The Blockade Runners

Jules Verne

Chapter 2 - Getting Under Sail


The Dolphin was rapidly equipped, her rigging was ready, and there was nothing to do but fit her up. She carried three schooner-masts, an almost useless luxury; in fact, the Dolphin did not rely on the wind to escape the Federalists, but rather on her powerful engines.

Towards the end of December a trial of the steamer was made in the gulf of the Clyde. Which was the more satisfied, builder or captain, it is impossible to say. The new steamer shot along wonderfully, and the patent log showed a speed of seventeen miles an hour, a speed which as yet no English, French, or American boat had ever obtained. The Dolphin would certainly have gained by several lengths in a sailing match with the fastest opponent.

The loading was begun on the 25th of December, the steamer having ranged along the steamboat-quay a little below Glasgow Bridge, the last which stretches across the Clyde before its mouth. Here the wharfs were heaped with a heavy cargo of clothes, ammunition, and provisions which were rapidly carried to the hold of the Dolphin. The nature of this cargo betrayed the mysterious destination of the ship, and the house of Playfair could no longer keep it secret; besides, the Dolphin must not be long before she started. No American cruiser had been signalled in English waters; and, then, when the question of getting the crew came, how was it possible to keep silent any longer? They could not embark them, even, without informing the men whither they were bound, for, after all, it was a matter of life and death, and when one risks one’s life, at least it is satisfactory to know how and wherefore.

However, this prospect hindered no one; the pay was good, and everyone had a share in the speculation, so that a great number of the finest sailors soon presented themselves. James Playfair was only embarrassed which to choose, but he chose well, and in twenty-four hours his muster-roll bore the names of thirty sailors who would have done honour to her Majesty“s yacht.

The departure was settled for the 3rd of January; on the 31st of December the Dolphin was ready, her hold full of ammunition and provisions, and nothing was keeping her now.

The skipper went on board on the 2nd of January, and was giving a last look round his ship with a captain’s eye, when a man presented himself at the fore part of the Dolphin, and asked to speak with the Captain. One of the sailors led him on to the poop.

He was a strong, hearty-looking fellow, with broad shoulders and ruddy face, the simple expression of which ill-concealed a depth of wit and mirth. He did not seem to be accustomed to a seafaring life, and looked about him with the air of a man little used to being on board a ship; however, he assumed the manner of a Jack-tar, looking up at the rigging of the Dolphin, and waddling in true sailor fashion.

When he had reached the Captain, he looked fixedly at him, and said, “Captain James Playfair?”

“The same,” replied the skipper. “What do you want with me?”

“To join your ship.”

“There is no room; the crew is already complete.”

“Oh, one man, more or less, will not be in the way; quite the contrary.”

“You think so?” said James Playfair, giving a sidelong glance at his questioner.

“I am sure of it,” replied the sailor.

“But who are you?” asked the Captain.

“A rough sailor, with two strong arms, which, I can tell you, are not to be despised on board a ship, and which I now have the honour of putting at your service.”

“But there are other ships besides the Dolphin, and other captains besides James Playfair. Why do you come here?”

“Because it is on board the Dolphin that I wish to serve, and under the orders of Captain James Playfair.”

“I do not want you.”

“There is always need of a strong man, and if to prove my strength you will try me with three or four of the strongest fellows of your crew, I am ready.”

“That will do,” replied James Playfair. “And what is your name?”

“Crockston, at your service.”

The Captain made a few steps backwards in order to get a better view of the giant who presented himself in this odd fashion. The height, the build, and the look of the sailor did not deny his pretensions to strength.

“Where have you sailed?” asked Playfair of him.

“A little everywhere.”

“And do you know where the Dolphin is bound for?”

“Yes; and that is what tempts me.”

“Ah, well! I have no mind to let a fellow of your stamp escape me. Go and find the first mate, and get him to enrol you.”

Having said this, the Captain expected to see the man turn on his heels and run to the bows, but he was mistaken. Crockston did not stir.

“Well! did you hear me?” asked the Captain.

“Yes, but it is not all,” replied the sailor. “I have something else to ask you.”

“Ah! You are wasting my time,” replied James, sharply; “I have not a moment to lose in talking.”

“I shall not keep you long,” replied Crockston; “two words more and that is all; I was going to tell you that I have a nephew.”

“He has a fine uncle, then,” interrupted James Playfair.

“Hah! Hah!” laughed Crockston.

“Have you finished?” asked the Captain, very impatiently.

“Well, this is what I have to say, when one takes the uncle, the nephew comes into the bargain.”

“Ah! indeed!”

“Yes, that is the custom, the one does not go without the other.”

“And what is this nephew of yours?”

“A lad of fifteen whom I am going to train to the sea; he is willing to learn, and will make a fine sailor some day.”

“How now, Master Crockston,” cried James Playfair; “do you think the Dolphin is a training-school for cabin-boys?”

“Don’t let us speak ill of cabin-boys: there was one of them who became Admiral Nelson, and another Admiral Franklin.”

“Upon my honour, friend,” replied James Playfair, “you have a way of speaking which I like; bring your nephew, but if I don’t find the uncle the hearty fellow he pretends to be, he will have some business with me. Go, and be back in an hour.”

Crockston did not want to be told twice; be bowed awkwardly to the Captain of the Dolphin, and went on to the quay. An hour afterwards he came on board with his nephew, a boy of fourteen or fifteen, rather delicate and weakly looking, with a timid and astonished air, which showed that he did not possess his uncle’s self-possession and vigorous corporeal qualities. Crockston was even obliged to encourage him by such words as these:

“Come,” said he, “don’t be frightened, they are not going to eat us, besides, there is yet time to return.”

“No, no,” replied the young man, “and may God protect us!”

The same day the sailor Crockston and his nephew were inscribed in the muster-roll of the Dolphin.

The next morning, at five o’clock, the fires of the steamer were well fed, the deck trembled under the vibrations of the boiler, and the steam rushed hissing through the escape-pipes. The hour of departure had arrived.

A considerable crowd, in spite of the early hour, flocked on the quays and on Glasgow Bridge; they had come to salute the bold steamer for the last time. Vincent Playfair was there to say good-bye to Captain James, but he conducted himself on this occasion like a Roman of the good old times. His was a heroic countenance, and the two loud kisses with which he gratified his nephew were the indication of a strong mind.

“Go, James,” said he to the young Captain, “go quickly, and come back quicker still; above all, don’t abuse your position. Sell at a good price, make a good bargain, and you will have your uncle’s esteem.”

On this recommendation, borrowed from the manual of the perfect merchant, the uncle and nephew separated, and all the visitors left the boat.

At this moment Crockston and John Stiggs stood together on the forecastle, while the former remarked to his nephew, “This is well, this is well; before two o’clock we shall be at sea, and I have a good opinion of a voyage which begins like this.”

For reply the novice pressed Crockston’s hand.

James Playfair then gave the orders for departure.

“Have we pressure on?” he asked of his mate.

“Yes, Captain,” replied Mr. Mathew.

“Well, then, weigh anchor.”

This was immediately done, and the screws began to move. The Dolphin trembled, passed between the ships in the port, and soon disappeared from the sight of the people, who shouted their last hurrahs.

The descent of the Clyde was easily accomplished, one might almost say that this river had been made by the hand of man, and even by the hand of a master. For sixty years, thanks to the dredges and constant dragging, it has gained fifteen feet in depth, and its breadth has been tripled between the quays and the town. Soon the forests of masts and chimneys were lost in the smoke and fog; the noise of the foundry hammers and the hatchets of the timber-yards grew fainter in the distance. After the village of Partick had been passed the factories gave way to country houses and villas. The Dolphin, slackening her speed, sailed between the dykes which carry the river above the shores, and often through a very narrow channel, which, however, is only a small inconvenience for a navigable river, for, after all, depth is of more importance than width. The steamer, guided by one of those excellent pilots from the Irish sea, passed without hesitation between floating buoys, stone columns, and biggings, surmounted with lighthouses, which mark the entrance to the channel. Beyond the town of Renfrew, at the foot of Kilpatrick hills, the Clyde grew wider. Then came Bouling Bay, at the end of which opens the mouth of the canal which joints Edinburgh to Glasgow. Lastly, at the height of four hundred feet from the ground, was seen the outline of Dumbarton Castle, almost indiscernible through the mists, and soon the harbour-boats of Glasgow were rocked on the waves which the Dolphin caused. Some miles farther on Greenock, the birthplace of James Watt, was passed: the Dolphin now found herself at the mouth of the Clyde, and at the entrance of the gulf by which it empties its waters into the Northern Ocean. Here the first undulations of the sea were felt, and the steamer ranged along the picturesque coast of the Isle of Arran. At last the promontory of Cantyre, which runs out into the channel, was doubled; the Isle of Rattelin was hailed, the pilot returned by a shore-boat to his cutter, which was cruising in the open sea; the Dolphin, returning to her Captain’s authority, took a less frequented route round the north of Ireland, and soon, having lost sight of the last European land, found herself in the open ocean.