Bibliographic Information

The Plough Boy Journals

The Journals and Associated Documents

The Plough Boy Anthology

19th Century American Whaling

Bonin Islands

Pitcairn's Island

Dictionaries & Glossaries

Ashley's Glossary of
Whaling Terms

Dana's Dictionary of
Sea Terms


W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. XXXIV, No. 3 (Sep 1871)
pp. 228-234.

228 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

. . . .



      "Thoph" Bates could draw the longbow with any man that I ever was shipmate with; and I've sailed with some pretty tough specimens in the course of my wanderings. He never seemed to make any effort, either, in telling a yarn. He knew how to make it entertaining, too; and would sit and reel off twisters by the hour at a time, and you'd never stop to think whether it was all true or false until you had swallowed the whole of it.

      Thoph – I suppose he may have been christened Theophilus, but I never heard him called so, and should never recognize him, wearing any such stately title – Thoph, I say, was a smart fellow, and not alone with his tongue and his powers of invention in the story line. We had no smarter one in the watch, especially for any duty aloft, night or day. There was nothing of the shirk about him; and, on the whole, Thoph was a valuable man, and appreciated as such in both ends of the good ship Rienzi. But I don't think he could help lying, if he tried; I always thought it was constitutional with him.

      He had been telling us a story, the night that we ran into the Gulf Stream, homeward bound, when a change of weather was coming on, such as is common enough in that locality. The heavens were growing heavy and dark, and the breeze piping harder and harder, so that we had been obliged to take in the to'gallant sails, one at a time; but we were bound to drive all we could upon her, for we already imagined we could smell the American coast, and the old man had been heard to say that, if we could carry on but twenty-four hours longer, we should be able to get hold of Montauk Point. I believe Thoph had a hand in furling all three to'gallantsails, for he seldom allowed anybody to get ahead of him on such duty.

      The yarn that he had on stretch that night was about a shipmate of his, who fell overboard while going over the futtock-shrouds, lumbered up in a big monkey-jacket and pair of fisherman's boots, with a double-burton-block and I don't know how many coils of cordage slung round his neck – and sung out "Man overboard!" on the way down before he struck the water. With all the embellishments, he spun it out to a marvellous length;

Adrift. 229

and when he came down from his work aloft, would take it up where he left off, and go on with it, crouching under the weather-rail out of the force of the wind, and sending forth fresh chapters of it, like proclamations, so that we could all hear it, and inventing it as fast as he went on, without hesitation or stoppage. He had his shipmate towing astern by a line which had been thrown at him from the topsail when the ship was going six knots through the water, when the mate interrupted his further progress by the cry:

      "Clew down the foretopsail!"

      It was quite time, too, for the wind was increasing fast, and the aspect of the heavens indicated that we should have enough of it before midnight. We sprang to our stations with a will; and hardly was the yard down upon the lifts and the reef-tackles out, before Thoph was half way up the weather fore-rigging, his feet seeming hardly to touch the ratlines. Before some of the laggards had reached the foretop, his voice rang out in the darkness from the weather yardarm:

      "Light out to wind'ard-a-ard!"

      I happened to be next to him, and took the dog's-ear, assisting him to reeve the earing. I then remembered that, while glancing aloft during the day, I had noticed that the earing had the appearance of being "stranded," low down, on the standing part. I was not sure of it, however; but I thought enough about it to, give him a word of warning:"

      "Look out for yourself, Thoph, the earing might part and let you backwards."

      "No. Guess not. Light out hard now, boys!"

      He threw the bight of the earing over his neck, bending down as he did so; then leaning back with a jerk to bring his whole power to bear. Just then the sail filled with wind, and bellied out hard against his pull; I heard a sort of dull snap as the earing parted, and Thoph vanished in the darkness!"

      "Man overboard!" I shouted. "Lay in! Lay in, off the yard!"

      My frightened shipmates were not slow to obey the order. We scrambled down on deck, where the alarm was already raised, and the mate had cut away both the life-buoys from the taffrail, on the first impulse of the moment. But what availed it all? There was not one chance in a million of doing anything to help Thoph. There was no doubt but the fall from such a height had knocked the wind out of him; and very little could be done with a boat, when it was so rugged; to say nothing of the darkness being so thick you could feel it. Our strained senses of hearing could detect no sound; and soon the order was sadly given to lay aloft again and finish reefing the topsail; for the safety of the spars and of the ship herself must be attended to without further delay.

      And so, Thoph Bates passed out from among us, and, after the customary obituary remarks, was soon forgotten; for two days afterwards we were at home among our friends, and had neither leisure nor desire to dwell upon melancholy subjects.

      I was sauntering along South Street, New York, about three months afterwards, when I was saluted with a jolly hail in a voice that startled me with a conviction that the sea had, for once, given up its dead. I turned to meet the grinning features and outstretched hand of the inveterate story-teller, Thoph!

      "How'd you make out reefing that tops'l that night I left you at such short notice?"

      He had asked this strange question before I had found voice to express my astonishment at his being in the hand of the living. My second thought was, that he had made an addition to his stock of marvellous stories, such as would eclipse any one of the old list; and, accepting his invitation to go on board the Louis Philippe packet-ship, in which he had just arrived from Havre, I made up my mind that scarcely any version of his three months' adventures would be too improbable for credit. Sindbad might be out-Sindbaded now, and I would believe every word of it without demur or hesitation. I have doubts of my ability to infuse a sufficiency of my faith into my readers, to whom I try to repeat Thoph's story.

      "When that rotten earing parted – "

      "'Twasn't rotten, Thoph, 'twas stranded from chafing."

      "Well, never mind – don't interrupt – when that earing parted, and I took leave of you with a back somersault, I thought of every act of my life between then and the time I struck the water."

      "Not of all the twisters you had told, I hope."

      "Yes; but I never tell anything but true stories, so my conscience was clear on that score, whatever anybody else may think about it. Well, when I finally struck, of

230 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

      course it knocked all thought and consciousness out of me for the moment, as well as the breath, and I knew nothing except that I seemed to be going down, down, until I didn't know even that.

      "Well, when I came to the surface again, the rush of air brought me to my full senses, and I caught a glimpse of the ship's binnacle light, and heard indistinct voices in the distance. I opened my mouth to yell, but a wave combed over me, and under I went, with a mouthful of brine that nearly strangled me. The same thing was repeated three or four times, and I made up my mind that the cruise of life was up for me, for I couldn't stand it long at that rate.

      "I felt another roller coming upon me with a grand roar, and drew in as large a stock of air as my lungs would hold, just in time before I was again overwhelmed. Something struck me in the side with a force that was near staving in my ribs. It pushed me bodily along in the water, and I naturally shoved with my hands to fend off. Hurrah! it was the life-buoy!

      "With such a feeling as I suppose I should have if I had been condemned to be hung, and then suddenly pardoned, I crawled upon it and got into the saddle, for you remember those buoys were made with two hollow floats, and a cross-bar to connect them together. And though my situation was still desperate enough, I hardly thought so at the moment, but made the most of my new lease of life. I was tossed about on the surface of the sea like an eggshell; but the waves no longer buried me, and I could manage, for the most part, to keep my mouth above water.

      "I kept my courage up very well through the few hours of darkness, as I perceived the weather was moderating with me. This, I suppose, was because I had drifted out of the Gulf Stream, for you know we were only just entering the edge of it, when we went aloft to shorten sail. When day began to break, I was riding handsomely on a smooth sea, as compared with my first experience; and you may believe my eyes did their duty in searching the horizon round for a sail.

      "Indeed, I was so intent in looking for a distant object, that I quite overlooked near ones, until the sound of a human voice in a strange language startled me. I turned my head and saw – a man, seated on a plank, or rather a couple of planks – propelling his craft towards me with a rude paddle. He was a savage-looking fellow, and my first glance satisfied me that he had been a long time at sea, for his clothing, what he had on, was little more than rags and tatters, and he had a general appearance of having been at least a week or two in soak.

      "'Hallo, neighbor!' I shouted. 'Hold water, or you'll be into me!'

      "He made no reply to my hail, but glaring at me with the look of a thoroughly desperate man, he urged his craft stern on to mine, as if desiring a collision, of all things in the world. Of course, I was quite helpless as to getting out of his way; and still shouting frantically at him, I dropped overboard on the off side to avoid the shock. As the two vessels came together, he aimed a blow at my head with his paddle, which, if it had reached me, would have shortened my yarn; but it fell short, and the force of the collision submerged his plank so much as to unseat him thus leaving us both floundering in the water. His paddle had slipped from his grasp, and shot towards me! The next instant it was in my hand, and I had the advantage.

      "He made for me with the fury of a maniac, and I saw at once that it was a case of life or death with both of us. In self-defence, I was compelled to strike at him with the weapon, and, stunned by the blow, he sunk out of sight, while I seized the opportunity to mount my buoy, and place myself in position for renewing the battle, if necessary, or making a parley upon terms much in my own favor.

      "But to my horror, he never rose again! I felt that I had thus unwittingly taken the life of a fellow-being, but, on overhauling the log of my conscience, I was satisfied that I was not to blame. He would have it so; and it had been a choice with me, to kill him or to be killed myself; a case in which it doesn't usually take one long to decide which he had better do.

      "Feeling more lonely than ever before, I next turned my attention to the planks which were floating near me. A moment's inspection of them satisfied me that my own craft was far the more buoyant and seaworthy of the two; and this might account for the stranger having made the attack upon me; that he might get possession of it. Or he might have been really mad, as a result of his previous sufferings. It was not likely that I should ever get any further explanation of his conduct, at all events.

Adrift. 231

      "I was about to turn away and ply my paddle, no matter in what direction, to carry me from the spot, when I saw a little object that arrested my attention, and which, when examined, proved to be a bottle made fast by a string to the lashing that connected the two planks. It was corked tightly, and, when opened, I found it half full of water, stale and flat, a little brackish withal, but still – fresh water!

      "This discovery only served to deepen the mystery. I could think of nothing but that my late assailant had deserted from some ship at sea. It was no accident that befell him, like mine; for surely no man ever fell overboard, taking a raft and a bottle of water with him. The circumstances were very strange for a sole survivor of a shipwreck; and he must surely be a runaway.

      "I took but a small drink of the water, determined to be careful of it, as it might spin out my life for many days. I paddled towards the western quarter of the horizon, judging by the sun, which now shone out bright and warm, while the breeze had fallen away to a light air. At times I sat still, and let my float drift whither she might, or balanced myself erect, to command a more distant view; but whenever I took to my labor again, working in a westerly direction.

      "Hunger and fatigue began to wear upon me somewhat, but my jolly disposition or turn of mind stood by me in good stead. I have no doubt that many men in similar circumstances would have given way to despair, but I never allowed gloomy thoughts to get possession of me for any length of time. When night shut down upon me, after a last look round the horizon, which failed to discover anything, I stretched myself as well as I could upon the buoy, and secured myself by a piece of the lashing, which I had taken from the strange raft, determined, if possible, to have some sleep while the smooth weather would allow it. It might be rugged the next day, I thought, and then I should be worn out for want of rest.

      "The gentle tossing motion of the swell soon rocked me off into a sound slumber. You may think it strange that I should sleep after having killed the outlandishman who attacked me."

      "No, I don't," said I. "By your account, it was a fair naval combat, and you got the best of it. I presume you expect to sleep soundly to-night after you have finished this yarn, don't you?"

      >" Yes, of course. Why shouldn't I?"

      "Never mind. Heave ahead."

      "Well, I don't know how long I had been asleep, when a horrible yell, ringing in my ears, brought me upright, or at least would have brought me upright, only for the lashing that held me down, and hurt me when I made the first struggle to rise. It was too dark to distinguish any object; but the yell was repeated, followed by the sound of a heavy splash in the sea, and then of several voices in angry altercation, but the words were all in a language strange to my ears. After the first feeling of astonishment and terror had passed away, I reflected that they could be only human beings, at any rate, and that I had the advantage of them, in this respect, at least, that they could know nothing of my being near them. It had occurred to me, at once, that, had there been a ship so near as the voices evidently were, she must be plainly seen. Here was more mystery; and, seizing my paddle, I plied it vigorously, but without noise, heading directly towards the sounds, which still continued. A fight was in progress; and you know there is nothing that, so strongly illustrates what our schoolbooks used to call "centripetal force," as a fight. The first impulse is to rush near enough to see it, at any rate.

      "I soon made out that I was close to a raft of considerable size, upon which four men were engaged in a death-struggle, dodging each other back and forth, all appearing to be armed with weapons of some sort. I arrested my progress just in time to avoid running into the raft, and backed astern a little to keep beyond observation; but they were so absorbed there was really little fear of their noticing anything but each other. I could not make out that any one had a particular enemy, or even that they were pitted two against two. It seemed to be a "free fight," as they say out West; but I thought it was not yet time to ask them to count me in.

      "A little further observation of their movements, as well as their tones of voice, convinced me that liquor was at the bottom of it; and a thought crossed my mind of the horrible accounts which I had read, long years ago, about the shipwrecked crew of the French frigate "Meduse." I had thought then, in my innocence, that the story was incredible; but here was a similar scene being enacted directly under my eyes.

      "I watched, while one poor wretch, who

232 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

appeared already to be desperately wounded, was knocked into the sea with a stunning blow, and sunk within a few feet of me; then another was felled motionless on the raft, and the body rolled off by the two survivors; who, after further interchange of bitter abuse and blasphemy, I suppose, though in a language that was Greek to me, renewed the fight with knives!

      "For a minute or two no sound was to be heard but their quick heavy breathing and the convulsive trampling of feet, as they wrestled in the fierce death-struggle. Then one of the men, with a yell that froze the blood in my veins, staggered back and fell heavily, while the other sank exhausted at his side. It was evident that both were harmless now, and, with a few strokes of my paddle, I shot alongside, and boarded the raft.

      "A hasty examination showed that one of the combatants was quite dead, while the other, though still breathing, was past all help. The pool of blood in which they lay felt warm to my feet – for I had long ago thrown away my shoes as an encumbrance – and this, added to the dreadful spectacle made me sick at heart. I turned away to examine a beaker which was lashed near one corner of the raft; and, to my delight, found it half full of fresh water. There was also hard- tack in two tarpaulin bags, enough to supply my wants for several weeks. There was no immediate fear of starvation with these treasures all at my own disposal, and I lost no time in satisfying my hunger and thirst. In a keg, lashed close up to the end of the water cask,I found the liquor which had been the cause of the wholesale murder I had witnessed. Now, you know, that I like my glass as well as most sailors; but, acting upon my first impulse at that moment, I sent the keg with a sudden kick into the sea. I suppose there was still a gallon or so of rum in it; but I considered myself well rid of all trouble and temptation by disposing of it at once.

      "I would not abandon the faithful buoy which had done me so good service, but made it fast to the larger raft, intending to pull it high and dry at my leisure; and, having assured myself that the two men were quite dead, I was not long in getting rid of the bodies. There was nothing about them or their clothing by which I could get any clue to their history. I found, in fact, nothing in their pockets but jackknives, and in one a short pipe, but no tobacco.

      "Day was breaking by the time I had 'cleared the decks,' so to speak; and my next task was to wash away all traces of the late struggle, with the aid of a bucket I found at hand. I then pulled my life-buoy upon the raft, thus making a perch that would raise me well up above the wash of the sea, which last was no great matter, however, so long as the weather continued fine.

      "Had I now but a mast and sail, I thought, I might, at least, steer towards the broadside of America, and make some headway. I thought it strange that shipwrecked mariners, who, it seems, had had time to secure provisions and other articles before they took to the raft, should have contrived no means of propelling it, beyond three oars and a few odd pieces of board; for the raft, though built of a strange variety of materials, was strongly secured together with lashings and cross-seizings in all directions. I did not fail, of course, to connect in my mind the man whom I had first met alone with the others. He had, doubtless been one of the same crew; but why he had left them, preferring to take his chance on two planks by himself, must forever be a mystery.

      "After' this I drifted for three days, as wind and current might carry me, for I was quite unable to control anything so heavy as the raft. But I picked up my strength and spirits during this long spell of fair weather, having enough to eat and drink, and felt that I had everything to be thankful for. At night I lay down under the stars and enjoyed my 'all night in,' being raised high and dry on my buoy."

      "Never mind those three days, Thoph. Get on with your story, and don't take so much time to make it up. What was your next adventure?"

      "Well," he continued, in his regular way, as if it were a matter of perfect indifference to him whether his hearers believed his statements or not, so that they would listen to him, "on the fourth night I woke and roused up to get a drink of water, when I heard the light flap of canvas, and staring in the direction of the sound, my eyes rested upon a ship, or at least the spars and rigging of one, for she seemed to be sunk to the water's edge. I seized one of the oars and exerted myself to keep the raft in position, hoping to board her in the morning. if, as I judged, she had really been sunk and abandoned. I hallooed with all my power of lungs, but could get no answer; and finding

Adrift. 233

that I should have no difficulty in following her drift and keeping company with her, I made my mind easy until the return of day.

      "The prize, if I may call her so, proved to be a barque timber-laden, full of water, and abandoned to the mercy of the ocean, as I had supposed. Her topsails had been clewed down upon the lifts, and thus left 'Spanish-reefed,' to slat back and forth as the hull wallowed heavily in the trough of the sea. With much difficulty I got alongside, and succeeded in climbing on board; but a few minutes survey was enough to assure me that I should not gain much by a change of quarters. It was something in the way of promotion, however, to take command of the barque."

      "Your promotion would seem to have been regular, Thoph," I again interrupted. "From death to the life-buoy, from the buoy to the little raft, then to the big raft, and to the ship. I shouldn't wonder if you had command of a whole navy before you finish the story."

      "Never mind that," answered the imperturbable yarn-spinner. "Don't you put me out again, or I'll cut it short off, and leave you in the lurch. I found one advantage, however, in taking the ship for my home. As long as her masts were standing, I could go aloft and keep a lookout for sails in the distance, and I stood a much better chance of being seen and picked up, than I would on a raft level with the sea.

      I could get nothing out of her hold that would be of any use to me. Everything of a nature to float had washed out at the hatchways and drifted away; but the lumber and boards that formed her cargo surged right up against her decks, and kept her buoyant. So there was no danger of her going down entirely, at least for a long time to come, or as long as her hull might hold together. There was a scuttle-butt still firmly lashed on deck, with a barrel or more of fresh water remaining in it; but I had no provisions but the bread which I found on the raft when I took possession."

      "Couldn't you find out the name of the ship?" I asked.

      "No. If she had a name on her stern or counter, it was too deep under water to be seen. I should think from her build and rig that she was a Swede or a Russian; and that would account for the barbarous lingo I heard spoken by the men who were fighting on the raft."

      "Then you really think they came from this same ship?"

      "Yes; I suppose she sprung a sudden leak. Gave out all at once, like, and sunk from under 'em."

      "Why wouldn't they do better, then, to stick by the wreck ?"

      "Don't know. Perhaps they did so and got tired of it; and then started off, just as the humor took them, which would account for the first man I saw being alone on his own hook. Well, that night I slept up in the foretop, lashed to save me from rolling overboard; and all the next day I kept a lookout for ships, but saw none. It blew up a fresh breeze at sundown, and I, not liking my high perch, came down and mounted the scuttle-butt, which stood like a little round island in the waste of waters. My raft was towing alongside by a stout rope, and I had left the buoy on it, as I looked upon it as a kind of ark of safety, in case the old water-logged ship showed an intention of going down altogether, and leaving me to swim for it.

      "So I sat roosting upon the water-butt for two hours, at least, after thick darkness had settled down, and things looked threatening, much as they did the night I went backwards off the topsail yardarm, without stopping to say good-by to you. Crouching down with my head almost between my knees, I was half insensible to all around me, when a roaring rushing noise rung in my ears. As I raised my head,a great black wall was towering in front of me. I heard a shout as of men in mortal fear, 'Port hard!' Too late; the next instant, the world, or at least our planet, was shivered as by the crack of doom. I grabbed at empty air, and caught something which felt like a stout rope. My hands clutched it with the grasp of a drowning man, and I was conscious the next instant that I was swinging over the boiling sea that whitened beneath.

      "I hardly know how I got there, but I found myself shortly afterwards on board this ship, the Louis Philippe, lying on deck surrounded by strange faces. I must have clung to that jib-martingale stay – for I suppose that was what I seized – with a grip or iron. The bowsprit with all the gear attached was carried away by the shock, but I got entangled some way among the snarl of wreck, and was swung inboard. I was not seriously hurt, and a few hours brought me round all right again.

234 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

      "They told me that the old barque very soon disappeared after they struck her, but that boards and lumber were strewed all around, though they did not stop long after they neither saw nor heard any signs of life; Indeed, they had enough to do to repair damages, secure their own foremast, and attend to their leaks. We pumped the ship all the way to Havre, where she was repaired, and I shipped in her for the return voyage."

      "And you expect me to believe all this, Thoph?"

      "Don't care whether you believe it or not. I've told you the story just as it happened."

      "Well, I can't disprove it."

      "Of course you can't. You saw me go backwards into the darkness, didn't you? and never expected to see me again. Well, here I am; you can't get over that; and why shouldn't you take an old shipmate's word for the rest?"

      Sure enough, why? Because it happened to be Thoph. I asked one of the crew of the ship whom I afterwards saw in the city, and he told me they had shipped Thoph at Havre, and that he told all sorts of marvellous stories about how he had been picked up. His escape was wonderful enough, at any rate; and the relation of the sober truth would have satisfied almost any man under similar circumstances. There is no doubt that the buoy cut away by the mate floated in his way, and that he was afterwards saved by some passing vessel outward bound, and carried to Havre. His shipmate denied altogether the story of a collision of a sunken ship; and as for the raft and the castaway men who destroyed each other like the Kilkenny cats – why, the reader gets the tale as cheap as I did; and if he wants more, I can refer him to Thoph himself, who has, probably, ere this, added many embellishments, and repeated the yarn so often, that he believes it himself, whatever others may do.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Adrift.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 34, No. 3 (Sep 1871)
Pages: 228-234