The World of Jack London
Jack aboard Roamer
Jack London at the wheel of the Roamer.
By Russ Kingman

SAILING was always the best medicine for Jack's periods of depression. His problems always disappeared once he was on water again. Now he knew what the term Like a fish out of water meant. He couldn't exist without a boat. He asked Bessie's brother-in-law, Ernest Matthews, to keep an eye out for a bargain. Several weeks later Matthews happily informed Jack that he found the ideal boat, the Roamer. Together Jack and Ernest met owner William H. Craig. "Yes, the boat is for sale; the price is $175." Jack bought it on the spot. She was forty years old and a beauty—thirty feet long, an extra-wide beam, and an unusually large cabin for such a small boat made it perfect for the Londons. Huge sails gave her a majestic look and caused her to move through the water with the slightest breeze—an ideal boat for the San Francisco Bay waters.

In The Valley of the Moon Jack presents a vivid picture of the life on the Roamer:

Hastings decided to eat dinner—he called the midday meal by its old fashioned name—before sailing; and down below Saxon was surprised and delighted by the measure of comfort in so tiny a cabin. There was just room for Billy to stand upright. A centerboard-case divided the room in half longitudinally, and to this was attached the hinged table from which they ate. Low bunks that ran the the full length, upholstered in cheerful green, served as seats. A curtain, easily attached by hooks between the centerboard-case and the roof, at night, screened Mrs. Hastings' sleeping quarters. On the opposite side the two Japanese bunked, while for'ard, under the deck, was a galley. So small was it that there was just room for the cook, who was compelled by the low deck to squat on his hams.

The Londons never grew tired of the Roamer and spent months at a time aboard her. Jack's writing stint and Charmian's typing still occupied their mornings. In the afternoon they fished, swam, lounged on deck, played cards, or talked. A favorite pastime was Jack's reading aloud to Charmian and many an hour was whiled away in this manner. Their love grew stronger each year, both loving to do things for each other. Jack was to depend more and more on Charmian during the next few years, a responsibility she never avoided, as though fate had prepared her for that role. Actually Charmian was nearly a hypochondriac, recording her ailments in her diary nightly. But seldom did Jack hear her complain or see her in anything but a cheerful mood. Her role was to be his mate, companion, lover or, anything else he needed. She played this role simply because she wanted to and because she was so thoroughly in love with Jack.

Charmian and Jack set out on the Roamer on October 17 for a cruise up the Sacramento River—their first trip on the new boat. A better galley had been built and a little stove for warmth and cooking was installed in the main cabin. A few months later Jack wrote of his love for boating:

Once a sailor, always a sailor. The savour of the salt water never stales. The sailor never grows so old that he does not care to go back for more wrestling bout with wind and wave. I live beyond sight of the sea, yet I can stay away from it only so long. After several months have passed, I begin to grow restless. I find myself day-dreaming over incidents of the last cruise, or wondering if the striped bass are running on Wingo Slough, or eagerly reading the newspaper for reports of the first northern flight of ducks. And thus, suddenly, there is a hurried packing of suitcases and overhauling of gear, and we are off for Vallejo where the little Roamer lies, waiting, always waiting for the skiff to come alongside, for the lighting of the fire in the galley-stove, for the pulling off of gaskets, the swinging up of the mainsail, and the rat-tat-tat of the reef points, for the heaving short and breaking out, and for the twirling of the wheel as she fills out and heads up Bay or down.

As they cruised up the river and through the delta waters, Charmian said, "Jack looked much like his piratical early self in blue dungarees, his time honored 'tam' pulled down, with a handful of curls, over his sailor-blue eyes."

Near the Vallejo Yacht Club they ran into Charley LeGrant, so often mentioned in Tales of the Fish Patrol. On another cruise up Sonoma Creek's delta, they came upon French Frank, former owner of Jack's Razzle Dazzle, of oyster pirate fame. Charmian found Frank debonair and gallant. He now lived as keeper of a shack for a local duck-hunting club.

Since so much of the Londons' time was to be spent on the Roamer, it may be best to let Charmian tell what it was like:

What a blissful passage it was, this first Roamer voyage, only to be surpassed by the second and the third, and so on. "Snarking once more," Jack named it; honeymooning up on the face of the winding waters; fanning into Benicia to the sweet melody of birds in the rushes; running across that large, draughty, variegated piece of water, Suisun Bay, where the great scows we had learned to respect came charging down, grain-laden; picking our way in the "Middle Ground" channels, and gliding close-hauled into Black Diamond in the fires of sunset, where the Sacramento and the San Joaquin tumble their muddy flood together—to port the hazy, Aztec unreality of the tawny-rose Montezuma Hills, palpitating in the westering sunlight; to starboard the low brown banks with green upstanding fringes of rustling tules; all about red-sailed fishing boats homing for the night; and old Black Diamond's lazy waterfront and lazier streets sloping upward toward the Contra Costa Hills; and, in the morning Mt. Diablo crumpled against an azure dome.

Much of the time, after disposing of his morning's work, Jack read through the usual mountain of agricultural pamphlets and then devoured countless numbers of books brought aboard each cruise. Charmian loved to watch her man at the wheel as the little Roamer sailed her way from slough to slough. She said, "He was an unfailing wonder to me, my Jack London—my mentor—his continuos cerebration to every impact, mental, physical, awake, and asleep; always young, always old, always wise, and with 'a bigness of heart that kept conscience with itself,' efficient dreamer, harnessed to his work for the sake of Heart's Desire, which included the discharge of so many responsibilities—penalties of patriarchy. How vivid he rises, standing on his handsome legs at the wheel, those robust muscle-rounded shoulders leaning back upon a howling norther before which we fled, tense, caution on hair-trigger, uncaptturable thoughts behind his deep, wise eyes, lips parted, and that great chest expanding to breeze and effort." Words of a loving wife? Yes, but no exaggeration here. This was Jack London as described by everyone who knew him.

After a run down Escondido, the Menlo Park home of Charmian's cousin, Willard Growall and his wife, Emma, to attend the November 10 wedding of recently divorced Ninetta Eames and Edward Biron Payne, the Londons brought the cruise to an end and returned to Glen Ellen.

SOURCE: Kingman, Russ. A Pictorial Life of Jack London (Crown, 1979) (By permission)

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