I sees clear as day what new life awaits should I climb to it. Sees it, do I, on my knees with the holystone upon the deck, scrubbing as I have each day since the press gang found me toper and tosses me on board. Standin’ out to sea was we before the score of us pressed gained our wits and the first lieutenant in his tricorn hat looks down his crooked nose at us and rates us landsmen, lubbers all, sentenced to the din of the lower decks. “See if ye can make yeselves more ‘n fodder for Boney’s guns,” says he.
Sick for most of those first days until my sea legs came to me, and still in despair for the loss of my former life on land, I was befriended by an able seamen who began patiently teaching me the ship’s ways, pickin’ oakum first, then caulkin’ and payin’. As he was an experienced topman he began teaching me about the rigging and showed me how to manage the ratlines, at first hardly as high as the top platforms, which even that seemed stretched near to heaven. “You’ll find this fits ye fine, what but you’re a wisp of a young man and with but strengthening those arms a might you’ll pull yourself up and around with ease”, he told me.
As time passed I found myself growing accustomed, even likin’, my cozy surroundin’s and my mates, the merry nightly song and dance what followed the rum ration, the movement of the deck both gentle and hazard, the fresh morning breeze and sunshine accompanying the daily holystoning which kept the decks white and clean. I watched the topmen climb the rigging as if born to it, into the tops and crosstrees, and felt a longing to know the joy of their freedom. My teacher helped me grow comfortable with the heights; taught me to balance me weight and pull myself from line to line and up the futtock shrouds, forwards and backwards, slow and careful at first as a fall could prove fatal. He showed me the clewlines and the beginnings of how to furl the fore course.
The holystoning finished, the day so perfect with a light breeze and bright airs, no new task yet given, I sees a chance to reach for something higher than a lubbers berth. I resolved to take hold of that chance and jumped to the fore stays and then to the futtock shrouds, my mind fixed on the light clouds I see floating as like angels above. Past the top platform to the fore topsail, higher and higher to the cross-trees, my heart beating wild and excited like a newborn foal. Below me I hears exited cheers and exaltations and I feel a surge of pride and determination. I hang backwards instead of using the lubbers’ hole and the cheers grow louder, then I’m up to the fore topgallant and finally up standing upon the fore royal, the ship a tiny thing far below, surrounded by endless grey sea. I feels my chest pounding triumphantly and the wind, much stronger up here, embrace me almost as though I am part of the blue sky itself. I realize the toper the press gang found lying in the gutter that once was I has grown to become a new man; a creature of greater being that I ever imagined I could be.
“Didn’t I says,” I heard from just below and realized my teacher was climbing to join me, “Didn’t I says ye had it in ye.” We stood there together on the fore royal with grins as wide as the sky, feeling the great roll of the frigate and exalting in the feeling of conquering heroes.
When then did my teacher’s smile vanish and his eyes grew wide as if perceiving a devil on the wind. With his free hand he pointed towards the horizon rushing to meet us. I followed his gaze and there just breaching the horizon had appeared a tiny smudge, portent like a grey cloud. “Sail!” my teacher shouted to the decks beneath, “On the larboard tack!”
All my life I have had to learn to do things differently. To see the world differently.