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19th Century American Whaling

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Ashley's Glossary of
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Dana's Dictionary of
Sea Terms


W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. XLIII, No. 6 (Jun 1876)
pp. 563-566.

The Twin Ships. 563

. . . .



      "I have never told you," said Dave Dunn, as we sat together in the middle watch, on the barrel of the windlass, "about the time the old Castor was burned, or, rather, wasn't burned, from letting her caboose-pen run dry."

      "No," said I, "I have never heard of it. Fire away, Dave, and give us the yarn."

      I composed myself at once in a comfortable attitude, and prepared my mind to be well entertained. For Dave was a man of many adventures, and of infinite resources in the way of material for whiling away a long watch.

      "I shipped at Sydney," he began, "in the barque Castor, for a whaling cruise on the Middle Ground. She was the only lime-juicer that ever I belonged to, and – "

      "What do you mean by 'lime-juicer?'" I asked.

      "Why, an English ship, of course."

      "Why are they so called?"

      "Because all English vessels on long sea voyages serve out a certain allowance of lime-juice to every man, at stated intervals of time. They are obliged to do it – by Act of Parliament."

      "Is that so?"

      "Yes. They used to say that the main outfit of a Sydney Whaler was made up of split peas, lime-juice, grog and coal-tar. We had pea soup seven days in a week, and lime-juice, according to the Act."

      "But they didn't serve out coal-tar to the crew?"

      "Who said they did? But they painted the ship with it, and in the Castor we used no other paint, for hull, spars or ironwork. All was tarred with one brush. However, she was a fine vessel, for all that; the usage was good enough, and the discipline not so taut as I had been used to in American Whalers. We met with good luck, too, and were in a fair way to make a splendid voy-

564 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

age, when we lost our good ship – or she lost us, I hardly know which.

      "We were boiling out a large sperm whale when we 'raised' more, and as it was necessary to keep the work going along, only two boats were lowered, in pursuit. I was in one of these boats with the mate, and we chased the whales, away several miles to windward, before we came up with them, so as to get fast. Then the second mate struck first, and that gave us a continuation of the stern-chase, for the whale proved a lively one, and kept carting him to windward at a smart pace. There was not much wind, and the ship, when we left her, was under easy sail, as is customary when trying out. The captain seemed to content himself with keeping sharp on a wind, on the same tack, intending, I suppose, to make a good long board, so as to fetch well up with us, when he did go about. So the consequence was, at sundown the Castor was nearly hull down in the Northern board, while Mr. Banks, the second mate, was still fast to a whale-going to windward, spouting clear and strong, and we in the larboard boat had nearly pulled our arms out of the sockets trying to get up with him to reinforce him. Things looked, as our darkey midship-oarsman expressed it, 'kind o' jubeous,' as to being able to save the whale, especially as the weather looked indicative of squalls, and was hardly trustworthy.

      "The mate, being a prudent man, and having considered all the chances, took upon himself, as the senior officer, to give the order to Mr. Banks to cut from his whale. This was done by certain movements up and down of the big waif, by means of which the several officers had established a regular code of signals for communicating with each other at a distance. The order was obeyed at once, as if his junior had been expecting and waiting for it; and we ceased our labors, letting our boat lie to for the second mate to come down to us.

      "By the time we had joined company, and were running off abreast of each other within talking distance, it was almost dark, and we could no longer see the ship. But we felt no uneasiness about that; she must soon come round on the other tack, and the fire from her try-works would be a grand beacon to help us in finding her. There would be no advantage in exerting ourselves hard at the oars, or in setting the lights in our boat lanterns; for we must see the ship long before those on board could see us. So we jogged along under our sails, talking about the hard luck of the day, and the necessity of being obliged to cut from the noblest whale of the season – for those that get away are always the biggest, as every whaleman can testify – until suddenly 'Light ho!' was cried by the boatsteerer in the head of the boat.

      "'Where away?' said Mr. Warner, stooping his head to peer under the sail.

      "'Here! four points off the port bow.'

      "The mate seemed somewhat bothered.

      "'Yes – I see it now – and I suppose that must be our ship; but that isn't exactly where I should have looked for her.'

      "But the light very soon flared up brightly, showing, beyond question, that it was that of a fire; and it was decided that the ship must have tacked sooner than was supposed, which placed her in the unexpected position. A little freshening of the breeze seemed to help out this theory, and make us fall in with it the more readily. Besides, no other vessel had been in sight during the afternoon, that we knew of.

      "'Well, there's no use hurrying,' said the mate. 'Let her jog comfortably. Take in the jib, Tom; we can sail that much faster than Mr. Banks, and we'll just about keep company, if we spare him the extra canvas.'

      "'There she lights up!" shouted Tom. 'They must be stirring up the fires lively, or piling scraps on the back arches.'

      "'Old Hallett!' roared Mr. Banks, in the other boat; and his crew took up the cry in chorus."

      I interrupted the story again, to ask Dave what was meant by this exclamation.

      "Well," said he, "I think you will hear it often enough when we get on the whaling-ground. It is a cry raised whenever a bright light is seen; and everybody makes use of the phrase. One sings out 'Old Hallett!' because another does; but it is very seldom that any one asks the why or wherefore. "

      "But what is the origin of it?"

      "Ah, now, you've rather got me with that conundrum. The best explanation I have ever heard was, that it arose from an old fellow of that name somewhere, who never went abroad without carrying a bright light in a lantern. But I can't say whether that is really the starting-point of it or not.

The Twin Ships. 565

It's like many other similar sayings, of quite as mysterious origin.

      "Well, the light grew brighter and brighter, shooting up in a fierce flame heavenwards, until the truth gradually dawned upon us that the ship must be on fire! No light made by scraps on the try-works could illuminate the sky in that manner, or send up such tongues of flame. The order was given to pull ahead, and, under combined power of oars and sails, the boat leaped forward towards the distant light, the mate keeping his startled vision fixed upon it,without speaking for an hour, evidently under strong excitement. He no longer talked of keeping company with the waist-boat, and such was the differencs in, the rates of speed of the two, that our consort was soon left out of hearing astern.

      "As we drew nearer, there was no longer any doubt that the good barque Castor was really a prey to the devouring flames. She had luffed up to the wind, shivering, and the flames were driving aft upon the mainmast and sails, while out of the stern windows could be seen the ruddy glare of the fire raging within, showing that all hope of saving her was past. But most mysterious to us was the fact that no living soul was to be seen anywhere within the radius illuminated by the burning ship. The boats were all gone from the cranes, and the davit-tackles hung dangling in the water, showing that the crew had taken to flight in a hurry. We thought it strange that they should not have lingered near, looking upon their late home until she should be entirely destroyed.

      "While we lay on our oars, fascinated by the awful sight, there was a sudden crash, and a gap opened in the middle of the seething mass; and then suddenly a pillar of flame shot up masthead high, so fierce as almost to blind us for the moment, while the heat was so intensified that we were forced to pull to increase our distance, and to lie well out to windward of the ship. The try-works had settled through the deck, by the burning off of the carlines underneath; and as the mass of brickwork fell down into the bottom of the ship, carrying, of course. the pots with it, the whole body of oil took fire at once, and the conflagration now raged with redoubled fury. It was but a waste of time to look at it longer. Nothing could be saved from the wreck but our own lives, and no time was to be lost if we would save even ourselves.

      "We had not spoken any ships on the ground for many days, and had no reason to think there were any near us. The most available land-fall for us would be some part of the Australian coast, we being then about midway between Australia and New Zealand. There was no doubt that our shipmates had already made the best of their way in that direction, having abandoned the ship just as soon as they were satisfied the fire could not be subdued.

      "So, with heavy hearts, we again took to our oars, setting our sails too, for no time was to be lost. We had no provisions or water, beyond the little stock usually carried in the boats when whaling; and this, even by going on very short allowance, could not be enough to keep us alive more than three or four days. Luckily the wind favored us, and we made good progress, shaping our course due westward, for the object was to make the coast at any point as soon as possible.

      "You may well believe our eyes were strained to the utmost towards every point of the compass next morning, and indeed, at all times, day and night; but we saw no vessel, nor anything of our boats. On the third day we made the land, to our great relief, as the weather looked threatening. But it was not until nightfall that we had approached near the shore, and not daring to attempt landing with the boats in the darkness, we coasted down the shore to the southward, towards Port Jackson Heads. It must have been near midnight when we discovered what we soon made out to be the light from a steamer's chimney; and placing ourselves in her way, we succeeded, by showing our boat-lanterns and shouting with the strength of our united voices, in arresting the attention of those on board. She was hove to, and never were poor sailors more overjoyed than we, when, worn with starvation and fatigue, we found ourselves in safety on the deck of the 'Albert,' a little steam-packet which plied between Newcastle and Sydney.

      "It was none too soon, either; for before morning one of those gales came on known on this coast as 'Brickfielders,' and which, blowing against the prevailing current, always kick up such a dangerous chopping sea. In our open boats, weak and exhausted as we were, we should, no doubt, have all gone to the bottom.

      "But the stout little steamer made good

566 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

head against the storm, and early the next day we gained the shelter of the beautiful bay which opens up to the city of Sydney. As we steamed up to the inner harbor, a barque was seen lying at anchor which so much resembled the old Castor that every one was astonished that two vessels could be found so exactly alike in hull, spars and rigging.

      "'Why, it is the Castor!' said I to the mate.

      "'Of course it isn't,' he answered, curtly. 'How can it be the Castor, when we have seen her burned up in the middle of the Pacific Ocean? Are ships ever resurrected in that manner, I'd like to ask?'

      "'But I could swear to every rope in her,' I insisted. And so I could; for before we were an hour older we had met our old shipmates, and were received with open arms by them on the deck of the real Castor herself, as good as new."

      "But what ship was it you saw burning that night?" I asked, in astonishment. For Dave had stopped, and seemed to consider his yarn finished.

      "It was her twin," he answered. "The barque Pollux, of Hobart Town, which was whaling on the same ground with us; but we did not know it, not having seen her. The two barques had originally been built for the same owner, and were exactly alike in every particular, below and aft. Both had sailed out of Sydney in their early career; but the Pollux had been sold afterwards, and her ownership changed to the other colony."

      "Did she take fire from her try-works?"

      "Yes. The officer of the deck was careless enough to forget his business, and let the caboose-pen run dry."

      "But what became of her crew?"

      "They were picked up next day by the Castor, which was cruising in search of us, and was astonished enough when she fell in with four boats full of men, where she was looking for only two. Our captain had made a miscalculation, and stood too long on one tack, and lost the run of us in the boats even before we had cut from the whale. And we, being misled by the light from the Pollux, had gone still further out of the course which we should have steered to head off our own ship, after she tacked."

      "But didn't your captain see the light of the burning ship?"

      "Yes, but from a long distance, and thought it merely another ship boiling. He kept well to windward, and must have crossed our track without being seen or seeing us. He held his weather-gage all night, and the next day, running to leeward, with all his mastheads double~manned, he fell in with and saved the four boats' crews, as I said before; but nothing was to be seen of the ill-fated Pollux but a few charred fragments."

      "He must have soon given up the search for his men," said I.

      "Well, no. He cruised a couple of days all over that vicinity, and then concluded rightly that we must have given up trying to find the ship, and made the best of our way towards the Australian coast, as we would be likely to do. He then bore up for port, and, having the wind in his favor, he arrived and anchored in Sydney just in time to escape the gale which we encountered in the steamer. He brought in the whole crew of the Pollux, and landed them safe and sound; but they had saved nothing from their ship but just what they stood in. And this is the whole story of how the Castor wasn't burned up, but made a very successful cruise of it. Though if we had been picked up and carried to some other part of the world, as we might have been, we should have always reported, and, as we thought, truly, that we had all been eye-witnesses of the destruction of our own ship by fire."

      "How much tobacco will you give me to believe that yarn, Dave?"

      "Don't care a single chaw of tobacco whether you believe it or not. It‘s all true – a great deal more so, at any rate, than the old fable about the original Castor and Pollux, the twin brothers, who were said to have been sons of old Jupiter. Yet I suppose you will believe that yarn, because you read it at school."


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: The Twin Ships.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 43, No. 6 (Jun 1876)
Pages: 563-566