Captain Joe And The Susie Ann by Francis Hopkinson Smith

Story type: Literature

Wide of beam, stout of mast, short-bowspritted, her boom clewed up to clear her deck load of rough stone; drawing ten feet aft and nine feet for’ard; a twelve-horse hoisting engine and boiler in her forecastle; at the tiller a wabbly-jointed, halibut-shaped, moon-faced (partially eclipsed, owing to a fringe of dark whiskers), sleepy-eyed skipper named Baxter,–such was the sloop Susie Ann, and her outfit and her commander, as she lay alongside the dock in New London Harbor, ready to discharge her cargo at the site of Shark Ledge Lighthouse, eight miles seaward.

On the dock itself, over a wharf post sprawled her owner, old Abram Marrows, a thin, long, badly put together man, awkward as a stepladder and as rickety, who, after trying everything from farming to selling a patent churn, had at last become a shipowner, the Susie Ann, comprising his entire fleet. Marrows had come to see her off; this being the sloop’s first trip for the season.

Lying outside the Susie Ann–her lines fast to an off-shore spile, was the construction tug of the lighthouse gang, the deck strewn with diving gear, water casks and the like,–all needed in the furthering of the work at the ledge. On the tug’s forward deck, hat off and jacket swinging loose, stood Captain Joe Bell in charge of the submarine work at the site, glorious old Captain Joe, with the body of a capstan, legs stiff as wharf posts, arms and hands tough as cant hooks and heart twice as big as all of them put together.

Each and every piece of stone,–some of them weighed seven tons,–stowed aboard the Susie Ann, was, when she arrived alongside the foundation of the lighthouse, to be lowered over her side and sent down to Captain Joe to place in thirty feet of water. This fact made him particular both as to the kind of vessel engaged and the ability of the skipper. Bad seamanship might not only endanger the security of the work but his own life as well,–a diver not being as quick as a crab or blackfish in getting from under a seven-ton stone dropped from tripdogs at the signal to “lower away.”

Captain Joe’s inspection of the Susie Ann’s skipper was anything but satisfactory, judging from the way he opened his battery of protest.

“Baxter ain’t fittin’, I tell ye, Abram Marrows,” he exploded. “He ain’t fittin’ and never will be. Baxter don’t know most nothin’. Set him to grubbin’ clams, Abram, but don’t let him fool ’round the Ledge. He’ll git the sloop ashore, I tell ye, or drop a stone and hurt somebody. Go and git a MAN som’ers and put him in charge,–not a half-baked–” here he lowered his muzzle and fired point-blank at the object of his wrath,–“Yes, and I’ll say it to your face, Captain Baxter. You take my advice and lay off for this v’yage,–it ain’t no picnic out to the Ledge. You ain’t seen it since we got the stone ‘bove high water. Reg’lar mill tail! You go ashore, I tell ye,–or ye’ll lose the sloop.”

Many of the men ranged along the top of the cabin of the tug, or perched on its rail, wondered at the vehemence of the captain’s attack, “Moon-faced Baxter,” as he was called, having a fair reputation as a seaman. They knew, too, that Captain Joe was aware of the condition of Marrows’s affairs, for it had been common talk that the bank had loaned Abram several hundred dollars with the sloop as security on the captain’s own personal inspection. Some of them had even been present when Mrs. Marrows,–a faded old woman with bleached eyes and a pursed-up mouth, her shawl hooding her head and pinned close under her chin with her thumb and forefinger,–had begged Captain Joe to try the Susie Ann for a few loads until Abram could “ketch up,” and had heard his promise to help her.

But they made no protest. Such outbursts on the captain’s part were but the escaping steam from the overcharged boiler of his indignation. Underneath lay the firebox of his heart, chock full of red-hot coals glowing with sympathy for every soul who needed his help. If his safety valve let go once in a while it was to escape from greater danger.

His long range ammunition exhausted, Captain Joe turned on his heel and walked aft to where his diving gear was piled, venting his indignation at every step. This time the outburst was directed to me,–(it was my weekly inspection at the Ledge).

“Can’t jam nothin’ into his head, sir. Stubbornest mule ’round this harbor. Warn’t for that wife o’ his Abe Marrows would a-been high and dry long ago. Every time he gits something purty good he goes and fools it away;–sold his farm and bought that sloop; then he clapped a plaster on it in the bank to start a cook shop. But the wife’s all right;–only last week she come to me lookin’ like she’d bu’st out cryin’,–sayin’ the sloop was all they had, and I promised her then I’d use the Susie, but she never said nothin’ ’bout Baxter being in charge, or I’d stopped him ‘fore he loaded her. Well, there ain’t no tellin’ what nat’ral born fools like Abe Marrows’ll do, but it’s something ornery and criss-cross if Abe Marrows does it. That woman’s worked her fingers off for him, but he’ll git her in the poor-house yit,–see if he don’t.”

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Marrows had heard every word of Captain Joe’s outburst, but he made no answer except to lift his thin elbows and spread his fingers in a deprecatory way, as if in protest. Baxter maintained a dogged silence;–the least said in answer the better. Captain Joe Bell was not a man either to contradict or oppose;–better let him blow it all out. Both owner and skipper determined to take the risk. The Susie Ann had been laid up all winter awaiting the opening of the spring work, and the successful carrying out of the present venture was Marrows’s only escape from financial ruin, and Baxter’s only chance of getting his back wages. There was an unpaid bill, too, for caulking, then a year old, lying in Abram’s bureau drawer, together with an account at Mike Lavin’s machine shop for a new set of grate bars, now almost worn out. Worse than all the bank’s lien on the sloop was due in a few weeks. What money the sloop earned, therefore, must be earned quickly.

And then again, Abram ruminated, Shark Ledge wasn’t the worst place on the coast,–despite Captain Joe’s warning,–especially on this particular morning, when a light wind was blowing off shore. Plenty of other sloops had delivered stone over their rails to the divers below. Marrows remembered that he had been out to the Ledge himself when the Screamer came up into the wind and crawled slowly up until her forefoot was within a biscuit toss of the stone pile.

What Marrows forgot was that Captain Bob Brandt of Cape Ann had then held the spokes of the Screamer’s wheel,–a man who knew every twist and turn of the treacherous tide.

So Baxter shook out the sloop’s jib and mainsail and started on his journey eight miles seaward, with orders to make fast on arrival to the spar buoy which lay within a few hundred yards of the Ledge, and there wait until the tide turned, when she could drop into position to unload. The tug with all of us on board would follow when we had taken on fresh water and coal.

On the run out Captain Joe watched the sloop until she had made her first tack, then he turned to his work and again busied himself in overhauling his diving dress; tightening the set-screws in his copper collar, re-cording his breastplate and putting new leather thongs in his leaden shoes. There was some stone on the sloop’s deck which was needed to complete a level down among the black fish and torn cod,–twenty-two feet down,–where the sea kelp streamed up in long blades above the top of his helmet and the rock crabs scurried out of his way. If Baxter didn’t make a “tarnel fool of himself and git into one o’ them swirl-holes,” he intended to get these stones into place before night.

He knew these “holes,” as he did every other swirl around the ledge and what they could do and what they couldn’t. They were his swirls, really,–for he had placed every individual fragment of the obstructions that caused them with his own hands, in thirty feet of water.

Some three years before the site had been marked by a spindle bearing an iron cage and fastened to a huge boulder known as Shark Ledge Rock, and covered at low water. The unloading of various sloops and schooners under his orders had enlarged this submerged rock to a miniature island, its ragged crest thrust above the sea. This obstruction to the will of the wind and tide, and the ever-present six-mile current, caused by the narrowing of Long Island Sound in its onrush to the sea, acted as a fallen log that blocks a mountain stream, or a boulder that plugs a torrent. That which for centuries had been a steady “set” every six hours east and west, had now become a “back-and-in suck” fringed by a series of swirling undercurrents dealing death and destruction to the ignorant and unwary.

Not been long since a schooner loaded with concrete had been saved from destruction by the merest chance, and later on a big scow caught in the swirl had parted her buoy lines and would have landed high and dry on the stone pile had not Captain Joe run a hawser to her, twisted its bight around the drum of his engine and warped her off just in time to save her bones from sea worms.

As the tug approached, the Ledge, looming up on the dim horizon line, looked like a huge whale spouting derricks, a barnacle of a shanty clinging to its back. Soon there rose into relief the little knot of men gathered about one of the whale’s fins–our landing stage,–and then, as we came alongside, the welcome curl of the smoke, telling of fried pork and saleratus biscuit.

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Captain Joe’s orders now came thick and fast.

“Hurry dinner, Nichols,”–this to the shanty cook, who was leaning out of the galley window,–“And here,–three or four o’ ye, git this divin’ stuff ashore, and then all hands to dinner. The wind’s ag’in Baxter,–he won’t git here for an hour. Startin’ on one o’ them long legs o’ his’n now,”–and the captain’s eye rested on the sloop beating up Fisher’s Island way.

“And, Billy,–‘fore ye go ashore, jump into the yawl and take a look at that snatch block on the spar buoy,–that clam digger may want it ‘fore night.”

This spar buoy lay a few hundred yards off the Whale’s Snout. Loaded vessels were moored to this quill bob, held in place by a five-ton sinker, until they were ready to drop into the eddy and there discharge their stone.

Dinner over the men fell to work, each to his job. The derrick gang was set to shifting a boom on to the larger derrick, the concrete mixers picked up their shovels, and I went to work on the pay-roll of the week. This I always figured up in the little dry-goods box of a room opening out of the galley in the end of our board shanty, its window looking toward Montauk.

As I leaned my arms on the sill for a glimpse of the wide expanse of blue and silver, the cotton rag that served as a curtain flapped in my face. I pushed it aside and craned my neck north and south. The curtain had acted as a weather vane,–the wind had hauled to the east.

The sky, too, had dulled. Little lumpy clouds showed near the horizon line, and, sailing above these, hung a dirt spot of vapor, while aloft glowed some prismatic sundogs, shimmering like opals. Etched against the distance, with a tether line fastened to the spar buoy, lay the Susie Ann. She had that moment arrived and had made fast. Her sails were furled, her boom swinging loose and ready, the smoke from her hoister curling from the end of her smoke pipe thrust up out of the forward hatch.

Then I looked closer in.

Below me, on the concrete platform, rested our big air pump, and beside it stood Captain Joe. He had slipped into his diving dress and was at the moment adjusting the breastplates of lead, weighing twenty-five pounds each, to his chest and back. His leaden shoes were already on his feet. With the exception of his copper helmet, the signal line around his wrist, and the life line about his waist, he was ready to go under water.

Pretty soon he would don his helmet, and, with a last word to Jimmy, his tender, would tuck his chin whisker inside the round opening, wait until the face plate was screwed on, and then, with a cheerful nod behind the glass, denoting that his air was coming all right, would step down his rude ladder into the sea,–down,–down,–down to his place among the crabs and the seaweed.

Suddenly my ears became conscious of a conversation carried on in a low tone around the corner of the shanty.

“Old Moon-face’ll have to git up and git in a minute,” said a derrick man to a shoveller,–born sailors, these,–“there’ll be a red-hot time ’round here ‘fore night.”

“Well, there ain’t no wind.”

“Ain’t no wind,–ain’t there? See that bobble waltzin’ in?”

I looked seaward, and my eyes rested on a ragged line of silver edging the horizon toward Montauk.

“Does look soapy, don’t it?” answered the shoveller. “Wonder if Cap’n Joe sees it.”

Cap’n Joe had seen it–fifteen minutes ahead of anybody else,–had been watching it to the exclusion of any other object. He knew the sea,–knew every move of the merciless, cunning beast; had watched it many a time, lying in wait for its chance to tear and strangle. More than once had he held on to the rigging when, with a lash of its tail, it had swept a deck clean, or had stuck to the pumps for days while it sucked through opening seams the life-blood of his helpless craft. The game here would be to lift its victim on the back of a smooth under-roller and with mighty effort hurl it like a battering ram against the shore rocks, shattering its timbers into drift wood.

“Billy,” said Captain Joe to the shoveller, “go down to the edge of the stone pile and holler to the sloop to cast off and make for home. Hurry, now! And, Jimmy,”–this to his pump tender,–“unhook this breastplate,–there won’t be no divin’, today. I’ve been mistrustin’ the wind would haul ever since I got up this mornin’.”

The shoveller sprang from the platform and began clambering over the slippery, slimy rocks like a crab, his red shirt marked with the white “X” of his suspenders in relief against the blue water. When he reached the outermost edge of the stone pile, where the ten-ton blocks lay, he made a megaphone of his fingers and repeated the captain’s orders to the Susie Ann.

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Baxter listened with his hands cupped to his ears.

“Who says so?” came back the reply.

“Cap’n Joe.”

“What fur?”

“Goin’ to blow,–don’t ye see it?”

Baxter stepped gingerly along the sloop’s rail. Obeying the order meant twenty-four hour’s delay in making sure of his wages,–perhaps a week, spring weather being uncertain. He didn’t “see no blow.” Besides, if there was one coming, it wasn’t his sloop or his stone. When he reached the foot of the bowsprit Moon-face sent this answer over the water:

“Let her blow and be d–! This sloop’s chartered to deliver this stone. We’ve got steam up and the stuff’s goin’ over outside. Get your divers ready. I ain’t shovin’ no baby carriage and don’t you forgit it. I’m comin’ on! Cast off that buoy line, you,”–this to one of his men.

Captain Joe continued stripping off his leaden breastplate. He had heard his order repeated and knew that it had been given correctly,–Baxter’s subsequent proceedings did not interest him. If he had anything to say in answer it was of no moment to him. His word was law on the Ledge; first, because the men daily trusted their lives to his guidance, and, second, because they all loved him with a love hard for a landsman to understand, especially today, when the boss and the gang never, by any possibility, pull together.

“Baxter says he’s comin’ on, sir,” said Billy, when he reached the captain’s side, the grin on his sunburnt face widening until its two ends hooked over his ears. Billy had heard nothing so funny for weeks.

“Comin’ on?”

“That’s what he hollered. Wants you to git ready to take his stuff, sir.”

I was out of the shanty now. I came in two jumps. With that squall rushing from the eastward and the tide making flood, any man who would leave the protection of the spar buoy for the purpose of unloading was fit for a lunatic asylum.

Captain Joe had straightened up and was screening his eyes with his hand when I reached his side, his gaze rivetted on the loosened sloop, which had now hauled in her tether line and was drifting clear of the buoy. The captain was still incredulous.

“No, he ain’t comin’,” he said to me. “He’s all right,–he’ll port his helm in a minute,–but he’d better send up his jib”–and he swept his eye around,–“and that quick, too.”

At this instant the sloop wavered and lurched heavily. The outer edge of the insuck had caught her bow.

Men’s minds work quickly in times of great danger,–minds like Captain Joe’s. In a flash he had taken in the fast-approaching roller, froth-capped by the sudden squall; the surging vessel and the scared face of Baxter, who, having realized his mistake was now clutching wildly at the tiller and shouting orders to his men, none of which could be carried out. Captain Joe knew what would happen,–what had happened before, and what would happen again with fools like Baxter,–now,–in a minute,–before he could reach the edge of the stone pile, hampered as he was in a rubber suit that bound his arms and tied his great legs together. And he understood too the sea’s game, and that the only way to outwit it would be to use the beast’s own tactics. When it gathered itself for the thrust and started in to hurl the doomed vessel the full length of its mighty arms, the sloop’s only safety lay in widening the space. A cushion of backwater would then receive the sloop’s forefoot in place of the snarling teeth of low crunching rocks.

He had kicked off both shoes by this time and was shouting out directions to Baxter, who was slowly and surely being sucked into the swirl:–

“Up with your jib! No,–NO! Let that mainsail alone! UP! Do ye want to git her on the stone pile, you? Port your helm! PORT! O GOD!–Look at him!!”

Captain Joe had slid from the platform now and was flopping his great body over the slimy, slippery rocks like a seal, falling into water holes every other step, crawling out on his belly, rolling from one slanting stone to another, shouting to his men, every time he had the breath:–

“Man that yawl and run a line as quick as God’ll let ye–out to the buoy! Do ye hear? Pull that fall off the drum of the h’ister and git the end of a line on it! She’ll be on top of us in a minute and the mast out of her! QUICK!”

Jimmy sprang for a coil of rope; Billy and the others threw themselves after him; while half a dozen men working around the small eddy in the lee of the diminutive island caught up the oars and made a dash for the yawl.

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All this time the sloop, under the uplift of the first big Montauk roller,–the skirmish line of the attack,–surged, bow on, to destruction. Baxter, although shaking with fear, had sense enough left to keep her nose pointed to the stone pile. The mast might come out of her, but that was better than being gashed amidships and sunk in thirty feet of water.

Captain Joe, his rubber suit wet and glistening as a shiny porpoise, his hair matted to his head, had now reached the outermost rock opposite the doomed craft, and stood near enough to catch every expression that crossed Baxter’s face, who, white as chalk, was holding the tiller with all his strength, cap off, his blousy hair flying in the increasing gale, his mouth tight shut. Go ashore she must. It would be every man for himself then. No help would come,–no help COULD come. Captain Joe and his men would run for shelter as soon as the blow fell, and leave them to their fate. Men like Baxter are built to think this way.

All these minutes–seconds, really,–Captain Joe stood bending forward, watching where the sloop would strike, his hands outstretched in the attitude of a ball-player awaiting a ball. If her nose should hit the sharp, square edges of one of the ten-ton blocks, God help her! She would split wide open like a melon. If by any chance her forefoot should be thrust into one of the many gaps between the enrockment blocks,–spaces from two to three feet wide,–and her bow timbers thus take the shock, there was a living chance to save her.

A cry from Baxter, who had dropped the tiller and was scrambling over the stone-covered deck to the bowsprit, reached the captain’s ears, but he never altered his position. What he was to do must be done surely. Baxter didn’t count,–wasn’t in the back of his head. There were plenty of willing hands to pick up Baxter and his men.

Then a thing happened which, if I had not seen it, I would never have believed possible. The water cushion of the outsuck helped,–so did the huge roller which, in its blind rage, had underestimated the distance between its lift and the wide-open jaws of the rock,–as a maddened bull often underestimates the length of its thrust, its horns falling short of the matador.

Whatever the cause, Captain Joe watched his chance, sprang to the outermost rock, and, bracing his great snubbing posts of legs against its edge, reversed his body, caught the wavering sloop on his broad shoulders, close under her bowsprit chains, and pushed back with all his might.

Then began a struggle between the strength of the man and the lunge of the sea. With every succeeding onslaught, and before the savage roller could fully lift the staggering craft to hurl her to destruction, Captain Joe, with the help of the outsuck, would shove her back from the waiting rocks. This was repeated again and again,–the men in the rescuing yawl meanwhile bending every muscle to carry out the captain’s commands.

Sometimes his head was free enough to shout his orders, and sometimes both man and bow were smothered in suds.

“Keep that fall clear!” would come his order “Stand ready to catch the yawl! Shut that–” here a souse would stop his breath,–“shut that furnace door! Do ye want the steam out of the b’iler?”–etc., etc.

That the slightest misstep on the slimy rocks on which his feet were braced meant sending him under the sloop’s bow where he would be caught between her forefoot and the rocks and ground into pulp concerned him as little as did the fact that Baxter and his men had crawled along the bowsprit over his head and had dropped to the island without wetting their shoes. That his diving suit was full of water and he soaking wet to the skin, made not the slightest difference to him–no more than it would to a Newfoundland dog saving a child. His thoughts were on other things,–on the rescuing yawl speeding toward the spar buoy, on the stout hands and knowing ones who were pulling for all they were worth to that anchor of safety;–on two of his own men who, seeing Baxter’s cowardly desertion, had sprung like cats at the bowsprit of the sloop in one of her dives, and were then on the stern ready to pay out a line to the yawl when she reached the goal. No,–he’d hold on “till hell froze over.”

A hawser now ripped itself clear from out the crest of a roller. This meant that the two cats, despite the increasing gale and thrash of the onrushing sea had succeeded in paying out a stern line to the men in the yawl, who had slipped it through the snatch block fastened in the buoy. It meant, too, that this line had been connected with the line they had brought with them from the island, its far end being around the drum of our hoister.

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A shrill cry now came from one of the crew in the yawl alongside the spar buoy, followed instantly by the clear, ringing order, “GO AHEAD!”

Now a burst of feathery steam plumed skyward, and then the slow “chuggity-chug” of our drum cogs rose in the air. The stern line straightened until it was as rigid as a bar of iron, sagged for an instant under the slump of the staggering sloop, straightened again, and remained rigid. The sloop, held by the stern line, crept slowly back to safety.

Captain Joe looked over his shoulder, noted the widening distance, and leaped back to the inshore rocks.

Late that afternoon, when the tug, with Captain Joe and me on board, reached the tug’s moorings in New London harbor, the dock was crowded with anxious faces,–Abram Marrows and his wife among them. It had been an anxious day along the shore road. The squall, which had blown for half an hour and had then slunk away toward Little Gull, grumbling as it went, had sent everything that could seek shelter bowling into New London Harbor under close reefs. It had also started Marrows and his wife on a run to the dock, where they had stood for hours straining their eyes seaward, each incoming vessel, as she swooped past the dock into the inner basin, adding to their anxiety.

“Wouldn’t give a keg o’ sp’ilt fish for her. Ain’t a livin’ chance o’ savin’ her,” had bellowed the captain of a fishing smack, as he swept by, within biscuit-toss of the dock, his boom submerged, the water curling over the rail.

“She went slap ag’in them chunks o’ cut stone!” shouted the mate of a tug through the window of a pilot house.

“Got her off with her bow split open, but they can’t keep her free! Sunk by now, I guess,” had yelled one of the crew of a dory making for the shipyard.

As each bulletin was shouted back over the water in answer to the anxious inquiries of Marrows, the wife would clasp her fingers the tighter. She made no moan or outburst. Abram would blame her and say it was her fault,–everything was her fault that went wrong.

When the tug had made fast to a wharf spile Captain Joe cleared the stringpiece, and walked straight to Marrows. He was still soaking wet underneath his clothes, only his outer garments being dry,–a condition which never affected him in the least, “salt water bein’ healthy,” he would say.

“What did I tell ye, Abram Marrows?” he exploded, in a voice that could be heard to the turnpike. “Didn’t I say Baxter warn’t fittin’, and that he ought ter be grubbin’ clams? Go and dig a hole some’er’s and cover him up head and ears,–and dig it quick, too, and I’ll lend ye a shovel.”

“Well, but, Captain Joe,”–protested Marrows.

“Don’t you ‘well’ me. Well, nothin’. You’re bad as him. Go and dig a hole and BOTH on ye git in it!”–and he pushed through the crowd on his way to his house, I close at his heels.

The wife, who but that moment had heard the glad news of the rescue from the lips of a deck hand, now hurried after the captain and laid her hand on his arm. Her eyes were red from weeping; strands of gray hair strayed over her forehead and cheeks; her lips were tightly drawn; the anxiety of the last few hours had left its mark.

“Don’t go, Captain Joe, till I kin speak to ye,” she pleaded, in a trembling voice,–speaking through fingers pressed close to her lips.

“No,–I don’t want to hear nothin’. She’s all right, I tell ye,–tighter ‘n a drum and not a drop of water in her. Got some of my men aboard and we’ll unload her to-morrow. You go home, old woman; you needn’t worry.”

“Yes, but you must listen,–PLEASE listen.”

She had followed him up the dock and the two stood apart from the crowd.

“Well, what is it?”

“I want to thank ye,–and I want–“

“No, you don’t want to thank nothin’. She’s all right, I tell ye.”

She had tight hold of his arm now and was looking up into his face, all her gratitude in her eyes.

“But I do,–I must,–please listen. You’ve helped us so. It’s all we have. If we’d lost the sloop I’d ‘a’ give up.”

The captain’s rough, hard hand went out and caught the woman’s thin fingers. A peculiar cadence came into his voice.

“All ye have? Do you think I don’t know it? That’s why I was under her bowsprit.”

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