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19th Century American Whaling

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Ashley's Glossary of
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Dana's Dictionary of
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W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. LI, No. 5 (May 1880)
pp. 465-470.

A Runaway Adventure. 465

. . . .



      It was Tom Webber's turn to finish the yarn for the amusement of us, his watchmates, and the twinkle in his eyes indicated that the fountain of his invention had not yet run dry. If half the stories he had seriously told us had been true, there would have been no question as to his having borne a charmed life.

      "Did I ever tell you about the time I ran away from the Logan, on the coast of Kamtchatka?" asked Tom.

      "No, no!" answered a chorus of voices. "Fire away, Tom, and give us the yarn."

      And we settled ourselves to be entertained, while Tom sat thinking a few moments to get his strings in tune for drawing the long bow.

      "I was younger twenty years ago than I am now, and a deal more wild and foolish, though you may say that is needless. We were not badly used on board the Logan, and she was quite as good a floating home as the average of whalers in those days; and yet several of the young chaps had firmly resolved to desert from her on the first opportunity that offered. As we were in the middle of a nor'west season when my story begins, no such chance seemed likely to offer itself until we should drop our anchor at one of the Sandwich Islands in the fall. But it came about in rather an unexpected manner.

      "It was in the season of '53 or '54, I am not now certain which; but, at any rate, it was during the time of the Crimean War, as you will see presently. We had not found the polar whales, as we expected, in the Anadir Sea, and so had worked to the southward, thinking to make up our season on the right-whaling grounds of Kamtchatka. We got among the whales, and had pretty fair luck; but we found that many others beside ourselves had made the same movement, for there were ships in sight almost every day, and the whales were kept stirred up and gallied all the time.

      "One day, when the wind was light and the sea unusually smooth for this part of the ocean, we had been down with the boats in chase of whales all through the forenoon; but they were very shy, and we had not been near enough to grease a lance. About noon, the captain made the signal of recall, hoisting the boats as fast as they arrived.

      "The second mate's boat, in which I pulled the tub oar, was the last to come alongside, and the steward had already served the dinner in the cabin, and passed the word to the captain.

466 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

      "'Mr. Sherman,' said the captain, 'never mind about hoisting your boat on the cranes. Let her drop right astern, with a couple of hands in her. We'll get dinner at once, fore and aft, and, by that time, we shall have a chance to shore off and try again. Come down from aloft, Sam, and get your dinner. There's a fog-bank coming down upon us now, but I think it will be clear again within half an hour.'

      "Dick Archer and I remained in the boat, having our dinner passed down to us, and it was veered astern into the ship's wake. By the time the captain and officers had left the deck, the fog had shut down very thick.

      "The ship was lying aback, and even the helmsman had been allowed to lock the wheel, and get his dinner with the rest. There was no one to be seen on board the ship for the moment; but, presently, my chum, Joe Fox – the wildest, most harum-scarum lad of all the Logan's crew – came aft, and, looking over the taffrail, beckoned to us, indicating that he had something confidential to say. I hauled in on the warp until it was nearly straight up and down, so that Joe was right over my head.

      "'Hold on hard!' said he.

      "And before I really understood his intention, he had descended the rope, hand over hand, and was at my side in the boat.

      "'Now's your time, Tom,' said he. 'Let us give the old Logan the slip, and be off on a cruise. We'll just drop down into the fog, and in five minutes I'll defy the Devil himself to find us, if we keep quiet.'

      "'But,' said I, 'this is no good time or place.'

      "'Oh, but we must have no buts,' interrupted Joe. 'This is the time and place, and, if we really want to have a runaway cruise, we must be quick about it, and silent too.'

      "And, before I could remonstrate, he had cut the warp, and we were adrift. I had half a mind to call out for help, but was ashamed to do so now.

      "' Don't show the white feather, Tom,' said Fox. 'Dick Archer, if you make a breath of noise, I'll brain you with this paddle!'

      "Already the ship had forged away from us, so that she was growing dim in the fog.

      "'Step the mast, Dick,' said our self-appointed leader. 'Bear a hand, there.'

      "The sails flapped for an instant, but the sheet was drawn aft to the cleet, and away we slid into the fog-bank, Joe having seized the steering-oar himself. I must confess I hoped just then to hear some sounds of alarm from the ship; but all was quiet. She was gone quickly from our view, and our distance was rapidly increasing.

      "Here, now, was about as foolish an undertaking as could well be imagined, and so we began to think – at least Dick and I did – as soon as it was too late to repent. Three young lads starting off in an open boat, with very little provisions and water; and this, too, in a high latitude, where heavy winds prevailed, and no land near us but the rocky shore of Kamtchatka. We began to express our doubts and fears, but were cut short by the stout-headed and impetuous Joe.

      "'Oh, what are you worrying about?' said he. 'Here we have been talking for months about a chance to run away, and now here's one all made for us and you seem afraid to improve it. Why, we can't be a great way from the land, for the mountains were in sight yesterday from the ship. We can coast along the shore to Petropaulaska, if we don't strike upon some other Russian settlement sooner; or, at the worst, we can get aboard some other ship, and that will be a change, at any rate. Hurrah for change and adventure! Ah, they've woke up on board the ship! But they won't find us, never fear! It won't clear up for an hour or two, and, when it does, we shall have a long start of them, and if we douse the masts and sails they can't see us.'

      "The ship was signaling with loud blasts of fog-horns and frantic peals of bell-ringing. But the sound showed that we were already quite distant.

      "Soon after we heard a musket fired, and still later the report of the old carriage-gun; and, from the direction of the sound, it was evident that the ship had run off to leeward in search of us, but had shaped her course wildly astray. There was not one chance in a hundred of her finding the boat, in the absence of any responsive signal from us.

      "The fogs in the North Pacific are so uncertain that no human foresight can predict how long thick weather will last; and, though our captain had been confident that it would clear up in half an hour, it was as dense as ever when we luffed-to at sundown.

      "During all this time we had been running through with a light breeze in a westerly direction, toward the coast; and we continued on the same tack, several hours into the night, without even hearing any sound of breakers. We had found ample time to reflect upon the madness of our undertaking, and even Joe Fox was much less bold and confident than he had been at the start.

      "We had little idea of our position, and were uncertain whether we were to the northward or southward of the Russian port; but of one thing we were well-assured, – that the mountains of Kamtchatka were farther off than had been supposed. After much waste of words, it was decided to take down the mast, and lie-to for the remainder of the night, or until the weather cleared,

A Runaway Adventure. 467

hoping to find some ship in sight; for we would gladly have welcomed the sight of a sail, even if it had been the Logan herself.

      "As we were greatly in need of rest, we lay down in the boat and gave up all care for the present, not even setting any look-out. Joe had the stern-sheets for his quarters, and Dick the bow; while I stretched myself out in the middle of the boat upon the oars, throwing a bight of the sail around me. And, as we all had our jackets on, we did not suffer from cold. Nature soon asserted her rights, notwithstanding my anxiety of mind, and I fell asleep.

      "How long my nap lasted I do not know; but I was awakened by a rushing sound of waters, and a feeling as of a strong breeze or a draught in the air. I jumped to my feet to find myself overshadowed by a dark wall towering above my head. I threw out my hands, and felt my footing going from under me with a crash, and grasped a chain! By this time, I had my senses enough to know that I was clinging to the bobstays of a ship.

      "The boat and my two comrades were gone like a flash, overwhelmed so quickly that we had no time even to call out to each other. I clung to the chain-bobstay as my last and only hope, and I climbed up on the bowsprit, where I paused to get breath. I could hear voices on the bow of the ship, as of men talking earnestly, but in a strange gibberish of which I did not understand a word. Until I had recovered my wind so as to make my way in on deck, with loud shouts, they did not know of my presence.

      "I could talk only in my own tongue, but I did my best, with pantomime and frantic gestures, to make them understand about the boat and my two shipmates. After a time, they succeeded in getting some inkling of the truth through their heads, when the ship was hove-to, and a boat lowered; but it was too late for any hope of saving anybody. I knew only thus far the ship was a man-of-war, as was plain from her guns and the number of men; and that her lookouts must have been carelessly kept, for they seemed to know very little about the unfortunate tragedy, except that the ship had struck something which had hardly stopped her way at all, and that they had found a strange man on board.

      "What with my grief at the loss of my comrades, and my excitement at finding myself saved from death almost by a miracle, I was not in a humor to talk much. But, after the search had been given up, – for the boat did not venture far away into the fog and darkness, – and the ship had been kept on her course again, a little fellow who seemed to have just turned out from below was brought to me as an interpretor[sic], and addressed me in cockney English. He held some station equivalent to what we would call a purser's steward, and told me his real name was Bill Brown, though I suspect that may have been a purser's name.

      "Through this little fellow as a medium, my story was soon given to the captain and officers, and, in return, I learned that I was on board the Russian corvette – or, as we would say, sloop-of-war – Cronstadt, mounting twenty guns, and commanded by Captain "Somebody, whose name the cockney could not pronounce any better than I could myself. If I had wanted to spell it, I should have thrown the whole alphabet into a bag, and then grabbed a handful of letters at random.

      "The corvette had sailed two days before from Petropaulaska, on a cruise in search of two English whalers from Hobart Town, which were reported to be cruising on the ground. One of the whalers, named the Lady Blackwood, acting under a pretended license of letters of marque from the Colonial Governor of Van Dieman's Land, had captured and burned a small Russian coasting-vessel a few days before, and our skipper with the jaw-breaking name declared his intention of hanging the valorous Briton at the yard-arm as a pirate as soon as he could lay hands upon him.

      "The crew of the Cronstadt were a rough, dirty set of fellows, and it struck me that, in spite of the despotic character of the Russian government, the discipline was not such as I had expected to find in a war vessel. However, that was none of my business. I was treated hospitably enough, considering that I had come on board without any invitation; and so soon forgot my past perils, and stood ready for the next adventure that might turn up.

      "In the morning the fog cleared, and, the wind freshening, we continued working to the eastward all day and the following night.

      "Another day broke on us with four sails in sight from the masthead. All these were whalers, without doubt, but the whalers in the seas were nearly all Americans, while only an English or a French vessel would be lawful prize for the corvette. The Russian ensign was hoisted on her gaff, and was promptly answered by three of the strangers showing the stars and stripes; but the fourth, which was about four miles astern of us, made no response. We hove round at once and gave chase, the stranger crowding on canvas to get away from us. A stern chase is proverbially a long one, but it was very soon evident that we were coming up with the whaler hand over hand.

      "When within two miles of the chase, she hoisted an American flag; but it was not the full allowance of red stripes, and was altogether so clumsily made up that a glance through the telescope convinced us that it had been extemporized for the occasion.

468 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

      "There was hardly a doubt now that this was the Lady Blackwood of which we were in pursuit. She was a clumsy old craft, bark-rigged, with ugly quarter galleries, and her spars, lower masts, and all, painted black. She was no match in speed for the corvette, which I took to be of French build, and which quickly proved herself to be a great traveler. A shot fired from our bow-gun, even before we were within range, persuaded the chase to haul down his false bunting; and, seeing the hopelessness of his case, he hove-to, hoisted his own British ensign, and then lowered it again in token of submission.

      "The wind had by this time increased to a fresh gale, and was still blowing on. We ran as close as we dared under the lee of the prize, and ordered him, through the mouth of little Bill Brown, to send two of his whale-boats, these being lighter and safer in a heavy sea than any of the man-of-war's boats. The boat's crew, who came on board the Cronstadt, were detained there as prisoners; and twenty of the Russian seamen, in charge of a lieutenant, were sent on board the prize. And, as every man was a man to the Russian captain, – he wishing to prolong his cruise in search of the other English whaler, – it was suggested to me that I should go also as one of the prize crew.

      "Anything for a change, and, nothing loath, I readily assented to this transfer. Our orders were to send the boat back with the captain and six more of the English crew, as it was desirable to take good care of the 'pirate,' as he was called, and also to reduce the number of prisoners, who were to be in charge of the prize crew.

      "But, before the orders could be carried out, the gale was raging with great violence, and a dark, threatening squall gathered so that the risk was too great to attempt another trip with a boat between the two ships. No time was to be lost; so the signal being made to keep all fast with the boats, the corvette filled away on the northern tack, while we in the prize set the close-reefed main-topsail, and foresail, and bore up to Petropaulaska.

      "When 1 jumped out of the boat upon the deck of the Lady Blackwood, a voice saluted me with 'Halloo, Tom,' and I grasped the hand of my shipmate, Dick Archer. Each appeared to the other as one risen from an ocean grave, for his astonishment was not less than mine. He had clung to the bow end of the whale-boat, after she had been broken in two by the cutwater of the Russians, and had been picked up by the Lady Blackwood within an hour afterward, so near had the two ships passed each other during the foggy night.

      "We found on board the prize four Russians, who had been captured in the little coasting-vessel, taken by her the week before, and these served to strengthen our force somewhat, the prize crew, including Dick and myself, amounting in all to twenty-seven. But we still had sixteen of the Hobart-Town crew to be guarded as prisoners, not having been able to send away the last boat-load, as had been intended. It was found necessary to confine them in the halfdeck, or steerage, under a guard. But the English Captain Clavering was allowed to be at large, and to mess with the prize-master and us two Americans in the cabin, under a sort of parole. For I had made the Russian lieutenant understand who and what Dick was, and he was not confined with the English crew.

      "Indeed, it seemed enough for the officer to know that we were both Americans, a people for whom he seemed to have the highest esteem and admiration. Captain Clavering was a fine physical specimen, and possessed of very pleasing manners and an insinuating address. He was evidently a very determined and resolute fellow, but he did not seem to me to be the sort of man to be freely trusted on his mere word of honor in a case like this, where his personal interest was so largely at stake. I wondered at the confidence which the prize-master placed in him; but, as I before argued, it was none of my business.

      "The prize had, like most of the English colonial whalers, a good stock of liquor on board. And Captain Clavering also had a private lot of his own, of better quality, with which he was very generous. The Russian had an unfortunate weakness for drink; and, as both he and Clavering spoke a good smattering of French, they got on amazingly well together, and became jolly boon companions the very first evening of their acquaintance. This was all the more strange, as the lieutenant knew of his underhand act in taking the little schooner, and of the threats of his own commanding officer about hanging the Englishman at sight.

      "The gale blew so hard by ten o'clock that it was found necessary to take in the foresail, and heave the bark to under her storm canvas. Grog was served to the Russian crew during the performance of this duty, and, after all was made snug, and the two magnates had again taken their old places at the cabin table, the bottle passed between them even more freely than before. Clavering had a hard head, and, moreover, having a purpose in view, did not drink as deeply as he pretended. After a time, he proposed to give the crew another glass all round; and, the lieutenant assenting, Archer and I were requested to take the bottles up on the main deck, and serve it out when the watch was relieved at midnight. Clavering

A Runaway Adventure. 469

produced the bottles from his own stateroom, saying, in his generous way: –

      "'Give 'em a good stiff horn, boys, and don't forget the sentries here at the halfdeck.'

      "Something seemed to whisper to me that the liquor had been drugged, but, on tasting it, I could discover nothing peculiar. But it was no grog mixture, it was the genuine stuff, and the Muscovites had already enough, at the time of shortening sail, to put them in good trim.

      "Dick,' said I,' there's going to be fun here before morning.'

      "'Well, who cares? I don't,' he answered. 'It's none of our business.'

      "Sure enough, we would as soon sail under Clavering as under the drunken Russian, and, had we a choice of our next port of entry between Hobart Town and Petropaulaska, would surely have chosen the former. And so, as directed, we did not forget the sentries at the half-deck.

      "And now the prize-master, in the excitement of his spirits, not to be outdone by a generous enemy, directed us to serve a round of rum to the English prisoners in durance vile.

      "The Englishman again brought out more bottles, which, by the way, were not drugged, and thus everybody fraternized with every body else, and all went merry as a marriage bell.

      "'Let things take their course, Tom,' said Dick Archer. 'You and I stand on a sort of neutral ground. We're like the old woman when her old man was fighting with the bear; she didn't care which licked, but wanted to see the fun.'

      "By two bells, or one o'clock, the Russian lieutenant was laid out on the cabin transom, oblivious of everything; the two sentries were reclining in a stupor on the boobyhatch, one on each side; their filthy shipmates in the forecastle and about the deck were, for the most part, in a similar happy condition. Clavering had given the signal to his men, and, without striking a blow, the English were in full possession of their own ship.

      "Dick and I looked quietly on, like mice in the wall, and saw the whole thing well done.

      "The gale had began to moderate at midnight, and before the day broke the Lady Blackwood, under easy sail for scudding, was reeling off seven knots an hour – which was nearly the maximum of her sailing speed – toward milder latitude. The tables had been completely turned, the Russians being confined in the half-deck, while the English sailors mounted guard over them. Dick and I were, for the time being, as good Englishmen as the best of them, it being always our policy to side with the strongest party, and show our loyalty to the existing government.

      "But no one can picture the rage and terror of the poor prize-master, when he came to his senses, to find himself confined in a state-room, and learned the true situation of affairs. He saw nought before him but a disgraceful death if he showed his face again in his own country. He was sure to be either shot or hanged for his neglect of duty.

      "Clavering did his best to re-assure him, and reconcile him to the varying chances of war; but the poor, crestfallen officer was not to be roused from the melancholy into which he had settled after the first burst of passion was over.

      "He was allowed the entire freedom of the ship, and offered all the liquor he might choose to drink; but this could not tempt him. The iron had entered his soul; for to be thus outwitted, and carried a prisoner into an English port was more than he could bear.

      "The next night it was nearly calm, and the bark had hardly steerage-way, when it was discovered that she was settling in the water. A plummet dropped into the well showed eight feet of water in the hold, and it was plain to see that any effort at pumping was useless. There was nothing to be done but get out the boats and endeavor to save all the people, amounting in the whole to forty-three souls, before the bark should go down into the ocean depths. The poor, melancholy-mad officer had scuttled her by boring holes in her bottom, determined not only to perish himself, but to involve others in his fate, and destroy, at one blow, all evidence of his disgrace.

      "But we had heard a gun fired in answer to our rocket signals of distress, and at daylight saw the assurance of safety in the presence of another whaleship within two miles of us, running down. As she luffed to, and exposed her broadside to view, Dick and I at once recognized our old home of the Logan.

      "As the last of us stepped into the boats, the plankshear now almost level with the sea, the madman, for such he now really was, stepped upon the quarter-rail, and, with a cry that still rings in my ears, leaped into the boiling waves under the ship's counter, and was seen to rise no more. We pushed sadly off from the vortex of the sinking craft, and probably the two lightest hearts among all the number were those of Dick and myself, returning to the shelter of the old ship from which we so foolishly deserted.

      "And the sea seemed again to have given up her dead; for there, looking over the Logan's side, quite as much at home as if he had never been away from her, was the grin-

470 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

ning face of my dare-devil commander, Joe Fox!"

      "There, belay that, Tom!" interrupted two or three voices. "That's piling it too steep. We've believed that two of you were saved, but the third one was rather too much on the marvelous."

      "It's true, nevertheless," returned Tom, with the gravity of a judge. "He had a narrower escape than either of us, for he was picked up by his own ship, being found lashed to the loggerhead, and quite insensible, after having been in soak fifteen hours.

      "We stood in near the land, at the entrance of Petropaulaska, and set all the Russians afloat in two of the Englishman's boats, so I presume they all landed safely. The corvette was lying off and on at the time, having returned from her cruise; and the captain with the alphabetical name, when he learned the fact, gave chase to us, and used all the arguments in his power to induce us to deliver up Clavering and his crew. But his request was steadily refused, and as they were under the protection of the American flag on the high seas, he was forced to return to port with a flea in his ear, and our passengers remained with us until we arrived at Oahu, in the fall.

      "Dick, Joe, and I went to our duty as if nothing had happened, and stuck by the Logan until her voyage was completed. But the old man charged us the value of that whale-boat, and we had to pay for it; for it was deducted out of our lays when the ship arrived home."


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: A Runaway Adventure.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 51, No. 5 (May 1880)
Pages: 465-470