As I often spend a few hours between bouts of transcribing our logs, I frequently find myself here on our forum, reading all of the fascinating things that we've come across with regard to our ships and crews. One longstanding topic of discussion has revolved around deserters, and how some ships (we all know I'm referring to Concord and her crew of gallivanting miscreants) seem to have more difficulty keeping their crews aboard, and behaving well when they manage to.
I was especially intrigued when I read this message
and the few before it regarding typical desertion rates for the time.
To answer Janet's question simply, the crew for that particular commission was bored. Concord had, prior to the 1903-1904 commission, earned a reputation for being a ship where sailing men could see the world, meet interesting people, and then send them to the depths with Concord's guns. The 1903-1904 commission's crew never saw combat, nor did they ever leave the North Pacific. These sailors were romanced by the sea and the history of a ship that had sailed round the world, put down an insurrection, prevented seal poachers from obliterating the entirety of the fur trade, and taken part in the Battle of Manila Bay. These sorts of things were what the crew were expecting. What they actually got was far short of their expectations.
The commission of 1903-1904 saw Concord sailing up and down the Pacific coast of North America, from Alaska to Panama, and a trip to Hawaii, stopping every few miles to take a sounding, but otherwise doing very little else. The men, as I said, were bored; and boredom, bound together with isolation and the inability to do anything at all to change that when underway, is absolutely guaranteed to crush morale, to the point that inevitably many begin to weigh the potential consequences of desertion against their own sanity.
Samuel Johnson once wrote, "No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned... a man in jail has more room, better food, and commonly better company." This statement, while a bit extreme, is rather more correct than not, when it comes down to the psychological toll that being aboard a ship at sea for any length of time.
To this day, desertion is a huge problem for all branches of the military (except for the Air Force). The Army sees more deserters by volume than any other branch, while the Navy has the highest per capita rate of desertion. There are some notable exceptions when the Army's desertion rates come close to the total number of aircraft used by the Air Force, but this is typically during times of war, while the Navy's desertion rates seem to stay generally steady with a sharp decline during war time (and a dramatic increase in the early stages of peace).
My father once told me (I won't quote him, as his choice of vocabulary isn't really appropriate for our forum) that it takes a special kind of crazy to be a career sailor. The traits necessary to thrive at sea - regardless of whether it be in peace time or during war - are fairly straightforward, and each is common enough in its own right; yet the combination of each, in the correct measure, are rarer than astatine. To thrive at sea, one must love the sea more than themselves (and respect its power in equal measure), be fearless, be generally antisocial (fellow crewmen are family, and thus exempt, once they've earned their place aboard), be physically capable of doing the work necessary to keep the ship afloat, and be capable of entertaining oneself without being self-destructive for weeks or months at a time. It's a short list, but the absence of any one of these will eventually drive a person to leave.
I recently told my daughters, when they asked what it's like to be at sea for a long period of time, that the best way to explain life aboard a ship is like this. Find yourself a big barrel, climb inside of it, then roll it off the side of a cliff. That nauseous feeling never really goes away. After doing that, get a couple dozen clones of yourself, and stand inside the boundary markings of a football pitch for two months. If anyone crosses the boundary lines, they're set on fire. During that two months, everyone has to lift 100 pound weights for 16 hours a day, every day, while doing trigonometry without the help of calculators, and each correct answer per day gets you a harder problem the next, eating basically nothing but breakfast food and hot pockets the entire time (biscuits and gravy, eggs, sausage, and pancakes are a staple on my boat). At the end of the two months, the people who manage to survive that get to take a break, the length of which is determined entirely by how much trig they got done (with credit given for showing work if they got a wrong answer). You're told as your leaving the pitch when you'll be expected back, and that for every hour you are late to return, you will be punished. When your leave is over, you repeat the entire process all over again.
My daughters, unsurprisingly, asked me why I would keep going back, again and again, to submit to the torture that I just described. I responded by showing them this picture (random google search, I wish my boat looked this good):
My oldest scoffed, saying she didn't see anything special about it. So I showed her what the sky looks like without the ship's lights on. She was taken aback, having never seen the sky without a city's worth of light pollution. Then we sat down and watched Master and Commander and a Perfect Storm, then binge watched a season of Deadliest Catch on Netflix. After that she asked me to take her with me on a trip out.
My story is hardly unique; every sailor with a family has a similar tale. We've been a seafaring race for thousands of years, throughout virtually all of human history. For every career sailor, there's likely a dozen or so who sign up, work until they realize that it's nothing like what they expected, and abandon ship at the first opportunity.
There is one other key reason why we see so much desertion (or crewmen going AWOL for prolonged periods, which is similar, but not really the same offense). Fleets are incredibly expensive to maintain, so much so, that the Navy simply doesn't have the resources to track down and apprehend deserters. There are no bounty hunters searching for these guys (although the bounties do still exist) and so long as they don't do anything to attract attention to themselves, they can lead relatively ordinary lives. This, of course, makes desertion far more tempting. While the potential consequences can be dire if they're caught, they feel the risk is outweighed by the fact that there's nobody actively looking for them once they do abandon their duty.
Mind you that this is a modern perspective, and at the time of Concord's mass desertions, local police were regularly on the hunt for deserters, because they could collect the bounty offered by the Navy. Bounty hunting was a fairly lucrative career choice, albeit a dangerous one, until several states began to restrict or outright prohibit bounty hunters from carrying out their operations. Even while dodging bounty hunters and police, crew would still jump ship, because a dishonorable discharge and a few years in prison were preferable to another day of backbreaking work for little pay in a confined space with no way out.
I realize I'm rambling, so I'll try to summarize to tie all of this together.
Successful career sailors are a rare breed. A mix of obsessive love of the sea, near infinite patience, and limitless determination. When faced with weeks or months of terrible pay, incredibly labor intensive and dangerous work, disdain from the more experienced crew, and no avenue to escape when underway, it's hardly any wonder that there would be those who simply don't have the will to return to the ship when liberty is over. It's almost more surprising that anyone would be able to drag themselves back aboard over and over again.
Lifelong sailors wouldn't have it any other way, but then, we *are* a little bit crazy. I have children now, and I cherish each and every day I spend with them, but my heart aches to be back out there on the open ocean, on a good ship, with a seasoned crew, the wind at my back, and the horizon before me. It's a hard life, to be sure, and I don't hold a grudge against any who can't hack it; it's almost better to be a man down than have someone aboard who doesn't want to be there. Despite the title "deserter" placed on the men who abandon ship with no intention of coming back, I find it hard to believe that the crew of Concord, or any other ship, really felt any different.