Category Archives: Sailing Stories

Wreck of the Sloop John B

According to Wikipedia, “The John B. Sails” is a Bahamian folk song from Nassau. A transcription by Richard Le Gallienne was published in 1916, and a version was included in Carl Sandburg’s The American Songbag in 1927. Since the early 1950s there have been many recordings; variant titles include “I Want to Go Home“, “Wreck of the John B“, and “Sloop John B“. Note that the lyrics reproduced below never mention the John B being wrecked. (The photo was taken at Nassau, Bahama Islands, c. 1900.)

We came on the sloop “John B”
My grandfather and me
‘Round Nassau town we did roam
Stayed awake all night
We got into a fight
Well, I feel so broke up
I want to go home

Hoist up the “John B” sail
See how the mains’l’s sets
Tell the captain ashore
I wanna go home
Well, I wanna go home
I wanna go home
Lord, I feel so broke up
I just wanna go home

Well, the first mate he got drunk
And he broke into somebody’s trunk
And the Sheriff had to come and take him away
Sheriff John Slone
Please let me alone
Well, I fell so broken up
I just wanna go home

Hoist up the “John B” sail
See how the mains’l’s sets
Tell the captain ashore
I wanna go home
Lord, I wanna go home
I just wanna go home
Well, I feel so broken up
I just wanna go home

Hoist up the “John B” sail
See how the mains’l’s sets
Tell the captain ashore
I wanna go home
Well, I wanna go home
I wanna go home
Lord, I feel so broken up
I just wanna go home
Well, I feel so broken up
I wanna go home


Storms Are On The Ocean

One of my favorite cuts from June Carter Cash’s album Wildwood Flower is her version (at YouTube) of “Storms are on the Ocean.” Another early Carter Family version, also on YouTube, is by The Carter Sisters – Storms Are On The Ocean.

Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee

I suspect most folks, like myself, assumed that the lyrics to this song were from a single source, even if the source is obscure. But apparently that’s not so — according to the musicologist Bob Waltz (writing at Remembering the Old Songs), it’s probably a composite of lyrics from at least two sources.

This was one of the first songs recorded by the Carter Family; according to Wikipedia, it was released by Victor records on December 2, 1928. Another YouTube version of the Carter Family singing it dates it even earlier: “Bristol Recording August 1st 1927.”

In any case, here are the lyrics, as transcribed by Bob Waltz:

I’m going away for to leave you, love,
I’m going away for a while.
But I’ll return to you some time
If I go ten thousand miles.

The storms are on the ocean,
The heavens may cease to be.
The world may lose its motion, love,
If I prove false to thee.

Oh, who will shoe your pretty little foot?
And who will glove your hand?
And who will kiss your red, rosy cheeks
When I’m in a foreign land?

Papa will shoe my pretty little foot,
Mama will glove my hand,
And you can kiss my red rosy cheeks
When you come back again.**

I’m never going back on the ocean, love;
I’m never going back on the sea.
I’m never going back on the pretty little girl
Who gave her heart to me.


They that go down to the sea in ships: Eternal Father, Strong to Save

23 They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters;

24 These see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.

25 For he commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind, which lifteth up the waves thereof.

26 They mount up to the heaven, they go down again to the depths: their soul is melted because of trouble.

27 They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wit’s end.

28 Then they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and he bringeth them out of their distresses.

29 He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still.

30 Then are they glad because they be quiet; so he bringeth them unto their desired haven.

Psalm 107. KJV

Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee

Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!
O Christ! Whose voice the waters heard
And hushed their raging at Thy word,
Who walkedst on the foaming deep,
And calm amidst its rage didst sleep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!
Most Holy Spirit! Who didst brood
Upon the chaos dark and rude,
And bid its angry tumult cease,
And give, for wild confusion, peace;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!
O Trinity of love and power!
Our brethren shield in danger’s hour;
From rock and tempest, fire and foe,
Protect them wheresoe’er they go;
Thus evermore shall rise to Thee
Glad hymns of praise from land and sea.

William Whiting

Jonah and the Great Fish

3 Jonah … went down to Joppa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish: so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it, to go with them unto Tarshish from the presence of the LORD.

4 But the LORD sent out a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship was like to be broken.

5 Then the mariners were afraid, and cried every man unto his god, and cast forth the wares that were in the ship into the sea, to lighten it of them. But Jonah was gone down into the sides of the ship; and he lay, and was fast asleep.

6 So the shipmaster came to him, and said unto him, What meanest thou, O sleeper? arise, call upon thy God, if so be that God will think upon us, that we perish not.

7 And they said every one to his fellow, Come, and let us cast lots, that we may know for whose cause this evil is upon us. So they cast lots, and the lot fell upon Jonah.

8 Then said they unto him, Tell us, we pray thee, for whose cause this evil is upon us; What is thine occupation? and whence comest thou? what is thy country? and of what people art thou?

9 And he said unto them, I am an Hebrew; and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, which hath made the sea and the dry land.

10 Then were the men exceedingly afraid, and said unto him, Why hast thou done this? For the men knew that he fled from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them.

11 Then said they unto him, What shall we do unto thee, that the sea may be calm unto us? for the sea wrought, and was tempestuous.

12 And he said unto them, Take me up, and cast me forth into the sea; so shall the sea be calm unto you: for I know that for my sake this great tempest is upon you.

13 Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring it to the land; but they could not: for the sea wrought, and was tempestuous against them.

14 Wherefore they cried unto the LORD, and said, We beseech thee, O LORD, we beseech thee, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not upon us innocent blood: for thou, O LORD, hast done as it pleased thee.

15 So they took up Jonah, and cast him forth into the sea: and the sea ceased from her raging.

16 Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice unto the LORD, and made vows.

17 Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.


1 Then Jonah prayed unto the LORD his God out of the fish’s belly,

2 And said, I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the LORD, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice.

3 For thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; and the floods compassed me about: all thy billows and thy waves passed over me.

4 Then I said, I am cast out of thy sight; yet I will look again toward thy holy temple.

5 The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head.

6 I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O LORD my God.

7 When my soul fainted within me I remembered the LORD: and my prayer came in unto thee, into thine holy temple.

8 They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy.

9 But I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that that I have vowed. Salvation is of the LORD.

10 And the LORD spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.

King James Bible. Jonah 1:3-2:10. Illustration by Marx Anton Hannas

The Hansen Sea-Cow

We come now to a piece of equipment which still brings anger to our hearts and, we hope, some venom to our pen. Perhaps in self-defense against suit, we should say, “The outboard motor mentioned in this book is purely fictitious and any resemblance to outboard motors living or dead is coincidental.” We shall call this contraption, for the sake of secrecy, a Hansen Sea-Cow—a dazzling little piece of machinery, all aluminum paint and touched here and there with spots of red. The Sea-Cow was built to sell, to dazzle the eyes, to splutter its way into the unwary heart We took it along for the skiff. It was intended that it should push us ashore and back, should drive our boat into estuaries and along the borders of little coves.

But we had not reckoned with one thing. Recently, industrial civilization has reached its peak of reality and has lunged forward into something that approaches mysticism. In the Sea-Cow factory where steel fingers tighten screws, bend and mold, measure and divide, some curious mathematick has occurred. And that secret so long sought has accidentally been found. Life has been created. The machine is at last stirred. A soul and a malignant mind have been born.

Our Hansen Sea-Cow was not only a living thing but a mean, irritable, contemptible, vengeful, mischievous, hateful living thing. In the six weeks of our association we observed it, at first mechanically and then, as its living reactions became more and more apparent, psychologically. And we determined one thing to our satisfaction. When and if these ghoulish little motors learn to reproduce themselves the human species is doomed. For their hatred of us is so great that they will wait and plan and organize and one night, in a roar of little exhausts, they will wipe us out.

We do not think that Mr. Hansen, inventor of the Sea-Cow, father of the outerboard motor, knew what he was doing. We think the monster he created was as accidental and arbitrary as the beginning of any other life. Only one thing differentiates the Sea-Cow from the life that we know. Whereas the forms that are familiar to us are the results of billions of years of mutation and complication, life and intelligence emerged simultaneously in the Sea-Cow. It is more than a species. It is a whole new re-definition of life. We observed the following traits in it and we were able to check them again and again:

  1. Incredibly lazy, the Sea-Cow loved to ride on the back of a boat, trailing its propeller daintily in the water while we rowed.
  2. It required the same amount of gasoline whether it ran or not, apparently being able to absorb this fluid through its body walls without recourse to explosion. It had always to be filled at the beginning of every trip.
  3. It had apparently some clairvoyant powers, and was able to read our mind, particularly when they were inflamed with emotion. Thus, on every occasion when we were driven to the point of destroying it, it started and ran with a great noise and excitement. This served the double purpose of saving its life and of resurrecting in our minds a false confidence in it.
  4. It had many cleavage points, and when attached with a screwdriver, fell apart in simulated death, a trait it had in common with opossums, armadillos, and several members of the sloth family, which also fall apart in simulated death when attached with a screwdriver.
  5. It hated Tex [the Western Flyer’s engine mechanic], sensing perhaps that his knowledge of mechanics was capable of diagnosing its shortcomings.
  6. It completely refused to run: (a) when the waves were high, (b) when the wind blew, (c) at night, early morning, and evening, (d) in rain, dew, or fog, (e) when the distance to be covered was more than two hundred yards. But on warm, sunny days when the weather was calm and the white beach close by— in a word, on days when it would have been a pleasure to row—the Sea-Cow started at a touch and would not stop.
  7. It loved no one, trusted no one. It had no friends.

Perhaps toward the end, our observations were a little warped by emotion. Time and again as it sat on the stern with its pretty propeller lying idly in the water, it was very close to death. And in the end, even we were infected with its malignancy and its dishonesty. We should have destroyed it, but we did not. Arriving home, we gave it a new coat of aluminum paint, spotted it at points with new red enamel, and sold it. And we might have rid the world of this mechanical cancer!

Excerpted from “The Log From the Sea of Cortez”, by John Steinbeck


The Western Flyer (photo from Bob Enea)

In the spring of 1940, John Steinbeck and his friend, marine biologist Edward Ricketts, plus four crew and John’s wife Carol, sailed on the Western Flyer, a chartered sardine fishing boat, from Monterey Bay south around Baja California into the Sea of Cortez and back. The book that resulted from the six-week adventure, Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research, was published a year later. In 1951, Steinbeck published the narrative portion of the book as The Log from the Sea of Cortez.

The Flying Dutchman


For centuries, sailors around the world have told the legend of a cursed ghost ship, named The Flying Dutchman, which sails around the ocean aimlessly, haunting the imaginations of seafarers. There have been tales of late-night lookouts in the crow’s nest of a ship seeing a ghost ship passing their bow. Men swear on their lives that the cursed ship, The Flying Dutchman, was seen sailing past them. There are many versions of the story; here’s mine:

Several hundred years ago, there lived a Dutch sea captain of fearsome temperament, by the name of Willem Van der Decken. He was a staunch seaman, and would have his own way in spite of the weather. His ship sailed through the stormiest seas, and fared the hardest routes. For all that, never a sailor under him had reason to complain; though how it was on board with them nobody knows.

It is told that Van der Decken was on his way to the Dutch East Indies when a terrible storm struck the Cape of Good Hope. The first mate gave the captain the advice to wait for the storm to pass. Van der Decken replied: “May I be eternally damned if I do, though I should beat about here till the day of judgment. After he spoke the storm disappeared and the sea became calm. Then there was a voice from above: “Willem van der Decken, thou shall sail until Judgement Day!”

So the Flying Dutchman became the curse of the seas. Any ship that met him became a ship of ill fortune. No sailor would sail on her, any trader would refuse to deal in its wares. And if any ship came within hailing distance, the Dutchman’s crew would shout and call to them, begging them to deliver messages to loved ones long dead. Whenever there are heavy storms, mortal sailors will see a black ship, sailing on until the Day of Judgement.

But even in the midst of despair, The Dutchman was left with just one small hope. The captain could he be released from his avowed curse and eternal cruise through the love of a woman, one who would love him beyond death; and he might come ashore once each seven years to find her.

So now, condemned to travel the seas forever, making landfall once every seven years in a hopeless search for salvation, the Flying Dutchman can only find eternal peace in the arms of a loving woman.

I have never been wrecked…

“When any one asks me how I can best describe my experiences of nearly forty years at sea I merely say uneventful. Of course, there have been Winter gales and storms and fog and the like, but in all my experience I have never been in an accident of any sort worth speaking about. I have seen but one vessel in distress in all my years at sea, a brig, the crew of which was taken off in a small boat in charge of my third officer. I never saw a wreck and have never been wrecked, nor was I ever in any predicament that threatened to end in disaster of any sort.

captnsmith“I will go a bit further,” he said. “I will say that I cannot imagine any condition which could cause a ship to founder. I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.”

      Captain Edward J. Smith, 1907 (captain of RMS Titanic) Quoted by the New York Times