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When John Adams set out with his little son on a perilous voyage early in 1778, he was full of misgivings. He had every right to be worried, but the journey turned out to be the adventure of his life—and a revelation of his essential character.
July/August 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 5
Adams wanted to keep a running account of all that was happening but found it impossible. He was so drenched, everything was so soaking wet, that pen and paper were useless. “No man could keep upon his legs, and nothing could be kept in its place,” he later wrote. “The wind blowing against the current [of the Gulf Stream], not directly, but in various angles, produced a tumbling sea, vast mountains,... sometimes dashing against each other... and not infrequently breaking on the ship, threatened to bury us all at once in the deep. The sails were all hauled down but a foresail... and we were left with bare poles entirely at the mercy of wind and water. The noises were such that we could not hear each other speak at any distance. The shrouds and every other rope in the ship exposed to the wind became a chord of very harsh music. Their vibrations produced a constant and a hideous howl....”
Later, in his autobiography Adams would confess to moments of severe regret that he had ever brought his son, but he wrote also of his extreme pride in the boy. His “behavior gave me a satisfaction that I cannot express. Fully sensible of our danger, he was constantly endeavoring to bear up under it with a manly courage and patience, very attentive to me, and his thoughts always running in a serious strain. In this he was not singular.... I believe there was not a soul on board who was wholly thoughtless of a Divinity.”
Appraising his own performance, Adams felt more than a little pleased, even some surprise, it would appear, that he had remained “perfectly calm.”
The storm had driven the ship several hundred miles off course. But days of smooth sailing followed, and with the crew busy with repairs, Adams resumed lecturing the captain on order and improvements.
Tucker appears to have taken all that the insistent landsman had to say in remarkably good spirits and acted upon it as best he could, to Adams’s considerable satisfaction. “I am constantly giving hints to the captain concerning order, economy and regularity,” he wrote, “and he seems to be sensible of the necessity of them, and exerts himself to introduce them.” As great a nuisance as Adams may have been, he got results; the ship took on a new look.
Tucker, he wrote, “has cleared out between decks, ordered up the hammocks to be aired, and ordered up the sick, such as could bear it, upon deck for sweet air. This ship would have bred the plague or jail fever, if there had not been great exertions since the storm to wash, sweep, air and purify clothes, cots, cabins, hammocks and all other things, places and persons.”
Adams quite liked the salty, booming Tucker, and Tucker had come to appreciate Adams’s company. Indeed, in remarks made later before the Navy Board, he would pay Adams as high a compliment as he knew. “I did not say much to him at first, but damn and bugger my eyes, I found him after a while as sociable as any Marblehead man.”
CAPTAIN TUCKER SAID OF JOHN ADAMS, ”...DAMN AND BUGGER MY EYES, I FOUND HIM AFTER A WHILE AS SOCIABLE AS ANY MARBLEHEAD MAN.”
On February 28, Adams could happily record in his diary that with smooth seas and a fine breeze, the Boston had hardly any motion but forward. He was sleeping as soundly as in his bed at home.
The color of the ocean changed from blue to green as the Gulf Stream was left behind. “What is this Gulf Stream?” he pondered. “What is the course of it? From what point and to what point does it flow?” Flocks of gulls appeared astern, trailing the ship. “The wind is very fresh, and the ship sails at a great rate.”
One fine day followed another. Life on board settled into a routine. With the captain’s help, John Quincy had undertaken to learn the name of every sail and master the use of a mariner’s compass. Father and son both worked on their French, Adams reading a bilingual edition of Molière’s Amphitryon, one of several books he had brought from home.
He discussed medicine with the French surgeon Dr. Noël and encouraged the ship’s first lieutenant, William Barron, to talk about his career and all that he had seen of the world. Barron, a Virginian, impressed Adams as exactly the kind of officer “much wanted in our navy.”
One spectacular day, with all sails spread, the ship made an average of 10 knots. Yet whatever the romance of the sea might be, it eluded Adams. “We see nothing but sky, clouds, and sea and then seas, clouds, and sky.”
“Oh that we might make [a] prize today of an English vessel lately from London with all the newspapers and magazines on board,” he wrote another morning.
“Nothing very remarkable this day,” Captain Tucker wrote in his log. It had become a familiar entry. Once, after recording that the preceding 24 hours had both begun and ended with pleasant weather, he added, “Nothing more remarkable to my sorrow.”
But suddenly life picked up again. “We spied a sail and gave her chase,” a delighted Adams recorded. A ship hull down on the southeastern horizon was thought to be a British cruiser. Tucker ordered the Boston cleared for action. Seeing Adams on the quarterdeck, he quickly explained the situation and, with Adams in agreement on a decision to attack, respectfully suggested that Adams go below, as “hot work” was to ensue.