“Why Am I Not at Sea?”

As a logical follow-up to the earlier post of William Hope Hodgson’s Second Mate’s Certificate, is this blistering article which WHH wrote about the miserable life of a merchant sailor.

This article first appeared in the GRAND MAGAZINE in September, 1905.  It was part of a literary debate with WHH taking the few against joining the Mercantile Navy.  You can feel the venom ozzing from WHH’s typewriter as he wrote.  The detail that WHH provides give a  bleak view of the life of a merchant mariner and one can easily understand why WHH left that life himself.

Due to the lack of primary sources like letters and anecdotes, we have to rely on many of the articles like this in which WHH passionately defended his position.  After reading it, you will understand a few of the reasons that WHH left the sea and spent the remainder of his life damning it in his prose and poetry.

–Sam Gafford

Is the Mercantile Navy Worth Joining?

1.—CERTAINLY NOT.  By William Hope Hodgson

               Why am I not at sea?

I am not at sea because I object to bad treatment, poor food, poor wages, and worse prospects.  I am not at sea because very early I discovered that it is a comfortless, wearyful, and thankless life—a life compact of hardness and sordidness such as shore people can scarcely conceive.  I am not at sea because I dislike being a pawn with the sea for a board and the ship-owners for players.

Before going further, I will make it clear that in this article I do not propose to deal with the lot of the ordinary “common sailor”—poor devil!—before the mast.  I intend to try and make it clear why I, a young man under thirty and possessed of a second mate’s “ticket,” have thrown up the sea profession as a method of obtaining a livelihood; and in making clear my own case I shall make clear that of many hundreds of other young fellows who have done, and are doing, likewise.

Take a young fellow or twenty-two, or thereabouts.  Suppose that he has “passed” for second mate, and is qualified to take charge of a watch in a foreign-going vessel.  His first work is to get him a berth.  This, if he is luckier than many of his fellows, he may manage by shipping as third mate in a sailing-ship at the splendid pay of from 15s. to 18s. or 19s per week.  Think of the wage!  The man has probably served an expensive apprenticeship of not less than four years actually at sea, and after that he has had to pass a decidedly stiff examination in navigation and seamanship—occupying the best part of three days—and then he gets a billet at a labourer’s wage; for which, let it be clearly understood, he has (in the existing state of affairs) to be thankful.

We will suppose that he does a voyage as third mate, coming home after awhile to be paid off with little more than sufficient to put his wardrobe into repair and pay for a few weeks’ board and lodgings while he is out looking for a fresh berth.

We will presume that he is unusually fortunate in his next attempt, and obtains a second mate’s billet at a wage of some 21s. a week.  He has now to undertake the full responsibilities to which his “ticket” entitles him—the tacking of a watch.  In other words, he will during the entire period of the ensuring voyage—while the ship is actually at sea—take full charge of the deck every other four hours, day and night, being solely responsible for any mischance which may occur during such time as he is in charge, and for this the royal stipend of £54 per annum.  Think of it!  This young man is saddled with the responsibility of being intermittently in sole charge of a vessel and goods worth, in the aggregate, perhaps some £100,000,  as well as the lives of all aboard—and he is paid something under a guinea a week.  I am stating the usual rate of wages paid to the second officer in an average sailing-ship.  It does, of course, rise above this when one gets into steam, running up, maybe, to £84 to £96 a year; though there is little chance of a young fellow tumbling into one of these, there being always plenty of older men with higher grade certificates and more experience who are only too glad to have the offer of such berths.  The same applies, in a greater degree, to the big passenger mail-boats.  Here, although they may have as many as six officers, it is no uncommon thing for each one to hold a master’s, or even a post-master’s, certificate.  This being the case, we may well conclude that our young officer has not done badly for himself by securing a berth as second mate even at such a miserable pittance.

It is possible that he will retain this position for a couple of years; after which he will have a try for his first mate’s certificate.  Supposing this obtained, he will be now in a position to earn between £66 and £84 per annum.  Here, again, the wage of a first mate in steam may mount up to £120 or £130 a year; but the same remarks apply here as in the case of the second mate just mentioned.

We will suppose him still fortunate in obtaining the berth for which his certificate qualifies him.  In this he may pass another couple or three years.

He goes up now for his master’s “ticket.”  Should he get this he will be qualified to take command of a “foreign-going ship” at a wage of from £168 to £360 per annum.  I may say at once that this latter amount is so far above the average that it is scarcely fair to mention it in a consideration of the prospects of the ordinary mercantile marine officer.  Unhappily, I am bound to state that the former amount is nearer the average; indeed, in many cases there are masters of fine ships earning less than £140 a year, and more than a few are to be found glad to get the post at something under £2 10s. per week.  This is an inconceivably small wage when one considers the multitudinously varied duties and the vast responsibilities attached to the position of master-mariner of a foreign-going vessel.

However, we will suppose our man (nearing thirty years of age) to have secured a berth as master, at the not unusual figure of £14 a month.  He proves satisfactory to the owners, and remains in his billet for several years.  He is now between thirty-five and forty years of age, and it is not ridiculous to suppose that his thoughts have turned to mating.  Hitherto marriage has been out of the question; but now it has become a bare possibility, though attended with monstrous and unnatural restrictions.  I will state a case in point.  The captain of a large vessel married at the age of thirty-two.  He had a few weeks with his wife, then he had to return to sea, leaving her behind; for to have taken her with him he would have had to pay her passage out and home, besides which it is no aboard ship for a woman who has undertaken her duty in life.  At the end of two years he returned to his wife—and the child.  Again he was but a short while at home, and then he had to return to his ship; for now, with two mouths to feed, he was more than ever tied to his profession.  Eighteen months passed, and again he was home, only, however, to leave after a brief stay.  This trip he was some ten months away; but, as though to make up for this, his next voyage kept him two years and three months away from his wife and children.  By this time he was a father of three, the eldest being nearly six years of age, and in the seven years of his married life he had not enjoyed six months of his wife’s society.  To all intents and purposes his wife is, for the greater part of her time, a widow—certainly a grass-widow.  And so the years go on, and they are growing old apart from one another, seeing each other but seldom and then only for a few short weeks.  And the worst of it is he cannot now leave the sea to spend his days with her.  There are too many to feed and clothe for him to risk his already precarious livelihood.  He must stay on, working to support the family to which he is almost a stranger; and so, all too soon, the tremendous strain of his hard and responsible life will unfit him to continue at sea.  And then—what?  There are few billets ashore for which he is fitted, and these are not to be obtained without influence, monetary or otherwise.

There is an understandable tendency among shore-going people to point to one of the great mail-passenger boats and to ask whether the captaining of such a vessel is not well worth striving for.  In fact, these floating palaces, coming in actual contact, as they do, with the shore-living population, tend unduly to influence their minds with the desirableness of a sea-going life.  And yet, comparatively, these splendid boats form only a small portion of our shipping from the point of view of the mercantile officer seeking a berth.  There are only six or eight offices’ billets in each, and for every one of these there are scores of applicants with influence.  And influence comes but little into the scheme of life of the average officer.  While as for expecting to obtain the commandership of such a vessel, you might as well suggest that the ordinary naval sub-lieutenant should look forward with certainty to being an Admiral.  No!  I will not say that the big P. and O. boat is a possibility altogether beyond the reach of our ordinary master mariner; but I do unhesitatingly affirm that the possibility is absurdly slight unless he is assisted by the strange magic of influence.

Another point upon which I wish to say a few words, is the prevalent idea that the master-mariner is in a position to save money.  I will not deny that this would be so, were it not for two matters upon which I have already touched.  The first is the absurd inadequacy of his pay; the second the expense—if he be a married man—of keeping up an establishment ashore.  More than this it is not necessary to say.

Having now examined the prospects of the average officer in the mercantile navy, it will be well to turn from the somewhat favourable sketch I have given to consider what does actually occur.

In the career of the supposititious officer I have drawn I have made no mention of that universal fear of the mariner—the want of a berth.  In almost all occupations ashore, if a man is engaged, he is likely to stay for an indefinite period, perhaps, half a lifetime.  In the case of the seaman, so soon as the voyage is ended his occupation is gone; for he has no guarantee that he will be “signed on” for the succeeding voyage.  Thus even some venerable old captain may find himself suddenly upon his beam-ends should he have the ill-luck to make a longer passage than the owners expected.  And once such a one is out of a post, he may find the greatest difficulty in getting another.  Should he fail, there will be nothing for it but to try for a first or second mate’s berth, and here his age will, as like as not, tell against his getting it.  But should he find it impossible to obtain an officer’s billet, there is left for him only the intolerable horror of life in the fo’cas’le, and yet here, more than ever, will his age tell against his chances of getting even such poor livelihood; for it is an old proverb at sea that “old standing rigging makes d—-d poor running gear.”

To leave this somewhat doleful strain of thought, it will be well here to touch on the matters of food and housing—the former of far more importance than the well-fed landsman can imagine.  Though it is quite true that both have been improved of late years, yet still they leave very much to be desired, especially the feeding.  This is in many ships a disgrace to the owners, and if it be the case in the cabin, what must it be for the poor wretches in the fo’cas’le!

Looking back, I find that the age at which I have given our young master mariner command of a ship is almost idyllic.  As a matter of fact he would be exceedingly fortunate if he got his first ship by the time he were thirty-five.  Indeed, I have quite omitted to touch on the difficulty—a difficulty some master mariners never surmount—of obtaining a command at all.

Of the actual wretchedness of the life, I have said nothing.  It is a life of hardness, broken sleep, lonelieness, separation, and discomfort.  It is indeed a thankless life, without even the common rewards of industry.  It leads neither to fame nor wealth, nor, save in exceptional cases, to a sufficiency upon which to retire; and finally the officers of the mercantile marine have not that poor consolidation of their Naval brethren, a certain social position.  The shore-dwellers scarcely recognize any difference between the mercantile marine officer and the poor wretch they have most atrociously designated the “common sailor.”

And now, in coming to a conclusion, so poor are the prospects of the sea life that, unless vastly improved, both as regard stipend and treatment—the latter covering housing, feeding, and reasonable guarantee of continual employment—there is little inducement either to tempt the intelligent young Britisher to sea or to keep him there once he has gone.  Indeed, as I have already hinted, hundreds of smart young seamen, holding certificates of competency, have, and are, leaving the sea in the hope of bettering themselves.  And in this increasing desertion of qualified British sailors lies a peril so grave and far-reaching that I cannot attempt even to touch upon it within the limits of the present article.


1 Comment

Filed under Hodgson, William Hope Hodgson

One response to ““Why Am I Not at Sea?”

  1. Eric

    After reading this, you’d think that he wouldn’t want to write sea stories at all and just do his best to forget that part of his life. I know that his stuff never (that I know of, anyway) portrays the sea in a positive light, but I’m surprised that, feeling this way, he didn’t just put all his focus into his non-sea stuff.

    Did he write these marine-focused yarns because he actually wanted to or because he figured they’d sell better than other sub-genres?

    Actually, I’m staring to see parallels to some of the stuff he writes here and some of the stuff he talks about in “The Boats of the Glen Carrig”, almost like he was writing a horror-themed analogy about the reasons to leave the career or avoid it entirely.


    First, the captain of the other ship (the one caught in the weeds) dies a horrible death and leaves his poor wife behind, driving her to madness and, eventually, her own horrible death. This could be seen as a metaphor on Hodgson’s views of a life at sea not mixing well with raising a family.

    John Winterstraw manages a very happy ending, specifcally because – by all appearances – he LEAVES his career as a sailor and settles down with his wife to enjoy his wealth and raise a family.

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