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19th Century American Whaling

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An adventure that actually occurred.

W. H. Macy

Onward: A Magazine for the Young Manhood of America. (NY)
June 1869
pp. 509-516

An adventure that actually occurred.

      "We'll have to cut loose and let him go. It's almost night, and I'm afraid he will run us out of sight of the ship. With this light air, she can never work up to us."

      The speaker was Mr. Ransom, second mate of the ship Crusader of New Bedford, in whose boat I was tub-oarsman. We had been fast for two hours to a vicious "right" whale; a fierce old "Nor"wester," who seemed not disposed to show us any play, but tore through the water at race-horse speed, and was now running us directly to windward.

      "I wouldn't cut as long as we can see her to'gall'nt sails, Mr. Ransom," said Easton, the boat-steerer. "I think he must bring to soon; and if you can get one good lance at him, we'll be all right."

      "Yes, but he won't give me the chance. He seems as strong as ever; and, so far as I can see, has no idea of bringing to."

      In the ardor of the chase, during the afternoon, we had become separated from our comrades, having struck the whale when there was no other boat within supporting distance. They had done their best in vain attempts to reinforce us, but were now so far astern as to be no longer distinguishable. We had not as yet been able to approach the monster near enough to lance him effectually; and we had no bombs with us, the ship having only one gun, and this was in charge of the chief mate, as commodore of the light flotilla.

      Still onward rushed our tireless steed, his trumpet-blast ringing loud and clear, as ever and anon he brought his spiracles to the surface for breath: our light boat dancing in his wake, splitting the seas with her sharp prow, and sending a cloud of subtle spray into our faces.

      The second mate turned, and threw another anxious glance at the distant mastheads of the Crusader, rapidly sinking on the western horizon; while the working of his features plainly bespoke the conflict of feeling natural to a young and ambitious officer, under the circumstances.

      "I hate to cut from a whale," said he, "for I know I could muckle him, if he'd show me the ghost of a chance. But there's but little more daylight, and we mustn't run the risk of losing the ship. You all see how it is, boys?" he added interrogatively as he flourished his boat-knife in the air, "and –– "

      "What's yonder? A fogbank shutting down?" I interrupted, as I saw an ugly mist rising over the water, "You see it, sir?"

      "Cut!" shouted Easton, as his eye followed the glance of mine. "Cut quick, Mr. Ransom!"

      The officer no longer hesitated. A single stroke of his keen knife severed the line, and the whale, as if in triumphant joy at being released, struck the


surface with a thundering flat blow of his ponderous flukes, and vanished from our sight beneath the disturbed water.

      "Lay round, Easton! Give me up the mast and sail. Hold on! Your compass first, and let's set the bearings of the ship. Quick, my boy!"

      The little boat-compass was pulled out from its cleets under the stem, and quickly, but too late! The bank of mist had rolled toward us, and the topgallant sails of our floating home were no longer in sight. Before the compass could be opened and steadied for setting bearings, we were enveloped in the fog, and our visible horizon limited to a radius of fifty yards!

      "Up sail, as fast as you can!" said Mr. Ransom. "Oars! Quick, boys, and give way with a will! We can do no more than pull square to leeward – if it had only held off till we could have got the ship's bearings! But the compass is of no use to us now."

      This is one of the dangers to which the whalesman is peculiarly liable in the higher latitudes of the North-Pacific. We were at the time cruising to the northward of the Aleutian, or Fox Islands, on the ground commonly known as Bristol Bay, and had been quite successful. Fogs, which shut down very suddenly, as in this instance, had proved our greatest drawback.

      We knew that we were in danger. It is beyond the power of the most experienced cruiser in these seas to predict how long one of these fogs may continue. No other ship had been in sight of us during that day, and our only chance of safety lay in finding our own. For this we had no other guide than the direction of the wind which was light and fickle. It might at any moment veer round into another quarter; or, what seemed still more probable, die away to a calm.

      Only those who have been similarly situated can appreciate the peril we were in, or understand our feelings as in silence we plied the oars.

      For a full hour we toiled at them, when, as if to render our isolation more complete, darkness settled down over the sea, and the gloom that shut us in seemed actually tangible. Only one in such a situation can comprehend how bewildering, how completely subversive of all estimates and calculations it is to be surrounded by a dense fog, even during daylight.

      "Heave up and rest, boys!" said Mr. Ransom. "I'll get the lantern out and strike a light, so that we may see the compass. We shall now have to depend upon that. It will be a flat calm in half an hour more. Keep all your ears open for a gun; and make sure of the direction of the sound."

      The keg containing the lantern, and materials for making a light, are part of the inventory of every whaleboat. This was opened, and the light soon flashing upon the little compass at our feet showed that the wind had proved a treacherous guide. We were making a course several points astray from that upon which we had started!

      "This won't do," said our leader, "we must run by the compass now, near as we can. The ship ought to bear from us about west-nor'west, as far as I can judge. Pull ahead!"


      In silence, and with anxious hearts, we resumed our oars; and after the lapse of half an hour Mr. Ransom judged that we had passed over two thirds of the distance to the ship. But the great difficulty was, to know how much we had deviated from a direct course.

      As we rested on our oars for the second time, the boom of a gun was heard. It fell upon our ears with a dull, muffled sound, as if coming from behind a wall. It was not ahead of us, neither. Some thought it was astern; but the greater number agreed that it was nearly abeam to the northward!

      We turned in that direction, again vigorously plied our oars, and made all speed toward the quarter whence the sound seemed to have come.

      But steering with any degree of accuracy was impossible: and when, after the lapse of about fifteen minutes, we heard the gun again, the boom seemed abeam of us; and the boat's head was once more swung round.

      As a matter of course, a few such traverses completely bewildered us, more especially when, instead of the sound seeming nearer to us, it appeared as if receding at each successive repetition.

      "There, peak your oars!" was the order from Mr. Ransom. "We've been flying round like a spin button, till I hardly know which is the head and stem of the boat; and yet we don't gain any on the gun. Judging by the last report, it can't be less than three miles off."

      Listening intently, and taking the opinions of the majority as to direction, we made several more attempts, but with most disheartening result. The more nervous and excited we became, the less our judgment was worth; and the reports gradually died out in the distance, leaving us utterly alone on the ocean, enwrapped in amorphous darkness.

      We had estimated our distance from the ship, when cutting from the whale, to be fully eight miles. With no true magnetic bearings, and nothing to guide the eye, a ship on the waste of waters is a small object to steer for. The reader needs not to be nautically educated to understand that a very slight deflection from the true course would, in running that distance, carry us entirely wide of the mark; while the deceptive character of a sound at sea, under such circumstances, must be understood by every one.

      In despair of reaching the ship, we at length ceased our exertions, "peaked" the oars, and prepared to make ourselves as comfortable as possible for the night . Luckily, we all had our jackets with us, and at that season of the year the weather, even in the latitude of fifty-six degrees, is mild enough – when the wind chances to be light. We had about four gallons of water in the boat, with the stock of hard bread which is always carried in a tarpaulin bag; but, as anxiety had blunted our appetites, we decided to make no attack on the provisions for that night, but husband them for a time of need, which we had good reason to anticipate with fear.

      We stretched ourselves across the thwarts, and tried to sleep, setting one of our number as a look-out – if such he could be called. "Listener" would


be perhaps the better term; for he might as well have essayed to look through a stone wall as the impervious mist that on all sides enveloped us.

      Little sleep came to our eyelids throughout the night; we were up and down by fits and starts, the boat being left to drift wherever she might. Mr. Ransom announced to us, however, that if the fog still continued into the next day, it was his intention to make to the southward – trusting to the chance of landing on one of the Aleutian Islands, or falling in with some ship that might be upon the cruising ground south of us.

      Luckily, the summer nights are short in these latitudes; the darkness wore away at last, and daylight found us all astir and impatient to be doing. It was only a question as to what we should do.

      Breakfast was served out sparingly to those who cared to eat it; and while thus engaged, a light air began to be felt, coming from the north.

      It seemed a favorable omen. We set the sail, to take advantage of it; and our boat gathering headway was soon cleaving the sea to southward.

      "No use fagging ourselves at the oars," remarked Mr. Ransom, "we are as likely to be running away from a ship as toward one. If the breeze freshens from this quarter, as I think it soon will, the fog must lift."

      His prediction was correct: within an hour the mist became thinned; then rose up like a scroll, and rolled away before the breeze that had freshened and was now blowing upon us, raw and chill, as it came down from the colder latitudes.

      With what a thrill of gratitude we saw the fog disappear; and then, rising erect and standing with necks outstretched, we strained our eyes to sweep the horizon around us. Nothing in sight!

      "Look sharp!" was the order given. There was no need to give it. Every man was looking sharp, as if for very life.

      No other word was spoken; we gazed in each others faces, and the barometers of our hopes fell rapidly down, down to the lowest gradation on the scale! We were alone on the expanse of ocean, and the wind was increasing, as we all knew too well, to a gale.

      "A reef in the sail, Easton," commanded our officer. "Let us take turns at the steering-oar. We must run before it. The Fox Islands are ahead of us, at any rate."

      Mr. Ransom tried to say this cheerfully; but the very effort showed how faint was this last forlorn hope, and how slight the prospect of our reaching land in safety.

      With our sail reefed down to a mere rag, we rolled off before the fast-following sea; while an angry, murky sky lowered above us, and the norther blew cold and merciless upon our backs.

      The horizon now kept clear; but hour after hour went by and no sail, or other object broke the level line separating sea from sky.

      Easton stood upon the "clumsy-cleat," steadying himself by the warp in his hand, thus commanding the largest possible range of vision.


      "I'm afeerd," he soliloquized, loud enough to be heard, "that we must be to the s'uthard of all the ships. We've run all o' fifty miles since morning, and should be well off the cruisin ground by this time. See! yonder's something floating, off the port bow," he suddenly exclaimed. "Luff a little, Mr. Ransom! Luff quick! You see it, sir? There it heaves up on a sea! It looks like a drug!"

      At this he sprang nimbly down, and bent his body over the bows. The boat's course was quickly altered, and in a minute after, he and the bowman were jointly endeavoring to lift something into the boat which, sure enough, was a "drug."

      To the surprise of both, their efforts met with an unexpected resistance.

      "There's a line fast to it – a sunken whale!" shouted Ransom, letting fly the sheet, so that the boat's head flew rapidly up into the wind's eye. "Under-run the line, and bring it into the chocks. Roll up that sail, you Manoel! Quick! the wind is piping on fast and heavy; but if we can hold on to this line, it may be our salvation."

      In a few minutes we had gathered in the stray line, and were riding short up and down – anchored, as it were, to the sunken whale!

      We now "veered and hauled" to ease the strain; while another piece of line was bent, as low down as possible, for a "preventer." Then every precaution was taken against its chafing.

      "It's safer to ride here head to the sea, than undertake to run on through the night," suggested the young officer. "It's going to be a blow; and we'll have it mountains high before morning. Examine the drug, Easton; see if there's any ship's mark on it."

      "There is, sir," replied Easton, turning the piece of wood over, and showing some letters burnt deeply into one of its sides.

      They were, "pie ix. rouen."

      "'Pius the Ninth' – French whaler," muttered the second mate. "I knew she was on this ground, somewhere."

      On saying this, he pulled out a codfish-line, which happened to have been left under the stern-sheets after being used two or three days before – for Bristol Bay affords a fishing-ground as inexhaustible as the banks of Newfoundland.

      Throwing the lead overboard, he let the line run out to the bottom.

      "Forty-seven fathoms," he said, looking at his marks. "A good depth for codfish. Not so deep but that the whale might be saved, if a ship had good hold on him, in moderate weather. Well, we must lie by it to-night, and trust to Providence for our safety."

      We made our supper, if such it could be called, on hard-tack and water; while the gale piped on harder and harder, and our situation grew every hour more unsafe. The angry, chopping swell, raised by the wind blowing over a shallow sea, tossed our little craft about like an egg-shell, now and then combing in over the bows, so as to keep us bailing for dear life; while the


icy blast, coming direct from the polar sea, and striking against our drenched bodies, chilled us to the very marrow.

      But we hung on to our strange anchorage, as to an ark of safety; while the shades of night came down and closed over us again, with no abatement of the storm, and no object in sight save the wild sea raging angrily around us.

      In vain we gazed dimly through the spray at each successive rise of our boat upon the crest of a swelling wave. The apathy of despair had settled down upon us, as the darkness upon the deep.

      All at once we were roused to fresh life by an exclamation from Easton.

      "Our line's slacked up," said he, "and we're drifting to leeward! The line's parted, or else we've drawn the iron!"

      "God help us if we have," answered the second mate. "But no; I don't think it," he continued. "Gather in the slack, and see! The whale must be coming up. Hurrah! there he is, high and dry!"

      We all echoed the shout as the immense mass loomed glittering against the gloom, spunging suddenly up to nearly half its huge bulk above the surface of the water; while a terrific snapping was heard, as the confined gas made its escape through the lance-holes, and a perfume, not of Arabia Felix, came sweeping into our nostrils.

      Luckily, we were far enough to leeward, as the huge carcass bulged up. Had it risen directly under us, the boat would have been capsized, and all of us left struggling in the sea.

      "Hurrah, boys!" again shouted the young officer, as the whale buoyed up before us. "This is a perfect God-send. We shall make good weather of it now. We shall have a floating anchor, and a large slick to windward of it!"

      It will be readily understood that the rising of the whale to the surface was simply the effect of natural causes. The process of decomposition had been going on for two or three days, and the buoyant power of the pent-up gases would soon have been sufficient of itself to overcome the pressure of the water at that moderate depth. Added to this, the agitation of the mighty mass, caused by our strain upon the line, was sufficient to start it. Rising very slowly at first, but with gradually increasing velocity, it was tossed to the surface with great force, and shot into view, like a volcanic island suddenly uplifted by some terrible latent power exerted from the bottom of the sea.

      This change in the situation of affairs proved beyond all doubt the salvation of our lives; for the gale continued throughout the night, with even greater fury than before. But we were now enabled to ride head to the wind under the lee of the whale; while a large extent of surface on both sides and to windward of us was smoothed down into comparative calm by the oil that had escaped from the carcass, forming what is well known among whalemen by the name of a "slick." The waves no longer broke over this enchanted ground, nor ventured within its limits; and spite the war of elements still raging around, we felt as the Israelites in the Red Sea, in perfect security.


      A thank-offering was sent up from all our hearts; a silent one, but not the less sincere. We gave thanks to the God of mercies, whose outstretched arm had thus so strangely protected us.

      The chilling blasts swept over us; the odor of the decaying carcass was almost overpowering to the senses; the hoarse screams of ravenous albatrosses, themselves sitting sheltered in the "slick," rang in our ears; but we cared not for these, since the yet more ravenous sea had been stilled by the Omnipotent hand, and by such unexpected means, that we felt confident of safety.

      Daylight came again, and along with it a joyful cry. It was from Manoel, our keen-eyed Portuguese midship-oarsman, whose watch it was.

      "Sail ho!" shouted he, "to wind'ard."

      We followed the direction of his extended arm, and beheld a large ship lying to under goose-winged main-top-sail and storm-stay-sails. She was not more than two miles off; but it was still a question whether those on board of her could see us.

      "Step the mast!" were the first words from Mr. Ransom. "She may see that. She can't help noticing this slick; and may keep off her course for the chance to follow it down. We must hold on where we are. It would be no use trying to pull toward them. We could make no way to windward."

      The stranger kept on till nearly abreast of us, when her head fell off – as we thought, more than is usual for a ship lying to. We stood with suspended breath, watching her every movement. Was it only a yaw?

      "No," cried Easton, "she is keeping off to examine the slick!"

      Joy! we now saw the mizzen-stay-sail collapse, and come down with a run.

      She might be wearing round for the other tack; but no; the helm met her again; and obedient to it, she turned into her head directly toward us.

      A cheer rose spontaneously, sent up from six sturdy sets of lungs – for we felt that, if we could get alongside of her in smooth water, we were saved

      Nearer and nearer she approached, rolling majestically in the trough of the sea; and now we could see men in the rigging. Surely we must be seen! The body of the whale, and our mast rising near it, were conspicuous objects. She was luffed to in such a position as to drift directly down upon us, and the masterly skill and judgment shown in this, placed the matter beyond doubt.

      "We are seen!" at length shouted Ransom. "We shall be saved if it be within the power of that brave seaman to get us on board his vessel. Up goes the tri-color to his gaff. It must be the Pius Ninth, for I know of no other Frenchman this season on the ground."

      The nautical reader will readily appreciate the difficulty of approaching a ship and getting on board in such weather. But the whole operation was most admirably managed by the French captain. His ship sagged directly down upon the whale; and a line was dexterously thrown at us. We caught this, and were ready to haul upon it, before slipping the other one we had attached to the carcass. But the operation of hauling under the ship's lee was a delicate one; and, before we were close enough to think of climbing


her side, she had forged ahead, so as to run almost beyond the limits of the slick. The crew of the Frenchman had now clustered along the lee rail, in the waist, and were swarming in the main-chains; bronzed, bearded faces, lighted up with kindly sympathy, looked down upon us, and strong arms were ready to seize us at the first opportunity. At one moment they would be nearly twenty feet above us, at the next their hands almost touched us. Carefully we watched for a favorable chance.

      "Gather in, now!" was the word.

      The ship rolled scuppers-to, and our movement had been well timed.

      "Now!" was again repeated; and my companions were all laid hold of at the same moment. I alone had lost the chance, by falling over the thwart.

      Once more the French faces were looking down from above. A dozen ropes, with bow-lines at their end, were flung at me. Slipping one over my head and under my arms, I gave the signal by a wave of my hand, and was jerked upon the rail. Next moment the ship brought her main-channel down upon the boat, that, yielding like a chip, rolled over and filled. With the next heave of the huge vessel, the warp snapped like a thread, and she was tossed off a shattered wreck, just as I, with bruised body but grateful heart, was lifted over the bulwarks, and stood safe on the Frenchman's deck.

      Six weeks later, as we lay in the outer anchorage at Honolulu, we saw another ship just heaving in sight round Diamond Head, whose well-known rig told her to be the Crusader. It was dark before the rattle of her chain announced that she had chosen her berth, only at a little distance from us.

      Hastily we manned one of the Frenchman's boats, and pulled for her.

      "Boat ahoy!" was hailed from the ship. "Who are you?"

      "Cast away Crusaders," answered our second mate in his natural voice.

      Our tender-hearted old captain leaped upon the rail, crying out:

      "Mr. Ransom, is it you?"

      "Ay, ay, sir. All right," was the answer.

      "Are your crew safe?"

      "All here in the boat, sir."

      "God be praised!" exclaimed the good old man in a choking voice, while a fervent "Amen" was returned by all of us.

      He had cruised all over the ground where we had been lost, day after day, hoping against hope; he had found and secured the whale from which we had cut loose, and which had afterward died of the wounds we had given it; he had spoken every vessel seen, in the hope of hearing from us; and had at length given us up for lost, supposing we could not have outlived the gale, which had been the heaviest of that season.

      It was the finest sight in the world, to behold the brave old fellow shedding tears, as he shook hands with all; and I am sure that neither he, nor any one of us who were in the boat, will ever forget this episode of our lives, or cease our gratitude to Heaven for preserving them, by means so apparently miraculous.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Saved by a Whale "Slick."
Publication: Onward: A Magazine for the Young Manhood of America. (NY)
Vol/No/Date: June 1869
Pages: 509-516