Why are sailors special people? Jack London explains it to you!


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jack london
Jack London, what an advertisement you gave to sailing
. Aboard the Roamer (Drifter), the 9-meter yawl he had purchased in 1910, after the tumultuous experience of Pacific sailings with the schooner Snark, Jack London (we discuss him and his boat at the bottom of the article) decided to describe what it meant to him to be a “sailor, to free myself from the flat banality of the everyday, to dream of a free life in the world of men….”

jack londonJack London drafts an article entitled “The joys of small boat sailing” published in England in the trade magazine Yachting Monthly, August 1912. Its relevance, amazingly, is still intact more than a hundred years later. is a true praise of the yachtsman, of those who go to sea by sailboat. Written by a true master of the art of writing, who was also a great sailor and sailor.

The joys of sailing a small boat

(according to Jack London)

Sailors are born, not made. By “sailor,” I do not mean one of those drab, insignificant individuals one encounters these days on the forecastle of ships, on the open sea, but I mean a man who takes possession of that mass of wood, steel, ropes and canvas and transports it at will over the sea surfaces. And, whatever the captains and petty officers of large vessels may say, the yachtsman is a true sailor.

jack london
Aboard Spray (named after Slocum), London takes ship’s point with the sextant while sailing to Hawaii. While on the cruise, London wrote one of his masterpieces “Martin Eden.”

He knows, he must know how to make the wind carry the boat from one point to another. He must not ignore anything about tides, currents, eddies, shallows, buoys in canals, day and night signs. He must continually monitor the changing weather and develop an instinctive familiarity with his medium… He needs to heave it into the wind at the right time to facilitate the turn and relaunch it on the other edge without stopping it or making it lean too far.

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Jack London at the helm of Snark in San Francisco Bay. is the schooner’s maiden voyage, Feb. 10, 1907, one can recognize his wife Charmian (seated) and his uncle Roscoe Eames (with beard), who was in charge of building the boat with disastrous results.

A longtime sailor today no longer needs to know all these things. In fact, he ignores them all! Cocks, hoists, polishes the deck, paints and removes rust where required. But he knows nothing, and little cares. Place him aboard a small boat and you get to see how clueless he is. He would be more comfortable on the back of a horse!

I will never forget my astonishment as a boy the first time I met one of these curious creatures. It was, in this specific case, a British sailor, a deserter. I was then 12 years old and owned a 14-foot, pontooned, drift boat, which I had learned to maneuver on my own. I used to look at this guy as if he were a god, when he told me about exotic countries and characters, about feats and windstorms, stuff to make your hair stand on end.

One day I took him for a ride with me. I hoisted the sail, somewhat intimidated, like the modest amateur sailor I was, and off we went. I was convinced that I had brought along a man with an unerring eye, who knew more about the sea than I ever could. After applying myself just a little to the maneuver, I left him tiller and sheet.

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Above, London with an indigenous Solomon Islander. During Snark’s voyage, London drew inspiration for his “South Sea Cycle” stories.

I sat on the middle bench of the boat and stood there, open-mouthed, ready to finally find out what real sailing was all about. Well, I was really taken aback when I realized what a “real” seaman aboard a small boat was actually worth. He was not able to adjust the sail in the different gaits, we risked capsizing several times upwind because he jibed like god only knows.

He didn’t know what the drift was for, or even that in carrying winds it is best to sit in the middle of the boat and not on the edge. On the way back, he even crashed into the pier causing the bow to crash and the base of the mast to blow off…. Consequently, I can safely say that one can travel a lifetime aboard a ship without knowing what it really means to sail.

I heard the call of the sea at the age of 12. By fifteen, I was already a captain and owner of a pirate sloop with which I was hoarding oysters. At sixteen, I traveled aboard hulls; rigged as schooners, caught salmon with Greek fishermen on the Sacramento River, and even earned a sailor’s position in the Coast Guard lookouts. I was a good sailor, although I had never gone beyond San Francisco Bay or the rivers that flow into it, and I had never yet sailed the open sea.

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Snark, with which Jack London
sailed for 18 months in the Pacific at Pearl Harbor Bay (Hawaii) in May 1907.

Then, when I turned seventeen, I embarked as a sailor aboard a three-masted ship that sailed on a seven-month voyage, round trip, to the Pacific. As my fellow travelers did not fail to point out to me, I had had some nerve…. It did not take me more than a couple of minutes to learn the names and functions of certain tops I did not know. It was simple. I wasn’t doing things blindly.

As a boater, I had learned the whys and wherefores of maneuvers. Of course, I had to learn how to steer with a compass – for which it took me a little more than half a minute – but, going upwind, I was doing much better than most of my companions, because I had basically been sailing this way all along. A quarter of an hour of apprenticeship was enough for me to know every wind trajectory by heart….

The bottom line is that a true sailor makes his or her bones much better by recreational sailing. Once a man has gone to sea school, he never leaves it. The salt soaks into his bone marrow, into the air he breathes, and he will hear the call of the sea until the end of his days.

In later years I discovered simpler systems to earn a living. I have given up bow castles, but I always go back to the sea…. From the point of view of pleasure, there is nothing in common between a ship hit by a gale in the open sea and a yacht caught in bad weather in a protected bay. If it’s about pleasure and excitement give me the yacht! Things happen very quickly and there are always a few of you at the maneuvers–and they are tiring maneuvers, as boaters well know!

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Above, London’s friend Katie Peterson aboard Spray.

I was tossed around by a typhoon off the coast of Japan while taking two shifts on watch, yet I certainly came out of it less exhausted than when I had to fight for two hours trying to reduce the headsail on a nine-meter sloop or hoist two anchors from a mooring exposed to a furious southeast wind.

One has as many surprises and mishaps aboard a small boat in three days as one has on an ocean-going ship in a whole year. I still remember the first outing I made once with a 30-foot boat I had just purchased. In the space of only six days we suffered two gales…. And, in between gales, we had a brief interval of flat calm each time… in the middle of a gale, we had to retrieve the lifeboat drifting in the waves…. full of water, it had broken the lines with which we were towing it. Before we had time to realize that we were almost dead from fatigue, we tamed the boat at the cost of enormous efforts….

What satisfaction then, in remembering those moments, with what joy you tell them to your skipper friends, members of the big boating family!

… I prefer a sailboat to a motor boat, and I am convinced that the maneuvering of a sailboat is a more refined, more difficult, more energetic art than that of a motor boat…. The same cannot be said for the sailboat. It certainly takes more skill, more intelligence and much more experience.

And there is no better school in the world, for the young teenager as for the mature man. If the boy is very young, give him a stable barchetta. He will do the rest himself. It is useless to try to teach them anything. Within a short time he will be able to hoist a sail and steer by himself. Then he will start talking about keels, drifts, and will want to take a blanket with him so he can spend the night on board.

Do not fear for him. It will undoubtedly encounter risks and misadventures. But remember that domestic accidents are no less numerous than those that occur on the water. More kids are killed by overheated houses than by boats, large or small. On the other hand, sailing has helped transform many young people into solid, self-reliant adults more than cricket or dance lessons have. Besides, if you are a sailor for a day, you stay a sailor all your life. The taste of salt is never forgotten. A sailor is never too old not to give in to the temptation to embark on a new adventure in the wind and waves…

Jack London

Jack London was born on January 12, 1876, in San Francisco. At the age of 12, he was able to purchase his first 5-meter drift boat, with which he frolicked around San Francisco Bay poaching mussels and sea truffles.

He manages to leave the miserable job in a pickle cannery to which his mother had forced him, thanks to a loan offered to him by his black wet nurse. He bought Razzle Dazze (the Bounty) a sloop with which, at age 15, he became the king of the bay’s oyster poachers.

He loses his boat in a fight between gangs of thugs. But he doesn’t stop going to sea. Switch to the side of the law and become a fisheries guard. At age 17, he boarded a three-masted seal hunter and left the Gulf of San Francisco for the first time. At 21, he resumed the sea to reach Canada in search of gold, sailing through the ice.

He became a successful writer and, with the proceeds of “Call of the Forest,” in 1903, bought a small boat, which he named Spray in honor of that of history’s first solo sailor, Joshua Slocum. Then, at the age of 30, he realized his life’s big dream and had the schooner Snark built, with which he would sail the Pacific for two years.

Jack London’s other major sailing is aboard the four-masted “Dirigo,” which takes him from Baltimore to Seattle via Cape Horn. The last boat he owned was the Roamer, a 9-meter cutter where he sailed, exploring every nook and cranny of the great San Francisco Bay, until his death in 1916 at only forty years of age.

In 1906, at the age of 30, Jack London is at the height of success. He went from a small proletarian thug to one of the greatest writers, journalists, and photographers of his time.

He has previously written the masterpieces “The Call of the Forest” and “White Fang.” He divorces the drab Bessie and marries the intrepid Charmian, who will be his companion until his untimely death. And he decides to fulfill his two dreams, buying a ranch and owning a yacht with which to travel around the world.

But in order to afford these two extravagant purchases, Jack London condemns himself to hard labor; he has to produce a thousand words a day, 365 days a year, in order not to go bankrupt. So he never goes to follow the construction of the Snark (the fictional creature from Lewis Carroll’s “Hunting the Snark”).

The construction of the schooner, which is 21.33 m long (including bowsprit) and 4.57 m wide, is being handled by an uncle of his wife, who will turn out to be incompetent. Accomplice to the earthquake that hits San Francisco, the boat is ready six months late, costs rise from $15,000 to $30,000.

In 1907 Snark and Jack London set out for Hawaii. On the maiden voyage, the boat turns out to be a disaster and must remain five months in the shipyard before resuming cruising. With his wife they set off again, reaching the wild Marquesas Islands, Polynesia, Samoa and Fiji, the New Hebrides, and the Solomons. Jack is the skipper, but he doesn’t stop writing the thousand words a day. In any sea, in any weather.




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The story we told you is from the volume “Adventures and Myths in the Seas of the World .”

There are adventures worth telling and remembering. For this we drew on our historical archives and selected stories of people and sailings that have made sailing history. We tell you about them with extraordinary images and exclusive texts in our special issue “Adventures and Myths in the Seas of the World.” From Jack London to Joshua Slocum, via Moitessier, Tabarly, Robin Knox-Johnston, and Peter Blake, all the greatest sea myths are collected for the first time in one special volume (only 2.00 euros).


“Jack London, The Adventurer of the Seas” (Archinto, 30 euros) is the richly illustrated volume from which some photos and a translation of London’s article are taken. The authors dug into the archives, reconstructing the entire fascinating sea life of the great American writer. FIND IT HERE.



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