes, for a time at least, to even the bravest and most
enduring when the business fails, the army loses, the ship goes down.
The mind of the master of a vessel is rooted deep in her wood, whether
he commands for a day or many. And this captain had in his thoughts
the firm impression of a scene in the grays of dawn, with seven faces
turned down in the sea. And later the remains of the ship, washed by
waves, going low and lower and down. Thereafter there was something
strange in his voice. Although steady, it was deep with grief, and of a
quality beyond speech or tears.
“Keep her a little more south, Billie,” said he.
“A little more south, sir,” said the oiler in the back.
A seat in this boat was not unlike a seat upon a jumpy horse, and
a horse is not much smaller. The boat was much like an animal. As each
wave came, and she rose for it, she seemed like a horse leaping over a
high fence. The manner of her ride over these walls of water is a thing
of mystery. Each wave required a new leap, and a leap from the air. Then
jumping and slipping and racing and dropping down, she steadied for
the next threat.
A particular danger of the sea is the fact that after successfully getting
through one wave, you discover that there is another behind it. The
next wave is just as nervously anxious and purposeful to overturn boats.
In a ten-foot boat one can get a good idea of the great force of the sea.
As each gray wall of water approached, it shut all else from the view of
the men in the boat. It was not difficult to imagine that this particular
wave was the final outburst of the ocean, the last effort of the determined
The sun climbed steadily up the sky. The men knew it was broad
day because the color of the sea changed from gray to green and the
white tops were like falling snow. From their low boat they could not
see the sun rise. Only the color of the waves that rolled toward them
told them that day was breaking.
The oiler and the correspondent rowed the tiny boat. And they
rowed. They sat together in the same seat, and each rowed an oar. Then
the oiler took both oars; then the correspondent took both oars; then
the oiler; then the correspondent. They rowed and they rowed.
The captain, hesitating in the front, after the boat had climbed a
great wave, said that he had seen the light at Mosquito Inlet. After a
while, the cook remarked that he had seen it. The correspondent was
at the oars then and he, too, wished to look at the lighthouse. But his
back was toward the far shore. The waves were important, and for some
time he could not seize an opportunity to turn his head. But at last
there came a wave more gentle than the others. When at the top of it,
he hurriedly searched the western water with his eyes.
“See it?” asked the captain.
“No,” said the correspondent slowly, “I didn’t see anything.”
“Look again,” said the captain. He pointed. “It’s exactly in that
At the top of another wave the correspondent did as he was told.
This time his eyes found a small, still thing on the edge of the moving
ocean. It was exactly like the point of a pin. It took an anxious eye to
find a lighthouse so tiny.
“Think we’ll reach it, Captain?”
“If this wind stays steady and the boat doesn’t sink, we can’t do
much else,” said the captain hopefully. Then he added, “Empty her,
“All right, Captain,” said the cheerful cook.
It would be difficult to describe the secure bond between men that
was here established on the seas. No one said that it was so. No one
mentioned it. But it was on the boat, and each man felt it warm him.
They were a captain, an oiler, a cook, and a correspondent, and they
were friends—friends in a more strangely iron-bound strength than
may be ordinary.
The hurt captain, lying against the water jar in the front, spoke
always in a low voice and calmly. But he could never command a more
ready-to-obey ship’s company than the other three in the boat. It was
more than a mere recognition of what was best for their safety. There
was surely in it a quality that was personal and heartfelt. And after this
devotion to the commander of the boat, there was this oneness. The
correspondent, who had been taught to be a hard judge of men, knew
even at the time that it was the best experience of his life. But no one
said it was so. No one mentioned it.
“I wish we had a sail,” remarked the captain. “We might try my
coat on the end of an oar. It would give you two boys a chance to rest.”
So the cook and the correspondent held the oar and spread wide the
coat. Sometimes the oiler had to turn sharply to keep the sea from breaking
into the boat. But, otherwise, sailing was a success.
The lighthouse had been growing slowly larger. It now almost had
color and appeared like a little gray shadow on the sky. The men holding
high the oar could not be prevented from turning their heads quite
often to glance at this little gray shadow.
At last, from the top of each wave, the men in the rolling boat
could see land. As the lighthouse was a shadow on the sky, this land
seemed only a long black shadow on the sea. It certainly was thinner
The wind slowly died away. The cook and the correspondent did
not now have to labor to hold high the oar. But the waves continued
pushing and turning and washing the boat.
Slowly the land rose from the sea. From a black line it became a
line of black and white—trees and sand. Finally the captain said he
could see a house on the shore. “They’ll see us before long and come out
after us,” said the cook.
The distant lighthouse rose high. “The keeper ought to be able to
see us now,” said the captain.
“None of those other boats could have reached shore to give word
of our ship,” said the oiler, in a low voice, “or the lifeboat would be out hunting for us.”
Slowly and beautifully the land came out of the sea. The wind
came again. Finally a new sound struck the ears of the men in the boat.
It was the low thunder of waves beating the shore. “We’ll never be able
to reach the lighthouse now,” said the captain. “Swing her a little more
“A little more north, sir,” said the oiler.
So the little boat turned her nose once more down the wind. All
except the oarsman watched the shore grow. Doubt and fear were leaving
the minds of the men. The management of the boat still took most
of their attention, but it could not prevent a quiet cheerfulness. In an
hour, perhaps, they would be on shore. The nearness of success shone
in their eyes. Everybody took a drink of water.
“Cook,” remarked the captain, “there doesn’t seem to be any sign
of life about the house.”
“No,” replied the cook. “Strange they don’t see us.”
Tide, wind and waves were swinging the boat north. “Strange they
don’t see us,” said the men.
The sea’s roar was here dulled, but its tone was nevertheless thundering
and huge. As the boat swam over the great waves, the men sat
listening to this roar. “We’ll overturn,” said everybody.
It is fair to say here that there was not a lifesaving station within
twenty miles in either direction. But the men did not know this fact,
and so they made bitter remarks concerning the eyesight of the nation’s
lifesavers. Four unhappy men sat in the boat and murmured, “Strange
they don’t see us.”
The earlier lightheartedness had completely disappeared. To their
sharpened minds it was easy to imagine all kinds of idleness and blindness,
and indeed, lack of courage. There was the shore of the land, and it
was bitter and bitter to them that from it came no sign.
The captain said at last, “I suppose we’ll have to make a try for
ourselves. If we stay out here too long, none of us will have strength to
swim after the boat goes under.”