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W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. XLIII, No. 5 (May 1876)
pp. 478-481.

Potatoes "in Bulk."
478 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

. . . .



      My neighbor, Dick Norton, is comfortably well-off and able to enjoy life very much as he pleases, consulting his own tastes in all matters of expenditure. Dick struck a rich lead in California, and made his pile in ’49 and ’50. He landed there with hardly a second shirt to his back, having been, through all his younger days, a wild harem-scarem adventurer, here to-day and gone to-morrow. I had met him several times on board different ships, and at various places on the Pacific side of the globe; but after I had lost the run of him a few years, he turned up quite wealthy, came home, married and settled down. So one day I asked Dick how he got to California.

      "Well, to tell the truth, I got there as a stowaway," he said.

      "Indeed," said I. "Well, I’ll venture to say that was not the first time you had filled such a position; but I guess you never before stowed yourself away to so good a purpose."

      That’s true. I had been "seeking my fortune" – as the story-books used to say – for about ten years, but it always kept ahead of me, just out of my reach, and I met only with mis-fortune. She seemed to be a miss that was always true and constant to me, so that I couldn’t call her a fickle jade, but I confess I had become tired of her constancy.

      "Well, you know the last time you saw me at sea, I was in the old ship Vernon 'up North.' Well, I had my usual old luck there, for we didn’t make much of a trip of it, as far as oil was concerned. We got two or three whales early in the season; but afterwards we butted her too heavily in the ice-fields and started a bad leak that kept us busy at the pumps a great part of the time. As you know very well, that is monotonous kind of business, and belongs in the same catalogue with turning grindstone and sawing wood. On account of the leaky condition of the old ship, we were obliged to leave the ground early in the fall, and make the best of our way

Potatoes "in Bulk." 479

into Honolulu, where the ship was to be discharged for repairs. We thought that if the ship was to be discharged, the men should be, too; but Captain Tripp looked at the matter from a different standpoint. There was no prospect of getting clear papers from the ship; and as I thought I had stuck by her quite long enough, I determined to shake her dust off my feet, and seek my fortune elsewhere. Besides, I had heard rumors about the new El Dorado in California, and like other adventurous youths, I thought I would like a peep at it; but did not see how to get it. There was no vessel up for California just then, though one had sailed a few days before.

      Honolulu, as you well know, is not the best place in the world to run away, the only point usually gained by desertion being a change of ship. It is out of one whaler into another, and the change is quite as likely to be for the worse as for the better. But I was determined to try my luck on shore at first, and see if I could not find a chance to get up to the coast, or make some different voyage; for I was really tired, not so much of whaling, as of cruising for whales without getting them. So I stayed by the old Vernon six weeks until her repairs were all completed, and she was all a-taunto for another cruise; and then when I went ashore on liberty for the last time, I just stepped out of sight and hearing, and didn’t report myself when the sundown boat came in. But it was no uncommon thing for men to stay over night; therefore I should not be set down as a deserter until after the boat had been sent in again next morning, without finding me.

      Old Jock Armstrong, the boarding-master, you know him, for everybody does who has ever been to the Sandwich Islands – had agreed to put me in a safe place where the kaikos would never find me. So he put me away in an old lumber closet at the back part of his boarding-house, where, to my great surprise, I found Sam Randall, one of my shipmates, already established and making himself quite at home. Neither of us had told the other of his intention to desert the Vernon, and the surprise was therefore mutual.

      " Ah, Sam!" we were both of one mind then! But we can throw our chances together, and perhaps help each other, though it seems you didn’t dare trust me, nor I you, beforehand."

      So Sam Randall and I became sworn comrades in this adventure, and kept ourselves quietly in our hiding-place, trusting to Jock to bring information about the Vernon’s movements. The boat came in next morning. and of course a few inquiries were made about Dick and Sam, but as they were not forthcoming, the officer returned on board, and to our surprise, Captain Tripp at once took his anchor and went to sea the same day. There were only two other ships remaining at Honolulu, out of all the whaling fleet; and within three or four days the harbor was quite deserted, for it was getting late in November, and every one was off on a "between seasons "cruise.

      As soon as the coast was clear, we ventured out of our snug quarters, but we knew not what instructions Captain Tripp might have left behind for our capture, and were very shy of every native policeman we met. Sam had been in the runaway business before at this same port, and told how he lay concealed in a ship’s fore-peak, while a party of these kaikos were searching high and low for him. They even came down into the forecastle, took off the scuttle, and punched about with swords and poles! But as Sam said, they wore white trousers, had only one pair apiece, and were afraid of getting these dirty, and so he managed, by crowding well into the hold, to keep out of their reach.

      No one molested us, however, or seemed to be at all interested in our affairs. Meanwhile we boarded with Jock Armstrong and pretended that we had been regularly discharged from our last ship. But this state of things could not last long, as we had but little money and there seemed to be no employment for us on shore. But luckily we got a chance within the week to work our passage in the Turtle, a little schooner that was bound up to Lahaina in the island of Maui. And as this change might possibly throw us in the way of some vessel going in the direction of California, or anywhere on the coast of the main land, we eagerly embraced it, and went cheerfully to our duties on board the little craft.

      We had little more than cleared the harbor, and begun to feel the swell of the broad Pacific, when a barque hove in sight, rounding Diamond Head, and steering down towards the anchorage. We scanned the stranger curiously, as she approached, wondering who it could be that had remained at sea so late on the Northern grounds, for she was evidently a whaler, and the season

480 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

for their visits to Honolulu was quite over.

      "Dick!" said my chum, with a sudden start. "We’re just in time, for that‘s the Vernon!"

      "Nonsense!" I exclaimed. "The Vernon isn’t a barque, is she?"

      "Say rather, she wasn’t a barque when we left her; but she is now, for that’s the Vernon. I know the very bluff of her bows and the tumble-home of her upper-work – and see that patch in the foresail. I can swear to it anywhere as my own clumsy work."

      And Sam was right. For as she came nearer and yawed so that the mizzen-mast could be seen, the trick was exposed. The topmast had been sent down, and a long topgallant-mast sent aloft in its place; and by a few other little changes, the venerable craft had been transformed, for the time being, into a barque. Captain Tripp had thought to trip us by his ingenuity, and to get his boat ashore and nab his two runaways, before we had a suspicion of the identity of the vessel. And perhaps had we been on shore, the trick would have succeeded, but we had the advantage of a nearer view of her rig than he meant to give us. He luffed as if he was desirous of communicating with the schooner, but the skipper of the Turtle didn’t want to be delayed on his voyage, and, wanting our services, didn’t care whether we were deserters or otherwise. So we went about our business, while the Vernon proceeded on her bootless errand, to search for me and Sam Randall.

      The very next day after our arrival at Lahaina, a brig anchored in the roadstead, direct from San Francisco. She had come to purchase potatoes, for that vegetable was then selling in El Dorado at fabulous prices, though three years later better potatoes were shipped from California to the islands. The captain was in a hurry and would remain but a few days at Lahaina. Of course, he didn’t want any hands, the supply of men being much greater than the demand. Any number could have been found ready to work their passage; but his crew that he brought from San Francisco were on high wages, and had no idea of leaving him until he had carried them back to San Francisco.

      But Sam and I made friends with one of them, a good-natured fellow, who made a signal to us during his anchor-watch the night before the brig was to sail. We paddled softly alongside in a little canoe with a friendly Kanaka, and were provided with quarters in the hold among the potatoes. We expected to be far at sea in a few hours; but in the morning it was discovered that the vessel’s pumps would not work, and it was not safe to sail until they were taken out and refitted. So we were obliged to crawl into the darkest corners, and lie quiet through two whole days until the repairs were completed. Our friend brought us what food he could get without exciting suspicion; but it was not desirable to make confidants of others of the crew, who might have informed and spoiled our plan. Sam thought it looked very much as though we might be restricted to a diet of raw potatoes, if this state of things continued much longer; but on the third day we had the pleasure of hearing the sound of heaving up the anchor and making sail, and soon the motion of the vessel gave evidence that we were tossing on the ocean swell outside the reef.

      The Kangaroo was one of those old traps, so many of which were sent out at the period when everybody and his brother had the mining fever, and "joint-stock companies " were being formed everywhere to buy the poorest vessel that could possibly risk the voyage round the Horn, and to fit her out as cheaply as possible. The company had, as usual in such cases, broken up as soon as they arrived in California, and resold the brig to her present captain who had invested his all in this potato speculation.

      She was a square-rigged brig, and had formerly been in the lumber trade, having a great port in her bow, which had been closed up and caulked when she was bought by the California adventurers; but this work had been clumsily done, and she had leaked more or less ever since. A rude flooring had been laid in the hold, and the potatoes, of which several hundred bushels had been bought at the islands, were dumped down in bulk upon this flooring. Unlike most of her class, the Kangaroo was rather a swift sailer, and a short passage was confidently hoped for.

      Sam and I were determined to make a sure thing of it, and not to show our heads above deck until we were hundreds of miles on our voyage; for we had no idea of being carried back and landed, as we were fearful might otherwise be the case. We stood out northward, as we judged by the tack the brig was on; as it is necessary to get into the variable winds before any progress can be made to the eastward. We jogged along pretty well for two or three

Potatoes "in Bulk." 481

      days, though it was not pleasant to hear the water swaying and swashing under us, and the heavy strokes of the pumps going for an hour together at every relief of the watches. As the brig had only six hands before the mast, we judged they must be pretty well blown with their labor at the pumps, and thought they certainly earned their money, California wages though it was.

      On the third night after leaving Lahaina a heavy squall struck us in the night. We knew by the sounds of what had been done overhead that the brig was under whole topsails at the time she received it, and that everything was let go by the run. Down she went more and more on her broadside, and we poor stowaways struggled for dear life to get up to windward, for the potatoes seemed to rumble and sag, showing signs of "shifting" in a body to leeward. We were but just in time, as it proved, for we had hardly gained a safe position, when away went the whole mass, piling themselves up to the deck on the lee side, while the howling of the wind, the slatting of canvas, the cries of the seamen overhead, and the general Babel of sounds, was perfectly fearful.

      "Dick," said my companion, "it’s a case of life and death. We must get out of this, and not stand on ceremonies. If the old hooker is to go to the bottom, we must take our chance of being decently drowned in the open air."

      "Yes," said I. "It would be too horrible to be drowned here like rats in a boxtrap, or buried under an avalanche of potatoes – for if they should shift back again – "

      Crash! It seemed as if the whole broadside of our prison had been forced in, and with a confused idea of what could he meant by the "crack of doom," we squeezed ourselves through a small opening into the forecastle, where we lay a moment to recover breath among a confused jumble of sea-chests, molasses-kegs, tin pots and pans, old clothes, and other miscellaneous lumber, with the step-ladder astride of the pile; for everything had "fetched away" at the last lurch she had made. The hanging-lamp still held its place, on a nail in the deck-beam, and shed a dim light over chaos; and by a hard struggle we made out to get the ladder up again into its cleets, and climbed to the deck.

      We were by this time satisfied what the grand crash meant. The rude flooring had broken down under the accumulated weight of all the potatoes on one side, and the whole mass of them was adrift in the bottom of the hold. This change of circumstances, however, relieved the brig somewhat, and perhaps saved her from being entirely lost, by going on her beam-ends and foundering. The squall was short-lived, and its first fury was spent when we emerged into the open air, and turned to, without orders, to make ourselves useful, and assist in saving things.

      Both topsails were torn and split badly, as they had been only "Spanish-reefed," – that is, let go by the run, and the reef-tackles partly hauled out; and the backstays having been cut by the captain’s order, both to’gallant-masts had gone over to leeward, so that there was a very pretty general-average job, considering that the skipper, besides being owner, was also his own underwriter. But as the squall abated the vessel partially righted, and we went to work to make things as snug as possible. For the time being no one asked who we two strangers were, or whence we came. The officers were only too glad to find they had the extra help of two stout men, and did not hesitate to avail themselves of it.

      But the greatest trouble of all was to come; for when the pumps were tried, it was found that more than double duty was required to free her of water. The extra strain upon the old Kangaroo had increased her leaks to an alarming degree. It was only by great exertions that we succeeded in keeping her afloat and pumping her into the Bay of San Francisco; and as for the cargo, it was about a total loss, after the break-down of the flooring, which put at least six hundred bushels of murphies in soak. We saved a few, but the greater part of them, bruised and spoiled, were thrown overboard to get rid of them; for every now and then a small potato would find its way by suction into the pumps upon which our sole salvation depended. And had it been the most unpromising land in the world instead of California, we should have been as rejoiced when the old Kangaroo, strained and battered, once more swung to her anchor and our voyage was up.

      The skipper had made a losing speculation of it; but he sold the brig at the first offer, and I heard that he bettered his fortunes in the mines, as I myself did. As for Sam Randall, he shipped on high wages for a voyage to China, and I never saw or heard of him afterwards.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Potatoes "in Bulk."
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 43, No. 5 (May 1876)
Pages: 478-481