Christmas at Sea

Saturday, December 12, 2009
Lauralea and I attended a Christmas gathering tonight and as we were inside "Partying" the temperature continued it's downward trend, hovering in the -40's. We made it home alright after a fine evening, but chilled to the bone.

I poured half a glass of port and settled on the couch with a Treasury of Christmas Readings in which I discovered a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson. Called Christmas at Sea, the rhythm of the words and the images they created were quite moving.

I fired up the laptop and found it online, so that I might keep a record of it, and you might enjoy it as well.

I encourage you to read it out loud as it makes all the difference in the world.

Christmas at Sea
by Robert Louis Stevenson

The sheets were frozen hard, and they cut the naked hand;
The decks were like a slide, where a seaman scarce could stand;
The wind was a nor'-wester, blowing squally off the sea;
And cliffs and spouting breakers were the only things a-lee.

They heard the suff a-roaring before the break of day;
But 'twas only with the peep of light we saw how ill we lay.
We tumbled every hand on deck instanter, with a shout,
And we gave her the maintops'l, and stood by to go about.

All day we tacked and tacked between the South Head and the North;
All day we hauled the frozen sheets, and got no further forth;
All day as cold as charity, in bitter pain and dread,
For very life and nature we tacked from head to head.

We gave the South a wider berth, for there the tide-race roared;
But every tack we made we brought the North Head close aboard.
So's we saw the cliff and houses and the breakers running high,
And the coastguard in his garden, with his glass against his eye.

The frost was on the village roofs as white as ocean foam;
The good red fires were burning bright in every longshore home;
The windows sparkled clear, and the chimneys volleyed out;
And I vow we sniffed the victuals as the vessel went about.

The bells upon the church were rung with a mighty jovial cheer;
For it's just that I should tell you how (of all days in the year)
This day of our adversity was blessèd Christmas morn,
And the house above the coastguard's was the house where I was born.

O well I saw the pleasant room, the pleasant faces there,
My mother's silver spectacles, my father's silver hair;
And well I saw the firelight, like a flight of homely elves,
Go dancing round the china plates that stand upon the shelves.

And well I knew the talk they had, the talk that was of me,
Of the shadow on the household and the son that went to sea;
And O the wicked fool I seemed, in every kind of way,
To be here and hauling frozen ropes on blessèd Christmas Day.

They lit the high sea-light, and the dark began to fall.
"All hands to loose topgallant sails," I heard the captain call.
"By the Lord, she'll never stand it," our first mate, Jackson, cried.
. . . ."It's the one way or the other, Mr. Jackson," he replied.

She staggered to her bearings, but the sails were new and good,
And the ship smelt up to windward just as though she understood;
As the winter's day was ending, in the entry of the night,
We cleared the weary headland, and passed below the light.

And they heaved a mighty breath, every soul on board but me,
As they saw her nose again pointing handsome out to sea;
But all that I could think of, in the darkness and the cold,
Was just that I was leaving home and my folks were growing old.


  1. I cannot imagine what it must have been like, working on a ship in winter: no technical clothing that dries fast and keeps you warm, no heated cabins and probably not even a dry place to sleep.

    I've been working this afternoon with Ben on his car (he has an old mazda RX7 convertible) doing some wiring. Even when the air is 5-6'C just bashing your fingers hurts for ages. What must it have been like trying to handle rope and sailcloth that was stiff with ice? I think we have little idea of how much pain was an everyday part of life for most folks.

  2. It has come a long way. Even with working on cars and keeping them going through the tough winters.

    I remember coaxing solid cold cars into life, subtly adjusting the choke.

    Or if it flooded, to have to hold the carb open with a screwdriver…

    The cars have come so far, thankfully.

    Wonder how much things will improve into the future and we will suffer less down the road.


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