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19th Century American Whaling

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A Real Character and a Real Incident.

W. H. Macy

January 1870
pp. 31-34

A real character and a real incident.

      It was the one great object of life with Captain Ambrose Hiller, in the old Cassandra, to immortalize himself on canvas. Not in the ordinary sense, as an artist, but by keeping it spread on his spars, long after his more prudent consorts had put it, by dint of reef-point and gasket, snug under control. He ought, in virtue of this weakness (or strength, as he considered it), to have been in command of the "Flying Cloud" or the "Sovereign of the Seas," instead of the Cassandra.

      Not but that our veteran blubber-hunter was a good safe boat; indeed she could well carry all that her spars and cordage were fit to bear – these last being rather ancient and untrustworthy. But Captain Hiller never seemed to consider that it is much more convenient and becoming, even for the best sea-boat, to carry her sticks in an erect position, than to drag them at all sorts of oblique angles.

      The storm-beaten rock, Diego Ramirez, a sort of outpost which guards the passage round the Horn, bore directly abeam of us, with a howling gale following us up from west-south-west The Cassandra, deeply-laden, but with what seamen call a "lively cargo," oil and whalebone, reeled off before it under single-reefed fore and main-topsails and fore-course, while two of our best men had their hands full at the wheel. The captain was in his element – only one thing was wanting to crown his felicity – the sight of a consort bound on the same course, that he might "out-carry" him.

      "Pretty well done, old C'sandry!" said he, in a kind of monologue, addressed to no one in particular, as he swung his flexible sea-legs fore-and-aft the quarter-deck. "She washes her own decks and rings her own bells, now! The Di-eegos in sight, too – that's always welcome, especially if we haven't seen the sun for two or three days; because it tells us where we are better than a whole slateful of figgers. We shall be in the Atlantic to-night, with plenty of room to slant her away to the north'ard. I think she'll bear a little more tappa, eh, Mr. Murray? The wind's steady."

      "Steady enough," answered the mate; "and quite enough of it. I think she's carryin' all prudent canvas now. Them topmast backstays is none too good," he added, with a warning glance aloft.

      "Well, I do'know; I guess they are good enough. If we don't try 'em well we shall never know whether they are good or not; and if they ain't good, we don't want 'em."

      The mate was silenced, if not convinced, by this strange logic; but the cry of "Sail, oh!" from forward diverted both their minds from the subject for the present.


      A bark, lying to, directly in our track, not more than two miles off. But a few minutes would be required to pass her.

      "He's a whaler, and homeward bound, too," said Mr. Murray, as soon as he brought the glass to bear.

      "How do you know?" asked his superior.

      "I know by the look of his boats; and more, by the copper, or rather the want of copper, on his bends."

      "Yes, that's a sure mark," said Captain Hiller, taking the glass and satisfying himself. "A homeward-bounder and layin' under storm-stays'ls and a goose-wing! What's he thinkin' on, to be hove to with this breeze?"

      "Perhaps she isn't so good a ship to scud as the C'sandry," suggested the mate.

      "No, there ain't many't is. We'll show him what we can do. Give her the main-to'gans'l, Mr. Murray!" And the captain drove the joints of his telescope together with a bang.

      It was useless to remonstrate now. The fiat had gone forth, and it was ours to obey. The captain had mounted his hobby, which was, especially, carrying topgallant-sails over single-reefs.

      The sail was loosed, sheeted home, and hoisted without accident, and our craft seemed fairly to leap under the added strain, while the towering seas rolled on in her wake, impotent to overtake us.

      "I know who she is now, Mr. Murray," said the delighted captain. "She's the Arab, that left Turkeywarner (Talcahuano) a week ahead of us. He ought to'been down off the Falklands now, with the winds he has had. Mind your helm, there! and keep her straight! Right for that feller's mainmast! "

      "You won't pass very near him, I suppose, sir?" said Mr. Murray, inquiringly.

      "I'm going to speak him!"

      "It's ticklish work in such a sea-way as this, sir."

      "Oh, I can shave right under his counter, if them fellers don't get to sleep there at the wheel."

      There was little fear of it under the circumstances; though perhaps the captain meant to be understood figuratively.

      "My trumpet, steward! "

      It was already forthcoming; and the captain, seeing it, mounted lightly into the head of the quarter-boat, and stood erect, with a majesty of bearing worthy of – Britannia, ruling the waves.

      Meanwhile, the captain and officers of the Arab were to be seen grouped near the taffrail, involuntarily shrinking back as we dashed down in our mad career towards them; for it seemed as if we were bent on "giving them the stern," with no more compunction than we might have shown in attacking a Malay pirate.

      "Port! port your helm!"


      But our ship, as if determined to be contrary at the most critical moment, had taken a wayward sheer, and it was necessary to jam the helm hard over to counteract it. For a moment we watched the effect with suspended breath; even Captain Hiller jumped back from his perilous station in the quarter-boat. But she swung just in time, obedient to the power of her rudder.

      We could look away in under the Arab's counter, as she pitched heavily forward at that moment, elevating her stern in mid air. We flew past her wake like a race-horse, Captain Hiller roaring through his brass tube, "How are you, Nichols! Give us your hawser, and I'll take you in tow!" They might almost have crossed trumpets as single-sticks, when the bark's stern came down again on the "send-aft." The quarter-boat barely escaped destruction; but at the last moment, the end of a spare spar, projecting from the bark's stern-hawse, caught the ship's spanker-bang. A single jerk, as we tore clear of each other, and the gaff came thundering down upon the house over our heads. The astonished Captain Nichols had found no words to reply to our hail; we had passed out of hearing before he could gather his scattered wits.

      We shuddered to think of what might have been the result, had the two vessels come bodily in contact. No great harm had been done, as yet; but the helmsmen, thrown off their guard by the sudden fall of the gaff, had allowed the ship to make another broad yaw.

      "Starboard! Starboard hard, and meet her!"

      It was too late. The gale, blowing so strong on one quarter, proved too much for the strength of our backstays. Crash came the maintop-gallant-mast and sail, with all the hamper, down about our ears, adding another element to the confusion and excitement.

      "What she can't carry, she'll drag," muttered the mate. "Guess it'll be enough, without towing the Arab."

      "Bear a hand, there, and clear away the wreck!" said the captain, as soon as the ship had swung back to her course. "Get it all down on deck, as fast as you can!"

      "You don't see the worst of it, sir," answered Mr. Murray, pointing aloft. "The head of the topmast is gaping at the sheave-hole!"

      Here was a kettle of fish. Quite enough for us to do to get the ship under short sail and make all snug, though we succeeded in getting it done, without the topmast breaking entirely off. The wind began to moderate down while we were thus engaged; but we dared not attempt to run before the mountainous sea, when unable to carry a press of canvas. The only safety, in scudding, is to drive the vessel fast enough to keep ahead of the rollers – if her spars will bear it.

      Night found us lying to, waiting for the sea to go down; and the next morning, while trying to cobble up our damages, we had the satisfaction of seeing the Arab pass us, at a safe distance, but not so far off as to hinder us


from fancying that we could hear her skipper say to us through his speaking-trumpet: "How are you, Hiller? Give us your hawser, and I'll take you in tow!"

      A large clipper ship, showing a cloud of studding-sails, passed us shortly after. It was the Bald Eagle.

      "He's rigged for it,"growled the mate, as he looked after the latter. "I suppose, if we hadn't got into this snarl, the old man would be for tryin' to out-carry him to-day. If he hadn't wanted to show off to Nichols, and got all hands up-in-heaps, and the ship away off'n her course, she would ha' gone through all right I never see nothin' gained by tryin' to be too smart."

      Nor did he in this case; for the Arab, though no great sailer, arrived home a fortnight ahead of us, while our sharp-shooting friend, the Bald Eagle, beat us thirty days!


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Too Smart a Sailsman.
Publication: Onward
Vol/No/Date: January 1870
Pages: 31-34