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At Sea in the Blizzard of '98

 

By WILLIAM A. HILL - THE RUDDER 1950

THE author of the following narrative, Lester Harriman of the town of Prospect, Maine, is one of the last of the amphibious folks who for over 180 years have lived along the shores of tidewater Penobscot River. His home is not far from the commanding promontory where Fort Knox lords it over a once debatable and strategic section of the river which now flows almost undisturbed between lofty forested banks.

One of four brothers who commenced going to sea with their father long before they were old enough to ship as genuine crew members, Mr. Harriman after much urging recited the following terse account of one of the many harrowing incidents in the careers of members of his family. Although there was a glamour in that seagoing life of two generations and more ago, there was also great hardship and occasional tragedy. One of Mr. Harriman's grandfathers was killed on board of his vessel when nearly back in sight of his home. His father, Captain Van, sailed and

disappeared with his vessel and all hands. His brother Will, who as master figures in this story, subsequently had the experience of being compelled to abandon his sinking vessel at sea in the dead of winter. Other families had similar losses and the anxiety of those remaining at home was almost constant, being added to by the common custom of wives and children accompanying their "menfolks".

These rugged people, once so common along the Maine coast, frequently alternated seagoing with farming. They appeared to take instinctively to salt water almost as soon as they were born. In fact, many were born at sea. But their farms existed as havens to which they returned at intervals for a more peaceful variety of labor and less troubled sleep "under the shingles", as they liked to express it.

One of the original Harriman farms was back from the Penobscot in a region of great hills and granite mountains, the land sloping down to a broad and colorful salt marsh through which meandered a stream providing handy bits of shore for the building of boats and vessels up to and including barks. Mr. Harriman still lives near this old family site and carries on his business of furnishing pulpwood for the great paper mill in Bucksport, apparently attaching little significance to the fact that he is eighty years old.

The pioneering men and women who at the close of the French and Indian War arrived from Massachusetts and New Hampshire to carve out homes for themselves in this majestic but reluctant land lie in charming little cemeteries with inscriptions on their tombstones indicating the turbulent nature of many earthly careers. At Maple Grove one may read the description of the military record of one of Mr. Harriman's great-great-grandfathers who "was in the battles of Louisburg, Montreal, Crown Point, and the taking of Quebec under Gen. Wolfe in 1759." His later service as a soldier and officer during the Revolution was probably regarded as a minor matter since it is not mentioned.

Such careers are typical of the background of Mr. Harriman, whose story follows:

"The four masted schooner Wesley M. Ola, 1,180 tons, commanded by Captain William H. Harriman, left New Orleans on November 11, 1898, with a cargo of 1,980 barrels of molasses, bound for Boston. The crew consisted of first officer Lester Harriman, second officer Charles Brown, six seamen and a cook.

"We had an extremely hard passage across the Gulf of Mexico, Straits of Florida, and up the Atlantic Coast, one gale of wind after another until the afternoon of November 27. That afternoon we were running out a southwest gale under close reefed fore, main and mizzen, forestaysail and jib. At seven thirty that evening the blizzard struck us with a west-northwest wind when we were about sixty miles southeast of Winter Quarter lightship off the Cape of Delaware. That whole night we head reached on about a north by west course.

"At 7 a.m. on November 28 the sea and wind were terrific. Although the wind was northwest in our latitude, at Nantucket Shoals it was northeast and we were getting the sea from that quarter. As the wind shifted more and more toward the east we had to keep off more and more, and always trying to lay the vessel to. She was laboring so heavily that we were afraid she would founder. A square rigged vessel could have been hove-to with just enough sail to hold her on the wind without driving, but those big fore and aft schooners had so little deadrise that they had to be driven hard to prevent their falling off. Then they got such way on that they labored terribly in the head sea. The Ola was running her jib boom under about every sea, and it seemed to the captain and to me that it was only a matter of a short time when the head spars would be carried away and take the fore topmast with them. That situation, we realized, would be desperate as, with all wire standing rigging, it would have been next to impossible to cut away wreckage.

"While we were still discussing whether to keep away and run for it, a heavy whirlwind struck at the mizzen, blowing the sail right out of its boltropes. This decided the question instantly. There was nothing left to do but run. Will hollered, 'Take an axe and cut!' meaning cut the main halliards. I cut them, first the throat, then the peak, and at the same time had the wheel rolled hard up. Of course, with the mainsail drawing, the ship's head would not have paid off with anything like the quickness so vitally necessary if we were to avoid wallowing too long in the trough of the sea and being boarded by sea after sea. Under the best of conditions there is a dangerous interval before a ship wears around and gathers headway before the wind. As it was, while she was still in the trough a heavy sea boarded her on the port side by the spanker rigging.

"At the time we were all trying to handle and secure the main gaff which was pounding the starboard rail to pieces. I saw the sea coming and sung out for all hands to get out of the way. Six of the men scrambled onto the midship house and got hold of the main halliards. I was able to make it back to the quarter. When I turned around I saw a man over the side hanging onto the outboard end . of the gaff. It was Brown, the second mate, apparently badly hurt, so much so that he couldn't hold on. The vessel had not gathered headway and we ,threw him rope after rope. He'd hold onto them a short time and then let go, too badly hurt to help himself. Finally the shfp gathered headway before we could do more, and we had to give him up.

"It was lucky that the vessel gathered way fairly quickly or we would have been boarded by other big seas, very likely in such close succession as not to allow her to clear herself, which probably would have resulted in our hatches blowing out.

"After we found that we couldn't save Brown we started to see what damage had been done. All of the cabin doors, shutters, windows and everything movable on the port side were gone. Also the bulwarks on the starboard side, which were six by six hard pine edge bolted through and through, had been carried away three planks from the top for a distance from the spanker rigging to the fore. That sea had also taken a stream anchor weighing 1,500 pounds which was lashed to the top of the forward house with sixteen thread ratline and had thrown it into the fore rigging. We got lumber out of the forepeak and started to batten doors, watching our chances to work on the main deck. We dragged the bight of the hawser over the quarters to keep the sea from breaking over her stern, and used oil bags on each quarter.

"We had everything snug as best we could when a squall struck the foresail that we had been running under, gybing it over and breaking the gaff. We knew that if the gaff was not secured it would tear the sail down, leaving us nothing to run under, and result in the ship's foundering. I called for volunteers to go into the port rigging to help me secure the gaff. Only one man, Alex Oleson, would go with me. It took us about three-quarters of an hour to lash the outer end of that gaff to the fore rigging. When we got back on deck, pretty well exhausted, we found the engine room, messroom and forecastle flooded. All we had to eat for the rest of the voyage was canned food.

"We ran all the rest of that afternoon and night before a west-northwest gale with every man on duty. By the following morning we were all pretty tired, but still had to work all day clearing away wreckage. By noon, the gale having partly died down, we had a chance to fish the fore gaff.

"Just before dark on the twenty-ninth we knew that another gale was coming. It proved to be a regular hurricane although it started on a high glass. The wind and sea were soon terrific and about noon on December 1 the glass had dropped to 28.8. I had never seen wind like that in all my going to sea. It would flatten a man against the house and hold him there in spite of anything he could do. And the sea which we had encountered during the blizzard

had not been anything in comparison with that of the hurricane, especially near the end. After we had run for about thirty hours in a big circle a vicious cross sea piled up and came at us from all directions. At the start the wind was in the southeast, but it gradually shifted south, then southwest, and all around the compass in a clockwise direction. We ran it out with starboard tacks, carrying storm trysail bent to the fore, and fore staysail and jib. When the ship coasted down a long sea she ran her head spars under, with water coming over the knight heads. It would then sweep aft the length of the main deck, fetching up against the break of the quarter, going into the air and all over us where we were holding on to the top of the after house.

"At about half past seven the evening of December 2 there came a lull of a few minutes during which a sea boarded us over the stern. It took the yawl boat which was on the stern davits, the wheelhouse, after skylight and companion, and all the windows along the port side of the after house. The man at the wheel clung to it but was jammed against it, which proved that he was not much hurt.

"From that time the wind moderated gradually and by daylight the next morning was nearly gone. We calculated that we had sailed about 240 miles, coming back approximately to where the hurricane first struck us, which was about 200 miles northeast of Bermuda.

"After the hurricane we bent some old sails and arrived off Bermuda the morning of December 5. Our cargo was practically intact and the vessel leaking very little.

"We were in Bermuda for two months refitting, all material having to be ordered and shipped from New York. On the second of February we sailed for Boston, arriving there on the tenth after a very good passage."

 

 

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