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Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. LIV, No. 2 (Aug 1881)
pp. 165-174.

Short-handed. 165



      I had been reading Clark Russell's fascinating tale of the sea, A Sailor's Sweetheart, to old Captain Brooks, who, by reason of the natural infirmities pertaining to fourscore years, is denied the privilege of reading for himself, though his intellect is quite as clear as ever, and his memory unimpaired. He was intensely interested in the story, and at times, when I stopped to rest at the conclusion of a chapter, the old man would discuss the situation with the keenest interest and appreciation of all the little circumstances, recalling adventures and incidents in his own experience, having more or less similarity to those related, and entering into the spirit of them, so that, for the time being, he seemed to have been dipped in the Fountain of Youth, for which De Soto and his fellow-voyagers had sought in vain. His experience on the ocean had been much longer and more varied than my own, dating back, too, to a much earlier period, and he had been distinguished in the days of his prime, as I well knew, for his courage and fortitude under all circumstances, as well as for great physical strength, and power of endurance.

      When I had read the account of the voyage of the Morning Star across the Pacific, with the performances of two seamen and a young lady in managing a brig of two hundred tons, I remarked that some nautical friends of ours, in commenting upon it, had declared that such a feat was impossible, or at least so nearly so as to exceed all reasonable bounds of probability in a story such as a conscientious writer could claim to be a truthful sketch of real life.

      "Well, I don't know," the old captain said reflectively. "It does seem rather tough service, but, as the old saying is, there's no knowing what you can do, until you are hard put to it, and, after all, it was possible, provided the weather happened to be pretty moderate and steady, as the story describes it to have been. Three of us worked the old ship Iris – and she was three hundred and twenty tons – all the way from the King Will Groups up to Port Jackson Heads, and we had some pretty heavy weather, too, before we got there."

      "I remember hearing some mention of that voyage, but I never knew the details of the affair. Suppose you give us the yarn, to while away an hour."

      Captain Brooks considered a minute or so to fix his dates exactly, and having thus, as he expressed it, "got his departure," he went ahead with his story almost as fluently as he might have done fifty years earlier in life.

      It was in the summer of 1821, when I was just coming of age, that I sailed as a boat-steerer in the Iris of New Bedford, under Captain Paul Barrett, a very worthy but rather easy going man, who belonged to Nantucket, and brought his mates, and a part of his crew, along with him from the great nursery of whale-killers. Our voyage began well, for we had a good passage round the Horn, and did some good whaling on the Chilian coast, until our mate, Timothy Paddock, who was an able officer, and the very main-stay of the voyage, was so unfortunate as to have his leg broken by a whale. We were obliged, of course, to pack on sail, and make for the nearest port, which was Talcahuano, where the surgeons put the broken limb into splints, and prophesied that it would be many weeks, perhaps months, before Mr. Paddock would be fit for duty, if, indeed, he ever recovered his full strength and vigor.

      This had a bad look, and we all felt that the loss of the mate was a serious blow to the success of our voyage, but there was no help for it. As the captain thought that Mr. Clasby was rather too young and inexperienced, he decided to ship a mate of whom he knew very little, rather than risk promoting his young townsman to the higher berth. A candidate offered himself in the person of one Dick Sanford, – I always had an idea, however, that he was sailing under a purser's name, – a short, stout-built Englishman, who had come out as second mate in the English whaler Tuscan. He had a surly, black look, and had too much of the rough-and-tumble adventurer about him for the situation of chief officer; but then he showed his honorable discharge from the Tuscan, and a letter of recommendation from his captain, setting forth that he was a good whaleman and a competent navigator, all of which proved to be true. There was, indeed, no choice for us in this case, so Mr. Sanford brought his traps on board, and was duly installed as first officer of the Iris, while all the rest of us remained in our old stations.

      But the small-pox was raging in Talcahuano at the time, and we had been but a few days at sea when it broke out among us in

166 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

the most malignant form. We had run down the coast to the northward, intending to make a cruise on Peru, but here, now, was a new horror, and a misfortune which seemed likely to strike a more serious blow to the voyage than the accident to Mr. Paddock. We did not attempt to return to the port we had left, but continued on to leeward, and, by the time we made Payta Head, we had already dropped three of our ship-mates overboard, while six more were dangerously sick, and the rest of us were in a fearful state of demoralization. I must say that Mr. Sanford was at this time the best man on board, and a very host in himself, for he had before had the disease, as the pits in his face plainly showed, and was, therefore, without fear of being attacked with it. As you might suppose, we were not allowed to enter the harbor of Payta with the ship, nor could we get any medical man to come on board, as we lay off-and-on outside. After a long delay, and a great deal of parley and red-tape, the authorities allowed us to land the sick men at a miserable pest-house, where I don't think they had any better treatment or care than they got while on board. I could spin you a separate yarn about the history of that pestilence, but I am not going to do it now, for I must pass on to other matters.

      We continued lying off-and-on week after week, landing more cases of sickness as they appeared, until the disease had finished its work, and, having thrown overboard every thing most likely to be infected, smoked the ship throughout, and done everything we could do, we began to breathe more freely, that is, so many of us as had escaped. Very few of the sick recovered, and we lost in all ten men, including some of our best hands. We were now too shorthanded to go to the whaling ground, and so we put her for Callas to fill up our crew. We had some difficulty in shipping men, for the story had got abroad among the seamen on shore, and they were afraid to join a vessel that might have the small-pox hovering within her. At last we succeeded in making up the number. It was a mongrel collection of all nations and colors, and I confess I wished myself well rid of the voyage, when I surveyed the rough-looking crowd of shipmates. But it was always my rule to stick by my ship so long as she would stick by me, and I can truly say that I was never a deserter from any vessel.

      It was at this time that whale-ships were beginning to extend their cruises westward into the Pacific, on what has since been called the "off-shore ground." We soon fell in with sperm whales, and began operations to make up for our lost time; but things did not go very pleasantly on board. Some of the beach-combers who had joined us at Callas, appeared to be acquainted with Mr. Sanford, who was hale fellow-well-met with them, while he was morose and surly with all the rest of us. However, he did his duty well enough on the whole, and the prospect of our making up a cargo of oil was again brightening.

      We had taken three hundred barrels on our new cruising-ground, when Captain Barrett was suddenly reported to be very ill, and not able to leave his state-room. That night at sundown, Mr. Sanford, calling all hands aft, informed them that the captain had been attacked with what he believed to be small-pox, and, as the safety of the ship was in his hands, should allow no one to run any risk of contagion. He, himself, with the steward to assist him, would take the entire care of the case, and, if we were all very careful, he hoped to be able to prevent the spread of pestilence to other parts of the ship. Of course a word to the wise was enough, as nobody wanted to approach the infected state-room, and the mate and the steward had the hospital all to themselves. When asked questions, they shook their heads, and held out no hope, and, at the end of three days, it was announced that Captain Barrett was dead.

      The mate and steward, both of them proof against the disease, attended to sewing up the body, which was then brought on deck, and, after very brief formalities, launched overboard. A fumigation of the ship followed, and, after a few anxious days of watching, we began to recover from our fears, and the mate, now Captain Sanford, did his best to assure us that we were safe. I have no idea now that there was any disease in the case, for I feel quite sure that Captain Barrett was poisoned by the mate, or his tool, the steward, who was an Irishman, shipped at Callas. Mr. Clasby was only too glad to keep aloof from the after-cabin, where the supposed infection was, and I, with the rest of the boat-steerers and the cooper, lived in the half-deck or steerage, with a bulkhead between us and the officer's quarters.

      After the funeral, the new captain announced to us that, as the command of the ship had devolved upon him, he should proceed on the voyage, changing the cruising-ground by running still farther down to the westward, as he had been successful among the groups on previous cruises, and was familiar with that part of the Pacific. No one else among us had ever been further west than the off-shore ground, but he was the rightful commander of the Iris, and it was not for us to say where she was to cruise. Mr. Clasby fell into the position of chief mate, and the duty went on regularly. We gave Sanford credit for his precautions and good management, as no more cases of

Short-Handed. 167

small-pox appeared, and our discipline and treatment were not bad, but he became more thick than ever with his favorite men, who were all of the number of new-comers at Callas.

      Thus day after day we went sliding off before the great trade-winds, running into what were indeed "unknown seas" to all of us, unless it were Sanford himself. I had always had a fancy for acquiring the art of navigation, and, young as I then was, had made myself pretty well acquainted with the principles and processes then in use, for we had no chronometre, as such things had not then come into general use. The dependence of the navigator in those days, so far as longitude is concerned, must be upon dead reckoning, connected now and then by a lunar observation. I was always curious about noting the ship's progress, looking at the log-slate, and making up a rough dead-reckoning of my own, so that I generally knew pretty well where the ship was, quite unlike the other boat-steerers, who never troubled their heads with such matters. Besides I used to confer with Mr. Clasby, who, though not a navigator, had an opportunity of seeing the chart, and also the captain's figures sometimes, but Sanford attended to the navigation himself, never consulting or conferring with any one as to the ship's course.

      I knew just about the day when we had crossed the great meridian, and were in east longitude, but we still held on our westerly course, as if we were on a voyage of circumnavigation. Two or three times whales had been seen from the mast-heads, but in such case the captain at once sprang up aloft with the glass, and, after a look at them, pronounced them finbacks in a tone admitting of no further question, and ordered the ship kept on her old course again. I thought things looked queer, and another singular circumstance was that day after day went by, and he appointed no second mate, but continued to stand watch himself.

      At length, one bright afternoon, we sighted an island, which was but a low coral bank, with the trees appearing at a few miles distance to grow right out of the bed of the ocean; but I shall not tell you how they look, as you have cruised in those waters yourself. Sanford seemed well pleased when he saw it, but we pressed on without even stopping to communicate with the canoes which put out toward us. The next day we passed in sight of another island, and then another, then shaping a new course under easy sail through the night, the dawn of morning found us with a beautiful island under our lee, rather higher and much larger than the others which we had seen. Many canoes came off to us, and some among the natives at once recognized our captain as an old acquaintance. Orders were given to bend the cables, and clear away an anchor, and the ship was soon running into a snug lagoon, where we came to in four fathoms of water. What necessity there could be for our making a port here I was at a loss to understand. However, it was really none of my business, and I was not averse to having a good time for a few days among the luxuriance of this little earthly paradise, although I had my fears of the savages, and felt that we ought to be very cautious about placing ourselves so completely in their power.

      But, after everything was furled and made snug, the captain, calling all hands, informed us that the whaling voyage was at an end, and that the Iris would probably never go out again from the harbor where she now lay. Seeing the excited look in the faces of some of us, he hinted that all resistance or opposition to his orders would be not only useless but dangerous to our lives, as he felt himself completely master of the situation, and our only safety was in carrying out his commands without question or murmur. Indeed we could perceive that there was a very good understanding between him and the savage king and chiefs who were grouped near us, watching the result of his speech, and it was also evident that at least half of our own ship's company felt no surprise at the new situation, having their minds prepared for it. Not wishing to throw away our lives in a useless conflict, and scarcely knowing how many or whom to trust, Mr. Clasby and I exchanged looks signifying that there was nothing for us but quiet submission, and, as Sanford had no time to lose, we were set to work to carryout his plans.

      It would appear that this man, who had visited the Micronesian Seas on trading voyages from Australia, had cherished the idea of settling among a savage race, acquiring influence over them, and making himself a sort of monarch. The opportunity so long desired had now arrived, and his operations indicated that he was terribly in earnest. Tackles were sent aloft over all the hatchways, and the whole force, savages assisting, in gang's under the direction of their chief, were set to work, breaking out the hold, and sending on shore everything that was likely to be of any use or value. Captain Sanford was everywhere, overseeing and directing everything, now on board, now ashore, and then back again.

      It was evident enough, and, indeed, he no longer made any secret of his intentions, that the ship was to be destroyed where she lay, after having been stripped of everything that he should want from her.

      At night, when the great majority of the crew were ashore, Mr. Clasby and I found

168 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

an opportunity for a conference, which was sufficiently disheartening to both of us. Whatever our piratical captain might wish to do with his own life prospects, the idea of thus casting ourselves away, and becoming outlaws and semi-savages, was to us horrible to think upon. Besides, this was not the worst of it, for we had not a doubt that Sanford would without hesitation kill us, or instigate the savages to do so, at any moment when it suited his purposes, or if we opposed or thwarted his plans in any way. Nearly everything that could possibly be of use to men living on an island, or that could excite the desires of the savages, was sent on shore.

      This of course did not include casks of water, and only a small part of the provisions, but all the spare sails were landed, and we had begun to unbend the sails from the yards, before night again set in, and Sanford with nearly all the crew went ashore to hold high carnival. Mr. Clasby and I again lingered behind, having no stomach for their revelries, and I observed that another boatsteerer, a big, burly negro, had excused himself, and remained on board. The night was very dark, being overcast weather, with occasional rain squalls, but the breeze was blowing directly down the inlet of the lagoon, or basin, where we lay anchored. There was no occasion to keep a watch, so we sat in the cabin, talking and brooding over our sad fate, and looking forward to the wretched life that lay before us, until I became worked up to a state of frenzy that seemed like inspiration. Suddenly I sprang to my feet.

      "Mr. Clasby," said I, "we must run away with the ship.''

      "What?" he asked, seeming to regard me as being a madman, so greatly did the proposition take him by surprise.

      "We must run away with the ship. We must do it tonight, too, for we shall never have another chance."

      "Sit down, Brooks," said he. "Let me get cool, and think of what you said, for it has taken my breath away. I could run almost any risk to escape from what is staring us in the face here; but, really, I must think a little."

      "There is no time to be lost," I urged. "It must be done now within an hour. It is safer to risk it now, while they are all carousing, than to wait until all is quiet for the night."

      "But we can never work the ship, even if we get her out to sea,"

      "Yes, I think we can," said I. "There are three of us, and black Sam's muscles are as good as a watch-tackle, while I myself am no infant. If I could once see the Iris outside of that infernal reef, I should feel as if I weighed a ton."

      "So should I," he answered, his eyes flashing at the hopes thus presented, and this feeling was just what I wanted to arouse in him. Mr. Clasby was a good fellow with some one to drive him on, and there was no back down to him when once started, but he was slow to start. "As you say, if we only could get outside once more; but I am not much of a navigator, Brooks."

      "I am then," said I proudly. "I will warrant I can manage that as well as Dick Sanford, or Captain Barrett, either."

      "Have you said anything to Sam?" he asked.

      "No; but I will right off. He is there by the mainmast, brooding over his prospects, for he thinks the barbarians will be sure to kill him first of all, because he's so much blacker than they are, and a sadder nigger you never saw."

      "Suppose,"said Clasby, " that Sam should refuse to help us, and even threaten to blow on us, what could we do?"

      "Kill him, and heave him overboard, and go to sea, two of us!" I cried out, for my feelings were strung up to a tension that I could not tolerate the thought of any obstacle. "But there's no danger of it," I added, for I felt how necessary it was to keep cool, and made a strong effort at self-control. "There's no danger. Sam will be ready to join us, and he will run any risk to get clear of this place. Come, let us go on deck."

      We both rose, and ascended, stepping out into the darkness just as a light rain-squall was passing over the ship. I heard a footstep on the main-deck, and called to Sam, who came aft, and we opened our plan rather cautiously to him.

      As soon as he understood our drift, the negro was delighted with the scheme, and entered into it heart and soul. He had been thinking of the possibility of some plan of the kind, but of course could do nothing alone. He swore he would go with us to the world's end, and was ready to fight to the death, if necessary, in case we should be interrupted or attacked.

      "I knew it!" said I. grasping his horny hand; "and now, Mr. Clasby, we must act quickly, for no time is to be lost."

      Of course the darker the night the better for our purpose. The village, where our crew and their savage hosts were collected, round a bend of the lagoon, was but about three-quarters of a mile from the anchorage, and the ship could not be seen from there, neither would they be likely to hear any ordinary noise, as the wind was blowing directly down the bay, seaward. There was no light on board the ship, but a single oil lamp in the cabin, and it was not probable that any one of those on shore would be looking out at this hour, or that he could

Short-Handed. 169

see much if he did. This was a risk that we could afford to run, but we all felt the necessity of caution, and perfect quiet. Could we have had only six men instead of three our task would have been a comparatively easy one; but we could not venture to communicate with any of our shipmates, scarcely knowing whom or how many of them to trust.

      The top-gallant sails had all been unbent and landed during the afternoon, but they were no loss to us, as we should have the less canvas to handle. The foretopsails had been loosed, and left hanging in the buntlines. We went quietly to work to loose the jib, mizzen-topsail, and spanker, and then came the tug of war to set them. We were but three men, and it was necessary that we should all be giants. Steadily and quietly, without a song, or a loud-spoken word, we hoisted the jib, and dropped home the clews of the two topsails, but we did not attempt mast-heading them for the present. We ran out the spanker, and braced the yards in the right position to cast her seaward as soon as the cable was severed. All this was done with infinite labor, and great exertion of strength, and occupied a good deal of time. But the night still continued dark and misty, and we could hear the sounds of shouts and revelry borne down on the wind now and then, telling us that those we feared were preoccupied, and likely to give little heed to us at present.

      After resting a few moments to recover our breath, we took our stations, I going forward with an axe, – the only one I could find on board. The ship was riding at single anchor, with a hempen cable, for chain had not come into general use at that date. A few swinging blows severed it, and we were adrift. The helm having been thwarted, she fell off as she gathered headway, and, dropping the axe, I ran to help Sam at the braces, but the powerful black had nearly swung the head-yards himself. The jib filled, and the Iris, as if instinct with life, and knowing what was wanted of her, swung briskly to seaward, and was soon headed directly into the channel. I ran to my next station between the knight-heads, where I strained my vision to make out the line of the reef on each side, and to con the ship's movements, the negro standing in the waist, and passing the low, sharp orders along from me to the second mate, who was at the helm. Two or three times we shaved the dangers very close, but swung clear again, gliding on seaward, until the increasing roar of the breakers broad off on both beams, and the heave of the swell, assured us that we were again outside, on the broad Pacific.

      We had made a good mile of offing, when the gleam of torches up the inlet informed us that the absence of the ship had probably been discovered. We had managed to hoist up the mizzen-topsail, that being a small sail, comparatively, but the foretopsail was likely to be too much for us to handle, as patent sheaves were scarce in those days, and our windlass was an old-fashioned back-breaker, worked only with hand-spikes. But the ship was steadily moving at about four knots an hour, on a southerly course, and we felt that we could afford to laugh at our enemies; for, although the canoes of these islanders are swift, a stern chase is a long one, and they would not dare venture far away from their island. We had every advantage of position, feeling that the ship was a fortress we could defend against several times our own number, and it would be impossible for them to concentrate so as to attack in force, even if they should discover the ship before daylight, which was not at all likely. Although the hours of the night were slow and tedious, we still felt that darkness was our best friend.

      Instead of trying to hoist the foretopsail, we loosed and set the staysails, these being smaller, and easier to handle, and thus added something to the speed of our craft. One of us must, of course, be always at the helm, but the other two found employment in clearing away obstructions about decks, throwing overboard what was of no special importance to us; for everything had been left in a state of confusion, when the work of plunder had been suspended at nightfall. Everything in the hold below decks was also in a similar condition of sixes and sevens, but that must be an afterthought, to be attended to, if possible, at a future time.

      When the sun rose, for there was almost no twilight at all, there was neither land nor canoes in sight from the mast-head; and, being now entirely safe on the score of pursuit, we had leisure to consider what we had undertaken, and consult on the best course to be pursued. We had a good stout ship under our feet, with a great abundance of fresh water, and provisions; for only a small portion of the salt meat and bread had been landed, though nearly all small stores from the cabin were gone. But there was, at any rate, no likelihood of three men being reduced to famine for at least a year to come.

      Mr. Clasby's first idea was to shape our course toward the Spanish Main, running out into variables, and then easterly, across the South Pacific. But I strenuously opposed this plan of undertaking so long a voyage, in latitudes where we might expect much heavy weather; and the second mate, who readily deferred to me all matters relating to navigation, was soon convinced that I was right. It was decided, therefore, to steer for Australia, or New Holland, as we called it then, though neither of us had ever

170 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

been in that part of the world. As to Sam, he was ready to follow our lead anywhere, without a murmur, in his great joy at having outwitted the pirate Sanford, and the tawny barbarians, for he had all the true negro's dislike and contempt for any compromise in color, and classed all Kanakas among "milk-and-molasses niggers."

      The direction of our voyage being settled, we must set about meeting the difficulties that lay in the way of accomplishing it. To our dismay and terror, we found no charts on board, Sanford having taken them ashore, as well as all the nautical instruments, and the ship's log-book. The log-line and reel were also gone; but we happened to have some stout fish line among our personal effects, and, by splicing and knotting, and making a chip from a piece of board, we managed to improvise something to answer the purpose. But one of the greatest difficulties lay in the fact that nearly all the tools, and other small matters, had been carried ashore, so that we had little to use, or depend upon, but such as happened to be among our own private property. Mr. Clasby was the owner of a sextant, and I had a small quadrant in my chest, but what should we do without a chart? Necessityis the mother of invention. I had also an old copy of Hamilton Moore, which contained a table of latitudes and longitudes of the principal islands and capes, as far as then known, though I knew it must be very incomplete, and far from correct. However, with a pair of dividers, and a sheet of paper, I could construct a rude chart, jotting down the principal places along our route, and a rough outline of the Australian coast, and this, with the equally rude contrivances for measuring our rate of speed, and keeping dead-reckoning, would have to answer our purpose. We could observe for the latitude every day at noon, and, as to our longitude, we must depend chiefly upon guess-work, and trust to a bright look-out.

      Realizing that we should never be able, with our feeble force, to handle the heavy canvas in case of a squall, we determined now, while the wind was light, to put her under easy sail. Heaving the ship to, and lashing the helm, we all mounted the foretopsail yard, and, after much hard work, succeeded in putting two reefs in the topsail. We then proceeded in the same way to the main-topsail, and, working and resting by easy stages, performed the same operation upon it, and then taking the halyards of each topsail to the windlass, we swayed them up, and set them both double-reefed. We desired to have the whole benefit of the mizzen-topsail, as we could, upon a pinch, let run the halyards, and Spanish reef it, while, even if it blew away, it would not be so important a loss as the others. But we must have head sail, so we determined to risk hanging on to the jib, and to strengthen the boom with preventer guys; for which purpose we should be obliged to unlay the strands from the remnant of the cut cable, as every inch of spare cordage was ashore on that infernal island. We set the foresail, using the windlass to stretch down the tack and sheet, but the great mainsail was yet snugly furled, and we determined to let it remain so. With the use of the lower staysails, which could be easily taken care of, we now had the ship under what might be called easy sail for any ordinary weather; and time, that is a few days longer or shorter on the voyage, was no object to us.

      We had only one boat remaining, and she was on the skids overhead, but by dint of hard labor, and sheer muscular strength, we succeeded in launching her, and hoisted her into place on the starboard cranes, though only one old oar could be found.

      Having thus got matters in some sort of sea-trim, we so arranged the watches that two men should be awake at all times, one of whom, of course, must be occupied in steering, while the third one was to be asleep within easy call, and always above deck during the night-time.

      This would give each man eight hours rest in the twenty-four, provided nothing occurred to require all hands. But we were all true sailors, and could drop off instantly, as soon as we were relieved, and sleep like logs every minute that was allowed to us. There was no cooking to be done, excepting the salt meat, which we were obliged to boil in one of the try-pots, as all the cook's inventory had been carried ashore. But we had plenty of substantial food, and were glad to have no trouble about cooking.

      We made steady progress to the southward, doing our best to keep a steady lookout; throwing our clumsy log every four hours, getting the latitude every day at noon, and pricking off our supposed position on my rude chart. At times we made six knots an hour, but most of the time averaged only about four; encountering squally weather, but nothing to endanger our spars. Every two hours during daylight, one of us went to the mast-head, and searched the horizon around, hoping always to see a ship that might spare a man or two, to strengthen our force. There was little danger of it, as those seas were not much frequented by mariners, but, before reaching the latitude of ten south, we had sighted two islands, which were similar in appearance to the one we had left, but, as there were no such islands down in Hamilton Moore's tables, they were of no help to us, in fixing our position.

      In both cases the land was seen to windward of us, and canoes under sail were also

Short-handed. 171

seen: but we had no desire to have intercourse with them, weak in numbers as we were; and so we held steadily on our course. We met with sperm-whales several times, and they played around us defiantly, as if knowing our helplessness, and want of means to attack them.

      In latitude thirteen south, we experienced a fresh gale, but, as it came on with a steady increase of wind, and not suddenly, we made arrangements in time to get the jib and mizzen-topsail off the ship. We found this all we wanted to do, but succeeded in getting them tied up after a fashion, which you may be sure looked like anything but a harbor-furl. The foresail, and the other two topsails, double-reefed, must be carried, for we dare not start tack or sheet. But the wind had a good slant of northing in it, and, by keeping her away from her course, to bring it well aft on the quarter, we ran safely through it into moderate weather, and it gave us a long push toward Australia; and very soon after this the sun and moon being on convenient distance, we got several lunar observations, which I worked out, and corrected an error of nearly a hundred miles in our longitudinal reckonings, so that we now proceeded with more confidence.

      We especially desired to keep clear of all the islands known as New Hebrides, and New Caledonia, having a mortal terror of the black savages, of whom we had heard dreadful stories; and desired if possible to avoid approaching any land, until we could make the Australian coast, in the vicinily of one of the English settlements. But, after passing out of the trades, we must expect more changes of weather, with squalls, calms, and even gales, perhaps. This was a matter of terrible anxiety to us; for if we should encounter a heavy blow, we must either blow away our precious sails, cut them adrift to save the spars, or cut away the spars to save the ship and our lives. There was no such thing as taking in sail, and what she could not carry of course she must drag.

      Accordingly, we lowered our fore and main topsails, and put the close-reef in each. We also hauled the foresail up, and reefed it, and set it again, thus reduced in size. Of course this was very hard and slow work, for we took a watch-tackle aloft with us, hauling out the weather earing, then all going over to the lee one, and did the whole in the most thorough and secure manner that it was possible for only three hands.

      Our jib had no reef in it, and we could not bear to think of giving up this sail, for we could ill spare it. So we kept it on her, trusting to luck, and to being able to swing her off before the wind, in time to save it; and the mizzen-topsail halyards were led where the helmsman could stretch forth his hand, and let it down by the run at any moment. We slept above deck now, night and day, each taking his two turns, of four hours each, during the twenty four. Black Sam was not only a good, clear-headed seaman, but his strength of frame and muscle was immense; and it was fortunate that both he and I were large and powerful men, Mr. Clasby being about an average or medium build. We could not help feeling that the heavy work, the long tricks at the helm, and the constant feeling of anxiety, were beginning to tell upon us all.

      As we drew near to the latitude of the Great Bampton Shoals, we consulted as to whether we should heave to for the night, as we felt that the longitude laid down in our book was vague and uncertain; and we had little or no idea of its size and extent. But our reckoning gave us plenty of room to pass clear, and we were very loath to lose the breeze, which was strong and fair, giving us all we wanted with the wind on the quarter. Our last search at sundown showed us a clear horizon ahead, so we decided to go ahead, and risk it. I was at the helm at midnight, and Mr. Clasby, who had been looking out forward, called Sam to relieve him. The negro was wide awake at the first touch, and went forward; but had scarcely reached his station at the bows, when he roared out, –

      "Hard down your helm! Quick, for your life, hard down!"

      And the order was instantly obeyed, while the second mate let go the mizzen-topsail halyards by the run.

      The old hooker came flying up into the wind, making everything crack again, as she took the gale broadside on, but we were not a moment too soon, for the line of roaring breakers was close under our lee. and a moment's delay would have been the destruction ot our ship and of all our lives. As it was, we were safe; for in a moment afterward we perceived that the line of breakers trended away more to the southwest, giving us more sea room. Sam had let go the jib-halyards, but, being hard full, the jib did not run down, and, before he could reach the jib-sheet to ease it off, the boom gave way under the strain, and the whole wreck of spars and sails was dragging under the lee bow. Here was a kettle of fish, for we had lost an important part of our canvas, at a very critical moment; and we had enough to do to get rid of the lumber and wreck, for we dared not keep her off a single inch, being uncertain of the extent and course of the terrible reef, and fearing we might be embayed. If such had been really the case, we were lost, for we could have done little about clawing off under the two close-reefed topsails and reefed foresails, and we could

172 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

      make no more sail, even if the wind allowed of carrying it.

      We got the mizzen-topsail down, and Spanish-reefed it by hauling out the reef-tackles, but we dared not shake it hard, nor haul it flat aback. We set to work with our only axe, and our sheath-knives, and, after much labor, and risk of our lives, we got rid of the wreck, cutting and hacking until we let all go, and eased the strain that threatened still further damage. We hugged the wind until daylight, keeping an anxious lookout, and you may be sure neither of us dared close an eye while the darkness lasted.

      Morning showed us the line of the great reef running in a direction that allowed us to keep away with the wind abaft the beam; but we had a realizing sense of the peril we had escaped, when we found we were obliged to run several hours, say a distance of near forty miles to the westward, before we cleared the lee end of the reef, and once more shaped our course toward Australia. Our mizzen-topsail was split in the seams, and we cut it adrift from the yard, and sent it down. We did not care much for this, however, and on the whole it was just as well to be rid of the care of it, as we had no jib as a head-sail to preserve the balance of power. It was, indeed, so much care off our minds; and we could now keep under very snug canvas, unless, indeed, we met with a really heavy gale of wind, when we might be forced to scud wherever it drove us, or, perhaps, even cut away our spars, as the only way of taking in sail.

      But after this we jogged on, much easier in mind than before, although our progress, with moderate winds, was not very rapid. But all went fortunate with us, until we made the coast, approaching it on a converging course, and being, according to our latitude for that day, about sixty miles northward of Port Jackson Heads, the entrance to the beautiful harbor of Sydney. Already we were hugging ourselves with the hope of getting a pilot on board before nightfall, but a sudden change came over the weather, the wind hauled to the southward, dead in our teeth, and piped at such a rate, that we saw we might expect a good deal more than we wanted before morning. The weather was thick and threatening, and we worked like Trojans to get her trimmed by the wind on the eastern tack, heading off-shore, and to get our little reefed foresail under control before it should blow so hard as to make it entirely beyond our strength. With the power of water-tackles and the windlass, we succeeded after a struggle, and the old ship lay comfortably for a few hours. But toward morning the force of the wind was increasing to a young hurricane, and, as the next alternative, we made up our minds to run her before it, fearing to lay to any longer under so much canvas. We swung the main-yards as she fell off, and soon eased the strain on her masts; but now we had work enough to do to steer, for the sea was ugly, and it required two men at the old stump-tiller, and wide-awake men too, for we had no wheel-purchase to steer with in that old ship. What was more aggravating, too, we were running right away from our destination, at the rate of full ten knots an hour. But there was no help for it, as we were compelled to look only to our present safety.

      In all my experiences at sea I think that was the longest and most frightful night that I ever passed. The old ship rolled so as to bury her bulwarks both sides, and the main deck was all afloat a great part of the time, but we had taken great care to lash down the hatches securely, which was lucky, for we should have foundered. In one of her heavy lurches, the only boat we had was stoven, and lost, although it had been hoisted chock up to the davit-heads on the starboard quarter; and, to add to our danger and terror, the cask, and other matters in the hold, were all adrift, as the operations at the island had broken up all the storage, and left everything in a state of confusion. Now that the ship was rolling so heavily, it seemed as if the whole cargo was fetching away from side to side, and the crashing sounds filled us with mortal terror, seeming to threaten destruction to the ship, that trembled in every timber; and there we stood, helping each other at the helm, for there was literally nothing for us to do, nothing that we could do, but steer, and keep the wind behind us. The head-yards were rounded in a little, but we dared not start the fore-tack or sheet, to square them in. So, with our hearts in our throats, and every nerve strained up to the highest tension, we stood to our work at the tiller, and scarcely exchanged a word, except such as related to the one duty of steering.

      But there is an end to everything, and the gale moderated soon after daylight, or rather, perhaps, we had run out clear of it. The sea went down as rapidly as could be expected, but it was nearly noon before we dared venture again to brace up the mainyard, and let her come into the wind. Again we had moderate weather, and were relieved from the immediate peril and the exhausting strain. We were glad enough to get the rest we so much needed, though we were not pleased to feel that our port was now fully a hundred and fifty miles distant, with a breeze directly in our teeth, and beating to windward was but of the question, for under the little sail that we carried, the ship could scarcely even hold her own.

      When the hatches were taken off, we found a kind of general average among the

Short-handed. 173

matters stored between decks, as many casks had been smashed up, and everything was in hopeless confusion; but we did not stop to look further, down in the lower hold. Our sounding-line showed a considerable amount of water in the pump-well, but not more, perhaps, than might have worked down during the gale. We were quite unequal just then to the labor of pumping it out, for rest we needed, and must have. Feeling pretty safe on the score of moderate weather for a while, we lashed the helm down, leaving the ship to the care of herself for a few hours.

      But the night watches must be regulated; and when I awoke, much refreshed and strengthened by my nap, I roused the others, and Sam went to the mast-head for a look round the horizon, while I took the sounding-line, and again tried the well. As I pulled it up again it told a fearful tale, – that we had three feet of water in the hold.

      We rigged the pump-brakes, and worked a few strokes, throwing out a gush of mingled oil and water, for many casks had been stoven during the night; but it was not the oil, but the water, that troubled us. For three men to attempt to pump a leaky ship was madness, and the disheartening thought forced itself upon our minds, that we had no boat of any sort to escape in. We should be compelled to stick to the ship, and go down with her.

      Our hearts were heavy enough, when, after waiting a couple of hours, we carefully sounded again, and found an increase of water in the hold. The rise was gradual and slow, but another interval and another trial showed that it was steady, and that the ship's doom was sealed. A few hours more would bring her down so as to be sluggish in her movements; and, nearly as we could estimate, she would be a sunken wreck within less than thirty-six hours. No boat was left to us, and neither land nor sail was to be seen in any direction. What was to be done?

      After a consultation, we agreed that it it would be quite useless to wear ourselves out with pumping. A change of wind might yet save us by enabling us to reach the land. We kept her on the western tack, heading in-shore; and now went to work making sail. We shook out the reefs from the topsails, and, taking the halyards to the windlass, hove them up to the mast-head, and also set the whole foresail. We had no material suitable to make a raft, and as there would be small prospect of saving our lives in that way, it would be better to stay by the ship; and we took measures to provide against the worst, by collecting a store of bread, and filling a keg of water, and securing a portion of supplies in the mizzen-top, at it was possible that the ship might suddenly sink from under us. Another sad and anxious night was before us, but we had done what we could, and, under her whole topsails, the ship was now making good way toward the coast. The barometer of our hopes rose a little during the night, as we found the breeze gradually hauling in our favor. There was a chance that the light of the morning might give us a sight of land, and perhaps some coasting-vessel might take us off, or put some hands on board to keep the pumps going. For the leak was not so bad now, but that an ordinary crew might have kept it under, and worked her into port, though three worn-out men could do nothing with it. There was nothing strange in the fact, after the terrible shocks the ship had endured from the shifting cargo. It seemed indeed almost a miracle, that she had not started a butt somewhere, from terrific shocks from within, and gone down bodily, without warning enough to save our lives.

      When at length daylight came, the land was looming distantly, and we were heading up a course which, according to our reckoning, ought to carry us direct for Port Jackson; but our rate of speed was nothing to boast of, for the water in the hold had increased to nearly eight feet, and the ship's movements were heavy and sluggish. Mr. Clasby went aloft, and, before he had reached the topmast cross-tree, our hearts leaped at his wild cry of, "Sail ho!"

      She was in shore of us, a point off our lee-bow, but we had no spy-glass on board. Neither of us had chanced to have one of our own, though we had been lucky enough to possess, between us, a sextant, and a quadrant, navigation books, and an old silver watch, which had enabled us to keep the time. But we edged away a little toward the stranger, and soon made her out to be a square-rigged brig, coming from the southward, and probably from Sydney direct.

      We had no ensign, or ship's flag, to fly, but we set several signals of distress, hoisting shirts, and pieces of canvas, at half-mast, and soon perceived that the brig noticed our strange plight; for surely there was enough in our appearance to attract curiosity and sympathy from brother mariners, as soon as they drew near enough to take notes. Not only our outlandish flags, but our bare topgallant-yards, and full set of whaler's davits, with no boats on them, the stump bowsprit, the absence of the mizzentopsail, and the general slouching and disorderly appearance of everything aloft, told a tale of some queer experiences, and the brig was soon hove-to, awaiting our hail.

      She was full of people, men and women too, or so it seemed to us, and several telescopes were being leveled full upon us, as

174 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

we ran down across her stern. A few words explained our condition, and the brig's boat was at once lowered away to board us. The brig was the Wellington, a packet running from Sydney to Newcastle, and other settlements along the coast. She had not only a stout crew for a craft of her size, but many passengers on board, and the mate, who was in charge of the boat that boarded us, said he thought it could be managed, and returned to consult with his captain, taking Mr. Clasby with him to the brig. It was thought possible to keep the ship afloat, and get her into Sydney; and I soon had the satisfaction of seeing the boat returning full of men. Two hands had been spared from the brig's crew, and some of the passengers had also volunteered, so that, with the English mate, and our own nearly worn-out force, we had now ten men in all on board the Iris. We filled away at once, and set the pumps going merrily, leaving an extensive slick behind us, for the pumps appeared to throw out almost as much oil as water.

      Tired and worn as we three men were, we were glad enough to rest, and leave the new-comers to perform the lion's share of the labor. The wind favored us, and the pumping, being now kept up steadily, gained upon the leaks. The next day in the afternoon we took a pilot on board, off the Heads, and the same evening were swinging to our anchor in one of the most beautiful harbors in the world. We had been thirty-five days at sea; and I had kept a sort of log of the voyage, writing it up every day, and I have it now among my old sea-relics.

      The American consular agent at first seemed to think our story a rather tough one; but, on visiting the ship, and examining into everything, was satisfied of our entire honesty, ana gave us credit for the course we had pursued. The cargo was discharged, and the ship was found to need only a few slight repairs. A crew was soon shipped, Mr. Clasby was placed in command of her, with orders for home. He wanted me as his mate, and we both wanted the faithful black Sam as second mate, so we all three made our round voyage in the Iris, after all. But we never got any salvage-money worth mentioning, though the owners made us all presents. But you see in a legal point of view, it was rather a crooked thing that we did; for we had no evidence to offer but our own statements; and we had actually stolen the ship away from Sanford, who was, in the eye of the law, her rightful commander at the time, circumstances having promoted him. For there was no satisfactory proof to be brought that he had murdered Captain Barrett, although in our own minds we had little or no doubt that such was the fact.

      It was more than a year afterward that an American war-vessel was sent down there, and she brought away four survivers of our ship's crew. But Sanford and all his accomplices were beyond the reach of justice. Several were killed in an affray with the natives, arising out of disagreements about the distribution of the plunder, and among them was Dick Sanford himself. Others went away in canoes to other islands, further down to leeward, and thus became scattered, so that no one was ever suitably rewarded or punished for the part taken in the Iris affair.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Short-Handed.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 54, No. 2 (Aug 1881)
Pages: 165-174