Rounding Cape Horn
The full-rigged American ship Sagamore was now sixty-seven days out from New York bound for San Francisco, and on this September evening in one of the closing years of the nineteenth century, she was flying along in the South Atlantic under a stiff top-gallant breeze, at a rate that no steamer in that part of the world could eclipse, if, indeed, any could equal. With the wind a trifle abaft the beam, yards well off the backstays, and showers of spray whirling over the weather bulwarks to leeward, the stately ship swept on—an animated picture of whose majesty and grace no one may conceive who has not seen a large square-rigged vessel driving through the water at full speed.
To the right, scarce fifty miles away, stretched the bleak and inhospitable coast of Patagonia; to the left, equally distant, lay the rugged and desolate Falkland Islands; behind, growing every instant more remote, were civilization and government; while ahead lay an almost boundless waste of storm-swept waters frowned upon by grim Cape Horn itself—firm ruler of a region which for three centuries has tried the patience of mariners, and tested the endurance of the stoutest ships that man can build.
The usual preparation for rounding the Horn had been made. The old patched-up sails had been taken down, and strong new ones bent in their places—for a ship, unlike a person, wears her best suit of clothes in foul weather;—lanyards and standing rigging had been renewed and strengthened; preventer braces attached to the principal yards; and life–lines stretched all over the main deck.
It was the second dog-watch from 6 to 8 P.M.—and a grand but stormy-looking sunset had given place to the long twilight that prevails in these high latitudes. A solitary star of great size blazed in the zenith, while on the northern horizon, resembling an immense open fan, there was a fine display of the Aurora Borealis, which appeared to rise out of the sea and was becoming more beautiful as the twilight deepened.
Up on the poop-deck, clad in warm ulsters, the two passengers were taking their evening constitutional, occasionally pausing to make some comment on the myriads of Cape pigeons whirling about the ship, or to watch a lordly albatross swoop down from above and dive beneath the waters—seldom failing to seize the hapless fish that his unerring eye had spied from afar. Both were young fellows of perhaps twenty-five, who in this long voyage had sought rest; the one from college studies too closely pursued, and the other from the countless worries and nervous tension of American business life.
Will Hartley and Frank Wilbur had never met until the day before leaving New York, and as both were of rather reserved dispositions, their relations at first were those of acquaintances rather than friends. But all that was now changed, for gradually they began to thoroughly like each other; and by this time were nearly inseparable. Several months’ daily intercourse between two young men shut up in a ship together is a severe test of companionship, but in the present case it had resulted most happily.
Hartley broke a short silence by saying; “To think that ten weeks have passed since I saw a newspaper! All sorts of events have happened on shore that no one here dreams of.”
“What do we care?” answered Wilbur, with a laugh. “We are in a world of our own, and as for me, I don’t bother about what is going on in the United States. It seems as if I had always lived on this ship, and my whole past life appears a vague dream. What I would like to know is, whether the Arabia and Iroquois are ahead of us or not. It will be too bad if they beat us to San Francisco.”
“No danger of that if we keep up this rate of speed. George! but we’re traveling. Let’s take a look at the log.”
Captain Meade, a fine-looking man of fifty, joined the passengers, remarking as he rubbed his hands in a satisfied fashion, “Well, gentlemen, this is a good start around the Horn. We were 50° 45’ south this noon, and if this wind would only draw into the north a trifle and then hold, we might be across 50 in the Pacific a week from to-day. I made it in six days once, but never expect to again.”
When a seaman speaks of rounding Cape Horn he does not mean simply passing the Cape itself, as one might Cape Cod or Cape Flattery. Looking at a map of South America, we find that the Horn is situated in 56° south latitude; but from the moment a ship crosses the fiftieth parallel in the South Atlantic until she has passed down around the stormy Cape and up in the Pacific to the fiftieth parallel in that ocean,—a distance approaching a thousand miles, she is said to be “rounding Cape Horn.” Until she is across 50 in the Pacific, the vessel is never safe from being blown clear back to the Cape by the furious western gales and hurricanes that rage almost continuously in this region. Thus the Sagamore had already started to round the Horn, although she was yet several hundred miles from the place itself.
The wind had increased to nearly a gale, and the ship was beginning to take some good-sized seas on board. The big surges struck the vessel’s sides with a shock that made her tremble as she sped on, and the mate soon bawled out, “Clew up the mizzen to’-gallant s’il!” The work of stripping the ship continued until nothing remained but a few storm-sails. All hands had been called, and it was indeed a sight to see the men aloft on the yards in the gathering darkness, as they tugged at the flapping canvas, trying to lay it on the yard so as to pass the gaskets round; while the wind howled through the rigging like mad, and the Sagamore, as she plunged on, began to roll at a lively rate under the influence of the big sea which was being kicked up.
“I’m glad I’m not a sailor,” said Wilbur, preparing to go below. Just then a comber broke against the stern, and a good-sized lump of water plumped down on his back, drenching him thoroughly. Hartley laughed; so did the bo’s’un, who passed at that moment, and the passengers quickly descended the companion-way to the cabin, whose warmth and security were in sharp contrast to the bellowing gale and streaming decks without.
An exquisitely wrought lamp of Benares brass—it had once graced a viceroy’s mansion in Calcutta—shed its soft light on the marble-topped center table. The captain’s compass affixed to the ceiling silently indicated the vessel’s course, and a number of fine geraniums which ornamented the wheel-house windows in warm weather now occupied a rack about the inside of the skylight. The ends of the room were occupied by two cozy sofas, with lockers underneath; one containing old copies of “Harper’s” and “Scribner’s,” while a liberal supply of ale, beer, and similar comforts filled the other. Upon the walls, handsomely finished in panels of natural woods, were a brace of revolvers and several glittering swords and cutlasses belonging to the captain,—excellent weapons to have on a ship far removed from all civil law for months at a time. The floor was of Oregon pine, beautifully oiled and polished. Contrary to custom, it was on this voyage covered by a carpet that the steward had put down soon after leaving port, “so as the passengers wouldn’t break their necks when she got to rolling off Cape Horn.” Nearly all the way from New York to the Falklands the weather had been glorious, and the ship stood up like a church in the few squalls that were encountered; but now the young men began to think the steward had known what he was about when that carpet was laid. Walking or even sitting still had become an accomplishment, so Hartley brought out the fifth volume of “Les Miserables,” while Wilbur produced one of the numerous books he had provided. With chair-backs to the table, and feet braced against the sofas, they defied the elements temporarily and read on—to the accompaniment of groaning timbers, an occasional crash from the steward’s pantry, and the muffled roaring of the gale without.
The storm gained strength as the night advanced. While the mizzen topsail was being furled, bo’s’un Merrell went forward under the forecastle deck to put additional lashings on several casks of provisions stowed in the vicinity. He was assisted by two foremast hands, and the trio had just secured a barrel of flour when the ship was struck by a heavy sea, and gave a vicious roll that threw all three men against a water-butt standing near. The sailors gained their feet uninjured, but before the stunned bo’s’un could recover himself, a half-filled cask of beef broke loose and was hurled through space as though shot from a cannon. With a cry of warning, the two seamen stumbled out of the way, but before Merrell could escape he was felled like an ox, and his lantern smashed to fragments. The motion in that extreme forward part of the ship was very great, and the cask soon took another dive in a different direction; when the men, guided by the groans of the injured bo’s’un, groped their way to where he lay and contrived to drag him behind the hatch-coaming. He was able to sit up, and gasped out “Call the mate, Jack; I’ve got a bad hurt.”
It was about two o’clock in the morning. Captain Meade had been on deck most of the night, and went forward upon hearing of the accident. The suffering man was borne into his little room near the galley, where he underwent an examination which resulted in the discovery that the left leg was broken midway between knee and ankle.
Few men have commanded deep-water ships for twenty years without having had to deal with broken limbs occasionally, and the master of the Sagamore was no exception. Twice before had he successfully met a similar emergency, and in the present case there was a valuable assistant at hand in the person of Mr. Hartley, who had just completed a course of study at a New York medical college, and was now en route to the Pacific Coast to practice.
Having made his way aft across the dark and steeply-inclined deck, the captain called the steward, and then apprised Hartley of what had occurred. That young man had not slept for some hours, and upon learning of the accident was most anxious to render all the assistance in his power; for the bo’s’un was a good-natured fellow, liked by all.
While Hartley struggled into his clothes, Captain Meade procured splints and bandages from the medicine-chest. When both were ready, they opened the storm-door leading onto the main deck, and awaited a favorable moment. The night was black, but the gloom was relieved somewhat by the foam-covered water surging about the deck. Holding to the life-lines with one hand, they dashed forward along the lee side, stopping once to seize the line tightly and haul themselves up off the deck to avoid a deluge that tumbled over the weather bulwarks, and poured down to leeward.
The steward was already in attendance on the patient, and Hartley at once set about uniting the broken bones and applying the splints. What Captain Meade would have considered a painful and disagreeable necessity, he regarded from a professional standpoint only, and went about his work with a coolness and assurance that greatly relieved both captain and patient. The abominable rolling was the worst obstacle to be overcome, but the task was at last accomplished, and in a highly creditable manner.
Merrell was resting easier when Captain Meade and “the surgeon” proceeded aft. The former stretched the chart of the Cape Horn region upon the cabin table and examined it long and closely; for Staten Land—rocky, uninhabited, and with no lighthouse to reveal its position—was rapidly being neared, and great caution was necessary.
There was now an apparent lull in the gale, but it was not for long. At daylight the Sagamore entered a “tide-rip” whose waters, lashed into fury by the gale, presented an awful spectacle. The ocean resembled a gigantic mill-race; the tide flowing one way, while a swift current set in the opposite direction, forming a whirlpool. Huge waves came from all directions at once, pouring tons of water on the main deck and forecastle. Progress was well-nigh impossible, but the captain kept resolutely on, knowing that the ship’s only salvation lay in running through the tide-rip before she should be hurled upon her side by some sea more mountainous than the rest. This nearly happened once when a towering wave half as high as the fore yard broke on board, staving in the heavy door of the galley and flooding the interior, washing everything movable from the decks; while the ship went over, and over, and over, till her yard-arms almost touched the water, and her decks were like the sloping roof of a house.
But the crisis was safely passed, and the maelstrom left behind. The gale blew itself out during the forenoon, the sky cleared, the sun shone brightly through the clear frosty atmosphere, and land was visible from the deck.
If you have never been so situated that for many weeks your eyes have not beheld a solitary foot of ground you can hardly appreciate the emotions of all on board the Sagamore as they looked on that bleak and forbidding promontory rising out of the mist—Cape St. John. A few hours later, the ship was opposite the treacherous straits of Lemaire, and very near the shore. The entire length of Staten Land from Cape St. John on the east to Cape St. Bartholomew on the west, was stretched out like a grand panorama; forty miles of low mountains, jagged rocks, and broken valleys, without a sign of animal or vegetable life, and with naught save great patches of snow to relieve its black nakedness. The straits of Lemaire separate this body of land from Tierra del Fuego, and on the latter might now be seen Bell Mountain,—a distant but lofty peak, on whose snow-capped summit the sun shone in wintry splendor.
Hundreds of large sailing vessels pass Cape St. John every year on their long voyages from New York, the British Isles and Continental Europe to our Pacific coast. It is a great rendezvous, and the Sagamore presently found herself in the midst of an imposing fleet of merchantmen of all nations. Here, at the southern extremity of the American continent, were ten ships and three barks, carrying the world’s products to San Francisco. Scores of eager faces lined the bulwarks, while on the poop of the nearest craft stood a woman—the first representative of the fair sex that anyone on the Sagamore had seen for three months. As the large vessels, with all their canvas set, slowly mounted the regular swell, a murmur of admiration burst from the passengers, who longed for a far-reaching camera to preserve the beautiful picture through years to come. Those ships had completed the first half of their long journeys, and now sailed in company for a few hours, soon to be scattered far and wide upon the mighty Pacific, to meet again at the Golden Gate, thousands of miles away. It was a sight to make the pulses thrill.
“Come on deck if you want to see Cape Horn!” called out Captain Meade to the passengers in the cabin, who instantly hurried on deck, for one can’t see the famous Cape every day.
The captain silently pointed his finger, and there, looming up out of the morning mist, the passengers saw Cape Horn. It was nearly twenty miles off, but so deceptive are distances at sea that it seemed not half that distance away. Who can behold without a feeling of awe, that black and naked rock, rising precipitously from a low islet to a height of five hundred feet! Like some grim and frowning sentinel, it stands guard where the waters of the two great oceans meet; tyrannizing over and sorely harassing the staunch ships which even its power is rarely able to destroy; drawing on, but to beat roughly back; and occasionally permitting one of them to fly past without even a protest, as if to say, “I can be gracious when the mood’s upon me.”
It was a sharp, bracing morning. Everything wore a peaceful aspect, in spite of the peculiar moaning and whistling sound in the rigging which is always heard here. To the south, a vast ice-floe glittered in the brilliant sunlight; to leeward, two thin columns of smoke-like mist rising from the water showed where a couple of whales were blowing; while much nearer the ship, five splendid albatross sat gracefully upon the heavy swell—their black wings in striking contrast to their snow-white backs and necks. This grand looking creature is to the birds of the ocean what the eagle is to the birds of the land, and the martial look in its piercing black eye suggests a prince in disguise from some fairy tale.
The cabin breakfast had just been concluded, and the Cape pigeons were swarming around the ship, or swimming in the water alongside. The cunning horde knew the hours meals were served as well as they did day from night, and at such times all were on hand, waiting for the scraps which they knew would be thrown overboard by the cook and steward. They are pretty creatures, uniting the eyes and feet of a duck with the head, bill, and other characteristics of the domestic pigeon. The breast is white, the head and back a bluish black, while the wings are dappled black and white. Beneath the feathers, the bird is covered with a wonderfully thick, soft down, which is so dense that not a drop of the icy water in which the creatures delight to swim and dive, can ever penetrate to the skin. Soon after a ship has passed the latitude of Rio de Janeiro, the pigeons begin to make their appearance, and they follow that vessel for weeks and weeks, until she has passed around the Horn, and far up into the Pacific. Then they disappear gradually as the warm latitudes are reached, transferring their allegiance to some craft bound back in the opposite direction. How they obtain sleep and rest is a mystery, for one never lights on a ship; but no matter how fast a vessel may go, or how severe a gale may rage, the whole tribe is in attendance every morning, like an army following its general.
The cook threw overboard a quantity of table scraps, and instantly every pigeon flew to the spot; all keeping up a discordant scolding and chattering, as each tried to keep the others from getting a bite, at the same time gulping down anything it could get hold of. Several dived far down after sinking morsels. The passengers deciding to catch some of the birds, a line, with a small baited hook, was trailed out astern, and seven pigeons were soon hauled aboard, being caught in the mouth precisely as a fish is.
The first thing any ocean bird does upon being put on the deck of a ship, is to become sea-sick; and the prisoners unanimously followed this program. After parting with their breakfasts, they felt better, and one could not help laughing at the ludicrous expression of astonishment in the creatures’ eyes as they surveyed their novel surroundings. In the air or in the water, they were the personification of grace; but now they seemed to be all legs, and fell down, or plumped into something, after waddling a few yards. Then they ran along flapping their wings, as they tried to get sufficient start to enable them to soar, but only one succeeded in clearing the bulwarks. An old necktie was torn into strips, one being fastened around the neck of each bird. Thus ornamented, the captives were tossed up into the air, and off they went to tell their companions amongst what strange barbarians they had fallen.
The barometer had been falling for some days, and in spite of the fine morning, there were strong indications of an equinoctial hurricane. A heavy snowstorm hid Cape Horn from view that afternoon, a contrary wind sprang up, and the ship was driven entirely off her course, being compelled to head for the South Pole. The passengers arrayed themselves in oilers, not forgetting to tie strands of rope about their boot-tops to keep the water out, and paced the quarter-deck, where George Marsh, the mate, entertained them with tales of torrid Singapore.
But spray was flying over the Sagamore, the gale’s roaring made conversation difficult, and though the speed was exhilarating, the young men were soon driven below, leaving the mate to his lonely vigil.
He paced the deck with no companion but his own gloomy and bitter thoughts, for his life had been a hard one. Confined to a seamen’s hospital for many weary months by a terrible accident, he had thus lost command of a fine bark; and when at last he left the sick room, it was only to receive the crushing intelligence that all his earthly possessions had been destroyed by fire. Though a splendid seaman, he had since been unable to obtain a master’s berth, and now as a subordinate, trod the deck of a ship which he was in every way fitted to command.
By midnight the ship was rolling so frightfully that it was feared some of the masts would go. Great seas were coming aboard, the main deck resembled a lake, and the crew had hair-breadth escapes from going overboard. The bellowing of the hurricane was awful, and a constant succession of snow-squalls struck the ship, sending the white flakes driving through the air and upon the decks in a feathery cloud. The carpenter was proceeding to the pumps to sound the well when he fell upon the slippery deck, fetching up in the lee scuppers a moment later, where he was buried in foam and water. He had presence of mind enough to grasp a rope, and when the ship rolled in the opposite direction he emerged from his unceremonious bath as though nothing had happened. The hurricane continued to gather force; the decks were swept of everything movable, and the possible shifting of the cargo caused continual apprehension. But a more serious danger threatened the ship. When the temperature of the water was taken, the thermometer registered a sharp drop, indicating the proximity of a large body of ice. A sharp lookout was kept, but the blackness of the night and the fury of the hurricane made it impossible to see any distance from the ship.
Just before daybreak, the thrilling cry of “Ice dead ahead!” came from the lookout, and there was hardly time to give the wheel a few turns before a great gray mass loomed up on the port bow. A moment more, and one of the gigantic ice mountains so dreaded in these southern seas came into plain view. It towered far above the mast-heads, culminating in a circle of fantastic pinnacles which resembled the turrets of a castle. The waves, breaking against its base with a noise like thunder, hurled themselves far up its steep sides, soon to descend in the form of foaming cataracts and water falls. High up on the near side, overhanging the water, was a threatening mass of ice that seemed ready to fall on the ship, and blot her out of existence. So perilously close to the great berg was the Sagamore, that its freezing breath chilled all on deck to the marrow, and the ship’s red port light, as she swept by, shone weirdly on the frozen mass, revealing gruesome caverns that penetrated far inward. Everyone breathed easier when the monster was passed, and several recalled the names of missing ships that mysteriously disappeared in the South Atlantic.
The first streaks of dawn revealed five more bergs, which formed an icy barrier through which it was perilous to attempt a passage; while the dangerous group of rocks known as the Diego Ramirez effectually blocked the way to the north. At any moment the flying ship might crash into one of the bergs, so it was decided to heave to, thus lessening the danger of collision.
Tacking a large square-rigged vessel is considerable of a job at any time, but at night, and in a hurricane, it is an arduous task. The stiffened braces, wet with icy salt water, got tangled up, and occasionally a man would make a mistake amid the maze of ropes, thus adding to the confusion. But at last the work was finished, and the ship brought to a standstill. Several times she went over so far that captain and mates hardly dared to breathe for fear she was on her side and would never right. But after remaining in that precarious position for a moment, the ship would keel over with a sickening velocity from one side to the other; the mast-heads reeling dizzily against the sky, until she brought up with a jerk, as a sea pounded against her side. At each roll, the bulwarks went far under, allowing a flood to come roaring and tumbling aboard; washing about the main deck, tangling up ropes, and knocking men off their feet. Several seamen were kept busy attending to the oil-bags, whose contents were poured upon the waters in large quantities, but without the usual effect. The exposed position of the forward house subjected it to the full fury of the hurricane. The helpless bo’s’un lay in his bunk listening to the roaring and screeching outside, and once when an unusually big sea descended on the roof overhead, making the oak beams crack ominously, he set his teeth and thought of the calamity that had recently befallen an American ship, when the whole forward house with its sleeping inmates was carried overboard, and half the ship’s company annihilated at one fell blow.
Pandemonium reigned in the cabin. A sea stove in the companion door, the water pouring down stairs and flooding everything. Several pieces of furniture broke loose, and were banged against the partitions half the night. Everything was upside down; oatmeal covered the floor of the steward’s pantry, and the bathroom was littered with broken glass. Both passengers were thankful when daylight dispelled the most anxious night either had ever passed.
For a long time, the steward could not get forward, nor was the cook able to get aft. Consequently, there was no cabin breakfast until nearly nine o’clock. Such a meal! It was eaten by lamplight, for great seas were thundering down on the poop overhead and the storm shutters to the windows could not be taken off. It had been found almost impossible to keep anything on the galley stove, but the cook and steward between them managed to prepare some coffee, biscuits, ham and potatoes. The biscuits were lost when the steward fell on the deck as he conveyed the breakfast aft, but those who gathered about the table were satisfied, as they had their hands too full to eat anything at all, and Wilbur kept thinking of the line, “Some ha’ meat, and canna eat.”
All that day and night the hurricane lasted. The following afternoon, the barometer, after falling for a week, came to a stand at 28:20, and the climax had been reached.
“I thought I had seen storms before,” said Wilbur, “but this equinoctial has opened my eyes. It passes my comprehension how any ship can stand such a pounding and wrenching as this one has endured for three days and nights.”
“You have both been wishing for a genuine hurricane ever since leaving New York, and now that wish has been gratified,” replied the captain. “In my twenty-six voyages around the Horn I have never seen such weather, though some ships catch it even worse; but with the Sagamore under my feet, and plenty of sea-room, I fear nothing.”
The captain turned in early that night, for his clothes had not been removed for seventy-two hours past, during which trying interval he had had no rest but a few short naps. The passengers were thinking of retiring also, when they heard a call from the steward, who requested them to come into the dining room a moment.
“I want to show you a fine sight,” said he, standing by the door leading onto the main deck, which he cautiously opened part way as Hartley and Wilbur approached.
The hurricane had spent its force, and the young men looked out upon a night scene of rare beauty. Every cloud in the sky had vanished as if by magic, and the blue vault of the firmament was brilliant with countless myriads of stars. Some were large, some small; and to the admiring gaze of the watchers it seemed as if they had never seen so grand a sight, even in the Southern Hemisphere, where the numerous planets, constellations, and single stars illumine the night sky with a splendor surpassing anything of the kind to be seen in the North. But among all those stars, and groups of stars, none could compare with that blazing constellation that had now nearly reached the zenith—the Southern Cross. It is first seen just before crossing the equator, but is then dim and very low in the horizon, and visible but a short time each evening. Gradually, as Cape Horn is approached, it rises higher and higher, its appearance each night being foretold by its two flashing “pointer” stars, which, like heralds announcing the coming of their sovereign, are visible above the horizon a short time before the Cross itself appears. In the vicinity of the Horn this matchless constellation may be seen high in the heavens, in all its glory—the stars composing it not larger than several others in the sky, but as completely eclipsing them in brilliancy as diamonds do pieces of glass. Now, after three days and nights of warring winds and waters, that Cross looked down upon the Sagamore’s naked masts and flooded decks like an emblem of promise and of peace. Not a great way off were the two curious patches of luminous film known as the Magellan Clouds, looking strange and mysterious as they floated among that sea of stars.
The foam-covered water washed about the deck as the ship rolled, and a heavy sea tumbling aboard caused the steward to close the door in a hurry. Then the passengers took a gin-fizz as a night-cap, and turned in.
Becalmed off Cape Horn!
This may sound paradoxical, but calms do occur, though they are not common. But for indescribable grandeur, and as a manifestation of the powers of nature, there are few things that will compare with a calm in this region.
One degree south of the Horn, on the 57th parallel, there is no land around the whole earth’s surface—not even an island; and this is the primary reason why the largest waves to be found anywhere are met with in this locality. Here, unchecked and unconfined, they sweep entirely around the globe; gathering strength and size as they move on, with nothing to bar their resistless march or to make them swerve aside even a hair’s breadth. Lashed into fury by a gale, these waves are sufficiently remarkable, but they are then in such a state of turmoil as to destroy all regularity, making it impossible to tell where one begins and another ends. So, strangely enough, it is in a dead calm that one is more nearly able to conceive of their vast proportions. These periods generally follow a hard westerly gale, and then it is a sight no words can depict, to stand upon a vessel’s deck and watch the approach of those vast walls of water; each one sharply defined, and wonderfully regular in form. From the base of one to the base of the next following is frequently a space of one thousand feet—a great valley, which, contrasted with the long hills on either side, gives one some idea of the magnitude of these waves.
Such a condition of things prevailed on the day after the equinoctial hurricane. The Sagamore had not even steerage way, and lay broadside on to the heavy swell, rolling as only a vessel can roll in a Cape Horn calm. The great blue hills came on slowly but regularly; and each one, as it came beneath the ship, lifted her up on its crest as though she had been a feather, instead of a vessel three hundred feet long, drawing twenty-six feet of water, and with four thousand tons of railroad iron and other heavy stuff in her hold. Then, as it passed on, there was a rattling of blocks and the heavy reports of canvas banged against the rigging, as the Sagamore slid down the side of the hill with her decks at an angle of fifty degrees.
She had the usual nondescript crew found on deep-water ships, and after hearing some of them talk, one might well agree with Mr. Marsh “That the captain or mate who goes to sea now-a-days, should understand Chinese, Greek, Hindostanee, Russian-Finn, and a dozen other tongues, besides having the patience of Job.” It being Sunday, no one was required to do any work but what was necessary in navigating the ship, and the men improved their leisure time in various ways. A few spruced up a bit; among them, Gene, the Frenchman, who was far above the rest in intelligence and ability. After arraying himself in a scarlet woolen shirt, new trousers and shoes, he lay down in his bunk to read, unmindful of the turmoil about him. Several produced sewing materials and mended their clothes, keeping time with their feet while an agile young fellow danced; others sang coarse songs, or told stories. Jack, a tow-headed Scandinavian, devoured “Demon Dick, the Dare-devil.” He had purchased a number of these hair-raising effusions, and read them in preference to the tracts and pious books furnished by the Sailors’ Aid Society, only one of which had been opened, and that was being used up for cigarette papers. Some played gambling games, using plugs of tobacco for stakes, while Jumbo, the smallest man on board (formerly a trapeze performer), gave an exhibition on a tight rope which won applause. One group discussed the subject of provisions, and though all agreed that the “grub” on the Sagamore was satisfactory, some found great fault with the cookery. Then they abused the mates, decided that Captain Meade was afraid to carry sail enough, and speculated as to how much Hartley and Wilbur were worth—for whenever there are passengers on merchant ships the crew seem to consider them millionaires.
But the great “character” in the forecastle was Andrew,—usually called San Quentin, from the fact of his having “done time” in the California penitentiary of that name. He was a hoary-headed old sinner, whose three-score odd years would have rendered him of little account before the mast had he not belonged to that past age when merchant sailors had to know their business, and were able seamen in something besides name. Andrew was a voluble talker, and frequently related with gusto how he had once “knifed” a fellow sailor who had roused his ire.
“A man ought to die when he gets to be fifty,” he remarked, rubbing a rheumatic joint.
“Better jump overboard, then,” answered a voice.
“I’m gettin’ too old for this work,” Andrew continued, “and if the cap’n says a good word for me, I’ll try and get in the Sailors’ Snug Harbor when we comes back to New York. Sure, I’ve been goin’ to sea forty-six year, and I’m no better off now nor I was when I began. They teached me tailorin’ when I was in the pen, but I’d ship on twenty more voyages afore I’d shut myself up in a little shop on shore where they ain’t room to breathe. But I’m a lucky old cuss” (with a laugh), “for I ain’t never been wrecked in all my time at sea,—no, nor ever seed a wreck.”
“Andrew’s going to turn into a tough old albatross when he slips his cable,” put in Gene, a smile on his clear-cut features.
“Be careful ye don’t turn into a molly-hawk yourself, ye French devil,” retorted San Quentin, hurling his sheath-knife in the air, and dexterously catching the descending point on the tip of his little finger.
“Tumble out, mates,” called a sailor, poking his head through the door. “There’s somethin’ up. All hands aft is squintin’ through the glass at what the matey says is a boat.”
This news brought everyone out on deck in a hurry. Quite a distance from the ship, a small object floated on the swell,—now lifted high on a sea, then disappearing from view in the trough. The officers had been examining it through the telescope for some time, Mr. Marsh finally declaring it to be a boat. The sight of a solitary boat in such a place gave rise to much speculation, and when the calm was replaced by a gentle breeze, the course was changed so as to bring the waif alongside.
Within an hour the tiny craft was close by, and a melancholy spectacle she presented. Bottom upward, with jagged splinters projecting from her shattered sides, she floated by on the sportive waves—an eloquent symbol of recent disaster. How had she come there? Where were her late occupants? None could tell but old ocean, glittering in the frosty sunshine. Upon her stern were the words “Dundee, of Liverpool.” The captain was about to go below in order to look up the Dundee in the shipping register, when a sailor hailed the deck from aloft. A vessel was visible far to the south!
The mate ascended the rigging, followed by the passengers; and sure enough, the naked eye beheld a shadowy ship on the horizon which the glass magnified into a wreck. All was excitement; the course was again changed, and the ship bore down for the distant vessel. She was nearly twenty miles away; the breeze was provokingly light, and it seemed an age before the Sagamore drew near the stranger.
Distress signals were flying from her foremast—the only spar left standing. The others hung over the side, their weight helping to careen the vessel at a dangerous angle, besides pounding against her like battering-rams every time she rolled. Six men could be seen, one of whom stood apart waving a flag, while most of the others ran about in the most frantic transports; now falling upon their knees, then rising and extending their arms toward the Sagamore. The wreck was apparently full of water, so there was no time to be lost.
Nothing short of a case like this could have induced Captain Meade to launch a boat off Cape Horn, for the huge waves and the liability to sudden squalls make it a perilous proceeding at all times. Mr. Marsh took command of the gig with a carefully selected crew, but it required half an hours’ maneuvering to launch her. At length a successful start was made, and the gig went racing up the side of a big sea, was poised giddily on its crest, and then darted down the incline as though bound for the bottom. On she went, her crew rowing like demons, while two men bailed out the water that constantly threatened to swamp her.
As the rescuers neared the sinking vessel, the mate bawled “Wreck ahoy! what bark is that?”
The Dundee, of Liverpool, bound from Buenos Ayres to Valparaiso. We are foundering.”
“We are the American ship Sagamore, from New York for San Francisco. Heave us a rope and we’re ready for you.”
The gig was now on the lee side of the bark, and as near the stern as prudence would allow; so the men rested on their oars while Mr. Marsh deftly caught the rope flung from the wreck by her captain. In order to enter the boat it was necessary for those on the Dundee to slide down the rope, and then be hauled aboard when the end was reached. The steward and three seamen constituted the first load; descending in safety, one by one, though most of them were submerged twice before they were at length pulled into the boat. Two seamen, an apprentice and the captain remained on the wreck, the latter declaring his intention of standing by his craft to the last, though he well knew she was about to take the final plunge. Already that uncanny moaning sound heard only on a foundering vessel was ascending from the black depths of the hold, as the rising waters forced out the sustaining air through every crevice.
It was a hard pull back to the Sagamore,—against the wind all the way,—and while the mate steered the heavily-laden gig, the steward narrated the story of the catastrophe. The Dundee, commanded by Captain Murray, had sailed from Buenos Ayres without a cargo, taking aboard for ballast eight hundred tons of dirt scooped from the river bottom; and to this improper ballast the disaster was due. She labored heavily during the first day of the hurricane, and sprang a leak in several places. The incoming water soon converted the ballast into a liquid mass, which surged about in the hold, finally hurling her upon her side, and rendering her unmanageable. While in this position, great seas swept over her, smashing all the boats and loosening heavy spars, which washed about the decks, knocking down the crew. Two sailors and the carpenter received broken limbs in this manner, and before they could be rescued, all three were washed into the sea and drowned before the eyes of their shipmates. The mate was killed the following night by the falling main mast, and to complete the horror of the situation, the pumps became choked with mud, rendering them useless. With water pouring into every open seam, those aboard the settling bark had resigned all hope, and were passively waiting for death when the Sagamore hove in sight.
The ship’s side having been safely reached, the rescued men were quickly drawn up to the deck, and the boat again started for the Dundee. It was a desperate chance whether she remained above water until the gig could reach her; and each time the little craft was lifted upon a wave the mate looked anxiously towards the wreck, half expecting her to have vanished while his boat was in the trough. What kept the bark afloat during this interval was a mystery, but float she did, though suspended as it were by a single hair above the fathomless depths.
When the gig brought up under her stern, the rope was again placed in position, and the apprentice told to descend. The youth was half way to the boat when he became panic-stricken at sight of a great sea coming on him, and cried for help. The wreck rolled heavily towards the boat, slackening the rope still further; the wave rolled over the apprentice, and when it passed, there was the rope all on the surface, but the hands that had grasped it a moment before were gone. The bark’s captain ran to the rail with a coil of rope ready to fling to the youth the instant he should appear, but he was not seen, and hope of his rescue had about gone, when Gene, with a sudden exclamation, reached over the boat’s side. He had the drowning man by the hair! After a struggle which nearly capsized the gig, the apprentice was dragged into it, more dead than alive. Then the two remaining seamen made the trip without accident, and the captain was ready—the last man to leave.
He paused an instant, his eyes slowly taking in every detail of the familiar scene. For fourteen years had he been master of that bark, and even his unsympathetic nature was stirred to its very depths at the moment of leaving her forever. Now, in these last seconds of their long association, a hundred past events were kindled into life again, and flashed through his brain like the successive views of a panorama.
Hastily turning away, he tossed into the boat a package containing his sextant, a favorite chronometer, and the bark’s papers. He grasped the rope,—was soon in the water,—at the boat’s side,—and then safely on board. At a signal from the mate, Gene severed the line with his sheath-knife, and the Dundee was abandoned to her fate.
“Now then,” cried Mr. Marsh, “give way with a will—look out! she’s going. Row, row for your lives!”
The wreck gave a sudden lurch and then recovered herself with a staggering motion just at the moment when those in the boat so dangerously near expected to see her founder. The oars were plied vigorously, and the gig was more than half way to the ship when Jumbo exclaimed, “Look at her now!”
The bark’s last moment had come. Her bows rose gradually out of the water, and she rolled slowly over, disappearing stern foremost, as easily as though she were being launched into that element which she had sailed so many years, and which was now ending her existence. The fore mast, with the distress signals fluttering in the breeze, was the last thing to vanish; and as it sunk beneath the whirling vortex a groan escaped Captain Murray. As chief owner of the Dundee, his financial loss would be considerable, but there was another stronger feeling. In the vessel which had just descended to unknown depths he had traversed all the waterways of the globe; she had been his only home for many years, and seemed almost a part of himself. Kindred he had none, and the old bark had absorbed whatever of latent affection there was in his cold nature. Now she was gone as completely as if she had never existed; a few spars, an empty cask, and the torn British ensign, alone remaining to show where she had last been seen.
There was a dead silence in that little boat (save for the sound of the oars) for many minutes after the final scene. All seemed awed, and when at length the ship’s side was reached, Captain Murray raised his head for the first time since he had looked on his lost vessel. His eyes were moist with the only tears that they had known since childhood. As he climbed over the bulwarks, Captain Meade came forward—the American warmly grasped the Englishman’s hand. With rare tact, he spoke no word, but led his guest down the companion-way and into the privacy of his own room, leaving Mr. Marsh to attend to the proper disposition of the remainder of the rescued.
There are few sights more thrilling than that of a vessel foundering at sea; and for several weeks the Sagamore’s people thought of little but the lost bark and her crew. The Dundee’s steward was set to work in the galley, and the able seamen were divided between the two watches, where each day’s numerous duties soon made them forget their recent hardships. Captain Murray took the loss of his vessel much to heart, and was greatly depressed for some days; but to distract his attention, he voluntarily assumed the bo’s’un’s duties, and became less despondent as time passed.
During the week following the rescue, the Sagamore, with streaming decks, slowly but surely beat her way to the westward against contrary winds. Sometimes it was useless to attempt to proceed against the tremendous head sea, and she was hove to for a time. Then a gale would swoop down, sails would be furled or reefed; and after it was over, a few hours of what Captain Meade facetiously called “pleasant weather” would intervene. Then, if it happened to be day, old Sol shed his kindly warmth upon the ship, and the leaden sky was changed to an alluring blue. If night, the same glorious harvest moon that shone on fields and vineyards far away, here flooded the angry ocean with her soft, mysterious light. At such times, when it was possible to set a few sails, the merry clank, clunk, clank, of the capstan was heard as the heavy yards were hoisted, to the wild accompaniment of a sailors’ chorus. Every day it was “Tack ship” or “All hands reef sail,” until officers and crew were well-nigh fagged out. Most of those on board had been through the same experience many times, and knew that until it ended, all they could do was to bear their trials as best they could.
But one day there were indications of a change for the better. The ship was so far to the west, that a fair wind would enable her to steer north, cross the 50th. parallel, and leave Cape Horn behind. The state of the barometer, combined with other well known signs, led Captain Meade to predict “a regular old ripper from the southeast,” which was just what was wanted.
A violent snow-storm struck the Sagamore that evening, soon covering the decks with a mantle of white. After it ceased the wind nearly failed, and it was decided to put the ship on the other tack, so as to be in readiness to receive the south-easter which was felt to be at hand. When the passengers came on deck after supper, the whole southern horizon was black as pitch, sea and sky blending together in one dark, lowering mass. All hands were called to strip the ship; halyards were let go, sheets slackened, buntlines hauled in, and then the men, in rubber boots and oilers, climbed the rigging and went out upon the swaying yards. The gale struck her before the work was concluded; the icy polar wind was soon screeching through the rigging, to the accompaniment of whirling snow-flakes and flying spray; hail-stones pattered on the deck; and amidst all this, the port watch had to work an hour overtime before it was possible to go below and get supper. It is not an enviable task,—furling stiff, wet sails, one after another, while a bitter wind blows with a force that makes it necessary to hold on with one hand, to avoid being blown into the sea, while you work with the other—and all this at an elevation of sixty or seventy feet above the deck. The wind kept getting into the belly of the half-frozen sails, making them slippery as inflated balloons, and causing the men ten times the usual work to get them laid on the yards; while the pelting snow and hail, combined with the wild plunges of the ship, made it difficult to retain their precarious footing. But the job was finished at last, and grog served out.
Mr. Marsh came below cold and wet, in spite of his oilers, and his eyes heavy from loss of sleep.
“Isn’t this as bad a gale as you were ever in?” asked Hartley. “They were stretching life-lines on the quarter-deck when we came below, which is certainly unusual.”
The mate looked at him a minute, and then burst out irrelevantly, “I’d give a month’s pay to have the son of a sea-cook here who wrote ‘A life on the ocean wave.’ Hang me if I wouldn’t heave him overboard!” And he proceeded to spread a blanket on the floor before the stove, brought a pillow from his room, and threw himself down in his clothes without more words.
The passengers spent the evening at the cabin windows, watching the booming seas roll on board. Both knew they were in for a night of it, and upon retiring, took the precaution to place the “weatherboards” in the front side of their berths, that they might not be pitched out before morning.
Under two topsails and a staysail, the ship tore through the water like a race horse; plunging madly forward, while the big seas astern chased her as a pack of wolves might pursue their prey. The distinctive feature of this gale was that it came from the southeast, instead of from the west, as all the previous ones had done, and was, therefore, a fair wind. The one danger now was, lest it should increase to such a degree that the ship would be unable longer to run before it, thus losing the benefit of a gale which, had it blown with less fury, would have carried her flying across the 50th parallel in twenty-four hours.
Captain Meade was up all night, anxiously noting the behavior of the ship, and calculating over and over the chances of being able to keep on before the gale. Two of the three remaining sails had been furled when the watches were changed at midnight, yet still that six thousand tons of hull and cargo was driven through the water at a rate almost beyond belief. Fast though she went, the seas behind were beginning to travel more swiftly still, and already two had broken over the stern. Anxious as the captain was to go on, he was too good a seaman to disregard these warnings. In another hour the Sagamore might be “pooped” at the rate the sea was running, and so, after consulting with Mr. Marsh, he decided that the ship must be hove to. He did not come to this conclusion without great reluctance and some foreboding, for with the great sea which was now on, the mere act of turning the ship around was attended with great risk. In fact, when the mate was asked for his opinion, he did not hesitate to say that he considered running before the gale preferable to attempting to heave the ship to. Better to stand the chance of being swamped, he contended, than to try an operation which might result in throwing the Sagamore upon her beam ends in the trough of that mountainous sea. This contingency was what Captain Meade also feared, but he decided that of the two dangers, going about was the least.
Accordingly, soon after daybreak, Mr. Marsh bawled, “Wear ship,” following this order with “Port fore brace!”
The mate was clinging to the ladder on the lee side of the forward house when he gave these orders, and before his watch started to execute them, he spoke a few words of warning. “Now, men, you all know there’s an ugly sea running, so look out for yourselves, and don’t shift about without holding fast to the life-lines. Port fore brace! Andrew, you stand by the starboard brace ready to slack away.”
Jack and Montana were at the wheel, and Jumbo was at the lookout. All the others save Andrew, pulled on the brace until the mate shouted “Belay! Now haul in your slack to starboard.” They started to cross the swimming deck, the sea being then on the beam. Some had reached the starboard brace, others were in the middle of the deck; while Gene, who had stopped to make the port brace fast, was not a third of the distance across. At this moment the ship gave a wild roll, and the next, when her starboard bulwarks were far down, an immense “green sea”—a solid wall of water—broke on board.
What followed baffles description. Those who had hold of the starboard brace escaped by clinging tightly to it and ducking beneath the bulwarks, where they were buried under several feet of water, but the others fared worse, being exposed to the full force of the sea. Whether Norris, Smith, and Harry grasped the life-lines or not, they never could clearly tell, but when the ship rolled to port, the great sea swept them before it like flies. All three, by a providential circumstance, were knocked down and jammed in between the iron stanchions and a spare spar lashed to the bulwarks,—all that saved them from going overboard.
But poor Gene! He was caught up like a bit of chaff, and whirled away over the submerged port bulwarks. Everyone near by, including the mate, had all he could do to save his own life, and none of them knew for a few moments what had happened. Captain Meade, from the quarter-deck, saw the awful accident, and his cry of “Man overboard!” and Gene’s despairing shriek mingled together. The captain was a cool man, and he desperately hurled a coil of rope in less time than it takes to tell it, but even had the lost man been able to grasp it, he could no more have held on at the rate the ship was going than he could have seized a flash of lightning. Before the words “Man overboard” were well out of the speaker’s mouth, the poor fellow was disappearing astern; his white face and yellow sou’-wester being plainly visible for several minutes.
It is frightful to see a fellow creature perish before one’s eyes, and at the same time know that one is powerless to render the least assistance—for before the Sagamore could have been brought to a stand, Gene would have been a mile or more astern. But even had he then been in plain sight, no life boat ever constructed could have lived five seconds in that boiling cauldron. The instant it touched the water, it would have capsized or been crushed like an egg shell against the vessel’s side. Death is repulsive at best to the young, even when the path leading to it is smoothed over and made easier by loving friends and relatives, or by the consolations of religious faith. But to be alive and well one second, and then, before sixty seconds have told a minute, to be swept from a vessel’s deck and left to drown—this is horrible beyond conception. What mental tortures must that poor fellow have suffered before losing consciousness, to see the ship, his only hope, vanishing in the distance; and to know that there was not even one chance in a thousand for his rescue. Thus was Gene lost off Cape Horn.
Meanwhile, others might share the same fate unless prompt action was taken, and the wonder was that the mate and his whole watch had not perished with Gene. When the ship freed herself from that sea, Harry and Smith managed to rise unassisted, but Norris lay as one dead, with blood trickling from a wound on the forehead, where he had been thrown against the iron stanchion. Mr. Marsh ran to where he lay, and dragged the unconscious sailor from his perilous position, into the forecastle. Here he had to be left until the job of wearing ship was over, for the Sagamore was in more peril during those few minutes than at any time during the voyage.
She came around without accident, though it was a close shave, and one roll in particular, threw her over until the masts were almost parallel with the ocean. She lay to, well, shipping comparatively little water, and the mate at once investigated the injuries of Norris. He had regained his senses, but felt badly, having received a hard blow on the knee, besides an internal hurt which caused him much pain. The wound on the head proved not to be serious, and after his external injuries had received attention, he was helped to his bunk and relieved from duty until complete rest should have restored him.
The gale blew itself out in twelve hours, and broke shortly after breakfast, a fine day succeeding a night of storm, anxiety, and death. But an atmosphere of gloom pervaded the ship. There was one empty bunk in the forecastle; one man less to stand his trick at the wheel or on the lookout; one hand less to sing out as the watch hauled on the braces; and that one was the merriest and most light-hearted of all. His intelligence and ready ability were in marked contrast to the ignorance and stupidity which characterized most of the crew, and he was a pronounced favorite with all on board;—most of all with Mr. Marsh, who was difficult to please. The mate felt very badly over the matter, and would not discuss it, even with the passengers. Captain Meade deplored the calamity also, and said that during his score of years as master, he had never before lost a man overboard from the deck, though three had been killed at various times by falling from the yards.
The fatality was the subject of much discussion among the crew.
“If he’d of held onto the lines when he was a-crossin’ of the deck, he’d been here now,” said one.
“That’s right,” said another. “I wonder when the captain’ll auction off his clothes?”
“Not for a month, mebbe. He had some good togs, but I’d be afeerd to wear ’em.”
“I never seen such an awful sea; it looked half way up to the fore yard. Seems like Gene was too slick a bird not to hold on to somethin’, though. I’ll warrant he jumped for the main riggin’, and missed it. Only yesterday he was a-tellin’ of me how glad he would be when the ship got into warmer latitudes.”
San Quentin had so far said nothing, but now the old man gave his opinion in a loud and authoritative voice that silenced the discussion. “There ain’t no use of explainin’ how he was carried overboard, nor sayin’ he’d be here now ‘if’ somethin’ hadn’t happened. His time had come, and he had to go, and that’s all there is about it. I’m more’n twice as old as he was, but my time ain’t come, nor it won’t for ten years yet.” With which prophecy the subject was dismissed.
When the mate wrote up the ship’s log that afternoon, he entered: “Sept. 29th—88 days out—Long. 78° 10′ W., Lat. 52° 22′ S.—barometer 28:65; slowly rising—very severe gale from S. E., with heavy sea. Ran before it till daylight, then hove to—Pumps carefully attended.”
He though a moment, and added: “Eugene Escarras, able seaman, aged 25, a native of Algiers, was washed overboard from the main deck, and drowned.”
That was Gene’s epitaph.
The third day after the south-easter, both sea and sky wore a different aspect than either had presented for many weeks past, and the air reminded one of the first balmy spring day after a long winter. Even the moaning, whistling sound in the rigging was gone, and the Cape pigeons and albatross circled through the air with a seemingly new significance, which was doubtless imaginary, as these Antarctic birds revel in storm and cold. A gentle wind had come with the rising sun, and that morning, for the first time in six weeks, the Sagamore presented nearly her whole spread of canvas to the breeze; everything, in fact, but skysails.
The bo’s’un’s leg was mending finely, and surgeon Hartley announced that he would soon be able to leave his bunk. The two mates, ill-tempered from overwork, and worn out from loss of sleep, knew their trials were nearly over, and looked forward to the coming weeks of fair and pleasant weather on the glorious Pacific. The various members of the crew congratulated each other that their days of toil were about over. Soon there would be no further use for mittens, rubber boots and oil-skins, and on Sundays they could lie around the warm dry decks or fish from the bows for hours. San Quentin and Jumbo made a wager as to how soon they could go barefooted, and everyone on board was in fine spirits.
When Captain Meade worked out his sights that noon, he announced to the passengers that the 50th parallel had been crossed during the forenoon watch, on the 79th meridian of west longitude!
After twenty-six days, the ship was around Cape Horn.
The two captains and the passengers stood about the cabin table with the chart spread out before them, and Captain Meade said, as they clinked glasses, “Gentlemen, let us wish the Sagamore a fifty days’ run from here to San Francisco.”