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19th Century American Whaling

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Ashley's Glossary of
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W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. XXXVII, No. 2 (Feb 1873)
pp. 121-124.

A True Story of Peril. 121

. . . .



      When I was bowman of the larboard, or chief mate's boat, in the Druid, we lowered one afternoon in chase of a school of "sixty-barrel bulls" on what was known to the initiated as the "Middle Ground," between Australia and New Zealand. We made fast to one of the whales, a lively fellow, who ran us something of a dance before we succeeded in giving him his death wound.

      But, all this time, our steed had been running us to leeward, and meanwhile the captain had struck another, and the ship kept her luff, so as to support the windward boats. The second mate also kept near the captain, and when our whale went in his "flurry," which was not until nearly sundown, we could make out from the manoeuvres of the ship that the boats were to windward of her. At such a distance from us, they were invisible, owing to our low position at the surface of the sea; but those on board the Druid, one of whom remained constantly at the masthead, had the run of us all, at least so long as daylight continued.

      The sun was just dipping, when we got a hole cut in our whale's nib-end, and a strap rove for towing. A dark cloud-bank was settling down in the weather horizon, out of which a strong wind might be expected at short notice. An attempt, with a single boat, to tow the whale to windward,would be sheer folly; there was nothing for us to do but to either give up our prize or to await the movements of the ship. We saw her stand on until hull down, then tack, and soon afterward, haul the courses up, and swing the headyards aback, a signal that she was about taking the captain's whale alongside. Some hands were aloft, at the same time, securing the light sails, and the topsails were allowed to run down on the cap.

      The mate looked anxiously at the ship, and at the threatening aspect of the weather; then at the sixty-barrel bull, the prize that we had fought so hard to win, and seemed unable, for a time, to make up his mind what course to pursue.

      "What do you think of it, Beers?" said he, at last, to his boatsteerer, with the manner of one who wishes to divide his responsibilities with counsellors.

      Beers was a veteran whaler of African descent and bottle-green complexion, old enough to have been-the father of his superior officer.

      "Well, I d'no, sir, It looks kind o' jubrious to hang on here. The ship wont run off the wind, till she gets that whale fluked; and I don't know as she will then. And there'll be a change of weather within an hour."

      "And it'll be dark in less than an hour," added the mate. "If there was a prospect of fair weather, I wouldn't care for the darkness, because we could keep the run of each other's lights, but as it is – I think we'd better waif the whale, and get to the ship while we have daylight."

      A hole was cut in the body of the whale, and the "waif," – a flag attached to a slender spruce staff – inserted; our line was cast off from the towing-strap, and the order given to pull ahead, the boat's head being laid to windward, on a beeline for the ship, then some four miles off.

      "I don't know what the old man will

122 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

think of our judgment, in leaving the whale," muttered the mate, using the word "our" as a salvo, like most people under similar circumstances; though he had acted for himself, except so far as his judgment had been fortified by the hints of old Beers.

      We were all glad enough, it must be confessed, to abandon the whale and consult our own safety. It was very early in the voyage, and no similar emergency had before occurred. We had seen just enough of the captain to feel that he was a driver, where the interest of the voyage was concerned. Consequently the mate, a very young officer, felt a keen responsibility, and an equally keen anxiety to learn how his course would be judged.

      It was quite dark when we pulled up under the lee of the Druid within hail; but the black squall still hung, threatening, in the sky, and there had been as yet no actual change in the weather. The ship had her helm up, and was just in the act of paying off, while the signal-lantern was swaying and flickering at the mizzen-peak.

      "Boat ahoy!" roared the captain, sharply, as soon as he perceived our approach. "Who is there, Mr. Andrews?"

      "Ay, ay, sir!"

      "Where's your whale?"

      "Two points forward of your lee-beam – four miles off!"

      "What in the –– did you leave him for?"

      The mate made no reply to the question, until the boat was secured alongside by her warp, and he had jumped in on the quarterdeck. The ship continued swinging off until her head was pointed in the right direction, but with her topsails on the cap, and one whale fluked, towing alongside, her progress was not very rapid.

      "We didn't think it prudent to lie by," said Mr. Andrews, in his apologetic tone, "as the ship was so far from us, and every prospect of bad weather – "

      "We didn't think!" retorted Captain Gibbs. "Who's we? I want you to do the thinking, Mr. Andrews, In charge of your own boat. The rest didn't ship to think!"

      "I know it, sir, but in case of an emergency it may be well enough to consult those who are sharing the risk with you."

      "Consult be ––! Of course Jack will always say, 'Save my precious life – cut away the whale, and we'll pay for it!' And there's sixty barrels of sperm oil gone to the d––1. you might as well look for a needle in a haystack now. It wont do for us, at the outset of the voyage, to throw away a chance like that. We must run a little risk sometimes – that's what we all shipped for."

      This taunting language had the effect which might have been expected upon the young mate.

      "Well, I'll bet I can run as much risk as any live man of my inches, if you think it prudent to do so. But I had charge of other men's lives, as well as my own, and I should, feel just as responsible to you and them, if I had erred the other way, by venturing too much, and any accident had happened. Haul up the boat here, my crew, and jump in!"

      "Hold on, Mr. Andrews!" said the captain. "We can run down the best part of the distance with the ship."

      When we judged ourselves within a mile or less of where the whale had been left, the ship was brought to the wind again. There had, as yet, been no increase of wind, and though the night was very dark, the bank or squall appeared to have lifted a little, and to have a less heavy appearance than at sundown.

      "I don't believe but what it'll all pass over in a fizzle," said Captain Gibbs. "I don't see any change in the barometer. Now, Mr. Andrews, I believe you can find that whale again; I think I could, at any rate."

      "All right, sir," was the reply, with a nervous twitching that showed how the young man was stung by the words. "If you can do it I can."

      "He ought to bear, now, three points off the lee bow," were the last words thrown at us, as we cast off from the ship, and prepared to "out oars." "Pull right off here-away, and you must fall into his slick, and then you can follow it down."

      Setting our light as soon as we were well clear, we passed away into the darkness, leaving our floating home behind, until the dim signal at her gaff faded to a mere spark in the distance. It was evident from the air of quiet determination about Mr. Andrews that he would cruise now all night, rather than return to the ship without his whale. We at the oars had nothing to say about the matter; it was ours simply to obey.

      It was long before we found any trace of the "slick,",but after pulling back and forth over the ground, fearful of passing on one side of it, and getting too far to leeward, we

A True Story of Peril. 123

at last had the satisfaction to perceive that we were in it; a positive assurance that we still had the weather-gage of the object of our search. At the same time, a brighter light flamed up from the ship, made by burning old scraps on the back-arches of the tryworks, and we made out that she was again keeping off, to be nearer to us.

      We pulled lustily now, feeling encouraged by the signs, and still keeping in the slick, followed it as our only guide; for so dark was the night, we could not possibly see the whale until, we should be very close upon it. Old Beers stood up in the head of the boat, looking with all the eyes in his head, to catch a glimpse, either of the waif, or of the swash or "white water" which would indicate the whale's position.

      But now there was suddenly a change in the air, which I can only describe as a sense of dilution or rarefaction, with a sighing sound that was ominous of approaching evil. The weather quarter of the heavens, instead of darkening more, appeared to light a little, as the black pall split in two, and parted right and left. Out of it came a few straggling drops of rain, and then the wind followed with a vengeance!

      The first blast struck us with such fury, that the mate had enough to do to keep the boat from broaching to, and taking the whole force of it broadside on. We slipped in all the oars as fast as possible, and let her drive to leeward, crouching down in our places, unable to see anything, or to change the course of our light craft, and running blindly off into the blackness. Our little taper in the boat-lantern was extinguished at once, and could be of no further service. We felt, instinctively, that the ship would luff to again, as the captain would not run the risk of passing us; and here we were, rushing away from her before the gale, and every moment lessening our chances of safety. There was a sudden flashing up of her light, just as the squall struck, and then we lost sight of it entirely. The faint report of a musket followed, a signal of recall, of course, but we could neither answer nor obey it!

      Onward we rushed before the wind, shrinking down into the boat, and clinging to the gunwales and thwarts, all of us but the officer, who held fast to his steering-oar to keep her head in the only safe direction. No word was spoken among us, but each fully realized the peril we were in, and each asked himself the question of life or death, how long is this going to last?

      It was answered by a shock so sudden as to throw us all together in a confused heap. In a crash of everything movable, and a cracking of the boat's fabric itself, we rolled into the sea and were overwhelmed. I can hardly tell, in words, what followed. As soon as I regained breath a little, I struck out and grasped nothing but a smooth slippery surface, on which I could get no hold, and the next instant was rolled off again and plunged, under the sea. I understood the truth, now. In the darkness, we had run upon the whale, without having seen it!

      At my next attempt, I clutched a rope, which I felt at once to be the bite of a whale-line, and underrunning this, I soon came to the pole of an iron or harpoon. By this I was enabled to hang on; and after being half-drowned in my struggles, I succeeded in drawing a bite of the line under the whale's fin, until it brought up firmly at the "knuckle." I could then secure myself upon the whale to avoid sliding off at every roll. The situation was by no means a pleasant one, as I had enough to do to keep my mouth above water.

      While I had been thus absorbed in the one object of securing my own temporary safety, the rest of my shipmates had all disappeared, nor was anything to be seen or heard, either of them or the boat. A light spruce pole and a paddle were dashed in my way, and I secured them by cutting holes with my sheath-knife and planting them, like masts, in the blubber of the whale; but these were all that I could find. The waif set in the whale by Mr. Andrews still stood in its place, and this was important, as it might be the means of the ship finding me, could I keep alive where I was until the return of daylight. Within half an hour after I secured the landing upon the floating island, the squall was all over, and the wind again settled down to a steady moderate breeze. The heavens were clear overhead, and it was as light as well it could be on a moonless night. But where were my comrades? and, of more vital importance yet to poor me, where was the Druid?

      "Light ho!" I actually sung out the words, as I had just spit half a pint or less of brine from my mouth, and shaking my eyes clear, they rested upon a bright light directly in the wind's eye from me. Then there was a blinding flash, and the report of the Druid's old carriage-gun thundered forth, so near as to be startling, and I roared with all the

124 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

voice at my command, which was not much, hoping to make myself heard. More light! a fierce flame now, and evidently nearing me. Soon, I could make out the ship's sails in the immediate glare of the light, and then the whole outline of the stout old craft.

      My lungs were strained to their utmost power, for my only chance of safety depended upon attracting their attention before they should sweep on beyond me. If left astern unknown to them, there was little or no hope of salvation.

      But sharp eyes were on the alert, below and aloft, for they had found the whale's "slick," and were following it down. My outcry was heard, and the ship brought rapidly up in the wind, while two boats were dropped into the water and manned as quickly as eager men could accomplish it. I never relaxed my cries until one of the boats was near enough for the crew to see the waif, and set up their answering shout. I was pulled by strong arms from my cramped position into the boat of Captain Gibbs, who, seemingly excited almost to insanity, had come himself on this errand of rescue.

      My story, which I told in as few words as possible, excited him still more. We shot alongside, and I was helped up to the deck, while he was issuing all sorts of urgent orders.

      All three boats were soon down, with directions to "spread their chances," and to search thoroughly every foot of "ground," or sea, as they went. A set of signals were rapidly agreed on, and the ship-keepers had their orders issued faster than they could take in their meaning. As the captain sprang down the side again into his boat, I overheard him say In a low bitter tone:

      "God help me! Why did I do it?" And God did help him. Within an hour, the reports of three muskets from the boats told us that the lost ones were found; and strange to say, all were alive, though well-nigh exhausted. The boat had filled and rolled bottom up, but all had succeeded in climbing upon her bottom, through the superhuman efforts of Mr. Andrews, who, all said, appeared to take little care for his own life, so that he could save the others. The stronger supported the weaker ones and kept them up on the boat's bottom; but the preservation of the whole crew seems to me miraculous, when I think of it at this present writing. The old colored, boatsteerer Beers was almost gone, being, in fact, quite insensible when help arrived.

      When the first excitement was over, I saw the captain take Mr. Andrews aside, and heard words which I could not make out, but his voice seemed choked with emotion, and the two stood grasping each others hands for some-little time, as if their whole souls were in the act. A bond of brotherhood was established between them from that hour, which was broken only with the close of their lives.

      We were so fortunate as to find and secure the whale the next day, and in the happy state of feeling consequent upon our good luck the perils of our adventure were soon lost sight of; but upon Captain Gibbs, at least, the lesson of that fearful night was not lost.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: A True Story Of Peril.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 37, No. 2 (Feb 1873)
Pages: 121-124