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"OFF THE HORN" – A Real Incident.

W. H. Macy

Inquirer and Mirror (Nantucket)
Vol. 53, No. 6 (Aug 10, 1872)
p. 1.



      It was in the stout little bark Sapphire outward bound, that I was initiated to the beauties of that redoubtable headland, concerning which so much has been said and written by voyagers, since the days of the pioneers, Schouten and Le Maire, who gave it the name it now bears. For twenty-five days we had struggled, and wallowed, and tumbled about, stretching up into the latitude of fifty-nine, but making little progress on our desired course; and "Begins with fresh gales from W. S. W., and rugged sea," had become a stereotyped form of entry in our journals.

      The morning of a comparatively fine day had at last dawned upon us. The welcome order to "Shake out reefs!" infused new life into all hands, and though it was still a dead beat for us, the winds seeming to have the regularity of trades, as to direction, it was something to see the sun rise clear, and to be able to spread a little more canvass. We must make the most of the present moment, for fair weather was not to be depended upon for any length of time.

      "Man the mast heads, Mr. Allen!" sang out the "old man.". (The reader will remember that this phrase as applied to the commander of a vessel, has no reference whatever to his age. A young captain would be so called by subordinates old enough to be his father.)

      The look-outs were soon at their stations is the cross-trees, for though the breeze was still fresh for whole topsails, and the angry sea of the previous night had but partially gone down, it was a part of Capt. Myrick's creed, that, so long as a whale-boat could live in a sea-way, she could hook to a whale, and kill him, too, if he showed good play.

      We had hardly finished the operation of setting the topsails and jib, when the thrilling cry of "There she breaches!" came down to us from the boat steerer at the maintopmast head.

      "Where away?"

      "Lee beam. Two miles off."

      "Hard up!" was the order, and the Sapphire went sliding off before the wind and sea at a pace that promised to place her "right in the suds" before many minutes. Indeed, we had hardly time to make the necessary preparations with the boats and craft, when the Captain, who had mounted the rigging, with the inevitable spy-glass slung to his neck, suddenly shouted:

      "Port your helm, and let her come to! Square the main-yard, and hoist and swing the boats!"

      As I ran aft to the main-braces, I cast my eyes off the lee bow, and beheld the shining hump of a huge sperm whale in the act of "rounding" to go down. he was not a quarter of a mile from us, as he swept his immense flukes through the air, and vanished in a whirlpool.

      "I'm afraid we've run too far," remarked the mate at my side. "But he hove his 'fan' well out; perhaps he hasn't perceived anything."

      "Slow as night," said the old man, as he jumped from the shear-pole to the deck. "Ease off the head sheets, there! I don't want to forge ahead any more. We'll have a grand chance next rising."

      Sure enough we did. After lying aback three-quarters of an hour, the monster broke water about the same distance from us, having gone only the drift of the ship. Down we went with the two lee boats, the captain throwing a few parting words at us, as w pushed clear of the side.

      "If you get fast, you must work quick on him – and don't get stove if you can possibly help it. I'm coming down myself, as soon as I can get wore round. Little more off, Mr. Allen, don't get 'on his eye' – there's no hurry."

      There was little need of either sail or oars in this case. It was only necessary to head the light boat off before the sea and wind, and, giving her a slight impetus with the paddles, to drive quickly down on the unconscious prey.

      My station was at the after-oar of the waist, or second mate's boat, and the chance fell in our favor. I had never been fast to a whale; for we had met with no luck in the Atlantic, and though nearly four mouths out from home, were still a "clean ship." Sitting is my place, facing forward to ply the paddle, I had a fair view of the monster, as we advanced to the attack. I confess I would have given something to have been excused at that moment, and had I been, on terra firma, I might have taken to my heels: but, jumping overboard would not have helped the matter. Mr. Barrett, the second mate, had told all of us green hands, that if we chose to jump overboard, we might stay there, for he would not stop to pick us up; and in the simplicity of our hearts, we believed him.

      "Stand up, Tom!" said he, to his boatsteerer, a brawny Kanaka from Tahiti. "Don't be in a hurry, but hold your hand till you're past his hump."

      The Tahitian's eye snapped with excitement, and his nostrils appeared to expand to double their natural size, as he rose to his feet and grasped his "first iron."

      "Lay in your paddles and face round to your oars!" was the order to the rest of us. Already we are in the troubled water, and as we shoot down the declivity of a wave, I perceive the shining black skin of the whale's "small;" close at my side. I involuntarily lean inboard, and turn my head over my shoulder, to see Tom in the act of hurling his keen harpoon. Its sudden stoppage, and the quiver of the pole in the suds, tell that it has not failed of his mark.

      I don't know what I did next. I seemed to be going end-over-end, and to have become mixed up with my comrades, three of whom, at least were as green as myself. I only know that I was conscious of being about half drowned, and that I found myself standing erect, with my oar at "charge bayonets," and my hat dancing off to windward, on the crest of a wave. A dozen or more unintelligible orders, were given about this time, and I suppose some of them were executed by somebody, but I couldn't swear to it. When I got straightened out again, and untangled, as it were, from my shipmates, Mr. Barrett and the Kanaka had exchanged ends, but no whale was to be seen. The line was spinning and smoking round the loggerhead, as he sounded; and coil after coil ran out of the tub, while Tom watched it keenly and anxiously as it flew through his hands.

      "Hold on hard, Tom, and box her down!" shouted the officer. "Snub him all you can! we shall lose our line, I'm afraid."

      "Look out boys! foul line!" yelled Tom, throwing it off the loggerhead. "Cut, Mr. Barrett!"

      It was too late; he had no time to cut. Away went the snarl between our heads, as we threw ourselves outboard to escape it. It went onward till it brought up at the chocks, and the next moment we were all adrift on the ocean, while our boat was submerged head-foremost!

      I jerked my oar out of the "peak-cleat," as she went down, and clung to it, as it is said a drowning man will to a straw. But I did not think of drowning immediately. for I was a good swimmer; though of course no man could live long in a turbulent sea, where the water was chilly. I know that I looked about me, and counted heads, as I rose on a swell, to satisfy myself that all were still afloat. As I rose again, I caught sight of the larboard boat approaching, and heard the excited voice of Mr. Allen, urging his crew to "give way hard!" Then a sea overwhelmed me, and, while struggling for breath, I felt myself seized by the hair, and was lifted into the boat, which, was already overloaded. But the third boat was soon at hand, and a part of us were transferred to her.

      Poor Tom, the boatsteerer, was nearly exhausted, having suffered more than any of the rest from his cold immersion, however amphibious he may have been in his own native tropical seas.


      The tortured whale rose almost within dart of us, forcing his breath from his spiracle, strong and spiteful though slightly tinged with blood. Both irons could be distinguished in his back, and the line towing, as he started to windward, lashing the sea in his agony, and leaving a wake behind him like a paddle wheeler.

      Lot him go! he's sour grapes," said Captain Myrick. Here's our boat too, under the lee, but we can't stop to pick her up. We must get back to the ship as fast as we can, before that squall comes down upon us." Until now I had not thought of looking at the weather; but a single glance satisfied me that the captain was right, and the sooner we were under th bark's lee, the better for us. And there lay our new waist boat, which had been swamped and risen again to the surface, to be abandoned to the tender mercies of Cape Horn gales and seas, for we dared not delay, even long enough to secure her. How much she was injured we could not stay to examine. The whale had undoubtedly, taken the whole line by breaking the chock-pin, which, of course, released the boat.

      Down came the Sapphire to pick us all up, and down came the double-headed squall with her. She reached us none to soon, for, as she came to with her topsails down on the cap, and jib slatting at the boom-end, the force of the squall was at its height. A veritable Cape Horner, bringing with it that peculiar sharp hail which seems to cut into one's flesh.

      We had enough to do, of the hardest kind of duty, in securing the two boats, and bringing the bark down to her storm canvas again.

      "A profitable morning's work!" growled the mate, in a sort of monologue, as I was coiling up the ropes near him, after all had been made snug aloft, "Here we've lost a boat, and a whole set of craft and line, and got nothing to show for it, and now we've got hove to again, under three-cornered scrapers. We may as well make out our log for another month, beating and banging to get around this corner. However, we've lost no lives, and we must be thankful for that, I suppose. Go below, the watch!"


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: "Off the Horn" – A Real Incident.
Publication: Inquirer and Mirror (Nantucket)
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 53, No. 6 (Aug 10, 1872)
Pages: 1