The Sandman: His Sea Stories  by Willliam J. Hopkins

The Pilot Story

O NCE upon a time there was a wide river that ran into the ocean, and beside it was a little city. And in that city was a wharf where great ships came from far countries. And a narrow road led down a very steep hill to that wharf, and anybody that wanted to go to the wharf had to go down the steep hill on the narrow road, for there wasn't any other way. And because ships had come there for a great many years and all the sailors and all the captains and all the men who had business with the ships had to go on that narrow road, the flagstones that made the sidewalk were much worn. That was a great many years ago.

The wharf was Captain Jonathan's and Captain Jacob's and they owned the ships that sailed from it; and, after their ships had been sailing from that wharf in the little city for a good many years, they changed their office to Boston. After that, their ships sailed from a wharf in Boston.

The channel into Boston Harbor was crooked and narrow and a captain had to know it very well to be able to take a ship in safely. A good many captains didn't like to risk it, even if they thought they did know the channel pretty well. So there were some men who made it their business to take vessels out of the harbor, that wanted to go out, and to bring vessels in, that wanted to come in. Those men were called harbor pilots, or just pilots. And they knew just exactly how much water they would find at each place; and they knew the whole harbor so well that they could tell, almost, where every stone, of the size of a hat, was on the bottom of it. In the year 1820, John Wilson was one of these pilots, and he lived at Winthrop. Winthrop was a convenient place for a pilot to live in, for it is on a sort of a point that bends around, so that it is outside of Boston Harbor.

Now John Wilson's house was where he could see, from the windows of a room upstairs, far out to sea. He could have seen Provincetown, on the end of Cape Cod, if it hadn't been so far away that it was hidden by the roundness of the world; and there was nothing, except the ocean and the ships that sailed on it, between him and Europe. On clear days he was apt to sit at his upper window, looking out over the ocean and smoking. And whenever he saw the upper sails of some vessel beginning to show, far away, over the waters of Massachusetts Bay, he would hurry off to his sloop, that always lay ready at the wharf, just below; and he would tell the man who was pottering about on the sloop, and who was named Joe, that there was a vessel coming up and that he had better stir his stumps. For he thought that it was the ship Dawn. Or, perhaps, it was the brig Sally Ann  or the Coromandel, or the ship Pactolys, or the Savannah, or the Augusta Ramsay, or the brig Industry. For John Wilson knew every vessel that sailed from Boston so well that he could tell a vessel's name as soon as he caught sight of her upper sails.

Then Joe would hurry and John Wilson would hurry and they would sail down to meet that vessel. And John Wilson, if he was the first pilot to get to the vessel, which he generally was, would climb aboard, leaving Joe to sail the sloop alone; and he would take command of the vessel and pilot her safely in, through the channel, to her wharf.

But, if it was foggy or hazy, so that John Wilson could not see the sails of vessels far off, over the water, even with his long glass, he and Joe would sail back and forth before the entrance to Boston Harbor. Sometimes there would be three or four pilot boats sailing back and forth, waiting for the ships to come in; and, when they sighted a ship, it would be a race to see which boat would get to her first.

One afternoon, in the late summer, John Wilson sat at his upper window, smoking and looking out at the gulls. His long glass lay on another chair beside him, all ready to look through; and, once in a while, he took it up and looked, very carefully, all along the edge of the ocean. But, no matter how hard he looked, he couldn't see any ships. There was a fisherman going out, but fishermen didn't take pilots, and, if they had, it was too late, anyway. And he saw another small vessel coming in, pretty soon after the fisherman had gone. It was the Portland packet. She didn't take a pilot, either, but her captain was a pilot.

John Wilson was getting tired of sitting by that window, although it was a very pleasant place on a summer afternoon. He got up and stretched sleepily, for it was sleepy work sitting there, doing nothing. Then he thought that he might as well take a last look through the glass, before he went, and he lifted it and held it against the frame of the window and looked.


"Hello!" he said to himself. "The skysails and royals of something. It's a brig. By the cut of her sails, she'll be the Industry. Haven't heard of her since she was spoken, going out, five months ago. She must have made a quick passage."

Then he put down the glass and hurried down to the sloop.

"Hurry up, Joe," he said. "The old Industry's coming in. And she's in a hurry, too. That Cap'n Sol's carrying royals and skysails. That's all that showed. Like enough he's got stu'n'sails on her, too. He seems to want to get in to-night; and we've got to hurry, for she'll keep right on to his wharf, pilot or no pilot."

"He hasn't been reported at Manila," said Joe.

"No," said John Wilson, "he hasn't. But he'll report his own arrival there. There's few can carry sail with Cap'n Sol."

The sloop was on her way, by that time, out to the channel and down to the bay. She was rather fast, for such a small vessel, for the pilot who had the fastest boat had the best chance; and she had a good deal of sail for a boat of her size. But she couldn't sail as fast as the Industry. She met the Industry  about five miles out in the bay, and John Wilson saw that Captain Sol had put a flag in the rigging, to show that he wanted a pilot.


The sloop was on her way.

Captain Sol had the sails fixed so that the Industry  wouldn't go ahead very fast, and the sloop came alongside and John Wilson scrambled aboard. The sloop wasn't tied to the ship at all, and she didn't stay alongside as long as a minute; then she was sailing off again, towards Boston. For Joe had to take John Wilson home again after he had got a vessel piloted safely in to the wharf that she was going to.

Captain Sol met John Wilson when he came on board and shook hands with him.

"Hello, John," he said. "I hoped we should get you."

"Hello, Sol," said John Wilson. "You haven't been reported at Manila, yet, and you have no business to be here."

"So?" asked Captain Sol. "Three ships sailed from Manila for Boston ahead of me. They'll be along in the course of time." He smiled to himself at the thought of his having passed those ships. But Captain Sol didn't generally say much, and John Wilson didn't ask him anything more about those ships. But he made up his mind that he would keep a sharp lookout for them. "Get us in as soon as you can, John," continued Captain Sol. "I have some business that I want to get done before dark."

"All right," said John Wilson; and he began to give his orders.

The sails were fixed so that the ship would go ahead again as fast as she was going before. They passed the pilot boat, with Joe sailing it all alone, and then John Wilson told the sailors to begin to take in sail. They had so much sail spread that it would take the sailors all the time, until they got to the wharf, to take it in, for they had reached the beginning of the channel between the islands.

And they sailed in, past the islands, and John Wilson had the ship steered so that she went in the deepest part of the channel. And they came up to the wharf, gently, and the ship was tied to the wharf with great ropes; and there was a little of the afternoon left. So Captain Sol went to attend to the business that he wanted to do. But John Wilson went to the office of Captain Jonathan and Captain Jacob and they paid him some money for piloting the Industry  up the harbor.

Then he went back to the wharf and watched the sailors, who were busy on the Industry, and he waited for Joe to come, with the sloop, to take him back to Winthrop. And, in about half an hour, there was the sloop. And John Wilson got aboard and sailed away for Winthrop.

And that's all.