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Being an adventure that occurred
in the Sea of Okhotsk.

W. H. Macy

November 1869
pp. 387-393

Being an adventure that occurred
in the Sea of Okhotsk.

      "Let's go in with the boats, and have a look along shore," said Mr. Warren, the mate of the Standard, as he came down from the masthead.

      "Can you get in do you think?" asked Captain Sayre, dubiously.

      "Yes, sir, I think we can. This ice is open – that is to say, open for a boat; and, as it's still weather, there'll be no trouble about passing through it I can see a strip of clear water, all along shore, between the ice and the land."

      "Well, go ahead then, if you think there's any chance of finding a whale in-shore. There's nothing like trying, at any rate."

      The land which lay before us, stretching as far as could be seen each way along the northern board, was the sterile region of Siberia, on the shore of the Sea of Okhotsk – a sea, of which the waters were then teeming with unwrought wealth; for, though a whaling-ground of comparatively small extent, it yielded immense returns to American enterprise for many seasons after it was opened.

      The stream of drift-ice, extending in a line parallel with the shore, was not more than two miles in width, and composed of pieces of moderate size. With a fair working breeze, the ship might have been pushed through it without much danger. But at this time it was nearly calm; and we did not care to stand close into the land, unless certain of finding something to reward our efforts.

      Our expedition of reconnoisance was soon ready to move, consisting of three boats, in charge of the three mates, the captain remaining on board.

      We found the ice open enough for boats to pass easily, and wound our way through it without accident.

      As Mr. Warren had reported, a belt of clear water was discovered beyond it, full half a mile in width; and here we cruised, not together, but with intervals of a mile or two between the boats, keeping a bright lookout for the least break upon the surface, that might indicate the presence of a "bowhead."

      The water was smooth and still as that of an inland pond when no wind disturbs it. The greatest caution and quiet were necessary; for the whales had become exceedingly shy, from having been hunted for a week previously, almost without intermission.

      Only the day before, a dozen ships had been in sight near this spot, when the ice-stream set down out of the "north-east gulf." They had all shifted their ground, and we were left, for the time being, alone.


      The hours had passed away up till noon; and only a finback or two had been seen. These were hardly game worthy of our steel; to say nothing of the almost utter impossibility of approaching them within striking distance.

      "The whales have all left," said Mr. Warren, despondingly. "We shall do nothing here to-day. Let's go ashore and get dinner," he continued, throwing the boat's head round. "Here is a good landing place; and we can keep a lookout from this little hill."

      We hauled our boat up on the beach, and selecting the driest spot we could find for a pic-nic place, made our noon-day meal of hard tack and cooked rations of "bovine mahogany" we had brought with us. Then lighting our pipes, we started for a stroll to the top of a neighboring eminence; whence we might command an extensive prospect seaward and along shore.

      Patches of snow still lay unmelted in some places, while the general nature of the soil at a short distance inland was a series of heavy, soggy turf-knolls. From these the water squirted up at every step we took, as if they had been so many saturated sponges.

      Our impressions of the goodly realm of the Czar Nicholas, judging from what we saw, were not unlike those of the troops of Napoleon's grand army, in the reign of his sire. Well might we wonder that a Russian – or any other human being – should have the assurance to call Russia "a country."

      The low land seemed to present naught else but those everlasting clumps of water-logged turf, with here and there a belated snowdrift, or a boulder of volcanic rock.

      We found it but little better traveling as we ascended the acclivity. Our boots sucked down into the boggy ground, which added greatly to the difficulty of the ascent. On gaining the summit, we perceived that the hill formed the headland of a small cove, which we had not noticed while in the boat.

      We hastened onward to its farther verge, for the purpose of having a peep into the small inlet beyond; the mate, with his long stride, taking the lead of the rest.

      Suddenly we saw him halt, and hold up both hands, as if in an ecstacy of surprise.

      "No noise!" he cautioned us as we drew near. "Come on; look there!"

      Down in the smooth cove below, a polar whale of the largest class, an old "cow" with immense "arch," and great patches of white about the spiracles, lay basking in the still water, within darting distance of the rocks at the base of the hill. To us, perched almost directly above, she presented a view of all her proportions and movements, rarely attainable in the case of a living whale.

      Smothering our excitement, we stood in silence, gazing down upon her; while, all unconscious of danger, she lay there breaking the stillness by her


slow, deep respirations, and scaling her immense tail to the right and left, under water, in sheer sportiveness.

      When at last she went down, she did so with a gradual slant; for there was not sufficient depth of water to admit of her "turning flukes" in the orthodox way.

      "Come on, men!" said the mate. "Down to the beach!"

      We hurried back to our boat, pushed her out, and paddled silently along shore. We allowed her to drift into the cove, with the aid of an occasional light paddle-dip; and choosing our position with the best possible judgment, we remained for a full hour in almost unbroken silence.

      But the placid surface of the basin was undisturbed by even a ripple; and though we had also a clear view outside, no whale was to be seen.

      We were not so much surprised, for we knew that such a mysterious disappearance is no uncommon occurrence in polar-whaling. I have met with old northern cruisers, who stoutly believed that this species of whale could remain below the surface for an indefinite period of time, or as long as they chose to stay.

      Swallowing our disappointment with what grace we could, we cruised the greater part of the afternoon without seeing anything to reward our efforts. The sky had gradually become overcast, and a breeze from the eastward blowing along shore, rippled the hitherto level surface of the sea. The ship was still in sight in the offing, heading in towards us; but the increasing mist threatened soon to hide her entirely from our view.

      The mate now set his waif as a signal for the other two boats to close with us.

      "What have you seen?" he asked of each officer, as soon as they came within hail.

      "Nothing – but finbacks," was the answer from both. The only bowhead seen during the day was the one of which we had had so tantalizing a view from the headland on the shore.

      "I could look right down into her spout-holes and see 'em wink! " said Mr. Warren, with professional enthusiasm. "It was the finest sight I ever saw in my life! But she went down, and that's the last of her. I don't like the change of weather," he continued, "and I think the sooner we all put off the better if we mean to sleep on board to-night. We can see the ship now; but we mayn't be able to in another hour. Oars, men! Pull ahead!"

      We shot rapidly out towards the stream of drift-ice, under the impulse of long, regular strokes of the oars, the officers keeping their eyes steadily fixed upon the ship that was now only dimly visible.

      The second mate's boat, being much faster than the others, at once took lead, and was well into the ice-field before we reached the nearest edge of it. The ice was already in motion when we entered it, and the boat of Mr. Grover, the third mate, was close in our wake.


      For some time we worked our way along between the pieces, but the whirl and agitation of the fragments was every moment increasing in violence. It seemed to be acted upon by a current, as well as by the wind, which was fast freshening.

      "What do you think about it, Mr. Grover?" hailed Mr. Warren, speaking to the third mate.

      "That we had better get out of it, the shortest way," was the not very encouraging answer.

      "That will be by putting back, then," said Mr. Warren. "We are not halfway through it yet. Where's Mr. Lawrence's boat?"

      He asked this question, Because we had been so entirely occupied with our own tortuous course, that we had lost the run of the second mate.

      "There she is," answered Mr. Grover's boat-steerer, pointing with his hand. "She's almost through it."

      Our situation was momentarily becoming more desperate, as the pieces of ice, grinding against each other, barred our progress and threatened our frail boat with destruction. The mate looked, first seaward, then landward; balancing in his mind for a moment the chances of "ship or shore." He spoke at length, as if his mind had been fully made up as to what we should do:

      "Lay round, Mr. Grover, and pull for the shore again. That's our best chance!"

      This change of movement gave the third mate's boat the lead; and we followed, keeping as close as possible to his steering-oar. But at times the opening through which he had passed, would close before we could enter it

      Several times, as the boat was in danger of being steel-trapped, as it were, between two large pieces of ice, at a word from the officer we all jumped over upon the ice, lifting her by the gunwales, and at the same time stamping off the edges of the ice with our heavy boots.

      Thus we would drag her over into a clear space to jump in again, and pull for the next available opening.

      It was a case of life and death with us; for none of us needed to be told, that if our boats were crushed between the moving fragments, our lives would be hardly worth struggling for. We knew that but a half inch of cedar board was between us and eternity!

      For the distance of half a mile or more we thus fought for our lives. All our efforts did not save the frail structures from being nipped; though we were still able to keep them afloat by bailing.

      And when at last we placed them once more in open water, heading leisurely back toward the inhospitable Siberian shore, we had lost all trace of the ship, as well as of the second mate's boat.

      Night was approaching, and a thick mist settling down upon the sea. A gun was heard; but it conveyed to us only a faint, rumbling report; and we had no means of answering it, at that distance.


      The danger of our situation, while beset in the ice-field, may be better understood when it is considered, that, although the stream has, of course, one general set or drift, yet its various fragments, acting upon each other, give and receive deflective motions more or less eccentric, and often rotatory. Thus their relative positions are constantly changing, new passages opening between them, and closing as suddenly as opened.

      We felt considerable anxiety about the fate of Mr. Lawrence and his crew. When last seen, we thought his chance of making his way through was at least as good as ours of reaching the open water in-shore. We were not uneasy about the ship; for in this case there were no pieces of ice heavy enough to endanger a stout vessel, though they might injure her by superficial chafing.

      We carried our battered and leaky boats up high on the shore; and, taking out the loose craft, turned them bottom up. The masts were planted firmly in the earth, and the sails stretched out formed a "lee," or partial shelter from the cold wind. Driftwood was collected, sufficient to keep a bonfire going through the night, as well as to floor off, or corduroy, an extent of the wet ground sufficient to form a sleeping place.

      Our commissary department, it may be mentioned, was now at rather a low ebb. We had come provided only for the day; and having but a few fragments left after the dinner, long since eaten, we were obliged to fall back upon the small reserve stock of hard bread, always carried in the "lantern-keg" of every whale-boat, when in active service. We knew that we should not suffer for that night, at least; but we also knew that our first business next morning must be to look out for provisions.

      We were disappointed in finding that there were no muscles or other shell-fish on the shore; and as for vegetation – at least in any form that would furnish food for hungry men – it would have scorned to grow in such a locality.

      We finished our supper – the bill of fare being strictly a felon's diet, bread and water – and posted pickets, not forgetting to have our lances and harpoons conveniently at hand; for we had seen the tracks of some monstrous animal, which we had no doubt was the dangerous polar bear.

      Having taken these precautions, we wrapped our jackets about our bodies and stretched ourselves round the bonfire, like old campaigners.

      The wind was raw and chill, despite the flimsy "lee" afforded by the boats' sails; and the ice, which had set in nearer the shore, was crackling and grinding all night, in the short chop raised by the fresh breeze. There was little sleep for any of us; the dormitory being decidedly too airy, to say nothing of its humidity, which was extreme for the latitude of fifty-nine.

      Yet with the usual reckless and light-hearted jollity of seamen, our recent peril in the ice-drift was now made light of; and even our lonely situation on that sterile shore, with the uncertainty as to how long we might be


imprisoned there, furnished food for jokes and laughter to the more thoughtless among us.

      "I suppose the old man has given us all up for lost," remarked one of the boys.

      "Of course he has. If Mr. Lawrence got aboard safe, he would report us right in the middle of the ice-field."

      "This beats Kelp," said the mate. "We used to have some scrapes in the Kelp, on the southern right-whaling voyages; eh, Mr. Grover?"

      "Yes, sir. But we're all right, with the land under our feet now; and we can't be here many days without seeing some ship, if not our own."

      "Even if we don't, I suppose we shall find a Russian settlement somewhere within a hundred miles along the shore," remarked Mr. Warren.

      "I wish a polar bear would come about," said the third mate.

      "Why so?" asked several of the party.

      "We'd kill him, and get some provisions. What would not a hungry man fight for, if not for his grub?"

      But Mr. Grover's desires were not destined to be gratified, for no bear came near us. Doubtless the unwonted phenomenon of a blazing bonfire – to say nothing of twelve men grouped round it – was sufficient to keep bruin at a respectful distance.

      The short night wore away without any adventure; and with returning daylight came the thought of provisions, as the first and most important necessity.

      We dispersed on a sort of unorganized foray, in search of anything that might be eatable; but soon came together again at our night camping-place, nearly as empty-handed as when we set out. The mate had shot a couple of small birds; that did not furnish much addition to our stock. We had only one gun with us, and but a few charges of powder and shot Some other source of supply must, therefore, be found, and that soon, for we began to feel the fear of starvation.

      No ship was yet to be seen; for the mist concealed everything beyond a radius of a mile or two. But the ice, from its agitation and attrition during the night, was broken up into smaller fragments, and might now be passed through with safety.

      In our wanderings on the beach we came upon many pieces of ship-timber, staves of casks, ironwork, and other relics of wreck. We knew that these were of the whale-ship Houqua, which had been totally lost on that coast the year before. But her debris was of little use to us; the discovery of a seal, or a bed of muscles, would have been much more to our liking.

      After our very meagre breakfast we pushed the boats afloat, and manned our oars for a pull along shore.

      A couple of miles brought us near the base of a lofty bluff, which we had visited about a week before, when we had climbed it for birds' eggs. To our


disappointment we found that we could not now approach it with the boats near enough to land.

      The cliff towered several hundred feet above our heads, a bulwark of sterile rock, startling in its rugged sublimity. At its base a confused heap of boulders were massed together in the wildest confusion, some of them of vast size. They had evidently fallen down from the sea-face of the cliff, having been split off at various times by the intense frost of Arctic winters. Among these the chopping sea was dashing with considerable force, grinding up the lumps of ice that came in contact with them.

      We saw that it would never do to risk our boats in attempting to land; and reluctantly we had to rest on our oars, and take counsel together as to our next movement.

      It was at length decided to pull out a short distance, and try the passage of the ice, hoping we might now get sight of the ship. We headed seaward, and as we advanced were astonished at the change which had been produced by a few hours' agitation. We met with no ice pieces of any size, but such as could be easily avoided; while the greater part of the field appeared to have become almost pulverized.

      We went dashing and rattling along among the reduced masses, and ere many minutes were electrified by the cry of "Sail, O!" from Mr. Grover's boat, that was some distance ahead.

      The mist had thinned a little, and there was the ship, hove-to, within a mile of us!

      We were soon assured of the fact that it was our own ship, for we knew every patch in her well-worn topsails. An involuntary cheer was sent up simultaneously from both boats, and in a few minutes after we were alongside the Standard.

      We found the second mate and his crew safe on board. As expected, he had of course reported us as being in the middle of the ice-field when last seen; and the captain had passed a sleepless night, tortured with anxiety as to our fate, while we were quite safe on terra firma, though not by any means snug.

      We had, in truth, passed a most miserable night in Siberia – almost as miserable as the French soldiers could have been at Moscow.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: A Night in Siberia: Being an adventure that occurred in the Sea of Okhotsk.
Publication: Onward.
Vol/No/Date: November 1869
Pages: 387-393