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19th Century American Whaling

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Sea Terms

No. 4.

W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. LXIII, No. 4 (Apr 1886)
pp. 323-327.



No. 4.

Collision in the Fog. – Forcing The Barricade of Ice-Burial. – The First "Bowhead" Seen.

      The fog thickened around us closer and closer after the Dutch crew came on board, enveloping us in a canopy that seemed tangible -- a fog so tough, to use an expressive form of speech, "that you couldn't cut it with a knife." The wind had fallen away to a light air, and there was no probability of the weather clearing for some hours at least. As we had nearly finished boiling our whale, we took advantage of the time to stow down a part of the oil, our deck being lumbered up to a degree that would be highly inconvenient and dangerous in the event of a gale coming on.

      The report of a gun from our anxious neighbors up to windward was soon heard, appearing to shake the whole bank of mist with its first snap, and dying away with a dull, smothered rumbling. Responsive blasts went back from the ear-splitting tin horn, and soon a new sound began, as of a continued pounding upon the head of an empty cask, a very common and most effectual mode of calling boats to the ship, if within a circle of a mile or two. The mate of the "Hansa" ordered his boat manned, certain now of a guide to find his ship, and equally certain that it was useless to wait, as the fog would continue all day. His crew were all in, and he was descending the side himself, exchanging farewells with the captain, when the sound ceased.

      "Your ship is just abeam of us, I should think," said Captain Stetson. "But hold on awhile, don't start yet, there's no hurry. He'll start up his noise again soon."

      So our guest lingered, choosing rather to hang on to an ark of safety than to pull up into the bewildering mist without the guide to run by. and also hoping the ship would come to leeward, as she must, by this time, have collected the rest of her boats, and thus save them half their labor. A quarter of an hour might have slipped away, when the same peculiar drumming was again audible, but much nearer than before. It was continued two or three minutes, evidently approaching us.

      "All right!" the old man said. "He's running down for you. You may as well wait now till he comes to again. Of course he won't run far to leeward. Blow your horn again."

      Two or three .loud peals were sounded through the tin tube, and all was still on both sides. Of course the stranger had now got the bearings of the sound. We were all too busily at work to pay much attention now, either to the approaching vessel or to the boat's crew. Some of us were employed in and around the after-hatchway, which was "broken out " to receive the oil of the new fare, and the main and quarter decks were completely blocked up with casks and shooks, while the dirty pall of smoke from the caboose fires enveloped everything in its folds, in default of winds strong enough to drive it clear, and mingling with the heavy, wet fog, was condensed in a dark, sticky coating which covered and begrimed us, as well as everything within the sphere of its influence. We lay tumbling under short canvas, with our topsails down on the lifts, the reef-tackles hauled out, to avoid the wear and tear consequent upon their violent slatting. Heeling to windward heavily, withal, as a result of the failure of the breeze and the gTeat weight taken from the lee side of the hold and accumulated on deck, we could hardly have been in more helpless and unmanageable trim than at the moment when the hammering sounds from the Bremen ship again saluted our ears, close aboard of us. So near, in fact, was it, that every man gave an involuntary start, and rushed to the weather-rail, while the "hold gang" came leaping on deck without waiting to ask questions.

      "Hard up the helm! " roared the old man, rushing, himself, to the crossjack braces. "Brail the spanker at once! Make a noise, all of you!"


      But the order was in some measure anticipated; the bell was ringing forth its most agonizing peal, hammers and mallets were thumping on cask-heads with the most gratifying display of muscular vigor, while the fog-horn piped shrill over all, startling our friendi on board the " Hansa," as her heavy, black hull loomed in the fog alongside of us, her after yards already being braced up, and the most hurried efforts made to bring her to the wind on the opposite tack. But the wind was almost entirely gone now, though coming down before the swell, she had neared up more rapidly than might have been expected. This influence still operating, she sagged down upon us at every tumble she made, while the " Gorgon "paidoff so Blowly that her headway was barely perceptible. A collision must take place; it was too late for any effort to avoid it.

      "Down with the larboard boat! " shouted Mr. Pomroy. "Never mind yours, Mr. Paddack, she's safe enough. Drop her right astern, Frank, and haul her round under the lee."

      The quarter boat was saved, but we had hardly time to get her clear, when the Bremen ship, rising on a swell and then plunging down again, pushed her flying jibboom in over our quarter, luckily above the mizzemnast, her martingale snapped off on our quarter-rail, and with a crash that suspended our breaths for the moment, her stout cut-water met us in full career. The timbers of our top-sides trembled and quaked with the shock, the bulwarks, with several broken stanchions, were driven in on the quarter-deck, and as the " Gorgon," tardily gathering way, now forged ahead, a grinding and splintering which no language can describe, followed as the two vessels tore themselves clear of each other. The after davit disappeared like magic, a spare topmast which projected out through the sternhawse was snapped off, as if it had been a mere walking stick, and we were clear. Our consort, with his jibboom dangling under the bows, and all his head gear a complete chaos of wreck, vanished into the mist astern. Her boat's crew were missing, too, without the ceremony of formal leave-taking.

      "One of his galvanic shocks," remarked the old man, gazing at the fragments.

      "That was a rough salute," the mate answered, "but it might have been much worse. I guess there's no harm done below the plankshear, and, if not, we can cobble up all the damages without making a harbor."

      "I was to blame for it, myself," acknowledged the captain. "I ought to have made signals long before I did, but I had no idea he was so near us, and he supposed he was running for his boat only, as he heard no other noise but her horn."

      "Well, I think, after all, the Dutchman has got the worst of it with his head-gear," said Mr. Pomroy, with the impulse so natural to us all, which leads us to draw consolation from the misfortunes of our neighbors.

      1 observed that Solomon, the boat-steerer. who had met with the dreadful shock from the whale, was on deck during this excitement, and that he paid little heed to repeated remonstrances to go down to his bunk and keep quiet. He thought he was doins well, he said, and did not think it necessary to " lay up " any longer. But this recklessness proved fatal to him. He went below at night, and into his quarters in the bull-room, from which he never again came forth alive. Internal hemorrhage set in, for which our limited skill and resources could afford no remedy, and he sunk rapidly from day to day.

      The fog continued, dense, impervious a? ever, all that day, and all the next. We cooled down our fires, stowed most of the oil away, and repaired the damages from the unfortunate collision with such makeshifts as were at hand. Our Bremen friend was still in sight when the fog lifted, two days afterwards, and had also improved the time to get his new jibboom in place. He, as well as ourselves, made sail to the northward, looking none the worse for the encounter.

      We met the ice again in the latitude of fifty-seven, and spoke ships which had examined it both east and west, without being able to make any further progress, nor could we hear that any one had yet seen the "bowheads." So far as we could learn, we stood "high hook" of the spring fleet, thanks to the aid of the killers, which had enabled us to secure three large whales at one lowering in so singular a manner. We had cleaned and stowed away the four heads of bone, amounting to about four thousand pounds. This, which is obtained in any considerable quantities only from the bowhead and the right whale, is an important item in the


profits of northern voyages. The many useful purposes to which modern art has found means to apply it, have so increased its value, that this peculiar substance, which, in the days of right whaling on the southern banks, was hardly worth saving, now forms fully one-third the value of the animal, and even the smallest plates of "throat-bone" are carefully secured. But the bowheads must be found, even at considerable risk in forcing through the ice-fields, for if any enterprising captain could drive his ship in among the whales in advance of the fleet, he would be sure of a " cut."

      "Don't you suppose that this ice joins the land !" a«ked the captain, putting the question in a general way to his officers.

      "No sir," answered the mate, "I don't. I think the shore ice has let go, in this latitude, some time ago. Don't you, Mr. Bishop?"

      "Of course," said the Bishop, whose opinions were considered valuable, as he had made observations here last season. "This ice, in my opinion, is drifting down from a higher latitude, from the Anadir Sea and Behring's Straits. It works down parallel with the trend of the Asiatic coast, but I don't think the barrier is very wide, and whoever can force through it, will find clear water in shore, between it and the land."

      "You really think so?" asked the old man. "You think it is clear of ice away up in the angle of the coast near Karaghinsky Island?"

      "Yes, sir, replied the fourth mate. "1 haven't a doubt of it. I only wish we were in there now."

      "In she goes, then, neck or nothing. We must find the whales this season or lose the ship. I shall get her there and see the island, that is, if it is possible to force through."

      We wore round, head to northward, and, hauling up the courses, and bringing the ship under easy working sail, boldly entered the ice-field, which presented no dangerous obstacle at first, the pieces being small, such as a ship would push out of her course easily. But as we advanced further, the masses became larger, heavier and more closely packed, and the greatest watchfulness and care were necessary. It would no longer do to meet it under full headway. The maintopsail was thrown aback, and the ship, thus slowly forging, met the heavy pieces with less force, though still the grinding and thumping under the bows was terrific, for there was a southerly set to the whole body of it, and at times a ponderous mass would drift so heavily against the ship, as to destroy her headway*, and even force her a short distance astern. But she was kept gallantly up to her work, and the maintopsail was filled whenever a clearer space or a patch of smaller fragments would permit us to do it. It was fine, clear weather, and we should never have a better chance. Every man felt interested, and anxious to be the first to find the great Arctic "sea-beasts" which were supposed to be swarming the island of Karaghinsky, already in sight from aloft. Advantage was taken of every opening where we could gain a single ship's length towards our goal. All hands were kept on duty through the day, and ready at their stations for working the braces, while sharp eyes at the masthead surveyed the icy expanse, and reported each opening that presented itself, often warning us of sunken dangers and projections that could not be seen from the deck, which we avoided, if possible, by change of direction, but if not, met them fair with the cutwater, rather than on the curve of the bow. The massive form of Mr. Pomroy towered between the knight-heads, conning the ship, cool and determined, but anxious, as well he might be, when at any moment, a heavier thump than usual might start a butt or crash a hole through our bow. At length we approached a barrier which seemed to present too great a resistance for ordinary wood and iron to overcome. The Bishop, from aloft, reported a patch of clear water ahead of us within a mile, and the ice well broken up so as to present no dangers if we could succeed in forcing our way a hundred yards further. But the heavy pieces which lay directly in our track were so packed as to show no available point of attack, without incurring great risk.

      "We've got as far as puzzle, eh, Mr. Pomroy?" said the old man, who had mounted the breast-hook by the mate's side.

      "Yes, sir, but I don't see any way but to bump her through," replied the mate. "We've come too far to back out now, and we certainly don't want to lie here in this ice tonight."

      "No, of course not," the old man assented. "If we can smash her through about twice her length, we shall have her in


clear sea before night, and be well in with the island tomorrow morning. We must try it, and run the risk. The pack is setting slowly towards us now. We must meet it square with the stern, and have hands ready to bear it off from both bows."

      The ship's way was stopped as far as practicable, and the heavy mass came grinding against our cutwater. For a moment it seemed to have the advantage, and to push us astern, but the maintopsail was filled at the moment of contact, and the struggle of the two opposing forces was fearful while it lasted. It seemed to be so equally ballanced that both ship and ice were brought to a stand, while the crackling and grinding noises under her bows continued to increase. Studdingsail-yards and other short pieces of timber were ready on both bows to break the force of the severed ice, in case it should yield suddenly, but these seemed mere straws when opposed to its momentum. »

      "We must go through now, or go down," said Captain Stetson. "Drop the foresail, Mr. Paddack."

      The added power of this broad sheet of canvas turned the scale in the ship's favor, the mighty ice-floe groaned and lifted under the bow, threatening the bob-stays for a moment, then suddenly cleft in twain with a terrible noise, and our advancing prow shot between the two nearly submerged pieces, the bearers and fenders were vigorously plied, but the stout old ship appeared to tremble in every timber as she forced her way through. Fortunately the blows were distributed over a large surface, the greatest danger in similar cases being from contact with a sharp angle or spur beneath the water. The whole mass ahead of us had been more or less shattered by the recoil of the immense piece as it split in two, and shortening sail at once, we crowded through it without receiving any shocks so dangerous as the first. The pumps were anxiously sounded, but indicated no leaks, a few more thumps of less force, and the crisis was past. We were running through open ice of comparatively small size, and the line of clear water in shore could now be seen from 'the deck.

      Long breaths were drawn as the favorable report from the pump well was made in loud and cheerful tones, and then the danger was forgotten. Had an unlucky blow opened a holt; in her bottom, our prospect would have been indeed a cheerless one. Wc might, perhaps, have reached the shore in our boats, but camping out in so rigorous a climate was no trifling matter, and we should have suffered terribly before we could have been rescued.

      The Bishop's theory seemod to be a correct one. The iqe was all gone in this latitude, and that through which we had passed was evidently drifting down from the Sea of Anadir. Between this fleld-ice and the land, for a distance of eight or ten miles, the sea was comparatively clear, showing only a few drifting pieces, and we had secured the first chance at the whales, if any there were. We were alone, for the first time since our arrival at the latitude of Behring's Island. Our situation was not without great risk in case of a gale blowing on the lee shore, but we hoped in such a case to find shelter behind Karaghinsky, and perhaps good anchorage in the sound between it and the main land.

      The boatsteerer, Solomon, whose death from internal injury had been hourly expected for two days past, expired as we entered the field of ice, and our first duty after gaining a safe position for the night, was the melancholy one of launching our shipmate's remains into the cold, smooth waters of this temporary bay formed by the ice-field. Seamen have a great aversion to keeping a corpse on board, and always experience a feeling of relief when the burial is over. Services were read by Mr. Bishop, the ship lying-to with her ensign at half-mast, as usual on occasions of this kind, and the cool, arctic air fanning our heads as we bowed, uncovered, round the corpse on the maindeck. It was the first time on the voyage that we had been called upon to discharge this sad duty. It might not be the last, however, for any of us were liable to be cut off by similar accident at a moment's warning, and the experience of the day had shown us how we held our lives suspended, depending upon the strength of a single plank. We might all have been summoned with less time for preparation than had been granted our comrade. Sadly, thoughtfully, we watched his last plunge into the cold depths of his ocean-grave, saw the waters close over his head, and turned away to our several duties, striving to banish gloomy thought?. Old Kendall improved the opportunity to make a few remarks upon the common lot of all humanity, in his dogmatical


way, which were interrupted by a cry from Westcott, the second mate's boat-steerer, who was slowly mounting the main-rigging.

      "What's that down near the edge of the ice?"

      "What does it look like?" demanded the captain.

      "Like a small black rock," replied Westeott, "but it moves along, I think. I don't «ee any spout."

      "Where is it, asked the Bishop, with a leap on the rail, and another to the shearpole. "I see him! BowheadI That's the lort we're looking fori"

      We could all see it now—a black arch rising above the placid surface, slowly moving, as was easy to perceive by its range against the ice-field. It disappeared a moment, then rose again as before, and was followed by a long, low arch, or swell, of the same smooth, black appearance.

      "That's his back!" said Mr. Bishop. "Where there's one there ought to be more."

      "I don't see any spout," said half-a-dozen voices at once.

      "You can't see any as he lies, against the background of the ice, but his ' steeple-top' and his back are enough to tell what he is."

      "I can make out his spouts through the glass," said Captain Stetson, "but they are very faint. It's a whale, I know, and such a whale as I never saw before."

      "Oh, its a bowhead, safe enough. I can •wear to him," insisted the fourth mate.

      "I've seen them many a time look just so, and couldn't make out any spout at all. It'll be mighty shy work to strike that follow, though."

      It was so, indeed; for though the greatest possible caution was used in getting our boats down, and not an oar was allowed to touch the water, we had hardly dipped our paddles ere the black arch vanished and was seen no more. In vain we searched along the field, looking in among the ice as well as in every other direction. No whale was to be seen; and after waiting patiently till it was nearly dark, we reluctantly gave him up and returned to the ship. The Bishop assured us that this was no unusual occurrence in polar whaling.

      "But he must have been up somewhere, since we lowered," said the mate, in an incredulous tone. "Yet no one has ever seen anything, either from the boats or the ship. How do you account for it?"

      "I can't," Mr. Bishop confessed. "I only know the fact.' It's not the first time I've seen them act just so, and some whalemen believe they can go down and stay all day, or as long as they like. But I can't think so, as they breathe air, and are built just like a right whale."

      "Well, it's something to have seen one," said the old man. "There must be some more about. We'll have a look in behind Karaghinsky tomorrow if the weather is clear."


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Up North in the "Gorgon" - No. 4.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 63, No. 4 (Apr 1886)
Pages: 323-327