Typhoon off the Coast of Japan
Jack London's First Story, Published at the Age of Seventeen.
It was four bells in the morning watch. We had just finished breakfast when the
order came forward for the watch on deck to stand by to heave her to and all
hands stand by the boats.
"Port! hard a port!" cried our sailing-master. "Clew up the topsails! Let the
flying jib run down! Back the jib over to windward and run down the foresail!"
And so was our schooner Sophie Sutherland hove to off the Japan coast, near Cape
Jerimo, on April 10, 1893.
Then came moments of bustle and confusion. There were eighteen men to man the
six boats. Some were hooking on the falls, others casting off the lashings;
boat-steerers appeared with boat-compasses and water-breakers, and boat-pullers
with the lunch boxes. Hunters were staggering under two or three shotguns, a
rifle and heavy ammunition box, all of which were soon stowed away with their
oilskins and mittens in the boats.
The sailing-master gave his last orders, and away we went, pulling three pairs
of oars to gain our positions. We were in the weather boat, and so had a longer
pull than the others. The first, second and third lee boats soon had all sail
set and were running off to the southward and westward with the wind beam, while
the schooner was running off to leeward of them, so that in case of accident the
boats would have fair wind home.
It was a glorious morning, but our boat steerer shook his head ominously as he
glanced at the rising sun and prophetically muttered: "Red sun in the morning,
sailor take warning." The sun had an angry look, and a few light, fleecy
"nigger-heads" in that quarter seemed abashed and frightened and soon
Away off to the northward Cape Jerimo reared its black, forbidding head like
some huge monster rising from the deep. The winter's snow, not yet entirely
dissipated by the sun, covered it in patches of glistening white, over which the
light wind swept on its way out to sea. Huge gulls rose slowly, fluttering their
wings in the light breeze and striking their webbed feet on the surface of the
water for over half a mile before they could leave it.
Hardly had the patter, patter died away when a flock of sea quail rose, and with
whistling wings flew away to windward, where members of a large band of whales
were disporting themselves, their blowings sounding like the exhaust of steam
engines. The harsh, discordant cries of a sea-parrot grated unpleasantly on the
ear, and set half a dozen alert in a small band of seals that were ahead of us.
Away they went, breaching and jumping entirely out of water.
A sea-gull with slow, deliberate flight and long, majestic curves circled round
us, and as a reminder of home a little English sparrow perched impudently on the
fo'castle head, and, cocking his head on one side, chirped merrily. The boats
were soon among the seals, and the bang! bang! of the guns could be heard from
down to leeward.
The wind was slowly rising, and by three o'clock as, with a dozen seals in our
boat, we were deliberating whether to go on or turn back, the recall flag was
run up at the schooner's mizzen—a sure sign that with the rising wind the
barometer was falling and that our sailing-master was getting anxious for the
welfare of the boats.
Away we went before the wind with a single reef in our sail. With clenched teeth
sat the boat-steerer, grasping the steering oar firmly with both hands, his
restless eyes on the alert—a glance at the schooner ahead, as we rose on a sea,
another at the mainsheet, and then one astern where the dark ripple of the wind
on the water told him of a coming puff or a large white-cap that threatened to
The waves were holding high carnival, performing the strangest antics, as with
wild glee they danced along in fierce pursuit—now up, now down, here, there, and
everywhere, until some great sea of liquid green with its milk-white crest of
foam rose from the ocean's throbbing bosom and drove the others from view. But
only for a moment, for again under new forms they reappeared.
In the sun's path they wandered, where every ripple, great or small, every
little spit or spray looked like molten silver, where the water lost its dark
green color and became a dazzling, silvery flood, only to vanish and become a
wild waste of sullen turbulence, each dark foreboding sea rising and breaking,
then rolling on again. The dash, the sparkle, the silvery light soon vanished
with the sun, which became obscured by black clouds that were rolling swiftly in
from the west, northwest; apt heralds of the coming storm.
We soon reached the schooner and found ourselves the last aboard. In a few
minutes the seals were skinned, boats and decks washed, and we were down below
by the roaring fo'castle fire, with a wash, change of clothes, and a hot,
substantial supper before us. Sail had been put on the schooner, as we had a run
of seventy-five miles to make to the southward before morning, so as to get in
the midst of the seals, out of which we had strayed during the last two days'
We had the first watch from eight to midnight. The wind was soon blowing half a
gale, and our sailing-master expected little sleep that night as he paced up and
down the poop. The topsails were soon clewed up and made fast, then the flying
jib run down and furled. Quite a sea was rolling by this time, occasionally
breaking over the decks, flooding them and threatening to smash the boats.
At six bells we were ordered to turn them over and put on storm lashings. This
occupied us till eight bells, when we were relieved by the mid-watch. I was the
last to go below, doing so just as the watch on deck was furling the spanker.
Below all were asleep except our green hand, the "bricklayer," who was dying of
consumption. The wildly dancing movements of the sea lamp cast a pale,
flickering light through the fo'castle and turned to golden honey the drops of
water on the yellow oilskins.
In all the corners dark shadows seemed to come and go, while up in the eyes of
her, beyond the pall bits, descending from deck to deck, where they seemed to
lurk like some dragon at the cavern's mouth, it was dark as Erebus. Now and
again, the light seemed to penetrate for a moment as the schooner rolled heavier
than usual, only to recede, leaving it darker and blacker than before.
The roar of the wind through the rigging came to the ear muffled like the
distant rumble of a train crossing a trestle or the surf on the beach, while the
loud crash of the seas on her weather bow seemed almost to rend the beams and
planking asunder as it resounded through the fo'castle. The creaking and
groaning of the timbers, stanchions, and bulkheads, as the strain the vessel was
undergoing was felt, served to drown the groans of the dying man as he tossed
uneasily in his bunk.
The working of the foremast against the deck beams caused a shower of flaky
powder to fall, and sent another sound mingling with the tumultuous storm. Small
cascades of water streamed from the pall bits from the fo'castle head above,
and, joining issue with the streams from the wet oilskins, ran along the floor
and disappeared aft into the main hold.
At two bells in the middle watch—that is, in land parlance one o'clock in the
morning;—the order was roared out on the fo'castle: "All hands on deck and
Then the sleepy sailors tumbled out of their bunk and into their clothes,
oilskins and sea-boots and up on deck. 'Tis when that order comes on cold,
blustering nights that "Jack" grimly mutters: "Who would not sell a farm and go
It was on deck that the force of the wind could be fully appreciated, especially
after leaving the stifling fo'castle. It seemed to stand up against you like a
wall, making it almost impossible to move on the heaving decks or to breathe as
the fierce gusts came dashing by. The schooner was hove to under jib, foresail
and mainsail. We proceeded to lower the foresail and make it fast.
The night was dark, greatly impeding our labor. Still, though not a star or the
moon could pierce the black masses of storm clouds that obscured the sky as they
swept along before the gale, nature aided us in a measure. A soft light emanated
from the movement of the ocean. Each mighty sea, all phosphorescent and glowing
with the tiny lights of myriads of animalculae, threatened to overwhelm us with
a deluge of fire.
Higher and higher, thinner and thinner, the crest grew as it began to curve and
overtop preparatory to breaking, until with a roar it fell over the bulwarks, a
mass of soft glowing light and tons of water which sent the sailors sprawling in
all directions and left in each nook and cranny little specks of light that
glowed and trembled till the next sea washed them away, depositing new ones in
their places. Sometimes several seas following each other with great rapidity
and thundering down on our decks filled them full to the bulwarks, but soon they
were discharged through the lee scuppers.
To reef the mainsail we were forced to run off before the gale under the single
reefed jib. By the time we had finished the wind had forced up such a tremendous
sea that it was impossible to heave her to. Away we flew on the wings of the
storm through the muck and flying spray. A wind sheer to starboard, then another
to port as the enormous seas struck the schooner astern and nearly broached her
As day broke we took in the jib, leaving not a sail unfurled. Since we had begun
scudding she had ceased to take the seas over her bow, but amidships they broke
fast and furious. It was a dry storm in the matter of rain, but the force of the
wind filled the air with fine spray, which flew as high as the crosstrees and
cut the face like a knife, making it impossible to see over a hundred yards
The sea was a dark lead color as with long, slow, majestic roll it was heaped up
by the wind into liquid mountains of foam. The wild antics of the schooner were
sickening as she forged along. She would almost stop, as though climbing a
mountain, then rapidly rolling to right and left as she gained the summit of a
huge sea, she steadied herself and paused for a moment as though affrighted at
the yawning precipice before her.
Like an avalanche, she shot forward and down as the sea astern struck her with
the force of a thousand battering rams, burying her bow to the cat-heads in the
milky foam at the bottom that came on deck in all directions—forward, astern, to
right and left, through the hawse-pipes and over the rail.
The wind began to drop, and by ten o'clock we were talking of heaving her to. We
passed a ship, two schooners and a four-masted barkentine under the smallest
canvas, and at eleven o'clock, running up the spanker and jib, we hove her to,
and in another hour we were beating back again against the aftersea under full
sail to regain the sealing ground away to the westward.
Below, a couple of men were sewing the "bricklayer's" body in canvas preparatory
to the sea burial. And so with the storm passed away the "bricklayer's" soul.
Back to Story Page