John Barleycorn HTML version
There was nothing to drink on the Sophie Sutherland, and we had fifty-one days of
glorious sailing, taking the southern passage in the north-east trades to Bonin Islands.
This isolated group, belonging to Japan, had been selected as the rendezvous of the
Canadian and American sealing fleets. Here they filled their water-barrels and made
repairs before starting on the hundred days' harrying of the seal-herd along the northern
coasts of Japan to Behring Sea.
Those fifty-one days of fine sailing and intense sobriety had put me in splendid fettle.
The alcohol had been worked out of my system, and from the moment the voyage began I
had not known the desire for a drink. I doubt if I even thought once about a drink. Often,
of course, the talk in the forecastle turned on drink, and the men told of their more
exciting or humorous drunks, remembering such passages more keenly, with greater
delight, than all the other passages of their adventurous lives.
In the forecastle, the oldest man, fat and fifty, was Louis. He was a broken skipper. John
Barleycorn had thrown him, and he was winding up his career where he had begun it, in
the forecastle. His case made quite an impression on me. John Barleycorn did other
things beside kill a man. He hadn't killed Louis. He had done much worse. He had robbed
him of power and place and comfort, crucified his pride, and condemned him to the
hardship of the common sailor that would last as long as his healthy breath lasted, which
promised to be for a long time.
We completed our run across the Pacific, lifted the volcanic peaks, jungle-clad, of the
Bonin Islands, sailed in among the reefs to the land-locked harbour, and let our anchor
rumble down where lay a score or more of sea-gypsies like ourselves. The scents of
strange vegetation blew off the tropic land. Aborigines, in queer outrigger canoes, and
Japanese, in queerer sampans, paddled about the bay and came aboard. It was my first
foreign land; I had won to the other side of the world, and I would see all I had read in the
books come true. I was wild to get ashore.
Victor and Axel, a Swede and a Norwegian, and I planned to keep together. (And so well
did we, that for the rest of the cruise we were known as the "Three Sports.") Victor
pointed out a pathway that disappeared up a wild canyon, emerged on a steep bare lava
slope, and thereafter appeared and disappeared, ever climbing, among the palms and
flowers. We would go over that path, he said, and we agreed, and we would see beautiful
scenery, and strange native villages, and find, Heaven alone knew, what adventure at the
end. And Axel was keen to go fishing. The three of us agreed to that, too. We would get a
sampan, and a couple of Japanese fishermen who knew the fishing grounds, and we
would have great sport. As for me, I was keen for anything.