On one occasion, in a severe tempest in the Bay of Biscay, a flash of lightning struck the ship and set her on fire. The calmness with which orders were given and obeyed, and the rapidity with which the fire was extinguished, without the least hurry or confusion, made a deep impression on me. This was afterwards increased by the conduct of the crew in a severe gale of wind, when it was necessary to navigate one of the narrow channels, by which the squadron that blockaded Rochelle and Rochfort was frequently endangered. The vessel had to pass between two rocks, so near that a biscuit could have been thrown from the deck on either. An old quarter-master was at the wheel; the captain stood by to con and to direct his steering. At one fearful crisis, every blast threatened to shiver a sail, or to carry away a spar, and a single false movement of the helmsman, or the slightest want of steadiness or of obedience on the part of any man on duty, would have been fatal to the life of every one on board.
As they drifted on their path
There was silence deep as death,
And the boldest held his breath
For a time.
When the danger was over, the captain thanked the officers and men for their conduct, and gave a snuff-box with five guineas in it to the quarter-master, in admiration of his steady head and iron nerves.
I mention these incidents in my early experience as a sort of apology for a landsman’s presumption, in venturing to write this Preface to a series of nautical details. In after years, the death of a dear brother, a lieutenant in the navy, who lost his life in a generous attempt to save a vessel from shipwreck on the coast of Sussex, moved me to a still deeper concern for those whose employment is ’in the great waters.’
My early observation of the hazards of a sailor’s career, and my brother’s sudden call to his last account, in the awful perils of a storm at sea, taught me to reflect with painful solemnity on the many thousand instances, in which our naval protectors are summoned in a moment, prepared or unprepared, to stand before the throne of the Eternal. Often have I asked myself and others, Can nothing be done to elevate the hopes, and to place the fortitude of these men on a firmer foundation than that of mere animal courage, or the instinct of discipline? The present is an opportunity of pleading for the sailor which I should be sorry to lose, and of suggesting something, which may establish his good conduct on a basis more durable, and more certain, than even the well-known courage and discipline of a British tar.
I shall begin by noticing the extraordinary displays of self-possession, self-devotion, and endurance, which shed lustre on our naval service; and I will close my remarks with hints for the improvement of these noble qualities.