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The Plough Boy Journals

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19th Century American Whaling

Bonin Islands

Pitcairn's Island

Dictionaries & Glossaries

Ashley's Glossary of
Whaling Terms

Dana's Dictionary of
Sea Terms


W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. LII, No. 2 (Aug 1880)
pp. 131-133

Lost Overboard. 131

. . . .



      "Larboard watch aho-o-o-oy!" was roared down the forescuttle of the good ship Harriot Erving of Boston, rousing me to the consciousness, not only that it was four o'clock, A. M., but that it was my "turn-out trick at the wheel." No time must be lost in relieving the man to whom the last two hours had doubtless been long enough and miserable enough, so I donned my big monkey Jacket and sou’wester, with all the promptness possible under the circumstances. My watchmates were struggling into their duds as best they could, while the deck beneath us swayed and tossed about as if hung on elastic springs, and the single whale-oil lamp, hanging from the carline overhead, vibrated to and from half the points of the compass, giving just light enough to make darkness visible in the little triangular den called by courtesy the forecastle.

      "How's the weather, Dave?" I asked of the single starbowline who had come down to trim the lamp aforesaid, and to rouse out any loiterers who might be inclined to stand two calls.

      "Bad enough," he answered, "but the gale is breaking up, I think. If the sea goes down a little, I suppose you'll have a job to make sail after daylight."

      As the helmsman should be the first one up, I hardly waited for the answer to my

132 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

question, but pushing open the scuttle, emerged into as black and miserable a night as we need expect to encounter, even where we then were, off the pitch of the Horn. It was midwinter in these latitudes, too, being in the month of August, and a glare of ice had formed everywhere, sufficient to make locomotion not only inconvenient but dangerous. All was dark, cold, wet and cheerless, and the prospect of a two-hours' sojourn on "Mount Misery," as we were accustomed to call the elevated quarter-deck where the helmsman must stand and take it as it comes, was anything but inviting. But needs must when a certain Jehu drives, and I climbed up to the weather-rail, and then groped my way aft, sometimes skipping a little way on the treacherous footing of the deck, and then holding on a moment to wait for another start. But I reached my post of duty without accident, and found the mate already on hand to see the wheel relieved. I took the spokes from the hand of my predecessor repeating mechanically his words, "full and by," for there was really no steering to be done with the ship lying to under storm canvas. He went on his way rejoicing; and the mate also started off into the darkness to look up the rest of his watch, leaving me alone to my duty and my reflections.

      Our stout ship deeply loaded with a dead cargo, consisting mainly of copper ore and pig copper, made heavy work of it, as she pitched into one mountainous sea after another. Although the gale was fair for her course, it had blown so hard that she had been lying hove to for the last twenty-four hours, under the close-reefed maintopsail and staysails. I had heard a slatting of canvas as I came aft, and gazing high aloft, into the gloom, I had made out that the main royal, not having been securely furled, had partially worked loose from its gaskets. I soon after heard the officer's voice, giving some order, but did not make out the purpose of it. As it was no concern of mine, I thought no more about it, but pulling up my jacket collar under my hat rim, till only my eyes and nose were exposed to the cold blast, I settled myself to wear away my tedious trick at the wheel, as comfortably as might be under such circumstances. The binnacle light shed a glare over a little semicircle in which I stood, but beyond this space I could see nothing but the very blackness of darkness.

      The gale was indeed breaking as Dave had predicted, for it came in gusts with lulls between, showing that its greatest force was spent. I was indulging in pleasant thoughts of better weather soon to come, and of how we should, in a few hours, be speeding along on our way home, when during a lull of the gale I was startled by the sound of some body falling flat upon the water near the ship. The noise seemed to lie close alongside, between the main and mizzen chains.

      "Ah!" said I to myself, "a black fish breaching;" for we had seen large schools of these cetaceous animals playing about the ship during the previous day. But I heard no more, and I did not even turn my head, as indeed I could have been none the wiser had I done so.

      Some minutes afterward I thought I heard some words which I did not understand, then the question, –

      "What do you say?" and the answer, "He isn't up there, sir." Then I heard the mate's voice calling, "Charley," several times, and the cry taken up by other voices away forward on the bow, until the name had sounded all round the ship. Then approaching footsteps, the rustle of a wet oilcloth jacket, and the mate's face, pale and wild in expression, emerged from the darkness into the glare of the binnacle lamps, his eyes looking directly into mine.

      "Have you seen the boy Charley anywhere?" he asked, not very earnestly. but rather as if he felt the question to be a mere matter of form. ‘

      "No sir, I've seen nobody since you went forward."

      "My God!" exclaimed the mate, "that boy is lost overboard!"

      Instantly my mind siezed upon the explanation of that strange, flat blow upon the water. I spoke quickly, "No,sir, I haven't seen him, but I heard him!"

      "Heard him? where?"

      "I heard him when he struck the water abreast of the lee main chains, and called it a black fish breaching. How could it have happened?

      "He must have fallen from the main royal guard," answered the officer sadly, "and of course the whole thing is all over, for he must have been chilled to death before he rose to the surface, if indeed he rose at all. I sent him and the other boy, George, up to secure the main royal, which had worked adrift. Charley went up ahead, and when George got up in the topmost cross-tree Charley passed the word down to him that there was not gasket enough, and told him to come down on deck and get a fathom or two of smaller rope. I gave him what he wanted and sent him up again. Pretty soon George stood at my side again, hatless, and with every hair standing on end, and told me that Charley wasn't there!"

      "I heard the rest of it, sir," said I. "I understand all now."

      And this was all. Charley was not up there, nor to be found anywhere else, and I alone had heard that fatal slap in the sea, to

Sunday Schools: their Origin and History. 133

leeward! These two facts covered the whole ground of the evidence, but the explanation was easy. The ship had no topgallant cross-tree, and there was no footing but such as was afforded by the eyes of the rigging, nothing to catch at but the single royal backstay. Charley was lumbered with heavy boots and pea-jacket, the rigging was glazed over with ice. And thus he had passed out from among his shipmates, who were denied even the melancholy satisfaction of making an effort to save him. Falling from such an immense height, he must have been senseless before he struck the water, but even had it been broad daylight at the time, it would have been madness to think of putting a boat down into such a sea.

      And daylight did come at last, and with it Captain L–––, who, in his abstraction of mind, forgot that he was in Cape-Horn latitude, and paraded the quarter-deck in his shirt-sleeves. The tears were still in the eyes of the tender-hearted old seaman, and his voice trembled as he gave the order to have the boy's sea-chests locked up and brought aft, that his few effects might be sent home to his friends on our arrival at the home port.

      "Ah! Charley was a good boy," said he, "a good boy! and he – well, he has gone, as we ought all to go, in the line of duty, and it can not be helped."

      A short funeral sermon truly, but containing more pith than many longer ones.

      "All hands make sail!"

      With the foresail and three double-reefed topsails set to the breezes, our course is shaped northward into the Atlantic. The angry seas roll on after us, and the gallant Harriot, as if impatient of the long delay, goes bounding rapidly away from the spot where our young comrade went down.

      Poor Charley Ricketson! He had belonged to our ship only a few weeks, having joined her at Coquimbo, on the Chilian coast, where he had been discharged from a New-Bedford whaler. But active, cheerful and willing wherever duty called, he had won the love and esteem of every man in both ends of the ship. De mortuis nil nisi bonum, says the old adage, and some one has suggested that verum be substituted for bonum. It matters not: Charley's shipmates, if any of them be still living, will be content with either of the two versions.

      It is some twenty-three years since this incident occurred, but the impression made upon my memory was a deep and lasting one, and many times since I have seemed to hear that peculiar whack on the water, just as when, on that black, wild night, the icy waves closed over the body of that brave young lad; for in this instance, reader, I have been actually telling a story, not making one.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Lost Overboard.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol 52, No. 2 (Aug 1880)
Pages: 131-133