SV Sophie Sutherland

Sophie Sutherland at Oakland
SV Sophie Sutherland

On January 12, 1893, his seventeenth birthday, Jack London signed onto the Sophie Sutherland, a  three-topmast schooner bound for seal hunting in the Bering Sea, and ultimately Japan.

At the seal-hunting grounds, London joined the crew in clubbing and skinning hundreds of white seals,  and watched as a school of sharks feasted on the meat tossed overboard. The sight disgusted him, but he used the experiences in his book The Sea-Wolf.

Jack was three years shy in experience and two years short in age of the minimum requirements for seamen, but his old friend Johnny Heinold vouched for Jack’s prowess on the water and unique character. And when the captain of the Sophie Sutherland met with Jack himself, he was greatly impressed with the young man’s maturity and determination and welcomed him aboard.

Jack knew that while he was technically their equal according to the ship’s articles, his new mates would view his youth and inexperience with resentment. They had earned their standing by serving their fellows on previous voyages, being hazed, and learning the ropes firsthand; he, on the other hand, was a landlubber by comparison who had never ventured into the deep sea. Jack could see that he had to prove he could carry his own weight from the get-go, or endure “seven months of hell at their hands.” He decided to work in such a way that none of his companions would be able to find fault with him.

The ship traveled to Hawaii, remote islands off Japan, the Bering Straits, and Alaska. On their way out, the ship encountered a heavy storm in which he was lashed to the wheel for an hour’s shift to keep the ship on course.  By the end of the voyage, Jack had proved his worth to the Captain and crew, but decided not to return to sea.  Instead he decided to go to high school and prepare for a college education.