The Life of Jack London — #4: Pacific Voyage

In 1899, London took his second trip to Alaska. It was during this journey that he wrote The Call of the Wild and White Fang as well as other books about hunting in America’s wild west.

When Jack London was nearly 30 years old, he left for a trip around the world. This is the story of his journey aboard the ship “Tamaulipas.” Read more in detail here: jack london.

This article is part of a series on Jack London’s life, particularly his use of the Ancient Greek idea of thumos.

On his seventeenth birthday, January 12, 1893, Jack London signed aboard the Sophie Sutherland, a magnificent three-topmast schooner heading for seal hunts in the Bering Sea and eventually Japan. Jack lacked three years of experience and two years of age to meet the minimal qualifications for sailors, but his old buddy Johnny Heinold vouched for his seaworthiness and distinct personality. When the captain of the Sophie Sutherland met with Jack, he was blown away by his maturity and dedication, and he warmly welcomed him onboard.

Jack was well aware that, although he was officially their equal under the ship’s articles, his new comrades would be resentful of his youth and inexperience. He, on the other hand, was a landlubber who had never ventured into the deep sea; they had earned their position by serving their fellows on previous voyages, being hazed, and learning the ropes firsthand; they, on the other hand, had earned their position by serving their fellows on previous voyages, being hazed, and learning the ropes firsthand; he, on the other hand, was a landlubber by comparison who had never ventured into the deep sea. Jack realized he needed to show he could bear his own weight right away, or he’d be in for “seven months of torment at their hands.” He made the decision to work in such a manner that none of his colleagues could criticize him:

“I used an approach that was intentional, basic, and extreme.” First and foremost, I decided to perform my task so effectively that no one would be called upon to do it for me, no matter how difficult or hazardous it may be. In addition, I injected ginger into my muscles. I never cheated while tugging on a rope since I knew my forecastle colleagues were searching for such such proof of my incompetence. Never leaving a sheet or tackle for someone else to wrap around a pin, I made it a point to be among the first of the watch to go on deck and among the last to go below. I was always anxious for the run aloft to change topsail sheets and tacks, or to set or take in topsails, and I performed more than my fair share of these tasks.”

Jack’s thumic pride and sense of honor required that he be treated with respect, not as one of the other sailors’ slaves, since he performed all requested of him and more. If there was any doubt in his shipmates’ minds about this, it was easily dispelled one afternoon below deck. Since the Sophie Sutherland set sail, Red John, a huge and intimidating Swede, has been hunting for problems with Jack. Red John determined that Jack should perform the duties for him on his “peggy day,” when he was in charge of washing the kitchen dishes and the sailors’ quarters. He made his harsh instruction many times, but Jack, who was reclining on his bed weaving a rope mat, did not recognize the Swede’s entreaties in the least.

 

In his rage, Red John tossed down the coffee pot he was carrying and backhanded the defiant adolescent across the lips. London struck a strike directly between the other man’s eyes, evaded his sledgehammer-like counter, and then sprang onto his shoulders, displaying the cat-like reflexes he would later attribute to the “Sea Wolf.” Jack encircled Red John’s ox-like neck with his knees, suffocating him and pushing his fingers into his eyes. Red John fought back by slamming Jack against the cabin’s beams with such force that wounds appeared on the teenager’s head and upper torso. Despite the fact that blood was dripping down his face, Jack continued to press tighter, refusing to let up until his opponent gurgled an affirmative to his repeated query: “Will y’leave me alone, now?” Will you give up on me for good? Will you just leave me alone? — “Will yuh yuh yuh yuh yuh yuh y

Jack’s defiance earned him huge respect from his shipmates, notably Red John, who was blown away by this “wild cat” who refused to be beaten. “It was a source of pride for me to be accepted as an equal, both in spirit and in actuality,” Jack recounted. “Everything was gorgeous from then on, and the journey promised to be a joyful one.”

On the Adventure Path, John Barleycorn

Jack didn’t mind that the Sophie Sutherland didn’t have any booze on board. He was pleased to spend his leisure time reading the tiny collection of literature he had brought along, including Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, and, most fittingly, Moby-Dick, while his cloudy intellect cleared and sharpened once again.

When the ship arrived in port, though, it was a different story. “The adventure-path” is “one of John Barleycorn’s favorite stomping grounds,” London learned once again. Jack discovered that alcohol was both a constant companion to the life of discovery and a detractor from it, as he had witnessed along the waterfront back home.

Jack peered in awe at the jungle-covered volcanic peaks and took in the strange, exotic aroma of the tropics as the ship drew into port at the Bonin Islands, some 600 miles south of Japan’s mainland, for water and repairs. “It was my first trip to a foreign country,” Jack recalled. “I’d won a trip to the other side of the planet, where I’d witness all the things I’d read in novels come true.” I was ecstatic to be able to go ashore.”

“A trail that vanished up a wild canyon, reappeared on a steep, exposed lava-slope, and afterwards appeared and disappeared, ever ascending, amid the palms and flowers,” Jack and his two closest friends saw. The guys were compelled to follow the trail wherever it led, certain that they would encounter “beautiful scenery, odd native settlements, and Heaven alone knew what adventure at the end.” Jack was ecstatic and “willing to try anything.”

However, when the young men rowed onto the shore, they passed through the island’s little village, where sailors from all over the globe were drinking, singing, and dancing riotously. “Drinking together, glass in hand, put the seal on comradeship,” Jack’s pals advised before they began their journey, and London felt he couldn’t refuse “these two chesty shipmates”: “Drinking together, glass in hand, placed the seal on comradeship.” It had become a way of life.”

 

Jack and his companions did not make it any farther onshore. They camped out at the town’s little taverns for the following 10 days, drinking their fill. One of his pals got booze-crazy and ruined some local property, which they had to chip in to repair. Jack had misplaced his shoes, slacks, and belt. “They never did ascend that lava trail amid the flowers,” Jack reflected with dismay.

When the Sophie Sutherland arrived in Japan, it was the same thing. The ship arrived at Yokohama after three months of hunting seals in the Bering Sea and filling its cargo with their skins. Jack was ready to get off the ship and tour the land, but first he stopped at a local bar for a few beers with the lads. After two weeks, he had only seen “a drinking-place that was extremely similar to a drinking-place at home or anyplace else in the globe.”

Jack takes command.

Jack London quote man without courage.

Even though Jack lost out on certain thrills, there was still enough to be enjoyed throughout his Pacific cruise. It reached its pinnacle when the Sophie Sutherland sailed into the eye of a storm off the coast of Japan, which Jack would later refer to as his “moment of peak living.” The waves were so severe, and the ship was so difficult to maneuver, that each man could only hold the wheel for one hour before needing a break, and every crew member had to take a turn. At seven a.m., Jack was summoned from his quarters to take command of the ship. It was up to him alone, as a seventeen-year-old greenhorn, to combat nature’s most ferocious forces and successfully navigate the ship and her passengers through the storm:

“Not a single thread of canvas had been sewn. Despite the fact that we were operating with bare poles before [the storm], the schooner was tearing away. The waves were just an eighth of a mile apart, and the wind grabbed the whitecaps from their peaks, filling the air with so much spray that it was hard to see more than two waves at once. The schooner was almost uncontrollable, rolling her rail to starboard and port, swerving and yawing anywhere between southeast and southwest, and threatening to broach to when the massive waves rose under her quarter. If she had asked, she would have been declared missing with all hands and no news.

I took over the steering wheel. The sailing master kept an eye on me while I looked for a spot. He was terrified of my youth, believing that I lacked the strength and courage to face him. He walked downstairs to breakfast after seeing me effectively wrestle the schooner through numerous battles. At breakfast, all crew were below, fore and aft. None of them would have made it to the deck if she hadn’t suggested it. I stood alone at the helm for forty minutes, holding the crazily careering schooner and the lives of twenty-two men in my hands. We were pooped after a while. I saw it coming and prevented the schooner’s rush to broach to, half-drowned and with tons of water pounding me. I was relieved at the end of the hour, sweaty and exhausted. But I was the one who had done it! I’d done the trick at the helm, steering a hundred tons of wood and iron through a few million tons of wind and waves with my own hands.”

 

Later, London would add that this was “perhaps the finest accomplishment of my life”:

“My joy came from the fact that I had done it, not from the fact that twenty-two guys knew about it.” Over half of them died within a year, but my pride in the work I had done was not dampened in the least… This joy is all mine, and it is unaffected by the presence of others. I feel elated when I have accomplished anything like this. I’m glowing from head to toe. I am conscious of a sense of pride in myself that is all mine. It’s natural, and it excites every fiber of my being…

A successful life is one that lives, and success is the air in its nostrils. The accomplishment of a tough task is the effective adaptation to a harshly demanding environment. The higher the joy in completing the task, the more difficult it is.”

Return to your home

On August 26, 1893, the Sophie Sutherland returned to San Francisco. Jack had been gone for seven months and had grown into a man among men during that time. He will always remember this journey as a watershed moment in his life, a rite of passage. Charmian expressed herself as follows:

“The joy of companionship with his comrades below or on deck, or aloft in the screeching rigging in a storm, could not be measured.” No amount of exhaustion could take away the thrill of competing against the greatest in pure muscle competition. Even in his advanced age, he valued the ability to declare, ‘I toiled all night, both watches on deck, off the coast of Japan,’ more than the greatest piece he had ever written.”

Unfortunately, after he returned home, Jack’s high-flying life of adventure came to a screeching end. The money he earned on his journey, which he diligently gave over to his family, vanished swiftly. The nation had fallen into a deep recession, and finding professional job of any type was practically difficult. Many of Jack’s companions had been slain or imprisoned while he was gone, and the prospect of suffering the same fate by returning to the life of an oyster pirate held little attraction. To maintain his family, Jack was compelled to work at a jute mill factory wrapping vegetable fiber thread around bobbins for ten cents an hour…the same pay he had made at the pickle cannery a few years before. Nothing had changed, yet everything had changed.

Read the Jack London Series in Its Entirety:

1st Section: Introduction Part 3: Oyster Pirate Part 2: Boyhood Pacific Voyage (Part 4) Part 5: Back to School Part 6: On the Road Part 7: Klondike Gold Rush Part 8: Finally, Success Part 9: The Long Illness Ashes (Part 10) Conclusion (Part 11)

1st Section: Introduction Part 3: Oyster Pirate Part 2: Boyhood Pacific Voyage (Part 4) Part 5: Back to School Part 6: On the Road Part 7: Klondike Gold Rush Part 8: Finally, Success Part 9: The Long Illness Ashes (Part 10) Conclusion (Part 11)

Sources:

James L. Haley’s Wolf: The Lives of Jack London 

Alex Kershaw’s Jack London: A Life

Charmian London’s The Book of Jack London, Volumes 1 & 2 (free in the public domain)

Jack London’s Complete Works (You can download London’s hundreds of papers all in one spot for $3, which is just plain great)