and for the first time I felt the ship roll

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Senior Member
Hi folks, this is cited from Redburn by Hermann Melville (1849)
Context: They were sailing through a strait named Narrows. Melville talked about a steamer as in the seen this sentence “As the steamer carried us further and further down the bay, and we passed ships lying at anchor, with men gazing at us and waving their hats…”

Question: I wonder that whether this steamer was (he says later steamboat”) tugging them or not? Because it says “and for the first time I felt the ship roll” so it makes me think that his ship got rid of a force and sailed itself. If it is so I stressed here, why is not a pilot boat but a steamer?

About sunset we got fairly "outside," and well may it so be called; for I felt thrust out of the world. Then the breeze began to blow, and the sails were loosed, and hoisted; and after a while, the steamboat left us, and for the first time I felt the ship roll, a strange feeling enough, as if it were a great barrel in the water.
  • Uncle Jack

    Senior Member
    British English
    "As the steamer carried us" means that he is either on the steamer itself, or is on another vessel being pulled or propelled by the steamer. There would be no problem, in ordinary English, with calling a "steamer" a "ship", so "felt the ship roll" offers no clues, but the loosening of the sails and the separate mention of "the steamboat" (note the definite article) shows that the steamer is a different vessel from the one he is on.


    Modwoman in the attic
    English - United States
    About twelve paragraphs earlier, Melville says “ The anchor being secured, a steam tug-boat with a strong name, the Hercules, took hold of us; and away we went...” I take that to mean the tug was pushing or pulling the sailing ship.

    “I felt the ship roll” simply means that he felt the action of the open sea on the ship. At least that’s how I take it.


    Senior Member
    English English
    I imagine it is because, for some reason, they can't use their sails while sailing down the Narrows, so they need to be pulled along by a steamer. A pilot boat helps ships to manoeuvre in and out of ports, so perhaps that's why it's not called a pilot boat.

    When the steamer stops pulling the sailing ship and it hoists its sails is when the author first feels the natural movement of the sailing ship on the waves of the sea – the ship rolls like a barrel in the moving water.


    Senior Member
    American English (New England and NYC)
    Steam tugs typically would tow or push (or both) large sailing ships through the Narrows, because the strait (between Staten Island and Brooklyn) is only about a mile wide from shore to shore, and it would have disrupted ship traffic and caused accidents if large ships tacked back and forth, or waited for the right wind, to get through. Pilot boats, as I know them, didn't attach themselves to the ships. They were small fast boats that transported a local pilot to and from a larger ship; the pilot knew the local waters and provided detailed information to the ship's captain. The ship that the narrator is on is now out in the Lower Bay where the swells are larger and easier to feel, and the ship is not crossing the swells at a right angle. That action, if the swells are high enough, would produce pitching rather than rolling.
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