A Boating Adventure in the Carolines by Louis Becke
In the year 1874 we were cruising leisurely through the Western Carolines, in the North Pacific, trading at such islands as we touched at, and making for the Pelew Group, still farther to the westward. But at that season of the year the winds were very light, a strong ocean current set continuously to the eastward, and there was every indication of a solid calm setting in, and lasting, as they do in these latitudes, for a week. Now, part of our cargo consisted of dried sharks' fins, and the smell from these was so strong that every one of the three white men on board was suffering from severe headache. We had a number of native passengers, and, as they lived in the hold, we could not close the hatches; they, however, did not mind the nauseating odour in the least. So, for three or four days, we crawled along, raising the wooded peaks of Ascension Island (Ponapé) one afternoon, and drifting back to the east so much in the night as to lose them at sunrise. Then followed another day of a sky of brass above and a steaming wide expanse of oily sea below, and then, at nightfall, a sweet, cooling breeze from the north-east, and general happiness, accentuated by a native woman playing a dissolute-looking accordion, and singing 'Voici le Sabre,' in Tahitian French. No one cared to sleep that night. Dawn came almost ere we knew it, and again the blue peaks of Ascension loomed up right ahead.
Just as we had finished coffee, and our attention was drawn to a number of boobies and whale-birds resting upon some floating substance half a mile distant, we discovered a couple of sail ahead, and then another, and another, all whalers, and, as they were under easy-cruising canvas--being on the sperm whaling ground--we soon began to overhaul them. One was a small, full-rigged ship, the others were barques. As we slipped along after them I ran our little vessel close to the floating object I have before mentioned, and saw it was a ship's lower mast, which looked, from the scarcity of marine growth upon it, to have been in the water but a short time. Shortly after, we passed some more wreckage, all of which evidently had belonged to a good lump of the vessel.
About eleven o'clock we were close to one of the barques--a four-boat ship, and also carrying a nine-foot dinghy at her stern. She hoisted the Hawaiian colours in response to ours, and, as the breeze was very light, I hailed her skipper and we began to talk. Our skipper wanted some pump-leather; he wanted some white sugar.
'Come aboard,' he said, 'and have dinner with me. I'll give you a barrel of 'Frisco potatoes to take back.'
We lowered our whale-boat, and, taking two hands, I pulled alongside the barque. Although under the Hawaiian flag, her officers were nearly all Americans, and, as is always the case in the South Seas, we were soon on friendly terms. The four ships were all making for Jakoits Harbour, in Ponapé, to wood and water; and I said we would keep company with them. Our own skipper, I must mention, was just recovering from wild, weird visions of impossible, imaginary animals, superinduced by Hollands gin, and I wanted to put him ashore at Ponapé for a week or so.
After dinner the American captain put a barrel of potatoes into our boat, and I bade him good-bye for the time. The breeze was now freshening, and, as he decided to get into Jakoits before dark, the barque made sail, and was soon a good distance ahead of our vessel.
Between four and five o'clock we saw the foremost whaler--the ship--brace up sharp, and almost immediately the other three followed suit. We soon discovered the cause--whales had been sighted, coming down from windward. The 'pod' or school was nearest to us, and we could see them quite plainly from the deck. Every now and then one of them would 'breach' and send up a white mass of foam, and by their course I saw that they would pass between us and the barque--the ship nearest to us. In less than five minutes there were more than a dozen boats lowered from the four vessels, all pulling their hardest to reach the whales first. The creatures came along very leisurely, then, when about a mile from the schooner, hove-to for a short time; their keen hearing told them of danger ahead, for three or four of them sounded, and then made off to windward. These were followed by all the boats from the other three vessels, and two from the barque, the remaining two belonging to the latter pulling across our bows, close together and within a hundred yards of us.
The rest of the whales--some cows, with their calves, and a bull--after lying quiet for a short time, also sounded, but soon rose again, quite close to the two boats. That of the chief mate got 'fast' first to one of the cows, and away they flew at twelve or thirteen knots. The second boat was making for the bull, which seemed very uneasy, and was swimming at a great speed round and round the remaining cows and calves, with his head high out of the water as if to guard them from danger, when the monstrous creature again sounded and the boat-header instantly turned his attention to a cow, which lay perfectly motionless on the water, apparently too terrified to move.
Half a dozen strokes sent the boat to within striking distance and the boat-header called to his boat-steerer to 'Stand up.' The boat-steerer, who pulls bow oar before a whale is struck, and goes aft after striking, is also the harpooner, and at the order to stand up, takes in his oar and seizes his harpoon. After he has darted the iron, and the boat is backed astern, he comes aft to steer, and the officer takes his place for'ard, ready to lance the whale at the fitting time. There is no reason or sense in this procedure, it is merely whaling custom.
Just as the boat-steerer stood up, iron in hand, the bull rose right under the boat's stern, lifted her clean out of the water with his head, and then, as he swept onward, gave her an underclip with his mighty flukes, smashing her in like an egg-shell and sending men, oars, tub and lines, and broken timbers, broadcast into the air. Then, with the lady by his side, he raced away.
Most fortunately, our own boat was still towing astern, for as we were so near the land we had not bothered about hoisting her up again, knowing that we should want her to tow us into Jakoits if the wind fell light when going through the passage.
The mate, two Penrhyn Island natives and myself were but a few moments in hauling her alongside, jumping in, and pulling to the assistance of the whale-boat's crew, some of whom we could see clinging to the wreckage. The officer in charge was a little wiry Western Island Portuguese, and as we came up he called out to us that one of the men was killed and had sunk, and another, whom he was supporting, had his leg broken and was unconscious. We lifted them into the boat as quickly as possible, laid the injured man on his back and started for the schooner. We had scarcely pulled a dozen strokes when, to our profound astonishment, we saw her suddenly keep away from us.
'The captain's come on deck again,' cried one or our native hands to me.
Sure enough, the skipper was on deck, and at the wheel, and took not the slightest heed of our repeated hails, except that he merely turned his head, gave us a brief glance, eased off the main-sheet a bit, and let the schooner spin away towards the land. We learnt next evening that he had suddenly emerged on deck from his bunk, given the helmsman a cuff on the head, and driven him, the steward and the other remaining hand up for'ard. They and the native passengers, who knew something of his performances when in liquor, were too frightened to do anything, and let him have his own way.
We pulled after the schooner as hard as we could for a quarter of an hour, then gave it up and steered for the barque, which was now a couple of miles away. She had been working to windward after the chief mate's and fourth mate's boats--both of which had quickly killed their respective whales--when the disaster to the second officer's boat was seen, and she was now coming towards us. The fourth boat was miles distant, chasing the main body of the 'pod,' in company with those of the other barques and the ship.
By this time it was all but dark; a short, choppy sea had risen, the wind came in sharp, angry puffs every now and then, and we made scarcely any headway against it. The barque seemed to be almost standing still, though she was really coming along at a ripping pace. Presently she showed a light, and we felt relieved. Just then the man with the broken leg called to his officer, and asked for a smoke, and I was filling my pipe for him when the boat struck something hard with a crash, shipped a sea aft, and at once capsized, several of us being taken underneath her.
The Portuguese, who was a gallant little fellow, had, with one of the Penrhyn Islanders, got the wounded man clear, and presently we all found ourselves clinging to the boat, which was floating bottom-up and badly bilged. Fortunately, none of us were hurt, but our position was a dangerous one, and we kept hailing repeatedly, fearing that the barque would run by us in the darkness, and that the blue sharks would discover us. Then, to our joy, we saw her close to, bearing right down upon us, and now came the added terror that she would run us down, unless those on board could be made to hear our cries and realise our situation.
Again we raised our voices, and shouted till our lungs were exhausted, but no answer came, the only sounds we heard being the thrapping and swash of the waves against our boat. Five minutes--which seemed hours--passed, and then we suddenly lost sight of the barque's headlight, and saw the dull gleam of those aft shining through the cabin ports.
'Thank God!' said the whaler officer, 'he's bringing to.'
Scarcely had he spoken when we heard a hail distinctly.
'Boat ahoy, there, where are you?'
'In the water. We're capsized,' I answered.
No response came; then again they hailed, and again we shouted unitedly, but no reply, and presently we saw a blue light was being burnt on the starboard side--they were looking for us in the wrong quarter. For some minutes our suspense was horrible, for, if the captain thought he had overshot our boat (knowing nothing of the second disaster), he would, we feared, go off on the other tack. Again they hailed, and again we answered, though we were now feeling pretty well done up, and the Portuguese was alternately praying to the saints and consigning his captain to hell.
'Hurrah!' cried Tom, one of my Penrhyn Island boys, 'she's filling away again, and coming down; they've heard us, safe enough.'
It so happened that they had not heard us at all; but the captain, at the earnest request of the ship's cooper, who believed that we had been swamped, and were to leeward, decided to keep away for a short time, and then again bring-to. Not only was he anxious for us, but for the other boats, and the dead whales as well; for he feared that, unless he could get the latter alongside by daylight, and start to cut-in, the sharks would devour the best part of them.
A few more minutes passed, and now we saw the barque looming through the night, and apparently again coming right on top of us. We shouted and screamed till our voices broke into hoarse groans; and then there happened a strange thing. That which had caused our misfortune proved our salvation. We heard a crashing sound, followed by loud cries of alarm, and then saw the ship lying flat aback, canting heavily over to port. Presently she righted, and then made a stern-board, and came so close to us that one of the hands not only heard our cries but saw us in the water.
In an instant the captain called to us to cheer up, and said a boat was coming. 'The ship struck some wreckage, and is making water,' he added.
We were taken aboard in two trips, the poor, broken-legged sailor suffering terribly. He had been kept from drowning by one of the Penrhyn men, who stuck to him like a brick through all the time we were in the water. Neither of these brave islanders had lost heart for a moment, though Harry, the elder of the two, was in consumption and not at all strong.
As soon as we had sufficiently recovered to be able to talk and tell our story, we were pleased to hear from the captain that the ship was not badly injured, and that the pumps--short-handed as he then was--could easily keep the water down; also that all the other boats were safe, and had signalled that they had each 'killed,' and were lying by their whales.
Early in the morning the four ships were within a few miles of each other, and each had one or more whales alongside, cutting-in. The schooner, too, was in sight, lying becalmed under the lee of Ponapé. The captain of the whaler lent me one of his boats, paid me a fair price for the loss of our own, and otherwise treated us handsomely. He was highly pleased at having such 'greasy luck,' i.e., getting three fish, and, besides presenting me with another barrel of potatoes, gave me four bolts of canvas, and each of our natives came away with a small case of tobacco, and five dollars in silver.
We had a long pull to the schooner, and our arrival was hailed with cries of delight. The skipper, we were pleased to learn, was nearly dead, having been severely beaten by the women passengers on board, one of whom, creeping up behind him as he was steering, threw a piece of tappa cloth over his head, while the others bore him to the deck and tied him up and hammered him. He told me a few days afterwards that he had not the slightest recollection of leaving us in the boat.
The wreckage upon which the whale-ship struck was, so her captain imagined, the same which had capsized our boat. As far as he could make out in the darkness, it was a long and wide piece of decking, belonging to a large ship. Our boat, very probably, had gone half her length on top of the edge of it, and was then washed off again after she had bilged; and the strong current had set us clear.