A sailor is one who knows how to work on a sailing ship. Nowadays there are not many sailing ships left, for their place has been taken by steam-ships. And an old sailor would say that the crews who work on steamships are not sailors at all and know nothing about seamanship, or the management of ships.
Before steamers were invented, all ocean ships were sailing ships; that is, they were moved by the wind blowing their sails. There was a different kind of ships. The biggest were ships and banquets, three-masted vessels; then two-masted ships, called schooners and brigs. In the navy, the largest were called men of war; smaller but faster vessels were cruisers, and there were many more.
These ships differed not only in size and the number of their masts, but also in the number and shape of their sails, and their ropes—that is, their rigging. And it took long experience for a sailor to know all these points, the names, and uses of the hundreds of different ropes, and the dozens of different sails and how to furl and unfurl them, and when. The sailor, too, had to know the signs of the weather so that he might know when storms were coming; and he had to study the charts, and to know where it was safe to go-though this part of the work was the job of the captain and officers more than that of the common sailors. Nowadays the chief workers on a steamer are the engineers; the “sailors” have no rigging or sails to attend to, and so are not sailors in the old sense, though there are still sailing ships in use.
A sailor’s life is a hard and rough one, and it is dangerous. We, landsmen, have little idea what it must be to climb the tall masts in a storm to furl the sails, when the ship is rolling and pitching like a mad thing, the wind is icy cold, the rain is pouring down, and it is pitch dark. And sailors are always in danger of shipwreck or sinking in a storm, of fire, or of dying of thirst in calm.
Yet the sailor is a brave and jolly fellow. He often grumbles, but he loves the sea life so much that he will not leave it. He sings.
“And white waves heaving high, my lads,
The good ship tight and free-
The world of waters is our home,
And merry men are we.”