Getting Under Way with James Fenimore Cooper

Robert D. Madison (Northwestern University)

Presented at the 1ˢᵗ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1978.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, or Getting Under Way, Papers from the 1978 Conference at State University of New York College at Oneonta and Cooperstown, New York. Edited by George A. Test. (pp. 45-54).

Copyright © 1979 by State University of New York College at Oneonta.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

Cooper’s sea stories are out of date. That is, that species of technology which loaned its vocabulary to the writer of nautical works is nearly extinct. The sailing ship and the peculiar language used in its operation have become so distant in time that their use in literature usually provides the reader with some more or less “salty” feeling, rather than providing a distinctly detailed picture of what is actually going on at that moment in that particular tale.

If the literal event is not important, and the nautical language need only create a certain mood, the reader does not lose too much, as in this excerpt from Gleanings in Europe [France]:

We lay that night at the quarantine ground; but early on the morning of the 2ⁿᵈ, all hands were called to heave-up. The wind came in puffs over the heights of Staten, and there was every prospect of our being able to get to sea, in two or three hours. We hove short, and sheeted home and hoisted the three topsails; but the anchor hung, and the people were ordered to get their breakfasts, leaving the ship to tug at her ground tackle with a view to loosen her hold of the bottom. 1

This paragraph, even though it contains more than half a dozen nautical phrases, does not depend on them. The reader can understand that the vessel got under way. At worst, the reader might think that everyone on board was sick (quarantine ground), that they all were especially ill before breakfast, but that they all were made to eat something anyway. The main line of narration is not affected however, because Cooper here is setting the tone for the rest of the voyage, and is deliberately brief in his description of events. The same scene, however — that of a vessel getting under way — appears so often, and in so many ways, in Cooper’s work, that it is helpful to set some of these scenes down and actually translate the “hard words” into modern, non-nautical English.

Our first example is from The Red Rover, written while Cooper was abroad, and published in Paris in 1827. The hero, Wilder, is leaning over the harbor:

The customary hour for exertion had now arrived, and the sounds of labour were beginning to be heard, issuing from every quarter of the place. The songs of the mariners were rising on the calm of the morning, with their peculiar, long-drawn intonations. The ship in the inner harbour was among the first to furnish this proof of the industry of her people, and of her approaching departure. It was only as these movements caught his eye, that Wilder seemed to be thoroughly awakened from his abstraction, and to pursue his observations with an undivided mind. He saw the seamen ascend the rigging, in that lazy manner which is so strongly contrasted by their activity in moments of need; and here and there a human form was showing itself on the black and ponderous yards. In a few moments, the fore-topsail fell, from its compact compass on the yard, into graceful and careless festoons. This, the attentive Wilder well knew, was, among all trading vessels, the signal of sailing. In a few more minutes, the lower angles of this important sail were drawn to the extremities of the corresponding spar beneath; and then the heavy yard was seen clearly ascending the mast, dragging after it the opening folds of the sail, until the latter was tightened at all its edges, and displayed itself in one broad, snow-white sheet of canvass. Against this wide surface the light currents of air fell, and as often receded; the sail bellying and collapsing in a manner to show that, as yet, they were powerless. At this point the preparations appeared suspended, as if the mariners, having thus invited the breeze, were awaiting to see if their invocation was likely to be attended with success. 2

Although Wilder is a seaman, the view is presented nearly entirely in common language, and the reader need know only that a yard is a horizontal piece of timber to which a sail is attached and that the spar is a general term for any roast or yard. The setting of a particular sail, the fore-topsail, is the signal of sailing which Wilder recognizes, and it is convenient — but not necessary — for the reader to know that this is the second sail up from deck on the mast farthest forward. In this passage Cooper avoids using too many technical terms by describing, rather than naming, parts of the vessel; for “lower angles” he could have written “clews,” or for “extremities of the corresponding spar” he could have written “lower yard arms,” in both cases saving space and being more precise, but possibly losing the ordinary reader. As it stands, this passage is probably the most accessible of all Cooper’s nautical descriptions.

At the other extreme, the following passage of about the same length from a later sea novel conveys nothing but confusion to the ordinary reader. In Homeward Bound, written by Cooper in 1838, the packet ship Montauk is getting under away to avoid an inconvenient confrontation with the law of England:

All this feeling manifested itself in a silent and intelligent activity rather than in noise or bustle, for every man on board exercised his best faculties, as well as his best good will and strength; the clockwork ticks of the palls of the windlass resembling those of a watch that had got the start of time, while the chain came in with surges of half a fathom at each heave. “Lay hold of this rope, men,” cried Mr. Leach, placing the end of the main-topsail halyards in the hands of half-a-dozen athletic steerage passengers, who had all the inclination in the world to be doing, though uncertain where to lay their hands; “lay hold, and run away with it.” The second mate performed the same feat forward, and as the sheets had never been started, the broad folds of the Montauk’s canvass began to open, even while the men were heaving at the anchor. These exertions quickened the blood in the veins of those who were not employed, until even the quarter-deck passengers began to experience the excitement of a chase, in addition to the feelings of compassion. Captain Truck was very silent, but active in preparations. Springing to the wheel, he made its spokes fly until he had forced the helm hard up, then he unceremoniously gave it to John Effingham to keep there. His next leap was to the foot of the mizen-mast, where, after a few energetic efforts alone, he looked over his shoulder and beckoned for aid. “Sir George Templemore, mizen-topsail halyards; mizen-topsail- halyards, Sir George Templemore,” muttered the eager master, scarce knowing what he said. “Mr. Dodge, now is the time to show that your name and nature are not identical.” In short, nearly all on board were busy, and, thanks to the hearty good will of the officers, stewards, cooks, and a few of the hands that could be spared from the windlass, busy in a way to spread sail after sail with a rapidity little short of that seen on board of a vessel of war. The rattling of the clew-garnet blocks, as twenty lusty fellows ran forward with the tack of the mainsail, and the hauling forward of braces, was the signal that the ship was clear of the ground, and coming under command.      A cross current had superseded the necessity of casting the vessel, but her sails took the light air nearly abeam; the captain understanding that motion was of much more importance just then than direction. No sooner did he perceive by the bubbles that floated past, or rather appeared to float past, that his ship was dividing the water forward, than he called a trusty man to the wheel, relieving John Effingham from his watch. The next instant, Mr. Leach reported the anchor catted and fished. 3

This passage contains about two dozen purely nautical words or phrases, and since the whole passage is integral to the narration of the tale (this is one of Cooper’s famous chase scenes), the reader had better find out what is going on, or put this book down and read the sequel, which begins ashore in New York.

In the first paragraph, the men are winding the anchor chain in by using a winch with a horizontal axis, called a windlass. It is turned by means of levers thrust into holes in the drum or body of the windlass, and is kept from riding back by palls (the nineteenth-century spelling of pawls). Half a fathom is three feet.

“Lay” is a common sailor word for “do” or “go”; to lay hold is simply to take hold. A halyard is the rope by which a yard is pulled up the mast — it runs from the yard up through a hole in the mast and down to the deck where it is pulled — or “run away with” — by several men.

A sheet is not canvas, but is the rope that holds the corner of a squaresail down, and to “start” one is to slack it off. “Heaving at the anchor” is not really pushing against it but against the bars of the windlass, as mentioned above. The quarter-deck is that area of the deck behind the last mast, and is for the use of the officers only, in most cases. On a passenger vessel like the Montauk, it is also the promenade of the highest paying passengers, and is thus a kind of refuge for the upper class. Putting the helm “hard up” is turning the wheel so that the rudder makes the vessel turn away from the wind. The term comes from the time when only a tiller, or lever attached directly to the rudder, was in use. When the tiller was pushed up (towards the wind), the rudder went the other way, forming an angle with the keel that made the ship turn down (away from the wind). The mizen-mast is the third, and usually last, mast in a ship. It is also usually the smallest, so two or three men could haul up the mizen-topsail, whereas it took half a dozen to raise the main-topsail. The main- and mizzen-topsails, like the fore-topsail, are the second ones up from the decks on their respective masts.

The mainsail is the lowest sail on the mainmast, and the “tack” is a rope from the lower corner of this sail used to pull that corner forward, to catch the wind when the wind is not directly behind. Since the other sails are led to the yards beneath, they do not need tacks; instead, the whole yard is swung by ropes attached to their ends: these ropes are called braces. A clew garnet block is simply a small pulley at each lower corner of a squaresail. And being clear of the ground does not mean that the vessel was ever stuck — only that the anchor is not tugging at the bottom any more. To “cast” is to let the front of the ship be blown away from the wind, which it usually has been facing, while anchored.

How much of this was clear to readers even in Cooper’s own time? Probably not all, but we can assume that their familiarity with sailing ships was about the same as our knowledge of airplanes. Each is the main mode of long- distance transportation of an era, and while each of us may not be able to fly a jet, we are familiar enough to be able to draw fair mental pictures of one from verbal accounts, and while we may not have technically exact notions about the jargon of pilots and crews, we are not so entirely mystified by it as we are by the nautical language of Cooper’s time. We do not know the details, but we get a tolerably good idea.

In Jack Tier, one of Cooper’s last sea novels, written for Graham’s Magazine and reprinted in book form in 1848, Rose Budd is a wondering witness of the preparations for getting under way of the sloop-of-war Poughkeepsie — a different kind of vessel from the Montauk in that it carried more men and worked in a “naval” fashion. There would be no chanteying on board the Poughkeepsie, as there was on board the Rover’s vessel. The men instead got their working rhythm from the fife, and a general silence was broken only by orders and the sound of the work itself:

Harry conducted Rose to the poop of the Poughkeepsie, where she might enjoy the best view of the operation of getting so large a craft under way, man-of-war fashion. The details were mysteries, of course, and Rose knew no more of the process by which the chain was brought to the capstan, by the intervention of what is called a messenger, than if she had not been present. She saw two hundred men distributed about the vessel, some at the capstan, some on the forecastle, some in the tops, and others in the waist, and she heard the order to “heave round.” Then the shrill fife commenced the lively air of “the girl I left behind me,” rather more from a habit in the fifer, than from any great regrets for the girls left at the Dry Tortugas, as was betrayed to Mulford by the smiles of the officers, and the glances they cast at Rose. As for the latter, she knew nothing of the air, and was quite unconscious of the sort of parody that the gentlemen of the quarter-deck fancied it conveyed on her own situation. Rose was principally struck with the quiet that prevailed in the ship, Captain Mull being a silent man himself, and insisting on having a quiet vessel. The first lieutenant was not a noisy officer, and from these two, everybody else on board received their cues. A simple “all ready, sir,” uttered by the first to the captain, in a common tone of voice, answered by a “very well; sir, get your anchor,” in the same tone, set everything in motion. “Stamp and go,” soon followed, and taking the whole scene together, Rose felt a strange excitement come over her. There were the shrill, animating music of the fife; the stamping time of the men at the bars; the perceptible motion of the ship, as she drew ahead to her anchor, and now and then the call between Wallace, who stood between the knight- heads, as commander-in-chief on the forecastle, (the second lieutenant’s station when the captain does not take the trumpet, as very rarely happens,) and the “executive officer” aft, was “carrying on duty,” all conspiring to produce this effect. At length, and it was but a minute or two from the time when the “stamp and go” commenced, Wallace called out “a short stay-peak, sir.” “Heave and pall,” followed, and the men left their bars. The process of making sail succeeded. There was no “letting fall” a fore-topsail here, as on board a merchantman, but all the canvas dropped from the yards, into festoons, at the same instant. Then the three topsails were sheeted home and hoisted, all at once, and all in a single minute of time; the yards were counter-braced, and the capstan-bars were again manned. In two more minutes it was “heave and she’s up and down.” Then “heave and in sight,” and “heave and pall again.” The cat-fall was ready, and it was “hook on,” when the fife seemed to turn its attention to another subject as the men catted the anchor. Literally, all this is done in less time than we have taken to write it down in, and in very little more time than the reader has wasted in perusing what we have here written. The Poughkeepsie was now “free of bottom,” as it is called, with her anchor catted and fished, and her position maintained in the basin where she lay, by the counterbracing of her yards, and the counteracting force of the wind on her sails. It only remained to “fill away,” by bracing her head- yards sharp up, when the vast mass overcame its inertia, and began to move through the water. As this was done, the jib and spanker were set. The two most beautiful things with which we are acquainted, are a graceful and high-bred woman entering or quitting a drawing-room, more particularly the last, and a man-of-war leaving her anchorage in a moderate breeze, and when not hurried for time. On the present occasion, Captain Mull was in no haste, and the ship passed out to windward of the light, as the Swash had done the previous night, under her three topsails, spanker and jib, with the light sails loose and flowing, and the courses hanging in the brails. 4

Cooper’s use of the orders themselves here is in some ways more mystifying than the Homeward Bound passage. This passage is perhaps less integral to the plot, and may function more to illustrate Rose’s confusion than anything else. But it all does make very good sense, and also serves as a contrast to the way the Swash, the other main vessel in the tale, is handled by its master and crew.

The capstan in this passage is a winch similar to the windlass, but it is mounted vertically, and more men are enabled to work at it. The messenger is a belt around the main capstan and a smaller one some distance away; to this endless belt the chain is attached at several places as it is pulled in and fed below decks. The forecastle (pronounced fokes’l) is, in this case, that part of the deck in the bow of the ship. The “tops” are platforms in the shape of a half-circle one- third of the way up each mast (a mast is usually made of three separate poles of wood, one atop the other, overlapping at each juncture for a few feet — the “top” is at the lowest of these junctures). The knight-heads are two heavy timbers that come up through the deck in the bow, and hold the base of the bowsprit (the spar that sticks out over the bow of a ship). The trumpet is not a musical instrument, as is the fife, but is a hollow cone used for speaking. “A short stay peak” means that so much of the anchor chain has been pulled in that the chain now forms a line with the piece of rigging that runs from the foremast to the bowsprit. “Heave and pall” is the order to stop work at the capstan.

The sails are set as on board the Montauk, except that there are enough people that all can be loosened at once, and the topsails set together. “Heave and she’s up and down” means that the ship is directly over the anchor — the chain goes straight down. When the anchor reaches the surface (in sight), another pulley (cat-fall) is hooked on to it, and the anchor is pulled up to a timber (cat- head) sticking out of the side of the ship at the bow. But it is not even left here to hang: the bottom end of the anchor is brought over the side of the ship and lashed (fished), so it cannot be swept away by a large wave.

When the yards are counter-braced, they do not all face the same way, and thus the sails on them pull in different directions, and do not give the ship any momentum. Usually, the main and mizen are braced one way, and the fore the other. So when the Poughkeepsie braces the head-yards (those on the fore-mast) sharp up (or nearly in a line with the vessel) as are the other yards, the sails are filled and the vessel gets under way. The jib is a triangular sail set on one of the stays (pieces of rigging) from the foremast to the bowsprit, and the spanker is a four-sided sail set with its forward edge attached to the back of the mizenmast. “Course” is a general name for the lowest sail on a mast, as “light sail” is a general name for the fourth and higher sails. The brails are the lines used to haul in a sail when it is not in use.

All this Rose saw, whether she understood it or not. All this Cooper’s contemporaries had more or less seen — even those who were not engaged in work in seaport towns might choose to take a walk at the Battery or visit the shore and thus become witnesses to the ways of ships. No such opportunity exists for the modern reader, and so he must use other historical materials to find out how ships worked — and from these findings to draw a mental picture. Most of the definitions used above are based on the work of Cooper’s contemporary, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., whose Seaman’s Friend served as a text for potential seamen from its publication in 1841 to the end of the century. It is a much clearer account than any of its competitors, and not only contains a glossary of nautical terms, but also tells step by step how to operate a ship. Another type of source-book is the nautical dictionary of which Falconer’s Marine Dictionary was long the standard, but to which W. H. Smyth’s Sailor’s Word Book (1867) is clearly superior. Smyth, like Dana, was a writer of considerable literary merit, and his “digest of nautical terms” is one of the few dictionaries that is readable in itself. Cooper’s own writings contain some discussions of nautical language — his letters to his friend William Branford Shubrick are often very helpful as well as being entertaining. His life-long battle for accurate printings of his works is also connected with nautical language, which is easily misread by land-lubberly compositors. In the extract from Jack Tier above, the word “pall” is reprinted erroneously as “pull” in the book version, even though the magazine version used the correct word. The same word becomes corrupted in later editions of The Pilot, and probably in other works as well. In these cases, part of the editorial process is restoring the language to the correct idiom as originally employed by Cooper.

This all gets us back to understanding what Cooper actually wrote. These glosses, it is hoped, will explain just what is going on in one of the commonest types of nautical action used by Cooper, and it is further hoped that these passages and their glosses will help the reader get under way and begin to be able to figure out for himself just how the Ariel came to run aground, or what the Royal Caroline looked like as she drove before the wind to her destruction. The reader can then resurrect — at least in his own mind — the technology and idiom of the sailing ship, and for him no longer will the sea literature of the nineteenth century be out of date.


1 James Fenimore Cooper, Gleanings in Europe (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Blanchard, 1837), p. 18.

2 Cooper, The Red Rover: A Tale (1827, rpt. New York: Stringer and Townsend, 1855), pp. 137-138.

3 Cooper, Homeward Bound: or, the Chase (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Blanchard, 1838), pp. 46-47.

4 Cooper, Jack Tier; or the Florida Reef (1848, rpt. New York: Stringer and Townsend, 1855) pp. 385-387. “Pull” has been corrected to “pall,” the Graham’s Magazine reading; the quote as it otherwise stands is from this edition.