Four Bitters and a Life Line

It’s the 1870s, and we’re on the coast of Connecticut.  Mystic is a booming ship-building town.  Sailors are wandering the streets, as are people ready to take their money.

I sat me down to listen to David Iler sing Four Bitters.  Not sea chanties.  Those were working songs with calls and responses, to help load and unload the ships.  Just like on the plantations, sea chanties help with heavy lifting.

Four Bitters were sung on board.  The fiddler would be at the forward-most bitter, a big tub for holding blubber.  Yes, we’re talking whalers here.  When not in use, which was much of the time, the four bitters made good perches for the singers and players.

David says not all the songs were rousing.  Some were “pretty” like ballads, some sad, and some were warnings.  Like “Get Up Jack, John Sit Down.”  A ‘jolly rovin’ tar.’

See Jack would be trying to find his sea legs after 90 days sailing from Liverpool to San Francisco, with his $1 a day wages.  He might have appeared drunk, as he got used to being on land again.  With $90 in his pocket, and a meal priced at a nickel, Jack was plenty Jolly, and as a salior, was a Rover.  Sailors were often covered with tar from their work.  Jolly Rovin’ Tar.

The town was ready for the Jolly Roving Tars.  Ready to take their money for drinks all around and for and by women.

Worse, a friendly face might drug the Tar with laudanum.  Rob him?  Sure.  But Shanghai Brown would hire out the job of drugging the sailor, because the knocked-out boy would be ‘sold’ to packet ships that were short of crew, in return for the sailor’s first month’s wage.

The sailor would wake up out at sea, only to realize he was working the first month for no wage.  Impressment was a common tactic for navies and merchant ships.  Packets sailed on a schedule and had to have adequate crews.  Shanghai’s were one risk of being on shore.

These Four Bitters could serve as warnings, but David explained from experience the mad rush to get on shore will wipe away all logic.

(David Iler on his handmade “Dulcitar”–combination dulcimer and cigar box.  Sailors made use of everything.)

Sailors on the whaling ships fared no better.  They divvied up 1/3 of the whale oil profits.  Sounds like that could be okay.  But they were charged for every meal, the tobacco they became addicted to, and the rum.  They often ended up owing the ship money, which meant, yes, another term at sea.

So much for the romance of the sailing life.

2015-09-26 14.34.12Then of course, there were the storms and the shipwrecks near land.  Sailors would practice the life-saving technique of using the life line.

I watched them practice at the Mystic Seaport Village Green, David participating, too.

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They shoot a small rope from a canon that gets tied to the top of the mast rigging (or its stand in here).  Then larger and heavier ropes follow the line to get tied on. These larger ropes can hold the weight of a sailor.


One by one, the sailors from the shipwreck climb into the Britches Buoy and slide down the life line to safety.

Winslow Homer. The Life LIne. 1884.

Imagine doing that in the middle of a dangerous storm.  Winslow Homer shows us what that might have been like.


Amazing that these wooden figureheads could survive at all. Figureheads at the ship’s prow were meant to ward off evil spirits, and often represented the name of the boat, which is why many were carved as women.  Some even have portrait-like qualities, like this one of Abigail.  Abigail Chandler was this ship captain’s wife.  Imagine her withstanding a storm.



The full-body figures like Abigail, the Seminole, and girl in white weighed so much as to be counterproductive, and figureheads were soon reduced in size and scale to the head and shoulders.

These figures are so stern looking and fierce, I’d want them protecting my ship!










The “White Girl” probably never sailed.  Not only does she lack color, but that extended hand would be vulnerable at sea.

How did these figureheads survive the winds and the storms?  I learned a secret about how they might have.

A quick visit to the ship’s carving shop and a look at the David Crockett figurehead told all.

The David Crockett sailed around Cape Good Horn several times, safely.  No small feat.  How did the figurehead survive to look so glorious today, complete with that extended rifle?  It’s simple.  The sailors took it down a couple of days out of harbor and put it up again before coming back to shore.  Ah, very smart.

2015-09-26 14.54.31Of course, then the figurehead probably wasn’t protecting the ship, but that’s to consider another day.

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The 1841 Charles W. Morgan was in service for 80 years, making 37 voyages.  Look at how it dominates over the town.  What fun to climb aboard!

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2 thoughts on “Four Bitters and a Life Line

  1. What a wonderful time you must have had. I remember reading about sailors who were off their ships, got drunk, sold, and ended up on a ship going somewhere else. I can’t imagine life like that back then. Loved the figureheads (weren’t they called something else, too?) Clever way to stay in one piece — be removed while at sea!

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