Historia y Arqueología Marítima
|Indice Grandes Veleros|
By FREDERICK STURGIS LAURENCE - Illustrations by Allen Beechel- Publicado en The Rudder, 1949.
I SUPPOSE that
when next I see her, if I ever do, she will be a hulk, one of a string
of coal barges behind a tug steaming slowly up Long Island Sound or
somewhere off the coast of New Jersey, bound north, the stubs of her
four lower masts and inner bowsprit alone revealing that she once spread
swanlike wings and was a thing of beauty. For the days when she was one
of a large fleet of coasting schooners of three to seven masters passed
before the first world war and her kind is now rarely to be seen.
It was in the summer of 1897 when I went aboard her for a coastal voyage from Norfolk, Virginia, to Portland, Maine, as the guest of her skipper Capt. Kreger. I was to encounter in the ensuing week an experience which almost made my hair turn gray. It came about in this way.
Some years' residence in a Midwestern city, where the only water to be seen was the coffee colored Ohio River and the only boats the snub bowed stern wheelers with gingerbread superstructures, had bred in me an irresistible longing to break away and sniff again the good old salt water breeze that curls blue ocean waves into whitecaps. I took a month's vacation and boarded a train for Newport News, Virginia, where I hoped I might find a coasting schooner bound for Maine, my ultimate destination. The captains of such craft, I was told, sometimes took paying guests and the cabin accommodations and food were good. A week's sea voyage on a sailing vessel would be just the thing.
In Newport News I found no vessels scheduled to sail north within a week and was advised to try Norfolk. At the coal piers on Lambert's Point, some miles outside Norfolk, several vessels were said to be loading for various points. A one horse streetcar took me there, and I sought out the office near the piers where I was told the skippers congregated.
Several were sitting around conversing when I entered and asked if any of them was sailing in a day or so, headed for Maine ? No answer for a minute. Finally, "What you want to know for?"
I explained my hope of procuring passage as a paying guest. Silence again. Then, "Don't take no passengers. Not allowed to."
My heart sank. But I had not come some hundreds of miles to be turned off like that. I sat down unasked and crossed my legs. A battery of hostile eyes continued to scrutinize me. Eventually one of them asked, "Why do you want passage this way instead of by steamer? Much quicker that way."
"For the fun of it," I answered. "I want to go somewhere by sail and to Maine if possible."
"Ain't no fun in it. This time o' year apt to be becalmed out there for days, hotter'n hell on deck and worse below. Ain't no fun in it."
I said there would be for me. A brief pause and another speaker added, "No, nothin' in it, if you don't have to." Then silence again. One of them spat and looked as if he wished I would get up and go. But I had gotten a ball of conversation rolling and my hope lay in that.
"That's a fine looking vessel, that four master alongside the pier there," I remarked.
"That's my vessel," a short stocky man who had not yet spoken broke in, and looked pridefully around at the others.
"He's going to Portland," said one of these, adding the mischievous dig, "Maybe he'll take you."
"When do you sail ?" I asked.
"In the morning. But I'm not taking any passengers, mister."
I sensed it best to change the conversation. "Have much trouble in getting crews these days? I hear it's difficult to get good sailors."
"Sailors!" he shouted. "There aren't any these days, mister. Sailors!" snorting contemptuously. A murmer of confirmation from the others with much nodding of heads. I had touched off something, and the broken ice went floating down the river in a conversational flood of illustrative comment and incident. I let it float and listened, waiting. Now and then I dropped an appreciative word of interest and sympathy. The afternoon wore on. One by one most of the skippers got up and went back to their vessels or took the horse car for Norfolk. He who was bound for Portland and whose name I learned was Kreger, a native of Holland, had to write a letter. I sat and waited.
Finally Captain Kreger folded up his letter, sealed it, and looked over to me.
"Well, mister, you still want to go to Portland?"
I said that I did.
"All right then, I'll take you. It will be five dollars. That's for the food you eat, no passage money. You come as a guest, see?"
I thanked him profusely, said I had a small steamer trunk back in Norfolk, and would go back and get it and be aboard in about an hour.
"By six o'clock," he suggested. "We eat then."
I was back by four-thirty, bringing my trunk out on the front platform of the streetcar and picking up a lounging negro with a wheelbarrow to roll it down, to the pier for me. They had just emptied the last overhead chuteful of soft coal into the fore hatch as I came alongside. A negro gang of four was below in the hold shoveling it aside. Two white men with a hose were washing down the main deck around the hatch. I noticed then a peculiarity of construction in this vessel, characteristic of many others, I was informed, and designed to give more cargo space below decks. The quarterdeck or poop ran three-fourths the length of the ship, giving a main deck ample enough only to accommodate the fore hatch and donkey engine house abaft the foremast and forecastle head. The galley and forecastle house were amidships on the poop, abaft the mainmast and projecting above the poop deck in a low trunk corresponding in height with the main cabin trunk at the after end.
A giant of a man, whom I judged to be the mate, was supervising the washing down of the main deck. Noting my presence, he called to a short lightly built man who proved to be the second mate and, passing to the after gangplank, they carried my trunk aboard and disappeared with it down the after cabin companionway. I followed with the captain, noting on the way the burnt-in etched words on the varnished inside coping, "Certified for the accommodation of fifteen seamen." What this meant I don't know, as the after cabin was reserved for the exclusive occupancy of the ship's officers—captain, two mates and the steward, who also had his stateroom there.
The cabin was a handsome commodious yacht-like affair in finish and appointments. The captain's parlor had upholstered furniture and opened into a large stateroom to starboard with a desk and double bed. Just forward of this was the guest stateroom, off the parlor and communicating by another door with the wardroom forward of the parlor. This was lit by a large skylight. The first mate's stateroom was to port, facing mine, then the steward's. The pantry and second mate's stateroom occupied the forward end, where a second companion stair gave access to the poop. Down this were brought the meals cooked in the galley beyond. My stateroom had a comfortable wide bunk with woven wire spring, mattress, upholstered seat, washstand and large square window or port. Altogether a luxurious layout for a week's rest, as I imagined. My room was immaculately clean. So was everything else, including the bath and toilet next to the after companionway. I was surprised and pleased.
My first disappointment, and a hard one to swallow, came at dinner. The meal was bountiful and exceptionally good. But I have always hated bugs. I could never eat anything with a bug anywhere in sight in a dining room, and the wardroom was swarming with them. The varnished paneled walls and white painted ceiling were quivering with them and they were dropping down like rain on the table, making voraciously for the edibles.
Fortunately the table was directly under the skylight which was open for ventilation. The bug rain consequently was around the edge of the table where they might be swept off with the hand before reaching the viands. But some of them got there. If you wanted a roll you had first to flick one of them off with your finger if you didn't want it on your plate. It was flick, flick, all the time—flick, bite, flick, bite, all through the meal. I was sick. Heavens ! Was I in for this for a week? But there was no help for it. I could not retract and beat it ashore now. I had pestered the captain into taking me. Courtesy forbade my withdrawal.
By a strong effort of will I managed to eat, asking only where these things came from. (They were red colored, three-quarters of an inch long, and known in New York as Croton waterbugs). The reply was that they came aboard in the West Indies with certain cargoes taken on there. So they don't come from the Croton water shed, I thought. And I'm not going to the West Indies. All through the meal I wondered if they would be crawling over me when I slept. But they never did. They stayed in the wardroom where the food was. And before the week was out I had accepted them as shipmates and comrades, eating as heartily as they.
Another shock came before the meal was finished. The captain and steward got into a heated altercation about the meal served, Boston baked beans in port instead of some nice green vegetables the steward might have gotten. The steward roared back that baked beans were always regarded as a great delicacy, especially on a Saturday night. "Been goin' to sea as steward forty years and never see baked beans on a Saturday night before!" etc. The recriminations went back and forth for some time. I was shocked. I had been prepared for strict discipline and respect toward the skipper on so large and important a vessel as this, and here was the steward, who was also the cook, answering back to the captain in anything but a respectful .manner. To me he was one of the crew, but as he had his stateroom aft in the cabin I suppose he rated as one of the ship's officers and as such was to some extent privileged.
After dinner the captain placed a deck chair on top of the cabin trunk and at intervals, between reading a newspaper, delivered strong, loudly voiced commentaries on the subject I had touched off earlier in the day, the worthlessness of present day foremast hands. This evidently was for the benefit of the crew sitting on the forecastle head 200 feet away, taking the evening air. The decks had been washed down, the white painted rails scrubbed clean of coal soot, and the whole vessel was spic and span with every rope coiled and in place. She was handsome, with fine clipper lines, 225 feet long, and her name was the Sarah C. Ropes.
I roamed about looking over her various features of design and equipment. Forward was the donkey engine house, an immaculately kept engine room with the donkey-man's stateroom adjoining. Under the forecastle head was the windlass for hoisting the anchors and the crew's head, three holes in a board enclosed in the figurehead on each side of the bowsprit. I wondered what happened to its occupants in a plunging head sea. It must have developed some amusing incidents.
The midship house containing the galley in its starboard half and the crew's quarters in its port half I merely glanced into. The galley was immaculate but the crew's quarters, technically known as the forecastle, despite its location amidships, was a black greasy looking apartment with wooden bunks and a stench that would knock you flat. I wondered how any human beings could be content to sleep there. The normal complement was six men, from the number of bunks, but only four had been found and signed on, so that when we sailed it was with two men short, a circumstance which gave me some excitement in what was to follow.
The total ship's company, excluding myself, was nine —captain, two mates, steward, donkey man and four sailors. And, oh yes, three kittens bunking with the donkeyman. Without a donkey engine she would have required probably a dozen foremast hands. Before the days when steam winches replaced human muscle power American crews were much over-worked and often treated with incredible brutality. Clippers requiring seventy hands often sailed with less than half that number. Knocking a man cold with brass knuckles* or a belaying pin in the enforcement of orders was a common thing. Unionization and more advanced legislation changed all that. Today, and even in the time of which I write, no officer dared lay his hand on a man for anything less than mutiny or in self defense. But from the look of the forecastle humanitarian considerations had not yet extended into forecastle living accommodations on sailing vessels. In food the members of the crew fared well, or at least did on the Sarah C. Ropes.
As for the men themselves, they were a pasty faced anemic looking lot, indescribably filthy in person and clothing and dressed commonly in old derby hats and frayed out store clothes, the mark of the deep sea sailor usually. Trim nautical apparel seemed reserved for the deck hands of river steamboats, few of whom probably could even pull an oar. Only when the real merchant sailor got into oilskins did he look like anything one could recognize as a sailor. Later on, when dressed that way, I saw the men on the Ropes do things which nobody but a real sailor could do, the captain's observations to the contrary notwithstanding.
Just before bedtime the body of a drowned man drifted against the ship's side and was commented on forward as a bad omen before it was towed away by some harbor authority. Nevertheless I slept well and on awakening in the morning found we were proceeding down the roads behind a tug in a dead calm. After a bug flicking breakfast of rolls, huge cups of coffee and scrambled eggs, a slight breeze sprang up, the donkey engine puffed, the sails were run up one by one, and the tug cast off as we gathered way. All that day we ambled down the roads, and were not yet outside when I turned in for the night. In the morning a slight feeling of nausea woke me. The ship was rolling from side to side, with creaking bulkheads and slatting blocks in the rigging overhead. Plainly we were in the open sea.
Coffee was being served on deck by the steward as I emerged about five o'clock. Breakfast as I recall it was about seven. They were setting the topsails, and I watched the proceedings with interest. The captain was wrathfully shouting to a man standing on the head of the lower mainmast with his back against the topmast and wrestling with a heavy chain.
"Right over everything!" the captain was shouting, "Can't you understand ? Right over everything!" He meant the springstay, over which the chain had to be passed.
"He's a square rigger man and don't understand fore and aft," the captain explained. "And they don't know anything anyway. Right over everything!" he continued, "Get the chain over the other side of the stay!"
The man, a slightly built youth, finally did, lugging and heaving the heavy mass up and over the stay and the topsail was then sheeted home. How he ever did it without falling to the deck a hundred feet below I don't yet understand.
During the morning the man who did the job on the ropes was taking his trick at the wheel and I asked him, "Do you like this sea life ?" He was a Norwegian with a handsome winning face and blonde hair, somewhere in his twenties. "I'd sooner have a good yob ashore," he answered. "You?" remarked the captain who was within hearing. "All you'll do when you get ashore is to go after some woman." Then turning to me he added, "They're no good, any of them."
During the afternoon the breeze freshened, we dropped the capes from sight, and went bowling along with a fine breeze over the quarter. The captain sat on a deck chair drumming his fingers happily on the rail.
"With this breeze we'll make a quick passage," he said. This was something I didn't want, in spite of the bugs, but said nothing. Instead I drew him into conversation and he told me many interesting things. He was jovial, kind hearted, and a bit of a philosopher. In one phrase he summarized the call of the sea. When I asked him if he liked the life afloat he replied, "No, I hate it. But I can't keep away from it. I tell you what it is, mister. You give me the choice of my wife or the vessel, I take the vessel."
And this was said in no disparagement. He was intensely proud of his wife and her attainments. He boasted of them for some minutes. She was a school teacher and he was looking forward eagerly to being ashore with her in Portland. He was giving me the age old call of the sea of which Kipling wrote in.his poem about the Vikings, "What is woman that you forsake her to go with the old gray Widow Maker?"
Among other attributes revealed was the remarkable sharpening of the senses induced by life at sea. "See that vessel over there?" he would ask. I could see nothing. "Take the glass, mister."
Looking through the high powered binoculars I could just make out the faintest suggestion of a wisp of smoke off on the horizon, nothing more. But a steamer was there, hull down, and his naked eye had detected the to me invisible hairline of smoke drifting up beyond the earth curve.
"See that bottle floating out there?" And through the glass I eventually found an inch of bottle neck bobbing up and down many shiplengths away. The same with a fish splash way off which I couldn't catch, and a whale's spout of which we saw several. Nothing escaped him. It reminded me of the deadly marksmanship of the Boers on the veldt in the South African war of which my brother, correspondent for London Black and White, told me. An old Boer would tell his twelve year old son serving beside him that he would be in for a whipping if he failed to bring down an officer riding at the head of a British column farther off than any normal eye could detect in the vast expanse. On my mention of this the captain, as a Hollander, grunted approvingly.
Among other things he told me was never to look at the dancing sunlight on the water, and especially the dancing moonlight. It will turn you inside out in a minute.
As the day wore on with bright blue sky, white clouds and freshening breeze, I was glad that I had come, bugs or no bugs. I was alive, albeit disposed to a seductive drowsiness. This is a tendency which landsmen encounter during the first few days at sea out of sight of land, and which held delicious moments. Lying up on the forecastle head watching the foam break away from the bow, or on the canvas cover of the captain's gig suspended on davits over the stern, I fell into the sweetest slumber, awakening ravenous. Then a visit to the galley would follow for a chat with the steward and a snack of some sort which he would offer. On such occasions I would sit in the galley companion with my feet dangling down the steps, moving when he came up on a bug clearing mission. He kept an iron bucket lined with grease at the foot of the galley steps and into this the bugs swarmed by the thousand. When it was full he would carry it to the rail and 5» dump it into the sea, and then it was ready for the next load, not much more than an hour in coming. This went on most of the day and while meals were being prepared. At night the bugs had the galley all to themselves, every bit of food being tight under cover and not accessible. It was kept so until it went on the stove, where of course the bugs never ventured. Not once did any of them get into the food to be cooked, which was an object lesson in good housekeeping.
Forward in and about the donkey engine house the three kittens frolicked. Occasionally one of them climbed up a coiled halliard hank hanging from its belaying pin on the bulwark and from there proceeded up the shrouds until it became frightened and mewed frantically for help. Then the donkeyman would come out of his engine room, climb the shrouds, put the kitten in his pocket and bring it down. They never fell overboard or got messed up in the machinery when the engine was going. What they subsequently did, shut up in the house in the thing which was to hit us, I don't recall. With the blue sky, bright sun and smiling face of the sea no inkling of what was to follow came to me.
We bowled along at a fine pace and were well up the coast beyond New Jersey before dawn broke. Then for some reason I woke up and listened. Excited voices on deck reached me.
"That can't be Cuttyhunk?" I heard the first mate say. Something was up, and I hurried into my clothes and came on deck just as dawn began to break. It was blowing quite hard but with a clear sky. A heavy sea was beginning to make up.
"Where are we?" I asked. Now this question from landsmen seamen detest. Bob Bartlett, Peary's skipper who later served with me in the first world war, used to hold forth scornfully about passengers who asked this question when he was in command of one of our transports. But on this morning I was still innocent of some aspects of seamen's psychology. Under the circumstances the mate's reply was exceedingly considerate.
"Don't know," he confessed, "Something's fouled the log and we've lost reckoning." It seems that on these coasting trips it was often the practice to dispense with observations, take cross-bearings from various lights seen and rely on the log for knots run. The log was the patent log registering so many revolutions, from which the knots run were derived, and which trailed from a long line over the stern. The process was known as dead reckoning and was supplemented by hugging the land close enough for lights at various points ashore to be picked up and recognized.
On this occasion a stretch of low shore was visible but five or six miles off under our lee with a single light showing. What it was no one knew. During the night the wind had shifted ahead and we were traveling close hauled on the starboard tack under lower sails only. Topsails had been taken in at nightfall, the usual practice.
"We're getting too close," the captain remarked. "The tide is setting us in and at this rate we'll be on the beach if we don't come about." Then to the helmsman, "Try her again. Hard alee."
Slowly the ship pitched up into the wind, her sails shaking, and then fell away again.
"She won't make it," he added, "and there's no room to wear. There's nothing to do, I'm afraid, but anchor and wait for the tide to turn."
By wearing was meant falling off before the wind and gybing over to the other tack. This was an operation requiring considerable work, time and, above all, space. The sails had to be gotten over with the donkey engine one by one, and there was not room enough for this before reaching shoal water. It was an uncomfortable sensation to realize that these large vessels would not come about readily in a heavy sea and required miles of water for safe maneuvering. Collision hazards are also involved.
All my ideas of small boat handling as applied to large vessels went by the board that day. Small boats were no index of what large vessels might be expected to do in a seaway, in response to the helm or otherwise, and moreover they appeared when laden to be under water most of the time. We were loaded deeply, much more so than would have been safe in winter. Even in the mild weather of the preceding day midship she was awash, the waves lapping through the windward rail and washing across to spill off to leeward. You had to wait and seize a favorable moment to go forward so as to avoid getting your feet wet. The steward that morning managed to go aft with our breakfast without getting wet above the knees.
There being nothing to do but stand on as we were and get ready to anchor, we did so and sometime after sunup we let go the anchor and doused the sails. Between us and the land we could see several miles of white water extending far out over shoals, with a mile or two of blue water between the shoals and us. It was not comforting. Neither was the long stretch of deserted beach with not a sign of life on it. The lighthouse we had sighted before daybreak was no longer in view. The sun had come up in a cloudless sky, but the wind kept increasing and the seas were mounting higher. I judged the waves then to be about fifteen feet. This was not so bad, as I was later to learn.
After anchoring everybody went below to sleep until noon, when the tide was due to turn. I alone remained on deck, fortunately as it turned out. I immediately became seasick, as the motion of the vessel at anchor was different than when under sail. It did not last long„ but I lost my breakfast over the side. Feeling better, I walked about the ship. She was taking no water aboard at anchor, head to wind. Occasionally a heavy sea thundering against the bow sent a sheet of spray over the forecastle head, but that was all. When this happened the kittens, who had been let out by the donkeyman, scurried back to shelter in the engine house.
Having nothing else to do, and with no desire to sleep, I sat on the after cabin house and contemplated the shore, with a hollowness in the pit of my stomach not altogether the result of the vessel's motion. We were plainly in an ugly situation. The sea by this time had risen, and for five miles a solid mass of breakers, beginning about a mile astern, ranged to the beach. A solitary unoccupied building of some sort broke the monotony of the shore and I wondered if it.could be an inactive lifesaving station. There was no flagpole or any sign of life. Whatever it was, it was plainly abandoned and held no hope of help should we need it.
I sat on the cabin for more than an hour, becoming more and more anxious as the sea continued to rise and the wind increased. I judged its force to be about half a gale, but the sun was shining in a cloudless sky. Surely there could be no storm back of this? The glass told me nothing when I went below, as I had not previously glanced at it. But it seemed to me the white water to leeward had come closer. This may have been due to the rising sea causing the waves to break further out, but it would also happen if we were dragging. To make sure I went below to the chartroom and got out the lead line. This I dropped over the starboard side, making it fast to the rail with enough slack to let the lead remain on the bottom as the ship rose and fell with the waves.
In about an hour I went and took up enough slack to establish the direction of the taut line. Still vertical. So far, so good. She was holding. I decided to give her another hour. When that time had passed I went and tested the line again. This time it was trailing forward unmistakably. She was dragging! I glanced astern. The breakers were noticeably nearer.
I ran down the companion steps. The captain was still asleep and snoring on the parlor couch. "Captain!" I shouted, "Better come up. She's dragging!"
With one bound he was on his feet, racing up the companion steps. I followed, explaining my action with the lead and pointing to it.
"My God, mister!" he exclaimed, "I've got ten thousand dollars invested in this vessel. I hope I'm not going to lose her!"
"Hell!" I said, "What about our lives ? I suppose though we can get a boat over if it comes to that."
"Boat, mister, boat? Do you think any boat could live in that sea? Not a chance. "We've got to get out of here. Rouse the mates, mister. I'll get the men up." He ran forward, bawling at them down the forecastle hatch. I raced below again and shook both mates out of their sleep, giving them the captain's order, then went back on deck, took in the lead line and coiled it. After which I went and sat on the cabin trunk again, sick with fear and telling myself what a fool I had been to get myself into this mess. How fair and sweet all the world looked as I sat there and eyed the land lovingly and wistfully. The lonely beach, so beautiful and friendly, the deserted house, a fairy castle beckoning me to come and live in it. Never had the .world and life seemed to me so beautiful.
The donkey engine had begun to puff. The stops on the furled sails had been cast off and the sails were beginning to rise. The mates and crew were busy on the forecastle head getting ready to up anchor and loose the jibs for hoisting. Captain Kreger came aft repeating again, "I've ten thousand dollars in this vessel. Listen, mister, we're short handed. You take the wheel and I'll signal to you from the forecastle which way to put it. I can't spare a man for that now. As soon as the foresail is on her we'll break out the anchor, and as soon as she's loose we must pay off to starboard or go right on the beach. I think she'll make it. It's about noon and the tide must have turned by now."
The chance I had been looking for, to do something in handling the ship, had come.
"Very good, sir," I responded and took my place. Twenty minutes more and the foresail was on her. The donkey engine switched to the windlass and the chain began to come in. As the vessel's head rose the engine was silent. Then as the wave swept under her and her head pitched, the engine again set up a furious puffing and the clank of the chain could be heard as it came in. A similar pause with the next wave, and a renewed puffing and clanking as she plunged again. This went on for some time, the chain coming in with a rush each time. Afterwards I noticed that the messenger chain from the engine to the windlass which turned it was a comparatively light affair to have stood all that strain.
My eyes remained fixed on the forecastle head and the captain, whose back was turned to me. So far he had given no signal and I held the wheel amidships, waiting. It must have been about twenty minutes before we were hove short, preparatory to breaking out and hoisting the anchor. Suddenly I was sensible of a slightly different motion in the hull of the ship, and at that instant the captain turned and waved me to put the wheel hard over to starboard.
"God! Was the man crazy?" The wheel was of the worm gear type which turned the vessel's head the same way the wheel was turned. This was all right in going ahead, but in going astern, as I knew she would when loose, it would send her head in the opposite direction, in this case to port, and in that event it was all up with us. As he turned his back I was almost resolved to disobey that crazy order and put the wheel the way it should go in going astern. "No," I thought, "that won't do. After all, she is his ship and if he loses her, the responsibility will be his, not mine. You've said it, so you'll get what you called for," and I rolled the wheel over to starboard as far as it would go. I glanced over my shoulder. Those terrible breakers were but a scant two ship's lengths away. And in that moment I bade good-by to life.
All this conflict of decision took but a moment. My eyes were back on the forecastle again in an instant, waiting for the next signal, if any, before the bump came. It didn't come and the donkey engine began to puff again with a renewed chain clanking. Then it dawned on me that there was a second anchor down, not yet broken out, and that we were inching up on that. Going forward as we yet were, the captain's order was right. It was essential to keep her head turned to starboard as far as the chain would permit, to induce paying off that way if possible. So the captain was not the fool I thought. I should have known that. And I thanked God that a habit of discipline induced by former military service automatically operated as an obligation in a situation of peril.
For nearly twenty minutes more I waited, my eyes glued on the captain's back. Suddenly he turned and waved frantically to roll the wheel to port. At the same instant the ship's head gave a violent swerve to port and she began to go astern rapidly. I jammed the wheel hard over, which checked her, and the bow swung to starboard. Then, horror, back it went to port again! I could only hold the wheel as it was and gulp, praying as I never thought I would. Then, thank God, back she swung to starboard again. This see-saw action seemed to go on endlessly. Finally the cat and mouse torture ended. She paid off to starboard as planned and the sails began to fill. Slowly she drew ahead on the port tack. Hurriedly I rolled the wheel back again to keep her full, and encountered a series of approving nods from the captain's head. I glanced to leeward and the nearest curling wave was less than the ship's length away. Beyond was green water. I feared she might yet strike, forgetting that such big seas begin to break well out, and where the water was still blue with no rocks there would still be a number of fathoms below our keel, deep laden as we were. But I watched that green water anxiously and did not breathe easy until it had noticeably receded.
Meanwhile the captain, the two mates and entire crew remained busy on the forecastle head. The captain did not bother to' come aft nor did either of the mates, evidently being satisfied to leave me at the wheel for the time being. On the previous day I had boxed the compass for them on a challenge, and they must have been satisfied from this and from my demonstration so far that I knew how to steer. They did not know, of course, nor did I tell them what a mess I might have gotten them into a while back had I yielded to my own judgment.
Glancing at my watch I saw it was past twelve. For an hour more I had the wheel to myself, enjoying the thrill of sailing a large vessel and holding a true course. With the jibs on her she handled easier and sped along, dropping the land swiftly. My farewell to the shoreline which an hour before seemed so beautiful was^not exactly gracious.
It continued blowing hard and she was heeled well over, but steering with a worm gear wheel in one sense is easy. While it takes muscle to move it, the wheel stays put when you ease your grip or take your hands off for a moment. It does not kick like a quadrant or old fashioned tiller rope rigged wheel. The dissatisfaction is that there is no feel to its action to assist nice adjustment, as with a small boat. Courses are laid by compass and may vary a point or so without sail trimming. That is too much of a task to be undertaken unless necessary and usually occurs only under marked changes of course or wind.
It was a full hour before the captain and mates came aft, bringing a man to take over the wheel.
"For God's sake," I blurted out, "I hope you will keep on this tack all night. I never want to see the land again."
The answer was a roar of laughter and a good natured nod of assurance.
"What in the world kept you so long up there on the forecastle ?" I asked, and the answer caused me to feel as much admiration as I have felt for any man. My question was to the first mate.
"Well," he answered. "Kind of a nasty sea on and I did not want to order a man down over the bows, so I did it myself. It took me some time."
There was a thrilling story in those few words. For the benefit of those who may think raising an anchor a simple process, let me picture it as it was in that seaway. The anchor was the old fashioned type as symbolized on uniform buttons. When hoisted clear of the water, the ring in the end of the shank where the chain is attached has to be lassoed with a block and fall with a hook on the end to engage the ring. It is then hoisted by the winch to hang suspended from the end of a timber called the cathead. A man then slides down the shank and, standing on the arm, winds a chain round the fluke so this can be hoisted up aft of the cathead and hooked over the bulwark where it is made fast to a bitt.
In a heavy sea the anchor, a mass of iron weighing a ton or more, swings when suspended, and twists and turns and tosses, bringing up against the side of the vessel with a thundering shock. No time must be lost in securing it. The experience of a man clinging with one arm around the shank and attempting to wind a heavy chain around the fluke may be left to the imagination. Mr. Turbin must have been buried under water half a dozen times as the vessel plunged in that terrific sea. And although he had a line about his waist to prevent his being swept away this would not save him from being crushed to a pulp against the vessel's side. He had to face this ordeal with both anchors.
Here was a big bull voiced man, roaring profane abuse at his subordinates, tempted often to lay them low with a fist the size of a ham, and yet when he could have demanded this perilous duty from any one of them he preferred to take the risk himself. That moment my hat came off, figuratively, to Mate Turbin.
Later in the afternoon we sighted a fisherman anchored on a small bank ahead on the port bow, and decided to run by and get our bearings from him. He was too far to windward and, after running some miles beyond him, we wore ship and bore down on him on the opposite tack. Our hope was to run by close enough for hailing, but doubt was expressed of the advisability of passing to windward so he could get our hail and then wearing sharply round to pass him astern for his answer. It was finally decided to pass him astern, and then I got my second lesson on the unmanageable qualities of these vessels in certain situations. Our ship refused to pay off when the helm was put up and kept swinging back into the wind again. It began to look doubtful if we could pass without hitting him, and while we were still some distance off distinct signs of nervousness became apparent in the captain and crew of the fisherman. She was about seventy feet long and the crew were sitting about the deck with their backs to the cabin house. There was not a drop of water on that little schooner's decks. She rode the giant waves like a duck, showing half her keel forward and diving into the hollows until only the tops of her masts were visible. We were almost entirely under water as the seas boarded us.
As we approached the men on her deck began to get to their feet in evident apprehension. They well might. We bore down on them like the Twentieth Century Express on a stalled automobile on a railway crossing. A decision was taken to ease off the spanker, and when this was done we paid off sufficiently to run by her stern safely. The men on her deck sat down again, all but one old man with white hair who evidently divined our purpose, as our hail could not have reached him against that wind. Cupping his hands about his mouth, his bellow came clearly to us down the wind, "Lightship on Nantucket bears east northeast sixty-two miles !"
"Impossible!" cried the captain.
"Impossible!" echoed the mate. "He must be fooling us!"
This seemed scarcely possible to me in the ethics of the sea. However it was all we could get. Directly we wore ship and resumed our former course on the port tack to get farther offshore before night fell. We must have been by that time fifty or sixty miles out. With the wind continuing to make up, I hoped it would be a hundred miles before darkness set in and we resumed our northern flight.
As the captain promised, we held on well into the night on the port tack. This was taking us away from Portland but toward the open sea and safety. Some time before dawn we wore ship and resumed our course for Portland. I turned in early and was sleeping soundly when this occurred. About 3 a.m., I judge, I was awakened by a tremendous crash accompanied by a swirl of water into my stateroom. There was a light in a swinging lamp in the wardroom and the steward was coming out of his pantry with a bucket and mop. The second mate had incautiously left the wood slide of his state-room port open, and a great sea coming aboard had smashed in the heavy plate glass of the port, pouring an enormous volume of water down into his stateroom and out onto the wardroom floor. With the windward roll it had welled through my open door, carrying my shoes into a corner.
There was much swearing going on in the wardroom, but on asking if I could be of any assistance my offer was politely declined and I rolled over to go to sleep again. At first this was a bit difficult. There was a new and ominous howl in the rigging overhead, and the ship was rolling and pitching violently. Every now and then a great sea broke over the cabin roof, sounding like a ton of anthracite coal being dumped on it. Finally I fell asleep with the steward still bailing out in the pantry sink. An hour or so later I was nearly pitched out of my berth and decided to get up. My shoes were still wet, but I put them on with the rest of my clothes. On my way through the captain's parlor I glanced at the barometer and found it had gone down considerably since I turned in and was evidently dropping fast.
On deck the dawn was just breaking in an angry red glare behind flying gray clouds, lighting up with red touches a perfectly mountainous sea. The man at the wheel was in oilskins and southwester. Around his waist was a line lashing him to ring bolts in the steering gear housing behind him. The ship was close hauled on the starboard tack plunging like a wild horse under fore, main and mizzen, fore staysail and two jibs, the spanker being furled and with no topsails set. Furling the spanker was the simplest way of shortening sail, saving the labor of reefing and equivalent to that in effect, although reducing somewhat her weatherly qualities and putting more strain on the remaining canvas. Labor saving in the operation of large short handed sailing vessels has been responsible, I imagine, for many a sea mishap. Canvas sometimes cannot be gotten off quickly enough with small crews.
Mr. Turbin cautioned me to get up on the cabin top at once, as bad seas were coming aboard. I did so and several sailor's maxims ran through my mind: "Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning." "Long foretold, long last; short ..warning, soon past." I recalled how the wind and sea had been mounting all the preceding day and during the night, with the glass falling steadily.
I climbed up and laid hold of the spanker boom. Unlike small boats, which remain heeled over in a strong wind, these large vessels rolled almost as far to windward as to leeward, burying their weather rails each time. Huge volumes of water swept across the deck and the lee scuppers were spouting continuously. Although it was in August it was very cold and I had on a heavy winter suit brought in anticipation of cool Maine weather.
From my perch on the cabin top I had a good view all round the horizon. It was a scene of majestic grandeur. At intervals a huge sea would hit the bow, leap in a solid mass to the fore crosstrees and descend, completely burying the forecastle head, almost submerging the engine house, filling the forward well deck, and from there mounting the poop and rushing aft like a tidal wave. Sometimes it even reached the cabin top where I stood, wetting my feet. The helmsman at these times was submerged to his waist. It was glorious, and I remained there fascinated, watching the sea mount higher and higher and wondering what the kittens were doing shut up in the engine house.
As the captain emerged from below a burst of rain came sweeping along behind the gray clouds, followed by a brilliant rainbow as the red glare showed through. "My God, mister," he cried, "look at that! That means we're going.^ get something, good and hard too."
Again through my mind ran the variant of the old maxim: "Rainbow at night, sailor's delight. Rainbow in the morning, sailors take warning." Already the waves were reaching a height of at least forty feet, which I had not believed possible in observing storms from the beach. Ten foot waves in the surf were exceptional. But the giants begin to break a long way out, as I had observed when at anchor, and by the time they reach the beach are pretty well broken up.
We had the dish rails on the table at breakfast and held our coffee cups in our hands, laying them down for an instant only to flick bugs, which did not seem to mind the motion at all. A bug's life can contain many lessons for us mortals. I don't think they even knew they were at sea. Storms and disasters to vessels were things utterly beyond their ken and so were nonexistent. In the same way we deny what we cannot comprehend. Who knows what surrounds us and what reality may exist beyond the range of our senses? One can conceive the possibility of the spiritual life and immortality by simply contemplating a bug.
During the morning we sighted another schooner to windward, a three master heading in the same direction and making better weather of it from her smaller size. She went over the waves instead of their going over her. We could see her captain pacing the after deck comfortably. We drew closer and concocted a scheme for getting our bearings from him. Hailing of course was impossible. But on the cabin top was lashed a broad three plank green painted shore gangway. I was drafted to print on this with white chalk in huge letters the inquiry: "How Gay Head bear?" Mr. Turbin climbed up to me and together, one at each end, we held up the sign for the schooner to read. We could see her captain looking at us through his binoculars. Immediately we saw him turn to his helmsman, evidently to give an order, and the schooner shot up into the wind, her sails shaking.
"He's pointing with his bowsprit!" I exclaimed.
"That must be it," the captain and mate agreed.
Directly afterward the schooner resumed her course and we fell to discussing what course to lay. If Gay Head on Martha's Vineyard were to windward off our starboard bow we would be running into Block Island or some other shore where we didn't want to be. There was some doubt as to the captain of the other schooner having been able to read our sign clearly. Instead of giving us the bearing of Gay Head he might have given us that of the Nantucket lightship. As it turned out afterwards this is probably what he did. In any event we could stand on as at present for some time longer before wearing ship for another outward leg, presuming we could get round in that sea without being pooped, the dread of sailors in a high sea. ^
As the hours wore on the wind kept getting stronger and stronger and the sea mounted higher. Suddenly with the boom of a cannon shot the outer jib split into ribbons and thrashed wildly.
"Take the wheel, mister," the captain shouted to me. "We need all hands to handle that." With the two mates he ran forward, pounding on the forecastle hatch to rout out the two men below. With the two men on watch crouching under the forecastle head the whole crowd went up and out on to the bowsprit. I took the wheel as directed and lashed myself there.
For a second time I found myself steering a large vessel, but this time with an even greater sense of responsibility, indeed with a load of crushing anxiety. Strung out there along the bowsprit was practically the entire ship's company, everyone but the steward and engineer who were below, leaving me the sole person on deck. How in God's name would I ever get her around and offshore again if a big sea swept them all off the bowsprit, leaving me alone to handle that big vessel in a rising blow, with only the engineer for the sheets and the steward to shift boom tackles?. And then what? I had no knowledge of navigation beyond taking crossbearings, which would be from points I didn't know, and understanding how to navigate by dead reckoning. I could not take an observation even if the sun came out.
Time after time we plunged bows under, and as the bowsprit emerged from the smother I would count anxiously with my heart in my mouth the number of figures which remained clinging to that spar. Each time it was, "One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, thank God!" This went on for something like two hours. How they ever managed to stay there passes me, not to mention securing that wildly thrashing canvas. The whole ship shook with it. But secure it they did, and what is more, lugged it back to the forecastle head and stowed it away under the forepeak.
I had noticed how the man preceding me at the wheel eased the ship as she dipped by rolling the wheel to windward and back again as she came down to check her from going into stays (losing way with sails shaking), and each time she mounted a huge wave nd plunged I attempted vainly to ease her for the sake of the^Tnen on the bowsprit. But they went under frequently just the same, and the sweat poured off me. It was hard work. I was a rag, mentally and physically, when they got the torn canvas off the stay and came aft to relieve me at the wheel. In the rising wind this had now become a two man job, and the captain himself with the second mate took over the wheel, letting the exhausted crew rest.
I crawled again onto the cabin top and noticed then something which sent a shiver down my spine. Black water was racing by to leeward over the buried deck rail. Coal dust! That meant seams starting and the ship's steam pumps at work. I called the first mate's attention to this and the response was a sheepish grin and deprecating gesture, which reassured me. It was evidently nothing out of the ordinary, or at all events not serious enough to be worried about. She was not going to fill up and sink. I hoped the green tint which must have showed behind my ears had escaped Mr. Turbin's observation. He was on the cabin top beside me, both of us hanging onto the boom.
Finally the heft of the storm hit us, and I have never seen anything so terrifying. The entire sea all around the horizon was knocked flat, flat as a table top, and not a wave could raise its head. They were sheared right off and sent flying through the air like huge white tablecloths torn off a clothes line by a tornado, turning over and over as they scurried off to leeward in wild flight. The ship went over on her side, with the crash of dishes in the pantry and the cabin furniture tumbling about below. I had heard of ships going on their beam ends, a terribly dangerous and frequently fatal happening. She did not quite reach this point, but her entire lee rail and bulwarks went under and the water was up to the hatch coamings on the poop. I clung to
the spanker boom, gasping for breath as it was taken clean out of me even with my face turned to leeward. The spume and spindrift lashed the back of my neck, hurting like hailstones. I dared not turn my face to windward. Overhead the wind screamed and shrieked in the rigging as if all the devils in hell had let loose. As the heft of the blow slowly passed the ship righted herself. I looked to see if the captain and second mate were still at the wheel. They were still there. The first mate climbed down from the cabin top and started up the weather shrouds, saying he though! he saw land. He had gone up but a few rounds when the captain shouted to him emphatically, "Don't go up there. Come down out of that!"
"I think I see land, sir. I think it's Gay Head." "Never mind. Come down out of that. We'll run down and have a look at it."
"Very good, sir," said the mate as he obediently climbed down, adding, "Yes, it's Gay Head all right."
"Then we'll run by into Vineyard Sound," answered the captain. "That fellow in the three master must have been pointing to the Nantucket lightship." ,
With the passing of the blast the wind suddenly moderated and the sea rose again. We paid off and scudded before it toward the smoother water of Vineyard Sound, passing Gay Head to starboard. That headland, gray looking as it then was when seen through the rain, will always remain graven in my memory. Martha's Vineyard to me then seemed a place of sinister aspect. I was nearly drowned there as a small child when I fell off a pier and went down three times before someone got me by the ear and pulled my head above water.
With the blissful ignorance of the amateur yachtsman I pictured ourselves rounding-to and anchoring beyond for a good night's sleep. Not a bit of it. We kept right on after getting inside, bowling down Vineyard Sound all afternoon before a spanking breeze, the gale having passed on out to sea. We were headed for Pollock Rip Slue, at the elbow of Cape Cod, hoping to reach it before night and the turn of the tide which would enable us to get through. It is a nasty spot. There is. a narrow channel of deep water with shoals on either hand and a strong tide rip. It requires a sharp turn to get through. There was a tremendous swell running outside and some doubt of there being enough water under our keel, laden as we were. But time had been lost and had to be made up. Topsails and everything else were crowded on her, with a new outer winter jib. Just before making the slue we took off the topsails to enable a quick gybe over if necessary in paying off for the turn. This was accomplished without having to gybe, but directly afterward we hit bottom in the letdown between swells and I thought the masts would come out. Everyone on deck including myself danced like monkeys on a hot stove. I still have the vision of Captain Kreger executing this caper with his behind wiggling like that of a rabbit and decidedly comical. But I had no stomach for laughter just then. We hit bottom three times before getting through. Fortunately it was all sand, no rocks, so no damage was done.
Presently down came the worst fog I have ever seen, which opened a new phase of apprehension and I was pretty well fed up by then. It was still blowing quite hard when we plunged into this fog with all sails drawing, running free. Night was falling and the route from there north was fairly well populated with steamers sailing in both directions. We could hear their whistles moaning to right, to left and in front of us.^he fog was so thick that the galley amidships could not be seen from the after cabin house, nor the forecastle head from the galley. A pitifully small squawk issued from a hand operated foghorn on the forecastle head where the lookout was posted. I went forward and joined him, a Norwegian of middle age named Aleck. "I don't like this a bit," he remarked as I came up. "I don't mind a gale of wind like we had, but this sort of thing is real danger. I'm not going below when my watch is off."
I thought of the two hours he had spent on the bowsprit, most of the time under water, and must confess that his reaction did not register with me. After remaining with him a half hour _ or more, listening to the squeak of our foghorn, and the answering hoot of some steamer whistle, I became drowsy. Fog or no fog, steamers or no steamers, I was going to turn in for a good night's sleep, and did so. With the overpowering desire for sleep I was glad of the fact that the law did not permit sailing vessels with donkey engines to use the steam whistles with which most of them were provided. This was to keep other craft from confusing them with steamers, the' consequences of which might be dangerous. The last thing of which I was conscious was that silly little squeak from up forward and the sonorous boom of answering whistles.
The foghorn was not blowing when I awoke the following morning. From the easy motion of the vessel I could tell we were bowling along leisurely before a mild breeze. I had slept late, so breakfast and the bugs were already on the table. I could hear Mr. Turbin downing quart size cups of coffee at one gulp
and calling for more. Both he and the captain were razzing poor Mr. Boyce, the second mate, for wearing mittens on his hands in the late blow. The mates often tailed on the ropes to help out, and Boyce had worn mittens to prevent the skin from being torn off his hands. They showed him no mercy in their derisive ridicule. But both of them probably would have gone overboard after him if he had fallen in the water and been attacked by a man eating shark. They were that kind of men.
Coming on deck, I found the sun shining in a glorious summer day. The scene was so peaceful, the cerulean blue sea so smiling and friendly, that I found it difficult to realize it was the terrible ravening monster I had beheld the previous day. The only hint was a tremendous ground swell before which the vessel was bowling along easily, running free. No land was in sight and I judged we must have been somewhere off the coast of New Hampshire beyond the Isles of Shoals. It was divinely restful, marred only for the men forward in consequence of one of them being discovered greasing his sea boots with the remains of his breakfast butter. This had led to the captain's shouting to the steward for all to hear that no more butter was to be served forward for the rest of the voyage.
After luncheon I climbed into the main crosstrees and there, about a hundred feet above the deck, spent the rest of the afternoon, dozing lazily, my legs hooked over the forward crosstree, my back against the after one and my left arm around a topmast shroud for security, clasping my hands. In this way I hung suspended, somewhat like a hammock. It was delightful with the slow back and forth sway of the mast. Below on deck the captain had hauled out an old rusty looking clothes boiler and was vigorously scrubbing it with some kind of paste to make it shine. He kept up a continuous oration all afternoon on the subject of sailors and their shortcomings, butter, and every other misdemeanor characteristic of them, evidently to impress the men forward who might be within hearing as there was no one else near. He did not know I was aloft or his remarks might have taken a different turn. I did not learn until later that skippers looked with disfavor upon passengers climbing into the rigging, for fear of their falling and occasioning a lot of trouble and mess.
And well might any skipper of a four master feel so. Going aloft on one of them is not as easy as on a square rigger. There are no intermediate tops to break the long ladder-like stretch of steep shrouds running about a hundred feet and coming so close together near the crosstrees that toe hold can scarcely be had within ten feet of the top. One has to reach up and pull himself into the crosstrees with main strength of the arms. I wondered how they did it in winter, encumbered with heavy clothing and boots, in oilskins and sometimes with ice on the shrouds. It is disconcerting halfway up since the shrouds there, unless blowing hard, swing and sway with each step, and there is always the chance that the rope ratlines may give way underfoot from undiscovered rot. In addition the shrouds are so thick that a firm grip with the hands is difficult.
After this lapse of years I do not recall whether it was that night or the next that we raised the two lights on Cape Elizabeth, off Portland. The intervening day, if it occurred, held no incident I remember. It was smooth sailing. But on raising the lights I recall that it fell calm and we lay there all night, rolling, within sight of them. About four-thirty in the morning I came on deck as dawn was breaking and found that the tide had carried us northward and the lights were close aboard. Mr. Turbin was on deck roaring to tb" steward for morning coffee, which was welcome as there waf a decided chill in the air. Mr. Turbin was walking up and down beating his hands. There still was a heavy ground swell running, gaffs, booms, blocks and canvas slatting about in thunderclaps overhead. Not a breath of air. On Cape Elizabeth a high surf was leaping over the rocks, and over reefs beyond the channel entrance to Portland it boiled and gnashed its teeth hungrily. A strong tide ran in their direction.
Near us a tug was hovering, waiting to bargain with our captain about a tow. He came on deck shortly and I was interested in the ensuing proceedings, which consisted in back and forth arguments about the necessity, without mention of terms. The tug captain maintained we would soon be on the rocks without his assistance. I confess this had its effect on me, if it did not on the captain. He was obdurate. When the breeze sprang up he would sail in. The tugboat captain maintained there would be no breeze that day. This went on for three-quarters of an hour, the tug steaming slowly round and round us. Finally there was the smoke of perhaps another tug behind Cape Elizabeth. Then it got down to terms.
So much, too much. So much less, still too much. This went on for another quarter of an hour, by which time we were pretty close to the rocks. My stomach took a few turns over in an anticipatory spasm. Then the wisp of smoke from behind the cape emerged and it turned out to be a freighter and not another tug. At this point the captain gave in, a hawser was passed, and we proceeded in tow into the channel toward Portland. In the smoother water the hawser was dropped, the tug came alongside, and arm in arm we were escorted into the harbor to our berth alongside a coal pier.
In the office of the coal company we heard that the coast from Hatteras to Cape Cod was littered with wrecks, there were a number of vessels unaccounted for and probably foundered, and that we ourselves had been reported lost with all hands. How this last report got around I don't know, but it resulted in my sending several hurried telegrams to relatives and friends to whom I had dropped postcards before emitting Norfolk announcing my projected voyage.
I bade good-by to my shipmates with real regret. They had shown themselves to be of the breed to which high admiration is due. But as I reeled up the street on lingering sea legs, like a drunken man, I firmly resolved never to risk my neck again on one of those coastwise vessels. Alas for resolutions, with which the road to hell is paved. Three weeks later I was to embark again on another four master traveling light, back to Newport News.
Meanwhile at last I was in Maine.
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